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Review of Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future

By Ruth Ellen St. Onge

Kashtan, Aaron. Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future. Ohio State University Press, 2018.

The accessible and timely study, Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality and the Book of the Future, represents an important step in the field of comics studies towards more attentive analyses of the interactions between printed and digital media and contemporary American comics creators’ use of either or both media in their art. The concept of materiality is at the core of Between Pen and Pixel, and Kashtan defines the term as “the way in which the physical, technological, and sensuous components of a media artifact help to shape the reader’s reception of that media artifact” (6). His definition, which builds on the work of N. Katherine Hayles (2004), and Johanna Drucker (1997), encompasses both print and digital forms of materiality and helps bring the reader and reception to the forefront while also considering the role played by the senses (haptics). Kashtan examines how certain comics have successfully shown the viability of the print medium, and while others have made use of the unique affordances of the digital realm. Refreshingly, Kashtan grounds his study in the analysis of less-often studied works by cartoonists like Matt Kindt, Carla Speed McNeil, and Jason Shiga, as well as bringing new insights to canonical texts like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Through analyzing a wide variety of comics—mass-market, self-published, web, literary—Kashtan demonstrates that the relationship between print and digital media has the potential to be complementary, rather than oppositional. Kashtan argues that the most successful and innovative comics, be they print or digital, use the unique materialities of their media to maximum effect in ways that are not possible in other media, whereas the comic book of the future will most likely, in his mind, use print and digital media in a complementary way. In the conclusion of his study, Kashtan reflects on how questions of materiality can be explored pedagogically. Despite Kashtan’s demonstrated aptitude for reading oft-analyzed texts like Fun Home against the grainand his much-needed adoption of a more material-minded approach to the field of comics studies, Between Pen and Pixel is hampered in parts by an over-emphasis on the cartoonist’s hand, a curious emphasis on the concept of “biblionecrophilia,” and its quest to forecast the future of the book writ large.

In his introduction, Kashtan identifies comics scholars as the primary intended audience for Between Pen and Pixel, and scholars from related disciplines like media studies and book history as a potential secondary audience. He admits that book historians and media scholars may find some of his theoretical assertions “excessively obvious” (21). Indeed, this review is written by a book historian, and some of the less successfully argued points of Kashtan’s study could certainly be strengthened by a greater knowledge of the methodologies and insights offered by book history, which focuses not just on the choices of the author or artist and how they shape the materiality of texts, but on the actions of all of the agents in the field of literary and textual production. As a first example, consider the “hand of the artist” that dominates Between Pen and Pixel and comics scholarship in general. Throughout his study, Kashtan focuses almost entirely on the cartoonist, and with very few exceptions, privileges works that are both drawn and scripted by one individual. The choices of the cartoonist are foregrounded. It is the cartoonist who chooses print over digital, or vice versa. It is the cartoonist who deserves credit for the use of a specific paper stock, as in the case of Matt Kindt and the newsprint used in the serial issues of MIND MGMT referred to in Chapter 2 that focuses on how print comics have responded to the digital era (83). In his examination of the haptics of comic book reading in Chapter 5, Kashtan asserts that in comics, above all other texts, “the surface that the reader touches is a surface that bears the imprint of the artist’s hand, though that imprint is filtered through a variety of medial layers” (163). Kashtan extends this metaphor so far as to imagine himself touching the hand of Jack Kirby by reading the comics that Kirby illustrated. What of the hands of the inker, colorist, letterer, editor, printer, publisher, and distributor? These figures and their impact on the material form and reception of the comic book are mostly absent from Between Pen and Pixel. When discussing the multiple print and digital editions of Carla Speed McNeil’s initially self-published Talisman, Kashtan only mentions Dark Horse, the publisher of the eventual trade paperback and hardcover editions, a handful of times. Kashtan’s extensive analysis of Lynda Barry’s Syllabus does not mention the book’s publisher Drawn & Quarterly at all. This over-privileging of the hand of the cartoonist obscures the reality that the decisions of other agents of print and digital production play a role in comic book design and production; Kashtan admits that he is not a specialist in the technologies of printing or in the economics of the comics industry, these aspects of the materiality of comics could be examined in greater detail. Kashtan shows a familiarity with the works and theories of book historians like Jerome J. McGann, Johanna Drucker, and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, to name a few. But, what would be beneficial in Between Pen and Pixel and in comics studies in general is the adoption of not just the theories, but also the methodologies and foci of book history, including: archival and interview-based research on the publishers and printers of comics and their dealings with creators, the analysis of the comic book as object, a solid understanding of color-printing technologies, and more.

