When Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud's first book and the first book to explicitly theorize comics in the medium of comics, came out in 1993, it offered the following working definition of comics: "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader." However bulky, McCloud's definition set the terms of debate—which is ongoing—for the field of comics: what it is, what it can do. Last year, the New York Times, reporting on a "Comics and Medicine" conference (where McCloud and I were both presenters), named him a "sort of Marshall McLuhan of comics." Understanding Comics is a classic of the contemporary comics field—a constant reference point both within comics studies and in media (and narrative) studies in general.
Reinventing Comics, McCloud's second book, came out in 2000 and focused on the relationship of digital technology to comics. His most recent nonfiction comics work, Making Comics, was published in September 2006 and took him on a yearlong book tour. Rounding out a trilogy, Making Comics trades none of the sophistication of McCloud's earlier work in framing itself as a practical guide.
Zot! 1987–1991, collecting McCloud's award-winning strip of the same name—his take on the superhero genre—appeared in 2008. While a recent press release named him "the grandfather of comics," McCloud is only fifty-two. (He did, however, go out of his way to draw himself thicker, and with graying temples, in the last installment of his trilogy.) An active proponent of webcomics, McCloud maintains an energetic online presence and lectures all over the world on his chosen form. I sat down with McCloud in the fall of 2006 in Manhattan, previous to a Making Comics book signing at Midtown Comics, and I later spoke to him again by phone as he was dining with his wife and daughters at a Cracker Barrel in Springfield, Massachusetts (a circumstance which prompted polite interjections like "Excuse me, sorry, I'm stuffing my face with a biscuit," and "Hold on, I'm taking one last swig of this Dr Pepper").
HILLARY CHUTE. How has the book tour been going?
SCOTT MCCLOUD. Myself, my wife Ivy, and our two daughters, Winter and Sky, aged eleven and thirteen, are driving around the country for a year. We're going to see all fifty states, doing speaking engagements and seminars all over the place.
HC. I heard one of your daughters has been giving talks on the tour.
SM. Sky has seven-minute PowerPoint presentations about the tour itself that she's already given now in several locations, including MIT.
HC. I have to ask you, are you sick of talking about comics yet?
SM. [Laughs.] You know, I never get sick of talking about comics. The way I keep it fresh is I always find new things to talk about. For instance, right now I'm trying to work out ideas for story structure that I only touch on in Making Comics. The project I'm going to embark on next is a graphic novel, and I'd like to understand better how to really make that story work.
HC. Where did you grow up?
SM. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts. My dad worked at Raytheon, which did a lot of military contracting at the time, and he became a chief engineer there on the missile systems division.
HC. Didn't he have a patent on the Patriot missile?
SM. He did hold a patent on at least one important aspect of the guiding system on the Patriot missile. The remarkable thing in my dad's case was the fact that he was blind. And he managed to graduate Harvard, and he went on to have this successful career up at Raytheon. I often say he was a blind genius rocket scientist inventor, which is accurate on all counts.
I had sort of a standard suburban existence, except that all of the kids in my neighborhood were artists and weird little brainiacs, so we would have all these bizarre games. The parents in the neighborhood were all scientists and engineers. I don't even know how to say this. It's hard to describe. We did little multimedia productions, and elaborate chalkboard drawings on driveways, and we had strange rituals with Styrofoam wig heads on eight-foot bamboo poles.
HC. How did you get interested in comics?
SM. In junior high school I met a kid named Kurt Busiek, who these days is known for his own comics writing. And Kurt was into comics but had to work really hard to get me interested in comics, because I still harbored a lot of prejudice from my younger years. At the time I was reading science fiction, and was into fine art, and comics did not impress me. I thought the art looked kind of pedestrian and the writing seemed simplistic, so I didn't go near the stuff. But Kurt convinced me to try some of his comics and eventually got me hooked. By the time I was fifteen, I had set my sights on comics as a career.
All the way through high school, Kurt and I were making comics. We did this big sixty-four-page comic called The Battle of Lexington. It had all these Marvel superheroes beating the crap out of each other and destroying our high school and various historic landmarks in Lexington, Massachusetts. We actually finished it up in college. One of the cool things about The Battle of Lexington was that as the comic went on, I went from doing all these crazy, complex, semi-indecipherable panel layouts to developing a pretty straightforward storytelling style. In the beginning I was mostly just a showoff. I wanted to play with the boundaries of the medium—something that, in the end, I came back to later. But first I had to understand what basic storytelling is all about.
HC. How did you end up at DC Comics?
