Comics : Reinventing Comics

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Industry Books

This review was first published on: 2005.


In 1985, Scott McCloud gave comics a whopping great shove in the right direction when he released Understanding Comics. It is still to this day almost certainly the most erudite explanation you can ever hope to find of what comics are, and of how they work their very special kind of magic on us.

Scott hasn't rested on his laurels since then. He has continued to be a (non-caped) crusader for the cause of comics. But he has changed his tack a bit since 1985. You see, Understanding Comics did such a good job of nailing up the whole question of "what are comics" and "how do they work", that we can now get to some of the really interesting questions about comics.

What kind of questions are we talking about? Well, how about some questions like "how come comics get no respect", and "how come comics are always about super-heroes"? Or even "how come comics artists have to work for Marvel or DC if they want to make a living?".

These are damned good questions, and the potential solutions to the underlying problems they identify form the heart of "Reinventing Comics".

In Detail...

Reinventing Comics
Aug 2000 : Review (No SM)
Find ISBN 0060953500
Publisher:  Perennial
Writer:  Scott McCloud
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First the basics - this book is 6.75" x 10.25", soft cover, B&W nice clean paper running to 250-odd pages.

Now, back to those questions. How come comics get no respect? My wife calls them "books for the illiterate". But she's not that rude about movies, which have no textual content at all. Why are comics generally treated as a third-rate medium. Surely there is nothing intrinsically wrong with comics as a means of communication?

What about the super-hero thing? Check out the top-100 comics list in Wizard some time. See anything other than super-heroes? Now check books, movies, TV shows. Why should it be that 99% of comics are super-hero, while 0.1% of other media centre around super-heroes? What's that about?

How about the "only two companies" story? Well, OK, since Murdoch and Packer own such a great swag of the TV air-waves, maybe there's a pretty good precedent for that. Even so, books don't work like that. Independent authors always seem to get recognised without having to sign away their ownership rights. Marvel and DC basically own 90% of the characters we read about. How come somebody can just think up something new, not owned by Marvel, and just get it printed? Why don't we (the great unwashed comic among readers) buy independent comics?

Basically, the whole world of comics creation seems to be suffering from (a) being wedged into a really, really single niche genre, (b) having a totally undeserved public reputation, and (c) being completely smothered by a couple of mega-corporations. If you enjoy comics for their own sake, then reading Scott McCloud's book is going to at least set you well on the path to understanding the questions, and it even proposes a few answers here and there.

Reinventing Comics introduces Scott's "twelve revolutions", which provide the structure for the book. For each, he investigates the problem that gives rise to the necessity for change, identifies the kind of change needed, and finally he looks at how that change might possibly come to pass. His twelve revolutions are:

  1. Comics as Literature
  2. Comics as Art
  3. Creators' Rights
  4. Industry Innovation
  5. Public Perception
  6. Institutional Scrutiny
  7. Gender Balance
  8. Minority Representation
  9. Diversity of Genre
  10. Digital Production
  11. Digital Delivery
  12. Digital Comics

Scott addresses each of these in turn, though it is the last three that receive the greatest attention. Over half the book addresses the role of computers and the "Interweb" in the future of comics. In fact, the sub-title of this book is "Reinventing Comics - How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionising an Art Form". McCloud clearly sees the digital world as providing the best hope of a rapid revolution in the areas he identifies.

I think the first thing to recognise is that the issues addressed by this book are far more difficult than those in Understanding Comics. In the former work, McCloud built on a legacy of earlier works. More importantly, the scope of his investigation was very focused and clear. How do comics work? Simple.

By contrast, this second book addresses a huge domain. The economic, artistic, political, historical, sociological issues covered here are far less tractable than a relatively small topic like "types of page transition", or "the page as a meta-frame".

Secondly, both books are actually written as comics. In "Understanding Comics", this was an inspired approach. Discussing the medium of comics from within the medium of comics was a fantastic aid to understanding. But in this case, the issues covered are not directly related to comics per-se, they are (as identified) social, economic, etc. That means that the use of a comic format for narrative isn't quite so intuitive. I'm not saying it's not effective, but it just doesn't flow quite so smoothly. Again, some of that might be because the subject matter is actually pretty tough going intrinsically.

In general, I'd say Scott is right on the money with the first nine chapters, where he identifies the factors that comics need to overcome. Scott is one of the few guys in the world who studies these sorts of issues to this level of detail, and with this much passion, and it clearly shows.

By contrast, the second half of the book (covering the last three topics) is less about the problems to overcome, as it is about how advances in computing offer the potential to fix many of those problems. The three topics are Digital Production, Digital Delivery, and Digital Comics. It is in these three "forward-looking" chapters that I no longer feel that McCloud has total authority over his subject.

To be fair, that's perfectly natural. The other topics were analytical, the study of issues and problems that have changed little in twenty years. These final three sections are essentially "forecasts" in a rapidly-changing environment. We as readers have the benefit of four or five years of intervening hindsight. Let's cover the sections one by one.

Digital Production is basically about the use of computers to create comics. It's interesting, but I think Scott makes more of it than it really deserves. I don't agree that the creative tools that computers provide are as important as McCloud makes out. A crappy comic made with great PhotoShop skills is still a crappy comic. I believe that comics in general are still about writing and drawing, and will be for many years to come. Many, many years. Many, many, many...

Skipping to the last chapter, Digital Comics looks at how comics displayed digitally can provide an enhanced experience. Again, this is an interesting discussion, and Scott makes some good points. But once more, I really don't see this as anywhere near as important as he makes it out to be. I've seen comics on CD-ROM. I've seen comics on the 'net. Even with a great monitor, good bandwith, and a fast computer, I still vastly prefer (by an order of magnitude) to read comics on paper. And when I do read comics on the 'net, I read them basically in the same format as on paper, and I like it that way!

