By Jen Aggleton, PhD candidate in Education at the University of Cambridge
As part of my PhD placement at the British Library, I was asked to establish a special collection of webcomics within the UK Web Archive. In order to do so, it was necessary to outline the scope of the collection, and therefore attempt to define what exactly is and is not a digital comic. As anyone with a background in comics will tell you, comics scholars have been debating what exactly a comic is for decades, and have entirely failed to reach a consensus on the issue. The matter only gets trickier when you add in digital components such as audio and animation.
Due to this lack of consensus, I felt it was important to be very transparent about exactly what criteria have been used to outline the scope of this collection. These criteria have been developed through reference to scholarship on both digital and print comics, as well as my own analysis of numerous digital comics.
The scope of this collection covers items with the following characteristics:
- The collection item must be published in a digital format
- The collection item must contain a single panel image or series of interdependent images
- The collection item must have a semi-guided reading pathway1
In addition, the collection item is likely to contain the following:
- Visible frames
- Iconic symbols such as word balloons
- Hand-written style lettering which may use its visual form to communicate additional meaning
The item must not be:
- Purely moving image
- Purely audio
For contested items, where an item meets these categories but still does not seem to be a comic, it will be judged to be a comic if it self-identifies as such (e.g. a digital picturebook may meet all of these criteria, but self-identifies as a picturebook, not a comic).
Where the item is an adaptation of a print born comic, it must be a new expression of the original, not merely a different manifestation, according to FRBR guidelines: www.loc.gov/cds/FRBR.html.
1 Definition of a semi-guided reading pathway: The reader has autonomy over the time they spend reading any particular aspect of the item, and some agency over the order in which they read the item, especially the visual elements. However reading is also guided in the progression through any language elements, and likely to be guided in the order of movement from one image to another, though this pathway may not always be clear. This excludes items that are purely pictures, as well as items which are purely animation.
Alongside being clear about what the collection guidelines are, it is also important to give users information on the item acquisition process – how items were identified to be added to the collection. An attempt has been made to be comprehensive: including well known webcomics published in the UK and Ireland by award-winning artists, but also webcomics by creators making comics in their spare time and self-publishing their work. This process has, however, been limited by issues of discoverability and staff time.
Well known webcomics were added to the collection, along with webcomics discovered through internet searches, and those nominated by individuals after calls for nominations were sent out on social media. This process yielded an initial collection of 42 webcomic sites (a coincidental but nonetheless highly pleasing number, as surely comics do indeed contain the answers to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything). However, there are many more webcomics published by UK and Ireland based creators out there. If you know of a webcomic that should be added to our collection, please do nominate it at www.webarchive.org.uk/ukwa/info/nominate.
Jen Aggleton, PhD candidate in Education at the University of Cambridge, has recently completed a three month placement at the British Library on the subject of digital comics. For more information about what the placement has entailed, you can read this earlier blog.