Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Electricomics sans iPad - a (fairly non-techie) How-To

If you're following news about Electricomics, and want to see what the fuss is all about, but you don't have an iPad, you can still read the comics, with a little extra work, in a web browser. Thankfully, most of the work's one-off, so once you're set up, it'll be easier for subsequent reads.

Reading them in this way is not in any sense going against the project, by the way. The project is an open, extensible platform for reading comics. The official iPad app is the only supported reader at present, but the system's designed from the ground up to support other readers.

NB: This won't let you read the official electricomics by Moore, Doran, Ennis et al., those are ipad-only for now. You can use it to read Electricomics you've made yourself, or third-party ones, including mine


Electricomics are built using HTML and Javascript, and run in a web browser. The iPad app displays the comics inside an "embedded" web browser.

The URL you enter into the ipad App will download a ".elcx" file, which is a zip file containing HTML, javascript and images in a web-friendly format. To read them in a browser, you simply unzip the file manually, and look at it through a web browser.


Here's an example tweet, pointing to a really good Electricomic by Lars Schwed Nygård and Torgeir Trapnes:

Click the link in your web browser/twitter app, and it'll download a .elcx file to your computer.

Change the suffix of the file to ".zip", and your system (Windows, Mac, Linux) ought to recognise the file as a zip file, and open it up for you. Once opened, you'll have the following sort of folder structure:

The highlighted file, index.html, is the one you want to view in your web browser.

Double-clicking the file will sometimes work, but sometimes the javascript will only work if the pages are served up by a web server, rather than directly from the filesystem. Fortunately, there are plenty of small easy-to-setup web servers that you can use. Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started.

Windows and Mac (GUI) - Fenix Web Server 

Fenix is a user friendly web server with a graphical user interface. After installing it, run the app, and set up a new web server with whatever name you like, and pick a "port number" - I've gone for the whimsical '54321' (if you don't know port numbers, stick with that, it's probably OK on all systems). The server needs a folder too - point it at the folder you unzipped your Electricomic into. Start the server you've created,  and then open a web browser, at http://localhost:54321 (you can bookmark/favourite this to avoid typing it in every time). Here's Fenix and the web browser running side by side.

If there is no "index.html" file in the folder, Fenix will show a file listing (see above), so you can click down to the electricomic, at which point, you ought to see the "Tap to Start" message. (You're on a proper computer, so "tap" means "click"). Happy reading!

When you're done reading, stop the Fenix server, or close the Fenix app.

Mac or Linux (Command Line)

You probably have python installed on your computer. Open a command prompt/terminal, cd to the Electricomic folder, and type the following:

$ python -m SimpleHTTPServer 54321

(thanks to, which has several recipes of this type). Now open the web browser, go to http://localhost:54321 as above, and you're ready to read.

When you're done, close the terminal window, or hit Ctrl-C to stop the server.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

King Canute

Old wooden fast-food fork, string, wire, felt, pair of old cufflinks, photo and digitally scribbled hands

King Canute is often depicted as a vainglorious ruler, trying to command the sea. It is more likely that he was deliberately demonstrating the limits of his power to those who were speaking too highly of him. Humility can cause us to do strange things.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Opening Up the Electricomics Event Model

WARNING This is a technical discussion about the javascript code that powers Electricomics. If you usually come here to read my comics and look at my artwork (and thank you, I'm flattered that you do!), you might want to skip this one. See you on Tuesdays, my regular art-drop day.

So, a week ago, I put together my first Electricomic. This was generated using the Generator GUI program, no real code input on my part, but my intention was to use it as a playground for doing things with the code that the generator can't do. (I'm currently building a physical non-linear comic on a not-quite-infinite canvas, so my head's full of thoughts about doing comics that don't read right-to-left in a straight line/single path. I'll get over it soon, promise!)

Tonight I started mucking about with the code, in situ in the generated comic, and spent a happy hour or two refactoring, swearing and then feeling good because it behaved exactly as it did before I messed with it. Here's the commit, not much to look at yet.

The comic.js file is a client-side piece of javascript that orchestrates the core library code (in electricomics.js), configuring an instance of the comic, and adding the interactivity. (The actual page structure is encoded in index.html, in the <ec-panel> tags.)

