As they recognize achievement in all of the widely diverse world of comics, it makes sense that the Eisner Awards have a category for Digital/Webcomics. Two of the nominees this year are Lighten Up, by Ronald Wimberly, and These Memories Won’t Last, by Stuart Campbell. Both are great examples of how the web can be used not just to digitally distribute what are essentially print strips and pages, but to find new ways of telling stories with the new technology, speaking the ages-old language of comics.
Wimberly, an industry professional, addresses one of the more touchy issue in comics (or, indeed, throughout our cultural conversation): race. Comics have a problematic relationship with representing race, as anyone who remembers the “skin colour” crayon will understand. It’s easy enough to draw people of different ethnicities, but comics have been used for so long to exaggerate, ridicule and outright create tropes associated with racial physical features and gestures in an insulting way that even the most careful artists can fall into stereotypical or insensitive representations. In modern comics that try to adopt a more realistic aesthetic, often the issues around race don’t focus on how the figures are drawn or what the characters are doing: it comes down to simple colour.
In Lighten Up, Wimberly tells the story of being asked to lighten a character’s skin tone for a Marvel book he was engaged to draw. The character in question was Melita Garner, Wolverine’s sometimes love interest, a multi-racial character who we’re told has a Mexican father and an African-American mother. Wimberly considers that description and, quite reasonably, decides to make her skin vaguely brown. To his shock, a note comes back from the editor at Marvel asking him to “lighten her skin colour”. A discussion ensues in which some unsettling racial assumptions emerge, such as the notion that “white” is as valid a racial category as “Latina”. Wimberly takes care to assure the readers that he’s not calling any particular person racist, but simply pointing out that racism exists in many subtle ways that we don’t take enough notice of. It’s a great “inside” story of the comics industry and brings up some important issues, as we move the medium forward into what will be a more diverse future.
While Lighten Up tells its story in a series of panels, read in this case up-to-down using scrolling, but otherwise looking and feeling like a comic, These Memories Won’t Last is a full multi-media experience. Its style is a full web-based animation, with smooth, artful scrolling over ghostly images that appear from the mist and are as easily hidden. Music accompanies the piece (although it is user-optional), further drawing the reader into the story. Joining some charmingly old-fashioned (even Pekar-esque!) panels and other images is a continuous line, a long rope of words and images representing, among other things in this highly metaphorical yet somehow reality-based comic, a rope tossed down a well to a man stuck at the bottom of it, losing contact with the world.
The story that Stuart Campbell is telling in his comic is about his grandfather’s increasingly sad and poignant struggle with dementia and finally a complete loss of identity. Although active and resourceful in his later years, Campbell tells us that his grandfather’s health took a steep drop after the death of his grandmother. Moved to a care facility, Campbell recalls visiting his grandfather and bearing witness to his gradual deterioration, but also some great stories from his deep past. As with many elderly people with failing mental faculties, the past can be recalled vividly and cogently, whereas the present grows increasingly distant. That strange sense of one’s mind gradually fading away is the visual, aural and narrative metaphor Campbell deploys in the service of this touching story.
These Memories Won’t Last really feels like what comics (at least, some comics) could become in the new century. It still relies on old-fashioned panels to relate story elements, but there’s so much more here in terms of visual and sensory engagement. Dialogue boxes float over images, and they don’t always connect, leading to a slightly different reading experience each time the comic is visited. Readers can go forwards and backwards at their own pace, but there are interactive elements to this and the story must move forward or the screen itself becomes obscured, just as Campbell’s elderly subject’s memories slide out of reach. It’s haunting, rich and powerful stuff, but still recognizably comics.
Both these, and the other Web/Digital comics nominated for a 2016 Eisner deserve to be included fully in the rich tapestry that is our favourite medium.