Reverse Cone-ing

There’s a scene in Batman #496 – 1993’s Knightfall story arc, supposedly the source material for much of Nolan’s TDKR – where Joker and Scarecrow set about terrorising Gotham through a series of prank calls.

In one panel they’re evading the police in an ice-cream truck, until they reach a toll booth… And that’s when this happens:

OK let’s get this straight.

Do we think the Joker invent cone-ing?

The meme to beat in 2011?

Or at least, reverse cone-ing?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Pixar’s Zoetrope and the 4th Dimension

As leaders in computer animation, in terms of box-office takings, technical prowess and industry awards, it’s easy to forget that Pixar’s roots are in traditional animation: the frame by frame progression of a set of still images at speeds that trick the eye into perceiving a single moving image.

But in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, it’s hard to explain the essentials of what Pixar really do without spoiling some of the magic: as any Behind the Scenes DVD extra will show you, it’s a probably a bunch of sweaty animators slaving over their Wacom tablets for months on end.

traditional zoetrope
a traditional zoetrope

So when Disney sought to showcase their acquisition (they bought Pixar back in 2006) in a couple of their resorts, they tasked Pixar with a demonstrating how animation works in a way that keeps the magic in.

What they came up with – a modern re-imagining of the zoetrope – is something to truly surprise and delight.

Take a look at this:

Lovely, isn’t it?

What caught my attention is the point animator Warren Trezevant makes:

It’s the clearest explanation of animation, because you get to see every frame of animation before your current frame […] and every frame of animation after it. Here you have the opportunity to see the tricks the animators use to make things move.

Dr Manhattan
Dr. Manhattan

Thinking more deeply on this, one could consider the zoetrope’s design as illustrative of one other concept: four dimensional perception.

Unlike traditional screen-based animation, the zoetrope lends observers the ability to see ‘through time’. One can rewind or fast-forward through frames with a slight adjustment in perspective, much like Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan.

This recalls an essay I wrote applying McLuhanism to comic books, which talks around the medium’s unique ability to force a sort of cognitive leap between the panels of a page (despite speeds far lower than 30 fps).

In comics, the reader’s mind fills in the blanks, making it probably the most effective animator of all. And now that Disney owns Marvel too, perhaps we’ll see more examples of Disney playing around in the fourth dimension.

Superhuman Babies

French artist Alexandre Nicolas has produced some quite beautiful sculptures of superheroes in a foetal state. The work comprises his 2008 series: PRÉDESTINÉS, working in his preferred media acrylic and resin.

I think these pieces inherit a special fragility because we’d usually see these characters (Hulk; Silver Surfer; Batman etc) as fully-grown and badass, whereas here they are quite the opposite. Take a look:

Catwoman
Catwoman
Silver Surfer
Silver Surfer
Superman
Superman
Spiderman
Spiderman
The Hulk
The Hulk
Batman
Batman

Visit PRÉDESTINÉS for more images from this series.

Astro Boy is Blasting Onscreen

Astro Boy will be landing on our screens in October this year, it’s been confirmed.

Astroboy Blasts Off

For those who don’t know, ‘Astro Boy’ is an anime sci-fi series set in a dystopian future where humans and androids coexist. It’s main character is a powerful robot called Astro Boy (Astro for short), who was created by a great scientist called Doctor Tenma following the death of his son Tobio.

Despite looking identical to Tobio, Tenma soon realized that the little android could not fill the void of his lost son, especially given that Astro could not grow older or easily express human feelings. Indeed, in one set of comic panels, Astro is shown preferring the mechanical shapes of cubes over the organic shapes of flowers. I’m a bit like that sometimes… 🙂

Astro is gifted with awesome robot powers and skills, as well as the ability to experience human emotions. Astro has fought crime, evil, and injustice across five decades of great comic and television series. Most of his enemies are robot-hating humans, robots gone berserk, or alien invaders. Almost every story includes a battle involving Astro and other robots. Cool huh?

In advance of Astro Boy’s Autumn 2009 cinematic release, let’s take a trip through the many ages of Astro Boy…

1960’s

Astro Boy was the first Anime to be exported to the West.
Check out this intro to his first TV series, dubbed from Japanese:

1980’s

Here’s the Astro that most of us will recognise.
He’s been in this colour form for the longest (excepting his past in comics):

Modern Day

Finally, the trailer for his upcoming movie, which I’m pretty excited about.
I’m predicting a new wave of popularity and cool merchandise from this:

Astro is a cultural icon in my eyes, and for me is the strongest symbol of a Japanese media form being highly attractive to a Western eye, together with Hello Kitty. Who’s with me? Would love to hear some thoughts.

