Friday, September 23, 2011

I tried Dark Horse Digital the other day and I didn't die!

That's right.  I've entered the digital age of comic book consumption.  No more glossy covers and the ever-present danger of receiving a paper cut so severe I have to go to the emergency room and risk contracting that nasty flesh-eating bacteria strain our local hospitals are rife with.  The only reflections interfering with the pure joy of reading a comic book are the ones on the monitor glass, instead of on the shiny, coated paper.  But I'm only reading Dark Horse's free digital offerings because I'm broke.  No money.  Zilch.

My first digital comic?  The first issue of Gilberto Hernandez's Speak of the Devil, which begins as the mysterious story of a young gymnast who dons a smiling devil mask and black clothes to spy on her neighbors.  Why is she doing this?  Who are all these people?  At first it seems Hernandez has simply created an intriguing little world, kind of insular and suburban with a lot of those bizarre touches he brings to his Love and Rockets stories-- the ones with all the nude sex with naked people having sex with other naked people without any clothes on.

Obviously, there's a lot more to Gilberto Hernandez than just nekkid getting-it-onness.  His Palomar stories form a multi-generational epic with dozens of richly developed characters spread out over time and place.  Speak of the Devil eventually turns into a story about an ultraviolent crime spree.  I know this because I read one other issue of this in print form several years ago.  I bought it relatively cheap during the Free Comic Day sale at Blister when it was in Harajuku, something I'd completely forgotten until researching a little more about Speak of the Devil for this blog post and coming across a very negative review.  Somehow I'd blocked it out of my mind.

Ordinarily, ultra-violent killings stick with you.

Lesson learned?  When you're reading the works of a writer-artist who created as one of his early signature characters a stigmatic punk, did some X-rated work during the early 90s porn comic boom and recently sent a couple of low-rent Martin and Lewis imitators to an alien world, you have to expect dark twists and turns from time to time.  Hernandez has never been one to shy away from depicting the lows of human behavior along with the highs.  I've never known him to wimp out on a story.  Also, along with his more calculated work, he has this kind of experimental, stream-of-consciousness mode where he follows characters all through the various shock corridors down which they care to traipse.  I get the idea the stories are telling themselves and Hernandez is only recording them with his brush.  And I, for one, love stream-of-consciousness and surrealism.

Speak of the Devil is as twisted as any of the other more experimental stories he's written, those surreal tales of decadence and violence that would make David Lynch go, "Whoa, careful there, buddy" and tug uncomfortably at his collar?  The first issue reminds me of Blue Velvet and its small town with so many secret bedroom worlds of drugs and violence uncovered by a protagonist with a strong voyeuristic streak.  The other issue was more like Natural Born Killers, with more killing added.

This is particularly fitting because it's also a metatextual tale, the "true story" behind a movie in which one of his characters-- Fritz from High Soft Lisp and other stories-- stars.  In his poem "The Two," W.H. Auden writes of a green field coming off like a lid, "revealing what was much better hid," but Gilberto Hernandez has no problem showing us these things in startling clarity with his clean, direct artwork.

But yeah, digital comics.  What about those?

It took me a few minutes of clicking back and forth to figure out the interface.  This isn't a flaw in the design; it's the product of my technical incompetence.  At first I was frustrated with these dark bars covering some of the dialogue at the top of the page.  Eventually, I learned these go away when you move the cursor to certain spots on the screen.  The drawbacks are eye strain from staring at a computer screen and the intense isolation of each panel which detracts a bit from context and storytelling.  When you read a printed comic book, you're still aware of the relationship of the panel you're currently reading to the others around it, and its size and shape within that relationship affects the "cinematic" feel of a page-- that the events are unfolding as actions, rather than as a grouping of related but frozen tableaux.  With the Dark Horse interface, this effect is almost-- but not quite-- eliminated, creating a stronger focus on the panel.  You end up absorbing more information from it, at the cost of most of what you'd get from the whole page. 

You can look at the entire page, but it appears very small and the text is unreadable.  I can see this eventually affecting storytelling in much the same way the increasing popularity of trade collections caused writers to telescope their stories into arcs and pace them so the story beats fall with certain financially-desirable page counts.  With the best writers and really compelling story arcs, you're not losing a whole lot.  With hacks, you're actually getting ripped off if you bother with the monthly magazines because they're padding; you're getting less storytelling for your three bucks.  But then again, they're hacks so their stories by definition can be no better than mediocre and therefore aren't worth reading in any format.

When writing print comics that companies will also publish digitally, writers and artists might choose proportional rectangular panels of various sizes for different effect, and asymmetrical or odd-shaped panels-- or in our best-case scenario, even the current lazy-ass "widescreen" pages with lots of squished horizontals-- could become a thing of the past-- who wants to put just a section of a panel on a page?  Or two out of an action sequence of four?  That would severely inhibit e-readability!  But with planning, the skilled creators could still get various pacing and impact effects on the printed page and intensify them for e-version, which would result in something closer to the weird hybrid of literature and movies the best comics usually are.   Even now it feels like a failure of imagination to make web comics and constrain yourself with the pretense that you're making a printed page.  Although I may do that one day myself.

But how will these new comics that work both in print and digitally come about?  Don't look at me!  When someone gifted beyond my kindergarten-level artistic skill and thought process decides to pull an Orson Welles and gifts us with the Citizen Kane of digital comics, then we'll all know.

Actually, do look at me!  'Cuz I can dance!  Check it!  Woo hoo!


F (iBebels) said...

Once you experience digital comics on a tablet (such as an iPad), you will feel better about the digital comic experience. It's a much more natural way of reading digital comics, because you're not just sitting there staring at a monitor. The colors and artwork just jump from the screen in digital format and I find it quite breathtakingly beautiful.

I made the jump almost a year ago and haven't looked back.

Joel Bryan said...

Well, I'm about to enter a situation where print comics will be extremely difficult to come by, so getting a tablet and going totally digital might be a necessity. So thanks for the info and the nice comment!