An Interview with Scott McCloud

Three things that inspired Understanding Comics:
James Burke’s TV specials for the BBC
Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe
Art Spiegelman’s brilliant 1975 essay “Cracking Jokes”

An Interview with Scott McCloud

Three things that inspired Understanding Comics:
James Burke’s TV specials for the BBC
Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe
Art Spiegelman’s brilliant 1975 essay “Cracking Jokes”

An Interview with Scott McCloud

Hillary Chute
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When Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s first book and the first book to explicitly theorize comics in the medium of comics, came out, in 1993, it offered the following working definition of comics: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader.” However bulky, McCloud’s definition set the terms of debate—which is ongoing—for the field of comics: what it is, what it can do.

Reinventing Comics, McCloud’s second book, came out in 2000, and focused on the relationship of digital technology to comics. His most recent work, Making Comics, was published in September 2006, and is taking him on a year long book tour. Rounding out a trilogy, Making Comics trades none of the sophistication of McCloud’s earlier work in framing itself as a practical guide.

While a recent press release named him “the grandfather of comics,” McCloud is only forty-six (he did, however, go out of his way to draw himself thicker, and with graying temples, this time around). I sat down with McCloud in the fall of 2006, in Manhattan, previous to a book signing at Midtown Comics, and later spoke to him again by phone as he was dining with his wife and daughters at a Cracker Barrel in Springfield, Massachusetts (a circumstance which prompted polite interjections like “Excuse me, sorry, I’m stuffing my face with a biscuit,” and “Hold on, I’m taking one last swig of this Dr Pepper”).

—Hillary Chute


THE BELIEVER: How did you get interested in comics?

SCOTT McCLOUD: In junior high school I met a kid named Kurt Busiek, who these days is known for his own comics writing. And Kurt was into comics but had to work really hard to get me interested in comics, because I still harbored a lot of prejudice from my younger years. At the time I was reading science fiction, and was into fine art, and comics did not impress me. I thought the art looked kind of pedestrian and the writing seemed simplistic, so I didn’t go near the stuff. But Kurt convinced me to try some of his comics and eventually got me hooked. By the time I was fifteen, I had set my sights on comics as a career.

All the way through high school, Kurt and I were making comics. We did this big sixty-four-page comic called The Battle of Lexington. It had all these Marvel superheroes beating the crap out of each other and destroying our high school and various historic landmarks in Lexington, Massachusetts. We actually finished it up in college. One of the cool things about The Battle of Lexington was that as the comic went on I went from doing all these crazy, complex, semi-indecipherable panel layouts to developing a pretty straightforward storytelling style. In the beginning I was mostly just a show-off. I wanted to play with the boundaries of the medium—something that, in the end, I came back to later. But first I had to understand what basic storytelling is all about.

BLVR: How did you end up at DC Comics?

SM: If there had been a comics major, I would have majored in comics, but the closest I could get was illustration. This was Syracuse University. One of the courses I took was a design course, and they trained us in putting together a production portfolio. I actually sent one to DC Comics asking if they needed any production personnel, and a few weeks before school was over I got a call from the production manager there saying yes, we do need production people, and can you come down and show us your stuff. So I took a train to New York City, I showed them the stuff, got the job, and took the train back to Syracuse a little dizzy and a little wobbly and that was it—I had a job in comics. It was just a production job—all I was doing was whiting out lines that went over the panel borders and pasting in lettering corrections, but I was happy as a clam. And a year and half later, I prepared a proposal for my own comic, and by 1984 I was drawing comics professionally.

BLVR: You’ve said that you were inspired by Art Spiegelman’s 1975 piece “Cracking Jokes.”

SM: There were probably three things that inspired Understanding Comics, at least indirectly. One of them was James Burke’s TV specials for the BBC—things like Connections and The Day the Universe Changed; another was Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe; and another was Art Spiegelman’s brilliant little essay “Cracking Jokes,” which was originally in the magazine Arcade and later reprinted in his book Breakdowns, which is going to be reissued soon. “Cracking Jokes” was a wonderful nonfiction comic, and I think Art understood the potential of nonfiction better than any of his peers.

