Graphic Lit: An interview with Scott McCloud
This is an extended, "director's cut" version of an interview I did with Mr. McCloud for my Patriot-News column. It wasn't as thorougly copy-edited as the final version was, so my apologies in advance for any misspellings or grammatical errors. The fault is entirely mine.
“Making Comics” by Scott McCloud is the kind of book that makes you slap your forehead and wonder why no one ever thought of this before.
Most “how-to-draw-comics” manuals focus solely on the art of rendering and anatomy — making sure your pictures look pretty — and not so much on the actual art of telling a story (Will Eisner’s seminal “Comics and Sequential Art” and “Grapic Storytelling” being two notable exceptions).
“Making Comics” goes a long way towards fixing that oversight, as McCloud, the author of the hugely influential “Understanding Comics,” breaks down in an easy-to-read fashion the tools and tips you’ll need to make great comics.
Here you’ll learn how to frame a scene, guide your readers through a page, emphasize character through facial expressions and posture, create detailed environments and combine words and pictures that integrate seamlessly.
McCloud and his family are currently doing a 50-state promotional tour of the book. I talked to him while he was holed up in a hotel in Syracuse, N.Y., about the book, working with computers and the hazards of traveling with your family.
Q: Reading the book I get the feeling you’ve been mulling these ideas in your head for quite some time. Is this a project you’ve had in the works for awhile?
A: The gestation began when I was asked to do a seminar at the College of Art and Design back in 2002. And I found when putting together a syllabus for the seminar that these ideas just tumbled out of my head. As if I’d been working on them in the back of my mind without even realizing it.
As I began to actually teach the class and the class went pretty well, and I began to build on those ideas, I got a much clearer idea how we could approach comics in a constructive way. That led directly to the book. A lot of it dates back to that moment when I began working in Minneapolis and I just opened a door to a room I didn’t even know was there necessarily.
Q: Is there any kind of overriding ideas that you wanted to get across? What for you was the central aspect of the book?
A: If a reader would only remember one thing from the book, I would hope that it would be the same thing that I hope they would take away from the first book, “Understanding Comics,” which is that comics are a blank page. There’s really no right tool, no right style, no right content. They can fill that page with whatever they like.
And I give them options, choices, tools, ideas for how to best express what they have in mind, but it’s really important to remember that blank page. Remember that it’s a wide open field. Comics can accomidate anything you want to say.
Q: There hasn’t been any book quite like this that really dealt in the mechanics of comics itself. Why do you think that is?
A: Well, we should namecheck Will Eisner here. I think his books probably come closest. And then there are other books that have touched on some of these storytelling issues. But what’s gone on over the years is that I think maybe publishers don’t have as much faith in readers that they’re going to be intersted in the structure [of comics]. They may think that fans who want to draw comics primarily just want to figure out how to render the things that they like. How to draw a figure, how to draw costume detail and things like that.
And while the fact is there are several hundred books on the shelves offering to teach just that, there are virtually none teaching you how to structure a narrative or choose the right moment, how to frame your actions and that sort of thing. I thought it was worth having at least one book on the shelf that focused on that primarily.
Q: One of my favorite chapters was the “world-building” one, because it’s not something you see a lot in comics because it’s so time-consuming.
A: In North American comics that’s true, yes.
Q: Is it something you see in manga?
A: European comics have a tradition of world-building which I think may have gotten it’s strongest boost when Herge’s Tintin got very popular. That heritage of world-building in the Franco-Belgian tradition. Even though he worked in a fairly streamlined style, he put an enormous amount of effort and care into rendering the worlds that his characters inhabited. I think that loyalty to worldbuilding continued for generations afterward.
Q: I also liked the section on manga and how you talk less about the surface elements and more about the deeper storytelling elements. Do you see more of that thing going on in American comics today? Do you think others are starting to adopt those forms?
A: I do. I think in the last 25 years we’ve seen a lot more Japanese technique filtered to North America. And sometimes it isn’t even a direct influence. I don’t know for instance that the Canadian artist Seth necessarily was influenced by manga but it’s similar to what he does in terms of pacing. Invoking environments and fragments and things like that. There are parallels in manga whether or not he was directly influenced.
Q: I was amazed when I got to the point on tools and you said you drew the whole book on the computer. Because I had been reading it and I though “Oh, he’s gone back to pen and ink.”
A: I was hoping actually it would come as a surprise when I revealed that I had done the whole thing on a paint monitor in PhotoShop. I’m glad. You’re the first one who’s actually said that but I’m really glad you said that because I hope that it has a warmer feeling.
Of course it’s always been hand drawn. Even in “Reinventing Comics,” there were elements that were done in Adobe Illustrator in that book, but the fact is it was always hand-drawn stuff, it was just hand-drawn with a tablet monitor instead of paper and ink. I guess I just finally found a tool that was right for me after all these years.
