"What does a scientific mind do in the arts?" asks Scott McCloud in a TED talk that has been viewed almost 800,000 times.
His answer? Make comic books about comic books.
In 1994, McCloud wrote a book called Understanding Comics, a game-changing publication that broke down theories of cartooning for popular audiences. Following that success, McCloud published two more books, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, that offered further thoughtful analyses of cartooning.
Though there are plenty of academic tomes published about comics today, in the early '90s, comic writers didn't enjoy much academic respect. McCloud's deconstruction of comics could have made him an outlier — but his industry took notice. McCloud has been nominated for over a dozen Eisner Awards, winning one, and won a handful of Harvey Awards.
His first task in Understanding Comics was to define the medium, which he did, like this: "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader."
It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, as McCloud admits, but he wanted to give a precise, almost scientific definition of what Will Eisner termed "sequential art."
McCloud's definition was, in some sense, idealistic, as Dylan Horrocks noted in Comics Journal.
By saying, ‘This is comics,' Scott is really saying: ‘This is what comics should be; it is what we should value most about them.' On the other hand, he's also saying what comics should not be, and, by implication, what we should value less about them.
To define something is to give it a boundary; to enclose it. What McCloud was trying to do, on the other hand, was to open up the form of comics, to free it from the limited way it was often understood by readers. "I wasn't so much defining comics," says McCloud, "as un-defining comics."
But he didn't stop with his (un)definition. He analyzed the space in between panels, called the "gutter." He pieced together an elaborate history of comics. He theorized about why humans are drawn to simply sketched cartoon faces. In short, he dissected comics with both the eye of a scientist and the heart of an illustrator.
His newest book bears out his twin love of cartooning and theorizing.
The Sculptor is essentially a modern take on the old Faustian bargain. David Smith, the story's protagonist, is a talented sculptor, but like many other artists in New York City, he's not achieving the level of recognition he desires. So what does he do? He makes a deal with Death: in exchange for his life, David receives the ability to sculpt with his bare hands. But will he be able to find fame before his 200 days come to an end? The story is even further complicated when a love interest captures David's heart.
While the fairy tale logic upholding the book's central action may seem other-worldly, the point of the story is to help readers better navigate this world. Comic books, says McCloud, "provide people with multiple ways of re-entering the world through different windows, which allows people to triangulate the world and see its shape."
McCloud is one of the most innovative and creative minds working in comics today. His '80s book Zot remains a classic. He's the brain behind both the Bill of Rights for Comics Creators, as well as the 24-Hour Comic. And The Sculptor, which is out in February, will no doubt satisfy his old fans and win him plenty of new ones.
I recently caught up with McCloud over the phone to talk with him about his latest book and some of his cartoon theory. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Brandon Ambrosino: How did you get into comics?
Scott McCloud: I think if there's one word, it would be: control. I'm a control freak. I'm a little obsessive compulsive. I liked the idea of being able to create a world that's all mine, in which I was able to control every aspect of creation. Movie directors, no matter how much clout they may have, still have to rely on the visions of hundreds and sometimes thousands of others. It's very exciting to create the whole thing from scratch.
My father was an engineer, so I was sort of oriented in that direction. At first, my becoming an artist — you know, I seemed to be drifting very much from that tradition. But in a lot of ways, I became very much like an engineer, a problem-solver. And for many years, that was a lot of my work: tinkering, experimenting, trying out new ideas. Then something changed with my latest project. I became interested in telling a story where the medium was transparent, where people think about the story, but forget the means by which it was being told.
BA: You spend time in Understanding Comics defining comics. How would you define the term?
SM: My definition is a bit verbose in the book, but in casual conversation I usually just describe it as: putting one picture after another to tell a story. That's the essence of it for me.
But in some ways, I wasn't so much trying to define comics as to undefine comics. That is, to me "comics" had a definition of consensus that was holding it back. People seemed to think that in order to be a comic, it had to have two staples, two sloppy, bright covers, funny animals. It's somehow defined by content, and I wanted a definition that was more content-neutral. So in many ways, I was trying to dismantle previous barriers and set up new ones.
