Side-Scrolling Graphic Novel Tells A Mythological Story 1,600 iPads Long
The app-as-comic illustrates the ramifications of sea level rise without the use of boxes and panels
So you’ve helped create the world’s first side-scrolling graphic novel, attained widespread critical acclaim, and an official endorsement from the embassy of your own country. What do you do from there? Bring your groundbreaking work to Art Basel—and this time, show the whole thing off in 360 degrees. Created by French graphic novelist and animator Marietta Ren, Phallaina tells the story of Audrey, a young woman experiencing hallucinations of fishes and whales while living in a city dealing with the ramifications of sea level rise. Through the help of a neurologist, she discovers that an anomaly in her brain allows her to swim underwater longer than normal humans.
Blending neuroscience with mythology, the story follows her personal transformation as she explores this mysterious gift further, and discovers the unexpected causes of her hallucinations along the way.
Produced in conjunction with Paris-based Small Bang Interactive Orchestra and FranceTV, the downloadable app-as-comic allows readers to seamlessly sideswipe through an audiovisual story the creators describe as a “continuous lateral tracking shot” with characters, settings, and shapes all blending into the following scenes.
The at-your-own-pace scrolling perfectly blurs the line between graphic novel and animated film, complete with triggered sound effects and graphic elements moving independently of Ren’s beautiful, black-and-white artwork. The resulting 16-chapter, 90-minute experience combines the emotional immediacy of traditional graphic novels with some of the innovative ‘sprawling’ effects pioneered by the popular webcomic XKCD.
According to Small Bang executive director Alexandrine Stehelin, the idea for Phallaina came after Ren’s first graphic novel, 2010’s Je Suis Deux.
“After that, she really wanted to draw another one,” she says, “but wanted to find new ways of drawing things.”
Drawing inspiration from pre-modern visual narratives such as the Mathilde Bayeux tapestry in France, ancient Chinese scrolls and classical mural frescoes, Ren began pursuing her vision of a “graphic novel without boxes.”
Ren spent three years working on the project on her own, playing around with drawings of different scales that could blend into each other “based on compositional tricks.” While an impressive undertaking for one person, Stehelin points out that Ren was already “a storyboarder, a director, a character designer, so she did all of the things you can do in animated movies.”
Her brother, an HTML5 developer, made an online prototype for the work which she brought to Small Bang. Studio founder Pierre Cattan, who had previously worked with Ren on an animated film, loved the idea, leading to another two years of prototyping, drawing, and production. He suggested they make the novel into an app, so they could custom-make an engine that could deliver whatever they needed.
These needs included parallax effects that allow objects—namely, 350 of the very same fish and whales Audrey hallucinates—to move freely and independently across the screen, regardless of if the reader is scrolling or not.
At first, Ren drew on paper, before switching to drawing everything in Photoshop. However, according to Stehelin, Ren had so many digitized drawings that “even for Photoshop, it was too heavy for a computer.” Even in the final product, there are 30 separate strips for the app to essentially ‘glue’ together as the user scrolls.
Since its release in January, the innovative story has received widespread accolades and toured European comic conventions, complete with a 395–foot long fresco Ren and Small Bang created to flesh out the mythological backstory.
With the help of FilmGate Miami, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and Faena Hotel Miami Beach, The Phallaina Experience was projected two Saturdays ago in the hotel’s special Faena Art Dome, just two days after a special Kendrick Lamar performance.
Audiences gathered inside the dome, complete with plush cushions and complementary beverages, to watch the surreal vision of black-and-white fish and whales swimming across the dome to an ocean-evoking soundtrack. In the center, Stehelin demonstrated the scrolling novel to a wowed audience.
It’s hard to avoid mentioning the irony of presenting a story like this in a dome on a beach that has to import its own sand to even exist. Maybe it’s time for the lessons of Phallaina to leave the tablet and dive into the real world?