Seeking to disprove stereotypes that comics are merely simplistic or juvenile entertainment for the uncultured; to enlighten the open-minded and encourage the broadening of one's horizons; to examine comics as a text; to deepen appreciation for comics, comic books, and graphic novels as a formidable form of art in all cultures.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

iPhone and Flash: It Just Isn't Meant to Be

Here's an interesting development in the comic art form: mobile devices.

DC Comics made a fairly major change to its business model several months ago when they announced they would be releasing all of their monthly comic books in both magazine AND digital formats.  A lot of the internet discussion focus has turned to the implications for the business side of the industry, but I'd like to take a moment to address how this affects the aesthetic itself.

I read this part of the panel, then tap...
See, I've been subscribing to some of DC's titles via my smart phone because it's a quick, convenient way for me to access these comics.  I sometimes find myself with downtime at work and it's great to fill it with a few minutes of Green Lantern or Batman, and when a task inevitably falls into my lap I can easily just pop my phone back into my pocket.  The app is user-friendly, and the first time you use it there is a helpful tutorial that teaches you how it works: essentially, programmers have broken the comic's pages into their individual panels, and they organize them in a way that your phone's screen can display them for the reader to easily view.  Sometimes this involves zooming into different parts of an image to read text or focus on specific elements of a scene (only to suddenly pop out and view the whole image before moving on), sometimes a couple panels are crammed into one screen, and so forth.  Tapping on different parts of the screen will allow the reader to move forward and backward.  At first I thought this was all well and good, a rational way to translate a physical comic into a handheld format.  Then the frustrating confusion reared its ugly head. read the rest of it.

 The first time this occurred was when I was reading Flash #2.  I was nearing the end of the issue.  Flash was on the run, as usual, and at the same time Iris West was visiting a prison for a story she was writing, some guy named Guerrero was being pressured by bad guys into pressing an ominous button, a commercial airliner's pilots were fiddling with their instruments, and a mysterious explosion was going off in the sky, seemingly from out of nowhere.  The last image of the comic is of Flash gawking at the jet about to crash down on top of him (and a bridge full of cars), leaving the reader in suspense as to whether he'll be able to save the endangered innocents or not.  Thing is, I was left REALLY confused.  Tapping on my screen to follow the app's way of pacing and progressing through the story was making me wonder if there was a glitch in the software, because suddenly I was jumping from one setting to another, rotating between five different locations -- I thought I was skipping entire pages!  I kept going back and forth trying to figure out what was happening with my comic, and I wasn't able to really figure it out until I had a chance to speak with a coworker who had already read this issue in magazine format, and who explained the story to me.  I felt kind of dumb when I finally understood what was happening, and took a moment to think about why I hadn't been able to piece it together on my own.

Then it dawned on me: storytelling in comic books assumes that the reader has entire pages laid out before him, trusting his inherent reading and logic skills, and relying on tried and true practices of art, to guide his eye to follow the words and images in sequence.  Creating sequential artwork for the intent of publishing an actual comic book, and then translating said artwork into what it is on our mobile devices, removes much of the comic book experience as it was intended to be by its creators.  My lack of understanding could very well have been caused by the inability to take a series of images (and in some cases, entire panels) in on my own, allowing my natural comic-book-reading abilities to do the legwork for me.

To be a little more fair to the publishers, there IS an option to view the entire page on the iPhone.  However, I don't think there's really much of a comparison.

Regular comic book page

Smartphone view


It's like watching a theater performance on a television screen.  I've always hated watching plays on video, but it wasn't until film school that I pieced together why.  A professor was showing us Mandy Pantinkin's performance of "Sundays in the Park with George" one class period, and after about a thousand cross-fade transitions I couldn't stop thinking about how inappropriate it was to riddle a stage play with digital footprints.  Then I got caught up in the camera angles and how I wanted to look at the overall painting being portrayed, but no, I was at the mercy of the camera.  I really enjoy going to the theater.  Attending big-budget musicals and performing in high school plays was a big part of my adolescence -- which is why I insist that theater should be seen IN A THEATER.  Production design, scripting, costume, choreography, acting -- these are all things that are meant to lead an audience member's eyes from one point to another.  Introducing cameras to this foreign environment endangers and muffles the other storytellers on stage!

