Scott McCloud's The Right Number: Gaining Currency with Multimedia Technology and Digital Publishing in the Web Comics Revolution

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Scott McCloud has been at the forefront of a movement to redefine comics on the Web. Though himself originally a print comics artist, McCloud has advocated moving away from print paradigms and publishing venues toward the "infinite canvas" he envisions on the World Wide Web. In advocating for digital publishing and interactive art, McCloud, much like Peter Greenaway on new media, believes the visual potential of comics can be radically developed, perhaps moving away from traditional print conventions, such as linear formats linked to the sequential and opaque page; static word/image art; or spatial and temporal coordinates dictated by the format and materiality of the graphic novel or comic book. But the radical shift to digital media has also meant reconsidering the means of publication, distribution, and compensation outside of the print industry. Basically, as new media producers move away from print paradigms and conventions towards greater technological and digital innovation, they are not only leading the vanguard in terms of artistic production, but they are being forced to bear the brunt of responsibility for developing economically viable means of production and distribution of their work on the Internet. Web publishing now requires new media producers to think creatively about the long term implications of Web production, distribution, copyright, and royalties—concepts all tied closely to the print industry, and which may or may not translate across digital borders. This has brought artists, entrepreneurs, and media critics into animated discussion with one another and has led to some innovative thinking about artistic production, target audiences, and economic remuneration. It has also pointed up the singular differences of working within a global, digitized medium as opposed to a material and highly stratified print industry. 

Scott McCloud's graphic novella, The Right Number, showcased innovative digital technology at the same time that it comprised an industry experiment to test the concept of "micropayments" within digital contexts. Employing a user collection system called BitPass, which was designed to compensate media producers (authors, recording artists, independent game designers) for artistic content generated on the Web, McCloud was able to distribute his graphic novella for 25 cents per user, pocketing 85% of the profits from the exchange (as compared with the 8% he makes on his print books). BitPass allowed users to view a Web comic multiple times and even download the file onto a user's hard drive, bypassing publishers and distributors, in favor of a system that compensated media producers directly and often passed the savings on to consumers. Traditional user collection systems, such as PayPal don't work with the micropayments concept, because credit card companies can charge as much as $1.50 per transaction, making it difficult to charge for small amounts of money. BitPass managed to stay in business for four years, allowing Scott McCloud to sell just under 2300 copies of The Right Number, Parts 1 and 2. But the company finally succumbed to financial loss and went out of business in January of 2007. 

McCloud gained notoriety for promoting and defending online micropayments when he launched The Right Number, because other media critics had claimed that the system was obsolete on the Web, due to unlimited access and free content. Yet, the interest in financial web collection systems, such as BitPass, continues to persist, due to the growing cadre of new media producers, the recent success of iTunes, and the availability of increased bandwidth on the Internet. Various issues come into play when considering monetary exchange for artistic content on the Web. Foremost, early Web media distribution created a culture where users came to expect free Web content. Second, it's not clear that users/readers want to make discriminating choices about inexpensive Net content or that they are willing to buy virtual cards. Third, it continues to be difficult for users/readers to discriminate among new artists and Web comics outside of peer review/cataloguing systems, of which there are currently few (though this is changing). And fourth, it's difficult for user collection services to target the right consumers/readers. Nonetheless, given the momentum behind the Web comics movement, it seems likely that new models will be found to negotiate the print/digital divide within late capitalist systems. 

To address the competing demands of technological innovation and new methods of commercial payment on comics artists and new media producers, I want to look at the relationship between the media specific innovations of McCloud's graphic novella, The Right Number, and his involvement in debates regarding micropayment systems, particularly in response to Clay Shirky's criticisms. This is perhaps most tangibly realized in the material signifier of Scott McCloud's wrist injury, due to his overexertion in drawing The Right Number and responding in writing to heated debates about BitPass and micropayments, in general. Interestingly, The Right Number gained the attention of non-traditional comics readers, because they were invested in the outcome of the micropayment system. Both activities (drawing/programming the comic and defending micropayments in writing) involved the negotiation of digital technologies and computer-user interfaces as well as physical and mental exertion within the cybernetic circuit. Both electronic processes/products (writing and drawing/programming) were necessary to ensure that the other could continue, thus suggesting an interdependence between the two modes of graphic output; and both acts involved working with code: the algorithmic code of The Right Number, the technological code of new media, and the financial code for controlling access to and achieving remuneration for artistic content. Finally, both the graphic novella and the micropayment debates stand as a testament to McCloud's passion for and interest in the Web comics revolution, providing a snapshot into the kinds of productive exchanges that are taking place on the Web as more authors and artists transition from print to digital media.

(Source: Author's abstract for 2008 ELO Conference)

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Scott Rettberg