It’s not "swine flu" anymore.

I want you to book it from this moment: if, in my entire lifetime (indeed all the way until the death of civilization), I see any potential pandemic referred to by a name that names them after an animal you can’t get it from in any way, no matter how much it may make sense in some other way, they should be whacked over the head for their idiocy and proof of the old saying about what happens when you don’t learn from history.

No more calling out the mainstream media for Favremania, mmmkay?

The Jets released Brett Favre from their “reserve/retired” list yesterday, an auspicious move considering so far as I can tell players on the R/R list don’t count against roster or salary caps, but ordinarily a fairly routine move, at least for any player not named Brett Favre.

So naturally you’d expect plenty of “does this mean he’s thinking of coming back?” speculation from ESPN and the like, and you’d expect the blogosphere to do plenty of “there they go again, obsessing over Brett Favre” and thumbing their nose because they’re so above that…

…hold on, it appears the number 1 topic on SportsCenter’s “Blog Buzz” segment this morning was Favre’s release. Seems not even the blogosphere is immune to Favremania when a plane traveling between Minneapolis and Hattiesburg and back again sends them going “OMG OMG OMG IT ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH BRETT FAVRE BECAUSE HE IS THE ONLY PERSON IN ALL OF HATTIESBURG THAT EVER HAS TO TRAVEL OMG!!!!!11!!1!!!eleven!”

Something I’ve been meaning to say since the news broke.

There’s been a lot that’s been said about John Madden’s retirement, and I could repeat everything that’s been said about how beloved he was (not so much in my household, but that may be because he made all the obvious things he said obvious) or his alleged man-crush on Brett Favre or his impact on football and the broadcasting profession or his retirement’s impact on NBC, the NFL and its network, and the careers of Cris Collinsworth, Al Michaels, and Frank Caliendo.

But let me just say this about replacement Collinsworth.

NBC was caught off guard by Madden’s retirement, but they were not caught unprepared.

That said, I have to agree with what Curt Smith had to say about Harry Kalas: “[Collinsworth] will succeed [Madden]. None will replace him.”

Random Internet Discovery of the Week, and other stuff

Remind me to come back to this website sometime and actually check out the offerings.

Not the RID: So apparently Ashton Kutcher has set up a bet with CNN to see which will be the first to a million Twitter followers. Normally I wouldn’t have anything to say about it, but I was moved to comment by this remark shortly after issuing the challenge:

I just think its amazing that 1 voice can now be as powerful at an entire media network. thank you twitter! / Thankyou social media. You have given an individual (all of us) the power/ truth back. That’s something to compete for!!!

Power of the individual my ass. The only reason you’ve got almost a million followers is because you’re a celebrity and you know it, Ashton. Is Ashton Kutcher blowing the lid off news stories being ignored by the mainstream media? I didn’t think so, and I doubt anyone is using social media networks for that purpose either. Instead Kutcher is “on here to connect w/ u w/ no filter“. Which is bullshit by itself, there’s no way Kutcher is getting rid of the “filter” entirely, that’s literally possible, any psychologist would tell you that, and monumentally stupid to the extent it is. It just means Kutcher handles his own image control.

(And why isn’t Britney Spears getting involved, considering where she ranks? It’s telling that the closest thing to “involvement” she has is rather corporate.)

Stewart v. Cramer: What the Media is Doing Unequivocally Wrong, No Matter What You Believe

Why aren’t real news people more like Jon Stewart?

The Colbert Report debuted in 2005. That means that The Daily Show had been earning rave reviews since well before that for its biting satirical take on the news that in some cases seemed better than the real news shows. Even before The Colbert Report, Stewart made a famous appearance on Crossfire a year earlier where he so called out the culture of news of the day it led to Crossfire‘s cancellation. (And his show put out America: The Book the same year.) But news organizations have changed so little since then that TV news is arguably poorer for the loss of Crossfire as a place where liberal and conservative views would be forced to confront each other (and made stronger for it) rather than stay within their shelters of Keith Olbermann and Rush Limbaugh. (I’d like to see some news network start a PTI-style show for news and politics.) As early as 2002, Stewart was rumored to be replacing David Letterman.

