In the history of comics, there are certain dates that stand out as watershed moments. 1938, 1961, and 1986 are three of the most obvious to general comic reading audiences with the introduction of Superman, the Fantastic Four, and the simultaneous release of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. These comics would go on to influence generations of readers in the years following their initial publication. In 1993, another seminal moment in comics occurred with the publication of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud’s work has gone on to form the basis for much of comics studies with his translation of critical theory into comics form.
Now, the comics theorist has come back to his roots of fictional storytelling with The Sculptor, his first graphic novel of fiction in almost 25 years. This nearly 500-page graphic novel tells the story of David, a young artist who accepts a deal with Death to receive superhuman powers to sculpt anything with the touch of his hands. However, he learns that the cost to create such surreal and impossible works of art is he only has 200 days to live. In that short time, David not only learns the secrets to create true art, but he also learns how to live in the face of his pending death.
In the lead up to the book’s release February 3, Newsarama spoke with McCloud about The Sculptor along with a host of other topics related to all things comics in a two-part interview
Newsarama: Now, I understand you’re a former Orangeman, Scott. It’s been tough the past few years on the gridiron! You studied illustration at Syracuse University. Is this where you learned to code and decode the linguistic science behind comics? How did your understanding of comics come about?
Scott McCloud: That’s a good question! I think much of my education in comics was based in self-education; however, my general education came from many sources. School was definitely one of them: both high school and college.
Comics draws from so many different disciplines. It was tremendously helpful to me to see how many different ways there are and crafts you have to master to make art professionally as I did at Syracuse University. The most important teacher I had at Syracuse – and I had many influential teachers – was a man named Larry Bakke (now deceased) – who would give these crazy slide shows where he would connect the most improbable things as a way to discuss aesthetics. And this set me on that path to finding and making connections.
In terms of traveling down the path of making comics, however, it was just me and my old friend, Kurt Busiek, from Lexington, Massachusetts who went to college with me. We largely taught ourselves about what goes into the panels because comics weren’t something that had any sort of formal curriculum in those days.
Nrama: Now, The Sculptor took you nearly five years to complete, and that’s just from beginning the process of drafting the actual pages. However, this story is one that was incubating for many years before. How did this all come about?
McCloud: Well, it was five years from when the pen first started drawing those rough layouts, but the story dates back to late high school / early college. And let’s call it what it is: It’s a story about someone with a superpower. It’s very much the kind of “serious” superhero story a twenty-something or teen might come up with, and it just sat in my notebook.
But a couple of other elements started attaching themselves to it over the years, and one of those was the character who would become Meg, even though she wasn’t named as such yet. She was inspired by my wife Ivy during the seven years I was secretly in love with her. I started liking the story, and once I had the ending – which I have known for a very long time – I saw that there was something particularly solid about this story if done right. I knew it was a younger man’s story, but I thought if I could bring the perspective of the older man to it, I could create something magical.
Once I realized I needed to do that, it was probably around 2006. Of course, just as I realized I needed to start working on it now, now now, I started my 50 state tour for Making Comics. [Laughs] And that meant that I couldn’t work on it at all! This worked out well though as it gave me a chance to sit in the car while Ivy drove around and allowed me to think about it and take notes. Just thinking about it turned out to be a really good process and work it out in that conceptual space. It was in that quiet, private place that I was able to see the story fall on the ground like snowflakes and send the drifts where they needed to go. That was a really good process.
And then we needed to go sell the book and I would have to go around and actually make it. So yeah, five years of creating the book but 25 in the making.
Nrama: Scott, it’s fair to say you are best known for your book from 1993, Understanding Comics, which is arguably responsible for opening the door for comics to literary criticism and theory. Later, you wrote Reinventing Comics in 2000, which took a look at the ways changing technology and comics were and might coexist to move the medium forward even further.
McCloud: The poor middle child! [Laughter]
Nrama: [Laughter] To be fair, it’s a “middle child” that had some important things to say especially when it comes to things such as Bitcoin, micro-transactions, Apple’s app revolution, etc. However, we see The Sculptor represents a significant shift in modes of writing for you as it returns you back to your roots of writing fiction with Zot.
Was there a significant transition for you moving from one genre to another so different?
McCloud: It was a very significant transition going back into fiction writing because I had spent literally decades in the “wilderness” of formalist inquiry. I had to “bury the theorist as deeply as I could,” as my editor Mark Siegel puts it. I had to see if I could get to something more intuitive. I am what you might call a formalist. I’m a tinkerer, an inventor. I like to try things out. If I’m smarter than when I started, even if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay. That’s my creed, my temperament.
But the ultimate goal or “brass ring” for someone like that is to impersonate their opposite number – to see if through very deliberate calculation one can make it seem as though it weren’t calculated at all. And that is what I tried to do with The Sculptor. There was a lot of thought put into making it look as though not a lot of thought at all went into it – like I created something out of this fiery ball of intuition and made it happen. That’s what I wanted it to read like. I didn’t want anyone to stop and think about composition and pacing and what kind of panel transitions I was using. I wanted them to be thinking about the story and the characters, and put them under a spell that would carry them from the first page until the last.
Nrama: As you mentioned, your editor from 01: First Second, Mark Siegel mentioned in an interview online that you were “…going to bury the theorist and really come at this as a storyteller. Real hardcore storytelling, pure and simple. No lessons, no didactic. He wanted to be edited accordingly.”
