Making Digital Comics In The Public Eye With Electricomics – Daniel Merlin Goodbrey In The Bleeding Cool Interview
Electricomics had a strong presence at Thought Bubble in the UK this past November, and I was fortunate enough to not only be part of the Electricomics panel, with its mellifluous video introduction by Alan Moore, and also to speak to several members of the digital comics research and development team, including Project Manager Leah Moore, consultant and producer Mitch Jenkins, and digital adviser Daniel Merlin Goodbrey. Our interviews with Leah Moore and Mitch Jenkins have run previously on Bleeding Cool and have brought to light the unique history of this NESTA funded research project set to develop a new digital toolkit for creating comics and launch an example anthology of several comics in the hopes that creators, both digital-familiar or not, will find new ways of shaping the future of comics.
Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, digital comics practitioner for many years, university lecturer, comic scholar, and Ph.D. candidate in the field of digital comics, joins us today to talk about his role in the development of Electricomics and why creating this open-access app, Electricosmos, and the pilot program Electricomics, is unusual in that its all happening "in the public eye" and why transparency is part of their credo in forging new paths for comics.
Hannah Means-Shannon: So, how did you fall into this experiment?
Daniel Merlin Goodbrey: Ed Moore [no relation] from Ocasta Studios bumped into Mitch Jenkins and got the ball rolling. Mitch then found the NESTA funding bid. They initially put together a bid with other academics, and then he found me right at the end of that just by googling "digital comics". I came onboard quite late at that point and said, "Yes, I'm happy to help out". They didn't get that particular bid at that point, and when they didn't, then myself and Alison Gazzard, another researcher, took over the research positions and helped them rewrite it and figure things out. From that point on, I was onboard as the digital comics person. Alison's expertise is in video games, and between us, we became the academic team for the project.
HMS: So, when you came on board, did you initially have to look at what had gone wrong on the first team and bid?
DMG: What was missing was really the research question. They knew they wanted to make digital comics, but they needed the research question, and the question we posed was, "How does the language of comics change with digital mediation?" This is my particular area of expertise. And we also asked, "When you have this open-source toolkit, what do people make? How are the tools going to be used?" You can talk about this in terms of comics, but also in terms of other media like Youtube. How does this affect the comics community and the communities who might use this toolkit to make things? So those are the broad areas we are looking at from a research point of view.
DMG: All the time I've been making digital comics as a practitioner, I've also been a lecturer at a university, mostly teaching practice, also teaching narrative technology use on a games design course, and interactive media course at the University of Hertfordshire. But I've mostly been a practitioner who teaches. In the last four years, I've also been doing my Doctorate degree, specifically in digital comics. So, I'm still doing a lot of practice, and I'm still making comics, but I'm also trying to theorize them as well. That's kind of new territory for me. I've learned to be a theorist in the last four years or so.
HMS: There aren't that many Doctorates in digital comics!
DMG: I know two people who have qualified for Doctorates in a digital area. But no, it's a relatively small field. Comics in academia is really growing now, but the digital area is small. At the moment, I'm editing two different academic journals with a focus on digital comics. One is coming out this year, and one out in six months' time. These are guest editions of academic journals focusing on digital comics. I'm trying to grow the study of the area as well as the practice. The UK is going through this weird renaissance in comics scholarship. It's becoming this center for it. The impression I get from American academics who come over to the UK is that we are a lot more cross-disciplinary in the study of comics. I come from an interactive media background, and you also get people from literature, from history, from medicine, psychology, and law backgrounds, all bringing their theoretical background into the world of comics, which is great. All these comics conferences in the UK are these very interesting discussion forums, where everyone is bringing their perspective to them.
HMS: Yes, I've actually come over to Britain specifically for comics studies conferences, and they helped me get started in comics scholarship. I'd say that comics scholars in America are still struggling with this issue, though it's getting better, that different disciplines are staying too isolated when it comes to comics. This is mainly down to governing bodies and bodies who award funding. Comics are studied in language courses, or in literature faculties, but they don't overlap. If people can't convince the funding bodies that their research is located within one particular department wholly, they don't receive funding for it.
DMG: I don't know how it is at other universities, but at mine, you can have multiple supervisors from different disciplines and put a team together that way. It's a much more open approach.
