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.

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33 Responses to “Comic Interaction”

  1. drew Says:

    hey andrew – great post… for an interactive comic jam, you should check out cointel
    cheers, drew

  2. noah Says:

    The idea that comics might be a good model for interactive media goes back to some of the earliest discussion of interactive media — starting, as far as I know, in 1970, with Ted Nelson. It seems odd that we still have so few operational examples. But let me fill in a little of the Nelson history.

    I believe Nelson’s first publication of the idea was in 1970, in the essay “No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks” (Computer Decisions, September 1970). In this essay Nelson was advocating “hypermedia” as an alternative to some of the relatively naive ideas of Computer-Assisted Instruction that were then current. His essay includes a tour through various ideas for forms of hypermedia, ending up with “hyper-comics” (since I can’t embed images in comments, see this slide from my talk at Temple last year).

    Nelson’s 1970 essay was reprinted in Computer Lib / Dream Machines (1974) and later in that book he gives a much more extensive example of a hyper-comic, developed while consulting at “Alfred Bork’s CAI shop at the University of California at Irvine.” (I wanted to reproduce this piece in The New Media Reader, but there was just too much CL/DM material and things had to go.) Anyway, it’s a cool design for explaining the laws of physics in an interactive comic, meant to tie in to the same underlying technology for interactively visualizing these laws (“a Tektronix graphics terminal, leading into a simulation program”) that was being used in Bork’s dialogue-driven system. Apparently it was an answer to Bork’s question, “Well, how would you do it?”

    The comic features Robert Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” as a guide. In Nelson’s design, elements build up in the frame, leave the frame, or behave in the frame based on user interaction — usually with some piece of Mr. Natural remaining to do the work of continuity and narration. (In some ways it also looks like Nelson’s designs for the “Walking Net.”) Nelson writes, “You will note the artistic problem of composing cumulative animation for a display screen.” His last note is a bibliography: “for comic technique, study the works of Crumb; also, comicbook stands are currently featuring reprint magazines of The Spirit, which is some of the finest stuff ever done. Also study Wally Wood in the early Mads.” Which brings us back to the start of your post…

  3. greglas Says:

    Andrew — excellent post and thanks.

    Just a quick plug, but I didn’t see Matt Feazell on your list…

  4. zombiegluesniffer Says:

    i’d like to see an interactive joe sacco comic. like palestine or safe area gorazde. game journalism. if done wrong, i’d shut off my vision in a secunt.

  5. andrew Says:

    Noah, thanks for reminding us about CL/DM‘s early treatment of the concept of interactive comics. I need to get myself a new copy of that book; I had briefly borrowed a friend’s copy in college many years ago, but haven’t read it since.

    Drew, thanks for the link to Cointel, I hadn’t seen that before. (Although I would hesitate to call that an interactive comic, in the sense of the word I was using in my post, since no virtual world is being simulated in Cointel. I’d lean towards calling that a “participatory comic”.)

    Also, here’s some more links to contribute (I’ll continue to add more over time as I find them): MadInkBeard, a blog I really like that I discovered during a recent oulipolooza, has enticed me to mail-order some new work from Alternative Comics, the first being RabbitHead by Rebecca Dart. MadInkBeard gives it a pretty positive review, including a scanned-in image sample of its non-linear narrative. Further exploration of the Alternative Comics site led me to Matt Madden’s experimental A Fine Mess. Madden is a founding member of the American chapter of the French formalist comics group, Oubapo (Ouvroir de la Bande Dessine Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Comics), the “Ninth Lively Art” to join the ranks of Ou-x-po, founded in 1992. Oubapo doesn’t seem to focus on interactivity per se, but of is course very interested in thinking about creating under constraint.

    Update: Urgh! On Amazon there are no copies of CL/DM cheaper than $85, used! Noah, what’s up with that?

  6. Michael Says:

    As Andrew points out, anyone reading Understanding Comics who tends to think in terms of procedural modeling immediately has the urge to write a program that generates comics following the book’s principles. Scott McCloud visited Georgia Tech last year; over dinner I mentioned to him how I (and legions of others) have that immediate response to his work. He thought it was the most natural thing in the world. He went on to describe this amazing four-fold taxonomy of comic-art (and artists) that he uses to describe movements, tensions and hybrids in the comic art world. Sadly, I can’t remember the details, and he hasn’t written about this taxonomy yet (I just did a fruitless web search for information on it). I remember that Jim Woodring exemplifies something like “transcendental” or “ineffable” comic art, though those aren’t the actual terms (argh – obviously he totally needs to write a book about this). One of the categories is the comic artist who’s interested in the formal workings of the medium itself, whose comic art plays with the formal machinery. Scott himself obviously exemplifies that category. And he correctly saw building computational comic generators as another way to explore the formal workings of comic art, a way of using the language of code to think about comics. I’d love to work on a story generator that generates comics. START_PLUG Come to Georgia Tech and earn an advanced degree for working on a comic generator. END_PLUG

