Frozen Moments in Motion

An Artistic Research on Digital Comics by Fredrik Rysjedal

The Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design (KMD), The University of Bergen

At the top of Figure 1 is the umbrella-term ‘the screen-based comic’, which I define inchapter 4 (the section ‘Fundamental Parameters of Digital Comics’). From there it splits into an analogue and a digital form. Under ‘digital comics’, I have listed the four properties which I think define the visual possibilities for a digital comic. The second, ‘dynamic visuals’, indicates the possibility to show movement or motion.

The four possibilities can be combined, but sometimes one property may dominate the others. To make it easier to navigate in digital comic theory, I suggest that we can also use these four properties to categorize directions in digital comics. The following examples can serve to elucidate the directions:

a.              Static visuals:
This is the presentation form that we know from print, and it is characterized by static visual material and fixed frames. DC's digital comic book Batman Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli (1986, available from Comixology, Amazon’s comic app) has static page-based structures and could be placed in this category (Video 1)


b.              Dynamic visuals
A digital comic such as Boulet’s Our Toyota Was Fantastic (2013) has looped gif-animations in the panels (Video 2)
. His scroll comic The Long Journey (2013), which only has a mobile frame, can also be included in this category. Motion comics such as Watchmen: Motion Comic (2008, based on the comic-book series Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons) and digital comics such as my own Close, Closer, Closest (2016) use interactive cinematic panels, panel delivery and show motion and change, thus classify as having dynamic visuals.


c.              Interactive visuals
Navigation is the simplest form of interaction (Dixon 2007: 566), and all digital comics that exceed a single screen frame need navigation. I therefor put digital comics that use interactivity in a way that goes beyond the concept of navigation in this category. The comic artist and researcher Daniel Merlin Goodbrey has defined ‘hypercomics’ as digital comics with a multi-cursal narrative structure. One type of hypercomics is non-linear stories in which the reader must choose paths and how to conceive the story. An example is Goodbrey’s The Formalist (2004). Another type is the game comic. In the digital comic The Empty Kingdom (2015), Goodbrey includes game structures such as puzzles and phenomena that must be explored (Video 3).


d.              Real-time visuals
Real-time visuals only exist in the moment of viewing, here and now. This direction in digital comics is exemplified by Modern Polaxis (2014) by the Australian comic artist Sutu, who explores augmented reality. The comic is based on viewing a physical printed comic through the camera of a smartphone. The smartphone screen reacts to the existing graphics and reveals new graphics on top of them. Comics that intertwine with real-time images are also possible, but very few experiments have thus far been made in this direction. I use physical real-time visuals in my comic Sound of the Aurora (described in chapter 2), however, they are not a big part of the comic, so I do not put the work in this category.


With this overview of the four directions in digital comics, it is possible to see both of my digital comics, Sound of the Aurora and Close, Closer, Closest, as fitting best in the category of dynamic visuals. I could therefore also describe ‘Frozen Moments in Motion’ as an artistic research project on digital comics within the field of dynamic visuals.

Chapter 1: The Relationship between Comics and Film

In this chapter I explore the relationship between comics and film, mapping the position of motion in digital comic media. I address the status of digital comics that make use of motion and look at the similarities and the differences between comics and film. Limited animation, the motion comic and the split screen are also addressed, as are presentation forms in which the media of comics and film approach each other to the point where they are difficult to distinguish. Towards the end of the chapter I search for the boundary between comics and film, and I close with a question: Why use motion in comics?


Positioning Motion in Digital Comics

Digital comics have many sub-forms, examples being webcomics, digital comic books, motion books, motion comics, scrolls, hyper comics, game comics and so on. Some of the variations have motion in their name, but even those that do not can involve motion. The principles of new media explain how motion in comics is possible (Manovich 2001: 30, 36), but I wonder: What other visual properties can co-exist with motion in digital comics?


