Back in November I stumbled upon a page on the vast and endlessly-fascinating textfiles.com complex (which we have visited here before) that was just a big contextless glomming of piles and piles of PD (Public Domain) ANSI art -- converted to .PNG for easy browser viewing, largely dating back to before the format's adoption by underground elites circa 1992. (What Jason Scott's intention was for this page I cannot presume to speculate; however I have found it to be an endless font of inspiration!) It was jarring to see such a well-known and much-loved idiom used so extensively and to such (ahem) varying effect years before it popped... it was a feeling not entirely dissimilar to the creepy tingle an author experienced encountering proto-textmode art poring over microfiche transfers of 19th century newspapers.
This heap was in desperate need of some curation, so I have shaken it down in a few different ways and look forward to presenting you with a few groomed posts exploring different themes of ANSI artwork back in the TheDraw, 1200 baud, pre-artscene era. Otherwise put: What On Earth Did People Draw In ANSI Before Image Comics Were Invented? (In a nutshell: in 1992 seven artists on Marvel Comics' top-selling titles -- notably Todd McFarlane (Spider-Man), Jim Lee (X-Men), Rob Liefeld (X-Force), Marc Silvestri (Wolverine), Erik Larsen (The Amazing Spider-Man), and Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy) -- felt (likely very correctly) that they'd gotten a raw deal and could do better in an independent comic book house, one which enshrined Creator's Rights and had better royalty rates. In turn, they gave us Youngblood, The Savage Dragon, Spawn, WildC.A.T.s, Cyberforce, Shadowhawk, and Wetworks, and shortly thereafter titles such as The Maxx and Pitt. And anyone who has ever looked into an artpack has seen art from these particular comic books hundreds of times. From the very month they began publishing, Image's eye-candy characters immediately wiped the slate clean of virtually every other subject (barring Calvin and Hobbes) an ANSI-drawing kid might try to commit to pixels. Solely judging from the contents of artpacks, you might be forgiven for thinking that Marvel and DC had gone out of business at that point. Moving along!)
There are some formal innovations that simply hadn't occurred yet in these pieces: until the release of ACIDDraw in April of 1995 (which denizens of the Public Domain would never even have known about), TheDraw limited artists to a single screen of 80 columns by 25 rows (technically 50 were available in a rarely-used mode, but in practical terms this was never used.) They were big on block colours, weak on shading, weak on use of half-block characters, and rarely outlined. By and large, the aspiration seems to have been: "Can you tell what this is supposed to be?" rather than "Does it look good?" But then, small-scale ANSI art production was always difficult -- a different set of minimalist constraints than those the artscene ended up selecting to work around.
This art isn't simply different because of aesthetic sensibilities and the crudeness of available tools, however: it points to a radically different psychological profile of an ANSI-drawing computer user in 1990 from the disaffected "Lone Gunmen" skeptical cyberpunks we think of populating the mid-'90s digital underground: they loved their local sports teams and cheered for their country during the Olympics, read the funny pages in their daily newspapers, celebrated holidays gushingly, and were big boosters of the military (and strong detractors, in turn, of Saddam Hussein.) They're only recognizable as members of our geek tribe at all due to their fondness of Star Trek! The closest thing to an edge any of their tastes might hint at is an affinity for the (contemporary) works of Patrick Nagel. They were sentimental and disgustingly earnest, and felt excited to share primitive digital farts they'd made which a later artscene dood would have sooner died than have their name associated with. You'll see all these sides of them in time, but today we're examining their musical taste.
They didn't listen to techno, because that hadn't reached the mainstream yet; of the rock styles of the '80s, you see quite a bit more representation from the metal than the punk side of things... they don't acknowledge country music at all and their awareness of black music -- R'n'B and the emerging rap phenomenon -- is vestigial at best, nodding only to the contemporary titans simply too big to ignore. Basically, Homo Publicdomainicus, a Joe Six-Pack type, listened to top-40. Love it or leave it!
And like some obsessive fan before the days of instant gratification found in interest-shared online forums, they expressed their love in a fashion not dissimilar to smoke pit kids talismanically scrawling band logos on high school trapper-keepers and jean jackets in ballpoint pen and Sharpie marker or carving them into classroom desks with compass points. These icons and logos were potent magical glyphs broadcasting out to the world that you were not a bloated Eagles fan, you were hungry for the next new thing -- Mötley Crüe. Or Billy Joel. Or what have you. The folks online at this time spent their hard-earned dollars on a curious and expensive hobby, but apparently one that in no way slowed down or interfered with this overall practice of using band iconography to trawl for kindred spirits.
(NB: for purposes of this feature, I have also dipped into the first couple years of artscene artpack releases, as until the Image Comics scroller upheaval their development of the artform was merely evolutionary, not revolutionary. They were still making largely single-screen works in which band iconography figured prominently, and both of these would change drastically as underground ANSI art grew into its own style.)
Noel Gamboa does an excellent job rocking the stylish I.R.S. Records logo:The underground's take on the same subject has more of what could be described as "raw energy".) Chameleon GFX lives up to its name: parts of its logo assume the colour of its background. No, it was drawn, for reasons that may ultimately be known only to Chameleon, using flashing characters, resulting in a logo that was never 100% visible unless you employed the PD-unknown and not-then-invented-yet iCEcolour innovation. (A pain in the neck to capture accurately as .GIF animation. Can it be done? Sure. Is it worth the trouble? Not hardly!) Deeper meaning? Allegorical connection to the spearhead of the British Invasion? None that we can find! The positions of the musical note characters on the staff? Random and arbitrary! Is there a better logo we can use? Coming right up! a funny origin story for the album art!) (Updated update: Blocktronics did an artpack of ANSI art album cover adaptations in late 2017, and this specific subject was revisited by Nail -- the additional decades have allowed him to deliver a superior rendition.)