Is it Comics?: An Interesting Fence-Sitter

Got this in the mail last night:

My name is Ira Marcks. I am a cartoonist from NY who recently collaborated with Jake Lodwick (founder of Vimeo) on an experimental illustration/animation project.

It’s sort of like a 45 minute music video with one sliding frame. But it’s also like a graphic novel told in a single, 50 foot long panel.

I settled on the term ‘Illustrative Score’ to describe the project and it’s method.

Check out Ira and Jake’s stimulating results here (and Ira’s personal site here).

And when you’re done, I’d be curious to hear your reactions to the old “Is it Comics?” question. Not a technical debate comparing it to this or that definition (though I’m sure those will come up), just gut reactions. Does this feel like comics to you?

I’m curious, because I’m totally on the fence!

Anyway, cool stuff regardless of what we call it.

Discussion (26)¬

  1. That’s really quite intriguing. Reminds me in certain respects of the Zoomquilt project (http://zoomquilt2.madmindworx.com/zoomquilt2.swf), as it uses “camera motion” in place of the discrete frames commonly employed in comic book art.

    Both those instances are unlike comics in taking the reins of control away from the reader. We readers of comic books are usually in control: we turn the pages, we can “cheat” time by scan forward or backward, and then return to the “present moment” to read more closely. In Zoomquilt as here the reader becomes mute witness to scenes that unroll before our eyes, rather more in the manner of watching a film than reading a book.

    • But in Zoomquilt, the reader DOES control the flow of information. You zoom in or out at your leisure. That’s how it’s designed to be explored. That’s why I say Zoomquilt is comics and this is not.

  2. It’s not a comic. It’s a fine piece of art, though. I don’t think the comic medium includes a looping event. It would keep it from having a beginning, middle and end which robs it of its story.

    You can imply that a story loops, like the end of the book might consist of the first panel of the same story to show that all things are circular, but the loop is experienced and dramatic in one direction for one reading.

    What’s weird is that if these weren’t loops, I’d consider them within the comics medium. There is a loose sequence of events. Done.

    • Scott says:

      That’s a fascinating distinction, Doug. I’d considered the control issue brought up by Chuck (above), but hadn’t considered looping an issue.

    • Ira Marcks says:

      It’s interesting that you remark on the looping, Doug. I didn’t intend for that to come across so strongly. The returning title card at the end was a ‘late in the game’ decision. I wanted to imply that the theme of the narrative was a reoccurring situation. But I guess it comes off as an actual looping of the image.

      The reason I decided to imply it is comic-like was that I never thought anyone would sit and watch it like a film. I expected it to be shown as a minor accompaniment to the music at a party or something. I envisioned people looking at it occasionally, seeing a ‘panel’ and turning their back.

      I think this whole concept sits in the same realm as: “What does a book become when it is being read out loud?”

      I love this sort of conversation. But when it comes down to it, the only question worth asking is: “Will this be worth the experience?”

  3. Laroquod says:

    So by your logic Doug, movies which ‘loop’ and show certain sequences repeatedly (usually to suggest time travel though sometimes just flashbacks) may not be movies.

    Too narrow a definition for me. I don’t know if the ‘real’ definition would include this, or if I really even care what the ‘real’ definition is, but I don’t think there is any meaningful distinction you can make (regardless of what round hole you’re attempting to peg) between this work of art and what we think of as ‘comics’, except perhaps in the fact that you don’t have control of the pace, but even then — how do exclude that without excluding the motion comic, etc.

    There is always collateral damage on some other thing whenever you try to rationalise a rule to define something as not a comic, so I generally try not to bother and just accept that language is not the thing; the thing itself is far too wonderful to be fully and accurately encompassed by language.

  4. Laroquod says:

    P.S. If I were to scroll a novel or a short story across a television screen for you, would it cease to be a novel or a short story because you can’t control the pace. I don’t think so. Control of pace is merely a circumstantial adjunct to the art of letters or comics — not an essential component, IMO.

    • Thea says:

      I’m not sure I agree with that, although it’s a good point. If you were to film a novel, would the pages cease being part of a novel? No. But would the medium through which I was looking at it be a novel? Also no. I wouldn’t look at a video of a novel and call the video itself a novel, though I might call the content a novel.

      And now we’re getting into semantics. But suffice it to say, I would call the above project a very cool video, whereas if I were to see this artwork on a wall circling a room, or even in a browser as one long scrollable image, I would probably call it a very odd comic. The final format doesn’t change because of the content.

  5. Thea says:

    It is indeed very cool, but I wouldn’t associate it with comics, mainly because of the automatic pacing. Comics for me are all about how I choose to direct the timing and flow – a video that does it for me doesn’t remind me of the comic format. I think his description – “Illustrative Score” – is probably most accurate.

  6. NEOkeitaro says:

    I don’t feel this is a comic: one of the major distinction, for me, of the comics media is the fact that the reader can have it at his own pace. (like Thea said)
    That’s why NAWLZ is still a comic, (the video made me think of it, because of the horizontal scrolling) while this is not. Therefore, I don’t think it’s a matter of sound, or effects, etc.

    Also, I remember an interview from William Gibson, I believe, saying that one great thing about comics was that you could always turn the page backwards if you felt like you missed something. Sure, you could do it on the video too, but to me it’s not exactly the same thing… My two cents, really 🙂

    By the way, I am now an avid reader of your blog, twitter and of course, comics! Understanding Comics (which I finished one week ago) still has a lot of great elements, despite the recent evolution of the medium 🙂

  7. Martin says:

    I suppose whether this is comics depends on semantics. (been a while since I read your book, sorry) Did you define ‘comics’ as sequential art? There is no sequence here, it’s one image. If single panel cartoons can be called comics by this definition (think “Marmaduke” or “Family Circus”), then yes, this would be a comic. However, it’s one image, and the camera has chosen for us to focus on one small piece of it at a time. Again, this falls into the category of single panel cartoon.

