Scott McCloud, the creator of Understanding Comics, Zot!, and his newest comic The Sculptor, is revered in comics for good reason. Not only is he, perhaps, the most widely taught person in American comics, but he has only continued to learn about and hone his craft for the past three decades: teaching, drawing, and lecturing. His kind manner, enthusiasm, and good humor make him not only one of the greatest comics scholars of today, but one of the most approachable as well. Comics Bulletin critic Chase Magnett sat down with McCloud at San Diego Comic-Con this summer to discuss the The Sculptor, teaching comics, criticism, and where the medium is going.
Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: Let’s start with The Sculptor. Six months after publication and it experienced a very positive reception, both critically and commercially. Looking back, do you think you accomplished what you wanted to do when you began the project?
McCloud: I think I can look at it now in a more balanced view and see some things in the story that I might want to fiddle with. But overall, I am really happy with some of the basic things I have heard over and over. Just ten minutes ago, I heard something that I have heard dozens and dozens of times: people are reading it in one sitting.
Maybe that just means that I didn’t use a lot of words per panel. The thing flies by. People have read it in just a few hours. But it is still good news for an author to hear that people didn’t feel like they needed to just put it down, go off, and do something else. I have heard from people who were inconvenienced by it though, who stayed up later than they wanted or missed a meeting or train stop or something. That’s always good news because it means that the story grabbed them and wouldn’t let them go, and that was one of the very deliberate goals that I set for myself.
If you had asked me before the book even came out what I wanted, I just wanted a story that grabbed people enough that they fell into it, tumbled into the story, and then suddenly they blink and they’ve read the whole thing. That does seem to be the case. Probably the most common comment I get is that people just couldn’t stop reading. For someone like who me who has done a lot of experimental comics where I want them to stop every three minutes and consider the formal tricks I am using, it is really gratifying to do something that was the polar opposite of that.
Magnett: It is definitely not like [The New Adventures of Abraham] Lincoln at all.
McCloud: Oh, God. You remember that one! The great comedian Jack Benny in the mid-twentieth century had done a film called The Horn Blows at Midnight. It was a complete flop, but he got comedy material out of it for the rest of his life. Lincoln is obviously my Horn Blows at Midnight.
Magnett: But I do think looking at Sculptor, there are a lot of formal elements to be mined. You can look back to Understanding Comics and see a lot of what you teach being applied here. It is very much walking that walk.
McCloud: It is just being applied under the surface.
Magnett: It focuses on those very basic concepts; You are saying this is the core of the comics language as I would like to apply it. I think it makes for a nice companion in terms of just understanding craft.
McCloud: I hope so. Storytelling is the big bang. That’s the reason why comics came into existence. It just was a vehicle for telling stories in an economical way at a time when things hadn’t hit the silver screen as they shortly would. I think it useful to look sometimes at comics as a form in an opaque way: analyzing the form, thinking about the form, bringing people’s attention to the form. And sometimes it is good to reconnect with our heritage, which is to just use comics as a pure storytelling vehicle.
I am interested in so many different functions and aspects of comics; it’s appropriate I would at times want to do the one and at times I would want to do the other. This was my bid to be the invisible storyteller, to basically disappear as a storyteller, to have the hand of the artist not visible anywhere in the creation of the work.
It is funny because it makes all of those technical achievements invisible. It hides them, but it is just as much of a technical achievement to stop drawing attention to your technical achievements. It is just as interesting of a formal challenge to create something that seems to have no formal technique at all. That’s one of the reasons why the artwork in this story is a little bit generic. It is not very style heavy or opaque. When I draw a car or a face or a dog or a fire hydrant, you just see those things in an almost platonic way. I am practically the graphic novel equivalent of Ernie Bushmiller here. I am just drawing the thing itself without a lot of stylistic covering to it.
The thing has a slightly generic feeling to it that way, but that is because I wanted there to be absolutely nothing between the reader and the thing. If I were to do more work along these lines, I think you might start to see something a more like my personal style begin to return. But right now this is just the core, the skeleton of my storytelling arsenal.
