I've talked elsewhere about comics' love affair with superheroes, and how one reason for it is the ability of comics to take the unreal and make it believable precisely by not making it too real: it's not surprising, then, that another theme to which comics return again and again is that of the dream. In the gallery of comics icons, the unlikely figure of a small boy in his pyjamas stands alongside the musclemen in spandex. I hope to return to the question of Little Nemo: meanwhile, the image above comes from Le Bon Roi, the first volume of Moebius and Marchand's version of the dreamer's adventures.
It's no surprise that comics and computers are allies. Books and computers go together too, and the internet is a friendly medium for the written word, but the preconception survives that computers are somehow in opposition to books (which are presumably still hand-written by monks using quill pens). Yet it's taken for granted that comics are computer-friendly. Maybe it's because comics are associated with futuristic and speculative fiction; maybe it's because the glorious painted effects and professional lettering which computers make possible are visible to the reader (as opposed to the economy of effort involved in computer-typesetting a conventional book); or maybe it's simply true that comics and computers appeal to the 14-year old boy in all of us...
And then there's the internet. Scott McCloud has devoted half a book to the "digital revolution". Books are the ideal web purchase: easily described, one-size-fits-all, available in a variety which no bricks & mortar shop can reasonably stock, easy to deliver by mail and appealing to a world-wide audience. And that goes double for comics, which are more expensive to produce than text-only books, and which - particularly those comics outside the superhero "mainstream" - are bought mainly by enthusiasts. Selling comics over the internet can remove several intermediaries between the creator and the reader; but the digital revolutionaries go further, and argue that print itself is an unnecessary middleman. Just think of the immediacy, the ease of delivery, the graphic effects that become possible when your beautiful web comic doesn't have to be translated onto paper!
This seems to be the philosophy of Cool Beans World. It brings together big name comics creators (Pat Mills, Kevin O'Neill, John Bolton and many others) with site designers whose background is in animation and computer games; just add 14 months and "a significant part of £2.5 million of venture capital", and the result wins Internet Magazine's "Site of the Month" award for October 2001. And the images are gorgeous, no argument. But looking at them on my 14" monitor, within the framework of my browser and the site's own frames, I felt that I was peering at them through a letterbox. Perhaps if I were already persuaded that these were stories I wanted to read I might persevere, recalibrate my screen to the recommended 1024 x 768, download the latest version of Macromedia Flash and wait while those luscious images reconstituted themselves every time I clicked on a link - not to mention subscribing to this pay-to-view site. But even with free access, finding the hidden treasure, the narrative content within this gaudy wrapping, was just too much like hard work.
A site which provides an elegant demonstration of how much more can be achieved with much less is Beekeeper Cartoon Amusements. Jason Little uses his site to pitch his strip about the adventures of Bee, a technician in a photographic shop with a lively curiosity about the photographs she develops, to newspapers, and to promote the forthcoming book edition, but it also works very satisfactorily as a piece of internet publishing. The strip to date is available on the site, with new installments posted at intervals; the brightness of the ligne claire style is attractive on the screen, and the layout in regular rows of panels means that the narrative is comfortable to read on the screen. None of this would be enough if the story were not fun and intriguing: but it is, and the website is designed in a way which minimises the barriers I have to cross to discover that.
Not that internet comics have to use the screen as a surrogate page. Scott McCloud's online work experiments with other ways of moving through the sequence of images which compose his definition of a comic. His biggest online comic to date, Zot! Online: Hearts and Minds, was posted as a sequence of 16 weekly installments, each of which consists of a large file designed to be read from the top down. This gives the reader the chance to start before the whole file has downloaded, creating the illusion of a faster download. There is no attempt to fit panels onto a notional page; instead, they are treated as individual items, linked into sequence by a "trail", a line which the reader can follow (or indeed, a number of lines indicating sequences to be read in parallel). This is neat and effective; and if its very simplicity denies it the complexity and richness which can be achieved in the layout of a paper page, well, different media have different strengths. The contrast is analogous to that remarked on by Peter Sansom, commenting on the experience of judging the Guardian newspaper's competition to write a poem using the text function of a mobile phone):
"The most interesting aspect, and which may actually be quite radical, is how having to scroll down the screen makes the reading experience entirely linear, giving real suspense to each line break, making us attend to every word and to guess ahead before the new line comes up. You can't help glancing down the page in ordinary poems for clues, for orientation; but with a text poem you stay focussed as it were in the now of each arriving line.Similarly, the linear (and episodic) nature of Hearts and Minds gives added impact to the last panel of each installment, while ruling out some of the transitional effects that can be obtained from the panel at the turn of a physical page.
