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, September 30, 2008

Event: Small Print Expo 2008

This weekend is the Small Print Expo at the Marriott Bethesda North Hotel & Conference Center in Maryland.

From the website:
In its thirteenth year SPX now serves as the preeminent showcase for the exhibition of independent comic books and the discovery of new creative talent. SPX will bring together over 400 artists and publishers to meet their readers, booksellers, distributors, and each other.
I'm excited to say that I will be attending the expo for my first time, though I'll only be able to be there on Saturday. But look at the list of scheduled panels at the show! There should be some excellent opportunities to hear good discussions about what comics are and what they can become, the artistic potential they can reach. I'll be sure to report what is discussed next week.

The Ignatz Awards ceremony, recognizing outstanding experiments in comics art, will take place that evening, but due to prior commitments I am unable to attend. I do recommend the event, however, as an opportunity to see what non-commercialized comics are doing to be expressive literature.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Baltimore Comic-Con 2008: Webcomics Panel

Last Saturday I had the fortune of attending the Baltimore Comic Con and sitting in on the webcomics panel, which included moderator Scott Kurtz, Brad Guigar, Dave Kellett, and Kris Straub, who comprise the Halfpixel group that wrote How to Make Webcomics and host the podcast Webcomics Weekly. These four creators, as well as the panel's topic, were my major draw to the forum, but to add to the hodgepodge of expertise we were also treated by the participation of Scott Sava and Danielle Corsetto, whose work I had hitherto been unfamiliar with.

The panel was the highlight of the convention for me. For coverage of the general

Halfpixel members Scott Kurtz, Brad Guigar, Kris Straub and Dave Kellett.

discussion that occurred, you can read CBR's brief article. I simply enjoyed how these personalities mesh and have fun together in front of an audience, re-hearing their arguments for webcomics and why they have a place in contemporary media. When the floor was opened for questions, I found that the audience seemed to be focused on learning the technicalities and business details of the webcomics industry. Determined to get a more artistic-based question in there, I raised my hand and was lucky to be the last person to be able to pipe up!

The first thing that naturally came to mind to discuss was my most recent blogpost (that's right, the one just before the post you're reading), so I asked for their insights on the topic.

Below you will find the YouTube clip of the end of the panel, which begins with my question (the rest of the panel is viewable in five other parts under the same channel). A big "thank you" to the gentleman sitting right in front of me who recorded everything with his blackberry. It's not high quality audio and video, but it was enough for me to provide a transcription after the embed and be able to provide you and myself with the context of the discussion.

The Shark = (me)
Scott Kurtz = SK
Scott Sava = SS
Danielle Corsetto = DC
Brad Guigar = BG
Dave Kellett = DK
Kris Straub = KS

(me): This is more of a “theory” question. In your last Webcomics Weekly you were talking with Mike from Penny Arcade, and, from what I understood, he feels that webcomics are as much about drawing well, as well as writing – and I’m wondering your thoughts on that. For example, xkcd is very simplistic, very minimalist … So I’m just wondering your thoughts on that, if one is more important than the other, if you should polish your look more, or…

BG: Of course we feel that way, because we’re all cartoonists and we take this from a different angle than normal people. Doesn’t matter what we think, it matters what the readers think. xkcd may be a comic that I don’t personally follow, although my wife does religiously, if you listen to the podcast. But it doesn’t matter what I think, it doesn’t matter how I think, it matters what all his readers think, and that’s the only important thing, and if it’s working for him then it’s working, and it’s wonderful. Really, it is.

DK: And I think it’s as big, if not bigger than Penny Arcade … Anyways, for a drawing that is, uh -- “minimalist” is one way to put it – it’s amazing to me that, well, as Brad said… I remember we had a podcast where we talked specifically about xkcd … as artists, of course you’re going to say that … and I personally still feel that the writing is more important than the art overall, that there are people that are specifically drawn to the art, that will go to Frank Cho and look at his art no matter what he writes and say, “He’s just trying out a pimple today,” alright, well that’s kind of a dodge on writing anyway, but people love that. There are people who are visually oriented and people who are writing oriented, but overall I think that the net weight would fall on the writing. There’s a reason why Dilbert can do well; Cathy can do well; Callahan, who I think is paraplegic and not quadriplegic and draws with his teeth, can do well; …

SK: He still draws more than stick figures! ... I’m just sayin’, I’m just throwing that out there!

DK: But I think it’d be interesting to hear (if these guys) know anything about it.

DC: I feel that the writing is more important, but at the same time … the communication effort’s in both. I mean, you got xkcd, which is excellently written, and it’s very clever and very unique, and those little stick figures … still got the body language and are still getting across exactly what they’re trying to get across and it’s so funny!

KS: What’s funny, though, is that I was a computer science major, and that is the way that even I drew in the margins. That’s how you draw in the margins when you’re making up jokes with your friends in class. You draw just the head, you draw the stick figure. So I think, for that audience, it’s like immediately in that medium. And they don’t have to come at it 50/50. If xkcd was drawn really well, I don’t think it would be as charming.

