A comic on a screen is a curious and confounding thing, and it's taken a lot of experimentation, thought, and plain old trial and error to see past the screen's first tantalizing promises to bring sequential art to life. Today we're developing a more mature understanding of what comics and screens can do together, and in this presentation I hope to shed some light on where we are, how we got here, and where we might be going.
In the last chapter of his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud speculates about the future of comics on screens. He begins by recalling the definition of the medium he himself penned in his landmark work Understanding Comics: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence”. This definition was designed to be applied not only to the newsprint books we might pick up in a comic shop, but also to a wider range of forms spanning human history, through which comics have mutated. In Reinventing Comics, McCloud seeks to strip that definition down even further, with the goal of allowing the “essence” of comics as much freedom as possible to continue to mutate in the world of digital screens. This approach leads McCloud to a new definition of comics as “an artist’s map of time itself.” Fundamentally, McCloud tells us, comics are all about converting space into time.
And they have done so historically, of course, out of necessity—the necessity of representing time in “timeless” media, whether they be print, painting, or carvings on walls. With the advent of the moving image, however, we suddenly gained the ability to tell visual stories in serial, rather than spatial, fashion. Now, images could replace each other on the surface of a screen, instead of just sitting beside each other.
So if comics for McCloud is all about drawing maps that convert space into time, what happens to those maps on a screen which already has time “built in”? How do you do comics on a screen? Many approaches have been tried.