Commentary

Defending The Artistic Line

"I think this is a fetish of yours," my fiancée says as we pack and unpack books for the great integration of our post-wedding life together. She means the comic strip and comic book archives.

"It's not like you're  finding a porn collection," I protest. 

"It's kinda weirder, actually. You have a wall of literary criticism with titles I can't even pronounce - 'post-whatsis-ism?' -- and then a bigger wall of Dick Tracy, Popeye, Little Orphan Annie, Tales from the Crypt and Creepy. Who the hell are you?"

An unrepentant fan boy of the great cartoon arts, actually. There is a connection to mobile media in all of this, by the way. One of the underappreciated genres of mobile apps and the mobile Web is line art. Understandably, the lushness of high-res LCD small screens invites photo-galleries. Magazine publishers tell me they themselves have been surprised at how deeply users will drill into galleries if you give them the material in digital magazine apps.

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But both magazine and newspaper media have other, older legacies that are worth retrieving as the mobile and tablet app platforms search for some of their most expressive and effective formats. Make no mistake, while apps are stepchildren of Web-based and print experiences, they likely do constitute a discrete new form that deserves its own unique media. The devices focus our attention on a screen that is filled edge to edge with content presented in high contrast and high resolution.

Media historians like to invoke Marshall McLuhan to show that every new medium shamelessly steals from the last great medium before it finds its own native forms. Actually, media is more interesting than this. Most new platforms are at their best when they retrieve from even older media. Early TV didn't mimic film so much as it revived vaudeville, sketch comedy and performance arts. The first TV stars, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar and Lucille Ball, had middling film careers at best, and some of them were actually better stage talents. Likewise, the app medium may be at its most intriguing when it reaches back before the Web and experiments with formats that some have left for almost-dead.  

What is a media maker to do with an app viewer who has such focus and heightened attention to detail? Photos work well, of course. But for my money, I find myself even more engaged by those screens with human drawings. The hand-drawn line has human intention embedded in every pixel in a way a photo does not. And frame by frame, that style of expression is retained and advanced. Wind your way through a frame-by-frame rendering of King Feature's DailyInk app on the iPhone, where a master draftsman like George McManus and his "Bringing Up Father vintage series is shown to full effect. In terms of scale, even on a cell phone, the line art is larger and more absorbing that it often appears on printed pages or even on the Web. Even if you aren't a comics fetishist like me, it's clear that illustration has tremendous impact and promise to engage and narrate in this medium.  

Arguably, the engagement of mobile displays pays off even more handsomely for illustration than for photographs, but few advertisers have caught on. Some of the highest-grossing iPad apps are from Marvel, DC, and comics aggregator and comics app engine maker Comixology. Some of the most involving book apps are frame-by-frame guided views of graphic novels like Frank Miller's "SIN" series. Children's book publishers like Oceanhouse Media and its Dr. Seuss digital books have caught on. A fascinating digital motion comic for iPad called "Superrare" recreates that format on the mobile screen. And guided-viewing comics apps like Comixology work extremely well even on smartphones, because they heighten our focus on each frame of the artwork.      

"I retract the question," my fiancee is quick to follow up on her original question. "I feel a lecture coming on, Professor."

Well, yeah, but I will make it short. As any child who reads comics or watches animation well knows, illustration is uniquely absorbing. These artists create worlds with simple lines. Look at a standard newspaper comic strip back page and witness the diversity of world views defined by the individual styles of these authors. The thickness of the line, the unique gravity and weight of figures in the frame, the communication of time and pace just in the space between frames, all define worlds we fall into for a few seconds. Nothing in all of popular or high art is quite like this kind of expressiveness. Great comics artists like Bill Waterson ("Calvin and Hobbes") understood that the scale of the image was integral to the aesthetic impact of comics for this very reason, and he fought much of his professional life against the shrinking of "funnies pages."

Mobile apps actually have a unique capacity to reinvigorate what waning media discarded. For marketers, there is an overlooked narrative mode available here that can tell engaging stories in a way that maps perfectly with the medium.

And as if on cue (and to remind me why I am marrying her) my beloved arches an eyebrow cartoonishly, waits a beat with the comic timing of the signature silent third frame in a "Doonesbury" strip, and says, "Is this going to be on the test?"

1 comment about "Defending The Artistic Line".
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  1. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, April 5, 2011 at 1:31 p.m.

    Comic strips apps have been a game changer for me, since as a loyal NYT and FT reader, I get no comics. Now I get daily feeds of Doonesbury, etc., and in color, too!

    Is "American Flagg" on the iPad yet?

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