Monday, March 1, 2010

Talking Comics with Scott McCloud

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“One of the nicest things about predicting the future is you can always say ‘I will be right’,” Scott McCloud elaborates in a Brooklyn café in the present. “If it hasn’t come out the way you wanted it to, you can go ‘It’s still about the future.’ I’ve been wrong about a few things, and I may have been right about a couple of things. Right now, everybody is rewriting that history, that future history. I can just leave it alone. You can never go back and change these things.

“I’m in a strange place now: Obviously, there were aspects about the web and the economy of the web that I was hoping would go in a slightly different direction, but as long as the network stays open, people find solutions…I’m happy to let the web evolve on its own. I’m too busy now back in the panels, just trying to work out my story.”

McCloud has flown to New York for the weekend to research his upcoming graphic novel – tentatively titled The Sculptor – which features characters living in New York City. So far, his research has included a few trips to apartments; he even elaborates the benefits of sofa-surfing next visit.

“It takes place in New York, and I’m not saying much beyond that,” Scott says of the 2012 project. “When you have that long a window, it’s usually not good to be blabbing about it until it gets a bit closer.”

McCloud’s crowning achievements mostly come through his role as the first theorist in comic books. In 1993, he created Understanding Comics, a graphic novel that presented his theories and analysis of the mechanics of storytelling and comic book language. Rather than going the dry textbook route, McCloud narrated Understanding with his own cartoon-style avatar, illustrating his examples in the format he was dissecting. That McCloud avatar has changed with Scott and inadvertently become his brand image.
“My cartoon avatar is definitely separate from me,” Scott reflects. “I know it’s unnerving for people to meet me. I can tell there’s always that adjustment period, like when I go to speak at a University, that they obviously have to admit ‘This guy isn’t what I was expecting.’ Then they have to go ‘Who was I expecting? This guy with blank eyes and black hair and line drawing?’ There actually aren’t any human beings who look like that at all. The fact that I’ve made my cartoon character a little heavier and given him the graying temples doesn’t matter, because I’m still very different than the character.”

Understanding Comics came at the right time: graphic novels and comics of the 1980s, like Maus and Watchmen, raised the medium’s profile closer to mainstream acceptance, while colleges and universities were slowly embracing courses in the sequential arts. Comics were starting to stretch beyond the “ghetto” (as coined by cartoonist Will Eisner) and were first gaining their long overdue legitimacy.

But where was McCloud before Understanding? It’ll take a trip through the panel gutters to arrive at a flashback panel, to the summer of 1982 –

Scott McCloud, in his early twenties, is an employee in the Production Department of DC Comics. It’s a job he’d hold for about another year, as the comic book industry is going through spurts and changes, with comic book specialty stores sprouting up the nation over, causing the content of comics to mature and evolve.

“Bob Rozakis ran the Production Department and there were nine or so of us there at any given time, with our Exacto knives and Windsor and Newton brushes, brushing on white-out, making art corrections wherever the editors told us to,” Scott remembers. “There was always music playing. It was a good crowd, and I really liked those guys. Bob was a great boss. It was a great day job, and one of the only day jobs I’ve ever had, other than moving office furniture and delivering newspapers. It was great. I count myself very lucky to have had that as a day job.”

Comics production was still a few years off from digital, as lettering and colors were both applied by hand. Baxter printing, glossy paper, and more advanced methods of comic production was just around the corner.

“There were true believers there, but they weren’t too noisy about it,” Scott admits. “I remember complaining about the paper they used on some older project, comparing it to toilet paper, and one of my coworkers looked at me with pity and shook her head because, clearly, I was betraying my fanboy colors. To even care what paper they used? To be passionate about it? No, no. There were definitely a few of us: people like Ernie Colon, the colorist Tom Zuicko, Joey Cavalieri, and Dick Giordano (in a lot of ways) – these are people who really cared about the art form.”

When legendary comics editor Dick Giordano elevated to Managing Editor in 1981, he came at the right time for creative change. Famous for having the right amount of hands-off editing, and allowing his talent to shine, several seminal comics came out of DC during his tenure. But it was, at times, an uphill battle.

“There were good people who cared very much about the medium, and there were limitations about what they could accomplish.” Scott admits. “There were limitations on what the audience would put up with, what the business would support, and limitations on what the culture could understand, but they were trying to push it. This was a time when things like Ronin were coming out. It was shortly before Watchmen, Dark Knight, Maus. It was in the air, but the real revolutionaries were people like Art Spiegelman, who was teaching at SVA, and Raw had been coming out for a while. He was working on the little Maus inserts.

