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A Fairytale Box of Thermochromic Fragments: Comics Materiality, Theory and Praxis

By Allison Bannister

The first time I wrapped the box in a scarf, the action was intended to protect it from wind and rain—to hold all the pieces together as I carried it across campus. Later, it became part of the ritual of presentation, unwrapping the fabric to reveal the work within. The scarf unfolds, and there is the box.

The box is six inches square at its base and eight inches tall, constructed of balsa wood. The sides, top, and bottom are printed with forest scenes and comics panels, drawn with a brush on bristol and conferred onto the wood via iron-able transfer paper, sanded at the edges for smoothness. A cloaked figure, depicted as a silhouette, travels through the scene. It isn’t immediately obvious how or where the box opens, but it does, in three places. The front panel, depicting a cottage through the trees, pulls free with a little tug; the top lifts off, and the bottom slides forward to reveal a final secret compartment. As a whole, the box presents a gloomy fairytale about the things we choose to remember or forget, told through the comics panels on the exterior of the box as well as through four short comics (designed with thermochromic pigment), a poem, and an assortment of artifacts contained within the wooden frame.

Figure 1. The Box.

We often talk about comics as a visual medium, prioritizing sequences of images as a defining characteristic (e.g., McCloud 9, Eisner xi), but comics are not strictly experienced through the eyes. Comics are never without material, whether they are printed in a book or a newspaper, hung in a gallery, viewed on a computer, or painted on a wall. Many cartoonists, particularly independent and small press creators, are tuned in to this materiality (Tinker 1170-1173). They care about paper stock, the feel of a page, the tactility of embossing, foil stamps, and spot gloss. They pay attention to the way ink is absorbed by the paper and toner sits on top, the way screen-printed materials feel in their hands, the way the pieces come together to create something beautiful. These concerns are not universally held, but from my own experience within this community, as well as existing scholarship (e.g., Tinker, Hague), it is evident that this attention to materiality is not uncommon.

Within the age of mass production, of digital communication, it can be tempting to suggest a division between content and form. For instance, Scott McCloud proposes comics as a container for different types of content (6), W. J. T. Mitchell separates the image from the specific realization (16), Karin Littau observes a regular division in literary scholarship between the physical book and the ideas within (1-2), and Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen suggest the possibility that the same discourse or design may be realized in a variety of multimodal ways (4-8). Comics content, like that of other media, is often reproducible and may be released in different forms and editions, go from print to digital, from saddle-stitched to perfect bound, from English to French, while still preserving much of the same meaning. However, as many of the above scholars argue, the specific material realization of the content can influence the ways that content is experienced by an audience and moves through the world.

For some comics, the materiality is likely an afterthought, following philosophies like Beatrice Warde’s, which prioritize design that invisibly displays content over design that gets in the way, alters, or comments upon that content (11). For others, materiality is about situating a work within a particular tradition and drawing connections to similar works—Kieron Brown argues that a perfect-bound graphic novel feels more literary because of its physical evocation of other kinds of books, whereas the same content published as a floppy will have different cultural associations (13-15). For some readers these associations are viscerally connected with memory and familiarity, to the smell of books and the feel of paper in their hands, the nostalgia of print or of a childhood reading comics from the newsstand or comic book shop (Hague 123-28). Other times it is about value, of creating a feeling of luxury, preciousness, or beauty for a comic that is meant to be treasured. And sometimes, as Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario demonstrates in her work on picture books, material is inextricably tied to narrative (151-166).

My box is a collection of comics that is intended to be material and multimodal. It is intended to be experienced and explored in a tactile way, as well as utilize visual and verbal modes. The form of the box is connected to the narrative, and the heat sensitivity of the ink is not a gimmick, but rather a part of the experience—a part of the reading. The box forces a physical interaction beyond the turning of a page or clicking of a mouse, through its structure and materials. The form of the box creates particular affordances, opportunities arising from a “relationship between a physical object and a person … between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used,” and requires multimodal reading practices both common to comics and unique to its own structure (Norman 11). Over the course of this paper I will be unwrapping more than the scarf draped around the surface of the box; I will also be unpacking the ways that the box functions as a comic and as an interactive art book, how the material nature of this work and others influences the relationship between reader and text. I will be working to put what I’ve learned through my practice-as-research into words.

