Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Blog 9: Designing Graphic eTextbooks,
Part 2: Developing the Visuals

            As with Blog #8 that dealt with creating the text for graphic eTextbooks, I am not going to write a blog about how to draw them. What this blog will look at is how artists can adapt the sequential art medium to the digital platform. Remember, what is relevant today will, undoubtedly, change in another three years (if not sooner) as technology changes, so adaptability is key.

Aspect Ratios

            Currently, converting comic books to a digital platform has meant simply slapping the pages on the screen as is even though the viewing space is smaller than the print version. The aspect ratio (the ratio of width-to-height) of print comic books directly impacts how they are viewed digitally. Modern comic books measure 6.625" x 10.25", which means they have an aspect ratio of 1:55. Kindle Fire HD 8.9, Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7, and Google Nexus 7 all have an aspect ratio of 1:6, which is very close to that of comic books. Even though the ipad 3 has better resolution, its aspect ratio is 1:33, which means comic books viewed on the ipad screen have extra dead space on the sides. Aesthetically, the ipad loses out on single pages, but it makes up for it on double-page spreads where the aspect ratio is 1:29 (albeit the pages are even smaller). Designing artwork for digital viewing becomes even more “interesting” when publishers, such as DC Comics, make exclusive contracts for certain books with specific tablet manufacturers (Marvel Comics’ exclusive is with one distributor, but across multiple platforms). What is important to understand about aspect ratios is not only how they affect the art, but that you need to ask the publisher what devices the eTextbook will be read on, so you can design pages that take full advantage of the view screen.

Page Design

            Sequential artists should realize that there is a tremendous amount of flexibility available to them when designing eTextbooks (ones with no print version). The first question artists need to ask the writing team (the subject author, and the graphic narrative writer – see Blog #8) is, “Do you want this designed in a portrait or landscape format?” Flipping the orientation of a tablet is easy, but it becomes annoying very quickly, and for educational texts it would certainly be a distraction. I will not say that it should never be done, but selecting one primary orientation from the start would be best. Most of the eTextbooks I have seen are landscape designed, but that is probably because they were initially created with desktop or laptop monitors in mind (and for 2-page spread print versions too). The creative team needs to determine from the beginning what the key visuals are, and what is the best way to incorporate them into the story.

            I mentioned in Blog #7 that “I believe the medium will need to focus less on traditional page design and more on screen/panel design.” Before the mid-1960s, original comic book art pages measured 14” x 21.” In an effort to save money on paper, the page size for original art was reduced to 11” x 16” (or 11” x 17”). An interesting consequence of reducing the paper size meant that now the entire page fit comfortably within the artist’s peripheral vision. Though long-established, dynamic artists like Jack Kirby had a harder time adapting their style to the smaller (constrained) size, other artists, such as Neal Adams and Jim Steranko, began experimenting with innovative page layouts. However, smaller and smaller screen sizes have a direct impact on visual storytelling, and the way sequential artists have designed pages since the 1960s has to change. Certainly, tablets are better vehicles for storytelling than their smaller counterparts. While I would never recommend designing graphic eTextbooks for phones, I would like to see them used in conjunction with tablets for storing and sharing digital notepads. That way if you are on a bus or walking to class you can simply study the notes for your test on your phone. The most important aspect of all graphic eTextbooks that artists need to realize is that above all else the storytelling must be clear, so there is no question about the information being taught.

Native vs. Non-native Sequential Art Readers

            Native and Non-native readers are my terms for people who have grown up reading comic books, and those that have not. I have been “reading” comic books since I was five years old, so, initially, I had a hard time understanding why readers new to the medium had trouble following panel-to-panel continuity. Even reading the more elaborately designed pages was, for me, intuitive. Understanding Sequential Art is similar to understanding a new languageit is a learned skill (see McCloud). The problem; however, was how do we get older readers to “read” graphic narratives, and enjoy the experience.

