Words and pictures and links and tags

This is really cute little comic. It works best when you look at it on Tumblr, because of the description Irma drops in underneath. That’s the thing about comics there, diary strips in particular; the metadata is as critical to your understanding of it as the comic itself. Sometimes it’s the hashtag, sometimes the link, sometimes the copy underneath… never just the strip itself.

It’s a weird, holistic experience. Often not a very portable one. It’s another new bit of comprehension comics on the web require.

(One of the many, many reasons I don’t like political cartoons is that the creators pretend that the context of the strip isn’t that important. That the artwork can stand alone. They are usually wrong about that; without the context of the paper their strips are often meaningless babble. I think Tom’s New Statesman stuff is a rare exception – there’s a magical realism thing going on in most strips that he explains as he goes.)

Pages lost

Last Friday I talked at The Design of Understanding about comics, specifically two futures for the medium that I’ve been processing for the last year or so. It seemed to go down pretty well, so I thought I’d put the gist of it here and link to a bunch of the things I referenced so the folks who went can buy some things.

Longbox

The basics

I rattled through McCloud’s concept ‘closure in quick-smart time; comics happen when readers comprehend panels and the spaces between them both as parts and a whole. The page, then, is the fundamental unit of a comic. By controlling the format of the sequence – by putting images on a page in a particular way – you begin guiding the reader through the narrative.

That gives creators a lot of room for spectacular feats – I used Young Avengers, One Soul and Hawkeye #11 as examples here – which play with the 150 year-old toolkit comic creators have to hand.

Here’s a thing though; the multiplicity of digital platforms – and the variety of potential reading experiences therein – shatter the certainty of the page.

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The page is fucked. It’s not coming back. If you’re telling a story that’s available online then you no longer control the layout the reader sees. They’re tapping and swiping and pinching-and-zooming their way through your work, many of them without ever seeing the page as a whole and a few of them experiencing your stories only single-panel by single-panel.

The panel is now the fundamental unit of the comic

That’s a big change. Completely shifts the reader’s relationship with time and narrative. Very hard to come to terms with. On a basic level, it means creators may end up defaulting to Rupert-like stories comprised of flexible sequencing and extra bits of narrative that can be picked up or dropped on demand. But it also means you can treat the web like a page. Meanwhile‘s a great example of that, as is XKCD’s ‘Time’.

‘Time’ is actually an incredible thing; I didn’t watch it unfold religiously, but with gaps of hours or days between panels. That meant I was experiencing a radically altered form of closure where the imagined spaces between panels had a profound effect on my interpretation of the story. Now, of course, you can go to Time at your own pace and watch it as an animation. But that’s not how I experienced it. I came in alone to each panel, bringing my own gaps and imagined spaces and context, to experience it as a comic through time. You will never have what I had.

Tears in the rain

Thing is though, the web’s a flighty beast. Try reading Philippa Rice’s ‘Leaving’ now. It blew my mind when I first read it as it does today… right util the part where the links take you to MySpace and the trail runs cold. That’s not Philippa’s fault – that’s the goddamn web we built.

It’s not just the web. Try reading Chris Ware’s comic for the McSweeny’s app after updating to iOS7. SPOLIERS: You can’t.

Touch sensitive

The brilliant stories that make use of the possibilities of digital technology will fall victim to the obsolescence of that technology. And that’s okay; lots of what I experience here – online – is ephemeral, just as all the comics I’ve given away and traded in or sold have been lost to me. But I keep the issues of comics I think will matter to me, that I love. I need to get better at doing the same for the things I love online.

On a personal note, I’ve spent a year wondering what my relationship to the medium is. I’m too busy to do much about it – GDS occupies my brain to an astounding degree – but I know it can’t just be about making things that seal stories in print. But I’m also not sure how comfortable I am that the long-term future of any story I make for the web comes down to hoping that someone clicks ‘Save Image To Desktop’.

The future, then; the death of the page will mean some brilliant, beautiful experimental stories are going to blossom, but we’ll lose many of them – most, in fact – to the fluctuating rhythms of the network they’re published on.

Tumblr tag

And finally…

This post skips a bunch of things I referenced in the talk, so here they are…
Robin and Young Justice
Lizzie Stewart’s webcomics
Cafe Suada by Jade Sarson
Kate Beaton’s comics and her holiday diary
Come in Alone and Freakangels by Warren Ellis
Leila Johnson’s ‘The Trouble With Comics’
Paper Science
ELCAF

Tiny threads, barely noticed

I rarely read single-issue comics these days. The main thing I miss every month are the tiny moments of continuity.

Back in November, the BERG lot got (understandably) excited that Little Printer made a cameo in Avengers Assemble.

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(nicked from Matt’s Flickr feed – sorry Matt!)

For those who don’t know their Avengers, that’s Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark talking to a few heroes including Carol ‘Captain Marvel’ Danvers. It was written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, a favourite of mine since I read her Osborne miniseries a few years ago.