The Box

Using a box as a medium for narrative artwork is not a novel concept. Chinese treasure boxes and curio cabinets date back centuries, and more recent artists like Joseph Cornell have used the form of the box to create striking artwork that is celebrated worldwide. In comics, arguably the best-known box is Chris Ware’s collection Building Stories (2012). The collection is housed in a box about two inches deep, a foot wide and seventeen inches tall, and contains fourteen differently sized and formatted comics. Some pieces are designed to evoke particular reading experiences, mimicking children’s books, newspapers, and other familiar print formats. Each piece contributes to a larger story about the life of a building and the people who inhabit it. Jon Chad’s Bad Mask (2017) takes a similar tact, telling a story of superheroes and villains through comic books, newspapers, trading cards, digital files, and other materials, some of which defy easy categorization as comics but which build on each other to create a complex narrative. Small press publications like Dog City 1-3 (2013-2014), to which I contributed in 2014, use the affordances of the box to collect work from various contributors in various formats (Fernandez, et al). Other cartoonists integrate sculptural elements into their work, using the form of the box as a structure as well as a container. Karrie Fransman’s Death Do Us Part (2015) creates a three dimensional comic using the compartments of a jewelry box as the comic’s panels, while Rumi Clinton’s Mental: Boxed In (2017) uses the sides of the folded paper box, the action of opening it, and the coiled paper within as a surfaces for printing and as structural metaphors for exploring mental health.

My use of the box draws upon all of these functions. A box affords organization, concealment, collection, and storage. I built mine with hidden compartments and moving parts designed to force the reader to take an active role, not just as a viewer but as an explorer—a navigator. The box must be opened, and elements must be removed, handled, and picked through. The box suggests no clear reading order. Readers who are unfamiliar with the box tend to navigate it hesitantly, examining each side, looking for a way in. The lightweight wood provides a sense of fragility that a heavier, tougher material might not. The texture is soft and the wood sanded smooth.

When a reader finally pulls the front panel free, carefully setting it to the side, they find two shelves and a drawer. While the exterior of the box can be read as a series of unordered comics panels, the shelves and drawer of the main compartment resemble a comics page layout, which allows the viewer to take in the space as a whole and encourages, but does not enforce, a left to right, top to bottom path. Each shelf holds a comic of its own: one a small square of art board, the other a scroll tied with a blue ribbon. Using a single finger to pull the drawer open reveals a tangle of artifacts, bits and pieces which at first glance may mean little or nothing. Among the jumble is a button, a ring made of twine, a seashell, a rock, and a bottle containing something that looks as though it might be blood (but which is in actuality costume makeup). These items are little totems that might represent someone else’s memories, moments and events, people and things that are too big or ephemeral to store in a little drawer in a wooden box.

Figure 2. The Drawer.

The top of the box, which depicts birds circling above trees, lifts off to reveal two compartments. The most obvious is a shallow shelf, which holds a four-panel comic on bristol; the second is a narrow but deep crevice within which the explorer finds a poem, also printed on bristol. The final compartment, the one most often and easily missed, holds a third four-panel comic, hidden behind a sliding wooden square depicting the roots of trees and intertwined with creeping, crawling insects, centipedes, and maggots.

Figure 3. The Top Opening.
Figure 4. The Hidden Compartment.

The box demands exploration in order for the narrative elements within to be revealed. This is an unfamiliar way to interact with art for modern audiences, but in earlier eras it was taken for granted that the eyes could only provide so much information—museums and curiosity cabinets in the 18th century, for instance, were full of compartments to be opened and objects to be handled (Classen 275-281). Like those 18th-century collections, multimodal exhibits creating narratives from sequential juxtapositions of text, images and objects, this box requires touch. It requires the reader to pick it up, hold it in their hands, and feel for movement, for cracks that reveal avenues into the story. Only through touch or previous knowledge can the points of entry be clearly perceived. Like the figures printed on the exterior of the box, a new explorer must search to find what they’re looking for, uncertain, while a returning reader might deftly slip the compartments open, heading straight for whatever piece they currently seek. The box is a structure of organization and a material element that impacts the experience of reading and discovering the work. It ultimately serves as both a container for, and an element of, the narrative that it contains.

