How has technology affected the illustrated story? – A Guest Post by Jeff Thomason


Jeff Thomason stopped by for a great guest post about what he knows best. Take it away….

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How has technology affected the illustrated story?

 

Case study 1: Pulps vs. Comic Books

 

Jeff Thomason artist on Jakphoenix.comSince the beginning of recorded history, people have had some form of illustrated stories, whether they were carved in stone by hand or printed on paper by a machine. While the essence hasn’t changed (still words and pictures) the technology used to create them has and this has brought about changes in the stories themselves. One of the best examples comes from the early twentieth century: Pulps vs. Comic Books.

Pulp Fiction refers to inexpensive magazines and books printed on cheap paper called pulp (hence the name) from 1896 thru the 1950s with their popularity (and sales) peaking in the1930s. They cost a dime (and are sometimes referred to as dime novels) and featured an exciting, full color cover, a quickly written story, and a few black and white illustrations. They were wildly popular and sold well even during the depression. Characters included Tarzan, Zorro, Buck Rogers, Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Spider, Fu Manchu, and many others. They covered every genre from adventure to science fiction, action, romance, weird tales, exotic travels, and spicy fun.

Comic books began in the 1930s as reprints of the Sunday color comics section printed on cheap newsprint at a quarter the newspaper size. They quickly introduced new materials and a new genre: the superhero (who was originally called a costumed character or costumed hero) and included Superman, the Bat-man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and Captain Marvel. They usually included several stories with each lasting anywhere from one page to 8 pages and sold for a dime.

These two forms shared a lot during the 1930s and 40s. Both were on cheap paper. Both sold for the same price on the same newsstands. Many of the same people were involved in both pulps and comics. Both used words and pictures to tell stories of adventure, action, romance, terror, heroism, vigilantism, and salaciousness. But technology changed the possibilities of form and, as an unforeseen result, the content of the stories.

When pulps started in the late 1900s, color illustrations were difficult and expensive to print. So the pulps were mostly text with a great cover and a few poorly reproduced black & white line drawings. The stories were novel length and featured characters with simple garbs. But by the late 1930s, color illustrations were commercially viable, so comics could be full color with more picture than words. This meant the simple trench coat of the Shadow or the bronze skin of Doc Savage wasn’t enough for pictures. Comic heroes needed bright costumes and colorful foes. Because the stories contained so much illustration, the stories become much shorter and much simpler with several in each issue.

A paradigm example is the comparison of the Doc Savage pulps of the 30s (one of the most popular and successful series) with the Doc Savage comic of the 40s. In the pulps he was strong, smart, and wore regular clothes and traveled in planes and boats. In the comics, he gained a costume and super powers and basically became a completely different character.

Technology also produced another unexpected result: the death of pulps. The four-color adventures proved too exciting for the text heavy pulps to compete with. When readers were faced with a choice between 64 full color pages of costumed clad heroes or 80+ pages of black and white text both for a dime, they chose the one more visually exciting.

You may be wondering what a 60-year-old example has to do with us today. Ah, here’s where the big question comes in. How will technology shape illustrated stories today? The eBook revolution (sorry big publishers, there is a revolution going on whether you like it or not) provides new opportunities and new limitations for stories. Here are just a few:

  • Cost & Length – To make selling a story worthwhile (and to make the binding practical) stories have to be at least certain length, but can’t go over a certain length. Digital files don’t have this limitation. An author can sell a one-page story or a 4-million-page story. The usual limitations don’t apply. This opens up new possibilities for new forms. It also may be the salvation of comic books, which are pricing themselves out of existence due to high printing costs.
  • Layout – eReaders offer flexible layouts and font sizes, which means you can’t guarantee how a page will display. The picture may be on its own screen, or you may have a two page layout showing several pictures and a healthy chunk of text. The play between images and pictures needs to be simpler and more flexible.
  • Size – Comic books have had a hard time going digital, because the text is hard to read on a small screen. Many solutions have been tried such as breaking it into individual panels (which gives you odd shaped pages and loses the effect of one panel interacting with another) to cropping the page to just the essential elements (robbing you of beautiful artwork). In the 80s it was common for toys to include mini-comics. These mini-comics were meant for a small page and work well on eReaders and other small screens if only comic book producers could break from their current template.

 

Of course, eReaders and eBooks are new, so we have yet to see the real possibilities this new technology will open up and the effect it will have on illustrated stories. I, for one, am excited to see what will develop.

Jeff Thomason

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An Interview with Author Mark Chisnell


Today, Matt D. Williams, author of the Jak Phoenix space adventure novel, is speaking with writer, broadcaster and sometimes professional racing sailor, Mark Chisnell.

MW: Hi Mark. Can you tell us about yourself?

MC: I was brought up on the east coast of England, close to both the sea and an inland network of lakes called the Norfolk Broads, so boats were everywhere. I started racing sailing dinghies, got a degree in physics and philosophy and then worked in a factory for a summer to buy a ticket to Australia, with a vague plan to see some stuff and write a book.

