September 2, 2004

Comic Interaction

by Andrew Stern · , 12:40 am

I’ve always loved non-fantasy comics; I never got into fantasy or superhero ones for some reason. I spent a lot of time reading MAD magazine as a kid, usually in my room while eating cookies pilfered from the kitchen pantry. My dad, who grew up in Coney Island’s housing projects, had collected MAD as a kid and later gave his tattered collection to me, where it promptly became even more tattered, along with any new issues he’d just finished reading. (The phrase “The Spy Who Glubbed Me” still sticks in my head.) But more than the movie parodies and the folding back cover, I was drawn to Dave Berg’s dysfunctional ‘The Lighter Side’, Al Jaffee’s inventive artwork, Don Martin’s onomatopoeic panels, the surreal ‘Spy vs Spy’ (and later the computer game), and of course those little cartoons in the margins by Sergio Aragones. Blecch!

As a kid I drew tons of my own little comics, in class, on the bus. I started with goofy little characters such as Marvin the Marshmallow, but quickly got more sophisticated with the Saturday-morning-inspired Super Foods, a group of caped perishables headquartered in the Refrigerator of Justice, battling their (golden-)arch-enemies the Fast Foods, a mischevous set of four fries, a hamburger and hand-held apple pie, as well as the Adventures of Joey, Franklin the Misfortunate, Lippy, Standard Hospital (don’t worry, I lack the gall to italicize the titles). I drew on standard 3-ring filler paper, and always with a blue Papermate Write Bros., my pen of choice to this day. Initially my panels were 4 or 5 rows high, but over time the rows shrunk to only one line high — 27 rows per page, page after page.

Besides MAD I read lots of old Peanuts. Once when visiting my grandparents I found a used-book shop on Brighton Beach Avenue and acquired over a dozen used original edition paperbacks. I think Schulz’s earlier work had a wittier sense of humor than his strips of his later decades. In the 3-panel strip I remember most, Charlie Brown is barely visible behind some tall grass, bent over, and exclaims, “This is like looking for a lost ball in high weeds!” Linus walks up and asks, “What are you doing?” Charlie Brown replies, “Looking for a lost ball in high weeds.” And I wonder why I grew up to have a wry sense of humor.

I stopped drawing comics once I got my first computer, a Commodore 64, and began programming puerile little animations and games. Also around that time access to my friends’ early-model consumer video cameras kickstarted my obsession with filmmaking. It wasn’t until a dozen or so years later in the mid-nineties, after finishing grad school and by then living in Berkeley, did I get into the growing scene of non-fantasy independent comics, my favorites being Eightball by Daniel Clowes, Acme Novelty Co. by Chris Ware and Optic Nerve by Berkeley’s own Adrian Tomine. (Trivia: Clowes eventually moved to Berkeley, and I eventually moved to Ware’s hometown, Chicago.) Anyone who knows me over the past decade can attest that I have constantly advertised Optic Nerve, as I own all the t-shirts Tomine created (they’re pretty ratty at this point). I even once recognized Tomine by sight at a sushi bar on College Avenue, since he occasionally draws himself into his comic; he said to me, “take a look around, you may notice this bar in the next issue”, and sure enough, weeks later, there it was (Issue No.5, p.17). I always imagined Clowes’ Ghost World‘s Enid and Rebecca traipsing around the streets of Berkeley, or maybe they’re actually in Albany or El Cerrito, walking silently past one of Tomine’s distraught loners. By the way, you can see a lot of Clowes’ and Tomine’s visual style in the Facade characters, Grace and Trip; at the IGF last March I was pleased to overhear a bystander pick up on this. :-)

However I have to reserve my highest level of gushing for Chris Ware, who sucked me in by Issue No.1 (1993) of Jimmy Corrigan with the full-page panel of Jimmy’s childhood home intertwined with a non-linear graphic of his family history. That and subsequent issues blew me away… it was clear from early on this guy is deeply innovative. His work has continued to thrill and astound me. I know of at least one other like-minded blogger who’s a fan.