“Will Eisner was doing his graphic novels. That’s where a lot of the energy of the underground had migrated to. At DC, it was more a matter of ‘There’s this underground stuff out there, but people are mostly just checking out the latest Wonder Woman issue, and that’s not what we do, but we’re going to move cautiously in that direction.’ That’s how you got things like Ronin, moving cautiously in a more creative direction and seeing if that was going to fly. It was baby steps in those days.”

“When I came out with Zot! a few years later, the direct market was really in its infancy in a lot of ways. It’d been around for a few years but there really weren’t that many stores.”

The small publisher boom of the ‘80s, mostly black and white, gave comics a small army of small publishers who operated without the restrictions of the Comics Code censorship guidelines – a benefit of distribution in comic book stores that didn’t have to subscribe to news stand sales rules or expectations. Along with a non-returnable sales model for the direct market, leaving comic book store owners saddled with any remaining, non-sold copies of a book, it was a fertile period for young publishers. For cartoonists such as McCloud, it presented an unfettered sense of creative freedom. But freedom, as with censorship, has its own inherent dangers:

“We were just breaking away from the mainstream, and there was this sense of burgeoning independence and this idea that we could do anything that we wanted to,” Scott says. “For a lot of people, that didn’t just mean freedom from meddling editors, but it meant freedom from having anyone change your work or affect your work in any way. I thought no, it’s like Spidey said, with great power comes great responsibility. That old chestnut, that’s true. I thought ‘If I have all this freedom and can do anything I want, I have a responsibility to myself to go and get my honest friends and have them tell me where my stuff sucks, and then act on that advice, and really encourage them to be honest.’ They really were, then and now.”

Zot! was Scott’s honest-to-goodness optimistic science fiction book with superheroic undertones. Set in an alternate Earth’s futuristic 1965, complete with World’s Fair-like skycars and architecture, Zot! remains a relatively timeless and undated comic book with a manga-like flavor not widespread in American comics at the time. McCloud, while working at DC Comics, regularly made the short trek to Japanese bookseller Kinokuniya, where he discovered untranslated Japanese comics, more popularly known as Manga. About a decade before Manga officially caught on with the masses and other artists in the comic book industry, Scott McCloud was injecting elements like subjective motion and Manga-ish character design in his work.
Yet another way he was a man ahead of his time.

McCloud, with artist Steve Bissette, produced the first 24 Hour Comics in 1990. The rules? A single individual had to produce a twenty-four page comic book in as many hours, all spontaneous and unplanned in terms of content.

In 1994, the official 24 Hour Comic Day was established by writer Nat Gertler. Since then, it has been celebrated in comic book stores and locations the world over. Curiously enough, though, comics’ birthplace of New York City hasn’t recently hosted the event.

“The last 24 Hour Comics Day was in sixteen countries, hundreds and hundreds of locations, just not NYC. I know it was at Hanley’s in 2006, but lately, New York has been a weird crater for this phenomenon. We should see if we can, through the interview, convince people to get some New York locations next time.”
After concluding Zot!, Scott started work on his ambitious and trademark work, Understanding Comics, a graphic novel format comic book about the art and mechanic of comics. When Understanding came out in 1993, it was at a time when comics were (for a quick second) a hot commodity, one that would eventually buckle under the weight of a speculator’s market. Critically speaking, though, comics had gone beyond the initial graphic novel growing pains and were finally being taken seriously as an artform unto itself.

Understanding Comics, in many ways, further legitimized comics by being the first accessible and unpretentious study of the form. Within a decade, the term graphic novel would become even more synonymous with comic book, mostly as a means to give a once-juvenile medium a modicum of adulthood.

“I didn’t write a book called Understanding Graphic Novels, so I’m in that camp of people who think you can take a word like comics and change what it means just by making better comics,” Scott reflects. “The word hasn’t meant funny for a long time. By the time we were bemoaning the word ‘comics’, it meant for most people muscle bound guys in spandex. It had already outgrown its previous meaning. Words change.

“When Will Eisner first started using the word graphic novel, he was on the phone trying to sell Contract with God to a potential publisher. He pulled it out of his ass because he had to have something to call it to get it through the door. In a way, that phone conversation is the iconic and embryonic version over what happened during the last twenty something years: we had a term that helped get us through a door, and that was that. Each medium has its different terms. You can go to a ‘movie’ but then you can write about it as a ‘film’, and then put on your tuxedo and go to an awards ceremony at the Academy of ‘Motion Pictures’.
“Any medium worth having a real footprint in our culture is worth having a few different modes of presentation: there’s the formal mode, the critical mode, and the ceremonial mode. You can have an Academy of Sequential Art, and when people are done working there they go home and read some comics. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s okay.”

