New Media have accustomed us to discovering forms of expression that are always different and in continuous evolution. Starting with e-mail - which has replaced almost all paper letters in favour of a faster and more immediate correspondence - to instant messaging on mobile phones and video calls that we can make from our computer. The communication modes have been continuously modified and adapted to all electronic devices.
Technological development has also brought important innovations in electronic literature and interactive Webcomics as we will see below. The very practice of reading and writing has changed. We learned to read hypertexts, to summarize poems in two sentences with hashtags (#) and to use multimedia pages. Often the written text is accompanied by a video or images. We read in a multilinear, multimodal and multimedia way. In short, with new media we have developed a reading ability that is defined by the term multiliteracy.
Multiliteracy includes all types of use of Internet content, differing from sequential reading of a written text on paper. The way we perceive a multimedia text has deep pedagogical and aesthetic implications. In fact, it is a fundamental concept for electronic literature as it is a starting point and also a finishing point. Observations on the functions of communication of electronic devices therefore form an important basis for the study of electronic literature.
There is a literary tradition that fits very well into this digital context. The combination of text, sounds and images that characterises electronic literature is the narrative technique of comics. Comics is certainly a literary genre that is little considered and underestimated in the literary field. Defined as “consumer literature”, “paraliterature” or even “trivial literature” (Trivialliteratur in German) comics have never found full recognition in the literary scene.
Instead, one can find many analogies between the works of electronic literature and comics: the rhythm of reading, the sequence of the cartoons, the spatial-temporal connections between the different cartoons, the images, the colours, the sounds and the movement. All these narrative elements work very well on a paper medium - and in the mind of the reader - and they fit equally well with New Media. The interactive webcomics are created from the multimedia combination and the multimodal combination.
Comics present many narrative expedients that bring to light all those technological functions that make pleasant - or less pleasant, as many lovers of (monomedial) print literature strive to adapt to multiliteracy - works of electronic literature. It is therefore useful to focus on the aspects that act as joining links between comics, electronic literature and interactive webcomics.
Consider the adjective ‘interactive’. First of all, it is necessary to distinguish between the two major types of comics in the web. A webcomic can be published as a comic panel as it appears in a comic book. The comic is then reproduced on a website in the traditional form of a paper comic. The interactive webcomic is, instead, a digital creation, or, to use a term in current use, digital born. The cartoons and the different ways of using them are drawn and programmed with specific software. This means that you have images that move with a mouse click, texts that appear and disappear, or different audio-visual effects that accompany the reading.
This initial distinction also applies to electronic literature in general. As with comics, a novel or a short story can also be published in Portable Document Format (PDF) and read on a computer screen or an ebook reader. But it is a mere transposition from paper to digital, without further changes in the reading of the work. The same can be said of texts published in a blog that follow the logic of a book or newspaper. The changes that can be made to the text are minimal (comments from readers, links to external pages, etc.).
The works defined as digital born, on the other hand, are intrinsically tied to the digital medium and, unlike PDF files, cannot be reproduced on paper without losing their essential functions of fruition. Put simply, a work must pass the “printer test”: if a comic or text published on the web is printable on paper it does not fall into the category of electronic literature.
In “Buying Time” (http://buyingtime.the-comic.org/) a “digital animated webcomic”, as the author defines it on his website, presents both the interactive mode of fruition and the writing mode of a static blog, in the part below the cartoon table.
The author provides his readers with numerous explanations and indications which, on the one hand, serve to describe the interactive webcomic and on the other hand, to facilitate the use of the tables. On a pink band at the top of the web page there are several sections: Home, Archive, About, Cast, FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), Media, Donate, Links, Fan Art and Subscribe.
In the FAQ section the author provides definitions of some terms and, at the bottom of the page, an interactive map of Hyperion City, where the plot is set. The characters of the cyberpunk novel are briefly presented in the Cast section while in About there are explanations regarding the work itself, the way it should be read and some information about the author Casey J.
