082200: PROFILE INTERVIEW:
By Albert Boime and David Dodd.
By any definition Scott McCloud is an alternative comic creator:
his first professional work was writing and drawing his own series
ZOT! in the mid-í80ís, and he went from that to a potentially less
lucrative project, an analysis of how comics communicate done as a
comic book, called UNDERSTANDING COMICS. Since it was first
published in 1994, UC has become essential reading for anyone interested
in thinking about comics, and while scholars often disagree with his
ideas, they often make use of his concepts and the clear panels in
which he illustrates them. Ironically, the importance of UC as a scholarly
work has put it in more outlets than almost any other comic, since
it is a regular part of the inventory of bookstore chains such as
Borders and Barnes and Noble.
This year has been a particularly public one for McCloud. He was
a guest of honor at San Diego this summer, and is currently producing
the first new ZOT! story in years, this time online, at comicbookresources.com.
Most notably, he published the sequel to UC, REINVENTING COMICS
through DCís Paradox Press. While the book deals with a number of
controversies in the world of comics, the most attention is devoted
to the possibilities that computers and the internet offer comics.
Often discussions of how computers will affect art have a sort of
breathlessness, as if the writer is struggling to keep up with the
new paradigms, with McCloud one gets the sense that the technology
is finally able to articulate visions that heís had for years. Comics
and technology are true passions for him, and whether or not his current
ideas prove valuable, heís sure to keep looking to the future of comics
as he develops new ones.
I was fortunate to be able to interview McCloud in person, over a
several hour lunch, as heís the sort of person who likes to think
out loud. I had guessed correctly that he would have more ideas going
on than one interviewer would be able to deal with, so I brought along
the art historian Albert Boime, who has used UC in graduate seminars
on comics at UCLA. While we are novice interviewers, our fascination
with McCloudís work was rewarded in this interview, and we both left
with a profound respect for his abilities as a theoretician, a creator,
and, above all, a reader of comics.
This interview is in six parts for easier downloading and reading.
Albert Boime: So where are you from?
Scott McCloud: New England, Lexington Massachusetts.
AB: Were comics very popular there when you were growing up?
SM: It wasnít popular, but there were a lot of us who
read comics. Lexington is in that high-tech corridor along Route 128 so there were a lot of kids whose parents were engineers, who were into science fiction, Star Trek, that kind of stuff. We actually had a whole lunch room for ourselves at one point. We had quite a monster clique there in high school. It was cool. I liked it. High school was actually okay because there were enough nerds.
AB: What was the outlet? Where did you obtain your material?
Was it the drug store? Was there a specialty shop?
SM: Back in Ď74, Kurt Busiek got me reading comics, and for
the first couple of years we were getting them at a local convenience
store. And then he discovered the Million Year Picnic in Cambridge
Massachusetts which is one of the first great comic stores and from
then on that was my model for how comics should be sold.
AB: How did you get into drawing comics?
SM: To answer the question, I decided I was going to be a
comic artist in Ď75 when I was still in high school, actually junior
high, and when it came time to look for a college that was my orientation,
to find someplace that had a program that would fit my particular
goal, and the closest I came was an illustration major. And I looked
at various schools, and I actually went with Syracuse University,
because they had a lot of resources there, and I figured out pretty
early on I was going to need training in more than just illustration.
I needed to be a writer, I needed to be a set designer, a costumer,
an actor, I had to be all these things to make these stories come
AB: That was very prescient of you to realize that so early.
SM: Well I was pretty obsessed. From the moment I decided
I was going to be a comic book artist, I was absolutely obsessed with
it, and I took more or less the same sort of analytical, take it apart,
see how it works type of attitude that I do today. It was that from
the very beginning. You can check with Kurt Busiek. I was very serious,
even when I was getting into it in junior high school. Once I made
the decision, it was a holy crusade.
AB: Was Jerome Witkin at Syracuse when you were there?
