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Ambient Comics/Comics As Air

Imagine there was such a thing as Ambient Fiction. There are very probably lots of examples around. Mind working slightly faster than mind’s traps and editing software tonight.

Works you can dip into and out of, like treatises and long non-fiction works, and still draw complete little micro-experiences from, as you do in ambient music. A flow, or combination of flows, of word and picture that constitutes an ideational visual soundtrack, if you like.

The pure imagining of ambient music was that sound was used as you’d use light. You want constancy from light. You want to be able to ignore it, or drift away from it, but also to be able to focus on it, to study and enjoy it.

Throw away the notion of complex plot. Only the simplest of dramatic engines required — just setting characters, themes and relationships in motion. Creating a string of moments and conversations and sequences that CAN add to a whole, but don’t necessarily HAVE to.

Great for a cheap 100-page print book, probably more feasible for the webcomic, which deals in small chunks often by necessity. But it’d be nicer for the print book — something you drift in and out of, draw inspiration from, savour the evocations it causes. Something you forget you’re reading.

There. Needed to get that out of my head. I’m sure it makes no sense at all, but it’s been bugging me for three days. Now I can use that headspace for more important things, like being pissed off that I’m probably going to have to take my cane with me to Canada next month.

The end. Rattle your jewellery. Bed made of vaginas. Drop of the creature. Let’s away.

— W

(Originally written 31 March 2005. And I did have to take my cane to Canada. And the above may relate in part to something I wrote about Urasawa’s PLUTO the other week, which follows — and, yes, I am using the website to assemble some old thinking:)

Paul Gravett’s original subtitle for his currently-controversial book on manga was “comics as air” — denoting an artform that is pervasive in its country. But it applies to the way the form works on the page, too. Manga isn’t a string of postcards, a row of lights or a drum figure. It’s a warm jet of air, a stream, to be experienced in motion.

I’ve kind of resisted the following definition, because invoking the word “emotion” in narrative always sounds so clueless and fake: but one of the reasons manga never broke in the comics-shop audience in America is that manga values emotional and psychological content over plot, and comics-shop boys are just frighteningly anal about plot.

Manga are emotional comics. They want nothing more than for you to breathe together with them. To conspire with lives.

Published in brainjuice


  1. RMC RMC

    I buy books like this in that comic store I visit in dreams. In fact, dreaming sort of is ambient fiction. What have you been smoking tonight, Warren, to make you splurge brainjuice?
    Not that I’m complaining, you understand.

    BTW, how goes the datashadow idea? Are you really gonna do it?

  2. there’

  3. there’s a wonderful wonderful comic author named Tim Molloy who makes books a little bit like this. he has one called The Ground! It Rushes Upward! which is unfortunately OOP but is one of the most amazing headfucks i have even been on.

    it’s a series of one-page stories/vignettes/dreams/hallucinations, in which the final pane of the previous page becomes the first pane of the next. you can read just one of them, or all of them, or three in a row, or start halfway through one and stop halfway through the next.

  4. I wouldn’t call it “ambient,” but a book like “Naked Lunch” I couldn’t read at one sitting, I’d have to do little bits at a time.

    That recent comic by Katie-Jane from Queen Adreena was the same way for me, too. I didn’t see it as being terribly linear.

  5. Some of Steve Aylett’s works could be considered ambient, I think. The Inflatable Volunteer, especially, with its recursive epigramitic structure.

    Would surrealist fiction like Cisco’s The Veneficio Canon or anything by Borges fall under your heading of amibient fiction?

  6. Soliloquy by Kenneth Goldsmith works this way for me. It’s every word he spoke aloud for a week. And only that. You can pick up anywhere and leave anywhere and get a different vibe every time.

  7. Comicbookwise, a few Milligan/Mccarthy works strike me as “ambient”.
    See Rogan Gosh. See Freakwave.
    And go read A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible ( ). Punks.

  8. Adam Adam

    what you’ve described is a soap opera.
    I’m interning this summer for ‘As the World Turns’ in Brooklyn. Usually when I tell people this I get “That’s so funny!” or “You have to use my idea for a ridiculous plot!” The thing is, the show’s been on the air for fifty years straight. They shoot five episodes (five hours!) per week, sometimes in four days.
    And say what you will about soap operas, but when was the last time you sat down and watched one? It’s extremely easy to get sucked into the drama.
    Of course, TV beats books in a rocks-paper-scissors match because there’s no effort required in keeping up—you just sit down and get info dumped into your supple, sweet-smelling grey matter.

  9. In a way, haven’t newspaper comic strips been doing a variation of this idea for decades? Sure most are lame jokes these days, but there are some that build and create overall storylines. All of which you never need to read to enjoy todays strip. The master of this form is still Eisner.
    But when I first read the top passages, I couldn’t stop thinking of the Boondocks.

  10. A different adam A different adam

    Imagine my suprise when I read this via RSS, and figure I need to come say ‘you are talking about soap operas!’ and see someone else with my name already said the same thing!

  11. Pete Lovejoy Pete Lovejoy

    This is present to a certain extent in what are generally called “gag-a-day” comics or strip-form comics, but there the intention is usually to have each strip be a joke in and of itself. I can’t think of anybody off the top of my head who’s doing this in comics with anything that’s not punchline/humour based.

    I like this idea. I’ll have to think about this, maybe try some things with a couple of my Unoriginal Sins.

    I think I cought all the typos and misspellings there, but I’m pretty drunk, so I can’t tell for sure.