With a click on the Home button, the last page of the last chapter of the webcomic opens. Under the frame of the opening sticker there are the navigation instructions on the previous or following pages. Even further down the author has created a space for “comments” open to readers. This is the part in which, as in a blog, the author interacts with his readers. Yet this interaction does not change the plot.
On the first page the author gives a brief explanation, written in the typical comic strips, of how the webcomic should be read and how the different indications should be interpreted. The author then moves on different levels of communication to address his readers: in addition to the narrative level of the novel “Buying Time”, we find some metaliterary texts, or texts in which the author speaks of his work and then, on a third level, the author addresses personally to his readers in the comments space as well as in other sections of the page (Media, Donate, Links, Fan Art, Subscirbe). Of the three communication levels chosen by the author, the metaliterary level is the most distinctive for interactive webcomics. The explanations of the work and the navigation instructions are the basis of the reader’s interaction. In a sense, the author makes a pact with the readers, or determines how the reader should move within the work
Metanarration is also another joining link that connects webcomics to electronic literature and also to print literature. In works of electronic literature, these explanatory texts are commonly included to facilitate navigation. In the tradition of print literature we find many books called “metanovels” that are distinguished by passages which deal with the writing of the book itself or reflections on, for example, the meaning of the novel.
According to the basic scheme of communication, conceived by the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, communication is achieved between a sender and an receiver through a medium (also called code), which can be the spoken language, a written text, images or any other means of communication. In addition, communication takes place at various levels and with different functions. Jakobson also provided a metalinguistic function that refers to the message and is exactly the level of communication in question.
There is a long literary tradition that has as an underlying theme, hidden among various metaphors, literature itself or writing. Among the many books that use this narrative expedient we can remember “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello, “The Game of the Goose” by Edoardo Sanguineti, which is very similar to “Hopscotch” by Julio Cortázar, “Mist” by Miguel de Unamuno, “Bohemian Lights” by Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, “The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende and the hyper-novels by Italo Calvino, who took his inspiration from the story “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luís Borges.
The reflection on literature, the word (see on this topic “The Writing of the God”, in Aleph by J. L. Borges), the narration and the writing is in fact a very ancient tradition that goes back to the times of the “Thousand and One Nights”, in which the story of Shahrazad is narrated, who had to invent every night a fairy tale to escape death. Some passages of the book fulfill the function of metaliterary texts which deal with her role as a narrator. This work was taken as a model by Álvaro Cunqueiro for his novel “When the old Sinbad returns to the Islands”, in which the journey, the landscape, the natural elements, but also the objects and the colors are metaphors and symbols of literature and writing.
In “The Neverending Story” Michael Ende imagines a child reading a science fiction novel who later becomes the protagonist in the very story he is reading; a ‘neverending’ story because the existence of the Kingdom of Fantasia (a metaphor for fantasy and literature) depends on his willingness to invent the continuation of the plot.
The two Spanish authors, on the other hand, include in their novels reflections on their own writing style. In “Mist” Unamuno explains his concept of ‘nivola’ and ends the novel with a direct encounter between the author and the protagonist of the novel, during which they talk about the relationship between author and fictitious characters. In “Bohemian Lights”, instead, Valle-Inclán offers the definition of “esperpento” on which obviously the novel itself is based.
This short overview should help us understand that some narrative expedients of print literature are similar to the reading and writing practice of works of electronic literature. All these authors combine different types of text in their novels - dialogues, monologues, drama, folklore, short stories, fantastic tales, symbolism, etc. - thus creating a broader narrative structure that includes narrative and metanarrative levels. They actually show how the book is build and take the reader by the hand and explicate the plot.
