Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part IV: Rethinking Reinventing Comics, Part Two: The Problem with Micropayments (And the Place of Scott McCloud in Webcomics)


(Note from the author: I suspect this post is going to receive incoming links from well outside the webcomics community. If you’ve come here from one of them, you can get pretty well caught up by reading Part III of this series from yesterday. That post will lead you to Parts I and II if you need to know more.)

I think that both sides in the “war” between blogs and the “mainstream media” have a lot to learn from webcomics.

Sluggy Freelance and User Friendly launched in 1997. Penny Arcade launched a year later, and hired a business manager in 2002. Blogger launched in 1999 (the word “blog” hadn’t even been coined until 1997), same as LiveJournal, but wasn’t bought by Google until 2003, the same year the modern WordPress launched. In some sense, blogs and webcomics have developed along much the same lines at the same time – but to some extent or another, webcomics artists have settled on a number of principles and lessons learned that both blogs and the “MSM” could stand to learn from. (In part, this stems from a strong community of webcomics commentary partly founded by Websnark that blogs mostly lack. I believe I’ve mentioned that just as there are multiple blogs keeping watch over the mainstream media, I’d like a few that “watches the watchmen” and monitors the happenings of what could become the new mainstream media. On the flip side, the MSM should study the most popular webcomics when trying to come up with a web strategy that works.)

To take one example, webcomics ended up greatly benefiting from Scott McCloud’s advocacy of micropayments.

This came into focus for me Wednesday night, when I read a response to micropayment pusher Walter Isaacson on a techie site that basically said, “we don’t live in your ideal world”, but didn’t do much to explain the reasons why he was wrong… linked to from this Comixtalk article that did, if only in brief form. McCloud was an advocate of micropayments and webcomics since at least 1994, and in Reinventing Comics in 2000, he advocated both with as much fervor as he could muster, seeing the former as the ticket to fortune for the latter. For years webcomic artists toiled with the holy grail of micropayments just over the horizon, having to endure a long string of broken promises along the way. As they fell, and as those broken promises ran out of excuses, we became rather familiar with where the economics of micropayments was going wrong. We already know what the newspaper industry is only now considering getting into.

McCloud proposed four reasons why people in 2000 tended to flee at the sight of anyone asking them to pay for content: “[they] will never pay for web content as long as they still feel like they’re paying with their time; they won’t pay as long as the quality of that content is low; they won’t pay as long as paying is a hassle; and they won’t pay unless the price is right”. The first two (with “quality” here referring to “technical quality”, not aesthetic) are explicitly based on bandwidth concerns and we may consider, or at least assume, them solved. Even as McCloud wrote, the third was at least becoming less hasslesome as people developed means for you to enter personal information once and then forget it without having to worry about it being stolen.

The point of micropayments was to solve that niggling last problem. McCloud predicted the price of a webcomic falling to just a few cents, because creators could keep 90% of that price instead of 10%. And in issue #6 of his online followup to Reinventing, I Can’t Stop Thinking!, McCloud calculated that if Scott Kurtz – at the level of popularity he had in 2001, when he moaned about not being able to pay the bills! – had charged his readers only 25 cents a month for PVP, he would have made a profit of $73,000! (Assuming, of course, such a charge didn’t take readers away, which would never happen… and see below.) It’s not like there are any issues specific to webcomics that would delay the implementation – webcomics are far less bandwidth-intensive than music, and it’s not like it’s more important for a webcomic creator to know your phone number than it is for a music site to know it. So what is it that makes micropayments ready for music but not ready for comics?

Again, part of the answer lies in the fact that McCloud was coming from a comic book model. McCloud envisioned a world in which the multitude of middlemen infecting comic books – publishers, distributors, retailers – would simply be wiped away, and an artist would be able to provide their stories without having to go through any barriers to entry and with the ability to keep 90% of the purchase price. McCloud was mostly concerned about a one-time charge, as I distinguished micropayments from subscriptions in Part IV.

(In Reinventing, McCloud noted that while digital information took a convoluted path from the creator’s computer to the reader’s, none of the steps in that path took any of the money… ignoring, as Sean Barrett points out in a 2001 response to ICST! #6, the fact that all those steps are still run by companies and processing such transactions puts some strain on their networks as well. Barrett’s response in general elucidates the issues surrounding micropayments – and several I won’t get to – far more clearly and completely than I ever could, although I’d like to see an update to it considering I have much lesser doubts about his most serious point than I might have had at the time. I’m fairly confident it shouldn’t be too much of a problem getting a simple cross-platform plug-in running with features fairly close to what McCloud advocated in Reinventing without modifying the browser itself, and if you’ve visited Wikipedia or Google with the StumbleUpon toolbar running, you know why.)

Due to its periodical nature, where one strip is released per day on a fairly regular basis, the comic strip model webcomics have evolved under is generally more suited to a subscription model than the exact sort of micropayments McCloud has in mind. Obviously in comics with a lot of continuity, the larger body of work could fall under McCloud’s model, and there have been some comics, like Narbonic, that have experimented with a subscription model and charging for archive viewing, but I suspect they have been running into something more fundamental, something more pertinent to newspapers now considering micropayments, something McCloud touched on but never quite grasped, and underestimated at best:

The psychological barrier against paying for something at all.

If you so much as charge half a cent for something, you’ll lose such a proportion of readers that if you want to lose that same proportion again, you’ll need to charge significantly more than a full cent, maybe something like a dollar.

The Internet is an amazing place. (One of my long-term goals is to write a book on just how amazing – which ideally I’d start writing by the end of this year, with how fast things are changing even now.) Almost anywhere you look, you can find anything from the latest news, to graduate dissertations, to the local weather, to book recommendations, to people’s opinions on the latest happenings, to comics, to history, to funny cat images, to videos, to friends – all for free.

In an environment where just about anything you want is available for free, why would you want to pay one iota for, essentially, the same content? There needs to be a very good reason if you’re going to do so, and among those reasons needs to be the idea that it comes in a form that isn’t easily transferable. If all you’re getting is GIF or even PDF images, what’s stopping you from saving it to your hard drive and making it available yourself for free? (McCloud argues in ICST! #6 that at very low prices the inconvenience incurred isn’t worth the savings, but while it may seem inherently ridiculous at one or two cents, at even five cents human nature can create enough of a disconnect between the thought processes of the pirate uploader, pirate downloader, and creator that people will upload out of pure principle, and penny-pinching surfers will take the bait. Remember, the “altruistic” motivation of saving strangers money isn’t the only reason people pirate; among other things, there’s the thrill of getting away with something.) Even beyond that, given a choice between a certain piece of content that’s charging you for the privilege and gazillions of other similar pieces of content that aren’t, where are you going to take your eyeballs, regardless of how good the pay content may be?

(Important note: This is based on my own experience. I don’t have a real job, so I’m very miserly with every last cent. For all I know most people can and will throw pennies around like candy.)

In his 2003 essay “Misunderstanding Micropayments“, McCloud argues that, while certain types of content like news and sports scores could be gotten from anywhere, and therefore no one would pay for something that someone somewhere could readily offer for free, art offers a unique experience you can’t get anywhere else – as the person the essay was responding to put it, “only Scott McCloud can produce [a] Scott McCloud work” – and therefore, the artist has a sort of monopoly he can use to put micropayments on his work, even if they have to be just a couple of cents to render pirating inconvenient. But this is not a true monopoly; it is what economists call “monopolistic competition“, which basically means the creator has a monopoly over the specific content, but is still in competition with gazillions of other creators. If readers hear of a work, and find out they have to pay for it, they will look elsewhere for their entertainment; that whatever they find probably won’t be exactly the same as what they passed up matters little to them, because how much of a big loss is it, anyway?

