Thrown Gauntlet: Lost in Translation by Jared Gardner

Posted by on April 5th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

This essay is in response to Blaise Larmee’s “Trophy Economy.”

scan nicked from gaygamer.net

I am not going to address at length the obvious problems (economic, ethical, logical) with Larmee’s fantasy of torrents of comics somehow liberated from the economies of print. If only we would stop printing, collecting, reviewing print comics, then the transcendental digital comic will finally be free to distribute itself for free. That the torrents which have provided Larmee with his vision of a world liberated from the tyranny of print are themselves digitized versions of print books stolen from creators and publishers clearly does not trouble him. But one might wonder how he cannot wonder where his torrents of comics will come from once the print economy has been brought low once and for all.

Larmee’s account of what he calls the “trophy economy” of print actually got me thinking instead about my own investment in (he would say, “fetishization of”) print comics. Let me say from the start that I am probably about as far from a Luddite as anyone I know. A professional reader, for better or worse, I have seen the proportion of my daily reading that happens in traditional books shrink dramatically over the past decade. I read on laptops, Kindles, and iPods as much or more than I read books. Further this same decade has seen all of my photo albums, CDs, videocassettes, and file cabinets full of documents translated into bits and bytes on various hard drives stacked around my desk. Digitization, for all the reasons Larmee suggests, quickly made the originals seem, if not obsolete, certainly quaint, inconvenient, and ungainly.

The one exception to this has been comics. In truth, my library of digitized comics is every bit as large as my mp3 or ebook collection. But unlike my physical books that have been donated to the local library or my paper documents that have wound up in the recycling bin, my paper comics continue to take up more and more space in my house. Digitized comics have never proved a meaningful substitute for the thing itself. In fact, my lifelong fascination with comics has deepened considerably in the digital age in large measure because comics remain the one thing I dearly love that seems somehow to resist the translation that so has effortlessly absorbed everything else.

Yes, I can “read” comics on my many screens. And I do. But whether I read a novel on a Kindle, laptop, cellphone or printed book, if the novel is good within a few pages I am no longer thinking about the medium. Nor do my memories of the reading experience ever involve the Kindle, laptop, cellphone or book. The same is not true for comics. Reading comics on screen, I am always aware of all I cannot do with the comic that the book itself seems to demand of me.

Comics are different from other books in that we want — and often need — to physically manipulate them as we read. We pull the book in to study an individual panel, or turn it on its side to follow a compositional line or thread of dialogue along the side of the page. Yes, I can zoom or rotate the image in digitally, but it is not the same as holding the book up under my nose or turning it slowly to follow the arcs of movement across the page.

But more urgently, comics are a medium that in many ways require us to learn a new language every time we pick up a new book. The “vital blend” (as R.C. Harvey nicely puts it) between word and image has a different recipe in every book; the lessons learned from the previous book might give some clues, but they won’t spell out the secret formula. You have to learn that the hard way, panel by panel. The way the artist uses the line to represent movement, emotion, character, for example: imagining that your previous experience in reading comics have you prepared at the outset to know how to read is like imagining that your high-school Spanish has you ready to communicate in Basque  country. Even after decades spent studying the grammar of comics, each new book reduces me to the equivalent of a first-year student of a new language. And that, truth be told, is why I never grow bored.

But it is also why I read the way I do — and I suspect the way many of us do. I flip: back to see (once I get my sea legs) if I understood an earlier panel, the implied passage of time between panels, or even who it was I met on page one; forward (guiltily but inevitably) to see if I am reading for the right visual and verbal clues; back again, to look again at a panel I cannot get out of my head … and so on. I also flip more literally — like a flip-book, letting the pages skip from one hand to another to see larger patterns in how the artist has laid out the panels, how the color palette changes (or doesn’t) — to see, in short, the rhythms of the book as a whole.

Are there ways to do what I do with my comics in digital form? Maybe. But not with any digital comics reader I have tried. No, my experience has been, over and again, that where other media digitize and remain themselves (and indeed sometimes become something, as Larmee suggests, freer, more accessible) comics become if anything less free, more bound by the limits of my screen, my software. They are something necessarily diminished by the translation. This does not make comics superior to other media — like music or movies — that seem to survive the transformation relatively intact. Heck, it might even be a sign, on some cosmic scale, of their innate inadequacy, the deep, fundamental (and blissful) inefficiency of the form that requires its readers to involve themselves so deeply (and physically) in the process of making meaning. But it is also part of why I love this form. If that makes me a fetishist, well, I’ve been accused of worse.

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