SM: I believe he was, yeah. Although I didnít have him. The
professor who made the biggest impression on me at Syracuse was a
fellow named Bakke, one of those post-McLuhan witch-doctor types,
who brought everything into his lectures, wild slide shows, referenced
everything from pop music to art history to comics. I just really
liked him, because I really liked the way he tried to find connections
in everything. He basically taught me how to learn. And to take everything
with a grain of salt. He was sometimes off the mark, but he encouraged
us to watch him for that, to be critical of that, to not look for
leaders, but just to look for information everywhere you could find
it. Learn from everything, follow no one. And thatís pretty much been
my modus operandi since then.
AB: Well you certainly do make connections. Especially UC,
itís very well thought out.
SM: Thank you. Iím trying to be the James Burke of comics.
Yeah I donít know if youíve seen his specials on PBS, but I guess
I unconsciously modelled myself after that kind of approach. I actually
got to meet the guy, we had a mutual acquaintance.
David Dodd: Had you seen Connections before you started doing UC?
SM: Yeah I had.
DD: Itís a very engaging sort of presentation style.
SM: Yeah. I mean, the qualities that I think I may have unconsciously
emulated from Burke were speaking directly but never dumbing down
your topic. Having faith in the topic being interesting in and of
itself. Not introducing distractions or bells and whistles. Any subject,
told straight in an engaging manner is interesting. So I was never
into the sugar-coating approach, you know, non-fiction comics in the
past tended towards, except for people like Larry Gonick, whoís a
very important exception, I think that they tended towards the idea
that in order to teach the reader anything, you first needed to cook
up a story or conflict that had nothing to do with it, or was only
peripherally related to the subject, and then you could slip in the
message at some point. And I think that that really underestimates
the potential of the audience to be interested in anything other than
heroes and villains.
DD: You have specific ones in mind?
SM: Well Iím thinking of how in the superhero realm, they
would try to do public service messages. Some superhero team says
no to drugs or whatever, and it was just dressed up as an ordinary
comic book with a non-fiction bitter pill, wrapped in baloney to be
shoved down the throats of . . .
DD: There was this god-awful story in Marvel comics this last
year, with Spiderman teaching an irresponsible rock star to be a good
role model, which was incredibly annoying.
SM: One thing thatís consistent about ads in comics, whether
theyíre on the internet or in magazines, is the fact that if the ads
donít encroach in the story, if they donít interrupt the flow of the
story, theyíre not doing their job. Their job is to get you distracted,
their job is to get you to pay more attention to the ads than to the
story. On the web itís even worse because the idea of an ad banner
on the web is to make you want to leave, which to me is a very self-destructive
economic model. And in fact if you look, web pages are increasingly
designed so that the most compelling thing on the page is the ad,
and the purpose is to make people want to click and leave.
AB: You go out and buy whatever theyíre selling. Active consumer
and passive listener, or passive watcher, or something like that.
DD: So much of the model of interactivity on the web ends
up being things like "give us your name, tell us what youíre interested
in so we can sell you things." So being a lurker, never engaging in
conversations or chat rooms or whatever ends up being this sort of
passive resistance movement. People who never give their names or
do these things, but are sitting in their rooms gathering information...
SM: If we continued on this course I could see PSAís in ten
years from the government explaining how to be a responsible consumer
and participate in the economy. Itís horrifying. (laughter) No I believe
very strongly in money being exchanged for actual value. If the experience
that youíre getting is a particular story, information, image, music,
on the web, you should be paying for that. The thing is, you shouldnít
be paying ten dollars, you should be paying a dime. And therein lies
the rub. We donít have a workable model for very small transactions.
AB: Thereís E-Bay.
SM: But thatís an auction site, for transactions that are
considerably above the dollar threshold.
DD: The people whoíve really been benefitting from E-Bay are
firms that grade your comics and seal them in a mylar bag.
AB: Which you can never open?
DD: Well if you open it you have to send it back and pay another
five bucks to have it regraded.