We’ve had Stewart helming The Daily Show for a decade now, and earning rave reviews the whole time, and a recurring theme of his tenure has been calling out and making fun of the mainstream media as much if not more often than politicians. (The media was a particular target of America: The Book.) And for being, as Stewart is wont to remind people, a “fake news show”, its popularity still would seem to suggest it’s something today’s youth actually want in their news. So why hasn’t anyone taken up the challenge? Why is journalism still as bankrupt as it ever has been in this decade? Why hasn’t anyone become the “real” Jon Stewart, or at least taken up his grievances?

This came into focus for me while watching Stewart’s interview with Jim Cramer last night. The interview went on so long that the unedited version had to be posted on The Daily Show‘s web site, but really, the interview could be condensed into one or two sentences. Stewart called out Cramer and CNBC for not digging down deep in its interviews with CEOs and challenging them to bring the goods, instead of “trusting” them and then “regretting” trusting them so much later. More broadly, Stewart both cast doubt on the ethical standards of people like Cramer who have had experience with the shadier side of Wall Street and suggested that experience could be used to actually enlighten viewers, and wondered if CNBC’s target audience was ordinary Americans looking to invest their 401k’s or Wall Street insiders.
This isn’t new stuff with Stewart. Regularly he will show pieces of a real news network’s softball interview with a newsmaker and ridicule it, or criticise the practices of the mainstream media in a similar fashion. But to flip it around, if Cramer were to come on an Anderson Cooper or someone else in the mainstream media, he wouldn’t be so heavily pushed – even if he weren’t a member of it. It says a lot that Stewart is doing a lot of the asking of truly penetrating questions and actual debate of guests in the media today.

Why do we have to tune in at 11 PM on the comedy channel to watch a comedian do it for only thirty minutes? Doesn’t Stewart’s popularity suggest there’s a real market for real, hard-hitting journalism, not pandering and demagoguery?

Last summer after reading True Enough, I decided I would start reading the two major media watchdog sites on both sides of the political spectrum, Media Matters for America on the left and Newsbusters on the right. I eventually stopped – I got the impression that Newsbusters was more obsessive about rooting out bias and had a larger density of posts, and for the first time I started semi-seriously considering the conservative claim of liberal media bias – but the impression I got from the sites dedicated to claiming the media was biased to the right or to the left wasn’t that it was biased to either side. It was just incompetent.

That led me to claim that what was really needed was for the media to fight back against claims of bias from both sides and lay out why they’re right after all. But part of the reason the media isn’t fond of doing that is because it’s all too fond of playing up the extreme differences between left and right. It’s as much a willing participant as anything in the red-blue divide with shows from the likes of Lou Dobbs, Keith Olbermann, and Sean Hannity. (Bill O’Reilly and Rachael Maddow might deserve at least a little more respect from their respective other sides.) And there may also be the factor that the media really is falling down on the job. Certainly it’s not just left and right complaining about it, or even minority groups like backers of third parties. Anyone you talk to will likely bemoan the loss of real journalism, of investigative journalism, of substantive journalism, of coverage of events that really matter rather than, say, Jennifer Aniston, of any virtue of journalism that doesn’t follow the almighty dollar.

The people running the news networks will likely say that sort of thing doesn’t sell. I think the popularity of Stewart says otherwise and that, given an alternative to the sort of hollow, flashy, scratching-the-surface, substanceless journalism they’re getting now, people will flock to it in a heartbeat. Certainly that’s the sort of thing my mom likes best about Stewart; I suspect it’s what America will find they like as well. (Although presentation matters; the fact it may matter more than content is how we got into this mess. Once, I was inspired by anti-American-media comments to check out BBC America’s “World News America” and found it boring as hell. And not entirely free from schmaltzy human interest stories to boot.)

Newspapers aren’t dying because they can’t make money on the Internet, except in the sense they don’t know how to capitalize on the Internet (and that they’ve been losing classified revenue to Craigslist). They may even be best off silencing their presses – besides the cost of the press itself, there’s distribution and middleman fees to consider – as the print versions have really become loss leaders more than anything else. They’re dying because they’re so incompetent that two groups that have never been such bitter enemies nonetheless both hate their guts, and because they’re getting new competition and scrutiny from blogs – and because they believe their “can’t make money on the Internet” excuse for their struggles, they aren’t realizing the real reasons and adapting and evolving to them. (I wrote more on this here.) Rather than getting better newspapers, we might end up with no newspapers at all. I mean, after decades of conservative accusations of media bias, how is it that the mainstream media is STILL doing stuff like this? Or this or this?