Nope, I don't see what the big deal is here. Comics are comics, on a computer screen or on paper. I don't want comics with animation, or sounds, or any of that shite. I like pages. I don't want side-scrolling or top-scrolling comics. To me, that's an irrelevant distraction, and I think McCloud makes far too much of this topic also. He's really not wrong in the content, just in the importance that he ascribes to it. Scott talks about a CD-ROM version of "Understanding Comics". *Shudder*. Thank goodness that project never got off the ground.

Finally, the big one. Digital Delivery. Scott quite rightly identifies this as something which can change the rules in the comic industry. He identifies a number of changes that are coming as a result of electronic delivery. If you ask me, his timing is far too optimistic on pretty much all points, and he's plain wrong on a few key notes. But that doesn't change the fact that he is at least discussing these issues clearly, and providing a starting point for a very important discussion in the world of comics.

Let me just nit-pick here and identify a few of the squabbles I have with him in this chapter. Let's start with the big one - micro-payments. On page 185, Scott argues that micro-payments will happen one day soon, saying that "what clever protocols can't solve, sheer computation force eventually will." Well, that's bollocks for a start. This is the same argument that said in the 60's that by the year 2010, robots will be as smart as people, all we needed was faster computers.

Sorry Scotty-me-lad, but sheer computation force just doesn't fix everything - sometimes you need clever protocols combined with ground-breaking algorithms, plus a whole swag of sociological, economic and legal change in attitudes. This is one of those cases. Embarassingly, on page 186, Scott predicted that effective micro-payments are two years away (2002 by his calendar). Well, it's 2005, and micro-payments are still just not a happening thing. People just don't like being bugged for cash continously. People like fixed price, they don't like the idea of money steadily trickling away while they read.

In fact, Penny Arcade started off a bit of a scuffle on that very topic, suggesting rather bluntly that McCloud's concepts on micro-payments were a little optimistic. If you're interested in reading a bit more about the failure of micro-payments, there's an excellent article at OpenP2P, entitled The Case Against Micro-Payments.

Even ignoring micro-payments for now, that doesn't kill off Scott's big point, which is that digital delivery of comics could well provide ways of breaking down the problems of promoting comics, of breaking the intensely narrow and destructive focus on a single (super-hero) genre, and of breaking the strangle-hold of the big comic corporates.

For example, how about this alternate spin. I personally read Something Positive each day. It's absolutely free, but a few months back the author, Randy Milholland who was posting a new strip every couple of days said that if people donated his salary equivalent (US$35k), he would quit his job for a year, and produce the comics on a daily basis. It took only a couple of weeks for contributions to reach that mark. I chipped in $5 myself. So let's see something about that in the second edition of Reinventing Comics, eh?

Here's another interesting phenomena. Apparantly, crappy movies are no longer taking as much cash in the opening week as they used to. Seems that punters are coming out of the movies and texting their friends to tell them if the film they just saw as good or bad. Thwam, massive networking. Same thing applies to comics, especially with their slow lead time. If a new comic is crap, it doesn't take long for the news to get out. But if a little independent comic is good, how come that doesn't help make it succeed?

I'm not saying I have the answer, but I think that Reinventing Comics should have talked a bit more about the importance of digital communications among fans... that's far more relevant IMHO than the issue of whether comics are colored by hand or by computer. And what about the massive impact of eBay as a channel for the sale of comics? The sale of Trade Paperbacks on Amazon and the like (now a huge channel) only got a passing mention in the book, but it's changing the way that many people purchase and read comics.

Again, to be fair, I think Scott's authority on the topic at the time was far greater than most. However time has a way of not being kind to anybody's predictions regarding economics in the internet world. In the final analysis, McCloud deserves hearty praise for his excellent description of the issues, and due credit for being among the first to even try to write about what the near future might bring in the rapidly-evolving world of digitial media.

But while digitial comics sorts itself out, I'll just enjoy my printed comics, thanks. At least they won't get accidentally erased. In fact, that's something that Scott also doesn't address. Purchasing comics electronically is all very well, but most people are crap at taking care of their data. How many adult home users perform regular data backups? But even a five year old kid can shove their comics in a box. And what about the obselescence of removable media? I have comics that I bought ten, fifteen years ago, still fine in their plastic bags. But fifteen years ago, data was stored on what, nine-inch floppies. Care to find a reader for one of those nowadays?

Nope, McCloud doesn't address the relative permanence (real and perceived) of digitial vs. physical comics, and the impact that has on people's reluctance to spend money on digitally delivered comics - yet another important topic that doesn't even get on the radar. But enough of that for now, let's move on to a summary.

In General...

"Understanding Comics" built on much that had gone before, and addressed issues that were fairly static, in a small domain. "Reinventing Comics" by contrast is a ground-breaking book, addressing a much larger number of broad-ranging problems, in an environment that moves so fast it gives you whiplash just to watch it go by. It's totally understandable that five years after this book was published that a few cracks begin to show.

Please, don't let my cheap-shots distract you from the importance of this book, and the issues that it covers. Comics is in deep doo-doo, and before we as comic-fans can figure out how we can turn that around, we need to get a handle on just what the real problems are that comics are facing. Nobody I can see even comes close to Scott McCloud when it comes to digging away at those problems. Just go buy this book, and be thankful that we have guys of this calibre on our side, OK?

Overall Rating...

Sound analysis. Even with flaws in the forecasts, this is still a formative work which is gratefully received. Thanks, Mr. McC.