Sunday, 21 July 2013

Paradigm Shift: Comics, Artists, and the Digital Age

There's nothing more painful than listening to a podcasted radio show that you wish ever so much you could have weighed in on. I was mowing a lawn last week, and listening to a recorded episode of Rex Murphy's Cross Country Check-up, in which Rex was inviting listeners to call in and talk about their concerns regarding the gradual publishing shift from traditional bindings to e-Books and the digital format. I had so much I wanted to say, but of course the time for picking up the phone to talk Mr. Murphy's ear off was long past. So I tried my best to commit the bulk of my thoughts to my mental memo pad, and now with some time on my hands to sit and write I think I'll sort it out here and leave the rest to you.

Comics have been around for...a while. That's a statement that won't surprise anybody, especially if you've read anything on this blog or spent any time talking with me. It's been a hundred years, give or take, since the storytelling form that we now recognize as comics emerged, and in all that time comics have managed to stay comfortable on paper. Not comfortable content-wise. There are always going to be punks like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison messing about with the boundaries of comics stories, but that's not what this is about. Comics have always had pages. Whether you pick up a trade paperback volume at Chapters or a monthly single issue at your local shop, you pic it up and open it and find pages. And then you jump in and start turning those pages, and you lose yourself in the book. There's a lot to be said for books. From a purely nostalgic standpoint, they're old-school. They're romantic. They smell great, and when you put a couple thousand old ones in a shop all together they smell even better. As an illustrator I think of books as a vehicle, the thing that's going to carry my art to the people I want to get it to. I can put pictures on pages, and people will turn those pages to go from one picture to the next, and the next, and the next...but what happens when pages aren't being made anymore? That was the question that hit me while I listened to people phoning in and telling Rex about their children's Kindle reader. What happens to Comics in a world without pages?

Books engage people. It's the turning that does it, the action of reaching and grabbing the corner of a page and moving it, flipping it over to get at the other side so you can keep moving through this world that has, incredibly, been pressed onto the surface of a funny little sheet of paper. I have become lost in countless novels, active in my search for the next plot twist. I don't recall that I've ever become lost in a PDF, so enthralled that it becomes an act of pleasure to reach out and press the "down" arrow. When you have art on a page, the viewer engages with the art in the same way. The challenge of moving book art into digital space is similar to the challenge of moving it into gallery space. The viewer is no longer permitted to touch the art. The world inside a computer is just as sterilized as the walls inside an art gallery. The images there are not for touching; they are there for you to look at from a distance as you move through. But there is no physical engagement. The viewer remains detached, and the art remains stationary.

Art Spiegelman taught me something. Not directly, of course, but through his work (maybe someday I'll learn something from him directly. I'll make sure you hear about it.). If there is one thing that sets Spiegelman apart from other comic artists it is his ability to compose a page. It is one thing to compose an image; it is quite another to compose several sequential images into a cohesive form that stands apart as its own composition. Yet this is Spiegelman's gift: to create pages that are more than just a collection of well-drawn panels, but carefully arranged bodies of work, a whole that is more than simply the sum of the parts. Comics artists strive towards that goal. We labour to understand the visual space of a page and the best ways to lay out our panels, to guide the eye of the reader through the narrative. That space is easily identified. Pages have edges, publishing sizes are standardized. We have almost a century of tradition that we can look back on and study to learn the most effective ways to fill that space. Artists have gotten good at filling those pages, and filling lots of them, and now the industry wants to turn those pages into screens.

