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Below are the 12 most recent journal entries.


  2006.11.06  19.18
Brian Eno - Free Thinking

I like Brian Eno because he's always so positive about new things. He seems to see effortlessly how, if we do things right from now on, we might arrive at a kind of utopia.

His lecture at the Free Thinking Festival in Liverpool, broadcast last friday night on Radio 3, focused on various forms of Emergence, how complexity arises from small things coming together governed by a few simple rules, giving the example of Steve Reich's piece 'It's Gonna Rain' and by extension all of his own 'long and slow' ambient music.


From there he went on to discuss the breakdown of the distinction between oberver and participant in creative work, citing Wikipedia, and the co-authorship of Open Source. He is in favour of 'bottom-up' cultural activities and believes that the fewer rules that operate, the more chance the system will regulate itself. He is all for YouTube and MySpace as the Open Source equivalent of broadcast media. This is what he calls 'scenius', the genius of the scene, the idea that Everyone is smarter than Someone. The internet is facilitating the re-emergence of the Clan Mind of tribal societies, this time on a global level. We are seeing the erosion of individual self-importance and the return of tribal identity.


  2006.11.05  12.55
Inbetween places

I've never cared much for home. When i was growing up in rural north Wales I knew home was somewhere from which I'd one day have to make my escape. When I made it to London, aged 18, I stayed in a b&b in Shepherds Bush, and then over the years in a series of rooms and bedsits and shared flats all over the city, in Earls Court, Clapham Tufnell Park. I never had much in the way of possessions except clothes, a stereo, a stack of records and a few books.

When I was away travelling in the Far East I carried everything in a rucksack, and that's when I was happiest. I never felt like coming back. I could've stayed on the road forever, always a bus or a train ride from the next place, which was always going to be better than where I was now. Everywhere was just a waystation to nowhere in particular. I had some sort of itinerary, but there was no reason behind it. I carried a walkman and tapes, I read books I picked up here and there, but I didn't miss tv. I enjoyed how easy it was to pick up company as I went along, and also that I had no particular responsibility to anyone.

I've always been that way too in my approach to art and culture of all kinds and especially creative work I've done myself. I can't stand to settle down with anything. My tastes are changing all the time, and i'm always in the process of clearing out old CDs and books to make way for the new. I've always wanted to write a novel, but no sooner have I started on chapter 1 than another idea comes along that makes me ditch it.

The problem is I don't like it when ideas start to solidify and become too clearly defined. I prefer things to stay in flux. I like to be in motion between two locations, where I find myself making unexpected connections. This is when I'm at my best.

So I'm looking for a way of writing about my experience of things that doesn't tie me down to becoming a music critic or a book reviewer, but at the same time doesn't force me up the dry creek of academia. I'm going to use this journal to explore ideas loosely and openly, giving things time to come together.


  2006.07.24  09.12

I live in Fishponds, in the east side of Bristol. I moved here about two and a half months ago, but I don't know much about my surroundings yet. When I lived in St Andrews I knew what lay within a couple of miles radius in every direction. I always like to explore, but I suppose the area around Fishponds is less interesting than Gloucester Road, St Werburghs, Montpelier, Stokes Croft, Redland, Cotham, Whiteladies Road and the Downs, all of which were in easy reach of my last place. Another thing is that my studio flat felt like a prison cell on a sunny day, so I had to get out there. I love my new two-bedroom place so I'm happy to spend a lot more time in it.

But today I made an effort, what with it being sunny, but not so humid as it has been recently. I walked to Downend and Staple Hill, which are not too far away, but I'm afraid there's not much reason to return. There are two gold-painted mannequins, though, in the window of a florist in Staple Hill, so I will go back and photograph those. I don't know what it is about dummies in shop windows, but I find them compelling. It's something to do with their half-real quality and the play of reflections in the glass that creates an otherwordly atmosphere. I photographed some others this evening, in the window of a charity shop on Fishponds Road.

My second walk took me through a churchyard hidden away off the main road. Churchyards are always so cool and calming, even on a hot day. Then I walked to Blackberry Hill Hospital and Glenside campus. Hardly anyone to be seen in the grounds. Old buildings, a clocktower, lots of trees, grass and rocks - another peaceful place.


  2004.12.07  14.23
The Mindscape of Alan Moore

I went to see a film called The Mindscape of Alan Moore at The Cube in Bristol. The film premiered a year ago, in San Francisco or somewhere, and this was still only its 7th screening! It didn't amount to much more thanone long interview with Moore - or rather a monologue, since his is the only voice heard.

I enjoyed the film. Moore is a skilled raconteur, his tales worn smooth through multiple tellings (I read some of this stuff word for word years ago in fanzine interviews). He seems to have cultivated some extraordinary ideas, beliefs and philosophies, and you could certainly take issue with a lot of them - but why bother? Moore is a classic example of the English eccentric and more power to him. So what if his imagination gets carried away with him? That's his job.

