Robot 6

The digital evolution: from infinite canvas to infinite comics

Batman 66 #1_cover

Batman ’66 – looking back to look forward

How quickly we’re evolving: From Yvyes Bigerel’s rough demo in February 2009 to the near-simultaneous launch of Mark Waid’s Thrillbent and Marvel’s Infinite Comics in March 2012 to the Marvel ReEvolution suite of digital initiatives announced earlier this year (and still coming). And now we have DC Comics’ entry, DC2 (“DC Squared”), which looks to be the company’s take on Bigerel’s concepts. Also announced is DC2 Multiverse, a choose-your-own-adventure style digital comic that will inform DC on readers’ story choices.

While the latter seems a little creepy, it’s becoming clear that after years of digital and webcomics primarily mimicking print comic books and comic strips, a new kind of comic is emerging, one that is changing how they’re made and read.

These current platforms were far from the first to experiment with digital. Artists like Cayetano Garza Jr. began experimenting with limited effects and layout as early as 1998. Scott McCloud’s infinite canvas theory, in which digital could break free of the confines of the limited dimensions of a page, was proposed in 2000, ironically in the pages of his print book Reinventing Comics. Experiments with using an infinite canvas followed, but it never grabbed hold as a standard format. Mostly, webcomics have echoed the structure and dimensions of daily newspaper strips with the occasional experimentation.

Motion comics were an attempt to create a new generation of comics, but they ultimately failed because they no longer worked as comics and barely work as animation. Zac Gorman’s Magical Game Time incorporates animation much more effectively while still retaining the language of comics.

The key that Bigerel and Waid landed on is how time is experienced in comics. The passage of time can only be suggested but is ultimately controlled by the reader — that’s why some people complain it only takes five minutes to read a comic when there isn’t dense scripting on every page; they’re merely skimming the images, they’re not reading them. While skimming might be an unfortunate way to experience comics, it’s ultimately the reader’s choice, and that choice is one of the unique aspects of the medium. Like fine art, you can look at a Picasso for as long as you want. More similarly, books also suggest pacing and the passage of time with the style of writing, but ultimately the reader can spend as much time on a sentence as he or she wants.

On the other side of the spectrum is theater, television, film and music. Images and/or sound are presented to you in the sequence they are intended to be experienced at the exact rate they are to be experienced. Sure, you can hit slow motion or play it backward (well, probably not during a play), but it always returns to the same pre-set timing. The simplistic brilliance of Bigerel’s concept is that instead of spreading panels out across an infinite canvas, he stacked them up on each other like animation cells. It’s essentially a PowerPoint slideshow using comics. And most importantly, the reader controls when the next slide comes up.

While this simple change retains the language of comics, it fundamentally alters how the comics read and how they’re created. The writers, and probably more so the artists, have to re-think how they approach their storytelling techniques. There are benefits. Surprises can be controlled better because there’s no risk of a reader’s eye scanning over the opposite page and seeing the reveal of the big monster. Page breaks become clicks. Layering is one of the biggest advantages. Instead of a sequence taking place from left to right, it can happen in the same spot, with additions to the image adding more information with each click. For the letterer, the reading order of dialogue can be controlled more. There’s less chance of confusing the reader over what to read next when you can have the dialogue become visible in the correct order.

As Waid stresses on Thrillbent’s About page, this new breed of comics isn’t meant to replace print. Both ways of making and reading comics offer something unique and valuable. Watching the evolution is fascinating and seeing the creativity that comes from it is exciting. I can’t wait to see what kind of storytelling and artistic innovations come from it. For the first time, the digital landscape is being treated like its own landscape and not just a mimic of print. The possibilities are endless.

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Comments

5 Comments

I must admit, I haven’t been impressed with the experiments in Bigerel’s approach that I’ve read thus far. The technology is neat, I suppose, but I’ve yet to see it serve the story very well. The PowerPoint analogy above is quite apt, I think: all the clicking makes the reading experience colder and more mechanical. One panel (or, worse, one word balloon) doesn’t give me enough material to absorb at one time. It’s like reading a novel and having to turn the page after every sentence or paragraph. I can’t establish any rhythm, because I’m constantly having to physically prod the comic forward. I feel like I’m fighting the medium every step of the way. It’s annoying, and distracting enough that it takes me out of the story.

The infinite canvas approach has been put to much better use, I think. Emily Carroll’s done some particularly nice work with it (http://www.emcarroll.com/comic/). But I suspect that’s harder to do, and requires a new set of storytelling tools that are still in the process of being invented. Most importantly to me, though, it preserves the reading experience while still using the technology to do new and different things. In Carroll’s work, and elsewhere, I’ve found myself surprised and delighted by the storytelling tricks that come into play. The possibilities for page design and panel flow alone are enormous. And far more exciting to me than the mechanical click, click, click of the other approach.

How did you manage not to mention Alex De Campi and Valentine?

Simon DelMonte

June 6, 2013 at 7:09 am

It’s great that these experiments are happening. (And let’s not forget Homestuck, that strange but oddly popular hybrid of comic strip, video game and music video.)

But I find I still prefer art that doesn’t actually do anything but be art. I guess I am stuck in my ways, even if I applaud innovation that others can and will love and emulate.

No mention of CIA : Operation Ajax or Madefire? This formats add subtle motion and sound while respecting the rules of print format comics. In the case of Ajax, we started with a print format book first, and layered the art work for a dynamic composition that is still essentially reading a traditional comic.

Reinventing the Graphic Novel from SXSW: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP9p08LrZCo

Given your discussion of the infinite canvas it would have been good to see you profile Stuart Campbell’s Nawlz (www.nawlz.com) which also went online in 2009 for free and now has an iPad app. Campbell uses the principals of the infinite canvas quite well but also uses some of the best implementation of sound (custom electronic soundtrack) and subtle animation. Also the recent Moth City series by Tim Gibson (www.mothcity.com) is another very good example of the infinite canvas(also free online) and is more like the Infinite Comics in its execution, no sound or active animation.

I think the main thing is that while infinite comics still allow the reader to control the pace of the story we are also seeing a restoration of control to the creator as they are responsible for the breakdown of what will be shown and when. This provides some interesting storytelling opportunities as the creator can guide the reader in a more direct way as opposed to the indirect way of the past that relied on cues placed in the panels to hopefully direct the reader’s gaze in the intended way.

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