June 2015

Book of Ella Ch 2: Comic

, art director at Animat Habitat.

A visual story represents time. Comics as a visual medium have a unique visual language that attempts to represent the other senses as well. Comic books are a great way to tell unique stories because a singular artistic voice can have choice over every moment, frame, image, letter and flow. Animat Habitat aims to honor these traditions of visual storytelling while leveraging the technology of today to explore new possibilities for the comic art form. For this, we reconsider interaction design in a visual story. We examine the requisite actions that a reader must take to advance through a story. And we weigh the implication that each action may have on the story on behalf of the reader.

A Comic History

One allure of the comic book medium is that an artist has a capacity to tell a story in full in a particular style of art and in a personal tone of voice. The story in a comic book is split into a collection of events—pages and panels and so on. And all panels on a page – or double-page spread – are revealed at once.

The challenge for the comic book artist is to get the collection of events to read—to get the eye of the reader to flow from one page to the next and from one panel to the next and so on. This gives a visual story a natural progression of time, and, in a comic book, this means to advance the story – or the character within – with every turn of a page.

The representation of time in a visual story was summarized by Scott McCloud in 2005 in a TED talk, titled: The Visual Magic of Comics. “Time has a single unbroken reading line,” McCloud posited, “as you move through space—you move through time. Every element on a comic book page has a spatial relationship to every other element at all times.”

Calvin and Hobbes – snow art.

Calvin and Hobbes (November 1985 - December 1995) © Bill Watterson [1]

The sense of time in a comic book is illustrated through sequence. In a sequence of images, there is implicit understanding of what leads up to, and what follows, each image. Take out any one image and the sequence takes on a different meaning. McCloud continued:

There is also a balance between the visible and invisible in comics. Comics is a kind of [feedback] in which the artist gives you something to see within the panels, and then gives you something to imagine between the panels.

Calvin and Hobbes – snow art.

Calvin and Hobbes (November 1985 - December 1995) © Bill Watterson [1]

The page of the comic book or the moment in the story, the panel, the border, the image and the language – and the space in-between in which all these elements are set to flow together – comprise the tool kit for a comic book artist to place, and to visually give a sense of weight to, the events of a story.

Will Eisner wrote the book on comics and sequential art, titled: Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist (2008), in which he summarized the challenge for a comic book artist. Eisner wrote:

The task then is to arrange the sequence of events (or pictures) so as to bridge the gaps in action. Given these, the reader may fill in the intervening events from experience. [The panel] is used by the artist to capture or freeze one segment in what is in reality an uninterrupted flow of action.

Calvin and Hobbes – snow art.

Calvin and Hobbes (November 1985 - December 1995) © Bill Watterson [1]

The representation of time in a comic book – in print – however is only just an adaptation. This is complicated as comic books enter the digital space. In his talk, McCloud had described this transition of the comic book medium from print to the screen as an opportunity to return to – as well as to reimagine – the visual continuity of an ancient narrative form. McCloud made the case:

Comics present a kind of temporal map, and this temporal map […] energizes modern comics. This same principle [operates in] ancient forms of the same idea[:] whether it's paint on stone, like the Tomb of Menna—the scribe in ancient Egypt, or a bas-relief sculpture rising up a stone column, or [an] embroidery, or painted deerskin and tree bark […].

Tomb of Menna

Tomb of Menna – Ancient Egypt

Adjacent images in a comic book are not necessarily adjacent moments in a story. McCloud noted the compromise that was made when comics were adapted in print, “the basic idea of comics was being broken again and again and again.” Then, when comic pages were first ported to the screen as is—in the form of pages, McCloud considered this as, “a classic McLuhanesque mistake of appropriating the shape of the previous technology as the content of the new technology.” McCloud elaborated:

[Digital comics] would resemble print comic pages, and they would introduce all this sound and motion. The problem was that if you go with the basic idea that space equals time in comics, […] when you introduce sound and motion, which are temporal phenomena that can be only represented through time, then they break with that continuity of presentation. […] So the question was: was there any way to preserve that spatial relationship while still taking advantage of all of those things that digital had to offer.

A screen is not a page, it is a window to an infinite narrative. This idea is yet to be resolved, and we are yet to see if the sort of changes that happened when comics went from pre-print to print would repeat when comics move into post-print. McCloud explained:

If you look at the monitor as a page, technically it has the same basic limitation. If you look at the monitor as a window to an infinite canvas, along the ‘X’ axis, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ axis, with staircases, with circle narratives that can be literally circular, with turns in stories that can be literally a turn, parallel narratives that can be literally parallel.