The box is constructed from balsa because I built in my studio, a space designed for working with paper and ink rather than wood. As Cydney Alexis notes, creation happens in a place, with available tools (83-95). My studio is shared with my cat and my partner, who is also a cartoonist, and opens up to the kitchen in our apartment. I have a slanted drawing desk by a window, but I don’t work at it much anymore. The desk instead serves as storage and organization for books, papers, drawing tools, and office supplies, and is home to my potted plants. I draw at the kitchen table, mostly. Our tools are aimed at illustration, bookbinding, and the creation of merchandise for comic conventions, not at woodworking or sculpture, so I made decisions based on the affordances of these existing tools. My available cutting tools were a paper cutter, X-ACTO knife, and scissors, and with those tools I could successfully manipulate 1/16” balsa. At first, I measured each piece meticulously, but as I moved forward I embraced a philosophy of measuring each piece against the pieces to which it would be related rather than using a ruler, marking each distance with a pencil, and sanding or trimming as necessary. The carefully sketched plan was adapted and decisions became less formal and more intuitive as the building process went on.

I tried to use wood glue at first, because I was gluing wood and that seemed like an obvious choice, but I didn’t like the way it dried—a translucent yellow—and it didn’t stick as quickly or as firmly as I’d hoped. Returning to my roots in bookmaking, I switched to a combination of PVA book glue, applied with a brush, and Tacky Glue, squeezed from the bottle in a careful bead along the edges of my balsa pieces. I worked on the floor, using any available tool and limb to prop things up and hold things in place while newly glued joints took the time to dry. Although the choice of materials was intended to promote narrative goals, it was also informed by practical concerns, as I relied heavily on the tools available and on the skills that I use in other work.

The images on the exterior of the box were lightly penciled on bristol paper and then inked with a brush pen, my go-to inking tool. Visually, I love the way a brush lays down a line, and in my own workflow I prefer the consistency and convenience of the brush pen to traditional brushes dipped in ink. These ink drawings were scanned, digitally touched up, reversed, printed onto Transfer Artist Paper, and ironed onto the balsa. The same images, in the abstract sense described by Mitchell, could have been screen printed onto the box, or burned with a laser cutter, but I used transfer paper because this a tool I use in other parts of my art practice—it was in the cabinet under the printer, and all of the necessary tools were on hand. With a little bit of sanding to smooth the edges and remove excess transfer material, the images were cleanly integrated into the balsa, the line art backed by soft wood grain instead of sharp digital white or lightly textured bristol. A different set of tools could have afforded a different look and feel with different interactions with the of materials, and may have been just as successful. More important than the method of laying down the image of the line art is the wood itself, and the tactility of the box as an object which exists both outside the narrative and within it. Desire met planning and practicality in the construction and design of the box and its contents, and much of the process was guided by existing tools and skills, used in new ways. The only material I had never used before, and which I knew for certain I wanted to apply to this project, was thermochromic pigment.

Heat Sensitivity

Depending on the environment within which the explorer encounters my Comics Box, the appearance of the comics may change dramatically. Each piece uses thermochromic ink in a different way to emphasize, transform, or obscure the drawing below. In a cool environment, the pigment darkens, becoming charcoal gray or sky blue. In a warm environment, or within the warming hands of a reader, the pigment fades, disappearing completely as it reaches 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Too warm and the intended effect of handling the thermochromic pieces is lost; it may be partially retrieved by holding the piece up to a window or air conditioner, chilling it in a fridge, or placing a cold object along the back of the piece and watching color saturation spring back into the ink. The environment within which a piece of media is enjoyed will always impact the experience—Ian Hague, for instance, explores the impact of ambient noise on the comics reading experience, while Melissa Rogerson, Martin Gibbs, and Wally Smith examine the importance of lighting in their study of board games—but the effect of the environment here is exaggerated and complicated by the materials used (Hague 84-87, Rogerson, et al. 3962).

Figure 5. The Transformation.