The screen theory developed by Lev Manovich has helped me put motion in a useful perspective. I define the screen as one of four parameters of the digital comic (see chapter 4, the section ‘The Fundamental Parameters of Digital Comics’). According to Manovic, there are four types of screens: the classic scree, the dynamic screen, the real-time screen and the interactive screen (2001: 95–99). Since the screen is a central parameter of digital comics, I suggest that these four screen types can describe the visual properties of digital comics, as shown in Figure 1:

The Meeting Points of Comic and Film

Studying the history of animation film, it becomes clear that film is a multimedium that can approach comics. When I approach film from a comic point of view, I am reminded of a technique for reducing the amount of motion as much as possible so it almost becomes a sequence of static images. This technique, called ‘limited animation’, was developed by animators and producers in the 1950s and ‘60s (Cavalier 2011: 398). Tezuka Productions in Japan and Hanna-Barbera in the USA are animation studios that pioneered in the development of this technique. The function of limited animation is to lower the amount of animation to a minimum in a production. This results in a screenplay where all shots capture static objects or poses. When edited together, they create motion with closure just as in comics.


2001 is probably the year motion comics emerged. I cannot find any documentation to identify the first motion comic, but the first I have observed, where the creators defined it as a motion comic, is Broken Saints by Brooke Burgess, Ian Kirby and Andrew West (Video 7). It consists of 24 chapters that were published online from 17 January 2001 to 2003. A revised version was released on DVD in 2004 (Burgess 2001). This motion comic was made with Macromedia Flash (Adobe Animate in 2018), a software that at the time made a small revolution for interactive graphic content on the web because it was easy and intuitive to use. Watchmen, the Motion Comic (2008) is known for establishing the concept of motion comics for a worldwide audience. These works are very similar to animation films with limited animation, and sometimes they are difficult to distinguish from animated films, one example being the Marvel Super Heroes TV series from 1966. How do we distinguish between animation films and motion comics? I would answer this by saying I do not think we need to try. I think animation’s limited animation and digital comics’ motion comic constitute a meeting point between the two art forms.


It is not just with limited animation that film approaches comics. At a motion comic workshop at Fumetto International Comic Festival in Lucerne (2015), the instructor Eric Loyer pointed my attention to the split screen in movies. Films like Grand Prix (1966) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) use the split screen to create multiplicity, rhythm, motion, tension, chaos and repetition. The title designers Saul Bass (Grand Prix) and Pablo Ferro (Thomas Crown Affair) made split-screen designs that can be associated with magazine layouts and panel layouts in comics. However, the split screen in film does not show chronological sequences as in a comic. I think it is most suited to showing simultaneous events in all the frames. Split-screen editing feeds new, smaller screens into the main screen, and this approach is similar to the presentation form called ‘panel delivery’, which I write about in Chapter 3, in the section similarly titled. At the workshop in Lucerne, I ended up experimenting with a comic that used a fixed split screen in combination with panel delivery. This resulted in an alternative and more rigid form of panel delivery that is known to have more dynamic and mutable forms (Video 8).


The Boundary between Comics and Film
Aaron Meskin, in his article from 2007 entitled ‘Defining Comics?’, argues against Greg Hayman and Henry John Pratt’s attempt to distinguish comics from illustrated books or picture books and especially children’s picture books. In such works as well as in digital comics, the formats blend together in ways that make them hard to define. When their boundaries are challenged, the question of whether a work is a comic or not will eventually emerge. In my artistic research, I have developed my own answer to this question and come to a conclusion that corresponds with that of Meskin. He draws a parallel to reflections from art theory and takes recourse in Jerrold Levinson’s intentional-historical definition of art. He concludes thus: 


Perhaps something is a comic just in case it is/was nonpassingly intended for regard-as-a-comic … (Aaron Meskin 2007: 375)


With this perspective, artists have the power to define their own work, and their intentions should be considered in the defining process. In my case, Sound of the Aurora and Close, Closer, Closest might be perceived by the audience as films when I perform them, but for me as creator, I regard them as digital comics, which was also my intention (the former is only a performance; the latter can also be read on a tablet/iPad).


So where is the boundary between comics and film? Since film is a multimodal medium, I think the differences are in the imagery, not in whether or not the work is automated. My subjective opinion is that the boundary lies between full motion and image sequences. If the main presentation relies on conveying actions through full motion, the work is a film. If actions are communicated through pure static sequential imagery, it is a comic. If the work mixes both forms, it can either be a motion comic or a limited animation film, depending on the artist's intentions.


Why Use Motion in Comics?

