Too Many Long Boxes!

End of Summer

From The Bookshelf

by Nicolas Juzda

Reinventing Comics

Yes, there was a DC edition of Scott McCloud's book Reinventing Comics. Granted, the one I actually read doesn't seem to have been published by everyone's favourite subsidiary of AOL-Time-Warner, but I'm assured that such an edition does exist and that makes it fair game.

This is an original work, not a reprint of serialized comic books. It's about 250 pages long, all black and white, and costs a bit more than thirty bucks Canadian, somewhere in the twenty to thirty dollar range in the U.S. Prices may vary depending upon the edition and printing.

The book details twelve areas of change for comic books. It's a bit unclear whether he wants to talk about problems or about goals; if these are ways in which comic books are already in the process of changing, or if they're ways McCloud expects they will change, or if these are ways he thinks they might change; this may be a purely descriptive examination or it could be a manifesto or it might just be idle wishing of "wouldn't it be nice if...?" The book encompasses all these approaches as it progresses, often seeming to switch in the middle of a discussion on an individual issue.

Reinventing Comics was the subject of some controversy upon its initial publication. I confess to not having read all that was written on it, most notably the debates in The Comics Journal. If I therefore cover ground that has been explored elsewhere, or put forth points that have already been redressed, I beg the reader's indulgence.

Before I get to the specific subject matter, the book itself bears mentioning as a reading experience.

The art style McCloud uses is cute and he's very good with original uses of imagery and explanatory diagrams. When he speaks of interesting artistic possibilities, he often illustrates them, and is easily up to whatever challenges he undertakes for himself.

However, this comic is what McCloud himself described in his earlier work Understanding Comics as, if memory serves, "word specific". Virtually everything of interest is in the text, with the accompanying illustrations being supplementary without tending to add value or depth. Also, ironically, there is very little continuity between the pictures from panel to panel; they may be put into a deliberate sequence to accompany the progression of his arguments, but they are not juxtaposed to create the illusion of time in the manner McCloud so cherishes. Between these two factors, this book often seems less a comic book than a prose work with an abundance of illustrations.

The other artistic problem is that whenever he can't think of a particularly appropriate illustration, he resorts to using his self-caricature in the checkered jacket and Zot shirt. On occasion he puts "himself" into an interesting background or manipulates the recurring image to demonstrate a point (he did this to fantastic effect in Understanding Comics), but often it's just a standard close-up or mid-range shot against a blank background. Despite the many odd images that he alternates with these pictures of himself, the lasting impression is that the book was visually repetitive and flat.

On the other hand, it does create the illusion that this is more than a textbook and is an actual friendly conversation between McCloud and the reader. By giving the author such a presence, it gives the book a friendly face (literally!) that may help some readers deal with the more abstract concepts. Without "Scott McCloud" talking openly to the reader, seeming to explain everything, this might have been a much more intimidating book.

Further, it allowed him to "brand" his books. One electronic periodical on comics has called McCloud's work "auto-biographical" in what appeared to be a reference to his self-caricature as a visual to accompany the narrative in Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics (though it could have meant some of his other works, such as My Obsession With Chess, which actually was autobiographical). A few anecdotes aside, however, this figure of McCloud does not make the work autobiographical; the book concerns his ideas and not his own life, and if it is autobiography then any work of non-fiction is. The result, however, is that he has managed to imbue his work with his presence to the point where one commentator thought of the book as literally about him.

McCloud used many brief excerpts from various comics to illustrate his points, but in only one case is it any more than a pair of panels at most. They serve more as footnotes for further reading then helpful examples to forward his arguments directly. On one occasion, he contrasts the approach of white writers of black characters in Green Lantern / Green Arrow and the Silver Age Black Panther with that of black writers of black characters in the Milestone line by using, respectively, two panels, a pin-up, and a cover. The differences are, to put it mildly, not adequately conveyed.

While I understand McCloud's desire to acknowledge examples of what he is talking about without having to increase the page-count exponentially, this served mostly to frustrate me. If I couldn't see for myself how these comics fit into his arguments, it felt intrusive to invoke them.

