Scott McCloud in Austin with The Sculptor this Weekend
The affable theorist of Understanding Comics waxes all fictional.
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
11:00AM, Wed. Feb. 4, 2015
Note: The new book isn't an Understanding Comics follow-up. In fact, the new book isn't even nonfiction. The new Scott McCloud book is a graphic novel for adults. It's called The Sculptor, and it's one hell of a fine read.
(How fine, precisely? Later this week, we'll be running a full review by the Chronicle's own Jessi Cape, so check back for that.)
But this post is here to tell you that the author will be at Austin Books & Comics – that superlative emporium of much graphic goodness – on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2-5pm. Also, he'll be In Conversation, as they say, right there with your humble Chron scribe, W. A. Brenner.
The afternoon event will be a talky-talk open-Q&A-session sort of thing with the acclaimed cartoonist and comics philosopher, wherein much will be revealed – perhaps things you've been wondering yourself, vis-a-vis McCloud's classic works, this new book, and the state of comics in general.
Not so's to spoil your appetite for Sunday's appearance … but right now we've got a transcript of a recent interview with the man, during which we peppered him with questions cribbed from the likes of Chris Nicholas of Staple!, Tim Doyle of Nakatomi Inc., Kelly Phillips of Dirty Diamonds, Kristin Hogan of Squid Friends, and a certain Angelica Brenner:
W. A. Brenner: Where did this Sculptor story come from? Have you worked as a sculptor yourself?
Scott McCloud: Never did. I was a fine arts major for a semester, back in college, but – I don’t have any experience actually making stuff. When I was a kid, I hated anything that was, like, hands-on construction. I just liked doing drawings. Even in grade school, when they’d be pulling out the scissors and the glue, that stuff just intimidated me. I’ve never been a 3-D guy. And, who knows, maybe this is partially me trying to get my hands around something that I was never able to do in real life. But I have enjoyed sculpture as a museum-goer over the years.
The idea for the story of The Sculptor goes way back to when I was very young and still had one foot in the superhero world. And I had sort of this basic sketch of the idea, and it went into this big three-ring binder with all these other ideas I had for comics that I’d like to do someday. But, over the following decade, the basic plot points of the story came, and I began to really like it as a story, especially with the introduction of a character based on this woman who I had a crush on – who I wound up marrying, many years later. I was secretly in love with her for about seven years. She’s … she’s pretty amazing. And she inspired this character – Meg – and, about that time, the story just kind of clicked. But the story stayed in my back pocket for decades, and it was only in about 2006, 2007, that I knew I really had to make this thing come to life. It was just as we were starting our 50-State tour, so all I could do was think about it and take notes. Which turned out to be a good, healthy thing – just thinking about it. One year to just sit and think. And I do mean sit – because my wife was doing all the driving, and I was just sitting in the front passenger seat. And then I approached First Second Books, and we arranged for things to happen.
Brenner: Okay, there’s a thing: First Second is an amazing publisher of comics – but they’re kind of new, right? And you, with 1) your reputation, and 2) just how damn good this Sculptor of yours is – you could’ve taken it anywhere. Like, “Hey, I’m Scott McCloud, I want you to publish my new book.” So why did you choose First Second instead of, say, Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly or Pantheon or somebody like that?
McCloud: Well, we actually brought the book to four New York publishers – all of whom were interested, to various degrees. We talked to Norton, we talked to Random House. We talked to Harper, of course, which was the home of Understanding Comics for many years. But there were a number of things that First Second had going for them. A lot of it was just that First Second's Mark Siegel is a cartoonist himself. He was my editor on this project, and he really gets it, top to bottom. I mean, I talked to some world-class editors when we were going from publisher to publisher, but Mark combines the classic 20th-century editorial instincts with experience as a cartoonist himself. And I really liked the discussion we had when I was visiting his office. And of course there were a dozen mundane, earthly things – like, how much they could pay, and how long I was gonna have to work on the work.
Brenner: How long did you have?
McCloud: We agreed to a three-year span, which was considered on the long side of things – and that was a plus for First Second, as well. But in the end, they actually were even more generous than that and allowed me to take five years, which was an amazing gift. And whatever is right with the book is right because I had the time to get it right – and the encouragement to take that time. I was very grateful for that.
Brenner: Are there parts of The Sculptor, whether intentionally or otherwise, that sort of provide examples of your observations and theories from Understanding Comics?
