Digital Graphic Novels: The Future of Narrative? metalgearsolid_DGN.jpg

by, Gretchen Hams

"All media as extensions of ourselves serve to provide new transforming vision and awareness."
- Marshall McLuhan

Technology had enabled narratives of all types to undergo transformation by the use of images and animation. In the 21st Century, our stories are moving beyond the boundaries of traditional linear formats. Print books like Cathy's Book by Sean Stewart and Jordon Weisman are breaking new ground as the stories move outside of the covers and into interactive participatory narrative. Studies are showing that literary reading is dropping off significantly, particularly in the younger age groups in this country while the skills required for digital literacy have grown (Reading at Risk, 2004). The United States Census reports that Persons under 18 years-old comprise 25.0% of our national population. In 2004, U.S. retail sales of video games (which includes portable and console hardware, software and accessories) reached more than $9.9 billion (NPD, 2005). Though teenagers are the targeted demographic for this market, they aren't the only ones exploring alternative story media. People aged 6 to 36 have grown up playing games, so why should they stop as they get older?

Kids, espeically those in middle and upper-class families, are finding that free time to just PLAY, is shrinking. Any time outside of the school environment is filling with extra-curricular activities which take place in an ever shrinking physical space. Play has its own pursuits: amusement, competition, expending excess energy, and companionship - all of which can be fulfilled on the Internet. "N-Geners view cyberspace as a fun place, a place in which they can play to an infinite extent." Saftey, Work and School are the primary issues that command young people's free time so how they choose to spend their precious free time and money is coveted territory in American Culture. Traditional literacy does not have to become obsolete as we move further into the digital environment.

What is digital literacy anyway?

Unquestionably we have moved past the point where only basic reading and writing skills are required to survive and flourish in our modern culture. The ability to use multiple types of media beyond computers and the accompanying specialty software demands a new type of literacy. Digital Literacy refers to the ability to use the Internet, find and present electronic information, engage and join in communications with both local and increasingly global networks.
"21st century literacy is the set of abilities and skills where aural, visual and digital literacy overlap. These include the ability to understand the power of images and sounds, to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute them pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms" (New Media Consortium, 2005:2).

With innovative technology and creative minds, the two types of literacies (Traditional and Digital) can be merged together and serve multiple functions in the form of a Digital Graphic Novel. The popularity of print graphic novels indicates that there is a receptive audience for the format.

What's So Special About Graphic Novels?

Graphic Novels and Manga have had enormous success in the American market in recent years. "Coined by comics pioneer Will Eisner, the term 'graphic novel' refers to meatier and fuller-length comic books. Because they appeal to teens' predilection to a more visual medium, these novels transcend apathy and the lack of coolness sometimes associated with reading" (Gorman, 2002). Basically, they are literature in sequential art form and younger readers are drawn to them. Stereotypically, it is young boys we expect to see behind the pages of a comic book, but contemporary Graphic Novels and Manga are changing that as more and more girls are being drawn into the culture. While boys can play out their agressive behaviors, girls are drawn to strong imagery and narratives.



But Those Are Static! What About The Digital Ones?

Introducing 'Metal Gear Solid': The First Multi-Media Digital Graphic Novel

In September of 2004, IDW Publications released a print comic book series based on the video game Metal Gear Solid (MGS). Written by Kris Oprisko and illustrated by Ashley Wood it now has 12 issues in the series. The multi-media version digital graphic novel, Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel, was released to the North American public on June 13, 2006.

While there are some graphic novels available online, they are usually referred to as WebComics or Online Comics. Metal Gear Solid is a pioneer to use the available technology in hand-held gaming devices. This particular graphic novel is the first to be designed to be read on a portable media player, the PlayStation Portable which is a hand-held device for viewing and playing videos, games, movies...and now graphic novels.

To be clear, this is not a game. This is not a movie or a book or anything you've ever seen before. It is a combination of all of those things. At any point during the novel's playback, which is called the VR Simulation Mode, you're able to enter the Mental Search Mode by pressing Square on the PSP. It enables you to scan for and pick out certain key elements from the story (like characters, weapons and such) and add the collected information into a library, a database that can be traded with other players via Wi-Fi. This information must be properly connected in order to complete a mission. Scenes are mostly static, though certain elements do move, turn or rotate. There aren't any voiceovers, but there are plenty of talk bubbles. There is a fair bit of environmental and key sound effects to be heard like gunshots and footsteps and overall background music.

MGS will find the competition not far behind as Halo: Combat Evolved, a game created by Bungie Studios, will be reportedly be available as a digital digital graphic novel according to reports on Kikizo Gaming News.

Don't have a PSP? Don't worry. The hard copy graphic novel, Halo; a graphic novel was published by Marvel Comics in July 2006.

Wait...So How Do I Read This?

SonyPSP.jpg PlayStation Portable

Sony released the PlayStation Portable (PSP) hand-held portable media device in 2004. This Wi-Fi device primarily provides the ability to play video games, but also the capability to watch videos, listen to music, upload and view photos, as well as browsing the Internet. It comes equipped with a camera and GPS functioning as well as wireless capabilities. It is the first gaming device known to provide an alternative funcionality...the ability to read digital graphic novels.

Figures put forth by the consumer electronics giant revealed that first week sales of the handheld gaming system generated more than $150 million. Over 500,000 of their PSP Value Packs found their way into consumer's homes in the first two days alone.

Official Site:

Sony - Playstation Portable (USA)

Elsewhere on the Web:

PSP is a Gamer Addict's Crack Pipe according to one blogger.
Metal Gear World Opened to newcomers Kojima Productions Producer Noriaki Okamura explains MGS in an interview with Kikizo Gaming News.
There is a really good overview at:

Reviews of PSP:

CNet review
Video Game Talk :

More WebComics

Don't have a PSP? Some DGNs are available for viewing online, one chapter at a time as multi-form comics:


  1. Gorman, M (2002). What Teens Want. Retrieved November 18, 2006 from:
  2. Hamlet on the Holodeck; The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. By Janet H. Murray (MIT Press, 2001).
  3. The New Media Consortium, 2005, A Global Imperative – the report of the 21st century literacy summit, Retrieved September 2005.
  4. NPD Group, 2005. Annual U.S. Video Game Sales - report generated for 2004 industry sales and available at:
  5. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, a 2004 report by the NEA available as a PDF, states that literary reading has dropped 28 % in the younger age groups. Available on the NEA site at:

Additional Reading

Books on the topic (Linked to

Articles not available online:
  • Cuza, Bobby and Ann L. Kim. Computers, Comic Books Draw in Teenagers to the Library. Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1999.
  • Dodge, Susan. Tech-savvy Teens Still Read Books. Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 15, 2000.
  • Krashen, Stephen. Do Teenagers Like to Read? Yes! Reading Today, April/May 2001, p. 16.