I think I may have outgrown comics - Part 4 of 4 - Changing forms of art

Article / 25 February 2020


I think it's clear by now, if you've read the previous articles in this series (let's face it, you should have) starting with this one right here: https://mgagnon81.artstation.com/blog/VNEN/i-think-i-may-have-outgrown-comics 

Then you already know that I don't have much of an optimistic outlook for the future of comics, at least the way that we know it. Hearkening back to one of the points in that original article, the comic industry has failed to keep up with changing delivery methods and formats, instead of continuing to push the overpriced and gimmicky print format (Hey we did 47 different covers for this one issue!). 

Let's be real. At&T and Disney could shut down monthly print comics of their properties tomorrow and be fine. The money is in the movies and games and merchandise. Not only Could they stop producing new comics, they could do it and actually make the fans happy. They could just start reprinting the 80 plus years worth of comics in their library as affordable reprints every month. They could publish collected trades every month for 20-30 years and when they were done, start re-printing them again. There are more than enough stories to draw from for movies, games, TV and their reboots every 5-10 years. Whether it was affordable monthly floppy reprints or trades, they could support comic artists by commissioning new covers or even maintaining just a handful of new adventures. They could also print monthly 100 page giants with one new story in them, giving fans the best of both worlds; new stories of favorite characters and classic stories they may not ever have had a chance to read otherwise. They could even commission existing comic artists  to produce new original graphic novels to be published of top tier characters every 3-6 months, thus maintaining the livelihood of at least some mainstream comics creators.  (Though If they do this I think it will only be during a transition period until they move to a fully licensed format as outlined in part 3, here: https://mgagnon81.artstation.com/blog/o6zN/i-think-i-may-have-outgrown-comics-part-3-retreading-old-stories-and-neutering-good-creators

If they wanted to exist beyond this as an official publisher instead of a licensor, they'd likely need a time-machine to go back and embrace new comic-style storytelling formats like visual novels (choose your own adventure style narrative video games that are hugely popular in Asian countries), or comics tailored for widescreen format and digital distribution instead of traditional print style formatting. DC's early attempts at widescreen web comics, called Zuda comics, ultimately failed, but that failure was a mix of poor execution and lack of corporate interest, fearing change and revolving back to the familiar print format for their profits. Had they taken another stab at a successful format, today's comics landscape could be quite different. DC Universes streaming service that gives subscribers the ability to read DC's catalog on their TV is a step in the right direction, but one that may be too little, too late. 

The time is coming soon that technology is going to change the nature of art as we know it as well. Unless you've been living under a rock for the better part of the last 20 years, you're probably familiar with the advent of digital illustration and the growing number of artists that produce their art electronically (with tablets and software) instead of traditionally (paper, pencil, ink). What i'm talking about goes a step beyond this.

Now, I absolutely love and respect the work of every comic creator, especially those of previous generations, heck, I'm part of that group, and I always think there will be a place for comic art as we classically recognize it. I'm right along there with everyone else who has spent years honing their craft and refining their skills in perspective, proportion, light & shadow, body language and a million other facets of creating professional quality illustration.

What I am talking about is the advent, ease and accessibility of 3D CGI art and modeling. Some of this technology is already being used in places in comics (some professionals that I know of have actually been CGIing their work for years and hiding it with digital filters, editing and layering with digital art techniques), but as the next generation comes up in a world where digital modeling is easily accessible and accepted as a visual part of entertainment, there will come a time when the traditional skills of art and illustration will become niche skills. I'm not saying they will go the way of the town blacksmith, but they won't be the dominant form or style of comics, or even commercial illustration. 

Think of it this way: Why are comic books and cave paintings drawn? Because it's the fastest and easiest way to visually share an idea in your imagination with someone else. Sure you might be able to tell them and explain it, but what if you don't speak the same language? Drawing has been the quickest and easiest way to explain something that you imagine to someone else clearly since the dawn of man. Thanks to technology that fact is on the cusp of changing.

Up until the mid-40s or so, most magazines and newspapers used illustrations, because that was the best way to visually show a picture of something. With the advent of affordable and accessible photography that fact changed quickly. Those that made a living illustrating newspapers found themselves quickly out of work. Those that were smart became photographers.

CGI character design, animation and modeling is not new. Anyone over 30 has literally watched the technology grow from very rough early infancy, to the prevalent use in all manner of media and pop culture that it is today. And that use is growing. And CGI software becomes easier to use and more accessible every year. Self-publishing and authoring tools have given the common person access to sharing their work in many different formats. 

CGi gives a designer or artist the ability to create a virtual object or character that exists in a 3d space with 3 dimensions that they can rotate view and examine with high definition. 

Let's look at it this way. Why does drawing exist? Because it's the fastest easiest way to visually explain what we see in our imagination. If there was a better option that was as easily accessible to someone then we would use it.....

Up until now, drawing has been the best choice. Thanks to technology, 3D modelling will soon overtake that age-old truth by making the ability to craft your ideas in high-detail for practical use. 