Sometimes readers are hesitant to touch the art, concerned about leaving their fingerprints, literal and figurative, on the piece. Hague describes this caution as a taboo of touch, born out of a culture of conservation and collection, where we are allowed to look but not touch and asked to leave no trace (Hague 92-95). Constance Classen observes something similar in museum spaces, where audiences are now conditioned to view artifacts only from a distance or through glass and not to interact with them directly (282-284). Books are familiar objects that we learn how to handle at a young age, but as a comic breaks with the traditional materiality of print, even experienced readers may become cautious and uncertain, afraid of damaging a unique piece of art (Do Rozario 154-156). With this work, at least when explored in a suitably cool environment, touch is required for the activation of the thermochromic ink and works in different ways with each piece.

The comic concealed in the top of the box is streaked with blue. Of the four uses of thermochromic ink in the work, here it is the most incidental, almost decorative. The blue is translucent, even when cold and brightly colored, and the black line-work of the comic can be followed without significantly disturbing the ink. The comic is borderless, open and airy, with the blue brushstrokes taking the stylized form of wind, of motion lines sweeping across the page. It tells a story of wanting to fly and being left on the ground. I printed this comic on bristol with a regular inkjet printer, cut it to size, and then modified it with quick brushstrokes of the thermochromic pigment suspended in a base which promised to be flexible, transparent, and matte once dry. The bristol I used is thin enough that hands touching the back of the paper can cause the ink to fade.

The four-panel comic on the tall, thin shelf in the main compartment can also be read without disturbing the ink, but as it is handled the figures fade away, the dark charcoal gray of their saturated states giving way to pale shadows on the board. What remains is the black text and a drawing of a braided ring of twine, an object that can be found in the drawer of the box, here fragmented among the four panels. The fragmented ring and the figures moving away from each other between the panels, fading away faster the harder the reader tries to hold on to them, work together with the text to suggest a story of a relationship that is no more. Here I used a thicker material: an illustration board with enough weight that only with direct contact between the image and the hand will the pigment fade at a reader’s touch.

The scroll, white fabric tied up with a blue ribbon, unrolls to reveal an illustration of a blue body of water filling the lower half of the space, with underwater elements barely visible here and there under semi-opaque blue. The text over the water can be read regardless of the environment, while the text underwater is revealed only with the application of warmth. Reading only the text above the water gives one message; when combined with the text under water it tells another, becoming darker and more complex. Bones are revealed as the blue fades away—a sunken boat and a skull are ignored by the fish swimming by. Getting the blue opaque enough to hide the lower half of the image proved difficult, requiring repeated layering. I applied each coat and then dried it with a hair dryer, easily hot enough to make the pigment completely invisible. To check the progress toward my intended opacity, the comic was then carefully placed in the refrigerator and given time to cool before being reviewed and receiving an additional coat if necessary.

In the final comic, thick, textured paint holds charcoal colored thermochromic pigment, completely obscuring the drawing underneath. The gutters were created with tape, carefully stretched across the bristol before scooping paint onto the surface, applying it not with a brush as I did the other pieces but with a flat plastic utensil. Paint still wet, I pulled the tape from the paper, leaving behind clean, crisp gutters dividing chaotic gray fields from which meaning must be forcibly unearthed. From its position in the bottom compartment, behind roots and maggots, from the unreadable charcoal paint, an image of a shovel appears, a stone marker and flower, then more roots, rocks, and a small and helpless figure underneath.

Thermochromic ink is perhaps most commonly found in novelty coffee cups (Miodownik 6). These usually use a higher temperature pigment than the one found in my box, disappearing when a hot beverage is poured into the cup and slowly reappearing as the drink is drunk or the liquid cools. While it has yet to have widespread use in mainstream comics presses, it is a significant element in the children’s book Keep Our Secrets (2012), by cartoonist Jordan Crane. A sticker on the cover recommends reading the book with a hairdryer, and on each page an area of glossy black conceals secrets that the children in the book and those reading it can discover. Crane’s book, like the coffee mugs, requires a higher temperature for transformation, staying black in a warm room and requiring more than the warmth of human hands to disappear. Heather Weston’s art book, Read (past, tense) (2000), uses crimson thermochromic ink with a temperature sensitivity closer to that in my work to force an intimacy between the reader and the text. When first opening the book the reader will see white text with a red background, but as they handle the work the background fades away, revealing smaller text in red and providing a deeper reading experience than was available on the surface.