I hear that a major reason we need to save newspapers is because of all the “financial resources” they have to do real broad-scale reporting. If newspapers want to keep those “financial resources” they need to come up with new and better reasons for people to patronize them. And as for television news, they’re well overdue to take a long, hard look at themselves and figure out if they’re really doing the best they can. Stewart may be telling them – in word and deed – that they aren’t.

Webcomics’ Identity Crisis Part V.5: The Debate Rages

Part VI has little to do with the topic(s) that has (have) dominated the first five parts, but the debate on these things rages on. On the topic mostly of Part IV, Comixtalk points me to Valerie D’Orazio’s rather doom-and-gloom scenario for webcomics and the Internet in general, as well as Joey Manley’s response.

I have to imagine Manley didn’t read D’Orazio’s post very carefully. DC and Marvel are only ever presented as examples of companies that might take over webcomics; and even within the body of her post D’Orazio states that her scenario is more a prediction than a hope, no “backtracking in the comments” involved (though her simultaneous seeming exhortations to the mainstream media to adopt her plan could have easily confused Manley; she really is positing multiple predictions, either the “MSM” adopts her plan or they die). And Manley’s claim “no one at DC or Marvel would have picked up xkcd” is mostly irrelevant; since it’s so popular now, D’Orazio would argue, they certainly would. (But what happens to the Randall Munroes of the world after webcomics get corporatized? D’Orazio doesn’t really elaborate.)

A simple game of connect-the-dots.

How was it possible that despite a far less compelling matchup than last year, including the until-recently laughable Arizona Cardinals, the Super Bowl still drew a bigger audience than last year?

Amidst people crowing “when it’s the Super Bowl the teams are irrelevant”, I was wondering why more attention wasn’t paid to the surprisingly large female audience – which seemed to explain the large audience but gave me more questions than answers. Where did all these women come from all of a sudden?

I may have a partial answer, at least. (Courtesy Fang’s Bites.)

Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part IV: Rethinking Reinventing Comics, Part Two: The Problem with Micropayments (And the Place of Scott McCloud in Webcomics)


(Note from the author: I suspect this post is going to receive incoming links from well outside the webcomics community. If you’ve come here from one of them, you can get pretty well caught up by reading Part III of this series from yesterday. That post will lead you to Parts I and II if you need to know more.)

I think that both sides in the “war” between blogs and the “mainstream media” have a lot to learn from webcomics.

Sluggy Freelance and User Friendly launched in 1997. Penny Arcade launched a year later, and hired a business manager in 2002. Blogger launched in 1999 (the word “blog” hadn’t even been coined until 1997), same as LiveJournal, but wasn’t bought by Google until 2003, the same year the modern WordPress launched. In some sense, blogs and webcomics have developed along much the same lines at the same time – but to some extent or another, webcomics artists have settled on a number of principles and lessons learned that both blogs and the “MSM” could stand to learn from. (In part, this stems from a strong community of webcomics commentary partly founded by Websnark that blogs mostly lack. I believe I’ve mentioned that just as there are multiple blogs keeping watch over the mainstream media, I’d like a few that “watches the watchmen” and monitors the happenings of what could become the new mainstream media. On the flip side, the MSM should study the most popular webcomics when trying to come up with a web strategy that works.)

To take one example, webcomics ended up greatly benefiting from Scott McCloud’s advocacy of micropayments.

This came into focus for me Wednesday night, when I read a response to micropayment pusher Walter Isaacson on a techie site that basically said, “we don’t live in your ideal world”, but didn’t do much to explain the reasons why he was wrong… linked to from this Comixtalk article that did, if only in brief form. McCloud was an advocate of micropayments and webcomics since at least 1994, and in Reinventing Comics in 2000, he advocated both with as much fervor as he could muster, seeing the former as the ticket to fortune for the latter. For years webcomic artists toiled with the holy grail of micropayments just over the horizon, having to endure a long string of broken promises along the way. As they fell, and as those broken promises ran out of excuses, we became rather familiar with where the economics of micropayments was going wrong. We already know what the newspaper industry is only now considering getting into.

