Scott McCloud Answers the Readers’ Questions

Depending on who you ask, he’s either the guru behind the webcomics revolution, bringing thousands online with ideas of infinite canvases and micropayments dancing in their heads, or some guy who wrote some books about comics and had nothing to do with those first webcomics pioneers.

Well, either’s true.

Scott McCloud answered some questions put out by you, the Comixpedia community. And boy did he ever answer them.

1. In the years since Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics have been published, both have seen their share of debate. Anything you wrote in either that you regret? Anything you’d wish people would just get over already? (from Eric Millikin)

In terms of execution, Understanding Comics is probably the better book. I have very few regrets about that one. (Though, I do think my definition of comics has one or two loopholes; it is technically possible to create a comic without juxtaposition, for example). UC seemed to achieve the desired effect of inspiring people to experiment with new forms, and to view comics as a blank slate onto which we can write and draw anything. There’s been a lot more diversity since the book came out, and if I had even a small hand in that, it was worth it.

Reinventing Comics wasn’t nearly as effective, though. The whole first half was really just an attempt to put on record issues that I was interested in early in my career, but had since moved on from. All my energy at the time was devoted to comics and technology, so I spent the first half of the book just waiting to write the second half of the book, and once I got to the second half, I had to condense more than I should have. It didn’t help that my art had become stiff, or that reading my overly wordy captions was like eating 10 lbs. of potato salad. I liked the overall message and I still do, but I’m not proud of the delivery.

There isn’t anything in particular that I wish people would "get over already," though I do wish people would be a little bit more careful when paraphrasing me. I’ve wasted a lot of time untangling things that people said that I said that I never said. God knows, there are enough topics people can debate about without resorting to misquotes.

As for future books, I’ve long had plans to create a third book in the series about making comics. But first I want to improve my own work, before I start pontificating to others on how it’s done. ^^

2. In Reinventing Comics you wrote of "twelve revolutions." We’ve seen movement in almost all of them � Digital Delivery with Bitpass, Gender Balance with Girlamatic, etc. As you see it, which revolutions are comics winning? Which ones are comics losing? (from Eric Millikin)

I think the biggest win has been on gender balance. Webcomics have seen such a quantum leap in talented female creators in just the last two years (even discounting Girlamatic) that the whole issue seems increasingly remote. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if fully half of my favorite web comics were written and drawn by women by the end of next year. It’s amazing how fast changes can take place when there’s no need to battle over limited resources like shelf space.

Diversity of subject matter is another area where we’ve made tremendous progress. Though, unlike the drive toward gender balance, webcomics actually *started out* more diverse than their printed counterparts. We may have a lot of gaming comics out there, but that doesn’t in any way interfere with readers’ abilities to find good science fiction or romance or fantasy or stories of ordinary life. When the WCCA Awards came out, I thought it was very telling that in the list of genre awards, superheroes were listed last and that the category had been named "super hero/action". I mean, Holy Moley, they had to combine it with "Action" just to get a big enough sampling! I laughed out loud when I saw that.

As for the other revolutions, most, as you mentioned, are doing pretty well when you factor in the Web. A few, like freedom of speech (alluded to in the section on public perception), have suffered some setbacks though. I was there for the Jesus Castillo trial in Dallas, where a comic book store was punished for selling an adult comic to an adult who asked for it. Lets all hope we don’t have too many more cases like that. Also we have a long way to go when it comes to ethnic and racial diversity. But, when it comes to the quality of the art and writing in both printed and web-based comics or the public’s perception of comics as an art form or the evolution of the industry or any of the digital revolutions I listed, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

3. In your opinion, are there any works that are ‘pure’ comics � i.e., a sequence or story that would be impossible to tell in just prose, picture or film? An idea that could only be conveyed through the medium of comics. Would you care to share with us your favourite examples of such? (from TragicLad)

Tough question. There some comics, (Craig Thompson’s Blankets for example or Jason Lutes’ Jar of Fools), that take advantage of comics’ unique strengths. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be adapted into other forms; just that you’d have to make a lot of changes to adapt them successfully. The only ideas that would be "impossible" to convey in any other form would be ideas about the form itself, like those explored by formalist types like Daniel Merlin Goodbrey or Jason Shiga or Chris Ware in his big-page mode (or me, when I’m doing the whole Gyro Gearloose thing like in The Morning Improv).

