Digital comics and material richness by Aaron Kashtan

12 Jul

The notion of “materiality” has entered the lexicon of comics studies thanks largely to the work of Ernesto Priego, and Comics Forum sponsored a 2011 conference on the topic of materiality and virtuality in comics. However, I still feel that comics scholars, especially in the United States, have not paid sufficient attention to the importance of materiality. I want to suggest here that one of the reason comics should be interesting, not only to comics scholars but also to scholars of other media, is because of the sort of rich material, embodied and tactile interactions they make possible. Comics help us understand the ways in which reading, whether in print or on a digital platform, is always a materially and physically situated process. Rather than adopting Priego’s thesis that ‘comics as a communicative language has expressed itself as a kind of materiality that is specific to itself and only itself,’ however, I want to suggest that comics help to illuminate the way in which material interaction is a significant factor in our understanding not only of comics but of readable media artifacts in general.

My sense is that materiality, despite the work of people like Ernesto Priego, has been given short shrift in comics studies. Pat Grant wrote in a recent post to comixscholars-l:

My thesis is an attempt at introducing ideas of process and practice into the critical discussion of comics. I’m particularly interested in the role of the moving body in cartooning. I like to think of comics [as] a mode of writing that is embodied, performed and live. Writing about comics this [way] requires a technical and felt understanding of the processes by which comics are created. … The sense that I get is that there are very few scholarly texts that deal with the “back end” of a comic book or graphic novel, that is the way in which cartooning practice brings a comic book into being. Almost all of the scholarly work on comics that I have read deals with the text as ‘finished’, one that requires semiotic decoding, critical analysis, or historical interpretation.

In response to this, Corey Creekmur wrote that ‘a good bit of recent work in fact focuses on the artist’s embodied activity, specifically the activity of the artist’s hand,’ and cited the work of Charles Hatfield, Hillary Chute and Scott Bukatman. However, such work tends to focus on materiality and embodiment from the perspective of the creator (an example is Chute’s discussion of handwriting, which I disagree with on other grounds) and does not always pay sufficient attention to the way in which materiality is an important component of the reader’s experience of comics.

My understanding of materiality is based on the work of Johanna Drucker, Katherine Hayles and Matthew Kirschenbaum. For Drucker, ‘a model [of materiality] involves two major intertwined strands: that of a relational, insubstantial, and nontranscendent difference and that of a phenomenological, apprehendable, immanent substance’ (43). She adds that materiality can be ‘understood as a process of interpretation rather than a positing of the characteristics of an object’ (43). I understand this to mean that materiality is the interface between the physical, material and embodied substance of texts and the reader’s process of interpretation. Materiality is concerned with the physical substance of which a media artifact is composed, but views that physical substance not in terms of its brute physicality but in terms of its semiotic and affective effects upon the reader. More succinctly, Hayles defines materiality as ‘the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies’ (2004, 72).

What does materiality add to our understanding of comics? Think for example of the experience of reading old comic books. As I write this, I’m surrounded by the 30-plus long boxes that contain my comic book collection. I bought some of these comic books even though I already had the same stories in other formats (e,g. my cherished copy of Avengers #58). Why would I do this? Because the original artifacts have a particular feel and even a particular smell that is not matched by other texts containing the same content. The original cover art, ads and letters pages also add significantly to the reading experience. In short, I have a significant emotional attachment to the comic book format which is not matched by other formats. In comparison, trade paperbacks, hardcover and digital versions of old Marvel and DC comics seem to me like dead, lifeless texts, lacking the material richness of the originals. I have never gotten used to “waiting for the trade”, partly because I find the trade paperback to be a less materially rich artifact; it seems like an afterthought which sacrifices the unique features of the original comics (e.g. letters pages) without providing any extra value-added. Emma Tinker has argued in ‘Manuscript in Print: The Materiality of Alternative Comics’ that this attachment to the physical aspects of the comic is common in alternative comics more generally: ‘Comic book authors, who are also readers and collectors, have a strong personal investment in the physical form of comics, and that this interest is also manifest in the content of these texts’ (1169). As she argues here, the alternative comics community often puts a great deal of effort into publication design, thereby ensuring that its products will provide rich sensory and physical interactions. For example, consider Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve #12, or even Matt Kindt’s MIND MGMT. Kiel Phegley writes that Kindt ‘has worked to make each issue worth the read. The series singles come with an almost found object quality that permeates the worn print style, fake advertisements and handmade quality of his watercolor art. Kindt explained that his aesthetic choices came from a desire to reinvent [comics’] most overused format.’ Of course Tinker’s point also applies to graphic novels as well as comic books, and graphic novels published by companies such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly tend to be the most consciously designed and materially rich of all English-language comics. At their best, comics can even use their own material features as ways of advancing the narrative and creating meaning. Examples here include much of the work of Chris Ware and Jason Shiga (see below) or even something like Walt Simonson’s Fantastic Four #352, where trips through time are represented as jumps to earlier or later pages in the comic.

