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Paintbrushes and Paragraphs

Rigidity in medium has been flouted by many an artist over hundreds of years. William Blake told stories in his poems and twisted those stories in his illustrations. In the 1950s the term “concrete poetry” was coined to describe poetry shaped like its subject, like the mouse’s tale in Alice in Wonderland, which reminds the reader of a tail. Two weeks after the deadline for this article, Kiersten White and Jim Di Bartolo will publish In the Shadows, a novel told partly through words, partly through paintings. Since human beings apparently like tricolons (I sure do), I believe these examples are sufficient to justify an article about the wealth of possibilities that open up through unconventional or mixed media, and about how a range of works — from graphic novels to “app books” — have used traditional media as well as technological developments to enhance their stories. If that fails to entice you, at least stick around for the next couple of paragraphs, which feature a naked blue dude.

Naked Blue Dude
A prime example of mixed media from the world of comics is the classic Watchmen. For those of you not well-versed in the superhero universe, Watchmen is a DC graphic novel—DC are the blokes who live in a bat cave and advocate the survival of public phone booths so Clark Kent can go Superman — about superheroes without superpowers. Think Spider-Man with the pyjamas but without the quips and hairy fingers. That is, until one smart guy gets zapped and returns from the dead: blue and with godlike abilities. (And, yes, as the story progresses he strips down. He also teleports to Mars, where he builds a glass castle “Let It Go” style.) So, now you have a vague idea of the set-up for Watchmen. Odds are you are wondering what all of this has to do with mixed media. Watchmen is not only a classic graphic novel, it is also a novel novel. Each chapter but the last, concludes with written media (sometimes accompanied by “photographs”): chapters from a book by one of the vigilantes, newspaper clippings, and an article about owls. Some of these, such as those chapters, but also an article about an inuniverse comic book author, provide perspectives that would otherwise remain muted. Said vigilante’s book reveals a history that is key to the superhero dynamics. The evaluation of the comic book writer’s eccentric, conceited personality helps explain his attitude when he appears in a later chapter. An almost stereotypically cross news reporter — think Spider-Man’s employer J. Jonah Jameson — turns out to be a fervent supporter of the Watchmen (but he still curses like a sailor; this article would not even survive first pass if I were to write like him). A scientific article broadens the scope of the story, which was set up, necessary for Watchmen’s explosive finale. In short, these non-panelled excerpts nuance an already layered story. But there are a few problems. The first takes the form of info dumps. In particular, the book chapters force the reader to digest a fairly extensive history in a condensed format, which I find is a pity, because there they contain great potential for dramatic tension — probably enough to fill another volume. Which brings me to my next point: key elements of the history of the “Minutemen”, as the first wave of heroes is referred to, are depicted in comic format and in text. I have no issues with the occasional reminder. In fact, I appreciate it: Watchmen has a large cast, and most characters go by at least two names. However, I think some of the drive behind the story is lost as a result.

Internet and Immortality
Watchmen was serialised from 1986 to 1987, and it spans several decades without Internet and mobile phones. Feel free to mull over that for a second. Done? Then let us move on to those technological advances I mentioned in my opening paragraph, because they have not been neglected by the world of fiction. Twenty years after Watchmen, game designers Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman figured that if games could feature increasingly complicated plots through cut scenes and dialogue, then should it not also be possible to do the reverse: make books more interactive? (At least, that is how I imagine it went.) The result was Cathy’s Book. Equipped with a pocket marked “Em[ma], this is the evidence. Hide it well,” the book encourages the reader to visit websites and dial phone numbers for clues, as protagonist Cathy Vickers attempts to discover what on earth her ex-boyfriend’s deal is (yes, she is a semi-self-confessed stalker of the deadpan snarker variety).

Spoiler: the ex-boyfriend is immortal. Like Blue Naked Dude from Watchmen, what should have caused his death triggered his “condition”. It is easy to see how the ex’s immortality relates to the hyperlinks that Cathy scribbles on the pages and evidence: what you post online stays online. Metaphors aside, the small clues sprinkled throughout the pages and the interactivity are engaging, and they show effectively how a story can go beyond the pages of the book.

More recently, in 2011, HarperCollins announced Dark Eden by Patrick Carman, a story in app form, which features a map of the setting, with each chapter linked to a location on that map. Materials not only include traditional stories, but also video footage, audio recordings, and so on. Downside: if, like yours truly, you are secretly a tea-sipping, cane-waving granny without one of those devices your young kids these days have, a YouTube trailer is where the experience ends.

An Exercise in Medium
These are, of course, only a few ways in which artists have drawn on different media to enrich their (graphic) novels. I could, for instance, delve into how the protagonist of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a young-adult novel by Jesse Andrews, ccasionally switches to script formatting. Or how some books are partly in verse (though I have not yet seen haiku).

I, for one, would love to see more books employ a combination of media, because I think they allow for a variety of means to engage readers and broaden the appeal of a story to a wider range of readers. by Valerie Brentjes

works Cited

Moore, Alan, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 2008. Print.

Stewart, Sean, Jordan Weisman, and Cathy Brigg. Cathy’s boek. Trans. Aimée Warmerdam. Amsterdam: Pimento, 2008. Print.