Scott McCloud on the Evolving Art of American Comics


Scott McCloud broke into the independent comics scene in the mid-Eighties with a good-hearted science fiction comic, Zot!, and in subsequent decades he became known for his books on comics theory and technique, Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006).

He returns to fiction with his new graphic novel, The Sculptor, in which David, a young artist, makes a deal with Death: He gains the ability to sculpt anything he can imagine just by thinking about it, with the condition that in 200 days, he’ll die. Inventive and suspenseful, The Sculptor is an opportunity to witness one of comics’ finest educators putting everything he’s learned into the service of a story.

The character of David essentially has a super power albeit with a catch. Is it an outgrowth of your time enmeshed in superhero comics?

It was one of many random ideas I had in this big old three-ring binder I’d owned since high school. It’s a young man’s story, if you think about it. That’s the central challenge of the project for me, was coming to accept my roots as an American comics artist. In many ways I’d been railing against power fantasies for years, trying to convince people comics are much more than that – but at the same time, here was this old power fantasy that I had in my back pocket all those years. So yeah, acceptance seems to be a theme.

I’m writing about an artist who has to accept his own mortality, and being forgotten, and how small he is in the eyes of the universe, and I’m trying to accept that, yes, I am part of a culture, and yes, there is that little piece of the DNA of American comics embedded in this thing.

You’re often known as a theorist, so it’s great to see you flexing your storytelling muscles again.

If I’ve done my job right, I’ve obscured the theory to the extent that it’s a fairly transparent reading experience, where folks will be sucked into the story, but not necessarily overly aware of the mechanics. Even though it’s a very deliberately constructed piece of storytelling, it’s constructed with an eye toward vanishing in the eyes of the reader. I’d like it to be an intuitive, immediate, visceral experience.

I have a great love of surprise. It’s so hard to pull off in a way that doesn’t feel like cheating—they key is the relationship between surprise and inevitability. Something that takes the audience utterly unawares, but once the dust has settled, you realize it couldn’t have gone any other way. That’s what I was striving for, and there are a number of surprises in the book. Of course, I love my art form, but the one thing that I curse it for is the fact that it’s way too easy for my readers to pick it up on the shelf and page through it, and see all my surprises.

Was there a technique you worked through with Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics that you were dying to get into a story?

The research that I did for facial expressions and body language for Making Comics—those were absolutely essential. If there’s one thing I wanted to really ramp up, it was what my editor and I were calling the “human theater” of it. The rhythm of conversations, the importance of gesture. Those quiet moments in between. In comics, there was such a premium on saving space for so many years, when the standard format was only twenty-four pages, that there was a tendency to cram everything that you needed to know into a big, fat word balloon. And the word balloon might contain three or four different moods. You’ve got four different emotional ideas, but there’s no room, so here’s everything you need to know, and here’s a face, and the face is some sort of neutral, generic expression that can cover all these ideas. And that’s just such a missed opportunity. Because emotion is action. Emotion is story. When someone has a change of emotional state, that matters.

So when we first started coming out with these three- or four-hundred page books, many people thought, “Oh, that’s great, I can cram more story into them.” But it took people like Seth or Craig Thompson to demonstrate that this was also an opportunity to do in twenty pages what we used to do in two. And that there are solid narrative reasons to do that, to do what some writers and artists would call “decompressed” storytelling. Although I never liked that term because it presupposes that the compressed form is the natural order of things, which I never thought it was.

What do you hope readers get from The Sculptor?

I wanted it to be a page-turner, for starters. I want it to be an emotional experience, and I want people to be left with an impression that doesn’t fully resolve itself, because of the contradictions in the story. The story pulls in two different directions, but it pulls very strongly. I didn’t want the kind of ambiguity that’s just smudged and blurry and noncommittal. I wanted the kind of ambiguity in which great forces are pulling all the way to the ceiling and all the way to the floor.

How did you settle on the black and blue color palette?

Partially out of necessity. Full color is hard. It requires a lot of control, it’s expensive and labor-intensive, and in my case, it’s a deal-breaker because my color sense is not good enough that I could do it all myself if I was doing full color. On the other end of the spectrum, I think black and white can be really effective. There’s a lot in pure black and white to admire, but for me, the way I draw, I find that the form doesn’t necessarily come through. They eye can sometimes stumble over that jungle of lines, possibly because I don’t like to use too many spot blacks. By bringing in that second color, I can use it to clarify form. So when you open up two pages of The Sculptor, you’re less likely to see it as a jumble of lines, and more likely to see it as a collection of places, and people, geometry, space, and depth. Those things tend to come more quickly to the eye when you’ve used that second color to clarify, to show clear overlaps, or to indicate atmosphere, things like that.

What’s next for you?

It’s going to be a book about visual communication—not just about comics. I’m going to see if I can try to distill the principles of best practices for information graphics, data visualization, educational animation, educational comics—the ways that we communicate through images. Because I think in all these disciplines, people seem to be all trying to reinvent the wheel, and I’m pretty sure that most of them are knocking on the same door.

The Sculptor, published by First Second, hits stores on Feburary 3. Scott McCloud discusses the book and comics in general at the 92nd Street Y (1395 Lexington Avenue, 212-415-5500, at 8:15 p.m. February 3 in a conversation with Tim Leong, author of Super Graphic. Tickets are $30.