Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics was originally released 21 years ago, at a time when its target audience was, to be blunt, not really prepared for what McCloud had to say. I should know; I was part of that audience: a comic fan who had been wowed by McCloud’s Understanding Comics when it had appeared seven years earlier, and the way in which it broke down the mechanics of comics storytelling and the comic book industry as-was. Eager for more of the same, Reinventing Comics immediately disappointed by refusing to repeat the formula of the first book — and, maybe even less forgivably, by dropping Bob Lappan, who lettered the first book, for a digital font that seemed lifeless by comparison. What can I say? I had some particular interests at the time.
I wasn’t alone in being disappointed in Reinventing Comics at the time, though; the admittedly rough mix of part-comic book business history and forecasting where the industry could — and, in McCloud’s view, should — go next didn’t win many fans upon its release, to the point where, two years after its release, McCloud would write about its rocky reception for his website, saying, “I expect it to be rough going in the comics market, at least through 2003.” The reality was, unfortunately, that the comics market moved on from the topic long before then, abandoning the book to the past as a noble, perhaps well-intentioned, failure made by a rube who believed more than anyone else in the potential of micro-transactions and webcomics. By this point in its history, Reinventing Comics is, as much as anything, the butt of multiple jokes at McCloud’s expense.
As someone who recently revisited Reinventing Comics, I can report that attitude is not only unfair, it massively underplays what McCloud managed to do with the book — and how (surprisingly) well he predicted the future of comics, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time.
That’s not to say that Reinventing Comics is a flawless book. It is, in matter of fact, just the opposite: structured as an explanation and exploration of 12 “revolutions” that McCloud wants to see comics undergo as a medium and a business, which are split into two factions — ideological and technological, for want of a better way to put it — the book is anything but smooth in terms of its flow, feeling uneven and at times ill-considered, especially when much of what McCloud has to say about many of the ideological revolutions amounts to history lessons with a capper of “and this should change,” something that’s especially true when addressing topics like a lack of gender or racial diversity in the industry. McCloud clearly means well, but there’s little he actually manages to contribute to these topics.
Similarly, the nine revolutions listed in the first portion of the book — “comics as literature,” “comics as art,” “creators’ rights,” “industry innovation,” “public perception,” “institutional scrutiny,” “gender balance,” “minority representation,” and “diversity of genre,” if you’re curious — are all a matter of simple common sense, making arguments in their favor surprisingly dull to read. Of course we all want comics to be taken more seriously, for creators to be respected more, for more people to see themselves in comics and feel able to make comics; why do we need to read 120+ pages of someone trying to convince us of that?
The book redeems itself in its second section, “Catching A Wave.” That’s where McCloud lays out the final three of his potential revolutions — “digital production,” “digital delivery,” and “digital comics” — and where the true value of Reinventing Comics can be found. Reading this material today can be disorienting, because it relies on remembering where technology was, in that pre-smartphone, pre-tablet, pre-highspeed internet era. When this was published, Netflix was seven years away from launching a streaming service — something that would arrive in the same year as the first iPhone — and Amazon had just entered into an agreement with Toys-R-Us that allowed it to sell toys online. Even Facebook wouldn’t be founded for another four years. It was a different time.
With all that in mind, McCloud’s attempts to explain the then-contemporary reality how technology and comics interact feel more like a history lesson than the preparation for prognostication they were intended to be, and many of his questions about what lies ahead feel amusingly behind the times. (What will happen is artists start using Photoshop tools in their work?!?)
When it comes to the big topics, though, McCloud was almost unerringly right, at least in broad strokes. He correctly identifies the ways in which hardware was going to evolve — predicting the tablet device in the process — as well as the obstacles that stood in the way of those seeking to go fully digital, both on a practical and emotional level. For all that people made fun of him for his interest in “micropayments,” he accidentally touched on the true solution for those concerned about sharing financial details with creators: third-party verification, years before things like PayPal or Venmo went mainstream.
He’s even impressively realistic when it comes to the likely evolution of the digital economy he predicts, admitting that “large producers will continue to have more money on hand to throw into talent, time and cutting-edge technology” than individual creators, even if his belief that creators will eventually prosper might have been just a tad optimistic. (McCloud is, throughout, very much an optimist about the end result of the changes he predicts; whether or not that’s charming or frustrating may depend on just how optimistic you are yourself.)
Even his idea of the “infinite canvas” afforded by digital comics — a term he uses which is, in practice more in common with what are commonly called “webcomics,” with “digital comics” having become adopted for digitized versions of print comics — feels like something that is, ever-so-slowly, becoming adopted by mainstream creators and readers alike, courtesy of platforms like Webtoon. (Some individual artists, like Emily Carroll and McCloud themselves, have been experimenting with the idea for years.)
It’s true that not everything McCloud foresaw in his Digital Nostradamus kick happened exactly as he predicted — a likelihood that he actually addresses in the book itself — but nonetheless, his win/lose ratio when it comes to imagining the digital future of comics in 2000 is genuinely something to behold. Even where he slips up, such as imagining that the direct market of speciality comic stores would have to undergo a significant change to survive the next couple of decades, his missteps feel more the result of his optimism about the rate of evolution than being entirely off-base in his assumptions — and, as such, more acceptable in the long run.
So, what, then, should we make of Reinventing Comics from today’s point of view? It’s a historical curio, obviously — the majority of his futurism concerns things that have now happened, after all — but no less interesting for that. If anything, the fact that he did get so much correct makes it more interesting as a result, and leaves me wanting more in a couple of different ways. Firstly, what does McCloud himself think of the book more than two decades after the fact, and the ways in which he nailed (and, in few cases, whiffed) the way comics would change across the past 20 years?
Maybe more interestingly, what does McCloud think is going to happen to comics over the next 20 years, given his record? More than two decades after Reinventing Comics, could it finally be time for Re-Reinventing Comics?