Comics are the Language of the Post-Digital Age
by Kim Jooha
Deskilled Comics are intentionally poorly drawn comics. They are popular in the art comics world today; examples include the work of, Mushbuh, Kendra Yee, Mickey Zacchilli, Karrisa Sakumoto, Jaakko Pallasvuo, Kim Jooyoung, Ben Marra, Chris Harnan, Masano Hirayama, Char Esme, Ben Mendelewicz, and Isobel Neviazsky, as well as certain aspects of Patrick Kyle and Ginette Lapalme’s works.
Besides being examples of Deskilled art, these comics often incorporate written nonsense and incorrect grammar and spelling. They are not interested in plot or the psychology of characters. They feel spontaneous, improvisational, and unplanned. They prefer stream-of-consciousness. They do not care about realism, not only in the sense of verisimilitude but also in the sense of “reflecting society in the right way”. Most of them are humorous but pessimistic about late capitalism and the latest technological development even though they are produced, distributed, and viewed using the latest technology such as social media and smartphones. Many of them do not shy away from overtly showing that they are made with digital tools, while intentionally containing technology and web design features that predate the social media age.
Deskilled Comics are not an autonomous or independent development inside art comics. The Deskilled style is popular not only in the minor subculture of art comics but also in the contemporary post-digital visual culture; Hito Steyerl has called it “Poor Image”. It contains many features of the post-digital aesthetic, including low resolution, MS Paint, late 90s and early 2000s web design, glitches, pixelization, ugly typography, etc. The embodiment of the post-digital (post smartphone and social media) aesthetic is Meme which also represents the post-digital culture.
There have been Deskilled Comics before. For instance, in DIY, zine, and punk culture, there is Gary Panter’s Jimbo and Mark Connery’s Rudy, as well as Lynda Barry and Japan’s Heta Uma (Yuka Goto, Shiriagary Kotobuki, and Man Gataro). Deskilling comes from Modernist fine art traditions such as Abstraction and Primitivism. Comics have always had an aesthetic connection with contemporaneous visual culture and art such as Modernism (See Society in Nix and Forgotten Fantasy by Sunday Press Books), Pop Art (Jim Steranko), and Psychedelia (underground comics).
Unlike previous cases where comics were influenced by and followed the broader visual culture, Deskilled Comics are the preeminent element of the contemporary post-digital visual culture. The epitome of post-digital culture, Meme, proves this. Meme is a comic: it has words and pictures working together, often literally depicting a character and what it says; sometimes it has a sequence of images; sometimes it is actually a comic. In contrast to the professional Deskilled Comics I mentioned above, Meme is vernacular: it does not have authorship and it is made and enjoyed by the masses.
Paper Rad’s works serve as another evidence that Deskilled Comics are the critical feature of post-digital culture. “Today, … Paper Rad’s aesthetic and approach are in evidence throughout internet culture and pop culture… Paper Rad’s legacy can be seen wherever (in the words of Ben Jones) “big, beautiful images scroll down endlessly on a page with animated things.” … The unique aesthetic — which amalgamated psychedelic colors, tween nostalgia, new age symbolism, and 80s and 90s pop culture — constrasted that of the dark, serious punk aesthetic common in Northeastern DIY punk cultures at the time,” said the essay accompanying New Museum’s Net Art Anthology exhibition Art Happens Here. Deskilled Comics were Paper Rad’s main and most influential projects. Besides their Deskilled style — childike, “lo-fi” aesthetic, the pure RGB and bright fluorescent colors of MS Paint, and “cartoon characters” — their works’ use collage, stream-of-consciousness, anonymity, and appropriation, all of which are features of post-digital culture, especially Meme. Paper Rad was the precedent of everything post-digital. It is no coincidence that the face of Meme, Pepe, was hugely influenced by Paper Rad. Because Deskilled aesthetic is ubiquitous nowadays, it is harder to grasp how different Paper Rad felt almost two decades ago. Ivan Brunetti’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories,one of the most-used anthologies for comics classes, features a page of Paper Rad in addition to almost a thousand realist, alternative, and/or autobio comics. In two decades, the anomaly became the zeitgeist.
Deskilled Comics can be understood as post-digital Camp. In “Notes on Camp”, Susan Sontag listed the most prominent features of Camp, including good taste in bad taste; liking something “off”, excessive, amateur, nostalgic and/or retro in an ironic, humorous, and detached way; mocking the self-serious, formulaic, and mainstream; and emphasizing style over content, aesthetics over morality, and irony over tragedy. Deskilled Comics are Camp according to this definition. Sontag also pointed out that Camp is a social performance. By signaling one’s sensibility, one can meet people with similar interests. In the post-digital age, social media and smartphones have made this signaling process easier, faster, more effective, and widespread.
In a post-digital surveillance society where advanced technology is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent, the appreciation of technical limitation — glitches, pixelation, primary colors, and compression — is seen as edgy compared to the “mainstream” clean high-resolution photoshopped images like those found on “lame” Pinterest. The romanticization of lo-fi imperfection of post-digital manifests in physical objects too: the revival of LPs, cassettes, VHS, film cameras, mechanical typewriters, and Risograph.
Three crucial technological developments in the post-digital age led to the popularization of Meme culture: the democratization of image processing thanks to the exponential advance of both software and hardware; the evolution of internet communities into social media, which requires fast uploading and responding; and the smartphone, which enabled instant access to social media from everywhere and at any time. These processes have co-evolved with each other. Most importantly, they separate the image from the source and spread the “poor” — compressed, reproduced, and/or cropped — version of the original image.
Comics have yearned for cultural legitimization since their beginning. Now, in the post-digital age, comics have become the language of mass culture. People speak in comics (emojis and memes), not in words alone, on their smartphone. Now everyone makes and reads comics. There are billions of comics made every day.
This is the new reality for comics and we need a new framework to talk about comics. For example, how do you distinguish intentionally poorly drawn comics by an artist and just poorly drawn comics by an amateur? One reason Deskilled comics including Meme are massively popular in the post-digital age is that people care little about art if the work’s narrative is good enough (e.g., xkcd). Do we need to care about the art of comics if readers do not care?
Furthermore, the vernacular aspect of Meme implores us to re-conceptualize comics’ rudimentary auteur theory. Meme erases the distinction between the creator and the consumer. Its creators are almost always anonymous. Who are all these artists? Does it matter? Is the “Death of the Author” finally coming true? There is no division of original and copy in Meme. What does it mean to make art in a world where being original and/or an artist means nothing?
This leads to more practical and historiographical problems: how do we study comics when billions of new works are made daily? Is it possible to archive them? How do we write a history of billions of works? Big Data? Then what kind of selective algorithm should we use? Why are we reading, publishing, writing, thinking about, and discussing only a tiny fraction of the comics that are produced today? Why do we privilege them?
Comics are the language of the post-digital age. The comics community does not seem to grasp the significance of this. The convergence of the artist and audience is not utopian as many hoped. The Pepe affair — in which Matt Furie’s innocuous cartoon frog was cycled and recycled endlessly through the the internet as Meme and eventually became an instantly recognizable icon of white supremacy and the alt-right — will happen again and again. What does it mean that comics can and will be used as a radicalizing tool?
Comics have become much bigger than the comics community has ever imagined. When comics do not only belong to the comics community, what does the comics community become? We should start talking about the new reality of comics — as well as the new reality in which we find ourselves.
This article originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #4: This Was Your Life!, published by Beehive Books, 2019.