We would therefore expect that readers like me, who have the “personal investment“ in “physical form” that Tinker mentions, would be reluctant to switch from physical to digital comics. Indeed, I have a Kindle Fire but I find that using it to read comics is a rather bizarre experience (see here for my thoughts on this), and in the seven months or so that I’ve had it, I’ve made very limited use of it to read comics. For me, comic books have a quality of material richness which is not matched by trade paperback or digital editions of the same content. I have to qualify this, however, by saying that “material richness” in the sense in which I am using the term is not an either-or proposition, a quality that a media artifact either has or does not have; rather, it is a function of the reader’s personal history as well as the institutional history of the media form in question. My reluctance to read trade paperbacks is partly a function of my personal history of reading comic books, and another reader with no such history might not find the trade paperback to be deficient in material richness. However, to the extent that material richness can be generalized as a perception shared by multiple readers, I think it can be said that comics for the Kindle do not tend to offer a materially rich reading experience, in that there is typically nothing to distinguish the experience of reading one comic from that of reading another comic.

Now the curious thing here is the ways in which this argument aligns with an existing discourse that presents e-books as materially inferior to print literature. Commentators like Sven Birkerts and Mark Bauerlein have argued, often on explicitly Luddite grounds, that e-books are less intellectually stimulating and culturally valuable than paper books (see Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows for a more scientifically informed version of this argument). Mark Sample, however, critiques e-books not because they represent a frightening new technological development but rather because of their lack of interesting material properties. He writes that e-books ‘reinforce the most conservative of publishing and reading practices. The iPad is the height of 21st-century consumer technology so far, but the e-books you might read on it are much less experimental than any paper-and-glue book’ (O’Donnell et al., n.p.). He draws an unfavorable comparison between e-books and paper books such as Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, observing that authors and publishers of e-literature have made no attempt to replicate the innovative typographic, visual or tactile properties of such books. Although Sample specifically denies having any emotional attachment to the materiality of paper books, I think we could interpret his critique as a claim that e-books are not materially rich – that they do not provide interesting material interactions. Sample’s article is now three years old, but the problem he describes has not changed substantially. E-books still fail to offer the materially rich interactions that can be found in comics or even in much contemporary print literature.

Here, in my opinion, is where comics can potentially be a useful model for digital literature to follow. I think that because materiality is such a vital component of the reading experience of comics, it is possible that comics can offer prototypes of how digital texts can be designed in ways that enhance their material richness. Two comics for e-reading devices that are particularly interesting in this context are Chris Ware’s ‘Touch Sensitive’ and Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile. I will not go into great detail about either of these comics both due to space limitations and because I hope to write about them elsewhere. I will simply note that both of them use the touchscreen interface of the iPhone or iPad as a central means of creating meaning. ‘Touch Sensitive’ uses the mechanic of advancing the story through touch as a way of encouraging (or forcing) the viewer to enact the theories of touch that the story itself suggests. Meanwhile uses the touchscreen interface to create a new and distinctive version of the “choose your own adventure” mechanic that was the primary selling point of the book on which it was based. In both these comics the reading experience is as interesting as the content. Or rather, what is truly interesting about these comics is the way in which the content and the physical experience of reading enhance each other, and this makes them examples of what Hayles calls technotexts, or texts that ‘strengthen, foreground, and thematize the connections between themselves as material artifacts and the imaginative realm of verbal/semiotic signifiers they instantiate’ (2002, 25). Moreover, both these comics also exist in physical as well as digital form (‘Touch Sensitive’ is included in Building Stories) and the differences between their paper and digital versions are significant enough that in both cases it is worthwhile to read the two versions together.

