June 23, 2017

Queensland Library Releases Open Source Comics Tool

openlibcomicA new tool from Australia’s State Library of Queensland can make a cartoonist out of even the least artistically inclined. The Fun Palaces comics maker lets users place a set of ready-made images into panels, then write their own word balloons to develop a fully fleshed out four panel comic.

The tool’s developers have made its code available on the digital repository GitHub, where librarians and media professionals around the world can customize it for their own purposes, adding new images and new functionalities.

The generally welcoming culture of comics tends to make the medium a good place for people to try new things and stretch their wings more generally, said Matt Finch, creative in residence at the State of Queensland Library and one of the folks behind the initiative.

“Of all the artists and creatives I’ve worked with, comic book creators tend to be among the most enthusiastic about getting others to try their hand at doing what they do,” Finch told LJ. “It’s great to be able to extend that more broadly into digital spaces and a wider online community.”

UNEXPECTED INNOVATIONS

Even working with the limited series of original images, people developed some unexpected works using the Fun Palaces comics maker, surprising Finch and his colleagues with non-narrative comics, four panel horror stories, and even strips featuring unexpected linguistic elements like Te Re Maori and emoji.

“These were all simple content innovations, but they gave us a taste of what happens when you allow the community to surprise you and explore the tool for themselves,” Finch said.

It was these kinds of innovations that motivated the development team to open up the tool to more users and see what they did with an expanded toolkit, or even one they could customize as needed.

“Libraries are one of the few cultural institutions that never had an audience,” Finch told LJ. “They always had users. That institutional legacy means that a library is the perfect platform for offering an open-source knowledge and storytelling tool to the widest possible public.”

As it stands right now, that platform is just a seed. Finch and his fellow developers, though, are eager to see what that seed grows into as folks around the world cultivate it. One of the best places to find some of the comics people have already made is at the webpage curated by the UK-based Fun Palaces group, which used the tool in some of its events in October 2015.

“bend, break, push, warp”

Now that the source code is posted to GitHub, anyone with some coding know-how and interest can adapt the comics maker software however they see fit. The original dev team can’t wait to see strangers dig into their code and use it to build things they never saw coming.

“We’d love to see animators, comic makers, educators, web designers, students, researchers—and of course librarians!—bend, break, push, warp, and reimagine the constraints of our original project to create entirely new offerings,” said Finch.

“We put together something quick and basic just so there was a springboard for makers to work from,” said Finch. “We’d love to see people take the code apart and reimagine it in entirely new ways.”

The State Library of Queensland has also been testing a decidedly analog version of the comic maker–a series of cardboard “dice” on which people could draw their own characters. Using their own dice and those designed by other participants, people create unique stories and narratives, sometimes deliberately and sometimes as the result of randomly rolling these storytelling cubes. According to State Library of Queensland Senior Curator Kevin Wilson, these non-digital comics have been a big hit at the organization’s community events.

“Some of the stories participants came up with were clever, amusing, but also reflected their own views on life and the community,” Wilson told LJ. “We saw the game as an effective and fun way to break down barriers and to draw out personal stories.”

Comics—digital or not—are far from the only project that Finch and his collaborators at the State Library of Queensland have in the hopper right now. They’re working with partners at nearby Griffith University on a game exploring the life cycle of a common Australian pest, the scrub turkey—by letting players take on the role of a male scrub turkey looking for a mate.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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