9 Jun 2012, 8:58pm
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by chrisdoody

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Mistakes in Digital Comics

In reading a recent issue of Amazing Spider-Man I came across an interesting discovery that serves as a warning to both current and future scholars of electronic books.

After reading issue 683 of Amazing Spider-Man, I had a question about the death of one of the villains, so I posted a query on an on-line forum.

The most interesting response that my post received was by a reader who claimed that the villain had not actually died, since he appeared in the final panel of the comic. I was confused, since I had not seen him in the final panel, so I pulled out my copy of the comic to double-check, and sure enough, I was correct; the dead villain does not appear in the final panel. I responded that the commentator was incorrect. I then received a number of responses stating that I was wrong, and that the original commentator was correct–the villain did appear in the final panel.

Confused, I took a photograph of the final panel of the comic as it appeared in my (print) copy of the comic and posted it to the forum. In response, someone posted the final panel from the digital copy of the exact same comic. Sure enough, the final panels were different. In the print comic, the final panel excludes the villain who was killed earlier in the issue, while the digital copy erroneously depicts the dead villain as if he were still alive.

Final panel from the digital edition,
with Electro (figure with his back to the reader)
alive, despite having died a few pages earlier.

Final panel from the print edition,
with the error corrected, and Chameleon
taking Electro’s place.

I purchased a digital copy of the comic to double-check, but the mistake had already been fixed. [These types of mistakes in digital comics are more common than one might think. For another example, see here.]

This seemingly small mistake raises a number of interesting questions. First, it makes me wonder about the production process of comic books, if a print version of the comic can be corrected, while the digital version continues to contain an error until after it has been published—surely the print version has an earlier deadline than the digital version, no? But that is an inquiry for another time.

Secondly, and more importantly, this analogy demonstrates the ease with which publishers of electronic texts can make changes to the texts. This is often viewed as a positive aspect of e-books—mistakes can cheaply and quickly be fixed, without having to wait for the book to be re-printed. This ease with which e-books can be modified is also a concern. In a print book, changes require a new edition or printing of the book, which leaves a trail of artifacts that be can be examined to locate and identify these changes. Changes to e-books, however, leave no traces of any changes that are made to them. This means that if I buy a an e-book today, and you buy the same e-book tomorrow, they might contain differences that were added between our purchases, and neither of us will never know. For book historians of the future, this approach will be a cause for frustration.

Some critics are becoming aware of this problem, such as Charles Hamaker, who notes:

The ability to modify the published text without notification, tracking, versioning, archiving, or any other means that might provide the original text for readers is destructive to the tradition of the history of the printed word and the tradition of Western scholarship. If we want to know what Galileo wrote, we can still go back to the original text. What if the Catholic Church had had the potential to wipe out completely the record of his writings? What if the government or even a nongovernment entity could destroy, with a simple computer command, the outpourings of the next Thomas Paine? Works are routinely challenged, but what if the next challenge resulted in destroying the offending words, the blasphemous, the treasonous, or simply uncomfortable words that offended a judge, law enforcement, the local church, a group of parents, a morals group policing books, or an influential critic? We cannot as a civilization permit our complainers’ and dreamers’ and thinkers’ words to be destroyed by the simple expedient of the ability to “replace, edit or modify the contents” of any ebook.

Authors have a right to be wrong. But even the author should not be able to change the text in a previous edition without notification to the reader. . . . We must have guarantees for the word, for the phrase, for the paragraph, the text. At the very least the guarantees must indicate what the previous words were, no matter what critics, the publisher, the author, the courts or governments might decide. Treasonous, libelous, offensive, ludicrous, blasphemous, or just out-of-fashion the words might be, but the written word still needs protection. We need continuity of text, markers of change, versioning, permanent archiving of variant editions if the ebook is to become a significant means of transmitting our culture and heritage. (Source)

(For a similar argument, see this as well.)

I am far from the first to comment on this potential problem of electronic books, but I think that the lack of debate and discussion around this, and similar topics related to the publication of e-books, makes it worthy of commentary. I am not suggesting that print books are better than e-books. Instead, I am arguing that in the rush to proclaim the “death of the book” and the rise of the e-book, it might be worth our while to step back and ask what conventions established in the print book might be beneficial to duplicate in e-books. The book historians of the future will surely thank us.

Update: See http://www.bleedingcool.com/2012/09/16/retconning-robin-out-of-teen-titans-1/

Edits made:

1) Fixed typo: “this analogy demonstrates the easy” changed to “this analogy demonstrates the ease.”