Video Creative Director
Ian A. Maisel
Originally published in the Boston Phoenix on June 22, 2006
Scott McCloud writes about cartoons in a comic book format, and has become one of the world’s premiere comics theorists. In his books, he draws himself as a professorial narrator who invites the reader onto the page to check out his ideas about cartoon history and the psychology of what happens when we read comics.
His first book about cartoons, Understanding Comics, was published in 1993 and was promptly added to the syllabus of every cool college professor across the country. Seven years later he drew Reinventing Comics. It was a visionary book, but by his own admission it was also too ambitious: a vessel for every theory he’d ever had about cartoons, Reinventing became an intellectually bloated history manual and was greeted with mixed reviews.
This fall McCloud will publish a new book, Making Comics. He’s a kind-hearted and fascinating guy, and our interview quickly spiraled into a three-hour love fest. Here are a few excerpts.
What’s hard for you to draw?
There are a few things cartoonists will tell you are just plain hard to draw. Bicycles are hard to draw. You really need to look at a bicycle in order to draw a bicycle. You think you know what it looks like, alright? Until you actually sit down to draw it, then you totally – you completely choke on it.
All those gears and everything!
Yeah, it’s the gears and also the struts don’t really follow any logical pattern that you can remember. So you just have to look. But these days with Google’s image search you can — you just find out what anything looks like. It doesn’t matter. In the old days when I was starting out in the ’80s, everybody had their collection of National Geographics and we would go out and buy all these stupid magazines and you know cut out picture and think,
“Oh there’s a koala bear — I might have to draw a koala bear someday!” And you know you’re never ever going to have to draw a koala bear and you’re just wasting your time with your scissors and your eight-and-a-half by eleven paper and your glue sticks sticking these things down and spending hours –
You're just avoiding work!
Yeah, just avoiding – right! Avoiding work. I actually love drawing what my peers dismissively call “backgrounds” but what I like to call environments. Just sidewalks and cityscapes and skies. Fields of grass and everything. Or “the rest the world” is another way I like to refer to it.
They try to close in on the characters as much as possible because they know if they keep their camera angles tight they can keep their backgrounds down to a few lines. I think the European tradition is much more conscientious about drawing the full range of subjects. And that’s why I think there’s a very rich tradition of comics and of world building in European comics. I think that’s something we could learn from.
Do you think that's because American culture is so celebrity and persona driven?!
I don’t know. Possibly yes. In fact I found it easy to identify the “house style” of European comics and the “house style” of Japanese comics. If I was living in Japan what would I look at in American comics and think, “Oh yeah, it’s an American comic — you can tell because they’re all doing this”? What would be that constant element?
Comics evolved out of stage plays, out of the idea that you’re sitting in the front row of the audience and they’re performing in these little vaudeville boxes just for you. Characters in American comics are more likely to face out. I thought that was interesting when I started. We face the audience more in American comics than characters do in Japanese and European comics.
You don’t really follow characters into their world the way you do in other cultures here in America. Here in America characters tend to block you at the door. They’re in the center of the panel. They fill the panel and they face you. You can’t get into their world. You know?
In Understanding Comics you talk about how we live in such an iconic culture. What do you think have been the most successful uses of iconography in pop culture in the last ten years?
Well just look at the face of Homer Simpson or Bart and the power that has and how, in a way, those celebrities have such an enduring, laser-like ability to just burn right into our brain that exceeds any actual human celebrity. You know? [Laughs]
Just try to name a human being – even really gifted actors like George Clooney or Johnny Depp, or Cate Blanchett, or any director or figure like that. Have any of them landed in our subconscious the way that the Simpsons have? I don’t really think that they have.
Robert Crumb says that he loves drawing himself. In both Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics you draw yourself endlessly. Do you love drawing yourself, Scott?
[Laughs] I just draw this weird schematic character who doesn’t really exist, who has no particular personality. In a way I’m just drawing a little dotted line and saying, you know, “My voice here.” Just fill this in for me, won’t you? It’s like I’m asking my readers to put me in by proxy. “If you don’t mind I would like you to construct me on this page. Because I have other things to do.”
[Laughs] I want to do a whole dissertation on Batman. Young artists love Batman because they’re really good at doing rage. That’s why they don’t want to do Superman.
And Wonder Woman. Honestly. Can I just tell you this? I mean seriously? She’s an Amazon princess, OK? With Greek themes… so naturally, because she’s an Amazon princess with a Greek theme, she wears a stars-and-stripes bathing suit. Does that make any sense to you at all? Because she’s an Amazon princess who wears a stars and stripes bathing suit, naturally she has a golden glowing lasso that makes people tell the truth. And then just to cap it off she flies an invisible robot plane. What does any of that have to do with anything? It was like she was created by a computer program that just randomly spits out powers and props and vehicles and costume details. Terrible character.
I think “dick” says it all.
Fact is, comics and newspapers were a marriage of convenience. It’s a shotgun marriage that began back at the beginning of the last century. And the shotgun was pure commerce. And I think that there’s been a certain amount of resentment ever since. I think good journalists have always resented comics a little because they didn’t like the idea of comics in their newspaper, not because of their brilliant reporting, but because of goofy little cartoon characters hitting each over the head with rolling pins, which is horrifying. I think the editors, gradually, have only been too happy to shrink things down. I think of it like Joe Pesci’s head in a vice in Casino, squeezing and squeezing.
Wait, it wasn’t Joe Pesci – it was some other guy.
Right. I think Pesci was doing the squeezing.
Yeah whoever, whoever the guy was.
Say you’re 18 years old and you want to be a cartoonist in 2006. What are the options and what are the economic realities?
There are more markets now, twice as many as there were, say, seven years ago. Three things have completely reshaped comics in the last seven years. One is the growing graphic novel scene. Another is the influx of Japanese comics which have inspired a lot of creators to move in that direction in terms of format and style. And the other of course is the web. And any one of those would have turned comics on its head. The three of those combined have randomized the scene to the degree where any of us can’t predict what will happen next.
But the greatest enemy of aspiring artists are the 10,000 other aspiring artists. And the tremendous skill that they’re bringing to bear on the world. I’ve never seen so many talented young artists, you know, in all my life. I think we have probably ten times as many really talented young artists in 2006 as we had in 1996.
…I ridicule the notion that you can break into comics as if comics are some fixed industry with a location and all you have to do is find it and crash through the wall and then they will have to give you a job [laughs]. Instead I compare comics to a moving freight train that never stops at the same station twice. You just have to be ready to leap! Just leap and grab and ride it!
It’s very exciting. The one upside of attempting to become a comics artist is that if you fail — as most will – just as most fail in Hollywood, as most fail in acting, as most fail as musicians — but if you fail, you still have a tremendous skill set. You have an arsenal of skills which still can be useful in many many many fields. Because in order to try to become a comics artist you need to learn to become a director, actor, set designer, photographer, writer. You know? You have to understand design, graphics, and body language, facial expression, costumes — all of these things. The power of imagery.