Thursday, December 13, 2007

David Tischman's Star Trek Comics

Just Why Exactly Are They So Bad?

In his recent book Cultural Amnesia, Clive James notes that celebrated screenwriter William Goldman has written entertaining books demonstrating how even the most entertaining film can’t be written like a book. If the story isn’t first worked out to make cinematic sense, no amount of excellent dialogue will save it from being an utter pile of crap. James later says that in films, “the dialogue is a secondary source of narrative, not a primary one” (436).

While I am far from even a lay expert on film, I do know a fair amount about visual narrative, and I would have to say that James eloquently sums up the primary driving narrative of films: the images. I have resisted conflating the image/text nature of comics and films for a while now, believing that the forced sequentiality of film limits the form in a way that the multi-linearity of comic books aren’t and thus discredits much of the comparison, but I would think that James’s adage about film applies: dialogue in comics is a secondary form of narrative.

While this may seem unsurprising, it does give us a lens by which to view the recent
Star Trek comic work of David Tischman. I have often criticized Tischman for his inability to write well in the comic format, which is another way of saying that his comics don’t make comic sense, in the same way Goldman warns against trying to write a film as anything else. Of course, I am not privy to the way Tischman constructs his stories, but they seem to me to be plotted out like a prose writer would plot a short story.

By treating the visual elements of the text as secondary forms of narration, he violates the very nature of comics; he dooms them to fail on this alone, despite whatever other merits they have. It doesn’t matter if the stories are exciting (which they aren’t) or if the dialogue is good (it isn’t). Tischman is not writing his narratives as visual narratives first, with all dialogue supporting the framework a secondary element. And as a result, he and IDW have put out some pretty atrocious comics.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Computers & Writing: The Cyborg Age

James Inman defines a cyborg history as one considering alternate histories of the computers and writing community, in addition to exploring the following questions: "What about technologies other than the computer? What about resistance to technologies? What about the influence of women? What about the influence of minorities?" (60). A traditional history would probably just be a list of dates, like when word processors entered classrooms and such, but Inman's cyborg history is at the margins related to such entries.

I suppose I was most intrigued by Inman's declaration that we should look at technologies beyond the computer. I have become interested lately in the varying literacies that many young people have, esp. w/r/t text messaging acronyms and the issues these students have in writing for the classroom. In chapter 4, 'Integrated Meaning-Making Systems,' Inman uses three case studies to illustrate the need for us to look at this in a broader way.

Detailing the writing process of one of his students, named here Jose, Inman demonstrates why such broad definitions are important. Rather than just sitting in front of the computer and typing away, Jose also listens to music over headphones, sits in an uncomfortable chair, and often IMs his friends while composing. The point is that computers aren't the only technologies that matter in constructing meaning, which is why constructions like "computer literacy that reference a specific technology or family of technologies fall short [of an accurate definition]" (168).

Jose's classroom is then studied, both with an extensive description of the physical classroom, and then with discussion about various group activities the class participated in. Inman concludes this section by saying that we learned through this classroom study that hierarchies will emerge in any system, and that "any histories a system has will continue to exert influence on that system, even if changes are made" (170).

I do not fault Inman's conclusions (far from it, I agree with him completely), but I wonder if we really needed these case studies to come to these conclusions. Weren't we already aware that hierarchies emerge in every system? And that the context in which meaning is constructed influences that meaning? These ideas are completely relevant, as I found all of
Computers and Writing: The Cyborg Age to be, it just doesn't seem thought provoking or original to me, neither in content or presentation.

But maybe that's not so bad.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Gunther Kress & Literacy in the New Media Age

Don't They Have Comic Books in Europe?

As a student of how image and (alphabetic) text work together to form meaning in narrative, much of Kress's work was interesting for me. However, interesting does not mean that I agreed with him all that often. Towards the end of the book, he discusses that we need to change or definition of reading from solely alphabetic text to reading image, sound, etc. to form a coherent, complete text. I couldn't agree more; the way graphic novelists have combined image and words to convey greater meaning is something I have relished my entire life.

But Kress claims that writing should be used for what it does best, "to provide, in fact, an account of events," while image "is used for what image does best, to depict the world that is at issue, in terms of significant elements and their (spatially represented) relations to each other" (155-6). I wanted to disagree with him, seeing as I do that comic pages do both of these things with their text and with their images. I'm of course aware that Kress wasn't envisioning comics when writing his book, yet I still feel that his rules her are applicable.

Early comic pages definitely fit the criteria Kress lays out here. Take for instance this page from
Superman #292, where we finally discover just why Lex Luthor hates Superman so much. Art by Curt Swan.

Click on the image to see detail. Here all exposition and action is given through text, with each action being telegraphed through words, e.g. Superboy saying that he'll "extinguish the blaze with a mighty super-puff of breath," rather than just letting the image inform the reader. The images really are here just to orient the characters in the space. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, and pretty much exactly what Kress is talking about.

However, looking at a more recent example from Chris Ware's
Jimmy Corrigan, we see images depicting not just events happening in sequence, but providing the only narrative on the page.

While it is hard to provide context of the story's greater tone by only showing this one page, this is a good example of Ware's referred style. Works such as these make me doubt that Kress is entirely correct when he asserts that what image does best is merely show the world at issue.

