Timeframing: The Art of Comics on Screens

Undermining Comics with Time

In the shift from print to digital comics, each of Goodbrey’s seven characteristics undergoes changes which are emblematic of the differences between the mediums. No single change, however, has a greater impact than the way in which the digital medium reintroduces literal time to a form which emerged as an adaptation to its absence. Comics represent time figuratively because they cannot represent it literally, but in the digital medium, we get literal time back, which leads to the question posed by Scott McCloud in his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, “if partial sound and motion can help create an immersive experience, won’t full sound and motion do the job more effectively?” In other words, doesn’t the existence of literal time in the digital medium make irrelevant the space/time “cheats” of comics? Shouldn’t digital comics just become movies?

It’s a question that becomes especially pointed in the context of films which attempt to adopt some of the formal characteristics of print comics, like Ang Lee’s Hulk, and in comics to which cinematic animation has been applied, like Warner Bros’ Watchmen: The Motion Comic. The experiential results of experiments like these, which are sometimes more confounding than satisfying, may lead some to question why such hybrids are being attempted in the first place.

Let’s take a moment to look at Watchmen: The Motion Comic in the context of Goodbrey’s seven characteristics of comics. First, space as time. Watchmen completely does away with this aspect of comics; panels are turned into temporal animations which unfold in real time. Next, juxtaposition of images. Again, this aspect of comics is eliminated; all visuals appear full frame. Closure between images. Where you have no juxtaposition, there can be no closure in the sense that print comics provide it—instead we perceive filmic closure of montage. Spatial networks. These are present to some degree, in that any image implies some kind of spatial network, but they lack the complexity and time-independence of the multi-panel layouts found in many comics. Reader control of pacing. Also gone, the viewer has little control beyond pausing the playback. Tablodic images. This quality is still very much intact here; considered theatrical compositions based on the original artwork of Dave Gibbons are present throughout the work. Word/image blending is also intact, given that the dialogue balloons of the print version are retained.

So, of Goodbrey’s seven key characteristics, Watchmen keeps at most two and a half. This is typical with most U.S. works marketed as “motion comics,” which might have something to do with the negative response we saw earlier, one that’s not unusual to see from fans of print comics.

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