I would have liked more about the comics, though, especially From Hell, which I think is the only one of his works that fully delivers on the promise of all his theories and concepts. The later ABC stuff is not mentioned at all. After the film, in a talk with Paul Gravett, the film's director Dez Vylenz (perhaps not the name he was given at birth?) said he preferred to concentrate on the major works like Watchmen, Swamp Thing and V, but I wonder if, in the end, Alan Moore might be better remembered for his lighter, more humourous comics like Tom Strong, Promethea and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.


  2004.11.30  16.22
Peter Arkle News

I'm not sure exactly how long Peter Arkle has been publishing Peter Arkle News, but he doesn't seem to manage more than 3 or 4 a year, and he's on number 54 now. Peter Arkle News is kind of a journal of Peter's life. He's from Midlothian, but he lives in New York now. It's not so much a diary of life's major events as a stream of casual thoughts and momentary observations drawn from everyday life. It's very minimalist and microcosmic. You keep getting these snapshots of details, but there's no main narrative. It works by accumulation. I feel I know a lot about Peter and how his mind works, but I don't know what he does for a living, exactly, or how old he
is. It doesn't seem to matter. In that way it's like getting to know someone in real life. You don't need to know the information required by application forms.

I first saw Peter Arkle's work in an exhibition in a cafe on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. He used to do some work for the Big Issuer as well (I don't mean selling it). Straight away the idea of someone documenting their life, long term, through drawings and text, appealed to me. Notice I stop short of calling Peter's work 'comics'. He doesn't use a panel layout or any conventional narrative flow through his pages, but otherwise it's obviously the same kind of thing.

This latest issue is in a new format - more pages, on newsprint. It's a good one to start with, then. My subscription has just run out. I'll have to get a new one, and also maybe a copy of Peter's limited edition book, Coffee, which comes with a real coffee ring on the cover.


  2004.11.28  10.51
New Zines & Comics

So nice to find the first issue of an interesting comic - they're usually up to 5 or 6 before I catch up with them. Or Else is what I'm talking about, the latest from Kevin Huizenga, whose work I've seen online at usscatastrophe.com. It's the usual high-quality production from Drawn & Quarterly, and Kevin H delivers beautifully-drawn stories with a great variety of style and tone.

At Here in Bristol I found Cassandra Tytler's small press comic RelaxBaby. It's issue 5, so that figures. Her stories are so personal and domestic that there's very little sense of Cassandra's Australian setting. You could call this a generic comics zine, in its subject matter and drawing style, which is endearing in that naively expressive way. That sounds patronising, but I don't mean it that way. RelaxBaby is typical, but superbly done.

Whores of Mensa looks great, with its full colour cover and A4 format. It's an anthology of 3 female cartoonists, Jeremy Dennis, Mardou and Lucy Sweet, who abide by a vague theme (something to do with sex), but still keep it pretty loose. The artists all have their own style, but fit together well. It's a perfect and brilliant example of zineage at its best. If I wanted to convince someone that zines were worth bothering with then I would show them Whores of Mensa.

I used to have a long ongoing correspondence with Jeremy Dennis when I used to buy her comics in the 90s. She still does an online weekly strip, but it was seeing her work in print that made me contact her again. My reward was a package of zines printing a selection of her web work. As ever, Jeremy moves with great fluency between diary-style anecdotes and rampaging fantasies. You really feel you're getting to know her when you read her comics. They're all one-pagers though, and I miss her 3 In A Bed comic which ran a long continuing story.

Another old favourite is John Bagnall. I read his Cornstarch Primer and Ginchy Gazette back in the mid-80s. There's a great collection of his recent work, Don't Step On My Rosaries, available from Kingly Books, but his latest is Get Yourself A Gobstopper. John has refined and perfected his drawing style over the years and his observations of idiosyncratic Northern life are warmly affectionate and funny.


  2004.11.11  17.45
Bristol Comic Expo

Last Saturday I went to the Comic Expo here in Bristol. I wish I hadn't bothered, it was so depressing. The dealers room was full of stalls selling the same old shit and most of the attendees were my age or older, all beards, specs and beer bellies, still hooked on the X-Men and Batman. Seems that comics fandom still relies overwhelmingly on people who grew up in the 60s and 70s. I can see the whole scene dying out with them because there are very few fresh faces in evidence. What is there to attract young readers? A recent cover of Comics International showed a packed flock of Marvel's top Superheroes , maybe 30 of them, but I don't think any one of those characters was created since the mid-70s, when I was a Marvel fan. Really, with a couple of exceptions like Wolverine and the Punisher, Marvel's main attractions were all created within 2 or 3 years in the mid-60s, chiefly by Jack Kirby. Marvel built an empire on one man's burst of creativity and no one in the superhero field has been able, in 40 years, to come up with anything comparable.

