An early warning, I’m going to be talking about Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman #5 in this article and I will be spoiling some of what it does. If you want to go into the comic knowing nothing about it I’d suggest you stop reading now since it’s worth being surprised.
Most of the discussion about the burgeoning distribution of comics in a digital medium has been related to the economics of the ordeal. How will it affect brick and mortar storeowners, what should they be priced, how many copies will they sell? When the talk hasn’t been about monetary concerns it has largely revolved around readers’ personal preferences and whether or not they like to have an actual physical copy of the comic they’re reading. What’s confused me is why so few are talking about what the switch to digital means for the actual storytelling implications that the new model presents.
One of the unique aspects of comics is that they are a medium that is essentially static and timeless and yet nonetheless finds ways to guide readers into creating a rhythm and sense of duration. There are many tools comics use to accomplish this task, the most basic of which is the simple fact that comics are primarily composed of images in sequence that, when put together, tell a story. The reader sees the snippets of the larger tale being told and then fills in the blanks with their imagination. What’s difficult about the switch to digital is that devices like an iPad or a smartphone are unable to display an image that can show as much visual information as a printed page of comics. They’re forced to either present a full-page image without the resolution needed to properly read the page or break the image down into its component parts and sacrifice the larger view.
For most standard comics this isn’t a huge deal, the reader is still getting images in succession and using their mind to create the story. It’s mostly comics as usual, but when creators push the medium of comics on the printed page it can lead to problems for the digital version of the comic. A recent comic that utilized such a technique was Batman #5 by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. In the issue Batman is captured, set into a maze by the Court of Owls, and poisoned with some sort of hallucinogenic drug. As the issue wears on and the drugs take effect the pages turn from the traditional vertical orientation to a horizontal one, forcing the reader to turn the comic sideways to keep reading. The story continues in this fashion for a while, until the images flip to the vertical orientation once more, but when this occurs the pages do not resume their initial layout. Instead they are completely upside down, forcing the reader to quite literally upend their comic to continue the story. It’s an effect that is quite unique and surprising. When it occurred, I even glanced at the cover of the comic to insure that it was, in fact, upside down and I had indeed just done what I thought I had. It’s a beautiful way to mimic the confusion and desperation that Batman himself is experiencing in the comic and it’s also an effect that’s immensely difficult to mimic in a digital format.
Most portable devices used to read comics automatically rotate their screens to allow readers to easily view images regardless of how they’re holding the device. That kind of functionality would utterly destroy this issue as it would either eliminate the storytelling device that Snyder and Capullo are utilizing or it would render the comic completely unreadable as one flipped their iPad or phone around in vain. Indeed, on the Comixology website, the most popular distributor of digital comics, there is a warning that alerts readers to the fact that pages of the comic they’re about to read are arranged in strange ways and readers should lock their device’s orientation for the best reading experience. The problem is that in warning the reader of this necessary step part of the power of the moment has already been robbed from the comic. The surprise comes from the utterly unexpected nature of the inversion of the comic and there’s no need to give special instructions up front to a reader of a physical copy of the issue. The warning itself reads as such, “This book contains upside-down and sideways pages. To maximize the reading experience you may want to lock the orientation of your device.”
Snyder and Capullo, on the other hand, effectively prime the reader on a story level for just such an event without tipping their hand by breaking from the standard vertical nature of most comics. The difference is that the horizontal orientation of much of the issue isn’t overly telling. Snyder and Capullo prepare their readers by using a stylistic choice that is just out of the ordinary but not too strange so as to overshadow the trick to come later on. Many comics have utilized the horizontal layout from time-to-time, even the event series Blackest Night made use of it for splash pages, but Snyder and Capullo push that concept one step further when they actually invert the page. It also just so happens to be a trick that’s far more effective when you are forced to physically flip a book.
As it stands, one of the major problems I see with digital comics is that they aren’t adding anything to the medium of comics as of yet, they are only limiting storytelling possibilities. There are certainly more than a few ways that the digital realm could open up comic book storytelling, but for now the fact that comics are still being written primarily for the physical medium is hamstringing that capability. Readers are left with digital copies of comics that require them to sacrifice things such as a holistic view of a two-page spread in favor of being able to read the dialogue or narration on a page. Digital comics should be pushing the boundaries of the art form, instead they’re catering to those who don’t want to go to a comic shop or don’t have space in their home for more comics. If a reader wants to get the same experience they get when reading a physical comic they’re forced to bounce between different views, zooming in and out constantly, and reading panels on their own without being able to see the entire page. It breaks the delicate flow that is built so effectively by practiced comic book storytellers, and until the digital realm becomes the focus of some of those talented storytellers I don’t see myself leaving behind physical copies of comics. I don’t care about actually owning something I can put my hands on, but I do care greatly about the way comics tell stories, and for now I don’t think digital is able to accurately replicate what readers get on the printed page.
 https://comics.comixology.com/#/issue/19599/Batman-2011-5 (Text appears only after purchasing the issue.)