Italo Calvino moves on another level and in his hyper-novels he addresses his readers directly. At the beginning of the ten chapters of “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” the author addresses the Reader in second person, thus involving anyone reading his book. Calvino’s hyper-novel is made up of several novels that alternate continuously and in which the Readers - that is the actual name of the two protagonists, la Lettrice and il Lettore - sometimes take on the role of protagonists. In this case, metanarration serves to show and to highlight the very structure of a novel, or rather the hypertext. In this regard, Calvino illustrates in the presentation of the book a map of the different novels that make up the novel and their respective connection between them.
Here is a new joining link that allows us to find analogies between print and electronic literature (and thus interactive webcomics). The narrative structure that links the different texts, stories or novels is a hypertext, or a system of texts linked together. Similarly, digital born works are based on the hypertext language of the Internet and the metaliterary texts (the various explanations and indications mentioned above) are used to navigate from one text to another.
To end this digression on the narratology of print literature, we can recall the words of Calvino. In the Presentation of “The Castle of Crossed Destinies”, written in October 1973, Calvino reveals that after writing “The Castle of Crossed Destinies” and “The Tavern of Crossed Destinies” he wanted to write a third text using a “modern visual material” instead of the tarot. He then asks us a question: “What is the contemporary equivalent of tarot as a representation of the collective unconscious?” He suggested the use of “dramatic, adventurous, fearful comics (...): gangsters, terrified women, spaceships, vamps, air warfare, mad scientists.” He would have added to the other two texts, “The Motel of Crossed Destinies”, which would have had a similar narrative frame: “Some people who escaped a mysterious catastrophe” Calvino writes “find refuge in a semi-destroyed motel, where only a burned newspaper sheet remained: the page of comics. The survivors, who lost their word for fear, tell their stories by indicating the cartoons, but not following the order of each strip: moving from one strip to another in vertical columns or diagonally
Calvino’s intuition brings us back to our discourse on interactive digital comics. We can now try to identify some characteristics of comics that the author could have considered for his third novel. The following four works present different narrative strategies compared to the works seen so far and help us to better understand the relationship that the author establishes with the readers.
The first three works have been published by the publishing house Submarine Channel (https://submarinechannel.com/), a Media Lab founded in 2001 with offices in Amsterdam and Los Angeles, which produces documentaries, animations and interactive transmedia with the aim of experimenting with the new narrative techniques brought by the new media. The authors of the three interactive webcomics have chosen a different strategy than “Buying Time” to address readers.
In “The Art of Pho” (https://artofpho.submarinechannel.com/), by the British artist Julian Hanshaw, we do not find the informative texts for the fruition of the work. The entries for the sections About, Episodes, Making of, Trailer and Press are displayed on the start page. The About button leads to a window containing a brief explanation of the graphic novel and the presentation of the author, his collaborators and the publishing house Submarine Channel. Here we learn that the graphic novel is about Little Blue, a surreal creature who moves to the city of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) in Vietnam where he learns the art of Pho. We can also follow the link that leads us to the Submarine Channel page where, as in “Buying Time”, we can write comments. However, we are led to intuitively choose one of the eight paintings in the Episodes section. In fact, the engine of the narration of this webcomic is our curiosity, which leads us to discover what lies behind the eight cartoons, as we do after all in the other sections of the page. Everything is intuitive: the loading of each page is illustrated by a bowl that fills slowly with soup and we understand immediately that it is the Pho mentioned in the presentation in About.
We discover that the navigation from one cartoon to another is automatic and that we can stop the video by clicking on the stop icon or advance by clicking on one of the white dots that we see below the cartoon. Our navigation is guided by objects that are sometimes highlighted by a blue frame.
In the first cartoon of the first episode, for example, the arrow of the mouse turns into a key that we obviously approach the steering wheel to start the car and the sound of the engine in the background is a clear signal of what we have to do. The journey by car then begins as soon as we press the gas pedal highlighted in the following cartoon. In the first three cartoons of the third episode we see the objects highlighted with the blue color and we pass from one cartoon to another where different images of objects, rooms and objects inside them follow one another. The whole story of Little Blue is narrated in this way and we learn to be led by audio-visual effects and to follow the animations accompanied by music in the background.
