Maus: Looking Back

Looking Back, MMV: MA Digital Culture and Technology: Digitisation of the Comic Book

2005 saw the completion of my Master of Arts in Digital Culture and Technology. My specialization within the School of Digital Humanities at Kings College London was Material Culture and Technology, writing about what we could learn from comic books, how we could preserve them and at the same time remain faithful to the material culture surrounding them.

Dissertation proposal

The proposal began by citing existing literary sources, on the subject of comic books and graphic novels, to help distinguish the medium from any other form of literature or visual art; placing words and pictures in a ‘symbiotic’ relationship with one another.

It used Spielgelman’s Maus and a 1974 Star Trek comic to highlight features of the comic book that might be of interest to researchers and why they are worthy of further study. Symbolic features of the Maus narrative more orthodox to those studying literature perhaps. The para-textual features of the Star Trek comic less familiar, but equally revealing; providing us a clue to a readership or to help us understand a comic or publisher’s potential to influence a reader based on what it carried or chose to carry; in this case advertisements selling paraphernalia associated with peace, among other bits and pieces, during the time of the Vietnam War – entirely outside of the narrative content of the comic.

They offer the possibility of a way to understand the mind of the great majority of non-literate people, past and present who remain otherwise inaccessible except through impersonal records and the distorting view of a contemporary literary elite. – Prown (1982) Material Culture, Objects are more representative

Paraphrasing Prown (1982) to allow me to highlight the importance of preserving and studying comic books and the dangers of not doing so; I proposed that the study of the comic book can reveal an insight into the culture of a readership that might otherwise remain undocumented, either in written – or material form. To document that culture the digitization of the comic book needs to take into account the comic’s artistic and written value, as well as its para-textual characteristics, and materiality for all that they might reveal.

The proposal identifies eleven attributes of comic books that might contribute to a cultural insight and therefore might be important for preservation and study:

  • Subject Matter
  • Artwork and Artists
  • Comic book publishers
  • Advertisements
  • Letters and Fan mail
  • Language
  • Decade and Historical Period of publication
  • Print and Bindings
  • Editions
  • Cultural differences in form and style

And in creating a digital edition it is also important to understand:

  • The audience reading it
  • The material conditions under which the comic book was read
  • The way the comic book was purchased
  • Modes of publication, issues, editions, annuals etc.

The dissertation would expand on the literature review from the proposal, creating a more comprehensive view of comic books as a cultural artifact. Alongside that, a prototype digital edition could be created to help reveal the strengths and weaknesses of digital and better illuminate the effectiveness of print editions.

The proposal can be found here.

A flash presentation, summarizing the proposal here.


The proposal translated into the following dissertation abstract:

This study looks at the relevance of the comic book to culture. It attempts to show that beyond the significance and the meaning conveyed in the medium, is the material form of the comic that is just as relevant as cultural and historical evidence. This project goes some way to highlighting the considerations that need to be made in looking at the digitization of comic books and related forms for preservation and further and enhanced access for academic study. A number of exploratory prototypes have been created to illustrate the difficulties involved and to provide a platform for further research and development in this area.

And the full paper, can be found here.

Looking back…

It was known to me at the time that a two-paragraph conclusion was far from good enough to be awarded the top potential marks for such a paper. Its brevity, the output of a function of the time I left myself to wrap things up at the end of writing.

The conclusion does not stand alone, and the discussion preceding it could equally have been expanded on, even as an essay in its own right.

Ideally I would re-iterate the importance of the medium and the importance of preserving it as a mechanism for understanding a culture that created it; a culture that consumes it; a culture that preserves it for its own sake; as well as expanding on other cultures and practices influenced simply by the existence of the medium.

It is important to continue discussions of the limitations of digital as a medium for preserving much of that, but also to critically evaluate the benefits and trade-offs which can usefully be made to seek the best result for future generations.

A highlight of the paper is the two digital editions that were created. A Game Boy edition of Peanuts:

Available here as a ROM image [ZIP]. Note: Users will require an emulator such as Boycott Advance

A flash edition of Batman: Death and The Maidens, Volume 1:

Available here as a flash executable [EXE]. Note: Linux users can use Wine to run this content

The questionnaire I created was another success that I could have taken more time to talk about in the paper, whether it was within scope is a different matter, the potential exists to take its results into yet another discussion paper.

The survey received 383 views. Out of that 75% that started it; 38% completed it. Qualitative and quantitative questions receiving in upwards of 121 responses. I haven’t had a mechanism for making the results available before now, but perhaps in making them available here, even eight years on, it might prove to be a useful data set to future researchers.

Survey Pro: Comic Book Survey results [XLS]

The dissertation doesn’t quite ally with the hopes of the proposal, promising more than was delivered. It attempts to second guess a potential conclusion, suggesting that we might talk about the use of the internet as a method for distributing and gaining access to archives of comic books. Thinking out loud now, the potential of aInternet-based time-locked mechanism for accessing volumes of already existing comic books in archives, simulating release-patterns of days-gone-by could prove an exciting experiment. The proposal also suggests a discussion about the internet as a method for users to access directories of information about the writers and publishers of comic books – A centralized database. Distributed across the internet. Annotated, enhanced, illuminated!

Fortunately the weakness of conclusion in the actual dissertation means that I don’t have to look back on hopelessly hopeful predictions; alternatively predictions lacking in any particular foresight…

Instinct and experience says that 2013 presents us with a far different prospect than that of 2005. Buzzwords such as aggregation, mash-up, linking and linked data come to mind – and teasingly should probably be expanded on somewhere other than here.

Additionally knowledge of digital preservation from my previous and current job-roles says that we must now make careful decisions about the technologies we adopt to promote longevity and chances of survival for future generations.

The world is different across the board. Kindle and iPad are brands known to many. ComiXology another, known to many of the comic and graphic-novel readership. Sony released comics on their hand held console the PSP and the continued distribution of comics via such digital mechanisms will change the landscape and thus the face of any future discussions my dissertation hoped to begin. We won’t, for much longer, be discussing the digitization of the comic book with the thought of future generations still handling a physical object like they might have for the past 5060 years, but with a real preservation imperative – how do we capture the experience, the performance, for those who never knew the physical medium in the first place.

Concluding remarks

Other cultural forms will take priority over the comic book for me; film first, then television, music and then visually gratifying works such as comic books, and different forms of art. But the comic book fascinates me. I have read them at different stages in my life from quite a young age. I’ve never truly immersed myself in particular publishers, stories, or artists, rather the odd series or graphic novel when I get the opportunity, or feel drawn to them.

In picking up a comic book as an adult with the eyes of a student in digital humanities the intrigue grew. I saw a medium with multiple different layers that we could slice and understand, that undoubtedly told the story of a readership and a medium with a very real influence on the reader…

I was fortunate to have such a supervisor in Willard McCarty whom helped me to ask questions of the form that we were looking at. Taking the idea of advertisements in a comic book – how do they mirror the audience? – Do they? – What events at the time influence the content of them? How did Vietnam impact the comic books of that era? – The death of JFK? The events of 9/11?

Reflecting on this piece in 2013 my enthusiasm has not diminished. There is an awareness of technologies that exist now (and were in their infancy in 2005) that could push this work forward radically. We see infrastructures that could be adopted in archives of newspapers such as Papers Past from the National Library of New Zealand. Combined with linked open data on the internet and technologies such as the iPad or Kindle, there might be some value in picking this work up again.

…And if I can’t maybe making it more open here will help enable someone else to do so for themselves.

See Also:

Prototype (hand drawn) comic book / presentation: