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Interview with comic book visionary Scott McCloud

September 09, 2014

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    Georgia Southern is hosting a talk with cartoonist, theorist and author Scott McCloud, whose book Understanding Comics has been acclaimed by many as a game-changing text in comic-book criticism. In 2005, McCloud gave a TED Talk on what he saw as the future of comics, thanks to the opportunities arising with the popularity and innovation of the Internet. He's been spending the past few years touring and lecturing all over the U.S. while working on a few projects of his own.
    Connect had the privilege of speaking with McCloud as he traveled up the California coast to his next speaking gig. With his wife, Ivy, at the wheel of the car, McCloud told Connect about his origins as a comic book artist and scholar, his theories regarding comics in the digital era and his upcoming graphic novel The Sculptor, due out in February.
     This is the interview, reproduced as accurately as possible. Due to interference over the phone, some parts of our discussion were rendered incoherent. Those sections are indicated by an ellipsis (...). 

    Connect: Let’s start really general. Can you tell me about you and how you got started in comics?
    Scott McCloud: Well, I was uninterested in comics when I was a little kid. I thought I was too old for them. Interestingly enough, I read “real books” and didn’t want anything to do with comics. But a friend of mine in junior high school named Kurt Busiek convinced me to give them a try — he was a comic book collector. He wore down my resistance and got me to try a few comics, and by the time I was 15 years old I’d decided I wanted to make them for a living. That was pretty much it.

    C: What comics were they?
    SM: There were a few different comics that he got me reading, but he started out with X-Men and Daredevil — which I don’t have to explain nowadays! Only 10 years ago, that would have been some specialized knowledge, but now just about everybody knows them, especially the X-Men. So yeah, I fell in love with superhero comics as a kid, but I branched out very quickly. I started reading other sorts of comics: comics from Europe and Japan, American independent comics, avant-garde art comics, and started getting into some of the old stuff from the early twentieth century, and eventually graphic novels and the independent scene and just went from there.
    All the way through high school and college I was just desperate to make comics, and three weeks before I left school I got a job in the industry and only a year and a half into that job I’d come up with a pitch for a comic of my own. I’ve been making them, with only a few brief interruptions, I’ve been making them professionally for about 30 years.

    C: What was your first job?
    SM: My first job was with DC Comics, the people who publish Superman and Batman. This was in Manhattan, in Rockefeller Center, and I just had a simple production job. All I did was sit around all day and dip my brush into whiteout and help correct little places where lines went over borders or paste down new lettering, that sort of thing. Nothing creative, but one of the nice things about that job was I got my hands on original art — these big oversized pieces of cardboard that the art was actually drawn on in pen and ink and brush. And because of that, it helped to demystify the process, to make it seem more familiar and more like something an actual human being could do. So I didn’t have that sense that some people do that there was this mystical, mysterious process that if you don’t have the right paper and pen and chant the right spells over the paper that you might somehow not be able to make comics. I understood, “No, real people can do this,” and I knew I was one of them.

    C: Did that kind of help you transition into writing Zot!?
    SM: Yeah, well, Zot! was my very first comic. My proposal for Zot! was what I cooked up only a year and a half into my job there at DC. Even though I worked 9 to 5, I would come home and work evenings and weekends as hard as I could on this massive proposal, because I really did want to work on comics of my own someday, and that day came pretty soon.

    C: What drew you to comics as a storytelling form?
    SM: The thing that drew me to comics, interestingly enough — the thing that first convinced me I might want to give it a stab myself — was the artistic qualities and some of the possibilities for experimentation. I was just as pretentious about art as a little kid as I was about writing. My favorite artists in those days were the Surrealists—I liked ... … and I wasn’t interested in traditional superhero comics at first, but I saw some comics by a guy named ... who was doing some more … collages and that sort of thing, and even though it was still a dopey superhero comic, but it was a much more interesting dopey superhero comic, and once I got my hands on that particular one, I got it in my head that there was room in comics for experimentation, for doing something a little bit more daring. That, combined with the fact that Kurt had me actually reading them and following the stories, that’s what sucked me in, was this idea that maybe the medium was capable of something more than had been done in the past. Even at 15 years old, I was already thinking of it as an art form that had potential beyond what had been done with it previously. So like I said, I was a real snooty, pretentious kid.

    C: So going along with that: You saw potential for the art form, and you transitioned your thoughts about it from the print and paper to the digital realm, and that was the basis for your TED Talk. That was back in 2005, and it’s almost 10 years later. What kind of change have you seen in comics as a form since you were starting to discuss the potential they had for the web?
    SM: Well, I’m a very impatient person. Change never happens fast enough for me. In 2005, it hadn’t happened fast enough to suit me, so the fact that it’s 2014 and things haven’t changed nearly enough to suit me is not at all surprising. But I’m not letting it get me too frustrated; I’ve had plenty to do in the meantime.
    The web, I think, has settled into a bit of a rut, and I think we’re going to have to wait for a new generation of mad scientists to really turn things upside down again — but they will. Even so, I think that a lot of the things that have happened to the web in the last 10-15 years are really exciting, a lot of them having to do with community and the reinvention of the artistic economy, and people finding their audience. The courting dance of artist and audience has been interesting to watch, and I guess I should have known it would be a slow dance …[garbled] There are some experimental artists that I showed in my TED Talk; they are still active. But most people are just doing short gag strips, that sort of thing. The exciting changes in comics have also been happening elsewhere. We've seen a growth of a much more robust, literary graphic novel scene. We’ve seen more diversity; especially the gender balance has been improving tremendously. We’ve seen a tremendous diversity of genre spring up, and the web has been helping with that. Comics about unusual subjects seem to have an easier time with it on the Web, when they’re not having to fight for shelf space. So that’s been a very positive development.
    And then also we’ve seen other really good developments — the influx of manga I think helps to be a breath of fresh air in terms of storytelling technique here in the States — Japanese manga, of course. There have been some important ideas coming over from Europe, and then also recently there’s been a real resurgence in all ages of children’s comics, which is a very important area, obviously, because that’s our future … And that’s another source of the gender switch, that we’re seeing many more female comic book artists partially because the manga generation, the kids sitting and reading manga in bookstores ten years ago, were majority female, so we’re seeing the profile of the average comic reader changing dramatically.

