[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 4 – [Comics] in the Web, or A Theory of Textual Infrastructure pt. 2

PREVIOUS: Chapter 4 pt. 1

In 2001, [comics’] might be collided with their already are in the form of a very public row between Scott McCloud and Jerry Holkins, the “Tycho” of Penny Arcade’s (hereafter PA) Tycho and Gabe.  Though the flamewar of late June and early July of that year focused on these two, as McCloud makes clear on his own website, the animus was much more broadly based.

Chris Crosby, Co-CEO of Keenspot an online comics organization focused on online comic strips, asked in a Comicon.com thread why no one from Keenspot was on an upcoming panel I was organizing at San Diego. I explained that I was focusing on what I called long-form online comics rather than strips in “The Art of Digital Comics” panel because I thought that the artistic challenges facing online comic strips tended to be pretty similar to their printed equivalents. Chris said it was “…a shame that these artists are being ignored by you, considering you’re sort of a spokesman for online comics to the mainstream media” I disagreed with the idea that I was “ignoring” them, but the whole thing wrapped up pretty amicably and I figured that was the last I’d hear of it.

The following day, McCloud was criticized for his supposed lack of inclusiveness by Jon Rosenberg, the creator of Goats, as well as Carson Fire.  The day after that, June 21, the PA parody of McCloud’s Reinventing Comics, “Magic: It’s What’s For Dinner,” appeared along with Tycho’s critique of what he claimed to be McCloud’s outsized influence on how webcomics were perceived by the larger public.

Both the comic and the attendant post focus on a practical concern in the immediate present: how artists are to derive something like a livable income in an environment, the web in this case, where readers have a built in expectation that content will be free to peruse or, at least, not behind a paywall and where the payment systems McCloud proposes as a solution to the problem of income present substantial problems of their own.

[F]or all [McCloud’s] pirouette, for all his flash and show, the very foundation of his argument – namely, the sub-dollar transactions called micropayments – do not exist. They are not real. Yes, we have facsimiles of these that operate now (you can see them on the left), but they are not elegant, they incur significant charges, and they are not available to many, many readers because, for whatever reason, they are not able to perform credit transactions. The most basic research eludes Mr. McCloud, who is quite satisfied with profits garnered in true and tested markets, who is quite satisfied with the adulation of the press and the pundit. You go ahead and stick to the store shelves, pal – and don’t mind us out here in the trenches. We were revolutionizing and reinvigorating comics long before you decided to Reinvent them.

McCloud’s interpolated response to the post containing the above as well as a subsequent reflecting on PA’s then insufficient profitability asserts that this row was fundamentally misguided, that “both sides” had the same ultimate goal in mind, a future where the profit to be derived from artistic production flowed more to the creators themselves than to the legacy owners of [comics’] means of production.

Goddamn it, Tycho — why the fuck do we have to be enemies? […] Neither of us is making a living at this. Both of us need “day jobs.” Maybe both of us have families (I don’t know anything about you personally and unlike you I’m ready to admit that). I’m offering one solution to the exact problem you describe and your only response is to kick me in the teeth for it in front of thousands of people!

In a follow-up post from July 3, McCloud notes that, after a telephone conversation with Tycho, the matter of the “flamewar” was brought to a peaceful resolution and, as the post concludes, “[a]ll’s well that ends well.”  The issued seemed to remain resolved until, in 2005, hostilities between Tycho and McCloud flared up once again on June 1, this time in reference to a never completed [webcomics] documentary that used McCloud’s Reinventing Comics as its theoretical underpinnings.

The accompanying post likewise doubles down on the [comic’s] dismissive attitude.

Every time I see some book or video purporting to represent “our scene” it’s a Goddamn cavalcade of Scott McCloud acolytes singing one Goddamn note.  Scott McCloud’s great contribution?  He championed a bold new high-tech way for artists to be poor.  He seems like a good guy, but the man pumps out these starry eyed sycophants who rattle on and on about the Age of Goddamn (Digital Comics) Aquarius.  Without the tyrannical constraints of “strips” or “panels,” they can now make a comic as vast as their galloping egos.  Everyone has always been able to make “challenging” incoherent art that no-one cared about.  And now, with the Internet, more people can not care about it than ever. […] We’re up to our asses in impractical manifestos that don’t get anybody anywhere.  I can’t imagine why we’d need another one.

This time, the online row that ensued was much more mean-spirited.  In response to what was perceived to be Tycho’s unkind criticism of Cayetano (“Cat”) Garza’s physical appearance, McCloud produced his own vicious appraisal of Tycho and Gabe’s (i.e. Mike Krahulik’s) own supposed shortcomings.  This post was removed almost as soon as it was put up, after which McCloud and the PA duo entered into a now far more strained détente, since, as one of Tycho’s later posts makes clear, the underlying concerns of the 2001 “flamewar” were never satisfactorily resolved.

[A]ll I’m suggesting is that a) There is no fucking The Man, and b) I Hope Your Infinite Canvas Comics Double As A Nutritious Meal, because creating a comic that can’t be printed out is not pragmatic.  That’s the long and the short of it, but the discussion ended up going elsewhere. […] There is a lot to be said about revolutions and whatnot, or creative expression, and if listening to people drone on about it frustrated me I don’t know what to tell you.  Discussions about the act of creation and the resultant output can and are looped endlessly.  I don’t have a problem with that being part of the conversation, but when it is the only conversation I may say something you don’t appreciate.  The only revolution I care about is the one that gives creators the ability to make a living.  I don’t know when this happened, but it’s true now and I’ll force it into the dialogue if I have to.

