- Digital Comics, Circulation, and the Importance of Being Eric Sluis
These rubber-stamped words appear smack in the middle of the first frame of the first page of the first issue of Marvel's The Fantastic Four. That is, if you're looking at the PDF version of the comic on the DVD-ROM 44 Years of Fantastic Four, issued by Graphic Imaging Technology (GIT).1 In the version of Fantastic Four #1 on Digital Comics Unlimited, Marvel's online comic service, not only are those words absent, but the entire issue has been retouched and recolored. Further, all of the print comic's advertising and editorial content has been excised.2 The Marvel Comics iPhone application also uses a retouched version of the issue, but it differs in another significant respect: it does not allow the viewer to ever see an entire page of the comic, moving instead from frame to frame. All digital comics are not created equal.
Imagine for a minute that you have access to the DVD archive of Fantastic Four. Digging into the editorial material in the comics provides some clues about how Mr. Sluis rose to his brief notoriety. The fan mail page in issue #10 reveals that by the time it appeared, back issues of #1-9 were long gone: "If anyone has a large supply to sell, we would be glad to print his name and address."3 There were evidently other gaps in Marvel's archive as well: the file copy of Fantastic Four #101 used for the DVD had the numbers 5 and 12 inexplicably stamped on the cover before digitization. Certainly not having imagined a digital future in which an original copy of Fantastic Four would be needed again after its 1970 publication, Marvel was rather lucky that Eric Sluis was a better archivist than they were.
As comics continue their decades-old process of migrating off the page and onto the screen, the insights of Film Studies scholarship become increasingly relevant to their study. I began with the Eric Sluis example because I want to argue that the branch of cinema theory that deals with circulation is especially [End Page 127] useful for thinking about digital comics. One touchstone is Toby Miller's "Cinema Studies Doesn't Matter; or, I Know What You Did Last Semester," which argues that "[w]e should acknowledge the policy, distributional, promotional, and exhibitionary protocols of the screen at each site as much as their textual ones."4 Miller eschews content analysis for a consideration of the production, consumption, and distribution of onscreen cultural expression. Tracking the circulation of money and labor, he contends, demonstrates how the screen actively shapes society by acting as a component of sovereignty and an aggregator of cultural industries.
Will Straw's "The Circulatory Turn" adds to these concerns an emphasis on the materiality of cultural forms, but rather than focusing on their production or reception, Straw foregrounds the effect of their movement through culture. Surveying the work of theorists from Michel Foucault to Friedrich Kittler, Straw begins with the observation that material forms do not just transmit cultural expression; they also shape it in ways that are culturally relevant.5 Which screens we view digital comics on, then, should be a matter of concern. (Paradigms from video game theory, such as Nick Montfort's "platform studies" model, could also be helpful in delineating the precise materiality of digital comics, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this brief article.)6
However useful materialist media theory is in terms of its insights into questions of the storage, transmission, and shaping of cultural expression, Straw finds it ill equipped to address questions specific to the mobility of contemporary digital technologies, and he turns to recent social theory for additional insights.7 Invoking the work of Dilip Gaonkar and Elizabeth Povinelli, as well as Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma, Straw writes that "the key question is no longer that of how personal or collective life registers itself within communicative expression, but of how the movement of cultural forms presumes and creates the matrices of interconnection which produce social texture."8 Rather than thinking about digital comics...