McCloud: Well, Understanding Comics and Making Comics are guiding me all the way through the book, but every time I use one of the tools from that toolkit, I’m always sure to hide it under the carpet or behind the couch, so that you can’t see the thing. [laughs] It was very important to me that nobody stop for one minute while reading the story and start cataloguing the techniques. I didn’t want people to be thinking about the techniques. I didn’t want them to be thinking about paper or ink or transition choices: I just wanted them to be in the world of the story. Because that’s one of the origin points for this medium, where it all begins: The art of telling stories. And there are a lot of different kinds of comics. I’ve done a lot of comics where I do want you to stop and I do want you to know, to consider the art form and all of its possibilities. But not this time. This time I wanted to go beyond that direction and see if, just once, I could tell a story straight from beginning to end. And I’m very happy with this book. I can look at any page and see mistakes, see panels that could’ve been drawn a little better, that sort of thing; but I know that this was absolutely the best comic I could produce at that time. And that’s the most any artist can ask of themselves, that they went the distance with whatever skill set they have. I’ve always thought that I have a limited skill set, but I pushed it all the way, put my foot down on the pedal and drove it as far as I possibly could.
Brenner: Are there mistakes, like typical clunky maneuvers that hinder the flow of storytelling or that kind of destroy the whole purpose of sequential art, that people should know better than to do, but you see them being done over and over? Like missteps in the form, classic blunders that are so prevalent they’re almost cliché?
McCloud: I think that the biggest mistake that we have made here in the States is structural. I think that the short-form magazine has serious problems in terms of pacing. You only have 23 pages or so, and any kind of human interaction in your story is going to be pushed to the side. You’re gonna try to get all of your characterization done in big fat word balloons crammed with tiny text, you know, while somebody is leaping over an exploding car. And in order to really enjoy any kind of story involving human beings, you need to be able to recognize the way that human beings really interact, the way they speak, the way they stand. The way they think for a moment before saying something. And that takes time. It takes extra pages. The Japanese figured it out early on, which is why they came out with four times as many pages for any given story in the course of a month, with the stories running as weekly serials. And I think, in the States, we have this terrible problem where the publishers feel they have to provide as many minutes as they can for the consumer dollar, so making it wordier is necessary – but, at the same time, they also want to have as many big splashy action panels, so they want to push the lettering to the margins as well.
I don’t think that we’ve taken advantage of the fact that people are now looking for a more satisfying long-form read and really do have the patience to read hundreds of pages. That readers are eager for that, for what journalist Heidi MacDonald called “that satisfying chunk” of narrative – like what we’re getting from TV now, y’know, when people sit down to binge-watch a new show. It’s like what we get, what we’ve gotten for a long time, from feature-length movies. I want comics to achieve that narrative density.
Brenner: Do you feel pulled more toward fiction or nonfiction, usually, in your writing?
McCloud: I … I bounce back and forth. I’m like a comet that just flings itself out into space and then gets pulled back by the gravity of the sun. I definitely dove as deep into fiction as I could for The Sculptor, and so now it’s time to go to the reverse. Actually, a better metaphor would probably be, like, people in Scandinavia who spend an hour in the sauna in 120-degree heat or whatever, and then go jumping out naked in the snow.
Brenner: [laughs] So, ah, of course we want to promote The Sculptor here, because it’s a great new book. And, like with musicians, no one wants to be asked to just go on and on about their greatest hit from years ago … but, do you mind if we talk about Understanding Comics for a while? Especially because I’ve got some questions from other people who I figured would want to ask you a thing or two … ?
McCloud: Oh, no, go right ahead.
Brenner: Excellent. Okay – what other recommendations, besides Understanding Comics, would you make, for guiding the uninitiated or inexperienced in the comics world?
McCloud: Well, the best guide to what comics can do are just the great comics themselves, the wonderful books that have become our canon. From Maus to Watchmen to Fun Home and Persepolis. Jimmy Corrigan. And there are so many fantastic comics coming out now, and guys like me, we can talk about the possibilities of the medium until we’re blue in the face, but it's the great works themselves that make the most persuasive argument for the art form. If somebody wants to make comics, I think the most important thing is to just find something that you’re passionate about. Don’t do a comic about something just because you think other people will love it, because your enthusiasm level won’t be at its peak – and you’re gonna be need that to compete against the incredible talent that’s out there. We’ve never before had so many brilliant young artists in the medium’s history, so you have to, you have to come prepared to really play the game with all your energy and enthusiasm. You’ve gotta really love what you’re doing.
Brenner: Suppose you had a time machine that enabled you to send a package to yourself right before Understanding Comics was published. What comics from the past 20 years would you send early-Nineties Scott McCloud?
McCloud: [laughs] That’s a great question. Um, you wanna put a number on it?
Brenner: Sure. Gimme, like, five comics.