By the time I got home I’d published some travel stories in the New Zealand Herald and the South China Morning Post, and I’d broken into the professional sailing circuit via the British America’s Cup team that was racing in Australia at the time. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between those two things – writing and pro sailboat racing – ever since.

Give us a rundown on your book, The Defector.

The Defector began as an idea from my philosophy classes – the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a Games Theory concept that was dreamed up by the RAND corporation, the people who brought us the MAD theory (Mutually Assured Destruction) during the Cold War. I wanted to make it more personal than that, and had in mind a game played for life and death stakes, involving a love triangle. The basic idea immediately makes it a genre book, a thriller, and I went for a classic chase story. The psychotic drug smuggler, Janac forces the hero, Martin Cormac to make a succession of escalating, nightmare choices in his struggle to get free.

It took me about three years to get from the idea to a story with characters and a plot, and to get a first draft down on paper. It took another four years to rewrite it and find a publisher. Random House brought it out (called The Delivery) in 1996 in the UK. Then it was republished as The Defector by Harper Collins in New Zealand and Australia – I was living down there for a while for a sailing competition. And it is now available as an ebook via Smashwords and for Amazon’s Kindle.

The Defector has a sequel called The Wrecking Crew. Tell us about that story.

I had a couple of ideas after The Defector was done. The first was a simple way to fake GPS signals – much simpler than the one used in the James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, which came out while I was writing The Wrecking Crew. I’m a navigator on the sailboats, so I was very familiar with GPS. The idea was that spoof differential GPS signals could be used in the same way false beacons were lit in the eighteenth century, to lure unwary ships onto the rocks where the crews were murdered and the cargoes stripped.

The second was another moral dilemma which was not uncommon in the age of sail: men in a lifeboat, days from rescue, and nowhere near enough water for them all to make it. Do you share the supplies evenly and keep your fingers crossed for a miracle, or do you ensure just a minority survive for as long as possible…  cannibalism and perhaps even murder to survive?

The key to making those two ideas work together was The Defector’s anti-hero, Janac. And as I liked the idea of a sequel that followed the bad guy rather than the hero, that’s what I went for, and The Wrecking Crew was the result.

Where did your inspiration come from when writing this series?

It’s hard to escape from the moral dilemmas, they are an important part of the inspiration in both stories. The books are entertainment, I don’t think anyone is going to mistake them for grand literature – but that doesn’t mean that the reader can’t be left with something to think about afterwards.

Is there an impression or moral that you want to stick with your readers after they finish these books?

It’s not as strong as taking a moral from the story, I’d rather people were left thinking about the character and their decisions. And perhaps thinking about what they might have done in that same situation – the extreme choices in the books do still reflect on things we do every single day.

Is there a third title planned for this series?

Not at the moment, although I do have another idea for Janac that I might one day come back to…

Which authors or other creative types do you look up to?

I guess there are three or four writers that I loved when I was younger, whose influence I can now see in my own work. The first two were Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean. The latter is almost forgotten now, but he was a hugely successful thriller writer in the 1960s and 1970s, and I could inhale one of his books in an afternoon when I was a kid.

When I was a little older it was books with ideas that took more of a hold – George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm stopped me in my tracks for weeks, I couldn’t think about anything else. And then there was another largely forgotten book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – that was the one that got me studying philosophy as well as physics, so it had a pretty big impact on my life.

You mention that you’re also into sailing and it seems you’ve even written some nautical non-fiction. What have you written in that vein and where can people find them?

After the travel stories I started writing for sailing magazines, and that led to books about sailing. Initially they were technical books, but the more recent ones have been narrative non-fiction about some of the great sailing adventures. The most recent, ‘Spanish Castle to White Night’ was about the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09, and won a prize for the Best Illustrated Book at Sportel Monaco in 2009. I’m hoping to bring out text-only versions of them as eBooks.

There are links to all the books from my Amazon page:

http://www.amazon.com/Mark-Chisnell/e/B001HOL4HG/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1

What else do you have in the works?

I have another couple of novels that are close to being finished, I hope to get one out as an ebook this year, and the second in 2012. The first is historical fiction, a spy story set in 1936 and based around a true incident involving Sir Thomas Sopwith, who built fighter planes and racing yachts. The second is about a snowboarding expedition into the Himalayas – and there are no boats at all.

Finally, I have another sailing book due for publication in the UK in 2012, and that will be about the Olympics.

Where can people follow you online?

I have a website with a blog and background on my work and writing the novels, and links to all the ebook retailers:

http://www.markchisnell.com

And of course I’m on Smashwords:

http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/markchisnell?ref=azorescrown

And Twitter:

http://twitter.com/markchisnell

And Facebook:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mark-Chisnell/187422241285928?v=wall

And Goodreads:

http://www.goodreads.com/markchisnell

I’d love to hear from people on books, writing, sailing, anything!

Thank you so much for speaking about your work today Mark. Do you have anything else to add?

Only that I hope people will try the books and enjoy them – and many, many thanks for asking me along, keep up the great work, and go the Indie revolution!

Check out Mark’s amazing work on Smashwords, where it is already quite well reviewed!