Why is anyone still interested in all the reinventions and recycling? All these aging fans must be stuck somewhere, unable to let go of something they enjoyed so much in their youth that they still remain captivated. It's not my problem and it wouldn't bother me so much, but for the fact that in the English-speaking world you tell someone you like comics and a picture of Spider-Man or Superman pops into their head. It's hard work to talk them round, to explain there's more to comics than superheroes.

The last time I was at a comics event was in 1989, when I went to UKCAC with other contributors to Escape magazine, edited by Paul Gravett. Escape folded soon after and I never saw Paul again until Saturday when he gave a talk to support his new Manga book. Paul is a rare comics fan in that his perspective is global. For him there's French BD, Spanish tebeos, Italian fumetti, UK small press, North American undergrounds and independents, and now, obviously, Japanese manga. Somewhere off in a small corner lies the superhero genre. Paul's aware of it, but he gives it the respect it deserves, which is very little.

I'm not interested in the sci-fi/fantasy manga we get over here, but Paul's talk illuminated a world of more varied genres than we have seen in translation. Japanese comics have a fascinating history and an enviable breadth of subject matter. I'll have to get Paul's book to find out more.


  2004.06.19  17.17
Web Comics 3

One of the future developments that excited Scott McCloud when he was writing Reinventing Comics was the prospect of micropayments becoming common currency on the internet. McCloud is now charging 25¢ a time to read his own strips, but most of the artists I talked to have yet to go down that route. Most web comics, like Justine Shaw’s Nowhere Girl, aren’t making any money. ‘Unless the thing can pay my bills’, she says, ‘I'd rather just give it away.’

A lot of the time, giving away stuff for free on the internet makes it look like you can’t get paid for doing it. If you write a novel and no publisher will touch it, how can it possibly be any good? Comics are different though, because the industry works within a such narrow definition of what comics can be in terms of their subject-matter and audience - essentially superheroes and the fanboy stereotype. If your work falls outside this definition it will be hard to get published and hard to find an audience. For web comics artists getting paid is not necessarily a priority. If you want to do alternative comics the chances of getting paid are pretty minimal anyway. Jeremy Dennis says:

‘I do it for more tangible reasons than money. Identity, processing experience, whatever. I do it because I do it, I put it online because it's easy. It's also not very theivable stuff, being personal and in a distinctive style.’

Comics are sold almost exclusively in comics shops where the stock is overwhelmingly composed of superhero comics and merchandise. Not many casual readers stray into them. You can publish your own mini-comics, photocopy and staple them yourself, but distribution is the big stumbling-block. There is an audience for this kind of work, but it’s pretty thinly spread. Using the web defeats the distribution problem. Put in some effort and you can find an audience. The web also does away with barriers to publication like unsympathetic editors and publishers concerned that your product won’t sell. Production costs are minimal. As long as you’ve got a computer, there’s nothing to stop you. You might be giving your stuff away, but at least you’re not making much of an investment. Some artists are trying out micropayment systems, and others use the free web comics to build an audience for printed work. Amy Kim Ganter is working on ‘self-publishing a graphic novel of the first book of my comic to see what happens.  I’m giving my work away for free right now because nobody knows who I am, no one cares.’ Meanwhile Kris Dresen sells ‘enough of my printed comics each month to cover the bandwidth. And I get quite a bit of illustration work from clients who see my comics, so I'm making money in that respect.’ Patrick Farley makes ‘a few hundred dollars a year through PayPal donations and a BitPass gateway’. Demian5 says:

‘About half of my site is for free, the rest of it is open to people who pay. 1 year access costs 3 Dollars. I'm not making that much money yet, there are about 200 people who paid since I introduced this system last august. (About 400 people visit the page every day) There will also be an online shop with t-shirts and other stuff soon.
Free stuff still rules the www. Free stuff makes you popular, free stuff is necessary to become someone in the webworld. People won't remain on your site if the free stuff is not interesting enough to want more.’

There are also sites that group a large number of artists and charge for access to a large and diverse body of work. Serializer is a good example, where latest installments are mostly free, but you have to pay to access the archive. Drew Weing was onboard when the Serializer site first launched. For him ‘it's an important step’, but it doesn’t pay very much. ‘Just about enough to buy a really nice dinner every month.’

They’re not making much money, so what do web comics creators hope to achive through publishing on the web? Amy Kim Ganter still hopes to be published one day, and putting stuff online has helped her gain a better understanding of who her target audience is and what kinds of things readers like about her comic. For Kris Dresen

‘Publishing on the web allows me to keep my work in front my readers on a regular basis. I can a have a new comic online within moments of completing it.’

Justine Shaw says

‘I just wanted to tell the story I had to write, in a medium that was familiar to me so I minimize all the external stuff I have to learn and just stick with writing, drawing, etc. No hussling getting it to a printer on time or whatever.’