Smart phones are great, and so are comic books.  The breeding of the two is what yields oft-unwieldy spawn.  It would be interesting if someone were to begin making comics with smart phones specifically in mind.  This would be like a new medium for sequential art, as it's designed without any intention of the work being laid out in one big spread in front of you (so much for the infinite canvas, eh?).  It could cater to the strengths of mobile devices and their technological capabilities, rather than being a second thought by a marketing team.  Authors of comics who create stories specifically with this format in mind can be more confident that their smart phone readers are more likely to understand what exactly it is that they're trying to get across.

For now, though, I guess all we can do is to help readers be aware of how their experience is being affected.  I certainly like the idea of carrying my comics everywhere with me, I just have to recognize that it's just detracting from the purest form of comic book reading by doing so.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Word of Mouth

Check out this installment of a podcast hosted by the writing center at Brigham Young University, my alma mater.

I would have personally given a few more details as to the economic influence that has encouraged the prominence of superheroes in the comics medium over the years, and the hosts are a little monotone and unnatural, but they pull in a couple guests who are more lively, and the podcast in all is a good intro for someone who is curious about looking at comics more seriously and understanding the phenomenal popularity of comics-related media in the last decade (original post at

Thursday, March 5, 2009

NY Times Introduces Graphic Books Best Seller Lists

The New York Times today introduced its first-ever listing of best seller graphic books, split into three categories: hardcover, softcover, and manga!

George Gustines, author of the article, compares/links this newfound recognition of the medium with the feature-length Watchmen movie that is soon to be released. While Watchmen certainly is an important work in comics -- one of the first superhero comics to take itself seriously and explore the strengths of the medium -- this list comes long overdue, since before Watchmen was collected into a single volume.

That being said, this is definitely a big step in the right direction. The country is finally starting to recognize the important impact that comics have had on our culture. Granted, it's not exactly time to jump and shout for joy just yet. After all, this doesn't necessarily mean that people are going to be looking at comics as being anymore valuable than commercialized sludge pandering to children, and looking at some of the bestsellers it's obvious that the majority of the comics audience maybe isn't always demanding the quality of literature we could be getting (Batman R.I.P. being a major one that stands out to me -- a storyline that delivers soap opera plot elements and cheap gimmicks as a scheme to increase controversy, and thus readership).

But a step nonetheless. And, as I've shown, it should provide a useful tool for measuring the artistic appreciation of popular audiences for the comics medium.

What are your thoughts on what this reflects and where we are to go from here?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review: Making Comics

Making Comics is Scott McCloud's third installment of graphic comics instruction, and a definite must-read for students of the form. Scott takes you through the basic artistic theories and guidelines that go into creating a comic. Mind you, this is NOT a step-by-step "how to draw" book -- while there is some instruction on the matter, the author largely assumes that the reader already has that skill and is ready for more tips on details that will bring his storytelling capabilities to the forefront.

In contrast to my somewhat harsh reaction to Reinventing Comics, I really, really enjoyed this book, probably because it relies less on giving debatable opinions on the future of comics and more on what already works, WHY it already works, HOW it works, and produces solid examples, both through McCloud's own drawings and published works of other noteworthy authors.

As a student of film, it was fun to find a lot of ideas in McCloud's book that I was familiar with already but applied to a different medium. For example, deciding how to frame a shot will have similar emotional implications in both forms (super low shot empowers the subject, super high empowers the viewer, etc.). The idea of producing an establishing shot in each new scene to give the reader an idea of spacial relationships is also prominent in each medium (and sometimes challenged).

One of the most insightful chapters deals with facial expression and the importance of really nailing it so the reader instantly understands what is being communicated. McCloud deconstructs the human face into its various muscle groups so the reader can understand how it functions, and then shows how different basic expressions combine to form more complex emotions that communicate more than one thought at a time (see excerpt included in this post). I've seen cartoonists draw a page of expressions of different characters as a guide for themselves, but never have I seen the mathematics behind them like McCloud so successfully shows here.

Understanding Comics showed us how comics are digested by the brain, their roots in history and the arts, and how to dissect them. Reinventing Comics showed us how comics have more potential than the popular world gives them credit and where the future should take them. Making Comics shows us the artistic implications in building a comic and what certain choices will mean for the reader's experience.

