Digital scholarship blog

24 August 2020

Not Just for Kids: UK Digital Comics, from creation to consumption

This is a guest post by Linda Berube, an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student based at the British Library and City, University of London. If you would like to know more about Linda's research, please do email her at Linda.Berube@city.ac.uk.

“There are those who claim that Britain no longer has a comics industry.” (John Freeman, downthetubes.net, quoting Lewis Stringer)

Freeman goes onto say that despite the evidence supporting such a view (have you ever really looked at a WH Smith comics rack? He has: see his photo of one here), the British comics industry is not just all licenced content from the United States, and it has continued to produce new publications. Maybe the newsstand is not necessarily the best place to look for them.
For the newsstand does not tell the whole story. Comics are not all kiddie and superhero characters now, if they ever were (Sabin 1993). Not that there is anything wrong with that content, but prevailing attitudes about the perceived lack of seriousness of these types of comics can inhibit a consideration of comics as cultural objects in their own right, worthy of research. Novelist Susan Hill (2017) expresses a widely held view when she stated: "Is it better for young people to read nothing at all than read graphic novels-which are really only comics for an older age group?". No amount of book awards, academic departments or academic journals have eliminated such sentiments[1].

The best place for looking at all UK comics have to offer is online. Digital comics have not only brought a whole new audience but new creators, as well as new business models and creative processes. My Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Programme funded research will take a deep dive into these models and processes, from creation to consumption. For this work, I have the considerable support of supervisors Ian Cooke and Stella Wisdom (British Library) and Ernesto Priego and Stephann Makri (Human-Computer Interaction Design Centre, City, University of London)[2].

A cartoon of a spaceship on the left and a large smartphone screen on the right, showing two people talking to each other
Figure 1: Charisma.ai uses innovative technology to create comics

This particular point in time offers an excellent opportunity to consider the digital comics, and specifically UK, landscape. We seem to be past the initial enthusiasm for digital technologies when babies and bathwater were ejected with abandon (see McCloud 2000, for example), and probably still in the middle of a retrenchment, so to speak, of that enthusiasm (see Priego 2011 pp278-280). To date, there have been few attempts at viewing the creation to consumption process of print comics in their entirety, and no complete studies of the production and communication models of digital comics. While Benatti (2019) analysed the changes to the roles of authors, readers, and publishers prompted by the creation of webcomics, she admits that “the uncertain future of the comics print communications circuit makes the establishment of a parallel digital circuit…more necessary than ever for the development of the comics medium”. (p316)

Screen capture of a website showing the covers of three comics, the first comic shows a rocket leaving earth, the second a Christmas wreath and a pair of crutches, the third 4 people next to a beach
Figure 2: Helen Greetham is part of the international Spider Forest Webcomic collective, one way of distributing and marketing digital comics

Benatti was using the wider publishing industry’s process models and the disruption caused by digital technology as a lens through which to view webcomics. Indeed, historians have discovered cohesive patterns in the development of ideas, especially as embodied in print books. These patterns, most often described as cycles, chains, or circuits, follow the book through various channels of creation, production, and consumption. (See Darnton 1982, diagram of Communication Circuit below, for example). However, they have undergone a significant transformation, disruption even, when considered in the context of the digital environment (Murray and Squires 2013 have update Darnton for the digital and self-publishing age). And at first, it seemed that the disruption would prove terminal for certain types of communication, but most especially books and newspapers in print.

A diagram of Darntons Communication Circuit
Figure 3: Robert Darnton’s Communication Circuit

What about the production patterns for comics within this publishing context? Have print comics given way to digital comics? And are digital comics the revolution they once seemed?
My research, a scoping study in its first year looking at the UK comics landscape and interviewing comics gatekeepers-mediators (CGMs)[3], seeks to address the gap in the understanding of the creation to consumption process for digital comics. This first year’s work will be followed up by research into the creative process of digital comics writers and artists and what readers might contribute to that process. It will be the first such research to investigate cohesive patterns and production models through interdisciplinary empirical research for UK digital comics: analysing how an idea and digital comic object is formed, communicated, discussed and transformed by all the participants involved, from authors to CGMs to readers.

References:

Benatti, Francesca (2019). ‘Superhero comics and the digital communications circuit: a case study of Strong Female Protagonist’, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics,10 (3), pp306-319. Available at: DOI: 10.1080/21504857.2018.1485720.

Darnton, R. (1982). ‘What Is the History of Books?’ Daedalus,111(3), pp65-83. Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/20024803.  Also available at:  https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3403038/darnton_historybooks.pdf

Freeman, John (2020).   ‘British Comics Industry Q&A’, downthetubes.net: exploring comics and more on the web since 1998. Quoting British comics creator and archivist Lew Stringer in a 2015 assessment of news stand comics on his Blimey! It’s Another Blog About Comics blog.  Available at: https://downthetubes.net/?page_id=7110).

Hill, Susan (2017). Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books: A Year of Reading. Profile Books.

McCloud, Scott (2000). Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form.  New York, N.Y: Paradox Press.

Murray, P.R.  and Squires, C. (2013). ‘Digital Publishing Communications Circuit’, Book 2.0, 3(1), pp3-23. Available at: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/btwo.3.1.3_1. See also: Stirling University, Book Unbound https://www.bookunbound.stir.ac.uk/research/.

Priego, Ernesto (2011). The Comic Book in the Age of Digital Reproduction. City, University of London. Journal contribution. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.754575.v4.

Sabin, Roger (1993). Adult comics: An introduction. London: Routledge. See Part 1: Britain 1. The first adult comics 2. Kid's stuff 3.Underground comix  4. 2000AD: 'The Comic of tomorrow!'  5. Fandom and direct sales 6. 'Comics grow up!': dawn of the graphic novel  7.From boom to bust 8.Viz: 'More fun than a jammy bun!'  9. The future.


Footnotes

1. For example, the Pulitzer Prize[Maus]; The Guardian’s First Book Award 2001 [Jimmy Corrigan]; Man Booker Prize longlist [Sabrina], not to mention the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. The fact that graphic novels are singled out from comics here is another entire blog post… ↩︎

2. Ernesto does a nice line in comics himself: see Parables of Care. Creative Responses to Dementia Care, As Told by Carers and I Know How This Ends: Stories of Dementia Care, as well as The Lockdown Chronicles. ↩︎

3. The word ‘publisher’, at least in its traditional sense, just does not seem to apply to the various means of production and distribution. ↩︎


 

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