What motivates Jeremy Dennis is ‘new friends, contacts, emails from people whose work I love. Fame, of a sort. A sense of continuity and progress.’ Whereas Demian5 harks back to the idealism that drove Reinventing Comics:

‘I hope to achieve a world, in which artists don't have to rely on publishers, marketing managers, producers, and other kinds of capitalists. I hope a lot of independent artists will one day be able to sell their art and make their money directly through the www.’

* * *

I also asked my sample of web comics artists what else they do. Jeremy Dennis is a web editor who also does a lot of illustration, writing and photography. She helps organise Caption, an alternative comics convention in Oxford. Justine Shaw writes php code for a San Francisco-based company that produces trade shows for the technology industry. Demian5 is a freelance a graphic designer and, from time to time, teaches comics to kids and teenagers. Amy Kim Ganter works as an illustrator and animator for gamelab.com. Kris Driesen is a children's book art director and also a freelance illustrator specializing in educational publications. Patrick Farmer works as a graphic designer and as webmaster for a jazz club.

In closing, I must say it was great to find such a wide variety of comics thriving on the web. There are planety of great artists out there and accessing their work couldn’t be easier. Even when you have to pay, it’s dirt cheap! However, I was a bit disappointed more artists aren’t using the web as a medium for developing interactive forms of narrative.

Scott McCloud’s Zot Online format, with its superb sense of movement and pacing, was good fit with the web. It used many of the unique qualities of the web page without turning the whole thing into a gimmick. Having said that, his new techniques are certainly less subtle than the methods artists have developed over the history of printed comics. One thing you lose with the ‘infinite canvas’ is the ability to view the entire page at once. The current artists whose work I’ve looked at seem understandably reluctant to abandon the tight grid format. Zot Online is still radical in its layout, but definitely conventional in terms of its plot and characters. It’s unmistakebly a superhero adventure set in a bright and colourful futuristic world with plenty of action. Maybe that’s how we can tell it’s still a comic. The more you adapt the format the more you run the risk of losing the connection with traditional comics entirely. Then you’re pioneering a new medium, and it’s clear that a love of comics is what drives these artists.

Maybe it’s still early days. Maybe this is an interim stage. Radical experiments can wait. Right now web comics are more about access than anything else. For a generation of artists the web means not having to compromise to fit in to the comics industry straightjacket. The diversity of web comics represents a challenge to the hegemony of the superhero and offers a way out from the dead end of a medium that has become dominated by, and synonymous with, that single played-out genre.


  2004.06.13  19.23
Web Comics 2

The superhero genre has a stranglehold on the comics industry, to the point where, in America and Britain, at least, this genre is synonymous with comics as a form. On the web it’s different. Drew Weing, in an interview with The Comics Journal, identifiers the mainstream of online comics as the daily joke strip. ‘It's probably healthier... than the mainstream of print comics in that there's no particularly genre that's taken hold, outside of that joke every day.’ Why is this? Well, to me it seems the great tragedy of the comics industry is the way the idea of comics as collectable items somehow managed to overrun the idea of comics as a medium for storytelling. I guess it’s because middle-aged comics fans grew ashamed of enjoying comics for their own sake and came up with a more respectable reason for collecting them. Major publishers, in turn, came to concentrate on putting out instant collector’s items designed to appeal to an aging readership by recycling old characters in updated costumes in new number 1 issues.

Web comics do away with this collectors’ mentality at a stroke. They are not collectable in ant monetary sense because their rarity value is nil. Web comics are available all the time to everyone. You might (not very often) have to pay for access, but even if you do they’re extremely cheap, with no resale value at all. The only thing you can do with web comics is read them, which is actually a pretty radical concept!

It seems that so far, that’s enough radicalism for most people. When I asked my correspondents how they take account of the web as a medium there was not much evidence of re-evaluating comics as a storytelling form. Amy Kim Ganter said:

‘I know that many online cartoonists try to utilize the medium of the browser to their advantage and are very innovative with experimentation.  I don’t really do that for Reman Mythology because in my mind, it’ll always be a print comic, even though it’s only on the web for now.  Ultimately, I want it to be read in a book that you hold in your hands and curl up with in bed. I still format my pages for print, so regarding the pages there’s no real difference.’

Certainly Reman Mythology - a vast fantasy adventure drawn in a kind of pseudo-manga style, with careful compositions and a well-judged sense of pacing - looks like it’s ready to be printed. The artwork is black & white and the pages even have white margins around the outside. Reading it is a substitute for reading a hypothetical print version, which would be the ideal version. Reman Mythology is a long story comprising many pages, but it still comes across some what like a sample of work - a proposal - if only because it feels temporary on the web. Amy Kim Ganter clearly never feels the need to challenge print conventions. She presumes them to persist, even though they clearly don’t apply on the web.

Kris Driesen takes a similar approach:

‘I don't draw my comics any differently for the web than I do for print. I'm not interested in using animation or the infinite canvas or other bells and whistles like that. I draw, I scan, I upload.’

