Over the previous few days, virtually every comics site has covered the announcement that Alan Moore’s creating a new app which will somehow revolutionize digital comics.
It’s called “Electricomics,” and it’s been reported as both a new anthology and an open-source toolkit allowing anyone to create digital comics, which somehow won’t be based on duplicating the printed comics page anymore. The anthology, featuring a short story written by Moore along with others’ work, will presumably be the first offering on the new platform. But it’s fair to say that reports have been more than a little confusing.
That’s because almost all of the information is coming from a press release, which tells us Electricomics is “an app that is both a comic book and an easy-to-use open source toolkit,” before focusing on the app, then abruptly telling us “Electricomics will be a 32-page showcase with four very different original titles.” By the end of the press release, you can probably piece together that we’re talking about a self-published anthology that will be released on the app, also called Electricomics. Even then, we’re told that Leah Moore, Alan’s daughter, “will edit the project.” Presumably, this means the comic called Electricomics, not the app — which the previous paragraph was talking about.
In case you haven’t gathered, this isn’t a very well-written press release. It’s filled with wildly superlative language about how revolutionary this app will be, without providing any specifics except that it’ll be free, open-source, and empower people to make comics. That’s all great, but what will the Electricomics app do?
From the press release:
“Personally, I can’t wait,” said Moore. “With Electricomics, we are hoping to address the possibilities of comic strips in this exciting new medium, in a way that they have never been addressed before.
“Rather than simply transferring comic narrative from the page to the screen, we intend to craft stories expressly devised to test the storytelling limits of this unprecedented technology. To this end we are assembling teams of the most cutting edge creators in the industry and then allowing them input into the technical processes in order to create a new capacity for telling comic book stories.
“It will then be made freely available to all of the exciting emergent talent that is no doubt out there, just waiting to be given access to the technical toolkit that will enable them to create the comics of the future.”
Now, there’s no doubt that making a comics app freely available to all is a cool thing. But we already have plenty of tools that allow comics creators to share the comics they create. For example, you can toss the pages into a PDF and submit it to ComiXology. Amazon has a comics creator program that takes comics pages and automatically turns them into a Kindle document. Of course, you can also put the comic online yourself, either for free or for sale, and you can torrent your own comic if you want.
Of course, additional options are probably always good, and they tend to create competition that makes other options better. That’s great. But how will this new app be different, let alone “unprecedented technology”? The press release isn’t clear on this point.
One of the advantages of the ComiXology and Kindle methods is that they allow creators and independent publishers to easily make money from their comic. Of course, ComiXology and Amazon take a portion of that revenue. Will Electricomics include a payments system? Or is it just an app to put panels together? We don’t know.
Similarly, it’s unclear how Electricomics will be different than printed comics in a way that constitutes “unprecedented technology.” Existing systems already allow for panels to be identified and to automatically zoom for the reader, although that can be a bit difficult to set up. It’s doubtful we’re talking about animation of some sort, since that’s not mentioned and probably isn’t actually comics, but rather some hybrid medium. Perhaps we’re simply talking about an end to pages, so that comics turn into a potentially infinitely long page, not unlike the scrolls that historically preceded pages. But then, we’re told that the anthology featuring Alan Moore and others “will be a 32-page showcase.” So either we’re very much talking about “simply transferring comic narrative from the page to the screen,” or the description of this anthology is using terminology that’s not applicable to Electricomics — by which I mean the app and this “unprecedented technology,” rather than the anthology, which also seems to be called Electricomics.
Electricomics might even be a PhotoShop-like program, aiding in illustration and lettering. After all, we’re told it will help people create comics, not distribute them. But again, we don’t know.
I have to imagine these are questions that have answers, since we’re told that this project — presumably the app, but maybe the comic too? — is being funded by Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, which receives public funds. In the section of the press release explaining what Digital R&D Fund for the Arts is, we’re told that it evaluates its projects and requires them “to identify a particular question or problem that can be tested.” So… what question does Electricomics answer? Surely, any such evaluation would have included a summary of the avenues for digital comics already out there. Yet it’s not clear what Electricomics is, nor how it differs from existing options.
