Okay, we’re building up to something here, but let me come at it the long way around, by way of analogy:
1. Orthodox animation: This would be mainstream narrative animation as practiced in most animated features and TV shows -- animation in the manner of Disney, of course, and also Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera, the Cartoon Network, and so on. At the time Wells wrote his book, orthodox animation was, essentially, cel animation, but today the category would include the dominant Pixar/Dreamworks/Blue Sky CG approach to animated features. (I gather a revised edition of Wells is due this fall.)
2. Experimental animation: This would consist of animated works far outside of, or at odds with, traditional narrative approaches, works whose narratives are fragmentary or nonlinear as well as works that are not narrative at all but based on other aesthetic principles. I think here of avant-garde animation by Oskar Fischinger, Harry Smith, and Norman McLaren. This would also include, presumably, the recent move toward digital animation by some working not in film or TV but in the fine arts field.
Whereas orthodox animation leans toward the figural, experimental animation leans toward the abstract; whereas the core of orthodox animation is narrative, “[t]he bias of experimental animation is aesthetic and non-narrative” (43). Rather than narrative form, experimental animation veers toward interpretive form; rather than favoring paraphrase-able “content,” experimental animation privileges the very materiality of the art work itself. Obviously, then, experimental animation is non-commercial in nature, based on the assertion of artistic autonomy, and often distributed / exhibited by non-traditional means. It is typically auteurist if not avant-gardist in outlook.
3. Developmental animation: An unfortunate choice of term, perhaps, since the word developmental so often implies remedial, but what Wells has in mind is something else entirely: “a mode of expression combining or selecting elements of both [orthodox and experimental] approaches, representing the aesthetic and philosophical tension between the two apparent extremes” (35). Developmental animation may cleave to traditional aspects of animation, but it also seeks to refresh the tradition with innovative new approaches. It draws on but also “resist[s] or redefine[s]” the vocabulary of orthodox animation (51). In other words, developmental animation is unorthodox or contra-mainstream in some sense -- say in terms of technique, style, or ideology -- but is nonetheless fundamentally narrative. To borrow a phrase from Ann Miller’s recent book Reading Bande Dessinée (a phrase viciously ripped from context, I confess), developmental animation seeks “not to abolish narration but to diversify narrative strategies” (46).
I suppose this would include, for example, the films of John and Faith Hubley’s company, Storyboard; the personal and even autobiographical short films (often made by one animator working alone) famously supported by the National Film Board of Canada; the early Aardman shorts (one of Wells’ examples), which used claymation to act out or complement documentary audio recordings of spoken testimony; a contra-mainstream animated feature such as Yellow Submarine, with its plethora of styles; or the early Pixar shorts, with their emphasis on technical development but traditional storytelling. Such efforts, besides having their own artistic identities, draw upon the innovations of experimental animation and feed into and shape the further development of orthodox animation.
Obviously, the line “separating” experimental from developmental animation will be fuzzy, permeable, and sometimes just plain hard to draw. These categories aren't insisted upon by animators themselves, and they aren't exhaustive nor necessarily exclusive. I'm not able to account for or neatly “place” every imaginable example of animation within Wells' scheme (for example, what of the varied contemporary uses of animation on the Web?). But, still, I think the scheme can be useful, in part because it can potentially be applied to other art forms -- including, of course, comics. In fact conflict between “developmental” and more assertively “experimental” approaches is one way to describe what’s going on in alternative comics today.
Evidence of this can be found in a recent posting by Heidi MacDonald over at The Beat, in which Heidi complained about a lack of attention or positive aversion to “storytelling” by many in the alternative comics camp, specifically among the kind of cartoonists likely to be included in an anthology edited by Chris Ware. As Heidi characterizes it, the Ware-edited Best American Comics 2007 leans far, from her perspective too far, in the direction of autobiographical "shoe gazing" and shapeless, non-narrative and (for most readers) aggressively inaccessible work.
The focus on storytelling that, I take it, Heidi would like to see more consistently honored in alternative comics is by no means opposed to experimenting, but would place a premium on compelling narrative premises, strong if not decisive conflicts, and the development of full if not immersive fictional worlds. In contrast, comics’ avant-garde has tended toward a self-reflexive formalism (for example, experimentation with sequencing and structure) and/or toward what Thierry Groensteen has called “the liberation of the image,” as such. (These leanings are well documented in Bart Beaty’s must-have book on contemporary European comics, Unpopular Culture.)
Of course what constitutes “developmental” work in comics differs from the “developmental” in animation, precisely because the developmental must be understood in terms of what counts as “orthodox” in each field. Given the very narrow focus of orthodox -- that is, putatively “mainstream” -- comic books, in which superheroes are king, developmental comics have often been non-superhero genre comics that stand out because they are coming from an off-kilter perspective, aesthetically. Such unorthodox genre comics often end up being touted as harbingers of a “new” or newly expanded mainstream, and indeed their innovations are often subsequently absorbed into the mainstream. In many cases they put traditional techniques to new or at least unusual uses.