Certainly, we have the love story that develops alongside David’s journey. But there seems to be so much more going on as well, in many instances, dipping into grander narratives about the meaning and purpose of life to meta-commentaries on art. To say it’s multi-layered would be an understatement.
Was it difficult for you keeping your more academic leanings separate from your storytelling desires? Or was there always an intent to blend the two?
McCloud: I think said back in Understanding Comics that it’s okay to blend form and content, but you’d better know which one of the two is “driving the bus.” [Laughs]
This is one of those times when content – when story – was driving the bus. For The Sculptor, I just had to get it to a point where I was happy with the story. But in the end, that took four massive revisions that I embarked upon, happily with Mark’s permission and encouragement, to make sure the story was solid in every respect. To do that, I had to make certain I understood what the story was about on every level. So all of those different elements of form, they all are branches of the tree that are a part of the same trunk. It’s something where they are all organic and they track back to a few simple ideas. And it took time!
At the early stages of the book, I didn’t fully understand what it was about. I had David expressing his philosophy of art because I felt he needed to have a philosophy regardless of whether it had anything to do with the central theme. I wound up scrapping that whole section and coming back to something else. It took a while for me to understand this wasn’t a story about an artist who had the ambition to be remembered. It was a story about an artist who had a terror about being forgotten. Those are two very different things. But it takes time. You have to write and draw your story from beginning to end and then read it to really understand what it’s about. When you understand what it’s about, you get to see all the parts that don’t belong, and you can start getting rid of them.
Nrama: You mention in the book that this is a personal story and how David and Meg – at least initially – were inspired by you and your wife. Does this book parallel your life as an artist in some capacity? How so? What would you say were other influences on The Sculptor?
McCloud: I don’t think their story runs parallel to our story so much – at least I hope not! [Laughs]
I think the parallels to us, well, it’s mostly the fuel that drives the creation of the characters. It has to come from something personal because I knew it would be fuller, more organic, and more convincing. It’s not as if this story is some sort of allegory for our particular lives – I don’t believe in a kind of private letters as a form of fiction. I just don’t find it interesting to read a sort of coded account of one’s own life. You hope that you’re looking at something that’s deliciously specific but persuasively universal.
The ways in which my wife’s personality helped inform Meg were just the ways I could ensure Meg was a convincing and loveable character. She was the loveable character closest at hand! If you want to draw a pair of hands, well, you do have a pair attached to your arms that you can use for reference! Ivy was just there! Ivy did inspire the character in the beginning, but I had to be serious about this as a piece of fiction, and I had to be ruthless about cutting out swaths of Ivy’s personality if it didn’t serve the story. At the beginning, the character veered away from her, but then in the last stages of the rewrite, I was able to find things that were more directly related to her life that made it a better story.
I want to find out who said this quote but it goes something along the lines “write as if everyone you know is dead.” I think anyone who has ever written anything, if you do that thought experiment where you imagine everyone you know is gone, there are parts of your ability to write that just unlock at that point. You have this liberty to say everything. You have to do that before the unhappy event and write ruthlessly.
Nrama: It seems as though this is an understanding that David comes to by the end of the book. Hearing you mention this, is this your commentary on art and the artist? Is this Scott McCloud’s voice coming through?
McCloud: It’s very much a story of a younger man written by an older man. I think that some of that understanding David comes to is just him arriving at places I’ve already been having lived longer. Because of the 200 days, his learning process has accelerated much like his expiration date. He has to learn faster. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate too much my part of David, that is, how much of me is in David. There is much more of Ivy in Meg than there is of me in David. If I’m going to sit down and write an artist that’s going to have qualities in common with me: He’s a little obsessive-compulsive and maybe a little ADHD (I think I am, too). He has a real work ethic. I worked eleven hours a day in the first two years and then maybe fourteen hours a day in the last two years, and that’s seven days a week. So we have some things in common, but it’s not meant to be about us – myself and my wife – but they breathe, stand, and walk because they have this nearest source of energy.
Nrama: In a sense, it is as if the book itself is almost “alive.”
McCloud: There are comics that talk to themselves on the shelves when the parts come together as a whole. That’s what I wanted this to be: Something that was alive on the shelf. It is still alive even when you aren’t reading it. It is still breathing. [Laughs] I guess that sounds pretty metaphysical, doesn’t it? But I like things like that. I like it when books feel like living organisms – that sense of wholeness.
Nrama: In addition to working on The Sculptor, you’re also quite active on the public speaking, workshop presentation, and guest teaching circuits. I also understand you are already making plans for you next project about “seeing and knowing.”
McCloud: “Seeing and Knowing” was actually the name of a conference we went to in Berkley recently, but that wouldn’t be a bad description of my next field of study. I’ve been really interested in visual learning not just in comics but in various forms. Educational animation, educational comics, information graphics, data visualizations – I think all of those fields have been knocking on the same door and trying to solve a lot of the same problems. It’s reinventing the wheel. I want to see if I can find some of the common principles for that kind of communication. That’s going to be next book, and it’s just a really fascinating topic. It’s showing up more and more in talks as well as traces of that interest surface. So, yes, that’s hopefully the subject of my next book with 01: First Second – an unnamed “Elements of Style” for visual communication.
Check back in Monday for the second part of our two-part interview with Scott McCloud.