    But what comics has to tell us about interactive story is more problematic. As Andrew points out, the “dead” frames that record what has already happened have two major problems: they make the experience feel like it’s about “creating a comic” when it’s really about living a comic, and it will be difficult for the comic created by the dead frames to have any kind of pleasing coherence. It seems like a similar problem to the trace in text-based interactive fiction. The real meat of what’s happening in IF is happening right around the cursor, where you’re making decisions and seeing consequences. Though some have argued that what you’re doing in IF is creating a story in the form of a trace (I think Nick holds this position to some degree), I find the trace itself to generally be incoherent and repetitious. I don’t go back and read IF traces, savoring their literary quality, I only occasionally use the trace to remind myself of what’s already happened. So how about abandoning the trace? In the case of an interactive comic narrative, don’t worry about trying to generate a nice comic trace of what’s happened. Instead, just use short sequences of panels to depict the world’s response to player interaction. And have the player specify action by constructing a short sequence (two or three frames) that depicts what they do next. Perhaps by clicking around on the current set of 1 – 4 frames that depict the most recent actions/response in the world, the system provides action templates relevant to this current state. And once you perform your action, the frames are replaced with new ones. Like IF, what matters is what’s temporally right around the interaction point.

    The root of the tension here is temporal. McCloud argues that the essence of comics is representing time with space. In his talk at Tech, his examples of interactive comics all involved navigating through already constructed possible sequences. For more deeply interactive comics, the interaction time of the player (I’m doing this now) and the spatially represented time of the comic seem to be at odds. My solution of a few short frames only showing what’s just immediately happened is one way to try and resolve the tension. But then you’re throwing away much of the representational power of the comic form. You might not need the cool whole page and multi-page image montages with multiple frame sizes, inlays and so forth, but only little 4 frame newspaper style representations.

  7. noah Says:

    Andrew, I can offer you a little good news on the Computer Lib / Dream Machines front. Some collaborators and I are working on a new edition, Ted is enthusiastic, and a press has told us they want to publish it. We’re still negotiating the publishing agreement, so that’s about all I can say right now…

  8. nick Says:

    Andrew, thanks for the excellent write-up on a topic that’s been on my mind lately — I’ve been reading my way through Love and Rockets. You wrote:

    This [“use your own imagination” combined with visuals] 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 didn’t follow what it was that might have made text-based IF unmarketable from this standpoint? It seems to me that graphical games would be the ones going too far in the representational direction, and although text-based IF certainly had trouble coming up with interesting screenshots and such, and I can see that it doesn’t do the “combination with visuals” thing particularly well. The main reason I didn’t discuss the decline in marketability of IF in greater detail is that I don’t think a lack of marketability (of IF, or of comics, or of non-musical theater, or of poetry, etc.) is a very good measure of cultural importance. But there certainly is much more to discuss regarding the juxtaposition image and text in IF, and how exactly that works — that topic is one I did pretty much overlook, to focus on IF essentials.

    Michael wrote:

    Though some have argued that what youre doing in IF is creating a story in the form of a trace (I think Nick holds this position to some degree), I find the trace itself to generally be incoherent and repetitious. I dont go back and read IF traces …

    Yes, Michael, I do hold that position, but I also agree with you pretty much exactly. This is what I wrote in Twisty Little Passages (p. 14) about this issue:

    The narratives generated during an interaction [with IF] are often more trivial and repetitive than even the bluntest folktale, but can be essential to the experience of the interactor. Only through consideration of narrative aspects such as plot, episode, character, setting, atmosphere, and focalization—as they can be extended or applied to interactive fiction—can the interactive generation of narratives in this form be understood and improved upon. … It is the effect of the narrative in the process of being generated that is important, after all, not the quality of the text that is output when the session is over, and not the effect of any post hoc reading of that output text.

  9. andrew Says:

    Ah, Noah, great news about an updated version of CL/DM, not just because it’ll save me $50 but it sounds like a much needed service for the community.

    Nick, I wasn’t perfectly clear in my point about too little vs. too much representation. I was trying to say that if one offers too little representation, you may lose some people. To put it more plainly: my interpretation of the decline in marketability of text-based interactive entertainment is that it seems many people want more than text alone, they want visuals too. Once videogames gained in visual sophistication, perhaps people were less willing to shell out money for products without visuals, even though the text-based products were in many ways more content-ful experiences, as you describe in your book.

