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Why, Minus Everyone

Simple cartoon

For the past month I’ve had a bot churning out these little “minus everyone” comic strip things. It’s a simple(ish) thing that makes me smile daily when it pops up in my feed.

It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, but I keep hitting up against this problem… it itself is a stupidly simple thing, but I have lots I want to say about it, but it’s so stupidly simple that it doesn’t really warrant having lots to say about it.

First though I should explain quickly what and how it is.

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It is a fairly obvious riff on Garfield minus Garfield, the Garfield strip in which Garfield is removed. Much has been written about how the simple act of removing Garfield changes the whole feel and context of the cartoon, turning it into something quite different and somewhat darker.

So obvious is the riff that it’s been done before- like this wordpress blog running for 74 strips and ending in June of 2014- almost to the point that when I first thought “Oh hey, I could do Garfield minus everyone, I wonder if it's been done before?” and upon finding out that it had I almost didn’t bother.

However, there is a subtle difference.

Garfield minus Garfield, and Garfield Minus Everything are both subtracting elements down from the finished cartoon. While Minus Everyone is constructing the cartoon strip up with all the usual elements, but without going through the last two steps of adding in any characters and dialog.

I guess it should be called Garfield Without Actually Adding Garfield.

Green gradient

* * *

So here’s a quick look at how the construction takes place, and then we’ll get back to me worrying about how seriously I should be taking all this.

In essence each day the drawing bot runs through a bunch of options, each with various slim chances of happening, it goes roughly something like this…

  1. Decide if it’s daytime or nighttime. Generally this doesn’t matter because we spend most of the time indoors and there are no windows.
  2. Decide if there’s a slim chance the cartoon is set outdoors.
  3. Pick some colours, around a certain level of saturation and luminosity, unless we are outdoors, in which case pick a semi-random shade of green & blue for the grass & sky based on the day/night from above.
  4. Is one of those colours going to be different, and if so in which frame?
  5. Decide on a height that the bottom “counter/grass” of the strip will be. In the original Garfield cartoons this varies a small amount from day to day.
  6. Is one of the counters going to be a slightly different height to the others?
  7. If so, which one, in the original cartoons it’s most often the middle one, but can sometimes be the 1st or 3rd frame.
  8. Is the background a solid colour or a gradient, and which way up does the gradient go? I’d love to know how Jim Davis decides from a day to day if there should be a gradient or not.
  9. Equally I’d love to know what makes him choose to add shading some days and not others. Does it effect the punchline. I know how the computer chooses, there’s a 10% chance it’ll add shading to the background if we’re not outdoors. The angle of the shading varies within a certain range, as does the orientation.
  10. Finally, the code may place an object into the strip, but not necessarily all the frames, because not having it in all frames is 5% funnier.
Bowl of Ice Cream version

* * *

It’s quick and dirty, there’s about a million more elegant ways of getting to the same end result, but it works, and keeps working on a daily basis. I’m pretty pleased with it.

Now for my thoughts, in which I’m totally worried I’m over thinking things.

The first one is that I enjoyed the process of deconstruction, looking through far too many Garfield strips working out what makes up each one. The frames, colours, shading, the appearance and disappearance of various characters, props, furniture. I started with code that drew the frames, then coloured the background. Slowly building it back up again, each time dropping in a new chance of something happening, thinking about the odds of each thing happening. Did I want lots of gradients, or lots of shading? How often should the shading be flipped round? I spent a good deal of time studying the original strips to get some idea of the frequency and pacing, trying to convert that to code.

A fair few years ago I was interested in “Mash-ups” of APIs, music, visuals, and written & spoken words. Why look/listen to one thing, when you can have 3 or 4 things taking up the same space/time? A lot of this was driven by the whole Cyberpunk thing going on at the same time and the need for faster modems. I clung to the phrase “How fast are you? How dense?” written by Rudy Rucker in “What Is Cyberpunk?”…

Now you can see where cyber and punk tie together to make cyberpunk. If you value information the most, then you don’t care about convention. It’s not, “Who do you know?”; it’s “How fast are you? How dense?” It’s not, “Do you talk like my old friends?”; it’s “What do you have to say?” It’s not, “Is this comfortable?”; it’s “Is this interesting?”

