Thursday, December 29, 2005

"Evolution" of comics

In reading several of year end wrap ups for the webcomics scene, I've seen the term "evolution of the art form" of comics used several times. I just have one question: What does this phrase mean?

There are two ways in which the word "evolution" is used, and I’m curious what people intend. In everyday speech, "evolution" means a growth into something more advanced than it was before. More (scientifically) accurate, it means an adaptation to/from/with a new environment, but not connoting any sort of advancement or progression.

If people mean the second sense of "evolution," then I can totally understand it. The Internet is very different environment posing interesting avenues for adaptation.

However, if people mean "evolution" in the first sense, regarding a progression to something better…

In what qualitative ways has the "comic medium" really become more "advanced" in the last hundred years at all? People are still drawing pictures in sequence and pairing them with words. Yes, the structure has changed – a la "language change," but this type of gradual unconcious change isn't what I think people mean.

So, some new methods of coloring have emerged from new technologies, and the Internet allows for different packaging in layouts. For formalists, I can understand how these experiments provide a fertile realm for experimentation, but in most cases they don't radically change the content of the story much (that a "message" is being conveyed by sequential images). To me, layout change like the Infinite Canvas seems a little superficial to call a major evolution – it just provides interesting (artistic) formalist experimenting.

And, some may argue that writing and storytelling have gotten better over the years, which in some domains is certainly true. Then again, pick up a book of Winsor McCay and it might surprise you. Of course, good writing and storytelling aren't dependent on the media they're enacted on. Someone could write a masterpiece on the nearly-infinite-canvas of a toilet paper roll and it could be just as good writing as something on the Internet.

I've also seen the term "evolution" used regarding economics and fandom. Without a doubt, the web provides economic potential for creators that has never been seen before. And, inventions like OhNoRobot! for fandom does provide a resource unique to the power of the web. This is certainly adaptationist.

So, what I want to ask then, is the "evolutionary potential" of the Internet simply for economics purposes and for formalists? If these are what people are using this term for, it has nothing to do with the "art form" of sequential images. Am I right that this is somewhat of a flowery vacuous term, or am I just missing something?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


I've posted another segment of Permutations today. Here's some background on the piece "Reminiscence":

The first page for this one sat on my desk for about a month before I wrote the rest of it in one sitting in a sort of stream-of-consciousness method. I think that writing in this way makes authors connect to a very “pure” part of their mind, and thus creates a very genuine and sincere product. There's a lot in this one that I just love, and it remains one of my favorite pieces that I’ve done.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Cupid Du Coeur

I've posted another segment of Permutations today. Here's some background on the piece "Cupid Du Coeur":

I greatly enjoyed the mixing of visual styles in this piece. Much of the computer work was done without much planning and with a large amount of trial and error to see what worked. The photo from the first page was found with some friends while looking through old papers in the recesses of my fraternity house in college. On the back was written "San Francisco 1895." It was such a striking shot that I figured I should use it for something, and so here I did.

I had toyed with the idea for this piece for a while before writing it, inspired partly from a chapter of Michael Crichton’s Travels. Its been one of my favorite books since I first read it when I was 12. Lately I've been musing how I've been taking on a lot of interesting experiences of my own, just as Crichton mused he was following in the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle. Its amusing to think that we can somehow be influenced enough by our favorite books to become similar to them... Of course, it could just be that that's why we liked them in the first place.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Musings on Time and Space

One of the papers I’m currently writing is about how “time” is understood across sequences of panels. Scott McCloud’s basic position on this is that “time = space,” so moving through space means that time is passing in graphic form. I have numerous problems with this, but more than anything it has made me question why this equation might be made.

I’ve been particularly into Benjamin Lee Whorf’s writings, who argued that the language we speak affects the way we think and perceive reality. A class on this "lingustic relativity" in college is what basically motivated me to study the relationships between linguistics and “comics” in the first place.

Whorf argues that the tense system found in most European languages is what (in part) has created our sense that time is a linear thing. Because we have a past, present, and future tense, it lines up all events in a row. He makes similar arguments to the extant that we create a sense of “space” out of our quantifiers and plural system that relates back to our understanding of time.