Years before I began my artistic research, I was confronted in a panel discussion with this question: Why use motion in comics? It was a critical question, and the rhetorical undertone was, as I interpret it, a claim about there being no need for motion in comics. Perhaps it is unnecessary, since the comic functions well in its established static form. But the question has continued to follow me through the whole of my artistic research, and I want to address it in this section.


I will start with my personal motivation for exploring motion in comics. I was born in 1980 and grew up watching animated TV series from the 1960s and ‘70s. Some of these were broadcast on TV while others could be rented from a video store. These were also the productions that made heavy use of the limited-animation technique. I think it was because of this exposure that I developed a nostalgic relationship to limited animation and maybe a higher tolerance and love for the form. I have heard people call it poor man’s animation, so I understand it is a matter of taste. When it comes to comics, I have read them and drawn them since kindergarten. I think my fascination for drawing has attracted me to all illustrated media and art. This perhaps does not explain why I mix comics and motion, but it is definitely a cultural backdrop that may have facilitated my personal motivation.


Another aspect is my artistic motivation. As a comic artist, I search for an approach that distinguishes my work from the mainstream and traditional comic scene. In Norway, digital comics are mostly known as web-comics that lie close to the comic book format. Motion in comics is not fully explored in the Norwegian comic scene.


To close this chapter, I stress that computer technology is the real reason for the modern development of motion comics and digital comics in general. The high standard of technology which we experience today enables the use of movement and lowers the difficulty-threshold for creating digital comics. As long as movement is technologically possible to create, there will be artists who use it – or any other technologically enabled quality – as a means for expression in their digital comics.

2018    Frozen Motions in Motion by Fredrik Rysjedal

Figure 1: Figure by Fredrik Rysjedal.


When it comes to time-based immersion, the art of film already does a better job than any tricked up comic can. (Scott McCloud 2000: 210)


A comic consists of the combination of the two modules text and image, or only one of them. When yet another module is added, motion, for instance, the comic becomes a hybrid (see chapter 4, the section ‘The Computer’). Comic hybrids, especially those involving motion, are not so well recognized or received by many comic artists and readers. Craig Smith documents this tendency of how comic hybrids are received in his articleMotion Comics: The Emergence of a Hybrid Medium (Smith 2015: 3).


Through the past 100 years, the comic medium has been defined and solidly established as a printed medium. Whilst digital comics have been introduced in the last 30 years, they are still compared to and evaluated in relation to their printed counterparts.1 In light of the four fundamental parameters of digital comics – static, dynamic, interactive and real time – which I presented in the previous section, I fear that treating printed comics as the ideal can be an unfortunate limitation because it can lead to a less constructive debate and hamper the development of digital comics.


Mark Waid, a high-profile American comic writer and pioneer in digital comics, made this statement:


I kind of think of Motion Comics as the devil's tool honestly, because they’re many things, with voice over, music and so forth, but they’re not comics.

(Mark Waid quoted in O’Reilly 2013)


With this statement Waid expresses that he only acknowledges the ‘pure’ form of comics – images plus text – and that he does not acknowledge motion comics as authentic comics. If it is motion in general that he does not acknowledge, he shuts the door for one of the digital comic’s four properties, thus making it difficult to draw a full picture that can help us understand digital comics.2


In a review of my own comic performance Sound of the Aurora (2014) at the Norwegian comic news site (Sætre 2014), the use of animation is described as cheating. I find it interesting that the journalist is protective of the original comic form, and I think this is a good example of how the pure form involving only text and images is seen as sacrosanct. Unfortunately, comic hybrids will probably continue to be distained as impure and inferior, as have all types of bastards through time.


Once motion and sound are thrown into the mix, it becomes much harder to achieve this perfect degree of integration: often, they remain disparate elements, aggregated but not fused, unsystematic. (Thierry Groensteen 2007: 71)


The French comic theorist Thierry Groensteen asserts that time-based media destroy the harmony that text and images can achieve together. I will not argue against Groensteen’s assertion, but I think it is a defensive point of view which could be interpreted as an argument to avoid mixing comics and motion. Is perfect integration crucial for the art form? I understand the striving for harmony, and I will address it myself as I write about phenomena such as broken motion in chapter 3 on Closer, Closer, Closest. However, I think disharmony can be as valuable as perfect integration.


