Throwback Thursday’s Scott McCloud Interview by Carol Pinchefsky
Comics Creator and Scholar Shares Industry Theories
Comic book artist Scott McCloud literally does it all. He draws his own comics, including the superhero parody Zot!; he writes books about comic books, their form and function; and he devises creative techniques for comic book artists to employ. McCloud doesn’t just think outside the box, he invents new boxes.
Born in Boston and raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, McCloud has been drawing since he can remember, but he eschewed comic books until junior high school pal (now a professional artist himself) Kurt Busiek introduced him to the medium. He’s been hooked ever since and has been working steadily in the comic book industry for about 25 years.
McCloud writes about comic books in comic book form, and he argues that comics are the perfect medium. He may be right: his books show, with perfect clarity, why comic books are so compelling. He also makes visible the invisible transitions of time and space between panels, and the balance between words and pictures. Within a few pages of reading his books, the reader is thinking like a comic artist.
More importantly McCloud ushers his audience into thinking about comics in a way that they have not done before. There’s a depth to his analysis that rivals a dissertation, yet his books are written with humor and intelligence that make them accessible to every reader.
Artists who want to absorb the world of ink and word balloons should read McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics. Although each book can be enjoyed individually, they also work as a series: Understanding Comics describes the “inner life” of comics; Reinventing Comics discusses the fluid nature of the genre and how technology changes the dynamics between the artist, the reader and the art; Making Comics is more of a hands-on guide for artists looking to delve into the craft.
Here, McCloud talks about the series and offers advice on how to succeed in the comics industry.
What made you decide to write your three comics about comics?
Understanding Comics came from quite a few notes I was jotting down about how the form worked. The idea of doing a comic book about comics occurred early on, probably within the first few years of my drawing comics professionally. I had the basic idea and kept taking more and more notes until the file folder I had started to sag off its hinges, and I decided it was time to make a book.
One inspiration was Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe—the idea of a narrator walking around explaining how things work. But years later I realized it was strongly influenced by the BBC TV host James Burke and his shows Connections and The Day the Universe Changed.
The passion that drove Reinventing Comics was my obsession with comics and digital media, which began pretty much as Understanding Comics came out. I was already falling in love with digital media. The fact that I wasn’t able to put those ideas on paper right away was the source of a lot of frustration for me. I was ready to write Reinventing Comics earlier, but for various reasons I had to get other things off my desk, and so Reinventing Comics was, in some ways, too late . . . and of course, it was far too early as well, because the Web was pretty primitive at the time.
The first half of the book is a catchall for other obsessions I’ve had over the years, and I don’t think I managed to bring the same sense of urgency to them that I had in my first book. I believe in the message of Reinventing Comics—the principals regarding digital media and the importance of various revolutions I was chronicling—but I don’t think it’s as good a piece of rhetoric [as Understanding Comics].
Making Comics happened because I had begun teaching in 2002, and I have discovered that I had a lot of ideas bottled up inside me that spilled out. I didn’t realize how many ideas there were until I honed them in the classroom. I had a book within the first year or two.
I think we’re at a juncture where good storytelling is important as comics are trying to diversify and create new readers. I think there are basic storytelling principals that cross all lines, that apply to comic books, manga, graphic novels, comic strips, and Web comics. [Making Comics addresses this.]
So far, probably the invention most people know me for, apart from the stuff in the books, is the 24-Hour Comic, which was a challenge for my friend Steve Bissette to do a 24-page comic in 24 hours. It has become something of a phenomenon. At this point, 2,000 to 3,000 artists have taken the challenge over the last few years, most notably in an annual celebration called 24-Hour Comics Day, where people from around the world attempt to meet that challenge, to scale the Mt. Everest of comics, as I call it. You can learn more about the day by going to www.24hourcomics.com.
I also like to invent little challenges to test creativity—pressure exercises, oddball things, like a card game [Five-Card Nancy] using panels from Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, which is one of the sillier comic strips.
And I penned something called the Creator’s Bill of Rights, which was an early attempt to publicize the rights of comic book artists to their own creations. So I am something of an inventor in that respect. Mostly I’m known for the various ideas I’ve introduced in Understanding Comics as to how comics work.
Is comic book art best when it’s simple (for example, Nancy)?
No, not best. I think comic book art is best when it serves the story, the passions of the artist, or the entertainment of the reader. When I did Understanding Comics, we were at a stage in mainstream comics where it was important to stress the power of simplicity in art, because many had lost sight of that. I don’t think that’s true anymore. People are aware that simple art doesn’t have to accompany simple-minded stories, because simple art can convey very complex ideas. That’s commonly understood now, so I feel like our work is done on that front.
I never wanted to be pigeonholed as saying that simple art is “better.” But simplicity has power, and it’s a power worth understanding.
Are Web comics good for artists?
It depends on the artist, I suppose. They’re good for some, and they’ve been really good for me. I’ve enjoyed experimenting in that realm; it’s kept comics interesting for me. They have tremendous potential, some of it unfulfilled. There’s some very good work on the Web, but it’s all still very new, and I’m sure the best is yet to come as far as Web comics go.
What is the infinite canvas?
The infinite canvas is the notion of using the [computer] screen as a window, the idea that you don’t have any limits on the size of your “pages,” when you’re creating comics on the Web. You can create comics that sprawl out in any direction for as long as they need to be. Any comic that forces you to scroll all over creation, people just call an infinite canvas these days. A few artists that have followed this have created some really fascinating stuff.
If we can just call it an expanded canvas for a moment . . .
