Comics are the New Everyday Aesthetic and Socio-Cultural Paradigm

What happens when the kids who read comic books become the dominant makers of culture?

Contributed by David N. Wright Coordinator, Research and Innovation at Douglas College
January 08, 2014
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The Multimodality of Comics in Everyday Life

Much of our daily interaction with electronic devices is dominated by the same process for reading and interpreting that we apply when engaging with comics. In fact, most of our engagement with the World Wide Web and the construction of that space is based upon the spatial and organizational design principles, the combination of words and images, found most often in comics. Nearly every computer-based interface we encounter, with some exceptions, owes a great deal to the design elements common to comics and comic book production. At the same time, much of the socio-cultural construction of digital making–app development, industrial design, corporate structures, and digital dogma–is a reflection of those practices common to the early socio-cultural paradigms of comic book production.

Iconography and Narrative Pastiche:

While the interactivity of the icons on one’s computer screen speak to a higher level of functionality than that found in a comic book, the design of the sequences, sizes, spaces, placement, and shapes of the icons bear out the principles of comics in their construction. Each icon is a bordered panel and, like similar panels in comics, contains a discrete scene that conveys information. The position of these icons often hints at a hierarchical structure or at the very least tends to follow a pattern of development. Just as a comic book organizes its panels to signal a pattern of development, so to the computer’s user interface is designed to transgress empty space, “maximize” to expansive panels, and help us navigate around borders. “Reading” the computer screen, with its confluence of text and image, follows a trajectory not uncommon to the encounter with a comic page. We in effect skip about the screen in much the same way as we skip about the comic page. Neither text nor image is dominant, and the pastiche of images–massive screensaver beneath smaller icons for instance–pressures how we encounter the space of the screen in much the same way that panoramic vistas and minute focal points in comics pressure our reading of narrative sequence. The computer screen partitions our interaction with the narrative of the microprocessor or digital storage in the same way that the comic page partitions our sense of a complete or unified vision of a representational reality. We tend to look at increments and pull them together in order to engage with a narrative order.

Point is, we tend to design and engage with the computer’s user interface as if it were a comic book. Sure, it’s a an interactive and representative space with a lot of potential flexibility and space for user input, but the rules by which we abide are in effect those that govern our engagement with a comics page–we leap about from panel to panel, from large box to small box, associating text with image to make meaning.

The Machine Reading / The Machine Making:

A modern browser, as it re-assembles lines of code, decodes a visual and textual collage. The browser, as it re-assembles lines of code (written in text) and pulls in scripts, stylesheets, fetches images, is the modern day first reader. And, what it decodes and displays has remarkable continuity with comics. As the reader of the comics page works to associate and balance a series of visual and textual representations, so too the browser reads, interprets, and renders order to the chaos. In short, the browser does not simply decode in the literal sense; it really reads, computes, interprets, renders and projects. Its work, like our own when we confront the fissures, disruptions, and representations of the comics page, is to reassemble, make sense of, and then project meaning. What’s important here isn’t the theoretical association of browser as reader so much as it is that the browser–and the code is computes–tends to spit out something like a comic book page. While it can simply display an image or piece of text, most often it conveys both or some convergence of multiplicity–of images, video, sound, text. What the browser displays is an important signifier for how comics, and the aesthetic practices that dominate their production, dominate how we choose to represent things on the World Wide Web.

It’s worth thinking for a moment about how we engage with a website. Again, as with the user interface, typically we enter from the top left and then leap about deciphering image and text, particularly how one relates to the other. Images and text intermingle, and the positioning of all these visual elements is crucial to how we engage with the content. In other words, the web page is not at all like a prosaic page, nor is it even like a picture book; it’s something else: a comic page. The standard web page is full of divisions, white space (gutters), focal points and vistas, images and text, and panelled excisions. It neither emphasizes or discriminates text from image instead pulling text and image together in a way that represents a narrative (be that a narrative of explanation, entertainment, or promotion).

