In 1993, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics was a breath of fresh air for a comic-book industry more often focused on Spandex than self-examination. McCloud's smart, simple 216-page comic proposed a sort of Unified Field Theory about the comics medium's historical antecedents, unique visual vocabulary, and place in the larger world of art. In his latest book, Reinventing Comics, McCloud uses the same iconic visual language to present a manifesto on its possible future. Included is a concise history of comics distribution and an analysis of its negative impact on both creators and readers as a jumping-off point to advocate a digital revolution. By producing comics digitally and selling Web access, he suggests, creators can cut out the unnecessary middlemen, distribute their work online for tiny "micropayments," and still make a profit while retaining creative control. McCloud recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the problems with digital production, the Napster debate, and buying what you can get for free.
The Onion: You've said that the "great debate" you hoped to spark with Understanding Comics didn't start until five years after it was published. Are you getting a quicker response with Reinventing Comics?
Scott McCloud: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah. You know, I said in the introduction that I thought it would be about five minutes for this one. I think I may have overestimated how long it would take. The honeymoon was over before it even hit the stands. It's gotten very, very strong reactions on both sides. I think it was running about 70/30 in my favor, and now it's around 50/50. The positives always comment first, I think.
O: Do the negatives disagree with your analysis of the industry?
SM: There are so many different topics in the book, so there's something for everyone to latch on to. The responses have come from all corners. But I'm very critical of the business concerns, the way the comics business has deteriorated, so those who have a vested interest in a different view of the business are, I think, the most upset. Those who like it just the way it is. But plenty of people have posted on message boards saying they don't really see that there's much to disagree with. Some feel it's not controversial enough, of course. The dirty little secret about the second book is that the whole first half is just me revving up to talk about what I really wanted to talk about, which is what to do now. I've always been very forward-looking, and it was actually kind of difficult to turn my gaze backwards to look at comics history. There's a very big part of me that just wants to take all of comics history and toss it on the bonfire. I'd sort of like to get on to the future.
O: You sort of have, personally. You produce all your own work digitally now. How does that change your work flow and your final product?
SM: At first it was kind of clunky, and it took me a while to really absorb it. More and more, it's becoming very comfortable, where it's just second nature. In fact, I'm doing an online strip now: An online version of my character Zot from the '80s has just started a weekly feature at comicbookresources.com. As I've been creating this, it's the very first time that I feel like my working method is completely organic. That is, I just sit down and do it all on the desktop, on the screen, in layer after layer after layer of color and light. It feels like I've been doing it all my life.
O: When you originally went digital, was it for artistic reasons, technological reasons, or ideological reasons?
SM: Um, you know, that's a good question. I don't know what the real reason is. My dad was an inventor, and I think I've always had a rosy view of technology, or at least its potential. I mean, I understand that it has its dark side. I had no particular reason not to try it. I think I'm just in love with the new. All through my comics career, I was always trying to reinvent the form. And what better way to reinvent the form than to toss virtually 99% of everything that's been done with it and start with a brand-new canvas, reinvent it from the ground up? Digital comics gave me the opportunity to do that, and producing things digitally gave me the opportunity to do that. What could be more new than taking every single tool you've used in your career and replacing them with a whole new set of tools?
O: Have you found anything you could do with pen and ink that you can't do digitally?
SM: Yeah, I can't sell my originals. [Laughs.] That was a big part of my income. I'm such a moron, I've just deliberately cut out part of my income. In fact, I've almost sold every original from Understanding Comics. Compared to my page rate, I probably get another 70 percent again over what I was getting paid to do the work originally. And I'm getting inquiries from people who want to know how much the originals from the new book are. And there are no originals. They don't exist!
O: When you talk about digital delivery as the future of comics, are you thinking more about artists improving their ability to make a living, or the art form developing as an art form?
SM: The biggest difference between those two questions is that in the second question, comics has to go it alone, because the aesthetic course of comics is the course that comics has to take alone. How comics grows aesthetically depends on those unique qualities of comics, what separates comics from all other art forms. Whereas the question of how we're going to make a living and how the economy of comics is going to develop, I think that's very closely linked to the development of all online media. The downloadable music scene has enormous relevance to comics: Music does seem to be the wedge that's driving the economy right now. People talk about the new economy all the time, but there really is no new economy until we're selling bits. You can sell atoms, you can sell eyeballs, or you can sell bits, and the web is only half there as long as we're only selling atoms and eyeballsas long as it's just physical objects and advertising. The real new economy comes when the zeroes and ones are actually worth something, and there's actually a means to pay for them in small amounts. Until then, it's just the old economy running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
O: The music industry's web issues are relevant in more than one way. What about the issue of piracy? How do you sell images on the web without someone else downloading them and posting them freely on their own site?
