“Read a Damn Book – 124: Reinventing Comics”

I reviewed Scott McCloud’s groundbreaking book, Understanding Comics, in May of 2017, and I think a lot of people have at least HEARD of that book. It’s taught in college courses, it was well received by critics and creators, and the book is STILL relevant and useful for folks who are interested in art, design, comics, or understanding how humans process visual information. BUT how many people know that McCloud wrote a sequel to Understanding Comics seven years after his classic work? That’s the book I’m looking at today.

reinventing comics (2000) - (peg)

Scott McCloud – Reinventing Comics (2000)

First, let me start by letting folks know (or reminding people who read the earlier review) that I love Understanding Comics. I’ve read it five or six times, and it’s been a major influence on me, in terms of storytelling and visual design ideology (helping me to understand the value of simplification,) so when I read that McCloud had published another book, I jumped at the chance to read more. And, honestly, Reinventing Comics is a fascinating book—HOWEVER, it’s also a speculative book that discusses, in detail, what comics will look like in the future—but he wrote it in the era of dial-up phone modems and before Kindles and iPads had really come into popular use.

The first section of the book is a recap of Understanding Comics (massively simplified to fit into about three pages,) and then McCloud launches into an examination of the state of comics in the late 1990s, right after the big comic collecting bubble burst. For those who lived through those heady days, they were filled with classic characters getting maimed or killed, variant covers (sometimes as many as six or seven for a single issue!), die-cut covers, glow in the dark special editions, comics that came in sealed bags, comics that came with trading cards, comics that came with ash-cans of other comics, and a massive glut of gimmicks and nonsense, that eventually led folks (who thought their purchases were going to make them RICH RICH RICH!!!) to ditch comics when the prices dropped and all the gimmicks ended up in the 50 cent bins. (It was some exciting times, though…)

So McCloud is writing from a bit of a low point in comic history, when comic shops were going out of business, various independent publishers were closing up shop, and people lost interest in comics in general—especially superheroes, which is what most folks think comics are all about. To fight against this downturn, and because McCloud has advocated for comics as a medium that shouldn’t be dominated by just two companies and ONE genre, McCloud suggests that a few things have to change in the comics world before the medium can realize its true potential and fully mature as an artform. He then goes on to define several “revolutions” that he believes need to take place in order for comics to move forward. Amongst these revolutions are factors like these: *More equal gender balance. *Better minority representation. *Better protection for creators, and more creative control. *More diversity of genres (not just superheroes). *Improved public perception of comics as a medium (many folks think of comics as throw-away, kids’ stories with no literary merit). *Digital creation of comics. *Digital distribution of comics… And so on… And, nearly two decades later, a few of these “revolutions” have taken place, but most have not!

His points are well expressed, and he does a great job of giving solid examples of each of his concerns. Even now, with superhero movies the hottest ticket in town, I don’t think very many people READ comics, and the majority of those who do read them tend to only read superhero books! (When was the last time you saw a history comic or a philosophy comic or a literary biography comic? There’s no reason why any of these topics, or a million others, couldn’t be covered in comic form. Imagine a comic about crypto-currencies that could use visual images, flow charts, and other pictures to demonstrate some of the more technical concepts.) So, eighteen years on, many of McCloud’s issues have yet to be resolved.

I would argue, however, that the most intriguing part of the book comes in the second half, where McCloud discusses the digital domain. Remember that he wrote this book BEFORE broadband was available, when most folks heard that awful, screeching dial-up noise before they could connect to AOL and look at their message boards and newsgroups, at a time when downloading a single image could take a while (maybe several minutes, if it was a big image), and full video playback was a dream yet to be fulfilled. In this section of the book, McCloud talks about the creation and development of the internet, the promise of a “frictionless” economy in which micro-payments will become the standard, and where creators will be able to interact directly with their audience without having some large corporation as a middle-man… So, not all of his predictions came true, but they are still fascinating to read and consider.