The webcomic “The Killer” (http://killer.submarinechannel.com/) begins after a short introduction in which the publishing house Submarine Channel and the authors of the original comic “Le Tueur” (2001) Luc Jacamon and Alexis Nolent in Matz art, with background music, are presented. To find more information about the work and the authors we can click one of the three links always visible at the bottom of the page: About, More Motion Picture and Contact links all lead to respective pages of the Submarine Channel blog.
https://submarinechannel.com/motioncomics/the-killer/ https://submarinechannel.com/animation/ https://submarinechannel.com/contact/
In the opening cartoon ( http://killer.submarinechannel.com/navigate) you can recognize a desk seen from above and you are induced, as in the graphic novel before, to explore with the mouse the objects that are presented here. On closer inspection, the newspaper is entitled after an interview with the authors Jacamon and Matz in which they summarise the meaning of the work. As you can read, the comic goes beyond the violent events of a thriller. The work is “about a man coping with his own fears and loneliness, looking for a way to live in a world he resents.”
The authors also claim that interactive comics is “a new medium and a new way to tell a story; it’s not movies, it’s not comics, but a kind of in-between medium that includes interactivity.” (...) “As authors, they have less control over the pace of the story,” the article continues, “but at the same time we enjoy thinking the viewer will be able to play with the elements of the story” the authors conclude.
Next to the newspaper there is a business card on which we read the names of the creators of interactive comics. The diary in the middle of the desk opens with a click, presenting the twelve chapters of the work in the form of photographs. Again, you just have to hover your mouse over the photos and get involved in the story of the Killer.
The cartoons are animated images that follow each other like in a film and the readers interaction is indicated by the change of the cursor shape from an arrow to a hand. The interaction modes vary from clicking, dragging or holding the mouse button. In this work too, you are obliged to advance in the story by examining the elements of the story, as the authors suggest in the interview in the newspaper on the desk, with the mouse cursor.
At the end of each episode you can choose whether to return to the apartment, where you will find the desk, or to go to the following episode.
The third work published by Submarine Channel, called interactive tale, is more complex. The webcomic “Hotel” (http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/splash.html), created by Dutch digital artist Han Hoogerbrugge, is illustrated in a small window that appears with a click on one of the ten parts or chapters: Car Crash (part 1), The Plane (part 2) Choke (part 3) and Melt Down (part 4). Each chapter is introduced by an explanation of what is happening and on the left side of the window we find a list with the episode numbers of the selected chapter and the other chapters, as well as information about navigation (Help) and a caption, different in each chapter, of Dr. Goldin (Comic).
http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part1-episode1/index.jsp http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part1-episode2/index.jsp http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part2-episode1/index.jsp http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part2-episode2/index.jsp http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part3-episode1/index.jsp http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part3-episode2/index.jsp http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part4-episode1/index.jsp http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part4-episode2/index.jsp http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part5-episode1/index.jsp http://hotel.submarinechannel.com/ part5-episode2/index.jsp
Of all three works, “Hotel” is the most complex and intricate. The animated cartoons show very short episodes of the story about the experiments of Dr. Doglin, Dr. Goldin’s counterpart, in a hotel not better specified. With the hand cursor you can activate the characters of the story, which move in a repetitive, sporadic way and isolated from each other. In some cases you see dialogues, carried out by the cursor, which increase the sense of estrangement and perplexity in the much intricate plot as in chapter five (episode two) where Dr. Doglin teaches his patient to fly.
Let’s now see interactive comics that are characterized by the way they are used and that bring us back to the comment of the authors of “The Killer” on the freedom of interaction at the expense of the control of the plot.
The following works are read from top to bottom and have a very limited level of interaction. In the first work that we analyze, Matt Huynh’s “The Boat” (http://www.matthuynh.com/the-boat-1/), interactive texts and images alternate, brushstrokes and background music that tell the story, divided into six chapters, of Mai, a 16 year old girl who escapes from Saigon after the fall/liberation of the city in 1975. We can even opt for the Auto Scroll function that starts the webcomic as a movie.
