Comic book capers

Comic strip and graphic novel designers are embracing new technology, while Hollywood is plundering their art form. Where does this leave the traditional comic? Yolanda Zappaterra investigates

Last month saw the opening of Sam Mendes’ eagerly awaited and already critically acclaimed follow-up to American Beauty, Road to Perdition. It’s a film that, along with From Hell, Ghost World and Spider-Man, first saw the light of day as a comic strip/ graphic novel; in Road to Perdition’s case, by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. In Hollywood, comics have never been bigger business, lucrative fields of creativity waiting to be mined by the film moguls, directors, merchandisers and advertisers.

Underpinning the film market’s plundering of the genre, comics currently occupy a space that many commercial creatives would give their right arm for – a high-brow arena in which autonomy, integrity and independence are still available and achievable. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (a tragi-comic tale of angst and dysfunction across four generations of the Mid-Western Corrigan clan) is a prime example, winning as it did the Guardian’s 2001 First Book Award. The high-art status doesn’t stop there. In November, Jonathan Cape publishes a new Daniel Clowes graphic novel, David Boring. And last month that hotbed of cultural hipness, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, held a talk entitled The MouseTm vs The Mouse, at which top graphic novel designers discussed the role of technology in the comic field. So why the sudden interest in this art form, and what does its future hold?

Dave Gibbons, co-creator with Alan Moore of arguably one of the two defining points of modern comic history, Watchmen (the other, and feel free to argue, is Art Spiegelman’s Maus), believes the basic appeal of graphic novels is primal. ‘Comics, with their balance of words and images, reflect the way we think. The form is a straightforward method of communication, as it takes something straight from the creator’s brain to the user’s brain,’ Gibbons says.

Beyond that, the past 20 years have seen an obvious broadening from superhuman men in tights to subject areas dealing with human emotions such as alienation, dysfunction, impotence and fear. ‘It’s a medium that’s become confused with a genre, but you can express complex themes in comics. It’s taken a generation of artists who actually wanted careers in comics to make that happen in the past two decades,’ Gibbons adds.

It’s also taken a technological revolution. Desktop publishing – with its attendant liberating joys and untutored horrors – had the same impact on comics as it did publishing, advertising, marketing and packaging, enabling artists to bypass laborious and costly processes and even print their own output. As comic artist, film-maker, advertisement director and illustrator Dave McKean, a panel member at last week’s ICA talk, explains, ‘[DTP] has affected everything I do. I still draw and paint, make physical objects and photographs, but everything is scanned and treated inside the machine. I now enjoy design, and find it to be as intuitive as drawing, whereas I always found typesetting and paste-up to be infuriating. It got in the way of my train of thought, rather than enhanced it.’

McKean is well placed to discuss the liberating effects of technology on his craft. Since his early days working with writer Neil Gaiman on such graphic novel classics as Violent Cases, Black Orchid and The Sandman, McKean has gone on to film work that brings animation to his strange, dark world.

It is here, too, that technology has facilitated his work, he says. ‘I’m interested in non-literal, emotional, abstract work, and I love the gravityless, impossible space you can fill inside the computer. Reality is limiting, but digital realms can go anywhere and they become psychological spaces,’ he says. ‘I have created short stories using the computer, and the control of all the elements is wonderful,’ he adds. McKean has also undertaken film work with writer Iain Sinclair (notably on The Falconer and Asylum, both co-written by Chris Petit), and finds that ‘the ability to layer many translucent images mirrors [Sinclair’s] eclectic writing style well’.

For Gibbons, technology has helped in a more straightforward way. ‘Comics work best when there’s no colour, just line drawing and lettering, so great comic books look like they have no computer involved. But computers are great for removing tedious work and improving control. Lettering and colouring are much easier [Gibbons had a font made of his lettering], you get no colour degradation, robustness and waterproofing are less of an issue, and even script and outline are simplified. Having said that, a computer is just a tool, just as a brush is [an artist’s] tool,’ he says.

