Thursday, 23 October 2014

On the "Mainstream" in Comics

Literacy & A Laureate!

Last Friday, in Kendal, the Comics Literacy Awareness project was announced, and industry veteran / stalwart / good egg Dave Gibbons was crowned the first UK Comics Laureate. CLAw has quite a specific remit of encouraging the use of comics within the educational sector, to improve the literacy level of UK children through use of comics in schools, but it inevitably ties into the bigger discussion of whether comics are any good or not, and whether they're ready to crawl out of the ghetto they've been inhabiting. Certainly, David Barnett's piece in today's Guardian tackles that bigger question, with a list of Five must-read graphic novels that prove that comics are worthy of a laureate.

I want to take issue with the premise of this article on a number of levels. To clarify, I want to take issue with it in order to help further the adoption of comics outside of the ghetto. And I have a positive suggestion to make at the end. I think it's great that CLAw exists, and that we have a laureate. I think it's great that mainstream press like the Guardian is reporting on it, and that this in itself is no longer as remarkable as it used to be. And I think it's great that Dave Gibbons has the job for the next two years - his acceptance speech oozed amiability, enthusiasm and energy. Bring it on.

The Ghetto

A word on the ghetto - I've mentioned it twice now, so let me make myself clear. I'm talking about the Superhero ghetto. Through some quirk of fate/history, the majority of comics have been about superheroes, people who have "special powers", wear lycra-like costumes, have secret identities, nick-names and fight crime. There's a marvellous variety of stories told within these conventions, and I don't intend to dismiss all superhero stories, but the near-monopoly exerted by a genre (superheroes) over a medium (comics) is deeply, utterly, profoundly - well, more than a little bit - strange. It's as if all TV detective stories featured detectives who were also chefs, had speech impediments, and were named after the signature vegetable that showed up in every meal they cooked, or all celebrity chef shows were filmed on the top of a tall building with a resident mime artist in attendance. After 50+ years of such a situation, we just might stop noticing that it's bizarre.

(Ok, so I've just invented the two killer genres that the world never knew it needed, but don't run off and write your best-selling script yet, hear me out to the end of this article!)

So, the stated aim of Mr. Barnett's article is to prove that comics are ready for prime time (inasmuch as having a laureate indicates that), and he's trying to prove it to us by presenting a curated selection of five works.

I so, so want him to prove that point.

Yeah, here comes the "but"s. But four of the five are about superheroes. But one of them was being touted as the "get out of the ghetto" ticket in the late 1980's, and we've evidently made only limited headway. But what about books X, Y and Z, that are definitely in the top 5? (The comments section of his article is brimming with that last one!)

At the root of it, how can a list of any 5 comics make any headway? Can you name the five foods that will "cure" a fussy eater? The five herbaceous plants that will "make" any garden into a work of art? Even the five best writers or painters of the twentieth century?

And who are we trying to convince? The educational establishment? The readership of the Guardian? Society at large? Some shadow projected on the wall because we had a hard time reading comics as a teenager (hey, I've certainly got one of them)?


For the sake of argument, I'm going to define a target audience. They sometimes read books, watch films and TV, have other interests such as gardening, cycling, walking, sport, pets that consume some parts of their leisure time. Oh, and every Thursday at 7.30pm,  while cooking dinner, they hack into the international banking system under their adopted pseudonym "The Leek", assemble the evidence required to convict a prominent tax dodger, nip round to their house to confront them, and tie them to a chair leaving the evidence neatly filed on the table underneath their calling card, a freshly baked Quiche Lorraine, before calling the police and disappearing quietly into the background. You know, ordinary, if somewhat middle class, people.

Now, maybe this audience isn't to your tastes? Too narrow, maybe? Too posh? Too nice? No probs, they'll do for now, and what I'm going to say to them probably applies to your audience too.