McCloud proposed four reasons why people in 2000 tended to flee at the sight of anyone asking them to pay for content: “[they] will never pay for web content as long as they still feel like they’re paying with their time; they won’t pay as long as the quality of that content is low; they won’t pay as long as paying is a hassle; and they won’t pay unless the price is right”. The first two (with “quality” here referring to “technical quality”, not aesthetic) are explicitly based on bandwidth concerns and we may consider, or at least assume, them solved. Even as McCloud wrote, the third was at least becoming less hasslesome as people developed means for you to enter personal information once and then forget it without having to worry about it being stolen.

The point of micropayments was to solve that niggling last problem. McCloud predicted the price of a webcomic falling to just a few cents, because creators could keep 90% of that price instead of 10%. And in issue #6 of his online followup to Reinventing, I Can’t Stop Thinking!, McCloud calculated that if Scott Kurtz – at the level of popularity he had in 2001, when he moaned about not being able to pay the bills! – had charged his readers only 25 cents a month for PVP, he would have made a profit of $73,000! (Assuming, of course, such a charge didn’t take readers away, which would never happen… and see below.) It’s not like there are any issues specific to webcomics that would delay the implementation – webcomics are far less bandwidth-intensive than music, and it’s not like it’s more important for a webcomic creator to know your phone number than it is for a music site to know it. So what is it that makes micropayments ready for music but not ready for comics?

Again, part of the answer lies in the fact that McCloud was coming from a comic book model. McCloud envisioned a world in which the multitude of middlemen infecting comic books – publishers, distributors, retailers – would simply be wiped away, and an artist would be able to provide their stories without having to go through any barriers to entry and with the ability to keep 90% of the purchase price. McCloud was mostly concerned about a one-time charge, as I distinguished micropayments from subscriptions in Part IV.

(In Reinventing, McCloud noted that while digital information took a convoluted path from the creator’s computer to the reader’s, none of the steps in that path took any of the money… ignoring, as Sean Barrett points out in a 2001 response to ICST! #6, the fact that all those steps are still run by companies and processing such transactions puts some strain on their networks as well. Barrett’s response in general elucidates the issues surrounding micropayments – and several I won’t get to – far more clearly and completely than I ever could, although I’d like to see an update to it considering I have much lesser doubts about his most serious point than I might have had at the time. I’m fairly confident it shouldn’t be too much of a problem getting a simple cross-platform plug-in running with features fairly close to what McCloud advocated in Reinventing without modifying the browser itself, and if you’ve visited Wikipedia or Google with the StumbleUpon toolbar running, you know why.)

Due to its periodical nature, where one strip is released per day on a fairly regular basis, the comic strip model webcomics have evolved under is generally more suited to a subscription model than the exact sort of micropayments McCloud has in mind. Obviously in comics with a lot of continuity, the larger body of work could fall under McCloud’s model, and there have been some comics, like Narbonic, that have experimented with a subscription model and charging for archive viewing, but I suspect they have been running into something more fundamental, something more pertinent to newspapers now considering micropayments, something McCloud touched on but never quite grasped, and underestimated at best:

The psychological barrier against paying for something at all.

If you so much as charge half a cent for something, you’ll lose such a proportion of readers that if you want to lose that same proportion again, you’ll need to charge significantly more than a full cent, maybe something like a dollar.

The Internet is an amazing place. (One of my long-term goals is to write a book on just how amazing – which ideally I’d start writing by the end of this year, with how fast things are changing even now.) Almost anywhere you look, you can find anything from the latest news, to graduate dissertations, to the local weather, to book recommendations, to people’s opinions on the latest happenings, to comics, to history, to funny cat images, to videos, to friends – all for free.