So there was no chance I could resist plunking down $25 to buy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern’s absolutely gorgeous new Issue No.13, guest-edited by Ware and comprised of excerpts from the latest issues of Tomine, Clowes and Ware, as well as Charles Burns, Kaz, Jim Woodring, Art Spiegelman, Chester Brown, R. Crumb, Julie Doucet, Joe Matt, Seth and several more. I usually distrust who’s who’s, but Ware did such a fabulous job putting this volume together, introducing me to several artists I hadn’t read before but now really enjoy, such as Ivan Brunetti and David Heatley.

Apologies in advance while I continue to gush… The heavy paper and vivid color are just pure pleasure to lay your eyes on. Besides all aforementioned artists you’ll find beautiful images of crumpled-up preliminary drawings of Charles Schulz, as well as a slew of historical material and new essays about sequential art. The whole thing is wrapped in another one of those super-non-linear Chris Ware folding book cover masterpieces, complete with gold trim. Wow. Even the hardback book surface without the cover — the part that’s usually a dull monotone — is extremely attractive.

It’s encouraging that comics artists are gaining more respect these days. Ware’s compendium of Jimmy Corrigan recently won the 2001 Guardian Prize for best first book. Personally over the past few years I’ve noticed bookstores reserving shelf space for comics, as well as the occasional review in the NYTimes. [Update, Sept 11, 2004: Art Spiegelman’s latest.]

There are parallels that can be drawn here to interactive entertainment — a form you could argue largely still stuck in its superhero phase. (More than a few times Chris Ware has inserted stinging bits of commentary about the status quo of interactive entertainment into his pages. Partly it’s just a bit of rivalry between low-brow popular media competing for our attention and dollars, but Ware clearly, and I think justifiably, has some disdain for today’s video games.)

A prime focus of this blog is about new directions in digital fiction, so I’ll use all of this introduction as a set up to speculate a bit about how comics and interactive/generative narrative might intersect. Like many, I loved Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, but I was disappointed by the sequel, Reinventing Comics, in regards to thinking about interactivity. Reinventing focused on new methods of creating and distributing comics, particularly by digital means, with some discussion on how they may evolve to exist on the screen versus the page, but with little about the possibilities for interactivity. (That said, I spent a long time staring at the Scrabble-like Carl comic in the first book, which McCloud reimplemented for the web, and then expanded with his readers’ help.)

It doesn’t matter the form — comics, prose, drama, cinema — the same-old interactive story conundrum still exists; there’s no simple way to get around that. But as a form for performing an interactive story, comics may offer an good balance of strengths and weaknesses. (You may notice I’m avoiding the term interactive storytelling.) I recall Chris Crawford remarking at the 1999 Narrative Intelligence symposium that he thought comics had a lot of potential as a format for interactive story.

Comics offers the pleasures and communicative power of visuals while still keeping some of the “use your own imagination” potential of text. That is, comics can be created abstractly or minimally enough to still allow readers a good amount of room for their own projections and interpretations. This effect gets harder to achieve as characters and environments become animated or filmed; the more detail realized in the work itself, the less the audience has the freedom to fill in the details themselves. But go too much in this direction, and you may lose some people — a reasonable guess for why text-based interactive fiction, although to date better at addressing human-condition themes, became unmarketable as visual digital games gained in sophistication. (I was hoping for more explanation of this phenomenon in Twisty Little Passages, but I think Nick wisely chose to focus on singing text-based IF’s praises rather than dwelling on what some perceive as its limitations.)

In terms of generating story, comics’ constraint of requiring all story performance to fit into small panels also seems like it should be helpful. Unlike with prose, story performance in comics needs to be very space efficient, so there’s less text to generate (although I suppose it can be harder to generate good succinct text than more verbose text). And keeping the visuals somewhat abstract, there’s less to render, unlike the high-fidelity immersive 3D worlds of today’s games, which requires large teams of modelers and animators to achieve. As I alluded to earlier, abstract visuals can be extremely compelling.

