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.


The Digital Revolution(?): Music, Musicology, and Social Networking.

By Kieran Fenby-Hulse

It is has become a commonplace to refer to the development of the internet and more recently Web 2.0 technologies as a digital revolution. But if revolution is defined as period that results in a sharp break with the old order, I’m not convinced this quite rings true, at least in the case of our relationship with music. In my opinion, whilst the development of digital technologies has provided us with new ways of listening to and engaging with music, I don’t think the nature of our relationship with music has undergone a radical change.

Recently, I’ve been exploring the impact the iPod and mobile music platforms have had on our relationship with music and would say that one of the most profound effects that the so-called digital revolution has had on this relationship is the increased ease with which we can listen to almost whatever music we want, when we want, no matter where we are. While listening to music on the move isn’t actually that new (after all, there were Walkmans in the 1980s, transistor radios in the 1950s, and music could be listened to in cars as early as the 1930s), the ability of accessing a huge library of music in a range of remote locations at the click of a button does mean music is now pretty much available on-demand. In short, digital media enables listeners to personalise and aestheticise almost any geographical location.

So what does this revolution mean for music listeners and musicologists? Well, firstly, I think it begs some interesting questions about the relationship between the music we listen to and our understanding of place. The ability for us to listen to music almost anywhere means that music can be heard in an endless array of different contexts, with each context potentially affecting the way in which the work is understood and perceived. For instance, what does it mean if we listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, a work intended for a concert hall, while sitting by a brook in the middle of the countryside? And, how does listening to a rural folk song while travelling on the London underground differ form listening to the track from the comfort of our home? These are interesting questions that ask us to think about music in terms of personal experience and place.

Secondly, I think the development of web 2.0 technologies provides scholars with a plethora of digital data for exploring music and understandings of music. The use of hashtags to describe activities on Twitter, for example, allows for searches to be conducted that explore what people are listening to at different moments in time, and whether musical listening is connected to time, events, and working schedules. (This search could then be refined by plotting user locations and identifying possible geographical trends).

The creation of user playlists on Spotify is another fantastic resource, and something I am particularly interested in at the moment. These homemade compilations provide a fascinating insight into how people are listening to and categorising music. Playlist titles (Music for the Gym, Wake-up Music, Sunday Morning Chillout) are particularly interesting to explore, as they often provide contextual information on how the musical tracks are grouped, thus providing the playlist with an overarching narrative and in some cases a specific function. Music, it seems, is being used increasingly to accompany specific daily routines, events, and tasks. The titles given to shared playlists also have the potential to affect how we hear and understand a track, the narrative of the playlist becoming entwined with the narrative of the musical track, allowing listeners to reimagine and rethink familiar songs in a new ways.

YouTube is also a fantastic place to explore how people are engaging with music. The comments provided by users on music videos can help us to understand people’s reactions to a particular track or piece and, perhaps, the role interaction and dialogue plays in people’s relationship to digital music and media. The homemade music videos and the various cover versions of songs hosted on YouTube can also help us to understand how people consume and experience music. The potential for future research is great.

To sum up, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that digital media has revolutionised our relationship with music, as many of the ways in which we listen to and engage with music still hold sway. Indeed, radio, television, records, gigs, stadium concerts, and amateur performances are remain important. I do think, though, that the developments in digital media have provided us with a new way to listen to music and some new tools with which we can explore music.

Kieran Fenby-Hulse works at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Brighton as a Research Officer. His principal research interest lies with understanding the relationship between music and narrative and he is currently exploring the impact digital media has had on how we listen to and understand music. To read more from Kieran, visit his blog here.