Mediality and Materiality of Contemporary Comics
Workshop by the German Society of Media Studies / ‹AG Comicforschung›, 24‒26 April 2015, University Tübingen
The workshop «Mediality and Materiality of Contemporary Comics» was the second meeting of the German Society of Media Studies' section ‹Comicforschung› [Comics Studies]. Continuing from the previous workshop titled «Comicforschung trifft Medienwissenschaft» [Comics Studies Meet Media Studies] that took place in Bochum in 2014, this year's hosts Jan-Noël Thon and Lukas R.A. Wilde brought together members from the group and international experts in the field of comics studies at the Graduate Academy of the University of Tübingen, Germany.
While the «materiality» of media, meaning the specific physical arrangement or constitution of media products, has been a topic of humanities in the German speaking countries since the 1980s, it has become more prevalent in recent years. Although the issue hasn't been overlooked by comics scholars, only very little research on the actual ‹material› of comics has been published thus far. Hence, the workshop met a desideratum. Intricately linked to the notion of «materiality» is that of «mediality», which, arguably, spans a medium's characteristics, specifics of its uses and practices, as well as its social and economic contexts and environments. Since the ongoing digitalization can be seen as the major reason for the renewal of scholarly interest in materiality, the hosts’ decision to focus on the materiality and mediality of printed as well as digital comics proved to be sagacious.
The three-day workshop comprised of five keynotes, each followed by two shorter papers.
Daniel Stein (Siegen), the first keynote presenter, dedicated his talk to «Serial Authorship and Comics in the Digital Age». Drawing from previous research on serial authorship of superhero comics and with references to Christoph Lindner and Andreas Huyssen, Stein convincingly argued that digitalization has amplified centripetal forces of popular seriality that favor conservation and preservation over invention and modernization among readers and authors alike, identifying the cultural background of this tendency in a drive towards the musealization of (pop-)cultural artifacts that has become more and more relevant in the last few decades. To exemplify this, Stein discussed the material presentation of books such as The Marvel Vault. A Museum-in-a-Book with Rare Collectibles from the World of Marvel and their role in corporate driven fan culture aiming at the fetishization of ephemeral artifacts.
Sándor Trippó (Debrecen) takes mediality, understood here as the integration of representations of one medium in another, and media convergence to be central to the way in which comics ‹do› history. To illustrate this, Trippó explored the multimodal representation of historical events and places in Susanne Buddenberg's and Thomas Henseler's Berlin. A City Divided (2012), in which (representations of) photographic pictures are juxtaposed with drawn images.
In his paper, Jakob Kibala (Hamburg) asked by which means and through which channels knowledge specific to the superhero genre and its individual publications is codified and relayed. Citing DC's Infinite Crisis (2005–2006) and 52 as well as examples from Batman comics, Kibala showed how motifs such as the ripped pearl necklace of Bruce Wayne's mother (signifying Batman's origin story) become visually encoded knowledge that authors, artists, and readers draw from. Through discursive practices mutually carried out by producers and consumers in magazines and social media, such information is canonized and distributed, contributing to what Kibala termed an «infrastructure of iconographic knowledge».
Karin Kukonnen (Turku) delivered the second keynote of the first day. In it she developed her embodied cognition approach to the analysis of comics. Taking into account recent findings in the cognitive sciences, such as predictive processing, Kukkonen argued that reading and interpreting graphic narratives is determined by the prediction of probable actions and embodied cognition. Using these ideas as a heuristic tool, Kukkonen analyzed Warren Ellis’ and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan (1997–2002) with regards to the way in which the story world is structured. Its protagonist Spider Jerusalem turns from a self-determined character, capable of negotiating the world he lives in with ease, to an incapacitated subject to this world, directed by others. In this opposition of the built world as oppressing and constraining at one end, amenable and compliant at the other, Kukkonen saw two poles of a spectrum in which narrative worlds can be organized.
Hans-Joachim Backe (Copenhagen) explored Brian K. Vaughan's Saga (2012, ongoing), in which he identified a vast number of metaleptic devices operating on the material level of the comic. While almost indiscernible at first, some of the metalepses prove to be consequential for the interpretation of the comic as a whole. Ruptures in the narration force the reader to rethink and at times revisit earlier readings. At the same time, the reader's attention is directed towards narrative devices specific to comics, thereby encouraging reflection on these very devices and the comic as a medium with its very own mediality.
