Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On the Form of Digital Comics

One of my problems with the digital display of comics is that it tends to be an effort to adapt comics designed for print first and foremost to a medium that is markedly different. Digital features lower resolution than print; and while phones and e-readers came be both landscape and portrait in orientation, computer screens are overwhelmingly landscape, while traditional print has a portrait orientation. Hand held digital devices are mostly smaller than printed books as well.

Many of these new digital publishers advertise how their applications show the comic "the way the creators intended." And it is clear that the creators intended it for print. The result is scrolling around from panel to panel, either automatically or by hand, and popping individual panels out because they are too small to be comfortably read otherwise.

Now admittedly I'm old. The first telephone I used, you spoke to the operator and told her the number. I'm rather slow to pick up new technologies. But for me, scrolling and popping is not how you read anything, let alone comics. Your mileage may vary.

But I'm not so old that I can't think about how to take advantage of this new tech, this new medium, and create art that is designed for it, and takes advantage of the strengths and limitations it offers. This is exciting, the beginnings of things are where innovation can begin. It will change the form of the art, just as comic books changed comics from the pace and shape they used in newspaper strips. This is a time for innovators and thinkers to re-invent and have an impact on the medium.

So I want my digital comics to be clear and readable at a glance on a screen, large or small. Especially small, because if it can be read small, it can be read larger. For Okita and the Cat, I cut a story designed for print up into tiers of 1-3 panels, each intended to represent a kind of thought or sentence or exchange in comics terms. maybe it was just a reaction shot to the previous screen. Maybe it was a back and forth, call and response. Maybe it was an entire conversation. I made the text larger than usual, because the lower resolution wouldn't support text that was too small. But Okita wasn't written or drawn with this in mind so there were compromises.

I will be drawing a web comic called Head Mechanics for Serene Hamzawi, and another project with Josh for Longbox called Black Flies. And my thought is this, although I may have to modify it, as conditions dictate in the field.

Each screen consists of a horizontal tier of panels, drawn at 6x9 inches. The text should be large enough to be reduced to smartphone size and still be readable. The art should be simple enough to be unconfused at that size, yet detailed enough to look good on a device like nook color with its 7 inch diagonal. (I sell these, BTW) and even on something like an iPad or your computer monitor. These tiers could then be stacked, two a page for print. That results in a 3x4 magazine aspect ratio and may not be ideal. But it is possible and is intended as a secondary usage.

These conditions drive the way the story is written. Larger text means fewer words, so the writer has to be concise and the shorter duration of each passage, means that there needs to be... well not necessarily a hook, although that remains an important story element, but the completion/resolution of a thought, an idea, the way a sentence or a paragraph completes an idea in prose.

Just as the daily comics strip calls for a different pace of storytelling than a comic book (read a big chunk of Terry and The Pirates at a sitting to see what I mean, it has a lurching pace that reads well in small daily doses, but seems odd at a sitting) so this type of presentation calls for a different pace of writing as well.

And I find that to be an exciting challenge.

Now I fully expect that over time, this plethora of new devices will shake out and standardize, and we will settle into something perhaps different from what I am attempting here. These are still early days, but late enough that we can now see that comics designed for pamphlets translate awkwardly to the small screen and we can be exercising our creativity to adapt to the possibilities before us.

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