The printing press changed the way we tell stories, but storytelling was not born on the printed page. In the same way the printing press once usurped the oral tradition as the dominant form of communication, digital technologies are poised to usurp print. The advantages of digital over print are substantial, from cost, to access, to environmental impact, but the most important advantage is one we have yet to fully appreciate.
With the ability now to incorporate multimedia, interactive, and responsive content, we are facing an evolutionary leap in communication. The true impact of this leap will be manifested in the way we tell stories. The comics medium, with its equal emphasis on visual and narrative elements, low bar of entry, and tolerance for experimentation, is ideal to lead the way toward new storytelling paradigms. To do so, we must leave the old paradigms behind.
Comics were not born on paper, but they’ll die there if that’s the extent of our imagination. Print-formatted page layouts and skeuomorphic folding-paper transitions have no place in the digital realm.
And we should aspire to think beyond branching narratives, 3-D effects, and even movement, which have all been done in print for decades. The digital comics medium will never come into its own until it stakes out new territories.
Those who profess “the story must come first” have placed the cart before the horse. Would Tolstoy have conceived War and Peace if his intended medium was skywriting? A digital comics creator should create stories to fully explore and exploit the capabilities of their intended platform.
Look at the technology of your platform and think about how your story can harness it to create a more immersive experience. If your comic is intended for phones, design your panels in a way that embraces, instead of fights with, a small, vertical screen. Don’t be afraid to explore the accelerometer, clock, gps, vibration, camera, and microphone capabilities of a typical device. Look into software such as motion tracking, chat-bots, and voice recognition.
Whatever methods and features you utilize with your digital comic, however, your approach must be logical and consistent. If you choose to punctuate a scene with a full-motion video, it should make sense in the context of the narrative. Is crucial exposition being relayed via a tv screen in the panel? Is it a moment of hallucinatory lucidity for your protagonist? Even if you’re making static webcomics with no immersive features at all, own your choices and understand why you’ve made them.
As digital creation and consumption tools obliterate the borders between mediums, we must honor comics’ core appeal. Scott McCloud’s widely accepted definition describes comics as “Juxtaposed temporal vignettes in deliberate sequence.”
A comic created and/or consumed on a digital device has the potential to venture far beyond what is typically considered a comic today, so it becomes important, if the intent is to create something that identifies as a COMIC, for the work to maintain certain qualities. What sets comics apart from prose is the visual element. What sets comics apart from cinema is the reader’s control over elements of TIME.
In comics, an intellectual contribution is required from the reader to translate the passage of time within and between panels, and to imagine the movements and sounds of the world, both being representative of time. It almost always feels jarring when a comic incorporates passive video, voice-acting, or literal sound effects, even within the superficial confines of a comic style panel. This is because temporal control, which the reader previously wielded to navigate the work at their own pace and fill in the details of the world, is suddenly yanked away. The collaboration is unbalanced, and the work becomes something different than comics.
This is not an attempt to impose limits on the creator, but to foster and adhere to the expectations of the reader. A major problem we face in the infancy of the digital comics medium is an inconsistency in both approach and terminology. The terms “tv show” or “novel” entail very specific and consistent expectations that compel a consumer to seek out these mediums when the mood strikes them.
The differences between comics that define themselves as “enhanced”, “immersive”, “cyber” or “motion” are nebulous at best. As creators and publishers continue their scramble to coin new and proprietary terms, it becomes increasingly difficult for readers to explore the medium. This undermines the single most important factor in its success: discoverability. The one thing all these terms have in common, whether the comics they refer to incorporate animation, music, voice acting, branching narratives, or all of the above, is that they are consumed digitally.
The digital comics umbrella should encompass everything from static webcomics to the most ambitious interactive comics. Because features vary so wildly by project, it should be on an individual basis that digital comics are differentiated from each other, as opposed to issuing new denominations for each combination of features. A 3-D iMax Dome movie with Dolby 7.1 surround sound and rumble seats is still, first and foremost, a movie.
The speed at which technology evolves makes it challenging, especially in this transitory period between print and digital, to fully commit to the new frontier. But by adhering to a core set of creative principles, the works we create will be more accessible, portable, and timeless.
As both readers and creators, we all have a vested interest in seeing innovative, high quality contributions to the medium. Every successful digital comic builds a market for more, and that benefits everyone.
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