In an extensive case study, Markus Oppolzer (Salzburg) demonstrated the transformations undergone by David Hine's Strange Embrace, their circumstances and causes. Originally published in 1993 as a series of black and white comic books, this work has since been re-published in varying printed formats and digital editions, rearranged, refurbished and coloured, ever depending on the audience to which each edition is to be marketed. Highlighting the effects of media-to-media transformations on one concrete publication, Oppolzer underlined the immense relevance of philological scrutiny.
Ian Hague (founder of the Comics Forum, UK) opened the second day with his keynote on «Circles, Squares and Dirty Windows», extending his previous work on the sensual dimensions of comic books (in Comics and the Senses, 2013) to the digital realm by offering a «Toolkit for Thinking About the Materiality of Digital Comics». Critical of the tacit assumption that each comic should be studied as if read under ‹ideal› circumstances, Hague presented materiality as one of several remedial and complementary approaches. He began his discussion with current complaints about a loss of material pleasure through the move to digital, which he will not join: We do not, as he pointed out, lament the loss of the scroll and its sensuality and materiality. And yet the construction of such loss, along with the greater aggressiveness of the emitted light of digital screens as opposed to the reflected light of the page, and the media convergence onto generic platforms, give three compelling reasons to study the materiality of digital comics. Hague proposed three of many possible venues for such study: Considering «dirty windows», as the scale of transparent screens to opaque encounters; considering «squares» vs. «circles», as pixelation induces a fundamental, albeit not straightforward, switch from analogue to digital shapes, reflected not least in differing distribution systems; and finally, the gradual descent from text to reader as mediated through file type, software, firmware, and hardware, opening up digital comics for vertical studies of their interrelations as well as horizontal studies that focus on comparisons.
Continuing the previously raised pursuit of meta-structures in narrative, Christian Bachmann (Bochum) considered «The Material of Metamediality». Taking his departure from the self-referentiality of the written speech on the yellow shirt and body of the Yellow Kid, Bachmann focused on a concept of meta-comics as previously underdeveloped in comics studies: Bachmann pointed out, for instance, that Thierry Groensteen’s inclusion of material as one of the constitutive elements of comic books ultimately refers back to formal analysis. In readings of John Byrne, Scott McCloud, and Brian Fries, he pointed out how a comic book will not typically insist on being a carrier medium of a specific type, but will construct both the conventional form and the possibility of its deviation in the course of each meta-structured narrative; only those few that emphasize such constructions would then invite what Barthes might call a «materialist semiotic analysis». The ensuing discussion asked in part whether meta-structures in comics narratives interrupted immersion, as would be an expectation for several narrative forms of high modernity; and yet comics often seem to take the self-distancing of metaization in stride.
Referring to a similar problematization of formal exceptionalism, Lukas Etter (Bern) questioned conceptions of author- and auteurship as «Materiality and Style in Alternative Comics». While North American mainstream comics often define alternative comics as highly differentiated forms of greater esteem and tending towards single-author / artists, Etter suggested studying the how rather than merely what is done, refiguring authorship once more as a question of stylistics. Moving through various aspects of such style, from typography through mise-en-page to colour schemes and beyond, he showed how the distinction of what and how may turn into a cascade, ever repeating the how? question in the face of answers that have already turned into new whats. In distinction to cinema’s auteur theory, Etter showcased the many resurrections of Kirby and their parallel to the growing tendency towards autobiography turning into autographs in research that has begun omitting the described ‹bios›. Ultimately, rather than identifying each style with one artist, the perspective of the unique original of each work deserves greater attention.
An artist as well as a scholar, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey (Hertfordshire) discussed some of his own creations and the reflections that went into his work, in the fourth keynote. Combining comics and videogames, Goodbrey suggested starting from Jesper Juul’s catalogue of dimensions for games, and re-focussing them for comic books. Discussing both cases of games that are comics, and comics that are games, Goodbrey directed special attention to the reader’s control of pacing so typical of comics. Tracing its consistence or transformations offers one fruitful perspective for analyzing and describing comic book structures turned to games. A second point of attraction concerns the different use of space in the two ultimately distinct mechanisms of games and comics, as the latter depict time through space, while the former are organized around unlocking spaces through player agencies. Relating to Groensteen’s two types of temporality – the concrete time of motion and sound versus the infinite time of narration –, Goodbrey showed how his work tried to solve the problems of synchronizing sound and action by adapting soundtracks to be responsive to reading. The talk fascinated by demonstrating the specific creativity going into each decision, such as facing the challenge that audio poses to the self-determination of pacing by the reader through the introduction of specific synch points.
