RSS comics

For some time I've been interested in building stories out of recycled bits of the Internet. Especially live material; the idea of taking material that isn't at all intended to be used that way, and then changing it or using it out of context - I really like this idea. It can be fun and subversive, and you never know what you'll get.

These types of live recycled story creations have been labelled as 'networked narratives' by Dr. Jill Walker (Walker, J. (2004) ‘Distributed Narrative: Telling Stories Across Networks’, University of Bergen). Good examples are the Google poems of Rob Wittig, Black Holes by Lewis Cook (where text and images are pulled in real time from the Internet and arranged as poems) and Grafik Dynamo (2004, Kate Armstrong & Michael Tippett) which is a comic built out of text fragments and pictures from a blog.

A lot of people are playing with the idea of randomness - programmers (bless 'em) nowadays seem to spend vast amounts of time building tools to generate things. This a popular activity.

Many of these generators take words or text, and change at random to suit a purpose - for example, someone must have thought this was worth building.

What I find interesting is the random comic generators. There are a fair number of these, they've been around for some time, and I think they show potential. Many of these random comics are taking the comic creators' own imagery, and then mixing it with user text input to try to form a story - look at: John Pound's Computer generated comics, Cartoon Strip Creatorand Scott McCloud's 5 card nancy.

It's not easy to find examples of comics that pull live text or pictures off the Internet and remix into a story. Imagine - a live story that's different each time you view it, that spontaneously makes itself anew each time - this is the essence of the excitement behind the 'networked narratives' idea.

I've tried to do this with my first attempt at an RSS comic, which is based on live news feeds. You select a news subject, and a three-panel comic with speech bubbles is shown. There are five subjects, so I've drawn five panels, and I plan to keep redrawing these to keep up with the latest news, to keep it current. I enjoy drawing and wanted to do that, instead of pulling pictures off the web - which of course is another way of doing this.

When a subject is selected, the comic changes and a news feed relevant to that subject is grabbed by my script. The script sticks all the words together, and then cuts up a number of random chunks (like William Burroughs used to do) and sticks them into the speech bubbles. This makes the dialogue, if you can call it that.

I've put randomness in there, as the word chunks are picked at random. I've also played with the text, as "the" is placed by a different word or phrase for each subject, and the user can alter this themselves. This can help to make the text chunks more meaningful, and also the user can have some control over what's going on.

I think I can compare this work best to Grafik Dynamo, except that it uses my own comic illustrations, which are related to the subject matter (whereas in Grafik Dynamo the text and pictures are very much at random). I'm aiming for dislocation rather than chaos or anarchy, the news and pictures are logically connected but don't quite fit.

The success or failure of the comic I'm sure depends on your personal taste. I find it quite fun, but then I suppose that's to be expected! One thing I find curious is that I can still follow the latest news while reading the comic; I don't follow it in a clear way, but the headlines tend to get through.

I've got ideas to take it further, but there are a few bugs in the current version to iron out. I'm very open to ideas and suggestions though! Please email me at : dave.miller.uk@gmail.com

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