AI Drew This Gorgeous Comics Series. You’d Never Know It

You might expect a comic book series with art generated entirely by artificial intelligence to be filled with surreal visuals that make you tilt your head trying to understand what sensory-altering madness you’re looking at.

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Not so with the visuals in The Bestiary Chronicles, a free, four-part comic book series from Campfire Entertainment, a New York-based production house focused on creative storytelling.

An image of a cartoon with AI-generated art shows a woman who looks a lot like Grace Kelly

In The Lesson, a teacher tells students about the monsters that ruined their planet. The team behind the cartoon used the phrase “Hitchcock Blonde” to describe the heroine of the story to AI art generation tool Midjourney, “and more often than not she appeared as Grace Kelly,” says writer Steve Coulson.

Campfire, Mid-Trip

The visuals in the cartoon series — believed to be the first to be made with AI-assisted art — are stunning. They are also amazingly accurate, as if they came straight from the hand of a skilled digital artist with a very specific story and style in mind.

“Deep underground, the last remnants of humanity gather to learn about the monsters that destroyed their planet,” reads a description of The Lesson, the visually rich retro-futuristic third comic in the four-part series. All four are available to download now on the Campfire website, and also come in softcover and hardcover print anthologies.

Although AI-generated visual art can tend toward the wildly absurd, the photorealistic humans in The Bestiary Chronicles don’t have rearranged facial features, or limbs sticking out at odd angles. The monsters — with their glowing eyes and startlingly evil teeth — look like the love children of Godzilla and Vhagar and could hardly be mistaken for anything other than raging beasts.

This algorithm-assisted art looks tailor-made for the dark dystopian story, which draws on tropes from 1960 sci-fi horror film Village of the Damned and from THX 1138, George Lucas’ 1971 feature film debut.

“We’re seeing the rise of a brand new visualization tool that will radically change the storytelling process across both the comics industry and entertainment in general,” said Steve Coulson, series writer and creative director of the award-winning Campfire, which has created immersive fan experiences for shows including Ted Lasso, Westworld and Watchmen. Its founders came up with The Blair Witch Project.

For The Bestiary Chronicles, Coulson turned to Midjourney, a service that quickly turns short text sentences, or “prompts,” into images by scanning a giant database trained in visual art by humans. Artificial intelligence tools like it, Dall-E and Stable Diffusion is capturing the imagination of the internet because they let anyone manifest images from text in intriguing and sometimes disturbing ways.

The Bestiary Chronicles is a science fiction odyssey about monsters born of man’s technological arrogance. But it also shows the remarkable progress of products like Midjourney, which produce increasingly sophisticated and refined images.

“By the new year, even the trained eye probably won’t be able to discern someone else’s AI generation,” Coulson said. “It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so we’re embracing the future as fast as we can.”

AI image generation is progressing so quickly, he adds, that The Lesson, out on November 1, marks a clear visual step from the first cartoon in the trilogy, Summer Island, a folk-horror story in the spirit of midsummer that came out in August. During those three months, Midjourney went through two upgrades.

Seven-tone apocalyptic landscape from the cartoon The Lesson

AI art generation tool Midjourney did an impressive job coughing up images of a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape for The Lesson, the third in a four-part series of cartoons from production house Campfire.

Campfire, Mid-Trip

AI, partner in art

“Technology is changing our world, with artificial intelligence and a new frontier of possibility but also an evolution full of anxiety,” Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, said when the exhibit Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI opened in 2020 to explore the ever-expanding space where humans and artificial intelligence meet.

AI generating visual art, composing songs and even writing poetry and film scripts drive some of that anxiety, raising ethical and copyright concerns among artists and even lawyers. AI art is not created in a vacuum. It works by absorbing and reconstructing existing art created by humans. As machine-made art improves, will those people — actual graphic designers, illustrators, composers and photographers — find themselves out of work?

When an AI-generated image won an art award in September, some artists weren’t happy about it. “We are watching the death of art unfold right before our eyes,” wrote one Twitter user.

Coulson, an avid comics reader since age 5, is among those pondering the complex questions raised by AI art, but he doesn’t think tools like Midjourney will replace the comics artists he’s long loved. “These geniuses have an eye for dramatic composition and dynamic storytelling that I strongly doubt machine learning will be able to match,” he writes in the afterword to Summer Island. “But as a visualization tool for non-artists like me, it’s a lot of fun.”

Dragons with gaping mouths and sharp teeth look like something out of House of the Dragon

Did Midjourney watch House of the Dragon?

Campfire, Mid-Trip

He does, however, see Midjourney as his true collaborator in The Bestiary Chronicles, even giving it author credit. Where a comic artist might conceive a story and then create art to illustrate it, AI-assisted visuals have the potential to more actively drive the story, or even change its direction, thus dramatically redefining the entire creative workflow. Coulson compares that man-machine duet to improvisational jazz.

“I would never ask a human artist to just ‘draw 100 pages and maybe I’ll pick the one I like best,’ but Midjourney will happily spit them out 24/7,” Coulson said. “Then after we review the images, we begin to piece together the story, almost like an act of collage, filling in gaps along the way.”

AI art is the star here, but humans had the deciding hand in which visuals made it into the final version of each story. They experimented with text prompts and carefully selected their final images from multiple Midjourney offerings, doing a Photoshop tweak here and there, but mostly letting the machine-made work stand.

The Campfire team, for example, liked the rich effect produced by the “olive green and sepia and teal tritone print on watercolor paper” style prompt, so they used that often to give images a painterly effect. For The Lesson, the phrase “futuristic underground bunker in the style of JC Leyendecker” gave the perfect retro-futuristic post-apocalyptic hideout.

“We also used the phrase ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ to describe our heroine, and more often than not she came across as Grace Kelly,” Coulson said. That’s totally recognizable Grace Kelly, without misplaced ears or a dog muzzle.

“The advances in AI image generation over the past few months have been exponential and amazing,” Coulson said, “and this technology is only going to get better — faster than we can imagine.”

Page from The Exodus, showing rockets pointing up

Exodus, the second comic in The Bestiary Chronicles, tells the story of humanity’s last attempt to save itself from the monsters that roam the planet.

Campfire, Mid-Trip


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