[18 July 2014]
PopMatters Comics Editor
“Sometimes…” as Stuart Moore writes on the first page the pre-Superstorm Sandy released Wolverine: Under the Boardwalk, “…you just gotta disappear for a while.” It’s a memorable line and it applies more than a little to my ComicCon fatigue that seems to have already set in something near a month in advance of the actual event. But what really animates that line is Tomm Coker’s artwork, and the his magnificent breakdown. Jammed in right in the middle of the two moody atmospheric panels is a third panel, a giant-sized panel with the warmest, brightest color palette on the entire page.
It is a memory if you will, a recollection of Wolverine’s time with the X-Men, having lived through, what would it have been?…the events of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men finalé, “Unstoppable?” Or Warren Ellis’s taking the reins of the same title with “Ghost Boxes?” Or the events of Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker’s X-Men/Dark Avengers: Utopia? Wherever it falls in the recent memory of X-lore, it is one of the more beautiful and poignant Wolverine pages in the character’s publication history. Because, simply, it tells maybe the entire genre of the character in a single page. Everything you need to know about Wolverine—he gets inundated, overwhelmed by a history he’s lived through and cannot remember, and yet, his time with the X-Men stands out as among the brightest.
But whatever the high art of that page, it’s the emotion of the thing that grabs a hold of me and acts as a kind of a reference. Sometimes, right now in fact, I gotta disappear. I gotta disappear from comics off of feeling inundated by the scope and the spectacle. ComicCon as it always will, will underline what a victory comics culture has won in terms of cultural legitimacy. Maybe nowhere more than in the arena of transmedia. Scifi TV shows and movies that reach out to fans through the various ComicCon panels will emphasize the transmedia appeal.
And many of those movies and TV shows will have exactly that—finely-calibrated, finely-crafted, market-researched-up-the-flim-flam corporate storytelling that details the comicbook roots of many projects. And yet, for all the mileage comics has ridden through to cultural legitimacy, can it be said that simple co-promotion of comics properties in other media is enough make the cut of transmedia? Shouldn’t there be something more? Shouldn’t it more be the case of those other media incorporate the storytelling practices, the aesthetic mechanics if you will, of comics into the storytelling practices of their own media?
You’ll never get more by asking for less. But for right now, with all this inundation of transmedia, I just gotta disappear. So I disappear into TED (dot) com. And it’s cyber security analyst Chris Domas who’s talking at a TEDx (TEDxColumbus, if you’re keeping track) who grabs my attention first. So I wade in. And it’s interesting. And interestingly, it’s not comics. Except that, it is. But later for that, yet.
Domas is particularly clear about what he does as a cyber security analyst—he works both defense and offense in hacking computer code. Why? He explains best himself.
“Cyber is so much bigger than any one of those things,” Domas says, referencing a joke he made earlier in his talk where his understanding of cyber was pretty much keeping viruses of his grandma’s computer, “Cyber’s an integral part of all of our lives because computers are an integral part of all of our lives. Even if you don’t own a computer. Computers control every thing in your car, from your GPS to your airbag. They control your phone. They’re the reason you can call 911 and get someone on the line. They control our nation’s entire infrastructure—they’re the reason you have electricity, heat, clean water, food. Computers control our military equipment; everything from missile silos to satellites to our entire defense network. All of these things are made possible because of computers, and therefore because of cyber. If something goes wrong, cyber can make all of these things impossible.”
Defense to protect vital civil infrastructure, offense to understand the methods terrorists might use to disable those same systems, and prevent those kinds of attacks. His days are spent carefully studying billions and billions of ones and zeroes, studying them for patterns, trying to find the exact sequence of ones and zeroes that would control specific functionality, like turning a screen on and off or exploding a cellphone’s battery by disabling the charge restrictor on the circuit.
But, billions of ones and zeroes and there’s the problem. Billions. Billions that look exactly like other billions of ones and zeroes. It’s “like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles,” Domas states jokingly somewhere in the first third of his 18 minutes. And after some 30 hours one weekend of trying to find specific code, only to at the end of it discover the entire time had been wasted on analyzing a photo of, and I’m not kidding here, go watch the talk for yourself, a cat, Domas himself hit that same “I just gotta disappear” moment and went home to find a better methodology for analysis.
What he comes up with, and here’s the thing of it, what Domas comes up with whether he realizes it or not, is comics.
He develops a algorithm for translating ones and zeroes (meaningless to the human brain) into easily identifiable visual patterns (deeply meaningful to the human brain). So that instead of a string of hundreds of millions of ones and zeroes, a picture will always look like this:
Similarly, text files and music and files of any category can be translated into other visually distinct patterns. So now the task of identifying what you’re looking at becomes far easier. Infinitely easier. In fact, the algorithm is so robust, it’s even educational. It can allow you to recognize foreign languages like Russian and French and Japanese, without needing you to know how to speak them. How? simply because the visual pattern will conform to the pattern of plain text, but won’t be the same exactly as English. The blocks will appear in different areas on the image, the lines will be of different shapes.
So how is any of this comics?
Think back to Scott McCloud’s masterpiece of comics pedagogy Understanding Comics. What Domas hath wrought, is a cartoon—it’s based on amplification through simplification. What makes a cartoon work, McCloud interrogates in Understanding Comics? The fact that a cartoon is emotionally blank, that it is the simplest possible expression (of say, a face, we’ve all seen this one rendered as two dots and a line) that because of its simplicity requires reader “involvement” (read: emotional participation) to “animate” it.
In taking the relatively complex and counterintuitive pattern of billions upon billions of ones and zeroes and re-rendering them as easily recognizable visual patterns is actually, for want of a better phraseology, engaging the art of the cartoon.
But that’s not comics, you’d say. I’ve read McCloud and McCloud is right, you’d say, but he’s also insufficient. Because I’ve read McCloud, but I’ve also read Will Eisner’s Comics & Sequential Art as well I’ve read his Graphic Storytelling (to be fair, you might not say “as well”). And Eisner says that the art of comics doesn’t only lie in cartooning, in “simplification through amplification,” but also comes from sequence. That the pictures build a line through time. And that moreover, there are lines within the panels, lines traced by your eye-movements across the panel, that construct a sense of time. You’d say that cartooning isn’t comics, and you’d be right.
It’s what Domas does next that really is comics. To understand how to manipulate the code he’s looking for, he builds layers of visualization. He allows the algorithm to have a birds-eye view, as it were, where he can see gross similarities in code while he can simultaneously “zoom-in” and study those more general similarities up close. And that is comics, exactly that same Eisnerian mechanism of switching between reading the panel and reading the page.
And while this has nothing to do with consumable fiction, Domas feels like he’s developed a more genuinely transmedia system than projects that might be rooted in comics in their first incarnation but somehow manage to stay true to the precepts of whatever medium they end up in.
To escape transmedia fatigue, to escape a sense of ComicCon looming on the horizon, I headed to maybe the most un-comics thing I could think of—bleeding edge technology and design. And, there I find comics. No doubt it’s a wholly rejuvenating experience. Not just because I’m personally reinvigorated. But because that simple act of finding comics everywhere, lends a greater weight to something the God of Manga Osamu Tezuka said shortly before he died in 1989. He said, that we’re now living in the age of “comics as air”. And that’s something the holds the promise of a more authentic transmedia.