    I like your point that videogames in fact go far in the other direction, towards over-representation, perhaps too far. It would be interesting for one or more of us to write about text vs. visuals (which I’m sure has been written about extensively elsewhere, e.g. comparing literature to cinema and TV), what you gain and lose with each, and if it’s any different with interactivity thrown into the mix. And with an eye towards how comics fits in to this.

    The main reason I didnt discuss the decline in marketability of IF in greater detail is that I dont think a lack of marketability (of IF, or of comics, or of non-musical theater, or of poetry, etc.) is a very good measure of cultural importance

    No, but I would have liked some analysis of why IF went from a relatively healthy industry to the non-revenue-generating independent art it is today. That shift is a major point in the history of IF, I think. Why it happened is an interesting question, that probably has an interesting answer, especially since so much of what people want in interactive entertainment already exists, to varying degrees, in text-based IF.

  10. noah Says: is the parent company for a soon to be released episodic role-playing adventure game designed as a cross-platform digital comic.” From Robert Nideffer of the UC Irvine Game Culture & Technology Lab.

  11. andrew Says:

    I checked out the creepy-comics site. I like the style and content of the preview, but based on what’s presented so far — it’s not comics. It’s a cinematic slideshow, like a click-through La Jetee with closed captioning. (The interactive game part of creepy-comics is not available yet.)

    Narrative slideshows and comics do have some things in common. Both use panels (i.e., the full screen is a panel) that typically capture a frozen moment in time, and both necessarily leave events out between the panels. But unless panels are spatially juxtaposed with one another, you lose that time-transformed-into-space capability of comics, as well as other important effects. (Understanding Comics goes into much detail about all that, that I won’t repeat here. Note one can do time-as-space effects within a single panel, but this is uncommon.)

    You could say I’m nitpicking here, but I don’t think so; a slideshow is closer to cinema than to comics, and has more cinematic effects on the viewer than sequential art effects.

    One could argue that some simpler comics don’t really take much advantage of panel juxtaposition, that the overall effect might be just the same if the panels were presented one at time, one per screen/page, in a slideshow format. Perhaps this is especially true for most machinima-ish comics, discussed in the original post of this thread; after all, the panels themselves came from screen captures of a form similar in visual presentation to cinema — videogames. In such work, screen captures are often presented uncropped, in their original aspect ratio.

    But that argument isn’t true, I think. Even in simple comics, such as a 4-panel strip of same-size panels laid out horizontally, the viewer gets a different overall experience than a slideshow. The fact that you can see all the panels at once allows for a different kind of reading.

    (Note that La Jetee, mentioned previously on GTxA, is more than a slideshow; the timing of how long each image stays onscreen is carefully controlled; it’s cinema.)

    (Actually, looking at the preview for McCloud’s The Right Number Part One, it’s presented in an almost slideshow format. But not quite. Hmm, maybe I should spend the 25 cents to look at the whole thing.)

    I’m sure there’s a book or thesis out there, “Comics, Slideshows, Cinema: They Will Fight Eternally” or something.

    What does Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media have to say about comics vs. slideshows vs. cinema? In the chapter list I notice a section called “Cinegratography”. Should it be Creepy-Cinegratographs?

  12. Christy Dena Says:

    Another interactive comic is Simon Norton’s multi-award winning ‘Testimony: A Story Machine’

  13. andrew Says:

    Christy, thanks very much for the link to Testimony, it looks quite innovative! I’ll play with it and make some comments, hopefully sooner than later (work is very busy right now, so it may be a few days). Again, thanks for the excellent recommendation!

  14. Michael Says:

    Scott McCloud linked to us from his blog on Sept. 13, but a trackback didn’t show up here. I only heard about it because one of my students commented in my class this week that GTxA had been “McClouded”.

  15. noah Says:

    My friend Kelli Auerbach’s comic — which isn’t quite interactive, but takes as its subject a certain kind of interaction — was recently published: The Adventures of Trixie and Dinkidoo.

  16. andrew Says:

    Building on a Chris Ware interview, Robin at gewgaw writes a new short essay on the overlap between comics and games, and the future of artmaking in each.

  17. andrew Says:

    Comics granddaddy Will Eisner died yesterday. He was 87.

    A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to hear Eisner speak about comics, on a panel at the Chicago Humanities Festival, alongside Chris Ware and others. I remember him as a very unassuming pontificator, who spoke like a regular joe off the street. Er, maybe he was just old.