McCloud has been criticized for the structure of the book. As already mentioned, he covers twelve areas of change. But these areas are only loosely connected, and the book cannot help lacking cohesiveness. A book that shifts between such diverse issues as creator rights, the need for female creators, the view public institutions have of comics, the potential of computers as tools in comics creation, the need for comics to assume the role of art, and more besides, cannot have a central thesis more specific than "change is coming".

Where the points do interrelate, he often thwarts easy associations through the over-all structure he has chosen. He pins much of his hopes for the future on computers, including resolutions to some of his other points. But he has divided the book into two halves, and computer-related issues go in the second one, even when the problems they might solve were discussed in the first. An early point is that the direct sales market keeps money from creators; computers may be the answer, he asserts after a hundred unrelated pages. Likewise, he says early on that more women and minority creators are needed, and it is only much later that he suggests almost in passing that computer distribution might give them access.

I'm not saying he's wrong about those last points. My favourite on-line comic, College Roomies From Hell, is by a woman in Mexico. But his organization of the material weakens his ability to deliver his arguments effectively. Far better to pair problems and solutions as closely as possible.

I have attempted to keep this a review of the book Reinventing Comics and its value for you, a potential reader, instead of "my thoughts on the points raised". But we come now to a point where I will succumb to the temptation to consider his arguments. This is a necessary component of any review, since the merits of his arguments (or rather the merits of his delivery of his arguments) are the main reason you'd want to buy this book.

As mentioned, Reinventing Comics was and remains a controversial work. It has, McCloud says on his own website, been called "dangerous".

I honestly can't see why.

Much of what McCloud writes is self-apparent, or at least difficult to argue with once articulated. I don't mean to disparage the work. Most non-fiction books are meant to inform, not to provoke debate. Reinventing Comics serves as a good general primer on several areas in which change is occurring, or in which change is obviously needed, and that is a noble achievement by itself.

Certainly, he presents good starting points for conversations, but it is difficult to conceive of many of his points as being anything but conservative, with only a few notable exceptions among his even dozen, and even they are hardly shocking.

I suppose that this might seem like a catch-22 for McCloud. If I as a reviewer disagree with a couple of his points, then I imply that he is wrong, and if I agree with the majority, then they are labelled self-apparent. But I maintain that the majority of his points, while highly informative, are not radical.

Would anyone argue against having more female and non-straight-and-white creators? Okay, misogynists and homophobes and racists. Perhaps I'm an optimist, but I like to think that they're in the minority. And those were two of his points. His proposed method for bringing such representation about is not the source of controversy either, because he doesn't really have one; it's just a goal, and a means to another end.

McCloud opines that other genres than super-heroes would be nice. Okay, some super-hero diehards might find that notion threatening. Still, only the most obsessive and irrational would insist that having a few more books on the racks that appealed to a wider audience was somehow not desirable.

There is an in-depth description of how the market came to be dominated by that one genre, but his only solution is the suggestion that having more people who were not straight white males would automatically lead to non-super-hero comics. This ignores the fact that the existing infrastructure, which he has just finished explaining, is designed to create that sort of comic book no matter who the creator is. A woman hired by DC would not get to choose to write a historical romance or a western; she'd get put on a super-hero book. It's the exact same infrastructure that crushes the desire of a straight white male to write other genres.

Reinventing Comics features a section about how the direct sales system needs an overhaul. Judging by sales trends, that's hard to argue with. Sadly, McCloud only vaguely alludes to some ideas for fixing it, preferring to simply declare it in trouble so as to give added importance to his later thoughts on computer distribution.