The same technique, but without background music, can be found in another work by Matt Hyunh, “Magpie Magpie” (http://www.magpie-magpie.com/) and in the works published on the website Webtoons. Among the many webcomics we can mention some works in the Thriller/Chiller section such as“Bongcheon - Dong Ghost” (https://www.webtoons.com/en/thriller/chiller/bongcheon-dong-ghost-horang/viewer?title_no=536&episode_no=22) and “Knock Knock” (https://www.webtoons.com/en/thriller/chiller/knock-knock-horang/viewer?title_no=536&episode_no=21) by Horang or “Home Alone” (https://www.webtoons.com/en/thriller/chiller/home-alone-giryang/viewer?title_no=536&episode_no=18) by Giryang. The cartoons are mostly static and although we are told that we must activate the audio there are no sounds or acoustic effects. This creates a sense of suspense to increase the surprise effect of a few animated cartoons (forgive me for spoiling the only special effect of the two comics).
The latest example of this list of interactive webcomic presents an important innovation compared to all the works we have seen so far. The plot of “Prequel or Making a Cat Cry” (http://www.prequeladventure.com/) by artist Kazerad, in fact, is built on the basis of the comments of readers who can write comments in the space provided below the cartoons. There is a new element in the animated cartoons that are read from top to bottom. From time to time we see a cloud appear with a comment from a reader, selected by the author. Unlike other works, the blog for readers has a central function in the creation of the plot. In this way the author grants greater freedom to his readers and makes them participate in the creation of his work. It is not so much a collective work, because the author selects some suggestions from the blog and it is always he who draws the cartoons, but certainly his readers act as co-authors of the webcomic. The author’s different use of the comment section is a choice that changes the relationship with its readers in a decisive way and also modifies the paradigm of the role of readers, or adds one more function to the activities granted to readers. This innovation brings us back to the communication system scheme we saw at the beginning. The relationship between sender and receiver that is realized through the medium (language, book, etc.) changes when the medium is modified. The choice of web use, therefore, has profound implications in the narratology and in the way of reading webcomics. We should therefore shift our attention to the medium itself and bring to lightsome other important aspects that concern webcomics.
The web allows to create new techniques of narration thanks to the possibility to combine the different forms of expression (text, images, sound) in a sequence that can be modified at will by both the author and the reader, as we have seen in some cases. The authors of a multimedia work organize the different parts of the narration on the basis of the hypertext, the structure of the web, which results in the phenomenon of multiliteracy, or the simultaneous use of different media (text, image, sound) which we have approached step by step in our analysis.
Now we realize that the possibilities of combination are numerous, indeed, the American cartoonist and comic artist Scott McCloud speaks of infinite canvas (http://scottmccloud.com/4-inventions/canvas/index.html) referring to the writing space created by the hypertext. In his famous books on comics, “Understanding Comics” (1993) and “Reinventing Comics” (2000), McCloud compares the web space to a map that we look at through a window that, in this analogy, is the computer screen. Let’s imagine that we are looking at a city map with a magnifying glass - here, the lens we hold in our hands is the computer screen that we can move in different directions to follow, for example, the course of a river or a road.
The computer screen, therefore, is no longer a page of a book or, rather, a cartoon panel, but a window (a magnifying glass or a frame) that we move within the space of a web page. Web technology obliges us to change the way we create comics, but also the way we read them, our approach to comics, and further the way we distribute them and the way we protect copyright.
The adaptation of comics to the new medium opens a long discussion on the history, theory and aesthetics of comics in which we do not venture in this essay. We simply say that all these topics also concern electronic literature and that, following the logic of our analysis, they act as links between printed literature, electronic literature and webcomics.