So, this begs the question: Will the people who speak a language without a tense system (like Hopi, as Whorf shows) have a different manner of conveying concepts graphically? Would their visual languages lack sequential events entirely in favor of something else more amenable to their spoken language? Would this make the visual langauge grammar dependent on the concepts from the spoken, or can both exist with different systems of conveying events?

This is one of the most fascinating possibilities for research I think: whether the language one speaks affects the language that one draws. In some ways, this is the question that a lot of my work is leading up to. All in good time I suppose...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Introspection and the haze of definitions

In one of my linguistics classes last year, my professor claimed that the arbitrariness of language was noted as early as 2500 years ago in China, by the philosopher Laozi. For those who don’t know, arbitrariness means that the sounds of language don’t have any direct connection to what they mean, they are purely conventional associations. Usually, this insight is attributed to a linguist named Saussure, from the early 1900s, which gave rise to “structuralism” and “semiology.”

Laozi did notice that language was arbitrary, but it certainly wasn’t the intent of his observations. Really, he was pointing out that not only did words lack a connection to their meaning, but because of it they were a hindrance in the search for Truth. This is the first thing that sparked my interest in language and cognition, albeit in a roundabout way, back in high school.

I’ve been noticing lately about how this mentality really underlies my work though. For many of the things I discuss, it’s not so much a matter of defining things clearly as it is breaking down those concepts. My non-definition of “comics”: Comics is not a precise combination of text and image values, but rather a cultural object, a sub-culture, a community, a genre, etc. that exist in society.

I give a similar treatment to “Language.” Rather than saying that “language” is a thing that people can concretely put their finger on with one defining element, it is instead a manifestation of several features that include: A sense modality, sequence, meaningful reference, combinatoriality, communicative use, social usage, a social identity,… along with several others.

In both of these cases, the “definition” comes out of an aggregation of a variety of elements. But can you really say that a conglomeration of parts is really a whole “thing”? Buddhist thought would say “no” (which it does quite powerfully to the notion of a “self”). The definitions are fully understandable, yet empty.

This is also fairly apparent in my definitions of “writing” and “drawing,” which I explored in my (rather long) MA thesis. The gist was that these notions are contingent upon the systems that we use and their mapping along a large triangular map of signs. The whole triangle is the “Truth,” but nobody accesses in full. They have to access it through the portions that they cut up.

The understanding of the parts and the “why” is really what I’m after, and pushing through the illusion that the words create a concrete concept is the only way to get there.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Origin of the Species, mon

Whoever thought of this is brilliant. I've heard that we're in the age of the remix, and this is certainly the coolest presentation of "Origin of the Species" I've ever seen. Be sure to listen to the samples, mon!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


I've posted another segment of Permutations today. Here's some background on the piece "Time" in that collection:

Inspired by a chapter of the book Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, the crosshatching was done with various sizes of technical pens and literally took several days to do. After I finished it, I made my roommate at the time promise to smack me if I ever decided to do anything with that much crosshatching ever again! (…he gladly accepted the burden)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

We the People 101

One of the projects I’ve been working on slowly over the past several months is a new edition of the book I did with Thom Hartmann, We the People: A Call to Take Back America.

The new version is going to break up the original into three smaller books, to be released as history textbooks for high school and college classes. We’ve had lots of good feedback from people who were using it for this purpose already, so we thought we’d accommodate them by issuing a revised edition.

Most of the changes involve alterations and additions to certain scenes and dialogue, but I’ve also been working on a new cover design for the series. Here’s one of the latest drafts I’ve done for the first book:

We’re shooting for an early 2006 release on the first book, with the rest of the series coming out throughout the year. I'll try to post more stuff on this as it develops.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Subjectivity and a rant on Comics Scholarship

So, this is a review of a paper that is listed in my bibliography. If you'd like to see more of these, let me know...

Driest, Joris. 2005. Subjective Narration in Comics. Masters Thesis. Utrecht University.

This piece covers a broad overview of the ways in which “subjectivity” is represented in the “comics medium.” Of particular note is its analysis of word/thought balloons. The piece is largely influenced by film theory, and its relationship to comics and writing, however, it does not include citations to John Barber or other relevant works along those lines.