Making as Cultural Mimicry - Boys in Rooms:

While pointing to the aesthetic similarities between computer user interfaces and the web page is valuable, it may prove to be simply coincidence. An all to tenuously projected association between media; a remediation as opposed to a conscious or imbedded set of practices. However, a stronger case can be made for the imbedded set of socio-cultural paradigms that have moved out of comics and deeply ensconced themselves within the everyday discourses of our digital environment.

The language associated with digital production is always couched in the comic book tropes of consumption and disposability. Some wait eagerly for the next issue of the iPhone to come out, itself a slight retooling of the one that came before it, a progression, but also a continuum; it’s like Superman, but its another adventure. The phone is locked in its signifiers, blue tights, yellow underwear, giant yellow “S” inside a shield–we open the box assured as the glossy white apple appears from beneath–it’s the same, but different! It’s a phone! It’s a browser! It’s a controller! It’s Superman.

The tropes of digital making, be they to do with app development, collaboration, rapid incubation and production, aesthetic mimicry, an obsessiveness (both lustful and fearful) with the new or technologically exotic, and a tendency to foreground technological utopianism, are all born out of the golden age of comic book production. The socio-cultural mythology of early comic book production, with its Siegel and Shuster, has shifted to Wos and Jobs, Page and Brin. There are even catchy slogans like “Don’t Be Evil,” “Dreams Made Real” and “Code is Poetry” that emphasize the utopian optimism common to “faster than a speeding bullet,” “what evil lurks in the hearts of men…” “the world’s greatest detective.” The rooms full of bleary-eyed boys clustered, creating, working, rapidly developing the next new thing itself uploaded from the lore of early comic book production. Today’s irradiated spider is the iPad; its not your father’s computer–this thing has personality, reflects the current demands and concerns of a more mature readership. There is a constant anticipation of, and talk of, the new, but the new is never really new. A phone is a phone is a phone; Superman is a Batman is an Antman is a Spiderman is an X-man. Like the Superheroes they made, the app developer rips off, or shifts the paradigm, of what has come before.

Suffice to say, these connections are seemingly endless. Even the mythological aggrandizement–or hatred of–the heroes of the technology industry dominate our sense of success. Though Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates play off the single creator-genius model, like Stan Lee they stand on the shoulders of others. Google, Facebook, Apple, and other giants like them all strive to create workspaces that capture the collisions between youthful experimentation, an emerging set of aesthetic criteria, and an environment that encourages cultural interactions and unforeseen connections. Each of these institutions withhold “the next big thing” until it is ready to launch, keeping back the next iteration of Spiderman until it is ready to launch with all its multiple colours, sharper display, lighter form factor, and a redesigned spandex suit. Indeed, as literate creators in the past have incorporated or represented scripture, literary texts, even the subconscious according to the concerns of their time, web developers, and the pervasive digital environment they create, seem to be culling from their own histories and encounters with comics not only as an aesthetic practice, but as a socio-cultural paradigm for success, happiness, hard work, and innovation.

In Sum:

The governing design principle for the internet, and the user interface as we have come to know it, is undoubtedly connected to the aesthetic principles of the comic book. The influence of the comics page, its construction, spatial organization, and narrative principles underly our daily lives in that our interactions take place in digital environments that foreground these aesthetic principles. Every time we look at a webpage or click on an icon, we are interpreting a space born out of comics. And, the construction of these spaces, the visual cues, the textual, audio, and visual framing all suggest an allegiance to the comics page and its aesthetic concerns.

The socio-cultural language that dominates our daily lives, particularly those areas that stress the future, innovation, the new, the young, all reflect a re-enactment of the mythological tropes of early comic book production, right down to the gender divides and racial inequity that dominates the tech industry today. Comics then are not only an aesthetic foundation for our digital environment, the tropes they bring forward for everyday social, economic, and cultural practice also colour our everyday discourses about workspaces, representations of success, best practices, and making. What the web, and the digital environment it supports, is showing us is a form of representation that comes out of, and is created by, the kids who read comics. We are viewing the course for our everyday interactions in the digital environment and seeing that they sre the result of a population whose encounter with comics is now imbedded in our socio-cultural and aesthetic practices and their subsequent representation(s).

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