Technology, comics, and you

Tom Pappalardo, cartoonist behind The Optimist and Broken Lines, put together a humorous piece about how modern technology — while very convenient — makes cartooning so much harder. From his humorous (yet true) piece “How Steve Jobs Ruined Comics“:

Cartooning is, to me, an art form of simplification. The artist uses a minimal amount of lines to communicate characters and place to a reader. Mouths are often oddly-shaped black holes. Cartoon evolution often does away with lips, body hair, elbows. Eyebrows are reduced to lines. Eyes become dots. A background might be a line indicating where the floor and wall meet. Maybe a squiggle of distant trees, or a cloud. Maybe just a flat field of color. Cartooning is also about communicating an idea in the briefest terms possible. It is literally a shorthand form of storytelling. If you’re making a comic strip, and that joke takes place in a restaurant and the setting is important to the joke or narrative, you damn well better explain that as quickly as possible in the first frame so you can get on with what you’ve got to say. In short, in cartooning things need to be made apparent.

In many ways, technology—especially consumer-driven technology—has been striving for the same thing as cartoonists for years now. Simpler, smaller, more streamlined. Minimalist. Removing as much of the object as possible, leaving only the key components (in technology’s case, the interface, the screen). Steve Jobs led the way for elegant and simple device design, and it’s a beautiful thing. But a cartoonist might reach a point where representing something in a super-simplified style when the object itself is already super-simplified becomes increasingly difficult.

People interacting with multi-purpose devices aren’t doing anything, at least nothing particularly visual. They are sitting or standing, moving their eyes, maybe tapping the screen, maybe swiping. They might be doing something crucially important to the narrative of the story you’re trying to tell, or the joke you’re trying to set up, but in appearance they’re just… standin’ there. It forces the storyteller to drop a big dialogue hint to clue the reader in, like:

“Hi! I was just calling to leave you a message…”
“This Bluetooth headset is so comfortable I barely notice it!”
or maybe
“My, this is a wonderful video I am viewing on my portable media playback device!”

As interfaces with technology continue to become smaller, thinner, less obtrusive, less noticeable, and less identifiable visually, creative artists will have to continue to adapt and improve their visual communication skills. I look forward to seeing these forward-thinking solutions to these incredibly important challenges, so I can steal them. HA-HA! Some day soon even the small electronic devices will disappear, and this tyranny of the black rectangle will come to an end, leaving visual storytellers in an even more challenging environment: A world of people laughing, talking, and staring off into the middle distance as their neural implants amuse, entertain, and sell them things. That will make drawing stories about them very exciting, indeed.

Check into his site for the rest, which includes some fun illustrations.

(h/t ComicsAlliance)


Posted on September 21, 2011, in comics, The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I deal with some of those “future problems” today, writing a future-fiction story involving characters with cortical implants. Sometimes I can weave clues into the conversation, sometimes I show a “holographic” display of something in front of a character’s face that only the character sees, and in the case of implant-phone conversations, I invented a social convention of people holding their palms to the side of their heads while conversing, as a clue to the people around them that they are using their implants and not having a schizophrenic experience.

  2. I thought this was going to be one of those Marshall McLuhan-style Media And Art Theory essays, and hah! It’s just about how boring it is to draw an ipad. I agree with him. I’ve run into the same problems myself. I liked drawing the details on those old-timey wood-panel TV sets, but put one in a comic nowadays and it’s not just a TV, it’s an indication the character who owns it is charmingly anachronistic.

  3. Scott Kurtz doesn’t approve – he posted a rebuttal at PvP.

    Personally, I think people ‘get it’ if you display the item in use. Sure, bluetooth devices are not easily visible when worn, but think about it – how many times are you going to feature someone with a bluetooth headset in a strip or comic? If that’s the case, you can adjust your artwork accordingly if it’s absolutely vital to the story.

    Now if you use technology that is out of date, I think you’d have a harder time explaining it. But for items that are used for modern convenience, you can’t assume that people have never seen them before – unless they are 50+ years old.

  4. In any case, it all depends on the artist and what he wants to show. The issue i see is that readers form different backgrounds won’t understand what all those new electronic things are and how this either expands or handicaps drawing expressions and/or body language when using them.

  5. I just read some of the Optimist, and it’s just horrible. The guy’s understanding of cartooning is basically “my opinions with pictures”. Preferably without a joke. And he also takes to drawing adults like children in some cartoons, which is just retarded. There’s nothing to warrant the change in style and it’s confusing. He reminds me of Tom Preston in that most of his cartoons are about stuff he doesn’t like. It’s one big, sour bitching session about his world.

    Plus, the point he’s trying to make is ridiculous. He’s complaining about being unable to portray everyday actions in his cartoons. That’s purely his problem, and I’d recommend taking a cartooning 101 class.

  6. Yes, simplification is the future. However I see it as a positive trend. In my webcomic, I make a deliberate effort to strip out as much superfluity as possible. The more I strip out, the more I find I can strip out. Now, it has no backgrounds, no objects (except humans) and I’ve even stripped out the panels. It just has people and dialogue.

    Simplification can actually make better comics. Check it out.

  7. This would be more relevant if people watching television in a comic was not the most boring thing.

  8. A joke answered with a sarcastic joke. It’s on now.

  1. Pingback: PvP throws down the gauntlet in the “iPads do not make good cartoons” argument | The Webcomic Overlook

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