An Interview with
    Dave McKean

Comics on the Web
Roger Sabin


Big claims are being made for comics on the net. One day, it's said, people will read comics off the screen just as naturally as they would a printed publication today - and that, indeed, the latter will become redundant as a result. It's a startling vision, and sounds a little like something out of a rather good SF comic. Yet, the publishers, artists, critics, and fanzine writers who are promoting the cyber-hype often have ulterior motives - for all is not well in comics-world. The comics slump that began in the mid-1990s seems to be getting worse: shops are closing, publishers are going under, titles are being canceled. Nobody's safe: when Marvel filed for bankruptcy last year, it was the symbolic end of an era. Where is the industry to turn? The net seems like a perfect life-raft. But, to extend the metaphor, the problem with a net raft is that it sinks.

Of course, nobody's saying that the net isn't an incredibly powerful tool. And there is, and will continue to be, significant comics crossover. But the problem with the current enthusiasm for the idea of "net comics" is the false assumptions surrounding the nature of that crossover. Both mediums - the net and comics - can share properties, it's true. But they have other characteristics that make them unique, and which are not translatable. This crucial inconsistency makes much of the thinking surrounding net comics as coherent as a floppy disc wiped over with a magnet.

False assumption number 1: The definition of a comic is highly malleable. Most people would agree that a comic is primarily a print-based publication, relating a story in sequential pictures. >1 However, recently, new definitions have emerged, taking a much looser approach predicated on aesthetics. The main proponent of this view - but by no means the only one - is Scott McCloud, author of 1995s excellent Understanding Comics (a sort of Baedeker Guide to the medium). In a stimulating piece for the critical magazine, The Comics Journal, he says: "I'm inclined to think of comics as a kind of temporal map, a way of substituting space for time, of mapping out a temporal progression in 2-D or 3-D space. For instance, that old evolution chart showing the little primate walking behind Neanderthal man who's walking behind Cro-Magnon; I think of that as comics, and yet the only thing that that example has in common with The Sensational She-Hulk or whatever is this idea of mapping time through space." >2

This definition is ideal for computerized images, of course, and McCloud uses it to encompass not just traditional comic strips transferred to (or created for) the net, but also "comics which can only exist in a digital environment." He calls these "digital comics," and speaks with enthusiasm, for example, about what can be done with 3-D modeling. As he says: "If you get down to just that little scrap of DNA of a definition, then you can grow some really incredible things, just by going to a different petri dish like digital media." >3

But if comics are "mapping through space," then it follows that virtually anything made up of successive images is a comic. The definition co-opts such historic "communications" as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Bayeux Tapestry as predecessors (which, indeed, McCloud does, in Understanding Comics). It would also include illustrated books, like Alice in Wonderland, as well as McCloud's evolutionary chart, and any number of other more contemporary examples. As for the net, and other kinds of digital storytelling, why not include comics that the reader can interact with, or that have soundtracks, or that maybe include bits of animation or live action sequences (as commentators other than McCloud have frequently done)?

We can say instantly, therefore, that the definition is too wide to be useful. But it's also suspect on a deeper, political, level, for it allows comics to be associated with works of art, and with media that have more cultural cachet. Comics have a history of being a despised art form, barred from serious critical discussion, and stereotyped as either kids' stuff or as a pastime for nerds. However, examples such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Bayeux Tapestry have been elevated to the status of works of art, and therefore have altogether different cultural associations. Similarly, the Internet is currently the subject of intense attention, and is seen as an exciting new artistic medium (which it is). There are "on-line" supplements in all the major newspapers, and TV programmes, academic books, and so on devoted to its earnest consideration. In other words, the new definition of "comics" gives them grand ancestors and "hip" successors, and bestows upon them a spurious respectability - with all the ramifications that entails. >4

False assumption number two: Because comics work on the printed page, they will automatically work on the net. This is wildly off-beam, and we need to get a few obvious home truths out of the way first. Simplistically speaking, comics work because they are "convenient." You can read them anywhere: they are extremely portable, and not "fixed" to any particular place. A computer, however, is rarely any of these things. For example, although it is feasible, we do not speak of taking a computer on the bus. Similarly, a comic is immediate in its communication; the net very often is not. With a standard modem, it can take many minutes to get on-line, and many minutes more to move from link to link. When the traffic is bad, even this is impossible.