McCloud narrates Understanding Comics with a cartoon avatar of himself, a bespectacled and eyeless Scott McCloud wearing a Zot! t-shirt and plaid jacket, making himself the tour guide through his theories and deconstruction of the medium. He illustrates the Picture Plane pyramid where drawing starts at reality, and ends at language, with cartooning inbetween; Scott points out that the real action in comics occurs in the gutter between panels; he reviews the different modes of storytelling technique…According to Scott, he was only able to hone it with a little help from his friends:

“Historically speaking, I’ve made some pretty drastic changes based on that; whole chapters of Understanding Comics were annihilated based on suggestions from Kurt Busiek, Neil Gaiman, Larry Marder, and my friend Jenn Manly-Lee. They’re what I call my kibitzers.”

Understanding Comics succeeds by practicing what it preaches; by making it a sequential narrative, McCloud avoids the boredom of a treatise, and uses the medium to his advantage. By keeping his artwork simple and clean, he also created an approachable and non-intimidating volume.

When he looks to the future of comics in the last chapter, with their limitless possibilities, Scott McCloud might have had no idea exactly what he was in for, especially when he got his first computer, a Macintosh, the year before Understanding’s release.

“I hope that if I get to be a grand old man and live another thirty or forty years, that I’ll be proud of my successes but prouder of my failures. That’s how you know that you were willing to be the human cannonball and throw yourself at something.”

“[1940’s comedian] Jack Benny was in a movie called The Horn Blows at Midnight, and it did so badly that he had years and years of jokes that he got from just bringing it up,” Scott laughs. “I feel like that’s The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, for me.”

It’s 1998, and comics have started to use computers in production. It’s an awkward time, as computer coloring is still in its infancy, as is the use of Wacom tablets for drawing. Scott decides to blend Wacom-drawn figures with computer generated backgrounds in his graphic novel The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, a satirical adventure of a ten year-old boy and his battles with a fake version of the beloved President. The contrast between crudely drawn figures and highly-rendered backgrounds in Abraham Lincoln were clunky, and McCloud chalks it up as a noble failure.

“The 3-D modeling was glacial,” he remembers. “I would have two different computers working on that book, just churning away, and trying to do even the simplest of frames. It’s an experiment, and what makes experiments experiments are that they can go horribly wrong. When I was a little kid, I saw some film about creativity, and part of it was about a scientist who spent twenty years of his life working on this theory – some medicine or something that he was working on – and it turned out to be wrong. They had this image of him leaving the room, turning off the light in his laboratory and closing the door on the last twenty years of his life wasted. That’s the scientific method, dude, you have to do that!

“As a community, that’s how you learn stuff. As a formalist, I look at something like [Abe Lincoln] (which everybody thought was a disaster at the time) and say ‘Am I smarter now than I was before I did it? Yeah, I think so. I think I learned something, that’s okay.’”

CHRISTOPHER: Where do you think web comics need to go, in order to be realized—

SCOTT: This is the kind of answer where I get in trouble because of the underlying assumption is that I’m the guy who’s going to point the way, which is completely nuts. Like I have any influence on this whatsoever, or even should be trusted since last time. (Laughs)

As Abraham Lincoln ended, Scott’s next project, a follow-up to Understanding Comics, titled Reinventing Comics, came out in 2000. Where Understanding focused on the mechanics behind the art form, Reinventing presented the realities and shortcomings of comic books, from a lack of diversity to a failing marketplace. He calls these the twelve “revolutions” that would help comics realize their full creative and culturally accepted medium.

“One of the problems with Reinventing is that it includes a lot of ideas I’d had from years before and never got around to putting in a book,” Scott admits. “I’m still passionately devoted to them, but was still moving on from some of them; especially some of the stuff from the first half of the book that were things from years before. There was stuff like the Creators’ Bill or Rights, which I’d been thinking about, and decided that it was something I needed to put to paper. It was like cleaning up. I think it felt that way for a lot of people, a little by the numbers.

2000 was a pivotal time in the comic book industry, as comic stores were struggling after the market full under a few years prior, the graphic novel format was encroaching in mainstream bookstores, and the Internet was emerging as a new means to present the webcomic.

