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reinventing art
(nouveau arts )
by jeremy russell

Maybe it's because I'm here in the San Francisco Bay Area and I get to watch all the high-paid web drones go to work in their computer sweat shops and listen to how insanely happy they are about writing code. Maybe it's because in this brave new world I have been derided as a mere "content provider." But whatever the reason, I used to be an Internet cynic, completely skeptical about the "new economy." Computers are neat, sure, but I didn't see a revolution the way everybody else seemed to. Then Lars Ulrich testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it was like someone had dragged my world view into the recycle bin.

If the Internet can make Metallica, who brought us such anti-authoritarian anthems as Master of Puppets and Justice For All, go to Congress for help, then the question is no longer what can it do, but what will it do next?

“The web is the biggest collaborative positive effort in recorded history, and there's every reason to think that it's still in its infancy.” --Scott McCloud

Mp3's are the hot topic now, but behind the music it's all just intellectual-property rights, the age-old question of ownership. New technologies are already making this an issue for the television and movie industries, and despite all the legal wrangling, the only thing holding back the flood gates of simulacra are download times and hard drive space. But for those of us not already involved in those industries or currently on the cutting edge of compression tech, it's a done deal. In five years, probably about the same time the technology will be getting up to speed, the executives, lawyers and money-men, Metallica included, are going to have it all worked out. The legal shakedown is already going down.

And so, I ask, what's next?

Interestingly enough, the answer may be contained in a new comic book by Scott McCloud called Reinventing Comics.

“We're about to enter a world in which the path from selling ten comics to selling ten thousand comics to selling ten million comics is as smooth as ice. An economy in which consumers' interests are served directly, not merely guessed at and in which the creator's work can rise or fall on the strength of that interest and not on any other reason ever again.” --Scott McCloud

Reinventing Comics covers a lot of ground, from the recent history of comics to the rapidly changing ways they are connecting with audiences to grand visions of a not too distant digital utopia. And the implication of McCloud's lengthy discussion of comics goes way beyond comics. After all, many media combine words and images in sequence. But no medium has been more ready for marriage to comics than the Internet, which is itself a sequential art form of hyperlinked pages.

Almost half of Reinventing Comics is dedicated to the issues surrounding computers and comics. In his effort to explain computer comics' potential, McCloud includes some information on computers that the tech savvy will already be familiar with, but presents it in such a form that even they will enjoy the refresher. Besides, it's all just a jumping board for his dive into the future, a future he is very, very optimistic about.

“Naturally, a sensibility of ink drawing will always be relevant to works reproduced in ink--and even art destined for the screen can benefit from the study of old masters--but to choose computers as one's primary art-making tool is to choose an almost superhuman palette of options--and to devote it to merely imitating their predecessors is a bit like hunting rabbits with a battleship.” --Scott McCloud

It doesn't hurt that McCloud is so good at explaining himself, featuring a caricature of himself narrating his thoughts in style of a TV documentary. Those familiar with Reinventing Comics' prequel, Understanding Comics (1993), will recognize the his style immediately. At once a historian and visionary, McCloud somehow manages to produce comic book philosophy with an academic's rigor and a stand-up's flair for humor. McCloud is a fine artist, whose pictures can contain complex ideas economically and examples from other artist's works are used throughout the book to illuminating effect.

Furthermore, McCloud is no slouch when it comes to computers. You can check out his innovative experimental inventions at www.scottmccloud.com. There he has crafted a glimpse of things to come, including comics that grow depending on how you click and comics that stretch off in weird directions. A featured speaker on the "ONLINE COMICS!" panel at the ComicCon International in July, McCloud is quickly becoming one of the experts in the comics field on new technologies.

“But the ultimate goal for comics--as for any art form--will be to find a durable mutation that will be to continue to survive and thrive well into the new century.” --Scott McCloud

McCloud describes the comics medium as undergoing twelve revolutions, nine of them oriented around a traditional method of distribution, the comic book, and three of them oriented around computers. If you're only interested in what McCloud has to say about the Internet, then you may want to start on page 136, where McCloud begins to describe the revolutions in Digital Production, Digital Delivery and Digital Comics. It is these section that McCloud reveals what I think is the most potent truth in McCloud's book. After the engineers have done their stuff, the real potential for the future is in the hands of the content providers.

Whether you're making music, comics, literature, film, still photography or dynamic web pages, it will be up to you to make the Internet a place worth visiting.

(Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud is available starting August, 2000 from DC Comics and Harper Perennial Books.)

Copyright © 2000 Jeremy Russell. All Rights Reserved

Jeremy Russell (www.jeremyrussell.com) is a freelancer writer, editor and illustrator living in Berkeley, California. His writing has appeared previously in *spark-online, as well as at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, New York Press and Bad Subjects, among many others.

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