Thursday, September 13, 2012

Blog 4: Graphic eTextbooks and the “Infinite Canvas”

In this blog, graphic textbooks is used as an all-inclusive term that includes both physical and digital formats. However, the term graphic eTextbooks refers exclusively to digital versions of these books. Since the majority of undergraduate textbooks are moving to digital platforms within five years it is unproductive to speculate on designing new paper-and-binding tomes. Therefore, the focus of my theorizing in regards to the content of these books will primarily focus on digital designs.

The first comic books adapted to the web appeared in situ. This is what Scott McCloud refers to as “a classic McLuhan-esque mistake of appropriating the shape of the previous technology as the content of the new technology.” (McCloud, 2009) This is a reference to Canadian educator and communication theorist, Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980). McLuhan predicted the World Wide Web thirty years before its inception, and claimed that “the medium is the message.” (Levinson, 1999, pp. 35-43; McLuhan, 1967) Currently, digital representations of comic books and graphic novels on the Internet are based on the needs of the physical medium and not the needs of the content. Comic book publishers need to have one foot in both “camps” for fear of losing traditional readers. The main problem with undergraduate graphic eTextbooks lies not in the medium, but in the academic rigor of the message. What has been forgotten by most publishers of graphic textbooks is that they are not graphic novels, and they do not share the same objectives. Whereas graphic novels seek to entertain, graphic textbooks primary objective is to teach. If we want to use graphic textbooks to teach undergraduate students then they need to conform to the same review process and academic rigor as any other undergraduate-level textbooks.
Though still narratives, graphic textbooks are not story-driven, per se, they are information-driven. With any textbook there is a beginning point and an ending point, and in between are chapters incrementally building on what was established previously. What textbooks do not (normally) have are story-arcs, character-arcs, climaxes, or dramatic dénouements. What graphic textbooks do differently than story-driven comic books and graphic novels is how they engage the reader. Many educational graphic textbooks contain a narrator either in the form of disembodied caption boxes, ala a documentary film, or as a drawn character(s) that breaks down the fourth wall to address the reader directly. For theater, the fourth wall is the space between the stage and the audience; for graphic narratives it is the space between the picture plane (either paper, or view screen) and the reader. The narrator, or “Chorus,” is a dramatic vehicle dating back to Greek theater, and has appeared in Shakespeare’s plays, television, and film. Some authors, like McCloud, use themselves as the narrator while others, like Jay Hosler in Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth, uses multiple characters who talk to each other in order to inform the reader (remember the term attitudinal instruction comics from Blog #1?).

The problem with transportability from static physical format to digital is that comic books and graphic novels need to fit within the viewing dimensions of an iPad, Kindle, Nook, or some other form of visual display device. This works fairly well for individual 3-tier pages even though the screen image is smaller than its physical counterpart. But while the traditional 32-page, 3-tier, 9-panel grid format has been the norm for print comic books since their inception it does not have to continue to be the dominant format moving into the post-print era—nor should it. The dimensions of the majority of digital comic books and graphic novels conform to their print counterparts. Politics, censorship, distribution networks, functionality, economics, and the basic limitations of print media have always controlled format, which in turn have dictated how stories are told and hampered creative growth, but that is not the case for the Infinite Canvas.

The Infinite Canvas was proposed by McCloud as a way of viewing sequential art via a monitor. (McCloud, 2000) For McCloud, the computer screen is not a snapshot of a single visual, but rather a window into the infinite that stretches out multi-dimensionally along the XYZ axis. This means that a linear story that scrolls through a long horizontal continues, uninterrupted, as it moves across the monitor screen towards its conclusion (or vertically as with a pdf). It also means that non-traditional storytelling techniques, such as true parallel narratives, or circular narratives can now be truly parallel or circular within the digital world. However, McCloud draws the line at introducing temporal phenomena such as embedded videos, hyperlinks, sound, animatronics, and the like, since they interrupt the continuity of presentation, because, in sequential art, space equals time, and that time is regulated by the viewer. (McCloud, 2009)

While McCloud’s personal belief may be true for graphic novels (and I emphasize the word “may” because such hard and fast “rules” stifle creative growth), such a statement is completely erroneous when it comes to graphic textbooks.

It is the hybridity of graphic narratives combined with the power of the Internet where I believe the true strength of graphic eTextbooks comes forth for two important reasons. First, the inclusion of temporal phenomena is no different from including sidebars or endnotes in a physical textbook. They exist spatially in time yet apart from the linear narrative, and when, or if, they are accessed by the reader that act is entirely within the reader’s control. Second, and this is, for me, the most significant aspect of the potential for all eTextbooks, because the introduction of those tangential elements reflect the way lessons are taught in a classroom.

Rather than present lessons on an uninterrupted continuum (because it's boring), teachers often include temporal phenomena to supplement their lessons. On any given day, whether I am teaching Photoshop or a course on Visual Culture, I will search for images, go to websites, watch videos, access a pdf, play a PowerPoint presentation, or simply look up information. These tangential elements are integrated into lessons to help students process information by engaging multiple senses thus increasing learning efficiency. Secondarily, by watching what I do via the SMART Board my students witness my problem-solving skills, and understand how I deductively solve a problem using the Internet, but even that can be integrated into the narrative of a graphic eTextbook via the “Chorus.”

With graphic eTextbooks the reader does control time spent with the temporal event by watching it multiple times, or skipping through it, or replaying certain segments, or not watching in it at all. While for some this may be antithetical to the continuity of traditional graphic narratives, the inclusion of temporal phenomena works perfectly with graphic eTextbooks through a form of expanded continuity. (Author’s term) For graphic eTextbooks, this is what McCloud refers to as A Durable Mutation, or rather a mutation from the physical sequential art medium into digital that has “some sort of staying power.” (McCloud, 2009) This form of Durable Mutation for graphic eTextbooks is actually no different from what many eTextbooks are already doing.

For purposes of making an analogy, if we borrow terms from biology’s taxonomic hierarchy, we might consider the family tree for comic strips, comic books/graphic novels, and graphic textbooks in this way. All three of these forms are of the same genus, graphic narratives, but all three are of a different species. Graphic novels and graphic textbooks are part of the same family tree, but evolving on different branches of it. Those differences, those tangential elements, those temporal phenomena that are antithetical to graphic novels because they interrupt the continuity of presentation, are part and parcel of teaching, and should be embodied in graphic eTextbooks (and if you have clicked on any of the links in this blog you have already helped prove my point). These differences that lend themselves so beautifully to how teachers teach are graphic eTextbooks’ Durable Mutation. The move to a digital platform will aid graphic textbooks in creating a virtual learning environment where they can evolve into a more robust educational tool.

Topics for Discussion

1) “I don’t buy it! Sequential narratives are linear and must always stay that way.”
2) “Okay, so if graphic textbooks have to become graphic eTextbooks this is what I would like to see included in their content.”

NEXT BLOG: Immersive Graphic eTextbooks as the Ultimate Scaffolding Tool

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