Another puzzling feature of Between Pen and Pixel is Kashtan’s recurring use of the term “biblionecrophilia” to describe the attitude of those individuals who espouse the materiality of printed texts and yearn nostalgically for a past world of printed culture in the face of the digital revolution. The term itself was coined by Ben Ehrenreich in his satirically-toned article, “The Death of the Book,” which appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2011There are multiple problems with the term “biblionecrophilia,” which has no significant presence in the current scholarly discourse. Indeed, a more widely-recognizable and less polemical term to describe the love of the printed or hand-produced book would be “bibliophilic.”  Firstly, it implies that proponents of printed and or hand-made comics like Chris Ware and Lynda Barry are obsessed with a culture that is dead, whereas Kashtan demonstrates that, on the contrary, printed and hand-made comic books are still viable and vibrant. Secondly, Kashtan’s application of the term to cartoonists is not consistent. Ware and McNeil are “biblionecrophiles” for introducing a critique of how digital and electronic forms of communications have had a negative impact on human relationships in their works Building Stories and Talisman. Ware is deemed a “biblionecrophile” for celebrating the material qualities of books produced in the early twentieth century, and the same goes for Lynda Barry, since she bans electronic devices from her classroom and emphasizes hand-work in Syllabus. On the other hand, Kashtan praises Matt Kindt’s MIND MGMT as an example of how printed comics “should be”: namely that they should take advantage of the unique material qualities of print media, and even further, that materiality can “play a crucial role in the narrative” (89). But, many of the features deployed in MIND MGMT that Kashtan describes as “innovative” (81)―the letter column, different paratextual elements in the serialized issues of the comic as compared to the trade paperback edition, the use of newsprint as paper stock―are all characteristic of mid-twentieth century printed pamphlet-sized comic books. Through MIND MGMT, Kindt is looking back with a “retro” eye towards the comics he read as a child, but not once does Kashtan describe this attitude as “biblionecrophilic.”

In the introduction to Between Pen and Pixel, Kashtan argues that “if we want comics studies to develop as a discipline, we need to show why comics are relevant in a more general sense” (22). Earlier on he states that comics deserve scholarly attention because they will tell us “where the printed book is going and where it should be going” (4). He then attempts to forecast the “future of the book.” This thorny and perennial question far predates the advent of online and electronic publishing. Between Pen and Pixel may have been better off leaving out or reframing a debate that has already been “done to death” in recent discussions of the current state of book publishing. Jason Shiga’s game book-inspired Meanwhile is put forth by Kashtan as the most promising example of how print comics can look to the future and operate as transmedia artifacts in ways that can also be applied to prose fiction. However, though Shiga’s choose-your-own-adventure inspired narrative and use of trails and tabs may be reminiscent of hypertextual narratives from the early digital era, they are also inspired by features present in printed books. Forecasting the future is a tricky game: Kashtan points out that many of Scott McCloud’s predictions on the digital comics never came to pass. Formal innovations adopted in experimental printed or digital comics by one creator may not necessarily take off and become widespread in the future field of comics production. Similarly, a work like Shiga’s Meanwhile may be formally innovative in a way that makes sense for the purposes of its internal narrative(s), but which may not be appropriate for all texts, and indeed, may not be replicable due to technical or production-related constraints.

Before gesturing towards the future, comics scholarship still has to come to terms in a more informed way with the actual history of how comics were produced in the past and how they are being produced today: the questions of printing, production, distribution and how these processes impact the material form of comics and the activities of comic artists and writers are rich fields of inquiry that deserve to be fleshed out in a way that is actually complementary to Kashtan’s own approach. Rather than focusing on innovation and the future, it would perhaps be more fruitful to investigate the different possibilities afforded by print and digital media, which Kashtan already does admirably well in Between Pen and Pixel. Kashtan’s investigations into the materiality of comics are compelling in and of themselves, and do not have to be extended to apply to all texts and all books. On a wider scale, the history and materiality of the comic book do not have to be constantly linked to the wider world of the book and to questions of what the future might bring to be of continuing interest in the humanities academy.

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