Some of the demo comics ("Sway" by Leah Moore, John Reppion and Nicola Scott, and "Second Sight" by Peter Hogan and Paul Davidson) have interestingly weird non-linear plots, which the Generator won't generate (yet). All the generator will create at present, is a hard-coded interaction - single tap on the right-hand 2/3 of the screen to go forward, and on the left hand area to go back a page.

What I've done tonight is to un-hard-code this, moving that set of rules out into a separate object that gets passed into the comic when it's created.

And of course, that means something else could get passed in instead. Which could hold a non-linear navigation model. Which could use swipes, tilts, voice, etc. (I want to make a comic that you navigate by blowing on it - the mic could pick this up!) Which could really unlock the possibilities of this thing. And a library of standard navigation tropes that could be reused across projects would be great for the nascent community, rather than everyone either creating linear tap-to-progress stuff, or else hardcoding their own solutions.
Maybe eventually, we'll even figure out a plugin system for providing GUIs for these things, but that's a job for another day...
Have a look at the comments in the code. I've not got very far, and I think I've divided up the responsibilities in the wrong place. I'm going to carry on down this route, as time permits, and happy to talk about this with any other techies out there.

PS: I still haven't packaged this up. If you want to read the thing, then download fromGit and open index.html in your web browser. That's what Im doing.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Help! Handmines!

Nice to see Doctor Who back - and I did enjoy the "Abbey Road" Beatles album cover reference here. I don't suppose Clara Oswald is dead (or Missy, or UNIT's Osgood, who is back in this series, probably next episode) - there's the Dalek Asylum's Oswin Osgood, references to the "prettier sister" etc. etc. to tie together first. (Hmm, hadn't spotted it before - Clara became a Dalek at one point, and Danny ended up - so far - as a Cyberman. Given the un-tied-up bit about his Astronaut descendant from last series, I bet fifty shiny pennies he'll turn up somewhere too.)

I'm probably wrong about all of the above. Ah, logic...

Anyway, in the spirit of Beatles homages, here's another of their icon album covers mashed up with a bit of Whovian goodness. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: This is fan fiction digital art, based on stills from the BBC TV series "Doctor Who", and the album "Help" by the Beatles, Parlophone Records. Copyright the respective copyright holders, I'm just expressing my enjoyment of these English cultural icons by posting this here.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Electricomics 103 : First Code Dropped, Thoughts on Visual Styles & the Comics Ghetto

UPDATE: Wrong end of stick fully grasped here. The file "hammer.js" is a third-party event library, coincidentally with a similar name to the title of the story.

The source code for the first electricomic is up. This is "Grandfather's Hammer" by Daniel Merl Goodbrey, electricomics' co-conspirator and long-standing (long-standing as in, back into the last millenium) guru of non-linear digital comics. It's not one of the stories from the demo app.


For the keen techies, I'll dig into the code a little bit at the bottom of the article. First, let's have a look at the end-product. It's a simple, meaty, powerful story, and a near perfect example of how the simplest of graphics can serve storytelling. Leaving aside the fact that it's electronic, it's top-notch. (Note to our international readers, that translates as "very, very good").

The narrative is linear, unlike a lot of Goodbrey's work. Nonetheless, there are two innovative features to the storytelling that I'd like to point out here.

Use of Space - the majority of the story's a conversation between grandfather and four grandchildren, with a "flashback" sequence depicting other events, in the middle. Early on, the convention is established whereby each character has their own space on the page, but not all characters are present on every page. There's therefore a lot of white space, but also a neat rhythm to the story. This would work fine as a 30-page printed book. As a digital comic, the structure has some extra impact, as the page transitions preserve position more accurately, so when Grandfather looks from left to right, it's almost like a flipbook animation.

Graphic Style - the graphics here are minimal, and beautiful - both as static pictures, and as a narrative. Shapes are used to convey characters' emotions and thoughts, nothing else. (The colour and texture are decorative, it's not completely spartan.) If Mr. Goodbrey permits, I'll post a couple of images here, in the meantime, go here to see a sample of the art. The closest things I can think of in comics are Lorenzo Mattotti's expressionist works, and the minimal lines of Simon Moreton.

After reading this, I'm struck by how the official demo Electricomcs' artwork all looked like conventional comics, being either scanned physical art of digital art made to look like coloured in pen & ink. All of it was high quality, for sure, but it all said "comic" very loudly. Goodbrey's abstracted stuff, in contrast, is more reminiscent of data visualisations or editorial illustrations for a popular science magazine.

