Reinventing Comics

Reinventing Comics

I thought of Reinventing Comics as the ugly middle child of Scott McCloud’s trilogy of books about the medium. Understanding Comics was revolutionary; nothing like it had been done before in discussing the theory behind the art. Making Comics was needed; there aren’t enough good books about the practice of craft. But as I remembered it, Reinventing Comics was a bunch of outdated gee-whiz-aren’t-computers-cool bits and pieces.

I was surprised, then, upon rereading it, to realize how current and up-to-date the first half of it felt for a book published in 2000. As he says in the introduction, it’s really two books: The first half covers the challenges that comics faces, the battles to truly take advantage of the potential of the medium. The second is about how computers will radically change comics. They’re broken down and grouped together as a set of twelve “revolutions”, or directions for potential growth. (And because this is McCloud, each has its own little icon. They can be seen as the left column of the book’s resource page at McCloud’s site. Be aware that that list was last updated in 2001, so many links are outdated and/or gone. Footnotes that say “see my site for details” are thus best ignored.)

The introduction begins — and this is the first part that surprised me, because it sounded so much like today — with McCloud saying that he’s not sure how much longer he’ll be able to make a living from comics because the business is in bad shape. He doesn’t want to use comics as a stepping stone to Hollywood, something too many people chase these days. He’s speaking from the perspective of someone thrilled by the independent explosion of the late 80s and depressed by the crash of the early 90s, an event still being recovered from at the time of the writing of this book. Thus, his revolutions aren’t just theoretical, they’re necessary to keep the business alive.

There’s a lot of praise for the pioneer, the iconoclast who labors in obscurity until the mainstream finally takes notice, and a matching concern for the creative pushing boundaries but not being able to make a living. It’s clear that economic pressures were firmly on McCloud’s mind during much of this book, as he argues for the ability to both create and purchase comics at a reasonable financial level and against “short-term exploitation” and “witless nostalgia.” (Comments like these, no matter how mild, made the original publisher of this book, DC Comics’ Paradox Press, seem like an odd fit at best.)

Reinventing Comics

His list of the Twelve Revolutions are:

  1. Comics as Literature
  2. Comics as Art
  3. Creators’ Rights
  4. Industry Innovation
  5. Public Perception
  6. Institutional Scrutiny (removing prejudice on the part of academia and the law)
  7. Gender Balance
  8. Minority Representation
  9. Diversity of Genre (“not just adolescent power fantasies”)
  10. Digital Production
  11. Digital Delivery
  12. Digital Comics

This is a pretty good list of areas where comics have either made great strides recently or that still serve as powerful battlegrounds or sources of future growth. Good forward thinking on his part! (I particularly like the way he phrases Gender Balance, “comics could appeal to more than just boys and be made by more than just men,” and Minority Representation, “more than just straight while upper-middle-class males.”) The first nine are then covered in groups, with the computer-related last three taking up the book’s second half.

The groupings make sense: Art and Literature together, talking about the struggle to make complex and challenging works and the development of the graphic novel, followed by Creators’ Rights and Industry Innovation, both of which deal with the business of comics. McCloud rightly points out that much change only happens as new generations come on the scene, less constricted by how things have always been and more open to new ways. In that first chapter, he also revisits his attempt to define Art from Understanding Comics, a struggle that I don’t think is necessary. The key point is that it’s okay to be ambitious in those areas, and greater acceptance is happening (revisited in the chapter on Public Perception and Institutional Scrutiny).

The second chapter, on the business of comics, is terribly modern, unfortunately. It’s disheartening to read about a history of “lopsided agreements” preventing creators from sharing in the profits from their creations in the same month word broke of Tokyopop trying to get young artists to sign similar pacts. This section is mostly a history of the Creators’ Bill of Rights and a brief overview of publishing economics. McCloud is very suspicious of publishers, perhaps rightly so, but it’ll take much further on in the book for him to suggest any alternatives. He also, refreshingly, points out that the existing system as often fails readers, unable to find or purchase what they want.

The third chapter, about perceptions of comics, focuses mostly on problems and prejudice: the Bam! Pow! headline, often inappropriate, attached to any comic coverage; the idea that comics are for kids, so any blood or adult content is a danger; the need for supportive retailers carrying diverse material; and the fight over obscenity. While we still see these issues, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is still necessary, things in these areas are much better than they once were as more people are educated about and willing to defend the medium.

The last chapter of the first section tackles items 7-9 under the heading of diversity, an argument driven by the need to build audience by reaching out to non-traditional readers. The histories of the struggles of women and minorities to express their visions as presented here is necessarily brief, but they’re nice introductions with plenty of references for further reading. A key point is that “who makes [the comics] matters” in portraying authentic experience and characterization. When it comes to superhero genre domination, I hadn’t realized just how far we’d come with the current emphasis on bookstore graphic novels and manga. His complaints, while valid then, now seem outdated, thankfully.

Then we come to the digital section. His introduction, about the history of computing, is a valuable reminder that the rate of technological change is dizzying. The chapter on tools is quaint, as a result. The digital delivery chapter covers what we’d now call webcomics, and he talks about very early days, so this chapter is also mostly obsolete (although an interesting time capsule reminding us what we take for granted in terms of high-speed access and handheld computing). The micropayment argument completely ignores what wound up happening, with prices going to “free” for most online content yet webcomics creators making livings from merchandise and/or advertising.

The final “digital comics” chapter, making the case for an “infinite canvas” (examples of which I’ve never enjoyed reading), would have been better presented as “here’s one future option I’m exploring.” But that’s what simultaneously attractive and off-putting about McCloud’s theories — he’s so enthusiastic about them that they may come off as something he’s very certain about, more so than intended. So this last half of the book is much more time-bound, as you’d expect when talking about the state of the day in technology.

I recently reread Understanding Comics, and this book feels denser both in content and art. The panels feel like they have more content and more background, less iconic and more representational of complex examples. (The greyscaling also helps a lot.) That may reflect a less introductory audience, an assumption that readers of this book will be more familiar with the medium. And his use of many examples is helpful in showing what he’s referring to. If you needed a reading list of the best of comics available up to that time, you could do a lot worse than to simply pull together the works he cites and analyzes.

While its second half is outdated and silly to today’s readers, the first half of Reinventing Comics is a better read now than it was at the time of its publication. It’s easy to see so many places where McCloud was right, and it provides a good analysis of the challenges the comics business still faces.


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