Understanding Reinvention

In 1993, Scott McCloud, best known for his sci-fi comics series Zot!, published his landmark volume Understanding Comics, which made waves in the academic discussion about comics as a valid art form. Dissecting the mechanics and singular language of sequential art, McCloud’s book, written in a comics format, proffered a new, accessible text for the study of a medium with roots dating back into prehistory. Although only seven years has passed since Understanding Comics first hit direct market shelves, the world has changed dramatically, especially in the comics business. For one, the industry itself has come to a staggering standstill compared with the popular explosion that occurred in the early nineties. Additionally, new technologies such as the Internet and CD-ROMs have led many to speculate as to whether print may be slowly dying, or, if comics in particular are already dead. Arriving at the cusp of a new millennium, McCloud’s sequel, Reinventing Comics, seeks to expand upon some of the groundwork laid by its predecessor while also revising the concept of comics in order for this unique medium to thrive in the approaching age of information.

Reinventing Comics defines a number of issues requiring resolution in the comics industry so that progress can be made in how the art is created, who it is reaching, and in what ways it can be communicated from creator to reader. These are cruxes that can make or break the future of the trade as a legitimate art (comics will probably always exist in some form, even if only to instruct a person on how to use an airbag), a future McCloud sees as on the brink of collapse. At this brink, comics may very well tumble into the depths of obscurity, superceded by the increasing number of new media that strike a louder chord nowadays in popular culture than the death of Superman ever could. However, McCloud points out, this brink may also be an opportunity for comics to take off and soar, achieving new levels of innovation and reaching a larger audience than anyone thought possible. All it may require, according to McCloud, is a shift in the content of comics and the in form by which it is rendered.

This manifesto (as so called by Neil Gaiman, well known for his comic, Sandman) is divided into two parts, practically two different books, outlining twelve fronts in desperate need of revolution if comics are going to survive for the long haul. The first half focuses on nine long-term goals affecting the genre’s content, progresses that must be made regarding the acceptance of comics as art and literature, as respectful of creators’ rights to their work and as representative of various minorities, genders, and alternative genres. The second half brings the tools of comics-making and distribution into discussion, revealing the limitless potentials for digital production, delivery, and manifestation in a time when Moore’s Law is being proved right by the almost daily advances in computer technology and communicative capabilities. These revolutions cannot happen overnight, but McCloud’s continual optimism and liberal take on the definition of comics (and art, for that matter) make the reinvention seem well within reach.

Comics, according to McCloud, is the language of juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, and is characterized by demonstrating the motion of time through space (in our current conception, this would be the comics page). Unfortunately, comics have been defined for our culture by a number of factors, most importantly economic and moral ones, and this excluded countless avenues comics could have taken in their development over the past century. Even the format by which comics most often come packaged, the comic book has been so intertwined with the language it expresses that popular consciousness has a serious problem separating the two. More unnerving, most people are unaware comics consist of anything besides tales of superhero adventure or funny animal anecdotes. Many don’t realize comics are still being made at all. These ideas, and the association of comics with children’s fodder, has stunted the form’s growth and should be placed at the forefront of myths that need to be dispelled before any other advancements can succeed. Only then will there be enough of an appreciation of comics for the boy’s club mentality to dissipate and new readers and creators to discover comics can provide an arena where any number of voices can make their individual worldviews heard.

Sounds good, but economics and the tight fist of commercial profiteers maintain a very strong hold on what material sees the light of day. In today’s market, as fewer independent publishers produce anything innovative and more comic book shops fold under a dwindling fan base, the chances, say, that an elderly Hispanic lesbian’s autobiographical comic would make it to the hands of an intelligent, eager reader are as slim as the chances that a video game ad won’t appear in next month’s issue of X-Men. Although Fredric Wertham, one of the early denouncer of comics as dangerous to the minds of youth, is long dead and buried, there is a dominant, pervasive cast of thought as to what comics should be, look like, say, and address. Those who control the capital control production, and rarely are they the creators and even more rarely are they interested in trying out anything experimental. Here, McCloud claims, is where computers and the Internet may offer the key to a brave new world.

The process of making comics is already undergoing a complete overhaul due to the existence of computers and creative software. Most of today’s lettering and coloring is now wholly done with the aid of computer applications. In the printing process as well, computers are invaluable in organizing layout and distribution. But, McCloud sees vaster opportunities inherent in this digital instrument, many of which are already a significant reality to the comics experience. Selling comics over the Internet breaks open the closed system of distribution (i.e., the Diamond monopoly, one of the largest comic book distribution companies) that is one of the many troubling issues unique to the comics industry. This cuts down on much of the costs of advertising, shipping, and shelf space that dictates what projects will get the support of the fat cats’ greenbacks. Beyond this, though, is the emergence of digital comics, comics existing wholly in the virtual world of ones and zeroes and transmitted via the ever-expanding Web. A person with an idea for a comic can create the entire narrative on the screen, publish it on the Web for all to see, and, if so desired, charge a fee (which would be relatively small and profitable to the creator after all the middlemen are cut out) using any number of Web-specific payment programs. An even more interesting point McCloud makes is that such a method of depicting a comic would free the artist from the confines of the standardized comics page, space now becoming nearly infinite in any direction with any number of possible uses, limited only by the artist’s imagination. The main thing stopping this comics utopia from taking flight is the cost of computers and software, which still preclude various segments of the population from taking part in this new, unchecked arena for the exchange of information and ideas. But, according to the laws of economics, this will not remain so perpetually. Gradually, computers are becoming smaller and more portable and, consequently, cheaper as each year passes. This trend should continue, predicts McCloud, until owning a computer will be more practical than doing without. And if the dynamics of the Web don’t change much (which is always possible in these days of hyper-speed metamorphoses), then the digital world may be what comics need to persevere for another hundred years.

McCloud doesn’t deny that these revolutions are difficult, but he offers his fair share of solutions and proves his point by example. The mere fact his Understanding Comics, a nonfictional metacomic, could enjoy such surprising success is one sign of the innate potential comics have for communicating ideas in nontraditional ways. Admitting he no longer uses regular ink or pen anymore (he produces his work with a Wacom tablet) may also shock some as to the potential digital production are cost-effective and maintain good quality. Additionally, the publication of his new Zot! Online demonstrates the possibilities comics can carry when combined with the Web.

Many will disagree with McCloud and devise innumerable reasons digital comics are not really comics, or even claim the suburban boy-oriented superheroes will remain comics’ bread and butter, but these are rebuttals McCloud more than acknowledges in Reinventing Comics. No matter what, no one will dispute that comics are in trouble and need some fixing soon before they drift off into the ghost-world of nostalgia. McCloud’s solutions may or may not prevail, but like any work trying to break new ground in the development of its field, only time will tell.