  12. I think of the Jerry Cornelius novels by Michael Moorcock like this. The structure of the novels is so ambient and the characters move through time and resurrect after they die. The style is the thing, the tone of ambiguousity.

  13. theblackscorpio theblackscorpio

    The reason I read your stuff is: You always strive to bring it that one little extra inch further.

  14. You beautiful bastard, Warren. I think you just found one of the bits missing from my jigsaw.

  15. Alex Alex

    People have already mentioned the first stuff that came to mind (Naked Lunch, though maybe Burrough’s cut up novels like Nova Express might be purer examples of this, and Borges, especially his really short pieces, which I always come away from buzzing with ideas,) but maybe something like One Hundred Years of Solitude, with it’s little vignettes that add up into this massive bloody family epic, or even Ulysses might apply. You could argue that poetry functions in a simulair way, and may in fact be much closer to what you’re thinking of in terms of ambient art that infiltrates your life like a soundtrack than the above examples, which people are generally more inclined to read straightthrough like any other novel. It’s certainly the way I read poetry, carrying a book around with me for a month or two until it becomes horribly dogeared and inkstained and just living with it.

  16. “Manga are emotional comics. They want nothing more than for you to breathe together with them. To conspire with lives.”

    Shit, that’s so right-on

    Growing up in Thailand I was raised by anime and manga. I still continue the obsession today not really knowing why I like japanese manga more than comics (though I do enjoy both, but more so with the japanese half siblings of literature) and I think that nailed it.

  17. “Throw away the notion of complex plot. Only the simplest of dramatic engines required — just setting characters, themes and relationships in motion. Creating a string of moments and conversations and sequences that CAN add to a whole, but don’t necessarily HAVE to.”

    First thing that sprang to mind was MMORPGS (the acronym that cannot speak its name…) Everyone that plays one will have their own take on it, but for me the gameplay is secondary (unless photoshop crashes and leaves me with an urge to kill) – I’m there to interact with a bunch of people that fall somewhere between social chat and roleplay. In other words, most take on enough of a deliberately manufactured character that it’s not quite the same as chatting with your mates down the pub (those kind of conversations usually run alongside in different channels) but it’s not quite as fixed and storyline-driven as the performances that the role-players I know on there aim for. You’d be hard pressed to describe it as high literature, but when I have a long and involved project I’m working on, and need the illusion of people, I’ll often log in a character in the same way I’ll put on background music, just for the stream of words.

    Probably closer to “pure” collaborative ambient literature were some of the Yahoo Groups I was in 5 or 6 years ago, before they were slaughtered by the transition to Groups. The ones with a lots of dedicated posters tended to act like a mass stream of consciousness – there were times when replies can so thick and fast that all you could do was dip in and out of the stream, but there was also the steadying repetition of familiar in-jokes, phrases, memes (in the original sense, not the “what flavour ice-cream sundae topping are you?” drivel), and circular riffing on a simple word or idea.

    One thing that I found fascinating was that there were in effect three forms of participation. Obviously you could either sit and read, or jump in and post. But there was a third state – because your name showed up at the top of the group when you logged in, then if you were a regular – particularly if you stayed uncharacteristically quiet – people would start posting stuff they expected you to respond to, which would then trigger others to do the same… You could affect the stream of consciousness merely by observing it.

    In particular I’m thinking of a parody religion called “Cult of Dan” I have no idea who Dan was or why he had a cult following; by the time I joined the place was a seething morass of off-the-wall storylines, one-liners, rants and ramblings that somehow – usually – formed a coherent whole. (Most of the moderators were aspiring or semi-professional authors, at one point there was a discussion on taking some of the most successful storylines and working them into something that could be paper-published, but I’m not sure what came of that.) The whole thing was very character driven – most people had 10, 20, more Yahoo ID’s, usually with a distinctive character and literary traits, occasionally created for the occasion as a one-shot wonder. So much of what happened in terms of plot was dialogue based. But people also had “commentator” characters, meaning events could be narrative driven as well.

    Because of the differing levels of commitment, inspiration and available internet time between the contributers, stories could arc for months, burn up in a day, or simmer indefinitely. There were also random meandering conversations as established characters riffed off each other just for fun. You could dip in for 5 minutes once a week or spend a whole day immersed. You could flick your eyes over the last half hour’s conversation, or jump back through threads to trace one character’s journey back to its conception.

    You could also witness evolution in action. Interesting plots thrived as more people threw their characters into the mix. Lame ideas died a slow lingering death of no response.

    I’m probably looking back with a very rose-tinted view – I’m sure that at the time I probably had to skip through a lot of dross – but it was certainly more successful than a lot of deliberate attempts at that sort of gestalt creation that I’ve seen on writers’ group wesbites…

    Nowadays I guess the equivalent is Livejournal… but it’s definitely skewed a lot more towards “ambient” than “literature”

  18. The work that immediately came to my mind was ‘Don Quixote’. It made fantastic lunchtime reading for me for months, because I could easily read one, or two, or three chapters to get a fully self-contained picaresque tale. Unlike most books, I was able to put it down for two months and pick it up without missing a beat, joining Sancho and Quixote for their next adventure.

    While there’s obviously an overall narrative structure, it’s more thematic and character driven, so maintaining reading continuity is of lower importance.

  19. Brian Brian

    My first thoughts were Alec by Eddie Campbell and Rare Bit Fiends by Rick Veitch

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