  18. Dan Says:

    I’ve been keeping up to date with this discussion for some time now, and a couple of things about online or ‘interactive’ seem out of place as far as I am concerned.
    A lot of ‘interactive’ comics seem to only be interested in animating the strip with motion and or sound. This is fine, but in my opinion, it strays from what a comic is.
    Reading a comic is a very personal thing. The character’s voices that I hear are different to the ones you hear, and the perception of time passing between each panel is interpreted by different readers to happen on a slightly different rate. These variations are interpreted differently depending on the reader’s experiences. Put simply, comics is semiotics.
    I find this strange then, that the majority of ‘interactive’ comics take away from the reader many of these things that make reading a comic a personal thing. I am a firm believer that as soon as you add any motion or sound, it ceases to be a comic and becomes an animation.
    I think that interactivity, when applied to comics should not be interaction based on either the artwork or the storytelling. These are the two things that drew me to comics in the first place, and to change them in some way seems counter productive to me. If you add interactivity to the narrative, you do not end up being told a story, but dictating it. Being given choices in visual terms is not a comic. is a good example of a bad way to do it.
    To use a computer to generate content without an artist seems again to be always lacking in the human element. Look at David Mack’s Kabuki, with his varying styles and linear storytelling style. He uses the space of the page to become a part of the narrative. He controls the eye through the page with fluidity. I think that this is not only a good example of good graphic design, but also good unique comic style. I am not sure that a computer could represent the kind of emotions a human artist could manage.

    So it brings me to where the interaction should lie; in the layout. In the triangle of text, image and space, I’ve already ruled out text (narrative) and image (artwork). This leaves only the space and the relationships between text and image that we can interact with.
    I have been working on a system that does just this. I’ve developed a flash piece that randomises the scaling, placement and cropping of each image and it’s relating text each time it is reloaded. This way, it is not the comic that changes, but the way that the reader experiences it will change. The interaction in interactive comics should be inside the reader’s head. Each time it is re-read, a different view of the narrative should become more or less apparent, enriching the story for the reader.
    You can view what I have done at
    I have used Rodolphe Topffer’s Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck as he had no preconceived notions of what a comic should be, or of film theory or layout theory.

    Please let me know what you think, as I don’t think that interactive comics will ever get any better without discussion. Thankyou – Dan

  19. andrew Says:

    Hi Dan — you make a good point. Integrating interactivity into an existing medium changes it significantly. I think you’re right that turning comics into animations would unduly alter the form, turning it into something other than comics anymore. I agree that the “majority of ‘interactive’ comics” made to date are unappealing, for reasons like that.

    But I’m not ready to write off interactivity in comics narrative; I think it may be possible to integrate interactivity with comics in ways we haven’t yet discovered. What do you think of how interactivity has been integrated with prose so far, in text-based interactive fiction? IF is certainly quite different than traditional fiction, it’s kind of a new form all its own, but it shares some of the pleasures of traditional fiction. I’d imagine interactive comics would have a comparable level of similarities and differences to traditional comics.

    Your experiment in dynamic layout is interesting, although not really interactive yet — from what I can tell, there’s nothing yet for a player / reader to do except click for it to regenerate a layout. But I think dynamic layout is one of several interesting directions to experiment with, and I’d love to see where you might go with this, integrating some real interactivity with layout, somehow.

    Switching gears — on the topic of comics getting more serious, might it threaten their future survival?

  20. Dan Says:

    The interactive prose issue is a very interesting question. As a kid, I loved the adventure books, the ones that used to say
    “there’s a giant spider, turn to page 33 to stab it, turn to page 58 to buy it a beer…”,
    however now that I return to them as an adult, the narrative seems very thinly spread.

    I guess a way around this would be to have multiple authors working on different narrative threads, so that any particular thread isn’t neglected.

    I think that whatever happens, a truly interactive comic should always be different each time it is revisited. This is something that paper based comics cannot do, but that we can do in a digital form.

  21. Jason Dyer Says:

    Dan, regarding:

    The interactive prose issue is a very interesting question. As a kid, I loved the adventure books, the ones that used to say
    “there’s a giant spider, turn to page 33 to stab it, turn to page 58 to buy it a beer…”,
    however now that I return to them as an adult, the narrative seems very thinly spread.

    I’d say one of the major problem with gamebooks is they pick “big” plots — here’s an alien invasion, fight it off from the beginning to the end. The most effective sections in the books I remember involve micro-level detail, where 40 sections or so are spent on a single location.

    Incidentally, the best joint for information on gamebooks is here. Demian’s reviews are interesting because he doesn’t “cheat” and takes all rules given in the books literally.

  22. Dan Says:

    Loved the link!

