Internet animators star in a new medium, the 'webisode'

Friday, July 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Joe Sparks is a minor celebrity to a subculture of college students and cubicle-dwellers who follow his ``Radiskull and Devil Doll'' toons from as far away as Japan.

From an apartment full of music mixers and computers, he blends software animation tools with traditional programming, storytelling and music to create shows in the genre of ``The Simpsons,'' only these ``webisodes'' are native to the Internet.

The dot-com bubble may have burst, but multimedia art like Sparks' still thrives online.

With simple tools, such as Flash from Macromedia Inc., programmer-artists can create original cartoons, build fine art images or design games, like ``Pound Osama bin Laden in a boxing ring.''

``Some little broke artist with a computer can dabble with art, music and movies now,'' said Sparks, who in the past designed video games and played punk rock.

The same type of software is also giving sizzle to corporate Web sites and powering so many e-commerce applications that people, perhaps without realizing it, frequently see demonstrations of Flash as they surf the Web. The creations have appeared in online greeting cards, music videos, art museum installations, even the intro to the Rosie O'Donnell TV show.

Programmer Jonathan Gay began developing Flash in 1993 and sold his company, FutureWave, to Macromedia in 1996, where he still works.

It's easy to create original art online with a little time and patience, though the more complex projects, like cartoons, can take hours, he said.

For struggling artists, the Internet has obvious appeal.

``You can be a Vincent van Gogh of the Web and actually be known in your lifetime,'' said Stewart McBride, president and founder of United Digital Artists, a New York company that trains artists to use the software.

``Unlike being an unpublished novelist or underground painter,'' he said, ``you can distribute your work to millions.''

Sparks' success with ``Radiskull and Devil Doll'' is a prime example.

He was working with the entertainment site at the time, before he was laid off last summer, when he whipped up the story as a demo and put the rock 'n' roll toon _ which he wrote, narrated, animated and composed _ on a Web site, telling a few colleagues to check it out.

Word spread and his story line, based on the sophomoric foibles of a pair of lovable demons, was on its way to becoming an Internet hit. Sparks now gets about 50 e-mails a day from fans, some of whom send him photos of their Radiskull tattoos.

``I never got quite a visceral first reaction to anything I have ever done,'' said Sparks, who created the breakthrough CD-ROM video games ``Total Distortion'' and ``Spaceship Warlock'' in the 1990s.

He said he doesn't quite understand the appeal of his toons.

``Joe has become kind of a cult hero for a lot of people,'' said Scott Roesch, a vice president at, which owns Sparks's Radiskull cartoon and uses them to generate ad revenues.

``We have this kind of coffee break phenomenon where people take a break, watch a movie or animation and then go back to work,'' Roesch said.

Sparks made eight episodes of Radiskull, but because AtomShockwave still owns the franchise, he's moving on.

The next project: ``Dickey and Jackie,'' a toon exploring a simply drawn world of preschoolers against a backdrop of rock music.

People may hate it _ he won't know until he puts it online. But then again, popular appeal isn't necessarily the point.

``Hundreds of years ago, only kings could dabble in music and art,'' Sparks said. ``Now, there's a lot of opportunity for people like me who are loners and like to chisel stuff out and share it with others.''