Like Weston, I hoped to force a kind of intimacy between reader and text. I wanted to create something that felt magical—something that was changed and impacted by the physical presence of the reader. I wanted these comics to feel like memories, some shifting and fading as they are held, others available only through time and effort. This was my first experience working with thermochromic materials, and while in some environments they do indeed feel like magic as they come to life in your hands, the ease with which they give up their color to a warm environment complicates the impact of the materials. Instead of a uniform experience of ink fading away as the reader handles it, each reading becomes unique and subject to the environment. Sometimes these memories must be excavated, other times they’re available right there on the surface, and rather than working to reveal, a reader may work to re-conceal the images underneath. Part of me wants to always present the box in a cold room, but another part is excited and curious about the other kinds of experiences these materials may afford when reading conditions are changed.

Reading Order

When talking about interactive comics, often the things that come to mind are digital works. Josip Batinić describes interactivity as one of the central affordances of “enhanced” webcomics: comics that use the affordances of digital media in ways that would be difficult or impossible for print. The other major affordances that he discusses are animation and the possibility of the “infinite” canvas: the idea that comics in virtual space need not confine themselves to traditional page sizes and layouts (Batinić 81). A wave of new interactive comics on digital platforms seems to have exploded in the early 2010s, with major comics publishers Marvel and DC launching their digital-only interactive comics imprints Marvel Infinity and DC2 in 2012 and 2013, respectively (McMillan, MacDonald). Other artists and publishers have explored these same waters in different ways. Emily Carroll’s Margot’s Room (2011), a hyperlinked horror comic that asks the reader to scroll sideways as well as down to follow the flow of panels, exemplifies many of Batinić’s digital affordances within one short story. Daniel Merlin Goodbrey’s The Empty Kingdom (2014) and Hien Pham’s I’m Shirtless in This One (2018) introduce game-like elements and afford the reader/player agency to make choices which impact the outcomes of the narratives. Other comics like Randall Munroe’s xkcd, which was launched in 2005 and continues to update regularly, experiment with interactivity in a variety of ways, pushing the limits of comics in a digital medium (see Munroe 1110, 1350, 1416, and 1608, among others). Yet, digital technology has no monopoly on interactivity.

One can argue that reading is always interactive. In a canon where scholars often insist that the author is metaphorically dead (Barthes142-148), recognize the reader’s power in creating meaning from a polysemic text (Hall 137-144), and accept that the author’s role is perhaps to create the conditions under which the reader explores a narrative, rather than to dictate the whole of the experience (Burke 36-37), interactivity is inescapable. However, there are different ways of interacting with a work, with different kinds of agency in play. As well as interpretive power and the everyday interaction of flipping pages in succession or scrolling through a digital text, interactive narratives such as my box encourage and enable different methods of navigation and manipulation of the work, which encourage the reader to take the ordering of the pieces into their own hands. Although any book can be started in the middle and read out of order if one so chooses, works like Margot’s Room (Carroll), Bad Mask (Chad), Building Stories (Ware), and my box encourage this exploration and provide additional reader agency through their digital and analog affordances: Margot’s Room with hyperlinks and the others with multiple material pieces that can be handled and physically rearranged. And yet, despite the freedom of reading order that these structures encourage, some non-coercive guidance on reading order can be added in other ways, as Chad and Carroll demonstrate in their works.

When a reader opens a new copy of Bad Mask, the first item they will encounter at the top of the stack is a letter from one of the characters to another, which offers context for the other texts within, provides a directive to explore each thoroughly in order to understand the real story, and lays out a suggested reading order. In order for future readers of that copy of the book-in-a-box to get those same initial instructions, they must rely on previous readers placing the letter back on top, as the objects are easily rearranged. Reading the pieces out of order, or finding that letter last, might lead to different conclusions or prompt re-examination of other pieces later in the sequence. B. S. Johnson’s experimental novel, The Unfortunates, a 1969 book-in-a-box in which each chapter is separately bound, navigates this by labeling the first and last chapters, providing just enough guidance on reading order to get the reader started on their path and to pull everything together at the end.

