Click here to view a printable version of this document without all the comics stuff. Click here to send an e-mail to Matt Thompson.
Click here to view the comics version of this document. Click here to send an e-mail to Matt Thompson.
I met Scott on a sunny afternoon at Fresno State after his Cal Summer Arts workshop had let out for the day.
Matt: First thing i want to ask is if you would sign my editor's copies of Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics * that's just in case anyone accuses me of having any journalistic integrity.
Scott: Haha! I didn't design this one as well for signatures
* Scott's famous books about comics. Great stuff.
I've kind of started, especially recently, to delve into at least what my friends tell me is good: Watchmen, just finished reading two of Joe Sacco's books, Maus (the first part at least) But I'm wondering, do you feel comics is casting about for respect as a medium?
I think some comics are. I think some creators are casting about for respect. It's interesting, though, because some of the comics that are earning us the most respect now are done by people that I don't think are too obsessed with respect. I don't think they really care whether anybody respects what they're doing or not, they're just so driven, and they're so interested in the ideas that they're conveying through their work that I don't think they're looking up much from the drawing board to find out if anyone is peering over their shoulder or readying the pulitzers. They really just want to create something that they like, that they think is worthy of attention, and they're willing to just let the cards fall where they may beyond that.
Matt: Being from a newspaper web site ... I can understand a medium being underrespected ... The internet now being about 15 years old, depending on whom you ask, we're still trying to get them to remove the "New Media" sign from outside our office. But 15 years old, still. Comics, by some estimations, are older than books. How come, in so many years, how come it's not thought of as the most venerable medium we've got?
Well, that's actually one of the great unanswered questions with comics is why, for example, compared to movies, which have been developing and growing throughout the 20th century alongside comics. Why is it that we've accepted the idea that movies can be art, even if they usually aren't, but that's still a harder pill to swallow for people regarding comics?
I think some of it may have to do with just the fact that comics hasn't reached into as many lives as movies, partially because the world of comics isn't as easy to slip into. Because each artist brings their own voice and their own style to comics.
And because of that every new artist we encounter, we have to get in sync with their world in order to see past the lines and the paper and the style, and simply dive into the world of the story. It's easier in motion pictures, despite all the different styles of acting and directing and set design and writing, it all still looks like life. because it's photography. Because we know that when we see a car pull up next to a building and somebody get out of that car in film, it looks like a car and it looks like a person and we believe it instantly. In comics, however, it takes a little while, because every new artist has their own way of drawing that car and their own way of drawing that person, and so the filters between us and the world inside the comic are a little thicker. and so that instant reality is harder to come by -- comics takes more work. And because it takes more work, it hasn't been quite as quick to become the mass -- mass phenomenon that leads to people being willing to respect it, because it's easier to respect something that's such an integral part of your life.
Matt: You draw the tie between comics and movies And that's something I'm actually pretty curious about. There've been a lot -- it seems like at least in recent years, there's been a lot of experimentation with translating comics to cinema. Sin City was one, Ghost World, American Splendor, Ang Lee took on The Incredible Hulk --
Scott: Oh, and there have been some that people don't even know are comics, like Road to Perdition, Men in Black A History of Violence, coming up with Viggo Mortensen, were all graphic novels.
Matt: First of all, what do you think have been the most successful stabs at that?

Scott: Artistically, I think some of the most really successful comics movies have included, say, Ghost World, American Splendor, I think these were just terrific little movies.
Scott (cont'd): Crumb, the documentary about the artist Crumb, though not an adaptation, per se, I think was very well-done. Spiderman I think is one of the best of the superhero movies. Sin City is maybe unique of all of them in the way that it just adapted Frank Miller's comics straight without any mediation at all. Rodriguez listed Miller as co-director,
in part because Miller's comics served as a storyboard from beginning to end. These are all, I think, very interesting, very successful comics adaptations -- the latest crop has definitely been a lot better than when I was a kid, when comics adaptations were just a trail of tears, one disappointment after another. Now it's easy to see why Hollywood is so in love with comics still.
Let's talk about definitions for a sec. ... Comics are defined at one moment in Understanding Comics as being "Juxtaposed ..."
"... pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence." I'm not suggesting anybody like trot that out every time they go to the comics store, you know, ask the guy behind the counter if they can have some juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence. That's more just to help us to separate it from things like animation and other things that also use images in sequence.
Right. And you distinguish it also from cartoons. They're related, but not --
Yeah, Cartooning is, I think, a way of drawing and a way of seeing, but it doesn't necessarily have to appear in sequence the way that comics do.
And to keep up the talk about comics and movies, you mention at one point that a movie is a series of images kind of juxtaposed through time.
Yeah, they're occupying the same space at different times, as opposed to comics where the images exist at the same time, but exist at different spaces. That's the only real difference.
And what happens in between those two panels of a comic strip?
Scott: Well, obviously a lot happens between the panels, because if it didn't, comics would never come alive in our minds. Comics has a kind of call-and-response rhythm that you don't see in any other art form, where the artist gives you something to see inside of the panel and then the reader provides something between panels, they imagine something in between the panels. And it goes back and forth like that throughout ... It's this dance of imagination.

