A complex of industrial buildings, half-hidden among the yellow smog at the edge of a nameless city in China.
You swoop low among the buildings, their walls closing in around you, grey steel. There are doors but no windows. The ground below is grey too, concrete, newly laid.
There are no signs to tell you what this place is.
A figure in a hazmat suit walks between two of the buildings. He looks up at you, blinks behind his goggles, hurries on.
You approach one of the buildings, push open the double doors and enter.
You are on a raised platform, behind glass. Stretched out in front of you, rows upon rows of computers, nestled in racks, connected by endless cable: blue, red, yellow. Monitors show you the machines at work.
They are creating comics.
It was experimental at first. What if you uploaded an historical archive of comics, character and costume libraries, some standard plot structures and Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work? What if you provided a library of fonts, balloons and SFX along with some grammar? And what if you unleashed a factory full of processing power on the challenge of digitally creating comics?
What difference would it make?
What if you provided a library of fonts, balloons and SFX and unleashed a factory full of processing power on the challenge of digitally creating comics?
In some ways, very little. Every genre follows a set of rules and can therefore be replicated by machines instructed in those rules. The predictability of genres is part of why we like them – they give us a familiar structure, boundaries to the fictional world, a set of rules. We watch 24 knowing that there will be mounting peril and a cliffhanger every 23 minutes and 59 seconds. We watch James Bond films knowing he’ll drink a martini, drive a swanky car and fight off the bad guy by using human smarts over technological genius.
Think of what else we’d gain from my computer-generated publishing venture (let’s call it Skynet Comics – has a certain ring to it). Comics would be cheaper to produce, they’d be consistent in quality (no more moaning on fan forums about what this artist or that writer has done to your favourite character when the machines are on the case), and they’d never miss a deadline. No more wages to pay, no more invoices to keep track of, just a factory full of processors spitting out comics by the rulebook (and if you think there isn’t a rulebook, you’re very sweet).
And yet…. and yet…
Instinctively, I push back against Skynet Comics and the removal of people from the process. Why?
Because it’s an artistic endeavour and computers don’t do art? Ummm.
Because I don’t want comics to be so formulaic that a well-programmed computer can create them? Well….
Or perhaps because no computer is going to create The Dark Knight Returns. No computer is going to create Watchmen. No computer is going to understand that the joy of genres comes from subverting them. That things are made to be broken. That our capacity to surprise each other is one of the most important aspects of our creativity.
The thing about surprise is that it’s uncommon. If it happens all the time, it’s no longer surprising. You actually need a bedrock of mainstream genre comics in order that the shock of the new is genuinely shocking.
Each shock creates a new set of rules which gradually move from the edges to the mainstream. And where you have rules, you have a couple of computer programmers in a factory complex in an unnamed Chinese city coding a bank of machines to produce next year’s X-Men expansion.
Perhaps SkyNet Comics has a future after all….
Lizzie Boyle is an author, blogger, small press comics aficionado and founder of Disconnected Press. You can find more or writing atlizzieboylesays.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @lizzieboylesays