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Scott McCloud
Interviewed by R.C. Harvey,
excerpted from The Comics Journal #179

Scott McCloud is a cartoonist's cartoonist. In his ten years in the ranks of professionals, he has produced relatively few pages of comic book art, but all that he has produced have been (as Spencer Tracy might have said) "cherce" -- er, choice. Beginning with the first 10-issue run of his comic book Zot! in the spring of 1984, McCloud has consistently created comics that reveal his thoughtful -- even analytical -- approach to the medium. Zot is a superhero, but he isn't quite like any other of the longjohn legion.

He's a thinking superhero. And as a young man, he has his share of problems (but they don't take over his life as they threaten to with Peter Parker). In its second 26-issue phase, Zot! became something else again -- a character-driven comic book about young people. Then in Destroy!!, McCloud created the superhero-parody-to-end-all-parodies -- 32 pages of nothing but senseless violence as two muscular characters in tights pound each other and wreck Manhattan in the process. He also invented "the 24-hour comic," a test of cartooning ingenuity and skill that requires the cartoonist to produce 24 pages of a comic book in as many hours. But his masterwork thus far is without a doubt Understanding Comics, the 215-page square- bound 1993 comic book that explains the medium -- what it is and how it works. Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau called it "the new Baedeker" of cartooning. Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, Trudeau said: "In one lucid, well-designed chapter after another, McCloud guides us through the elements of comics style, and shows us how the mind processes them through inferred transitions and how words combine with pictures to work their singular magic. Never has the didactic seemed so charming."

McCloud's apprenticeship in the comic book industry was short. Graduating with a degree in illustration from the University of Syracuse in 1982, he secured a job in the production department of DC Comics, where he touched up panel borders and corrected lettering mistakes. Almost at once, he began conjuring up Zot, and as soon as his proposal for the comic book series was accepted by Eclipse, he left DC and mainstream comics. And he's never returned. But his affection for the medium has, if anything, grown with the years. His latest preoccupation -- into which he pours his passion for comics -- is the electronic environment. He is working on a CD-ROM version of Understanding Comics partly in order to bring the ideas in the book to a wider audience but also "to offer a durable mutation for comics that can help it survive and grow in a digital environment without compromising its identity." McCloud is interviewed by the Journal's long-time contributor, R. C. Harvey, who first met McCloud at the San Diego Comic Con in 1992. McCloud had not yet completed Understanding Comics but he was close to finishing it. The two began almost at once to disagree about everything connected to comics.

R.C. HARVEY: What are you working on these days?

SCOTT McCLOUD: Right now, I'm working on two things. One in the morning; one in the afternoon. Mornings, I'm working on a full-color graphic novel called The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, which is a very strange political satire, running about 130 pages. It's giving me an opportunity to play with a lot of computer-generated images. But on the surface it's going to be just a wild, farcical story -- very funny, I hope [laughs], although you can never really gauge such things in advance [laughs].

HARVEY: Tell me about your afternoons.

McCLOUD: The Understanding Comics CD-ROM was something that I meant to begin a long time ago. Voyager [not to be confused with Voyager Communications] made an offer to Kitchen Sink shortly after the book was published, but unfortunately my plan to spend only two or three months promoting the book ballooned into nearly two years, so I had to keep putting it off. But I desperately wanted to give it a shot. To me it's not about CD-ROMs, which are just a storage medium -- they can hold about 650 megabytes, otherwise they're just a hunk of plastic -- but when you create comics for CD-ROM, you have to ask the question, "How can comics work in a digital environment?" Any ideas that I can devise for the Understanding Comics CD-ROM should be just as applicable to comics on the Internet once the speed of information transfer gets high enough. And that brings up the other big question: What happens when comics are screaming through the phone lines?

HARVEY: Do you feel that you're a technician rather than a storyteller?

McCLOUD: I think maybe I'm neither. My father was an inventor, and I think that in the long run, I've picked a similar path. As to whether I'm an artist or not, I'd say yes, but then it's all in how we define art. In my heart, maybe I'm more an inventor than anything else. I love creating new things.

HARVEY: As compared to sitting down and saying, "Once upon a time" and then stringing out a series of events.

McCLOUD: Clearly, my calling is not as a storyteller. Although when I put on that hat, I try to do it as well as I can. But still it's the scientist, the inventor in me, that's trying to come up with good, new ways to do that.

HARVEY: Apropos of almost nothing except your father, how does a person make a living as an inventor?

McCLOUD: My father made a pretty good living. He died about ten years ago. He was a chief engineer and consulting scientist for Raytheon Laboratories in Massachusetts. He invented the guidance system of the Patriot missile among other things. All of which would have been impressive enough; but he was also blind.

HARVEY: Oh, my. All his life?

McCLOUD: From a very early age. And he still managed to graduate from Harvard and have this amazing career. So, yes, he did pretty good for himself.

HARVEY: And he has a son who works in a visual medium. That's an interesting irony.

McCLOUD: Yes. And he always had the utmost faith in his kids' ability, even though in my case he had no way of confirming it. I've always said that whatever I could do in comics couldn't be any better than what he always assumed I could do. He always took it on faith. Obviously he was quite a role model. And the fact that, through a circuitous route, I may have come back to follow in his footsteps is a matter of some pride. I hope when I'm done with my career in comics that I will have left behind a lot of inventions which will be of use to other people.

HARVEY: I end my book The Art of the Comic Book by saying that we are on the cusp of another golden age for comics. Would you agree with that?

McCLOUD: Either we are, or else we may look back at this age as a bit of a golden age if the business continues to deteriorate. I do think that the medium of comics has never been in better shape. I think that comics have realized only a small fraction of [their] potential, but I think that fraction has grown, and I think that we can be proud of what we've done in the last ten years. But only if we continue that curve, because we have a very, very long way to go. If all that progress comes crashing down, then [sighs] again, we'll have to hang on and wait for the next oasis.

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