Very different from, say, prose, where the reader has to constantly construct the story and the artist never takes over. Very different from movies where you just sit back and let the whole thing wash over you. And the illusion of movement is automatic in motion pictures, you know, because it's just your eyes registering motion from that series of static images. You can't help but see motion in film. But in comics, you need to do the work, the reader needs to do the work. And there's an enormous amount of work being done between the panels, you have to imagine so much in terms of motion and emotion. And beyond the panels too, you have to imagine the world beyond that little slice, that little camera shot.
Matt: And then the meat, what's drawn, what's within the panel -- what are a few of the things that are going on there? One thing I like about Joe Sacco's work for example ... is the reconstruction, that in no other medium, not in documentary, not in text obviously, not in photo essay, can you actually draw what these people -- or paint a portrait of what these people are telling the interviewer. He spends, you can tell, just an enormous amount of time on drawing those reconstructions. And a lot of it seems like it's shading, it's --

Scott: Hard work. Yeah, a lot of it's very, just, scrubbing the floors. It's drudgery, a lot of it. Most cartoonists will tell you it's hard, hard work, doing that sort of thing. Especially people like Joe Sacco, who spends so much time just getting the mud right, you know, in the Gaza Strip, in Palestine. Getting that mud to look like the mud, getting the old jeeps driving around to look just right, the tin roofs to look just right. But it's worth it.
And part of it too is that it can't just be a photograph, right?
Right.
Why?
Well, I think that, you know, a photo can tell you a lot. But when you render it as pen-and-ink, and you render the characters as pen-and-ink, the settings as pen-and-ink, what happens is you're giving us a few lines that have to be shored up, that have to be filled out with the imagination and with our own experience. And we have to imagine the sounds of the cars driving around in the mud, and we have to imagine the cacophany in the marketplace
Scott (Cont'd): All of these things, you as the reader have to supply all of this. And yet it's not just being handed to you on a silver platter, right? It's something that you have to do a little bit of work for. You need to walk in the shoes of these characters. You need to walk through these drawings, because you need to bring them to life ... You need to conjure up the life that exists within these. And so when you're done reading something like Sacco's books, you're a participant in that world. You're not just sitting back and watching it on CNN. You're part of it.
What -- from someone who's truly connected to the form -- what are experiments going on right now in comics?
Well, you know, it's funny. The experimental side of things, they're always on the margins. The guy at your local comics shop may not even have a line on some of the real hardcore experimental comics going on. The experimenters are kind of one of what I think of as four tribes in comics ...
Scott (Cont'd): ... They're --

The Formalists

Our research and development wing. Some of that stuff is going on online. Some of that stuff is going on with paper and ink. Some of the more adventurous comics are being done as just one-off constructions in cardboard or denim or wood. In fact, right now I think there's a show in Brooklyn where people are exhibiting sequential art that's been done as actual objects, you know, in a gallery. I think that stuff is absolutely fascinating.

The Animists

But while that's going on, you have its opposite number, which are the pure storytellers, who don't want you to think about the form at all. Don't care about experimentation, they just want you to think about the characters and the stories and forget you're even reading a comic. Forget about the panels, forget about the paper, forget about the ink, just lose yourself in the story. So you have that war between form and content, and these are two perfectly legitimate ways to treat comics, but you need both of them in order for the medium to be healthy and progress forward.

The Classicists

And then you have other people for whom the excitement is just in working on their craft and creating something beautiful and well-done and up to a certain standard of excellence.

The Iconoclasts

And then you have other people for whom the point of it all is just to create something raw and real and truthful and that speaks to the lives of the people who make it. All of these things go together to keep comics a healthy ecosystem.




Now I've dwelled in the experimental wing a lot. You know, I like to hang out with the nerds, with the ones who are coming up with crazy weird little web comics that you can read in any direction. But I've long been aware that that's just part of the picture.
Tell me briefly about yourself. Tell me, first of all, where you were born, where you grew up, what besides drawing you've done to make a living, and I understand that your father was a world-class inventor?
I don't know about world-class, but he was certainly well-respected. He was chief engineer at Raytheon's missile system's division. He's an interesting guy, 'cause he was blind from an early age. So he was literally a blind genius rocket scientist inventor, which is kind of a cool thing to have on your resume. In fact, I had the pleasure of meeting Dean Kamen, who's probably the most famous inventor in the world today, the man who invented the Segway and a lot of other less-hyped but equally impressive inventions. And we had a fun conversation because he is an inventor son of a comic book artist and I'm a comic book artist son of an inventor. I was raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, in New England, which is kind of high-tech, silicon valley of the '70s. And stayed in New England for quite a while and went to school at Syracuse. Then I got a job at D.C. Comics when I was right out of college, so I went straight into the comics industry. And I've stayed in Comics ever since. It was only a couple years later I sold my own series, and I've made my living either through making comics or through talking about making comics.
And then my walkman conked out, so thus ends the interview. And then tickets for Scott's lecture at Fresno State sold out before I could snag a ticket. Fortunately I caught his Thursday morning Cal Summer Arts lecture, which was awesome.
And if you haven't had your fill of Scott, worry not. You can get your Scott McCloud fix daily at his Web site, ScottMcCloud.com.