The image everyone has of the quintessential comic book expert is a guy sitting around in his basement with 50-year-old copies of Superman, ranting wildly about the Golden Age. Leading comics theorist Scott McCloud defies that stereotype entirely. He is best known for writing comic books about comic books: epic treatises which are remarkably optimistic about the future of the industry. This evening he will be in Toronto giving a lecture, Understanding, Reinventing, and Making Comics, at OISE Theatre.
After an active career as a cartoonist in the 1980’s, McCloud wrote the highly-acclaimed Understanding Comics which replaced Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art as the most definitive book on the history and principals of the medium. In 2000, he published a follow-up, Reinventing Comics, which outlined 12 revolutions in comics and emphasized the potential of the internet as a tool for distribution.
Now, McCloud is traveling across North America with his wife and daughters in a grey Toyota Siena to promote Making Comics, a guide to visual storytelling. Torontoist caught up with McCloud on his way to Toronto…
I’m intrigued that your appearance in Toronto will be in a lecture format because, in your books, it often seems as though your illustrated self is giving a very engaging lecture directly to the reader. Is that a natural tendency of yours, or do you have a background in teaching?
I’ve become something of a teacher: I give seminars and I’ve done residencies at universities. But I have no formal training, I just kind of backed into it. And I do really enjoy it!
I’m one of those lucky people who’s not teaching from an assigned curriculum, I’m just talking about the things I find really interesting. That means I get to have a lot more fun and hopefully the people listening have more fun as a result.
Do you feel like your career as a comics educator has taken a more prominent role than your career as a regular cartoonist?
As a storyteller, I’ve been hibernating for a while, but that’s going to be changing as soon as the tour is done. My next project is a fairly ambitious graphic novel that will probably be 300-400 pages. I’m quite interested in story structure and, since Making Comics came out, trying to piece together what makes a good story has become one of my full-time obsessions. The story I’m working on is one I’ve had in mind for nearly two decades. I like the story and want to do it justice, so I’m trying to be a better writer as well as a better artist.
Any hints about the plot?
I’ve been a real good boy about not actually talking about the story itself because I want to keep that creative energy flowing. I’d like it to be coming out of my hands instead of coming out of my mouth, if you know what I mean. But it’s fairly dramatic, operatic, it’s pure fiction, self-contained and, as I said before, it’s pretty big. Every few hundred pages is going to take me 3 or 4 years to draw.
Your approach to studying comics seems so optimistic about the future of the medium. What kind of things are cartoonists doing that you find innovative?
One of the nice things about comics in recent years is that the medium is going in many different directions simultaneously. For example, you have things like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or the Jimmy Corrigan book by Chris Ware that are quite literarily ambitious. I think Art Spiegelman’s Maus is probably the most celebrated example of that, he really kicked off this literary attitude about comics.
And at the same time, we’re reaching back into one of our traditional strengths by recapturing the youth market with a very strong helping hand from Japan, but also domestically. I think we’re doing a much better job of speaking to young teenage readers with everything from manga to the Flight anthology to Scott Pilgrim by Brian Lee O’Malley. Reaching out to younger readers is very important: we don’t want to lose the next generation in our quest to create more adult-oriented comics.
You know, back in the 90’s, the original push for comics that were suitable for adults lead to the almost complete abandonment of younger readers. We had been saying for so long that comics weren’t just for kids anymore. Suddenly we woke up one day and kids weren’t reading comics. It was very sad.
But I’m happy to say that’s not going on now. Virtually every sector of comics is growing, and that is pretty exciting.
What are your thoughts on all the graphic novels and comics that have been made into hit movies recently, like Frank Miller’s 300 and Sin City?
Well, I personally like to see filmmakers create movies with just as much pride in their work as the original comic book authors had in theirs. We do see that sometimes: when Dan Clowes was enlisted to work on the script of Ghost World, he rewrote half the story for the sake of the medium it was being adapted into.
If a movie is going to be made out of a comic, my first and most fervent hope is that it will be a good movie rather than how well it stuck to the source material. Sometimes a movie can be loyal to the source material to its detriment, like Daredevil. Sometimes it can be loyal to the source material to its strength, like in American Splendor or even the Spiderman movies.
