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Amazing Montage Magazine

for June, 2000

Focus on REINVENTING COMICS-- Part 4


Introduction
Literature and Art
Comics and Film
McCloud's Definition of Art

The Comics Market
Public Perception
Practitioner Diversity
Genre Diversity
Escapism

The Computer-assisted Artist
Stylistic Considerations of Computer Art
The Computer As Artist
The End of Print?

Infinite Canvases
Becoming Like Film
Sound and Animation
Multimedia Comics
Interactivity and Alternate Pathways

Virtual Reality


Infinite Canvases

In his final section, 'The Infinite Canvas,' McCloud grapples with the question of comics' core identity as they face the changes the new digital media will impress upon them. McCloud's struggle here is a struggle over definitions.

Definitions are important stuff. The definition of a word determines how it will be understood, and vague definitions lead to confusion and frustration.

Definitions affect people's behavior. Within comics fandom, things called 'comics' are accepted; non-'comics' aren't. In the larger world, the wide popularity of a work thought to be a 'comic' can lead the mass audience to investigate other 'comics.'

Definitions also can capture the essence of an idea. In this sense, a definition approaches being an eternal truth. Expanding and revising that definition can threaten the integrity of that truth.

As McCloud views his famous definition of comics from UNDERSTANDING COMICS, juxtaposition of the panels is one of the essential truths of comics. And by 'juxtaposition' he means literally side by side or physically close together.

Scene from ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY copyright 2000 by Chris Ware

McCloud relates that trait to comics' portrayal of time. He theorizes that comics portray time by means of space, that a comic is 'an artist's map of time itself.'

But if the panels are not juxtaposed physically, time is portrayed by a succession of images, not by juxtaposed images. And to McCloud, that is essentially different. Such an arrangement is, by his definition, not comics.

There are a few problems with this concept. For one thing, comics aren't unique in portraying time through space (as McCloud acknowledges.) Prose fiction also does so. Juxtaposed paragraphs reliably indicate the passage of story time (with exceptions, just as there are exceptions in comics.)

Also, comics panels can only be juxtaposed for the duration of a single page. The first panel on the next page is not juxtaposed to the previous page. Therefore, in the strict sense, a graphic novel is not a comic but a series of comics.

But the real problems begin when you put comics on the internet, because the concept of a 'page' changes.

In print, a page must be crammed with information for purely economic reasons-- the more pages, the more the publication costs to print.

But on the internet, a virtually limitless number of pages can be had at insignifigant additional cost.

Therefore, no practical consideration compels artists to juxtapose comics panels on internet pages. If it serves the artist's purposes, each page can contain a single panel. Of course, two or more images viewable at the same time will be more kinetic and lively than two images separated by a manual point-and-click operation; but that's up to the artist to decide.

In fact, commenting on the early CD-ROM comics, McCloud notes a technical problem with juxtaposed panels: 'Unfortunately, to compensate for the low resolution of computer monitors, comics panels often appeared on screen one at a time. Leaving the temporal map on the cutting-room floor.' Even with high resolution, the computer screen tends to be crowded with toolbars, menus, and (ugh!) banner advertising.

McCloud also has problems with the multimedia capabilities of digital technology. Referring again the CD-ROM, he writes, 'Multimedia offered to supplement comics visual basics with sound, motion, and interactivity...' by which '...producers hoped to make comics "come alive."'

But the connundrum is this, according to McCloud: 'As the goal of "coming alive" is fulfilled more and more by sound and motion which represents time THROUGH time-- comics multi-image structure-- the portrayal of time through SPACE-- becomes superfluous, if not a NUISANCE, and isn't likely to endure. When it comes to TIME-BASED immersion, the art of film already does a better job than any tricked-up comic can.'

McCloud proposes a solution, the 'infinite canvas,' which will allow unlimited juxtaposing of panels. It involves thinking of the computer screen not as a page, but as a window. 'There may never be a monitor as wide as Eurpose, yet a comics as wide as Europe or as tall as a mountain can be displayed on any monitor simply by moving across its surface, inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot, mile by mile.'

McCloud proceeds to present a fascinating array of methods for exploiting this infinite canvas (while noting that the concept is beyond the current hypertext-based internet). Especially interesting in these examples is the way the panels can take on meaningful shapes when viewing the overall comic.

Unfortunately, whatever form it takes, the 'infinite canvas' has a fundamental problem-- it requires scrolling. And scrolling from one image to the next is a waste of the reader's time, when it's possible to simply replace one screen with the next instantaneously. Of course, in the digital environment we can have it both ways, and let the reader choose how they want to move forward in the story.