Gabriel S. Moses (Berlin) proposed «Redefining Social Media as a Game-Comics Hybrid». Freely admitting to an «alarmist» intention, Moses warned against hidden authorial intentions behind algorithmically edited digital streams, especially Facebook’s timeline narrative; and proposed re-purposing Scott McCloud’s classification of panel transitions to examine relations between elements on multimodal webpages. Paying special attention to the final category of «non-sequitur» transitions, which suggest no specific coherence between their elements and topics, and the problematic unreliability of several digital interfaces in terms of such reading measures, the proposed criticism provoked various engaged and controversial responses from other participants, revisiting the interpretation of McCloud’s concepts as well as debating the advantages and limits of recasting comics as part of a «meta-art», i.e. sequential art.
In his overview of «Digital Disruptions of Medium-Specific Narrative Techniques Available to Comics», Oskari Rantala (Jyväskylä) returned once more to Groensteen’s perspective on sequences and networks in comic panel juxtapositions, such as the famous grid in Watchmen, and the narrative tricks of this media-specific trade. In a critical evaluation of the «Guided View» from the successful digital comics platform Comixology, Rantala discussed both the reduction of the ‹over-determination› of panels through iconic solidarity on the page that Groensteen placed at the centre of comics’ claim to aesthetic structure, and the new and different effects evoked by Marvel’s «Infinite Comics» series that are specifically designed to exploit Guided View, rather than merely allowing for it as a reductive reading of static comic pages atomized by the separation into individual smaller screen contents. What previously seemed to be elements of a ‹general› theory of comic books, thus Rantala’s conclusion, now appears as a much more specific theory of printed comics.
The third day began with Véronique Sina’s (Bochum) fifth and final keynote on «Comics and Film in the Digital Age». Presenting results from her recently finished PhD project, Sina defined Comicfilme – not easily reduced to comic book movies – as a special category of cinema, in which remediations sensu Bolter and Grusin rule interactions of comics and film in the digital age, such that the formal characteristics of the original comics adapted in these movies remain present in their cinematography. Discussing distinct but complementary strategies of immediacy and hypermediacy, Sina explored the double logic of remediation through Sin City’s re-adaptation of film noir conventions turned into comic book aesthetics in Frank Miller’s oeuvre and re-appropriated in an extremely close re-creation of panels, Immortel (ad vitam)’s digital composite images creating not a more common transparency of film in service of immediacy, but dissolving such immediacy towards a more artful immediacy again; to both Kick-Ass movies, which advertise immediacy as an intended redefinition of comic books. In the ensuing discussion, Sina also discussed how to reconnect these ideas about remediation and resignification to concepts and interests of gender studies.
Sebastian Bartosch (Hamburg) proposed «Understanding Comics’ Mediality as an Actor-Newtork», focussing on «Some Elements of Translation in the Works of Brian Fies and Dylan Horrocks». Departing from McCloud’s severance of content and container, as well as the fluidity of content in the age of convergence culture as described by Henry Jenkins, Bartosch suggested that ANT’s concepts of translation allowed for a privileged perspective on several self-referential comics: While Fies’ Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow reflects historical changes of materiality both by depiction and by recreation, Dylan Horrocks’ webcomic and printed editions of Sam Zabel and The Magic Pen examine their topicalized materiality in quite different, simultaneously available ways in each format.
Finally, theatre adaptations of comics and cartoons took centre stage in Mathias Bremgartner’s (Bern) discussion of being «In the Intermedial Zone: Comic Page Meets Theatre Stage». The myth of the impossibility of formally deep adaptations of comics to stage going beyond plot and characters to cartoon aesthetics, panel call-backs, and theatrical co-presence of actors and audience reflectively transforming the reader control of reading pace into a plurality of shapes allowed by theatre as a pluri- or hypermedium. Through an analysis of a rich selection of stagings and methods, Bremgartner showcased how the materiality of the translated media may well persist on the stage.
Vastly expanding the scope of the section’s previous work, the second workshop at Tübingen managed to combine a plethora of methodological and topical perspectives. Engaging a varied disciplinary audience in controversial as well as exploratory, but always clear and lucid, discussions and debates, the inspiring combination of view-points exploited the breadth of the chosen topic and yet succeeded in creating several continued themes allowing presenters and audience to build on each analysis for their further considerations and no doubt their ongoing work beyond this weekend. The section will continue with a panel on utopian comic books at the annual GfM conference in Bayreuth later this year, and a co-operative symposium with the subsection «Animation» in late 2016, which will focus on aesthetics of artificiality and production in both art forms. A third workshop to be held in 2017 is in early planning stages.