BA: How far back do you believe comics date?
SM: When we talk about comics history, we sometimes talk about its connected history — the continuous one where you can really see the causal change. But there's no causal link that takes you from the tomb of Menna the Scribe in ancient Egypt, to Trajan's Column, to the Bayeux Tapestry. These are obviously unconnected historical events. But I would say that these were people discovering on their own a basic form of communication that has its own aesthetic identity. Sequential art as a storytelling medium is something different civilizations have discovered.
As far as a history where you can see the connections: that really goes back even further than 20th-century historical comics. Back to Rudolphe Töpffer, who was making something a lot like modern comics in the 1800s. Even European Broadsheets, if you give them a fair look, were using pretty much everything we associate with the comics form as early as the 1500s. And there was some connection there. Those broadsheets did influence people like William Hogarth, who was also working with sequential art. Hogarth no doubt influenced Töpffer, who then influenced British humor magazines, which influenced American comics.
BA: Why do you think humans are so fascinated by cartoons?
SM: First, we have to disentangle "cartoon" from other things. You use the word and many people think you're referring to animated cartoon, which we call "cartoons" for short. That's one of its definitions.
But when I use it, I mean it as not only a way of drawing, but a way of seeing. A way of rendering the world, a way of simplifying the world, but amplifying its meaning at same time. There's a tremendous power to those very simple forms. Those simple renditions of faces — from Charlie Brown and Bart Simpson to Mickey Mouse — seem to have a peculiar power to suck us in, to encourage us to see ourselves in their eyes, and inhabit their identities. To encourage us to exist in a virtual space.
These are, in some ways, the original avatars: they're these identities we step into like masks, and they exist somewhere in a realm between experience and language.
BA: Why do you think panels are so important to comics?
SM: We often talk about the collaboration between the artist and his or her audience. And in comics, that collaboration has a kind of call-and-response rhythm, where the artist gives you something to imagine between the panels.
We depend on the audience to connect the those static images, to see them as a continuous whole, to imagine movement or change in that gap. That gap is called the gutter. That was the term before I came along. It's used by professional cartoonists to describe that narrow space — usually about a quarter of an inch wide — between panels. But I liked the metaphor, so I got to play with that a little.
BA: So you see this reading-between-panels as something that all of us do on a regular basis? You call it closure.
SM: Closure is that human predisposition to take something incomplete and complete it successfully, to stitch a continuous world from one that perceptually speaking, is always just fragments. And there are a dizzying numbers of examples. You and I here on a phone call are creating continuous whole human beings from a mere voice. I stand here in this room, but I create the world outside from an act of faith, though I have no proof it's there. Many children have that fantasy that every time they turn a corner that everything they no longer see is just being rolled up, put away. How would they know? And that act of faith is the thing that propels not only this art form, but many art forms.
BA: Let's talk about your new book. The essence of the story is basically: man makes a deal with death. This Faustian theme is deeply embedded throughout works of world literature. Why do you think it's so enduring?
SM: Maybe the common denominator, whether its death or the devil, is this: what's right in front of us can seem so huge, can seem so important to us in present day. But when the dust settles, our priorities change, and what seemed important can then seem small and insignificant in the face of mortality or the afterlife, if you believe in that sort of thing.
The biggest change in this story was, it's written by an atheist. So it's the absence of the afterlife that sets the stage. Here, it's more a matter of what counts in this life as we head toward oblivion. That's a slightly different story, but certainly has similar resonances.
BA: But the characters aren't atheists, right?
SM: [My wife] Ivy's Jewish and that's why [the character] Meg is Jewish. If Ivy had been Scandinavian, then Meg would have been Scandinavian. But I'm glad my principal characters are Jewish, or, in David's case, half-Jewish.