SM: Not to mention thereíll be a curse on the entire team
of archaeologists who did it, and theyíll be killed off one by one.
Iíve been trying to figure out what am I working against, because
I tend to think of what I do in a positive context, what am I working
for. I know what Iím working for, but whatís my primary obstacle,
my primary adversary these days. And I think fetishism is a very big
part of that, because I think the ultimate fetishism is the collector
mentality, the whole "Ooh this thing is going to be worth a lot,"
speculators. But then just the fetishism of physical objects is a
problem that web comics keep running up against. And then on other
days I think my primary adversary is nostalgia. There are a lot of
people who would really prefer that comics stay in their place as
this cute little pop culture puppy dog, with no pretensions of literature
or art, with no desire to enter the 21st century, just a lot of little
plastic figurines and moldy newsprint and forty year old guys living
with their mothers. Iím forty, by the way, so I conform to half of
that equation. But to me, thatís not our future. I have no desire
to cling to that.
DD: Raising the issue of comics being art, you give a really
interesting example in RC with your story of Will Eisner meeting Rube
Goldberg, and telling him his ideas about comics being art, and Goldberg
replies, "Comics arenít art, theyíre vaudeville!" While you take Eisnerís
side in retelling the story, doesnít much of the power of comics result
from their connection to popular entertainment traditions like vaudeville?
SM: Well, you know, Rube was right. When Rube said that what
they do in making comics, and again remember this is 1940 or so, and
he was an old man by then, what Rube was saying was that this is our
role in society. But itís not that statement that I disagree with,
and that I think Eisner disagreed with, then and now, it was the underlying
assumption in what Goldberg said, that thatís all they would ever
be capable of doing, that they would be restricted to that role. So
Goldberg was right, comics were this entertainment machine, and in
fact the pop culture approach to comics is right too, comics are a
pop culture artifact. My crusade is to make sure that nobody thinks
for a nanosecond, thatís all comics will ever be able to do. Because
I happen to interested in the rest, the other 99% of their potential.
Thatís where I want to go.
AB: In other words thereís a space for vaudeville. . .
SM: Right, thatís this tiny little corner. I always like to
think (itís a very American metaphor) of this little colony set up
on the east coast of this unexplored continent (fortunately
in comics we donít have to drive anyone off their land) but thatís
how I see comics, as an unexplored continent with a little colony
on the east coast.
AB: Do you have a show for the road, like Spiegelmanís Comics
SM: Itís not a slide show, but Iíve been going to a fair number
of conferences, to computer conferences mostly. In fact I think I
may be doing a lot of that this year. I get burned out, but I really
enjoy talking to geeks, and they like the first book. It hasnít been
long enough to know what most of them will think of the second book,
but so far Iíve got pretty good feedback. This year has been a very
interesting experience. I had said in my introduction to RC that UC
had a long honeymoon, that people didnít openly criticize it right
away, at least not many, not publicly, and that I expected RC to have
a much shorter honeymoon. And it did. In a way the honeymoon was already
over by the time it hit press. I mean, you just look at the disclaimer
that DC Comics put there. Itís a much more contentious book, this
yearís going to be a much more interesting year as a result.
DD: But you must have meant it to be a more contentious book
because itís much more partisan than UC.
SM: Yeah, I knew it would be, but I didnít design it to piss
people off, I just knew it would. I designed it to tell the truth
as I saw it, at the time, and to propose what I thought was a solution
for a lot of the problems that weíre facing right now. History will
definitely tell if it worked or not. The one difference between this
book and UC is that itís more perishable, more about the present,
this particular point in history. It has the potential to become obsolete
quicker. On the other hand it has an additional feature that UC didnít
have and that is that it continues online, itís a work in progress.
I finished the book, but Iím continuing to talk about these issues
online at my website. Next Page
- The official homepage of Scott McCloud.
this article at the PopImage
other interviews by clicking the "archives" button on the navbar.