Drew Weing is also aware of potential new techniques, but dismisses them in similar terms:

‘I guess I'm basically a traditionalist, but one that doesn't feel confined by the physical borders of the paper. I'm not interested in trying to push the internet aspects harder than that. I find that to be sort of gimmicky. There are definitely guys out there who are taking advantage of the Web more than me. Patrick Farley - he's a really good example of someone who is trying to push at the limits. The way he mimics actually being on the Internet at certain points in his comics, like having to click on certain areas to access other areas. It's not a gimmick, but it's probably not going to hold up. What we think is neat now is going to seem sort of clichéd ten years from now.’

It seems for many web cartoonists the advantages of the web consist of more immediate and practical considerations that come before getting into narrative theory. Jeremy Dennis, whose weekly online strip consists of scans of 9-panel A5 pages, cites:

‘On the benefits side, cheap colour, animation, effects, easy corrections. On the minus side, low resolution, fuzzy lines and reader exhaustion (it's tiring looking at lots of details/words online).’

Even Patrick Farley gives the benefits of the web as ‘easier, more malleable. Vastly wider margins for error’, rather than the opportunity to explore the infinite canvas.

Justine Shaw’s Nowhere Girl sticks to a tight grid, but her pages are browser shaped, i.e. landscape, not portrait, like the traditional printed page. She says:

‘The web is potentially less collaborative. Even someone who writes, draws, letters, colors, and finances their own print comic entirely alone, they still have to deal with printers, distributers, getting their books into stores, etc. And the money factor means that unless they're already quite well off, publishing their next issue will rely largely on how well the current issue is doing. But to maintain a viable print schedule, you have to be working... at least 2 or 3 months in advance I believe. On the web you can (if you want) work totally alone, do everything yourself.’

Nevertheless, the web is not the final, ideal destination for her work.

‘I will start working towards a printed edition when I have more of the story completed. The way I've done the art has kind of locked me into doing a color comic... To produce a black and white version would be a lot of work at this point, I'd have to re-do a lot of pages, and all the lettering. Things would get shifted around, there are some panels which are almost completely computer-generated, so I'd wind up re-drawing those. Any way I cut it, it's going to be expensive to do.’


  2004.06.08  21.00
Web Comics 1

In 1993 Scott McCloud came out with Understanding Comics, ‘a book of comic book theory told in comics form’, as the Comics Journal had it. It remains a uniquely self-reflexive key text in defining techniques of storytelling in the comics medium. His sequel, Reinventing Comics, is, however, more controversial and problematic, and provoked a long and detailed debunking from the Comics Journal. In this book, and its online appendix, I Can’t Stop Thinking (2000), Scott McCloud attempts to map future directions for a form of comics that is today still in the process of migrating from print to the web.

McCloud proposes various tactics for abandoning what he sees as the straightjacket of a format dictated by the limitations of print. His methods mostly hinge on breaking down the traditional grid structure of comics by arranging panels more loosely in the browser window. In print the artwork needs to fill the page in order to maximise the available space on the limited resource of paper, but on the web space is - at least in theory - unlimited. In his long-running Zot Online series, in which McCloud put his theories into action, his panels seem to just float on a blank background, connected by linking lines, which he calls trails, that allow the reader to follow the narrative flow. A web page can be any length and width, so McCloud exploits this by guiding the reader in a long diagonal drift from left to right, top to bottom, giving a strong sense of spatial and temporal movement, combining the feel of a timeline with the illusion of depth. Moving in space represents moving in time. In panels placed close together the action happens at a fast pace. Move them far apart and it slows down. This array of panels is called staircase comics by McCloud. Also known as the 'infinite canvas', it takes a lot of scrolling. Rather than a fixed-size page, it’s a window moving over a much larger space. Freed from regular print formats, including a limited and regular number of pages, McCloud also went as far as abandoning the strict left-to-right, up-to-down protocol of traditional comics. “If all you're doing on the web is recycling your printed comics” said McCloud. “You're missing out on a great opportunity".

Industry giant Marvel Comics is a pioneer in displaying its products online. Their approach is technically well thought-out and superbly-realised, but at the same time utterly conservative. Marvel’s DotComics are an attempt at reproducing a direct web analog of the reading experience offered by print comics. At Marvel’s website actual comics are displayed in a clever interactive format. All the pages of the print edition can be viewed, including pages of advertising. In the initial display the pages are too small to read, but click on a page and you can then move through it, panel by panel. Each panel pops up in an enlarged version. It’s an impressively slick and efficient presentation, the purpose of which is to allow you to sample an issue with a view to turning you into a paying customer. By making the experience as close as possible to reading an actual comic - without actually giving it to you in a format you can print - the online reader is never allowed to forget that this is only a substitute for the real thing. In no way do Marvel hope to move beyond conventional comics with DotComics. This is try-before-you-buy. They're not giving anything away.

