Scott McCloud | The Art of Making Comics

The foremost authority on comics as a medium returns with his latest book, Making Comics. "This is very much about what happens on the page," says McCloud, "but this time with a practical bent to it, and a focus on the act of actually creating comics."

 

 

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Ask most readers to name a great writer of comics and they can likely toss off a list of dozens in short order. Ask for a great writer about comics, however, and that list will likely start and end with one name: Scott McCloud. After first grabbing attention with his creator-owned comic Zot! in the mid-80s, it was the creation of 1993’s Understanding Comics, a textbook of sorts in an easy-to-read comic book format that deconstructs the inner workings of the medium of comics, that made McCloud comics’ best known educator; Frank Miller himself calls McCloud "Just about the smartest guy in comics." McCloud followed up Understanding Comics with Reinventing Comics, a controversial look at the future of the comics medium that stirred much debate in the webcomics community upon release in 2000. 

 

Now, McCloud is back with a new book, Making Comics, that examines in depth the choices that every comics creator must make before, during, and after the pencil first hits the page. Far more than a simple "how to draw superheroes" book, McCloud explores all the elements every creator has at their disposal to effectively communicate using words and pictures, information that proves enlightening to anyone, whether you want to create comics or just read them.

 

To promote Making Comics, which was released in September by Harper, McCloud is packing up the family and hitting the road, traveling through all 50 states over the next year to do seminars, give speeches, and spread the gospel of comics. To find when McCloud will be in your neck of the woods, check here: http://www.scottmccloud.com/makingcomics/tour.html

 

Also this month, October 7th is the third annual 24 Hour Comics Day. Originally invented by McCloud, the 24 Hour Comic serves as a challenge to comics creators to explore their own potential. 24 Hour Comics Day, an annual event organized by Nat Gertler, brings together artists from all over the world (89 locations in 15 countries this year, at last count) to experience the joys, and the pains, of creating a 24-page comic in one 24-hour period. For more information on this year’s event, check out http://www.24hourcomics.com/.

 

[Interview conducted by Jason Green] 

 

PB: How does the new book relate to your previous books? Is it a sequel that builds off of their framework or is it a wholly separate work?

 

Scott McCloud:  I suppose it’s a sequel of sorts, at least in form and name. I think in many ways it’s a follow-up to the first book, since Understanding Comics was more about the internal life of comics and its follow-up, Reinventing Comics, was more about the external life. This is a return to the internal. This is very much about what happens on the page, but this time with a practical bent to it, and a focus on the act of actually creating comics. But because it’s me, of course, it has plenty of philosophical detours. [laughs] It tackles a lot of broader issues. It’s not just a ‘what kind of pen do you use’ book. In fact, though I do have a chapter that deals with tools and techniques, most of the book is much more about the unique strategies that only comics require. It’s not about drawing; it’s primarily about the science of telling stories with pictures.

 

PB: What are some of the major parts of making comics that the book covers?

 

SM: Well, it starts out with five basic choices that we all make when we’re creating a comic: choice of moment, choice of frame, choice of image, choice of word, and choice of flow. Those first two in particular are the sorts of things you never really see on the page. When you open up a comic, you’re immediately confronted with different drawing styles, the way the artist might handle faces. If you start reading, you might pick up on some of the style of writing. But you never see the moments that are left out. You never see all those panels that weren’t drawn, the sort of pacing decisions that were made before pen ever hit paper, and you may only dimly be aware of some of the framing decisions that were made: how close to shoot those moments, how far away, from what angle. These are all the things we tend to overlook. Most books on how to draw comics pretty much start after that’s already done. They go right into how to render costume details or how to draw facial expression, but they just skip over all of the stuff that comes before that.

 

PB: Are there topics that would be of use to people who aren’t artists? For example, would a writer get something out of the book as far as learning how to pace things for the artists he works with?

 

SM: Well, certainly, I think the writer is very much involved in some of those early pacing decisions. In fact, if you have a writer-artist team, then those choices of frame and moment are the writer’s territory at the beginning. They have to decide how to break down that story, how many moments it takes, whether to have a sequence told in a series of slow moments or whether to cut right past it with a single caption. These are all decisions that relate directly to writing. And then there are other parts of the book, such as some of the ideas behind character creation and creating a character’s inner life, which are very directly related to the craft of writing comics. There’s a whole [chapter] on integrating words and pictures where I address the subject directly.

 

So yes, I think it’s important if you are writing for comics to try to think visually, to try to understand visual storytelling. I’m going to Barcelona this fall to teach Danish Duck Comics writers how to draw in hopes of being better writers. And yeah, I know that doesn’t make any sense, that I’m going to Barcelona to do it, and that’s a long story. [laughs] But I think it really helps to think like an artist when you’re writing for comics, to make sure that your ideas have a visual component to them and that visualizing them will be a comfortable process for the artist.

 

PB: How long has Making Comics been in the works? Was it a lot of topics you wanted to cover in Understanding Comics that you just didn’t have the room for and wanted to come back to, or was it a relatively recent idea to make the book?

