Capturing vs. Generating Comics

A good friend of mine who works for the company that produces Second Life sends over this link about using the Comic Life software with Second Life screenshots. I’ve expressed my displeasure with Comic Life before, but I haven’t really thought about comic creation of video game clips before.

Something about it rubs me the wrong way… And I think its the same issue that I have with why “photo comics” don’t work, and why only some CGI comics feel comfortable.

The problem is that they don’t come from some sort of conceptual basis. They are just capturing events in the (virtual-)world and the displaying them in segmented parts. But, contrary to regular comic sequences, they aren’t produced to be sequential.

(This may be the same reason that pin-up/cover artists don’t always translate to being good “storytellers”: they are used to drawing single images, not sequences. Or: they have good visual vocab, not so good visual grammar.)

The capturing vs. generating sequences makes a huge difference, since in one you are actively setting out to express concepts visually, and the other you’re just collecting whatever actions might be given to you. In fact, I’m guessing that the CGI comics that read the best (and there are some good ones) are the ones that were first drawn in thumbnails or layouts. The actual “visual language production” occurs at the thumbnail stage. The rest is all just refinement. These “event capturing” comics bypass the stage where visual grammar is deployed.

Of course, the grammar could be deployed “online” in the processs of that CGI comic being created, but I doubt most who do this have much capacity for visual grammar in the first place. They use it thinking that it is an alternative to having graphic fluency, only their non-fluency then shows through in CGI instead of poor drawings.

In many ways this issue is similar to an Internalist vs. Externalist debate in linguistics/philosophy as to where meaning comes from. Traditional philosophy/linguistics (and I think? a commonsense view of meaning?) has held that meaning of sentences is derived from the truth value of how that sentence relates to the “real” world. The Internalist side (including my advisor) says that those meanings only connect to concepts in a person’s head, regardless of their truth value to the world.

“Capturing of events” for comics is much like the Externalist viewpoint — sequences of images are depictions of some form of events, and it doesn’t matter how they get depicted. The Internalist side would be the opposite: Sequences of images are derived from the conceptual expression of a human mind, and reflect the fluency of that mind.


  • Neil: I”m a bit confused as to what you consider to be “photo comics.” Is it anything that’s photographed and not drawn? Because if an artist takes the time to arrange people and items, frames it, photographs it; then does this many times and arranges the results into a story, how is it different conceptually from drawing the comic?

    Likewise, if a person plans out how they want to pose their second life characters and objects, then takes screen captures and turns them into comics, it seems like comics to me.

    I think you’re intending to draw a distinction between purposely creating a sequence vs. taking something you have no control over and turning it into a sequence. A helpful comparison might be in television between scripted series and reality series; in the later, a series of events is captured on video, then an editor (or writer, but I’m not getting into that argument here!) creates a narrative from the available material. Both are different kinds of television, but still television. The difference lies in where the narrative creation occurs, and in the level of control by the creator. (It’s all a bit ‘smeary.’)

    I think I’m agreeing with you here somewhat, but feel that you’re being too dismissive about “captured comics.”

  • Hi Dave, thanks for posting. Before I get to your main concerns, I should point out that nowhere do I imply that these aren’t “comics.” This isn’t a definitional issue I’m concerned with.

    By “photo comics” I mean something like a fotonovela, where the entire content is from photographs. This isn’t a blanket statement about anything using photos, which I have in various works which avoid the effects I mention here.

    I think you do get my overall point though. If someone is posing people, things, etc. then they likely are working from thumbnails or storyboards — which are essentially the “generated” level I mention.

  • One of the main reason screen cap and photo comics often don’t work is that the photographers don’t take advantage of sequence WITHIN panels.

    If you have two people talking in one panel, photocomics often usually just show one person talking (usually with some really bad acting involved), not both at the same time, which doesn’t make sense from a filmic or temporal standpoint but makes perfect visual sense in comics. Or, worse, they’ll just resort to only one character talking at a time, which results in a very stilted, stiff pace.

    Also, screen caps from Second Life and most CGI efforts also can’t emote with enough detail in order to really tell the story visually; the words end up doing all the work.

    But, really, when you’re talking about a failure to have characters emote to effectively match the dialogue, it doesn’t really matter if something’s screen capped, photographed, drawn, digitally rendered, or whatever — it’s just bad visual storytelling.

  • it sounds to mean that a lot of your trouble comes in at the composition point, meaning, was the story-telling composed by the creator before the art was generated, during art generation, or after art generation.

    i think the problem with art captured without having a layout designed first, is that there is no sense that the artwork in panel is meant to go specifically with the art in panel 2, or 3, or etc. these people are probably more concerned that the image in the panel “looks cool” than whether or not it serves the story-telling.

    i don’t think this phenomenon is limited to the captured-style comics. i can think of plenty of bad comics (maybe from image in the 90s…) that suffer from a similar fate. i think it’s more obvious with the captured comics because the question of “can the artist draw” has been removed from the equation. this leads us to the next question “can this artist tell a story” much quicker.

  • Thanks for posting guys.

    Yes, the structure internal to panels is part of what I’m talking about, especially with its relations to the sequence of panels. But, this has little to do with layout and more to do with the relations of content in one panel to another. Layout≠sequential meaning.

    I tend to think that the “bad storytelling” viewpoint is not quite the same as what I’m getting at with the “lack of fluency.” There are plenty of ways that people can be “bad storytellers” verbally too, but most of the sentences they speak still come out grammatically.

    Creators from the early-90s Image era were by and large graphically fluent (and still are) — they just might not fit your tastes. In many cases their grammar may be a different graphic dialect than yours.

    And that’s totally fine if you don’t like it (there is plenty I don’t like), but it doesn’t mean they have a cognitive in-ability to create a coherent narrative sequence. “Captured” comics seem like people propose them as a substitute for real fluency (or reflecting the naive position that there isn’t fluency to be had in the first place).

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