Reinventing Comics, Reinventing Yourself

Under discussion: “Introduction: The Twelve Revolutions” from Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud

Comics, like other minority forms, are vital to diversifying our perceptions of the world. -McCloud

I’ve been feeling very scattered about the comics project.

I went through a period of binge-reading, plowing through almost a graphic novel a night for two weeks straight. Then, things slowed down, went back to a more normal reading pace, but I still feel like I should be doing ten things at once. I should be figuring out what Image’s bestsellers are. I should be writing scripts. I should be paneling my own silly little comics for friends, just gifts or jokes or whatever. I should be GETTING SERIOUS (whatever that means). I should be networking. (God, I hate networking.)

I should be going back to the beginning of my project and outlining what all I’ve been doing up until this point…

Okay, I can actually do that.

I started reading comics again—digital copies on the Marvel Unlimited app, mostly—after my daughter was born three years ago. (See this post for more info on why.) Then, last December (or was it November?) I gave myself a project: to read all of the most important Iron Man stories. I set 100 issues as my goal, and ended up reading about 150-170. As I was reading, I kept thinking, “I should be recording my thoughts. I should be writing about this.” But I didn’t.

Not that you asked, but the best Iron Man run was the Matt Fraction/Salvador Larocca run from 2008-2012. This is the cover to Iron Man #500 from that series.

The Iron Man project lasted through January of this year, and, as I came to the end of it, I needed a break from superhero stories. But I wasn’t quite ready to leave comics behind. So I started researching what books to read to learn more. I bought three books on comics theory and on making comics and burned straight through them. I started exploring my local comic shop more, grabbing a few trades, buying a handful of floppies. Then I went to the library and, starting in the numbers and As, tried to figure out where to begin educating myself.

I made lots of lists, took lots of pictures of book covers with my phone. I was figuring out how to begin figuring it out.

Scott McCloud seems to loom quite large in this particular segment of the where-can-I-learn-without-talking-to-other-people segment of the comics studies audience. Understanding Comics, which was the first book that I read after the Iron Man project was done, helped me a lot. It was a place to start. Instead of making me feel like I knew everything when I was done, reading Understanding Comics made me much more aware of how open I needed to be as I read and explored comics myself. I didn’t take notes and I didn’t pause at chapter endings, I just burned through it, letting whatever was really important in McCloud’s writing and thinking catch inside my head and letting the rest go. I’ll go back at some point and reexamine the whole thing, go slower, page by page, panel by panel. But for now, I just wanted to experience it the way I experienced all comics, in a wash of inspiration and insight.

It’s a tricky business, where you see your face and where you don’t. From UNDERSTANDING COMICS.

Now, I’m a chapter into McCloud’s sequel to that book, called Reinventing Comics. And here I’m tempted to slow down. To take notes. To see what I’m thinking about as I read. The first chapter here is mostly an outline of the book to come, the “9 Revolutions,” as McCloud calls them, and the three ways that digital affordances are changing the medium and the industry powered by it.

The revolutions are:

  • Comics as literature.
  • Comics as art.
  • Creator’s rights.
  • Industry innovation.
  • Public perception.
  • Institutional scrutiny.
  • Gender balance.
  • Minority representation.
  • Diversity of genre.

The second half of the book is concerned with the digital revolution: digital production, digital delivery, and digital comics. Now, some of these phrases might be opaque, but I’m going to get into them as McCloud gets to them, so just hang on, team.

One of the issues creating distance between myself and Reinventing Comics—and I think it was there for Understanding Comics, too—is that these books are meant to give a sense of depth and breadth of knowledge about the formal, aesthetic, mechanical, and financial qualities and constraints affecting comics as medium and comics as an industry.

But as the digital revolution pushes onward and our culture begins to shift its focus from maker-audience transactional relationships to maker-maker communities, my focus is a bit more on what the expressive possibilities are for the lay comics maker. One of the central hurdles to widespread cultural relevance of any art form is the ease with which any citizen, any human, can engage with it. You shoot movies with your phone, you post photos to Instagram, we all know somebody who paints well–and well–into adulthood.

But how many casual comics makers do you know?

Pros and lay creators alike could probably use a few more durable mutations these days. From the back cover of REINVENTING COMICS.

McCloud has a telling quote. “All I want is to see comics as comics reach their full potential…and to reach my own along the way.” But to a lay artist, there is already so much to choose from. You could probably spend months or years just reading through the graphic novel selection at your local library. (At least, I hope that’s the case!) As with all major pre-digital art forms, there are a seemingly, practically infinite number of styles and variations to experiment with or imitate or be inspired by. Using comics to reach one’s full potential doesn’t necessarily mean pushing the medium to its outermost limits. It might mean using it to express who you are in a way that is deeply meaningful to you and to your audience. Maybe that’s ten million superhero fans. Maybe it’s a convention full of comics studies scholars. Maybe it’s your best friend or spouse. Maybe its just yourself.

McCloud hopes, as I do, as a ton of people do, that comics will grow in popularity. My concern is that that’s never going to happen until the stakes for creating and sharing comics are less fraught, less formal, more friendly, more casual.

How do you change the culture around comics?

How do you eat an elephant? In very small bites…

An image of words from a script in Brian Michael Bendis’ WORDS FOR PICTURES.

NOTE TO SELF

The list of textbooks and textbook-like-objects that I’m promising/not promising to read during my year of comics project are as follows:

  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
  • Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud
  • Making Comics by Scott McCloud
  • Words for Pictures by Brian Michael Bendis
  • Make Comics Like the Pros by Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak
  • Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner
  • Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel
  • Mastering Comics: Drawing Words and Writing Pictures Continued by Jessica Abel
  • Unflattening by Nick Sousanis
  • What It Is by Lynda Barry