Batwoman #16: The Case Against Digital Comics

An exerpiment in going all-digital for two weeks runs into a wall of beauty thanks to J.H. Williams III.

Andy Hunsakerby Andy Hunsaker

The last two weeks have found me without access to brand new paper comics, which have been my preferred vice for decades now as evidenced by a room in my house dedicated almost solely to their housing. However, I did have my newly (and somewhat skeptically) purchased iPad, and so I figured it would be about time for me to commit to the experience of digital comics. I'd only dabbled as a novelty before, but it is obviously the wave of the future. Print media is in danger, and if this particular art form is to survive, it has to adapt, and so do I, yadda yadda future shock 2001 Transmetropolitan 2099 virtual reality cyberpunk.

For the most part, it worked out fairly well. I didn't quite get the full breadth of what was available each week, and I missed out on the comic shop camaraderie, but the realization that there was a panel-by-panel mode that forced you to follow the narrative without glancing ahead and potentially spoiling yourself was really sweet. That was my preferred method of taking in digital comics – following the story as it was intended to unfold felt awesome, like those Marvel Infinite comics designed specifically for tablets. It made sense and felt like I could properly focus on each panel.

That is, until I read Batwoman #16. An epic tale of a pitched battle with Wonder Woman, Medusa, monsters and the massive Hydra of legend being waged in the heart of Gotham City, with art from J.H. Williams III that demands to be held in your hands and seen on the printed page.

The things Williams does with layouts defies and destroys the conventional notion of panel division. Standard comics with standard formats work fine in digital form, but it's not quite the same medium if you can't really savor the full breadth of what he accomplishes on the canvas of the comic. Sure, you can pull out of the by-panel mode (which kind of burps up on these massive splashy arrangements) and go page by page to get a sense of it well enough, but (and here's the dreaded vague old-guy kvetch about digital)… it's just not the same.

Of course it's not, you may say. It's supposed to be different, and that's half the point. But these pages, especially in this fevered pitch of an issue full of massive, sprawling action and epic (and not generically epic, but historically epic) scale, demands that you view it as a whole, and not with all the un-pinching and scrolling back and forth. The title page for this "World's Finest" story with the monstrous, looming form of the Hydra stomping over the chaos below and the lives of two superheroes whose problems don't amount to a hill of beans in this kaiju-stomping world… it's stunning. The shifting perspectives, between Medusa and Cameron Chase,  the triumphantly returning Flamebird and the redemptive twist of the Weeping Woman all have these imaginatively rendered splash pages that just don't have the same breathtaking effect on a computer screen than they would if they were sitting in your hands.

Batwoman is one of the biggest reasons to buy comics at all, with it being an overall feast for the eyes. But one of the best things going in the medium is hampered a bit by the digital format. The best comics work best as actual hard-copy comics. Could it succeed in a digital form? If designed differently, perhaps… but then it wouldn't quite be Batwoman.