Between these two extremes of Scott McCloud and Marvel lies the ocean of independent cartoonists feeling their own way into the new medium of web comics. It’s hard to find many set formats or standard rules of grammar out here. There is a huge amount of material to explore, and I wandered in from the starting point of the links at Scott McCloud’s site, some of which have gone stale now. I let one artist guide me to the next by links and recommendations, and along the way I came up with a few questions that I put to five of these web comics authors: Patrick Farley, Amy Kim Ganter, Kris Dresen, Erika Moen and Justine Shaw.

Most of them seem to feel pretty tentative about using the web to replace or undermine the structures of print. The motivations for going online with your strips seem to be more to do with access, freedom, and cost than any urge to reinvent. Amy Kim Ganter, author of Reman Mythology at felaxx.com, says:

“After several submissions, nobody wanted to publish my comic with the exception of one small publisher... I figured I would be able to reach more people online, my artwork would be more up-to-date, I’d be able to interact with my audience better, and the amount of freedom and control I’d have over how my work would be perceived would be worth it, considering I would’ve been paid about 1 dollar an hour.”

For Kris Dresen at girlthrow.com,

“Right now it's a matter of cost. What I paid to have my comics printed could buy me ten years worth of webspace. And there's also the flexibilty publishing on the web allows. Color printing is too costly for most people, but the web allows for pretty much anything color, black & white, drawing, painting, animation, whatever you can imagine.”

The widespread ownership of computers allows artists and readers to bypass production costs, according to Justine, who publishes Nowhere Girl:

“Once you're over the price-point hurdle of having a computer with the right software, and paying for web-hosting, it's very cheap to create a comic. Similarly: if someone has a computer with a web-browser and a net connection, it becomes cheap to read the comic. A secondary thing for me is control: For the most part, I'm just not interested in having someone else tell me what to do with the stories...”

For Erika Moen, writer/artist of I Like Girls, publishing on the web has led to a stab at traditional publishing:

“I began putting my comics online when I was a freshman in highschool to show my online friends; When I started doing more serious comics I put them online because that's what I already knew how to do... two years ago my friends started pressuring me to put out mini-comics. Dude, it's a lot easier to just scan in a picture and upload it to the net than to put together a mini-comic, letmetellyou. For the most part, people only buy my printed stuff out of loyalty because they had already seen my work on my website.

Patrick Farmer sums up the appeal of the web for comics authors as “Quick gratification. Larger audience. No sucking of editors' dicks.”

[end part 1]


  2004.05.22  20.32

Back in the days, in the early nineties, when the world wide web was coming into being, one of the ideals was that it should be a collaborative medium. Its content would be available to be edited and redrafted by anyone. The web would be a place to write as well as read, a network of equals, with no set hierarchy.

What happened to that ideal? On the face of it, it seems to have melted away. Web browsers are read-only. Interactivity is still a buzzword, but in reality the limits are strict. Look more closely and you can see how the read/write ideal has survived in diluted forms, in the shape of user reviews on Amazon, comments on blogs like LiveJournal , and messageboards everywhere. Many online zines allow readers to respond to articles so their reply appears at the foot of the original piece, as an addendum to the text. Collaborative fiction is still doing the rounds, where stories grow by passing from one hand to the next. These kinds of collaboration are somewhat uncontroversial, though, because opinions, advice and stories have never relied on accuracy to establish their legitimacy. Also, none of them involve tampering directly with what someone else has said. You might contradict a previous opinion, or rubbish someone else’s advice. You might suddenly lurch a story off in the opposite direction, but you can’t actually change what the last guy said.

This is what makes the idea of the Wiki unique. A Wiki is a website in which anyone, as well as adding their own contribution, can edit or erase any text written by any other user. In a wiki, if you have problem with what someone said, you can make it like they never said it at all.
It is a rare example of a pure medium of interaction.

The Wiki format seems to work best in a small community with a tightly-defined agenda, shared objectives and an interest in building a body of knowledge. That’s why Wikis thrive in the world of software engineers and network technicians, by definition something of a closed environment if only because the uninitiated are unlikely to be able to grasp what’s going on. Wikipedia is a few steps away from this kind of self-enclosed community. Wikipedia is an online collaborative encyclopaedia that aims, like any other encyclopaedia, to cover every subject under the sun.

Read the FAQ on any Wiki and the issue that animates everyone is the danger of malicious damage, mass destruction, an intruder motivated by spite rather than any specific beef. What’s to stop someone coming in anonymously and deleting everything? Well, actually, nothing, but the question is why would anyone bother? Erasing a Wiki is incredibly easy. There’s no degree of challenge. It’s something anyone can do, and hackers are people who thrive on a challenge. Write a global email virus and you get kudos and credit, respect - at least within the hacker community - and plenty of notoriety elsewhere, maybe even on the TV news. This level of difficulty is vital to hackers, as is the thrill of exploiting secret weaknesses in monolithic systems like Windows, or a military set-up. A hacker can claim a payoff of superiority and uniqueness that maybe even offset a prison sentence, but in a Wiki there’s nothing to challenge. There’s no authority here. Anyone can write, so there’s no need for vandalism. Despite the fears, Wikis are rarely subjected to concerted, all-out attack.