BLVR: Was there anything formally going on in the piece that particularly interested you, or was it just the idea of nonfiction comics?

SM: Most people, when they had embarked on nonfiction, had done so in a sort of bitter-pill fashion, where the idea was that the message was somehow uninteresting and had to be dressed up in the form of a story. Art approached the subject of “Cracking Jokes”—which is humor theory—with the assumption that the subject was in and of itself interesting, provided that it was clearly demonstrated and explained. And so he was speaking directly to the reader half the time, and every point he wanted to make he demonstrated as he went. And that’s what I’ve tried to do with Understanding Comics.


BLVR: How did you decide to write Understanding Comics?

SM: As soon as I started making my own comic, I began coming up with ideas for how comics worked. And as early as 1986 I had already begun to collect ideas for a comic book about comics. But it wasn’t until about 1989 that things got serious. One of the things that was happening was that my notes were getting so thick—this little file folder that I had was getting so heavy that it was actually falling off those little hooks that you have in file folders.

BLVR: What was the reception of Understanding Comics like?

SM: Well, that book had a long honeymoon. I think there were probably grumblings in academia early on because I was like a bull in a china shop on topics like semiotics. I think the poststructuralists weren’t that crazy about the book because I was seemingly spouting these popularized, simplified versions of theories that others had delved into with more detail and more rigorously.

But other than that, for the most part I got a big pat on the back from just about everybody and was left alone for a few years. And then eventually the grumbling got a little bit louder and a few years in, people were less shy about arguing with some of the book’s conclusions. And those debates have stayed at a fairly consistent murmur now for the last several years. There’s a lot of unease with my definition of comics itself. There’s been an unease with the whole business of classifying aspects of the art form or with experimentation for its own sake, which the book seemed to promote.

BLVR: Can you explain the critique from poststructuralist theory?

SM: Unfortunately, you’re asking the wrong person—I’m the one who doesn’t sufficiently understand it! You should get ahold of somebody who can really go point for point on why McCloud should have read Foucault a long time ago, or Roland Barthes, or many others. I’ve been criticized for buying into this illusion that anything can ever represent anything else—you know, the futility of representation. To say in any way that these lines on paper represent a light bulb is sheer folly! And don’t I understand that. So I’m the wrong person to ask.

BLVR: I’m just wondering about the gist. What type of critique was it?

SM: The stuff in chapter six, “Show and Tell,” about words and pictures—the separation of words and pictures and their reuniting. I think that’s considered overly simplistic. My whole definition of art gets a lot of flak, although I’ve never heard a good alternative. But Samuel R. “Chip” Delany has a good point about the futility of definitions generally. It’s the notion of the “functional description” over the idea of a definition.

Dylan Horrocks probably wrote the most interesting reaction to the book—something called “Inventing Comics.” That’s a terrific piece. Gary Groth [head of Fantagraphics Books and the Comics Journal] never took off on Understanding Comics—he waited for its sequel—but he’s voiced displeasure about the first book and I think called it mechanistic and was annoyed by the way I seemed to want to classify everything.

BLVR: I remember the issue of the Comics Journal in June 2001 that presented the debates that were raging about Understanding Comics.

SM: That was the first time that I’d seen such a concerted effort to just poke and prod and dig in to the book. It was interesting to see how it could stand such a full-frontal assault. But that stuff was just delightful—I loved that.

BLVR: Did Understanding Comics have a place in developing the acceptance of comics as a medium and not just a genre?

SM: It’s hard to say. There was this post–Understanding Comics thing going on in a certain sector of the comics-making community in the mid-’90s. Craig Thompson described it at one point as the “Understanding Comics generation.” But that was a very particular slice of the pie. I mean, there are plenty of others that I think weren’t influenced by it. I think many people on the web were not necessarily influenced by Reinventing Comics. That was a parallel thing that didn’t really connect with them directly.

