On Mechanical Marvels and Mediocrity

This is an impromptu response to a site that I found online today, written at a time when I really ought to be asleep. My head is on fire, in a good way. Go have a look at this site, then come back to read the rest of this.

I’ve probably lost about half of you there … your heads may be on fire in a good way too.

If you didn’t follow the link, then let me explain – it’s just another of those deep-dream-y sites where you can upload a photo, and a second image as “seed”, and it’ll mash the two together in an interesting way, using the seed as a sort of brush to repaint the photo.

What got me excited about this one, is that roughly 50% (unscientific finger in the air number) actually work as illustrations. Rather than the usual 2 or 3%. The rest look like computer-munged photographs, as per usual, but 50% is pretty remarkable, to my mind – hats off to Alexey Moiseenkov and colleagues for coding this up. As a time-poor cartoonist, I can work with this (once I’ve checked out the Ts & Cs about the site operator having non-exclusive rights on all the images processed on the site, anyway). Techcrunch, in it’s usually bombastic fashion, agrees with me. They specifically mention graphic novels in their article header, and although the first image they lead with is definitely in the obvious-computerated-photo category, scroll down to the one of the boy looking through the fence. You might agree that they have a point.

And look how counter-intuitive it all is. Who’d have thought the van Gogh’s Starry nIght would yield results ten times more mediocre than Hokusai’s Wave? I haven’t even begun to figure out what the good or bad possibilities might be here. By way of preview, here’s a handful of “good” ones – be sure to visit the site for more.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 00.05.40

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So, I want to answer two questions here, off the back of this:

  • What can we do, as creatives, with “double quick graphic novel fodder” ?! How will it advance us as a species?
  • Should the comic artists of the world be quaking in their boots? Is this the face of the scrapheap of history eating your lunch?

Quick Time

I know my way round using photos as a time-saver in comics. That’s how I started out using live models in my work a few years ago. I have a day job, and shed loads of ideas in my head that I want to get out onto the page as soon as possible. I’ve used photos, kids toys, junk, food, foliage, stock photos and more to create visually interesting stuff on the quick.

It didn’t work out for me as expected. The biggest thing I’ve taken away from my work is an appetite for improvisation. To summarise it briefly, I now make a lot of my comics back to front. That is:

  • film people talking, interacting or doing simple exercises
  • pull still images out of the video
  • make up a story around the images I’ve assembled
  • prettify the heck out of it using digital tools (Gimp, ArtRage, Procreate are my workhorses)

This is the reverse of the more common practice in which one writes a story, then composes pictures to illustrate it. Trying to do that with photo-comics leads to wooden poses, lack of spontaneity and general mediocrity. Adding improvisation into the mix, I’ve discovered a real dislike of mediocrity, a wild, giddy sense of freedom and surrender, patience, humility and the secret long-lost language of Bigfoot (also how to add an absolute lie to the end of a long list without being detected).

All because I was trying to save time.

I’m pretty sure that this cornucopia of wisdom isn’t what Natasha Lomas of Techcrunch had in mind when she wrote that article. “Fodder” connotes industrial sludge masquerading as food, something to give a transient sense of well-beingness without imparting real nourishment. Something to feed the animals with to keep them quiet.

I predict that this sort of tech will be used to turn out a lot of boilerplate, run of the mill comics with awkwardly posed models under a veneer of visual pizzazz. And a few intrepid souls will really kick the tyres and use it to create something original and moving. Guess which group I’m identifying with here?

When I first contemplated the eruption of so-so-ness that might be engendered by this stuff, I didn’t feel so great. Then I started to think about the current state of hand-drawn repetitive, unoriginal same-old – what Simon Russell refers to as “Industrial Comics” – and I didn’t feel so bad.

So, as a replacement for a brush and ink, it doesn’t change things a great deal.

Human Touch

This leads us to the second question : will we all be starving in a special redundant-cartoonists-bunker in a few years time?

The short answer is no. Not all of us.

The neural network techniques here are great for adding a patina of detail/texture/realism/surrealism to work-a-day images. They can’t cartoon – that is, amplify emotion or expression through exaggeration in a meaningful, communicative way. They can’t project feeling through controlled use of shape, colour and line. Well, a little bit, but we’re probably back to 2% hit, 98% miss. So, among the practitioners of comic art who won’t be in the gutter as a result of this work are:

  • masters of expressive fluidity like Quentin Blake, Jules Feiffer or Dan Berry
  • masters of expressionistic distortion like Lorenzo Mattotti or Warwick Johnson Cadwell
  • masters of visual inventiveness like Rob Davis, Moebius or Geoff Darrow
  • original stylists like Isabel Greenberg, Sergio Toppi or Simon Moreton

That’s all folks!

 

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