In my previous post, I made the point that electricomics are not really comics, nor are they movies or games, they're something else, a new hybrid. Ironically, "Grandfather's hammer", which probably diverges from the narrative form of a print comic less than any of the demo stories, looks less like a comic, and may therefore be more accessible to a mainstream audience, because it doesn't follow the visual tropes of traditional comic books.

It's a great shame that the public perception of comics is what it is (in the Anglophone world at least). There is much cause for hope - publishers like Top Shelf, Self-made Hero, Jonathan Cape, Fantagraphics, Blank Slate; events like The Lakes International Comic Art Festival; bookshops like Page 45, Gosh! and Astral Gypsy; groups like the Applied Comics Network  (random off-top-of-head picking here, apologies to many others I've omitted)- are all doing a lot to reintroduce comics to a broader mainstream, and the stigma is much less than it used to be, even five years ago. Final shout-out to Karrie Fransman here - I attended her Guardian masterclass recently, and breaking out to reach a much bigger audience than current comics-readers was a major discussion point. A lot of creators have been deliberately pushing at these boundaries too, of course, or choosing to ignore them.

(Quick aside: I just wrote "comics reader". Isn't it weird that that doesn't look odd. I don't describe myself as a "television watcher", "novel reader". I suppose "moviegoer" is a word, and "gamer". Time to shrug and move on, I think...)

Electricomics don't need to carry the "comics" stigma. Electricomics don't need to distance themselves from that stigma either, and can help play a part in the de-stigmatisation process that's already underway. It's great to see, in "Grandfather's Hammer", such boldly un-comic-book artwork being used so well.

PS: "Electricomics 103" I ask you! I'll get fed up of this idiotic naming scheme soon, I promise. :)

Techie Stuff

What have we got to play with here, then? Let's ask the computer for a summary...

dave@deimos electricomic-hammer (master) $ tree .
└── hammer.elcxproject
    ├── comic.json
    ├── cover.png
    ├── css
    │   └── style.css
    ├── images
    │   ├── hammer30001.png
    │   ├── hammer30002.png
    │   ├── hammer30003.png
    │   ├── hammer30004.png
    │   ├── hammer30005.png
    │   ├── hammer30006.png
    │   ├── hammer30007.png
    │   ├── hammer30008.png
    │   ├── hammer30009.png
    │   ├── hammer30010.png
    │   ├── hammer30011.png
    │   ├── hammer30013.png
    │   ├── hammer30014.png
    │   ├── hammer30015.png
    │   ├── hammer30016.png
    │   ├── hammer30017.png
    │   ├── hammer30018.png
    │   ├── hammer30019.png
    │   ├── hammer30020.png
    │   ├── hammer30021.png
    │   ├── hammer30022.png
    │   ├── hammer30023.png
    │   ├── hammer30024.png
    │   ├── hammer30025.png
    │   ├── hammer30026.png
    │   ├── hammer30027.png
    │   ├── hammer30028.png
    │   ├── hammer30029.png
    │   └── hammer30030.png
    ├── index.html
    ├── js
    │   ├── comic.js
    │   ├── electricomics.js
    │   ├── hammer.min.js
    │   ├── jquery.min.js
    │   ├── picturefill.min.js
    │   ├── raf.js
    │   └── storage.js
    └── project.json

4 directories, 42 files

So there's a standard electricomics javascript library, a "comics.js" containing some more boilerplate code and a little bit of orchestration for this particular story a minified "hammer" library (that I haven't dug into at all), presumably bespoke to this project, and the standard HTML structure defined in the electricomics living standard. According to the README, the project can be loaded into the composer (not released yet), or downloaded into the app (interesting! I didn't realise that it did that.) But the quickest way to read it is to open index.html in a web browser - I did so from the file system, not even mounting it on a web server.

