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Appreciating Digital Comics through Emily Carroll

It took me some time to appreciate digital comics. Not the ones drawn with conventional media and then released digitally, but comics created entirely on a computer. For some reason, I had never had the courage to dive into their world of what I saw as insubstantial pages and immaterial panels. Like many other comic book readers, I used to believe that if you can’t touch them, smell them or pile them up on the shelf then what’s the point of reading them, right?

Wrong. Because someone has convinced me otherwise. This person has shown me that a digital comic book is not a transplanted organ, removed from the paper and absorbed into the screen. There’s no point in missing their touch, smell or piling up capabilities because they were never meant to express that in the first place, even less emulating them. The digital world has its own substance and materiality.

And the person who taught me that is Emily Carroll, Canadian comics author of horror and fantasy-themed webcomics.

From Carroll and her beautifully illustrated panels I’ve learned that digital comics have a life of their own and are totally independent from their printed cousins. With a whole new environment to dwell, we the readers can explore afresh. And that’s exactly what I did. I immersed myself into Carroll’s art and read all of her comics. And by doing that I discovered three things, three features that mix up and rearrange the form (the comic book medium) and the content (the images of horror and fantasy) of her digital landscape.

Let’s check the three features one by one:

1st feature – Digital movement

We read a digital comic like we read all other (western) printed comics: from left to right, from top to bottom. But that’s where the similarities end. In addition to the left-right-top-bottom order, a printed page also needs to be turned. A digital page, on the other hand, may be turned (in a virtual way) but doesn’t have to. It can simply go down, on and on, not like a book but like a scroll.

So what does that mean and how does Carroll work with that? She uses it as a part of the content and makes it work for her. If the reading experience can scroll down indefinitely, then the images must express that movement visually. And that’s why her panels are filled with basements, wells, underfloors, pitfalls, caves, tombs and all kinds of holes in the ground. Her drawings live their own format as images moving toward the depths of their own medium.

In His Face All Red, a young man goes down the pit of the beast in search of his brother.

Emily Carroll - His Face All Red

In The Prince and the Sea, a prince is dragged down to the bottom of a pond by his water nymph lover.

Emily Carroll - The Prince and the Sea

In Out the Door, a young boy contemplates the dark depths of his basement.

Emily Carroll - Out the Door

All this movement toward the unknown, all this diving into the buried things of every-day life, carries with it a strong element of horror.

2nd feature – Digital time

Each page of a printed comic has a time imprint. As we read them and turn them over, we turn over time itself. A page can only exist if the previous one has been set aside, which means they can’t be there all together in time. And again, this isn’t necessarily true for a digital comic. In the digital world, pages can all exist simultaneously, distributed along the deep screen.

Carroll once again uses the format to her own advantage and to spice up the flavor of her content. If everything is already there, time tends to go full circle. Her tales come and go around her drawings, repeating themselves time and time again. Her stories are full of departures and returns, repetitions and swings, comings and goings, cycles and loops.

In Anu-Anulan & Yir’s Daughter, a Goddess comes down to Earth three times, and for three times she is offered the silver curls of a maiden.

Emily Carroll - Anu-Anulan & Yir's Daughter

In Out of Skin, murdered corpses come back to memory and continuously surround the cabin of the woman who had ignored them in life.

Emily Carroll - Out of Skin

In The Three Snake Leaves, we move back and forth from tale to tale as a prince and his deceased wife retell the same adventure under different eyes.

Emily Carroll - The Three Snake Leaves (prince)

Emily Carroll - The Three Snake Leaves (princess)

All this time shifting, all this fairy-tale style of revisiting unusual events, brings with it a powerful element of fantasy.

3rd feature – Digital space

A printed comic book consists of one single frame and is its own physical space. There is nothing beyond the limits of its pages. Now think about digital comics. All of them come with an external screen (the device we use to read it) and many layers of internal screens (windows, bars, tabs, menus, boxes, widgets and icons). The story we read is no more than a fragment of that interface. Beyond the limits of its pages there is everything else that particular device allows us to have. A digital comic is never a world in itself, it’s much more than that.

This is also absorbed and expressed by Carroll. If space is shared, then tales should be shared too. And that’s why her stories usually contain in themselves other stories, tales between tales and settings within settings. There are images of dreams and forecasting, mirrors and light reflections, subplots and secondary voices, sketches and canvases.

In The Groom, a toy model serves as background and parallel story to the mystery surrounding its own existence.

Emily Carroll - The Groom

In The Hole the Fox Did Make, a girl who dreams of being a fox illustrates her different and distinct lives.

Emily Carroll - The Hole the Fox Did Make

In When the Darkness Presses, two friends chronicle and expose their freakiest nightmares.

Emily Carroll - When Darkness Presses

And just like it happens to movement, which falls down toward the horror, and to time, which comes back around the fantasy, the feature of space in Carroll’s work opens up new possibilities to play with form and content.

More than adapting ideas from printed comic books, she comes up with something new, fresh and all hers.

Thank you Emily, for helping me uncover that world.