SK: Now I’m going to be serious, ‘cause I’ve been joking around. We’ve met the guy who does xkcd and he’s a really nice guy. If that guy wrote a column, like xkcd was a column or essay, we would all be just in awe, you know? … We wouldn’t question the validity of it. It’s kind of sad, the fact that he’s decided to pack this content that he has into a comic strip form, it kind of … hurts him a little bit, because (one) immediately questions the validity of the content. You know, you can’t separate what a comic is: a cartoon is art and words. And he’s got the words, and he doesn’t have the art. It doesn’t mean his words aren’t great, it’s just that he’s packing it into a (visual) thing. … Because, you know, it’s like comparing apples and oranges, almost. I mean, I have not talked to him about it personally, about whether he knows he’s making a comic or he’s making a cartoon, as opposed to “I have this content and that’s how I visualize it,” but I actually do feel kind of bad for the guy because…

KS: When we met him at San Diego, I have a feeling that in our circle he’s like, (muttering) “I’m Randall Munroe, I do xkcd,” … (can’t understand enough of the rest of Kris’s line here – discusses how he seems to be frowned upon by other cartoonists)

SK: … It’s wrong (that we’re elitist like that) – I admit that, it’s irrational. Not that admitting makes it better, I’m just saying I’m aware of it. (There’s a) personal pride in what I do, and there’s a part of me that’s like, “Yeah I’m proud of what I do, step off, stick figure!”

SS: I’m the only guy here who’s not drawing his own comic book. I mean, everything’s done on a computer …

SK: Yeah, but I’ve seen your art, pal. Come on. …

SS: Yeah, but what I’m saying is… Regardless of what medium you use, I mean, you can do stick figures or whatever… Figure it’s 100% of the comic book, for the most part it’s a 50/50 split, I mean, if you’re doing something like… x… ?


SS: Thank you. Whatever. His writing has to be at, like, 90%, and the 10% is the art.

SK: I struggled to make the writing good (for PvP). …

SS: (a few lines that aren’t totally intelligible) The thing is, there are some webcomics out there that are 80% - really good art, but you just don’t really get into the story.

SK: Now that I look at your work, you are kind of ham and eggin’ it.

(ham and egg jokes)

DK: I think Brad (said it best) when he said that regardless of what you or I think, if he has an audience, he’s clearly doing something right. It’s kind of like movies. Someone’s going to say, “I can’t believe that Iron Man made all of this money, but The Green Mile, or some beautiful movie –" (The Green Mile is the one I picked?!) … unbearable as it seems, it’s not doing well, but Iron Man (is). … There’s a sense of elitism no matter what angle you want to look at it: from the acting, from the directing, from the writing of a cartoon to the drawing of a cartoon to the marketing of a cartoon to what company is it with; is it better with Dark Horse or if it’s with Image? Is it better to pick DC or Marvel? At the end of the day, if readers respond to it, it just doesn’t matter. Unless you’re a critic for Yale and you’re writing something for… I don’t know where I’m picking references today. So if you’re writing about The Green Mile as a professor at Yale….

SK: There’s also a very small chance, very small – micron – that we’re super jealous of xkcd. I’m not saying we are. Maybe a little. …

DK: If we were jealous – and I’m not saying we are – but (if someone can) crank out that comic strip in under five minutes and have it up to 30 million page views in a day, I could see how you might be jealous.

SK: (something funny about crapping out a pun)

(end of panel)

If I could go back and tweak my question, I'd have changed the wording to (a) not be so xkcd-intensive and include other examples of simple comic visuals and (b) drive the discussion a little further away from a business context. Anytime the panelists started expressing that it only matters what the reader thinks, I felt they were thinking too along the lines of marketing and selling a product as opposed to the art of comics creation and what that means to them. Not that they didn't touch on this -- in fact, I was largely satisfied by the discussion that my question sparked.

I think Scott Sava really summed up the heart of their side of things: no, you don't have to have perfect drawing, but your writing better make up for it in that case. I do think there needs to be a proper balance, and strips with less emphasis on the visual prettiness need to be aware of this.

However, what more can be said about the stylistic decision to purposefully keep your art from developing into something ornate and finer-detailed? I think Kris was beginning to touch on this as he mentioned that he didn't think xkcd would be nearly as charming without the stick figures. Later, at his booth, I talked to Kris about how his own strip, Chainsawsuit, utilizes simplicity in an effort to be a commentary on indie comics and the lack of real thought or effort that often goes into them. As much as xkcd lacks better drawing because its creator lacks the skills, I think there is a little more to it -- just a little. I think the charm lies in the fact that the doodles, as Kris mentioned, bring us back to high school and college courses when we'd draw silly things in the margins and be so content with ourselves for doing so. It's a language we're all familiar with.

Anyway, this is the closest I've gotten to a professional interview regarding the topics discussed on this blog, and as such I feel like it's a great followup to the last post. How do you feel this panel addressed the discussion? Do you agree or disagree with any of the panelists' thoughts?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Potential of a Medium

Penny Arcade is known for its refined styles in pencils and coloring.