This talk: The Visual Magic of Comics by Scott McCloud in 2005 is a playful, personal journey of the comic artist. Ultimately, McCloud was in search of a durable medium for visual storytelling. This search is where we enter the development of White Elephant.

Calvin and Hobbes – snow art.

Calvin and Hobbes (November 1985 - December 1995) © Bill Watterson [1]

1 The snowmen and other snow art is from the last great newspaper comic: Calvin and Hobbes, created by Bill Watterson. The daily comic strip was syndicated from November 1985 to December 1995, and is commonly cited as “the last great newspaper comic”. Website Link

A Comic Future

Bottom of the Ninth—an app with an animated comic book, published in 2012 by Ryan Woodward—was released in a moment when Apple iPhone and iPad were pervading popular culture. Phone and tablet interfaces, already in constant flux, were in a systematic transition away from a philosophy of skeuomorphic design.

Skeuomorphism was applied, for example, in early iPhone interface designs to make them familiar—to visually bridge a contextual gap between past and present modes of interaction. Somewhere, at some intersection of skeuomorphic design and the philosophy of Marshall McLuhan, a comic book page was appropriated as the interface in an app.

Bottom of the Ninth (2012) p.10 © Ryan Woodward
Bottom of the Ninth (2012) p.11 © Ryan Woodward

Bottom of the Ninth (2012) p 10-11 © Ryan Woodward [ryanwoodwardart.com]

As an early innovation in this area, Bottom of the Ninth (app, 2012) experimented with audio and video as temporal phenomena within a digital comic. The app cycles through a mix of background music, foley effects and dialogue and so on. This combination helps to demonstrate that audio in an interactive context is most effective when layered in ambiguity. When audio is modulated, then sound can play a part in a system of feedback to encourage and reinforce interaction. The app similarly uses a collage of images, image sequences and video clips and so on. The combination of image formats helps to demonstrate that video is likewise most effective when modulated and fitted within a system of interaction.

An alternate example of an app with an interactive visual story is Device 6—a “surreal thriller” in which the written word is the map, published in 2013 by Simon Flesser. This app appears less like a traditional comic, and is not based on a comic. This is the point. This app helps to demonstrate the capacity of the screen as a dimension for storytelling. The typographic narrative turns and breaks with the events as written in plain text. Audio remains ambiguous and only comes into focus at points of inflection in the story, which serves as a cue for attention – or interaction – along the way.

Device 6 – screen 05. (2013) © Simogo

Device 6 screen-05 (2013) © Simon Flesser [simogo.com]

Once upon a time… In comic books, the requisite action that a reader must take to advance through a story was as simple as turning a page. In a phone- or tablet-screen space, however, this interaction may now default to pinch-to-zoom, swipe-to-pan, tilt and track and so on. To help make that transition more accessible to an audience, an ease-of-access approach to interface design appropriates interactive languages inherent to the technology. And so for digital comics, this means to resolve the misappropriation of replica page-turns as well as the misapplication of a click-to-play interface as the standard for video playback. The objective is to integrate audio and video elements into each moment of a visual story as outlined in a comic book page and panel layout, which is in and of itself open to artistic interpretation.

As comics have only just entered a digital space, an augmented reality space has now emerged with a layered language of interaction. The core of the experience is an extension of digital information into physical space. This computer technology has use cases that are inclined to information systems. In other words, visual art and story – and comic books – are not the driving force behind the mixed medium. Augmented reality is nonetheless a visual medium. And Animat Habitat has recognized that immersive visual art and story can have an impact on the way we look at wildlife.

Augmented reality adds a layer of interaction, however, the use of an image target in an augmented reality application presents an opportunity to bring the printed comic back into the fold. In the case of a comic book that is extended into a space where any digital information can be placed within – and outside of – the comic book panels. The digital information that extends from the printed page can be looked at from any perspective, from the left and from the right and so on. The reader can look into panels, can see outside of the page, and can feel the art and story connected to the world around them. This capability encourages movement around, or manipulation of, the image target in physical space. That control over the way a story is seen can impart a sense of responsibility on behalf of the reader for the direction of the story.

Here, somewhere in this mixed medium of an augmented reality comic book is where we let the development of White Elephant roam free.

Continue to Book of Ella Ch 3: Comic Panel.



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