John Pound lives in Eureka, California. He’s either 62 or 63—he can’t remember at the moment—and he’s been a cartoonist his whole life. The first half of his career was traditional, insofar as any career in weirdo art and underground comics can be traditional. He sketched and inked and colored by hand. He made the annual pilgrimage to Comic-Con, back in the days when it was still concerned with comics. In 1984, he collaborated with comics legend Art Spiegelman on the first run of Garbage Pail Kids cards for Topps, painting 40 gross characters in 40 exhausting days.
But in the late 1980s the purchase of his first computer, an Amiga, set Pound’s artistic pursuits on a slightly different course. He started checking out other people’s computer art and got to wondering what his new machine could do for a cartoonist. Eventually he became smitten with the idea of creating a program that could automatically generate comics for him. The dream has kept him busy for the better part of three decades. Today he’s generating striking, randomly generated compositions by the hundreds, none of which look anything like what the art we’ve come to expect from computer code.
Pound started his code cartooning journey in the late ’80s by teaching himself PostScript, an Adobe-made programming language used for commercial printing. He coaxed it to draw some rudimentary scenes. They were just a few shapes against a horizon line at that point, but the artist found the results fascinating nonetheless. While plenty of artists were using computers to create impressive abstract visuals, he hadn’t really seen anyone else trying to create representative, figural works. “I just became intrigued,” he says. “I thought, ‘man, this is fun. I want to see what else I can draw with code.’”
Pound was still illustrating by hand to pay the bills. But his hobby quickly filled up his free time. With each passing year, the artist’s self-made drawing programs got a little more sophisticated. In 1992, he printed his first randomly-generated comic strip, complete with algorithmically-positioned speech bubbles and code-created non-sequiturs inside them. By 2002, his randomly-generated works were being shown in local galleries. When First Street Gallery, a venue associated with Humboldt State University, put on an exhibition of Pound’s work around that time, the organizers split the space down the middle: Half the room was dedicated to his commercial work, the other half to his experiments with code.
At first Pound’s efforts were focused on injecting randomness into traditional comic formats. For his series “Ran Dum Comics,” he would choose a layout of panels and leave it up to his program to draw the art, pick the colors, and generate balloon text. In part, he says, he was drawn to the idea of combining non-sense and anarchy with an art form known for concision and clarity.
For the last several years, though, Pound has forgone the formal trappings of comic strips and focused on single panel compositions instead. His recent output has taken the form of “sketchbooks.” For these, Pound will set his program on a certain path, have it generate one or two hundred works, and send the resulting PDF to an on-demand printing service to create a physical document of the work. He makes one copy of each, for himself. He’s currently working on sketchbook number thirty.
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