And a comparison to the most famous examples of monopolistic competition – brand wars like Coke v. Pepsi – isn’t entirely appropriate either, because those brands have plenty of people who exercise brand loyalty, who will pay Coke or Pepsi for their product no matter what the price is. The equivalent in art would be a creator that had attracted such rock-star status and such brand loyalty that there are people who will do anything to get every single thing that creator puts out. Unless such a creator had attained that status in the “real world” of print, that probably means building a reputation for free first – and such “rock star” creators are, as you may guess, very, very rare, if existent at all, in the world of comics (or at least print comics).

(This is the answer to the question, “what makes micropayments work in music but not in comics?” – music has literal rockstars!)

Strangely, the information now held in books and comic books are, in a weird way, theoretically ready for the environment of the Web. For centuries people have been able to go to their local library and check out a book to read one time for free; even in bookstores people can at least try to breeze through a book in one visit, though some places look more fondly on the practice than others. (I initially did this with Understanding Comics.) It’s only for especially long books, or books you want to be able to read again and again, that you actually buy them. But the Internet seems to imply an all-or-nothing paradigm; either you have to pay in order to read one word, or you shouldn’t have to pay for any of it no matter how much of it you want. (I brought this up recently in the Order of the Stick forums in a discussion spinning from a question regarding the online-centric distribution of OOTS books.) Places like Amazon institute the ability to “look” or “search inside” certain books, but I don’t think there’s any real consensus on the best way to simulate it, and the Narbonic approach of only opening the latest page to anyone and forcing you to pay to read the very beginning seems like the reverse of the norm, and not as effective. (Since the free portion is knee-deep in continuity already.)

With the ability to sample something without buying it taken away, you suddenly have a paradox. If you’re just getting started putting, say, a webcomic together, and you impose a cost on it, no one will want to pay for it without knowing going in whether or not it’s good – even if you advertise its existence. You need to spend some time building a big enough brand so that people will pay for it no matter what because they need to know what happens next. But if you leave it free, you can’t impose a paywall on it once it gets bigger, because people will revolt at the idea of paying for something that had been free – even a couple of cents, because of that psychological barrier – and will leave en masse, moaning about a creator that betrayed their trust and tried to take advantage of them.

A rockstar work is easier to achieve than a rockstar creator, but only the latter can impose a paywall and only on new work, and that presumably means having made plenty of money on the old work. In ICST! #6, McCloud suggests that people would be more likely to try out an unknown quantity if it cost them five cents as opposed to five dollars, but that comes across to me as a hand-wave to brush off the question. (Elsewhere in the same comic, he does suggest that comic creators would experiment with various pricing schemes, including the Narbonic approach of making bits and pieces of the comic available for free.)

By an accidental twist of fate, the Internet could threaten the very foundation of capitalism. Micropayments aren’t only the answer to webcomics’ woes, or even the savior of traditional journalism, but could get rid of all the problems that crop up anywhere one is caused by the fact that you do not directly pay to visit a website. Had they been ready to do so before the Internet began its rise to the incredible position it holds today, they might have become the norm almost instantly, and the Internet – and the world – would be a very different place. They’re probably pretty close to being able to do so as it is, but because of the prisoner’s dilemma, anyone would be insane to institute it – even in some brand new field that didn’t exist before, lest that field continue not to exist.

(But if they were the norm, wouldn’t that allow more gatekeepers to spring up, not only from big companies that have already built a presence or can wait out a period of low viewership, but from the micropayment agencies themselves?)

This is why I think McCloud, in all his debates with naysayers trying to paint him as killing the free internet, missed the point when he constantly claimed that micropayments didn’t need to wipe out free content – because it kinda does. (Barrett said much the same thing by suggesting that if all the good free content on the Internet died off with “the success tax”, as it was called in 2001 when getting a lot of readers mostly meant increased bandwidth costs, that might allow micropayments to take its place. But no one even talks about the “success tax” now – it has no Wikipedia article and the phrase doesn’t even seem to appear anywhere in its 2.7 million articles – so that’s out the window by now, although McCloud was still talking about it in “Misunderstanding Micropayments”.) It’s kind of sad, because in ICST #5 McCloud made the case that micropayments could allow for a greater quality of work if creators had to worry less about their money. Naturally, that could extend far beyond webcomics as well.

(Note: This post gets far more webcomic-specific from here.)

ICST! #5-6 (especially the latter) touched off a minor backlash, deservedly or undeservedly, in what amounted to the webcomics community in 2001, from people who accused McCloud of being overly idealistic and ignoring the issue of why micropayments have failed in the past, and also (because of other simultaneous events) supposedly ignoring the people already putting out webcomics – including what Goats’ Jon Rosenberg called, paradoxically, “micropayments, in the form of voluntary donations like PayPal and the Amazon Honor System [that] help keep our sites running without restricting content.” How can micropayments be unworkable and simultaneously the way you already keep your site running?

And Rosenberg wasn’t alone; Jerry “Tycho” Holkins wrote a parody strip and angry rant (consisting of one massive paragraph) on the Penny Arcade site. The rant is no longer in PA‘s news post archives, but is reproduced in full in McCloud’s response to it. McCloud saw both responses as stemming from frustration over something McCloud himself suffered: the inability for any of them to make a living off their online comics in 2001, despite the revenue streams they nonetheless had in donations and other things. McCloud had personal conversations with both creators, and both wrote later news posts clarifying and backing off from their positions. (Tycho’s, once again, is out of the present archives but can be found here. The whole controversy also produced the Barrett response.)

Reading the controversy now, I’m struck by the fact that both Rosenberg and Holkins basically accused McCloud of ignoring their own efforts in the online marketplace, yet not only did McCloud do nothing of the sort (as he himself pointed out), they (especially Rosenberg) were the ones doing the ignoring – of the idea of one-shot long-form comics in the comic book mold that McCloud had in mind. Tycho’s response post mentioned them, but Rosenberg encouraged McCloud to look into the then-extant webcomic funding schemes – “network subscription models, voluntary donations, and advertising” – without considering their salience to McCloud’s topic.

A lot has changed since 2001. First, of course, Penny Arcade and PVP have both long since managed to find ways to not only make money, but become their creators’ livelihoods. (It’s worth noting that the country was in the last recession when all this controversy broke, making it far more difficult for everyone to make a living.) But secondly and more to the point, as I mentioned earlier, micropayments have come a lot closer to reality – if not even actually arrived. In 2003, McCloud learned about the impending launch of BitPass, and finding it “the first micropayments system I ever liked enough to want to use it”, joined its board of advisors, picked up the first stock he ever owned, and put one of his own comics behind a BitPass paywall as one of three starting vendors. McCloud had felt that the main obstacles behind getting a micropayment system off the ground were mostly bandwidth-related. By 2003, and even more so as the years progressed, that was no longer an excuse, and McCloud even wrote “Misunderstanding Micropayments” as a response to naysayers claiming that despite the failure of micropayment systems in the past, they were here for real this time.

On January 19, 2007, BitPass announced they were ceasing operations.

(In some sense, this post, and series, is two years too late. Of course, then it wouldn’t be topical outside webcomics now…)

They didn’t give any reasons for the shutdown other than “circumstances beyond our control”. I wonder if McCloud was still on the board of directors for the company at the time, or otherwise would have an insider perspective on why BitPass failed. (McCloud proceeded to make that original launch comic available for free, but that’s hardly an “abandonment” of micropayments as his foil, Clay Shirky, claims. If you’re wondering, I think I’ve encapsulated the core of Shirky’s argument in this discussion.) Without the excuse of bad bandwidth, does McCloud still see micropayments as the wave of the future, or did the failure of BitPass shake his confidence?