Examples for the theory of the infinite canvas are given to us by McCloud himself: “Brad’s Somber Mood” (http://www.scottmccloud.com/1-webcomics/mi/mi-03/mi-03.html) and “Zot! Online: “Hearts and Minds” (http://scottmccloud.com/1-webcomics/zot/zot-01/zot-01.html). Other works presenting the same technique are “To be continued” (http://tobecontinuedcomic.com/about) (2014) by Lorenzo Ghetti, “First Word” (http://www.electricsheepcomix.com/delta/firstword/) by Patrick Farley, “The Wormworld Saga” ( https://www.wormworldsaga.com/about.php) (2010) by Daniel Lieske and “Hobo Lobo of Hamelin” (http://hobolobo.net/what-is-this-thing) (2011) by Stevan Živadinović.
To end our journey in the world of webcomics, we shift our attention to the third element of the communication system, namely the author. We have seen that interactive comics by virtue of new media bring about a change in the role of the reader and that the changes, both in the medium and in the fruition of a work, depend mainly on the decisions and computer skills of the cartoonist who tries to use the web.
The author chooses the degree of complexity of the work and the reader’s interaction. While technological innovation offers new possibilities, it also presents comic bookmakers with new challenges of an artistic, conceptual, practical and historical nature (with reference to the conventions of paper publishing).
It is interesting to remember at this point Scott McCloud’s observation, in “Reinventing Comics”, that the non-sequential structure of the hypertext follows a logic exactly opposite to the narration mode of comic strips, which is by definition “sequential art”. The American cartoonist solves this dilemma by giving the web the possibility to renew the world of comics and to start a new evolution of this artistic form.
Let’s now see the works of one of the best cartoonists who created interactive webcomics. Stuart Campbell in art Sutu is an Australian comic artist who has published several interactive comics on the web over the last ten years, such as “Nawlz” (https://www.nawlz.com/) set in a city (Nawlz is a contraction of ‘night’ and ‘urban sprawl’) in which comics, graffiti and digital art come together in an extraordinary sequence and rhythm.
Also in “The Ocean is Broken” (http://ocean.sutueatsflies.com/) he manages to exploit in an exemplary way the technology and to surprise the reader with interesting combinations of cartoons, text and sound. The comic panel continuously takes on new forms with a simple horizontal scrolling of the mouse and the cartoons move, on a layer superimposed on the background image, alternately from left to right and from top to bottom.
In the short story of “Jack & The Swordfish” (http://jack.sutueatsflies.com/) the cartoons are activated by clicking on the arrows below a small, central table. The table always assumes a new subdivision: a whole cartoon, two or three horizontal cartoons, sometimes static and sometimes animated. Unlike other works, the text is read by a voice. Finally, Sutu creates a special effect in “Memories” (http://memories.sutueatsflies.com/), a vertical scrolling webcomic that stands out for the simplicity of the opposite movement of images, which descend from the top of the screen, and texts, which instead go upwards, connected by a red rope, activated by the scrolling of the mouse.
From a purely narratological point of view we can say in conclusion that comics share many narrative techniques with works of electronic literature and some works of printed literature. Moreover, we have observed that comics are very well adapted to the multimedia, multimodal and multilinear context of the web, thanks to those narrative expedients that have always distinguished them.
These analogies highlight the nature and logic of electronic literature and help us to better understand the changing relationship between the three instances of the communication system, namely author, medium and reader, brought about by new media. On the other hand, however, looking back to the past, we find the same inventiveness, the same creative spirit and the desire to tell in authors of printed literary works and comics.
In every age of the long history of media, since the invention of printing, there have always been authors who have exploited the creative possibilities of the means of communication and found alternative solutions to overcome the limitations imposed by the medium itself. Hypertextual texts, for instance, existed long before the invention of the web. What we experience nowadays with the New Media is the realization of some of the literary expedients, or literary experiments that were conceived by authors of print literature. Electronic literature is, in a way, a development of the hypertextual, multilinear, multimodal and interactive way of reading that could not be fully carried out on paper, but that can be accomplished in the digital context.