The app is quite a straightforward structure, telling a linear story, with advances from page to page via tap/click. This is reflected in the <ec-page> elements in index.html - the narrative structure's fairly easy to discern from the markup. As I said, the javascript is minified, so no idea what that is doing, yet.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Electricomics 102 : Anatomy Lesson

In the previous post, I suggested that "digitally-enhanced" Comics weren't so much an "enhancement" of existing comics, but the start of something different-but-related. Personally, I find it much more exciting to think of them like this, than as some "comics evolved for the 21st century" guff. Comics are doing fine (and adapting to the 21st Century fine, thanks to Comixology, Sequential and others). Electricomics and their predecessors are something different, able to borrow storytelling techniques from comics, movies, games. And, crucially, to invent their own idioms.

In this post, I want to do a quick tour of the anatomy of this new creature. Oh, and speculate about the near future ("near" as in next 12 months) in a way that'll make me cringe with embarrassment when I go back to read it :)

So, what's changed with this new creature, then? The sample Electricomics give us a number of hints that highlight different ways of interacting with the comics, such as "tilt", "swipe" and "soundscape", indicating that something different is going on. These are specific interactions, and I'm assuming that the software library will allow tech-savvy users and third-party developers to create additional new interaction modes. The current provisional standard for the structure of an electricomic contains a space for user-defined javascript libraries, so all looks good on that front.

Rather than trying to examine tilt, swipe & friends one by one, I'm going to propose a broader classification. Digital comics can be enhanced in one of three ways, which I'll present in increasing order of power. (By "power", I mean how much it can alter the storytelling experience, not how much it'll drain your batteries! I'm easily excited by techie stuff, and proposing grand classifications is an inherently techie thing to do, but I want to keep an eye on the storytelling as the ultimate goal here)

Here we go...

Type 1 : Special Effects

Using digital effects, we can introduce movement and sound in various ways, to dress up an individual panel or sequence of panels. The principle use of this is to establish mood, or sense of place. There are "obvious" uses - changing a character's facial expression or body language to convey a change in emotion, animating a bodaciously cool fight move, watching a building/planet/giant cosmic sandwich collapse in slo-mo, and so on. We can do somewhat more subtle stuff too - parallax scrolling on a long shot can give a sense of depth, changing colours can show the sun setting. Music or sound effects can be used to add to the narrative - something well established from movies.
(Here's a well-known example - warning, horror & sound effects!!)

Impact on Storytelling: pretty much mood/sense of place, unless my imagination's failing me. (Looking forward to being proven wrong here)

Type 2: Presentation & Layout

Physical comics are restricted to the size of the page. You can pick a size for a book (6x9", US letter, A4, etc., portrait or landscape), and then you're stuck with it. Syndicated strips are stuck with a fixed amount of real estate in a newspaper. It's possible to play with this a bit - double page spreads, switching between portrait & landscape (e.g. for several issues of Dave Sim's Cerebus "Church & State" run), mega-sized pull-out pages (e.g. recent issue of Fraction & Ward's Ody-C, Mick Inkpen's "Blue Balloon" childrens' book). There's an episode of Alan Moore & JH Williams' Prometheus, and a recent issue of Silver Surfer by Dan Slott & Mike Allred that both used Moebius strip structures - for example.

Early digital comics (i.e. everything that we've seen so far) tend to follow the fixed-page conventions of their paper ancestors, in the same way early movies stuck with a theatrical proscenium arch. In both cases, adhering to the restriction is a security blanket, that will be discarded as the new medium matures.

Scott McCloud coined the term "Infinite Canvas", to describe this new freedom. Drew Weing's "Pup Ponders the Heat Death of the Universe" is the go-to example of this technique, and is funny and deep with it! On an infinite canvas, the user can move around freely, up, down, sideways, to follow the story. One thing I haven't seen explored much yet is the ability to zoom in and out. There was a powerpoint-like tool called "Prezi" that did the rounds of a place I worked at a few years, that made great use of infinite zooming to jazz up business presentations - imagine a comic strip that can be read like these sample presentations. Computer UI guru Jef Raskin, one of the people responsible for the modern GUI, via his early work at Apple, proposed a similar zoomable interface for file management on desktop computers. Google Maps and it's ilk use a zoomable UI too, (and support a rich enough API to tell a story!!).

At the other extreme, it's possible to increase the control over the user's travel. The zooming panels in Scott McCloud's The Right Number, and the regular beats of Bryan Talbot's Metronome expanded edition, comixology's guided view, all walk the reader through the story, one panel at a time.