            Apps, such as the one provided by Comixology, include a Guided View option that navigates the reader through the eComic panel-by-panel. I have heard Native readers express that they have a problem with this for aesthetic reasons. The argument is that creators design a page to be experienced as a single visual, so chopping it up into digestible bits has the same appeal as watching a film adapted to a full screen television via pan-and-scan editing. How much of this resistance is aesthetic, and how much is due to the tech I do not know, but for these people I will simply suggest that they only view the eComic page-by-page. Guided View, in my opinion, is a great boon to Non-native readers because it is a shortcut to learning the language of Sequential Art. Eventually, Non-native readers become “fluent” in reading Sequential Art, so anything that helps in making the transition effortless and more enjoyable is a plus.

The Need for Coloring Graphic eTextbooks

            Since the cost of printing is no longer a problem this is a no-brainer—color them! Yes, there is an initial up front cost for coloring, but 1) they will be more appealing, and 2) you will be competing against other, well-designed, colorful eTextbooks.

A Word About Digital Art

            One downside to Digital Art for artists is that, once completed, there is no physical copy to sell. Unless artists begin with a physical piece of art, scan it, and finish it digitally, or begin digitally, print it, and then finish it they have nothing physical to show for their efforts. This adds a new wrinkle to the legacy of “starving artists.” Another downside is that editors, art directors, and designers love Digital Art because they can manipulate it effortlessly. They can recolor it, warp it, wrap it, and/or crop it any way they want in order for it to meet the needs of the commodity it is selling. And while this is essentially the way commercial art has always been handled, prior to the digital age art changes had (almost always) been handled by the artist. At the very least they were consulted. The digital age has brought with it a new level of disrespect towards artists. Many fail to realize that it is the creative genius of the artist that is being exploited, and not just a piece of art. All Art, after all, is an intellectual property.

            Before closing, I want to address the philosophical prejudices towards Digital Art. You cannot debate these prejudices from a position of passion (as many of us do), but, while I love the piece of Digital Art shown above by Jon Foster, there are those who would dismiss all Digital Art simply because it is digital. Logic must be debated with logic, and by using philosophy’s rhetoric to state the case. The following are my thoughts on why the essence of Digital Art is no different than any other form of Art. While this essay will certainly not end the discussion, my hope is that someone more scholarly than I, more steeped in philosophy than I, and more eloquent than I, will continue the debate. Hypokeimenon of Silicon is my term for where Digital Art exists. I will admit that I like its alliteration. At least check out the definition below! ;-)

 The Hypokeimenon of Silicon:
Unconcealing the Essence of Digital Art
Through an “Opening of Our Vision”

Hypokeimenon: The core of things around which everything else assembles. Think of it as Greek for Captain America (core) and The Avengers (Assemble).

            “The most wonderful thing about Tiggers, is Tiggers are wonderful things.” Things-in-themselves and things that appear–things and their truth (aletheia) through the act of unconcealing their being (sharing their essence) are the core of Martin Heidegger’s treatise, The Origin of the Work of Art. Within the block of granite the truth of Michelangelo’s David emerged. That which was not of David was chipped away while that which was of David was unconcealed. What a lucky block of rock! It must be discouraging for all of those beautiful blocks of granite in The Rock of Ages quarry in Vermont to know that the most they can ever hope to be is a great-looking tombstone. They must (dare I say it) be crushed.  

            Heidegger challenges the traditional belief that truth belongs solely to logic, encouraging us to set aside pseudo-concepts by breaking down the boundaries of our perceptions through an opening of our vision (Heidegger, 2002). To that end, we must determine what the current pseudo-concepts are surrounding Digital Art, what truth is it conveying to us, and what are the barriers of our perceptions that keep us from seeing that truth?

            There are several philosophical arguments against Digital Art. First, Digital Art is ephemeral, not physical; it is considered archival rather than artistic (Marchese & Marchese, 1995). If Art is part of being then must it always be physical? Digital Art is brought to our perception by way of a complex tool in a process that is analogous to the way sheet music is brought to our perception. Music is ephemeral yet it is still Art. Both Digital Art and music are ontological; however, their true essence comes from the sharing of it, and in each participant’s dynamic act of unconcealing. Should Digital Art’s ephemerality necessitate its exclusion as Art, or does society need to adjust its understanding of what Art may be, or, more importantly, what we need to allow Art to evolve into?