This gives extra force, for instance, to punch lines, and indeed makes it seem an urgent business, reading a text poem, like the pools score teleprinter used to be, or how it was when Ezra Pound said poetry was news that stays news."(The Guardian, 3.5.2001)
If a reminder is needed that the benefits of the page can best be obtained from paper pages, while electronic media work differently, consider the case of Borderline. Borderline only looks like a website; in fact it is a PDF magazine. That is, it is not designed to be read online, but to be downloaded and printed off; it rejects the benefits of web-oriented design, like easy navigability and availability to readers using a wide range of equipment, in order to retain the sort of control enjoyed by the producers of a print magazine. But the use of PDF gives the publisher power without responsibility: no need to go to the trouble of printing out, advertising, distributing and selling your magazine: the readers will do that for you. There are justifications for this: it becomes possible to publish a magazine of a quality and specialist interest that might well not be commercial viable. But it does shut out users with less than state-of-the-art equipment, who make their way to the home page, only to find the rest of the site functionally inaccessible. PDF files are large, and slow to download; on all but the largest monitors the landscape format page is then too small to read comfortably (going one better than the Cool Beans crew, Borderline suggest that if I insist on reading their magazine online, I should change not just my monitor settings but the monitor itself, for a minimum of a 17" screen). But while I am one of the growing number of surfers with unmetered access, I don't yet have unmetered ink: the cost of printing of a 64-page colour magazine is more than I am prepared to spend, and certainly more than an equivalent print magazine would cost me. If Borderline were a print magazine, I might well subscribe; if it were more web-friendly (even to the extent of running an html contents page, with links to individual PDF files) I might at least check it out more often. As it is, I look at the covers of the back issues and tell myself that I might, sometime, have time to download and read the individual stories that intrigue me. No doubt the loss is mine..., but I'll do my best to console myself with Ninth Art, the comics 'zine you can read online without straining your eyesight.
While Borderline is a print magazine masquerading as a website, Kimota! The Miracleman Companion is a book crying out to be a website. George Khoury has brought the passion of the fan and the dedication of the archivist to bear on his subject, the history of the Marvelman / Miracleman character. With one intriguing exception, everything is here: all the creators and editors involved in the litigious history of this nec plus ultra of superheroism give the story from their angle, and Khoury records them all, without editorialising. It is a rare (and excellent) thing to find a publisher prepared to devote a whole book to the minutiae of such a defined topic, and to obtain the clearances necessary for the reproduction of early drafts, sketches and extracts; the enterprise is more characteristic of the internet, where space is cheap and copyright largely disregarded. The project certainly merits the greater permanence (and earning power) of book form; the only thing internet publication could have added is the organising power of the hyperlink - the ability to juxtapose different (and often opposing) accounts of the same events.
Saving the best till last, there is one artefact which squares the circle. With the Heart of Empire CD-ROM, Bryan Talbot and his faithful sidekick (webmaster James Robertson) have the best of both worlds. What makes the CD irresistible is the content: masses of original artwork from the Heart of Empire comic, plus a page by page commentary pointing out jokes and allusions, with supporting material and... in fact, a wealth of information and graphics which is exceptional even by the standards of the internet. But the use of the CD medium avoids the problems of slow download which are inevitable when high-quality graphics are displayed on the web. It is, like Bryan's website, designed for ease of navigation, with the flexibility only hypertext can offer (including smooth transitions into the website). The result combines a huge mass of material into a neat, saleable package, which allows the artist and publisher some return on their work, while keeping the price to a level that book-publishing costs would not allow.
Plus, added in 2008, the availability online of the first chapter of the CD-Rom, as a free taster.
What conclusion can be drawn from all this? Certainly, that there is some great stuff out there, if you only keep looking for it. Even more importantly, that exciting though the new media are, the medium is not the message: a website where the qualities of the internet are used to present content to the reader in the clearest and most direct way possible has more in common with a book or CD organised on the same principles than with a website which falls in love with the technical possibilities of the web, to the detriment of its content.
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