Impact on Storytelling: Allows the writer to grant more, or less, freedom to the reader. What effect does it have on the reader? Guiding the reader may help to establish a smooth flow. In the case of Metronome, it's done to enforce the rhythm of the story (and the story's very much focused on rhythm). There's a danger of disempowering the reader. On the other hand, giving too much freedom risks losing the thread, and pulling them out of the narrative (which may be intentional, if you're looking to instil a sense of disorientation or unease, but is generally bad news if you're loking to tell a conventional, immersive story).

Type 3: non-linear Narrative

Given an infinite canvas, there's an obvious temptation to "fork" the story, and head off in more than one direction - yep, it's Scott McCloud again. In algorithmic terms, our story is no longer a linear sequence, but a "graph", that is a series of "nodes" (panels) connected by "edges" (paths from one panel to another). Graphs of nodes can be represented visually as series of panels on a flat plane, although not all can do so without edges crossing over. McCloud's early experiments often make the edges explicit (e.g. this), as guidelines between the panels, rather than the standard convention of putting panels right next to one another.

A graph, though, is just a data structure, and can be used to drive other modes of presentation too. There are precedents here in Hypercard, an early software tool for creating non-linear presentations (used heavily in development of the early puzzler game Myst, apparently), and in the paperback adventure books of the 1980's. Two of the demo Electricomics (Sway, and Cabaret Amygdala) use non-linear storytelling, activated by different mechanisms. Sway "forks" the story by tilting the character into the past or future, whereas Cabaret Amygdala uses hyperlinked objects (phones, notebooks, TV screens) as gateways to different pages. Visually, both of these organise the story visually in conventional page-sized chunks - perhaps a wise move to help ground the fledgling electricomic reader in a bit of familiarity?

Remember, the reader, as well as the creators, are very much figuring out this new medium right now. Look at how film storytelling has continued to adapt to an increasingly sophisticated audience, with once-innovative techniques like Nic Roeg's cut-up rapid edits being absorbed into the mainstream storytelling repertoire.

Looking outside comics, we won't find non-linear narratives in movies, but they're a staple in games, of course. Some enhanced comics look/play/whatever?? very like games (e.g. Daniel Merl Goodbrey's "Duck has an Adventure"). Once I'd figured out how to read Sway and Cabaret Amygdala, I frequently felt a bit disoriented, and concerned that I wasn't going to find all the ways through the story. I don't play computer games - maybe if I did, I'd feel more at home here?

At the same time as these kinds of electricomics are currently moving closer to games, there is a growing sub-group of games that are moving closer to comics - typically independent, or small budget, with a greater emphasis on narrative, drama and suspense, and less on action (here are a couple of random examples that I've heard good things about). These games still tend to rely on more fluid animation than you'd find in comics, but are encountering similar issues in straddling the divide between puzzle and immersive narrative. As a storyteller, we want our audience to be immersed within the story. As a puzzle-maker, we need to awaken the critical thinking & logic centres that immersive storytelling needs to suppress. I certainly felt the tension while reading Cabaret Amygdala and Sway - with my attention on figuring out the underlying graph of the story, I don't think I really empathised with the key characters at any point. But, as I said, maybe I'm just showing my age there...

Impact on Storytelling: In short - Immense :)

Other Stuff

As with any good three-point summary, there's a lot that doesn't fit in the three categories. Here's a few more thoughts I'd like to get out of my head and onto the internet...


There's a mature discipline of User Experience testing (UX for short) in software development these days, the findings of which may be useful to Electricomics creators. One key term from UX is "Discoverability" - in the absence of instructions (either because there aren't any, or because the user didn't bother to read them), how easy is it to figure out how to use something? Rules for good discoverability differ greatly depending on how the user uses the tool. Complex, powerful tools of the trade will be expected to be difficult, require training, and time to learn. Apps designed for intermittent or occasional use, such as Dictionaries, calculators and notepads, ought to be intuitive, and require no training to master. Typically, an Electricomic falls into the second category, and it should be obvious how to read it. Again, that's going to depend on the creators' intent, and whether they want to immerse the reader in a story, or challenge them with a puzzle.

Responsive Design

Many ipad/android applications will adjust to either portrait or landscape mode as the tablet is rotated. Android apps in particular need to work on a variety of screen sizes and shapes (well, different kinds of rectangles - star-shaped touchscreens haven't caught on for some reason). The Electricomics demo has wisely side-stepped much of this for it's initial release, by limiting distribution to the iPad, and also by restricting each comic to either landscape or portrait viewing. Within these constraints, it's possible to position panels on the screen with pixel-perfect accuracy, giving the designer easy control over the look, proportions and layout of the story.

