“This looks bad”: Reading comics on tablets can compromise layout

In which I kinda disagree with Noel Murray, and whine about how Amazon and Marvel format their e-comics. 

Hawkeye #6

Hawkeye #6

At The AV Club, Noel Murray writes about opportunities provided by appreciating the layout of comics when they are removed from the page and to digital e-readers, such as mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. Murray’s experiment centers largely around only Issue #6 (the Christmas issue) of Hawkeye (December 2012 / February 2013), published by Marvel Comics, written by Matt Fraction, illustrated David Aja, colors by Matt Hollingsworth, letters by Chris Eliopoulos. Murray reads the comic on his iPhone to demonstrate how the dimensions of a smartphone screen enhance some parts of the comic, sticking to only a few panels of one page as they appear on his phone—that’s it, that’s the only visual example given. His iPhone has technology called Guided View, which as he reads intuitively crops portions of the original comic book page (which tends to be a little bit less than the usual 8.5 by 11-inch page—more like 7 by 10.5) to just a few panels at the time to take up the full space of his phone’s screen. 

Murray writes:

“I’d never contend that Guided View is superior to reading a print comic. There are aspects of the experience that are annoying, such as how different panel shapes and alignments leads to a lot of flipping the phone 90 degrees to get the best perspective. And a lot of the best comics art doesn’t really work in this format. I’ve already mentioned Adams; but it’s also impossible to do a two-page Jack Kirby splash justice on a phone (or a tablet, for that matter).

“But sometimes changing the frame for a piece of art can change the way we look at it. I’ve sat in film classes and seminars where the professors or moderators pushed students to pay attention to sound design by switching the soundtracks for two movies; or where they’ve cut the volume entirely to get us to notice the visual storytelling. Sometimes when I fast-forward to a favorite scene in a movie I’ve watched a bunch, I spot camera moves that had never really registered before, because I’d been too distracted by the dialogue or performances.”

I don’t write the following to disagree with Murray’s thesis: indeed, mobile devices, including smartphones, have provided contexts for reading sequential art to uncover new facets to their formal elements. However, I am bothered by how much praise Murray gives to the mobile device technology that I think is still lacking, especially with major publishers. I think Murray does very well at identifying the potential of e-reader technology for comics, but Murray also oversells such technology when major distributors like Amazon and Marvel have designed unintuitive platforms that get in the way of reading comics that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

I feel awkward criticizing Murray, as I feel like Murray when he gently admonishes Scott McCloud’s Re-Inventing Comics for overselling the same technology Murray ostensibly treats more realistically: it’s like a circle of one person criticizing someone else just to stage the significance of their own argument. But since Murray made some points that I think are flawed, here we are. 

(So I’ll just wait for McCloud to read what I wrote, then criticize my criticism of Murray’s criticism of McCloud—and thus the academic oroboros will continue to thrive.)

Murray’s article is limited in scope. His only visual example presented of the greatness of smartphone reading is limited to just the first two pages of Issue #6 of Hawkeye, which begins with the eponymous archer, alias Clint Barton, working with Tony Stark (sans the Iron Man armor suit) trying to defuse a situation. With the close up of angled lines and dotted circles looking like electrical circuits, Ada’s inspiration from 1960s and 1970s comics artwork for flat colors, rigid panels, and more abstract backgrounds, and the perspiring Barton struggling to pick which wire to cut, the scene hints that we are watching a bomb diffusion. 

First page of Hawkeye, Issue #6 (Screen capture, Kindle app, Fire HD)

First page of Hawkeye, Issue #6 (Screen capture, Kindle app, Fire HD)

Murray is spot-on with his analysis of Page 1, comparing how the original image appears to how it appears on his smartphone.

800

800 (1)

800 (2)

800 (3)

800 (4)

Noel Murray's smartphone screencaps of Hawkeye #6

Noel Murray’s smartphone screencaps of Hawkeye #6

As Murray explains, he is reading this comic on his iPhone, which comes with Guided View technology to intuitively know where to crop the page to put as many panels together to take up the optimum amount of space on his smartphone’s screen. As Murray shows, the removal of white space to crop the page to focus on a few panels at a time does increase the dramatic tension, focusing on the action of Barton’s fear and the final panel to cut the wire.

But look at how the next page is designed. 

