Unbound: Ben Powis on the iPhone

Here’s a post-Thanksgiving special that won’t cost you a dime: Robot Comics is offering the iPhone/iPod Touch version of British artist Ben Powis’s Where Grows the Bitter Herb for free until December 8. Another Powis comic, Turtle Guitar, is always free. (Both comics are also available for Android at the standard price of 99 cents.)

Both stories are little folkloric tales brought to life with lovely art. Powis uses simple shapes with heavy outlines, textured backgrounds, and varied hatching to create comics panels that look like drawings from a picture book. The watercolor-like textures show up nicely on the backlit screen of the iPhone, and the panels also appear to be cropped differently than they were in the print edition of the book, providing a different type of reading experience.

Powis’s characters are little creatures that look vaguely like mice, drawn so simply that they are one step away from stick-men. In Where Grows the Bitter Herb, the nameless mouse must travel to a mountaintop to get a special herb that will heal his sick mother. That's an ancient plot, but the little creature’s complicated journey, which starts on a ship powered by a puffer-fish balloon and ends on an icy ledge, makes entertaining reading.

Turtle Guitar is shorter and more enigmatic. It’s the story of a farmer whose fields are parched because of a drought. One day he hears beautiful music (represented visually as a colored swirl) coming from the woods. Following the sound, he comes across a turtle who is singing so beautifully that it brings the dead trees back to life. Somehow the mouse converts this turtle into a guitar and sings the whole landscape back into bloom. It’s a nice little picture-poem but falls short of a story, because it lacks any conflict whatsoever. Wouldn’t turning the turtle into a guitar harm it? Wouldn’t the turtle resist? It seems like Powis missed an opportunity here.

Both stories are simple enough for a child to enjoy, and I think Where Grows the Bitter Herb would be the more entertaining of the two, with its cute little balloon and perilous journey. At the same time, they are sophisticated enough for adults who appreciate artsy indy comics. I particularly like Powis’s patchwork surface and his way of hatching over watercolor, creating a lines-over-colors look.

Powis doesn’t use word balloons at all, choosing instead to narrate the story entirely through text boxes. That distances the reader a bit. Furthermore, his characters are very generic and deadpan. They don’t have names, or personality quirks, or emotions, even though both stories have a lot of scope for that sort of thing. These choices limit the reader’s emotional involvement in the story, which is unfortunate. Powis has a nice set of techniques at his fingertips, and I’d like to see him do more with them.

Both stories were originally published as print comics and converted to iPhone format by hand, and mostly that works pretty well. There were a few instances in Turtle Guitar where the point of view pulls in too tight, so the mouse character looks too big and the reader sees too much detail. This is distracting, but it only happens for a few frames. Sometimes the same panel appears twice, but with different cropping, so it looks like two panels in sequence. This happens a lot in iPhone adaptations and is annoying when it is horribly obvious, but here it was done pretty well and doesn't detract from the flow of the story at all.

When I saw the pages from Where Grows the Bitter Herb reproduced in this review at the Forbidden Planet blog, though, I realized that the shift to iPhone format changes the reading experience quite a bit. The obvious difference is that the reader experiences the story one panel at a time, while Powis composed it in entire pages. In this printed page from Where Grows the Bitter Herb, the bulk of the ship, repeated three times, creates a diagonal movement, while the small, dark figures silhouetted against the sky form a nice counterpoint. The experience on the iPhone is completely different: Not only are the panels shown one at a time, but the image is cropped to focus more tightly on one or two characters. That means that a lot of the negative space is gone. Since the sky surrounding the characters suggests the vastness of space they are about to journey into, the meaning of the panel changes quite a bit. While it’s natural to focus on the characters, Powis’s expressionless mice don't provide the drama that is lost by the original framing.

On the other hand, reading the comics on the iPod is a more intimate experience because you have no choice but to pull in close to the panel, and you see the details of the artwork more closely than if you were looking at a printed page. As I mentioned above, the backlit screen really shows the textures Powis is so fond of. And there are some panels where the cropping makes for interesting compositions. I think there must be a temptation for iPhone adaptors to always put the image in the center of the screen, but these comics have some nice diagonal and offset compositions. (You can see more of Powis’s full-page compositions on the comics section of his website.)

In the end, the iPhone and the printed page really are two different ways of reading the same story. The iPhone’s limitation on panel size and shape dictate a different set of compositional choices, choices that Powis might have made differently had the story been designed for the iPhone first. On one hand, the close-up view makes the lack of drama in faces and gestures more apparent. On the other hand, the backlit screen shows the art off better, magnifying the textures that underlie Powis’s backgrounds and his hatching. I suspect it also changes the colors, but without an actual print copy, it’s hard to say.

A look at Powis's website shows that he is continuing to develop and grow. His art is quite lovely, and these two graphic novels make a nice beginning to what I hope will be a fruitful career. So enjoy the freebie, and watch out for more to come.

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