    True, the most interesting levels of interactive narrative are in the smaller details, take the final fantasy games for example. They play like movies with you as the main character, but there are different ways of completing the game each time you play it. This leads to some quite interactive storytelling from a user point of view, as you are the active character, and you have control over their actions, and how you react to the concequences of your actions.

    however I’m not sure that similar rules apply to interactive comics. I think for the most part, a lot of people are trying to apply existing media to the comic form. I find this difficult as comics are a unique method of communication. I think that to make great interactive comics, we need to define what it is about comics as a communication language that we all like so much.

    For me, it is the following;
    1 – the sense of time passing through sequentially juxtaposed corresponding text and imagery. (this is a really easy one to understand)

    2 – The use of complementary text and image to illustrate and explain action, reaction and emotion. (would ‘Maus’ have worked as well as prose?)

    I will have a think and add to the list anything else that I think of. Please add your ideas also.

    Thanks – Dan

  23. Dan Says:

    Ok, I’ve had a thought and I’ve come up with a few more great things about comics.

    I really like the way that the artist can characterise both external and internal emotion in a character. You can literally see inside someone’s head at the private emotions going on. I think that perhaps one of the best examples is Craig Thompson ( ) in his graphic novel ‘Blankets’ He illustrates beautifully the whole range of human emotion from hate and fear to the deepest love. Fantastic!

    Perhaps another great thing is the use of caricature. The artist’s use of exaggerated facial features lends itself very well to recognising people. Admittedly this seems only to be used in parody or slapstick, but I think that it is a valid positive point in comic’s favour.

    I think that the point that I’m trying to make is that I don’t think that even the most complex system for generating content for comics will ever be capable of relaying the amount of information needed to empathise with the character and story that an artist can.

  24. Christy Dena Says:

    Hey Andrew,
    I’ve been doing a bit more research on this topic and thought I’d add a few more items to this thread:

    A great speech by Will Eisner is available as a webstream: Will Eisner (2003) ‘Eisner on the Graphic Novel‘, Library of Congress [56mins]

    Webcomics Examiner

    The Cultural Gutter’s Archive of Comics

    My collection of links to interactive comics and comics remediated

    I’m also making a list of software resources for creating or extending interactive comics — anyone is free to contribute.


    Oh yeah, forgot to add an article I was commissioned to write a couple of years ago: Dena, C. (2003) ‘Who’s Driving this Engine?‘ ABC Arts Online.
    It was written for high-school students, so I don’t go into much depth. But I think you’ll find some interesting works and articles on it. :)

    My last question: I’m having trouble sourcing articles, papers and reviews that deal with interactive comics specifically. There is plenty about sequential art — which is of course still supremely relevant — but little writings on the differences because of interaction, and the screen etc. Do you, or any of the readers of this thread, know of any they could suggest?

  25. andrew Says:

    Thanks for the great links Christy. Off the top of my head I don’t know of any additional good links that weren’t already included in this post… :-)

  26. Christy Dena Says:

    Thanks for the concatenation!

    And yes, I did mean to ask about any writings IN ADDITION to those provided here. :)

  27. michael Says:

    ComicDiary is a generative comic system that creates a personal diary in the form of a comic. In the case of ComicDiary, it specifically captures an exhibition tour experience. Unfortunately I don’t read Japanese, so I’m not able to follow their examples. For the last year or so, Thad Starner and I have been chatting about the possibility of generating a comic based on everyday life (assuming that the details of your everyday life are being captured by a wearable computing system); a life comic would turn your life into a story, providing an abstracted, visual trace of your life that edits away the boring bits. It was in the context of thinking about such a system that I stumbled across ComicDiary.

  28. Christy Dena Says:

    The Comic Diary looks interesting Michael.

    Here are some more refs I’ve come across:

    Comics Research Bibliography


    But, for digital comics specifically, it seems John Barber has alot of really interesting works, articles and a Masters thesis on the topic.

  29. Grand Text Auto » Keeping Digital Comics Comics Says:

    […] #8220;the greater the use of technology, the closer we get to film”. As we’ve discussed before, there’s a lot you could do with digital technology applied […]

  30. andrew Says:

    Check out Matt Madden’s new work, 99 Ways.

  31. andrew Says:

    Andrew Gordon at ICT/USC has a new paper on interactive comics (pdf).

  32. andrew Says:

    Here’s a major new anthology of the best of today’s comics artists, edited by Ivan Brunetti, from Yale University Press.

  33. Workshop Lahti 2009 » Stripping an idea bare Says:

    […] a middle, and an end – nice and simple! I found an interesting blog about generative comics, here .. the author also feels that a truly random extended narrative is a big problem. But I think that […]

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