Is it a comic? No, it’s history
Reinventing ComicsScott McCloud
Paradox Press, £14.95
Sequels are rarely a good idea – unless they happen to be The Godfather. Reinventing Comics is Scott McCloud’s follow-up to his hugely successful Understanding Comics (1993), and comes in the same chunky graphic novel format. Whereas the first book dealt with the nuts and bolts of how comics work, the second is essentially a history, looking at ‘twelve different revolutions’ in how comics are created, read and perceived, including ‘comics as an art form’ and ‘the exploding world of online delivery’.
As with all histories, there is a political slant. McCloud is a classic liberal on sexual and ethnic representation – a chapter that is a nice distillation of recent advances within the industry – and takes an admirably strong line on creators’ rights, lambasting mainstream publishers for their exploitative ‘work-for-hire’ practices. In fact, the chapters on business and distribution are by far the best in the book: McCloud has a facility for putting difficult concepts into pictorial form, and here dry economic facts become entertaining vignettes.
As well as being a commentator, McCloud is also an insider, and this is a valuable perspective, even if it can also suggest some nagging contradictions (he has worked for DC Comics on Superman, presumably on a work-for-hire basis).
The book is less good on definitions and the relative importance of historical events. There is an unhelpful tendency to define comics too broadly as ‘mapping time through space’, meaning that ancient carvings from Egyptian tombs are talked about in the same breath as modern print comics, thereby bestowing a spurious respectability on the medium. There is also a privileging of the comics’ tradition in the US over traditions elsewhere, with the result that, for example, Will Eisner is claimed to be the originator of the ‘graphic novel’. Though Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978) is an important book, few comics scholars would subscribe to this view: graphic novels existed in the US and Britain long before the term was coined, and the European lineage dates from the 1930s.
But it is in the book’s latter sections that things get really controversial. Here, McCloud shifts his focus to ‘digital comics’, and ‘the online revolution’. After a brief and useful history of the impact of computers on the form, he proposes a ‘manifesto for change’ based on the idea that print comics are being superseded by Net comics that can incorporate animation, sound, and interactive elements. Using his catch-all definition, he argues for a new age when ‘anyone with modest means and sufficient desire will be able to reinvent the look of comics forever . . .’ But hang on a minute: when does a comic become not a comic? Surely by adding animation, sound, hypertext, and so on, it becomes something else – a piece of multimedia art. McCloud’s thesis does not take into account comics’ rootedness in the print tradition: indeed, a more balanced view of the origins of the form (at the end of the nineteenth century) would see it as the basis for the Northcliffe newspaper empire in this country and as emerging from the Sunday funnies in the US. There are a host of other questions, not the least of which is how, exactly, the tactile pleasures of print comics can be bettered by the cold aura of mouse and monitor (see also Eye no. 36 vol. 9, p. 50).
Yet if there are worries about aspects of McCloud’s theorising, Reinventing Comics is still a valuable book. It opens up avenues for discussion, and for its succinct style will be welcomed by art students everywhere. Does it stand up to comparison with Understanding Comics? Not really, but the two books are trying to do different things. That volume’s status as a classic has recently come under fire and academics now eschew it in favour of more in-depth European studies (such as Thierry Groensteen’s Système de la Bande Dessinée). Such debates reaffirm that McCloud is primarily a populariser, but is there anything wrong with that? If Reinventing Comics can get people arguing about the form again, then it will have performed a vital function at a time when the industry is in economic crisis. Ultimately, like its predecessor, it will be a book that is disliked by academics and loved by everybody else: it won’t pick up as many plaudits, but it deserves a few.
First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000