Carroll provides guidance on the temporal sequence of the scenes that branch off from the central hub of Margot’s Room via two sets of sequential cues. The first is a poem on the landing page, which offers hints as to which objects might be hyperlinked and in what order the stories beyond those hyperlinks occurred. Once clicked, each of these scenes has a title, related to the poem, and a number, further solidifying a sense of how one ought to understand and organize them. I am also using poetry to guide the reader, but not so formally. The poem hidden in the back of the box, accessible through the top opening, gives the reader guidance not to the sequence of things but to their interpretation. It reads:

You go to the witch when there is something

you cannot bear.


She works her magic.


The price, you think, is low.


A button from your mother’s coat

A clipping from your garden

A few dark drops of blood

Little tokens

You tell her your secrets

Your heartaches


She places a box on the table,

Listens to you talk


The weight lightens, and you think

Why did I come here?

What was so heavy?

Why was I so afraid?

The memories are gone.


She watches you leave,

Walking lighter, confused but



In town, they may wonder what it is you gave away,

but they do not ask.


Many pay the witch’s price. (Bannister, Comics Box)

The poem gives meaning to the objects in the drawer, to the fragments of memories illustrated through the comics. The button is given context and the bottle of red liquid is confirmed to be blood (at least within the narrative). If the reader encounters the poem first, there may be a sense of recognition when these items are later found, whereas if the items are examined first, they may suddenly have new meaning and bear further examination. The box itself is more solidly brought into the story, in much the way that the picture books Do Rozario explores connect the book within the hands of the reader to the book within the narratives the physical book contains. Other items are unmentioned, but the poem hints at the function of the box and the significance of each item within, named or not. The reader is free to draw their own conclusions and create their own meaning.

Comics typically rely on order to make meaning from disparate images. The familiar McCloud definition of comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” privileges sequence and the deliberateness of the arrangement of elements above any other factors that could be used to identify the medium (McCloud 9). Letting go of sequence, at least partially, and allowing the reader to find their own way through, defies conventional comics making practice and follows instead in the footsteps of Marc Saporta’s 1962 experimental novel Composition No.1, a box of 150 loose pages of prose that allows reading in any order. There are some key differences, however, and Simon Grennan and Ian Hague, drawing comparisons between Composition No.1 and Building Stories, note that:

[in] Composition No.1 there are conditions but no pre-existing plot, [whereas] in Building Stories the plot is pre-established. No matter which order the reader takes the fourteen objects in, the story-time is fixed. Although the order in which the reader encounters events can and does change depending on how they read the work, the order in which the protagonist encounters them does not and cannot change. (Gennan and Hague, 80).

With no distinct characters or clear narrative events, the “story-time” of my box is unclear regardless of reading order. It doesn’t matter which of these memories came first or was collected first. The “user-time,” as Grennan and Hague dub the temporal experience of any given reader, is all that matters. It may not change the narrative on a causal level the way reordering Composition No. 1 does, nor does it offer the same kind of agency afforded by The Empty Kingdom and I’m Shirtless in This One, but reordering the pieces may change some part of the experience (Grennan and Hague 75). The narrative is not on the page to be followed or pieced back together into an orderly whole, but must rather be constructed by an active reader through the fragments of stories. The reader is required to be involved in the animation of the comics panels, the exploration of the box, the warming of the pigment, and the ultimate construction of the story.


Another concept that must be constructed or imagined by the reader is the identity of the character or characters within the narrative. Figures appear only in silhouette, both in the comics on the exterior of the box and in the comics contained within. The use of silhouette simplifies the figure while also obscuring their identity. Stewart Medley argues that “a silhouette may indicate then what kind of object we are looking at but not easily allow us to solve what psychologists call the homogeneity problem, or which particular object we are looking at” (57). We recognize a shape as human, even with the addition of baggy clothing (or a hooded cloak, in the case of the figures on the exterior of the box), but it is much more difficult to identify the silhouette as an individual, specific human being. Medley’s analysis of simplified images in comics mirrors McCloud’s suggestion that as a drawing becomes more simplified it also becomes able to depict many possible identities, whereas a more photorealistic image may depict only one (McCloud 31).

