While the number of panels weren’t huge, comics as well as comics creators and fans were much in evidence at this year’s SXSW Interactive festival. From comics-identified culture stars like filmmaker Robert Rodriguez to comics writers Greg Rucka and Greg Pak, the medium was celebrated, cited for an ability to creatively engage readers in a hyper-visual culture, integrated into SXSW programming and hailed as a critical aspect of contemporary culture and storytelling.
Looking for and finding comics at SXSW was a world apart from my tongue-in-cheek search at the Consumer Electronics Show back in January. (Take note: this story is about twice as long.) Not surprisingly, there’s lots of overlap between comics and digital culture and the creative engagement and simpatico between the two was clearly evident. There was everything from a high profile public interview of Sin City co-director Robert Rodriguez and writer Greg Rucka to panels urging programmers to use the visual organization of classic comics to design apps to panels about using comics to teach math.
Even the keynote speech by 4chan founder Christopher “Moot” Poole emphasized the influence of manga and comics on the founding of 4chan, the often controversial anonymous image/text message board, and his new online graphical venture Canvas is focused on bringing people together to share and manipulate their favorite images, images that are often comics or related to comics. Cartoonist and neo-burlesque illustrator Molly Crabapple provided the illustration for the SXSW tote bag and Jeff “Jah Furry” Newelt, comics editor of Heeb magazine and Smithmag.com and impresario of the Pekar Project, was on the scene and pointed us toward a bunch of great parties. Indeed, SXSW has a kind of comics vibe to it—not surprising at an event catering to Young Technology Nation—and can hold its own with MoCCA or with San Diego or New York Comic Con when it comics to folks wandering the halls with self-published comics and cleverly designed T-shirts.
Certainly the comics highlight of SXSW Interactive was the appearance of Rodriguez and Rucka in conversation with producer Howard Gertler. Held in a mammoth hall, the event drew a big crowd (although, unlike what would likely happen in San Diego or New York, the talk was not totally sold-out) for a terrific conversation on adapting comics “for broad audiences” which in this case meant into films. Rodriquez talked about collaborating with Frank Miller to create the Sin City film, a mega hit and cultural touchstone for translating comics to film. While Rucka, who did not write the screen play for White Out, a generally disappointing film and clearly less than a hit, talked about the ups and downs (mostly downs) of watching it being made and the usual problems writers must deal with when working with Hollywood studios.
A former student cartoonist while attending the University of Texas (which functions as a kind of institutional patron saint of SXSW), Rodriguez was funny and smart and a straight-up, although somewhat untraditional, comics nerd. He took great pains during the talk to detail his love of Frank Miller comics and Sin City in particular, as well as the path it took to the screen, to distinguish it from other kinds of comics. Rodriquez said he was obsessed with Sin City and Frank Miller—the book is essentially a movie on paper, he said—and for awhile only bought new issues of the Sin City comics, “never knowing I’d make a movie. The pictures in the book tell so much and go hand in hand with the story.”
Rodriquez said the Sin City graphic novels are so faithfully transferred to film that the movie doesn’t even have a screenplay credit—Sin City is an anthology film that combines Miller’s three books and Rodriquez himself edited down Miller’s dialogue for the film, using his prose virtually verbatim. Even the act of pitching the film to a studio—Rodriguez is produced by the Weinstein Brothers who got behind the picture right away—was very different from the usual studio pitch. “I don’t ask studios for permission,” he said, “it’s fuck or walk. I let them know a know a train is coming through and they’ve got a few minutes to decide if they want to jump on.” Rucka, on the other hand, had virtually no involvement in the making of White Out, and while he clearly wasn’t crazy about the picture, said he dealt with the situation by saying ”They weren’t making White Out, they were making a movie called White Out.”
Rucka was particularly outspoken about the relationship between Hollywood studios and the production of superhero films, charging the studios with being ashamed of making them, “the big studios are embarrassed by superheroes movies and their success will only continue if they manage to get by without effectively apologizing for making a superhero film.” He emphasized that for films about Superman or Batman, “there’s such a broad range of stories about these heroes, their characterization is more important that any specific story. Fidelity to the character is what will make or break the movie.”
Despite appearing at a digital conference, Rucka was downright hostile to digital comics and made it a point to shoot them and the iPad down during the Q&A. “I’m not a big fan of digital stuff,” he said, dismissing the fact that the iPad allows a reader to easily see a full comics page, while holding out for a device that would in effect open like a book. “Reading a comic is a complex act and a digital comic does not replicate that act,” he said. “The eye takes in the page and then the panels and apps can’t replicate that.” After asking the audience how many of them still bought traditional comic books, or “floppies,” and seeing almost no hands raised, he said, “Floppies are not doing well, but digital distribution will not save comics.” A somewhat strange ending indeed to a nevertheless, lively public discussion on comics by two charismatic creators.
But there was much more. Greg Pak, award winning comics writer and creator of popular Marvel character Amadeus Cho, was part of a panel on Public Media, presenting his self-published and free graphic novel Vision Machine, which was produced with a Ford Foundation grant under a creative commons license that allows anyone to remix or recreate the work for noncommercial display. The story of the book outlines a dystopian future driven by a new commercial digital application, iEye, special eyeware that allows anyone to record and edit whatever they see and hear—with the catch that everything is monitored and regulated. It’s Augmented Reality on steroids and anticipates a world that isn’t that farfetched. Like a lot of great science fiction purporting to be about the future, the books is really a look at a contemporary world in uproar about copyright, ownership and digital distribution. The Vision Machine offers a world of pervasive copyright where even humming a tune while walking down the street requires a licensing fee. Pak’s comic as well as its creative commons license offers the public a chance to not only talk about these issues but participate by putting his comic to creative and legal use.
In the panel, What Comics books Can Teach Mobile Application Designers, Information technology consultant Anjuan Simmons outlined the ways in which comics in general—comics and mobile devices are held in the hand and must combine text and images seamlessly—and Jack Kirby’s classic comics page layouts in particular, are often an ideal model for app designers looking for clarity, utility and ways “to create a bond between your company and the user.” And comics were cited for their ability to engage and encourage students in the classroom. Educator John Baird’s presentation, Interactive Comics: Techniques to Enhance Math Education, showed off his Create a Comic Project, which gives students templates of drawing and comics panels without text, and lets students write the dialogue. It’s an extension of the Math Writing movement and Baird also held up books like Logicomix, a graphic bio philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell, as useful examples and supplementary texts in a presentation on using comics as both passive and interactive learning tools.
The list goes on. Comics and manga as well as comics related mediums like anime and gaming were often a part of panels that were not necessarily about comics per se. And even the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather got into the graphical act with Ogilvy Notes, an impressive program to graphically document selected panels, that used a team of six artists to create “viz notes,” cleverly done, large scale, comics-like drawings improvised and created on-the-spot that essentially visually recreate discussions and keynote speeches. Ogilvy produced nearly a hundred of these phenomenal drawings and are distributing them for free.
In addition to everything else it does, SXSWi offered a small scale haven for comics that examined their formal qualities and the medium’s ability to bridge the gap between between paper and print publication and visual storytelling, digital delivery and a new generation of readers who have grown up consuming content on big and small screens. If it sounds like I’ve drunk the SXSW kool-aid—Kool, there’s that word again—you’re probably right. What do you think? How long before there’s an official SXComix?