HMS: Obviously, your role in Electricomics project is fairly major, because you're the one with the language and understanding of technology that others might not have.
DMG: I partly see myself as the guy there to point out the things that people have done before. It was really important, when I came onto the project, to say, "Let's not pretend that some people haven't done digital comics right already. Because there are a lots of interesting examples of digital comics and be aware of those". And we have to be aware of what has worked and what hasn't worked. We're trying to bring together a lot of the ideas that work, plus trying new things, and then getting things out there to be used. I spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of particular design decisions.
At the same time, it's been very helpful to me, as someone who began as a digital comics creator, but then went to print, and now has come back to digital comics. It's let me see some of the design decisions from a print point of view. I very much come from an infinite canvas background, based on the idea of a screen as a window. It's let me really re-think the page again in an interesting way, asking, "What is the page?" again. Because what we really want with Electricomics is a screen that will allow you to think of comics in a number of different ways. You might start from the assumption of a page, or you might start from the idea of a scroll or a canvas, and based on that construct your comic in one way or another. There's no one "right" way to make digital comics. There are many ways you might potentially want to use as a starting point. Hopefully the anthology we will put out will help people see that these are different ways you might construct a digital comic. Each story in the anthology tries things a little bit differently. It lets us try out how to build these things, and also gives people who might pick up the toolkit potential starting points.
HMS: It seems like the genres are quite different between the comics as well.
DMG: Yes, I think they divided it between the people they wanted to get involved. One thing that struck me was that ideally, we want to have a children's comic as well, but it just doesn't sit well alongside the others in the anthology which are more clearly adult. One of the things we are going to keep in mind to do is make some comics aimed at younger readers as well so they will be part of digital comics going forward.
HMS: And they are also going to pick up those reading skills and even creating skills very easily since they are part of the digital generation. Though it's very far in the future, that is something that could contribute to the longevity of the project.
DMG: Yes, exactly. Part of the bit we're still figuring out is how all these audiences and groups will use the toolkits. Part of what we brought into the bid was relating the project to other arts communities as well. Although it's a comics toolkit, there should be no reason why someone who has an interest in producing visual work couldn't use it also. We want to try to get other communities to give input as well.
HMS: I think Leah Moore mentioned it in the Electricomics panel, that people who have archives could present interactive visual narratives.
DMG: Yes. Anything like an archive, museum guide, even visual poetry, anything you might want to produce in that area. Even if we don't end up developing that ourselves, someone else could take the codes we create, because it's open source, and turn it more in that direction.
HMS: Something that occurred to me is that scholars often do annotated versions of major works, and include visual media, but here that could be much more multi-media using a toolkit like this one, incorporating images, ephemera from the time period, music, and all of these things.
DMG: It's interesting because a lot of the questioning that's going on right now about how digital media can be used is similar to people's reactions at the advent of the internet, when they asked, "What can we do with this? How can it be used?" They are going through similar stages, realizing they can add extra data and layers. That's part of why I wanted to do my Doctorate at this point because I was active in the pioneer stage of webcomics, so I got a reputation as a person who does experimental things. I thought, "If I'm going to do a Doctorate, now is the time to be doing that". And it proved to be a good time to use what I know, since Electricomics came along.
HMS: You were there! You have a firsthand account of the early stages. Regarding being a resource for digital history, that seems quite important because you can kind of zip ahead by building on the positives and negatives of previous things, saving yourselves time and potential pitfalls by observing the examples of the past.
DMG: Yes, I think so. But also Alan's approach to making comics for this has been incredibly helpful, by asking, "Well, what would Winsor McCay do if he was trying to figure this out?" It works perfectly with Winsor McCay, asking, "What would a showman do with these tools? What would he do to make a comic do more than it can do on the page?" It's a great way into this experiment that makes sense.
HMS: And even as Leah was talking about, when looking at Colleen Doran's cover for the Electricomics leaflet, she likes the fact that it was created with old and new elements, and that you don't necessarily want to distance yourself from the artistic past in this project. Is that strange to you, as a webcomics creator? Do you consider yourself super-modern?
