Seeking to disprove stereotypes that comics are merely simplistic or juvenile entertainment for the uncultured; to enlighten the open-minded and encourage the broadening of one's horizons; to examine comics as a text; to deepen appreciation for comics, comic books, and graphic novels as a formidable form of art in all cultures.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Review: Reinventing Comics

There are bigger, better, more in-depth reviews of Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics out there, so I will keep this relatively short.

While most people feel that this follow up to Understanding Comics is either excellent or terrible, I rather think that it STARTS as excellent, and slowly goes downhill so that, by about 2/3 through the book, you're ready for it to end.

Scott begins very strongly. His first couple chapters really captivated me, because he spoke to my heart -- bringing up issues in the study of comics as art, how this movement to take the medium more seriously is important in developing art awareness and thus bring about greater empathy in society. I really was fascinated by his description of how the current business model for the comics industry has come into place and the impact it's had on the prominence of the superhero genre and commercialism of the form. This is all in the first 1/3-or-so of the book, and I loved every bit of it -- it really made the entire book worth reading.

However, as he begins to describe the road to the Digital Age and where comics need to go from here, he begins losing his footing. He rapidly covers the development of the Internet, oversimplifying its history, and then knowingly jumps into predictions and theories that he is aware will soon be outdated due to the rapid rate at which technology moves forward (the book was written in 2000). Some of his predictions are spot-on, some are way off, and his conclusions are questionable.

McCloud challenges the notion that a physical comic book will always be more appreciated than a digital comic, stating that the desire to actually hold a comic in ones hands merely exists because that is what we're used to, and that as we embrace digital comics we will soon abandon that sentiment. This fails to address the concept of ownership that prevails in western culture. How many of us prefer to own a physical CD than just a hard drive loaded with mp3's? There's something inside us that will always want a copy of our media that we can rely on, that is unique and "mine." I don't think this notion will change in a matter of decades.

Another strength he attempts to declare is that digital comics have the potential to allow the reader to see an almost-infinite canvas all at once, not having to limit panels to what can fit on one page at a time. While I certainly see his point, I think this is flawed reasoning. First of all, the reader is limited to what he can view on his monitor. If you create a comic that is large enough to cover the roof of the Pentagon and tell your readers to have at it online, they still will only be able to read portions at a time, and an attempt to see it all at once would result in an image severely scaled-down in order to accomodate a realistic canvas size for a home computer, rendering it impossible to really distinguish images and text. Secondly, is it not an inherent part of the medium to have pages that you flip through? I believe the physical flipping of a page, feeling a slight breeze as it passes your face, sending a wiff of ink and freshly-cut (or musty-old) paper to your nose, is part of the experience, psychologically and emotionally.

I certainly am not against digital comics -- I have been getting more and more into webcomics lately -- but I am rather skeptical of any movement that would suggest that the best path for the medium of comics as a whole is a series of 1's and 0's, that we need to get over this need for a physical comic book -- which is a Marxist idea of unlimited accessibility and lack of individuality in creation and distribution.

As the book went on and on, I found myself more and more ready to put it down. McCloud's easy flow with which he seemed to write his first book was lost in the last half of this sequel, leaving me clueless as to where he was going or how we even arrived to some of the topics he started bringing up, making me have to re-read previous panels so much that by the end I had given up.

I definitely recommend this book due to the excellent illustrations McCloud made (both visually and intellectually) in the beginning, but be aware that it won't leave you as satisfied as some of his other writing may.


Cabeza said...

Oh, snap! You totally got all Marx up in his face!

I liked the review, and I'll have to read Reinventing Comics now, especially since I've already read McCloud's first work.

I think you make good points about the staying power of traditional, non-digital (analog?) comics. This is kind of a stretch of an analogy, but it's kind of like a Navy captain said at an Armed UAS conference I went to two weeks ago--laser weapons, while desirable and in some ways superior to conventional weapons, will never fully replace guns and missiles on Navy ships. There are certain missions that laser weapons cannot fill, and certain functions that they lack. There is a reliability in the old systems that the new ones do not have.

Similarly, there are artistic and storytelling capabilities that a digital comic will never be able to fully take from its analog predecessor. It's like Disney's stupid (and since rescinded) announcement that it would stop making hand-drawn animated films and only work in the computer animation medium (espousing Pixar). Eisner and his lackeys failed to recognize the artistic differences between the two mediums and the lasting value of still making hand drawn films. Which they're now doing.

Another question for McCloud--how's a kid going to read his digital comic when the power goes out? We're never going to be totally digital. Never is a strong word, but I think I'll stand by it.

The Shark said...

Yeah, I just don't understand the mentality that digital has to replace analog. Why can't they coexist? Why can't comics still be printed in book form and have a whole other submedium that adapts to the strengths of digital publishing?

You point out an excellent weakness in going all-digital. A printed comic doesn't rely on a power outlet or batteries. You can take a stack of comics on the road and know that if you leave them open on the seat for a few hours, they'll still be there when you get back. There is strength in that.

Another point, which I believe McCloud addresses, is the unlimited ability to zoom in or out on an image in a printed comic. It can be frustrating to me when I want to examine a detail in an online strip, but the more I zoom the more pixelated it gets. With a physical comic book, I can get as up close and personal as I want, and image quality won't deteriorate. Eventually the internet may be operating at such speeds that images with super-high resolutions may be more easily viewed and not occupy so much drive/server space, but there will still be similar limitations.