And if it did, considering so much else about McCloud’s vision for comics on the web is reliant on micropayments, or some form of payment system, how does that affect McCloud’s vision for webcomics?

The mere fact that webcomics.com felt the need to ask the question about the infinite canvas that started Part III – that anyone would pay renewed attention to McCloud’s address to TED here in 2009 – suggests to me that the webcomics community is still too obsessed with Scott McCloud. Even more so the fact that someone at Comixtalk still felt the need to debate micropayments rather than spread the word outside the webcomic community to the people who could best learn our lessons. Webcomics owes a lot to McCloud for sticking up for it in Reinventing Comics, not to mention for the medium of comics in general in Understanding Comics, but has yet to really realize that his theories have little relevance to webcomics today. Webcomics have moved on; the comic book format has adapted itself for webcomics and doesn’t need the infinite canvas to do so. McCloud focused on infinite canvas, infinite canvas, infinite canvas and ignored, lightly touched on, or even disdained so much else that could be done with the medium on the Web. Even hypertext can open the floodgates for whole new frontiers of webcomics (admittedly in ways that could conceivably be done in Flash as well) rooted in the very same things McCloud hated about it. Yet in many ways, webcomics still defines itself in McCloud’s terms and has yet to grow up and move on.

McCloud was surprised that Understanding spent several years in honeymoon rather than touching off the debate he had hoped; I wonder if the reason is because comics had been so completely disrespected, so completely ignored by potential critics, that what McCloud actually talked about, by accident, was the baseline of comics criticism, the part that’s almost completely indisputable, the part that’s taken as given and which all else is built on. Perhaps comics needed someone with as radical a vision of comics as McCloud to bring that into the open, but for anyone to focus on his later words (critically or uncritically) without offering their own independent opinions is hardly justified. Because of the fame he attained from Understanding Comics, McCloud remains webcomics’ most famous defender, and he was a great one and brought a lot of benefits to webcomics for a while, but it’s time to find a new one. Why didn’t someone other than McCloud ever put out a book like Reinventing defending webcomics as perhaps even potentially artistically superior to print comics in some way, without wallowing in the infinite canvas? Where’s Gabe and Tycho extolling the virtues of webcomics? Where’s Scott Kurtz? Where’s Ryan North? Where’s David Morgan-Mar? Where’s Eric Burns(-White), for crying out loud?

In some sense, very little of webcomics has really tried to test the domains of the medium, and has been more concerned about telling neat little stories for the masses, without so much of the trappings of great literature – even Order of the Stick, which I have called the greatest webcomic on the Internet, doesn’t really aspire to much more than a neat story for the masses, with plenty of plot upon subplot but not much in the way of subtext or meaning. This is why people hate Ctrl+Alt+Del: because they don’t want one of the most popular webcomics to be a bunch of popcorn, they want people to aspire higher than Tim Buckley, or else it’s a waste of the medium. I can’t help but wonder if Scott McCloud’s myopic focus on the infinite canvas is part of the problem here, obscuring the view to a far broader idea of webcomics and allowing webcomics to wallow in the lack of imagination from whence it came.

Scott McCloud did a lot for webcomics, but now he is weighing webcomics down, a spectre that haunts the form and its conception of itself. It’s time for webcomics to escape his cave, spread its wings, and fly – and discover its own new worlds in the process.

Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part III: Rethinking Reinventing Comics, Part One: The Finite Infinite Canvas (And a Brief History of Webcomics)


Read Part I and Part II of this series.

As it turned out, I have much more to say about two particular aspects of Reinventing Comics than any others (much like Scott McCloud), and as a result I’ve reframed my discussion from how I was going to frame it around Reinventing itself. For how boneheaded Scott McCloud can seem at times, he actually got more right than wrong in Reinventing when it came to digital comics, including the first of his three digital revolutions. Although it seems to be mostly used as an excuse for laziness at the moment, there’s no doubt that digital production of comics is everywhere, and is evident in all sorts of strips from PartiallyClips to Dinosaur Comics to sprite comics. And there are even some comics, namely 3-D comics, that have used computer tools as more than a time-saving measure. (Oddly, Diesel Sweeties would also fall in this category, due to the amount of work it must have taken R. Stevens to make those characters.) So for all his faults, McCloud got a lot right.

Except for, well, the meat of his latter two revolutions.

In 2005, Scott McCloud gave a talk at TED, which, thanks to showing up in the StumbleUpon demo, was my very first Random Internet Discovery. That talk was only reposted last month, which naturally has prompted a whole new round of debate on McCloud and his ideas. At webcomics.com, one particular aspect of McCloud’s talk attracted attention: his reference to and exploration of the infinite canvas, touching off a debate on how and why the infinite canvas hasn’t achieved the penetration McCloud predicted. (IMPORTANT NOTE: As I posted yesterday, webcomics.com is currently down. If and when it returns in full, I will add a link to the post in question to this post. Unless it happens a week from today or later, I will NOT give any announcement when I do so; you will need to check this page on a regular basis, or else when webcomics.com comes back up. Which I sincerely hope is before I have to put up Part V…)

Although I read all of Reinventing, I always intended to focus all my attention on the last half (and skipping over some relevant elements in the first in the process). I’m probably going to cover ground many others have trod before; the Comics Worth Reading blog calls the second half “outdated and silly to today’s readers” even as he endorses the first half. (McCloud, incidentially, seems to have forgotten what made Understanding so groundbreaking, and relies a lot on what the earlier book called “word-specific” and “duo-specific” combinations, such that I find myself wondering why he couldn’t have just written it as an essay, other that then we’d be deprived of his sudden bank of icons for media and his revolutions, an obsession far more developed and incorporated than in Understanding.) My analysis will be drawn not only from Reinventing, but also from McCloud’s later sequel webcomic, I Can’t Stop Thinking! (which barely kept the thoughts of Reinventing a smidgen more up-to-date, only lasting into 2001 in six installments), subsequent essays, and the TED talk (although it starts out talking about innovation in general and turns into a retread of Understanding until about the ten-minute mark, and even then turns into a retread of Reinventing for the most part).

The concept of the infinite canvas is one of two major developments that McCloud is known for in Reinventing, and not only does he focus on it to the exclusion of all else that could be done with the medium in a web environment, he seems to disdain one of the others – multimedia comics – as either dolled-up print comics in an electronic environment, or trying to do something that film, and eventually virtual reality, could do far better – if not crossing over to one of those realms. (His words on hypertext comics seem to indicate he would moan at an idea I have that I think is truly groundbreaking, if a bit inspired by something that already exists.) That Comics Worth Reading review thinks it should be interpreted as a mere suggestion that McCloud got a little too enthusiastic about, one among many, but some of McCloud’s actions since the publication of Reinventing suggest otherwise. McCloud’s enthusiasm for the infinite canvas devolves from his philosophy of the core concept of comics, its Platonic “form” if you will, and ironically, in the process he arguably completely abandons his definition of comics from Understanding Comics, as we’ll see.

(I actually agree with him on multimedia in that it starts turning comics into some other medium. It also abandons the one thing McCloud saw as late as Reinventing as the great thing about comics – that anyone can make them – and if it doesn’t it makes it no longer unique, and opens more media to “everyone”. But, again as we’ll see, McCloud starts including multimedia comics in the notion of the infinite canvas.)

