In The Gutter

At some point today, I am reliably informed, X&HTowers will have it’s first dedicated e-reader. Sure, TLC and I both have laptops and iPhones, which are both perfectly capable display vectors, but she wanted something bigger than the phone, smaller than the Macbook. Plus, she’s a geek of the highest order and loves her tech.

Of course, in the process of researching which model to go for (no Kindle on the list, BTW. My wife likes it opensource. No wait, that came out wrong) I started considering the possibility of putting comic content on the device. Which got me thinking about digital comics in general.

The major and minor players are already pushing digital content hard, and in a hurried and unthoughtful way. Obviously reading from a screen is a whole different experience to picking up a book and flicking through it. It’s clear that there’s no way to replicate that experience on an e-reader. But what I’m seeing is a rush to completely rethink and reformat the way comics work, forcing them to fit the screen.  Alex De Campi on Bleeding Cool has already written insightfully about how this is likely to work. I can see the advantages, of course, (not least the financial benefits to the creators) but speaking as a consumer there’s still something missing when you’re forced to read a narrative panel by panel. It’s like trying to read a book when the formatting is set to one paragraph per page.

There’s less of a sense of flow, and certainly no way to expand and contract scale, say by moving from a tight 9-panel page to one with a single image. There are tricks you can play with pacing, sure, and tweaking for the Japanese market becomes slightly less of a pain but… I dunno. I’ve not seen an iPhone comic yet that’s been a satisfying experience, and downloads onto the laptop just feel cheap. I view them more as previews to see if I’m likely to want to invest in the comic or trade when it comes out in the real world.

And don’t get me started on motion comics. The bastard son of Crash Cargo-level animation and bad audiobook readings, I’m dumbfounded by any suggestion that this mongrel format is in any way the future of The Ninth Art. I watched a version of Brian Bendis’ Spiderwoman that had perhaps three frames in it, and a conversation between two characters on the top deck of a bus that seemed to go on for an hour and a half. Pretty impressive for a fifteen minute clip. I swear, I popped out to make a cup of tea and came back to find the same frame playing that had been on the screen when I left. This shit ain’t comics. It certainly isn’t entertaining.

I may be coming across here as something of a Luddite. In which case – good. I’ve not finished yet, either. Last week, on one of my increasingly rare trips to Forbidden Planet, I came across a title that quite genuinely had my head spinning with the possibilities.

I found the DC Wednesday Comics, and I fell in love.

The Wednesday Comics hearken back to the age of the comics section included in every big American Sunday paper. Broadsheet sized, and therefore able to cram a heck of a lot of story into a single-page strip. This was the place where Will Eisner’s Spirit blazed a trail, and where the story-telling techniques of masters like Alex Raymond and Chester Gould dropped through the mailbox of millions of American homes every weekend. In the UK, we’ve never really had anything like it. Our broadsheets simply don’t have the girth of the American heavies.

So, the Wednesday Comics have tweaked that look and feel for the modern audience, and the genius part is that they’ve made it transformable. It racks as an A4 (ish, I don’t have the proper dimensions to hand so I’m using shorthand) booklet, which then folds out to A3. Each single-page strip has an A3 page to itself, and in the centre two strips share a single unfolded sheet of A2.

Coffee Mug For Scale
Coffee Mug For Scale

Are we seeing the possibilities yet? I see a story that can go from small and intimate to absurdly widescreen within a sixteen page spread. I can see stories where scale can be reined up and down with abandon. It’s a neat, flexible way to get huge swathes of art and story into a pocketable form. Plus, it’s printed on lovely tactile newspaper, the kind of stock that most Brit comics were on when I was a kid and buying them regularly. I’d love to see Paul Grist do something in this format with his Jack Staff or Kane universe. Screw it, I’d like to see Rebellion do some 20o0AD spinoffs on newsprint. A new Cursed Earth maybe. Certainly, I remember Dredd back when it was in the centre pages and started every episode with a big splash page. Dinosaurs, robots and mutants rampaging across a huge sheet of paper.

It was cheap, it was lurid, and above all it was fun.

Let me throw down my cards, let me show you the cut of my jib, and the lining of my jacket. I don’t like digital comics. I don’t think they work as the fetish objects that comics should be. It kills the magic. It sucks out the joy. It turns art into graphics files. It turns the process of reading into a linear, stilted and over-directed chore. It turns the magic of what happens in the gutter between every frame into a LOADING message.

Fuck that. The best and brightest stuff on the web will eventually find it’s way onto print, and there it will finally find it’s true home. I talk about Warren Ellis a lot on this site, and it’s telling that his web project with the brilliant Paul Duffield, FREAKANGELS, would always preview on the web before making it to print in an expanded and collectible edition. Sure, you can read it for free online, but it’s not the same. He, and other writers I admire like Cory Doctorow have long been exponents and advocates of the web as a place where content can be tasted and sampled before you, the discerning consumer, complete the cycle, and dump some cash on an object that’s nourishing to the soul. An OBJECT, not a file.

Let’s put it like this. X&HTowers is home to a pair of techy geeks, and yet it is a place groaning with bookshelves full of tatty paperbacks and vinyl records. A place where a fat internet pipe cannot compete with music, booze, a book and quiet conversation. Sometimes, it seems that we are the McLuhanist dream. We are a place where the medium really is the message.


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

4 thoughts on “In The Gutter”

  1. When I saw this I thought, from your photo caption, that you had coffee cups for sale. This made me happy as I need a coffee cup and I thought that as a fellow techy geek you might let me have it for free.

    But I see, on further reading, that this is about comics. I’ve not read a comic since Whizzer and Chips but I do read books. And the great thing about the techy geek world we’re lucky enough to live in, is that we can have both. I’m not so hot on quiet conversation though, except in a library. But I don’t go to those as I have the internet.

  2. Well, Whizzer & Chips fits into the general aesthetic, although Topper was more appropriately sized for what I was thinking about. A big sheet of newsprint that you could lay out on the carpet and pore over while you were waiting for your tea.
    You’re missing out on not going to libraries, BTW. Librarians are the best flirts.

    Oh, and the netbook has “entered the delivery phase”, whatever the heck that means. Soon come, I guess.

    1. I work with librarians… Loved Topper! I remember devouring the broadsheet comics.

      Sounds like your netbook is in the same phase as my Apollo 13 DVD 😀

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