Timeframing: The Art of Comics on Screens

Timeframing and Agency in Digital Comics

One thing many of these rule-based digital comics have in common is that they are state machines. By interacting with them, the user causes them to transition from state to state, and in each state certain possibilities are active. This is nothing new for computational media, but it took time to understand its implications for comics. A key step was French comic artist Yves Bigerel’s 2009 work About Digital Comics, which explicitly tackles the potential of medium. Bigerel, under the pen name Balak, draws a character who bemoans contemporary digital comics’ reliance on “fancy gimmicks coming from the temporal world to ruin the experience,” and posits that the real innovation lies in simple changes in state. He notes that anything in a digital comic can change from one state to the next, and those changes go beyond what’s possible in print to create a medium that fuses spatial and temporal montage, while simultaneously enabling the author to be “precise to the word” — a familiar affordance to aficionados of electronic literature.

I would suggest that Balak’s frustration with the clumsiness of early digital comics arises from the fact that creators were still learning how to do timeframing — how to deploy bounded time. Many of these works would promise interactivity, but then yank it away in order to play a pre-rendered animation. As Goodbrey puts it, 

“…the reader’s control of pacing in a comic relies on ‘negotiating the control of their own reading time alongside the fictional time depicted in the narrative’…. However, digital comics which include animations of fixed duration can disrupt ‘the normal rhythm of this relationship by adding what in videogame terms can be described as "cut-scenes;" moments of animation or animated transitions where control is taken away from the reader’. This can result in an unsatisfying reading experience in which the reader’s sense of ‘agency’ within the rhythm of their reading is eroded.”

—The Impact of Digital Mediation and Hybridisation on the Form of Comics, by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey

Unlike in games, where the alternation between gameplay and cutscenes can provide a break from continuous frenetic activity, in an experience inspired by print comics, where reader control of pacing is essential, inconsistent control leads quickly to frustration. In About Digital Comics, Balak simplifies the problem of temporality to a degree where the source of this frustration can be seen more clearly. And as a result, his work caught the attention of editor Joe Quesada at Marvel, who hired him to contribute to their digital imprint Infinite Comics, and also directly inspired Mark Waid’s Thrillbent comics, which function in a similar way.

From a timeframing perspective, Balak’s edict of “no temporal gimmicks” can now be seen as something of an extreme position. Consistency in temporal logic need not exile literal time from the field, as was clearly demonstrated years later, when Snapchat created and Instagram widely popularized the video-driven “story” format which dominates social media today. A collective realization that the problem with many early digital comics was not temporality itself, but agency, allowed artists to continue to explore the practice of timeframing in more complex ways, while remaining sensitive to the readerly characteristics of comics. I put this realization to work in designing Panoply, the digital comics tool used to create Upgrade Soul, actively discouraging the use of one-shot animations in the tool’s architecture in favor of real-time rendered, gesture-driven transitions which the user can always navigate both forwards and backwards, at will.

Upgrade Soul provided opportunities to explore temporality on multiple levels — one of which came in the use of audio. Several scenes of the comic feature electronic beeps which signify medical crisis. Since these beeps occur across multiple panels at once, I animated and scored them create cross-panel rhythms that evolve as the story advances, resulting in an additional channel through which musical suspense could be delivered.

Florence, a 2018 release from the Melbourne-based Mountains game studio, designed by Ken Wong is a master class in interactive timeframing for narrative purposes, and is almost certainly the most commercially successful digital comic ever made. Ironically, marketing for the game never refers to it as a comic, even though it exemplifies all of Goodbrey’s seven characteristics of the medium. The tale of a young woman’s coming of age, the story proceeds at the user’s pace and frequently juxtaposes multiple complementary temporalities that work together effortlessly.

Modern digital media is a constant collage of temporalities, the deliberate orchestration of which is a discipline which deserves recognition and research. Understanding of this discipline, rudimentary though it may be at this stage, has already been key to the ongoing maturation of digital comics as a medium, and essential to rebutting some of the more reactionary postures that rejected temporality as fundamentally incompatible with sequential art. With further exploration from both makers and researchers, timeframing has the potential to evolve into an even more compelling vehicle for artistic expression.

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