The one thing that’s clear is that Alan Moore’s involved. In fact, the press release is titled, “Alan Moore creates digital app,” as if he’s coding the app himself. The first sentence of the press release is this: “The most famous modern comic book writer in the world, Alan Moore, is leading a research and development project to create an app enabling digital comics to be made by anyone.” He’s also writing a short comics story for the comic entitled Electricomics. The About Us page on the Electricomics website tells us this:
Welcome to… Electricomics.
Almost three years ago, Alan Moore had an Idea.
Whilst working with director Mitch Jenkins on The Show, an eerie film and TV concept which seemed to have a life of its own, he imagined the children in the background of a scene reading comics on transparent flexible scrolls called Spindles. The comics, he idly supposed, would be Electricomics and would be yet another facet of the multi-nuanced and multimedia world of The Show.
So far so dull right? Big Idea Man has yet another idea.
Alan Moore ideas have an uncanny habit of inveigling themselves into reality, by fair means or foul, they emerge somewhere and demand to be taken seriously.
Obviously, the point here is to highlight that this was all Alan Moore’s idea, and that he’s someone who has ingenious ideas. But again, what is this idea? We’re told that its genesis was in Alan Moore imagining “comics on transparent flexible scrolls called Spindles.” Now, for all I know, details are being held back and this is the most revolutionary idea in comics history. But as presented, it sounds like the kind of perfectly mundane idle fantasy many of us have. At least as presented on Electricomics’ own website, it isn’t really an idea, any more than “what if cars were flexible and could bend?” is an idea. Yet this is being presented as a revolutionary one. For all I know, it is. But there’s no evidence of this from the description. What’s presented, like the press release, is a lot of ambiguity, gesturing towards “the future of comics” without any specifics — unless you believe that Electricomics isn’t really an app but “transparent flexible scrolls” of some sort. What in the world is being said here, besides that Alan Moore’s not only attached to this, but that it was all his ingenious idea?
The About Us page continues that The Show “had inflated in the manner of an airbag deployed in case of cultural stupor” — seriously, who wrote this? — and became “not just one story but dozens of them woven together into a huge billowing cloud of wonder.” It should go without saying that, even if The Show is the best thing since bread was sliced, this is simply terrible writing. But it’s typical of the kind of superlative that characterized the press release — writing that’s intended to create “a huge billowing cloud of wonder” without really saying much of anything.
The page concludes with a frank admission:
Right now, as this project launches, Electricomics is still an idea up in the ether, a hope and a plan before it becomes a reality, but like I said, Alan Moore ideas usually find a way to get through.
In other words, nothing’s been done yet — something the press release doesn’t mention, in announcing the future of comics was on its way. Oh, and did we mention Alan Moore?
So what was that “unprecedented technology” the press release referenced? Nothing. A hope, or an idea, that hasn’t been revealed yet. Unless Alan Moore was talking about digital technology itself, in which case the press release is being deliberately deceitful.
Perhaps Electricomics doesn’t know what it is yet either. Perhaps the near total lack of specificity in the press release is more a statement of intentions, rather than an announcement of a forthcoming app. The About Us page sounds like Electricomics is essentially a thinktank, which Moore is helming — or at least the public face of.
There’s a lot of unintentional comedy here. I love how the the About Us page begins, “Welcome to… Electricomics.” It’s so melodramatic, but so is the story that follows. But then, what are we being welcomed to? The same page, a little lower, states: “The path was not straight or quick, but in the end it arrived here, in this website, in this project, before your very eyes.” But nothing‘s before our very eyes, except for a press release and an About Us page, with a lot of talk about “different, better comics, completely new and fresh in every way” but no specifics — or even contradictory, confusing specifics. It’s an app, an anthology, a thinktank, “transparent flexible scrolls,” a list of contributors, and a very minimal website. Is it a dessert topping too?
Seriously, what does “completely new and fresh in every way” mean? No panels? No word balloons as we know them? Those “transparent flexible scrolls”? What does any of this verbiage mean?
I suppose it means what you want it to mean. On the Electricomics website, Twitter feed, Facebook page (which already has an astounding 4833 likes), you’ll find lots of enthusiastic comments. Again and again, people applaud the great “concept” or “idea,” without demonstrating any knowledge of what the concept or idea is. There’s certainly a lot of praise for Moore — which is great on its own terms, but says little about the specific goals of the project. That should be obvious, right? Several people say they’re supportive because Moore’s involved. Again, that’s totally fine, but it says a lot more about the cult of celebrity than Electricomics — unless the only salient aspect of Electricomics is that Alan Moore’s involved. Has pointing out such an obvious point somehow become heretical? Do the people making such a comment know what Electricomics is? Does it even matter?
Where people do reference specifics, they disagree with one another. People talk with great excitement about finally being able to create their own comics — although it’s not clear what this app will do that isn’t already available. (Make your own comics now!) Someone else hopes the mystery app will let him own the comics he purchases through it, without DRM. Tony Harris (unless someone’s impersonating the comics creator by that name) alone dares to tinge his enthusiasm with a healthy skepticism, writing, “Not sure I quite understand it, but my interest is piqued.”
In a sane world, this would be regarded as a stunning PR failure. If you’ve sent out a press release and people are still confused about what you’re doing on the most basic terms, something’s gone terribly wrong. The one thing a press release has to do is to communicate what you’re talking about. Yes, you hope excitement results. But you hope this excitement results from what you’re doing, not dizzying language that would make people roll their eyes if they saw it in an over-the-top corporate press release.
None of this is to belittle anyone involved. On the contrary, I think very highly of the creators whose names are attached to this initiative. The idea of them trying to create stories that push the medium forward is easy to support. And I have every reason to presume that the developers who’ll presumably be supervising any design and programming work are capable, talented people. I sincerely hope that Electricomics is an incredible app to make and / or distribute comics. If it somehow liberates digital comics from modeling themselves on print, in a way Scott McCloud didn’t try two decades ago, or that isn’t already being done by someone else, that’s great.
Look, I’m all for advancing comics. I’ve spent most of my adult life doing so, with almost no remuneration, and without a single corporate paycheck. If Electricomics is indeed “a hope” of a better, more democratic future of comics production and / or distribution, it’s a hope I share — a noble, wonderful hope.
But those stated goals of Electricomics are at odds with its own PR. Comics aren’t advanced by wild superlatives. I’m reminded of the Segueway, which promised to revolutionize personal travel, before anyone had actually seen one — then instantly became a joke when it was actually revealed. Arguably, the Segueway has still not recovered; I see them on the streets, but I still mostly hear them referenced in jokes. And the Segueway was near to market at that point; Electricomics, we find out at the very bottom of the About Us page, “is still an idea.” These kinds of promises of revolutionary tech rarely pan out, and they have a habit of coming back to haunt the project.
Lest anyone misunderstand (unless they’re misunderstanding willfully, as experience has taught me some will), I’m also not criticizing Alan Moore here. As I’ve already implied several times, perhaps Moore does have a concrete revolutionary idea. But if he does, whoever wrote these promotional materials doesn’t seem to know what it is and has substituted a bunch of obfuscating nonsense. They’re the problem, not Moore. As far as I know, there’s no reason not to bless him for trying to push comics forward.
The publicity materials are so poorly written that I can’t imagine he wrote them, nor approved them. It’s not hard to imagine, at least regarding these materials, that his name is being used for publicity purposes. His name almost certainly played a role in how comics sites have covered this press release. Of course, we’ve already seen that attaching Alan Moore’s name to a project, even when the connection is quite superficial, is an easy way of generating tons of press in comics circles. What we’ve seen from Electricomics, while essentially content-free, has been remarkably worshipful of Moore, so it would be surprising if it weren’t crafted with this effect in mind.
This kind of unmodified, worshipful language — whole paragraphs about the Big Idea Man — isn’t usually a sign of adult minds at work. It doesn’t take a lot of sophistication to realize these statements say more about the person making them than they do about their ostensible subject. The problem here isn’t Alan Moore, I assume, but rather the ambiguous, confusing, and worshipful PR surrounding Electricomics — and the comics sites that reported it.
Now, maybe whoever crafted these public statements only wanted to generate news stories and doesn’t care how it’s done, nor that the way this flurry of press is accomplished is likely to alienate anyone who can see through the veil of superlatives and obfuscation. That’s a particularly Machiavellian view of publicity, in which nothing matters but the attention generated today.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the most rudimentary of ethical standpoints is to adopt a long-term view of one’s own interest, in which one assumes that short-term apparent “successes,” like simply getting on lots of websites, has a tendency to backfire, or damage one’s reputation over time. And this press release is the stuff Cracked articles are made of. Today’s PR coup can easily damage reputations, as the initial excitement of superlatives breaks down, and people slowly realize what was actually said. There’s nothing more hopeful or optimistic than the very democratic idea that being honest and ethical tends — however imperfectly — to win out over time. But maybe I’m a dinosaur, because we seem to be living in a post-ethical world, where corporations can deceive customers and still be praised for how much excitement or sales they drum up.