Screencap of Page 2 of Hawkeye #6

Screencap of Page 2 of Hawkeye #6

It emphasizes that all Barton was cutting was a cable wire as he hooks up his home entertainment system in his apartment, the abstract lines and curves being only a decorated Christmas tree and the back-ports to various home entertainment systems. Whereas the first page depended on panels, those panels are disrupted by a right column featuring the path from a satellite dish (which will be revealed later to be atop Barton’s apartment building) leading inside to apartment’s home entertainment system.

My question to Murray is how can anyone crop this image for a smartphone without tearing the page into bits? I don’t have an iPhone to test this layout. So instead I read Hawkeye on my Fire HD tablet’s Kindle app, where its own version of Guided View tore the layout apart to crop out what an editor thought was less relevant information, obliterating the connections between the images. 

GIF of how Page 2 appears with the Kindle app's automatic cropping

GIF of how Page 2 appears with the Kindle app’s automatic cropping

And we have turned Aja, Hollingsworth, and Eliopoulos’s work into a jigsaw puzzle.

I hate to laugh that one of the panels that Murray uses to illustrate his point quotes Clint Barton as saying, “This looks bad.” 

Yeah. 

 A lot of the formatting on a tablet does look bad.

Sequential art is not only separate panels, as Murray emphasizes, and as he knows from obvious details aparent in his writing. Sequential art is also about how those panels connect to each other, whether connected by the white space between them or, as with the cables leading from the satellite dish to the home entertainment system, by lines.

Whereas Murray read his issue on his iPhone, I read mine on a Fire HD, using the Kindle App. Hawkeye is available for sale from both Amazon’s Kindle store and Amazon’s Comixology store—without honoring any cross-platform purchases so that I can have my purchase on more than one app (because why reward your customers?). Based how other Marvel titles appear on the Comixology app on my Fire HD, I expect the experience to be the same when it comes cropping: rather than give a Guided View like that of the iPhone, both Kindle and Comixology grey-out or black-out all surrounding panels, with minimal (in the case of Kindle) or admittedly well-done maximum (in the case of Comixology) zoom to have that panel take up as much of the screen as possible. 

And the results do not impress me with Page 1 of Hawkeye #1. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the zoom on each panel; honestly, the print is legible enough that the larger font size is appreciated but not necessary. 

GIF of how Page 3 appears in the Kindle app

GIF of how Page 3 appears in the Kindle app

The option looks worse on Page 3, at which point I get enlarged panels of the disembodied heads of Hawkeye, Spider-man, Wolverine, and AIM agents, followed by a shift in the height of the bottom row of panels so that the slither of blackness gets its own panel along with separate panels for the snowy blackness. The effect leaves a lot to be desired: rather than get to appreciate how square the panels are, lending a comic strip aesthetic to Hawkeye’s life, reducing his superheroics to the quotidian daily life of a Peanuts daily strip, I get awkward crops by someone at Amazon. This overzealous desire to remove white space compromises the original page without providing me with something significantly better. Even the cropping looks poor on the black panels, slivers of white poking through.

It’s about context. While the smartphone dimensions of Murray’s particular phone, at that particular angle, does crop out the white space to make the sequential panels take up more of his screen, putting him as a reader closer to the action, what is lost is that same white space that unites the pages across stylistically. Those pages include markers of time, whether dates written out or clocks shown. Looking at page after page (whether in print as for many readers, or on Fire HD screen after Fire HD screen for someone like me), I can track commonalities in the layout, such as where the white space shifts between pages, where the clock and the dates are located. As well, by reading the pages from left to right, what is gained is an appreciation for what the authors and artists reveal: by starting the upper left-hand corner with the date, I know the most important piece of information to front-load is that the time has changed. 

Page 19 of Hawkeye #6

Page 19 of Hawkeye #6

In other cases, in which the passage of one day to the next day occurs on one page, the time is shifted down and to the center of the page–with time passing on that same page.

Or maybe a page moves from one day.

Page 6 of Hawkeye #6

Page 6 of Hawkeye #6

To the previous day.

Page 7 of Hawkeye #6

Page 7 of Hawkeye #6

And the reader feels rewarded for paying attention to the change in time not only by date but by clues (on December 17th, the tree is opened, the wall has multiple holes in it exposing wires, and the boxes are unpacked; on December 16th, the tree is folded, the wall is in one piece, and the boxes are packed).

