Sunday, 29 March 2009

Reinventing Comics

While Understanding Comics is considered to be a bona fide classic, I get the impression from what little I have gleaned from the comics world that Reinventing Comics is seen as a sophomore slump in Scott McCloud's trilogy (well, a trilogy so far, who knows what he has planned for the future) of books on comics. I wouldn't go quite so far as to call it that, but in some respects it hasn't aged well compared to Understanding Comics. Whereas that is still thought of as a definite work when considering comics and comics theory, there are aspects of Reinventing Comics that have lost some of their impact in the decade following its publication.

That's not to say that McCloud doesn't make a number of interesting points about the potential for comics. We do need to get away from thinking that comics are either

  • people in spandex
  • or those funny strips in newspapers
and we certainly need to get away from the a priori condition that comics are for kids. The truth, of course, is that for a long time there have been many instances of material that were comics but which satisfied none of those conditions. The problem of course is that there was kind of a collective consensus among people who don't read them that "that isn't comics... And in fact to call it comics is very dangerous indeed."

(although, seriously, let's not have any more newspaper stories with headlines like "Pow! Comics Not Just For Kids!" going on about how comics have grown up... Seriously)

The areas where Reinventing Comics falls down is when McCloud speculates about the future. Anyone with more than a passing interest in webcomics might have heard about micropayments - an idea which has a lot to offer in some respects but which is difficult to implement from what I have understood in the past; it's an idea for revenue generation which doesn't seem to work nearly as well as other models for generating income from webcomics (such as selling adspace on pages, and selling t-shirts etc).

Also, on this, my second read through (or is it my third?) I'm still not 100% convinced on the idea of using laptops/screens of some description as "windows" to look at comics: McCloud's thesis on this is that there are examples of comics which are hundreds, even thousands, of years old, from the Bayeaux Tapestry through to Egyptian paintings; these older examples were not bounded, but all through the last 150 or so years we have done just that, and bound comics within paper and borders on pages, breaking up the continuous flow of sequential pictures and words. A return to the possibilities of the past then could be done using a computer screen as a window on to a larger sequence, no four panel strips, no standard American/Japanese page size... I don't quite see it. Because at the end of the day, a person is still limited by the screen, this is now the border. Sure, you move along, but is this really any different than if we printed a comic as a concertina arrangement of pages?

Reinventing Comics is still a great read though, and where it might not succeed in my eyes it might be a wake up call and a brilliant idea to others. Even given what I have read about micropayments, there is part of me that still wonders if there is something to it. But more than anything, people working in comics and people reading comics need to be open to new ideas and new expressions of comics - and we need to share our enthusiasm with others.


Matt_Evans said...

Also: tapestries and paintings have borders as well....

So the only essential difference is medium: bound pages versus canvas/ papyrus/ whatever

zero_zero_one said...

Yeah. I think that some of McCloud's points are a bit wobbly. Yeah. Borders. Frames. Screens as windows on something.

The medium places restrictions/boundaries on things - but it seems like kind of a weird thing that there is some kind of a priori thing that comics doesn't have boundaries, which is something that Scott McCloud comes up with.