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BOOK REVIEW: Reinventing Comics

As a turn-of-the-century statement on the future of comics, Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics was doomed to miss the mark somewhat, but many of its suggestions and forecasts are still relevant today.

Where McCloud's first book, Understanding Comics, is an exploration of how the medium works, his second is a manifesto on how the industry should work. He frames his arguments as "The Twelve Revolutions" and splits the book in half to give each idea the weight he feels it deserves.

The first part covers nine Revolutions: Comics as Literature, Comics as Art, Creators' Rights, Industry Innovation, Public Perception, Institutional Scrutiny, Gender Balance, Minority Representation, and Diversity of Genre. With a little tweaking (Comics as Literature and Comics as Art are fairly well-established these days, for example) this list would be an accurate description of the comics landscape today, and the accompanying explanations would useful for anyone trying to verbalize the field's current deficiencies. This isn't the most encouraging news -- we're still dealing with the same issues almost two decades later -- but reminders that there have been advocates for change in the past at least helps it feel worthwhile to keep fighting for the soul of comics.

The second part of Reinventing Comics is all about the impact of computers and the Internet, and McCloud breaks his arguments into Digital Production, Digital Delivery, and Digital Comics. From today's perspective (mine, anyway) this section is an odd jumble of prescient observations and dubious idealism. The author clearly understands the limits of the day's computer technology, and, for Digital Production and Digital Delivery he accurately predicts changes brought by improvements in the technology -- fast loading times on websites, affordable tablet computing with artistic applications, direct sales of digital comics -- but unfortunately he doesn't consider any possible downsides of these developments. For example, he seems to think that the world would be a better place without printers, publishers, and distributors, and even comic shops; if he's presenting this economic model as a platonic ideal rather than something he actually wants, he doesn't make that clear.

The last Revolution of this second part, Digital Comics, is the most interesting and the most frustrating. McCloud seems to think that print media has exerted a kind of tyranny on the medium by requiring things like narrative interruption at the end of each page, a lack of narrative input from the reader, even still images! Not that he thinks every comics story is worse for missing these elements, but he seems genuinely distressed that comics are constrained by their historical physicality. He believes that making comics digital will allow for the purest form of the medium: an infinite canvas, with the possibility of interaction and decision-making from the reader, moving images and sound, and added dimensions of form (such as stair-step layouts, or even faces of a cube).

It's possible that some of my strong reaction is due to the seventeen years that have passed between the book's publication and my reading it. Indeed, many of his suggestions have been realized, with compelling results: Dash Shaw's BodyWorld (http://www.dashshaw.com/prelude.html) was published as a continuously scrolling vertical webcomic before being printed, also vertically; Jason Shiga's Meanwhile (https://zarfhome.com/meanwhile/) is a choose-your-path comic that's available in print and as an app; The Private Eye by Bryan K. Vaughn, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente (http://panelsyndicate.com/comics/tpeye) uses a mostly-standard computer screen for its page dimensions, even in its printed form; and the webcomics Emily Carroll (http://emcarroll.com/) use the act of scrolling to construct narrative, and she even incorporates motion GIFs in a way that impresses a curmudgeon like me! Still, if McCloud is arguing that the whole comics medium hasn't been living up to its full potential in the thousands of years (his estimation) that it's existed before computers came in, I have to say I'm offended. Then again, maybe the future will prove him right!

This review has been my longest and most heated so far, but I think that's a good illustration of the benefit of reading this book, especially now that we have some years' distance from its original publication. The first half of the book is (sadly) a good rundown of the shortcomings of the industry, and in that way presents a kind of playbook for making improvements, whether that's through collection development, programming, or scholarly research. The second half, while perhaps less immediately useful to librarians' daily work, is a reminder of all that technology has changed for the comics, and all that might yet change, plus it's a great way to challenge your assumptions about the medium.

Reinventing Comics
Scott McCloud
HarperCollins Perennial, 2000
publisher site | WorldCat

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