Tuesday, September 04, 2007

MoCCA: Infinite Canvas

I see that New York's Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) is promoting the exhibition Infinite Canvas: The Art of Webcomics, to which I've contributed four original pages from Mom's Cancer. The show will be up September 14 through January 14, 2008, with an opening reception on September 13. Unfortunately I won't be there, but I know some people who might make it and report back to me.

"The exhibit explores three aspects of online comics," reads MoCCA's blurb. "The unique format and design of webcomics, their appeal to niche audiences, and the transitions between web and print comics." Curator Jennifer Babcock further explains, "webcomics are free of the space constraints and editorial censorship to which printed comics are often subjected...." I agree with that sentiment completely. I also think that freedom to break all the rules doesn't necessarily carry an obligation to do so.

Let me back up to explain that the exhibition's title, "Infinite Canvas," comes (to the best of my knowledge) from Scott McCloud's notion that the Internet provides just that: an infinite canvas. Online, there's no need to restrict a comic to three or four panels, stick to traditional comic book page layouts, or draw in black and white. No need for most of the artistic constraints imposed on comics by 19th-century printing press technology. No need to avoid words that might emotionally scar five-year-old Suzy or give Grandma the vapors. We're finally free. Free!

So why do so few cartoonists take advantage of the limitless space, time and language available to them? Why do so many webcomics look exactly like their print counterparts? Why did mine?

I can't speak for anyone else--although I have some notions--but I put considerable thought into how I wanted Mom's Cancer to interact with the electronic medium that transmitted it. First, I designed the pages to be proportional to a least-common-denominator computer monitor. I wanted anyone on any computer to be able to read each page without scrolling or clicking. That in turn mandated the size I needed to draw to produce art that would be clear and legible at on-screen resolution. My decision was a deliberate break from the infinite canvas idea, which can obviously demand significant reader interaction (and allow the cartoonist to play with story flow as scrolling reveals and conceals information). Those were features I willingly gave up so that my readers could apprehend each individual page as a unit of story--a thought, an idea, a chunk of time. I did that on purpose.

Also, I always had hopes that Mom's Cancer might see print. I didn't know how, I couldn't imagine who would publish such a book, but I wanted to keep my options open. I drew in black and white, colored in the cyan-magenta-yellow palette needed for press, and saved high-resolution versions of everything (not high enough, I later learned, but that's another sad story). I think that same hope motivates more web cartoonists than would admit it, and partly explains why so few break out of the shackles of print: they want it. Print still matters.

For similar reasons, I wrote and drew Mom's Cancer to be as all-ages as possible. It's an adult story, but I wanted it accessible to readers from young children to great-grandparents. There's not a dirty word in it (I actually thought long and hard about the "My God" on Page 99 but couldn't conceive of anything better). I fought my first impulse to draw it dark and gothic with scritchy-scratchy cross-hatching, partly because I wanted it to look as friendly and familiar as a 1950s' comic strip. I wanted people who'd never read a comic or graphic novel to get comfortable and ease into the story, where I hoped to hit 'em between the eyes. The web gave me complete freedom--including the freedom to approach the audience however I wanted.

Still, I share McCloud's frustration (as I perceive it) that almost no one has grabbed webcomics by the horns and exploited the new medium's potential to create something never seen before. Literature done in a new visual language that couldn't have existed until today. Why do so many webcomics consist of tiny, repetitive, static panels of talking heads when they could be ... ANYTHING? I would very much like to see that someday--maybe even try to do it. But that's not what Mom's Cancer was intended to be. I've always seen it less as a webcomic than as a comic that happened to be on the web, and never pretended it was anything else.


shrinking indigo said...

Brian! You're on the poster!!!


I'm so excited! i can't wait to go see the exhibit. I'll give you a full report.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Amanda. See my next post!If you go to the exhibit, please let me know how it looks.