The Webcomicker

Who watches the watchmen?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Scott McCloud, webcomics, and legitimacy

Ok, so let's talk about Scott McCloud for a moment. I know the guy's been basically analyzed into the ground at this point, but with all the hubbub over the Webcomics Examiner's article on The Artistic History of Webcomics, Joey Manley's essay on webcomic troublemakers and Scott Kurtz's response (the latest news post as of this writing), the announcement of a Ctrl-Alt-Del animated series, and of course the usual end of the year type discussions (to many links for that one. Just check out the usual suspects.), there always has to be someone talking about Scott McCloud, and I guess it's my turn.

So who is Scott McCloud? In my opinion, he's a "comics theorist". While he has enjoyed moderate success as a comic book artist in his own regard, his main squeeze is discussing the theory and method of artistic expression in squential image art (aka comic books). He is most well noted for writing two books on the subject: Understanding Comics (which is considered by many in the comics community to be downright seminal), in which he tries to pick apart the comic book as an artistic form and make people understand the unique possibilities available in it, and Reinventing Comics (which is the work most webcomics artist know him for) in which he postulates future directions comics can go, focusing mostly on the possibilities of the internet as a medium.

Scott McCloud is well known for pioneering such ideas as the notorious Infinite Canvas and the 24 Hour Comic Book (which has probably had more far-reaching effects, although he's less famous for it). He was also a champion of the "micropayment" business model in which people pay extremely small amounts of money to view your comics (like 25 cents or something), as opposed to the advertising/merchandise model which seems to have been more successful in the long run.

And in most webcomics circles, Scott McCloud is seen at best as an old fuddy-duddy who's out of touch with the way webcomics really are and at worst as a pretentious art snob who's trying to turn something that's silly and fun into some serious artistic medium for "professionals". Infinite Canvas is used by most folk as a dirty word, and in general Scott McCloud just takes a lot of flak.

But Scott McCloud has a special place in my heart for one simple reason: He's the man who introduced me to webcomics.

That's right, my obsession which now takes up any number of hours in my daily routine was originally started when I went to a lecture on my campus given by one Scott McCloud. I went on a whim, mostly because it was recommended by the teacher of an art class I was taking and I was hoping to earn some brownie points in the class since I'm not the best artist in the world. And Scott McCloud was an entertaining, engaging, and all-around fascinating public speaker. Then he spent a good deal of time hanging around afterwards, signing autographs, talking, and whatnot. He mentioned Penny Arcade and spoke favorably about them, and also talked about most of the comics which have been featured in the "Artistic History of Webcomics Roundtable". And he sparked my interest. After that lecture, I went and read Penny Arcade and PvP, and quickly picked up Megatokyo (that's right, when I got into it, I started with the big guns. I imagine most people have had a similar experience), then it spiraled outward from there.

So what's my point? First of all that Scott McCloud does a lot to try to introduce the world to webcomics. He goes on extensive lecturing tours, and I imagine more people can directly attribute the beginning of their interest in webcomics to him than probably any other one single person. And for that fact at least the man should be praised.

But there's something more important that Scott McCloud is seeking to do, and I think it's the facet of his character which is both his greatest trait and the one most often overlooked. He's trying to legitimize webcomics, just like he did for print comics. This is what everyone in the webcomics world so desperately wants; to be recognized as more than just a cadre of geeks and losers, but as a legitimate alternative to the comic books and comic strips produced by the "professionals" and their publishing companies. They want favorable exposure to the general public, not just more inbreeding. And Scott McCloud is doing that.

This year at the San Diego Comicon (I reference the Comicon a lot not to try to sound elitist, but because it's the only con I've ever attended...) in the pre-Con magazine that they send out to everyone and then have available at the actual convention there was an article about webcomics in which they interviewed Scott McCloud. And a lot of people cried foul. "Why didn't they interview a real webcomics creator, like Gabe and Tycho or Scott Kurtz?" They ask. "Scott McCloud is not everything to do with webcomics, you know!" And maybe they have a legitimate point. So why did they interview Scott McCloud? Because they knew that people reading the magazine would recognize Scott McCloud. If you stop a random person at the Comicon and ask them if they know who Scott Kurtz is, they'll probably just shrug. But if you ask them who Scott McCloud is, they'll probably say, "isn't he the Understanding Comics guy?" The man has street cred.

Now, it is true that Scott McCloud is trying to legitimize webcomics in the sense that he is attempting to justify them as a means of artistic expression rather than as a means of popular entertainment. Most of us would probably prefer that he be emphasizing the latter as opposed to the former. And it's also true that Scott McCloud is really only reaching out to the artistic community and the general comics community, which doesn't encompass all the people who just sit down and read the daily newspaper comics everyday, which is really the audience that 90% of webcomic artists pine for. But both of those communities (art folk and comics folk) are greater in size and scope than the webcomics community, and branching out from them to the general public is a much easier task than branching out from the gamer/geek culture.

