20 Minutes Into The Future

By | Monday, March 23, 2009 Leave a Comment
Did you ever actually see the TV show Max Headroom? Not all the media hype surrounding the character, but the actual show? Max was actually a pretty minor character, hanging out in the shadows behind his template, the top-rated reporter Edison Carter. Take a look at this still shot of Edison filming his show for Network 23 and tell me what you see...
The image is grainy and dark. The shot isn't framed very well, primarily because it's clearly evident that Edison is holding the camera himself. Nearly all of the footage of Edison's show shown on Max Headroom is filmed in this way. One man and a video camera. Let's compare that with this still shot of an independent reporter on YouTube...
Look familiar?

Now Max Headroom, like most science fiction, got many of the particulars wrong about the future. W'ere not using "credit tubes", there aren't 3 second commercials that make people explode, and there's certainly not an independently conscious head that pops up on TV screens making bad puns. Although, I rarely carry cash any more, commercials usually make me feel like my head's going to explode, and there is a virtual version of me walking around online in Second Life...
Which brings me to my point: that science fiction is NOT about what lies in our future. People can dream up all sorts of wondrous technology like phasers and A.I. computers and whatnot, but the actual implementation of said technologies will certainly differ. Sometimes for technological reasons, sometimes for commercial reasons, sometimes just because of a different sense of style. No, the reason -- well, one of the reasons -- we have science fiction is to explore how mankind reacts to those new and upcoming technologies. What if no one used cash any more, and every transaction was conducted electronically? What if cybernetics were so inexpensive as to be ubiquitous? What if our government was a technocracy? How would we be different because of that?

"Sean, you're rambling again. I came here to read about comics!"

Well, there's been plenty of discussion lately about the death of newspapers and what might happen to editorial cartoonists. There's been plenty of discussions about traditional comic book publishing, and whether the decades-old business model is still viable. There's been plenty of discussions about exclusively digital comics and whether they're best viewed on a Kindle or an iPhone.

The thing is: all of these discussions -- and certainly many more -- are talking about the future. The root question at every one of these discussions is: what will tomorrow be like? Will my comics -- the flattened wood pulp splattered with colored chemicals -- be impacted by what's changing in the world right now? Some people's interest is their very livelihood-- comic creators and retailers for example. Others' interests are simply nostalgic -- "I want my kids to love comics they way I did." Others are just being selfishly lazy and don't want to even consider having to change their weekly habit of heading down to their Local Comic Shop. (And I really hope those people are in a distinct minority.) I'm sure there are any number of completely valid reasons to question the future of comics.

Now, we can speculate from now until the cows come home about what the face of editorial cartooning will look like in ten years, or whether or not there will be an electronic book device that displays comics as easily as anything. But whatever we'd predict, we'd be wrong. Because we (mankind) always are.

I remember ten years ago, trying to figure out what file format worked best for playing songs digitally. Since there was essentially no such thing as a portable MP3 player (the first ones were introduced in 1998) I tended to simply continue using CDs. Naptser was still a year or two away, and the iPod another couple years after that. Sure, we had portable CD players back then, and I'm sure somebody dreamed of having what was essentially a portable hard drive to carry that many more songs than a CD could hold. But did anyone figure on a device that fits into your shoe? And then is also able to track your workout data?

What will comics look like in ten years? In five years? In 2010? Will we have a souped-up Kindle or a toned-down tablet PC? Will we have electronic paper? Will we have comics beamed directly into our brains? No one has those answers.

But what I can tell you is that comics as a medium will continue. You'll be able to continue reading about Superman and Garfield and Judge Dredd. And you'll be able to find reprints of Tintin and Asterix. And, while Robert Crumb might not be around to continue making his unique brand of comix, his daughter Sophie will be continuing on in his footsteps, just as there will almost assuredly be another generation of Kuberts and Romitas, drawing comics in a manner befitting the reproduction technology of their time.

It's terrible that individuals have to experience massive industry shake-ups, as their professions are being redefined out from under them. But the planet isn't going to stop just to make sure the last newspaper editorial cartoonist can keep his job. Things are going to move onward, like it or not, and your best bet is to stay as informed as you can and try to morph with the industry before it leaves you behind.

Guys like me, who are big proponents of advancing commercial technologies, can't see the future. No matter how hard I strain, things are a hazy blur at best. But, as long as I continue to look, I'll be able to see where things are heading the moment those blurs begin to come into focus. I can kind of make out some outlines now, which is why I'm big on webcomics, but I can tell that won't be ultimate expression of comic art in years to come. At least, not as we know webcomics today! But keep looking; maybe your vision is better than mine!
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