However, the piece didn’t seem to have a directed and focused hypothesis of sorts that it was out to prove. It hovered at the level of “these things are there” without probing that topic deeper. This isn’t necessarily terrible, considering that no other studies really cover this topic previously, except maybe in Saraceni 2000 & 2003 (which also weren’t cited).

It also seemed to comment upon a number of phenomena that occur in the “comics medium,” but didn’t seem relevant to the thesis (such as conventional graphic symbols). This is a trend I’ve noticed a lot in papers about VL & comics. Since they don't have an established a cannon of scholarship (or an recognized field to study them), people often feel the need to insert every interesting thought they have about it regardless of how pertinent it might be to what they’re actually writing about.

Relatedly, most essays on anything comics-related feel the need to define what a comic is in the paper – whether or not the paper is about how “comics” are defined. To me, this just seems to cry out an underlying complex that “nobody knows what comics are, so I need to define it.”

Guess what: whether they actively read comics or not, most everyone in our culture knows what a “comic” or “graphic novel” is to the extant that most scholars write about. People don't need to define what a novel or a film is every time they write about them, nor should they need to be told what a comic is. (Similarly, linguistics papers don’t define “language” in every paper – they just get to the meat of the issue).

At least from my perspective, the less exceptional we treat visual language and comics, the more they can be considered as equal with other forms of communication/literature. To invoke the metaphor: "Separate but equal" does not work, because it’s NOT equal. You need to have complete non-discrimination. By continually defining it where its not needed, “comics” (the social objects, and thereby the visual language associated with it) is implicitly placed into a “minority” position in the realm of criticism and scholarship.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Tis the Season: Happy Bodhi Day!

This will probably only be funny to a few people, but...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Today, like all Wednesdays, I've posted another segment of my ongoing "Meditations" at my webcomicsnation site. Since those works were all done awhile ago, I'll try to give some background to them here as I go along.

The current ongoing piece is a visual poem entitled "Permutations," that I wrote in college — gosh — six years ago now (!). It grew out of a journal entry that blended lots of drawings with words into a sort of collage, which I then transformed into a more linear form. At the time I'd been reading a lot of David Mack's Kabuki, so the mixed material nature of it all is reminiscent of that. I was playing a lot with the relationship of the graphic form and phonetics, while trying to dance around the message rather than directly express it. I'd say the finished version became one of my most emotionally driven and experimental pieces of graphic writing.

Besides using just about every artistic implement on my desk at the time (from technical pens to a bamboo "fountain pen"), it was the first major project where I used the computer to put together my pages. Since then I do nearly everything on the computer. We the People started with most line art being scanned, though the further it got the more I drew directly in the computer with my penpad. Now that I have a cintiq, my new stuff is drawn almost 100% on the computer.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Amongst my exuberance to update about the blog and the new essay, I almost forgot that I've put some new entries in my Reference Bibliography. I don't know if people really use it or not, but I intend for it to be a resource for people looking for information related to this field.

I actually quite enjoy finding new material, and I read and own just about everything listed there. Suggestions for more are always welcomed!

Cross-Cultural Space

I have a new essay available at my site entitled "Cross Cultural Space". This paper is not very heavy on theoretical issues, but rather represents my efforts to diversify my methods through the coding of individual panels. For this one, I looked at 300 panels in each of 12 American and 12 Japanese books to compare the way they depict various types of spatial representation.

Another major issue that I'm dealing with here is that of "Diversity." So often the graphic form is assumed to be universal, whereas Language is always thought of as being culturally relative. I think that this is an illusion cast by iconicty. Since the meaningful elements look like what they mean, we immediately assume that everyone can understand them. But, no matter what, graphic images still must pass through the filter of our minds, which allow for relativity far more than they allow for universality (at least on such surface type things). Identifying the structure of various cultural visual languages, and how they might differ from each other, is an endeavor I'd love to see delved into more.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Why a blog?

I've already been updating my news and I have a forum for this site, so why a blog? Well, I figure that a blog can allow me to voice my own thoughts, while the forum can be a more democratic avenue for discussion of comic theory. A blog can also let me discuss thoughts that might not be extensive enough for full essays in a more casual setting.

I plan on using this blog to elaborate on new work, describe what I'm working on, and occasionally plug people whose work is worth spreading around. You can start by checking out the links on the sidebar...