Amazing Montage Magazine

for June, 2000


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

The Comics Market
Public Perception
Practitioner Diversity
Genre Diversity

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

The Computer-assisted Artist

McCloud's book is at its best in the third section, where he deals with the revolutionary changes anticipated from digital production, distribution, and presentation of comic art. He must attempt to deal with the future shock many in his audience are feeling, and at the same time address the new generation who are leapfrogging ahead of him. Not an easy balancing act! Computer generated art promoting Curious Labs' POSER.

McCloud summarizes the current generation of comics-related computer users: young artists and technical experts view themselves as 'masters' of the new technology, and older artists converting reluctantly to computer use, view themselves as 'slaves or worse,' fearing their own obsolescence. McCloud predicts that both classes of computer users will be threatened by the next generation, who've grown up with computers and see themselves as neither master nor slave. 'To them, the computer is an environment to explore, an extension of their whims-- and a place where things "happen" first and are understood later.'

Such an attitude isn't as revolutionary as he makes it sound-- most things in life '"happen" first and are understood later.' Gas prices go up and a government official comes on the news to explain it. We get a sharp pain in our sides and our doctor tells us it's an ulcer. Furthermore, there are plenty of things that "happen" which are NEVER understood! But McCloud evidently has something specific in mind in terms of learning to use computers.

He describes his daughters playing with a game called Kid Pix, Kidpix-generated animated gif copyright 2000 by Kelly in which they discovered a way to create circular moire patterns, an effect not intended by the program designers. McCloud concludes, 'This ability to play with the new tools to learn them from the inside is our best hope of understanding them. Kids don't have a monopoly on the ability to play. This phenomenon is as much about attitude as about age. But for many artists my age and up, a certain amount of "unlearning" may be in order.'

There's nothing wrong with bringing an attitude of play to computer learning, but I disagree with McCloud's emphasis on exploiting bugs in the programming. Sure, it's fun to imagine that you're doing something forbidden, and that you'll discover secret riches by going through doors that say 'Do not enter.' But computer programmers are not spoilsports who are trying to conceal all the good stuff from the users. If the programmer tries to prevent you from doing something, it's probably for a good reason. And programs that are full of bugs are not very good programs in the first place; if they stay on the market, new releases will eliminate those bugs.

When what "happens" first and is understood later is that the program freezes up and you have to reboot, this new paradigm might not seem so marvelous!

There's also a lot to be said for having control of a tool, for understanding what 'happens' before it happens. Talking about voice editing technology in the recent educational comic RADIO, AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE, , Jessica Abel writes, Cover, ARTBABE, copyright 2000 by Jessica Abel 'Whatever program you're using-- obviously and seriously-- read the manual. You're going to be on your own with the details of how the program works, and if you start by reading the manual, you will make your life much easier.' Call me a cynic, but I think reading the manual offers a better hope of understanding a programming tool than the trial-and-error approach McCloud endorses.

I also wonder about the employment prospects for the next generation of computer users. It's illuminating that McCloud's 4 and 6-year-old daughters are learning computers faster than he is. That's because the new computerized tools are getting easier to learn and master; 'user-friendliness' is their single most marketable asset.

As a result, computer skills are more widespread than ever before, and while the demand is currently high, it will inevitably be overmatched by the plentiful supply provided by the next generation. Being a PC expert may be the McJob of the future.

The prospect of having the economy overrun by a crop of newcomers raised in a pampered 'user-friendly' environment has its downsides for employers. Try telling a CIO whose server has been down for 12 hours that things "happen" first and are understood later!

That's why traditional 'mainframe' programmers, who once thought they'd be obsolete after Y2K, are finding themselves in more demand than ever. Not only are they needed to maintain and convert the massive 'legacy systems' of old code that is the foundation of most companies, but their experience is needed for the new technologies as well. In 'COBOL Experts: Life after Y2K' ( Gartner Group VP Jim Duggan points out, 'It's one thing to find a Java progammer who can write you a web page. It's another to build a system supporting thousands of users that must last for years... Mainframe programmers understand those issues-- apply those process skills and maturity.'

This dynamic applies to the art world as well. Illustrators who've labored for decades in the pen-and-ink world may find their basic skills becoming obsolete; but their understanding of anatomy, composition, and style are as valuable as ever. Publishers like Marvel who've historically disrespected their talent pool will no doubt jump at the chance to retire their most experienced staff; but in doing so, they are flirting with disaster, and providing an opportunity for more insightful upstart companies.

Like it or not, professional artists will have no choice but to master the new technologies if they want to stay in the business. But they should be wary of McCloud's recommendation for 'unlearning.' Sure, it's important to try new things and keep an open mind. But their maturity and experience is worth far more than any amount of 'point and click' fluency.

