Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Electricomics - Revelations From Thought Bubble

"Not so much pushing the envelope of comicbook storytelling as folding it up to make a nice hat."

If you've been following the Electricomics project at all, you've probably realized by now what a strange beast it is: hard research, solid comics theory, coding and programming, all addressing the public in the sultry and whimsical tones of every comics reader's favourite British warlock and mall santa, Alan Moore. I didn't know much of anything, really, about Electricomics until last weekend's Thought Bubble comic art festival in Leeds, where I was able to attend a panel hosted by five members of the Electricrew (not my word): Mitch Jenkins, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, Leah Moore, John Reppion, and Pete Hogan. The infamous Mr. Moore himself wasn't there, as will surprise exactly none of his fans; a good portion of that infamy is the man's reputation as a recluse. What he did send along as a token of his involvement was 500 pre-signed "zines", stapled 14-page A5 booklets containing some gorgeous art by Colleen Doran, an exclusive interview with Moore, and a new comic about digital comics written and illustrated by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey.
Not a bad companion for my morning cuppa
The panel set out to answer some unresolved questions for those in attendance about what exactly it was that Electricomics is attempting to do. I suspect I was one of the least informed people in the hall, having only read (so far as I can recall) this article which seemed to revel in the ambiguity of the information available in the days immediately following the project's press release...
"almost all of the information is coming from a press release, which tells us Electricomics is “an app that is both a comic book and an easy-to-use open source toolkit,” before focusing on the app, then abruptly telling us “Electricomics will be a 32-page showcase with four very different original titles.” By the end of the press release, you can probably piece together that we’re talking about a self-published anthology that will be released on the app, also called Electricomics. Even then, we’re told that Leah Moore, Alan’s daughter, “will edit the project.” Presumably, this means the comic called Electricomics, not the app — which the previous paragraph was talking about."(Sequart)
So, yeah. That's what we had to work with.

The biggest bit of new information to come out of the panel at Thought Bubble, or at least what stuck with me the most, is that this is not a commercial venture. It's an academic one. All the money for Electricomics is coming from the Digital Research and Development Fund for the Arts (something I would have known if I'd read their website), and as the project's press release explains, "As a publicly funded research and development project, Electricomics will be free to explore the possibilities of the comic medium, without the constraints of the industry". Because I'm a nerd for this kind of thing, I was stoked about the scholarly possibilities for this platform when I still thought we were being told this is gonna be Alan Moore's Comixology knock-off. So I almost wept with joy when I realized that a) Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, an incredibly sharp theorist (and cartoonist) specializing in the mechanics of digital comics is part of their development team, and b) that because the project is grant-funded they will be producing detailed documentation of the entire process, success, problems, solutions, the whole shebang. It's going to make great reading someday.

Those of you picturing Alan Moore hunched over a computer workstation writing code with his beard nearly hiding the keyboard, stop it. Don't be ridiculous; that's what he has code demons for (No, seriously, a shed full of 'em. It's in the zine.). Mr. Moore may not be a wizard of the tech variety, but it seems his self-proclaimed alienation from modern forms of media has allowed to conceive this project relatively unpolluted by the endeavours that precede it. He doesn't know Comixology, Madefire, or Manga Studio. He knows comics. That's something that was made crystal clear through the course of this panel, the idea that, if you could distill from the form the Essence of Comics, then that would be the driving technology behind this project. That's what a couple top theorists, legendary writers (did I mention Garth Ennis?), and hotshot programmers are doing with a bundle of government money: not an exercise in visual FX, motion graphic, music, flashinglight and pretty colours, but attempting to take the narrative structural and spatial freedom of a digital workspace and make it understandable and accessible to you app.

Which is going to come to you in two parts, apparently: Electricomics and Electricosmos. The former is a creative suite, a toolset with which you can make, well, comics. We're not entirely sure yet what all the tools are going to look like, what kind of canvas you'll have to work with, but the idea is (as I understand it) if you can conceive of the idea, and it can be done as a comic, then you can make that comic here. Which leaves rather a lot of possibilities. Some people are getting hung up on the "page" issue; namely, if this isn't just a scan-your-physical-comic-and-make-it-digital-here deal, but a born digital creation platform with infinite canvas, then why is Moore announcing a 32-page comic released along with the app? The only answer I've got's not that simple. There's an excellent essay posted on the Electricomics site which I highly recommend reading, co-written by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Alison Gazzard, concerned with the concept of digital "pages":
A useful definition of the page comes from Charles Hatfield (2009), who observes that:
‘The “page” (or planche, as French scholars have it, a term detonating the total design unit rather than the physical page on which it is printed) functions both as sequence and as object, to be seen and read in both linear and nonlinear, holistic fashion.’ 
[...]In the early stages of the Electricomics project, we’re in the process of transitioning from traditional page to digital planche. In this transition we’ve observed a tension between the comics creators, who take a holistic view of the page, and the technology partners, who are keen to deconstruct the page into separate assets and mechanics that will need to be implemented in the toolset.
When it comes to comics theory, listen to the French.  And Charles Hatfield; he's a sharp dude. The gist of what's being said here is, let go of whatever you thought a page was, at least in a physical sense. There are going to people coming to this from webcomics backgrounds and from ink-and-paper background (like yours truly), and from what the team's saying the tools should feel natural to all of us. Knowing Daniel and the research I've seen from him in the last month, they're covering their bases over there, and we've got nothing to worry about.
Join the Electricrew; pick up some badges over at Orphans of the Storm
Now the second part of all this is Electricosmos, which is a little bit less defined even than Electricomics. It's the publication and social network platform into which the toolset feeds. You make comics in the app, and you share them In this space, which doesn't have any rules as yet, or an interface, or an idea of exactly how right to your intellectual property are going work. They're working on it, though; if there's one dude you can bet your soul on being picky about IP laws and comics, it's Moore. There's a lot of work being done, they said, around contracts, given the online collaborative nature of the space they're building. Someone asked a question about content vetting, and got a reply that said "we're working on it, we'll get back to you in seven years." Not in those exact words, but that's the sentiment: the team is treading on such unfamiliar terrain at this point that they simply can't answer questions regarding how their network of multiple millions of creator-owned online comics is going to work when they haven't put the first tool into beta yet. The release of Electricosmos to the general market is a long way down the road. And it may never happen. It's a research project, not a commercial enterprise; failure is an entirely viable option. As Moore states in the interview found in the zine:
We may end up creating something that isn't technically a comic at all but that's not a bad thing.
Dare I say...Nemo?
Visit the project at