DMG: No. In terms of my media theory, when I read things, they pull material directly from the past. The whole idea of the infinite canvas is that the screen is a window on a wider thing, and that's drawing on ideas of scrolls. We go back and ask, "What would be ways of making comics from before the time we were broken in to using a page to make comics?" There are lots of much earlier ideas that we hope to recall.
HMS: In some ways that might be important to breaking people out of their comfort zone when it comes to comics, because we have been so indoctrinated by the page.
DMG: It's interesting because recently I was doing a panel with Scott McCloud at the Lakes Festival and he still speaks with such passion about the "terrible tyranny" of the page turn and always being tied to it. It's absolutely how comics work. They are built around the beat of the page. But Scott views the idea of recreating comics on the screen as this weird kind of madness if you take the page to the screen, because the screen is not a page. The screen is something else.
It's perfectly reasonable to recreate elements of the page or groupings of panels, but to think of them as fixed is false. The screen is a plastic thing, a mutable thing, so it's a very different medium. To do nothing but pretend that the screen is the page is a weird, selective madness. It makes sense if you've got a print comic and you can't get it into someone's hands, so they read it on a tablet. That makes all the sense in the world. But if you're going to create something for the screen that simply recreates the page, that's odd. It makes no sense in the longer sweep of history to do that.
HMS: Sometimes one of comics' worst enemies is its massive gravitation toward nostalgia. And the page is linked to that. If people want to read a comic on their tablet exactly as they would read a comic, it may be they are trying to recapture that experience from childhood, or what have you.
Nostalgia is fine, it's part of our passion. But it doesn't really build a better future for comics on its own. I like the fact that the project is going to be accessible and usable for people who are not technologically advanced, especially since you have to ease people into these things. But it's an open door. So, rather than be an excluding thing where you need lots of proficiency to use it, this is a starting point.
DMG: Well, because we have a limited time and budget to do this, though what we eventually want is something fully accessible, what you'll initially see is probably something fairly bare bones. It will point in the direction of the thing we are eventually going to have. We will have something broad-based. It's tricky knowing what we'll have at the end of a year's time. Any other R&D project would not announce until they were relatively near the end of the project, but that's not an option when Alan Moore is attached to a project. NESTA make a small statement when the bids are awarded, and Alan Moore's name was on that statement. Straight away, there were news stories about Alan Moore making digital comics. So we've had no option but to have something to say about it. Our funders think we are insane because we are fully in the public eye right from the beginning.
HMS: That's true! Most university research goes on quietly.
DMG: Yes, we are going on "loudly".
HMS: Fully announcing your intentions.
DMG: Whatever happens, by the time we bring it out, there'll be a lot of backlash. Everyone will have something in their mind about what they thought we were doing, so we're spending a lot of time just trying to clarify what we are doing, which is research, publicly funded research. So everything we do will be out in the open eventually. We will do what we can. We may succeed or we may fail, but it's a research project. Whatever happens, the research we produce will be of value. It's a massive design case study on a project that will be document. As such, it will be very valuable.
HMS: And it's hard for you to gauge, even now, how important even what you have done so far may be, just in raising the concepts for discussion, for future study.
DMG: Just having academics, cartoonist, and a tech company in the same room talking together, and all the conversations that come from that, are fascinating. It's very interesting to see. One of the challenges has just been figuring out how to get as much of that out into the public domain so people can learn from it. It's something to figure out.
HMS: It sounds like the early stages of many attempts at using new technology, when the issues are initially, communication methods between disparate groups.
DMG: And nowadays, it becomes a form of archaeology to try to piece together past developments, but in this case, hopefully we should have the story of the development of the thing, done by us, that we release. It's a significant thing. We won't be struggling to remember later. It will all be documented.
To find out more about Daniel Merlin Goodbrey's digital comics, including The Empty Kingdom, Duck, and Icarus, which stand at the intersection of gaming and comics, you can find his work here.
Pilot comics on the Electricomics app will feature the work of Alan Moore and Colleen Doran (Big Nemo), Leah Moore, John Reppion, and Nicola Scott (Sway) Garth Ennis and Peter Snejbjerg (Red Horse), and Peter Hogan and Paul Davidson (Cabaret Amygdala).
You can learn more about NESTA and the digital arts fund by following them on Twitter @nesta_uk or the hashtag #artsdigital