In 1993, Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics was the first to explore comics as a medium through the medium itself.
He provided this definition for comics: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader.”
Though lengthy, McCloud’s definition set the stage for the ongoing discussions about what comics are, as well as what they are capable of.
In 2000, Scott McCloud released his second work, Reinventing Comics, which analyzed the connection between digital technology and comics.
His latest publication, Making Comics, hit the shelves in September 2006 and has taken him on a tour of readings and signings across the country. A culmination of the trilogy, Making Comics is a comprehensive guide while still maintaining the intellectuality of the earlier works.
Despite being labeled “the grandfather of comics” in a recent press release, McCloud is actually only forty-six years old (though he did take the time to draw himself with a thicker frame and gray temples).
I had the chance to sit down with McCloud in Manhattan ahead of a book signing at Midtown Comics, and later had a phone conversation with him when he was out to dinner with his family at a Cracker Barrel in Springfield, Massachusetts.
During the call, he would occasionally apologize for having his mouth full from eating a biscuit or taking a swig of Dr. Pepper.
–Hillary Chute, according to
Hillary Chute is the one who has made a considerable contribution to the field of comics scholarship. She has become renowned for her insightful analysis of the medium and her thoughtful accounts of its history.
She has been able to craft a narrative that is both engaging and informative. Her work has helped to shape the way we understand and appreciate the importance of comics.
Comics that are based on factual information rather than fictional stories are referred to as nonfiction comics.
They have become increasingly popular as a form of educational material. These nonfiction graphic novels provide readers with an entertaining and educational way to learn about history, science, and other topics.
What sparked your enthusiasm for comic books?
In junior high school, I encountered Kurt Busiek, who is now celebrated for his comic writing. Kurt was a comics fan, yet it took a lot of effort on his part to get me to take an interest in comic books.
At the time, I was into science fiction and art, and comics failed to make an impression on me. I believed the artwork to be mediocre and the writing to be rudimentary, so I kept away from them.
However, Kurt managed to persuade me to sample some of his comics, and I eventually got addicted. By the age of fifteen, I had decided that comics would be my chosen career.
Kurt and I had been creating comics since high school. One of our biggest projects was a 64-page comic called The Battle of Lexington, which featured Marvel superheroes destroying our high school and other historic landmarks in Lexington, Massachusetts. We completed it while in college.
What was great about The Battle of Lexington was that it allowed me to experience how my artistic style changed from making extremely intricate and hard to decipher panels to a simpler, straightforward storytelling style.
At first, I was just trying to show off and challenge the boundaries of the medium, but eventually I realized the importance of the basics of storytelling.
What led to your current position at DC Comics?
SM recollected that due to the absence of a comics major at Syracuse University, they pursued illustration. As part of the design course they took, they were trained in developing a production portfolio which they sent to DC Comics.
To their surprise, they received a call from the production manager asking if they could come down to show their work and they got the job.
After taking the train back to Syracuse they were hired as a production person. This involved erasing lines that went over the panel borders and pasting in lettering corrections.
After a year and a half, they put forth a proposal for their own comic and by 1984 they were drawing them professionally.
BLVR: Your creative work was influenced by Art Spiegelman’s 1975 work “Cracking Jokes.”
SM: Three sources likely influenced Understanding Comics, even if indirectly.
The first was James Burke’s BBC programs such as Connections and The Day the Universe Changed; the second was Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe; and the third was Art Spiegelman’s essay “Cracking Jokes,” initially found in the magazine Arcade and later included in his book Breakdowns.
This latter piece was a fantastic example of nonfiction comics, and perhaps Art grasped the potential of this genre more than any other artist at the time.
What aspect of the work specifically sparked your attention, or was it the concept of nonfiction comics in general?
SM observed that many people had taken on nonfiction writing in a way that suggested the ideas had to be presented within the realm of storytelling in order for them to be engaging.
However, when Art discussed humor theory in his work “Cracking Jokes”, he approached it with the conviction that it was inherently interesting, as long as it was clearly defined and demonstrated. This is something SM has tried to emulate in the writing of Understanding Comics.
Section Two: Bull in a Fragile Store
This phrase is used to describe someone who enters a situation and carelessly causes damage or disruption. It is based on the idea of a bull entering a china shop and breaking the delicate items that are on display.