If we look at the tastes in music, or TV, or books, or films, of this audience, it'll be all over the place. Classical to punk rock to death metal to jazz to easy listening to folk to reggae to pop. SAS confessionals to Aga sagas to gritty crime to quirky rom-com/chick-lit to metafiction to costume drama. Oh, and everything in between - I forgot about that.

So any list of five isn't going to hit a very big target within that group, as I grumped to Messrs Barnett, Gibbons and CLAw earlier today on twitter. So what can hit the mark? Well, Paul Gravett's given us a list of 1001, and a very fine list it is too, but it takes rather a long time to read, and therefore the drop-off rate is going to be quite high. Can we target things a bit better?


So here's an experiment. On twitter, make a connection between a film, TV series or novel (or a director or author), and a comic (or graphic novel if you're feeling posh!), and word it like this:

"If you like X then you might like Y #comicequiv". Two words in there are particularly important:

  • "might" (because up to 50% of the time, we'll be wrong!)
  • #comicequiv : that's a hashtag, a meaningless bit of interweb flotsam-y, jetsam-y metadata. Twitter knows how they work, and will allow all of us to track and collate posts with that tag on it. Nobody else is using that tag right now.
  • If there's a longer review of the comic that you think is persuasive, stick in a link to that. Shout out to the comic writer AND the book author/film maker etc. You've got 140 characters to play with!

Does this make sense? If we build up a map of good comics based on tastes in other media, would that help CLAw, and Dave Gibbons, and writers like David Barnett in the mainstream press to get their message across in away that sticks?


I want to have a look at a second target audience - the ones who I wrote this article for, the people who care passionately about comics and want to see them grow up big and strong. (I didn't write this for the readership of the Guardian, or for the people I'd like to persuade about how cool comics are.)

The majority of us, the promoters of comics, are comic fans, and have grown up within the ghetto. We're steeped in the culture of comics, and therefore have a certain myopia. Whatever we grew up with as kids and teenagers is imprinted deep in our brains. I grew up on Marvel UK and 2000AD in the late '70's, Miller's Ronin, Simonson's Thor and Moore & Gibbons' Watchmen blew my socks off in the '80's, and Gaiman and McKean's early experiments & McCloud's "Understanding Comics" wowed me as a student in the early '90's. I've since gone on to discover all sorts of other amazing comics - Mattotti, Tan, Toppi, Peeters, Modan, Greenberg etc. etc. etc. - but somehow I'm not imprinted in the same way to works I've come across as an adult. Not that I think the stuff of the '80's is better, or even that I enjoy it more - far from it - but it's deep in my cultural make-up somewhere, and I'm therefore more prone to overlook it's faults. And therefore more likely to make a poor recommendation.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

B&Q is a large DIY chain store in the UK. They play piped music to their customers. I realised I had reached a certain age, in the late 90's, when I went into the store and they were playing popular schlock from my teenage years - the sort of music that I wouldn't touch with a barge-pole. Wham!, Duran Duran, that sort of thing. And, before my cultural censor kicked in, I felt a thrill of recognition. We are imprinted by all sorts of things. I wouldn't expect someone not growing up in the '80's to be moved by the same music, nor someone who didn't read 2000AD aged 8 to be completely excited by Ron Smith's rubbery Mega-Citizens or Ezquerra's "Stainless Steel Rat" as I still am. Nostalgia does weird things to us. I raise it now, because reading through the many comments on David Barnett's article that suggest an alternative "obvious" contender, I think the majority are driven by nostalgia. It's as powerful as a kick to the head, and - get this - utterly impossible to communicate to someone who wasn't there.

(I think the big two publishers understand nostalgia quite well, in the way they sell more to their existing, ageing audiences, rather than broadening the audience out.)

Case in point: I remember trying to convince a non-comic-fan friend that comics were cool (this was a while ago). I picked Morrison & McKean's "Arkham Asylum" as the then=pinnacle of the medium, with it's gorgeous multi-layered artwork and symbolically-dense script, that was inextricably tied in my head to the two non-superhero plays Morrison had brought the Edinburgh Fringe with Oxygen House theatre. I watched my friend read it, with a creeping realisation that they didn't have the in-depth knowledge of second-tier batman villains - Mad Hatter, Scarecrow, Killer Croc - required to even have a clue what was going on. Bad choice, my myopic nostalgia and acclimatisation to life in the ghetto. They were not convinced.