I suggest, therefore, that comics can be useful tools for thinking about how digital texts can encourage the sort of rich material actions we value in physical texts. If, as Sample suggests, e-books are currently not interesting from a material standpoint, then perhaps this is not because the e-book medium inherently lacks the capacity for material richness, but because its capacity for material richness is not being adequately exploited yet. And maybe comics can offer lessons in how to make digital texts more materially rich.

Works Cited

Creekmur, Corey. “Re: Introductions and aspects of performance in cartooning practice.” Comix-Scholars. University of Florida. 26 June 2013. Web. 30 June 2013. Quoted by permission of the author.

Drucker, Johanna. The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923. Johanna Drucker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Grant, Pat. “Introductions and aspects of performance in cartooning practice.” Comix-Scholars. University of Florida. 26 June 2013. Web. 30 June 2013. Quoted by permission of the author.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

———. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” Poetics Today 25.1 (2004): 67-90.

O’Donnell, James J., et al. “Do You Like Your E-Reader? Six takes from academics.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 13 June 2010. Web. 30 June 2013.

Priego, Ernesto. “On Cultural Materialism, Comics and Digital Media.” Opticon1826 9 (Autumn 2010), 1-3. Web. 29 June 2013.

Tinker, Emma. “Manuscript in Print: The Materiality of Alternative Comics.” Literature Compass 4.4 (July 2007), 1169-1182.

Aaron Kashtan is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida. He is currently working on a book project tentatively entitled Between Panel and Screen: Comics, the Future of the Book, and the Book of the Future.


4 responses to “Digital comics and material richness by Aaron Kashtan

  1. Roger Whitson

    2013/07/12 at 18:05

    Great article, Aaron. You had me for a moment with the pseudo-luddite argument you construct in the middle of the article. I’d argue that there definitely is a material richness to digital texts, we just don’t know how to properly signify that materiality yet – or what our investment is in that interface. I think the work of craig_mod might also identify some forms of digital materiality that could be applied in a fruitful way to comics. Also, Mark and I wrote about Meanwhile and Touch Sensitive in an In Media Res week on digital comics.

    See especially mod’s pieces on “The Digital/Physical”


    “Hack the Cover”


  2. Charles Hatfield

    2013/07/15 at 17:48

    One of the basic tensions in comic art that I posit (or rather try to get a handle on) in Alternative Comics is between the idea of text as an experience of story (in which the material text gets treated simply as a transparent means of delivering enunciable “content”) and the materiality of text as a physical object. I like your attention to the reader’s handling/navigating of material texts. I particularly like your attention to digital texts, which is an area where I have been remiss, i.e. fairly inattentive.

    I do wish, though, that analysts of digital culture would retire (or at least question their use of) the pejorative “Luddite” to describe the ways in which print readers have sometimes, and sometimes usefully, expressed resistance or skepticism toward digital futurism.


  3. Roger Whitson

    2013/07/16 at 15:13

    @Charles: There’s a difference between skepticism of digital futurism and ludditism. Ludditism is simply the opposite of futurism (i.e. there’s something inherently bad about new technologies because I like the old stuff because I’m used to it). You can be skeptical (for example) that digital comics are going to completely replace print comics without saying that one is inherently a better reading experience than the other. Aaron’s argument is refreshing because he admits his own historicity, while making interesting claim that arguments about materiality are also embedded in historical assumptions about what counts as matter.

    Too many so-called skeptics of digital culture don’t make this essential step. They assume matter, texture, etc., are exclusively the realm of print culture. This is why my comment calls for a greater understanding of digital materiality. Hayles is a somewhat useful corrective in her argument that materiality is medium-based, but I prefer Kirschenbaum’s discussion of forensic materiality and Montfort’s critique of screen essentialism. Both of these strike at the heart of the claim that there is no materiality in digital technology or the idea that digital objects are more ephemeral than so-called physical objects.


  4. aaronkashtan

    2013/07/17 at 00:40

    Thank you both for the insightful comments. Authors whose work I would characterize as “luddite” are Sven Birkerts, Mark Bauerlein, and Nicholas Carr, though it may be unfair to include Carr in that group because his argument is more about cognition than materiality, and he provides scientific evidence for his position that digital media is cognitively harmful. Birkerts and Bauerlein object to digital culture largely due to nostalgic attachment to older media, and are unwilling to consider the possible materiality of digital culture. I actually see a similar attitude in Lynda Barry’s insistence that her writing exercises in What It Is be carried out with pen and paper — I plan to write about this elsewhere.



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