He starts his journey into the infinite canvas, however, with the evidence he presented in Understanding that comics is older than the written word, and that it can be traced to the oldest cave-paintings, through the ancient Egyptians and Romans, up through Mesoamerica and the European Middle Ages, and through numerous then-unrecognized “comics artists” to the present day. In Reinventing, McCloud notes that until the European invention of printing, comics were presented in a single line stretched out as long as possible using whatever means was possible to keep it going, whether it be zig-zagging along a huge wall, spiraling up a column or just having a really long scroll. From this McCloud devises the notion of a horizontal infinite canvas, a single unbroken line of panels stretching out as far as anyone can imagine, what one might call the “ideal” infinite canvas. The “horizontal” canvas implies the “vertical” canvas as well, although that’s less conducive to creating a single, unbroken string of panels. (Still, McCloud did I Can’t Stop Thinking! as a vertical infinite canvas with “trails” connecting panels that wander all over the page.) McCloud also suggested a “staircase” that’s a combination of the two.

Plenty of people have pointed out the problem with the scrolling infinite canvas: that the problem is in the scrolling, which can be hasslesome to people without mouse wheels; even with a wheel, it’s rarely well-adapted to horizontal scrolling. (A vertical canvas is more doable in this context.) One of those people is McCloud himself in an episode of ICST! (ICST itself, incidentially, also points to another issue, that it can send people going in nonintuitive directions.) But the issue McCloud saw involved technological limits, like “herky-jerky image redraws”, that appear to have mostly faded, making vertical scrolling more viable now than it was in 2000. As for the problems with horizontal scrolling, they presume the only way to scroll is with the arrow keys, mouse wheel, or scroll bars. If the comic is a straight-up image, or a series of straight-up images, on a regular web page, then yes, those are the only ways to scroll. But that’s not what McCloud was talking about (and if you’ve already listened to the TED talk, you know that).

This is what McCloud was talking about.

You can make infinite-canvas comics using PNG images on a regular web page, but Flash, Java, and similar applets open up the possibility of merely clicking to move to the next panel, and a more intuitive click-and-drag interface across the page. McCloud suggests a number of ideas that would never work without some kind of applet to handle it (given current technology), and going far beyond what most people think of when they hear of the “infinite canvas”, such as packing comics into a “cube”, arranging comics in three dimensions and forcing the reader to “turn”, “circular narratives” (first proposed in Understanding but technically not directly tied in to the infinite canvas until TED), and instituting a high level of interactivity, even as a way of introducing sound and motion – indeed, when McCloud speaks of the “infinite canvas” it almost seems like he wants webcomics to become a completely separate medium. (Note: In ICST! #3 McCloud seems to separate sound, motion, interactivity, and “the various blessings of hypertext” from “an expanded canvas” but also notes “I think some applications of these features are more promising than others”.)

Some of his ideas completely go against most notions of what “comics” are, not the least of which is McCloud’s own Understanding definition, “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence”. For example, the notion of going from one panel to the next by “zooming in” on the previous panel (or other forms of viewing one panel at a time) may seem to violate “juxtaposed”, which McCloud used to mean “side-by-side”. McCloud introduced this word originally to distinguish comics from animation, which is also displayed one “panel” at a time, but isn’t presented as discrete panels, but as a continuous experience. Unfortunately, the distinction McCloud presents isn’t that, but rather, he now sees comics as a “temporal map” where moving through space is moving through time, which muddies the waters.

In truth, though, just about every medium has a shot at getting blurred with every other medium in the new medium of the Internet (and computers in general) that can display any and all of them. Ultimately, just about every medium can be distilled into a few core elements, and within their place in the resulting matrix, they can ultimately become the same medium. (McCloud, in fact, touches on this issue.) For example, movies and television have very few elements that they don’t hold in common; they both share the combination within them of a visual aspect and a sonic aspect, of sound and images. Similarly, print books have no sound and no images, and comics (and paintings) lie at the intersection of images but no sound. As silent films have a problem in that they too can be considered a combination of images and no sound, we must add a third item to the visual axis, the concept of the moving image. Thus, movies and television share between them the combination of moving images and sound, silent movies have moving images and no sound, but comics have only static images and no sound. (Implied are axes for the other senses.)

Just about any medium through the first two millenia of the common era could be placed within the resulting matrix, thus explaining certain connections. For example, music and radio programs both fit where no images meet sound, thus explaining music’s presence on radio. Even video games, with their emphasis on interactivity, combine moving images with sound and are thus often played on televisions. We also see other theoretical media that might not have been explored. For example, I wonder what the intersection of static images with sound would be? (Perhaps kids’ books or greeting cards with built-in sound devices?) The theater is problematic, as it theoretically combines moving images with sound, but most theater afictionados would tell you that a movie or TV reproduction of a performance does not cover the whole performance – and not even necessarily because of a presence capturing the other senses, but a role in the “interactivity” scale as well. And about the only thing that can be reliably said about board and card games (and maybe even particpator sports) is that they include interactivity… but unless it’s like Calvinball and the rules are made up by the players, does it even have that? (Answer: Yes, if video games do.)

But the Internet can play all of these to some extent or another, and even beyond the Web’s current hypertext-based environment (which is best suited to static images with no sound, and even more, no images with no sound, thus establishing our first connection), programs installed on computers can have almost limitless possibilities. Text can institute images and sound as important parts, or even become part of an image. A comic can break into motion and sound and become more like a film. Video in the traditional sense can become interactive and 3-D, capable of moving on your command. All media could, indeed have to, become more interactive. The distinctions between media could become less important if they are ultimately part of one uber-medium.

But there is also a hint in Reinventing of part of why the infinite canvas hasn’t caught on even with the idea of using Flash or Java: McCloud predicts that, even outside comics, “spatial models” would take their place alongside hypertext as a means of organizing information. And… they haven’t, nearly a decade in, despite most of the bandwidth barriers falling away. This is partly because, for whatever virtues it may have, a “spatial model” requires enough work on the basic concept to become, essentially, art (regardless of your definition), and at that point the person’s attention becomes focused on the model itself, as a piece of art, than on what it contains, making it too distracting for utilitarian purposes. It could be used for artistic purposes, but it’s then subject to the same reasons infinite canvas hasn’t caught on in comics. (The closest McCloud seems to come to any specifics on the use of “spatial models” for information is an icon of a book, which would be more gimmicky than anything else when compared to hypertext. Perhaps McCloud has a “game world” in mind, such as the modern-day Second Life? Certainly a part of ICST! #1 seems to imply such.)

But I think there’s a bigger factor in play here: Webcomic revenue models work best on a periodical basis.

Read that paragraph again, because the rest of these two parts hinge on it.

When considering McCloud’s views, it’s important to remember that he was coming from a comic book background. It was the singular form of the comic book that McCloud imagined translating to the infinite canvas, no longer having to contort their stories to the confines of the page, but flowing in one continuous stream (or several) from beginning to end. But webcomics have evolved under a comic strip model, what McCloud called “a marriage of convenience between newspapers and comics”, and that model has little use for the infinite canvas. If it’s a gag-a-day strip, all you really need is to deliver your punchline and run, and dolling it up with weird shapes or stretching it out too long becomes too distracting to the message. If you’re a strip with a lot of drama and continuity, and you start down the infinite canvas path, then unless you’re delivering a complete story in a single strip, the place where you decide to cut it off and release the next part is mostly arbitrary, determined mostly by your desire to keep the audience in suspense. (Remember this distinction; it will become important again later.)

It’s possible to break up a long story into “chapters” and publish it on the infinite canvas, breaking a story into bite-size digestible chunks while also making sure your audience has a reason to come back for the next part of the story, but either you create several separate “chapters” that are meant to be read as one story, yet aren’t because they’re arbitrarily separated (McCloud explores the potential ideas behind this in ICST! #4), or you have to keep dynamically updating the one canvas, and not only point people to where the new addition is, but – and this is an issue with any substantially long canvas – also provide a longer-term way for people to mark their place.