4. What was the decision making process behind leaving "trails" behind (even if temporarily) and going for images that all fit on a single page or browswer window? (from Anonymous Gender-Neutral Infinitely Canvased Fan)

Trails were a specific solution to a specific problem. I wanted to create comics that were far larger than the browser window but I didn’t want readers to be confused regarding which direction to go next, especially when the next panel was out of sight. I’m still fascinated by the possibilities inherent in those expanded canvases, and I plan to do many more of those giant scrolling monsters, but comics like those were just one of the applications of the temporal map idea I was flogging in RC. Things like the zooming comic, where each panel was imbedded in the previous panel, were just as fascinating to me.

That said, it is refreshing to create something big that people don’t have to scroll through. I like big canvasses, but I never liked scrolling as a means of navigating through them. That was just the only method available to us at the time. HTML is still a difficult environment for creating the kinds of comics I saw in my head back in the late 90s.

For a great example of the storytelling possibilities inherent in those giant canvases , I’d suggest Patrick Farley’s latest installment of his story "Spiders"; also Goodbrey’s brand new collaborative comic "PoCom-UK-001", which breaks past scrolling beautifully.

5. How would you introduce into print comics the same non-biased attitude towards creators of either gender that’s seen in webcomics? It’s true there are some female creators in print, but certainly not as many who are successful in the webcomics field. Do you think webcomics creators have the advantage on anonymity or is it something else? (from Bellebet)

As I mentioned earlier, I think the principal advantage for female creators on the Web � or anyone doing non-superhero work � is that the existence of a popular shelf-space grabbing alternative in no way affects your right to exist in the marketplace. Remember, if you’re a comic store owner, you’re probably fighting every single month to make the rent. You need to maximize the return on every inch of shelf space. If one flavor of comics sells 20% better than another, you’re going to devote as much shelf space to the former as you can. The popular kinds of titles grab more and more space while those catering to a minority interest, even if that minority is 40%, gradually ceased to exist. In an environment like that, a market catering to one kind of customer (in this case boys) will have a damned hard time ever weaning itself from that type of customer.

Of course the irony is that more women are reading comics than ever in the bookstores — they just aren’t reading American comics!

As for anonymity, I think the reverse might actually be true. On the web, the very fact we know so much about our favorite cartoonists may play a large role in their popularity. Especially when half a title’s readership may be reading the blog of its creator every single day.

6. Scott, since you ended ZOT! the second time, your work has been almost independent of recurring characters. In "Choose Your Own Carl," the figures are more like basic avatars, with their specific traits shifting from thread to thread. Most of your other work, from "The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln" to The Morning Improv to "The Right Number," features self-contained stories with characters that aren’t likely to be seen after the story is over.

Is this simply part of your personal approach to storytelling, or do you think other cartoonists should eschew recurring characters in favor of more self-contained stories? (from T Campbell)

Recurring characters are a lot of fun, and I plan to do more with them � especially Zot � but for the next few years I’d like to explore story structure in a more serious way and try to create works that stand on their own like a good book or film. I get the feeling that other creators are starting to feel the same way. We’re beginning to emerge from the cocoon of monthly pulp fiction and spread our wings a bit in graphic novels and long form web comics. Anyone who’s read Blankets knows what I’m talking about. This is pretty much comics’ next frontier, and it’s something we can explore both on the web and in print.

7. The RIAA have been hitting the news quite a bit recently in their efforts to clamp down on the rampant filesharing copyright-violating music trade � a lot of people have argued that they’re resorting to the desperate measures they are issuing subpoenas recently against individual [suspected] violators because they failed to get in quick early on in the rise of the Internet. There are certainly a lot of avenues to pay to read comics of one sort or another on the web, from Moderntales to individual sites offering ad-free subscriptions � but the only major publisher I know of that offers a similar thing is Crossgen with their Comics on the Web program, and the seed is already planted with many (copyrighted and in some cases licensed for western publication) manga being available in ‘scanlation’ form, translated and distributed by fans over the same filesharing networks. To what extent do you think the comics industry has side-stepped this one � is what progress we see good enough, or can we look forward to a comics industry association hunting down users for sharing scans of The Geriatric X-Men over SuperShare 2024? (from Jake)

I’m sure that file-sharing will become as hot an issue for us as it has for other industries. I’m not sure exactly how that’ll play out, but I do know that our best defense is not in vicious lawsuits or erecting DRM barriers, but in simply offering a good selection at a reasonable price. Most people who file share music don’t do it because they want to rip anyone off, they do it because they want the music and it’s the only way they can get more than two or three albums a year. If digital music was priced at, say, 50¢ a song and all music was available and easy to buy it might not wipe out file-sharing completely, but it would go a long way toward reducing the incentive.