This "time problem" can be particularly exasperating for comics artists dipping their toes into digital waters. The comments of Dave McKean, one of the top artists in the world (Sandman, Cages, etc), are indicative. Speaking to The Comics Journal, he explained how his attempt at creating a web site ("Club Salsa") went astray: "From my point of view it was an experiment to see if you could tell a story on the net," he said. "But I have to say you probably can't. I mean, the download time is ludicrous. People just get bored stiff waiting for these images to come up." >5

By the same token, comics "work" because they are cheap (the latest DC titles retail at $2.50). They are within the range of a high proportion of people on a low income, and this partly explains why they have been seen as a "working class" art form for much of their history. By contrast, computers are not cheap, nor is hooking up to the net. They are hardly "working class," and when one considers that 10% of the rural populations in the UK and US cannot afford telephones, let alone computers, it puts things in perspective. This ultimately means that comics are "democratic" while the net is not. For example, it is indicative that one can find comics in every part of the world, while the net remains an irrelevance to 98% of it. >6

Of course, computer evangelists would challenge these arguments by saying that things are getting cheaper, faster, and smaller. They point to the effect that the miniaturization of the computer chip had on the development of calculators, watches, and so forth; to the way the net is being revitalized by fiber-optics; to the plans for the net to be linked to television; and on and on. >7 But the point is that while we may well be on the brink of a "new industrial revolution," there's still a long, long way to go, and there are an awful lot of "ifs" between here and cyber utopia. A semi-flippant example makes the point well: during the 1950s-60s space age, pundits were predicting that within a few years we'd be living on other planets, and happily mining their minerals. It didn't happen. To debate about such exaggerated hypotheticals is no debate at all.

So much for pragmatic objections. When we get down to the purely aesthetic qualities of net comics, a whole new range of problems appear. >8 To begin with, reading off a screen means a difference in the way we actually "see" comics. When reading the printed page, light reflects off it into the eye; however, a computer screen is back-lit, with the light shining directly into the eye. This can be harmful, especially when combined with the endemic problem of "screen flicker." The cartoonist Seth (Palooka-Ville, It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken, etc), has spoken of his misgivings in this respect: "I have tried to read comics off the screen, but it's not a pleasant experience. It's comparable to reading from microfiche. You can do it for a short period, but any longer and you're likely to get a headache." >9

Also, there is a loss of certain sensual qualities. It's easy to forget that we read - or rather "use" - comics in a very physical way (we tend to think of them as being two-dimensional, but in fact they exist in three dimensions). They can be bent, rolled-up, roughly opened or whatever. They can be held in different ways: cradled in the hand or gripped at the edges. We know how far into a comic we've read because we can feel how many pages are left. There are also smells: of dust, glue, and paper. Compared to this very sensual experience, clicking a mouse just isn't the same.

This question of tactility is magnified when it comes to actually creating comics. The old-fashioned, low-tech, tools - pencil, pen, and ink - have a satisfying quality which cannot easily be matched. Some software manufacturers have tried. For example, at the moment, an increasingly popular method of creating a comic on the screen involves drawing onto a pad or "tablet" with an electronic pen. But, among other problems, this means that the place where the artist is drawing is not where the art is appearing i.e. on the screen. Plus, of course, the technology is very expensive. >10

Granted, we can get used to the tactile qualities of computers in time, and yes, it's easy to get sentimental about something like comics. But prejudices take a while to erode. There is something comfortable about an art form that has been around for so long, and something equally disconcerting about new technology. Survey after survey has shown how technophobic the populations of America and Western Europe really are. It's a fear born out of computer crashes, hole-in-the-wall bank machines that don't work, and other everyday electronic dysfunctions. Attitudes will undoubtedly change, but not in the short space of time the hype merchants are predicting.

Finally, to conclude our survey of aesthetic problems, there is the question of how much is actually lost when comics are created for or transferred to the net, because that transference often has to be achieved bit-by-bit. In other words, typically the comic has to be deconstructed for it to be transmitted screen-by-screen. This has serious consequences because comics traditionally have different layers of structural "integrity." Even the simplest comics tend to use the page as a structural unit, for example, and panels are designed to relate not just to each other, but to the page as a whole. This can become a very sophisticated arrangement in the hands of certain creators (Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman, for example, experimented with using a different time scale for individual panels and the page per se in parts of their graphic novel, Signal to Noise). All this is lost if a comic is read a few panels at a time on-screen.

Similarly, the idea of working with the juxtaposition of facing pages is impossible - another important technique, used very effectively, for example, in the Marvel superhero comics of the 1960s. As for designing a comic to have an integrity in terms of chapters, and indeed as an aesthetic whole, this is very difficult to achieve: on a computer screen, the pacing can be completely destroyed. Then there is the fact that the borders on a screen are quite different to those of a comics page, making such tricks as the "bleeding" of action sequences off the page much less dramatic. No doubt new compositional ideas will evolve when digital comics get into their stride, but conventional structures are too often non-translatable. Finally, it's worth mentioning that at the moment the quality of the reproduction itself is often inferior on a screen (mainly due to pixelization), and this is especially detrimental when it comes to covers. >11

False assumption number 3: Net comics are the next historical step for the comics medium. The logic goes that because over time computers have become more and more prominent in the production of comics - from taking over chores such as colouring, to experimentation with computer-rendered books (Shatter, Batman: Digital Justice, etc) - that the inevitable final phase will be comics on the net. After all, in a broader sense, comics have always been altered by technology; like, for example, the way in which the 1960s underground benefited from the advances in cheap offset litho printing, or the 1980s small press made use of the photocopier revolution. Some advocates of net comics (like Scott McCloud) are predicting that the printed comic book will be superceded by the computerised form until it all but disappears.