SM. If there had been a comics major, I would have majored in comics, but the closest I could get was illustration. This was Syracuse University. One of the courses I took was a design course, and they trained us in putting together a production portfolio. I actually sent one to DC Comics asking if they needed any production personnel, and a few weeks before school was over I got a call from the production manager there saying yes, we do need production people, and can you come down and show us your stuff. So I took a train to New York City, I showed them the stuff, got the job, and took the train back to Syracuse a little dizzy and a little wobbly and that was it—I had a job in comics. It was just a production job—all I was doing was whiting out lines that went over the panel borders and pasting in lettering corrections, but I was happy as a clam. And a year and half later, I prepared a proposal for my own comic, and by 1984 I was drawing comics professionally.
HC. You've said that you were inspired by Art Spiegelman's 1975 piece "Cracking Jokes."
SM. There were probably three things that inspired Understanding Comics, at least indirectly. One of them was James Burke's TV specials for the BBC—things like Connections and The Day the Universe Changed; another was Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe; and another was Art Spiegelman's brilliant little essay "Cracking Jokes," which was originally in the magazine Arcade and later reprinted in his book Breakdowns, which is going to be reissued soon. "Cracking Jokes" was a wonderful nonfiction comic, and I think Art understood the potential of nonfiction better than any of his peers.
HC. Was there anything formally going on in the piece that particularly interested you, or was it just the idea of nonfiction comics?
SM. Most people, when they had embarked on nonfiction, had done so in a sort of bitter-pill fashion, where the idea was that the message was somehow uninteresting and had to be dressed up in the form of a story. Art approached the subject of "Cracking Jokes"—which is humor theory—with the assumption that the subject was in and of itself interesting, provided that it was clearly demonstrated and explained. And so he was speaking directly to the reader half the time, and every point he wanted to make he demonstrated as he went. And that's what I've tried to do with Understanding Comics.
BULL IN A CHINA SHOP
HC. How did you decide to write Understanding Comics?
SM. As soon as I started making my own comic, I began coming up with ideas for how comics worked. And as early as 1986 I had already begun to collect ideas for a comic book about comics. But it wasn't until about 1989 that things got serious. One of the things that was happening was that my notes were getting so thick—this little file folder that I had was getting so heavy that it was actually falling off those little hooks that you have in file folders.
HC. What was the reception of Understanding Comics like?
SM. Well, that book had a long honeymoon. I think there were probably grumblings in academia early on because I was like a bull in a china shop on topics like semiotics. I think the poststructuralists weren't that crazy about the book because I was seemingly spouting these popularized, simplified versions of theories that others had delved into with more detail and more rigorously.
But other than that, for the most part I got a big pat on the back from just about everybody and was left alone for a few years. And then eventually the grumbling got a little bit louder and a few years in, peoplewere less shy about arguing with some of the book's conclusions. And those debates have stayed at a fairly consistent murmur now for the last several years. There's a lot of unease with my definition of comics itself. There's been an unease with the whole business of classifying aspects of the art form or with experimentation for its own sake, which the book seemed to promote.
HC. Can you explain the critique from poststructuralist theory?
SM. Unfortunately, you're asking the wrong person—I'm the one who doesn't sufficiently understand it! You should get ahold of somebody who can really go point for point on why McCloud should have read Foucault a long time ago, or Roland Barthes, or many others. I've been criticized for buying into this illusion that anything can ever represent anything else—you know, the futility of representation. To say in any way that these lines on paper represent a light bulb is sheer folly! And don't I understand that? So I'm the wrong person to ask.
HC. I'm just wondering about the gist. What type of critique was it?
SM. The stuff in chapter six, "Show and Tell," about words and pictures—the separation of words and pictures and their reuniting. I think that's considered overly simplistic. My whole definition of art gets a lot of flak, although I've never heard a good alternative. But Samuel R. "Chip" Delany has a good point about the futility of definitions generally. It's the notion of the "functional description" over the idea of a definition.
Dylan Horrocks probably wrote the most interesting reaction to the book—something called "Inventing Comics." That's a terrific piece. Gary Groth [head of Fantagraphics Books and the Comics Journal] never took off on Understanding Comics—he waited for its sequel—but he's voiced displeasure about the first book and I think called it mechanistic and was annoyed by the way I seemed to want to classify everything.
HC. I remember the issue of the Comics Journal in June 2001 that presented the debates that were raging about Understanding Comics.
SM. That was the first time that I'd seen such a concerted effort to just poke and prod and dig in to the book. It was interesting to see how it could stand such a full-frontal assault. But that stuff was just delightful—I loved that.
HC. You have such a good attitude.