In an environment where just about anything you want is available for free, why would you want to pay one iota for, essentially, the same content? There needs to be a very good reason if you’re going to do so, and among those reasons needs to be the idea that it comes in a form that isn’t easily transferable. If all you’re getting is GIF or even PDF images, what’s stopping you from saving it to your hard drive and making it available yourself for free? (McCloud argues in ICST! #6 that at very low prices the inconvenience incurred isn’t worth the savings, but while it may seem inherently ridiculous at one or two cents, at even five cents human nature can create enough of a disconnect between the thought processes of the pirate uploader, pirate downloader, and creator that people will upload out of pure principle, and penny-pinching surfers will take the bait. Remember, the “altruistic” motivation of saving strangers money isn’t the only reason people pirate; among other things, there’s the thrill of getting away with something.) Even beyond that, given a choice between a certain piece of content that’s charging you for the privilege and gazillions of other similar pieces of content that aren’t, where are you going to take your eyeballs, regardless of how good the pay content may be?

(Important note: This is based on my own experience. I don’t have a real job, so I’m very miserly with every last cent. For all I know most people can and will throw pennies around like candy.)

In his 2003 essay “Misunderstanding Micropayments“, McCloud argues that, while certain types of content like news and sports scores could be gotten from anywhere, and therefore no one would pay for something that someone somewhere could readily offer for free, art offers a unique experience you can’t get anywhere else – as the person the essay was responding to put it, “only Scott McCloud can produce [a] Scott McCloud work” – and therefore, the artist has a sort of monopoly he can use to put micropayments on his work, even if they have to be just a couple of cents to render pirating inconvenient. But this is not a true monopoly; it is what economists call “monopolistic competition“, which basically means the creator has a monopoly over the specific content, but is still in competition with gazillions of other creators. If readers hear of a work, and find out they have to pay for it, they will look elsewhere for their entertainment; that whatever they find probably won’t be exactly the same as what they passed up matters little to them, because how much of a big loss is it, anyway?

And a comparison to the most famous examples of monopolistic competition – brand wars like Coke v. Pepsi – isn’t entirely appropriate either, because those brands have plenty of people who exercise brand loyalty, who will pay Coke or Pepsi for their product no matter what the price is. The equivalent in art would be a creator that had attracted such rock-star status and such brand loyalty that there are people who will do anything to get every single thing that creator puts out. Unless such a creator had attained that status in the “real world” of print, that probably means building a reputation for free first – and such “rock star” creators are, as you may guess, very, very rare, if existent at all, in the world of comics (or at least print comics).

(This is the answer to the question, “what makes micropayments work in music but not in comics?” – music has literal rockstars!)

Strangely, the information now held in books and comic books are, in a weird way, theoretically ready for the environment of the Web. For centuries people have been able to go to their local library and check out a book to read one time for free; even in bookstores people can at least try to breeze through a book in one visit, though some places look more fondly on the practice than others. (I initially did this with Understanding Comics.) It’s only for especially long books, or books you want to be able to read again and again, that you actually buy them. But the Internet seems to imply an all-or-nothing paradigm; either you have to pay in order to read one word, or you shouldn’t have to pay for any of it no matter how much of it you want. (I brought this up recently in the Order of the Stick forums in a discussion spinning from a question regarding the online-centric distribution of OOTS books.) Places like Amazon institute the ability to “look” or “search inside” certain books, but I don’t think there’s any real consensus on the best way to simulate it, and the Narbonic approach of only opening the latest page to anyone and forcing you to pay to read the very beginning seems like the reverse of the norm, and not as effective. (Since the free portion is knee-deep in continuity already.)

With the ability to sample something without buying it taken away, you suddenly have a paradox. If you’re just getting started putting, say, a webcomic together, and you impose a cost on it, no one will want to pay for it without knowing going in whether or not it’s good – even if you advertise its existence. You need to spend some time building a big enough brand so that people will pay for it no matter what because they need to know what happens next. But if you leave it free, you can’t impose a paywall on it once it gets bigger, because people will revolt at the idea of paying for something that had been free – even a couple of cents, because of that psychological barrier – and will leave en masse, moaning about a creator that betrayed their trust and tried to take advantage of them.

A rockstar work is easier to achieve than a rockstar creator, but only the latter can impose a paywall and only on new work, and that presumably means having made plenty of money on the old work. In ICST! #6, McCloud suggests that people would be more likely to try out an unknown quantity if it cost them five cents as opposed to five dollars, but that comes across to me as a hand-wave to brush off the question. (Elsewhere in the same comic, he does suggest that comic creators would experiment with various pricing schemes, including the Narbonic approach of making bits and pieces of the comic available for free.)