So, like it or not, Scott McCloud is the biggest asset that webcomics has got for it right now. Recently Scott Kurtz had this to say on the main page of his website:
Look, I didn't vote for any of these guys to be my representation or PR manager to the rest of the world. It really irks me how so many of them have just stepped up and taken ownership of that role. From the public displays of dirty laundry to the self-important internalization and faux critical review of the work that's out's all making me sick to my stomach.
And while he's not directly attacking Scott McCloud, you can be sure Kurtz was thinking of him when he said "these guys". And while Scott Kurtz does have a point about Manley's article, that we shouldn't be trying to represent the webcomics world as a bunch of troublemakers, he's completely backwards in the statement I quoted. Probably the most frustrating statement in the paragraph is this one: "It really irks me how so many of them have just stepped up and taken ownership of that role." You're ANGRY that people are trying to bring the world of webcomics to the general public? That people who have name recognition outside of the webcomics community have "stepped up" to promote the very thing that you are making your living off? That they've actually taken the role of an ambassador and tried to be the go-between to lead the general public into a greater knowledge and understanding of webcomics? You're ANGRY about this?

Scott McCloud, and those like him, who are actively seeking to promote webcomics to the world at large, are a group of people that are undertaking a difficult challenge, and they deserve our respect and support, not our derision and undermining.

And that's all I have to say about that.


At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Philippe Gaboury said...

I've always had tons of respect, if not shear devotion, for what Scott McCloud ever had to say. I read through both of his books twice and would consider doing it again... Well maybe not Reinventing comics so much. I found that book way too technical and much less interesting. I wasn't aware of webcomics at the time I first read it and still wasn't aware of webcomics afterwards.

I discovered webcomics through the Daily Grind. Sure, I read PvP daily and Penny Arcade every once in a while (I couldn't figure out that it updated on a MWF schedule... I didn't even know what a MWF schedule was a year ago), but it through the Grind and its individual creators that I've discovered just how far reaching this little underground community was.

I'm saying this because I believe that when it comes to webcomics attaining any sort of legitimacy, the greatest assets the community have are its members. I have personally brought our quaint little world to the attention of my mom who's suggested reading my comic to other teachers at her school. Those people could never have been reached by McCloud. I'm sure other creators have equivalent stories of their own. Ans by posting little links now and again, readership grows constantly everywhere.

I found out about you through Mousewax and through you about Dinosaur Comics which I've whole-heartedly recommended to friends.

That, I believe, is how we'll really attain legitimacy.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger Gilead Pellaeon said...

I agree that a large amount of increasing the popularity of webcomics is through the so-called "viral marketing" strategy: You tell your friend about so-and-so comic, and he tells his friend, and he tells his friend, etc. But the trouble with that is most of the current webcomic fans are such a tight knit community of geeks and nerds that we only tell our other geek and nerd friends and most other people don't really hear about it. Scott McCloud, I think, is trying to break out of that mold to a larger audience.

But I do agree that the best way to help webcomics grow is for individual fans to introduce the concept of webcomics to people that have never heard of them before.

At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...pretentious art snob who's trying to turn something that's silly and fun into some serious artistic medium for "professionals".

You know what's funny about this? You usually only hear this complaint from the webcomic creators who ARE professionals.

At 10:04 PM, Blogger tedzsee said...

^ Good point William G.

I've often wondered if they do that simply to solidify their position as "real webcomics" while all the other webcomic artists get to be seen as silly and unprofessional.

The odd thing is, often times those people getting paid to do comics are less serious and professional than the so-called silly and unprofessional artists.

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Robin Z said...

You know, you have a really good point about Kurtz's remark there. There is such a thing as bad PR, of course, but your essay makes it clear that McCloud's work is not.

For the record, I actually found out about online comics by accident. Some sent me a link to "The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Cliches", and the maintainer happened to be a webcomic artist with a good link page. But I can see how McCloud could be the link to webcomics for many people.

At 1:22 PM, Blogger grant said...

I've read both of Scott McCloud's books on comics and find that, while I enjoyed his thoughts, they are mostly derative of Will Eisner's theories on Sequential Art. The thing that makes them different is that are told in comic format. This gives McCloud credability because he believes he comunicates best through the medium of comics, so why not just get behind what you believe and communicate in the language you speak best in.
As far a legitimatizing web comics, I have yet to see a webcomic that holds up to classic print work such as Krazy Kat, Cavlin and Hobbes, Maus or even Watchmen. This is because in attemp to short circut being stamped out narrow minded publishers, comics have bled out onto the web where creators can do as they please, yet they seem to rehash the same material that the printed world of comics has already done to death. unless the comics industry (web and print) begins to put aside their assumptions and create stories that aren't yet being told, the industry will forever be populated my white, thirty-something, balding, mysogenistic men writing about their fantasies of large chested cat-headed lesbian vampires.


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