But hey, people can put out such press releases and write About Us pages however they like. Fans can embrace anything Alan Moore — or anyone else — is attached to, whether they understand what it is or not. But it’s the job of the press to see through this kind of language and to at least ask the most basic questions about what they’re reporting.
Yet the coverage of this story is nothing short of flabbergasting. It makes me feel like I’ve entered the Twilight Zone.
The major comics sites failed to ask how this new app would differ from the tools already available, nor have they mentioned any of those tools (which would support that the goal is to empower people to create comics).
The same sites happily quoted superlative language about transforming comics with “unprecedented technology,” failed to ask how these new comics wouldn’t be “simply transferring comic narrative from the page to the screen,” and failed to point out how the superlative-filled press release actually said very little.
It’s a reporter’s job to ask questions. But it’s also a reporter’s job to provide context. It’s probably too much to expect a reporter to note how odd it is, given Alan Moore’s negative statements about the internet, that he’s creating an app. That’s weird, right? Is he in a position to know what’s out there already? It’s like Alan Moore went from someone proud to disassociate himself from the internet to a tech guru overnight. This is super obvious, right? No one I’ve read has mentioned it.
Similarly, it’s really weird to read Alan Moore quoted as saying that Electricomics will feature “the most cutting edge creators in the industry.” One of the things Moore’s most famous for, in the last few years, is saying that the comics industry doesn’t have any “cutting edge creators.” These comments have caused a great deal of ruckus on more than one occasion. This isn’t exactly obscure information. Has Moore changed his opinion? Did these creators suddenly get a whole lot better in the last few months? At the very least, it’s weird, right?
Now, there are doubtlessly those who are so anti-intellectual that they’d equivocate even asking these kinds of questions with attacking Moore. To this, I can only protest that reporting isn’t attacking. Only the worst sort of partisans, religious fanatics, and moral relativists who don’t understand that term confuse criticism for attack. Pointing out that a bizarrely ambiguous and confusing press release is bizarrely ambiguous and confusing… isn’t an attack. Pointing out how weird this all is… also isn’t an attack. And I can’t imagine people holding such an attitude about another medium.
One of the very few exceptions to the almost universal failure of comics journalism (and apologies if I’ve missed something) on this story is Comics Alliance, which ran a short piece by Matt D. Wilson that dares to point out:
The release isn’t entirely clear about just what Electricomics is or what the app does. In some places, the release refers to Electricomics as a 32-page digital comic book with four new stories by Moore and other creators, while other spots refer to it as a digital-comic-making tool. Presumably it’s both, though how it will work as both things (and whether it will serve as a distribution platform) isn’t really spelled out.
The post quotes the press release, then calls the quote “pretty vague.” It then quotes Alan Moore from the press release, but doesn’t follow the quote with a similar observation, instead moving on to summarize some of the facts from the press release. It’s not a negative post by any means, and it concludes by saying “It’ll be interesting to see what happens with it at the very least” and linking to the Electricomics website. It’s a brief post, and it still effectively pounds the drums, but at least it points out the press release isn’t clear and the site doesn’t really know what it’s forwarding to its readers, outside of some “new digital comics” and “the possibility of some digital comics creating tools.”
See how he did that? The post is still positive, but it doesn’t simply regurgitate the press release or add its own worshipful praise.
Seriously, Matt D. Wilson deserves some kind of award for doing his job while so many others were falling down on theirs.
Other sites weren’t as successful. Some simply ran the press release itself. And hey, while that’s not reporting, it is at least conveying information, with a warning up top that you’re about to read a press release, so you know the site’s not making any claim about the veracity of anything included. (That is, if you see the notice that you’re reading a press release and you understand what a press release is.)
There are worse offenders. One ran a post that absurdly added its own wild superlatives to those of the press release. Another post clearly knows the press release is terribly vague, yet deliberately skirts around this, transforming acknowledgements of vagueness into more positive sentences, then adds a few superlatives — some of which totally misunderstand the nature of the project in an attempt to praise Moore personally.