(I know the old “drama v. gag” conundrum is arbitrary, and as early as Understanding Comics McCloud suggested that comics were capable of a wide variety of genres. ICST! uses the infinite canvas well, for example. I’m using that conundrum, though, to illustrate that in any genre, it all breaks down to one of three schemes: short one-offs, installments of a larger story, and the same larger story completed. The first is unaffected by the infinite canvas, and apply the second to an infinite canvas and there’s little reason for it not to become the third.)

Therefore the infinite canvas works best when it contains a complete story within itself – but how do you make money off of it? Forcing people to subscribe isn’t the answer, because when something is released one time and that’s it, there’s nothing to subscribe to. Similarly, people have no incentive to donate to something once they’ve already read it and have no reason to believe their donation will result in anything more. Most self-sufficient webcomics today sell merchandising, but it’s difficult to merchandise a single, solitary work – especially if it utilizes the infinite canvas (the whole point of which, as McCloud sees it, is to defeat the potential for selling a print version of the work) and especially if it’s sufficiently artsy in its use of the infinite canvas. (In some forms you could sell a real-world version of the comic itself, if, say, a comic packed into a cube were reproducible in real life, but you’re back to the defeating-the-point problem.) Advertising’s doable but unless you can make a sufficient event out of the release, don’t expect to make a living off it – and even then, no matter how big the launch is, you get that one-time infusion of money and that’s it.

Perhaps we could modify the subscription idea, and put the comic behind a paywall? Since not everyone clicks on an advertisement (the vast majority don’t, in fact), let alone buys what’s advertised, and many actively resent even non-intrusive ads like I have, you’re probably always going to make significantly more money from a paywall anyway. (The ad rate for the Sandsday-only ad box rarely gets above a cent a day; since I average five page views a day, if I could charge a single solitary cent for the strip I’d be quadrupling my income! McCloud himself covers these and other problems with advertising in ICST! #5.) But again, no matter how popular your initial comic may be, no matter if thousands or even millions of people enjoy it, if it’s released one time and then you’re done with it, you get that one-time infusion of money and that’s it. Whatever income you get from it past that initial spurt is damn near zero. That’s no way to make a living. Any medium, indeed any product, will ideally make you money and keep you alive best if your customers have to keep coming back to it. This is okay in film where people make a substantial amount of money on each picture and quite a bit of side money from endorsement deals. It’s even okay in print books to an extent – but in both cases both industries are still fond of series of films and series of books.

It’s possible to make sequels and trilogies, but there’s a reason why webcomics have evolved under a comic strip model to this point, with very, very few emulating the comic book model.

Pete Abrams, creator of Sluggy Freelance, tried to get into the comic book industry at first without success. Eventually he took up a job at a web design company, and started Sluggy as a “creative outlet”. Why did he make it as a strip instead of any sort of graphic novel form? In a 2002 interview, Abrams attributed it to, really, the problems I’ve just described: the full-length comic book format doesn’t lend itself to repeat visitors on the Internet. (Abrams’ solution to that problem was to hammer out something really quick and throw it up, which he decided lent itself better to a comic strip format.)

Abrams was the exception, not the rule, in the early days of webcomics, although his example is illustrative of just some of the obstacles to getting an actual original comic book on the web in those early days. New media, and new forms of that media, are rarely founded by people who set out to do so. The Scott McClouds of the world are few and far between. Most media evolve over time, and grow organically, as the proverbial million monkeys on a million typewriters so often tend to cluster accidentally, as though drawn by gravity. Someone invented film, but no one person invented the movie. Someone invented the television, but no one person invented the TV show. For someone to decide to put a full-length comic book on the web before Reinventing would have involved the conscious decision to explore the possibility of doing so. Even before Reinventing, there were such “comic books” littering the web and some even explored the infinite canvas, but as if to prove the point, most were done by these sort of artistes that explicitly set out to explore the new world.

The comic book format is rather rigidly defined by the ways and means of print. Change the size of the paper, no matter what the reason, and you change the shape and form of the resulting comic. Remove a sheet from the book (if doing traditional fold-in-half-and-staple-binding) and you’ve removed four pages of comics or ads, and that changes the shape of the story. By contrast, the comic strip format is far more organic than McCloud gives it credit for. It’s really just a really short version of the ancient comics McCloud is so in love with, and it appeals to our desire for a good joke easily. When the Internet came along, the comic book could have slid right in to the Internet (and indeed, by 2001 Marvel was putting select numbers of its comics, including, for a time, the entire Ultimate line, on the Web, which played a role in getting me into comic books), but it would need to undergo one heck of a mutation to really stretch its legs in the new format, and those mutations rarely happen easily or quickly. The comic book was at home on the printed page and much less at home on the Web page. (Indeed, from the very beginning Marvel’s online comics were in Flash, not hypertext or even PDF – though I suspect that was for security concerns.)

But comic strips could be picked up right out of the newspaper and plopped onto the Web page and look almost indistinguishable from their print counterparts. (Anyone who’s been here since December knows that I thought User Friendly was a print comic at first.) Combine that with the Internet’s tendency to draw itself to humor and it’s easy to see why most of the early pioneers of webcomics were people like Illiad: they just wanted to make their friends laugh at their funny jokes. In fact, this is still a driving force behind webcomic, or even web site, creation. (See: Morgan-Mar, David; and outside webcomics but still within the community, Solomon, John.)

There’s another factor at work here. Although it’s always been difficult, it has always been at least possible to write, draw, publish, and distribute comic books yourself. (McCloud explains one really simple way to do so in Reinventing Comics.) While comic books are more suited for the page than the screen, when considered alone, comic strips are actually more suited for the screen than the page. It’s in this sense that comic strips were “a marriage of convenience between newspapers and comics”, because simply trying to distribute a strip as a single narrow sheet of paper… well, there are few paper makers who make paper that size. Comic books could adapt easily to any size paper; comic strips either were stuck in a special format or, in the case of Sunday strips, had to take on the comic book form. That made it a lot harder to distribute without the help of a newspaper, which meant comic strip artists were far more at the mercy of a newspaper or syndicate.

As webcomics caught on and as success stories like Scott Kurtz or Gabe and Tycho started springing up, aspiring comic strip artists, long chafing under heavy creative control and small panel sizes and all else that came with comic strips, became drawn to the web like moths to a flame. For a while there was an explosion of new comics following the comic strip format, but at first few comic book authors saw an opening. They still had a chance at either self-publishing or at least some measure of creative control from publishers of all sizes. What few dramatic strips existed were almost exclusively former gag-a-day strips that had undergone Cerebus Syndrome. Although I don’t recall reading anything from him that would confirm this, I get the feeling that the reason Rich Burlew originally made The Order of the Stick a full-page comic in 2003, despite its initial gag-a-day nature, was to allow himself freedom to roam and engage in large panel layouts. (Look at the very first panel of the first strip.) As before, when it came to webcomics, the comic book format was the major application of the infinite canvas.

By 2005, the game changed; in the same month Gunnerkrigg Court launched and Girl Genius moved to the web. They and OOTS are the major examples of true comic book style storytelling I can think of on the web today. Comic books finally found an expression on the web, and it wasn’t McCloud’s infinite canvas (though in OOTS and a lesser extent Sluggy there is an element of infinite canvas in at least some installments), it was the hypertext-based system McCloud disdained, which turned out to work fairly well. That full-page hypertext system allowed creators to entice readers to keep coming back for the next installment (with the added bonus of ongoing, well-developing plot threads to help ensure it), and still allowed the creation of a later print version for ideal capitalization. And the game may finally be changing and forcing aspiring comic book writers and artists to consider a move to the web, for reasons I’ll get to – along with an expansion on how comic books manifest themselves on the Web – in Part V.