SM. It would be hard for anyone not to feel flattered that it merited a whole issue of the Comics Journal, that ten different writers were asked to try to storm the barricades and see how well the book held up. And I knew that the degree to which my ideas of what comics were became accepted was precisely the degree to which a subsequent generation would have to go in with swords drawn and try to skewer it.
HC. Did Understanding Comics have a place in developing the acceptance of comics as a medium and not just a genre?
SM. It's hard to say. There was this post–Understanding Comics thing going on in a certain sector of the comics-making community in the mid-nineties. Craig Thompson described it at one point as the "Understanding Comics generation." But that was a very particular slice of the pie. I mean, there are plenty of others that I think weren't influenced by it. I think many people on the web were not necessarily influenced by Reinventing Comics. That was a parallel thing that didn't really connect with them directly.
But I can never know who was influenced by what or to what extent. I can only point to my own influences and say, yes, this person mattered: Spiegelman mattered, [Will] Eisner mattered. Discovering European and Japanese comics mattered to me. Without those things I would have been a very different cartoonist. Or I wouldn't have been a cartoonist at all.
HC. The critic Robert Harvey stresses words and pictures together as the fundamental aspect of comics, which is very different from your conception. Can you explain your definition of comics?
SM. If, for the sake of argument, we decide there's a use to choosing a definition, then I'll stand by mine, because you have a much more interesting landscape if you look at comics as sequential art than if you look at them as a combination of words and pictures. There's a lot to be said about the ways that words and pictures interact, but there's so much promise in silence in sequential art—people like Jim Woodring have demonstrated just how beautiful that can be, how haunting. And the only thing that my definition cuts out are single-panel cartoons—single-panel newspaper cartoons like The Far Side or The Family Circus.
But what it opens up is just enormous. I'm only interested in definitions insofar as they point to possibilities. The web only got rolling in the public eye about six months after Understanding Comics came out. I barely mentioned computers—in fact, I don't mention computers anywhere. But I was glad in retrospect that I had framed the definition so broadly and had explicitly said that I didn't consider paper and ink to be tied to that definition. And then when there was an alternative to paper and ink, that definition was very accepting of that. We didn't have to go through those couple of years where everybody just categorically said, "Well that's not comics." I like the world of possibilities that my definition points to. I firmly believe that if you did a series of bas-relief sculptures on a wall in a museum that tell a story, then you'd be making comics—you'd just be making really interesting variations of what we think of as comics.
If you did a series of stained-glass windows telling the story of your life you'd be making comics. So if that leaves The Family Circus on the side of the road, so be it. I don't see that that stuff ever thought of itself as part of the family anyway. And, more importantly, it's no knock on work of that sort—single-panel work—to call it cartoons. Cartooning has a proud history. We associate it with comics because it was on the newspaper page alongside comics. But if we're going to use that as a criterion, we might as well throw in the crossword puzzle.
HC. How is the rhythm of space on a page of comics different from the rhythm of space on the page of a novel or in other media?
SM. The artist has a lot of control over what happens in the panels, but he or she is at the reader's mercy between the panels. Whereas in prose, or motion pictures, or virtually any other narrative form, you don't have that rhythm—you have more of a continuous construction going on. Like with prose, for instance, it's all of a piece; it's sort of monotextural, because the reader is continually constructing that world in his or her mind and the author is continually providing new data. Likewise with things like the persistence of vision that helps stitch movie frames together—it's a continuous process, so you don't have that back-and-forth rhythm that you do with comics.
So that's one thing. But the thing about space is that, in prose in particular, space is not terribly important. If you have a novel that runs to three hundred pages, and you decide to reprint it at a smaller trim size or at a bigger font size, that text is going to reflow however it wants, and it's still the same book. It doesn't matter. There's no reflow in comics, though. Space is vitally important, whether you're two thirds down the page or you're in a big panel at the top of the page or a little panel at the bottom of the page. That all matters. That affects the reading experience.
HC. So, in a novel, the space between chapters or on the last page of a chapter ...?
SM. I think that indicates the passage of time to a degree, but I mean surely there have been editions of books in which that space was changed, modified, or even eliminated by the particular formatting choices made by the publisher. We don't consider that to be a major alteration of the book. Unless you're talking about something where there's a strong visual component like Jonathan Safran Foer's recent book [Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close], where it's more like concrete poetry, where it actually has a fixed appearance and it has to appear in a certain fashion. But generally speaking, in prose it doesn't matter, and in comics it does. That lack of the option to reflow is something that I'm particularly interested in, in relation to webcomics, comics that are drawn on that expanded canvas.