    C: What kind of children’s comics are you referring to? I haven’t seen those.
    SM: I’m especially interested in artists like Raina Telgemeier. Her memoir of her experiences of getting braces and having a tooth-damaging accident as a kid — that memoir, called Smile, was a real breakout hit that’s probably sold well over a million by now. It’s still on the New York Times bestseller list for graphic novels. It’s from Scholastic and it’s very, very popular. But also what Raina was doing as far as storytelling techniques is pretty groundbreaking, especially in her follow-up book, Drama. So, very interested in Raina’s work, and in the works of Vera Brosgol … also Kazu Kibuishi, and of course my old pal Jeff Smith, whose series Bone has been a tremendous hit with kids now for about two years.

    C: So I guess now is a good time for me to ask you what you’ve been up to lately. I know there’s been some buzz about an upcoming graphic novel that you’re putting out.
    SM: Yep. That’s the one! It’s called The Sculptor, and it took me the last five years of my life to work on. It is designed for print — I believe very strongly that you design for the device, even if that device is a book — so I’ve been back in the world of paper and ink in a sense for the last five years, even though I created the thing all digital. It’s about 500 pages and it takes place in New York, and it’s got a love story at the heart of it. It’s about a young sculptor who makes a supernatural bargain. It’s about art and memory, and it has a very urban setting — I mean, I don’t know. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s a lot of things, but it was a real delight to work on. It took me five years, but hopefully it will be worth every day. I feel good about the book; I think it’s good. People seem to like it so far — the few people who’ve seen it.

    C: I saw that apparently you made Neil Gaiman cry, and that’s a big deal.
    SM: *laughing* A couple of times, yes, on Twitter.

    C: You’ve done so much work arguing for the form of comics and its evolution online, but this graphic novel, you’re taking it back to print and paper and the more classical way of introducing a comic. What made you decide on this particular medium for this story?
    SM: Well, in many ways, from about 1995 to 2005 I was trying very hard to make the web a safe place for long-form graphic work, the equivalent of a 2-, 4- or 600-page graphic novel. Creatively, in terms of an interface, it made for very smooth reading. In terms of the economic possibilities, I wanted there to be an independent form of internet currency that allowed people to charge relatively small amounts of money for these things. In some ways, I wasn’t able to pull off either one, although things like it have come into being on the Web since then. I wasn’t able to create that environment that would have sustained a 500-page work like this: there wasn’t an economic model for it, and in many ways the creative models were still kind of distracting and just not quite there yet.

    [At this point, the McClouds drove through an area with heavy interference and we lost the call.]

    SM: Let me know if I start cutting out again. The important thing is that even if the environment had been right for The Sculptor to do it online, I might have still done it as a book. In a lot of ways I felt like I had never completely come to term with the possibilities on the page, and this was my chance to do that before, perhaps, switching over and leaving print behind entirely should the new forms be hospitable enough. Print has its limitations; in a lot of ways, my explorations into what became known as the “infinite canvas” allowed me to see more clearly the limitations that print has, but sometimes having a better idea of limitations allows you to work within them more effectively. And so that was a fun aspect to bits of this, that I found ways to hopefully transcend the limitations of print and do something that works well within that constraint.

    C: So can you tell us a little bit about the story?
    SM: I don’t want to go into too much detail about the story. Other than that, I’ll say it’s a bit operatic. There are some very big forces and ideas running through the story, but it also has a lot of small, funny, human moments. It embraces a lot of different tones.

    C: Could you give us a quick recap of what you’re going to be talking about at GSU on Wednesday?
    SM: Sure. My lectures have a lot of slides. Every once in a while someone will try taking notes, and I just suggest that they not even bother because if they look down at their piece of paper they’re going to miss six slides, it goes by so fast. So you’ll see hundreds of slides going by pretty fast, primarily about the core nature of comics and visual communication. I have a growing interest in the way we communicate in pictures, an interest that goes beyond just comics. I’m just fascinated by how the mind processes imagery and how images are used and abused in communication in all forms: in animation, in information graphics, and even just in the images we send to each other in facial expressions and body language. I’ll be touching on some of the stuff we mentioned regarding comics and new technology, the evolving role of comics in these new spaces and some more recent work done in that experimental mode, using that infinite canvas idea, and we’ll be reading a couple of short excerpts. But mostly it’s just kind of a whirlwind tour of all the things I’m passionate about regarding comics and visual communication. It’ll all be going by pretty fast. It’s just a lot of fun. I’ve been told that they’re informative presentations, but there’s a lot of lightheartedness. I promise not to bore you. 



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