One of the most interesting phenomena of Hollywood’s recent love affair with comics is that for the first time, we actually have a boomerang effect in the comic market when a work is associated with an individual artist. After 300 came out, people were genuinely curious about Frank Miller and they went out and bought his book. They were very interested in checking out the work of an individual artist who had clearly influenced the movie to such a great degree. And the sales on 300 [the comic] ended up being very strong. It’s an interesting trend.
With that in mind, are movies and comics ever released simultaneously in order to benefit from each others’ popularity?
It’s been done to a degree. In a sense, that is what’s happened with things like Road to Perdition or Men in Black. The comics passed so far under the radar that people didn’t even know they existed until they surfaced as movies. There’s a good chance that far more people read Road to Perdition in the weeks following the movie than ever before. It was a fairly obscure book, much to the annoyance of its authors.
You’ve spoken very positively about webcomics and their potential to explore in new directions, like using an infinite canvas or incorporating sound. However, a lot of lot of authors seem to stick to comics that could just as well be published on paper. Why do you think that is?
For now, more experimental work is often ill-suited to the form that the web has taken today and people’s reading habits. The priority of most cartoonists is to get a big audience and have their work make people laugh or transport them into a story and not be distracted by dancing bananas. I think that’s a natural impulse. There’s no clear way to make a living by doing experimental web comics. People have day jobs and can only crank them out occasionally but, in a way, that’s true of all media.
I’ve long come to accept that more experimental work is going to be a minority of the comics scene, but it can be an important minority in the long run. Sometimes a structural or a design idea some crazy loner has may wind up setting a tone for the whole decade. I’m content to wait it out and see how the web evolves while I’m working on my graphic novel.
Similarly, in the transition from print journalism to online journalism, a lot of bloggers find that there’s a huge advantage to hyperlinking. Even as I type up this interview, every comic you mention will be linked to the author’s webpage so that anyone who is interested can find more information with a simple click. Could the same idea be successfully applied to a webcomic? For example, you could click on images within the illustration that would let you read a back story of a character.
That’s an interesting conundrum, because cartoonists want their work to be seen. If they’re working really hard on a dozen or 200 panels, they don’t want to do so under the assumption that only 10% of their readers will ever look at it. I don’t think that structure is going to be as compelling for artists.
When you as a writer are including hyperlinks and you know people either have the option of digging or not digging, you’re including links to work you didn’t actually slave over for 500 hours. You’re not personally or emotionally invested in where they’re going to click. If you had created the work, you would want them to click.
I guess the only way you could do anything like that is by having a very loyal fan base, like Homestar Runner. Their Strongbad E-mails have hidden easter eggs with extra material that pop up throughout the cartoon, and most fans know precisely where they are.
Well, you want to make sure readers don’t have to dig too much. But if you have a fiercely loyal fan base, the concept of embedded easter eggs does start to make a lot of sense. You know that not only will a few of them click and find it, they’ll tell everyone else and pretty soon you can count on virtually everybody eventually seeing it.
In that environment it works very well. That also has a lot to do with the community aspect of it. Of all the various things we predicted for web comics a few years ago, the one that’s come through in spades is the power of community and connection between artists and readers. It has completely transformed the landscape.
Also, one of the generational shifts I’ve noticed is that, for younger artists, passing between print and web seems like a pretty seamless affair. I think a lot of creators in the Flight anthology see the two opportunities as just different aspects of their work. They don’t identify themselves as web creators or print creators, the idea is just irrelevant.
Another benefit of web publishing seems to be how easily you can sell merchandise to your fans. I know some webcomic creators can completely support themselves off of t-shirt sales, allowing them the ability to dedicate all their time to the project.
Now the big question with merchandise is, to what extent does that become your job? We went and visited R. Stevens and Jeffrey Rowland in Massachusetts and they have a thriving t-shirt business. But are they cartoonists or are they full-time t-shirt shippers?
Their cartooning is wonderful, but there is a part of them that wishes they could do it for 8 or 10 hours a day instead of having to spend a few hours a day taking orders and packing boxes. But it’s working for them and, if it can work for others, at least there’s some model that can help people make their comic a full-time affair.
Scott McCloud will be speaking this evening, Sunday May 6, at 7p.m. in OISE Theatre, 252 Bloor St. West. Tickets are $15 at the door. He will also be doing a quick signing tomorrow, Monday May 7, from 6-7p.m. at The Beguiling, 601 Markham St.