But I can never know who was influenced by what or to what extent. I can only point to my own influences and say, yes, this person mattered: Spiegelman mattered, [Will] Eisner mattered. Discovering European and Japanese comics mattered to me. Without those things I would have been a very different cartoonist. Or I wouldn’t have been a cartoonist at all.


BLVR: The critic Robert Harvey stresses words and pictures together as the fundamental aspect of comics, which is very different from your conception. Can you explain your definition of comics?

SM: If, for the sake of argument, we decide there’s a use to choosing a definition, then I’ll stand by mine, because you have a much more interesting landscape if you look at comics as sequential art than if you look at them as a combination of words and pictures. There’s a lot to be said about the ways that words and pictures interact, but there’s so much promise in silence in sequential art—people like Jim Woodring have demonstrated just how beautiful that can be, how haunting. And the only thing that my definition cuts out are single-panel cartoons—single-panel newspaper cartoons like The Far Side or The Family Circus.

But what it opens up is just enormous. I’m only interested in definitions insofar as they point to possibilities. The web only got rolling in the public eye about six months after Understanding Comics came out. I barely mentioned computers—in fact, I don’t mention computers anywhere. But I was glad in retrospect that I had framed the definition so broadly, and had explicitly said that I didn’t consider paper and ink to be tied to that definition. And then when there was an alternative to paper and ink, that definition was very accepting of that. We didn’t have to go through those couple of years where everybody just categorically said, “Well that’s not comics.” I like the world of possibilities that my definition points to. I firmly believe that if you did a series of bas-relief sculptures on a wall in a museum that tell a story, then you’d be making comics—you’d just be making really interesting variations of what we think of as comics.

If you did a series of stained-glass windows telling the story of your life you’d be making comics. So if that leaves The Family Circus on the side of the road, so be it. I don’t see that that stuff ever thought of itself as part of the family anyway. And, more importantly, it’s no knock on work of that sort—single-panel work—to call it cartoons. Cartooning has a proud history. We associate it with comics because it was on the newspaper page alongside comics. But if we’re going to use that as a criterion, we might as well throw in the crossword puzzle.

BLVR: How is the rhythm of space on a page of comics different from the rhythm of space on the page of a novel or in other media?

SM: The artist has a lot of control over what happens in the panels, but he or she is at the reader’s mercy between the panels. Whereas in prose, or motion pictures, or virtually any other narrative form, you don’t have that rhythm—you have more of a continuous construction going on. Like with prose, for instance, it’s all of a piece; it’s sort of monotextural, because the reader is continually constructing that world in his or her mind and the author is continually providing new data. Likewise with things like the persistence of vision that helps stitch movie frames together—it’s a continuous process, so you don’t have that back-and-forth rhythm that you do with comics.

So that’s one thing. But the thing about space is that, in prose in particular, space is not terribly important. If you have a novel that runs to three hundred pages, and you decide to reprint it at a smaller trim size or at a bigger font size, that text is going to reflow however it wants, and it’s still the same book. It doesn’t matter. There’s no reflow in comics, though. Space is vitally important, whether you’re two thirds down the page or you’re in a big panel at the top of the page or a little panel at the bottom of the page. That all matters. That affects the reading experience.

BLVR: You used a word I found fascinating—monotextural—to talk about certain kinds of media. So what’s the right term for comics? Polytextural?

SM: Or duotextural. In prose, it’s all just been chewed down to this puree of ideas and words that just flow in a continuous fashion. I suppose you might say comics is bimodal, as opposed to monomodal. But it’s just another piece of jargon we can throw at it.

BLVR: One thing you’ve said also is that comics as a form is distinct because it can rise above the landscape of time.

SM: That’s the one thing that comics has that no other form has. In every other form of narrative that I know of, past, present, and future are not shown simultaneously—you’re always in the now. And the future is something you can anticipate, and the past is something you can remember. And comics is the only form in which past, present, and future are visible simultaneously. And in fact, if digital forms of comics were to allow us to put comics together in a fuller map, then that aspect and effect of comics would be amplified.