            Further, Sean Cubitt argues that the processual nature of Digital Art makes it incomplete, imperfect, thus prohibiting achievement of pure presence (Cubitt, 2000). Even after they are “finished” artists rarely consider a work complete, since Art is an ongoing process of unconcealing. It is the way many artists are wired. It is then erroneous to assume that pure presence necessitates completion or perfection. Can we in our imperfection create anything that is perfect? Can anything that is perfect be physical? If either case were true, Art would have ceased to be created long ago, since any “post-perfection” Art would have nothing new to reveal.

            According to Walter Benjamin only the original physical work of Art can have an “Aura” (Benjamin, 1968). However, Douglas Davis argues, “Here is where the aura resides—not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise” (Douglas, 1995). If we acknowledge ephemerality as part of Digital Art’s basic nature (in much the same way ephemerality is part of music’s basic nature) then we can accept that Digital Art needs to be mimetic via instrumentation just as music needs to be mimetic via instrumentation.

            Kant believed that the ‘task’ or process is the aesthetic core of Art. If Art speaks for itself then shouldn’t aesthetic-based judgments be based solely on Art, which can be shared, and not a ‘task’ that, once executed, cannot? If we consider Heidegger, the artist cannot be defined as a tool because “A man is not a thing” (Heidegger, 1960). Thus the work of Art becomes the conduit while the artist remains as an intelligent individual whose relationship to the transcendental sphere is that of symbiotic ecstasy. What is unconcealed to us in Art comes from what the artist wishes to reveal after the act of creation is completed.

            Computers do not uproot us from our native habitat—a major philosophical argument against the use of technology. In fact, the whole concept of home computers is antithetical to removing people from their habitat, and even though laptops have changed our mobility we still congregate around WiFi Hotspots. Cyberspace has become a communal gathering place where artists can share their work globally. Artists need no longer live, work, and die in obscurity when those who seek the truth in their Art are only a few keystrokes and an uplink away. The Internet allows for Art to be unconcealed anywhere—thus unframing the world in a process of anti-gestell.

            If we acknowledge that the ultimate source of Digital Art’s essence (Wesen) comes from the transcendental sphere and not the Technik then we can conclude that a computer’s requirement for electricity in order to run the program(s) that bring Digital Art to our perceptions is simply an aspect of its nature. Yet there are those who would dispute this argument and say that Digital Art’s source is not the same as all other art. If we disavow the belief that Digital Art’s source is different from all other works of art then we must also disavow Michelangelo’s Neo-Platonic belief that the statue of David existed in the marble prior to his ever setting chisel to stone.

            In his unconcealment of essence Michelangelo found a truth that expressed itself as the David statue. If the David statue existed in the marble in 1500 C.E. then it was there when Agostino di Duccio began work on “the giant” some forty years earlier–only di Duccio could not find it. If the David statue pre-existed within the block of marble then it was in the mountain that the block came from, in the limestone from which the marble was formed, in the skeletons of the sea creatures that created the limestone, in the plants that fed the sea creatures and, ultimately, in the energy of the sun that nurtured those plants. At what point does the essence of a work of art become “essence?” Did Art’s essence begin at the beginning of the universe or was it there before the Big Bang? Are the laborers in the quarry, the horses pulling the cart, the trees from which the boards of the scaffolding were cut all part of the David statue’s unconcealment? Can it be said that Michelangelo was predestined to carve “the giant” because of his vision, his unique relationship to the transcendental sphere? Since the computer is powered by electricity from a source originating in nature then one must conclude that the essence of Digital Art ultimately comes from the same source as the David statue. Electricity flows through the core of the computer assembling the properties of a work of Digital Art so that its truth may be unconcealed. It is a Hypokeimenon of Silicon whose essence was birthed in the stars.

            We are engaged in a dialectic, which, because of staunch traditionalism, refuses to accept innovation as an evident synthesis. Digital Art is ephemeral, it lacks pure presence and it is mimetic. That is its nature; not its essence, and certainly not its truth. Its essence lies in how it manifests itself to the viewer, and its truth lies in what the viewer finds through a dynamic act of unconcealing. It is an essence and a truth that are no longer bound by a tradition of physicality.

Topics for Discussion

1) What other problems are there with developing graphic eTextbooks?

2) Do you think graphic eTextbooks should be formatted for phones, or is that screen too small when it comes to learning graphic subject material?

Next Blog: The Origins of Prejudice Towards Illustration

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