As Craig Smith points out (2015: 3), an aversion to motion in comics exists amongst comic artists, theorists and readers. I have therefore concluded that as a researcher, I need to be careful not to encourage a right-and-wrong-discourse, but to initiate an open-minded discussion, so comic artists can see the diversity in digital comics. As stated above, by not recognizing even one type of digital comic, we limit our perspective. The devil’s tool or not, harmony or not, I think the motion comic is a valuable and relevant form of expression in digital comics, and digital comics should be allowed to extend beyond the framework of traditional comics. A motion comic is perhaps not a comic according to Waid’s conception, but it is a digital comic, and motion is part of the true nature of digital comics. Motion can by choice be omitted from a digital comic, but it cannot be excluded from digital comics as an art form. 

Similarities and Differences between Comics and Film

The comic (per se) represents a distinct art form just as does a film or a work of prose. It consists of both text and images and therefore relates to both written art and visual art. A comparison with prose, film and fine art is therefore quite natural, and in this section I look at the similarities and differences between the comic and the film. I will not discuss similar and different types of contents and genres, but focus on the fundamental elements of the two art forms. The comic and the film are close relatives, given that both are graphical narratives (Eisner 1996: 17). These art forms were developed in the same era, at the turn of the 20th century (Lente and Dunlavey 2012: 13).Especially early comics and animation share the same originators.


The comic form, like film, is intimately rooted in the sequential images of Zoetrope wheels, magic lantern slides, and praxinoscope ribbons, and thus it is not surprising that they shared many concerns and formal properties. (Jared Gardner 2012: 7)


Film, comics and theatre share one ability: they can all present a story directly, without a narrator. Readers and spectators can observe the actions in the performance or the images, also known as drama (Scholes and Kellog 1966: 4). This is an ability that prose lack. The matter is a bit ambiguous, however, since comics are half literary. It might therefore be more correct to say that comics exist at the boundary between prose and drama. They have one foot in both lairs.


How do comics and film differ from each other? To begin with, they represent two different directions of temporality, “the concrete, measurable time of motion and sound and the indefinite, abstract time of comic narration” (Groensteen 2013: 70). While a film shows moving images and sounds, a comic is static and simulates motion and sound through its images and text. The film’s full motion is the aspect that I find contrasts most strongly with the comic. While the comic is read by a person, the film is automated, read by a machine and watched by one or more persons. The panels in the comic are often organized next to each other on the same surface. This juxtaposition, according to the theorist Scott McCloud (1993: 7), is a defining parameter of comics. This side-by-side presentation of comic panels enables rapid reading. It can also be said to characterize the traditional film strip, where images are organized in a vertical column to achieve fluid reading, not by the audience but by the cinematograph. The comic strip, meanwhile, is not organized in the same way as a film strip. The layouts of the two art forms are distinguishably different from each other and are strong identity indicators for both forms.


Another big difference is that the total amount of frames in the film is hidden from the viewer. Film frames appear as a single image and are exposed only at the moment of watching. In a short comic strip, the whole multiframe is visible on a single page. ‘Multiframe’ is a term used by Thierry Groensteen in his book The Systems of Comics (2007: 24). In a longer comic, the reader traditionally only gains access to portions of the multiframe, as for example through pages, which in Groensteen’s terminology are called hyperframes (Ibid., p. 30).3


‘Closure’ is another important parameter for the reading of a comic (McCloud 1993: 67). Closure is when the reader fills in the gaps between the images/panels to create meaning and progression. Is there closure in film? A panel, or a single object, is the smallest unit of the comic, and I consider a single shot as the smallest unit of a film. Closure in film takes place in-between the shots, while closure in comics takes place in-between the panels. This means there is closure in both, but that in film and comics, the closure takes place at different levels. I do not believe closure is dependent on juxtaposing images. However, the images must stand in relation to each other in one or other way. This means that the panels of the comic do not need to be on the same display simultaneously, but the reader must experience them together. This perspective opens for presentation forms other than juxtaposed panels in comics.


Film was the first true multimedia (Manovich 2001: 51), which means it has properties that go beyond showing moving images. It can also show still images, text, even show images in a chronological order to tell a story, just like a comic. Film can therefore present a comic in all the visual ways a traditional comic can be shown, for instance as a strip, a page, a scroll and so forth. Comics have not had this property – until recently. Now that they can be a screen-based art form called digital comics, they can use new presentation forms, one being film. The tables have turned. The digital comic is multimodal.