The person who is described as a bull in a china shop is often unaware of the consequences of their actions.
What spurred you to write Understanding Comics?
From the moment I began creating my own comic, I was formulating concepts on how it should be structured.
By 1986, I had already started to construct the basics of a comic book that was focused on comics.
Then, around 1989, things began to become more serious. My notes had become so numerous that the file folder I was using to store them was so dense that it was slipping off the hooks.
BLVR: How was the public’s response to Understanding Comics?
SM stated that the book experienced a lengthy period of approval. He speculated that there had likely been rumblings of discontent in the academic world due to his brash approach to semiotics.
It seemed that poststructuralists did not enjoy the book since he was conveying simplified versions of theories in a popularized manner that had been previously explored with greater detail and accuracy.
I was widely praised for my book at first, but after a few years people began to challenge some of its conclusions more readily.
The debates around my definition of comics, as well as the idea of classifying aspects of the art form or experimenting for its own sake which the book advocated, have been ongoing since then. This has caused a great deal of unease.
What is the opinion expressed by poststructuralist theory that one should be aware of?
SM: Unfortunately, I’m the wrong person to ask about this topic–I don’t understand it well! You should find someone who can explain in detail why McCloud should have read Foucault, Barthes, and many others long ago.
People have called me out for believing that anything can be represented by something else–it’s the problem with representation. To think that paper lines can represent a light bulb is ridiculous! I’m aware of this, so I’m not the right person to ask.
BLVR: Could you give me a summary of the kind of criticism it was?
Talking about the material in “Show and Tell” of chapter six–the tension between words and pictures, and the effort to reconcile them–I consider it to be too simplistic.
My opinion of art usually receives a lot of criticism, although I haven’t yet heard a better one. Samuel R. “Chip” Delany has a valid point concerning the purposelessness of definitions. Rather than focusing on definitions, he suggests attending to the “functional description”.
Dylan Horrocks crafted a unique response to the book–titled “Inventing Comics”–that was truly remarkable. Gary Groth, the leader of Fantagraphics Books and the Comics Journal, hesitated to get behind Understanding Comics until the sequel was released.
Still, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the initial book, referring to it as mechanistic and criticizing my effort to label all things.
I recall the June 2001 version of Comics Journal that featured a plethora of discussions concerning Understanding Comics.
SM expressed that it was the first instance they had seen of a thorough effort to examine and scrutinize a book completely. It was intriguing to see how strong the book was under such an intense investigation. They commented that the process was enjoyable and appreciated it.
Was Understanding Comics important in helping comics be seen as an art form, rather than just a type of story?
SM stated it was hard to pinpoint exactly which comics makers in the mid-’90s were influenced by Understanding Comics. Craig Thompson had referred to them as the ” Understanding Comics generation”, but this was not necessarily the case for the whole comics-making community.
Additionally, they did not all necessarily have a connection to Reinventing Comics either.
I cannot fully comprehend the level of impact I had on others, so I can only cite my own inspirations and mention that Spiegelman and Eisner made an impact on me.
Additionally, my discovery of European and Japanese comics had an immense effect on me. Without these influences, I may not have become a cartoonist or my artwork would have been drastically distinct.
III. FUNCTIONALITY EXPLAINED
Robert Harvey, a critic, emphasizes the pairing of illustrations and words as the essential feature of comics; this differs notably from your own view on the subject. Could you explain what your definition of comics is?
SM: To consider the use of definitions, I will maintain mine as it provides a more fascinating view of comics as sequential art rather than a union of words and illustrations.
Although it is true that there is much to discuss about the communication between words and visuals, the strength of silence in sequential art has been showcased through the work of Jim Woodring and the like, making it a truly captivating experience.
The only exclusion of my definition would be single-panel cartoons such as The Far Side or The Family Circus.
The possibilities that my definition of comics points to are immense. I was glad that I had framed the definition so broadly and accepted alternatives to paper and ink when they became available.
This avoided the unnecessary period of time where people would say that anything other than paper and ink was not comics. I strongly believe that even if bas-relief sculptures on a wall in a museum tell a story, they would be considered comics, just different variations of them.