Early graphical user interface design tended to position buttons, text boxes etc. pixel-perfect, whereas most modern user interface systems position elements relative to one another, to accommodate a variety of form factors. With a typical user interface, utility is king. Electricomics are a utilitarian user interface and a Work Of Great Art all at once, so the hurdles to adapting to different form factors are significant, but I'd expect some capability to resize dynamically to become part of the toolkit at some point in the future. The hurdles are there, but not unsolvable.

With the rise of mobile devices, touch screens, etc. the practice of "Responsive Design" has been a hot topic in recent years. This goes further than simply shrinking or growing the elements to fit the layout, to actually switching between layouts to match the form factor. Hence an email app might show list and details side by side on a big screen (e.g. tablet), and one or the other as tabs on a smaller screen (e.g. phone).

Could an electricomic take advantage of responsive design? From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, a panel-by-panel guided view such as the digital version of Talbot's Metronome might be a good fit to the smaller form factors, whereas a grid layout would work better on a bigger screen. But could responsive design also be used artistically? Imagine a story that could be read portrait or landscape, in which tilting the screen to portrait mode revealed a wider viewpoint, and details/clues that altered the reader's perception as to characters' motives etc.

On The Fly

There's one final bit of crystal-ball gazing that I want to indulge in, based on the history of the web. Web site design, from one perspective, had three main stages:

  1. in the early days of the web, pages were composed of static words and images, which were authored, then uploaded to a web server.
  2. the content of a web site was held in a database, and assembled into a page of content on request. Most often, images were still retrieved wholesale from a file, but could be created on the fly by a computer program
  3. the web server would deliver a page containing text, images, and code (usually javascript), that could modify the page dynamically, and talk back to the server to fetch more information while staying on the same page

This third model seems to me to be the most interesting path for Electricomics to take. A non-linear narrative could contain a program that generates the story graph in response to a user's actions, rather than being limited to predetermined forks and "jumping off" points. (If this sounds very much like a weird way of describing a computer game, then it's because it is!)

Using modern web technologies, images can be composited and rendered on the fly. What are the storytelling possibilities here, while sticking within the panel-based constraints of a comic? We could:

  • change the tone, colouring of a panel based on some story-based criteria
  • make panels longer, taller or shorter, if the background can be generated dynamically
  • certain characters, props or other visual elements that only appear at certain times of day. How about a ghost story that injects extra scary elements to the plot only after it's got dark outside?! Or only on Christmas Day/Halloween/etc.
  • multi-player stories that change depending on how many other people are reading them, and what they've done
  • a chase scene with different outcomes depending how quickly you swipe from panel to panel

Computer-generated panel layout will be a challenge to artists. Some new freedoms appear, other restrictions will apply too. It is feasible, as proven by early experiments such as Grg Borenstein's "Generated Detective", which uses face detection on random images to work out where to place speech balloons.

It's going to be a wild and interesting ride. And hopefully not all like the one I've described above!

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

One Hundred Days of Hard Tack

An early attempt at exercising my improv toolkit to create a short story from scratch, in an hour. (In the end, it took an hour and a half.) The writing was the hard bit, I feel it could do with more editing, and ended up a bit "Future-Shock" (the short tales with a twist that used to feature in 2000AD), but it was a good way to use up some stale biscuits :) And fun to do.

The models are a couple of participants from last year's Kendal LICAF Improvisation workshop, who were pretending to be a human and an alien, with the human having to explain how apples work.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Electricomics 101

In case you hadn't heard, the Electricomics project launched it's first preview this week, showcasing several demo apps made by "big name" writers and artists that explore the storytelling possibilities of digitally enhanced comics.

The project is much bigger than the demos released this week. The intention is to provide a set of software libraries that can be extended by anyone with the technical chops to create new effects, and a graphical user interface that makes it possible for non-technical users to make use of the effects libraries in the service of storytelling.

