Friday, 23 January 2015

Words and Pictures

Comics are all about how the words and pictures bounce off each other. The words and pictures can both convey the same message, or carry out complementary functions. They can create friction, by saying something similar, but not quite the same. This was all laid out in Scott McCloud's watershed book "Understanding Comics". But I want to look here at how these instantaneous associations work when we add time into the equation too.

The pictures can change the words, and how we perceive them. Let's take a short phrase:

"It's important to relax at the end of the day."

Here are four random (creative commons) images from Google that could illustrate the above phrase:

And here they are all together, in strip form. It's hard not to form a narrative around them, isn't it? Comics are all about time, after all.

Now let's add a few words, including the phrase that we started off with:

...and change the way that you, the reader, responds to the images in the process. (Nothing clever here, this is a staple of horror stories, mixing up the familiar and the unsettling.)

So that final set of words, next to the final panel, have changed their meaning because of the picture that they go with.

But, taken as a whole, the words and pictures have also done something else - set up associations between visual concepts and concepts. He's not resting on the grass, he's dead! (panel 3). But I find what has happened to panels 2 and 4 more interesting. Daisies and cups of tea are probably now linked in your mind, at least temporarily, with the concept of poison. I'm guessing that this wasn't the case beforehand!?

Let's say that I were to repeat the image of the same cup of tea, with the phrase "I don't like my brother much either." Taken out of context, the link between words and pictures might evoke tea and sympathy, but if it comes after the sequence above, it might be enough to suggest another poisoning is in the offing. Even if I included a different image showing a close up of hands holding a cup of tea, it should be enough to trigger the association. If I show several different hands, with different cups of tea, and finished the sequence off with the words "My story touched a chord for many people.", then I can suggest a whole string of copycat poisonings, maybe? And by simply suggesting it rather than coming out with it direct, I leave the reader with a question rather than an answer, which, as I've written before, is often much richer and rewarding.

There are lots of possibilities here. Colours can be used to build up associations, as much as objects like tea and daisies. Specific compositions such as extreme close-ups or long shots, could be built up to be associated with particular concepts. In film, music can do the same, as well as it's more traditional purpose of setting the mood.

This play of associations and recurring motifs isn't limited to comics - films do it, novels and plays do it too - but I think in comics, the two streams of word and picture are quite distinct. This allows us to set up the association once, and then, when we want to re-use it, let only one stream do the work, while the other can get on with something else.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


Sometimes it's refreshing to try stepping outside your usual style a bit, and see what comes up...

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Decrypting the Internet and the Magic Zebra

In the unseemly haste to rush through a mixed bag of blunt draconian measures protect our noble civilisation, there's talk once more of making sure that government surveillance agents can intercept and listen to all our internet traffic. While it's rather unsporting to point out the complete lack of technical understanding that makes these measures impractical and self-defeating (even if we acknowledge that they're a blatant land-grab by the surveillance state), commentators are universally ignoring the one secret ingredient that will make these plans a success.

A common retort against forcing all internet traffic out into the open, where it can be intercepted for our benefit and safety, is that the "back doors" we must build into our communication systems to allow snooping listening have no way of knowing if the person using them is a Goodie or a Baddy. Heaven forbid that any corruption could ever arise within our own ranks, or that the thin line between traitor and whistleblower could in any way be up for debate, but the thought of a horde of ill-kempt swarthy, foreign thugs appropriating our security system to their own swarthy, foreign ends certainly gives pause for thought.

Remember high speed bank robbery chases? A thing of the past...

But I say to these nay-sayers, think of the Bank Robbery. Yes, do you remember them? Armed men breaking into banks, and escaping in fast cars, with dangerous high speed chases and gun fights. A thing of the past, of course, thanks to the Magic Zebras installed by law in all modern cars that will prevent the engine from starting if the driver is Up To No Good. They work using Science of course, cooked up by our egg-headed boffins in their labs, so there's no need for awkward questions about how they work. Just trust us. And likewise, there's the Cornish Piskies fitted to modern firearms that only allow them to be used in the National Interest.

Well, now we've jogged your memory about that, you may be wondering what all the fuss about these security back doors is. Using lots of complicated sums on blackboards, of course the same technology can be applied to the internet, so that just in the same way that armed robbery and high-speed escapes no longer happen, Our Boys will be able to listen in to everything you say and do, with absolutely no possibility of wrongdoing.

Trust our know-how, and our judgement. You know you can.

Control room of a Fundamentalist Muslim Zeppelin hovering over Birmingham, England

INTERNET DISCLAIMER: Yes, this is satire. Please don't take it literally (apart from the bit about the unicorn).

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Two Sets of Twelve of "Five Words to Ruin A Date"

Random sentences generated here, rearranged by a human (that's me!) in a vain attempt to craft a little narrative from them, and fed through my random comics generator that pulls matching pictures from Flickr. (Interesting to get so many text-based images coming out - looks strange with the text on top of text)

This is certainly not the first robot-generated comic, but is it the first collaboration between two primordial content-spewing robots, as writer and artist?

Make of it what you can!

Version 1

He knows where we live.

Look at this, says he.

But it's so dim, now.

We were afraid to think.

He had not painted it.

It is far too fragile.

She seemed uncanny and fateful.

Drop in whenever you like.

No, not just at present.

They studiously avoided each other.

That's the secret of it.

And now they are gone.

Version 2

He knows where we live.

Look at this, says he.

But it's so dim, now.

We were afraid to think.

He had not painted it.

She seemed uncanny and fateful.

It is far too fragile.

Drop in whenever you like.

No, not just at present.

They studiously avoided each other.

That's the secret of it.

And now they are gone.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Surely, Shirley

These being the opening words for this section (and the next one, as luck would have it...)

