Multimodal composition is more prevalent in digital writing and publishing now more than it ever has been since the Internet came into America’s homes less than twenty-five years ago. With writing being present in more digital spheres, an author must learn to create a piece that works together, and not against, with the medium that he or she is using. In Aaron Scott Humphrey’s article, “Multimodal Authoring and Authority in Educational Comics: Introducing Derrida and Foucault for Beginners” for Digital Humanities Quarterly, these questions arise when he examines educational comics. On the reversal, Rachel Hulin challenges these ideals in her visual novel, Hey Harry Hey Matilda, as the first-ever novel published entirely on Instagram.
In Humphrey’s article, he discusses the educational comic books Foucault For Beginners and Derrida For Beginners (that is, the French theorists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida). These books are learning devices, meant to teach the readers the basic theories of Foucault and Derrida using visuals and hand-written texts. He argues that while these texts were great examples of multimodality, the issue of agency comes into play. He divides the labor put into each book as three major roles: writer, artist, and designer. Each book had two different publishers, and this division and collaboration differed from each, for example, an edition of Foucault For Beginners had a two-to-one ratio; one writer to two artists and two designers. This type of relationship, however, can have a grave effect on the book (and sometimes) the writer’s overall meaning.
Here, Humphrey examines Foucault For Beginners, published in 1993 by Writers & Readers, Inc. He argues that at times the visual, linguistic, and design of the book work in unison with each other. At other times: “However, at other points, the images and the text seem to be at cross purposes. On this page, Fillingham quotes a section from Foucault’s ‘This is not a Pipe,” while Mosh & George seem to illustrate a different, contradictory passage” (Humphrey 10). He includes many different examples of other books from the For Beginners comic series, noting that the relationship between the linguistic and the visual can often misinterpret overall meaning and intention.
Similarly, Rachel Hulin’s novel, Hey Harry Hey Matilda, challenges what a traditional novel can be. Hulin, a writer and photographer, released the novel in 2016 on Instagram, a platform mostly reserved for viewer photos and videos. Hey Harry Hey Matilda is “a novel with pictures about love, life, lies, and growing up” (Hulin). Looking on the novel’s website, the content is both image and text-rich. Hulin writes the text and supplies the images herself. The site and Instagram account are told entirely through the voices of the main characters, the thirty-something twins Harry and Matilda and they tell their story via “correspondence.” The voice throughout both platform is so heavily engrained in the story that if a viewer clicks on the Matilda tab on the website, it takes the viewer to (the fictional) Matilda Goodman’s wedding photography webpage.
What is special about Rachel Hulin’s novel is its multimodality and social media aspects. Hulin is smart to release Hey Harry Hey Matilda on Instagram (the social media platform currently has over four hundred million users). Both incorporating an Instagram account and a website, Hulin incorporates the visual, audial, and linguistic modes of rhetoric to tell Harry and Matilda’s story. An audio player plays “When I Saw You” as black text on a white background reads: “Soon enough it will be spring, and the magnolia blossoms will come out, and it will be too much beauty to bear. Isn’t life heartbreaking enough without magnolia blooms once a year making our hearts explode?” (Hulin). Scrolling through the heyharryheymatilda Instagram account, beautifully manicured images fill the account’s feed, with a few fifteen-second videos sprinkled in. The user can read snippets of the novel on Instagram, post by post, or the first part of the novel on the website.
As wonderful and groundbreaking as Rachel Hulin’s novel is, it poses many problems as Aaron Humphrey points out in his article about the For Beginners comic series. Instagram is a mobile application meant to be enjoyed on a mobile device, more than likely an iPhone or Android (although, it still can be accessed online on the internet). Because of this feature, Instagram is a platform known for its scrolling ability; that is, most users may not stop to read the snippets of the novel (most may see a nice picture, double tap to “like” it, and scroll past). On the other hand, the multimodal features of the novel present it in a twenty-first century ideal: mobile and social media.
Overall, both Aaron Scott Humphrey and Rachel Hulin present solid arguments. Humphrey argues that a comic book can be educational and multimodal. Hulin challenges the hundreds of years tradition of the novel, insisting that it can be presented on social media and still be visually appealing. However, with these new concepts of rhetoric and multimodality come challenges and questions that writers and audiences will need to address as ideas like these move into the future.
Humphrey, Aaron Scott. “Multimodal Authoring and Authority in Educational Comics: Introducing Derrida and Foucault for Beginners.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. 9.4. (2015) Web. 22 March 2016.
Hulin, Rachel. Hey Harry Hey Matilda. Web. 22 March 2016.