Last week, I read a comic book via my smartphone for the first time. It was about a character called Atomic Robo. I enjoyed it. The application which filtered my reading experience presented this comic one-panel-at-a-time–that is, I read one panel, and swiped my finger to bring up the next.
It’s a strange way to read a visual narrative normally taken in by multi-paneled pages–but not unlike the strangeness I felt when I read a novel on the Kindle for the first time. The novelty of the experience raised the same vaguely formulated questions concerning the ‘units’ of the work and the pace at which I digested them.
Without the heft–or even the view–of an entire page, is reading a comic book one panel at a time like reading a novel that only has one sentence or paragraph printed on each page? While I read a comic through a digital medium, is my perspective of the work closer to that which the author intended, or am I merely trading the physical limitations of a page for those of a handheld screen?
My answers: more or less, and I don’t know.
I do know that when I read a novel on a Kindle, I’m much more likely to read to the ends of chapters, whereas otherwise I’d not bat an eye at putting the book down after arriving at the end of any given page. On a Kindle, I can’t sneak glances at what the bulk of the remaining text on the page before me looks like (judging, I guess, whether it will read fast or slow), and I can’t flip over a few pages to see how close I am to the end of a chapter (I suppose I could navigate forward a few sections of text, but I’d probably lose my place and the click of the Kindle’s buttons annoy me). I don’t mean to say that it betters the reading experience–only that it changes the number of plates it comes served on, so to speak.
Similarly, while my digital reading of Atomic Robo prevented me from taking in the arrangement of panels across whole pages, I lingered over the individual panels with greater scrutiny–analyzing each the way I might a photograph or a painting on a wall. My awareness of “composition” came forth in the (forced) absence of any habits I might have had about reading a comic book (or reading in general).
Not that my thoughts are terribly deep about the matter. I’ve no doubt that Scott McCloud has already been paid to write about this.
Still, the drawing above didn’t come out of nowhere. It happened because I stared at a panel in Atomic Robo and wanted to draw a picture with a large something in a foreground and a bustling cluster of little somethings in a background. It happened, in some fashion, because I wouldn’t see the next panel, ever, until I swiped the present one away.