I'm not officially involved in the project. I beta-tested the sample app for them, and have chatted to most of the team on twitter at some point. I make comics, and program computers, both well enough to delude myself that I know what I'm talking about. So if you've come here for wild hearsay and uninformed speculation, settle down and make yourself comfy :)

Lowering the Barrier

Digitally enhanced comics are nothing new. Pioneers like Daniel Merl Goodbrey and Scott McCloud have been exploring this space for over ten years, but it's a hard path to walk alone. (If you've been making digital comics, or know any good ones, tweet me a link and I'll add it to the list here).

If you think about it, making traditional comics is already a multi-disciplinary art. A creative team needs to be able to write well, draw well, get along so that the art and writing work together, and master the elusive art of panel-based-storytelling. The world's littered with beautifully-rendered stories that fail to engage, and with engagingly-written stories let down by bad art. Oh, and beautifully finished art that betrays a lack of anatomy, facial subtlety and all those storytelling nuances, beautiful words failing to mesh with beautiful pictures, great art let down by poor lettering, great lettering let down by poor art, etc. Yadda yadda.

Now try adding a bit of digital wizardry into that mix. When corporate behemoths like Microsoft, IBM, Apple et al. can - and frequently do - turn out unusuable, clunky software, what hope has the struggling wannabe-e-comic artist of creating a smooth, engaging experience? To work well - to enhance rather than detract from the storytelling - the user interface has to get out of the way, or suspension of disbelief will follow. The aim of (most) comics is to tell a story, so keeping the reader engaged in the story is of paramount importance.

Electricomics, then, is an attempt to lower the barrier to entry to the under-resourced digital comic artists of the world. It's an open-source, freely available tool. Anyone can download and modify the source code, to improve, extend, and enhance the system. The only constraint is that improvements must also be made freely available to all - no freeloaders adding 2% froth on top and trying to resell the gift to the world. (This is a sensible, time-honoured way of making software, by the way, going back to Richard Stallman's GNU project, which started in the 1980's.)

The Electricomics team - Alan Moore, Leah Moore & John Reppion, the techies at Ocasta Studios (Dan Goodbrey in an advisory role, I believe) - have given a marvellous free gift to the comics world here, and invited us all to join in. So let's do what the internet does with such daring acts of largesse, and whinge about the 10% it doesn't do (yet), without saying "thank you".

I hope those sarcasm-o-meters that are a mandatory part of access to the internet all went off there. In case they didn't, let's pause and raise our glasses to the Electricomics crew, and wish them, and the nascent community, well.


The Toolkit

Ok, so what's in the box, then?

The editor program, used by creatives to make comics, will run on Windows and Mac. (And Linux should be possible, I'm guessing, with a bit of community help perhaps to stick a suitable wrapper around things...). The editor hasn't been released yet, I'll report on it when it has...

The sample comics to read are available only on iPad for now, and only on recent iPads too, I think. That's caused a few howls, and I've done my tooth-gnashing about it too, but got over it now. The iPad-only bit is quite a thin wrapper of code. The core engine is written in Javascript, and HTML5, an open, ubiquitous technology that can easily be wrapped up for Android, web pages, and whatever else. The initial iPad only launch was a matter of limited resources and expedience, not tribal loyalty or elitism.

I'll review the comics themselves in a follow-up post in a few days time.

And, let's stop to look at what's not in the box.

Electricomics is not an app store. It isn't a Comixology or Sequential of interactive comics, although it could be used as a component in one, maybe run by Ocasta & co, maybe by Sequential or Comixology. Hey, maybe even by you? The standard format for an electricomic has been published in draft, meaning that comics can be created, and distributed by their creators howsoever they wish - as iPad/Android apps, on the web, for download, etc. The project has delivered a very flexible starting point, which is, in my opinion, the right way to go.


It's easy to get excited by the tech. It's easy to make frothy pronouncements about liberating comics from the printed page, bringing comics into the 21st Century, etc. I think comics are having a pretty liberated time right now, in the 21st Century, to be honest. Most of the comics I make are digitally created, and restricted to that static image/fixed page size thang so I can sell the as physical books. I'm not going to throw my existing workflows away shouting "hot damn, you're so last year!" and turn into a tilt-n-twist storyteller overnight. But I'm certainly going to have a good play.

Also, I think the jury's out on whether the things that Electricomics will help us create are comics or not. A good analogy is the growing culture of intelligent story-driven and indie games. These games aren't liberating movies from linear narrative, they're something else. Electricomics and their predecessors are something else too. Something with a potential to be fascinating and engaging in their own right.