Stylistic Considerations of Computer Art

Character from ARGON ZARK, copyright 2000 by Charley Parker. McCloud is eloquent in describing the potential of the new computer tools. 'The digital canvas offers a malleable world with limitless opportunities for revision and expansion. Computers replace an armada of physical media with a single work environment, but by doing so expand the palette of visual results greatly; and that palette grows larger by the day...'

But it's disappointing that McCloud dwells so much on the technical aspects, instead of grappling with the fundamental changes.

One of these will be the inevitable de-emphasis on artistic eye-hand coordination. This is the process whereby the artist observes something in nature, and attempts to reproduce it by sketching or painting.

Of course, the new tools include scanners for reading in sketches, and tablets for drawing straight into the computer. McCloud hilights new developments like a 'combined monitor/drawing slates' that provide 'instant feedback', and virtual reality 'force-feedback devices' for direct manipulation of 3-D objects. But just as the pocket calculator has eliminated the need to develop arithmetic skill, the new tools will eliminate the need to master the tedious process of rendering by hand-- with greatly more far-reaching consequences.

Eye-hand coordination means that a living human being has intervened in every aspect of the process, but the new computer art requires far less of the artist. The artist remains the decision-maker and the facilitator, but will increasingly be relegating to merely assembling, refining, and tweaking art that comes out of a box.

One aspect of computer art that shows up again and again in McCloud's examples is the art of collage, the assembly of diverse fragments into a composition. Every high school art student has taken their turn at trashing hundreds of glossy magazines to make elaborate photo-collages, tasting the intoxicating charm of contrasting one picture with another, often to startling surreal effect.

The charm wears off for most of us, though, because visually, the elements never quite fit with each other; each fragment retains its integrity and reflects the separate world it came from. (This is not intended to denigrate the works of the many fine artists who've embraced collage as their primary mode of expression.)

The computer expands the possibilities of collage, allowing the fragments to be warped and molded to fit. The colors can be adjusted, the edges blurred. But aren't these efforts to assimilate the fragment into the picture a bit precious? Don't they lack boldness? Isn't the whole idea of collage to create the shock of juxaposition?

Also, there's an ethical issue with this excessive manipulation-- is the artist appropriating images created by others and trying to pass them off as the artist's own work?

As McCloud abundantly demonstrates, computers also have the ability to impose stylizations on the art. 'How would we react,' writes McCloud, 'to a story that was all "embossed" rather than drawn?' Various kinds of filters can take a simple image and 'elevate' it into something strange and complicated.

This ability is a godsend to artists with modest skills who want to make a slick impression. But the effect can be acutely annoying. While appropriate for birthday party invitations and soulless commercial publications, it is death for any serious artist to rely on such a shoddy bag of tricks.

Computerized coloring and tonal manipulation, on the other hand, offers enormous possibilities. A painter in traditional media faces daunting technical challenges-- the choice of media inevitably affect the texture of the results; every pigment added to a mixture has a byproduct of a little more brown and grey added to the color; the more layers of paint piled onto the canvas, the more unwanted texture the artist has to cope with. The long hours waiting for paint to dry-- and watching how the 'dry' color differs from the wet color!

Computerized air-brush effects are far more flexible and precise than anything you can do in the physical world-- and there aren't all those fumes to inhale!

For mass media artists, there is the additional difficulty of reproduction. Print reproductions are never the same colors as the original, and are usually more greyish and brown. Even in black and white, the roughness of pulp paper and the limitations of photographic screening often cause 'half-tones' to look cloudy and muddy. Even as they threaten them with extinction, the computer has revolutionized the look of print comics.

But artists should be wary of trading the crispness of black and white for the subtleties of grey. For one thing, even when perfectly reproduced, greys often look like hell. For another, the complexity and obscurity of a grey tone slows down the eye, negating the kinetic effects of the drawing.

In full-color comics, the opposite is true. The classic comics style, with its flat hand-cut color separations, served the kinetic style of the drawings well. Hand-colored 'painted' comics often destroy the kinetic sense of immediacy, trading a sequence of actions for a succession of static images. But the new computerized coloring lays transparently on the page, allowing the drawings to retain their kinetic power, while enriching their coloration.

Of course, not every comic needs the quality of immediacy. And artists are fully capable of creating kinetic effects with paint. But the flexibility of the new technlogy promises to raise comics coloring to a new level.

The Computer As Artist

'There is one door, however,' writes McCloud, 'that even my daughers' generation may hesitate to enter: the door beyond which the human artist ceases to matter-- and the computer itself becomes the "artist."'

