Category Archives: user-generated

networked comics

Last week in Columbus, OH, I saw Scott McCloud give a fantastic presentation about creativity and storytelling using sequential art. I got two books signed, and since I was the last person on line, I started a little conversation about networked comics.
First off, it’s not every day that you get to meet one of your idols. He’s influenced the way that I think about storytelling and sequential art, which manages to have everyday repercussions in my work in interaction design and wireframing. Understanding Comics is right at the top of my practical reading guide with the Polar Bear book and Visual Displays of Quantitative Information.
Secondly, in Reinventing Comcis he covers a lot of territory with regard to the form that web comics can take and the method by which they can support themselves. But, as he notes in his presentation, while he was focused on the new openness of a boundless screen, webcomics recapitulated traditional forms and appeared like toadstools after a spring rain. As he said, “Tens of thousands—literally, tens of thousands of webcomics are out there today.” They are easy to find, but they’re guided by the goals of traditional comics, and made with many of the same choices in framing and pacing, even if their story lines are wildly varied.
In a previous post I said “The next step for online comics is to enhance their networked and collaborative aspect while preserving the essential nature of comics as sequential art.” I still think there’s something there, so I posed that questiont to Scott. He politely redirected, saying the form of a networked comic is completely unknown and that the discussion would last for many hours. Offhand, he knew of only a few experiments. He did say, “The process will be more interesting than the final product.” This is something that we say here with regards to Wikipedia, but even more so with collaborative fiction as in 1mil Penguins. So without further guidance, I ventured into the web myself, searching for examples of what I would call networked comics.
One nascent form of collaborative art has been the (relatively) popular practice of putting up one half of the equation—the art only, or the words only—and getting someone else to do the other half. If you said that sounds like regular comix, you’d be right. It’s normal practice in the sequential art world to have a writer and an artist collaborate on a story. But the novelty here is having multiple writers work with the same panels, with an artist who doesn’t know what she is drawing for. Words, infinitely malleable, are shaped to fit the images, sometimes with implausible but funny results. Here’s an example that Kristopher Straub and Scott Kurtz have started on They call it “Web You.0 (beta),” with the tagline “Infinite possible punchlines!” You take an image, put new words in the balloons, and resubmit the comic. The result: user-generated comics. Not necessarily good comics, but that’s not quite the point.
But that’s about it. There isn’t much in the way of a discussion going on about networked comics. This is understandable: making images is hard. Making images that are tied to a text is harder. This is the art and science of comics, and it’s difficult to see how they can be pried apart to create room for growth without completely disrupting the narrative structures inherent to the medium. When I look for something that takes a form that is fundamentally reliant on the network, I come up short. Maybe it would look like a hyper-extended comic ‘jams’, with panels by different artists on an evolving storyline. Maybe the form of a networked comic is something like a wiki with drawing tools. Or better yet, an instruction to the crowd that results in something like Sheep Market or swarmsketch. It’s interesting to see what “art from the mob” looks like, and seems to have the greatest potential for group-directed authorship. Maybe it will be something like magnetic word art (those word magnets you find on your friend’s fridge and use to write non-sensical and slightly naughty phrases with), combined with some sort of automatic image search. Obviously there are a lot of possibilities if you are willing to cede a little of the artistic control that tends to be so tightly wound up in the traditional method of making comics. I hate to end my posts with “we need more experiments!” but given the current state of the discussion, that’s just what I have to do.

the play’s the thing

In response to Bob’s post on atomisation, Jesse Wilbur talks about how his college-era faith in Great Books seems to have largely given way to the sporadic appreciation of 30-second YouTube snippets.
That started me thinking about the literary canon. All those Great Books. There were huge critical quarrels about their validity, how they came to be great and so on: how bound up its measures of ‘quality’ were with historically-specific class and cultural assumptions. And all that.
Thinking of it as contingent and biased and so on makes it hard to think of the canon with anything like the reverence I felt towards it as a teenager. And yet, you don’t have to be T S Eliot to mourn that reverence, and everything it implied. An agreed-upon body of cultural matter that could (notionally, at least) be shared by all. Cultural cohesion externalised in print form. It’s hard not to find that a seductive idea. Cultural capital, shared frames of reference and implicit association with the elites, all easily communicable to a stranger via a few arch quotations.
And yet, if I know this body of supposedly eternal literature is the product of the collective privilege of a bunch of mostly-heterosexual dead white European males, do I really want a shared body of cultural reference framed by those assumptions? Etc, etc. This is an old debate. The question is very literally academic these days. The literary canon is the hobby of a few; new ‘literary’ books are still produced, but it seems increasingly that we are offered a choice between unacceptable (because obviously stacked in favour of the usual contenders) canonical elitism, ham-fisted revisionism, and deadening lowest-common-denominator populism. Given those options, I for one would rather stick to fooling around on messageboards.
So if the canon is this problematic, either adopted or rejected, then what replaces it? Aimless fooling around on messageboards? This atomised culture in which you cannot ever assume that you have any points of reference in common with anyone? Perhaps. Perhaps ’twas ever thus, and the literary canon was a convenient (body of) fiction papering over the cracks.
But if (and yes, I know this is a big if) the best thing the literary canon did for us was to provide a shared frame of reference for at least some, then are there other ways of achieving the same end? Stultifying elitism, PC revisionism, and drooling populism are all, in different ways, heavily invested in the idea of canon itself, which rests on the assumption that cultural content is produced by others for us to consume. This is a big assumption, and one that Alex Itin , the denizens of YouTube and a zillion other Web fora are busy prodding as we speak. It may be that fooling around on messageboards is not aimless at all.
So what does user-generated content do to enable new shared frames of reference? I’m not convinced that YouTube provides more than, as Jesse says, the occasional giggle, nor am I convinced that the ephemerality of messageboard chat is enough for a culture to chew on. But I think new art forms are beginning to emerge. For example, what I like about Itin’s work is that it moves between online and offline spaces, and involves physical exchanges of objects in real time, between strangers or friends. If (again, this is a big if) the aim of co-creation were to begin to reassemble shared points of reference amid a tundra of media atomisation, then stuff that at least in part actually happens in the physical world is infinitely more powerful than on-screen interaction.
There is huge potential in play, social algorithms, games, creative collaborations and as-yet-undiscovered open-source social codings to enable the creation of shared cultural content that can mitigate media atomisation. Computer games, ARGs and the like are beginning to explore this, but there’s much more to investigate. How might it work in textual form? How do you move between online and offline elements? How can such activity be captured? How archived or communicated? Is there a poetics of social algorithms? I can imagine a future in which the development of social algorithms within which co-creation can fruitfully take place – both on and offline – becomes an art form in its own right. And (perhaps fancifully) I imagine our current state of cultural entropy at least mitigated, if not reversed by such a distributed culture of co-creation.