In 2000, cartoonist Scott McCloud followed up his bestseller Understanding Comics with Reinventing Comics, another bold, challenging piece of graphic non-fiction. The first half of Reinventing serves as a mini-history of the art form, threaded with McCloud’s strong opinions about what constitutes genuinely creative work, as opposed to hackery. The second half ventures further out onto a limb, making predictions about the ways then-emerging technologies could transform the medium.
Whenever anyone describes “the world of the future,” they’re setting themselves up to be mocked. Most of these kinds of speculations fall into two categories: What we wish were true, and what seems likely based on what we know now. The former can actually inspire innovation, as technicians who grew up with some far-out concepts—like television, or a touch-screen tablet—work to make it a reality. But those predictions generally fail to take into account changes that few could’ve seen coming. That’s how we end up with a Back To The Future Part II version of 2015 where one of the big technical advances is “dust-repellant paper,” not e-readers; or a 2010 version of 2010 where computer drives still run cassettes.
Reinventing Comics mostly stays in a “Wouldn’t it be neat if…?” space, and isn’t as embarrassing as it could’ve been. McCloud’s prediction of “micropayments” as the future revenue stream for comics hasn’t panned out yet, but he was right about how artists would make use of digital tools, and he was right that the experience of reading comics would change between 2000 and now—even if it hasn’t exactly happened in the way he expected. McCloud wrote about the computer screen as an “infinite canvas,” hoping cartoonists would take advantage of the absence of defined borders to experiment with the form (as he had done). Instead, the basic form of comics hasn’t changed radically. The work is still being distributed in pamphlets and books, beholden to the century-old panel and page structure.
It’s just that now those panels and pages are on iPads and Kindles. And phones.
When the iPad was introduced, it struck me as the ideal electronic device for comics. It has the general heft and size of a book, it can store thousands of pages, and the backlit screen imparts a luminescence to the artwork. I never cared much for reading comic books on a computer. Comic strips, yes; and webcomics, too. But it never felt right to try to read an old Fantastic Four on my laptop. Once I had an iPad, I bought a bunch of CD-ROMs containing decades of comics, and transferred their files to a PDF reader—well before apps like Comixology made it much easier to buy, store, and read comics on a tablet. Over the past few years, the major publishers have been releasing digital-only comics expressly designed for iPads/Kindles/etc. But they’ve always struck me as too safe and too sparse, given how good ordinary pages look on those devices.
It’s how well comics work on a phone that has caught me completely by surprise. I migrated toward doing most of my reading on my phone a while back, because it’s more convenient to carry and consult than an iPad. Then one day I decided to try out some of my comics apps on the phone, curious to see just how in the hell a comic book could be readable on such a tiny screen.
Here’s how in the hell it can: through a featured called Guided View, which fills the screen with one to three panels at a time, effectively converting a comic book page into a series of comic strips. In theory, this sounds awful—a careless butchery of the artist’s intent. And sometimes that’s exactly so. An elaborate Neil Adams page-construction is all but incomprehensible in guided view, for example. But more often than I would’ve expected, using Guided View prompts me to pay attention to individual drawings in ways that I’d almost forgotten how to do, after decades of reading comics in the same way.
Guided View can also bolster the kind of pacing effects that McCloud has been championing since Understanding Comics. Consider the first two pages of Hawkeye #6:
Here, writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja have beautifully laid out and delivered what amounts to an elaborate joke, where readers are meant to think that the hero is defusing a bomb when he’s actually trying to hook up an home entertainment system. The use of whitespace, the details from the connection schematic, and the way Aja arranges the direction of the lines into subtle, appealing patterns are all examples of superior draftsmanship.
And yet I like the sequence even more in Guided View. I won’t repeat the entire two pages, but here from page one of the iPhone version of Hawkeye #6, are the first three:
And the last three Guided View screens:
Again, that’s not the whole scene, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that the white space is gone from the Guided View version, as is the vertical portion of the page two schematic. But the drama of that first page (and thus the second page’s comedic switcheroo) is even stronger when read on the phone, at least to my eyes. The progression of the action is clearer, and even more intense, when the reader’s only seeing two or three panels at a time. Even more exciting is how this way of breaking down the page emphasizes its more atmospheric, scene-setting elements—such as the panels that are just solid blocks of color, or objects seen so close-up that they’ve become abstract shapes.
I’d never contend that Guided View is superior to reading a print comic. There are aspects of the experience that are annoying, such as how different panel shapes and alignments leads to a lot of flipping the phone 90 degrees to get the best perspective. And a lot of the best comics art doesn’t really work in this format. I’ve already mentioned Adams; but it’s also impossible to do a two-page Jack Kirby splash justice on a phone (or a tablet, for that matter).
But sometimes changing the frame for a piece of art can change the way we look at it. I’ve sat in film classes and seminars where the professors or moderators pushed students to pay attention to sound design by switching the soundtracks for two movies; or where they’ve cut the volume entirely to get us to notice the visual storytelling. Sometimes when I fast-forward to a favorite scene in a movie I’ve watched a bunch, I spot camera moves that had never really registered before, because I’d been too distracted by the dialogue or performances.
More to the point, it seems like artists have begun considering digital platforms when they design a page. I picked up a print copy of Mark Waid and Jen Vaughn’s new Archie series last week, and noticed that the majority of the panels are long and horizontal, which would make them easier to swipe through on a phone without having to keep turning the device. If that’s intentional, then it’s an indicator that the way that comics actually look could be changing, in the same ways that movies evolved due to advances like sound, color, Cinemascope, 3-D, and digital cinematography.
In a way, it’s disappointing that the technical revolutions McCloud anticipated 15 years ago haven’t inspired widespread innovation of the kind he predicted in Reinventing, but instead have compressed comics into an even tighter space. But when the product and its delivery device sync up well—as they increasingly have been—then result reinforces the lessons of McCloud’s Understanding. Isolated from the page as a whole, a succession of two or three panels can highlight a clever juxtaposition; and even a single panel can serve as a discrete unit of time, which the readers can hold on for as long as they like before moving ahead.
That isn’t a substitute for reading a full comics page as intended. But it can be a useful supplement, and a way to read a comic more closely. When writers and artists make good use of those phone-sized slices of their larger work, the effects can be revelatory.