In more than one case, there’s a clear conflict of interest involved. I don’t happen to believe you have to recuse yourself because of a conflict of interest, if you can still do your job. But it certainly should be known by your employer, and if you deliver biased pieces, your employer should recuse you. Or require a disclosure as part of a post. This isn’t rocket science. It’s a pretty basic level of professional ethics, but it seems lacking in comics journalism.
You may notice that I’m not singling anyone out here by name. That’s partly because — and here’s my own disclosure — I know people at all of these sites, and I like their work. I regularly visit the sites in question, and they’re better than this. It wouldn’t be wrong to name names, but I’d rather take the high road at this point. Particularly because these kinds of failures, when reported as news, can be catastrophic to the reputations of those involved.
But there’s a more important reason I’m not singling anyone out: my point here isn’t to shame anyone in particular. It’s to shame the entire industry.
Because this is an industry-wide problem.
Now, I understand why this sort of massive failure of reporting happens. First, there’s tremendous pressure to generate content. Everyone wants to cover a story first, and there’s really very little incentive to cover it well. A short post mostly consisting of a press release will probably get as much traffic as a long and thoughtful examination, especially if that thoughtful post comes a day or more later. Also, a short post and a long one usually have the same number of ads. I’m quite certain, for example, that all those websites reposting the Electricomics press release, or cheerleading for it, got more traffic than this post will get. There’s every incentive to generate as much content as possible as quickly as possible, and there’s very little incentive to spend the time and mental energy to get the story right. Taking comics seriously doesn’t pay.
And that’s your and my fault, as readers. If we want people to take comics seriously, and to treat the medium with the same basic journalistic standards accorded “real” art forms, we’ve got to read and share that work, or at least reward it in other ways. For example, the way I’ve singled out Matt D. Wilson for praise for seeing the obvious: that the press release was a vague, flawed work, and that it was okay to point that out.
But there’s also another problem: we, as writers and as websites, want access. Look, we all want to be able to land interviews. And as we’ve already discussed, the mention of Alan Moore is enough to generate a lot of coverage; landing an interview with him is a big deal. Even where there’s not a conflict of interest, there’s an implicit conflict of interest. And even the most cursory knowledge of journalism shows that there’s a long history of this fear of losing access effectively censoring news.
That’s part of why it was a big deal that Alan Moore has sworn never to be associated with anyone who’s published or interviewed people he doesn’t like. It’s like if a comics company said it wouldn’t arrange interviews between its creators and sites that gave negative reviews. Or when the Bush White House shut out reporters who didn’t give favorable coverage. Often, someone doesn’t even have to follow through on such threats for them to have a chilling effect.
Add to this that many writers about comics want to be comics creators themselves. This is a huge problem. In the back of many writers minds, as they review a comic, is the idea that they want to be employed by these people and these publishers. Why risk alienating them? Sure, a comic might be hideously done, or seem to promote torture as effective and fun, but why point this out? Obviously, comics needs poor or troubling work to be called poor or troubling. That’s how criticism works. The best movie reviewers often author very negative reviews, and that’s part of how a medium grows. But what happens when 80% of people writing about movies want a job in Hollywood?
It so happens that Sequart’s long had to negotiate these issues. We publish books and make documentary films. That requires cooperation — and trust — from industry professionals. We have dozens of projects in the works at any time, and a lot of those can’t happen if someone doesn’t say yes. Long ago, I decided that it was totally untenable to censor the website based on these other interests. I wouldn’t tolerate it, as a writer. I don’t expect most writers would. You want people to produce good work, and you can’t intervene out of fear they’re going to piss someone off. That way lies madness. It’s unethical. It’s unprofessional. If you’re going to run a comics website, you have to do it right. It’s not that complex.
When I put on my creative writing cap, nothing gets in the way of the internal logic of a story. It’s going to go where it needs to go, on its own terms — even if that’s into some ugly places, or even some places that I as a critic might take issue with. When I put on my critic cap, nothing gets in the way of the logic of my observations. If I have an insight, I’m going to follow it through, and my only allegiance is to writing the best work of criticism I can. It’s not the job of a creator to please the critics, and it’s not the job of critics to please creators. It’s the job of both to produce the best work possible, by its own terms. It’s not that complex.