But this is a false progression. The rise of one medium does not necessarily herald the fall of another, any more than the rise of cinema led to the destruction of theater. As we have seen, the advantages of print are numerous, and it is therefore much more likely that net comics and traditional comics will continue to co-exist side by side, one feeding from the other. It is fashionable to talk of a "post-print" age, but again we must ask who benefits, and who loses, from this. There is a sense in which looking "forward" to the net is a statement that comics have "had their day". It fits neatly with the history of the decline in comics sales since the mid-1960s, and with the dissipation of the mid-1980s euphoria when it was expected that comics were in for a revival (a euphoria spurred by the freak success of "adult" graphic novels such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns). But, in fact, comics are far from finished, and creatively speaking are going through a golden age. >12

So, in conclusion, there is no need to associate comics with computers to make them sound exciting, or to "justify" them culturally. They are already exciting, and will continue to exist in pretty much their present form for the foreseeable future. It follows that the idea that new technology will "save" comics is equally dubious, because, quite simply, they don't need saving. This is not to imply that the net will not have a role: of course it will. As we have seen, as net comics develop they will no doubt evolve their own aesthetic, which will be a fascinating process to observe; plus the net has certain advantages when it comes to marketing comics (a whole other story which we have not had time to touch on here >13). But for the time being it's fair to say that the traditional print-based comic represents a highly sophisticated consumer product, while the techie's dream of a cheap, wafer-thin, 8 by 11 inch, satellite-interfaced personal computer belongs very much to the world of science fiction.







Footnotes

^1. To define a comic is a notoriously difficult exercise, especially since the word can be used as an abbreviation of "comic book" or "comic strip" (more common in America than the UK). In my book Adult Comics: An Introduction (Routledge, 1993), I attempted to frame a definition based on fixing certain essentials that hold true for most examples of the form - old and new, adult and juvenile. An extract reads: "The fundamental ingredient of a comic is the "comic strip". This is a narrative in the form of a sequence of pictures - usually, but not always, with text. In length it can be anything from a single image upwards, with some strips containing images in the thousands. A "comic" per se is a publication in booklet, tabloid, magazine or book form that includes as a major feature the presence of one or more strips. Comics are usually published regularly (weekly, monthly, quarterly), and are generally cheap in order to be accessible to the widest possible audience." (5)

^2. "Scott McCloud on the Digital Future of Comics," an interview with Gary Groth. Comics Journal 188 (July 1996), 76.

^3. Scott McCloud, 76.

^4. These ramifications connect with the high culture/low culture debate, and with associated theories surrounding postmodernism. For an introduction to how this relates to comics, see Roger Sabin, "Enough Respect?," Creative Review, Jan 1997, 46-49.

^5. Dave McKean, interview with Chris Brayshaw, Comics Journal number 196, June 1997, 76.

^6. For an eloquent demolition of the net-as-democratic-Shangri-la myth, see Jon Stratton, "Cyberspace and the Globalization of Culture," in D.Porter (ed) Internet Culture (Routledge, 1997). For a useful, if dated, survey of work on "worldcomics" see John Lent, Comic Art: An International Bibliography (Drexel Hill, Penn, USA; John Lent, 1986). It's no accident that "net comics" boosterism is prevalent in the USA, where local calls are free. Elsewhere in the world, of course, this is not the case.

^7. Miniaturization is a constant obsession of the computer fairs. See, for example, the report on the PC Expo in New York, "Hand Stands and Summer Assaults," by Jack Schofield, The Guardian, June 26, 1997, 11.

^8. There is a growing literature on the aesthetics of comics. The best text so far is Scott McCloud's aforementioned Understanding Comics (HarperCollins, 1995), but watch out for a forthcoming, as yet untitled, book on the same by Joseph Witek, author of the acclaimed Comic Books as History (University of Mississippi Press, 1989).

^9. Interview with Seth by Roger Sabin for Speak magazine, Summer 1997. (This section of the interview slightly edited in magazine version.)

^10. Scott McCloud is much more positive about digital rendering tools. See The Comics Journal interview, 77-78.

^11. Traditionally, covers have been the "selling point" of comics, the first thing the buyer sees, and have therefore tended to be of a higher quality artistically and in terms of production values than the interiors. (Often, a different artist will be used.) For this reason, rare comics with undamaged covers are particularly highly prized in the collectors market.

^12. See, for example, the groundbreaking work of Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library), a creator who is using colour and composition in unexpected and exciting ways, and of Joe Sacco (Palestine), who has pioneered a new form of comics journalism by visiting trouble spots around the world and reporting on what he sees.

^13. Web sites already exist to advertise comics and to spread information. See, for example, any of the sites run by the big publishers (DC Comics, Marvel, Image, etc), and the lively British-based site CartooNet, which offers a more alternative perspective.