Comic Book Markup Language: Challenges and Opportunities

Yesterday I attended the London Seminar in Digital Text and Scholarship where Ernesto Priego spoke about Comic Book Markup Language: Challenges and Opportunities.

I really enjoy listening to Ernesto talk about his research, he has a gentle enthusiasm which is infectious and you can’t help but become absorbed in his world of comics. I always find myself imagining Ernesto in Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable, perhaps not as evil as the antihero Elijah (the ever so cool Samuel L. Jackson) but just as knowledgeable, fascinating and immersed in comic book culture.

I like the idea of comic book scholarship, because it takes an element of popular culture and really breaks it down and starts looking beyond the fandom, at what Comics actually present to the reader.  Something that you don’t tend to notice when you were child avidly reading the storyboards.  Comics are a unique combination of text and graphics; very hand-crafted art form and perhaps share more in common with the illuminated manuscript than the printed book.

Ernesto started with a comprehensive introduction of the history of comic books, talking through the ups and downs.  In the 1930s and 40s comics were everywhere, by 1948 witch hunts for comics occurred, book burning because apparently comics contained inappropriate material for children. They then needs to be approved by the Comics Code 1954.  From this there uber fetishism of comics started, comic book fans keeping comic books in pristine condition in their plastic.

Yet this uber fetishism and obsession to preserve comics hasn’t transferred over to  all libraries and archives. (Some libraries do an excellent job at collecting and preserving print comics… also some communities of fans do a lot of collecting, indexing, archiving work online. This work is not systematised and it is either disconnected from institutional initiatives or too informal.) There seems to be a need to prove that comics are worth scholarship and preservation.

Something that could potentially change this view is Comic book markup language (CBML) and digitisation. CBML is a TEI-based XML vocabulary for encoding comics, comic books and graphic novels.  It uses TEI to build an XML vocabulary for encoding metadata and content. CBML offers a system for encoding important aspects of comics, such as panels, speech and thought balloons, narrative captions, sound effects, advertisements, credits, letter columns.  But this highlights difficult challenges.

Lots of comic book images are drawn, inked, and coloured. Only very recently has much of the colouring and lettering on new comics been migrated to digital environments. The text like POW! SMASH! BANG! is inextricably bound with the image. How exactly do you mark that up? Is more subjective description required? Will digitisation save the preservation issues around comics? Probably not,  the digital comic book–no matter how meticulously encoded–cannot be sufficiently represented in XML alone.  So then what do you do?

Ernesto suggests that we need to completely rethink our ideas about comic book materiality. Ernesto believes that Comic materiality differs from that of other media and how it produces and is simultaneously the consequence of particular ‘textual topologies’. So, comics are pretty much untranslatable to digital and other media.

Despite all the problems, digitisation of comics has re-connected comic scholarship to theories of digital textuality and comics now fit quite happily into the study of the history of the book. Which can only be a good thing.

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