[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 4 – [Comics] in the Web, or A Theory of Textual Infrastructure pt. 7

PREVIOUS: Chapter 4 pt. 6

In June 2004, Randy Milholland, the creator of the [webcomic] Something Positive, became fed up with his readers’ complaints over his tardiness and sporadic updating of the comic, because of what seemed to him a lack of concern for his need to maintain employment while providing the [comic] “for free.” He challenged his readers to donate enough money to cover his salary for a year, so that he might quit his job and produce the comic full time. His readership had grown large enough and, perhaps more importantly, felt sufficiently vested in SP as readers to donate, more than enough, in less than a month, to cover his means to produce. Yet again, we see the logic of “old” media re-emerge in the “new,” where a funding model common to public broadcasting in the US found itself re-purposed—or, rather, simply purposed to media online. No matter how prophetic or “forward thinking” the claims of futurethinkers might propose to be, “new” media have yet to escape the formal ideologies of the “old,” and it is an open question, so often left unasked, whether they ever could or even ought to. The success, or persistence, at least, of particular [webcomics] seems fundamentally predicated upon the recognition of and adaptation to present conditions, to the articulations of existing media modes of which, according to the present argument, sociality is but one means of inter-relation.

Neither the earliest nor the most recent [comics] on the Web ever entirely broke free, as it were, from print, neither in the unconscious/infrastructural terms elaborated upon in the previous section nor even in simple material terms. Recall, one of the primary bones of contention in the heated exchange between the Penny Arcade duo and Scott McCloud was Tycho’s insistence that a [webcomic] not amenable to print was simply impractical, especially given the multimedial model of financial stability PA put into practice. To “set the [comics] free,” then, implied not merely unloosening the moorings that kept [comics] form “restrained” but also stripping away the very foundations they would require to be not only successful but widely understood at all. Yet, even this amenability to print has, over the few decades [webcomics] have been in existence, taken on many different forms.

For Penny Arcade, print volumes function more or less as collections for newspaper strips do, to re-collect in one form what was already available in another, and so differ little from the large paperback collections of Calvin and Hobbes or The Far Side. Fred Gallagher and, initially, Rodney Caston’s Megatokyo—Caston ceased working with Gallagher in 2005 under less than amiable circumstances—made a similar transition to print, which had always been a goal of the creators, but because the narrative of Megatokyo was more straightforwardly serial in nature, where PA often actively eschews narrative continuity, the print volumes did not merely collect an incidental, haphazard arrangement of strips but rather brought a sense of progressive cohesion to a narrative that, in its Web manifestation, was often hard to follow and often had to be read in chunks well after the fact of their appearing online, due to the sporadic production of individual pages. More recently, Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant began solely as a strip for the Web, but ever since the publication of her first print collection of the same name, as well as her expansion into other illustrated print work, Beaton’s website has functioned more as a teaser for work to later appear “complete” in print form rather than as a primary mode of dissemination.

Though their approaches to print vary, in each case, the Web was a domain in which to develop a readership and engage them in a form of sociality of which the [comic] functioned as an important component. However, lest we become deliriously overwhelmed by the possibility of a kind of incidental socialism on the Web, it is worth remembering how, because of the infrastructural relationship between “old” and “new” media, the old capitalist logic can easily subsume the communal one, because both are reliant upon and make use of the same means, whether we chose to call it the mode of production or the means to produce. With this return of the “old”/repressed, it is worth remarking upon one of the mainstays of classic Marxist analysis, namely who controls the means of [re]production and how.

Noelle Stevenson’s [web-now-mostly-print-comic] Nimona began in 2012 not unlike many of the [comics] noted above, yet its particular history with the overlapping demands of “new” and “old” media shows not only how a quasi-utopian project can develop into a simple capitalist enterprise, as with PA above, but how in doing so a number of peculiarities related to questions of textuality forcefully emerge, ones which might be explained better by, in this instance, recourse to textual criticism (in the manner of Classicists and Medievalists) rather than modern media theory. Like Megatokyo, Nimona was disseminated one page (though sometimes two) at a time according to, in this instance, a mostly fixed schedule, but once the [comic] had appeared online in a “complete” form, HarperCollins, who were to publish the printed version, embargoed all but the first three chapters, and so what was previously a primary mode of reader engagement and textual production was rendered akin to a teaser, once the demands of traditional publishing emerged from their hiding places to reassert thorny values like copyright and exclusivity of sale and distribution. Yet, the history of Nimona’s progression into print is not, as it turns out, one of progress, of movement from one stage of mainstream approval to another, of “having arrived.” Rather, this historical progression produced, in its wake, a number of variant texts, some at the explicit behest of the auteur and later her publisher and some as a result of those who work with the infrastructure of the Web so as to preserve what otherwise might pass away without notice.

Nimona, then, is not a [webcomic] that came to be print as a result of a certain pre-ordained amenability, especially given how drastically different the print version is in several respects from its online precursor, but rather a constellation of different formats in different media, which is to say disparate texts in disparate contexts, some of which would now be lost if HarperCollins’ embargo of the [webcomic] had been perfectly realized. For one major loss in the Nimona [webcomic] as it now stands online would be the numerous comments appended to each page, which, while often saying little more than “great job” or “Nimona is my spirit animal” (actual comment, though now I cannot seem to find where…) but occasionally give voice to a reader’s sense of his or her own devotion: “This poor man [i.e. Ballister] is so alone. Nimona being there definitely helps……but if he and Goldie don’t fix their differences and fall in love I might actually be upset. / I mean look at this page. You can taste the struggle.” (commenter Kate McKnight on Nimona ch. 8 p. 1 [101 in the print volume]). For as varied as they are, the comments give, in aggregate, especially once one notices the many repetitions of user names, the sense of a community of readers underlying the project. While one might get a “taste” of the comments from those three chapters accessible on the Web, the denial of access to the remainder raises the ethical if not legal quandary as to whether a third party ought to be allowed to take control over what was given freely for one purpose, yet no consent was given or even understood to be implicit for another.

