The answer to this post’s title is both, of course. But I’ve posted the question in order to think about the different kinds of reading (and viewing) experiences that comics generate and why we value certain storytelling modes over others.
Thanks to an article in Colorlines, I recently discovered 3bute, a transnational online comics “mashable anthology” that describes its goal as “adding visuals and crowdsourced context to African literature and journalism on the web.” Artist Bunmi Oloruntoba and editor Emmanuel Iduma collaborate with reporters and creative writers to furnish “the contexts often missing when African stories are reported.” Every two weeks, 3bute [pronounced "tribute"] publishes a three-page comic from a different African country in which readers tag the images like a wiki page with links to videos, articles, slide shows, twitter posts, music tracks, and other media.
The resulting comic is dotted with icons that appear as you touch or move your mouse over its surface. The interactive features blink and pop as you shift from panel to panel in the site’s effort to undermine “the single, one-dimensional story of poverty, sickness, conflict” that far too often disparages the continent. 3bute uses new technology to explore the contours of African modernity through “multifaceted stories,” arguably drawing upon the collaborative traditions that are reminiscent of the open-ended serial narratives from the early-twentieth century – Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff or The Gumpsby Sidney Smith, for instance – newspaper strips that welcomed audience interaction with the world of the characters.
Once you take the site’s advice and “drive slowly” over the 3bute comic, the ride can be quite impressive. One of my favorites is #11, “When You Kill Us, We Rule!” adapted from the last interview with Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti. In the comic, journalist Keziah Jones describes the experience of meeting Fela before asking him to reflect upon the effectiveness of music as a medium of political change. The musician’s response moves into a meditation on the power of protest when a people sacrifice themselves for a larger cause. Music, video clips, and interviews dot the first half the comic, but then shift to links about Nigerian oil, money laundering, and corruption. I’ve found it best to read and view the comic completely first before clicking through the tagged material (a practice that works much better on a mobile device than the computer, importantly enough). You can spend an hour on a three-page comic like this and come away with a richly informative and deeply rewarding reading experience.
My point here is not to compare or attempt to legitamize 3bute through other comics, but to suggest that the online comics anthology makes the question of how we negotiate the clashing tensions of the form more urgent, particularly when the allusions and contextual material push us further out of the story, rather than pulling us in.
What do we lose when we continue to insist that comics should offer an immersive reading experience, rather than an expansive one? (Is there a better term or concept that you might use instead?) Take a look at 3bute while you are at it, and let me know what you think.