Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"And It Had Everything in It": Building Stories, Comics, and the Book of the Future

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"And It Had Everything in It": Building Stories, Comics, and the Book of the Future

Article excerpt

In a May 2014 Wired article, Brandon Keim summarized recent research showing that readers comprehend texts better in printed than in digital form, and concluded that

[m]aybe it's time to start thinking of paper and screens another
way: not as an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but
as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating
particular modes of thinking. Maybe paper is a technology uniquely
suited for imbibing novels and essays and complex narratives, just
as screens are for browsing and scanning.

However, if print will not be killed off by digital media, neither will it remain unchanged. To compete with digital media, the print book must define its distinctiveness; it must explore the unique affordances that distinguish it from the e-book. One way that print books can do so is by accentuating their own haptic, visual, and sensory qualities. Garth Risk Hallberg refers to this strategy, in the context of prose fiction, as "Kindle-proofing" (n.p.). Kindle-proof novels, such as Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves and Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, assert their difference from digital books through the use of modes of typography and publication design that couldn't be replicated on a screen. Kindle-proofing is motivated by the need for the prose novel to compete with the visuality and interactivity of e-books and electronic literature. Yet Kindle-proof literature is also part of the same overarching cultural phenomenon that gives rise to digital media. The graphical user interface has helped lead to a general cultural turn away from the gray page of crystal goblet typography and toward visuality and expressive graphic design. This trend is exemplified by the current popularity of both e-books and Kindle-proof print books, as well as, of course, the rise of the graphic novel. In order to compete with electronic literature, the printed book has to emulate electronic literature, adopting its properties of visuality and interactivity.

As the print novel seeks to reinvent itself, it draws inspiration, consciously or unconsciously, from another medium that exploits the visual and material properties of the printed book: the graphic novel. Comic books almost universally make productive use of their own material properties in ways which are still rare in prose fiction, and the comics industry has developed effective means of using digital technologies to enrich the appeal of the printed book. Therefore, comics provide a model that literary authors, designers, and publishers can emulate in reinventing the printed book for the post-print age. Here I demonstrate this claim through an analysis of one major recent graphic novel, Chris Ware's Building Stories (2012). I argue that while, on one level, Building Stories is the ultimate Kindle-proof book, it also takes inspiration from the digital medium, and therefore exemplifies how the graphic novel helps us reimagine the future of the book.

Building Stories is a box containing fourteen printed comics of various sizes, ranging from tiny vertically formatted tracts to a giant newspaper section (Figure 1). The fourteen comics, which may be read in any order, tell interconnected stories that take place in the Chicago area and mostly revolve around an unnamed woman with a prosthetic leg (whom I will call Protagonist). Building Stories was the most critically acclaimed graphic novel of 2012, winning four Eisner Awards and prompting a significant amount of critical commentary. Much of its interest comes from the way it interrogates the contemporary condition of the printed book. Rick Moody described Building Stories as "a very clever and moving statement about what a book is now" and as a deliberate rejection of the impoverished material parameters of the e-book. (I refer to Building Stories as a "book" under erasure; later I will deal with the question of whether it qualifies as a book at all.)

Most critics have seen Building Stories as the ultimate proof of the standard binary opposition between books and e-books. …

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