I play with this concept more explicitly in some of my other work, particularly in the anthology Who is the Silhouette? (2018), which I edited with Tom O’Brien. In that collection we proposed a new superhero whose image had been captured by reporters only in silhouette (3-6), and we asked other cartoonists to imagine and create stories for this hero, to offer different possible lives and identities. Even silhouettes provide some information, perhaps suggesting a person’s build, hairstyle, broad mannerisms or wardrobe, but they offer an opportunity for imagination and projection that more detailed images may not.

The figure in silhouette who travels through the exterior illustrations of the box is not a specific individual. They have no gender or race—no individual features. We never see their face. It could be one person (and the similarity between the figure on each side of the box may suggest a unified identity) or it could be several similarly cloaked travelers. The figures in the comics inside may be the same person or different ones. The poem, written in second person, suggests that the traveler might be the reader, but also that this is a journey undertaken by many. The box is a fairytale, a genre often marked by archetypes and motifs rather than complex individuals. I chose not to provide details in the stories or the characters, instead asking the reader to create their own closure, their own narratives, to put themselves into the tale. As Stephen King notes in On Writing (2000), stories can benefit from giving the reader just enough information and no more. Citing his character Carrie, King suggests that if he were to provide every detail, every pimple, sweat stain, and fraying hem, he would not be able to create as vivid an image in the reader’s mind as he can with descriptions that prompt the reader to dig into their own memories and construct Carrie from fragments of their own experiences (173-175). As a creator, I want readers to put themselves into the work; to find their own memories that they might choose to leave behind and determine what the tokens of those memories might be. To paraphrase Kenneth Burke, I want to create the conditions under which the audience dreams (36-37).


When I unwrap the box to present it at the 2018 University of Florida Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels—“ImageTech: Comics and Materiality” I’m nervous and excited to share the work with other scholars in the field. The weather in Florida is warm and muggy, a shock to my system, which is still acclimated to New York’s capital region, where snow is once again falling. Although the building is air-conditioned, I don’t know how visible the thermochromic pigment will be. I have photos in my slides in case the temperature is too high, and to make the box visible throughout the room.

Indeed, it is too warm, but the feedback is nonetheless positive and the comments valuable. After the presentation, I use a cold soda can to demonstrate the transformation to the curious. For me, all of this is research: informal testing in different environments with different audiences. My hypothesis, that thermochromic pigment will provide a sense of magic and intimacy, is complicated by environmental factors, and I finally reach the conclusion that this result is only one of many afforded by these materials. I picture a perfect environment, quiet and cool where the reader can engage with the work without interruption, but that isn’t the world—the world has distractions and temperature fluctuations, other people and concerns. In the real world, in order for the thermochromic pigment to respond to hands, it must also respond to the environment.

The materials of the box influence its exploration through the reader’s tactile experience, the organization of discrete elements, the interaction of the thermochromic pigment, and its openness to interpretation. The explorer must take a non-linear path through the work, using the warmth of their hands (or the cold of some other material, depending on the environment) to unlock the range of expression the comics can take. The construction of the work allows the reader to have an experience that is uniquely theirs as they explore the box and its contents, filling in the blanks with their own imagination. At the end of the presentation, the box is wrapped back up, each piece securely in its place, the scarf hiding it once again from view.

Works Cited

Alexis, Cydney. “The Material Culture of Writing: Objects, Habitats, and Identities in Practice.” Rhetoric Through Everyday Things, edited by Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle, 2016, pp. 83-95.

Bannister, Allison. Comics Box. Basic Telepathy, 2017.

Bannister, Allison and Tom O’Brien, editors. Who is the Silhouette?Basic Telepathy, 2018.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image Music Text, edited by Stephen Heath, 1977, pp. 142-148.

Batinić, Josip. “‘Enhanced Webcomics’: An Exploration of the Hybrid Form of Comics on the Digital Medium.” Image & Narrative, vol. 17 no. 5, 2016, pp. 80-91.

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