Creating a series of stained-glass windows that depict the storyline of your life is the same as making comics, which means The Family Circus is no longer a part of that equation.
This isn’t a negative statement about the single-panel work, as cartooning has a long and proud tradition. Although these cartoons were once displayed in newspapers alongside comics, it would be the same as labeling the crossword puzzle as part of the comics family.
BLVR: What is the variation between the rhythm of the area on a comic book page compared to that of a novel page or other media?
SM: The artist has the ability to shape what takes place within the panels, but the reader is the one who has the final say between them.
Unlike in prose, motion pictures, or other forms of narrative, there is not that same kind of rhythm. In prose, for example, it is one big piece; it is all connected due to the reader continually constructing the world in their mind while the author keeps providing new information.
In motion pictures, the process is continuous because of the persistence of vision which helps with the stitching of the frames together, this is different to comics as the back and forth is not present.
When it comes to prose, space is not a huge factor. If a novel is printed in a smaller size or with a larger font, the text will adjust and still be the same story.
However, when it comes to comic books, space is a major component. Where a panel is placed on the page can significantly affect the reader’s experience.
BLVR: You employed a term that I found remarkable– monotextural — when discussing specific kinds of media. So what expression should be used when referring to comics? Polytextural?
SM suggested that the prose could be considered duotextural, as opposed to monomodal, as comics are bimodal. In other words, they have been reduced to a puree of ideas and words which move in an uninterrupted flow.
We can use this terminology to describe the concept.
BLVR: As you have suggested, a unique characteristic of comics is that it can transcend temporal boundaries.
SM: One unique aspect of comics is that it is the only form of narrative that has the ability to show past, present, and future all at the same time.
In any other type of story, the reader is always stuck in the present moment. However, if comics were to incorporate digital forms, then this impact would be further emphasized.
Are there any particular comic books that stand out in your recollection?
SM: To get a better understanding of comics, you can turn to any comic book and just look at a single page.
As long as it’s not a double page spread, you’ll be able to observe the principle of the panels, where the panel on the left will represent the past and the one on the right will represent the future, and your understanding of the present will move across it.
I believe I described this concept as a high-pressure area in meteorology, where you have the warm air before you and the cool air coming after.
In regards to comic books, how do you envision illustrations working together with the words in the narrative?
SM: Comics is a constantly evolving art form that requires cartoonists to balance between two aspirations: combining words and pictures to create a unified image, and taking advantage of the unique potential of each element which can often lead to disparate results.
This duality is an ongoing tension that helps keep comics dynamic and interesting.
Having Alex Ross illustrate Crime and Punishment could result in a masterpiece, especially if you enjoy that type of artwork.
Yet, there is more to it than just that. Art Spiegelman wrote and drew Maus with a fountain pen on typing paper to try to make the work have the immediacy of a journal.
There is a need for a combination of both beautiful surfaces and the observation of light and form. Comics are not limited to these things, but there is a constant temptation between them.
BLVR: Is it beneficial to discuss how pictures and words blend together in comics?
SM expressed the significance of comics for having the ability to bring together text and illustrations. She dedicated a full chapter in her new book to the topic, noting how beneficial it can be.
I’m not sure that the concept of blurring is attractive to me. That’s the reason I find the notion of distinct elements in a “dance,” as you mentioned in Understanding Comics, to be attractive.
SM claims that an “alternating” is preferable to a “blurring,” and that a marriage analogy is more appropriate. He believes that comics cannot blur the two, but can combine them, so that their individual edges stay distinct even when combined. This, he states, is what attracts him to the combination.
BLVR: Could you explain the timing and the transition of comics?
SM noted that pacing is a fascinating area right now, as in the comic book world it was born out of a particular format and type of story: superhero adventures usually spanning twenty-two to twenty-four pages.
These stories had to be very efficient and the focus was all on propelling the plot forward.
When North American artists began creating graphic novels, they initially assumed they could fill two to three hundred pages with more events, but it wasn’t until people like Seth and Chris Ware demonstrated that it can be beneficial to spend a couple pages showing the changing of the seasons, or something as simple as water dripping on a windowsill.
What is the role of style in comics?