Scott started with his first webcomics in 1998, many of which were experiments on the “infinite canvas” of the internet. Comic book panels didn’t have to be structured in the same way as a page, but could be placed side-by-side, top to bottom – and could technically go on for miles’ worth of screen.

“The digital stuff in the second half was completely crazy for some people, and some of it still is,” Scott continues. “I think the knock on the book would be that it’s irrelevant or history has gone a different direction or left it behind, but at the time it was really weird, radical, and confusing stuff. There were people in the business who’d thought I’d lost my mind.”

But McCloud hadn’t lost his mind. While not everything theorized and lobbied by Scott came to pass, he was prescient, as he foresaw the web being the new creative venue for cartoonists looking to be free of editorial and publisher’s restraint. The past few years alone has seen a boom in sites for online comics, as well as venues for reading print comics. Some, such as ACT-I-VATE, require a click on each panel to advance to the next, be it per single panel of full page; Zuda Comics features a similar interface, but with a half-page drawn to fit the computer screen; then, applications for the iPhone and other portable devices involve a magnification and scanning principle.

McCloud’s web comics involve a minimum amount of actions to advance the story, and most only required scrolling down the screen from top to bottom, or across from left to right. His exceptional story The Right Number, about a man who meets his girlfriend’s more compatible doppelganger by misdialing her phone number, features a one click action through a much smaller panel inset in each prior one.

“If there’s one thing I would put on my cosmic wish list, though, it’s that if someone’s going to do a longform comic book and break it into pages online it should be as readable as possible,” Scott reflects. “I don’t see any reason that people have to be clicking and scrolling and moving back and forth, and things like that. Sometimes you’ll have pages that fit perfectly well on the screen, but then you have three inches of formatting over them, so you still have to click and scroll. It’s like ‘Dude, put that stuff on the bottom!’ But that’s not sexy, exciting, or radical, it’s just me sitting back and scolding people on bad usability. It’s just that you ought to be able to forget about the screen, navigation, and all the crap like numbers and blinking ads, and just read the story. It’s okay if the ad’s there, but just put it on the side.

“That’s just me being the crabby old man in the corner, just saying ‘Why do I have to keep scrolling to get to the bottom third of the page?’ That’s not the nutty professor up on a pedestal, gesturing to the infinite canvas of possibilities. It’s completely different.”

Yet McCloud has utilized scrolling and clicking in his webcomics, I ask:

“This is where it gets confusing. I think there are two people on the planet who understand what sounds like a contradiction: ‘McCloud hates scrolling, now!’,” Scott laughs. “No, no, no, no. No, what McCloud hates, basically, is having to do more than two different things to get around. If reading the comic means having to hit the button at the end of the page, big deal. If comics means hitting the scroll bar or mouse scroll wheel, that’s fine, too. But what happens when it’s a combination of both is that you’re thinking about navigation not the story.

“Right now, if you read a printed book, your hand is moving quietly, unobtrusively, to the upper corner of the page, as your eye is moving to the bottom of the right-hand page, getting ready to turn that page. You’re not telling it to go; you’re not looking at it; you’re not finding the upper right-hand corner; you’re not trying to figure out where the corner is, and you’re not making any affirmative choice in your mind to advance form one page to another. If you did, you would lose your focus on the story, and that’s exactly what we force people to do on the web, all the time.

“There are a few examples of people who have gotten around that: when the page is such a size that you can just click and advance, it works. Like when Bryan Lee O’Malley and Hope Larson did the Bear Creek Apartment comic, it was formatted for the web. Even traditional comic pages can work if they’re made to go to the top of the screen, but it’s a formatting thing. This is just me railing at the wind here, because everybody does it. Some of my favorite cartoonists in the world, people who I’ve known for thirty years and whose work I love, do this. I just wish they didn’t.”

A regular model for webcomics today are to initially present them online with a destination point of a printed graphic novel. Don't expect to see any Scott McCloud webcomic compilations anytime soon, though:
“I was such a hard-ass about that when I started making them, back in the mid to late ‘90s, I actually drew them at 72 dots per inch, for the reason that I didn’t want to be tempted to think of them in print terms,” Scott points out. “I wanted them to be able to work on the screen and the screen only. Now the screen’s got a lot more resolution and some of those early comics are too small. Of course all my friends yelled at me about it, and I was like ‘No, damn it, this is just for the screen. This isn’t a brochure for the printed comic.’ I was very militant almost about wanting to not repurpose, and saying ‘If this thing is in one format, it will be designed for that format.’