So the way to make an impact on a Wiki is not as a vandal, but by generating actual, legitimate content. In the context of Wikipedia this means content that can survive editing by others. By remaining impervious to editing you achieve the respect of the community. On Wikipedia anyone can play, but only good players make a permanent impression.

Wikipedia is a fascinating project because the way it works destabilises some of the ideas behind one of the most august and lofty formats in print media. In print, an encyclopaedia is the ultimate authority, the unimpeachable source of reference, relying on the expertise of its editors and contributors. cd-rom versions offer a layer of pretend interactivity that goes no deeper than an alternative means of accessing the text. Wikipedia is intrinsically different because for a start it has no editor. Its contributors are vetted by no one. Secondly, the contributors themselves are not necessarily experts. They can be anyone, even you and me. Furthermore, all entries are works of collaboration. No matter how great an authority you might be on any given subject, you can’t stop persons unknown from altering your well-chosen words. On Wikipedia collaboration is the key to amassing a large body of information. Here, every entry is a work in progress. No draft can ever be final. If you spot an error you can correct it. If you have further information you can insert it. In this way the quality of Wikipedia improves by instalments. Each contributor leaves behind a more complete version, but the finished, authoritative version will never be arrived at. Wikipedia is a community, potentially a very wide one, built on trust and shared knowledge.

How does this community manage to pool its political views? How can Wikipedia achieve neutrality (which an encyclopaedia needs to establish its authenticity) in the face of open access? Imagine being able to re-edit the pages of a newspaper. What if every day the version you get has already passed through many editorial hands, all of whom are free to rewrite it their own way. Wikipedia text can be changed anonymously, so there’s nothing to prevent bands of extremists using Wikipedia to further their various campaigns. In practise, though, extreme opinions don’t keep a foothold for long. The sheer number of diverse editorial hands means each statement must represent a large degree of consensus. On Wikipedia, as in a conventional encyclopaedia, the entries are a summing up of currently agreed-upon knowledge.

I looked up Palestine and found the tagline 'The neutrality of this article is disputed'. Well, that seems fair. You could attach that to any piece about Palestine that appears anywhere. The entry itself reads like a carefully-nurtured consensus. At the foot of the introduction comes a list of links to external sources with a warning: ‘Some of the links below represent Palestinian point of view; others represent the Israeli point of view. Unfortunately much of the information on this issue, from both points of view, is closer to propaganda than unbiased factual reporting.’

Similarly, the entry for the PLO is purely factual, relying on documented proof. I expected a hotbed of conflict, but Wikipedia comes across as calm and considered. In fact, scrupulously neutral. An article on the US-led occupation of Iraq achieves compromise by resorting to reportage of undisputed evidence. There can’t be any other way of doing it in this read/write medium. This is not a view of Iraq I’ve seen represented elsewhere. In conventional media a point of view seems indispensable, even in what is claimed to be unbiased reporting. Reports are written by a correspondent, who wears a badge of expertise in the field. A valid report must be effectively authored. In Wikipedia authorship is dissolved among an indefinite number of contributors. In order to establish the authenticity of a Wiki entry writers must together come up with an array of agreed-upon facts. Those with an axe to grind are communally disarmed.

Every Wiki is a work in progress, and that will remain its permanent state. A conventional encyclopaedia takes years to compile, with researchers beavering away behind the scenes. When it finally appears it’s complete. One day there’ll be a new edition, but for now, this is the final word. Wikipedia is different because all that existed to start with was the idea of an encyclopaedia. The set format of an entry title followed by some text to explain it is conventional, but the size and scope of each entry, and of the encyclopaedia itself, is unfixed and inevitably will remain ever-expanding.

Media has been traditionally controlled by an elite who decide what’s good for the many. There’s always been a dividing line in radio, TV, movies, and print between those who produce content and those who consume it, between writers and readers, producers and audience. Wikipedia displays a working model of a medium where anyone, without qualification can, anonymously, even casually, contribute to a body of knowledge. As a reader of Wikipedia you can write a few lines into any entry on a whim. You don’t have to commit yourself to anything. It’s a utopian ideal, and we get plenty of those in so-called new media, but the difference here is that Wikipedia is actually, demonstrably effective as a valid source of unbiased, communally-mediated information.


  2004.05.06  21.50

When you come across implementations of Macromedia’s software Flash on the web they usually take the form of simple games or slick and innovative interfaces for corporate sites, but Presstube is nothing like that. Go to presstube.com and find a blank white screen with a series of numbered boxes in a row along the top. Clicking on one of these boxes takes you to a page. There are eleven pages so far in this edition.