…not about the conversations or context, but how much information can you cram down the small network pipe and into glowing neon data bursts, stripped of all emotion as you immerse yourself in the glorious information overload.

Sometimes it takes a while to notice yourself change. I mean you do over time, but you need something that makes you stop and look at it from the outside.

I’m using social media less, I care more that people talk like old friends than the information. I still see “Is this comfortable?” as a trap but I like the appeal.

I don’t want my music to be everything at once, I’ve gotten far more into ambient music, the stripping down of complexities, digging around for the “pure” elements in films, books, art, code.

Deconstructing and then reconstructing Minus Everyone, and the pure simple pleasure I got from doing so made me realising that I’m no longer about being fast or dense (I’m aiming for efficient and clean).

I still want people to be fast and dense, just not me. Maybe this is old age, maybe it’s something else, but it was the damn cartoon that made me think about it.

Hatched backgrounds

* * *

The second thought is about the cartoon strip becoming the character itself.

When all the other characters are removed, and the code is making decisions about the motives and outcomes for the strip each day, is the strip itself the lead character?

The comic strip as a character acting upon those it seeks to contain (or free) isn’t new, and subject to it’s own essay. One that I assume someone else has already written, and writing myself would only put on full display my ignorance of the medium. I’m going to go with yes… but, as the output each day is random it’s a character that has no story and no arc, and is therefore ultimately destined to remain one dimensional, although literally it’s two dimensional, but whatever.

Coffee version

* * *

Third, I really want to shoe horn The Angriest Dog In The World into this essay somehow. It’s a four frame cartoon written by David Lynch, in which the four frames were always the same. A dog, on a leash, who is angry, the 1st three frames are daytime, the last is night.

As I understand it David would phone in the text to appear in the cartoon and someone else would write the words on, then it’d go into the paper, for 9 years this happened. Both The Angriest Dog and Dinosaur Comics follow the same pattern of an unchanging strip background, with changing words.

Where with as Minus Everyone the lack of words stays the same, and the background is always different. Which is what makes it tricky shoe-horning The Angriest Dog in, but I guess I’ve done it in a fashion. I guess I’m saying, there’s a tradition (of course) in deconstructed comic strips, which I feel Minus Everyone slips into.

Angry Dog

/via lynchnet.com/angrydog

* * *

Which all in all brings me to the last thing that’s sort of bothering me, which is the…

IS IT ART?

…question.

Or rather the “I hate it when someone does something really simple, and then pretends it was hard through some complex explanation to justify calling it art” statement.

If something is simple, just say it’s simple and don’t try and dress it up as something that isn’t. I think what I’m saying is I like the line from Amanda Palmer’s “Ukulele Anthem” which goes…

“And stop pretending art is hard”

…which captures so much, some of which being the idea that sometimes people make out that for something to be art it has to be hard, or that the art they are doing is hard to put other people off doing art, or even, if something is simple it can’t be art.

If someone does something simple, calls it art, then that’s what it is.

Boring counter version

* * *

However, to pull in a most likely apocrypha tale from Josh Olson in the Village Voice

There’s a great story about Pablo Picasso. Some guy told Picasso he’d pay him to draw a picture on a napkin. Picasso whipped out a pen and banged out a sketch, handed it to the guy, and said, “One million dollars, please.”

“A million dollars?” the guy exclaimed. “That only took you thirty seconds!”

“Yes,” said Picasso. “But it took me fifty years to learn how to draw that in thirty seconds.”

And when I look at the stupidly simple Minus Everyone cartoon, with its throwaway punchline given in the very title, I sometimes forget that while it only took an evening I still had to know how to write the code. And host the code somewhere, and get it to post to tumblr, and twitter and RSS. And getting code to generate images on the server side still somewhat involves magik. And to keep going and let me know if it somehow broke itself.

But nor does something being hard automatically make it art either.

In this instance it’s a simple complicated thing, which isn’t art, even though I’ve now written a stupid amount about it which makes me feel conflicted. Once it’s been running for a year, the collected output may become “an art”, but I don’t think there’s enough substance here for it to be anything other than a weird drawing bot experiment, and I’m okay with that.

Blue gradient

The next iteration however, may be art, now that this groundwork is out of the way.

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