Whether intended or not, the “Nutritious Meal” above appears to be a direct allusion to the title of the 2001 parody strip, meaning, though McCloud and Tycho may have come to an agreement at the time to cease being mean to one another on the Internet, the ideological difference that incited the invective in the first place had been repressed not dissipated.  Moreover, despite McCloud’s claim to be “on the same side” of some battle over the future of [comics], McCloud’s own book, Reinventing Comics demonstrates quite clearly in its particulars, especially when read in light of the means by which PA and other online [comics] achieved something like financial stability or profitability, that his and Tycho’s respective ideologies with regard to how [comics] might work in a particular digital domain, the web in this case, are fundamentally at odds with one another.

The first point of difference is, in fact, creative in nature.  In advocating for what he perceives to be the possibilities of “computer-generated comics” (his words), he also explicitly denigrates the path those very [comics] had already taken.

Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics, p. 141

Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics, p. 141

For McCloud, digital [comics] represent almost limitless possibilities, an infinitude later encapsulated in his now oft quoted notion of the “infinite canvas.”

ibid., p. 222

ibid., p. 222

This infinitude and the attendant likelihood, according to McCloud, that everything is on the verge of dramatic change is based in the notion that the underlying technology itself has a vast reserve of unrealized potential.  Of the twelve vectors he identifies in which [comics] might “grow” and, presumably, revolutionize, three relate to the digital world: the creation of [comics] with digital tools, the distribution of [comics] in digital form, and the evolution of [comics] in a digital environment (22).  Neither McCloud nor Tycho seem to find much to argue about with regard to tools, but both distribution and evolution are clear points of contention.  Despite his advocating for new means of payment, McCloud’s model of distribution is fundamentally a consumer capitalist one, wherein a product is offered for sale and a single payment is exchanged for a single commodity.  Tycho’s, on the other hand, seems to more closely resemble what is common in newspapers and broadcast media, where the [comic] is but one component of a larger total outlay potentially involving other media and physical commodities.  The [comic] is offered for “free” online (meaning, alongside advertisements and links to merchandise), while the site and its creators support themselves by means of a complex of revenue sources that include, I hasten to note, [comics] in print.

ibid., p. 20

ibid., p. 20

It is this very proliferation of [comics] related commodities that McCloud sees as standing partially in the way of [comics] realizing their “innate potential,” whatever that may be.  What Reinventing makes apparent that is, perhaps, only latent in Tycho’s various critical posts, is how the creative and the practical, what he claims to be his sole concern, are profoundly bound up with one another.  McCloud appears to work from a fundamental separation of concerns.  Though each of his vectors of revolutionary growth is examined in its particulars, the effects of cross pollination between them are only addressed in passing and after the fact, meaning the overlap of these vectors is itself a separate concern.  The possibility that the avenues under investigation might be affected a priori by their intersections is not considered, nor is the possibility of their interference ever treated as potentially destructive as well as constructive.  The future is only ever a bright one.

ibid., p. 131

ibid., p. 131

That any and all analysis of the present would be relegated to hype, while prophecy with regard to the future cannot be hyped enough, is disturbing on its face, especially when one considers how present-centric analysis can at least be judged against the interpretation of real observations, while “the future” and prophecies thereof demand the assessment of mere speculation.  Moreover, ideally one would hope such speculations to be grounded in some present condition, though as often as not, musing on the future is a way of ignoring the messiness of what is already the case.

Take, for example, two of McCloud’s specific assertions with regard to technology: the ever increasing capacity and diminishing size of storage media and the increasing resolution of digital displays.  Historically, these two developments have canceled each other out, meaning the one has had to keep pace with the other, lest the overall effect of technological progress be mixed at best.

Consider how this works in practice.  The physical copy of Craig Thompson’s Habibi sitting on my shelf at this very moment is 655 pages at 7.3 by 9.2 inches.  A set of archival quality tiff’s (600 dpi) would be roughly 59 Gb in size, meaning the top of the line tablets with the largest storage capacity (at this time in 2015) would be able to hold all of two such digitized books.  Now, of course, 600 dpi is a far higher resolution that what is required even for most printed books, which typically work from 300 dpi images, and for a digital device, the file size could be scaled down via a combination of smaller resolutions, compression, interlacing, etc.

However, these compromises are precisely the opposite of the ever increasing expansionism that McCloud valorizes in Reinventing Comics; the present and, presumably, the near future are times in which we have to deal now with the lingering problems of a complex of technologies that have yet to realize their speculated potential and, I hasten to add, may never do so as a result of interactions that cannot be foreseen.  Moreover, the compromises necessary for reading [comics] on the digital platforms that actually exist may, in fact, impede other kinds of reading that require a level of detail that scaled down, compressed images simply cannot offer.  In my own work on Miyazaki’s Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), an argument concerning the presence of Japan’s recent history in the [comic]’s speculative, post-apocalyptic future depended largely upon the reading of a kanji character in a panel that even in my printed copy is incredibly difficult to read.  In the end, the best I could do was make an educated guess at the reading even with the highest quality printing I could find.  Any further degradation of the image would only make my critical life more difficult and further undermine a claim that was already tendentious.

NEXT: Chapter 4 pt. 3

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