Crivs, you'll never know what it took for me to resist adding 'Or Then Again, He May Not' to this post's title, but suffice to say I'm exhausted by the mental battle that went on in my head while I wrestled back and forth with my conscience. This current post surely proves that if you visit this site often enough, you'll eventually find something worth reading - and have you struck it lucky today! (That's a statement, not a question.) Doctor Andrew May has done all the work with this post, so all that's required is for you to read it, and then show your appreciation for his efforts in our comments section. Take it away, Andrew...
There's a great site called Comic Book Plus [ https://comicbookplus.com/ ] that has a huge repository of good-quality scans of old comics that are now in the public domain. These are comics where no one saw fit to renew their copyright when it expired, so you won't find anything from DC or Marvel there, but there are plenty of gems including (due to a legal cockup) the whole line of black and white Skywald magazines from the 1970s, such as Nightmare and Psycho. There are also dozens of Charlton comics from the 1960s, including the one pictured above - Unusual Tales #46, cover-dated August 1964.
I'm showing you this one because it leads into the main topic I want to talk about in this post, namely the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the creative arts. This has become something of a hobby-horse of mine over the last few months, and I'm really grateful to Kid Robson for giving me the chance to air it here. Anyway, this issue of Unusual Tales includes a 2-page text story (by Joe Gill, probably) that addressed this exact topic almost 50 years before the mainstream media started getting all excited about it.
The story recounts what happens when an inventor comes up with a fiction-writing computer and sells it to a pulp magazine publisher. His sales pitch emphasizes the economics of the thing: "We save the money we pay to writers. In addition, it sets up the type and does the printing, editing and binding. So we don't have to pay any person a salary." He also demonstrates how the machine can be programmed to write in different genres, such as romance, sci-fi or Western. But when it's put to work, the computer gets its wires crossed and comes up with nonsense like "Elizabeth took Jose in her arms and bit his nose. Then she turned upside down and took the first spaceship for Mars. Heartbroken, Jose took out his gun and began to smoke it." Far from being a disaster, however, the result is a hit with readers, who like the humorous novelty of it.
This makes two really good points about AI, first as a threat and then as an opportunity. Mainstream journalists tend to focus on the "threat" aspect - not surprisingly, because they're the ones whose jobs may soon be done more cheaply by computers. But there are opportunities in AI too, such as the one highlighted in the story, where it breaks new ground by "thinking outside the box". There are opportunities, too, for those people who may have creative aspirations that - prior to AI - they couldn't do anything about, because they lack the necessary artistic skills.
I'm very much in this latter category, which is why I've taken to AI so positively. I don't have any difficulty writing prose, because that's basically my job, but I've used Bing's chatbot to create song lyrics, which is something that's way outside my comfort zone. Here's an example that I liked enough to put on YouTube: The Zen Matrix [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pq3XgvnDNR4 ].
That video also uses AI-generated art, courtesy of Bing's free Image Creator service. You just type in a short textual prompt and the computer comes back with four matching pictures. For this particular video, I used a number of prompts like this one: "A young woman in the lotus posture, imagining that she is in a Matrix-like computer simulation, in anime style". The prompt for the lyrics was "Write a song called Zen Matrix from the point of view of someone who has discovered through meditation that they are living in a simulation, using esoteric and surreal imagery."
I can understand why someone with genuine artistic talent might be worried or angered by this sort of thing, but from my point of view it's fantastic. Here's another example. I've always wanted to produce a comic of the kind I used to love in my younger days, and Bing Image Creator gives me the chance to do just that. You can see the result below. I was so pleased with it that I wrote an article around it and sent it to Fortean Times magazine, who published it in their July 2023 issue. So "professionally published comic book creator" is another item I can tick off my bucket list!
Another type of computer tool that's much better now than it used to be is text-to-speech voice synthesis (partly thanks to the use of AI to parse text on a phrase-by-phrase rather than word-by-word basis). When Kid recently wrote some posts in the style of Stan Lee, I mentioned in a comment that you can turn text into a pretty reasonable facsimile of Stan's voice via the Fake You site [ https://fakeyou.com/ ] (you can use this for free without signing up or logging in, but if you try at any time other than 8 or 9 am UK time, you may end up in a long queue).
Going back to the Comic Book Plus site I mentioned at the start - another advantage of all their comics being in the public domain is that, not only is it legal to download the comics for free, but you can also use, adapt or alter them however you want. So I had the idea of taking a story out of one of them, putting the dialogue through the Fake You site, and creating a kind of animated cartoon. Unfortunately, I couldn't get this to work in a convincing way when characters need to be speaking with any kind of emotion in their voice, so I went for a "documentary" style story with a single narrator doing a voice-over instead.
The story I picked was a short feature by Steve Ditko from another Charlton comic, Konga #7 from July 1962. As some of the Fake You voices are better than others, I just went for the most convincing one I could find, which was Tom Cruise (although I deepened it slightly, to make a better fit with the narrator's appearance as drawn by Ditko). Anyway, here is the result - my favourite effort so far on the theme of "nostalgia meets modern technology"!