By an accidental twist of fate, the Internet could threaten the very foundation of capitalism. Micropayments aren’t only the answer to webcomics’ woes, or even the savior of traditional journalism, but could get rid of all the problems that crop up anywhere one is caused by the fact that you do not directly pay to visit a website. Had they been ready to do so before the Internet began its rise to the incredible position it holds today, they might have become the norm almost instantly, and the Internet – and the world – would be a very different place. They’re probably pretty close to being able to do so as it is, but because of the prisoner’s dilemma, anyone would be insane to institute it – even in some brand new field that didn’t exist before, lest that field continue not to exist.

(But if they were the norm, wouldn’t that allow more gatekeepers to spring up, not only from big companies that have already built a presence or can wait out a period of low viewership, but from the micropayment agencies themselves?)

This is why I think McCloud, in all his debates with naysayers trying to paint him as killing the free internet, missed the point when he constantly claimed that micropayments didn’t need to wipe out free content – because it kinda does. (Barrett said much the same thing by suggesting that if all the good free content on the Internet died off with “the success tax”, as it was called in 2001 when getting a lot of readers mostly meant increased bandwidth costs, that might allow micropayments to take its place. But no one even talks about the “success tax” now – it has no Wikipedia article and the phrase doesn’t even seem to appear anywhere in its 2.7 million articles – so that’s out the window by now, although McCloud was still talking about it in “Misunderstanding Micropayments”.) It’s kind of sad, because in ICST #5 McCloud made the case that micropayments could allow for a greater quality of work if creators had to worry less about their money. Naturally, that could extend far beyond webcomics as well.

(Note: This post gets far more webcomic-specific from here.)

ICST! #5-6 (especially the latter) touched off a minor backlash, deservedly or undeservedly, in what amounted to the webcomics community in 2001, from people who accused McCloud of being overly idealistic and ignoring the issue of why micropayments have failed in the past, and also (because of other simultaneous events) supposedly ignoring the people already putting out webcomics – including what Goats’ Jon Rosenberg called, paradoxically, “micropayments, in the form of voluntary donations like PayPal and the Amazon Honor System [that] help keep our sites running without restricting content.” How can micropayments be unworkable and simultaneously the way you already keep your site running?

And Rosenberg wasn’t alone; Jerry “Tycho” Holkins wrote a parody strip and angry rant (consisting of one massive paragraph) on the Penny Arcade site. The rant is no longer in PA‘s news post archives, but is reproduced in full in McCloud’s response to it. McCloud saw both responses as stemming from frustration over something McCloud himself suffered: the inability for any of them to make a living off their online comics in 2001, despite the revenue streams they nonetheless had in donations and other things. McCloud had personal conversations with both creators, and both wrote later news posts clarifying and backing off from their positions. (Tycho’s, once again, is out of the present archives but can be found here. The whole controversy also produced the Barrett response.)

Reading the controversy now, I’m struck by the fact that both Rosenberg and Holkins basically accused McCloud of ignoring their own efforts in the online marketplace, yet not only did McCloud do nothing of the sort (as he himself pointed out), they (especially Rosenberg) were the ones doing the ignoring – of the idea of one-shot long-form comics in the comic book mold that McCloud had in mind. Tycho’s response post mentioned them, but Rosenberg encouraged McCloud to look into the then-extant webcomic funding schemes – “network subscription models, voluntary donations, and advertising” – without considering their salience to McCloud’s topic.

A lot has changed since 2001. First, of course, Penny Arcade and PVP have both long since managed to find ways to not only make money, but become their creators’ livelihoods. (It’s worth noting that the country was in the last recession when all this controversy broke, making it far more difficult for everyone to make a living.) But secondly and more to the point, as I mentioned earlier, micropayments have come a lot closer to reality – if not even actually arrived. In 2003, McCloud learned about the impending launch of BitPass, and finding it “the first micropayments system I ever liked enough to want to use it”, joined its board of advisors, picked up the first stock he ever owned, and put one of his own comics behind a BitPass paywall as one of three starting vendors. McCloud had felt that the main obstacles behind getting a micropayment system off the ground were mostly bandwidth-related. By 2003, and even more so as the years progressed, that was no longer an excuse, and McCloud even wrote “Misunderstanding Micropayments” as a response to naysayers claiming that despite the failure of micropayment systems in the past, they were here for real this time.