“I was that way with my first comic, Zot! I did ten issues in color, and they’ve never been reprinted in black and white, and I did twenty-six issues in black and white, and they’ve never been reprinted in color. I would never watch a colorized movie. When people sit down to create these things, they have a particular destination in mind. If the destination is print, I would say design it to be as good as possible in print, maybe use an online iteration to promote it (or even offer it for free online), but in the back of your mind there’s always going to be an idea of what the ‘real’ version is going to be.”

Shortly after our interview, Apple officially announced the iPad portable reader, which is essentially an iPod touch but with a larger screen. The much-anticipated device may be the leveler of the playing field for web comics, presenting a set standard for them to be viewed.

“I use a Mac, I use iTunes, and love when I listen to KCRW on my iPhone and hear a song I like and can buy it right there,” Scott points out. “That’s the way everything always should have worked, but what I hoped would happen is we’d have a single mode of payment, but not a single vendor. I don’t want everything to go through one vendor: that’s a really dangerous bottleneck. I don’t care if that vendor is a company I have a lot of affection for and whose products I use and like. It’s still creepy. It shouldn’t be that way, and I don’t know what the solution is.”

Snapping back to the present, Scott is ready to pay the tab and check out a few more apartments in Brooklyn, before crashing in his hotel room and starting the field research all over again.

“Having finished the first draft of the graphic novel, one of the things that all of my friends agree on is that I’ve got to stop explaining things,” he points out. “As a writer, there’s still some left over from the explain-o-matic guy who walks in the panels and shows you everything. No, it’s time to dial that down.

“Emotionally, though, the business of starting to write and draw came very naturally. I wanted to do it for a while, I’m having tremendous fun doing it, and have enjoyed working on this rough draft of the book more than anything I’ve worked on in a long time. Now I just need to unleash the things that you do when you’re writing a story and not when explaining a thesis. I just need to work on wrapping those up and dialing the other stuff down, and I think I’ll be fine.”

Where his three books on comics (the Comics with a capital “C” trilogy?) marked his journey as a cartoonist and theorist, The Sculptor presents a new set of problems for him to solve and ponder.

“It’s also just a chance to try to rediscover what stories are about,” Scott says of The Sculptor. “I’ve been giving a lot of thought (even before I started working on this) on story structure and what makes stories interesting and makes stories stories. The chance to give that a shot is fantastic. Very often, I’m putting the story aside when I’m looking at the formal realities of comics. You can’t always relate it to story. I’d done Making Comics, in which I’d talked a lot about taking stories and making them into comics, but I didn’t talk a lot on what makes a good story. Almost as soon as I was done with the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s not in the book at all; if you look through Making Comics, I don’t tell you what makes a good story, really. I touch on it a little, maybe, but now I’m thinking about it a lot and am trying to become the writer I (in many ways) put aside a decade ago.”

As always, Scott McCloud remains a forward thinker:

“I’ve always been more interested in what’s possible in the future than what’s happened in the past. I’ve never been very nostalgic and have never been much of a collector. You’re never going to hear me moaning about how much better comics were when I was a kid, because they weren’t! Comics are much better now…

“There are more diverse genres, more diverse creators, more gender-balanced (not as much as they should be, but we’re on our way), they’re more substantial in terms of literate content, they are more adventurous in terms of design, there’s more virtuosity in a variety of styles, there’s more exchange of ideas across national boundaries, there’s more personal work being promoted, there’s increased public perception for a variety of comics for a variety of different applications. Comics are being used for more things, read by more people, and have more of an essential importance to the culture, relevance to the culture, and effect on the culture than they ever have.”

Scott holds an interesting position in comics: his coming up in the industry was at one of the most creatively liberating periods rife with the promise of greater economic growth. He spearheaded the scholarship of comics, was amongst the first proponents of comics on the web when the Internet was relegated to the painful slowness of a dial-up connection, and scraped through the industry’s crash and celebrated its rebirth.

“We sometimes worry it’ll all go away and crash, and we’ll all be put out of work and the whole business will go into a crater, but every time you publish a great book, it’s still out there (or even put it out online). The creation of a great work is not a thing that can be reversed, unless you hunt down every copy and destroy it, which is very work-intensive,” Scott laughs.

“It’s all progress of a sort. The last fifteen years have been a tremendous gain in the history of comics as a culture. Nothing’s going to take that away, even if all the companies closed down tomorrow, the sites all shut down, and the bookstores all closed. We’d still have those, even if they weren’t on the shelves of the readers, they’d still be in the minds of readers.

“That’s progress.”

Visit Scott and his theories and practices at