Fleen Guest Column: Anne Thalheimer In, “Answers To Questions Unasked, Or, One Totally Stolen Title”
Editor’s note: Fleen Guest Columns are still cranking along, with Anne Thalheimer deciding to wade into our little kiddiepool of opinion and spite for another go-round. If you want to get in on the fun, email me (that would be Gary) at a domain that is named very similarly to this here blog. Thank you, and drive safely.
In sifting through the range of comments from my previous column, which went from informative to snarcastic (thank you, Dan) to just plain weird pretty quickly, one comment in particular seemed especially prescient for what Iâ€™d planned for this second column. It stated that experiencing something was, in the posterâ€™s opinion, a much more important endeavor than defining or debating the parameters of the work in question.
Arguably, the way in which someone experiences anything is influenced not just by the context in which it is experienced but also by the person in question (potentially considerable as the sum total of prior experiences) who is experiencing it. An important and unique part of experiencing a work is the individual connections you make, the things you think, which ultimately influence how you react to the thing in question. What if those thingsâ€”experiencing something and defining what things about it make that experience what it is–arenâ€™t mutually exclusive?
Though this situation isnâ€™t specific to webcomics, Iâ€™d like to bring it to bear on a general consideration of webcomics reading. To this end, I decided to use one of my recent favorites, Bryant Paul Johnsonâ€™s Teaching Baby Paranoia (henceforth TBP; lazy academicâ€™s prerogative), as a virtual lab rat.
There are a few reasons why TBP is a particularly interesting example to consider here. First, thereâ€™s the delivery medium; TBPâ€™s both online and offline (Iâ€™m just going to note the print vs. computers debate that McCloud enumerates in Reinventing Comics about printâ€™s current [but possibly temporary] advantages over computers, and move on). Often described as â€œfaux intellectualismâ€? (rife with â€œnon-specific monsterismâ€? — !!), TBP is composed of strips, serialized online weekly, â€œall of which,â€? in Johnsonâ€™s words, â€œare heavily annotated. All of which may or may not be true.â€? You can read TBP and its archives over at Modern Tales and a number of different places online (including www.teachingbabyparanoia.com). But depending on where you live, you might also be able to find the Autumn 06 minicomic collection of the online strips in your local comic book store. (Iâ€™m not sure how many other collections exist.)
Second, the material offline is the same in its basic guts (line work, dialogue, etc.) to the material online, though there are two important differences that keep the works from being identical to one another. First, and fairly substantial, itâ€™s in color online. The minicomic, like most minicomics, is black-and-white (color printingâ€™s expensive!). A less immediate difference is that in its online form youâ€™ll most frequently see the extensive footnotes for each strip underneath the images and have to scroll down to read them. In the minicomic, those are printed on the back of the page on which a strip is printed, so you have to turn the page to read them and canâ€™t glance up from notes to image.
Iâ€™m tempted to state that it might be that each time we read something we do experience it differently since context does, like people themselves, change, and we are experiencing the work in a different spatial time. But if so, does the initial experience of a work then inform all the subsequent ones? Thereâ€™s got to be reasons why we go back and re-read things; do we then end up with some weird Venn diagram of readership experiences? More to the point, do my experiences change when I read nearly identical material online and offline?
That answerâ€™s easy. Yes, those reading experiences are different. The general consensus seems to be that the web is better suited for reading shorter things, like single-panel and comic-strip format works, rather than lengthy multi-panel narratives (Scary Go Round being a possible exception). With online reading, I find that I have an outrageously short attention span, that I zip through strips and click on to the next thing, and when I read through a lot of archives, I usually feel foggy and out-of-it afterwards.
Do I have those same responses when I read something offline? No. But in reading the TBP minicomic, the experience reading it was remarkably hypertextual. Some folks value hypertext because they see it as â€œan idea that strives to match the agility of human thought in ways the technology of print never could (McCloud, Reinventing Comics, 215: 4-5; he represents this concept as a number of thought balloons that starts with a marlin and ends with a dead mother). In my reading TBP in minicomic form, I thought of the Decemberists (probably the history angle), which got me thinking about Craig Thompson (the way noses are drawn sometimes), and then to Sethâ€™s Itâ€™s Good Life If You Donâ€™t Weaken (the author making up most if not all of the events in question — though they do still hang people in Delaware!). In reading through the TPB archives online, I didnâ€™t make any of those kinds of connections; I think I was reading too quickly. It also felt much easier to skim or (horrors!) skip the footnotes, which is a shame, because those things are pretty damn funny.
Chronologically, I first read Teaching Baby Paranoia in print (as a strip in a newspaper), then much later as a webcomic, then, shortly after, as a minicomic, though Iâ€™m currently following it in webcomic form (but would prefer it in print–just let me know when the next collectionâ€™s out). Embarrassingly, Iâ€™d forgotten where Iâ€™d first read TBP, being accidentally re-introduced to it online recently through, of all things, ComicSpace, and then blundering across it at the local comic book store very unexpectedly. Obviously the initial reading didnâ€™t stick, and I read a few strips online, but didnâ€™t really get into the online version until after Iâ€™d read the minicomic (which felt weird until some folks I know mentioned that they had a similar reading experience with some webcomics that had made their way into print and are now only available in book form).
I donâ€™t want to say itâ€™s just because itâ€™s in print, since there really is a certain thrill in being able to jump online and read a webcomic, especially if itâ€™s in a weird context. Unexpectedly delayed in Atlanta in October and stuck at the gate waiting for flight updates, and tired of the book I was reading, I got online and caught up on a stack of the webcomics Iâ€™d missed while away in Las Vegas. I like Diesel Sweeties well enough, but I positively relished the experience of reading it in an airport in the middle of the night. But part of my experience in reading TBP, and what I find captivating about it, is the analysis, the definition, the trying to figure out why I enjoyed the minicomic version of TBP most of all. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s only because itâ€™s in a familiar form, though that surely had something to do with it. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s solely my preference for print either, or having a tactile experience in reading, though these things are important to me.
McCloud asks, â€œ[w]ill comics lose their magic if we can no longer touch them?â€? (177:6). I thinkâ€“despite my love of print–the answer is actually no, but I also thinkâ€”and TBP might prove–it also doesnâ€™t have to be an either-or situation. In fact, I think webcomics and minicomics have more in common with one another than either might like to admit, and thatâ€™s something Iâ€™m planning to explore in a future column.
Fleen thanks Anne for her guest column. Want to do one yourself? Contact us!