I highly recommend this book as another great demonstrator of comics' unique form and contributions to the artistic kingdom, and as an entertaining way to gain insights to the intricacies of the medium. Pick it up!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Comics in a Digital Era

I already commented just a tad in former posts about webcomics and their potential as "comics," and thanks to Scott Kurtz's reference at PvP, I came across this nice illustration that briefly criticizes some webcomics for straying outside of what an actual comic is, explains that definition, and shows what the author means through form following concept. (WARNING: some strong language in the first few panels, but it cleans up once it gets to the meat!)

about DIGITAL COMICS by ~Balak01 on deviantART

I think this Balak01 fellow has hit the nail on the head. He keeps comics pure by not straying from their basics -- images in a deliberate sequence -- but still makes them dynamic and manipulates time by taking advantage of the visual space properties that are unique to the digital format.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dibujante de Muñequitos

Time for a very on-topic (yet undeservingly-short) plug for a documentary being produced by a good friend from film school:

Dibujante de Muñequitos explores the life, career, artwork and relationships of Ric Estrada, former comic book penciler who spent much of his career working at DC Comics and was the first artist to draw such popular characters as Power Girl. Ric has led a very interesting life filled with connections with interesting people, such as the late Ernest Hemingway.

In viewing some of the unedited footage of the film (such as this interview with Paul Levitz, president of DC Comics), what intrigues me most about Ric is his religious convictions and how he implemented them in his every day life and work. The comics industry is rampant with atheism, and Ric stands out as a man who isn't afraid to make his convictions a part of his projects and known to his coworkers.

Seth, Ric's son and my friend, is striving to raise funds for this film to pay tribute to his father, who is currently undergoing radiation treatments for cancer. Ric is currently in good spirits, according to Seth, but the nature of cancer is such that nobody can be sure how much longer he'll be around, therefore time is of the essence in securing these funds and completing this project.

If it is within your means, support this film and show your support for artistic expression through the comics medium. See the links in this post for more detailed information on Ric's life, the film's progress & content, and benefits of donating.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return

At the time of this post, I haven't yet read the predecessor to this graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, but the story stands on its own well enough that there were very few occasions where I wondered if I was missing something that was perhaps in the other book.

Satrapi describes her experiences growing in 1980s Vienna, having been sent there during her adolescence to be distanced from war-torn Iran and its fundamentalist, oppressive government. She deals with the emotional pain of realizing that her family remains in danger while she is on her own, becoming a new person as she is exposed to much more liberal schools of thought than what she has hitherto been used to. Eventually she returns to Iran for a few years, to find herself defying her government, gaining greater insight to the motivation of her country's leaders, and fitting in less and less in the setting.

The story succeeds in delivering a great coming-of-age story while giving a Western audience greater access to a foreign culture. I'm not entirely sure how the telling of this story in comics form strengthens it as a whole, but I do have a few simple thoughts:
  • The simple drawing style of Satrapi, utilized in a very Western medium (yes, there are Eastern comics, but the style and form differ), really helped me get drawn into the story more. I often find it a little more difficult to relate with foreign cultures when simply reading text about them or sometimes even seeing a movie. The author's cartoons succeed in helping me relate with the Middle Eastern protagonist and neutralize any undesired alienations I may feel long enough to help me understand her own cultural discoveries in faraway places.
  • There are several times where I think it was easier for Satrapi to show rather than tell. One example is a page in the story where she describes how one begins to spot the different female body shapes under the many robes and veils they are required to wear, and illustrates how certain hairstyles result in a corresponding veil mold for others to see. It was much more effective to see this than have to read and trust that my imagination was doing the description justice.
  • Obviously there is something to be said for pacing and juxtaposition in the graphic storytelling. I personally loved one page where Satrapi is showing a figure drawing class she was taking, with a female model who had to remain completely covered due to a mandate by the powers-that-be(were). She slightly exaggerates the size and pose of the model to really accentuate the lack of shape the student artists had to work with and thus proclaim how ridiculous a scenario she'd found herself in. Pair this with her words, "We learned to draw drapes really well," and we're given a fantastic commentary on liberal arts vs. fundamentalist conservatism.
All in all a great read, and, of course, an excellent example of comics wielding greater potential than perhaps what pop culture America readily sees. If you enjoy autobiographies, Middle Eastern/European cultures, and discussions of clashing ideals (and the birth of new ones), then this book is for you.