Learning How to Write All Over Again: An Interview with Scott McCloud

Article by ben

By Benjamin Rybeck

On the day I call Scott McCloud—a man who has been referred to as “the Marshall McLuhan of comics” for reasons I will make clear shortly—he’s doing plenty of interviews; in fact, mine is sandwiched between chats with Entertainment Weekly and L.A. Times. In other words, THE SCULPTOR, his new (and, really, first) graphic novel is a big deal, and lots of people want to talk to him about it.

Now, a confession: I am not an ideal choice to interview Scott McCloud. I am largely an ignorant person, and until a few months ago, I was ignorant of his work—I’ve never spent much time with comics or graphic novels, see, and not out of a sense of superiority, but simply out of…well, did you catch the part where I told you I’m ignorant? But when I first got my hands on THE SCULPTOR—whose nearly 500 pages I read in two excited hours—I knew McCloud was something special. Of course, when I announced this to others, they nodded blankly as though I’d just announced that, hey, there’s this band called The Beatles, and they’re pretty good.

The point? Obviously Scott McCloud is something special; where the hell have I been?

So again, I’m not the ideal person, etc. But as a I prepare for this interview, I have this notion that maybe I can get away with asking McCloud, master of comics, zero questions about comics—and, in fact, what I mostly want to ask him about is Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult horror film CARNIVAL OF SOULS, which McCloud’s SCULPTOR characters debate vigorously in one brief scene. It’s a favorite film of mine, and I find myself very curious about McCloud’s thoughts. So can I get away with doing an interview where I ask McCloud only about CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and not at all about comics?

No, of course, I have to ask Scott McCloud about comics. I know this because I ask my colleague Liz—who knows a lot about comics and graphic novels—whether I have to ask Scott McCloud about comics, and she arches an eyebrow and regards me with a motherly sort of patience. “Yes, Ben,” she says. “You have to ask Scott McCloud about comics.”

One thing I understand as I dig through Scott McCloud’s career is that the word “comics” seems somewhat inadequate—at once too specific and too vague—to describe his work. First, there was the strangeness of ZOT!, a superhero series from the 1980s eventually collected into a single volume. Glancing through ZOT!, it seems very much a young man’s work—excitable and energetic, trying to be everything all at once.

In the 1990s, McCloud’s career took a turn into the academic, with UNDERSTANDING COMICS, a book of nonfiction that did just what its title promised: laid out a set of rules for, and the utility of, comics as a genre. Was it a craft book? Yes, but McCloud made his arguments in comic book form, even illustrating himself as something of a cross between college professor and superhero alter ego. From there, McCloud became one of the foremost theorists about comics, eventually turning to questions of the comic book in the internet era.

Apart from a handful of one-off works—including a fascinating online comic called “The Right Number”—THE SCULPTOR is his first foray into fiction in a long while and, even more importantly, his first full-length work of narrative. In other words, imagine where Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were in the late 1950s: after evincing complicated and sometimes controversial opinions as critics, they had to put those ideas into practice.

For McCloud, putting his ideas into practice took five years. He breaks it down for me: “For two years, I did layouts—laid out the entire 500-page story. I did four revisions of that. It was two years before I drew even a single panel. I was learning how to write all over again. It had been a long time since I’d done fiction, so it was really exciting for me to just think long and hard about what the story was about.”

I ask him whether the author of THE SCULPTOR ever felt the author of UNDERSTANDING COMICS peering over his shoulder—and whether he finally just had to ask that dude to buzz off. “You start with instinct,” McCloud says. “You lay down the panels in a way that feels natural without asking yourself why. You begin interrogating yourself when it doesn’t feel natural—when it feels wrong. That’s when you do diagnostics.”

Later, he adds, “I had to use all the techniques [I learned] from studying comics and also making comics, and I also had to bury them as much as I could—to use them in such a way that the reader isn’t aware of them. I want the reader to experience [THE SCULPTOR] as a story, not as a collection of storytelling techniques.”

To this end, there’s a moment in THE SCULPTOR when a character says, “The viewers are the material. We’re nothing without them.” This character refers to sculpting—but is the same true of comics? McCloud thinks so, and then points out that the panel containing the aforementioned quote lacks a border. It’s a wink at the reader. “This is the only moment when I pull back the curtain,” McCloud says—a reminder, for this one second, that you’re reading a comic.