He’s also very concerned with the SHAPES that digital comics will take, as in panel layout, which is weird to me. He seems to be suggesting that the flat comics page (which has been a standard rectangle for about a hundred years,) is somehow a restriction on storytelling, and being able to have your panel layout in forms other than a rectangle, such as a set of stairs or a cube or a random abstract-ish looking structure, will somehow make comics better. (It’s true that a computer could, technically, allow you to make the shape of your comic anything you want it to be—but I’m not sure how having a spiral comic changes how good the story is…) He also expresses some worry (on page 232) that digital readers (which had just started hitting the market in the year 2000) might reinforce the idea of the “flat page,” and tie comics to that format for years to come. (He was right, in that respect.) It’s funny, being an older fellow like I am, seeing how many of the “innovations” that McCloud mentions (like digitally created comics, or CD-ROM games, like Myst or The 7th Guest, or “motion” comics, and so on) seemed so exciting when they came out, but either fell out of fashion or became so mundane that we don’t even think about them as interesting anymore. That’s the way it works, I guess. The “new thing” is so thrilling…until it’s replaced by a NEWER thing and it’s pushed aside, or it becomes a part of our everyday lives, NORMAL, and we forget how incredible it really is.

I hope I’m not making the book sound boring or ridiculous, because it’s not. McCloud has an insightful, analytical mind, and even though not everything that he predicted has come to pass, he certainly makes some solid, relevant points. He even brings up the old Marvel Black Panther comics, seventeen years before the blockbuster film came out, as an above-average representation of people of color. His thoughts on gender, minority representation, creator rights, and even digital distribution and micro-payments are all dead on, (have you ever paid a buck to keep playing Candy Crush or some other game on your phone or computer? WELCOME TO MICRO-PAYMENTS!), and his historical research is exceptional. He cites sources well, makes his points clearly, and includes an index at the back of the book where folks can look for more information about certain topics, if they’re interested. (How many comics can say that? Only a few of the ones that I own have indices—like From Hell, which was researched to within an inch of its life!)

McCloud is a tireless advocate for comics and for creators’ rights, and this book—although maybe not as essential a read as Understanding Comics—is still an interesting and profound work. If you only have enough cash to buy ONE Scott McCloud book, definitely get Understanding Comics first, but if you’ve already read that one and you’re looking for something that further explores what comics are and what they might someday become, I would recommend this book. It has a good sense of humor, the arguments are clearly stated, and it has a very optimistic tone, despite the era in which the book was written. In a sense, it could be read as an alternate universe timeline, seeing where comics went in a different reality—and McCloud has them going in some very intriguing directions, but the book also discusses some elements of digital production and distribution that are quite relevant today—and from a perspective that we hardly ever consider anymore. Why COULDN’T I create a digital comic, myself, and sell the individual issues directly to fans and readers, using a micro-payment system that didn’t exist when McCloud was writing, maybe like accepting payments in Bitcoin or Steem or Ethereum and keeping track of who owns the individual issues by means of a blockchain accounting system? Digital deliver is a breeze these days, with gigabytes of information being downloadable in seconds, now, instead of hours. (Remember the days of Napster and Kazaa when people—not you of course, but folks you knew—would wait HOURS to download a three or four minute song? Those were the days…) So if you’re interested in comics as a medium or in art or storytelling as a commercial venture, specifically in the way that art and technology mix (and sometimes clash,) then Reinventing Comics should be pretty high up on your reading list. It’s well written, well researched, funny, and makes a number of important points that both fans and creators really should be thinking about whenever the topic of conversation turns to comics—especially if that conversations starts with, “Did you see the movie?” Read a damn book!!!!

—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)

P.S. – I’ve reviewed over 120 books, comics, kids books, and literary classics through the Read a Damn Book project. To see everything I’ve reviewed, check out the READING LIST!

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About richardfyates

Compulsive creator of the bizarre and absurd. (Artist, writer, poet, provocateur...)
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