Kress also raises questions about directionality, the way that reading patterns are determined by the layout of a document, saying that what is most important is identifying document characteristics that promote certain paths. He also asserts that users of web documents "interact with [them] in novel ways that have no precedents in paper design" (17).

Okay, this I must disagree with. No precedent? Comics have been doing this for years. Let's take a quick look at Ware's
Jimmy Corrigan again.
Ware uses several things to cue the reader on how to read the page. The reader is led throughout the age by connecting panels, yet is forced to read the timeline of events at the bottom both from right to left, as indicated, and then again from left to right as would be normal. Both ways give added meaning to the narrative as a whole. Ware is promoting both paths here, something Kress says either cannot or is not done in paper media.

What I would advise Kress and others looking at the future of multimodal literacy is simple. The answer to many of your questions likely lie in comic books, not only in building pages with preferred reading paths apparent to the reader, but also in the way that images can be used to convey more than just space and information, but also depict narrative (an accounting of events) as well.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

George Landow's Hypertext 3.0

Is Hypertext Fiction Even Possible?

While George Landow does answer this question, he makes such leaps of logic early in his argument that I wanted to throw the book across the room. For example, he opens this passage saying that "no one doubts that digital literature, digital art, and fusions of the two flourish," and then claims that we are "at the threshold of a new Lucasian age of literature" (264). I would never argue that informational content and multimedia are not flourishing on the web, but how broad a definition of 'digital literature' must Landow be using here in asserting something like this? It's present, but narrative fiction on the web isn't flourishing.

He also claims that critics often see hypertext as an information technology unsuited to telling stories, just as McLuhan says orality makes logical argumentation unlikely b/c it can't be remembered or repeated. I guess unlikely gives him wiggle room to overlook the Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858 where thousands listened to three hour long debates and followed with little trouble. But I digress.

More importantly, and getting to my analysis of Landow's arguments, he asks what the major narrative form of digital information technology will be. He is quick to suggest that it may not be hypertext fiction, but only after he spends fifty pages discussing it. He does make some good arguments for the ambiguity: too soon, writers are still experimenting with the new technology, and maybe as Joan Didion says, "we tell ourselves [linear] stories in order to live" (265).

But the question he asks is a good one. If the classical ages had the epic, the medieval era the chivalric romance, and print culture has the novel, what will be the next thing? I'm not sure either, for many of the same reasons Landow hesitates to blatantly crown hypertext fiction, but I do have an idea.

First, let me explain why I think hypertext fiction, to Jay David Bolter and Landow's chagrin I'm sure, has no real chance right now of ever being the next big thing. There's no market for it. Or to be more precise, there's not enough of a market to support it. I hate to return to an economic argument (I had no idea I thought so much about it), but it seems clear. While some hypertext fiction is relatively cheap, Shirley Jackson's Patchwork Girl is only $25, the same as a traditional hardcover, some of it is outrageously expensive. For one thing, the lauded afternoon by Michael Joyce is $225. It's unsurprising that readers won't be tempted to try an unorthodox new format with these prices. Perhaps someone should take a look at the economics of drug dealers, and give away a taste of this new fiction for free.

I'll admit that I'm being a little glib here. I'm not suggesting that art is made for money, but for a new successful format to dominate digital information technology, it is going to have to be economically viable. Publishers and producers do use art to make money, and their promotion is often what helps drive the format and popularity of a new technology. I don't know if hypertext fiction is suffering b/c of the lack of promotion to a large audience, high prices, or simply that it doesn't now and won't ever hold an interest for a large (enough) group of people. Regardless, if someone found that promoting it would make them money, we would see innovation in promotional tools and more authors might be persuaded to give the format a shot w/o resigning themselves to a very niche market.

Let me also say that I think predictions of the death of the novel are premature. Most people still dream of writing the mythical Great American Novel. Publishing companies are currently placing their novels on the internet and are now available as e-books. (You can try out an e-book for free.) While this is essentially just a reproduction of the printed page on the screen and itself has a fairly small audience, it could catch on as time passes. And if it does, it could edge out the interests of other, admittedly fresher, things. Anyway, back on topic.

As to my idea of the future of narrative in digital information technology, I think it will be akin to the memoir. In mainstream publishing, memoirs have exploded in popularity over the last few years. I've seen them from authors, presidents, porn stars, wrestlers, and regular guys with literary talent. And they even get on the news. There is a huge, mainstream interest here. But how does it tie into digital information technology?

Blogs. Short for weblogs, they have exploded in the last few years. Sure, they aren't all about memoirish type things, many are about politics or sports or something else, but just as many are essentially online diaries where bloggers post things about their lives that they think will entertain readers. The digital information technology has democratized publishing, and what are people writing about? Themselves.

If the main purpose of literature is to reveal truths about the human condition, to identify things that we all have in common, then readers are experiencing this in a much more immediate way with blogging. Not only can they write ther own truths now, but they can read and respond to others' on a daily, or even hourly basis. There is n audience here, people have found a way to attract more and more, and there is a way to make money off it as well (though through advertising). All things that writers of hypertext fiction have not been able to do.

I don't know that blogs will become the dominant genre of the digital age, but I do think that what emerges will be more along these lines than will be/spring from hypertext fiction. I think Landow is way off here, only protecting himself for refusing to come out and name the horse we know he has in the race.