THE SCULPTOR—and now I will offer the perfunctory plot summary—tells the story of a sculptor named David in his mid-20s who’s already convinced that he’s a failure and that most people who are successful don’t deserve to be. I know that every lazy interviewer in the world will ask McCloud about the similarities between him and David (in fact, I’ve already read many interviews where McCloud says that he shares David’s fear of irrelevance), but mostly what I want to know is whether McCloud, a man who seems extraordinarily sweet on the phone with me, was ever as prickly as his protagonist.

“I was never that bad,” he says, “but I was definitely a hermit. I was obsessive. My old friend Kurt Busiek, who went into comics—I remember him saying that he hadn’t had a normal conversation with me in years, that I was losing the ability to converse with other human beings.”

But I wonder whether there something a little fun, a little thrilling, a little nostalgic even, in the successful artist looking back upon a version of himself in his 20s—getting to write the story of struggle from the comforts of success. There must’ve been, yes?

McCloud disabuses me of this notion pretty quickly: “Being inside David’s head is not a vacation—neither pleasant nor ideal. I’m glad to have left behind that part of myself. I’m more fulfilled and happy having grown past that period in my life.”

Although THE SCULPTOR takes place in the “real world”—by which I mean, a version of New York City that mostly looks and feels like the real New York City—McCloud introduces a truly fantastical element when David, nursing his feelings of failure, makes a deal with Death: he will only live for 200 more days, but he will be able to sculpt anything he wants. Yes, anything, and in a stunning early scene, David displays his work: a strange mélange of different styles and subjects, which a cranky art critic likens to "a Polynesian gift shop."

Still, this fantastical element is handled logically, realistically, which seems like a real challenge. Is it more difficult for McCloud to handle the fantastical in an ostensibly “realistic” novel than it is to handle the fantastical in a superhero story like ZOT!?

“It was a special challenge,” he says, “because in some ways, I’ve been working hard to convince everyone that comics are about more than power fantasies, and [elements of THE SCULPTOR] could’ve fallen backwards into something I’d convinced myself I’d outgrown. But I have to accept that power fantasies are part of my heritage as an American comic book artist—to accept that there’s still a thrill in them. [THE SCULPTOR] is a young man’s story, and I wanted to preserve that vitality while, at the same time, seeing it through the eyes of a man with more experience.”

Listening to McCloud talk, I sometimes forget that, at 54, he isn’t exactly “young” anymore—although he remains very invested in the progression of comics, particularly as they will translate, or have translated, into the Internet era. When I ask him whether he’d have preferred to start his career now as opposed to in the 1980s, he answers quickly: “No. My timing was good. In the 80s, there were maybe a dozen or two really interesting artists. Now, I would’ve had to compete against 800 or 900. I don’t know how well I would’ve done in that field.”

He’s being modest, of course, but I do wonder whether McCloud, so invested in the Internet, actually feels like a part of it, the way that younger people who grew up with the Internet do. “I’ll always have a first generation scrim between me and that scene,” he says. “I don’t use Facebook, for example. Even people who hate Facebook use Facebook if they’re under 30. But obviously, compared to others my age, I’ve been much more willing to embrace the new tools, and much more engaged with that culture. Just lately, I’ve been straying a bit because I became a hermit to work on [THE SCULPTOR].”

There it is: the idea of being a hermit again. Despite this new era, maybe there’s still a bit of that 20-something McCloud—a young man, unshakeable, shutting away the outside world to work, obsessively, on art.

And as for the Internet? “The Internet’s not done with us,” McCloud tells me—a ominous statement that threatens to send chills down my spine, until I realize that McCloud doesn’t seem concerned about it. So then who am I to worry?

If you’ve come this far with me, I might as well mention that I do finally get around to asking McCloud about CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and he laughs; I feel convinced that of the questions I’ve asked over the course of our talk, his opinion on CARNIVAL OF SOULS is the only one he maybe hasn’t heard before. So what does he think of the film?

“It’s hilarious in spots,” he says, “but a genuinely great movie. It has some really creepy, fascinating moments, and a solid ending. The hilariously miscast industrial film actors that [director] Harvey had access to certainly ramp up the comedy, yet they also contribute to this sense that all of us are careening like broken machines, bumping into each other, which makes the film even spookier in a way.”

How exactly are McCloud’s thoughts on CARNIVAL OF SOULS an end point to this interview? I don’t know, exactly, except that they illustrate his omnivorous quality—that he’s a man in love with, and articulate about, art forms outside of comics. There seems to be little snobbery or ignorance here, and talking to McCloud for 30 minutes just makes me even more eager to figure out who the hell he is.

The Sculptor Cover Image
ISBN: 9781596435735
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: First Second - February 3rd, 2015

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