 

SM: These are ideas that have come to me since I did Understanding Comics, most of them, plus a return to a few that I mentioned in Understanding Comics, like some of the different types of panel transitions. But I think where this book really has its birthplace is in teaching. Starting in 2002, I began teaching seminars in making comics, beginning at the Minneapolis College of Arts and Design, and then spreading to other places like University of California and MIT, where I would just teach people for five days how to construct stories, how to "write with pictures," as Art Spiegelman put it once. And it was the ideas that I developed in the course of teaching that seminar that gradually became the foundation for the book.

 

PB: Even though you’ve been in the comics industry for over 20 years, your body of work is heavily weighted toward the educational books. Why is it that you write about making comics instead of just making comics in general?

 

SM: It wasn’t really intentional, it’s just it takes me so long to do anything.[laughs] For instance, I have a 400-page graphic novel that I’m going to work on as soon as we’re done with the tour, and that’s a story that I’ve had clearly in my mind for about 22 years. It’s just it takes forever to get these things done. So I definitely feel like the pendulum has swung too far in the non-fiction direction, and it’s definitely time for me to do some fiction. That’s my next step.

 

PB: Your last book, Reinventing Comics, ruffled a lot of feathers, especially in the webcomics community. Was there any trepidation on your part in putting yourself under the microscope again when you started this book?

 

SM: No, that sort of comes with the territory. Also, I’m inclined to think that this may be less controversial material anyway, so there may be less reason to worry, but I’m sure that’s just foolishness on my part. [laughs] I’m sure somebody will find something to object to. People have already have fun arguing over one of the theories that shows up later in the book, that there may be four different tribes of comics artists out there. That one’s already gotten people talking. It’s inevitable that there will be some controversy associated with any idea that isn’t just recycling older ideas, and I just never seem to have the energy to recycle old ideas. It’s much more interesting to find something new. So with that comes a certain degree of controversy. I’m used to it.

 

PB: Were you expecting as much controversy from Reinventing Comics as what ended up happening? As you were creating it, did you think, "someone’s going to flip out over this?"

 

SM: Yeah, not necessarily the same people that actually did. [laughs] You never really know where the attack’s going to originate from. There’s the quote that, "expect the person that attacks you to be the one closest to you on the road," and sometimes that’s true. Some of the attacks from the webcomics quarters came as a surprise, mostly because they were, I think in many cases, attacking me for things I never said, which was kind of a shame, because that just meant a lot of wasted effort on all sides. But there were plenty of attacks I did expect. The publisher at the time, DC Comics, was not too keen on my portrayal of the comics industry and subjects like creator’s rights, enough that they had to put a disclaimer at the front that went far beyond the usual disclaimer. But to their credit, they did publish it as written.

 

PB: You’re taking a year-long tour of all 50 states to promote the new book, which is a gargantuan undertaking that even rock bands who tour for a living wouldn’t touch. [McCloud laughs] Where did the idea to take this massive trip come from?

 

Scott McCloud's on his way to your neighborhood!SM: The idea was all my wife Ivy’s idea. Ivy has always wanted to do this. And for years I agreed that it might be a good idea, but we just didn’t have the money to do it. We finally have gotten to the point where we have enough of a safety margin that I think we can pull it off. So we were planning to do this and just sort of blog on the road, maybe get speaking engagements and seminars along the way to help pay for it, but when we were in New York last year, Ivy mentioned this to my editors at Harper, and their eyes just lit up. [both laugh] We realized in pretty short order that this was something that could make a big difference for the book as well. So it wasn’t even really a promotional tour at the beginning, it was more just a chance to see the country. But as soon as we mentioned this to Harper, I think it became a promotional tour at that moment. Ivy was happy to roll with that, and accept that maybe this thing was going to mutate a little, and it has. And now it’s all coming together.

 

When we start the tour, my daughters will be 13 years old and 11 years old, respectively, and our 11 year-old will be conducting video interviews with comics professionals, and it will be video edited by my 13 year-old. She’ll also be doing a Powerpoint presentation about the trip on stage. She already had her debut in San Diego, and she just knocked the crowd off its socks with her professionalism and imagination. It was really something. Meanwhile, her little sister was just leaping off the stage with the microphone and running around and getting questions from the audience. It was just tremendous fun. Ivy moderated the panel. If that panel that we had in San Diego, which was standing room only, is any indication, I think that this tour is really going to be something.

 

PB: Are you going to try to coincide some of the stops with comic conventions?

 

SM: It will correspond to a couple. SPX [Small Press Expo], in Baltimore, is at the right time. We’ll be in the right place for that. San Diego is at the right time, the right place. But generally speaking, we’ve mapped out the regions more based on weather and other factors like that. We’re starting in the Northeast in the fall and into the winter a little bit, and then when the weather gets really cold we’re heading down South, then back up to the Midwest in the Spring, then up along the Northern states, then up to Alaska, and back down to Washington, Oregon in May and June, and finally in July and August we’ll hit California and then dive back out into the middle of the country to carve out those states we missed in the middle. Then we’ll just fly to Hawaii and kick back and relax. I think when it comes to Hawaii we won’t even try to get a speaking engagement, we’ll just lie on the beach and recover for three days.