Gutter Talk

Gutter Talk: Hot & Cool in the World of Comic Books

The medium we call comics is based on a simple idea: the idea of placing one picture after another to show the passage of time. Legendary comic artist Will Eisner defines comics as ‘sequential art’. The idea that art can be ‘joined up’ to create a narrative can be seen in practice throughout the ages and is therefore not new. Examples from history include Egyptian hieroglyphics, European stained glass windows, Greek wall frescoes, Japanese scrolls and prehistoric wall paintings. In the year 1066 the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230 foot long piece of sequential art, was completed. Reading from left to right, it illustrates the events of the Norman Conquest of England unfolding in deliberate, chronological order before its viewers. Today the formula for making sequential art remains the same, though Scott McCloud’s definition is more relevant to the type of comics we have come to know. In his book ‘Understanding Comics’ McCloud states that comics are:

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”

(McCloud, 1993, page 9)

This definition ignores single-panel comics such as Larson’s ‘The Far Side’, and other visual mediums like animation, but includes the use of the ‘speech bubble’ as a critical element in a comic’s narrative. McCloud’s definition lends itself to the most common forms of comics: newspaper strips, magazine-format comic books and graphic novels.

So how do modern comics work? Each panel in a comic is contained within a border. Each panel is a self-contained piece of art, and a fragment of a narrative. When read in a sequence, the gap between each panel is ‘filled in’ by the reader’s imagination. It is the reader that ‘animates’ these still pictures, not the medium itself. This happens because the mind is designed to close gaps in our awareness. Gestalt psychologists call this process ‘closure’. The real power of comics, then, lies not in the characters involved, nor what they are saying, or even the stories themselves, nor any of the medium’s potential content, but in how the reader interprets each panel as part of a sequence. As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message”.

One of the seminal media analyst’s best known concepts is that of a medium being either ‘hot’ or ‘cool’. In a broadcast on California’s CBC Television on June 22, 1965, McLuhan was asked to explain his concept:

“‘Cool’ is a slang term borrowed from the world of Jazz and popular music. The word ‘cool’ has a kind of mystical meaning that is not unlike the Hindu idea of detachment. The Hindu idea of detachment means complete involvement in an action and detachment in action. Whereas when people are merely involved in an action but not detached from the action, that’s ‘square’, or ‘hot’. Most people think of ‘cool’ as merely detached from action, but the word ‘cool’ as used in Jazz, and as I use it as sense for a medium, means a medium which uses all of you, but leaves you detached in the act of using you.”

(McLuhan, CBC.CA, 1965)

McLuhan exemplified hot media as: radio, print, photographs, movies and lectures; and cool media as: the telephone, speech, cartoons, TV and seminars. The comic book is another example of a cool medium, and to test McLuhan’s ‘Hot and Cool’ probe as a whole we will look at a comics series that typifies the medium; In the words of the great (but fictional) Professor Charles Xavier, “To me, my X-Men”.

For some, the X-Men comics are the epitomy of how all comics should be; fluid, exciting, intelligent, emotionally complex, relevant, and expressively drawn. Since their conception by Stan Lee in 1963, Marvel Comics X-Men have come very far indeed. Comparing the X-Men across the decades, panels of artwork today are richer with visual information. Comics in the early 1970s had a palette of just twelve colours. The reader had to use their mind’s eye to see the School for Gifted Youngsters that the series’ artists had in mind when drawing the series. Today, details such as old chalk-marks and lecture notes appear on the blackboard in Storm’s history classroom to give the reader a deeper sense that Mutant Academy is a real place. The characters’ facial expression are radically improved today, greater subtleties between Wolverine’s bad moods can now be conveyed, and fiery explosions are almost photo-realistic in terms of their adhering to physical law. There are now fewer gaps for the reader’s mind to fill in. Because of technological advancements and improvements in artistry, the X-Men and comic books as a whole have heated up. However, the images are still constrained within the borders of each frame. We must imagine what else is in the room when we see it from just one perspective, whereas in hotter media such as film the camera angles are generally wider, providing more information and therefore less detachment.

The panel makes up one essential part of the comic book’s construct. The second aspect is ‘The Gutter’ or the space between the panels. McCloud states that:

“Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea. Nothing is seen between the two panels, but experience tells you something must be there! Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality. If visual iconography is the vocabulary of comics, closure is its grammar. And since our definition of comics hinges on the arrangement of elements then, in a very real sense, comics is closure!”

