Locus Online





Wednesday 14 March 2001

Red Hour Orgy
A Column about Comics by Philip Shropshire
(Special to Locus Online)

• Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics (HarperPerennial) and

• Warren Ellis and Gary Erskine, City of Silence (Image Comics)

Wired 9.03: Master of the Universe

It’s a wonderful Alt Future for comics that Scott McCloud gives us in Reinventing Comics (HarperPerennial). Arguably the most important cartoonist alive, the bespectacled McCloud takes us on a journey encompassing comics’ current dark days to a hopeful and joyous future where good work is recognized and everybody gets their check through micropayments. We can only hope.

What’s particularly compelling about the McCloud message is the medium he chooses to express it in. Comics are used as a way to convey theory, comment, historical perspective and even ideology that you just don’t see everyday. I suppose those Beginners and Introducing books (published by Writers and Readers and Totem respectively) on historical figures like Chomsky or Nietzsche would be conquerable, but you sense those books are prose mixed in with pictures. What McCloud is doing is cohesive and compelling nonfiction Art, with a capital A -- actually, I wish McCloud would do a McLuhan for Beginners Book. It would be a perfect match of critic and subject.



Reinventing also serves as the dazzling debut of McCloud the critic as he looks at and comments on, well, just about everybody: the many facial expressions of Will Eisner, the new techniques of Joe Sacco, the Rube Goldberg statement on the role of cartoonists (“We’re nothing but Vaudevillians!”), the importance of Maus, the confessional style of Joe Matt, the wonderful weirdness of Starlin’s Adam Warlock and just about everybody else in the book’s 235 pages. Personally, I found myself exhausted by the amount of ideas, concepts and all-around deep thinking that displayed itself in this work. I wanted to towel off and take a rest.

Just to give a quick synopsis of the book: Twelve separate areas or concepts are explored, with the last three involving computer technology. He spends about half of the book talking about how the new computer technologies could change the relationship between comic creators and readers in a beneficial way. Just tons of inspired visual moments along the ride, including computer effects, massive and fair use sampling of a zillion cartoonists’ styles, and a playful ease with knotty concepts that would in other hands be difficult to explain. The Big Message of the first half of the book seems to be comics have to do better. The industry needs more genre diversity, more racial and gender inclusion, more imaginative self-promotion and a better deal for its creators.

The part of the book that interested me the most was the second half, when he talked about the digital revolution and the benefits that might be derived by this Great Shift. First, he gives us a stunning history of the computer industry itself, which intertwines Eniac, his dad the early-era computer programmer, Moore’s Law and, dare I say it, science-fictional speculation (“the maturing of virtual reality”, “the first imperfect prototypes for the ultimate killer app -- the universal translator”, etc.), then he goes into why the future of computing might offer a better deal for creators. As McCloud sees it, financially strapped and put-upon comic dealers know that X-Men usually sells more than the sporadically produced Dan Clowes graphic novel. If that’s the reality, then you shouldn’t be all that surprised to see your friendly neighborhood comics store stuffed with superhero titles. After all, comic store owners have to eat.

McCloud believes that the Internet future will offer comics two great new opportunities of growth. One, the Internet will offer a wider diversity of comics titles because sellers can offer titles that traditional bricks'n'mortar stores can’t. It’s the exact same reason that Amazon can carry that latest Allan Holdsworth album when your local Borders sales rep, busily rearranging those bland boy band titles, has never heard of the guitarist and would swear to you that therefore he must not exist. Second, once micropayments has been perfected -- or the ability to pay, say, 5 cents to a quarter for the newest installment of Zippy or a Warren Ellis column -- that could ignite a new renaissance for comic book writers and artists. It would allow the form a chance at both diversity and some measure of artistic growth. One of the many brilliant observations he makes is that this direct artist to fan relationship would be better than an advertiser model because advertisers exact certain demands upon their content providers. If the relationship is direct, then the artist just has to worry about pleasing his or her audience and his or her own sensibilities about the work.