Could it have happened differently? Could it still happen differently, as the developments discussed in Part V play out? Could the infinite canvas still work? Suppose there were people out there who decided to move the comic book format to the web and released full stories on an infinite canvas. Suppose they actually managed to do so in a way that was more than just experimental, and decided to make a series of these complete stories. Would the webcomics community find out about them and pimp them? My bet is, “Not unless Scott McCloud does.” While there are some parts that may be open to it, by and large the webcomic community is woefully unprepared to handle comics that are released one time and then that’s it, infinite canvas or no. Quite a few aspects of the webcomic community, like ranking sites like Topwebcomics or “tool” sites like Komix, seem to presume that your comic is a continuing comic that releases at least once a week, once a month at least, and not in a complete story all at once. (Da Blog, I freely admit, falls into this category, with my rule that I never review comics that have ended, and an all-at-once comic never really “begins” in the first place.)

I left open a loophole earlier when discussing revenue models. Suppose you decide you’re going to release multiple completed comics in a series on an infinite canvas, maybe once a month or once a year, and put them behind a paywall – akin to the price you pay when you buy a comic book or graphic novel at the comic book store or bookstore. Theoretically, there’s no reason why that can’t allow you to live, at least on modest means, in the span between releases, or even, with a lot of hard work, become the comic equivalent of JK Rowling with the infinite canvas on your side. This is the allure of “micropayments”, the other one of McCloud’s major innovations that Reinventing is remembered for, and the one presented first – and it, like the more minor innovations, is actually pretty close to fruition. Micropayment systems allow transfer of money to be cost-effective even if all you paid was a penny or two, and McCloud proposed that they would work more like cash where the seller doesn’t get nailed with an additional flat-rate charge on the transaction.

(The idea is alluring enough that a recent wave of speculation that micropayments could be used to save newspapers, and a very recent appearance by McCloud’s fellow micropayment advocate Walter Isaacson on The Daily Show, has crept it into the news on its own right, in a far broader sense than the relatively small world of webcomics, far more recently. In one sense, I actually lucked out with my delays, if only because Part IV can get the “my comments on the news” label!)

Although it sells what McCloud calls “eyeballs” rather than “bits”, and it allows deposits of $5 or more and withdrawls of $10 or more (outside of the buying and selling going on within the system itself), Project Wonderful (which runs the advertising on this site) runs much like this, and it’s telling that it has its origins in the webcomic field. (Micropayments are distinguished from subscription services in that subscriptions charge based on time, and micropayments based on each time you access the product. Arguably, that disqualifies PW from technically being a micropayment service – and qualifies most other advertising services.) Several other businesses, indeed, have sprung up to carry out micropayments for actual content as well; it’s pretty much the norm in MMORPGs to some extent, and it’s arguably the bread and butter of services such as iTunes, which allow song purchases for about a dollar each. PayPal is rarely used as an actual paywall, and I’m not certain how much like “cash” it really acts, but it still comes pretty close to having the mechanism for micropayments, if not the reality (and many webcomics do use it as a donation scheme). So to some extent or another, micropayments have arrived.

So why aren’t webcomics using them? Especially considering McCloud, so much of an eminent and dominant thinker in the webcomics field, predicted they would?

I’ll answer that question – and that answer’s implications for journalism’s consideration of micropayments – in Part IV tomorrow.

Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part II: A Brief History of Comics

Blog note: The new “comic books” tag is also getting applied to Monday’s Part I. Today’s discussion will actually have more to do with comic books than webcomics. Part III will tie it all back in with webcomics. Also note that this part is almost entirely based on memory and you should consult “real” sources; even Wikipedia is more reliable than this post.

For much of the twentieth century in the United States, comics had two major forms of distribution: the comic strip, usually printed on a daily basis in the newspaper, and the comic book, distributed as an entire magazine and until the 1970s or so appearing on newsstands alongside “real” magazines. During the 1990s a third distribution avenue arose: the webcomic, distributed (as the name implies) on the web.

For many in the print comic field this may seem almost blasphemous, or at least it would have seemed such a decade ago. To compare the twaddle being released on the web by people who aren’t good enough to make it in “real” print comics, to the likes of Peanuts and Watchmen? But for reasons I’ll return to for the rest of this series, there are some very good reasons to rate comics on the web on the same level as comics in the newspaper and comics in magazines, if only because they are using the same art form.

The modern comic strip was born late in the nineteenth century, though it had been evolving long before that in the form of editorial cartoons. (I don’t count editorial cartoons as anything other than a subset of comic strips.) Somewhat arbitrarily, most histories of comics as a medium begin with Richard Felton Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid”, a key figure in the New York newspaper wars between the World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) and the Journal (owned by William Randolph Hearst), getting his start at the former and eventually swiped away for the latter. (Those two papers went through various permutations before merging in 1966 and folding in 1967.) The Kid was – at least in America – one of the first continuing characters in comics, his feature one of the first ongoing fictional comic features, and most importantly, his move from the World to the Journal demonstrated the value a comic strip could have to a paper at a time when there were still more papers in a given market than you could shake a stick at. (Really, the newspaper industry has been dying for a long time, well before the Internet came along.)

So new comics popped up all over the country in newspapers desperate to stoke sales, including The Katzenjammer Kids, which introduced the sequential format and broke what we consider the “comic strip” away from the editorial cartoon altogether, and Mutt and Jeff, which was such a hit in San Francisco (where it had also made a move from one paper to another, Hearst-owned paper) it was picked up for syndication and seen all over the country. Naturally, other highlights of the comic strips swiftly made the move to national distribution. (Note: I don’t know if M&J was the first comic strip to be syndicated, or even the one that started the trend. That’s a startlingly under-studied part of comics history. But Wikipedia does say that its creator was “the first big celebrity of the comics industry”, so that’s why I’m singling it out.)

Early comic strips were either what we would call “gag-a-day” today, or in rarer cases (like Little Nemo in Slumberland and Krazy Kat), travels through bizarre landscapes. During the 1920s both types gave way to the adventure comic, spearheaded by comics such as Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon, which could tell a continuing story day by day for months at a time. As these were even better at drawing people’s eyes to newspapers, since people had to come back to see what happened next, soon adventure strips were all the rage in comics.

Not long after the first comic strips came the first comic strip collections, which took a bunch of daily strips from a certain period of time and bound them all together in a book. As the story goes, someone at the Eastern Color printing company got the bright idea to take several different comics and publish a few of each in a single book. After experiments in distributing the books through mail-in coupon programs and department stores, in 1934 Famous Funnies first appeared on newsstands, and the modern comic book was born. It wasn’t long before people got the bright idea to include new material in the comic books, and before long someone by the name of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson brought in several people to create enough new material to fill an entire comic book without a single reprint, called New Fun. Thus was born the company now known as DC Comics.

I should point out that in these early days in the mid-30s, comic books were not that different from where webcomics is now. The full page of the comic book was the original infinite canvas; every month you had the full page that was then the standard for Sunday strips, without any additional daily strips to muck up the waterworks. What’s more, you could tell a story for several pages at a time (usually six to eight) every month, partly making up for the lack of storytelling over the course of the week, or at least on a weekly basis. On the other hand, having your work distributed in the likes of New Fun or its successors New Comics (later New Adventure Comics and then just Adventure Comics) or Detective Comics was considered the fate of those who couldn’t get work in real newspaper comic strips.

Such was what initially happened to the proposed comic strip from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster about an alien from another planet who ran around fighting crime in an outlandish costume while maintaining a mild-mannered secret identity as a newspaper reporter. Unable to get a newspaper or syndicate to bite on the fantastic premise, they took their creation to DC, and even there it sat in the slush pile until an editor noticed it and made it the lead feature in the first issue of the company’s latest title, Action Comics. Almost instantly, Superman was a runaway success that spawned hordes of other costumed crime fighters (including no small number at DC itself), and helped comic books climb out of the shadows of their newspaper cousins. (And ironically, led to Siegel and Shuster getting the comic strip gig they’d wanted all along.)

