In 2007, I gave a presentation at The Aesthetics of Trash: Reassessing Animation and the Comic at MMU about the internet and comics.
was less concerned with 'webcomics', which are essentially the
reproduction of print comics or panels on the web, but with the idea of
comics populating the web, using the unique qualities of both forms to
create new stories and engage the reader in new ways. I was interested
in the use of comics graphical style and character design as a way to
link a number of media together to create an expanded 'universe'
through using a mix of blogs, flickr sets, websites, tweets, video and
print to tell their stories, develop characters and create worlds.
In Understanding Comics,
Scott McCloud uses the term 'closure' to describe the way a reader is
guided from panel to panel on a comics page, hopping the gaps or
gutters between images
. Like a film editor or writer, McCloud suggests that the spaces
between the panels are as important as the panels themselves, the
spaces being where we as readers take the conceptual leap from one
moment to the next, fill in gaps and reach a better understanding of
the story and characters we are encountering.
I decided to look at McCloud's six types of closure and to expand
on them to attempt to create a possible framework for telling stories
site to site
happens when we go from site to site as we surf the net? How do
elements like design, layout, tone of voice, usability etc. change the
our reading of the page? If a character discovers a shady corporation
online, how do their sites tell us who they are or suggest their
motives? The character we follow may have a myspace page, whereas the
shady corporation will likely have a professionally constructed site,
with controlled levels of access, and a less than shady public face.
Which site are we more likely to trust, which appears most authentic?
can break this down further into the types of sites characters may use;
a blogspot blog, facebook profile, a flickr set, an online store, a
corporately run CMS site. The character in my story may be a web
designer, so may create a fully featured site with fancy Flash elements
and navigation. Or she may be a blogger, using standard off the peg
tools as part of her site.
Sites can add a layer of reality to
the story; that is, characters will use or make the sites they would in
real life. As in the example above, if a character has a site which
appears out of context, it has the potential to make the story less
This is problematic in some ways – what if we are
dealing with a historical character or character who wouldn't use or
have access to the internet? I'm not assuming or suggesting that all
sites made and stories told should be first person, but site design (as
comic design) can be used set a mood, suggest a feeling or a space.
device to device
As more of our data is stored
on and moved through the cloud and made to be accessible across a range
of devices, layouts change and the reader is able to configure their
experience. RSS feeds enable the reader to receive and organise their
experience the way they want and even to reconfigure and re-present the
content through tumblr sites, pageflakes etc.
How do we move a
story through a number of devices, eg, from print comic to website to
mobile phone to games console, and how can we make use of the different
qualities of each? The linear reading experience and tactile quality of
the printed comic is different to the clickable interface of the
webpage, with numerous links inviting us to jump to the next page, and
is different again to the movement sensitive interfaces of new mobile
phones and games consoles.
time to time
stumble upon or discover stories online, we are more likely to land
somewhere in the middle, rather than right at the beginning. Unlike a
novel or a film though, there is a traceable history we can follow,
through links, tags, datestamps etc. From that point, we are more likely to
skip through individual links or tags rather than find the point of
origin and read forward chronologically. As we read through expanded
narratives we jump time frames, piecing together the stories and
chronology from fragments.
Another aspect of time – time is
the gaps between our encountering of one story fragment and another.
For example, we might receive an email alerting us to a piece of story
through a link. Because the email is stored in our account, we might
decide to follow the link later in the day. In that gap, the story
keeps moving, with new elements being added, linked together and
tagged. We might be distracted by other things, preventing us from
returning to the story for some time, or we might choose to set time
aside to read it at a particular time. We are not immersed in the story
in the same way we might be with a book or DVD, but we are continuously
aware of it taking place, in real time, and we are in control of our
engagement with it.
media to media
way we read online is not restricted to text and images. We may
encounter parts of a story through video, interactive flash interfaces,
audio files, annotated slideshows, or virtual worlds.
meet the characters from a story in a virtual world, see some grainy
footage of a key moment of the story posted on YouTube, add them as a
neighbour in Farmville. The different kinds of media enable a new set
of ways to engage with the story. The chat room or virtual world
enables direct communication in a live environment, the potential for
improvisation and collaboration, games potentially allow the reader to
embody the character to solve a puzzle or undertake a journey,
annotation in Flickr allows readers to add notes, links and hints to
other readers. Each opens up the possibility for new kinds of
engagement, moving between synchronous and asynchronous, one-to-one,
one-to-many and many-to-many.
author to author
a character blogs, adds videos to YouTube or photos to flickr, we are
able to comment directly on the story and interact with them. Fans may
take a character they like and write new stories for them, place them
in real world events or create a mashup with other stories and
characters. There is potential that the story becomes opened up to new
authors, as the readers rewrite the characters or stories themselves.
In an environment where any content is accessible and searchable, what
do we consider canon? More importantly, how can an author manage the
interaction of fans?
For example, if the character in my story has a blog, and someone adds a comment like "Hey
Bob! Just found your blog! It's Wendy, we went to school together!
Remember that time we found that tramps body out by the old factory?",
how do I as an author deal with that? Does Bob remember that? Does
Wendy become a character in the story, even if just for that single
It was recently revealed that the twitter
profiles created for the key characters from C4's Peep Show were not
actually an official part of the series, but were created by a fan, Tom
C4 and the writers of the show didn't block the tweets or even allude
to the fact that they weren't official. The tweets ran from the end of
series 5 up to and through series 6, often updating during broadcast
and providing commentary to the show in character(s). The tweets gave
another dimension to the characters and fleshed out the relationships
between them while maintaining the inner dialogue quality of the
original. This example of interaction demonstrates the potential for
fan material to enhance and add to the Peep Show universe, but what
would happen if the fan decided to kill one of the key characters off,
or to introduce new characters and situations?
in expanded narratives all the time. TV shows and films increasingly
offer us the possibility of interaction, through accompanying websites
and character profiles on social networks (The recent horror film Grace
had characters on twitter and facebook, as well as a fake site for the
midwifery clinic in the film). Others develop the idea further through
Alternate Reality Games. The TV series LOST built a conspiracy game
around the series, populated through websites, flashmobs and real life
interventions. The way we follow real world stories works in similar
ways. For example, our understanding of the Football Premiership is
developed through TV, attending games, following (and contributing to)
the gossip about the clubs and players in newspapers and online forums,
radio phone-ins, or nattering in the pub. Expanding 'closure' is an
attempt to understand the gaps we cross as we read, write and inhabit
Note: To accompany my original talk, I created
some mashup images of Love and Rockets Comics as webpages, posted in
the Transliteracy Notes Forum.