Interactive comics are an opportunity to experiment with generating both text and visuals, and their composition. One could start off writing AI that could graphically compose a panel, with four or five elements in it — for example, a person or two, a horizon, a little house, a tree, a few props… That would be really fun and interesting research/art to work on.

Microsoft’s Comic Chat from 7 or 8 years ago had no NPC’s or actual story, but it had some intelligence about how to compose panels. They hired Jim Woodring to create the art, set in a Frank-like world.

[Y]our online conversations are the beginning of an interactive comic strip that unfolds in real time. Like other IRC chat clients, you type in the text to communicate. Comic style balloons display your conversation, and gestures generated by conversation semantics give your character a variety of emotions and movements. The character you have selected, along with other comic characters, comes alive panel by panel. The Microsoft Chat program interprets key words and symbols to draw your character and integrate it into each panel.

(Worth a mention: players have created non-interactive comics from their own screenshots of interactive games, a form of machinima. We saw this early on with Dogz and Catz: the camera button allowed players to easily capture Kodak moments, and with a little extra work of their own they assembled them into comics. This kind of activity became one of the successes of The Sims, that Will Wright often remarks upon; the new Sims 2 promises to offer expanded machinima authoring features.)

But back to interactive comics, and onto some of its potential problems. One of the powers of abstraction of comics that McCloud talked about at length, the gutter, I have a gut feeling doesn’t lend itself perfectly to interactivity. It turns out one comics’ most effective devices is that some of the story happens between the panels, in the gutter. Readers are required to imagine what had to have happened to get from panel A to B, kind of like before-and-after. In terms of story generation, this feels like a hard problem; the system would have to decide what to leave out, what to not show. This begins to feel like what would be required for humor generation, which is a lot about timing, leaving things unsaid for the audience the pleasure of figuring it out.

Furthermore, when interactivity is involved, actions and events tend to need to be made explicit, to keep the interface understandable and give players control. If bits of important story occur unseen between the panels, purposefully left out for effect, I wonder if this would somehow be a problem. Hard to say, but I think it’s an issue. Would require experimentation to understand this better.

For full effect, comics panels need to be viewed together, in clusters or pages. If each panel in a series were presented one per screen, without being juxtaposed with its neighbors, you’d have gutterless comics, a slideshow, which isn’t comics anymore. No problem; just show multiple panels on the screen at once. But an issue here is that in most interactive experiences, a lot of fiddling goes on. Players necessarily interact in a trial-and-error style, they thrash around. So a permanent record, i.e. a series of panels, of these fits and starts within an interactive story wouldn’t make for a nice comics page at all. I suppose one solution would be only commit a panel once something “good” has happened; the player is permitted to thrash and experiment for a while within the current panel, only moving on to a new panel and committing the previous one once something good sticks.

But if the interactor needs to see at least some of the previous panels, we’ve got screen real-estate issues to worry about, or worse. When playing with Chaim Gingold’s Comic Book Dollhouse, an experimental, under-development AI-assisted comics authoring tool, I noticed myself feeling unhappy about seeing what I called the “dead, fixed” finished panels to my left: “seeing the (now dead) past alongside the present and future suggests too much to me that the point of this is to create a static comic for enjoying later; instead I want to enjoy the moment itself, and only later perhaps look at a trace (the static comic) of what happened.” So, perhaps we’ve got conflicting design issues going on here.

I think I’ll end this post here. If I’ve at least intrigued you to check out the McSweeney’s issue, in case you’re not already a fan, I’ll be happy. Hopefully I’ve also offered some food for thought on what interactive comics might have to offer for interactive story-making.

Creative Commons License The text of this blog entry is licensed under a Creative Commons License.