Friday, 9 January 2015

Machine-made High Art

The big question for today: "Can Machines make Art?"

Why that question? There's an interesting interview/profile piece in the New Yorker about a young couple who've made a lot of money creating "viral" / "clickbait" web sites, and apply a lot of number-crunching to hone the headlines in order to drive traffic to their sites, and to keep it there (the revenue streams come from online ads, so the number-crunching's driven by the bottom line for the business). (It's slightly confused - the headlines refer to the guy, the company's named after him, but she's also involved, and 2/3 of the way down, it says she's as "smart" as he is. I came away seeing the business as a joint venture between the two of them, I may be wrong about that.)

The article's interesting as a story of how the internet helped someone make a sack of cash (and yeah, I'm turning out nonchalant phrases here to conceal the twinges of jealousy!), but also as an insight into the Silicon Valley style mindset that got him and his partner where they are today.

One of the owners, a Mr. Spartz, makes a rather bold declaration that came my way via the twittersphere, that vast borg-like internet-age intelligence, via fellow absorbee Damien Walter, who's since written quite a searing attack on Spartz, much of which I have to agree with. Anyway, Spartz says:

"Art is that which science has not yet explained"

Putting it into context a little, he's referring to a Katy Perry pop song, and how techniques similar to the ones that he uses to hone his headlines could be used to improve and match the lyrics, vocals, melody etc., and use the wisdom of the crowds to build a better pop song.

So, picking apart his assertion, I'd take away the following observations:
1. He's in danger of confusing art with entertainment
2. He's in danger of confusing statistics with science
3. There's an underlying presumption that "science" will inexorably explain everything

all of which rub me up the wrong way, push my buttons, etc. Having one's buttons pushed is usually an invitation to either indulge one's own prejudices and project one's shortcomings onto someone else, or, to take the road less travelled, ask your own prejudices what they're getting uppity about. The danger of the second approach, of course, is that you might learn something new! I'm feeling reckless - if I am unlucky enough to learn anything new, I can always forget it tomorrow - so here goes.

High and Low Art

I carry around in my baggage a distinction between low and high art, and think - sure, techniques like Spartz uses could be applied to low art/entertainment, but not to the high-minded stuff that I like. This gives me a warm fuzzy feeling of superiority, and an unshakeable belief that I'm safe from The Machine that's going to come lumbering our way.

But what, actually, is the difference? After all, I like a lot of Low Art (a.k.a. art without pretensions at grandeur) too. My two young daughters have got me hooked on Disney's "Frozen", to the point where I'll speak well of it in adult conversation, for example!

The clearest distinction that I can make, which isn't quite the same thing as High vs. Low, is art that comforts versus art that challenges. Terry Gilliam sums it up quite nicely - when telling a story, we can either apply closure, and wrap up all the ends to a story neatly (in terms of plot, emotional trajectories of the characters, the audience, etc.) or we can choose to leave the audience hanging, unsure of what has just transpired (he quotes Kubrick's 2001 as a prime example of the latter). Questions are more interesting than answers, as Pablo Picasso allegedly said, so leaving the audience with a question, requiring them to think, and form their own opinions, is surely a mark of respect.

Re-consulting my baggage at this point, it tells me to shut up and stop worrying - that Spartz's techniques would be able to work on closure-driven feel-good material, but would fall apart on the challenging stuff. Ah baggage, you're leaking information there, always brusque and unpleasant when you're feeling threatened!

Sure, statistical methods can be successfully applied to feel-good stories. That's not new, they already are, a great deal, I expect. George Lucas probably took a big step in this direction with Star Wars, by applying Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey so rigorously, to create a story and characters that the reader would recognise already. His approach has been honed over the years to the point where the skeleton of the formula often protrudes uncomfortably close to the surface, as another action hero overcomes self-doubt to win the heart of the woman he loves and defeat the CGI baddies. These cook-by-numbers tales track the zeitgeist remarkably well - to wit the increasing feistiness of Disney princesses and kick-ass-ness of their YA female counterparts, and the increase in sensitivity and reflectiveness (moodiness if you want to keep it macho) in the male counterparts. I applaud "Frozen" for turning Prince Charming into a Love Rat and replacing the formulaically climactic wedding scene with the recognition that other kinds of love have their power too, but it's an evolution, not a revolution.

We already describe this kind of storytelling as "formulaic", but technically, there's a difference between that and what Spartz is doing. Applying a known formula that's known in advance, requires a belief that this is what the audience will like/will sell tickets/whatever. Spartz' algorithm is blind - he uses hunches to come up with a range of starting headlines (and admits to having some skill here), then lets the users' decide, involuntarily, which variant "wins". As with any pseudo-Darwinian approach, the key is understanding how "fitness" is defined. Spartz is playing a lowest-common-denominator game, with casual browsing content, so the definition's relatively easy: number of eyeballs wins. With a high-profile movie? The studio will be looking at sales, obviously, but is there some scope for audience satisfaction or even aesthetics in there too? Hollywood's tried and tsted process of focus groups already does this to some extent,

I don't see that applying Spartz-style techniques to "improving" songs, novels or movies would be as major a breakthrough as the New Yorker article suggests.

So, what about High Art? The more interesting question, to me, is whether High Art is as immune to statistical improvement as I would like to think it is? (I'm assuming there is broad support for this premise amongst fellow proponents of High Art, the question of what I personally think isn't that important on it's own!) Is most High Art good, simply because it lacks closure or a single fixed meaning? I can think of a number of arthouse films that would have benefitted from tighter dialogue, better storytelling and/or clearer editing, without sacrificing their originality or individuality.

As a self-styled High Artist, I'm not altogether comfortable with these questions. I'd be quite happy with my art being a mystical communion with the universe, inviolable by statistics, thank you very much. I'd better keep reminding myself that discomfort is a good thing!