SM suggested that trying to define style can be difficult, but that an artist named Arnold Roth said that it is something that can be discovered.
He said that the best way to do this is to simply pick up a pen and draw whatever pops into your head, such as porcupines, fire hydrants, and nectarines.
He said that if you do this repeatedly, you will find that there are some commonalities among your drawings, and that will be your style. He added that worrying about it is not necessary, as it is something that will come naturally.
Our style as creators and artists is determined by our outlook and worldview, what we find engaging in our readings, what is of importance to us, and what motivates us.
This amalgamation of factors is what is generally referred to as ‘style’. It is more than just a set of stylistic preferences, it is reflective of our entire approach to comics. This is the core of what is seen on the page.
IV: HIDDEN WORK WITHIN THE AESTHETIC DISPERSION
BLVR: In Making Comics, you discuss the concept of the “secret language of comics.” This has been seen in some of Spiegelman’s works from the early ’70s.
Could you please provide more information on this, because I have not totally grasped the reason for it being called “secret.”
SM: The results at the end of the day are what the readers are privy to, but not all of the narrative tools used to achieve them.
Choosing which moments to include in a comic story and which to omit is one of the first steps in the process.
Things that are left out often go unnoticed, but it’s an essential part of the creative process. Nobody picks up a comic book and marvels at all the panels that weren’t included.
This part of the process remains a secret.
Many people might not be aware of the effort that goes into condensing or distilling something.
SM commented that people commonly think of creating a comic as merely taking a pencil and beginning to draw faces, bodies, costumes, and robots. However, they forget that there is a lot of work that has to be done before that pencil is even touched.
BLVR: Thus, it is similar to the “hidden effort of comics.”
SM: Yes, the clandestine work, indeed.
BLVR: The “invisible effort of the language of comics” is another way to put it.
In response to a question, the speaker gave an affirmative answer.
BLVR: What kind of work do you currently enjoy?
SM has a diverse appreciation for art and finds many of the young artists featured in works such as the Flight anthologies intriguing. His favorite comic right now is a manga-style comic by an artist in Nova Scotia called Scott Pilgrim ‘s Precious Little Life.
It has a neo-manga style, yet it is extremely humorous. SM finds the younger artists in particular to be very fascinating, however he is not able to point out all of them.
In BLVR’s eyes, an intriguing element of Making Comics is the section in which the author explains their method for constructing the book.
What contrasts did the writer observe between their process for Understanding Comics and Making Comics?
SM discussed the difference between his comp booklet of Understanding Comics and the printed book. He drew the comic, complete with word balloons and artwork, in marker.
Subsequently, he made several changes to the original material after receiving advice from his “kibitzers”–Neil Gaiman, Kurt Busiek, Jenn Manley Lee, and his wife, Ivy.
He scraped around seventy pages or more and then rebuilt it. After enlarging the pages with a Xerox, SM traced them with blue pencil onto bristol board. He then had a friend hand letter the comic and finally, he inked the pencils.
For the new book, I opt for quick sketches in pencil as a bottom layer in Photoshop. I then add digital elements to the mix, layering it up to forty until I’m done.
I use Illustrator to letter the piece, making it visible through the art. Rather than using conventional tools, I draw the entire work on a Wacom Cintiq monitor, which is an amalgamation of tablet and display. My approach to creating this book is drastically dissimilar to before.
Has something gone missing for you?
SM: After the fact, I was unable to sell my originals because they no longer exist; they have vanished.
As an artist, I prefer the advantages of working digitally, such as having the ability to reverse, delete, and rearrange elements. This way of working isn’t for everyone though; some people still appreciate the feeling of pen and paper.
BLVR: Is the notion you expressed simply romanticized, or is it credible?
I believe that what is being discussed is a fetish, but I don’t consider it as inappropriate.
BLVR: Is it possible that this is an item of great worth?
SM: I think that could be true for a few people. Fortunately, however, those feelings usually pass with time. In the future, my children may yearn for the simplistic nature of the white plastic iBooks, and how it was a pure representation of the technology at the time.
They may even feel that the purple and translucent data globes used today are not up to the same standards.
We may associate certain things with emotion, but it is the visuals, concepts, phrases, and personalities that are truly significant. Everything else is merely ornamentation.
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