DeConnick also writes the excellent Captain Marvel series, which I’m just catching up with in the collected editions. An issue was published in January revolving entirely around the schedule spat out by Danvers’ own Little Printer.

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It’s a neat, self-contained tale. So far as I’m aware, it’s the only other time the device has appeared. I love the idea of Stark buying a bunch of LPs, farming them out to various Avengers and quietly running their lives for them through a tyranny of till receipts. The idea of heroes responding to them in ways not a million miles from how I use mine is a wonderful, subtle way of bridging the human/hero, reader/character divides.

This, for me, is continuity working at its best. Not another Crisis, or Death Of The Family; just Wayne Enterprises satellites and Sisko’s baseball. Tiny pieces in a joined-up world that allow readers to imagine so much more.

Some troubles with comics

Almost a month late to the party, I just found myself nodding along with Leila’s post on The Literary Platform about her enjoyment of comics back in the day, and how digital unmoors that a little. She challenges my assertion that webcomics today might not stand up to the resolution/platform/device -changing times we live in by pointing out that, actually, the web’s been pretty damn good at moving bits of content from one place to another.

For her, the process of collecting and growing a collection is the thing that’s damaged. It’s almost certainly an Anglophone thing, that, but it’s the bit of the world I’m from and I reckon she’s on to something.

In any of the comic apps released by major publishers, the biggest thing it does is eliminate the ‘MUST BUY IT NOW’ temptations of narrative scarcity. Or, to put it another way, if you can buy a digital version online now you’ll probably be able to buy it online forever. The opposite is true of print.

That’s not entirely online though. I’ve suffered a ‘wait for the trade‘ mentality for a while now. I’m mates with Si Spurrier – I even play Risk with him – but it took me ages to pick up X-men Legacy because I just assumed I’d always be able to get it, especially once it’s collected.

Except, I bet that doesn’t help a book’s chances of becoming an ongoing concern. I bet there’s still a glut of people working throughout publishing who haven’t adjusted to a reality where everything is the backlist.

(As an aside, Legacy is truly excellent and you should buy it.)

I bet that’s hurting small pressers too. If you, as a reader, are adjusting to a world where floppy comics mean something different – something you might not throw down a few quid for – then you’re going to view lots of slim, single-issue comics in that way. Certainly, glancing at Twitter, the UK small press feels like it’s a little bit past the peak of sales it appeared to reach in the last couple of years. It’s bittersweet to not have skin in that game right now.

Meanwhile, the bit in between just seems to be flourishing. The books on the new release table at Gosh look incredible right now, whether it’s Tom Gauld’s latest or Stephen Collins’ debut. They look great, feel hefty and smell like the mental image you get when nerds talk about the smell of books.

Of course I’ve got no idea about sales figures, so that’s just idle reckoning on my part. But they at least look the part, and they don’t appear to be troubled by scarcity or collectibility. And they aren’t partworks.

Bye bye Paper Science

Dropped off my final copies of Paper Science at Gosh Comics today, which feels mighty strange.

I really miss wrangling that thing. There is little as satisfying as having a huge box of newsprint delivered, colours screaming off of the page, fabulous stories printed within. But there is also little worse than having a box of comics waiting to be sold, dragged from one poorly-promoted small press fair to another, every inch of profit eaten away by train fare, miserable sandwiches and rickety tables.

Paper Science 1

The numbers don’t lie: the subscription was absolutely brilliant for the anthology, in terms of finance, promotion, enthusiasm and general confidence. For that I didn’t need to leave my laptop. After that, the best things Paper Science did (in terms of audience, profit and reach) were get stocked at Gosh comics, appear on a table at MCM Expo, and get taken to ELCAF. Almost every other event, no matter how much fun at the time, turned a little bit of money into a lot less money. I’m told that that is the standard definition of ‘publishing’.

As for the anthology itself, I’m more proud of it than anything else I’ve done. It’s an excellent collection, filled with brilliant work by people who are getting better and better with each passing story.

Tomorrow my company – newly rechristened We Are Words and Pictures – enters its second year. The only goal for 2013-2014 is ‘make one thing as good as Paper Science’. Feels like a good challenge.

Everyday pleasures

As ever, I’m extremely excited to be heading to Thought Bubble in ten days. In part, that’s because I’ll finally get to lay my hands on a collection of one of my all-time favourite comics.

The Everyday cherishes the fleeting moments of our day to day to create an honest and hilarious portrait of modern life and the many little miracles and mysteries within.

Buy it. Read it. Get sucked into the beautiful, brilliantly observed snippets taken from life in a Northern Town Manchester.

I met Adam at Bristol comic-con a few years back, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him a few times since. I was really quite honoured when he asked me to put together a foreword for this great collection. Really excited to see it in the flesh.

P.S. I’m also very excited to pick up Marc Ellerby’s Ellerbisms, but I didn’t want to be accused of nepotism/favouritism/sexism/etc. Besides, he didn’t ask me to write a foreword for him.