Comics Scholarship in the Digital Age: Towards Media-Specific Research

By Ernesto Priego

An important part of my academic career has focused on the study of the changing nature of comics and comic books in a digital age. Also known as “graphic narrative” or “graphic storytelling,” “comics” has traditionally been used as shorthand for “comic books”, but these terms are not necessarily equivalent, especially as different and newer types of publication have become available. In spite of its plural ending, the term “comics” is used with a singular verb as an umbrella concept covering different manifestations sharing common traits.

Comics is to individual comic books what film or animation are to individual movies. Though “comics” is accepted and used in different languages (for example, in Spanish as “cómics”), it is sometimes used to refer specifically to products made in the United States, but bande dessinée or bédé in French, fumetto in Italian, tebeo or historieta in Spanish, manga in Japanese, quadrinhos in Portuguese, etc. are some of the terms still used to refer to a common expression, sometimes regardless of geographical or linguistic origin. On the other hand, the phrase “comic book”, more often than not, denotes the printed, stapled, soft-spine codex periodical magazine format standardised after 1975 in the United States as 17 x 26 cm (6 ⅝” × 10 ¼”).  Nevertheless, printed publications containing comics vary in format depending on aspects such as publisher, genre, country of origin, etc.

Unless stated otherwise, my own work refers to “comic book(s)” flexibly to refer to any printed periodical publication of different physical formats or countries of origin (magazines about comics are not included in this category).  As Charles Hatfield argues in his entry for ‘comic books’ in The Oxford Companion to the Book, since the mid-1990s cross-pollination among American, European, and increasingly, Japanese traditions has blurred the definition of  ‘comic book’, to the point that readers are now likely to find the term applied to publications far removed from the model of American periodicals” (Hatfield 2010:627).

In recent times, “comics” also evokes the term “graphic novel,” and it can still be the source of some confusion. An increasingly popular term referring to square-bound volumes containing longer unified narratives, (hence the term “novel”), sometimes it is used incorrectly to define square-bound volumes containing compilations of periodical comic books or short stories originally published elsewhere.

Hatfield’s entry for the Oxford Companion is a sign that the debate about the relevance of these terminological distinctions and their effect on different aspects of culture and scholarship is still ongoing, and it reflects one of problems that motivated this article. As Nelson Goodman phrased it, “while a good definition always unequivocally determines what objects conform to it, a definition is seldom in turn uniquely determined by each of its instances” (1976:129). What is at stake then whenever we write the phrases “comics” and “comic books” today?

Goodman wrote that “textual scholars study process (the historical stages in the production, transmission and reception of texts), not just product (the text resulting from such production, transmission and reception” (1976: 2; his emphasis) and though one motivation for my own work was to enquire about the relationship between process and product in comics, it is perhaps equally important to examine the complexities of distinguishing between one and the other.

I suggest that an awareness of the relationship between process and product, and therefore between methods of production and types of publication, can be developed through an understanding of their history. It can be said then that my approach to comics has a historical bias, since it seeks to provide insights into the nature of comics based on the previous history of comics and comics scholarship and placing it in the context of analogue and digital creation and dissemination technologies. This explains partly why I found shelter within the UCL Department of Information Studies. These are ample interdisciplinary fields, historically wired to Textual Scholarship and the History of the Book, and therefore to Humanities Computing or Digital Humanities. The general disciplinary umbrella, though, remains Comics Studies or Comics Scholarship, since its specialised object of study are indeed comics.

So part of my academic work is concerned around comics understood as an artistic form that historically developed with technologies belonging to print culture as a key expression of the age of mechanical reproduction. This fact is both reflected and challenged by the digitisation of printed comics, digital comics (comics created with computers that can be read on different platforms, either networked or not) and webcomics (comics made mainly to be read on computers online). Though it can be said the general academic study of comics is still in a developmental stage, the informal discussion of digital comics, in and out of academia, has increased significantly, gradually reaching the mainstream as a relevant topic.

I believe that it is important that as scholars we are transparent about the transitional, always-changing settings of the phenomena we study. Particularly when writing about technology, it is very likely that our ideas will seem intuitive (or completely wrong) in the not so distant future. One can aspire to offer the conditions for an educated discussion of some of the key issues around our objects of study (say, digital publishing) in the awareness of their historical and therefore contingent context.

The awareness of the speed with which the cultural landscape has changed in the last few years has two-fold consequences. On the one hand it is tempting to quickly reach conclusions in an attempt to pin down a phenomenon before it changes or completely disappears; on the other hand it forces scholarship to be extremely careful of prescriptive conclusions that are likely to be highly debatable. Declaring this historical awareness is a way of positioning an approach and the claims made, and hopefully will also declare a theoretical strategy belonging to the new paradigms being defined by digital technologies, where notions of authority, centrality, relevance and hierarchy amongst others are in the process of being radically transformed.