What is McCloud hoping to accomplished by constructing these infinite canvases? Merely that the panels will all be juxtaposed in one massive temporal map, instead of succeeding one another in a film-like way.

Becoming Like Film

But McCloud overestimates the difference between film time and comics time. It's naive to think that film storytelling is dominated by the physical movement being photographed. More often, the sequence of events are conveyed to the audience in shots. There is usually motion within the shot, and that motion can be very important; but the shot is the essential unit of filmmaking, and the means of conveying the majority of changes within the sequence.

Cinematographers compose shots much like a painting or photograph is composed; the motion in the shot is really just like another color or contrast within the picture. Writes critic Louis D. Giannetti, 'Most movie images are structured around one dominant contrast, which in turn is complemented by a series of subsidiary contrasts... Since cinematic images have both dramatic and temporal contexts, the dominant contrast is often movement itself...'

Furthermore, despite the motion within a shot, if the shot remains too long on the screen, the audience becomes restless, waiting for the sudden change to a new shot. Movies that have fewer than the average shots are sometimes labeled 'slow moving' even if they show a lot of actual motion.

Hence, in film, time is portrayed to a great extent by image. Which is practically the same as saying that film time, like comics time, is portrayed by space.

In practice, the visual experience of comics differs from film as follows: In film, a succession of shots, usually containing motion, are projected before the viewer. In comics, the viewer's eye moves in succession from one panel to another; the panels are static images, although they often employ kinetic effects to suggest motion.

The physical difference is that the eye stays trained in the same direction in film. In comics, the eye moves from left to right. But even this is an oversimplification, for in both film and comics, the eye is actively moving in a circular motion about the image it's studying.

There remains only one essential difference-- choice. In film, the succeeding shot appears automatically, without the viewer's consent. In comics, the viewer chooses when to move the eye to the succeeding panel.

This brings me back to the distinction I made earlier between comics and film-- comics are the midway point between prose fiction and film, a small, embattled artform that, within our nitch, has the best of both worlds.

The popularity of film has already reached a saturation point. Creating new film is costly, and there are not unlimited dollars for creating additional film that will attract fewer and fewer viewers from the fringe that currently are not watching something.

Therefore, as a practical matter, cartoonists don't need to fear that the digital technologies will turn comics into quasi-animated films, because even with the new technology, it's too expensive, and the market for it won't justify the cost. Film producers will be far more interested in re-marketing films that have already been made. It won't be long before the internet is simply another outlet for television.

Cartoonists should instead be intrigued by the potential for digital technologies to enhance the comics reading process. If, along the way, comics become more like film, it will only add to our creative choices, strengthen our ability to maintain our nitch between the two giants, and fend off the encroachment of other forms of entertainment, such as video games and chat rooms.

Sound and Animation

Are sound and animation compatable with the comics form?

McCloud has expressed wariness about attempts to make the comics form 'come alive,' and on p. 228 has a panel where X's are scratched through the icons representing animation and sound. He writes, 'To keep true to the simplicity of the temporal map, it may be necessary to eliminate the kind of autonomous sound and motion found in traditional multimedia.'

Unlike McCloud, I'm not wary of comics becoming too much like film. But I think there some basic problems with real sound and motion in a comics story.

First, consider the sound and motion that are already present. These aren't real sound and motion-- they're imagined by the reader.

Many Dilbert fans like myself can still recall the shock when the character first appeared on television-- he didn't sound right! That's because we'd already imagined hearing his voice while reading the comic. Some of us can also remember the first time we saw an animated film based on Spiderman-- he moved a lot more slowly than Ditko's comic book version!

If a real sound or motion is introduced digitally, it can conflict with the equivalent effect taking place in the reader's imagination. And there's another problem too-- a few real motions or sounds might be presented, but the artwork is suggesting many imagined motions and sounds. What will the reader's mind do? Integrate the real sounds and motions in with the imagined ones? Ignore the real sounds and motions? Cease to imagine any sounds and motions, and depend on the real soundtrack and animation? These are questions the artist has to ask.

The other problem relates to the fact that the reader controls the speed and order in which they read the captions and word balloons, look at the picture, and look at the sound effects.

By introducing an attention-getting sound or animation, the digital comic interferes with the normal reader-controlled flow. The reader may be looking at the picture, and suddenly the dialog is given voice. Or the reader is studying one side of a panel, and suddenly an element on the other side begins to move.