8. How are sales for The Right Number coming along, and how do your sales numbers compare with the sales of some of the other cartoonists (Jim Zubkavich, Ethan Persoff, rstevens, etc) who have tried the system? (from Joey Manley)

So far, in these first six-and-a-half weeks (I’m writing this in late August), 1,354 readers bought Part One of "The Right Number", and between that and contributions to The Morning Improv, I’ve earned $356.00 which seems like a healthy start. Even though they’re still in Beta, BitPass is already generating some great buzz. I’ve heard frequent comments from readers who were actually surprised at how easy it was to buy my comic, (which is pretty much the Holy Grail of usability design; exceeding people’s expectations). Just a few weeks in, and the company is already getting seriously approached by some gargantuan potential partners, so it’s going to be a really interesting year.

During the Beta testing period, they’re just signing up a few "earners" manually here and there. They want the process of signing up as an earner to be every bit as easy as it is to sign up as a user before they throw it open to everybody. Meanwhile though, you can already find a partial list of some other comics using BitPass here. Couldn’t tell you how well other artists are doing. You may want to ask them.

As for putting copies of Understanding Comics or Reinventing Comics up for sale on the Web, I technically could � contractually speaking � though I’m not sure I would want to "repurpose" them for online distribution. They were designed for print and I don’t know that they would look particularly good on the screen.

9. What percentage of your week would you estimate is spent reading comics? I know it’s your profession, but I am amazed that you can keep up with all the comics you seem to read as well as constantly discover new ones and still do all the writing, speaking, etc. that you do. (from William Ansley)

I spend about an hour each morning reading online comics, and then I read print comics somewhat sporadically when I get the chance. My favorite comics reading experience this year so far would be reading Thompson’s Blankets which I devoured on the train back from San Diego. Second favorite would be Patrick Farley’s latest installment of "Spiders". Then Nowhere Girl, Dicebox, TrunkTown, Bite Me, True Loves, PvP, Pup and about a billion others. Finding time for everything is a constant battle, and lately I have fallen behind when it comes to the printed comics world. I’m working on it though.

10. Will BitPass support recurring (subscription) payments, like PayPal does, and will an API be released allowing developers to synchronize their membership databases with info on BitPass’s servers, to control turning subscription accounts on/off based on payment status, etc? from (Joey Manley)

BitPass’ co-founder Kurt Huang tells me a basic API will be made available to support programmatic updating of content registries. It may start out fairly bare-bones but they’ll be adding functionality over time.

As for recurring payments/subscriptions, yes BitPass will support that. Bear in mind, though, that once a reader’s virtual debit card is used up, the company can only remind him/her to charge it up again. BitPass has no way of sneaking into users’ bank accounts every month or anything (nor *should* they!)

By the way, in case anybody is still unclear on this, I’m not one of BitPass’ founders, just an advisor to the company. I was approached back in November 2002 by Kurt and co-founder Gyuchang Jun (while I was giving a talk in Las Vegas of all places). They had a laptop with them and showed me a demo of how the system might work.

Over the years, I’d been approached by about a dozen companies that thought they had micropayments solved, but this was the first system I simply couldn’t find anything wrong with. These two guys from Stanford really seemed to understand why micropayments were needed and how to pull it off as simply and elegantly as possible. I became an advisor on the spot.

Later that month, I joined Kurt and Gyuchang in Palo Alto as they showed the system to three reps from Garage, including Guy Kawasaki, hoping to get their first $500,000 in funding (which they did; as of this writing, they’ve raised $1.5 million). Kurt was about 15 minutes into his presentation about why the industry needs micropayments when Kawasaki told him not to bother and just cut to the demo.

"Look. There are no ‘atheists’ in this room," said the guy with half a million bucks in his back pocket. "We all know micropayments are going to happen. It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s a question of ‘when’."

After all these years, you can just imagine the smile on my face at that moment.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.

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