BLVR: Is there one example in print comics that sticks out in your mind?

SM: Just open the page of any comic, no matter how awful it is. As long as you’re not looking at a two-page spread, you’re looking at that principle: you’re looking at panels, which, if you’re reading panel two on page two, then to its left is the past, and to its right is the future. And your perception of the present moves across it. I think in Understanding Comics I described it as a high-pressure area in meteorology: you’re pushing the warm air ahead of you and the cool air behind you.

BLVR: How do you see images collaborating with prose in comics?

SM: One of the eternal tensions of comics might be this dual aspiration that we have, on the one hand, to ensure that words and pictures are integrated. That they feel as if they were drawn by the same hand, feel as if they belong together—that they’re flip sides to the same coin. And, on the other hand, to take advantage of the unique potential of words, and the unique potential of pictures, which often sends them in opposite directions. And that may be one of those struggles that we’re always going to have, that’s going to keep comics dynamic, that’s going to keep cartoonists on their toes.

You could get Alex Ross to illustrate Crime and Punishment, and by rights you should be looking at a masterpiece if you really love that sort of artwork—or pick your favorite artist for capturing the nuances of surfaces and light. And then pick a favorite work of literature. You should be able to just slap that artwork on top of that writing, and have something wonderful. And yet it’s not that simple. There has to be an integration. And you have people like Art Spiegelman writing and drawing Maus with a fountain pen on typing paper, trying to make sure that the whole thing had the immediacy of a diary or a journal, and there’s that whole sense more of writing with pictures than simply showing off the surface of light. But it’s not just an either-or thing. Because there is a place for beautiful surfaces and there is a place for the observation of light and form and the physical world. These things are not off-limits to comics. It’s just that we have this dual allegiance to constantly tempt us.

BLVR: So do you think it’s useful when people talk about how words and images blur together in comics?

SM: Oh, it’s tremendously useful. I’ve never wanted to seem as if I’m downgrading the importance of comics as playing host to a seamless combination of words and images. It’s very important. I give a whole chapter to it in my new book.

BLVR: I don’t know if the idea of blurring is that appealing to me. That’s why I like the idea of separate elements in a “dance,” as you put it in Understanding Comics.

SM: I would hope that it wouldn’t be a “blurring”—I like an “alternating.” The dance metaphor is closer to what attracts me about that combination. The staccato rhythm of comics is really incapable, necessarily, of blurring the two. It’s more like a marriage. These are two disparate entities that after a while just become one; but you can still tell where the edges of one end and the other begins: that never changes.

BLVR: Can you talk about pacing and the flow of comics?

SM: Pacing right now is a really interesting area because we had a kind of pacing which grew, at least in the comic book world, out of a very specific format and a specific kind of story: the superhero adventures that would last for twenty-two, twenty-four pages. The storytelling was very efficient. A lot was done in each panel. A great deal of emphasis was placed on moving the story forward. And when North American artists started creating graphic novels, they still carried with them that kind of pacing. They thought, Oh, wow, now I’ve got two hundred pages, I can have more, can cram more events into it. And it took a little while before people like Seth, or Chris Ware, began to show us that, no, if you have three or four hundred pages to play with, there’s no reason that you can’t spend two or three of those pages just showing the changing of the seasons, or water dripping on a windowsill.

BLVR: How does style function in comics?

SM: It sort of depends on how you define style—we’re back to definitions again. There was an artist—Arnold Roth, maybe—who said that you should just pick up a pen and just start drawing. Draw anything that comes to your head. You know, porcupines and fire hydrants and nectarines. Anything at all. And just do thousands and thousands of them. And eventually you’ll find that there are one or two things that all of your drawings have in common. And that’s your style. You shouldn’t worry about it otherwise. It’s not something that needs to be concocted.

Style also, though, encompasses our worldviews: where we come from as artists, where we want to go to, the sorts of things that excited us as readers, the sorts of things that we see as important, sets of concerns in the world or in art that really set us on fire. And all of that collectively, really, is just style. Generally we approach the word or the concept of style as more a series of stylistic quirks, but it’s much more than that. It gets down to, really, our basic philosophy of comics. And all of that affects what lands on the page at the end of the day.