Inventive artists can find solutions to these problems if they choose to address them. For example, in her online comic strip ABBY's MENAGERIE, artist Jenni Gregory provides an interesting solution to the question of reader control. The captions and word balloons of the panels are part of an animated GIF, and are 'added' to the panel in phases. So the second word balloon appears at just about the time when the reader has finished the first, and so forth. Since this is done consistently, the reader can adjust to ceding control of the reading pace. ABBY'S MENAGERIE copyright 2000 by Jenni Gregory

Multimedia Comics

But digital technologies promise much more than merely adding the film-like effects of sound and motion to comics. Multimedia art has the ability to go beyond film.

The digital environment is multi-dimensional; it can be built from side to side as well as from front to back. In a traditional novel, if the author wants to describe the process for raising prize-winning roses, the story must shudder to a halt while this digression is exercised. But in a multimedia work, the rose digression can be accomodated with a hotlink, while the main story proceeds.

An interactive multimedia work gives the reader choices of which direction they want to proceed in. The reader can choose to examine the rose digression, or continue with the story. And the storyline itself can be structured with alternate pathways the reader can take.

Interactivity also allows the reader to provide input into the multimedia work. The reader might write notes that are added to the work's database. The reader may interact with other readers online. In more sophisticated multimedia works, the reader can be given tools to actually construct new additions onto the work.

But how much of this is really new? In print, stories can be multi-dimensional simply by adding appendixes. It's technically possible to write alternate-path storylines as well-- in fact, such books have been published for the juvenile market.

In the low-tech environment of traditional role-playing games, multidimensionality, alternate paths, and interactivity are all present-- each player participates in constructing the character they play, and the 'dungeonmaster' is responsible for creating the game's environment.

Indeed, the concept of multimedia has been around for a long time. Books display photographs on their pages; films fill the screen with printed words.

MAD MAGAZINE copyright 2000 by William Gaines MAD MAGAZINE is a prominent example of multimedia comics. A typical issue includes pastiches of daily newspapers, lampoons of advertisements, television take-offs and literary farces. MAD demonstrates the power of the comics medium to tie all these elements together into a coherent package.

What a digital environment brings to the multimedia table is the ability to erase all barriers-- print, pictures, motion, sound, and interactivity can all co-exist in a single work, organized any way the artist chooses.

But so long as the elements remain separate, they will need to be tied together conceptually. And comics, which have always existed in a fragmentary state (text broken into captions, action fragmented into panels) are eminently qualified for that role.

This is one possible destiny for comics in the digital environment-- being at the heart of a vast cluster of multimedia entities, serving as the pathway through them and imparting them with a coherent overarching meaning.

Interactivity and Alternate Pathways

Alternate pathways are problematic in the realm of storytelling. They countervene the tradition of the story as an expression of destiny, and deny stories the reassuring quality some readers count on-- if the hero goes through door number two, he may get the tiger instead of the lady-- end of hero! If this makes stories more lifelike, it may also rob them of their entertainment value.

As a practical matter, alternate pathways require the artist to develop fictional space that will only be experienced by a fraction of the readership. As an alternate pathway story proceeds, the amount of such under-utilized space increases exponentially!

One solution is a random pattern of alternate paths. The story consists of units which are more or less complete in themselves. At the bottom of each unit is a forking path (two or more icons that the reader can click to continue). These connect more or less at random with other similar units. By randomly choosing one path or another, the reader will eventually view the entire work; in the process, they will frequently encounter units that they've visited before.

The effect of this can be surrealistic or absurd, depending on the artist's intentions. I've constructed an interactive story, WEB OF DECEIT, which uses the random model.

Another solution to alternate paths design is to create a closed system. Reader can choose among alternate paths, but boundaries force them back into the fictional space that has been developed.

For example, in a closed system alternate paths romance, Jim might choose to fall in love with Jane instead of Sue. But in the next section, Jane dies in a car crash, and Jim's only remaining prospect is Sue. That way, the artist only has to build one wedding sequence instead of two.

It's likely that readers in a closed system like the Jim and Sue romance will feel dissatisfied-- what's the point of giving the reader a choice if the artist later countermands it?

The example of role-playing games suggest an answer to this problem-- the 'closed' work consists of an environment, and the readers themselves assume the roles of characters. In effect the artist is creating a world for the readers to act out adventures of their own invention. Such a closed system is a rudimentary form of virtual reality.

Next page.