    Personally, I think single panel cartoons are as much ‘comics’ as the strip Peanuts, or even graphic novels. They’re just much more efficient in getting the message across.

    • Velde says:

      just some questions that I have been thinking about and may be interesting for you to consider. Why do you say it is not a sequence? Does there in fact have to be a discernable spatial break between images to count as a sequence? It seems to me that the important part of comics is the “gutter”. Does the “gutter” need to be an actual space on the page or can it be something we simply recognize in our minds as being two different instances in time? I would be interested in reading your reaction.

      • Scott says:

        Not sure if that’s directed at me or Martin, but for myself, I’ve never thought the gutter needed to be an actual space, just something we recognize as a separation between discreet spans of times.

        In fact there are Family Circus frames with multiple “moments” in them I would consider comics! Ditto for things like the Bayeux Tapestry which our example resembles.

  8. Joseph says:

    I would say yes because in this work space=time. Normally I’d say the music makes it not comics because it’s a temporal event, but since the music is fixed and the rate is fixed, it’s still comics. It’s like if you wrote a comic with directions and said “Look at every page for exactly one minute, while playing [some 24 minute song]”, and it’d be basically the same thing.

    I think the control issue is interesting, but ultimately one of unimportance to the story. You CAN skip ahead in books, but you are rarely supposed to. As to choosing timing and flow, I’m not so sure how this relates to the story either. I generally don’t pace how I read with respect to the dramatic potential of the story, but rather to how fast it is possible to read while still processing what is going on. So sometimes you (Thea) pause dramatically before turning a page with the conscious intent of raising the tension for yourself?

    As to it being one image, I’d say that’s shown practically false by the length of it. I think it would be physically impossible to look at the entire strip at once (if printed out) and you certainly can’t in the medium it’s presented in. Hence it is a series of images.

  9. Yes, sure! If you want to see it as comics.

  10. My gut says no. The reader doesn’t control the flow of information. And for me, that’s a necessary distinction, or at least a useful one for academic critique.

    Motion makes it animation.

    • Exactly. Comics are a “lean forward” medium. Not “lean back”.

      Pretty video though

    • With respect to the idea of motion (or sliding) — I have to ask, if a traditional comic, like Calvin and Hobbes, or a GN like Maus, were scanned and then set a pace in a streaming slide show, would they still be considered comics? I think so. Just because the reader is not controlling the flow of information doesn’t suddenly negate the format. I think the defining characteristic for me is story structure. This one seems to have elements of story to it, but in some ways feel so abstract and obtuse as to render it more akin to performance art than story. That being said, I’ve often heard comics defined as “sequential art” — and so that begs the question, is this sequential art? Seems to be. A bigger question is, would altering the sequence alter the intended message of the creator? if altering the sequence would change the message, then I would have to say this is indeed a piece of sequential art, and then by default, a comic… maybe.

      • Matthew Marcus says:

        This was already discussed earlier, and I think the answer is no. If Maus were put in a slide-show, it wouldn’t be a comic anymore. It would be a slideshow of a comic. But that’s just me.

  11. Sandra says:

    No, but things that aren’t comics can still be good (even though that’s rarer because comics rule).
    This reminds me of a short music video Peter Larsson did a few years ago; the camera was panning around in an intricate, surreal image, set to music.

  12. Jonas says:

    This is a sequence, not a single panel (why,? The camera does the paneling/sequencing, dividing it). But it still doesn’t feel like comics, more as an animation/film.

    BTW a single frame could be a sequence and comics do sometime loop…


  13. Ha! I just hopped on over here to scottmccloud.com to send you an email about this video — and here’s the discussion madly underway already.

    My take: the control is the key issue. It’s a simple tech issue – the same piece becomes comic as soon as we have the ability to pull the scroll where we want it. Of course ,the soundtrack issue adds an interesting time element there and would make the user-control feel much choppier than a silent or more ambient soundtrack would.

  14. codeman says:

    Does this video exist on an alternative website or in a non-Vimeo format? I live in China where Vimeo is blocked and I can’t access it!

    Without access to the actual video, I have to resort to picking up my screen and wiggling it back and forth as I hum my own songs, which I imagine isn’t quite the same. However, I do find the definition of “what is comics” that is forming here interesting. Seems like reader controlled pauses between the narrative are really the only prerequisite, which adds a comic element to things we might not otherwise consider to be so (like video game dialogue). Although it’s tricky to define what a comic actually is, getting a definition through what it isn’t might reveal some other deviations.

    • While reader control was the precluding factor for me in this case, I don’t want to make the argument that control is THE defining factor. Like a lot of people, I need a pictorial sequence with some physical or conceptual “gutter” that leads to closure between separate elements. And, on top of that, I want reader control. Without control, you’re not “reading” it, you’re “watching” it.

  15. […] A conversation on the role of ‘control’ and ‘time’ in comics is happening over there. Share/Bookmark WITCH KNOTS Posted on April 2, 2010 at 1:08 pm in Blog. Follow responses to this […]

  16. Confusador says:

    It’s a cartoon. Though I feel like that term is outdated, so more generically: whatever you would call a Pixar film, I would call this.