Seeking to disprove stereotypes that comics are merely simplistic or juvenile entertainment for the uncultured; to enlighten the open-minded and encourage the broadening of one's horizons; to examine comics as a text; to deepen appreciation for comics, comic books, and graphic novels as a formidable form of art in all cultures.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

iPhone and Flash: It Just Isn't Meant to Be

Here's an interesting development in the comic art form: mobile devices.

DC Comics made a fairly major change to its business model several months ago when they announced they would be releasing all of their monthly comic books in both magazine AND digital formats.  A lot of the internet discussion focus has turned to the implications for the business side of the industry, but I'd like to take a moment to address how this affects the aesthetic itself.

I read this part of the panel, then tap...
See, I've been subscribing to some of DC's titles via my smart phone because it's a quick, convenient way for me to access these comics.  I sometimes find myself with downtime at work and it's great to fill it with a few minutes of Green Lantern or Batman, and when a task inevitably falls into my lap I can easily just pop my phone back into my pocket.  The app is user-friendly, and the first time you use it there is a helpful tutorial that teaches you how it works: essentially, programmers have broken the comic's pages into their individual panels, and they organize them in a way that your phone's screen can display them for the reader to easily view.  Sometimes this involves zooming into different parts of an image to read text or focus on specific elements of a scene (only to suddenly pop out and view the whole image before moving on), sometimes a couple panels are crammed into one screen, and so forth.  Tapping on different parts of the screen will allow the reader to move forward and backward.  At first I thought this was all well and good, a rational way to translate a physical comic into a handheld format.  Then the frustrating confusion reared its ugly head. read the rest of it.

 The first time this occurred was when I was reading Flash #2.  I was nearing the end of the issue.  Flash was on the run, as usual, and at the same time Iris West was visiting a prison for a story she was writing, some guy named Guerrero was being pressured by bad guys into pressing an ominous button, a commercial airliner's pilots were fiddling with their instruments, and a mysterious explosion was going off in the sky, seemingly from out of nowhere.  The last image of the comic is of Flash gawking at the jet about to crash down on top of him (and a bridge full of cars), leaving the reader in suspense as to whether he'll be able to save the endangered innocents or not.  Thing is, I was left REALLY confused.  Tapping on my screen to follow the app's way of pacing and progressing through the story was making me wonder if there was a glitch in the software, because suddenly I was jumping from one setting to another, rotating between five different locations -- I thought I was skipping entire pages!  I kept going back and forth trying to figure out what was happening with my comic, and I wasn't able to really figure it out until I had a chance to speak with a coworker who had already read this issue in magazine format, and who explained the story to me.  I felt kind of dumb when I finally understood what was happening, and took a moment to think about why I hadn't been able to piece it together on my own.

Then it dawned on me: storytelling in comic books assumes that the reader has entire pages laid out before him, trusting his inherent reading and logic skills, and relying on tried and true practices of art, to guide his eye to follow the words and images in sequence.  Creating sequential artwork for the intent of publishing an actual comic book, and then translating said artwork into what it is on our mobile devices, removes much of the comic book experience as it was intended to be by its creators.  My lack of understanding could very well have been caused by the inability to take a series of images (and in some cases, entire panels) in on my own, allowing my natural comic-book-reading abilities to do the legwork for me.

To be a little more fair to the publishers, there IS an option to view the entire page on the iPhone.  However, I don't think there's really much of a comparison.

Regular comic book page

Smartphone view


It's like watching a theater performance on a television screen.  I've always hated watching plays on video, but it wasn't until film school that I pieced together why.  A professor was showing us Mandy Pantinkin's performance of "Sundays in the Park with George" one class period, and after about a thousand cross-fade transitions I couldn't stop thinking about how inappropriate it was to riddle a stage play with digital footprints.  Then I got caught up in the camera angles and how I wanted to look at the overall painting being portrayed, but no, I was at the mercy of the camera.  I really enjoy going to the theater.  Attending big-budget musicals and performing in high school plays was a big part of my adolescence -- which is why I insist that theater should be seen IN A THEATER.  Production design, scripting, costume, choreography, acting -- these are all things that are meant to lead an audience member's eyes from one point to another.  Introducing cameras to this foreign environment endangers and muffles the other storytellers on stage!

Smart phones are great, and so are comic books.  The breeding of the two is what yields oft-unwieldy spawn.  It would be interesting if someone were to begin making comics with smart phones specifically in mind.  This would be like a new medium for sequential art, as it's designed without any intention of the work being laid out in one big spread in front of you (so much for the infinite canvas, eh?).  It could cater to the strengths of mobile devices and their technological capabilities, rather than being a second thought by a marketing team.  Authors of comics who create stories specifically with this format in mind can be more confident that their smart phone readers are more likely to understand what exactly it is that they're trying to get across.

For now, though, I guess all we can do is to help readers be aware of how their experience is being affected.  I certainly like the idea of carrying my comics everywhere with me, I just have to recognize that it's just detracting from the purest form of comic book reading by doing so.


Cabeza said...

So what would the comparative experience be on a tablet reader?

Scrumpestuous D said...

I've encountered the problems you've mentioned when trying to read comics on my iPhone in the past, so often, in fact, that I've completely given up on reading them on a phone. Reading them on my iPad is a completely different story, however. It's just the right size that I don't feel the need to go from one zoomed in panel to the next, which eliminates most of the problems with viewing them on a mobile device, in my opinion. Two page spreads are still a bit of a pain, though rotating the tablet on its side helps. I've read entire story arcs on my iPad and have really enjoyed it.