Electricomics 101

In case you hadn’t heard, the Electricomics project launched it’s first preview this week, showcasing several demo apps made by “big name” writers and artists that explore the storytelling possibilities of digitally enhanced comics.

The project is much bigger than the demos released this week. The intention is to provide a set of software libraries that can be extended by anyone with the technical chops to create new effects, and a graphical user interface that makes it possible for non-technical users to make use of the effects libraries in the service of storytelling.

I’m not officially involved in the project. I beta-tested the sample app for them, and have chatted to most of the team on twitter at some point. I make comics, and program computers, both well enough to delude myself that I know what I’m talking about. So if you’ve come here for wild hearsay and uninformed speculation, settle down and make yourself comfy 🙂

Lowering the Barrier

Digitally enhanced comics are nothing new. Pioneers like Daniel Merl Goodbrey and Scott McCloud have been exploring this space for over ten years, but it’s a hard path to walk alone. (If you’ve been making digital comics, or know any good ones, tweet me a link and I’ll add it to the list here).

If you think about it, making traditional comics is already a multi-disciplinary art. A creative team needs to be able to write well, draw well, get along so that the art and writing work together, and master the elusive art of panel-based-storytelling. The world’s littered with beautifully-rendered stories that fail to engage, and with engagingly-written stories let down by bad art. Oh, and beautifully finished art that betrays a lack of anatomy, facial subtlety and all those storytelling nuances, beautiful words failing to mesh with beautiful pictures, great art let down by poor lettering, great lettering let down by poor art, etc. Yadda yadda.

Now try adding a bit of digital wizardry into that mix. When corporate behemoths like Microsoft, IBM, Apple et al. can – and frequently do – turn out unusuable, clunky software, what hope has the struggling wannabe-e-comic artist of creating a smooth, engaging experience? To work well – to enhance rather than detract from the storytelling – the user interface has to get out of the way, or suspension of disbelief will follow. The aim of (most) comics is to tell a story, so keeping the reader engaged in the story is of paramount importance.

Electricomics, then, is an attempt to lower the barrier to entry to the under-resourced digital comic artists of the world. It’s an open-source, freely available tool. Anyone can download and modify the source code, to improve, extend, and enhance the system. The only constraint is that improvements must also be made freely available to all – no freeloaders adding 2% froth on top and trying to resell the gift to the world. (This is a sensible, time-honoured way of making software, by the way, going back to Richard Stallman’s GNU project, which started in the 1980’s.)

The Electricomics team – Alan Moore, Leah Moore & John Reppion, the techies at Ocasta Studios (Dan Goodbrey in an advisory role, I believe) – have given a marvellous free gift to the comics world here, and invited us all to join in. So let’s do what the internet does with such daring acts of largesse, and whinge about the 10% it doesn’t do (yet), without saying “thank you”.

I hope those sarcasm-o-meters that are a mandatory part of access to the internet all went off there. In case they didn’t, let’s pause and raise our glasses to the Electricomics crew, and wish them, and the nascent community, well.

>chink<

The Toolkit

Ok, so what’s in the box, then?

The editor program, used by creatives to make comics, will run on Windows and Mac. (And Linux should be possible, I’m guessing, with a bit of community help perhaps to stick a suitable wrapper around things…). The editor hasn’t been released yet, I’ll report on it when it has…

The sample comics to read are available only on iPad for now, and only on recent iPads too, I think. That’s caused a few howls, and I’ve done my tooth-gnashing about it too, but got over it now. The iPad-only bit is quite a thin wrapper of code. The core engine is written in Javascript, and HTML5, an open, ubiquitous technology that can easily be wrapped up for Android, web pages, and whatever else. The initial iPad only launch was a matter of limited resources and expedience, not tribal loyalty or elitism.

I’ll review the comics themselves in a follow-up post in a few days time.

And, let’s stop to look at what’s not in the box.

Electricomics is not an app store. It isn’t a Comixology or Sequential of interactive comics, although it could be used as a component in one, maybe run by Ocasta & co, maybe by Sequential or Comixology. Hey, maybe even by you? The standard format for an electricomic has been published in draft, meaning that comics can be created, and distributed by their creators howsoever they wish – as iPad/Android apps, on the web, for download, etc. The project has delivered a very flexible starting point, which is, in my opinion, the right way to go.

Reflections

It’s easy to get excited by the tech. It’s easy to make frothy pronouncements about liberating comics from the printed page, bringing comics into the 21st Century, etc. I think comics are having a pretty liberated time right now, in the 21st Century, to be honest. Most of the comics I make are digitally created, and restricted to that static image/fixed page size thang so I can sell the as physical books. I’m not going to throw my existing workflows away shouting “hot damn, you’re so last year!” and turn into a tilt-n-twist storyteller overnight. But I’m certainly going to have a good play.

Also, I think the jury’s out on whether the things that Electricomics will help us create are comics or not. A good analogy is the growing culture of intelligent story-driven and indie games. These games aren’t liberating movies from linear narrative, they’re something else. Electricomics and their predecessors are something else too. Something with a potential to be fascinating and engaging in their own right.

And we’re in a very early stage of exploring these right now. The sample app barely scratches the surface of what’s possible (that’s not a dig – it’d be rather boring if they had done everything one could do with the medium at the first attempt). The open source nature of the system, and publication of a standard format, is strategically brilliant, in my biased, deluded and uninformed opinion.

I think the next few months could be rather interesting.

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