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Teaching about Interactive Media with Comics

posted: 3.4.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Web comics have become a venue for both established artists and indie creators and can serve as a way to discuss how screens, input devices, and interactive user behavior play a role in how we consume (and produce) media.  By thinking about layouts beyond the page, veteran graphic novelist Scott McCloud has written The Right Number, in which readers can dive deep into a telescoping page, and composed an online response to an essay by Brenda Laurel, in which his audience can explore vast planes of textual real estate.

In our online sample chapter of Understanding Rhetoric, our readers are only allowed to flip pages, but many kinds of interactive experiences have become possible with comics created for ubiquitous computing devices with accelerometers and global positioning systems, such at the iPad, iPhone, or Android compatible devices.

Award-winning interactive media designer Erik Loyer has used the comic book page as a way to “play stories like instruments.” Loyer has created what he calls “opertoons” that combine comics, games, music, and touch to create new forms of digital storytelling.  I knew his iPhone app Ruben & Lullaby, which tells the story of an interracial couple’s first fight wordlessly with a jazz score.  Ruben & Lullaby was an official selection at IndieCade, where visitors could flip back and forth to demonstrate the perspectives of the two characters, shake them to make them angry, and stroke them to calm them down.

At a recent electronic literature event I had the privilege of seeing newer interactive comics by Loyer, which included the collaborative series Upgrade Soul.  Created for the iPad, Upgrade Soul deploys relatively subtle 3-D effects and animations as it tells a gothic tale of bioengineering gone wrong.   Loyer is also using beta versions of new motion capture technologies in an experimental work in which the action takes place on urban balconies and perspective takes a starring role as users manipulate the page layouts by moving their hands through the air magically.

In Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan famously argued that comics were a “cool” medium that required more detached intellectual participation as readers assembled clues and decoded the content, unlike film and more immersive “hot” media.  Even without digital technologies, there are many ways to play up the interactive possibilities for comics.  Give students pages of Understanding Rhetoric with empty speech bubbles that they can fill in or encourage them to keep the original dialogue that we have written but add new illustrations from magazines or pictures off the web.  Skip ahead and ask students to interpret frames out of context or read panels backwards from traditional up-to-down and right-to-left order.  Don’t forget that we have included a fold-in in our chapter on Critical Reading that should invite hands-on interactivity.   Often we don’t have room in the jam-packed chapters for students to add their own writing – although at one point we wanted to include blank panels for drawing – we do want your students to see this graphic guide to writing as an invitation to retell the story with their own elements or navigate it in new ways.

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