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An Educated Consumer is Our Best Customer.

SO WE’RE FUCKED, RIGHT?  AND NOT IN A GOOD WAY.

I have occasionally, to be honest, frequently, reposted a long piece I wrote a few years back about what writing means in comics. The essay addresses the series of misunderstandings of just what writing is in comics, and just how much of what is perceived as “story” is in the artist’s hands.

My reasons for writing this essay in the first place was a question from a friend who is not an enthusiast, but once written, it became a rumination, a criticism and ultimately a rejection of the unfortunate and curious reality that comic books, clearly a visual medium, is dominated by an Alpha pack of writers.

As noted, the reasons for this are several, including the misrepresentation of comic book artists as illustrators, providing, in that memorably shifty and condescending Stan Leeism, “Art chores,” not to mention the fact that the representative and IP acquisition class can use and understand a keyboard but regard a drawing table as a sort of alien, not to say alienating and magical talisman, of which the use and purpose is unavailable to their limited imaginations until demonstrated by those they all too frequently regard as useful idiots.

Luckily for these exploiters, many who draw comics are precisely their sort of useful idiots, men and a few women, of the self-destructive sort, smugly and smirkily incapable of separating the effort invested in working toward one’s own enlightened self-interest from the romantic fool’s errand of putting it to the man.

There are other reasons, of course, but for our purposes here, we’ll next look at the readers, and their complicity in this reality of elevating the writer above the artist.

Those of you who’ve followed me before know, whether you agree or disagree I couldn’t care less, I believe that the comics code authority infantilized the audience nearly simultaneously with its infantilizing of the material that makes up the bedrock of mainstream comic books.

Whether it’s stars, or demons, or capes, or monsters, or swords, or dragons, or whatever the fuck, the primary product of mainstream comic books is heroic fantasy, and adolescent heroic power fantasy at that.  And the ancillary product derived from this pulp, the movies and the TV shows, are simply overblown restatements of children’s junk writ large…

…And yet, and yet minds are blown.  We’re talking about the minds of people who procreate, who drive, who vote, delighted to be entertained by material that would have delighted them as children.  Clearly nostalgia is goodstalgia for an awful lot of people who should know better, and should certainly demand more of their entertainment than the pandering pablum they’re getting.

But that’s not exactly why I’m here.  Rather, I’m interested in the newly introduced dynamic of Artificial intelligence as it’s applied to comic art, and what its impact will be on comic books and comic book enthusiasts.

I pointed out in that earlier piece that one of the invisible responsibilities of comic book artists, who, as noted above, are not illustrators but graphic designers in the service of narrative, was the transliteration of literary ideas into images, into pages, pictures in continuity endowed with narrative value.  Civilians have no idea of this aspect of the work, and to a sad and profound degree, very few enthusiasts are hip to this reality, either.

Simply put, and perhaps rightly so, the modern comic book consumer doesn’t give a flying fuck how the sausage is made, or for that matter who’s making the sausage.  They just want their minds blown, their tastes justified, their biases confirmed, and their adult development arrested.

As I noted above, there are other reasons the corporate comics publishers have encouraged the writer as Alpha.  Besides the fact that although they may not be able to do it well, the corporate non creatives can at least use the tools as noted above.  Another is to avoid the crisis of crap caused by the breakaway of hot art talent in the mid-1990s.

It’s worth noting that comics writers are often transient.  With luck, reputation and the frequent and complicit misunderstandings of that IP and representation class, they can and frequently do move on to other more profitable work in television, movies or fiction, YA or otherwise.

On the other hand, comics artists are more likely to stay and stay put, simply because they have little choice.  I mean, really now, where are they going to go? The infantilism mentioned above has created, and imposed, a series of tropes, of gestures, of emblemologies that by necessity of generating and maintain a career, inform the skillsets of most mainstream comic book art talent.

That skillset is limited by what the material has demanded of them to so profound a degree that they all too often have no career options but mainstream comic books, and all too often wear out their welcome as trends change, to find themselves nonplussed by vanished careers, supported if at all by the attention of nostalgists at best.

And now we come to the crux, specifically the reaction to the sudden, but clearly inevitable, appearance of comics made by the use of Artificial Intelligence.  Once we get past the initial clumsy and clunky weirdness, and once the technology has gone through the inevitable exponential improvement—sometime between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, I’d say, only semi-facetiously—this could very well be corporate comic book publishers and comic book writers’ dream come true.

No more dealing with artists who think they’re rock stars.  No more writers having ambitions quashed by visual talent who’ve barely read the script.  No more writers being forced to write around artwork that in no way serves the story allegedly being told.

Decades ago, I did a comic book with a hero who’d been a television star, who’d been replaced on a hit show by a digital version of himself—a Synthespian, a Vactor.  The show continued to be a hit.

I was kidding, of course, but also of course, I wasn’t.

Also decades ago, the title of this piece was the slogan of a men’s discount clothing store of my middle years.  I’d like to think it applies to comics, but I know all too well that such educated consumers in my business are thin on the ground, to say the least.

A few years back, I gave a lecture at the Long Beach Comic Convention in which I referenced a fellow, his barely qualifiable as work published in the New York Times the Sunday previous, who had, by his own admission, awakened one day and decided to become, you should pardon the expression, “…a graphic novelist.”

Notwithstanding the grandstanding meaninglessness of the phrase, I’m sure such a person was unaware of just how insulting, how demeaning such a declaration might be to someone like me, who’s spent fifty plus years honing a craft.

Now of course, these Artificial Intelligence programs obviate that fifty plus years of effort, and make this feckless ninny’s declaration a completely plausible and potentially rewarding reality.  The quest for excellence democratized by automation with the manipulation of a keyboard is well under way.  The feckless ninnies can start lining up right now.

Thus, I have a deep suspicion that we are looking at a turning point in the creation of comic book material, a transformative pivot, wherein a writer, with no discernible talent or skill as a draftsman whatsoever, but endowed with a willingness to put just a tad more effort into the development of a skill set at manipulating the digital tools soon to be perfected, will be able to transcribe his narrative template into visual material, for an audience that may or may not notice the difference, to no particular relevance.

In the long run, I’m afraid the audience won’t give a fuck either way.  Let’s face it, the vast majority of these customers are not educated consumers by any definition, and their minds are, as frequently noted, easily blown by much of which is inexplicably popular crap.  There’s no reason to assume that machine made crap will be any less satisfyingly mind blowing.

Present company excepted, of course.  With all due respect.  Of course.  No offense.  Of course.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin, a Prince…who can see the tide as it turns.

 

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