How Windows 8 Changes Everything, Part IV: The Triumph of Scott McCloud (Or: “Webcomics” Are Dead. Long Live Digital Comics.)

But for all of hypertext’s advantages, the basic ideas behind hypertext and comics are diametrically opposed! Hypertext relies on the principle that nothing exists in space. Everything is either here, not here, or connected to here, while in the temporal map of comics, every element of the work has a spatial relationship to every other element at all times.
-Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics

In an app-based future, one where social media becomes most people’s gateway to the Internet if not defining it, it’s easy to fear, as John Allison did a few weeks ago, that those who have taken advantage of the openness of the Web may find themselves increasingly abandoned and unable to gain traction. But as I said in Part II and in my response to Allison, the tools of the new Internet paradigm are open to anyone, with nothing stopping it from being as open, if not more so, than the old Web-based paradigm.

Four years ago, I wrote my Webcomics’ Identity Crisis series, the core of which (in Parts III and IV) explored the obstacles to the future of comics Scott McCloud outlined in Reinventing Comics. I felt that the one revolution McCloud advocated – the infinite canvas – was wholly dependent on the other – micropayments – in order to truly catch on, because any other revenue model (where the form the online version took was relevant, that is) depended on the breaking up of the story into parts, defeating much of the point of the infinite canvas and often even rendering it counterproductive. Micropayments, for their part, were doomed to fail, at least as far as webcomics were concerned, because of the psychological barrier against paying anything for anything – perhaps they might have become the norm if they were ready when the Internet started catching on, but so long as enough of the Internet’s content was available for free, it would be extremely difficult to produce something with enough value that, even with all the stuff out there for free, a substantial number of people would be willing to pay even a cent or two for it, especially if it was possible, even easy, for someone to repost it elsewhere for free, especially if they had to buy it sight-unseen from someone whose content they didn’t already know they wanted, and especially if they had to pay for something that had previously been free.

Ironically, one of the more famous proponents of the “psychological barrier” theory for the failure of micropayments was… Chris Anderson, in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Though he never directly mentioned it, perhaps hoping people wouldn’t notice the contradiction and accuse him of holding whatever position attracted the most attention, “The Web is Dead” could be seen as an implicit admission of how wrong he was then. The thesis of “The Web is Dead” was that people would pay for the same content they could get for free, simply because it came in a form worked better and was easier for them. If we are increasingly moving to a future where consumers are increasingly willing to pay to receive content on their smartphones once available on the Internet for free, it may well be only a matter of time before micropayments take hold in this far more fertile soil.

Already most of the apps in the Windows store are available for less than half of the magic $10 price most online retailers need to hit to justify the cost of a single credit card transaction. I’ve long felt that the fees people pay to their Internet service provider for Internet access were low-hanging fruit for micropayments, similar to how charges for pay-per-view content appear on your cable bill, if it weren’t for the numerous ways to access the Internet that other people pay for. The advent of cloud computing and the single login, including devices like those that run Windows 8 that are tightly associated with a single online account, makes it far easier to charge your credit card on the fly without introducing extra steps and at virtually any price. While producers of “fungible” content that can easily be spread elsewhere will probably continue to need to offer their wares for free (or just enough to render piracy inconvenient), we may one day see the day where producers of other types of content, to take just one example, allow anyone to access their content for a small charge, or for free if you buy their app once (and possibly pay a regular subscription fee thereafter).

It’s highly unlikely that a single comic, even a full-size comic book or graphic novel, would justify its own app, but the point is the technology exists to offer it at any price, regardless of the mechanism. We’ve already seen the development of an “iTunes” for comics, in the form of Comixology and its associated formats, and Marvel and DC have already embraced the online, digital distribution of their wares for new mobile devices, with Marvel even going so far as to produce what I call “digital stage comics” for their Avengers v. X-Men event. As Allison’s attitude shows, however, the webcomic community has been surprisingly slow to adapt to this new world order. Many webcomics have developed apps for the distribution of their content, but like webcomics in general, most of them are comic strips easily suited to distribution on a periodical basis (though Least I Could Do offers access to its archives through its app for just 99 cents).

If the web starts to be pushed to the background, you could see webcomics, as we know them today, pushed to the background as well. Even comic-strip-type webcomics may soon find their main means of distribution through “comic page” apps that aggregate them together. (One wonders if this was one of the ideas Scott Kurtz planned to hawk to syndicates with last year’s consulting offer.) But the real impact will be felt in “long-form” comic-book-like webcomics, who could jump at the chance to exploit the exposure advantages of the Internet without any of the drawbacks. It was, after all, the comic book model McCloud had in mind with his advocacy of micropayments and the infinite canvas. While the problem of spending money on unproven content hasn’t gone away entirely, some workarounds have sprung up; recently my dad published a prose novel that he promoted in part by making a short snippet available free for people considering the book on Amazon, a tactic that has apparently helped many novels achieve success through online sales, including some you may have heard of.

Beyond micropayments making the infinite canvas far easier to monetize, the advent of touchscreen-enabled devices eliminates the main interface-based constraint on the infinite canvas as well. Maintaining an “unbroken reading line” would seem to imply the horizontal infinite canvas, where the row of panels scrolls off to infinity to the right, but most applications of the infinite canvas have been of the vertical variety, due to the nature of mouse wheels, the most hassle-free way to scroll on the computer. But the touchscreen does away with the need to scroll entirely; all it takes is a swipe to move to a different part of the canvas, or moving the finger across the screen. It’s even possible to zoom in with the double-tap. This isn’t limited to comics; I really don’t like how the Kindle and other e-readers feel the need to stick to the norms of print by chopping up books into discrete pages. I don’t know this either way, but I hope Comixology’s formats and others allow people to make their “page” whatever size they wish if they so choose; we could see an explosion in long-form stories told in forms unthinkable not too long ago. I can’t help but wonder if, when McCloud semi-unintentionally anticipated the iPad in Reinventing, he was giving a look at the sort of device that he had in mind when talking about the infinite canvas, without explicitly stating so.

Many of the applications of the infinite canvas McCloud proposed will probably always be too gimmicky to catch on, but there’s nothing stopping those applications with real storytelling potential from changing the way you look at comics. It’s possible the digital comic of the future will look a lot like Homestuck – essentially, a variant on the digital stage comic, only told in many thousands of tiny chunks, highlighting another failing of hypertext: the way advertising on the Web rewards breaking stories up into as many tiny units as possible so as to score more pageviews to drive up the price of advertising. With alternate business models, it would no longer be necessary to exploit perverse incentives like this, because the reader could be charged directly in a way that makes sense.

This is only a hint of how the move to an app-based future can be a boon to independent producers of content prepared for it, despite the decline of the open, free-wheeling web they have taken advantage of to this point. We could be on the verge of an explosion in content of all shapes and sizes, a golden age of artists flocking to the most rewarding environment the arts has ever seen, creating content that takes forms never before possible, and potentially achieving the long-deferred vindication of Scott McCloud’s original vision. The rise of devices like the iPad and Surface doesn’t mark the end or a decline of the great revolution impelled by the rise of the Internet over the course of the last decade. Rather, it’s just the beginning.

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