BLVR: You mention, in Making Comics, the idea of the “secret language of comics,” which I’ve also seen in some of Spiegelman’s stuff from the early ’70s. I was wondering if you could talk a little about that, because I’ve actually never quite understood that phrase—I’ve never understood why “secret.”

SM: Well, “secret” in the sense that we see the results at the end of the day, but we’re not really privy as readers to all of the narrative tools that go into it. One of the first choices comics creators make is the choice of moment, and that idea of what moments to include in a story and what moments to leave out. Well, that includes a range of decisions that are made before anyone even draws the work. Nobody picks a comic up off the stands and gasps in admiration at all the unnecessary panels that were left out. You don’t see that—it’s secret, it’s hidden—but that process does go on.

BLVR: I think people don’t realize how much work the condensation, or the distillation, is.

SM: Right, they think in terms of drawing faces, and bodies, and costumes, and big robots. And they assume that to begin to draw a page is to take up your pencil and start to sketch. And of course it’s not, because there’s a great deal of work that goes on before that pencil is even touched.

BLVR: So it’s more like the “secret labor of comics.”

SM: Right. The secret labor, yeah.

BLVR: Or the “secret labor of the language of comics.”

SM: Yes.

BLVR: What work do you like now?

SM: I like a lot of different things. I like some of the young artists that are showing up in things like the Flight anthologies—some of them from the web, some of them from animation. I think my favorite comic right now may be a manga-formatted comic by an artist in Nova Scotia called Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. It looks like a neo-manga style, but it’s actually the funniest comic book on the planet right now. A lot of the younger artists I find especially interesting. It’s hard to nail them all down.

BLVR: One thing that is so interesting in Making Comics is the chapter in which you describe how you actually made the book. What are the differences in how you made Understanding Comics and how you made Making Comics?

SM: Well, vast differences. I did a comp booklet of Understanding Comics, the same size as the printed book. I did these marker-drawn comps, complete with the word balloons and the drawings in them—rough versions of the entire book. I then made a lot of changes to those, and cut them up, rearranged them. I destroyed an entire chapter based on advice from my friends who I call my “kibitzers”: people like Neil Gaiman and Kurt Busiek, my friend Jenn Manley Lee, and my wife, Ivy. I probably scrapped a good seventy pages or more. And then I went back and re-created it. And then I Xeroxed those pages to a larger size, and traced with blue pencil onto bristol board. And I had it hand-lettered by a friend. And then I went in and did the pencils and ink drawings.

With the new book, I do just rough sketches in pencils. I still do the same size comp, but it’s in pencil now, and that becomes a bottom layer in Photoshop, and everything is drawn digitally from then on. Working up twenty, thirty, forty layers until I’m done. It’s lettered in Illustrator, and the lettering is brought in. And that lettering acts as a window in the front through which you can see the art. And I draw the whole thing directly on my screen, on a Wacom Cintiq monitor, which is a tablet-monitor combination that allows you to draw directly on the screen. My working method is dramatically different now.

BLVR: Have you lost anything?

SM: I’ve lost the sale of the originals after the fact—I can’t sell my originals because there are no originals because they don’t exist.

I am the kind of artist that values the kind of control and endless ability to delete, undo, reverse, and move around that the digital realm offers me. It’s not for everybody. Some are very much attached to the feel of ink on paper.

BLVR: Do you think that’s just romantic, or do you think that’s valid?

SM: I think it’s a fetish, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

BLVR: Do you think it’s a possibly valuable fetish?

SM: I suppose. For some people it certainly is. But we get over those things in time. I fully expect my children, when they look back, to yearn for the simpler days of their white plastic iBooks, and how pure an expression that was and how those purple, translucent, snake-necked glowing data globes that kids these days use just aren’t the same.

It’s an association that we find for the things that move us, but it’s the images and the ideas and the words and the characters that really matter. Everything else is just window dressing.

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