On January 19, 2007, BitPass announced they were ceasing operations.

(In some sense, this post, and series, is two years too late. Of course, then it wouldn’t be topical outside webcomics now…)

They didn’t give any reasons for the shutdown other than “circumstances beyond our control”. I wonder if McCloud was still on the board of directors for the company at the time, or otherwise would have an insider perspective on why BitPass failed. (McCloud proceeded to make that original launch comic available for free, but that’s hardly an “abandonment” of micropayments as his foil, Clay Shirky, claims. If you’re wondering, I think I’ve encapsulated the core of Shirky’s argument in this discussion.) Without the excuse of bad bandwidth, does McCloud still see micropayments as the wave of the future, or did the failure of BitPass shake his confidence?

And if it did, considering so much else about McCloud’s vision for comics on the web is reliant on micropayments, or some form of payment system, how does that affect McCloud’s vision for webcomics?

The mere fact that webcomics.com felt the need to ask the question about the infinite canvas that started Part III – that anyone would pay renewed attention to McCloud’s address to TED here in 2009 – suggests to me that the webcomics community is still too obsessed with Scott McCloud. Even more so the fact that someone at Comixtalk still felt the need to debate micropayments rather than spread the word outside the webcomic community to the people who could best learn our lessons. Webcomics owes a lot to McCloud for sticking up for it in Reinventing Comics, not to mention for the medium of comics in general in Understanding Comics, but has yet to really realize that his theories have little relevance to webcomics today. Webcomics have moved on; the comic book format has adapted itself for webcomics and doesn’t need the infinite canvas to do so. McCloud focused on infinite canvas, infinite canvas, infinite canvas and ignored, lightly touched on, or even disdained so much else that could be done with the medium on the Web. Even hypertext can open the floodgates for whole new frontiers of webcomics (admittedly in ways that could conceivably be done in Flash as well) rooted in the very same things McCloud hated about it. Yet in many ways, webcomics still defines itself in McCloud’s terms and has yet to grow up and move on.

McCloud was surprised that Understanding spent several years in honeymoon rather than touching off the debate he had hoped; I wonder if the reason is because comics had been so completely disrespected, so completely ignored by potential critics, that what McCloud actually talked about, by accident, was the baseline of comics criticism, the part that’s almost completely indisputable, the part that’s taken as given and which all else is built on. Perhaps comics needed someone with as radical a vision of comics as McCloud to bring that into the open, but for anyone to focus on his later words (critically or uncritically) without offering their own independent opinions is hardly justified. Because of the fame he attained from Understanding Comics, McCloud remains webcomics’ most famous defender, and he was a great one and brought a lot of benefits to webcomics for a while, but it’s time to find a new one. Why didn’t someone other than McCloud ever put out a book like Reinventing defending webcomics as perhaps even potentially artistically superior to print comics in some way, without wallowing in the infinite canvas? Where’s Gabe and Tycho extolling the virtues of webcomics? Where’s Scott Kurtz? Where’s Ryan North? Where’s David Morgan-Mar? Where’s Eric Burns(-White), for crying out loud?

In some sense, very little of webcomics has really tried to test the domains of the medium, and has been more concerned about telling neat little stories for the masses, without so much of the trappings of great literature – even Order of the Stick, which I have called the greatest webcomic on the Internet, doesn’t really aspire to much more than a neat story for the masses, with plenty of plot upon subplot but not much in the way of subtext or meaning. This is why people hate Ctrl+Alt+Del: because they don’t want one of the most popular webcomics to be a bunch of popcorn, they want people to aspire higher than Tim Buckley, or else it’s a waste of the medium. I can’t help but wonder if Scott McCloud’s myopic focus on the infinite canvas is part of the problem here, obscuring the view to a far broader idea of webcomics and allowing webcomics to wallow in the lack of imagination from whence it came.

Scott McCloud did a lot for webcomics, but now he is weighing webcomics down, a spectre that haunts the form and its conception of itself. It’s time for webcomics to escape his cave, spread its wings, and fly – and discover its own new worlds in the process.