A few months ago, I reviewed T Campbell’s book, A History of Webcomics. Though it was published in 2006, it holds up fairly well considering everything that’s transpired in the industry since then. Interestingly, Sébastien Dumesnil’s documentary about webcomics, Adventures into Digital Comics, was being worked on about the same time, premiering in October of that same year.
The solicitation copy on the DVD box says the movie, “tells the story of the collapse of the print comic book inddustry ands the subsequent rebirth of the comic book as an art form in the digital realm.” This is done almost exclusively through creator interviews, with a few intertitles to elaborate on some key points or provide specific numbers that creators allude to. The list of creators is pretty impressive, ranging from veterans like Marv Wolfman to relative newcomers like Tricia Hale. Not surprisingly, Scott McCloud is included as one of the most vocal advocates of webcomics as well.
Despite the title, the movie covers a fair amount of territory before really getting into anything digital. Although it’s not touted as a history, much of the film covers the history of comics from the birth of the direct market, but begins getting more detailed around the speculator boom in the 1990s. Although references to webcomics occur throughout the documentary, they don’t really become the centerpiece until about two-thirds of the way through.
I appreciated that nearly everything is conveyed through the creators themselves. There’s no extra narration, and the person doing the questioning from behind the camera is never heard asking any questions or adding details to the conversation. However, because of that, I think, several flaws creep in. Notably, that despite attempts to hide those behind the scenes, they are plainly evident on repeated occasions. The questioner is heard in several segments; simple “uh-huh” and “yeah” type comments that don’t amount to much, but they stand out quite a bit in the handful of instances where they’re used. Also, some creators are filmed from over the shoulder of the interviewer, whose blurry neck and ear take up a quarter of the frame in some cases. While it’s certainly not unheard of for a documentary to show and acknowledge the people working on the film itself, there seems to be a less than effective attempt here to hide that here.
The sound was very difficult as well. Several interviews are recorded in quiet atmospheres where the interviewee is easily understood, but the sound quality in some — particularly Shaenon K. Garrity’s and Cat Garza’s segments — is almost inaudible. Other segments are taken from convention panels, and notably sound like it. None of which is helped any by the repetitious music clips that act as a soundtrack, frequently overpowering the speeches from even the clearest audio portions.
I found the text portions awkward as well. Every creator is identified on screen with their name and one of their notable works every time they appear. I’m not sure if it was necessary to continue to identify each creator each time they showed up on screen, but I can definitely see it as confusing when they were given different credits every time. Sometimes it was what they were currently working on, sometimes it was something they worked on 20 years earlier, sometimes it was a website address. Not to mention that it was presented in Comic Sans.
Other visuals were poorly handled as well. Many of the screen shots of webcomics included artifacts from the browser, superimposed over the images. Highlighted ALT tags and rollover cursors were common. The intertitles were not presented in Comic Sans, fortunately, but they were only sometimes centered on the screen and were always in all-caps.
All of which I found to be a shame because the content itself was pretty good, if you were looking for something more on the transition from “mainstream” comics in the late 1980s to using computers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For an hour and a half long movie ostensibly about “digital comics”, there really wasn’t a lot about webcomics besides 20-30 minutes of broad generalities. Granted, the movie is several years old now and some comments sound dated (there’s talk about digital paper, for example, but no references to tablet computers) but it was still quite a bit less than what it should have been, given the title.
Towards the end of the film, Patrick Farley quotes Igor Stravinsky: “It’s too late to ask where we’re going.” Which is perhaps fine for a broad movement like webcomics, but doesn’t seem to work as well when the same thinking is applied to a single documentary.