I also had the frightening challenge that because I was doing a how to book I figured by artwork would be judged twice as harshly. If I was demonstrating facial expressions for example, and my own were really terrible I think that would have been especially embarressing. I think fear may have driven the draftsmanship more than anything else.
Q: Having done both, working with computers and the more tried and true pen and ink methods, what are the advantages of the computer per se?
A: Scale. One of the greatest advantages is simply being able to do very detailed work at a large size. You can be drawing with your forearm and have a very relaxed natural stroke while you’re doing something that occupies a single square centimeter. That’s really marvelous provided you keep things in perspective and don’t go overboard because there’s always a temptation to cram too much detail in.
You really have the best of both worlds. You’re always drawing with a nice, easy broad stroke. You can always go in and not fuss too much because the scale you’re working in — it fusses for you. When you’re working 16 up basically the type is sort of built into the process. That’s tremendously useful.
And then of course there’s the ability to undo errors which I do often. In fact I’ve built a little undo button right into the pen that I used to draw on the montior. It has two little switches on it and one of those little switches moves backwards in time and one moves forward. So I can move back multiple steps or move forward multiple steps. I’ll draw a line I don’t like, it vanishes. It’s like thinking about it makes it go away. My thumb will hit that button like second nature when I don’t like a line.
That’s marvelous. And also being able to work in multiple layers is a tremendous help for people like me who like to endlessly move or recombine things around. An average page of Making Comics will have as many as 20 or 30 layers. Some use 40 or 50.
Q: It reminds me a little bit of the way Chester Brown supposedly works where he cuts the panels out and puts them on a page.
A: Yeah, it is actually a little bit like that because sometimes, especially when I have a particular challenge, I may cut that out of the page and then draw it seperately later. I do sometimes do a panel by panel approach. And I have at times made changes where I’ll move a panel over after or rearrange it. You can always cut and paste digitally.
Q: How did the Notes sections at the end of the chapters come about?
A: There was the main narrative where I made the essential points, but the thing is I’m cursed with this mania of finding virtually everything interesting. And sometimes I’ll find something fascinating, a little detour that my mind takes, that could rob the general points that I’m making of some of their momentum. And when that’s the case, I was giving myself a gift with the notes section by saying if I was really intersted in something, whether or not it was along the main road, I gave myself the opportunity to take that little detour and set up this little village of ideas way off on the far side of the road.
Q: I like the exercises. I could see a K-12 teacher using those to suppliment an English lesson or some kind of homework, outside of an art class or a comics class.
A: I do hope those will be useful for people. The exercises were a little bit harder for me to do. I’ve always benefited from the luxury of being very nonperscriptive. Certainly in "Understanding Comics" I was able to avoid seeming too didactic cause I was never telling anyone to do anything. So in a way it was a little bit against my nature to actually include section where I said “OK, do this now. Here are the rules.” That’s why you’ll notice those weaslly little disclaimers before them, where I’m saying “Now, you don’t have to do this. It’s totally up to you. I’m not the boss.”
Q: You did seem throughout the book to be doing that. I kind of wondered if that was in answer to some of the criticisms that came after “Understanding” and “Reinventing.”
A: There’s a couple of places in the book where if you look closely you can see me wincing behind those blank disc eyes. Where basically I’m saying the equivelent of “Don’t hit me!”
Q: Was that really a concern for you?
A: Well there are plenty of legitimate complaints that I’ve had to field over the years. Of this and that, of a section being unclear or of something being overly restrictive or whatever. I’m partially on the lookout for actual flaws in my argument. Because you can bet if there have been any in the other books people have pointed them out to me. So it’s not just fear of mindless beating. There are plenty of perfectly mindful beatings that I’ve suffered in the past that I’d like to avoid this time.
Q: In the book the focus seems to be primarily on storytelling. You emphasize telling good stories and making characters designed to get a narrative across. As opposed to being more experimental. I was wondering what was the thinking behind that and to that end did you have a specific audience in mind in writing the book?
A: Well certainly anybody who’s interested in creating. Whether or not they’re working in a conventional narrative context I think it’s important to understand that function of a narrative form like comics. Because the nonnarrative option, the experimental comics, the nonfiction comics still grow out of that culture. I make the comparision in the book, and it’s not a facetious one, to sex and how sex has so many different forms and interests us in so many different ways and much sexual activity has nothing whatsoever to do with reproduction. But if you want to understand sex you have to start there. You have to start with the reproductive system and you have to begin by understanding this function that this whole panalopy of activities include.
And so it is I think with comics, that comics originated in narrative and story. And mastering that aspect of comics helps you to understand all aspects of comics. Then of course there’s the fact that 95 percent of the people who make comics do want to tell stories. And as it happens I’m one of them. Now that this book is done, we’re on tour for a year, but once I’m done with the tour I hope very much to create a graphic novel and put some of these ideas to use.
Q: What will the new book be about?