Of course, this requires a bit of faith. In my experience, most comics creators are professionals who are perfectly willing to accept criticism, so long as it’s intelligent. As a matter of fact, criticism often makes creators’ work better. Creators often cherish negative reviews that are written well. No adult could possibly expect not to receive criticism. I choose to presume that people are adults. Here we return to the issue of trust. The greatest gift you can give a creator isn’t unhesitating praise, nor unswerving devotion. It’s the comfort of knowing that you’ll present things fairly, to the absolute best of your ability, and that when you address the arguments against them, you’ll do so fairly and responsibly. It’s the hit piece that’s feared. Of course, it’s possible that someone’s so irascible that they’d respond to negative coverage, no matter how thoughtful, with hostility. But is such a person someone you’d really ever want to associate with? Life’s a lot simpler when you realize there’s no point walking on eggshells, for fear someone might react unreasonably. That’s a terrible way to live, and it’s certainly not conducive either to good art or good criticism. Or happiness. It’s not that complex.
I don’t mean to get on a journalistic high horse here. I know I’ve made mistakes, and I’m sure others on Sequart have too. When I realize that I have, I’ll correct them, and I expect the same of anyone writing for Sequart. It’s become pretty routine that, if someone makes good points criticizing something posted on Sequart, we invite them to write a rebuttal on Sequart — in the exact same venue, to the exact same audience. We’re not afraid of a debate, as long as it’s reasoned. As a matter of fact, we think it’s a plus. It’s part of a thriving critical discourse, and that’s good for comics. Hey, if I’m full of shit, by all means say so. If you make a superior argument, great. I know I’ll be the one who learns most from it, and I’ll be more impressed because you thought of things I hadn’t.
So again, my point isn’t to shame anyone specific for not living up to my idea of journalistic standards. As a matter of fact, I don’t even consider myself a journalist. But if I’m writing about news, I’ve got to put on a journalist hat, the same way I expect someone doing creative writing to put on a creative writer hat. You don’t get to say “I don’t consider myself a creative writer” as an excuse for deficiencies, and you don’t get to say “I don’t consider myself a journalist” as an excuse either. The standards I’m describing are shockingly rudimentary, and most of them are just about putting thought into what you do.
For the most part, we’re not talking about honest mistakes here. We’re talking about not trying. Or rejecting the idea that there’s any reason to try.
Just to be clear: I think the Electricomics anthology sounds really cool. A lot of creators I really like are attached. I’d buy it if it were for sale. It is, by itself, a legitimate news item. And I’m all for pushing the medium forward, or making it easier for people to make (or distribute?) comics, or creating a totally new digital comics platform that’s somehow liberated from the model of printed pages. I’m all for it. As far as I know, everyone involved is well-intentioned and just trying to make cool comics or do something new. And that’s great.
If no one knows what it is yet, that’s fine. Just say so, instead of spewing out gibberish about transforming comics that no one understands. And that probably no such app could possibly live up to. This gibberish doesn’t convey a great sense of professionalism. Nor does totally bizarre and nonsensical, even in terms of its own narrative, hero worship. It’s not needed.
But what really shocks me — what threw me for a loop and got me really depressed — is that almost no one’s called this wild, ambiguous, obfuscating hyperbole for what it is. One either has to be too blind to notice, too contemptuous of one’s readers to think they’ll notice, too scared of how some might react to truths they might not wish to hear, or too cynical to think any of it matters. Worse, some have added their own largely incoherent praise to that of the press release — because it needed more.
Seriously, what the hell is going on here? I realize there are plenty such infractions, going on every day. I mostly ignore them, because I don’t want to single anyone out. As far as comics have come, it’s no secret that there’s still a very real need for a culture of comics journalism and criticism. But this Electricomics coverage takes the cake.
Look, I know saying all of this probably isn’t going to make me any friends. I’d like to think it will be taken as constructive criticism, and that it may even result in some new policies being put in place. I’d like to think that, just as I can respect an attempt to move comics forward, whatever catastrophic publicity was attached to it, others can respect that everything I’ve said here is focused on moving comics forward too.
But even if I lose some friends by pointing out the obvious, I’m not willing to walk on the eggshells. Someone has to say it.