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082200: PROFILE INTERVIEW: Scott McCloud
By Albert Boime and David Dodd.

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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 alive.

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 101?

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

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