With adventure strips taking readers to lushly drawn faraway places and battles with pirates and evil overlords in the newspapers, and costumed crime fighters becoming an outlet for readers’ fantasies and beating up the boogeymen of the day (initially corrupt businessmen, later Nazis) in the (cheap as all get out) comic books, this was the period known as the Golden Age of Comics.

But while World War II helped bring comics’ popularity to even higher heights by giving its heroes easy villains to fight, it also helped mark the beginning of the end of the Golden Age, thanks to wartime restrictions on paper – though the changes continued later into the 1940s. Newspapers reduced the size of comic strips and replaced the full-page Sunday strip with a half-page; syndicates introduced a format that allowed Sunday strips to be reduced even further, by mandating that the first two panels be easily removed (resulting in a strip taking up one-third of a page) and mandatory panel borders be drawn that allowed the entire strip, including first two panels, to take up two lines on a fourth of the page. Ideally, if every panel was roughly square, the strip could even be run down the side. Many strips also suffered the indignation of mandatory panel borders on daily strips that forced every strip to be four square panels that could be rearranged. This effectively killed the adventure strips that thrived on freedom to roam and giving a sense of wonder, though most of the big ones stuck around, some into the present day. In 1950, Peanuts started, and would ultimately point the way forward for comic strips; gag-a-day comics proliferated on the comics pages and do so to this day.

As for comic books, the end of World War II – even with the rise of communism – meant superheroes were no longer in the cultural zeitgeist, and most of them quietly fell away. Comic books entered the only real period in their history where superheroes were not the most popular genre, as crime, romance, and horror comics started dominating newsstands. One company, EC Comics, got rich with horror comics such as the original Tales from the Crypt, but their stories helped bring the whole party to a halt, with the 1954 publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which charged comic books with corrupting the youth and leading them to delinquency, including the disturbing images in EC’s horror comics and perhaps the first glimpse of the modern-day Internet meme that Batman and Robin might be homosexuals. Threatened with Senate action, the comics industry devised a ridiculously restrictive code of censorship known as the Comics Code, and announced that any comic had to be approved by the Comics Code Authority and receive a sticker indicating such on its cover if it wanted newsstands’ trust that no objectionable material was in there.

The whole thing drove EC out of business with the exception of Mad, which switched to becoming technically a regular old magazine and became one of the cultural touchstones of the 1960s. Left without virtually anything to publish that would pass Comics Code muster, comic books, led by DC, ran back to superheroes, which offered simple good-vs.-evil morality tales that were easier to pass the Comics Code’s bar. At first, this meant DC and no one else. But one of the imitators of the original Golden Age run, which had stumbled along at the edge of bankruptcy and had become reliant on DC for its distribution, suddenly hit a run of successes with deconstructions of the superhero like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, and the modern Marvel Comics was born. This period also saw the first birth pangs of modern geeky comics fandom, who saw fit to label this era the Silver Age. (Because you can’t just call it the second Golden Age, you have to show off how deep your knowledge of Greek mythology is…)

The Comics Code left mainstream comic books ridiculously ill-positioned to capitalize on the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. (Thanks to politically charged strips like Pogo, comic strips were slightly better prepared.) It also created a market for “underground” independent “comix” that were free from the Code’s draconian rules and were thus free to cover a wider array of subject matter. American mainstream comic books did not overcome the Code and catch up to American culture until the early 1970s, when Marvel, tasked by the US government to create some anti-drug issues of Spider-Man, saw them rejected by the Authority for daring to even mention drugs. Marvel released the issues without Code approval, and the Authority was left with egg on its face. DC also broke new ground with a series teaming conservative superhero Green Lantern with liberal Green Arrow in an examination of all the problems America faced. The Code was forced to revise its guidelines, and by the early part of this decade even Marvel had dropped the Code entirely.

(Note: Many in comic book fandom use the term “Bronze Age” to describe comics published after a number of shifts around 1969-1973. I think the spot that’s closest in spirit to the division of the Golden and Silver Ages, at least in terms of overall industry sales and the popularity of superheroes, is a decline in sales related to an ongoing recession and the shift in distribution paradigms below, in the mid-to-late 70s.)

Later in the 70s, comics were effectively forced off newsstands and into stores devoted to selling only comic books. Comics left the newsstand distribution system and moved to what became known as the “direct market”, originally used to describe a middleman-free system where comic shop owners bought their comics direct from the publisher. After a period of declining sales, what was left of comics fandom had effectively been thinned out to an almost exclusively geek crowd. Eventually the middleman-free system would evolve into a system involving a number of comics-specific distribution companies, eventually thinned out to one with an effective monopoly on mainstream comics distribution, Diamond Comic Distributors.

The new comic shops were places of superhero fandom (DC and Marvel, often now written by people raised on Silver Age comics), by superhero fandom (think the “Comic Book Guy” on The Simpsons), and for superhero fandom. Nonetheless, if you had a comic book and you wanted to be distributed, until this decade the comic shops were the way to go. Some in the business worked on the concept of the “graphic novel”, attempting to liberate the comic book from its magazine origins and write longer works in comic form, helping to inspire things like Understanding Comics. Despite the ghettoization of comics, they enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1990s as a fad linked to stories of the high prices commanded by classic Golden Age comics, bringing hordes of people into the comic book stores looking to buy a retirement fund. Ignoring rules of supply and demand, Marvel and DC resorted to all sorts of ridiculous gimmicks to sell massive numbers of comics – then the bottom fell out and took the comics industry down so hard Marvel declared bankruptcy.

By the mid-to-late 90s, when comics started appearing on the web, both of the existing types of comics were either in ongoing or entering states of flux. The comic strip has not changed much from the example set by Peanuts of simple, gag-a-day storylines; daily newspaper comic strips with ongoing storylines are the exception and not the rule. Part of the vitriol directed at Garfield is that it is perceived as further imbecilizing the comics pages by encouraging easy-pitch formulaic premises produced in assembly line manner. Comics such as Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes attempted to raise the quality of the comics pages, but little real change has happened.

And it’s getting worse. What comics have anything even approaching being memorable since the 1989 start of Dilbert? The Boondocks? Maybe critically-acclaimed “quirky” strips like Pearls Before Swine or Get Fuzzy? So many of the comics lining the comics pages these days seem to just be unmemorable copies of one another over and over. Imagine what an impact Penny Arcade might have had in newspapers, how different it might have been just by rising above the sea of mediocrity – or maybe it would have been lost in the shuffle and never had anywhere near the impact it did. Or both. Newspapers have always relied on comics as a way to sell newspapers, but just as the Internet started challenging their dominion in this decade, the comics they had always carried could be found on the web as well, and most of them aren’t worth reading anyway. Comics can’t save newspapers this time.

At the same time, the distribution system of comic books in place for 30 years is starting to crack. Graphic novels and collections of the monthly comics (and even the monthly comics themselves) have started to crack bookstores (if slowly), and the rising popularity of Japanese manga since the 90s have turned bookstores into a primary place to get the comics. I’ll expand on that later in the series in Part III or IV with a discussion of a recent development at Diamond with potential for great impact on webcomics. For now know this: old monthly comic books increasingly look like relics from a bygone era.

Between these developments, by 2020 webcomics could be the only first-run distribution mechanism for comics that I mentioned at the start of this post, and one of two with graphic novels. Figuring out what to do with that possibility looming is part of the point of this series.