Yesterday I was listening to episode #47 of Webcomics Weekly, a podcast hosted by Brad Guigar, Dave Kellet, Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub, a group of webcomics authors who give their insights on building and maintaing a webcomic business and answer fanmail. In this particular installment, Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade, currently the most renowned online comic strip, joins the crew as a special guest, throwing in his opinions on what's worked for him and his business, how he's managed to become so popular, etc.

What really grabbed my attention was a topic that was brought up some time into the episode, where the guys are discussing the roles of writing and drawing a comic, separately from each other as well as cooperatively. Krahulik eventually mentions that some comics, such as xkcd, utilize very minimal visual art yet implement very intelligent writing.

xkcd uses mere stick figures to draw attention to its dialog.

He continues (in a way that I'm sure wasn't meant to be a slam on the example he gave) to explain his philosophy that comics are a very visual medium, and thus the creator(s) should aspire to a higher level of art that would require some sort of training or practice to develop, where a certain quality of skill shoud be apparent in the illustrator -- coupled with good writing and storytelling ability.

Chainsawsuit's use of basic line is a commentary on indie comics.

This expression got me thinking. "Should" a comic creator aspire to a polished, more detailed skill in drawings, or is it sometimes sufficient to use stick figures or other simple figures?

When I was a film student at Brigham Young University, I took a documentary production class

Edison's studio housed a locked-down
camera and rotated to control light.

where we discussed a similar question. Bearing in mind the unique capabilities of film and its basic components (sound and a moving image), which is more important to focus on in manipulation of the medium: audio or video? We discussed this quite a bit, and I remember being somewhat torn. Though I seemed to immediately side with the video argument ("What other media exist that utilize a moving picture?"), I couldn't help but remember Thomas Edison who, in spite of all his accomplishments in the invention of the movie camera and Black Maria, was most pleased with his achievements in audio, more than anything else he had invented. But we had always been told that video should be able to stand alone from the audio in storytelling -- that the viewer should be able to tell what's going on if everything is muted, that music can be

Edison's phonograph.

manipulative and dangerous!

In the end my wise professor calmly stated that BOTH were equally as important. He seemed to take the side of many theorists who believe that any given art medium should focus on and exploit what is exclusive to that specific medium (I don't have my notes from my film theory class with me -- otherwise I'd be able to sound really smart right now and rattle off a few examples). But I'm not sure I entirely agree with that mindset.

It seems to be a pretty purist mindset to tell any medium that it must consider what makes itself that particular medium and equally and fully make use of those aspects in whatever it does. Perhaps I can agree that doing so is to truly make itself representative of the art form, but some of the best films I've ever seen have been more visual than otherwise. Charlie Chaplin continued to make silent films even after the advent of talkies. Did this make him less of a filmmaker? He catered to the strengths of visual storytelling, and was magnificent at it. In fact, in some of his talkies that I've seen, I've found myself wishing that he'd just shut up ("Limelight," anyone?). And the same can be said of the opposite. I've seen films where the audio just blew me away and seemed to say more for the movie than the video did at times (one example being "Dan in Real Life," where I credit the sound mixers and foley artists for making me sense the title character's down-to-earth outlook on the world around him).

Projecting this conversation onto the Krahulik sentiment, I'm not sure I can fully agree that EVERY comic should equally focus on refined writing AND drawing skills.

Firstly, though, I will concede that a worthwhile comic cannot exist without some sort of writing ability. This

Dinosaur Comics reuses the same digital
images and layout in each strip.

doesn't mean that you need to have a Pulitzer, but a comic creator should be able to communicate his or her ideas prettly fluently, however he's going to do it -- whether that be through conventional narrative storytelling, or perhaps an even more mosaic approach where seemingly unrelated images are juxtaposed and clash/merge to convey meaning.

That being said, I question whether or not a refined visual presence is entirely necessary. The beauty of xkcd is that its simplicity draws the reader to the writing and dialog more. Others, like Dinosaur Comics, essentially utilize a template of digital images to add text to, showing how the same images can deliver individual stories on a regular basis. Scott McCloud, comics theorist extraordinaire, invented the "24-hour comic," a challenge to comics creators of every skill level to crank out a comic from conception to finish in a strict 24-hour time period. Take a look at some of the results in the collection on the website. There is some pretty rough artwork in there due to the time limit, but does that make some of them any less a comic than an issue of Green Lantern?

An excerpt from Scott McCloud's first 24-hour comic, A Day's Work.

There are visual laws that need to be learned when any comic illustrator enters the arena (i.e. telling a visual story, how much space to leave for dialog, layouts, gutter spacing, etc.), but I feel that as long as the artist is consistent in his technique within the given series of comic strips/books and the writing isn't hindered, why not show us new and different ways of visually supporting your writing, even if those ways aren't as seemingly polished as a Davinci?

Is this more a comic than
the likes of xkcd?

What do you think? Are the roles of writing and visual presentation equal in comics? Should a comics creator strive to develop a clean, detailed visual style to support his writing? Discuss!

(In his defense, I am not insinuating that Mike Krahulik would oppose the ideas I raise in this column. He didn't clarify or flesh out his argument enough for me to state that he is against what I have to say -- for all I know he and I could see eye-to-eye on some or most of these points.)