This transformation, as a complex transition towards a different cultural mindset, can be understood as what Michael Joyce called “othermindedness” or “network culture”. Joyce was not afraid of metaphors when he wrote (2000:1):

Network culture is an othermindedness, a murky sense of a newly evolving consciousness and cognition alike, lingering like a fog on the low-lands after the sweep of light has cleared the higher prospects. The same or a like fog increasingly seems to cling in the folds of the brain. We ache with it, almost as if we could feel the evolution of consciousness in the same way a sleeping adolescent feels the bone ache of growing pains as if in a dream.

Joyce’s passage evokes the painful, border-bending process of cultural shift involved in any metamorphosis. Network culture creates an increasingly fragmented sense of self, which according to Joyce has the effect of making us “less likely to think that a given text could migrate comfortably among occasions or shift perspectives” (2000:3).  In as much as my work is a product of current network culture, it is in this spirit that it wishes to participate in an interrogation of linear understandings of history and “progress” in which technologies and artefacts supplant each other in uncomplicated fashion.

But the conception of this history of transformations should not be evolutionary but relational. In the words of Walter Ong:

[M]ajor developments, and very likely even all major developments, in culture and consciousness, are related, often in unexpected intimacy, to the evolution of the word from primary orality to its present state. But the relationships are varied and complex, with cause and effect often difficult to distinguish (1977: 9-10).

A combination of the perceived speed with which developments in technology seem to influence everyday communication and the often overwhelming interconnectedness of different phenomena poses interesting problems to the scholar trying to make sense of it all on more-or-less fixed platforms (articles; dissertations) in an ever-fleeting present. Melissa Terras points out the challenges and dilemmas faced by media scholars and digital humanists attempting to understand accommodate and facilitate “the rapid developments in technology and corresponding changes in society” (2008:11). Terras quotes a paragraph from Jonathan Lipkin’s book on digital photography that sums this up perfectly well:

Technology today does not evolve in a clear linear pattern. It shifts and mutates in great leaps and bounds, and often in unexpected directions. Because of this, the future holds more questions than answers […] The only things we can be sure of is that the human desire to understand the world through representation will propel the process of making images through greater and greater changes in the years to come (Lipkin 2005:10).

As an alternative to discourses that conform to an idea of the history of technology as a “clear linear” evolution, I have proposed that the new media landscape is composed of a complex integration of analogue and digital texts (Gitelman 2006), where comics play a unique role. To paraphrase Geoffrey Nunberg (1996), a digital revolution is indeed taking place, and comic books in printed and digital formats will be an important part of it. In his somewhat early “Farewell to the Information Age,” Nunberg (1996) had rejected technologically deterministic views that presumed digital texts would replace printed ones altogether. This is not to deny there are significant differences between printed and digital media, on the contrary: their differences and interconnections create new phenomena which include new ways of consuming, creating, distributing, and thinking about different media. When philosopher Pierre Lévy described it thirteen years ago, the Internet was ‘a new medium of communication, thought, and work’ (Lévy, 1997).

The Internet is not a new phenomenon anymore, but Levy’s description remains relevant because it emphasised its triple role, still relevant today: besides a means to stay in touch and carry out specific functions, the Internet imposes and enables a specific way of thinking. Academic work is no stranger to this; the technologies used to conduct research, and importantly said tools as objects of study, create new ways of thinking and organising thought.

Comics scholarship used to be dedicated to the study of what used to be essentially printed publications, and the scholarly work itself used to be created within and for the parameters of printed publications. The rise of digital and online publishing means that scholarship can be both created and presented in both digital and printed forms, and this scholarship is presenting research about comics that are also created and presented in both digital and printed forms. It’s only a question of time before the media-specificity of research and object of study stops being a strange state of “othermindedness” and  becomes second nature through the unavoidable critical awareness that any technology, like academic work itself, is never truly neutral.

Ernesto Priego is currently affiliated as a freelance researcher to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. He is the coordinating editor of The Comics Grid, Journal of Comics Scholarship and an international correspondent for 4Humanities You can find more about him at and follow him on Twitter @ernestopriego. 


Goodman, N. (1976). The Languages of Art. An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing.

Hatfield, C. (2010). ‘Comic Book’, in Suarez, M. and Woudhuysen, H.W., The Oxford Companion to the Book. 626-627. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joyce, M. (2000). Othermindedness. The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Lévy, P. (1997). Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging Worm in Cyberspace. Plenum Press: New York.

Lipkin, J. (2005). Photography Reborn, Image Making in the Digital Era. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Nunberg, G. (ed.) (1996). The Future of the Book. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ong, W.J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Smith, M.R. and Marx, L. (eds.) (1994). Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Terras, M.S. (2008). Digital Images for the Information Professional. Aldershot: Ashgate.