Coincidentally, those comments do remain available as the result of the efforts of a fourth party, the Internet Archive’s ongoing efforts to collect and archive the temporal variations of websites. It is by means of the Wayback Machine that we can see not merely that Nimona has been substantially edited for print—a fact already signaled, if indirectly, in the book’s front matter, “Typography by Erin Fitzsimmons”—but precisely how it has been edited, in addition to how the shift from single page display to two page spread in print alters the [comic’s] narrative pacing.

Nimona chapter 4 pg. 4 as originally seen on the Web, via the Internet Archive and your dear author's browser

Nimona chapter 4 pg. 4 as originally seen on the Web, via the Internet Archive and your dear author’s browser

For the purposes of the present argument, the occasional recourse to type to replace Stevenson’s hand-lettering and changes in the coloring are less relevant—though still worth exploring—than her own comments on each page. Stevenson, in the [comic’s] Web iteration, reads her work alongside her developing community of readers not merely to constrain their interpretations—though that may still be one result—but to regard it in the same way that they do, to be, despite the authority that normally attends to the auteur, one of them. Her statement, “[t]he answer to ‘Who’s the villain here’ is ‘Not you, Ballister,’” entirely absent from the realized print text, is precisely the kind of knowing, snarky aside you might expect from the comments section of any given webpage. The author becomes, as I have argued elsewhere, not the distant autocrat of a text but rather its “first reader.” Yet, as I do not quite argue elsewhere, this means her activity as reader is subject to precisely the same arbitrary erasure all other comments are.

Nimona (print) pp. 4-5

Nimona (print) pp. 4-5

Moreover, the typical structure of the modern codex, with two page spreads, subtly alters what in the Web iteration, with one page per webpage, even when pages were posted two at a time, often renders the page gag-like or akin to a serial cliffhanger. As it appears online, Ballister’s decisive claim to being the one who kills Goldenloin, his nemesis, appears to be both a clear, if medial, conclusion that, along with the sudden shift to sepia tones in right hand side of the final frame opens the question of how the narrative will progress despite this seeming conclusion. Online, we see Nimona’s clear grounding, even only incidental, in the serial structures of [comics] in newspapers and magazines as well as the expression of the more general seriality Jared Gardner explores in his Projections. In its print form, as the left hand side of a two page spread, the shift from one palate to another is obviated by the presence of a flashback sequence on the right. This is but one instance of a fluid narrative cohesion applied to Nimona after the fact, just as Megatokyo’s print iteration read back onto the [comic] a sense of clear continuity not always present in its online form.

Nimona ch. 2 p. 1 (online)

Nimona ch. 2 p. 1 (online)

Changes in coloring also shift how one might perceive the texts of Nimona’s world, represented here by Ballister and Nimona’s “evil plan,” as also being party to the [comic’s] own materiality. In the screenshot above, the color of the “paper” on which the plans are drawn out is identical both to the background color of the speech balloons as well as the fill color of Nimona’s and Ballister’s faces, whereas in the print version, the speech balloons are highlighted as distinct from the page-in-a-page by a light beige that serves as the color of the paper on which Nimona and Ballister draw out their plans but not on which the [comic] itself is printed.

Nimona p. 3 (print)

Nimona p. 3 (print)

In its online form, the texts in the [comic] are not necessarily other to the text[s] of the comic, such that, on the following page (see 4-5 above), as Nimona adds her own emendations (like Stevenson?), she appears both as character within Ballister’s drawings and as “herself” (i.e. character within the [comic]) with an eerie identity that likely draws attention to her powers as a shapeshifter. Similarly, the text of the [comic] is situated in the underlying framework of the Web, which appends to it—should we rather say extends it with?—even more texts which become the [comic], not merely with it as “context” might imply, in ways that that can only be determined hermeneutically, interpretively, that is, by reading it, not merely as an aloof exegetical exercise, but as constitutive of what the text is as [comic], and it is Nimona’s very [comic]-ness, and the casual disregard in [comics] for textual discretion, that opens up one’s understanding to see how the alter-textuality that is the subject of the present book works.

Nimona, then, is a clear example of [comics]-as-web, a mode of [re]production in texts whose many historical iterations make apparent how textuality is not merely an empirically observable and objectively verifiable essence to be deciphered (even if, in the particulars, we might still observe and verify, as, admittedly, I have here) but rather as an interpretive construct, an ongoing project of re-arrangement and contextualization in which texts develop, in time, as they are read and re-read both by human subjects and as a function of frameworks in which they come to be embedded and re-inscribed. Yet, this development, at any given time, is also possessed of a simultaneity that a mere historical reconstruction (along Smolderen’s lines) would account for rather poorly, just as Nimona’s print and online texts must be understood as having historical and immediate articulations. So, while the [comic] in its many incomplete states, “complete” online text, various archivings after the fact, and now print incarnation all emerge at disparate points, they co-exist now, be it in memory, online, or in print, all at once, and their historical relationships, in the now, can only be a matter of interpretive reconstruction.

Now, after four chapters of deconstructing [comics’] how in representational (ch. 1), dispositional (ch. 2), critical (ch. 3), and infrastructural (ch. 4) terms, we might start over by asking the same questions we always have with an altered purview. I’ll see you chapter five, where we might finally introduce the problem of textuality that so far I seem only to have alluded to.

NEXT: Chapter 5


  1. […] as well of the discourse that surrounds it, in which it has come to be embedded.  The case of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona in chapter 4 shows that this theoretical concern is simultaneously a practical one as well, for reader as well […]

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