Then there’s all the issues of creator control and creator’s rights that afflicts both comic strips and comic books. In addition to all the size and layout constraints, comic strips are a very regimented world where you are basically a hired hand and take a lot of guff from syndicates who are afraid of potentially offending anyone, and where the syndicate reaps most of the benefits of your work. The rights of the creator has been a big issue since at least the 70s, and in the 80s and 90s some cartoonists such as Bill Watterson made inroads on creative and financial control of their work (oddly, Jim Davis of all people had a lot of success with the latter), but Eric Burns(-White) suggested back in 2004 that they may have actually hurt the cause of creator’s rights in the long run, simply because they ended their strips after only ten years or so instead of continuing for decades, meaning they sent the message that giving cartoonists what they wanted wasn’t worth the trouble. One may surmise the flip side of this: wannabe edgy cartoonists going to the web instead. (Of course, only two years later Diesel Sweeties was distributed to newspapers by United Features in a deal that meant little more than a little extra work for R. Stevens, who merely wrote a parallel strip – a sign of just how far in the dumper newspapers had already fallen.)

In comic books, the problem is more with the creators of Golden Age properties and the like; you may have heard about the legal troubles DC has had with Siegel, Shuster, and their estates over various Superman rights since the 70s. Comic book writers and artists are even more hired hands in superhero comics, effectively writing what amounts to fanfic. Once again people have been pushing for more control over what they create, and early in the 90s several superstar Marvel artists left to form their own company, Image, that would serve merely as a publishing platform for comics owned by their creators. The problem, as we’ll get to later, is that only a few publishers are able to make inroads in Diamond’s catalog and while financial success isn’t exactly a sane goal in traditional American monthly comic books at all, it’s pretty much a fool’s errand if you don’t work for DC or Marvel (meaning you make superhero comics), and hard to even get started (harder now – again, for reasons we’ll get to) if you don’t align yourself with one of a handful of other companies, maybe five or so, and that includes DC and Marvel.

So that’s another reason we could be left with webcomics and graphic novels by 2020: an artist (here used as a broad term) would be insane to deal with the antiquated ways of old.

This part would serve as a great lead-in to the first current topic that inspired this series. But first, we need to take a detour through Scott McCloud’s vision of webcomics to figure out where we are and where we could be going. And as I write this, I’m not sure which I’m going to do first, and I may do them simultaneously.

Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part I: Understanding Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics is incredibly addictive. I bought it on a gift card on Saturday despite having already read it cover-to-cover, mostly as a reference for my own ideas, and proceeded to read it cover-to-cover all over again. Oddly, I’ve been to two different Barnes and Nobles three different times, and the latter two times both Barnes and Nobles had Understanding Comics and its second sequel, Making Comics, but not the first, Reinventing Comics. As Reinventing is the book I’m most interested in for this weeklong series, as it’s the book with Scott McCloud’s thoughts on the then-burgeoning form of webcomics, I’m going to see if I can still procure it or at least read it. (Oddly, Reinventing is not even the first hit for its own name on barnesandnoble.com, Making is and Reinventing is third and has no cover image. So basically B&N treats it like the bastard stepchild of the series. But I did see it the first time I peeked into a Barnes and Noble to peek at Understanding, and even read a bit of the beginning…) At some point as well, I want to read other dissections of comics, such as Will Eisner’s McCloud-recommended Comics and Sequential Art and anyone following in McCloud’s footsteps, just to get more perspectives.

The funny thing about Understanding Comics is that it’s not just about comic books, but to some extent or another, about all art forms. And I’m not just talking about Chapter 7, which focuses on McCloud’s vision of the creative process for any work of art. As if to prove McCloud’s point (and then-novel idea) that comics were just as much an art form as anything else, McCloud discusses comics and other art forms side by side throughout the book. To take one example, part of Chapter 4, mostly a discussion of time in comics, casts the idea of the “motion line” in comics (and later refinements on it) as the answer to the question of motion on a static image some in the “high” visual arts had struggled with early in the twentieth century. But even that is a fairly weak example (and really, McCloud returns to the visual arts in particular throughout the book, as static painting/drawing and comics are cognate art forms (or cognate media), for a reason I’ll get to later).

Chapter 2 deconstructs the appeal of the cartoon (distinguished as an artistic style from the medium of comics) as an extention of the reader/viewer, by deconstructing the way we see ourselves, going so far as to completely ignore its ease of drawing, to explain its popularity not only in comics but in any form of animation. Chapter 3 compares the extrapolation of events between panels to the portrayal of events “off-screen” in those same media. In addition to the discussion of motion, Chapter 4 also compares and contrasts the concept of the present “now” with film and television and brings up the specter of “viewer participation” in media of all stripes. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the very origins of language, and the latter effectively sees comics as a means of returning to the ideal union of words and pictures, and discusses the obstacles facing the genesis of any medium.

If I have an issue with it on first read, it’s mostly the clunkiness of the end of each chapter (except the first) and the end of the book. The “recaps”, perhaps inspired by the “hourglass” model of long-form argument taught in English class, are clunky and come off as unnecessary. This is why I have problems properly wrapping up my posts sometimes, because the main, predominant form of ending posts of the lengths I sometimes write is one that doesn’t appeal to me and I don’t think I’ve found anything better. (If anything, McCloud gets worse at this as he goes along; other than Chapter One, Chapter Two is the least clunky chapter ending.)

There are also some problems with the content, though I think I would have fewer of them than some others would. McCloud distinguishes between six different types of panel transitions but comes close to throwing out two of them: “moment-to-moment” is really a slow “action-to-action”, and the “non-sequitur” may not even exist, since either multiple non-sequiturs in a row become scene-to-scene, subject-to-subject, or even aspect-to-aspect, or a single non-sequitur that’s continued from is really a form of scene-to-scene. I might add that aspect-to-aspect is arguably a form of subject-to-subject that’s somewhat arbitrarily distinguished from it mostly in order to distinguish Japanese comics from their Western counterparts.

Also, I have some trouble with McCloud’s six-step creative process, especially the specifics of the third part, the “idiom”, which is never quite clarified as well as it could be. The way I see it, what McCloud means by “idiom” is all the stuff that can be used to describe the work other than the singular, basic “point” of it. To say that something “has a kissing scene” is different than to say it’s “about kissing”. But I wouldn’t be surprised if others have different interpretations, and especially, the distinction between that, “structure”, “craft”, and “surface” can be somewhat unclear, especially for non-comics media – and if you do distinguish “idiom” from the other three, you then have to distinguish it from “idea/purpose” and “form”! And I would suggest that “idiom” sometimes (especially in other media) goes hand-in-hand with “craft”. I often write stuff with no attention paid at all to “structure”, and let the ideas flow onto the page as they may. I decide the “surface” aspects will come out naturally as I write (and so I rarely edit) as well, so “structure” and “surface” come out naturally following “craft”.

Oh, and the “backwards” development of most comics artists may no longer be 100% true simply because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of Understanding Comics: since the book was released, people have gotten more self-conscious about the process. And despite its nature as a dissertation on all art, I don’t really see it as doubling as a manual for designing for the computer the way some people do…

But again, I came for McCloud’s thinking in Reinventing Comics which oddly, made him a god in webcomics but – by his own reckoning – tarnished his Understanding-built reputation and made him a pariah in the print field. And there is, from what I hear, plenty to deconstruct in Reinventing Comics. But first, I want to point out the irony in that Reinventing is de facto an attempt at doing for webcomics within the broader comics field what Understanding did for comics within the broader domain of all the arts: defend the former as a legitimate part of the latter.

In Part II, I’ll start examining the similarities and differences between webcomics and their print counterparts and begin examining the state of webcomics at the present time. As the series goes along, I hope to examine what McCloud got right that may not have been recognized yet – and what he got wrong and why.