Magnett: Are you looking to keep building upon that skeleton, to add some muscles and skin, or are you looking to return to nonfiction right now?
McCloud: In the short term I am returning to nonfiction. The next book is about visual communication. It is another full-length comics essay like my other books, but this time comics won’t be in the title, and it won’t be about comics specifically. It is just going to be about the nature of visual learning and visual communication across disciplines.
Magnett: Is it being told in the same manner as Reinventing [Comics], Making [Comics], and Understanding [Comics]?
McCloud: It will probably still have the presence of a narrator and be very much a presentation on paper of the topic, but this time it is not going to be about comics alone.
Magnett: I find it interesting you refer to your three nonfiction works as essays.
McCloud: They are in a sense.
Magnett: They are most commonly utilized as textbooks today. I think if you look at almost any comics class at the undergraduate level, that’s the first thing on a syllabus.
McCloud: It is pretty ubiquitous, enough that I am sure some students are getting pissed off at me that they had to buy the book multiple times. I have heard from people who bought it, brought it back to the bookstore for half credit, and then had to buy it again, and then had to buy it again.
Magnett: That’s their fault for bringing it back.
McCloud: I know. If only they had known they should have kept it.
Magnett: How do you feel about it being utilized as a textbook? Because I don’t think that was your design when you first published in ’92 or ’93.
McCloud: ’93 is when it first came out and then ’94 with its New York publisher, HarperCollins. I don’t think too many artists mind if thousands of people are forced to read their book. It’s pretty sweet. I am happy to report most students are not sorry they read it. I don’t think it is particularly boring at least. I certainly never intended it to be the only text in that space, and there are other people who have written in interesting ways about comics.
Sadly not too many of them have written in comics form; most are just prose books. That is understandable, unless they happen to be working cartoonists themselves. It was meant as a conversation starter though. I think at the beginning people just sort of patted me on the book and I got a free pass for a while, but those days are over. There are plenty of people willing to challenge some of the ideas in Understanding Comics, especially. I think that is a very healthy thing.
Magnett: Typically textbooks evolve as they age. I was used to buying version thirteen of a text about thirteen years after the original was published as an economics major. Knowing how it’s utilized as a textbook, that this is the go-to when people start to try to understand the form, have you had the urge to revisit and revise the text?
McCloud: I try not to do anything twice. There are aspects of the book that I could come back to and pick apart a little. I think some of the word/picture combination stuff I talk about there is somewhat sloppy. I think that my definition has a couple of big loopholes in it when you arrive at digital. For instance, if you are going to have one big panel on the screen, and then you click to go to the next panel, and then you click to go to the next panel, that’s missing the juxtaposition, which I said was definitive. So by my definition, it wouldn’t be comics. But then what the hell else is it? If it is not comics, what is the thing?
Magnett: Could you expand to say it is temporal juxtaposition?
McCloud: That would be true of movies too. You have one frame of a movie after another or a slideshow. So these things have fuzzy edges, no question about it. I think I would write more and more about less and less the further I went down that rabbit hole. Anyone can make those points for us. They don’t need me to do it. It would be a pretty sad world if it was just me arguing with myself throughout eternity.
I like to move on and spend my time doing very different things. As soon as the ink was dry in Understanding Comics, I was pulled into digital and I became obsessed with the possibilities for comics in a digital environment, which was never even mentioned in all of Understanding Comics. But as soon as that book was out, I had talked about that stuff and it was time to talk about something else. I have continued to jump around and jump around and jump around. I have a way of abandoning whatever territory I was just in.
Magnett: I think Making Comics especially makes for a good companion piece to the original. It is an expansion in some ways.
McCloud: Those two books are about as similar as any two things I’ve done. They are very different books in terms of their focus. I think they are still very much about what’s in the panel itself. They go together in a way that they don’t necessarily go together with my troubled middle child, Reinventing Comics.
