Saturday, November 17, 2007

Comics: Print Versus Online, Part 2

You sit down to watch television. You turn on one of your local stations, and see some promos that they're going to be starting one of your favorite movies in just a few minutes. As you settle in, a black screen comes up with white lettering that says something to the effect of: "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been re-formatted to fit your television screen and has been edited for content and commercial interruptions." Then the movie begins.

The reason they put that message up is simple: television was not the delivery mechanism that the movie was designed to. The movie was designed to be shown in a movie theater. Different aspect ratio, different business model, different environment, different technological equipment... Yes, you can technically display the same movie on a TV, but it wasn't made to be shown that way. Similarly, TV shows are not designed to be shown in a movie theater. Or on a cell phone. Or on your computer.

People, on the whole, seem to understand this at some intuitive level. They can accept commercial breaks during a movie they watch on television. They can accept the pan/scan editing to adjust for the different aspect ratio. They can accept incredibly bad dubbing that have, since 1986, made Ferris Bueller envious of Cameron's "piece of tin." People know this is inherently going to be a different experience than what the movie-makers originally intended.

So why do people NOT get this when it comes to comics?

Comic creators, by and large, know how their work is going to be presented. There was an old "rule" in writing comic scripts that you couldn't end a sentence with a period because there was no guarantee it would actually get printed. It wasn't a naive way to generate excitement in the story; it was a manner to work around a technical limitation of the printing technology they had available. Likewise, the comics back in the day were colored using lots of solid, bright colors because they didn't have the capability then to publish anything more nuanced.

This latter issue began raising its head several years ago when printing and paper technology had advanced considerably. There were more than a fair share of complaints fired that reprints of old books looked garish because these bright colors were intensified with better ink and whiter paper. It didn't look quite right because it was being presented in a format it wasn't originally intended to be presented in.

The same holds true for online comics. Yes, I can sit here at my computer and scan every page of a comic and post it online. I can even reconfigure the page scans so that they're all embedded in one file. But it's not going to be an entirely good reading experience, regardless of whether that's a PDF or I run it through a Flash player of some kind or whatever, because the original was not intended to be read like that. Of course a gorgeous page layout from Neal Adams is going to suffer when it's read on a computer -- he created it to be read in a pamphlet comic!

Adams is actually a good person to bring up here. Setting aside his incredible illustration skills, he's very conscious of how his work is being presented and adjusts his designs accordingly. Before his famed work on Batman, he was in DC's coloring department. He spent quite a deal of time and energy learning about what was and wasn't possible with the printing technology available at that time. His studies led him to realize that marvel had a different deal with the printers than DC did that allowed them to use more colors in their books, making them look more sophisticated visually. Adams was able to take the ideas to his superiors and eventually get a better coloring deal for DC -- because he knew how things were being produced. Years later, when DC started to reprint his Batman stories in a nice, hardcover format, he opted to go back and recolor them all himself (for free, I believe) because he knew that the printing technology had changed sufficiently that the old coloring would not translate well to these new printings. And if you look at those books, you can see that, sure enough, the couple of stories Adams didn't recolor look decidedly muddier than everything else. Not that Adams changed the actual colors themselves, but he utilized the new coloring technology to achieve the same effects he created using a decidedly different -- and not immediately transferable -- technology decades earlier.

So when you look at marvel's new Digital Comics Unlimited books, or if you illegally download scans of the same books from a torrent, you're reading a story in a manner in which it wasn't intended to be read. Likewise, if you go to Wowio or wherever, you're going to be reading comics that were designed to be printed, and your satisfaction is going to be less than what's possible.

So, is it possible to write comics for an online venue? Absolutely, but very few people are doing it.

One of the obvious things that should be addressed is that computer monitors are formatted horizontally, instead of vertically. But it really requires more than just turning your art board 90 degrees! There's an issue web designers need to focus on as well: namely, that not everyone has the same size monitor. That means your online comic should work and be easily read regardless of whether somebody's using a 15 or 20 inch screen. You need to realize that some thinner lines could get lost and smaller text might be illegible. Take a quick flip through the stories on Zuda and you can see a range of people who, while they've all adopted the horizontal format, still have varying degrees of success with the online format irrespective of the quality of the narrative itself.

So here's the thing. Many, many more comics were written and designed to be presented in a format other than online than were made for the web. That's mostly just a function of how long the web has been around compared to pamphlet comics. But as long as creators continue developing comics with a "traditional" presentation in mind, their success is going to be limited in the online world. The problem isn't that the delivery mechanisms online are flawed; it's that people are using them to deliver the wrong material. Comics of any sort need to be created to take advantage of the unique properties of how they're being created to be truly effective.

What this all means (coupled with yesterday's notes) is that as long as it's easier to read paper than it is a monitor, most creators will develop their materials to the easier-on-the-eye format. And as long as most creators are creating works geared for print publication, web publication will remain a niche for a comparatively small band of enthusiasts. Meaning that your LCS is safe from the online "threat" for the time being.

Of course, that's not to say how long it will be before that changes, but I don't plan on doing any sooth-saying today!


Anonymous said...

Kind of off-topic, and I know I'm behind on this, but when did it become trendy to refer to comics as "pamphlets"? It always strikes me as an unfavorable "looking down my nose" type of usage - the connotation being that REAL comics get compiled into TPB form, or some such.

Or am I reading things into it that aren't there?

VEGASinsight said...

Wow, in these last few posts you've really addressed a number of issues I deal with often. I'm an editor, and I spend most of my day staring at the computer screen, but when it comes to actual copyediting of text, I always (sorry, environment) print a hard copy and manually read it and mark it up. It's too hard for me to catch everything on screen.

This obviously spreads to webcomics. I enjoy strips (such as the awesome Achewood) because they are properly formatted for quick consumption online. But I cannot bear to look at full comic book pages onscreen (though, thanks for the Adams scan. Man, I miss seeing his stuff). And it's probably why when I publish my first comic, it'll be print, not web.