Emanata: The Phone is the Panel is the Page

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Just about every comics creator I’ve talked to recently has been thinking, at least a little, about how mobile digital technology is going to affect their work. For anyone who’s going to be at Comic-Con International next week, I’m going to be moderating a panel on “Comics After Paper” on Saturday the 24th, with creators Dylan Meconis, R. Stevens, Robert Berry and Joshua Hale Fialkov, all of whom have created work meant to be read on platforms other than print.

Despite the current rage for print comics that have been subjected to the Procrustean solution of reformatting for the digital devices lots of people are carrying around with them, they’re tough to pay attention to for long–especially on mobile phones. There are lots of people who are excited about the possibility of reading comics on their phones, and those people mostly have to make do with work that was designed to be read page-by-page on paper, and is therefore a chore to read panel-by-panel on a little screen.

The most effective comics reprints of the past few years are the ones that respect the salient elements of the format for which the work was designed: the Sunday Press books that reprint “Little Nemo” and “Gasoline Alley” and now “Krazy Kat” strips at their original enormous tabloid dimensions, the collections of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” stories on a nicer version of their original newsprint, the oversized “Absolute”-style editions of familiar work that preserve its look but crank up its volume. Print, though, is about as flexible a medium as there is, project-by-project; mobile digital devices’ strength is portability, not flexibility.

(More on Techland: Emanata: Eight Questions for Comics Creators)

All of which is to say that cartoonists who want their work to be read and enjoyed via a mobile phone or touchscreen pad need to design it for that medium–not for print, and not even for web browsers. If you’re making comics for an iPhone, both your functional image size and your functional page size are 2 inches by 3 inches, or (if you want to get tricky about it) 3 inches by 2 inches. The phone is the panel is the page. If you work at any other panel dimension for something that’s meant to be read on an iPhone, your image will either fail to use the capacity of its medium (and be surrounded by thicker-than-usual black bars) or fail to be seen in its entirety at once. It’s possible, of course, to use either of those effects intentionally–but much easier to stumble into them unintentionally.

It’s also worth thinking about the “default” look of the mobile device. Cartoonists have drawn and printed their work on white paper for long enough now to assume that that’s what their work is: black lines on a white background, plus various additions like color. But the default color–the absence of content–on an iPhone or iPad’s screen isn’t white: it’s black. White means a whiteout: every pixel filled with light, blaring at the reader’s eyes. (On a Kindle, the default is an off-white or gray.)

That’s not just a philosophical abstraction: it directly affects the way readers perceive every image in a comics narrative. If a panel occupies the entire screen of an iDevice (without, say, a browser providing a frame within the frame of the device), the border around it is also black rather than white. As a very simple example, the image on this Frank Miller cover, in print or without a border in a context that normally has one, gives the jolting impression of everything but its central figure having fallen away. Put it on a computer screen, inside a thin blue border (as at that link), and it becomes much less effective; surround it with a thick black border, and it’s just got a bunch of negative space. The following issue’s cover, on the other hand, is a fine piece of work in print, but I bet it’d be even more bracing bordered by a black screen–the web would look like it was superimposed on the screen itself.

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If you’re creating comics for a hand-held screen, you also don’t get to play with multiple-panel compositions that can be seen as a whole, or vary panel dimensions for dramatic effect. (It’s effectively the anti-Wednesday Comics format–although I’d actually love to see some sort of weekly anthology with experienced creators making work for the tiny screen, too.) Still, I urge curious artists to think of it as a creative challenge: an Oubapian formal constraint. There are lots of great long-form comics, even from recent years, that stick mostly or entirely with a single panel size: Jaime Hernandez’s “Day by Day with Hopey,” Chester Brown’s “Louis Riel,” pretty much everything by Jason. Robert Kirkman and Phil Hester’s short-lived Irredeemable Ant-Man series from a few years ago was mostly variations on a grid of sixteen teeny panels per page; maybe it was ahead of its time.

It’s been 75 years since the earliest American comic book publishers figured out that their magazines could be more than reformatted reprints of newspaper strips. Now there’s a new mass medium that’s waiting for comics that aren’t just reformatted reprints of print or Web-based material–and I suspect that whoever shows up earliest with genuinely compelling, formally appropriate work for tiny little screens is going to make a mint.

Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.

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Talking Digital Comics With ComiXology’s David Steinberger