For those of you out there who’ve read both this book and McCloud's earlier Understanding Comics it should be good news that he’s continuing his line of argument at his own web site, In his fifth I Can’t Stop Thinking column written for The Comic Reader, he explains how once a mechanism like micropayments is perfected it will change comics. By the way, science fiction, which some might say is in kind of a publishing decline despite prominent play in both film and television, would also benefit from a secure method of online payments. Personally, to throw in my two cents, if that micropayment system ever comes, then every magazine like Analog or Asimov’s should have an online counterpart and all the published stories should be read by an ensemble cast in some kind of visual Flash format, the fate of Galaxy Online notwithstanding. Just a suggestion in case the future ever arrives.

So, in a nutshell, if you’re looking for a comic that’s intellectually challenging, check out Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics and also his online stuff at, where he’s busy putting those theories about the evolution of the shape of comics into practice (such as using the monitor as a page, changing the shape of panels and playing with space and form). And I highly recommend his online story about chess if you decide to click it on.

I’m not sure if Bill Joy, the famous scientist who might affectionately be called the leading voice of the neo-luddite anti-technology movement, has a favorite comic. But if he was looking for one that would best bring his fears to the public in a four-color format, then I highly recommend that he pick up Warren Ellis’s brilliant, prickly and thoroughly disturbing trilogy City of Silence. The premise of the story -- written sometime before Transmetropolitan but seemingly set in that same world or an alternative dimension jump away from it -- is that there’s technology out there so dangerous that the very thought of it has to be censored, or “silenced”. “Silenced” is just a nice way to say killed. Euphemistically, it’s in the same category as the Le Femme Nikita term “cancelled”.

Our heroes, one man and two women, are some kind of aged and depraved three way orgiastic Mod Squad. Their job is to go out and terminate people who have the dangerous technology. And whilst they rip out your throat, puncture you with sharp objects or shoot your dog, they’re always trading witty Avengers era quips. Disturbing and poetic, City of Silence is one of the best science-fiction comics that I’ve read in a long time. It features a number of wonderful snatches of prose. Think Richard Calder without all that French or Gibson during one of his "Burning Chrome" level descriptive insights. In terms of just its perpetual wave of neat conceits and jolting thought, it kind of reminds you a little bit of the wondrous Starstruck comics done by Kaluta and Lee. Here’s an excerpt:

She was a surgeon. And I mean was -- she was disbarred from practice before I met her. She had big strange ideas. She injected untested nanotech and blank DNA into a fetus, having drugged the mother first. What came out was a cloud of live steel and fleshy dust, with radio parts instead of vocal chords. She liked to tinker.

And of course, it gets kind of weird after that. I can’t say enough about the art either. It is stunningly drawn, way better than most Transmet comics for example. Gary Erskine does a wonderful job of imagining that aforementioned Transmet as drawn by Geoff Darrow, mixed in with a 70s Heavy Metal perspective. It just looks good.

So, to sum up and rip off an apt phrase from Greg Egan’s "Axiomatic", this is science fiction for people who like science fiction. It’s been out awhile so you might have to go to your better comics store to find it, but it’s definitely worth it. Highly recommended, and arguably the best written published work that I’ve seen from Warren Ellis.

Odds and Ends: There’s an interesting piece in the March edition of Wired about comics artist Neal Adams and his new graphic novel A Conversation Between Two Guys in a Bar or A New Model of the Universe. His topic of choice isn’t superheroes, but scientific theory. Neal Adams believes that the Earth is expanding and growing larger. It sounds like a very complicated theory involving physics, geophysics, particle physics and copious amounts of random theory and observation. The article is a well-written piece that features two of the illustrations found in the graphic novel. I came away thinking that Neal’s science wasn’t up to snuff, but discovered that there are people in geology -- as opposed to people with a lot of experience with Denny O’Neil, pectoral dimensions and the approximate length of bat ears -- who believe that the Earth is growing. I certainly look forward to reviewing the graphic novel whenever it comes out. This must be what Scott McCloud means by expanding the diversity of topic matter in comics.

Go for it Neal. One interesting side note: Neal Adams can kick our asses! The piece starts by detailing Neal, who’s 59, bench pressing 360 pounds about 8 times. Apparently, Neal Adams just doesn’t run a superhero company, he’s also a client.

Philip Shropshire is an avid fan of both comics and science-fiction and he runs two personal blogs: and He is hard at work on both a collection of essays and a first novel called Virtual Gods. He is under the probably mistaken impression that if he mentions this in public that he will actually complete these books.

© 2001 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.