A: I’m not telling anyone. All I will tell you is it will be probably at least 300 pages. It’s fiction, it’s a proper graphic novel. And it’s fairly operatic.
Q: Reading “Making Comics,” you echoed some of my own thoughts recently in terms of comics as an instructional tool, which it seems particularily well suited to.
A: Yeah, I think that nonfiction or instructional comics have a tremendous amount of potential. I’ve seen how I am able to convey ideas about perception and semiotics and identification. Concepts which I think would have a lot of high school students and probably college students eyes just glazing over. But when I attach them to pictures, when I convey them in a visual way, as I do in the books, they’re very easy for even younger children to understand.
I honestly think that virtually any traditional topic of instruction can probably be knocked down a full four grades just by conversion to comics.
Q: I really agree. You don’t have to just explain it in words. You do it in "Making Comics" all the time, where you show exactly what you’re talking about. It seems to be perfect as an educational tool.
A: Certainly anything that has a visual component — I would think even subatomic physics can probably be described that way. Now some subjects like higher mathematics might be impervious to comics, but never say never. Even there, there may be away to do it.
But certainly subjects like history, politics, cultural instruction, you name it, economics. I think all of these things could benefit from a visual approach. And it doesn’t involve dumbing it down at all, which I think is an unfortunate misconception that you have to strip away a lot of the complexity in order to present these things. I don’t really think that’s true. You just have to have faith in your topic. You have to communicate an enthusiasm for that topic. And you have to be willing to present the individual components of the topic in isolation at the outset.
I think it helps to begin with simple principles delivered in isolation. You don’t begin with some massive chart of everything you want to say. You begin with a few principles and you make sure your reader has grasped those principles and then you build on those.
Q: I don’t worry about complexity, but I wonder if you can have as much information. If you’re doing a biography, you’re going to run into problems where a prose biography can offer a lot more really nitty-gritty detail. It would be hard to do that just in terms of length and time.
A: I think the conversion is somewhere 2 or 3 to 1 ratio. That is if you have something that’s going to take 100 pages of prose, you’re looking at two or three hundred pages of comics. Certainly in terms of movie adaptations that’s true. To properly adapt a movie into comics form you’re looking at three or four hundred pages.
Q: The sense of humor shines through in the book, which I think would be hard to do in plain prose. I’m thinking of the moment where you go “Ooooo, diagrams,” which is one of my favorite parts of the book.
A: I have to thank one of my kibbutzers Jen Manly-Lee who helped me prune that joke for effectiveness. I had an extra panel, I forget what it was, but it was better when I trimmed it down to that island moment of me looking and becoming self-concious.
Q: As much ground as you cover in “Making Comics,” there seems like there’s a lot more different angles still to cover.
A: Oh god yes.
Q: You talk about pacing and timing for example, but it would be interesting to see a chapter on telling a joke in comics, and how you set up the timing. Like you just said, taking out a panel made it better.
A: I would say that there are at least maybe a dozen one to two panel sequences in that book that could have been a book in and of themselves.
Q: Are you thinking about returning to the subject, a “Making Comics, Part 2”?
A: I don’t know if there’ll be a “Making Comics, Part 2.” If there is, it’ll be five to six years from now. Cause I know what I’m doing for the next few years. I have a tour to finish and that’s going to take a year. Then I have a graphic novel to create and that’s going to take at least three years. And then I might think about a follow up.
I do have another project in mind that is not dissimilar from "Making Comics" but approaches it in a very different way. And does expand on some of those ideas. But as I say, not any time soon.
Q: Let’s talk about the tour a little bit. You’re on tour with your family and you’re going to be traveling through all 50 states. That’s a massive undertaking. How are you going to be able to get through the whole thing? If it were my family I think about two states in I’d be turning the car around.
A: The first thing to remember is 50 states is one state a week. As soon as you think of it that way, you realize I have to try to get a lecture or a seminar or a store signing in there, for every state. So there’s at least one public appearance in every state.
When you look at it that way you realize wow, there could actually be a lot of downtime. We’re not driving Seattle to Baltimore to Los Angeles to Miami. Right now we’re shuttling between Massachussettes and New York. We planned it by region so apart from a couple of big trips like the trip from California to New York that started this, or the drive from the Northeast down to Florida in January, for the most part, we’re just going to neighboring states. If I manage to get 50 speaking engagements, we’re going to be spending plenty of time hanging out, going to museums. It’s actually not too bad. I haven’t found the pace particularily grueling.
Q: How do you break up the travel? Do you at certain points between signings say well we need to go home for a week and water the plants and check on the cat and then go back on the road? Are you on the road all the time?
A: Oh, there is no home. We were living in Southern California. We took all of our stuff, put it in storage. We have no home. One of the honest to god purposes of the tour is to see all 50 states and make a final decision on where we want to live. We don’t know where we’re gonna live. We’re house hunting.