When making a recommendation now, I try to bear nostalgia in mind.

There, that's all. Let's get tweeting!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Tea Bag Ceremony

Another exercise using the curated selection of images from free stock image service, which they email out every ten days. Howto weave these random (and rather good) images into a narrative, given that our brains are hardwired to look for narrative in any sequence of images.

I felt lucky to get a couple of people in this week's selection, and, even better, more than one image of each of them. Just to be clear, the insults on p.4 are an ironical reflection on the calm voice of the narrator, nothing to do with the models!!

There's a seductive sense of authority to the "documentary" narrative voice, even when it's talking gibberish. One mis-step can make the presence of the voice jump back into the foreground.

Image Credits: Paula Vermeulen Noe Araujo Jan Erik Caroline Gutman mr.lee Jake Givens

Saturday, 18 October 2014


Sometimes an idea comes into one's life from several angles at once. This week, for me, it was compression.

1. Compression and Information

I've been reading James Gleick's "The Information" recently - just finished the chapter where he described Chaitin and Kolmogorov's simultaneous discovery of the notion of "interestingness" and randomness of numbers, and the extent to which a number can be described by an algorithm that is shorter than the number itself. Some can, some can't. (It's hard to prove that a number can't be compressed, or that any compression algorithm is the most concise.)

Chaitin considered applying this notion to science - a scientific theory is essentially an attempt to compress the observed data into a terser form (which, come to think of it, ignores the predictive quality of a theory - but anyway...).

Chewing this over in the back of my head, I thought that scientific theory is simply a more rigorous/structured form of our everyday functioning in this world. We compress information all the time. When dealing with people I know, I have a preset mental model of them that (usually) helps us to rub along together. When I drive, I deal with the road at a conceptual/symbolic level of white lines, traffic lights, road signs, speed limits, etc.

Compression of data in computer science can be loss-less (the uncompressed data can be reconstructed with absolute fidelity) or lossy (we only have a "good enough" facsimile of the original). The JPEG image compression used by most digital cameras, for example, is lossy, with "good enough" defined in terms of our ability to recognise the image after the "noise" is discarded.

Compression is good, it lets us get on with things.

There are times, though, when it's necessary to uncompress, to experience life in it's raw, undiluted glory, to become incapable of functioning in the normal way, because of the sheer grandeur of it all. To see everyone that we meet as an ineffable mystery, an unknown miracle, an impossible marvel. This is the experience written of my Rumi, Kabir, and other holy fools.

Being a living intelligence entails a certain balance between the compressed, capable outlook and being open to the point of incapability. every moment is a choice. I strongly suspect that sticking to either one is dangerous in the extreme. Certainly, mechanical, unreflexive compression can, in extreme, lead to the "them and us" thinking of racism, sexism and any other-ism, pigeon-holing of the light that inarguably resides in all of us (whatever it might be, no theological, rational or other baggage required) as "other".

2. Compression and Comics

Scott McCloud gave an excellent opening talk at Kendal yesterday, at the Lakes International comic Art Festival, that touched on much more than the comic-book medium. Two things struck me particularly in what he said (amidst much else that I'm still digesting):

  • he described cartoons as compressed visual descriptions - shorthand notations for describing people that cut right through to the parts of our brains that recognise humans, stripping the visual description of everything but the bare minimum needed to communicate the character's state of being.
  • digital comics have lifted some boundaries on the comics form that were previously taken for granted. They do not spell the instant demise of print comics, but they force practitioners of print into greater awareness of what they are doing e.g. printing on paper, working within a fixed page size. New media challenge the old media rather than killing them - challenge can be constructive.