Magnett: You are obviously not interested in revisiting and doing a second edition of Understanding Comics. Are you ever uncomfortable with your status that was thrust upon you since 1993? You are viewed at a collegiate level and within the comics community as being one of the definitive source on comics and what comics are.
McCloud: That carries its own corrective. The more you are seen as an authority, the more people are ready to tackle you and point out what they think are flaws. So it is very difficult to reach that level without somebody doing you the favor of knocking you down a peg. I just think that is healthy and how it should be.
Magnett: Did you experience any of that with The Sculptor?
McCloud: Oh, sure. The Sculptor has had a generally positive reaction across the board, but a small group didn’t like it, and a portion of that group really, really hated it. It was very divisive. The closer you get to the art comics core, I think it is definitely a pretty uncool book. I understand that, too. I can see on some level where they are coming from. It is weird because if one person hates a book and one person loves a book, it is tempting to figure that one of them is right. But the fact is that this is effect it had: it had one effect on this reader and another effect on that reader. As the author, I just have to look at that and try to treat it as a learning experience, try to understand how it produced both of those effects because that is interesting.
Magnett: So you seek out criticism of your work?
McCloud: The way I have always handled it since the beginning was, I think either you read all of your reviews or none of them. You can’t pick and choose, right? I just chose the former; I figure I am going to read them all and try to learn from them. I am still trying to learn from that stuff.
Magnett: I think that’s a healthy attitude.
McCloud: I think they both are healthy attitudes. The only unhealthy attitude is to read the good stuff and then figure all the people who don’t like you are just jealous or something.
Magnett: To rage at the people on Twitter who didn’t like what you wrote.
McCloud: Exactly. That’s the unhealthy one.
Magnett: Moving into your work on visual narrative and looking at telling stories visually, what big changes or adjustments do you see yourself making? You mentioned there was an evolution between Understanding and Making Comics. What do you think the jump forward is for this one?
McCloud: I don’t know if I could even use the term jump forward because all I do is jump around. I see comics as this massive territory. I am just trying to figure out which patch of land have we actually planted in and which patch is lying there fertile, waiting for somebody to plant something in it. In many respects, the majority of that territory is still virgin ground. That means I have my work cut out for me.
What can comics do? I think comics still has vast potential for teaching, for nonfiction. Comics has vast potential for experiments in the digital realm. Comics has vast potential as a literary form and as a storytelling medium. Comics even has vast potential as pop art. I think that popular comics could be more effective and fun to read. It could be longer with fewer words, something that becomes a little easier in digital. I think right now a lot of printed comics, magazine comics, a lot of mainstream comics, are not that mainstream friendly simply because they are twenty pages for three or four dollars.
Magnett: Four dollars for a lot of them.
McCloud: Four dollars for twenty pages?
Magnett: Five dollars for some.
McCloud: Come on, five bucks for fifteen minutes of reading? That’s not going to work.
The price per minute thing is something we have to address, but also just the philosophy of storytelling. The idea of cramming as many words as possible into the panel to slow down the reader is not a recipe for a great reading experience. One of the reasons why people read my graphic novel so fast is because I tried to create a flow of images that went by at a pretty good clip, but that gave you a simulation of life. Sometimes that means you’ve got to allow for some silent panels or some panels with just a few words in them in order to get that naturalistic rhythm of people in conversation.
Magnett: Do you think some of that also comes down to learning to read comics? This time last year I was having a discussion about Declan Shalvey’s work on Moon Knight and someone told me, “I read it in five minutes because there were no words in it. I was baffled because I spent a good thirty minutes with most of those issues parsing Shalvey’s work. Are people not necessarily learning how to read comics in school, so it becomes how you read prose is how you read comics?