Witness the so-called ground-level comics of the mid-1970s (that first wave of direct market specialty comics: Star*Reach, etc.) or the upsurge of “independent” genre comics beginning in the early 1980s: Eclipse (founded in 1977), Pacific, Capital, First, Comico, or, a bit later, Dark Horse. These publishers were indebted to underground comix in terms of economics, aesthetics, and ethos, yet sought to, and indeed did, compete for Marvel and DC’s dollars. They were straightforward narrative comics that, at their most interesting, diverged from the dominant aesthetic of "mainstream" comics, but that nonetheless clung to comics' reigning metagenre, heroic fantasy.
(As an aside, “alternative” comics often developed in opposition, or contradistinction, to these independent efforts, invoking the undergrounds more explicitly and steering away from mainstream genres. The history of Love & Rockets in the 1980s has something to do with its migration from developmental genre work to auteurist non-genre work and, for all the Hernandez Brothers’ ties to older mainstream comics, to a more “alternative” and experimental position.)
A fairly recent, and much-loved, instance of developmental comics would be Jeff Smith’s Bone, which stood out, not because its genre, high fantasy, was radically new (it wasn’t -- witness, for example, The First Kingdom and Elfquest) but because its aesthetics and its desired audience departed signally from those of orthodox comic books.
Bone brought a style influenced by animation and vintage newspaper strips (back) into genre comic books, arguably encouraging the many comics projects we now see by cartoonists with backgrounds in the animation field. Also, Bone envisioned an audience of children as well as adults, then sought to push the limits of what was possible in a nominally “children’s” comic. It has become a very successful and deeply influential example of children’s comics, helping, via Scholastic, to open a way into the general book market. In the process Bone has stoked the development of Tolkienian high fantasy as a comics genre. Hopes for a so-called new mainstream in the ‘90s were often pinned on Bone, and indeed for a time Jeff Smith’s Cartoon Books was happy to lead the way in labeling, spearheading, and supporting the growth of “all-ages” fantasy comics. Bone, I’d say, is a prime example of developmental comics: innovative though not consciously experimental, influenced by an eclectic range of material -- indeed “hark[ing] back to traditional aspects” (Wells 51) of comics -- and praised for its unusual yet crystal-clear storytelling. When it first appeared it was generally greeted as a highly personal project, with only a minority of voices from comics’ more alternative sector gainsaying that description. Bone is also a good example of developmental work that went on to influence and expand the putative mainstream. From a perspective outside of the direct market, Bone is about as “mainstream” as you can get.
I’d suggest that the initial positioning of Bone, then, was like that of an Aardman or a Pixar at some early (though well past embryonic) stage: recognizably different from prevailing orthodoxy, yet also recognizably and accessibly narrative, and indeed beholden to popular genre traditions. In fact even alternative comics such as Love & Rockets and Hate might be viewed as “developmental” in this respect, particularly as they have gone to influence (and their creators have become involved in) orthodox comic book production.
“Experimental” comics may be defined by contradistinction from even these alternative comics. In a form usually described as narrative, departures from narrative are one of the most obvious and persistent strategies that experimentalism can take. Such departures are handily available on the Web: see for instance Andrei Molotiu’s graphically aggressive blotcomics (which are heirs to the non-narrative metamorphosis-based comix of Moscoso and Griffin) or Warren Craghead’s quietly poetical comics. There are also a few, a very few, publishers who are willing to champion experimental comics: two that come to mind immediately are Alvin Buenaventura & Co.'s Buenaventura Press (publishers of, among others, Kramer’s Ergot and Elvis Road) and Dan Nadel & Co.'s PictureBox. The PictureBox catalog includes, besides a plethora of art books, prints, and other enticing objects, a range of comics by artists such as Yuichi Yokoyama, C.F., Ben Jones, and Frank Santoro (whose Storeyville we reviewed here a ways back). Typically, the logic behind these comics is exploratory, their form is interpretive (as opposed to strictly narrative), and their modus operandi involves calling forth the formal constraints and material ingredients of the work, itself.
Among publishers, PictureBox has come closest to being an index of American comics’ avant-garde -- and closest to documenting and extending the work and spirit of the already-legendary Fort Thunder, that multiform, multimedia arts collective/working group that flourished in Providence, Rhode Island in the mid to late-90s. Heidi MacDonald dismissed Fort Thunder as a "dead end," but apparently someone forgot to tell Dan Nadel & Co.
Enter Brian Chippendale, and Maggots.
(How's that for the long way around?)