So, compression. A compressed, cartooned character communicates more efficiently than a realistically rendered one. Reduced cognitive friction eases the flow of reading, which is, on the whole good. Provided our goal is to function. If, as in life, there is a balance to be struck between
functioning/getting through the day and some other transcendental outlook, then what is the visual equivalent of that? Can it buy us anything in terms of good storytelling - the higher goal that all the elements of comic-making should be serving - and can efficient cartooning lead to pigeon-holing, if practised mechanically?

Whatever the case, describing a character in any form of storytelling requires some deep insight into their inner lives. A writer must love all their characters if they're to have life. I don't know "the answers" to these, I suspect there are none, and would rather live with the questions. I'll finish with a quote from Jacques Lusseyran, that seems appropriate, in describing how he saw other people after going blind:

"Frankly, hair, eyes, mouth, the necktie, the rings on fingers mattered very little to me. I no longer even thought about them. People no longer seemed to possess them. Sometimes in my mind, men and ladies appeared without heads or fingers. Then again, the lady in the armchair suddenly rose before me in her bracelet, turned into the bracelet itself. There were people whose teeth seemed to fill their whole faces, and others so harmonious they seemed to be made of music. But in reality, none of these sights is made to be described. They are so mobile, so alive, that they defy words."

Try drawing that! Well, I'm going to try. Using photographs as a starting point - far removed from the cartoon approach. Wish me luck!

A Wooden Man in Wode

An evening's non-goal-oriented digital doodling and looking through old photos.  should have been preparing for the improvisation work at LICAF that is happening today, but this happened instead.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Second Sleep

An interesting news story:

The business of sleeping in one uninterrupted 6-8 hour session is a modern phenomenon, largely aided and abetted by cheap artificial lighting. There are common literary and historical references to a “the second sleep”, and a period of wakefulness during the night commonly devoted to prayer and reflection.

This is interesting in it's own right, but itt sets my imagination going too. Fictionalising this, it’s like the discovery of an extra day in the week, potentially with supernatural or otherworldly visitors, a gateway into something rather strange. Again, there’s a possibility of using this as a framing device for stories in the graphic novel, with the nocturnal visitors of the Second Sleep meeting and talking with a variety of people.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Improvised Comics - Getting There - A Local Handy Reference Map

Because we love you all! Simply print off onto an improbably-sized roll of paper, and stumble about the High Street of Kendal apologising to those you bump into or knock over as you trp over the tail end of this useful "little" map.

See you all tomorrow!

Imaginary Friend

Even the closest stars are so far away as to appear as nothing but little dots in the sky. Stars dwarf their planets, so our ability to see planets of other solar systems is minimal.

We can, however, infer their existence, by looking at minor, cyclical changes in the signals from the stars themselves.

A planet orbiting a star will exert a small tug upon it’s parent, towards or away from us, at different points of it’s orbit. This wobble is just large enough to be picked up as changes in the star’s radial velocity.

Inferring the presence of a planet from these changes in the light is difficult. where several planets orbit the star, at different frequencies, the changes in signal are laid on top of one another. it is necessary to look for evidence of a repeated pattern, and subtract it from the sum of the signal, gradually working backwards, uncovering evidence of further regularities, and hopefully of further, less influential planets.

Other entirely unrelated factors may also contribute to the changes in signal, further compounding the problem.

The search for life on systems outside our own is fraught with false hope and disappointment.

The Gliese 581 star is a close neighbour, only 20 light years away. In 2007, strong evidence of a third exoplanet, within the goldilocks zone, was discovered. A year later, a radio signal sending greetings from Earth was sent there.

More recently, better data has allowed us to factor in the presence of sunspot activity from the signal, peeling back another layer of noise. Subtracting that strengthened the regularity of the signal detected for the planets dubbed B, C and E, but D, previously considered to be a strong candidate for life, has faded from the picture entirely. (The others are well outside the Goldilocks zone.)

By the time our signal of hope reaches Gliese, it is likely that we will know that it’s intended target was nothing but a mirage, an artefact of our inability to see more clearly when we were younger.