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ImageTech: Comics and Materiality

By Madeline B. Gangnes, Megan Fowler, and Jaquelin Elliott

Imagetexts are fundamentally entangled with their materiality. Comics as a medium has always prompted creators to work in concert with, and push against, the technologies through which their works are produced and distributed. As print and digital technologies have become more sophisticated, accessible, and affordable, some comics creators have embraced innovative digital technologies, while others prefer pen and ink on paper, and many employ a combination of traditional and digital tools and methods. From meticulous series of woodblock prints, to humble black-and-white photocopied zines, to decade-long online epics, comics are fundamentally concerned with technologically determined formats and material considerations.

At a time when comics creation and circulation have become increasingly digital, efforts to delineate physical and digital comics prove more difficult than ever. Is an issue of Miles Morales: Spider-Man (Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron) on comiXology or a chapter of My Hero Academia (Kohei Horikoshi) on VIZ Media’s Shonen Jump Digital Vault a digital comic? Is a collected book of Hark! A Vagrant (Kate Beaton) or Check, Please! (Ngozi Ukazu) webcomics a print comic? Is the “first” format of a given comic or graphic novel the “real” one? If so, what do we make of simultaneous physical and digital releases? How much motion can a comic have before it becomes a film, and how much interactivity can it incorporate before it becomes a game? In this nebulous material world of twenty-first-century comics, we promote here an approach to comics studies that moves beyond the familiar and vexing question, “What is comics?” and instead asks, “What makes comics?”

In April of 2018, the University of Florida hosted its fifteenth Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, which was themed “ImageTech: Comics and Materiality.” In soliciting proposals for this conference, we asked presenters to (re)evaluate the ways in which audiences encounter and physically experience comics. We hoped to encourage not only explorations of relationships among comics and various technologies, but also interrogations of the supposed digital/analog divide in comics creation and scholarship. We posed the following central questions in the conference’s Call for Papers:

How does form dictate content, and vice versa? How do digital platforms affect engagement and accessibility? Why do some comics creators deliberately adhere, or return, to analog technologies? In short: how do we understand and approach the material considerations of comics?

The thirty-five presentations at the “ImageTech” conference tackled these questions from widely varying perspectives. Among the ten panels were, as examples, “Making and Remaking,” which featured presentations on print technologies, paper stock, collage, and atypical materials like balsa wood and thermochromic paint; “Queer Eyes,” which explored the power of online fandom communities to remediate, subvert, and take ownership of comics culture; and “Action and Reaction,” which included presentations on the use of independent comics to promote health care initiatives, disaster relief, and social justice. The formats of the various texts that presenters discussed included handmade paper cutout comics, print and PDF zines, graphic novels, “ultimate” editions of collected comics, three-dimensional comics, PDF comics, webcomics, digital comics with “guided view” capabilities, multimodal comics, motion comics, interactive comics, hypercomics, and extended reality comics (augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality). As a whole, the conference made clear that materiality plays a key role in every step of a comic’s creation, publication, distribution, reception, and affective experience.

This special forum on “ImageTech” features four articles on the theme of comics and materiality, three of which were written by presenters at the 2018 conference. It also includes essays by the conference’s three keynote speakers and an account of a roundtable of comics creators from the southeastern United States. We begin with the keynote speakers: Aaron Kashtan, Mita Mahato, and Anastasia Salter. In his essay, “Comics Are for Everyone: Rethinking Histories of Comics Fandom,” Dr. Kashtan offers an overview of comics fandom as it has been historically perceived, and consequently currently misperceived and misrepresented. Kashtan argues that comics’ materiality, and the materiality of the environments in which comics have been sold and read, significantly contributes to audiences’ relationships with comics and the fandom communities in which they participate. Madeline Gangnes summarizes and provides key quotations and images from Dr. Mahato’s presentation, “Material Comics,” during which Mahato shared a selection of her handmade paper comics and spoke of her use of physical and digital materials and methods to engage with themes of loss, illness, and environmental concerns in her work. Finally, In “#NostalgiaGate? Comics as Battleground in Transmedia Networked Publics,” Dr. Salter uses materiality as a lens through which to draw comics studies into conversation with internet studies. Her essay situates online communities as crucial venues for presenting and circulating “geek cultural discourse,” in which single-panel comics are sometimes weaponized in online battlegrounds for “toxic technocultures.”