SM: I don't think we've been able to test to what degree the average music listener, or the average user in general, is a pirate by nature. Right now, they're given a choice between spending $15 and spending zero. That's just too big a gap. I think we first need to find out how people will respond when there's an intermediate price. People are selling downloadable songs online for 99 cents a cut. That's too damn much. When you consider how many songs are on an album, that means you cut the price from $15 to $12, and yet you've cut out 90 percent of the intermediaries. It just doesn't make sense. Micros aren't here yet. In many ways, that might be the single most important fact of the economy of selling art online, art meaning all forms of information, communication, and creativity. Until micros are here, that economy isn't here. There are very few forms of a la carte art experience that people are going to want to pay $5 or $6 for. The world should be a jukebox. We should be dropping dimes and nickels into this thing.
O: No matter what the price is, you'll still have to compete with free content on the web.
SM: There will absolutely be piracy. We are beginning to see with the legal action around MP3s that piracy is dangerous, and that piracy on a large scale can get you into a lot of trouble. I think it's unlikely that it will be quite as brazen in the future, but I think it'll always be with us. But I think that when people are faced with a reasonable priceand they're faced with an economy in which to steal, say, a song or an album is actually a little more of a hassle than to get it legitimately, and just a little bit cheaperyou'll begin to see a legitimate economy spring up alongside that. I don't think most people want to steal from the artists and writers and musicians they love. I don't think that's what Napster is all about. I think Napster is a rebellion against the record companies. It's a rebellion against the absence of access to the music they love.
O: But what about legitimately free content, the sites that are just "selling eyeballs"? Do you think the availability of micropayments will eliminate those altogether?
SM: No, I don't think free content will ever go away. I do think that people will continue to use the advertising model to a degree, and I think that virtually any comic site on the web will have a great deal of free content. I always plan to do that. You can just imagine what the experience of going through an American mall would be like if you had to pay a price to walk through the door of any given store. They depend on you to experience a great deal of their wares for free. It's only when you want to take them home that you'll be paying. And I can imagine that model settling in pretty comfortably. So we are talking about the split between premium content and the free content available at the door. There are any number of models. Once we have a viable payment system in place, there are a lot of creative solutions. In the case of comics, I think it might be interesting to supply stories for free, with the exception of the last page. Just warn people in advance. Tell them, "The last page is the one you pay for, and if you want to know what happens, then obviously the story was worth something to you." It's not something you would want to spring on somebody at the last minute, but you tell them right up front that the first 31 pages are free, and the last one you'll need to pay for.
O: You mentioned paying to take the product home with you, but with digital comics you don't really get to "take" a product. Do you think physical ownership won't be a draw in the new economy?
SM: I think my generation and older will always carry a certain sentimental attachment to art they can hold. But we're already socialized to not expect that with music or motion pictures. Certainly, we've had very profound emotional experiences with movies that we've never held in our hands. But comics and the written word have been very associated with print over the years. It's my feeling that that affection is entirely an association with the things that they've brought to us. It's really a kind of fetish. But the real meaningful experience is the art and ideas that have been contained in print. I don't think the flat dead wood is all that important. I think that if we'd all grown up in this world getting those experiences through pieces of granite or aluminum, it would probably be those materials we would now be lamenting the loss of. It's not about paper, and it never really was. It's just that after 20, 30, or 40 years on this planet, getting all these things from paper, you're bound to grow attached to it. That's all.
O: But when people buy a copy of Titanic, it's not because they love celluloid, or the plastic the DVD is made from. They want to be able to experience it again whenever they want, and they want the symbolism of ownership. We're a consumer society.
SM: The issue of access vs. the issue of the tactile qualities of print are separate. They often get linked together, but while one is associative, the other is very practical. It's true that it's a great advantage to be able to experience something again and again and again. I think you'll have the analog for that in digital delivery, though. There probably will be two prices for most works of music or art or comics or whateverthe one to download and keep, the other to access once. I think that's perfectly fair. I think our anxiety about lack of access may fade a little bit over the next few years as we realize that as long as there's a financial incentive to keep things online, they'll stay online. For literally pennies a year, something can be made available to the public, and if only one or two people want to listen to that work, then it virtually pays for itself. So I think there's every incentive to keep the entire body of one's intellectual property online all the time in perpetuity, provided there's a way to charge something for it.
O: To follow your model, the artists of the future are going to have to know as much about marketing, programming, and web design as they do about their own art.
SM: That's one of the reasons why there's that barrier to adoption. But that really is a problem I think will fade over time. I certainly don't have to concern myself, when I'm doing a printed comic, with all the vagaries of print technology. I just sit down with paper and ink, do a drawing, and trust others to do the rest. Most likely, once the comics community online has settled on a few workable design models and commerce models, the newcomers will pretty much be able to make use of a package deal. Then, just as before, what they can concentrate on 99% of the time is just doing the work before they wrap it up in the same bow that hundreds of artists have used before them and just upload the thing. It's right now, in generation zero, that we have to figure it all out, that we have to work it out from scratch. It's not just getting from A to B; it's hacking out all the brush between A and B. But that path is going to be pretty damn smooth in a few years.
