Comic Dialogue: Modes of Reading

by Farrah Bostic on July 16, 2010

As you know, Chester, I’ve been mainly reading these comic books on my iPad. I have three apps I use, Comics by ComiXology, the Marvel app, and the DC Comics app (though this one, I must report, has not been used, yet). And while you are providing a valuable service to the nerd community, and especially to me, in educating us on the ways these works came to be, the significance of the process and the form, I feel that we should pause to discuss the differences between reading a comic book on a device like the iPad versus reading a printed comic.

To do this, sadly, we have to go back to when I was about 7 or 8. I might have been older than that, but I really don’t think so. Older than that and my brother would have been reading comic books, but at this particular moment in time, a trip to a Payless Drug Store (acquired and now known in my hometown as Rite-Aid), I did as you once did, and convinced my mother to let me have a comic book. I honestly don’t recall my brother being there, which suggests he was riding in the shopping cart.

I was a voracious reader. My parents assured this by reading to me every night, acting out characters with accents and inflection, bringing real drama to the nightly storytime. My mother would sometimes kick me out into the damp June days of Portland summers, exasperated, “Why don’t you go outside!?” I was the only girl in the neighborhood my age, you see, at least within walking distance, so going outside often meant doing loop-de-loops on my banana-seat bike through the empty driveways of the houses on our cul-de-sac.

Most days I would take a book with me, out into the summer sun-breaks and intermittent drizzling rain. I’d climb a tree, scaling a pitchy conifer, and rest in a nook reading The Prince and the Pauper or The Count of Monte Cristo or The Cask of Amontillado. (I had a set of children’s abridged classics.)

Other days, I’d wind up laying on the long lawn of the Harrington’s house, as my little brother played with the two boys there, reading books, and catching the caterpillars they’d drop on the fields nearby each summer. Those caterpillars would curl up in your hand, all fuzzy and striped. They were adorable, and they’d shit in your palm, too.

So take me into a store, and I’d read everything in sight. I would say I was an easy kid to have along for a shopping trip, except that sometimes I would get all caught up in whatever I was reading at one of those circular book or magazine racks, the rickety wire ones that would sort of sway as you spun them around. My mother would be three aisles away before I would notice she had gone, and then would, sometimes in a bit of a panic, run to find her.

One day, late in the afternoon, I spotted a comic book. I’m almost certain it was Batman. The original Batman television series was on in syndication, as was Wonder Woman, on the local non-network station, KPTV-12. I loved Wonder Woman. That’s a post for another day, however. Anyway, I figured, Batman is Batman. I picked it up, flicked through it a bit, and tossed it in the cart. My mother, like yours, didn’t object, and off we went…

To dinner. I would read through dinner, not all the time, but whenever the conversation turned to Mom and Dad stuff, I’d usually have a book at the ready. So at this particular dinner, which in my head was at Red Robin, but might not have been, I pulled out the comic book. I read through it and quickly realized that this was not written for me, a 7 or 8 year old girl.

Reading it made me feel slightly sick to my stomach. It was dark, it was sinister, people were in agony, good guys were not prevailing, horrible tortures were being inflicted, even something vaguely sexual was transpiring. I didn’t understand much of it, but I worried that this was a huge mistake, that I shouldn’t read this sort of thing anymore, and that I would probably have nightmares – something I already suffered from on a regular basis. Waking up screaming, as one of my parents stood in the doorway, saying something in soothing, if slightly impatient tones, to get me to calm down and go back to sleep.

My other memory of it is that it was slightly confusing to read. I wasn’t quite sure which panel followed the one that came before. I wasn’t always able to keep track of who was thinking or speaking, and when it was the narrator (a role I understood because I was frequently given the role of Narrator in school plays and performances – I generally thought this was boring and meant I was boring; my parents thought this was fantastic and meant that I could read better than the other kids. I suspect we were both right.)

Fast forward, if you will, Chester, to the present day. In the interim, I have rarely read a comic book. I was always quite certain that the Archie comics some of the girls and boys read when I was in elementary school were not real comics. But I didn’t go back to reading them myself. And as we got older, comic books were something that only boys did, and eventually, only geeky boys did. I was already destined for a Liz Lemon future at that point, wearing thick glasses, having a pixie haircut that struck the little girls in my age cohort with their long permed tresses as a boy’s ‘do, reading Asimov short stories and memorizing most of Star Wars… so I didn’t need any help in seeming geeky. My place in that world was secure.

But here we are, and it’s 2010, and I bought me an iPad. One of the first apps I downloaded was Comics by Comixology. Why? Why would a 33 year old woman buy a comic book app when the last time she really read a comic book was sometime in the early 1980s?

Well, I’ll tell you why.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Dust to Dust was released just before my iPad purchase. And this blog is about robots. And I really enjoyed and was creeped out by Bladerunner. And I have a great admiration for Philip K. Dick, though I do not know anything about him. So right away I knew I needed to read this prequel comic, and that as soon as my iPad arrived, I would. I would read the hell out of that comic.

And this is when you began to make fun of me. The only thing I could do was charge you with being the Pat Morita to my Ralph Macchio. And you, fool that you are, accepted.

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So here I am, reading comics on my iPad. I mentioned this the other night to Ed Muscle. Ed confessed that he, despite having illustrated and co-written a comic strip about Chester A. Jackson, III and Horace Pleak!, was not much of a comic book reader. He told me that he had a hard time figuring out how to navigate from panel to panel. I told him what I’d said to you about how intuitive I found the first issue of The Fantastic Four, but I also realized that the iPad offers a feature that a print reader is expected to possess in his or her brains: Guided View. As you tap the screen to flip from page to page, you can double-tap on a panel and it will move to a guided read, panel by panel, through the comic. The feature is beautiful, and looks amazing, since the resolution is so high. (It is worth noting, though anyone reading comics on the iPad or iPhone knows this, that both the Marvel app and the DC Comics app were made by Comixology).

Now, Guided View is beautiful. But I don’t personally use it. I hold my iPad in portrait mode, and I read a comic book as God and Stan Lee intended – page by page, figuring out for myself how to get through each panel, taking in the whole page as a single work. In some respects I think of it as how I watch movies on a DVD player: I don’t click through, chapter by chapter, I let it play from start to finish. It is also how I listen to most of my music – the whole album, not a playlist, or jumping from track to track. Playlists are for the gym.

So now I virtually turn the pages, and I read the first issues of Silver Age Marvel comics, and I occasionally glance over at the hard copies of The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1. I haven’t started reading them yet. But they’ll be perfect for a sunny day in the park: no screen glare.

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