And we're in a very early stage of exploring these right now. The sample app barely scratches the surface of what's possible (that's not a dig - it'd be rather boring if they had done everything one could do with the medium at the first attempt). The open source nature of the system, and publication of a standard format, is strategically brilliant, in my biased, deluded and uninformed opinion.

I think the next few months could be rather interesting.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

On potboilers and literary merit

A lot of 1's and 0's have been hurled into the internet void already over Jonathan Jones' ill-advised and disrespectfully rude piece in the Guardian on Terry Pratchett, literature, snobbery and whatever else it was about. Some goods words written here and here, and undoubtedly elsewhere. Time to chuck in a few observations of my own. I'll try to be brief.

First off, a disclaimer - I'm something of a snob regarding books (films, comics, cereal packets etc.). I like my stories difficult and troublesome on the whole. My all-time favourite book, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, is written in an imaginary language,  just to provide a yardstick. But then, I program computers for a living, I like doing crossword puzzles. I'm not altogether comfortable if I know what's going on. So, at some level, I can get where he's coming from.

The ability, and desire, to absorb oneself in an imaginary world that abides by it's own rules, is pretty much classic geek stuff. I think a lot of us have strong opinions of what we do and don't like / respect.

On Pride, and Prejudice

Jones appears to be a different kind of snob - one with more of an eye to his audience. When he talks of only recently reading Jane Austen, he describes the shame he feels. I don't get where he's coming from here, I don't feel shame (or pride) about what I have or haven't read. I'm not stubborn about it, I'll take recommendations from people, but I don't feel that I "ought" to be reading something because everyone else is. (Disclaimer - I haven't read many Discworld novels, just a few early ones. I gather I'm in for a treat when I get round to catching up...) Anyway, it feels like too much attention on the peer group/audience can only detriment the attention one's actually paying to the work itself, which is surely what counts? (Is it? More on that at the end.)

(Apologies to Jane Austen for cheap pun above, couldn't resist. Nothing personal, I've enjoyed some of her books, and film adaptations...)

On Magic and Reality

Second observation, quickly - his choice of who does count as gravitas-laden titans of literature is intriguing, not for what it says about him, but about the acceptance of genre fiction and it's conventions. He refers to the recent deaths of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (I've read his stuff, FWIW) & Gunter Grass (I've not read his stuff, FWIW), both of whom work firmly in the magical realist tradition, as far as I'm aware. As an unoriginal geek snob, this is where I tend to pitch my tent, with works that use fantasy or sci-fi elements to discuss reality, and I can distinctly remember pushing Marquez' work as a sterling example of "real literature" with a fantasy element on various authority figures in the 1980's, only to be told that he was not (to paraphrase Gilbert Norrell) a respectable author. It seems kind of revealing that our notion of "timeless" classics changes so quickly. Also at odds with the emphasis on realism as a good thing that he stresses elsewhere (the title of the piece starts "Get Real", and he lauds Austen for her description of "the complex real social world of regency England" - arguably of a narrow upper-class slice of that world, and attempts such as Pinter's film to add grit to Austen haven't really worked IMHO).

I'll finish with an almost complete aside - as I recall, the argument about Marquez' literary merits is played out in Gilbert Hernandez' excellent Human Diastrophism (the teacher that Heraclio is lift-sharing with poo-poo's him as "exotic" or "irrelevant" or some such). This is not the most relevant clip, but only one I can find online at short notice (Carmen's reading "100 Years of Solitude", and later throws it in a river, if memory serves...):

I'm not having a dig at Marquez' writing here, and neither is Hernandez. That's what the people in the story do, because of who they are.

Anyway, this leaves me wondering about the social versus personal extremes of literary appreciation. Jones seems to read in order to get the validation of his peers. For me, reading's a solitary activity. It feels like we're two extreme ends of a spectrum here, and maybe sanity lies in the middle somewhere? Popular writers like Pratchett (and Neil Gaiman, and Douglas Adams, to pick two more names OTOH) certainly seem to have generated positive, supportive communities around their writing, and being a part of that community, through having read, and talked about, their books, seems eminently healthy to me.

But what do I know? Why do you read what you do?

Tuesday, 1 September 2015