(McCloud, 1993, page 66-67)

Using the Gestalt definition of closure as “a principle of organization holding that there is an innate tendency to perceive incomplete objects as complete and to close or fill gaps” (TheFreeDictionary.com) and fusing it with McCloud’s concept of ‘the gutter’, in a McLuhanesque sense ‘the gutter’ becomes a very cool place indeed, completely devoid of content but for the reader’s own imaginings. There is actually an evolving art to reading or processing a comic as the guttering mechanisms become more and more sophisticated. In this way, comics could be said to be getting cooler. In some ways there’s a gutter happening whenever you turn the page too – a good example being that really ‘cool’ thing that happens when you turn the page in an action sequence (or somesuch) to a full or double page spread, sometimes with no words, and the reader really gets pulled in by the dramatic effect. Perhaps readers who are more brought up on squarer mediums, where they are more ‘spoon-fed’ with input have a harder time comprehending the narrative flow of certain comic books and so they are put off by the medium and never get to appreciate what it can offer. There are some types of comic book that require a pretty experienced reader, well versed in the ‘laws of the gutter’ and these are the coolest types of comics.

McLuhan’s thermometer is a tool for relativity, and works best when comparing multiple media. Luckily the X-Men do not appear solely in comics. They also appear in two animated television shows and have a highly successful movie franchise under their (spandex utility) belts. In a comic book, frames are viewed from up left, to bottom right. This requires active participation from the reader to help the narrative unfold. Panels can be ‘rewound’, ‘paused’ or skipped entirely. In cinema, frames on a film reel are shown to you in rapid succession and in the same place: the screen. All that the viewer has to do is sit back and let the medium wash over them. There is only a miniscule ‘gutter’ between the frames of a movie because the frame rate must be high enough to make still images on a movie reel appear to be moving fluidly. The closure between these frames is continuous, involuntary and imperceptible. The closure of frames in comics is reader dictated, involving, and necessary to the understanding of the book as a whole. This is what makes cinema hot, relative to comics’ cool.

Since VHS and, more recently, DVD became available; audiences can not only immerse themselves in a movie’s narrative from their home, but splash around a little too. Mystique and Wolverine’s fight scene cannot be rewound and played in slow motion in the cinema, but it is possible to do this at home. This makes home viewing a cooler immersive experience than cinema. The X-Men also have video games of their own, allowing a fully interactive, involving and entirely participatory immersion in the world of superheroes. In Activision’s 2004 game ‘X-Men Legends’ players can choose a team of their favourite heroes and work together to stop the psychotic Magneto. The game has its own scripted narrative, but allows real involvement that not even comic books can offer. Comics may be cool, but video games are cooler.

So what have we learned about the medium of comic books? We know that the medium consists purely of the panels in which content is placed, and spacing between the panels, which connects adjacent panels over space and time. We know now that although comics’ content is warming up as technology and craft allows, comics’ defining component, the ‘gutter’, must always remain an icy-cool permafrost desert of bleakness: Comic books would not exist without it. We have also learned that, in the Gestalt sense, comics can be seen as a configuration of elements so unified as a whole that a comic cannot be perceived by the reader as merely the sum of its parts, and that it is our own cognitive programming that turns a series of images into an involving narrative. We have learned that McLuhan’s ‘Hot and Cool’ probe still applies to varying media, but lacks a content analysis that might render it more relevant, especially with the dawn of video games as a highly prevalent medium. Hopefully though, the main lesson is that the true art of comics is not what we see on the page, but what we see in our mind’s eye.

1624 words

Bibliography

CBC.CA. (1965). “Marshall Mcluhan: A Pop Philosopher.” Retrieved 16/03/05, from http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-69-342-1818/life_society/mcluhan/clip4.

McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

TheFreeDictionary.com. “Closure.” Retrieved 16/03/05, from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/closure.

Further Reading

Barker, M. (1989). Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Carrier, D. (2000). The Aesthetics of Comics. Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Levinson, P. (1999). Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Age. London, Routledge.

McCloud, S. (2000). Reinventing Comics. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

McLuhan, M. and W. T. Gordon (2003). Understanding media: the extensions of man. Corte Madera, CA, Gingko Press.

Stearn, G. E., Ed. (1967). McLuhan: Hot & Cool. New York, The Dial Press, Inc.