August 2003

Karin L. Kross

fiction

The Right Number (Chapter 1) by Scott McCloud

It's hard to discuss Scott McCloud's new Web comic, The Right Number, without mentioning the newfangled micropayment plan that premiered alongside it, but I'm going to try. If you want to read about micropayments, you'll have to read the Comicbookslut column.

Now that we've got that out of the way...

Scott McCloud is one of the loudest voices claiming that the Web is the future of comics, not merely for sales of the paper sort, but also for the publishing thereof. In the days of dial-up, when a 28.8kbps modem was a terribly exciting thing, his vision seemed like a pipe dream, but as high bandwidth has become more common and accessible, the ideas he sketched out in Reinventing Comics have become much more plausible. There's now a thriving Web comic scene (I recommend Nowhere Girl and The Spiders as a couple of especially fine examples of the form), and McCloud himself has a wide variety of work for your perusal on his own web site.

From a form and technology standpoint, The Right Number is notable for its use of Flash animation; McCloud uses it to create a smooth transition between each frame of his comic. Instead of a traditional comic book layout, McCloud uses a one-frame-at-a-time approach, where the next frame is a tiny thumbnail embedded in the center of the one that you're currently viewing. (Readers of Reinventing Comics will recognize this idea and may be amused or pleased to see that technology has finally allowed McCloud to make this idea work.) The effect is one of digging deeper into the tale as you go.

The story itself is something McCloud describes as "a psychological drama about math, sex, obsession and phone numbers," which is as good of a description as any. We are informed at the beginning of the tale that our narrator, a sometime mathematics graduate student, has discovered a pattern to existence through a series of phone numbers.

It begins when the narrator misdials a phone call to his girlfriend, Jodie; one digit off, he makes a date with another girl, Julie, who in appearance could easily be Jodie's double, but whom the narrator finds much more likable and easygoing. When the relationship with Jodie falls apart, the narrator calls Julie (her number so easy to remember, after all), and soon they move in together. Then Julie's old friend Kate appears, with a phone number a few digits different from Julie's. By the end of Chapter 1, it seems likely that the narrator's fixation on patterns is going to take him off the beaten path once again.

Two more chapters are forthcoming, and, given Scott McCloud's proven track record with the comics form, they very likely will sustain the interest of the first. McCloud keeps the narrative tension going strong, and, although the narrator seems to be an unlikable, self-centered fellow, it's hard not to wonder where he's going with his tale. The art is, as always, polished and clean, rendered in cool shades of blue that perfectly fit the narrator's chilly, abstract mind.

Sometimes, when discussing Web comics, it's tempting to digress into technical discussion, arguing over whether the use of the form and technology is sufficiently "innovative." This is especially true when you toss something like micropayments into the mix. This kind of discussion loses sight of what ought to be the real questions: Is the story worth reading? Is the art worth looking at? In the case of The Right Number, the answer to both questions is "yes," and the technology involved isn't half-bad either.

The Right Number Available at scottmccloud.com. BitPass micropayment "cards" can be set up at time of purchase.