The section on creator rights is one of only two areas where I imagine genuine controversy springing from this book, and the reason is less what he says than what he doesn't. In the wake of Image Comics' debut on the scene, the basic idea of creator rights has received widespread attention and recognition. It's now generally expected that there will be venues in which creators can retain greater control. As McCloud says, creator rights are only an issue as long as people are willing to give them up, and his proposed solution to the problems of this area is to extol creators not to ever cede them. What McCloud glosses over is that those rights are not inalienable; they are a commodity that creators are free to barter away if they so choose. To forbid that would be just as damaging, if not more so, than forcing creators to give up their rights. A new creator might be in a worse position to retain rights than one with an established fanbase, but that's true of any point of negotiation, and if they are faced with a choice between retaining rights by going independent or guaranteeing a certain level of income by working for a major company, then that's a choice they must make. It might sound harsh, but what field of employment gives you everything you want right off the bat?

The two sections extolling comics receiving recognition as literature and art might offend some people who value comics' maverick status (McCloud himself recognizes that). But few comics readers would argue that some comics being recognized as either or both would be too limiting for the medium as a whole. Not all books are "literature", not all movies are "films". A high-brow work only proves the potential of a medium (more accurately, one potential of the medium), not the new mandatory form. It has been many years since Maus won its awards, and they keep on churning out Adventures Of Superman and Betty And Veronica.

The suggestion that comics would benefit from increased public recognition and a better reputation with the government is also hardly shocking. Does anyone want the occasional criminal prosecution of a comic book store owner?

Another major point, one that receives a substantial amount of space, is that computers can be used as tools in making comics. Yep. They have been for years. McCloud has some vague thoughts that they might have a few further untapped abilities for visual effects, but that's pretty self-apparent.

The idea that comic books can be distributed through the Internet leads to McCloud's last two points. These involve the financial benefits and the increased freedom for the form.

The former idea, that with the elimination of middlemen and almost no production costs, comics would become cheaper to produce and sell for less, sounds good on paper. In practice, it has proven less workable. The reasons for this are complex, and this has been the single most debated part of Reinventing Comics.

McCloud's picture of the future is almost entirely dependant upon "micropayments". The idea is that a very small amount, literally pennies, would be payed to view a comic via the Internet. He views the main obstacles as technological. People do not want to pay for things that take forever to download, and there is no good system under which micropayments can be made.

Both these problems are, as he suggests, possible to solve.

But he fails to address other obstacles that I unfortunately cannot adequately cover here. It's a big and complex topic. What follows are just a few of my thoughts about what other things might be problems, and should certainly be considered in any debate on the subject.

People might not like the feeling of paying constantly as they navigated, even small amounts. Competition between micropayment-based sites and literally free sites would exist. Micropayments add up, and could do so surprisingly fast. There is no amount so small that the majority of people literally don't mind giving it up; just ask any beggar.

These problems may be overcome, or not. But McCloud does not even deal with these issues.

Finally, he suggests that using computers as a delivery medium would enable them to escape the confines of paper on an "infinite" canvas. This idea has merit, though he seems to have chosen the metaphor that best suited him. Scrolling around an infinite canvas is also displaying a movie in which static images move across the screen.

His suggestion that there are no advantages to paper comics is going a bit far for me, as well. He dismisses the tactile appeal of comics too quickly. And the permanence of a hard-copy in a world of hardware and software that become first obsolete and then unuseable, the enjoyment of maintaining a collection, the thrill of the hunt... To me, these things are of value.

I think that McCloud makes a mistake in implicitly viewing on-line and traditional comics as engaged in a zero sum game. He makes a few references to the possibility and advantages of coexistence, but the general thrust of his discussion of on-line comics is that they are The Future.

Despite the relative tameness of most of his suggestions, his presentation is generally clear and engaging. That he glosses over the actual process of bringing some of his ideas into practice and sometimes fails to fully grasp the problems his ideas present are the major flaws of the book, but they don't negate the fact that he generally does an excellent job of detailing possible ends, if not means.

If you find the ideas I just listed are of interest to you, if you are thinking of becoming a comics creator, or if you have a strong general interest in directions the medium might take, then buy this book. If you just like to read comics, I'd give it a pass, since it's expensive and none of the suggestions are meant to directly effect what the reader does. They all deal with either the business or creative end, or else with comics' place inside the entirety of society. Unlike its predecessor, Reinventing Comics won't help you get anything more out of the latest issue of Detective Comics.

Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
AIM name: nwjuzda

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