Technology can impact most on comics in the areas of interactivity and distribution, but even here McKean isn’t fazed. ‘I don’t see interactivity as having much to do with comics. True interactivity is a whole other medium with its own extraordinary implications and strengths. Comics belong to a tradition of storytelling and that is their strength,’ he says. ‘You abdicate control to a storyteller, then the interactive part takes place afterwards, discussing, thinking about the work, interpreting it and living with it.

So if comic structure, form and content aren’t liable to change much, is there any real technological impact on the comic world? Gibbons and Moore are exploring Web elements for a future comic idea, and of his current project, the 160-page graphic novel The Originals, Gibbons says, ‘If the money was there it would be great to do it as a Web project. I can envisage using the Web or a CD-ROM that enriches the comic experience in a way that DVDs enrich the film experience, but fans won’t abandon comics. Something about the form is too valuable.’

McKean is more pessimistic about the form’s future. ‘Distribution of comics has always been difficult, and individuals have started to create websites to give them direct access to their audience. This cuts out the middlemen, but also makes everything even more fragile. The comics business is in the pits at the moment anyway, and more direct competition for shops and distributors will mean the comics industry may not survive. But there will always be comics made by enthusiasts, and creating them outside the industry could be healthy,’ he predicts.

Coming as this does from a man who is currently production designing the third Harry Potter film, finishing off children’s book Varjak Paw by SF Said, publicising his short film Neon to festivals, planning a Belgian exhibition and catalogue as well as developing two film projects – the script for a fantasy film with Gaiman and a pilot for an adaptation of graphic novella Signal to Noise for the Film Council, you can’t help thinking the future for comic art is pretty bright. It just may not be in comics.

Watchmen

Whenever comic buffs get together to dissect the latest bastardised movie version of their beloved form, one title comes up, Watchmen; Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal 1986 Postmodern superhero comic. Watchmen incorporates lyrics from Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello and spans half a decade of introspection and navel-gazing by the world’s weirdest bunch of superheroes ever spawned. Times, perspectives and narrative shift and slide in Moore’s story, and Gibbons realised those shifts with techniques and graphic elements that had never previously been seen in comics.

It’s a multi-layered piece whose uniqueness lies as much in its telling as in its story, a fact Gibbons points to when you ask the inevitable: Why has there never been a Watchmen movie? ‘The comic couldn’t be translated without losing that complexity in the alternating between plot and character. A 13-part series might do it, but a film couldn’t,’ Gibbons says.

But Gibbons isn’t putting down movies. The affable 50-something Englishman who has spent more than half his life bringing to life such greats as Rogue Trooper, Green Lantern, Dr Who, Batman and ‘more recently’ Martha Washington is enthusiastic about the recent Spider-Man and even the widely panned X-Men.

‘Comic to film often doesn’t work, as the forms are so different; comics suspend the world of the reader, whereas films deal with the real world, so you watch someone dressed as Superman and you can’t help thinking about things like the wrinkles in his costume. That never happens in comics. But I found the realisation of Spider-Man excellent, as it was so true to the spirit of the comic’s elements,’ he enthuses. Still, he is intrigued by the fact that there’s a new script for his magnum opus, written by David Hayter who, with X-Men and X-Men 2 credits under his belt, could just do something with it.

Or maybe Watchmen’s greatness is best realised in another medium altogether. Gibbons has experience of game design with Beneath a Steel Sky, a process he enjoyed for its collaborative elements and ‘working with people who were as enthusiastic about their field as I am about mine’, recalls Gibbons. ‘It would be interesting to see what true computer artists could do with the graphic quirkiness of a comic,’ he says. But before that there’s the writing, drawing, layout and design of The Originals graphic novel due for publication next year. ‘On all levels it’s exercising all the skills I’ve ever learned,’ says Gibbons. ‘It’s my dream project and I’m already thinking of taking it further, maybe as a trilogy.’

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