McCloud: Okay, five comics. Five comics. City of Glass, the wonderful adaptation of the Paul Auster novel; I love that thing. And I’d send back something by Chris Ware – maybe his Book of Jokes from Acme Novelty Library, something like that. I might send This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, it’s such a good book. And then, uh, I think Drama by Raina Telgemeier, because I think that all-ages, kids-in-comics scene is incredibly important. And I would send Market Day by James Sturm, a book that I think has been unfairly overlooked, but I hope will someday be recognized for the bulletproof little masterpiece it is.
Brenner: And what if, in this bargain with the Time Lords, you were required to send yourself at least one contemporary superhero comic book?
Brenner: Hawkeye! No hesitation there.
McCloud: Well, unless we count Saga? But Hawkeye’s a great little book.
Brenner: What was it like, back in the day, to see Understanding Comics making a difference in the field itself?
McCloud: It was great. You know, everybody wants their work to be recognized beyond their own little circle. When I did Understanding Comics, I thought I was sort of writing it, in part, for other comics artists, and I hoped it would be of some interest to the general public. I had no idea it was going to be picked up by people who did interface design and video game design, website development. Just so many different fields where people found it useful on some level. That was really gratifying – and pretty unexpected. But it turns out – and I’ve seen this with other writers, like Edward Tufte – it turns out that, if you really drill down deep enough into any art form, you’re probably going to find common principles that relate to all the others as well.
Brenner: Does the eternally unfinished state, the, ah, forever unfulfilled promise of Alan Moore’s Big Numbers give you as much of a pain in the heart as it does a lot of people?
McCloud: [laughs] Yeah, I would’ve liked to read the rest of that story. Although, I don’t know, I think that there was maybe something built into it that was gonna have it fly apart of its own accord anyway, besides the personnel problems. But it sure looked cool. Yeah, it would’ve been nice to see that thing finished up properly. That’s one thing about working alone: I don’t have to worry that, you know, my right hand is gonna wander off and leave it all to my left. I don’t have to worry that half of me will lose interest and the other half will be frustrated. It’s all or nothing when you’re the only person touching the page. Virtually, I mean – of course I don't have pages anymore.
Brenner: You use a Wacom tablet, something like that?
McCloud: It’s a Cintiq, which is the grandaddy of all Wacoms – where the table and the monitor are the same thing. So you just pick up a pen and draw right on the screen and the line appears under it as if it were an ordinary pen. It’s really intuitive – I love working with that. And I use Photoshop and Illustrator, and hook up to a Mac Pro, one of those big, heavy, Giant Cheese Grater-style ones from a few years back.
Brenner: What’s your favorite and least favorite movie adaptation of a sequential art story?
McCloud: Hmmm … least favorite, let’s start with that. Least favorite, least favorite. What did they ruin? I’d have to go back a ways, you know? I saw that Superman sequel, the one with Richard Pryor, I can’t remember if it was the second or third movie. But I saw it when I was working at DC Comics, and I remember walking out of the screening – they had a screening for the employees there – and I walked out, and I was like, “Wow, that was terrible.” And Todd Klein, who also worked in production, and was my senior, he looked at me sort of sideways a little. And he just said, “I thought it was very good.” And I was like, Oh, riiiiight. I’d forgotten where I was – nobody was looking for my honest opinion. And Todd, in that big-brother sort of a way, was just letting me know that our range of reactions could go all the way from good to great and, otherwise, a Respectful Silence was acceptable. You forget sometimes – you forget where you are. But, yeah, that was a pretty bad movie.
Brenner: And your favorite?
McCloud: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I loved that.
Brenner: Same here! I don’t understand why that wasn’t a huge blockbuster. I kept reading that it was failing, that the box-office numbers weren’t good on it. Which made no sense to me: That movie was sooooo damned good.
McCloud: I think it’ll have a good afterlife. I think it’ll continue to garner interest for many years. But, every once in a while, the world is not just. Scott Pilgrim, that thing is a frickin’ masterpiece. And there have been a lot of other ones – I like Ghost World, American Splendor. And, you know, the recent crop of Marvel superhero movies have actually been very entertaining, a lot of fun. You really have to give props to the folks making, like, Captain America and Thor and Iron Man – those have all been good movies. (Hulk, maybe not so much.) And The Avengers was great, because Joss Whedon can do no wrong if you give him the right project. He did a nearly perfect execution of The Avengers, I think. It’s sheer fun. I’ve gotta say, the recent movies certainly beat the crap we were watching when we were kids.
Brenner: And, finally, Scott: If you could have any living comics artist draw your biography, to illustrate your life as a graphic novel, who would it be and why?
McCloud: Oh my god. Whoa. That’s a tough one. I would say … Matt Feazell. I would like to be a stick figure. I talk about the power of reducing a figure to just a few simple lines, I should go the distance and become a stick figure myself, my world should become a stick-figure world. And nobody does stick figures better than Matt Feazell.