Each page has an animation in black and white (with the occasional flicker of colour). Most of the animations are interactive in that they need a mouse click to spring them into action. A few just set off and run by themselves.

The drawings are scribbly and scratchy, like absent-minded doodles on a spare corner of a sketchbook page. When they come to life they shoot out of holes in the ground, wriggle and vibrate, twisting and tangling up in themselves. Page 7 shows a series of pink skull masks that morph into new forms at the click of your mouse, reconfiguring a few basic elements into fresh combinations of funny and disturbing features.

Page 3 takes a while to load as it stacks up 1209 drawings. Then it scans through them as fast as a flickbook, almost like subliminal advertising. You can pause it with a mouseclick, but the freezeframed image will always come as a surprise. You’ll never be fast enough to pick the one you want to see. This blizzard of images is enough to define the current usage of the word ‘random’, and there’s no more fun way of paging a sketchbook. With such a wealth of material you know you’ll never be able to view it all, but it’s hugely compelling to try to capture as much as you can.

Presstube has been going for years as the playpen of artist James Paterson. I discovered it some time ago, but I just came back after a long time away. Nothing much has changed. It’s the same kind of thing, but more smoothly implemented, although the drawings are still as raw and loose as ever. Paterson has just improved his methods of presenting his vision. The vision itself remains unchanged. Sketches come to life in unexpected ways, relying on no narrative or plot. Some animataions work with cause and effect, some are just random juxtapositions of wild images.

James Paterson is Flash royalty, contributing to how-to books, festivals, seminars etc. Download his New Masters of Flash chapter from Friends of ED. Explanations, tips and tutorials are part of what he does, but not at presstube.com, not inextricable from his creative work. His research and development go on behind the scenes. Contrast with Joshua Davis, for whom r&d are foregrounded on his homepage and the finished work is for clients.

One thing I like about Presstube is there’s no introduction or instructions or explanation. Most of the time these ‘New Masters of Flash’ like to explain how they do it, with tips and tutorials, and often the work comes across like a portfolio, a showcase for a range of skills. You’re meant to be impressed, but not to enjoy it for its own sake. There might be a massive wow factor, but straight away you’re thinking, ‘How can I learn to do that?’ so you can make your own website cool. With Presstube you’re enjoying a finished product, not a demo or a beta. If you know something about scripting in Flash you’re going to wonder how he does it, but that question doesn’t come up as much as when you’re visiting the homepages of Joshua Davis or Yugo Nakamura. That’s because the pleasure you take in this work doesn’t lie in appreciating the elegance of the scripting techniques. No doubt there’s some very clever stuff going on, but who cares? This isn’t about technology. In the same way as you don’t feel the need, when you’re watching Finding Nemo, to pause halfway through so you can get to work on acquiring the 3D animation skills to deliver a rival product, so there’s no itch to emulate Presstube.

I’m surprised how rare it still is to find artists simply and efficiently delivering finished work on the web for anyone to enjoy. Presstube comes free, unencumbered by merchandise or software for sale. All you can do here is click through the pages, investigate the archive and, if you like, email the artist.

Maybe I’m not looking in the right places. I’m not an insider on this scene. Presstube is not exactly mainstream, but do our concepts of mainstream, alternative or underground mean anything on the web? Presstube still feels pretty weird to me. James Paterson as an artist reminds me more of Raw veteran Gary Panter than Sunday supplement strip cartoonist Steven Appleby, but on the web everyone wants to be cutting edge.

The internet is still understood to be hi-tech, and hi-tech always impies a race to the frontier. I don’t know whether James Patterson takes commissions from multinationals, but he has done a video for Bjork. The difference between his work and Flash interface design, though, is that his animations stand alone. Even if they came embedded elsewhere, when you play them you get absorbed in a self-contained piece. Interface design, on the other hand, is always at the service of the client. Joshua Davis’s design for Motown belongs to Motown. His generative artwork for N-Gage is an expression of Nokia’s brand identity.

The question that always arises about Flash revolves around interface design. Flash designers hope to come up with intuitive structures that make for a richer and more meaningful interactive experience, while traditionalists argue that everyone knows where they stand with HTML. It might not be pretty, but its standards are established across the board. Why should you have to learn a new navigation system for every new website you visit? Well, sometimes, it’s fun to learn new stuff, to approach things in new ways, but fun is not always what you want from a website. Usually you need a swift, efficient gleaning of info. Sometimes I think the Flash innovators are developing their systems just to score work from multinationals eager to convince consumers that their brand is on the edge of something. In other words, it’s all bullshit.

I’m holding up Presstube as an example of good Flash work, free of bullshit. It’s innovative, it’s fun, it’s exciting. You might well find it inspiring, but I don’t think it will inspire you to try and crack its code so you can produce your own version. Hopefully it will lead people to ideas of how to present their own fully-formed creative work on the web in dignified and coherent ways that don’t rely on getting a hefty slice of marketing budget.