People spend years perfecting the skills needed to draw and ink well. I'm one of them. The reason for that is to be able to make those ideas put to paper more and more accurate to what we see in our imagination. I've been drawing for 33 years. Working in comics for 20. I've been working with CGI design and animation for less than 2 years. I can tell you already that I can create an illustration or comic book page in more detail and more accurate to my imagination in less time with CGI than with using my drawing skills.

I'm not saying that there's no place for drawing skills or that I don't still use my own. Personally, I tend towards using my drawing skills in the earliest rough stages, and when the design idea is more solidified in my mind, then I move to 3D modelling. As an artist, the choice has become natural, because I know that the work I do in 3D is more detailed, realistic and accurate to what I'm imagining than any drawing can be. 

That doesn't mean that I think 2D classic comic art will disappear. I love the look of many 2D artists. I'd never want to see Cyanide and Happiness or the plethora of other web comics and independent comics that I love switch over to CGI rendering. They don't work that way. The style of their art is part of their charm. But when it comes to mainstream monthly scheduled comics run on a regular deadline, written in a format where publishers survive if readers keep coming back for the next issue, 3D art creation has 2D beat, hands down. 

Again, that doesn't mean that there won't be comic-style art, but I do believe that we will get to a point where such art will be a conscious aesthetic choice made by a creative team after considering other options, and probably easier for creative teams that aren't working towards a short, looming deadline.

Just as there are specialists in penciling, inking and coloring, in the future there will be artists specializing in sculpting, design, materials and surfaces and lighting. Those who are currently working with traditional comic art techniques and are technically inclined may be well-served to add one of these 3D art techniques to their repertoire, to keep their skills current and in-demand. A penciler may also want to learn to digitally sculpt. An inker may want to get very familiar with digital lighting. A colorist may want to learn about materials, textures and shaders. Mainstream comics in 2D or 3D will still be a collaborative group effort, it will just be using newer art generation techniques.

Writing won't change much, other than maybe the script format may move closer to that of visual novels.

In actuality, most of these programs have optional filters and plugins to render outputs that look like flat 2D comic drawing. As mentioned before, there are already some artists working in the field doing exactly this. Once you get really familiar with the process, a good eye can spot a few visual signs that this is how a piece of art was created. Working in the field, I personally know of a few artists who do this. I don't feel any need to "out" these artists. An artists creative process is their own business. If they can create their art in 3D and output it to look like 2D comic art and everyone is happy, then why bother? What does it matter? I've also very openly done this with a few of my pieces and explained how to do it both online and in-person at conventions. 

The reason I don't think creating in 3D and outputting in 2D for the illustration of classic-style work will become the norm is that it's adds extra steps and makes more work necessary in order to complete the same project. Another drawback is that converting 3D to look 2D looses a lot of fine rich detail that texture artists put into their work.

Many 3D programs come with pre-built starter models and basic objects, meaning that the barriers of having to spend the time necessary to perfect things like proportion and perspective are gone, allowing new creative talent to jump in and start sharing their work and ideas with others faster than ever before, which ultimately gives easier access to more voices across a broad spectrum of people, regardless of race, gender, status or anything else. Take some time to check out programs such as Maya, ZBrush, 3DS Max, DAZ 3D and many more and you'll see the amazing quality of art that is possible. 

If you have read my previous article (again, you should have. Again it is here: https://mgagnon81.artstation.com/blog/o6zN/i-think-i-may-have-outgrown-comics-part-3-retreading-old-stories-and-neutering-good-creators ) You'll know that I strongly believe that the current publishing landscape is going to change and what we know as monthly floppy comics are going to fold, no pun intended (but appreciated). 

When compared to the other options that entertainment consumers have for serialized content, such as streaming video, video games, television and more, the monthly serialized format we are all familiar with from comic books no longer holds up. People don't want to wait a month to find out what happens next when they are used to being able to see the next episode now. Even traditional network television has new installments every week. Comics take a team of artists a month to produce, so increasing frequency isn't necessarily realistic. Some weekly comics have been done, but are far from the norm and don't have any real stand-out successes. If mainstream comics were set and committed to maintaining serial print product, which I think would be a mistake, they could go weekly, but the logistics of such, and multiple creative teams that would be necessary quickly make the proposition sound like more complication than it would be worth.

A well crafted, affordably priced, detailed 3D visual novel with interactive features will always offer the reader much more value and entertainment for their money and would have a far better chance of succeeding on a monthly, quarterly or irregular schedule than a floppy comic book. 

This is what I see coming in the future anyway, not from a fever dream, but from the writing on the wall of watching comics and pop culture change, mutate and evolve over nearly 40 years. 

I could be wrong. If none of this comes to pass within a decade I'll be the first to raise my hand and say how wrong I was, but in the meantime I'm going to hedge my bets and and steer my ship towards a future that looks prosperous and relevant. 

Thanks for indulging my rant (even if the only person who reads this is my mom).

Yours Truly,

Mike Gagnon a.k.a. All Day Breakfast Productions