Thursday, September 17, 2009

Art for Comics' Sake

Geoff's post about the persistence of a print-based esthetic in comics despite the advent of digital imaging and the web left me guiltily pondering my own "practice", as we contemporary artist types (especially the MFAs) like to call it. In my case it hits home pretty hard -- my ongoing comic Fantastic Life couldn't look more conservative: simple cartoony drawings in a clear black line with flat colors - no fancy gradients or painterly effects for me!

(image from Fantastic Life)

And yet I'm no Luddite: I've been making my living as a photoshop artist for the last 15 years, I curated a web-gallery for experimental digital art for seven years, and I've got a background in the sort of experimental/conceptual visual art that positively fetishizes formal novelty ("You made your new piece out of circuit boards? Fabulous!"). So why no hint of that in my comic?

Well, let me just dodge my own question for a second while I look at the broader picture. I think that one of the main differences between the use of images in comics and "fine art" is function. Western fine art (which I'll just confine to easel painting for the sake of simplicity and laziness) evolved to fulfill a particular "use value": representing perceived or imaginary visual experience. Oil painters got really good at this, as many a Luddite will tell you, but the invention of photography pretty much put them out of business. The few that stuck it out had to go looking for other reasons to paint, and started making paintings that did things photographs couldn't (at least not easily, not until photoshop) -- so since then we've had abstraction, surrealism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, etc, etc.

Today, if you're going to set out to be an accomplished "figurative" painter you'd better have a damn good explanation (irony still works best: see John Currin), or else you'll be treated to withering scorn in the "serious" art world. But if you're setting out to be a comics artist and you've got, say, Hal Foster-level drawing chops, that world can still be your oyster.

(images by John Currin and Hal Foster)

This is because comics has never undergone the same functional upheaval that beset painting. Whereas painting fulfilled a specific need for representation that could be easily replaced by a technology that was faster, better and above all cheaper, comic book art is illustration (or, as Art Spiegelman put it, a type of "diagramming") in the service of something else: a narrative. In other words, once painting stopped being "useful" it was - in the classic Duchampian sense - reduced to being "art for art's sake". But comic book art still retains its use value: art for narrative's sake.

Granted, this is small comfort in the face of the marginalization of comics by other narrative forms - television most obviously, which helped wipe out 90% of the comics market in the 1950's - but comics retain a key advantage: as Geoff pointed out, they can be made by individuals with few resources, unlike TV shows, films or video games. And the internet is leveling the playing field by making TV shows, films and video games too expensive to produce relative to the size of the audiences they're able to attract: as audiences shrink, scripted (narrative) shows go out the window and "reality" programming takes over. Comics may have a brighter future than we think.

So, getting back to my question about my own comics: being a digital artist, I've tried making CGI comics and I agree with Geoff that they're unlikely to replace drawing soon - it still takes far too much work per panel to get anything remotely nice looking. That level of time/expense might be fine for Pixar (for now), but comics panels need to be ridiculously cheap and quick by comparison. This was already true 45 years ago, when Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder were pouring crazy amounts of time and effort into Little Annie Fanny - the technology and talent to make every panel a beautiful little painting existed, but it only made sense to do it in the context of a slick magazine selling millions of copies every month.

(images from Finding Nemo - top- and Little Annie Fanny)

So, until I see a better alternative, I'll keep making comics that would look at home on any cheap piece of newsprint, and hide all of the gee whiz digital legerdemain that goes into them. Speaking of which, just for fun, here's a peek at a CGI panel I've been working on, showing the digital image (which looked too harsh to me) and the "hand drawn" (in Photoshop) final version I made from it.

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