This is where my feelings become mixed. A quick note: I spent the last year actively boycotting digital comics and trying to purge digital media from my art practice. Then I accidentally created something that only makes sense if published digitally and was forced to take a second look at the possibility that digital publication is not, after all, something sent from the devil to kill comics. Now then:

We have two options here, the way I see it. We can take comics as they exist now, scan them, and publish them digitally. That's already happening. Most comics these days are created digitally anyways, so its easy. We keep the page sizes we're comfortable with, the page layouts we know, and eventually phase out hard-copy publication altogether. The artists stay happy. Publishing colour digitally is cheap and easy. It's simple, safe, foolproof. We're already halfway there. So...what the hell's the point? Seriously. We're entering an entirely new stage of evolution of Comics here; we are moving the visual narrative off the page and into a realm devoid of physical boundaries. Yet we're just copy-pasting our books into this realm and leaving it at that. We're saying that we want to "embrace the future", "be progressive", but really we're taking the old ways of doing things and doing them over digitally. It's safe. It's boring. It's stagnant.

Let's mix it up. Take all those ideas you have about how to compose a page, and toss them out the window. Better yet, put them in a library full of real books where they can be preserved, studied, remembered, read, respected, and loved for the rest of time. They deserve all that. But leave them out of what you're about to do. What you're about to do is take your passion for drawing and writing and telling visual stories and figure out how to compose a visual narrative in limitless space. No edges. No pages. This world scrolls, it doesn't flip. It has code instead of a spine, pixels instead of ink. So, what are you going to do with it? This is the question we need to be asking, instead of building databases of e-Books with "front covers" that aren't the "front" of anything because they exist in a world with no spatial qualities. When your readers can't pick up your art-vehicle and engage with it physically, how do you pull them in? Without the smell factor of a new book, or an old book, how you do seduce a new reader into buying your art-filled file? Or do you (horror of horrors. This next section contains graphic content, Marvel and DC executives may want to turn away) give it away. Yeah, you heard me. Chew on that.

This is the hard way, because this way involves starting over and reinventing what comics look like. We're fools if we think technology is just going to be free and automatically be easier. If this technology is going advance our art we have to meet it halfway. It's a paradigm shift. It's going to be a lot of hard work, and it's going to change the world.

It's a good thing I have a blog. Rex Murphy would never have let me finish all that.


  1. I to, have a love hate relationship with digital art. Considering I dabble in it myself, I like it, but I also really hate it. I have had such a confliction that I had to write my 10 page art history paper on it.

    I think what I dislike about digital comics, or even drawings and posters and whatnot, is that it's so.... easy. Obviously you have to have some knowledge about programs and stuff. But it doesn't come naturally to stare at a screen all day. And it's not tangible, and truthfully speaking, it doesn't even really exist. Because how can pixels exist in the real world? They don't.

    I like some of the effects you can do in photoshop or whatever program, but, if someone were to create the same effect traditionally, I tend to award them more respect. Personally and subconsciously. Because, it's harder to accomplish, and it's a physical act of drawing or painting or sculpting that doesn't involve staring blankly at a computer screen. I feel like.... it's almost taking the easy way out. But that's just me, I mean, I also enjoy digital art to a level, but I have a hard time connecting with it when it's so flat, even when printed.

    And it might be just coming from a traditionally fine art school, has made me think that? I'm not sure. I now work with a whole bunch of people who have gone to get some certificate in digital animation or drawing and they hold such a high... respect, for lack of a better word, for their digital character drawings and "paintings" and even digital model drawings. I sit there and agree, because I don't want to offend every single person I work with but in my head I am disagreeing with everything they say. And I am literally the only one who has a tendency to do things traditionally.

    Okay, sorry. I'm done writing long annoying comments on your blog :P

    1. Annoying? I say long and delightful. I agree with you; in many ways it is the easy way. Art is so much more alive when there's no Ctrl+Z. It's important that we not lose that, and it's going to be people like you and me who keep it alive I think. At the same time...the world is changing. And it's going to be hard to watch as it moves further and further down that road, away from the traditions we love. I'm still not sure if I'm going to follow it or not. Lol this is me, late at night, tired and overly sentimental ;) Thanks for the comment, Jena!

    2. Digital Art, the new form of Conceptualism? Whooo knoooooows *mysterious music*

    3. It might be exactly that. We'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, check these out! and (make sure you click & drag...)