THE MANUAL AGE (2003)
In his essay “Digibabble,
Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill,”
writer Tom Wolfe writes of the opening of an art show in
Osaka, Japan, honouring the work of New York's fabled
Pushpin Studio. Attending the show were “four of the
greatest American graphic artists of the twentieth
century,” including Pushpin’s Milton Glaser and Seymour
The museum’s director began his introduction to the opening
in Japanese, then paused for the interpreter's English
translation: "Our guests today are a group of American
artists from the Manual Age."
The “Manual Age”?
“All at once they (the four artists) got it. The hundreds
of young Japanese staring at them from the auditorium seats
saw them not as visionaries on the cutting edge ... but as
woolly old mammoths who had somehow wandered into the
Suntory Museum from out of the mists of a Pliocene past ...
a lineup of relics unaccountably still living, still
breathing, left over from . . . the
Ah yes, the days when things were done manually, rather
than digitally. Remember?
If any Gen-Xers out there can’t recall the time, then
gather round, young’uns. Let Uncle Olson bounce you on his
knee while he tells ya ‘bout a time before keyboard
commands and Photoshop plug-ins. The time of “freehand
illustrations,” when graphic artists roamed the earth
wielding airbrushes, rulers and templates.
In my youth, the computer chip’s penetration of consumer
electronics was still limited to pocket calculators and
digital watches. By the time I graduated from a college
program in graphic arts, the Macintosh computer was still a
decade away from becoming the standard for design and
publishing. It’s still odd to think I started working in a
time that predated digital layout. (Quark was a kind of
subatomic particle, and a Mac was what you wore in the
That puts my formative years smack-dab in the Manual Age,
when typography and typesetting involved more than a few
mouse clicks. Among the Jurassic materials recalled by
graphic artists, the least-missed is Letraset: clear
plastic sheets with letters of different fonts and sizes
printed on one side, which you rubbed onto paper or board
with a burnishing tool. Working with the expensive sheets
was a labour-intensive proposition. Invariably I would
arrive home from college and find little letters clinging
to my elbows..letters making the great escape.
The success of the personal computer was followed explosion
of printer fonts, with Adobe and other electronic font
factories consigning Letraset to the typographic scrapheap.
(Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say.)
Graduating from college to work at the Whistler Question
newspaper, I encountered my first optical typesetter, a big
clunky thing the size of a arcade game, with a
periscope-like viewer and a flywheel on the side.
The typesetter was manned — or womanned, perhaps — by a
bilious bible-thumper I will call Doris. This tempermental
beast (the machine, that is, not Doris) always seemed to
break down with a preternatural regularity near deadline.
Doris saved her oaths for Sundays, and was forever
lecturing anyone who took the Lord’s name in vain, which
was pretty much everyone else on staff. A lot of the
cussing was directed at the page layouts, 'flats' assembled
for the printer. Staffers ran columns of text through a
waxer and affixed them where they could among the ads -- a
Rubic's cube confusion in two dimensions. On the way to the
printer, a strip of text would invariably drop out and end
up someplace else, making the paper read, on the odd page
or two, like a William Bourroughs novel.
Exacto knives were used to cut and trim lines of text,
photographs, and occasionally fingers. This was a tradition
in college, and the habit followed me into the newspaper
world and beyond. It’s not that I’m especially clumsy. It’s
just that no graphic artist worth his salt hasn’t
accidentally stabbed himself at least a dozen times on
So I have no misplaced nostalgia for the blood and sweat of
the Manual Age. I was the first cartoonist in Canada to go
digital, and never looked back. My first Mac amplified my
creative output greatly, allowing me to digitally
manipulate scanned cartoons and caricatures. I never
abandoned freehand illustrations; I just had more options
to play with onscreen.
In his Digibabble essay, Wolfe goes on to cast a cold eye
on a world “shrinkwrapped in an electronic membrane,” and
conflates computer-generated imagery with “synthesizing
music or sending rocket probes into space or achieving, on
the Internet, instantaneous communication and information
retrieval among people all over the globe.” He’s right in
the sense that all these thing are cousin to one another,
cultural descendants of the first computer chip. And yes,
there’s been a downside to the computer age — ask any
office worker who gets hundreds of work-related e-mails a
week, or anyone who has to remount the learning curve with
every system upgrade. But for designers and publishers (and
for writers, as well) it’s mostly been a boon.
It’s this point Wolfe misses. The computer is just another
tool, a glorified paintbrush with a monitor attached.
Without a creative imagination involved in the digital
process, its garbage in, garbage out.
Not that this hasn’t kept an explosion of garbage from
happening: quite the opposite. But its also multiplied the
number of worthy efforts. Nowadays many publications can be
midwived by a couple of PCs and a laser printer, and
prepress costs have plummeted across the board. E-zines
bypass the material world entirely, and are freely
available to anyone with a mouse and modem. Unless I'm a
bit obtuse, that's progress of a sort.
Certainly, it means the trickle of print we had in the
sixties has become a magazine monsoon, with available
markets increasing harder to find, but that's a fairly
predictable result of the digital ages’ infoglut. Even
wandering around the web has been described as “trying to
take a sip out of a firehouse.”
So overall, the death of The Manual Age has been greatly
exaggerated. It wasn’t so much overtaken as partnered. With
a drawing tablet (a device that allows the artist to draw
onscreen) and a program like Corel Painter, an artist can
render images onscreen in a style indistinguishable to oil
painting. This will never replace actual oil paintings, or
the desire from buyers for the real thing to hang off their
walls. But it does free up the painting prole from smocks,
easels, canvas, and the attached overhead. It also means no
more expensive solvents and paints, gassing off a toxic
hydrocarbon bouquet guaranteed to turn any would-be Picasso
into a wheezing, twitching wreck by forty.
But I will say this in favour of the Manual Age: at least
Picasso didn’t have to deal with a Hotmail account
overflowing with Viagra advertisements.