O: You say in Reinventing Comics that you don't put your hopes on any one genre, but that you just want to see comics reach their full potential as comics. That seems a bit abstract and paternal.
SM: I get the abstract part, but I'm not sure I get the paternal part.
O: For an individual creator to step back that far from his own work and say, "I'm less interested in my particular work than I am in the viability of art." Isn't that a pretty atypical attitude?
SM: Well, yeah. [Laughs.] At some point I guess I became sort of a media advocatenot an advocate in the media, but an advocate for a medium. And comics seems to need it. It definitely needs somebody to speak for it as a whole, and speak for that 99.99% of the medium that remains an unexplored continent. I really am that guy on top of the hill, jumping up and down, so excited because he just looked out toward the horizon and saw there was another 10,000 miles that no one's even bothered to look at yet. [Laughs.] I'm trying to get everybody to come on up to the ridge and take a look, and everyone's just too busy digging that new well.
O: Would you rather be known for your comics or your advocacy of comics?
SM: Well, I hope for my comics in the long run, but that's the harder road for mewhich, of course, makes it worth taking. My drawing has always been a little bit stiff, so it's always an uphill battle to actually make comics. But it's getting better. What's really funny is that I find my drawing is more relaxed now that I'm doing it on a computer. It's like my tools and I never really got along that well in the first place. So maybe I'll actually reach that particular goal along the way. At some point, I guess I realized I was more inventor than artist. And while I hope that my comics themselves, the actual stories that I do, will be of lasting value for people, it wouldn't be so bad just to be a friend of the art. Ultimately, I hope I can be one of the best friends comics ever had.
O: Outside of your analytical work, you're best known for your series Zot! It seems ironic that you're still doing a superhero comic...
SM: Yeah, I know. [Laughs.]
O: Why a superhero comic when you yourself disparage superhero comics?
SM: It's the first thing I did when I started in the early '80s. The underground scene was kind of dwindling, and about all that was left was superheroes. It was the only game in town. I had grown up reading themnot from a really early age, since I started when I was about 15and I thought I'd try one of my own. Because I was looking at a lot of other sort of strange work, I guess it was always a strange superhero. It was too weird for the regular superhero fans, but it was a superhero, so the alternative fans didn't look at it much. Neither fish nor fowl, really. The only description I ever came up with for the book was that it was sort of a cross between Peter Pan, Buck Rogers, and Marshall McLuhan. It's always been an oddball. I don't know.
O: Most independent comics are, in some way or another.
SM: Yeah, but some are more whole than others. Mine was always a weird pastiche, but I kind of liked it anyway. After publishing a book insulting superheroes for 80 pages, it seemed funny and appropriate to then go and actually do one again, for a little while anyway.
O: You mean now, with the new version?
SM: The online version, yeah. I do actually say in [Reinventing Comics] that I don't specifically dislike superheroes; I just see so many other things that comics could do in addition to them. It really pains me to see comics limited to just that. That's such a shame. We can do so much more.
O: Have you experimented with any of the spatial models of storytelling you suggest in Reinventing Comics?
SM: There are short works, proof-of-concept things on my web site [scottmccloud.com], but right now, with bandwidth being what it is, I really have to keep them short. But you can at least demonstrate some of the principles, even now in a low bandwidth, with just html. You can do things that at least suggest what might happen. Maybe I can't do a 4,000-panel comic and have it laid out in this giant temporal landscape like I describe in the book, but I can do an 80-page comic that's one enormous scroll. And I have done things like that, so people can get a sense of the design principles we're grappling with here, so we'll be ready when that tidal wave of bandwidth comes down, so comics won't just turn into tricked-up animation. That seems to be the limitation of a lot of people's imagination of what comics can become.
O: You say in Reinventing Comics that hypertext is anathema to comics because hypertext erases the juxtaposition between panels. Why do you consider spatial relationships so important to comics?
SM: I think it matters to me because I'm interested in what makes comics unique, aesthetically, and what comics can do that isn't done as efficiently in other media. When it comes to placing an image in front of you and replacing it with the next image, one after another after another, we have a medium that does that exceedingly well: motion pictures. If they're static images, then you have something like a slide show. There's something unique and beautiful about comics' ability to take the dimension of time and lay it out flat on the operating table. You are actually substituting the second dimension for the fourth. You're giving us the chance to move through space as a way of moving through time. Time is an aspect of our environment that we never see, except in comics. I understand that probably, since people really want to lose themselves in stories, comics will always be at a disadvantage compared to moving imagesand, ultimately, compared to virtual reality. All media will be at a disadvantage there. So I understand that they may remain sort of this minority art form, even in the future, but I think it's important that we have different ways of seeing the world. Comics and prose and movies and music and poetryall of these things offer different doorways back into our existence, a different way to see the world we live in. And the more of them there are, the more we can triangulate our existence and get a sense of the shape of the world we're in. I think it's a shame if the only way of seeing back into our world is the single, bottom-line-driven feedback loop of popular media, of TV and movies. Diversity is important.