Comics in the 21st century have to move beyond ink and paper, but what will it take to get them there? In the age of the DVD, the MP3 and the PDA, tech-freak Nick Locking offers a little FYI.
11 March 2002

I think, of all the technological wonders in the world today, that the DVD is my favourite. Handheld computers are brilliant, but lacking in functionality (I consider 'functionality' to include broadband internet and 3D acceleration). Space travel lost my interest when we didn't meet any alien spacefaring robot civilisations. And the ziplock bag is rather passé.

No, it's the DVD that holds my affections. There's no better example in the world today of high technology as mass-market commodity. And what a commodity. Hours and hours of perfect quality film on a disc that fits in your pocket, with optional bundles of extras, such as commentary from the director, and never decays or degrades in quality.

Technology is all-pervading, of course. Films can now be generated entirely by animating 3D models in theoretical worlds, composed by assembling huge teams of programmers and 3D artists rather than by assembling the products of years of actor's training and being willing to fellate anyone with money.

Books, too, are on the verge of an important technological advance. I don't know what it is yet - none of the current options has really taken off - but I get the feeling it's going to be a cheap, mass-produced handheld text reader with an internet connection and a simple payment system. When that hits, Gutenberg may decide that he needn't have bothered with the printing press, and will wish he'd stuck to making POLICE ACADEMY films, poor chap.

'Space travel lost my interest when we didn't meet any robot civilisations.' So what, then, of the humble comic book? Comics too are benefiting from the wave of technological advances. Comics are now coloured largely on computer, using Adobe Photoshop. They're also mostly lettered on computer, and some artists have now taken to inking entirely on computer, and in a few rare cases drawing electronically, using an advanced version of a light pen. (Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons spring to mind.)

The killer app I mentioned for prose - the handheld electronic text reader - will not take comics into account. These devices will be black and white, and about the size of a paperback novel, leaving no room for large sequential art images with millions of colours. So, we'll get left behind. And the comic industry can't create its own version. The book industry as a whole can support expensive experimental ventures like a handheld computer, but the comic industry just doesn't have the clout.

So how are comics going to take advantage of technology? The internet, mate. More on that in a minute, but first, a relevant anecdote.

A while ago I was watching a DVD on a player that feeds directly into my computer (A PIII-933 - not brand new, but still respectable) via a TV-In card (a card capable of taking RCA, or composite cable connections, just like a VCR, and piping them straight to your operating system).

I was watching it windowed, sitting on top of a quarter of my screen, while idly surfing the web on the rest of my screen. I was watching a British comedy series called SPACED. SPACED is a great little show, about a grumpy comic artist and his insecure female flatmate. Comic, sci-fi and other nerdy references absolutely abound, and hilarity, as it so often does in these situations, ensues.

'The handheld electronic text reader - will not take comics into account.' In one episode, the cast has to stage an assault on an animal testing lab to retrieve a lost dog. In the background during the 'mission briefing' scene - and this is the important bit - the soundtrack that's playing is a hip-hop remix of the Darth Vader theme from STAR WARS. You know: "Daa daa daa, da da daa, da da daa". That one. With a funky beat slapped on top.

I was momentarily amused by this, and so while I was still watching the DVD, I looked for a SPACED episode guide, found a soundtrack listing to tell me what the name of the song was (Fader Gladiator - Battle Of The Planets, as it happens), and then broke out AudioGalaxy, searched for the mp3, and hit the download button. A few seconds later, it was on my hard drive in my Mp3 Downloads directory.

I am going somewhere with this, don't worry.

To get the mp3 took me under a minute. The mp3 was still playing in the episode I was watching, and I had already researched and downloaded the mp3. That's how fast it's possible to move information around on the net. However, an hour or so later, I'd already listened to the mp3 a couple of times, and was thoroughly bored of it. The novelty was gone. I deleted it from my drive.

How does this relate to comics? Good question.

Comics on the web are the inevitable future of the medium. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives. And yet, it's not happening very fast. There are lots of comic strips on the web (my personal favourite is the charming and funny PVP). There are lots of bootleg scans of old, out-of-print comics on the web. But there's nothing to write home about.

The biggest news is that Crossgen recently put 50 of its comics on the web. This is the best effort anyone has ever made to put standard sequential art (not comic strips) on the web, because the interface is amazing. Intuitive and sexy, you read a double page spread of comics in one view, at varying sizes depending on your screen resolution. Moving your mouse cursor over text captions and balloons increases their size, making them easy to read. Someone really thought long and hard about how to make standard comics easy to read on the internet, and this is going to be the system to beat for a long time.

'Comics on the web are the inevitable future of the medium.' However. On the web, everything is disposable. Once you're tired of a particular piece of information, you forget about it, and never go back. Speaking personally, I have never paid a subscription fee to an internet site, and never paid for any content, because I know I don't need to. Using my mighty web-fu sword, in the wu-dan style, I can get practically any information I want off the internet. In seconds. Literally seconds.

When you search for something on the internet, you bring up your favourite search engine, enter your search criteria, and scan the results. Then you open a select few of the returned pages until you get exactly what you want, discarding the rest.

Discarding, I emphasise, anything that is not exactly what you want. There are so many millions of pages on the web that if what you've found isn't exactly what you want, it's of no interest to you. For this reason, internet subscription-based services are not popular. Which means to hook your audience, you need to offer exactly what they want, and make them aware that they want it via clever advertising.

If online comics are going to take off - and especially if people are going to have to pay for them - the audience needs to be offered something it really wants - or at the very least something it's been persuaded it really wants. Crossgen has its heart in the right place, but it has very few really big name creators on its books, and it hasn't produced anything that has really shaken the industry. Crossgen's interface, however, is the one to steal.

The onset of technology is irresistible, and I think it's impossible to think too far ahead. I mean, we're still stuck on printed matter as the top method of reading literature. Are we all luddites, or what? And to hell with reading it off hand-helds or the web - I want this stuff wired directly into my brain, or brains (as I will have many, when technology makes it possible). And then I want the massive StoryPlex Supercomputer system to churn me out a comic by a specified writer (living or dead) and a specified artist (living or dead), in under a millisecond. And I won't be truly satisfied until that happens.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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