Reading Through the Funny Pages

"So what have you been reading," my erudite friend asks. I know already how I am supposed to answer this question. I have fallen in with a bad intellectual crowd in recent years, and it threatens to erode my pop culture street cred. This gang of NPR-listening, left-leaning, grad-schooled, crossword puzzle-solvers still reads newspapers, for God's sake! I know that I am supposed to rhapsodize on Colum McCann or Jonathan Lethem's latest fictional tributes to New York living. After all, eggheads in my neighborhood like to think that northern Delaware is actually a bedroom suburb of Manhattan. I could try to fake it and say that I have been reading all of those well-reviewed contemplative novels by MFA types that explore the hidden angst of the upper-middle class literary life. But all of those writers blur in head, as indistinguishable as yet another blonde ingénue on the red carpet. I know I am being a Neanderthal, but Jayne Anne Phillips, Lorrie Moore, and Mary Karr fade into one another for me the same way Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Bell, and Hilary Duff seem like the same person. If I dare to slum I might suggests that the new Stieg Larsson thriller is good, because if you have to read a bestseller, then at least it can be written by a Swede... and a dead one at that.



Truth be told, I am deep into 30s and 40s comic strips right now. "I am going through the Sea Hag sequence in E.C. Segar's 'Popeye' strip," I tell my friend. "I just got through the Pruneface episodes in 'Dick Tracy' from the war years and now I am drilling into the great Cosmic City storyline in 'Little Orphan Annie' from 1933." My polite friends are suitably patronizing and smoothly move me to safer chit chat... like what do I think of that subtitled foreign documentary on the plight of Gaza residents.

But if we stayed on my preferred topic I could go on about my growing interest in the way that a classic American pop art form, the comics, are migrating to mobile. On this last day of 2009, it is fitting to contemplate how that last glorious page of the sinking newspaper medium could find a new home on mobile phones. Syndicators like UClick's GoComics have been bringing "Garfield" and "Bone" among many others to phones for a while. There is a very fine dedicated "Dilbert" app. While I am not sure they are fully licensed, you can find "Doonesbury" and "Calvin and Hobbes" via Android apps. And there is a ton of Japanese manga, all kinds of graphic novels and digitized comic books now coming into a range of mobile devices. The Sony PSP now has a dedicated digital comics application and special section in the downloads store where Marvel, IDW and other publishers sell comic books by the issue.

Marketers should take note of the mobile comics niche, because this mode of communication probably maps better against the unique properties of a handheld medium than does the miniaturized Web sites, photos and text on which we rely. In format, frequency, and brevity, the comic strip is made for mobile. The portrait orientation of most phones is perfect for the frame-by-frame structure of comics. In some ways the phone actually improves on the newspaper experience. Generally, a smart phone display doubles or triples the size of a typical panel printed in a newspaper, so the reader actually sees the line work that creates a cartoonist's world view. The rhythm of a mobile comic also improves upon the print form. The iPhone Dilbert app lets you isolate the panel from the strip, so you swipe each frame and get surprised by the comic effect cartoonists thrive upon. The content comes to you daily and in short snacks that fit the situation of on-the-go media consumption.

Note to marketers. You want a winner? Partner with the syndicate behind Gary Larson's brilliant and discontinued "Far Side" one-panels. Re-issue them in an app and mobile Web. Send me a daily SMS or iPhone alert that kicks me into the day's panel. I would gladly watch a full-page interstitial on your product in exchange for this delicious content. Better still, take the lead of this medium and consider using the comic strip format to communicate with consumers. You techies can correct me if I am wrong but wouldn't MMS be a perfect channel for delivering at least one-panel dailies? The marriage between marketing and comics is long, from Buster Brown shoes to Snoopy and MetLife. The mobile platform offers us unique ways to refresh the relationship.

But the role of visual media on handsets runs deeper than that. Mobile is introducing some cool innovations not only to the comics form but to media generally. Comics reader apps have started to become more sophisticated in zooming in and scanning across a full-page of artwork. In order to replicate the reading of a modern graphic novel (which often breaks the rigid panel format) you need software that pans and magnifies artwork intelligently and with a dramatic rhythm. In the Sony PSP digital comics reader an "Auto Flow" technique moves the camera across the most relevant pieces of the magnified page. By controlling point-of-view and eye movement in the limited frame of a handheld display these readers may be flexing a new aesthetic muscle for all mobile communicators. The PSP also just introduced the graphic novel voiceover commentary. The creators of the series "Wormwood" provide a DVD-like extra soundtrack of reflection on their creation that the mobile viewer can turn on or off while reading the comic. There are unique aesthetic effects germinating in here and I wonder if someone from the media or marketing worlds will make something of them.

I have no idea where these experiments in technology and form could head. But I do know that every new medium, from newspapers to film to radio and TV, really take off when we create new modes of expression that leverage the unique limitations and attributes of the technology and speak to the ways in which the medium is consumed. It is hard for me to believe that Web sites and apps, banner ads and on-the-go TV, really exhaust the possibilities for mobile media or even tap its discrete strengths. The kind of play that is going on at the fringes of mobile media now (even in rethinking classic forms like comics), may get us closer to growing mobile into a real medium.

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