To be Jewish in New York is often to be secular — not always, but, you know, it's a particular kind of secularism. A kind in which old religion is still in the wallpaper. It's still nearby. It still acts as a ground to the figure of one's daily life. It's just an accident of my own life circumstances that it became a big part of this story. But I like it because — I don't know? — it reaches back into history. And the history of our conception of an afterlife, or our notions of what this life is for, need to be part of the story, if only covertly, if only deep under the ground.
For some reason, the Jewish faith, or the lack of faith among people of the Jewish faith — like so many of what Meg calls "house special lo mein Jews" — just felt very familiar. I grew up with in Lexington, Massachusetts, and many of my friends, and all of my girlfriends were secular Jews. So that felt like home to me. I might be one-eighth Jewish, but I grew up a goy. I was a Christian for a few years, but really pretty quickly became an agnostic. These days I just call myself an atheist, because … why bother?
The Sculptor is a kind of atheist folktale. When I first described the idea to the editor, I said I thought it was almost as an atheist manifesto. He wisely counseled me against that, even as another artist friend was urging me to do exactly that. I think my editor said it's much more interesting to the story if that stuff lays under surface.
BA: Also, allowing the atheism to bubble under the surface makes your book more accessible to readers of all faiths.
SM: You know, I'm not afraid of offending people who are faithful. But the way we interact with a story is far more interesting if we bring our own beliefs to that story, and they become entangled, rather than pushed away. It's an aesthetic thing rather than diplomacy. If I thought the book would have been better as an aesthetic work to be more overt, I'd have done it. There's no mistaking me for anything but an atheist.
BA: There's a tension in this book between the business of art and art proper. David wants to create work that he's proud of, but he also needs to deal with the bureaucracy of his industry.
SM: You've got art as art, and art as recognition. The business end of it is just a means to an end for David. He sees this one narrow passageway as the only possible means by which his name might stay in circulation. The official imprimatur of the art world seems to him to always proceed that act of institutional memory. He doesn't see any shortcuts for much of the story. He has to go through the gatekeepers or else he's doomed to be forgotten.
It's important to note that this is not a story about someone who yearns to be remembered. It's a story of someone who is terrified of being forgotten. There's a slight difference here. In David's case, it's an animal need, something fundamental to his nature. Something he can't shut off. It's not something he decided he wants — it's something his whole body needs.
BA: There's something very important about the name David Smith in your story. David shares a name with a very famous artist, which really seems to stress him out, because the other David has the fame that your David doesn't. Where did that idea come from?
SM: I actually had a teacher at Syracuse, a painter, whose name was David Smith. He was the first person I knew in the art world who was indeed another David Smith. This may have lodged that idea in my head of having a main character share the name of a famous artist. In the case of my character, it's an actual sculptor, making it far, far worse. At least my teacher could call himself David Smith The Painter. But to call yourself David Smith The Sculptor only conjures up one person — and that person is dead and more famous and more significant in his world than a sculptor could ever hope to be.
I liked the fact that the shared name helped connect David's plight with the plight of the vast majority of artists all over the world who toil in obscurity, and whatever their brief moments in the spotlight, probably die in obscurity. That's the great mass of humanity. If I can be a bit of an aesthetic Howard Zinn: What about everybody else? What about the other 99.9 percent of people who have a dream of doing something significant and who the world never recognizes? It's not just Shakespeare and Bach out there — that's the exception. But are the other people's dreams any less moving? Are their hopes for lasting value not worth celebrating?
Maybe i'm just Salieri here. Maybe I'm just putting in my bit to be the new patron saint of the mediocre. But I have a lot of compassion for those who paint or draw, or make comics, or their little movies, or make their record albums and put them up on the web for 10 people to listen to. And it's just all forgotten like ... old piles of photographs of people who no one knows anymore sitting in storage units or at the bottoms of landfills. It sounds hideously depressing, but there's also something to celebrate there.
Continuing to create in the face of futility is a heroic act. That's something I wanted to celebrate. You know, it's just 6 billion plants turning to the sunlight.
The Sculptor is available from First Second Books on February 3, 2015.
Correction: This article originally stated that McCloud had won dozens of Eisners, instead of just being nominated for dozens. It has been updated.