When you have an expanded format, you have the opportunity to allow your story to dictate the size and shape and rhythm of the panels in a way that you don’t on the printed page. When you’re trying to fit all of your panel on a printed page, that little rectangle has its own ideas about rhythm and space. But if you’re able to spread out, you can plan your comic the way somebody plans a song. When it’s time to change the rhythm and the meter, you can do that. You have more freedom to select the right number of beats without worrying that you might land two-thirds down the page, just when it’s time for a full-page spread. It’s an opportunity to employ blank space between the panels, to regulate pacing; an opportunity for color, since screens have more of a gamut than the printed page; and of course an opportunity for multimedia, although that can be a bit like Pandora’s box. You don’t necessarily want to open that lid, but it’s there if you think it’s worthwhile.
What are trail-based comics?
Trails are a particular graphic device that I used in some of those “expanded canvas” comics, where the panels were connected. If you have a particularly unused configuration of panels or set of reading directions, the trails make it easy to know which way to go next.
If you want to see it in action, there is a comic called PoCom-UK-001 by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey (www.e-merl.com/pocom.htm) that uses trails in a particularly effective way.
I don’t make any grandiose claims on it, but I think I was the first person to do it [trail-based comics]. I did a number of them on my site but I didn’t use them for everything, because I like to try different devices, and in some cases it wouldn’t have been appropriate.
In Understanding Comics, you write about icons. Are there any icons that you find overused or cliché?
The whole point of them is to overuse them. That’s how they become a language: if they’re used often enough, they become a kind of shorthand, like the bulging veins on the foreheads of Japanese comic characters. And the more they’re used, the more they become like a word.
Story devices that are overused are tedious, and styles or stock characters that are overused are frustrating and boring. But symbols that are overused are just useful symbols. They drift from being simple pictures to representing a phenomenon the way words do. It’s fun to watch.
Can you give us an example of an overused story device?
The various revenge fantasies and sexist power fantasies get overused in mainstream superhero comics. Then there are gag structures that comic strip artists depend on like crutches, and lazy or static devices that Web comics use. Every type of comic has its dull, overused techniques for stories.
Can you describe any current trends in comic book art?
One of the most terrific trends right now is the fusion of Japanese and Western styles. We have a lot of young artists who were influenced by and passionate about Japanese manga and anime, but they’re not just aping Japanese style. Their new styles are beginning to emerge, and they have their own stories to tell.
How is American comic art different from European and Asian forms?
European comics were dominated by a kind of world-building aesthetic that was pioneered by an artist named Hergé [the pen name of Belgian artist Georges Remi, who created The Adventures of Tintin, one of the most popular European comics of the 20th century]. You can see throughout the generations, many European artists, as different as they were from Hergé, had that same basic impulse to create fully realized worlds.
And for many years in Japan, the common denominator in a lot of Japanese comics was about the reader experience—creating stories in which the reader becomes like a participant and not just an observer. There are techniques in manga that have contributed to that.
Here in North America, for many years the superhero aesthetic dominated. But there are other, more subtle aspects of the American approach that I think you can find running across different types of American comics, including a tendency to play to the reader a bit—that idea of character and backdrop and acknowledgment of the reader.
The idea of a theater in little boxes on the page is something that shows up in a lot of different type of comics. The differences are blurring a little [because of the] exchange of ideas between the cultures for much of the 20th century.
Each of the various new markets in comics are promoting new genres and new subject matter. And there are a few different ways in which genres of comics are exploding. On the Web comics side, you see the growth of niche markets and genres that didn’t exist in print, like videogame-oriented comics, which are huge in the Web comic sphere. On the manga side, there’s been a tremendous resurgence in comics for young girls—shojo manga, as they call it.
For the first time, graphic novels are outselling single-issue comic books. Why do you think that is?
There’s a lot that goes into making great graphic novels. The format is capable of greatness, and it’s capable of trash; it just depends on what you put into it. Fortunately there are people producing challenging, ambitious work in that format, and so graphic novels have come to be associated with that sort of artistic and literary ambition.
What are the differences between comic books and graphic novels?
In graphic novels, the push is mostly toward real-life subject matter (non-fiction, autobiography, stories about ordinary people and their relationships) and a drive to increase the depth of the literate worth of comics.
When people think of graphic novels, they think of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, or stories of growing up in Iran during the Iranian revolution [like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi]. Really, at the end of the day, it’s just a format.
Any advice to artists looking to break into graphic novel writing?
It’s harder than ever because you have more competition. There are plenty of opportunities out there, but there are about ten times as many talented artists as when I was starting. It’s something of a meritocracy—if your work is really brilliant and you’re offering it on the Web, people may need to discover it.
It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make a living out of it, but if you want to get noticed and your work deserves to get noticed, you will be noticed. Going that extra step and figuring out how to make a living at it, that’s not something we’ve really solved. It’s still a struggle. It can be done, but there aren’t many clear paths to financial independence. Doing the best work you can is still the best way to get a leg up on the competition. If anything, that’s become even more true in recent years.
Are there opportunities for comic book artists, besides creating comics and graphic novels?
You can become a storyboard artist for Hollywood, or a conceptual artist. Some [comic book artists] go into advertising, some go into moviemaking, some become prose authors. Being a comic book writer/artist is good preparation for any number of activities. In order to write and draw your own comic, you have to be director, cinematographer, costume designer, writer, actor and set designer. You have to do so many different things to effectively tell those stories visually that if you learn [how to create comic books], you may be set for life with an arsenal of skills in a number of professions.
If you enjoyed this interview, check out these other artist interviews on Artist’s Market Online: