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Dorothy Gambrell Interview


[ Dorothy Gambrell ]

This interview with webcomic writer and artist Dorothy Gambrell was conducted by Director Sebastien Dumesnil via email during the making of Adventures Into Digital Comics. This interview is a part of the first set of interviews, which means that Dorothy Gambrell received a part of the shotlist, and was asked to answer the questions as if they were actually shooting the interview together. Dorothy Gambrell was offered the possibility to interact this way with the members of the cast.

By sending the same questions to all interviewees, Dumesnil wanted to get the most necessary element of narrative filmmaking: conflict. Despite the repetitive aspect of the questions, we hope you will be surprised by the large panel of answers and opinions offered by the interviewees.

Can you tell us about your background?

I read newspaper comics assiduously in elementary school, somewhere along the way switched my allegiances to Matt Groening, and then to the Fantagraphics catalog. Went to a non-specific liberal arts college, didn't pay attention to anything. Then I popped my head out of the ground with Cat and Girl and, much to my surprise, saw a shadow.

What do you find in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of visual exercise?

Comics are made for reproduction, so they're very elastic in where they appear, what they can be. Like any medium with actual readers outside of the cognoscenti, they're generally considered pop trash. I wouldn't want to work in any medium that wasn't considered trash. I think bubblegum's got a lot more to say about the modern condition that John Cale ever will.

1993 was the last profitable year for the American industry. The market has been shrinking ever since. What do you think are the causes of the industry's collapse in the 90's?

If your target market never takes the comics out of the plastic wrappers the quality of their insides gets overlooked. And if the quality of their insides is neglected for too long, even collectors begin to realize how worthless they are.

To make more money and be able to reach different places such as bookstores, the publishers have created the trade paperback. As an example, many people have read Sandman when it was available on paperback, but not before. Do you feel that the comic book format had its days, and could be replaced by the paperback?

Paperbacks feed into the perceptions of comics becoming a mature medium—"graphic novels" for people who wouldn't deign read a comic book. There's no reason why the growth of one sort of packaging ought to overwhelm the other, but it's up to the market place.

Also around the same time came the internet. Did you guess at that time that the internet could become a distribution system for independent artists?

Well, no. Lynx didn't seem to offer much but text based ham radio (Oh gosh! I'm at an internet site based in Sweden.) The comics thing, and graphics in general, didn't look possible until large numbers of people started getting home internet connections.

Diversity seems to be a key problem for the industry. Do you think that current comic books are oriented mainly toward a male audience in its 20's?

I can't really say—being a female in my 20s, I don't read comic books, as none have ever interested me. Those few people I know that read comics are males in their late teens/early 20s—take from that what you will. I do think it would be a lot more fun if the industry oriented itself towards males in the 1920s, and published books about speakeasies and petting in the park. I would read that.

In the biggest comic conventions we can find paper and digital artists. Some paper artists seem to be ferociously anti-digital. Do you feel that there are now two clans of comic book creators?

Oh gosh, it's silly argument. Paper and digital are just two different mediums of creation (and for a lot of people comfortable with both, they're just different means of distribution). Why is infighting always biggest among marginalized fields?

Some digital comics use animation; others sound, etc. For you, what is a digital comic? What would be the aesthetic definition?

It's digital if the creation or presentation of the cartoon is dependent on computers. It's a comic if the reader determines the pace at which it is read.

Do you think that digital comics offer much more diversity than the paper market?

It depends on your definition of paper market. If you're speaking of big publishers, of the "comics industry," then yes, digital comics offer infinitely more variety. But if you open up that definition to small presses and the fine publishing house of Kinko's, then it's the same. Distributing on the internet levels the playing field between publishers and makes it easier for those formerly of Kinko's to appear just as legitimate as big publishers, and to attract similar amounts of readers. I think this makes the diversity among print comics.

Only big publishers would have the financial asset to afford the legal support needed in the piracy issue. How do you think that the big companies will make their way into the digital world? Do you think that independents will have to wait for those companies to make money in a safe way?

The big companies will wait for independents to create models of payment and content delivery that operate safely and efficiently. Then they'll push their properties the same way and attempt to muscle everyone else out of business.

Do you think that readers are into comics for collecting and need to touch a comic book to enjoy it, or would a computer screen be enough for them? What about you?

I am not a collector, and I don't much like the concept. Collecting is about having exclusive things, about being special by owning things that other people can't have. A strength of comics on the internet is that they are available to anyone who comes across them, and can be "owned" on hard drives by an unlimited number of people. However, I can see CD-ROMs of cartoons and bonus features being marketed very successfully to collectors.

There are many issues that could prevent digital comics from growing, such as piracy. Also, and even novelists ran into that wall, it seems to be hard to get paid, even with systems such as PayPal. Subscription, advertisement, micro-payments: what do you think is the best option to be paid on the web for digital creations?

The person who figures that one out will be smarter and richer than I ever will be.

There are different ways to compose a comic book story on the internet. Some artists like to consider the screen as a page, others still use a typical comic book format. We can also use the screen as a panel/link leading to another panel and so on. Finally, other artists use the internet as an unlimited space to compose a story. Do you think that digital comics offer more possibilities as far as composition is concerned?

Paper comics could be composed on giant sheets of paper... digital offers a larger canvas, paper would offer the experience of hiding parts of the entire by folding... they're different mediums. Digital offers unexplored ways of composition, but no more so that paper does.

Do you think that scrolling is the main limitation of digital comics?

Oh no. Scrolling can be used as a way to involve people, as page turning can be, or to exploit which areas of the canvas remain hidden to the reader. That the creator doesn't know when people will be scrolling—that their canvas differs according to the user-is a larger problem. Bandwidth limitations are also more of a concern.

One can find digital comics on the web, but also short films produced especially for the internet. Do you watch such films sometimes? What do you think of them?

I don't watch the films, as I've got a regular pokey old modem at home.

We talked earlier about the unlimited space and animated digital comics. Do you think that we could apply some of those compositional ideas to live moving pictures, instead of just drawn panels?

The problem arises when the pace set by the piece (the moving pictures) and the pace set by the user (scrolling) come into conflict—wouldn't people quite possibly miss out on where key dialogue was coming from if they chose to linger on the different part of a huge canvas?

Bad artistic, and moreover marketing, decisions have been the main reasons of the industry's downfall. The digital technology seems like a good solution to create art without any form of concession. Do you think that the internet is an open door for new creative voices?

Oh, yes. It's a remarkable place in terms of distribution.

Now that comic books have become a niche market (whether they are on paper or digital), pretty much like painting, do you think that we're going to see a peak of creativity and quality as a reaction to the current situation?

A peak of creativity in response to a niche market, which restricts the audience and the future pool of creators? God no. If all works astoundingly well, the internet will allow cartoons to get back out of this niche market they've crawled into to die. Then we'll see a peak of creativity and quality.


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