McCloud: How do you read images at all? This goes beyond comics to visual literacy. This is one of the things I will be writing about in the next book. It’s this notion of coming to understand images as text. The idea that you are getting a tremendous amount of information from even the silent panels, say In the Night Kitchen for example. There are a few people, like the writer Junko Yokota who writes about picture books, who are beginning to analyze that territory and show us how much is going on just in the images. When people teach comics appreciation classes, I encourage them to begin with a silent comic, something like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival for example, and get people looking at how much is being conveyed just by the pictures. Then when they arrive at a words and pictures comics, like most of them are, they realize that both the pictures and the words are conveying information and don’t rely on the crutch of analyzing the story as if it was just coming from the text.
Magnett: As both a reader and somebody who also looks for new frontier in comics, where are you looking right now for those kinds of comics? Where is your focus and interest?
McCloud: I think we have a long way to go on the literary front. I am a piker when it comes to that; I am really just starting to write. I am a beginning writer for all intents and purposes because I have done very little fiction before I went into non-fiction, so I am just coming back to it.
There are a lot of other people who are doing really fascinating, challenging work in that realm, but I think we have a long way to go. I am looking to things on that frontier, and then there is so much to be done just in terms of formal innovation. One book I am looking forward to reading in English is Brecht Even’s Panther, which I saw in its European incarnations when we were touring there. That looks like a real tour de force. It is hard to name individual artists because there are just so many and they are so different.
Magnett: I feel a constant desire to assemble reading lists, but this obviously isn’t the format to do that.
McCloud: One of the problems with comics is it is so diverse. When asked for a list of the progressive, interesting works that are pushing the boundaries, it is hard to think of one and then another and another at the same time because you have to go to one territory in your mind to think of the one, and then you have to completely change modes. This is something that I was able to do in Best American Comics. Of course that is only talking about this one territory of North American comics. But at least I was able to show the breadth, everything from Michael DeForge to Raina Telgemeir to Fiona Staples.
Magnett: It really runs the gamut, from DeForge, who not a lot of people know but more people should, to Staples work on Saga, which is one of the biggest books in the market.
McCloud: Exactly. All of these are pushing the form in vastly different directions. Saga in some ways is trying to create a new mainstream, something that doesn’t really look like what we think of as “mainstream comics.” But it is nevertheless what mainstream comics should be, being this vastly entertaining story with a lot of momentum, inventiveness, and imagination; it’s the sort of thing that people are binge watching now on TV. At the same time, there are other people who are trying to push the envelope formally, who are doing work that is maybe more obscure or more challenging to read, but is just as revolutionary in its own way.
Magnett: I think Michel Fiffe’s success with COPRA is a good example of a small book that started on Etsy gaining attention for its unique approach and style, and becoming a successful part of the conversation.
McCloud: Right, which brings up another interesting thing about right now, about 2015, and that is the routes to success are many. Everybody is inventing their own definition of success, finding new ways to reach audiences. A lot of the success stories are one offs if you look at them. There really isn’t another Penny Arcade, but there are other people who are succeeding in vastly different ways. Zach Weinersmith on Patreon is a good example, or Raina Telgemeir in the children’s market, or Allie Brosh through Hyperbole and a Half as a blog, but then as sort of a pop culture phenomenon. All of these are very, very different artists succeeding in very different ways. We are creating our own success.
Magnett: Are you optimistic about the reinvention and evolution of the comics market? As much as we are proud of what we have right now, it is a very small market within the realm of U.S. pop culture. Are you optimistic about how it is growing?
McCloud: It is still small, but it is definitely growing. It is reaching into sectors that we never thought it would. What is interesting is these different self-invented successes often reach into very different territories. In other words, the reach of Penny Arcade as a Venn diagram intersecting with Allie Brosh might have a fat intersection set, but not with some of the other examples I was giving. They are sending off these crazy pseudopods of new readerships, but those pseudopods are going in many, many different directions. There is an outward expansion. It comes back to that idea of forward or outward. You asked me quite reasonably, “How do you think comics can move forward?” This is a question we all often ask ourselves. I think it might be helpful to replace the word forward with outward because that’s where comics really succeeds is where we move outwards to new territories in every possible directions. To be a healthy art form is to be many different things to many different people.