McCloud treats this as an ominous development, but a machine was invented that was capable of replacing human artists over a century ago. It's called a camera!

copyright 2000 by Pro Image Photo - Photo Funnies In fact, the new digital cameras and computerized image manipulation may finally fulfill the promise of fumetti, photographic comics. There are some technical challenges with this kind of comic-- the captions and word balloons tend to look pasted-on, and it's sometimes difficult to forget you're looking at models and get absorbed in the story. But as an alternative form of comics storytelling, fumetti offer enormous possibilities for realism and nuanced characterization. Best of all, they introduce the model/actors to the medium as new players on the creative team who have the potential to become media stars in their own right.

Considering the cost of on-location photo shoots, and the employment of the model/actors, I don't think traditional cartoonists have any reason to feel threatened. Instead of reactioning negatively, they should welcome the coming fumetti comics with open arms.

Another prospect is more unsettling, and may have more long-term impact on comics-- the prospect of completely synthetic illustration. The artist, or writer more likely, chooses the characters, wardrobes, and locations from a menu, and specifies the positioning. The computer does the rest, creating a complete realistic picture with correct anatomy and perspective, capable of being viewed from any angle vertically and horizontally. Facial expressions, lighting, props, and everything else can be manipulated by the operator. The only limitations are the complexity of the program and the attitude of the person using it.

Such a tool would be a godsend for writers aspiring to work in the comics medium who can't afford to hire artists, or become frustrated with the quality of work they produce.

One obvious objection is that sythetic illustrations might look all the same. But, for one thing, the illustrators could be designed to include various kinds of filters and stylizations to set one user's work apart from another.

Max Headroom copyright 2000 by the Sci-Fi Channel And, for another, a motion picture camera recording actors uses basically the same style every time. But the cameraman and the director manage to create a sense of individual style in spite of that.

In general, there is something chilling and alienating about this new art. Artists who exploit the new tools will have to work hard to somehow re-humanize them. And those of us who value the human touch in artwork will need to be vigilant that flesh-and-blood, physical world artists are not lost in the shuffle, and that the distribution channels for their work remain open.

The End of Print?

In his prescient and insightful section on digital delivery, McCloud gives much consideration to the prospect of the internet replacing print as comics' primary medium.

He analyzes this potential shift from a number of different angles, including print's current practical advantages over computers-- better resolution, portability, price, 'cross platform' compatability, speed, and ease of use. 'In these and other practical arenas, print continues to win HANDS DOWN over digital, but for how long?'

Pulp magazine covers McCloud also asks, 'is there a fundamental need on our part to touch what we read in the form of books and magazines?' Comparing comics with other non-tactile artforms like music and movies, he concludes there is not.

To this I would add a few considerations. The first is that the internet's liability may be not so much what it doesn't have, but what it does have.

The internet is an environment filled with distractions which gives the user the ability to follow these distractions to their endpoints very easily.

The instinct of the internet surfer is to glance around at what a site has to offer, then hotlink off to the next site. It's an environment that favors and rewards short attention spans. It does not favor prolonged, concentrated effort. (A good test of that proposition: how many readers who started this essay have continued reading to this point?)

Thus, the success of comic strips like Dilbert and Astounding Space Thrills may not be replicated by non-episodic graphic novels of considerably greater length. Since longer works are crucial to comics achieving maturity as an artform, this is an enormously significant shortcoming.

Second, the business world has already been through a so-called revolution known as 'the paperless office.' Such a revolution makes perfect sense on paper (sorry!)-- it's easier to find a document in an indexed data library; and it's easy to use find commands to locate a particular word or phrase in an online document.

But experience shows that having data printed on paper is essential for most people who have to work with it. The typical 'paperless' office printer continues to hum more or less constantly, and when it jams or breaks down, it's a crisis for the whole staff. Desktop laser printers continue to be a sought-after perk.

Is this just because the workers come from a generation that wasn't raised on computers? Maybe so, but doesn't 40 hours a week in front of a screen for 20 years or more count for something? This isn't just a case of misplaced nostalgia-- the workers don't care about the data, they just have to work with it.

No, I think the ease of paper is something that will not be easily matched by digital technology. Maybe in our lifetime. In the next ten years? Doubtful!

Finally, there's the question of whether we have to choose. McCloud give no consideration to the new 'print on demand' technologies, which may have exploded into the news too recently for his first edition to take them into account. The beauty of these new technlogies is that they may allow the rest of the internet revolution to take place as McCloud so convincingly describes it, while allowing the art of printed comics to survive.

'What's digital? What's paper? What's the difference?' asks the annoying big-chinned yuppie in the Xerox commercial. I hope he's right-- that there will be no difference, because computer users won't tolerate it.

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