Digital Comics and The Reading Experience

Yesterday we looked at some of the issues facing the comic book and its gradual transition from a print to digital medium (“What the iPad Means for Comics”). One of the questions that seems most interesting to me is the reading experience. Comics are inherently visual — in theory more than just words, or just drawn images, to produce an experience somehow more compelling than the sum of its parts. But how much of that sense of the reading experience of comic books is retained through reading comics digitally?

Certainly the standard for understanding the comic book as a medium might well be Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It’s a great book and is about as well-approached a discussion as I’ve seen.

Comics Should be Good! has a cool, image-heavy post on the formats that have shaped the reading experience of comic books “Shapeshifting Saturday”. It’s a great, in-depth look at the evolution of the medium, from the comic book’s original form as cut and pasted newspaper strips to then thinking about the page as its own storytelling unit:

“It took a couple of years for artists to realize that the comics page, itself, was the design unit… and that the elements on an individual page could be arranged in any way they liked to tell the story they wanted to tell.”

There were even attempts to make comic books more book-like, similar in size to paperback books, which never seemed to catch on. Still, that kind of rethinking about page size and format was perhaps the start of moving into the right direction:

“Comic book pages don’t have to be seven-by-ten any more. In fact, it’s probably better if they’re not. Because the industry’s going digital and most monitors and other video devices are designed horizontally

The ugly truth is that, from a printing and production view, seven inches by ten inches as a page size has almost nothing to recommend it in any case. It’s non-standard … By all rational measures, it’s a dumb page size. So why do we still use it?”

The logic here is that the comic book page again could and perhaps should be re-imagined and recreated for a new kind of reading, the kind of reading which happens on a screen size. If anything, this seems to be an opportunity to experiment even further with the storytelling aspects, instead of being bound by the limits of the printed page.

Comic Book Resources (“Digital Comics & User-Experience”) makes the argument that there are inherent problems with trying to fit an old format (the one of the printed comic book page) to a new one (the digital screen): “No one has taken the comic book and recreated it to live on computers, it has not yet adapted”

“Now that comic books are being bought and sold in a digital format, read on websites and downloaded, why hasn’t there been a radical rethink of the user-interface? After 20 years of refining websites, online comics haven’t changed a bit. We are still looking basically a static image, clumsily scrolling down vertically oriented pages which were designed to be printed but are being read online. I remember doing this on the first websites I saw. Can it be that they were so perfect that they don’t require any revision in light of the changing technology and marketplace?”

This part below got me thinking. Particularly because it seems especially to borrow upon the language of web design (if you replace the words “comic books” with “web pages” you’ll see what I mean:

“Good design is invisible, because it works so well that the content it serves just flows without people being aware of why or how. Right now the act of reading comic books online takes a conscious effort, the reader is always aware of the process of reading. This is a dramatic loss in the experience of losing oneself in the comic book reading and can only be rectified by a new perspective on the design as it applies to the digital space.”

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Perhaps the point of reference for digital comic book shouldn’t be the printed pages of a book, the same format that’s been used for the past many decades, but instead, a webpage and the design principles that follow from it are a more apt comparison with the new digital comic book page. Perhaps.

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In a related way, the reading experience of the comic book isn’t quite as portable as ebooks are, it seems. Again this comes back to the nature of the medium, and the fact that there’s some transition work to be done moving from 6 ⅝” x 10 ¼” printed pages to screens. See Wired, “Comic Books on the iPhone? No Thanks” —

“Is the iPhone a good platform for reading comic books? Probably not, but that isn’t stopping developers from having a crack at bringing the funnies to your pocket. The problem is that the iPhone’s screen, while great for reading plain-text e-books, is just a little too small for comic book pages. Part of comics’ impact is the full, two-page spread which allows for spacing and pacing of the story. But a full two pages is obviously too much for the iPhone’s screen. You can zoom in to read the individual frames, but that’s kind of a pain.”

The Wired article in question mentions a couple of comic book reading iPhone apps, neither of which seems very good. Granted the article is dated (way back in 2008!), and newer, better apps have come out since, such as Marvel Comics for iPhone. But the point that is interesting is the nature of the complaint: “But the one-at-a-time viewing of pictures really kills the experience. There is no sense of design or pacing.”

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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