GIF from Page 6 to Page 7 and back again in Hawkeye #6

GIF from Page 6 to Page 7 and back again in Hawkeye #6

Cropping the page by individual panels loses that thrill of swiping from one page (or screen) to the next—then back again. In that regard, I think some e-books are adequate at maintaining that practice of flipping between the pages. The pages are parallels to each other, and the swipe allows for appreciation of maintaining that layout across pages to map similarities in scenes, their differences emphasizing what has changed in time between the two moments and requiring readers to do the work to fill in those blanks.

In his article, Murray also hastily mentions how comic illustrators may be designing panels with an eye for their distribution through e-readers.

I picked up a print copy of Mark Waid and Jen Vaughn’snew Archie series last week, and noticed that the majority of the panels are long and horizontal, which would make them easier to swipe through on a phone without having to keep turning the device. If that’s intentional, then it’s an indicator that the way that comics actually look could be changing, in the same ways that movies evolved due to advances like sound, color, Cinemascope, 3-D, and digital cinematography.

I can’t help but feel cynical at this idea of illustrators and publishers drawing with mobile devices in mind. With the standard size of a mobile device—a smartphone or tablet tending to have a screen whose dimensions are more or less comparable to an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper, capable of being turned for portrait or landscape size—that constraint is bothersome. In print, a comic spread can extend beyond the traditional two-page splash, such as with a fold-out page. The options left to the people transferring print comics to electronic versions is to try to fit two or more pages worth of a continuous image to the confines of a screen made really for at most two pages, or to crop the page and hence divided two or more pages of content into individual pages. 

Worse, some publisher block specific comics from having zoom options, so even a two- to three-page spread is now seen but cannot be enlarged to read the speech balloons. 

The gutter is left out of this stitched image in portrait view of Soul Eater Volume 25 on a Fire HD KIndle app.

The gutter is left out of this stitched image in portrait view of Soul Eater Volume 25 on a Fire HD KIndle app.

And just as badly, when the publisher does provide a zoom option, the two or more pages united are poorly stitched together. Look at this example from Yen Press’s Soul Eater via the Kindle app on Fire HD, in which the two-page spread does not match up because someone did not include what was printed in the pages’ gutter. 

Really, the best workaround I’ve found for these problems with comics has been to read them on a desktop—but the effort is frustrating. Amazon blocks the download of many of its comics to its Kindle desktop app, so I’m sitting on multiple volumes and issues of Marvel and Yen comics that I can read only on a much smaller tablet screen. The laborious workaround is to screen cap each page and transfer it to my desktop (ignoring any potential copyright problems incurred by that method) just to have a legible text. It was this method I used to then put the images through Adobe PhotoShop to generate the GIFs. But this practice of having to expend time making individual screen caps, to copy to my desktop, to then format in a readable fashion, is especially frustrated for those readers with visual impairments. 

The problem could just be that Kindle’s approach to comics is utter crap.

Hey, Marvel and Amazon! Fix your table of contents!

Hey, Marvel and Amazon! Fix your table of contents!

Who designs a table of contents to mark the single pages rather than divide the story by issues (as in the case of United States comics) or chapters (as in the case of Japanese comics)?!

Overall, Murray’s argument bothers me: the idea of dividing each panel to one portion of a screen removes context. Context is the key to interpretation: without having the panel before and the panel after, an image by itself is not demonstrating the action of comics but is an isolated moment. Sequential art thrives on connections between the images: that form is about numerous moments given context with each other to reveal something (for McCloud as he describes it in Making Comics, this revelation tends to take one or more forms to establish location, duration of time, and focus). 

A smartphone screen is too small to reveal all panels simultaneously; the eye, focused on just one panel at a time, loses the playfulness possible with some art. Read McCloud’s webcomics and look at how he strings individual panels together so that the enjoyment of reading is not only panel-by-panel but by looking at multiple panels simultaneously, scrolling along the screen as necessary but with a thrill of continuity maintained. This stringing approach has been with comics since the late nineteenth century and continues in many forms, including that of what Aja and company accomplish in Hawkeye. 

Hawkeye #6

Hawkeye #6

The problem is that I see other pages that, I imagine with iPhone’s Guided View, give that claustrophobic sense in moments that are supposed to show just how open, rather than claustrophobic, is the space. I don’t have an iPhone to try this example, but I do see the entire page looks more impressive when I can see the entire page in full on a tablet (or, as I’ll explain later, using a workaround to see it on my desktop or TV monitor). To remove that white space, or to zoom the image too closely, compromises the previous interpretation of that image. While Murray is correct that such changes in technology lend new dimensions, not all of those dimensions benefit more obvious interpretations and moods of the text.

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