 

PB: Sounds like a great plan. I do feel sorry for you, though, that I saw you’re coming to Missouri in the July/August timeframe. Our weather isn’t the best that time of year.

 

SM: [laughs] I can imagine. We just had, actually, a taste of that, because we drove from Minneapolis down to San Diego; this was not part of the tour, but I did the seminar in Minneapolis again this summer prior to the tour, so we did in fact drive through some of the Midwest states in the dead of summer, and it’s pretty hot.

 

PB: Another thing that’s coming up: October 7th is when they’ll be celebrating this year’s 24 Hour Comics Day, which is, of course, one of your best known creations. How did the idea for the 24 Hour Comics Challenge initially come about?

 

A sample from the introduction to Making Comics.SM: Well, I believe it was 1990 and I was having trouble meeting my deadlines. And my friend Steve Bissette, we were living in New England at the time, had even more trouble than me. He had produced maybe a dozen pages in the space of a year. But I had seen him sketching at store signings, and he was incredibly fast when he was just improvising sketches. And I challenged him. I said that I would bet that he could do an entire 24-page comic in a single day, a single 24 hour period. And I knew the only way that I would get him to do it was if I agreed to do it, too. So we made this pact that we would do it before the end of that month. I did mine, he did his, and since then I think about a thousand artists have taken the challenge over the years. It’s even spawned events in other media, like the 24-hour plays, of which there have been at least several hundred done now. That began in New York in reaction to the comics challenge. And then there have been 48-hour movies, 24-hour albums, it just goes on and on.

 

PB: How many times have you attempted the challenge yourself?

 

SM: I only did it once. I tend to do things once and move on. I’m too restless. [laughs] I tend not to repeat myself.

 

PB: The challenge is obviously not about turning out something publishable, given the shortcuts necessary to make the deadline. What do you think it is that a creator gains from the experience?

 

SM: I think an understanding of your own potential. It’s just exciting to find out what you’re capable of under pressure. I don’t recommend the challenge for anyone with hand strain issues, I should probably add that right now. [laughs] I’d hate to think that someone does irreparable nerve damage to their wrists by trying this. But I think if your hands are in good shape, you can learn a tremendous amount about your imagination, your subconscious’ ability to fill in when your hands are moving faster than your brain, and just an understanding of what a bottomless well of inspiration each one of us has inside of us. It’s also a great way to get past writer’s block.

 

PB: Comics are in a state of flux these days, with the big 2 sucking up almost all of the direct market sales, manga taking over bookstores, and a lot of the small press, self-publishing world moving to webcomics. Where do you think the industry will be in 5, 10 years down the road when things level out?

 

SM: Well I think that we have too many factors to make any sort of prediction for five years down the road. The Web is going to continue to be an enormous factor, of course, but that’s mutating pretty fast, so it’s a little hard to predict which way that’s going to go. But really, I think graphic novels, manga, webcomics, any one of those would have been enough to cause some pretty violent backflips in the marketm and how all three of them are going to work together is anyone’s guess. But I’m still quite optimistic, and I think that, if maybe I can disagree a bit with the premise of the question, I don’t really think Marvel and DC are dominating the direct market as much as they used to. Certainly, in terms of printed comics, graphic novels and the small press scene are becoming more and more symbiotically related. Certainly, small press creators don’t need to feel at all marginalized by superhero books, it’s just that their fate may be more in keeping with what’s going on in graphic novels.

 

PB: Anything you’ve read recently that you’ve enjoyed?

 

SM: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley is probably the funniest comic on the planet right now. I just love that book, I wish it was coming out weekly. It looks like a neo-manga style, but it’s so much more than that, just an absolutely wonderful piece of work. Still enjoying the Flight anthology, volume three just came out, which looks gorgeous. I always enjoy the work of Kevin Huizanga, whenever I can get a hold of his stuff.

 

I like the all-ages forays by places like Scholastic, projects like Raina Telgemeier’s Babysitter’s Club, the first volume of which my younger daughter has read now four times. I really like to see that kind of persuasive, magnetic quality for younger readers, because obviously, we need younger readers. Manga, of course, is also doing a lot of good in that realm, bringing in younger readers, especially girls, into comics. That broad readership is so important. People worry about a glut, because there’s so much good material out there, there’s so many new people entering the market, so many new publishers. It’s only a glut, really, if you’re creating product faster than you can create readers. If you’re putting out wonderful, beautiful comics at twice the rate but you’ve also got twice the readers, there’s no glut. And it’s things like manga and that all-ages material like Babysitter’s Club that will be creating readers. That’s what we need now. We also see that a lot in webcomics, the creation of new readers.

 

PB: Thanks for taking your time out with me today, Scott, and I hope you can make it to St. Louis on your tour across the country.

 

SM: You bet.

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Scott McCloud | The Art of Making Comics

The foremost authority on comics as a medium returns with his latest book, Making Comics. "This is very much about what happens on the page," says McCloud, "but this time with a practical bent to it, and a focus on the act of actually creating comics."

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