Our first article, “The Unwrapped Editions: Searching for the ‘Ultimate’ Format of Graphic Novels and its Limitations,” is by Tomasz Żaglewski. Taking the Unwrapped Editions of DC Comics as his case study, Żaglewski uses a materiality-focused methodology to consider the implications these editions have for a wider understanding of the physicality of comics. Żaglewski discusses the DC Comics’ Unwrapped Editions as part of larger trends of packaging and repackaging material between the “Big Two” and the impact of such editions on reader reception. Ultimately, the positioning of Unwrapped titles between traditional comic and curated art object, Żaglewski argues, raises important questions around discourses of “authenticity” and nostalgia, the anti-digital turn in the mainstream comics industry, and the limitations of an exhibition approach to comics.

Next, Claudia Acosta examines the arc of Florida zine culture in her article, “Print-and-PDF Culture: Transmediation by Millennial Zinesters.” Acosta offers a background on the history of print zines in Florida to inform her analysis of 2010s zines by Florida creators that are distributed digitally to a wider readership through online networks. Using the transmedial zines Body Posi and Consent Zine as key examples, Acosta suggests that the traditional conception of zines as cheaply printed, physically distributed works does not reflect the publication and distribution practices of “millennial zinesters.” Digital zines, Acosta argues, embody many of the essential characteristics and philosophies of printed zines, while also affording a kind of “radical accessibility” and creating an awareness of personal growth over time in ways that printed zines cannot easily replicate.

In her article, “Extending Realities, Expanding Readings? Spatial Reconfigurations and Activated Presence in XR Comics’ Experiences,” Carolina Martins analyzes Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s S.E.N.S, a project that began as a graphic novel before expanding into additional mediums as an art installation and a virtual reality game. Through Mathieu’s use of a variety of digitial and physical tools, media, and devices, Martins argues that S.E.N.S creates a form of “XR” (extended reality), the product of a cluster of “digital realities” operating simultaneously. Martins emphasizes the immersive experience of the project, describing the art gallery as an “augmented space” that creates unique discursive possibilities particular to mixed physical and digital environments.

In our final article, “A Fairytale Box,” comics creator-scholar Allison Bannister echoes and extends Martins’s discussions of hypercomics in virtual and physical spaces. In this combination scholarly article and process piece, Bannister describes the theoretical and material considerations of her project, Comics Box (2017), as an interactive, three-dimensional hypercomic object. Bannister shares the materials, tools, and methods she used to create the box, as well as the various ways in which an audience—an explorer or navigator, as she calls the “reader” of this object—might encounter and interact with the box. Nonlinearity, tactility, and physical environment contribute to a unique reading experience for each navigator that changes with every encounter.

We conclude our forum with Elaine Sponholtz’s account of the major discussion points from a roundtable she chaired at the 2018 conference. The roundtable, which was followed by a creative workshop, proved to be a crucial coda to the scholarly proceedings. It featured short presentations from comics creators Tom Hart, Leela Corman, Justine Mara Andersen, and Sidney Davidson on their respective uses of physical and digital tools, materials, and methods in their work. As a creator-scholar, Sponholtz facilitated a lively discussion among the presenters and audience members concerning the ways in which creators make use of, or are bound by, the tools and materials of their craft.

The contributions to “ImageTech” demonstrate the nebulous and varied nature of materiality and our understanding of what “technologies” are and do. We hope that this forum prompts readers to consider the role of various materials and technologies in comics creation, circulation, and reception. Through materiality, the hand that holds the brush or pen reaches out to the hand that holds the paper or tablet, and the eyes that choose shape and color meet the eyes that scan the page or screen. Whether you click and scroll through these pieces, or print them out and write on them, we trust they will provoke you to see and feel comics in new ways.

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