A film might show a comic because of its multimedia form. Nevertheless, there is no reader control in a traditional film because it is automated. The automation is what makes the motion and progression. Traditionally a film runs 25 frames per second to give us full motion. The presentation of the comic, on the other hand, is traditionally not automated and must be read manually. The reader interacts by navigating through the comic content with hands and eyes. The reader controls the pace and his or her acquisition. As already mentioned, the first reader of a film is the video player or cinematograph, not the audience. The audience are spectators, relatively passive observers, receiving and perceiving. The reader of a comic also observes, receives and perceives while reading and navigating (McCloud 1993: 49). If a comic can be automated like a film, a film could be navigated by interaction just as a comic. This conclusion is based on one of my first observations, which I think turns motion in comics upside down, as it were. (I explore reader-controlled motion in Chapter 3, in the section ‘Automated and Interactive Full Motions’, and you can read more about reader control in Chapter 4, in the section ‘The Digital Comic, Reader Control’.)

Analogue screen-based comic

Screen-based comics

Digital comic

1. Static visuals

2. Dynamic visuals

3. Interactive visuals

4. Real time visuals

Video 6: A clip from the Dororo animated TV-series from 1969 by Tezuka Productions and Mushi Production. It shows how limited animation use static sequencial scenes with rapid editing. They use flash effects, dissolving images and loop animation together with small portions of full animated action. Dororo is made by Tezuka Productions, based on the comic by the same name by Osamu Tezuka.
Video by Rising Revenger.

Video 1: DC's Batman Year One (1987) by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli was published on Comixology in a digital format in 2013. This is what I would call a 'digital comic book', where book refers to its page structure. Here read on an iPad.
Video by Fredrik Rysjedal.

1 The first digital comics seem not to be of the traditional kind, but hybrids. Some of the early digital-motion comics that I have seen came as cut scenes in video games, but Daniel M. Goodbrey, in his research,presents an early game comic that I would say even today is a rare hybrid form. He refers to Redhawk (1986, Silhouette Software), which is a game that uses the comic medium in its gameplay. Goodbrey also thinks it can be defined as a hypercomic, which is a comic with a multi-coursal narrative structure (Goodbrey 2013: 3).


2 The quote is from a talk by Mark Waid about the digital publication of comics. I must emphasize that his statement is a rhetorical contrivance, since his intention was to present an alternative direction later in the talk. This alternative direction is a technique that I refer to as ‘panel delivery’ in this dissertation.  


Video 8: This video shows my experiment 2 Weak (2015) where I made a fixed split screen.
Video by Fredrik Rysjedal.

Video 2: Our Toyota was Fantastic (2013) by Boulet is a vertical scroll comic published on the web, therefore also a webcomic. Available online:
Video by Fredrik Rysjedal.

Video 4: Modern Polaxis (2014) by Sutu
(Stuart Campbell). This video is his tech demo. Available online:
Video by Stuart Campbell.

3 At first I found these terms that originate from Henri Van Lier (2007: 24) and Benoît Peters (2007: 30) alienating because it is hard to tell what they actually mean just by reading them. However, in digital comic theory, I find that ‘multiframe’ and ‘hyperframe’ act as neutral terms that are unattached to a certain format, in contrast to terms such as ‘page’, ‘scroll’, ‘map’ or ‘panel delivery’. I therefore find ‘multiframe’ and ‘hyperframe’ more relevant to refer to. 

Picture 3: My comic performance at Mariakirken (St. Mary's Church) in Bergen, showing Sound of the Aurora and Close, Closer, Closest in 2016.
Photo by Ben Speck.

Video 3: The Empty Kingdom (2015), a game comic by Daniel M. Goodbrey. Puplished as a webcomic. Available online: 
Video by Fredrik Rysjedal.

Video 5: A short clip made from the Sound of the Aurora material, edited by Fredrik Rysjedal (2018). Music by 1982.
Video by Fredrik Rysjedal.

Video 7: Broken Saints, the flash edition from:
Video by Fredrik Rysjedal.


Video 9: Documentation video of my studi trip to Lucerne in Switzerland in 2015. Here I partisipated at Eric Loyer's Motion Comic Workshop at Fumetto International Comics Festival.
Video by Fredrik Rysjedal.