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The future's bright? - Part One: Paper Rocks

A column article by: Regie Rigby

As I’ve already observed, I’m a little out of the loop lately. But after the shock discovery that there were kids in my class that literally didn’t know how to read a comic I’ve been thinking about the future.

It’s a commonplace now to complain that the future we were promised by the comics of the seventies and eighties involved flying cars and jet-packs, and to bemoan the fact that now, a decade into the twenty-first century, we have neither*. It’s fair to say that the future isn’t what we were expecting**.  On the other hand, we <i>do</i> have some rather cool gadgets that we take for granted which, when seen from the mid-eighties would have seemed even more fantastical than a flying car.

Given the publication method of this column, I know for certain that you’re looking at one of them now. The PC, the Mac, the i-Pad, the Tablet PC, the Smartphone, they’ve all reached such a level of market penetration – and not just in the rich west either – that we don’t even notice them anymore. But they are changing the way we do almost everything. Can they change the way we do comics?

There’s a bit of me that really hopes not.

You see, I <i>like</i> paper. The printed page may just be the most perfect information storage and retrieval system ever devised. It’s cheap enough to produce to make it disposable while at the same time equally easy to store almost indefinitely***. This gives it a massive advantage over digital systems – I have comics that have been in my collection for twenty three years that I can still take out and read whenever I like. I have data on disc from a couple of years ago that I can no longer access – so much for the digital revolution!

Besides, paper comics, like paper books****, are at the core of so many of the things that I like about the medium. While the internet makes comics shopping easy, there is nothing, <i>nothing</i> like spending an hour or so in your local comics store. I feel so strongly about this that I’d even suggest that if you haven’t got one near you, then there’s a business opportunity you need to take advantage of.

There are <i>so</i> many things that you can only get at your LCS. There’s the banter with the staff, the interaction with the customers, the whole sense of community that you get. The internet is a fine place to do a bit of social networking, but frankly anyone who thinks that chatrooms, forums and Facebook are in any way equivalent to interacting with people who are in the same room as you need to get out more. Besides, there’s also the <i>smell</i>.*****

The only thing that can compete with the smell of a good comic shop is a good bookshop. They smell of paper and ink, and there is <i>nothing</i> like it. To me it’s the aroma of knowledge, the fragrance of culture, the very essence of everything that makes us just that little bit better than chimpanzees. A few kilobytes of data simply cannot compete.

On the other hand, only a fool fights progress. Just as King Canute sought to prove to his sycophantic courtiers that he could not hold back the tide, I have to concede that even if I wanted to, I can’t stop the relentless progression of technology. I might not have any use for a Kindle, but almost everyone I know owns one, and is full of nothing but praise for the way it lets them carry around a library in their pocket. Scott McCloud predicted over a decade ago that the future of comics would be on the screen, not on the page, and the more the technology develops, the ore I think that he was right. Waaaaaaaaaaaay back in the year 2000 McCloud published an online story featuring <a href=http://scottmccloud.com/1-webcomics/zot/index.html>ZOT!</a> which I heartily recommended all those years ago, and which I’d still point you at if you wanted a good read.

Back then, if you can believe it, the only way of looking at the internet was to use a computer – almost certainly a desktop – that was physically plugged into a ‘phone line. The wonders of Broadband and WIFI were still a glimmer in a technologist’s eye and the screen was a rather static thing.

McCloud’s innovation was to see the screen as a window, rather than a page.****** If you look at that eleven year old <a href=http://scottmccloud.com/1-webcomics/zot/index.html>ZOT!</a> story now (and you really should) you can see that each episode is designed as a scroll. The narrative is structured to lead you down the scroll, and it works really, really well – there’s a particularly impressive example in episode three, as Zot, Jenny and Peabody fall from a great height.

Of course these days the idea that you can only view digital or online content through a screen that’s attached to a computer that’s attached to the ‘phone network by something as primitive as a <i>wire</i> seems almost laughable – as is the idea that a screen has to be a fixed “landscape” oriented window. An i-pad, tablet or smartphone can be viewed in whatever orientation you like. We don’t need online comics to be scrolls we view through the window of the screen because the screen can be a perfectly good page. Besides, we’re more used to screens these days, and we’re used to consuming content on all manner of shapes and sizes.

The question therefore becomes not “will the future of comics be digital” but “how do we make sure that the digital comics of the future don’t throw away the advantages of their paper ancestors”. Personally I have to say that so long as I draw breath there’ll be a market for paper comics. But the digital comic isn’t going away and the next generation of comics readers isn’t attached to physical objects in the way tht my generation are – they don’t have record or CD collections either, just mp3 players in their pockets filled with more tracks than my CD racks could ever dream of storing.

And that means that if the medium we love is to survive, it has to find a way to exist in the digital world. Next time, I’ll be looking at how it might do that – if you have a view, I’d love to hear it. The message boards are open over at <a href=/main/sites/default/files/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=10>Fool’s Errand</a>. Let me know what you think – I’ll give you <i>my</i> take on it next time as FoolBritannia continues in its new Sunday slot, which I promise you will be regular and at least fortnightly.

See you then!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Well, not quite anyway. You’ll be able to buy <a href=http://www.parajetautomotive.com>a road legal car that can fly</a> by late 2012…

**Mind you, back in the early eighties I  - and rather a lot of “experts” in the field - was pretty certain that by now humanity would have destroyed itself in a devastating nuclear war. When <b>The Terminator</b> came out I actually thought the future it depicted was rather optimistic because there were at least some humans left fighting the machines. There are many predicted futures that I’m very glad did not come to pass.

***Well, OK, depending on the paper stock and choice of ink it’s only indefinite for a given value of indefinite – but it’ll still last for a pretty long time.

****Just don’t get me started on how much I hate the Kindle and the other e-readers. I can see they might occasionally have their advantages, but so far I personally have never been in a situation where having one would have been useful.

*****Which I’ll grant you, in some of the less well favoured comics shops continues to be essence of cat wee and unwashed teenager, but such forsaken holes are genuinely rare these days…

******And yeah, now I come to type that, that seems odd, given that almost every operating system I can think of had been doing that for years, but it genuinely was a breakthrough for comics at the time.

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