Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Post-Nasal Comics

Comics that don't smell ? Well - I once told my wife I loved her because she smelled like old comics. (ahem - not a line I would encourage anyone to use - not that anyone else is that stupid - and no, she doesn't really smell like an old comic book and I'll slug anyone who suggest she does. So there. nyaah.)

Ok - so I am - admittedly - "mired in the past" (I won't say "hopelessly") and devoted to paper. My personal blog is "Pulp Ink", what does that tell you? Nevertheless, it would be absurd to quarrel with the digitization of books, of newspapers, of comics -- it's a tsunami, an asteroid, an earthquake... indifferent to the pleas of those in its path; the players, bystanders, critics, small press comics geeks. And what's not to welcome with the new developments in presentation, in the Kindle and the Apple "Cocktail"? (*see K's last post)

While it's obvious that the advent of "Cocktail" (or something similar) is a game-changer, it will not be the end of print comics. Print will continue - whether for those of us stuck in the past- or those who simply love the aesthetics of the book - yet print is likely to become something altogether more "precious" -- and expensive -- dare I say marginal? (an evolution already underway - see assorted posts here and elsewhere) The question arises, aside from marginalizing print, (hmmm) what impact will the "Cocktail" (or a more graphics friendly Kindle) have on comics? Not economically -- although the economic issues are paramount and will impact all others -- but aesthetically.

Comics - or the sequential art that we identify as comics - developed in the forms we know largely in response to the demands of economics and technology. The daily comic strip had its roots in the broadsheet, was codified in the newspapers of Pulitzer, Hearst and Patterson and became a daily event, serialized-as an economic imperative. Later on, the newspaper broad sheet was folded over twice and... yadda yadda yadda...staple staple.. yadda yadda yadda... Max Gaines.

Ok - we all know that story. But just as interesting -- the technology not only impacted the format but form of the imagery as well. Brush, pen and ink, cross-hatching, spotting blacks, zip-a-tone, ligne-claire, audacious and flat primary colors, etc. - the entire approach to comics' graphic imaging - derives from its final form in print (or newsprint) -- that is, the state of the technology at their inception. Printing on newsprint was perhaps the most economical option available - as well as the least trustworthy. The dependence on a strong linear approach to drawing - one that emphasizes simplicity and clean, bold, solid contours is a direct response to the unreliable characteristics of the early 20th century printing process.

Entire schools of comics art have been built upon this foundation - which is now so obscured under layers of history and evolution that it's as remote as Grant beneath that tomb. Whether one is talking Kirby, Toth or Barks, the success of their highly personalized styles was dependant upon their realization in four-color newsprint. 20th century printing -- or rather, economical 20th century printing, could not accommodate the vagaries of charcoal drawing, pencil drawing-any gestural approach in which media plays an expressive role. So 20th century comics do not have a Kathe Kollwitz, an Edvard Munch - a Georges Seurat (love those charcoals).

Comics developed its own standards for good drawing that have been - until recently - quite distinct from "good drawing" as it is practiced in other media (and this is not to say that comics drawing necessarily suffered for being distinct - see Kirby, Toth, Barks, DeCarlo, Rogers, Bushmiller, Wiseman, et al).

21st century printing - or printing since the mid-late 1990's - the digital age, is something quite different. Digital technology has offered comics' artists an enormously expanded playing field-multiplying their expressive capabilities exponentially. For example, a book such as Gipi's
"Notes for a War Story" - with all of its subtle shadings of watercolor and ink wash -- would be difficult to capture in print in the 1960's.

What will new technology such as Cocktail bring forth? Who knows? But as yet, a look over the ACT-I-VATE website - one of the premier webcomics sites around - indicates that most webcomics artists continue to think in terms of print. Much of the imagery is still black line and color -- a process steeped in tradition -- but not necessitated by the computer screen (and I admit to same - my serialized graphic novel Nice Work at ModernTales.com is conceived of in traditional terms).

Of course, amidst the relatively traditional approaches on view at ACT-I-VATE there are a multiplicity of variations - and Joe Infurnari's "The Transmigration of ULTRA-Lad" is certainly among the best of them - one that might be difficult to recreate in print, given Infurnari's attempts at digital verisimilitude. Infurnari displays a good many of his pages on faux-yellowed and torn newsprint signaling that "Ultra-Lad" is a product of the Silver Age of comics, recently uncovered at the bottom of a bin of smelly old newsprint. Except that "Ultra-Lad" doesn't smell -- it's a webcomic.

Oh well - verisimilitude only goes so far.

Nevertheless - in lieu of our discussion, a more enlightening example is Infurnari's own "The Process" - an altogether more experimental and daring approach to visualization-enabled by current technologies and not so deeply indebted to print (see page 18 of chapter 2).

Of course, where does one look for insight into the future of comics in the digital age? Our very own Marshall Mcluhan; Mr. Scott McCloud: philosopher-guru of all things web-comics-y and otherwise. I have to admit-I loved Understanding Comics , used it as a text (but didn't commit it to memory) - still, I haven't bothered with Reinventing Comics so I'm behind the curve on this - (HEY!Gimme a break!-"Pulp Ink" remember?) -- but even McCloud's own webcomic "The Right Number" - while its format is ostensibly more web-based, its imagery is nonetheless beholden to print comics.

Well the language is iconic now, isn't it? All these years post- Lichtenstein, to use bold lines, flat color, benday dots, etc. - is a sign, a signal, of "comics-i-ness", of pop, of flash, of a certain now or some re-imagined now -both of this now and of some undefinable, unattainable "now" long past.

As comics artists move from bristol to graphics tablets and drawing directly on the screen, those "signs of comics" become increasingly detached from their original function and meaning. (How to "read" a Lichtenstein in 20 years? and why would anyone use ben-day dots in 2029?)

I don't think comics will mimic corporate animation's seismic shift from the hand-drawn to CGI. Comics are as much the territory of individualists, cranks and crackpots (lovable crackpots, of course) as corporations (how's that for alliteration?) - and they can be constructed by one creator, laboring alone (with difficulty) over a dank and dismal drawing board (in Canada), whereas animation is (not always-of course) most frequently a collaborative effort. (*except in Canada-where last I heard they had a terrific National Film Board supporting equally terrific independent animators).

So we can keep our drawing boards, we can keep our bristol , but the
Wacom--and the Cocktail- beckon.

Images: I admit to using this essay as a shameless excuse to put up images by Rudolph Dirks, Kathe Kollwitz, Al Wiseman, Gipi and Joe Infurnari.


  1. Another artist mining some of the same faux vintage territory as Infurnari is Jim Rugg with his brilliant Afrodisiac:


  2. Well those comics are really not what one would expect... But I still believe some of them are worth the while... not quite sure why, but at least you need to know what's inside to give a statement