October 2003

Erik Ferguson


An Interview with Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud's first interaction with comics came in the form of Daredevil. This is where a lesser writer with more time on his hands would try to draw some parallel between the title of that comic and McCloud's habit of challenging the limits and expectations of what comics "should" be. Suffice it to say that, from his early independent work on Zot!, through the exploring and exploding nonfiction of Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, to his current efforts with online comics (specifically, The Right Number), Scott McCloud has never contented himself with the accepted 32 pages of swashbuckling, spandex-busting action.

Your e-mail said that youíre having some kind of problem with your wrist. What happened? Is it carpal tunnel syndrome?

Scott McCloud: No, itís not carpal tunnel syndrome. I just recognize these sensations that my wrist is getting increasingly sore. I know from my last bout with tendinitis to take action quickly, so Iíve had it in a brace. Unfortunately, itís been getting a little bit worse. Generally, Iím trying to keep it still as much as possible. Once the comic (The Right Number) came out, I started answering a lot of e-mails, posting to message boards, and participating in some ill-conceived chats. That sort of threw it out.

So this isnít something that anybody wanting to get into digital comics should worry about? Itís not the equivalent of tennis elbow?

No, not at all. In fact, I do most of my digital comics on a Wacom tablet, which is pretty easy on the hands. I only know one person who draws with a mouse, and thatís Demian 5, who does pretty wild stuff.

So you used the tablet for The Right Number?

Yes, I did it in Adobe Illustrator, using my stylus with the brush tool. So I was using Illustratorís very sharp, mathematical precision in service of more organic-looking brush strokes. But it still has that sharpness that used to be associated with object-oriented drawing programs.

What kind of reviews have you gotten for the Bitpass micropayment system?

The reviews have been pretty overwhelmingly positive for those whoíve gotten through. If somebody was unable to use it for any reason, they might write me. But we have to assume that if anyone had a particularly bad experience, they might have just gone away in disgust. Itís not the most scientific survey imaginable. We had just a few people at the very beginning, by which I mean the first three days, who had trouble accessing the comic, and those problems were quickly fixed. The only problem that remains is that there are a few earlier browsers and operating systems that we canít currently support, such as Internet Explorer 4.5. You need Explorer 5. Otherwise, one of the comments weíve gotten most frequently is that people were surprised at how quick it was. Itís a good sign if youíre exceeding peopleís expectations. Thatís encouraging.

This was my first experience with the panel-in-a-panel format that you use. Was that something you wanted to do specifically for this comic? Or was it just an idea you had been toying around with and you thought it was as good a time as any to try it?

Itís an idea that Iíd been toying around with a few years. I always thought it would be fun to create a comic in which each panel is embedded in the previous panel. And I had this separate notion about doing a story about a man obsessed with phone numbers. When I first thought of bringing those two together, it seemed like a natural enough match.

What happened, though, was that as I got deeper and deeper into the story itself, the unique format of the story, that zoom format, became less important than just telling the story. I found that I was able to use the zoom in a way that was consistent with the themes of the story and helped amplify those themes. But the story, in the end, grabbed me to such a degree that I would forget about the format and just be captivated by the possibilities of pure storytelling. This is good for me, because I frequently put form over content. This is one of those places where, despite a very strange and unique form, I think the content ended up driving the project, which made for, I hope, a satisfying reading experience.

Do you feel ďfreedĒ from the traditional page layout restrictions? Does each panel become more important now?

In a way, this zoom-through is a nice compromise between the downside of digital comics and the downside of print. I donít have to squash them all onto the page or the screen anymore. Each panel gets its due. One or two people have pointed out that they didnít think it was technically ďcomics,Ē by my own definition. I think it is, because the panels are still juxtaposed in space. Youíre still proceeding from this notion that, as you move through space, you move through time. Instead of moving across or up-and-down, youíre moving in. From a graphic design standpoint, you could say that itís comics on the z-axis.

It sounds like youíve got your bases covered on that one. Youíve always got to watch out for those people trying to catch you.

(laughs) I think the whole comics community is waiting on the edge of their seats for the day that I do something that even I would not define as ďcomics.Ē I donít think weíre there yet.

Are you at liberty to discuss the Superman project mentioned on your website?

Yeah, thereís a Superman graphic novel thatís being drawn right now. I wrote it and did breakdowns for it.

And itís a book, not an e-comic?

Yeah, itís a printed book. That was just something that I did several months ago, actually. I take jobs of that sort from time to time to keep my skills sharp as a writer and, more often than not, to help fund my more bizarre efforts online. I mean, if you think about it, for five years Iíve been making these comics on the Web and theyíve been entirely free. That means that, if Iím to make a living, I need to make it in the mainstream.

Gotta have some straight work.

Right, so as soon as the bank account fills up to the point that weíre no longer worried about how weíre going to pay the rent, I immediately turn over to the online work. So weíre forever on the edge of bankruptcy. It helps that I frequently get chances to go on the road and talk about what I love to do. Thatís been a consistent offset to my incredible money-losing instincts. ďLetís give it away!Ē

You started out working paste-up for DC Comics?

Yeah, I was in the production department, which involved random paste-ups, little editorial corrections, whiting out lines when they went over the panel border. It was finished artwork, and they would ask me to, you know, insert a comma in a word balloon. Sometimes they were slightly more elaborate corrections. Occasionally I would do art corrections, if they thought I was up to it. It was very eerie, of course, painting over somebody elseís artwork. It felt a little ghoulish. Itís a delightful job. It was the only real nine-to-five Iíve ever had, because I went straight from that to writing and drawing my own comic books.

One of the footnotes in a panel of Reinventing Comics mentions the super-villains that you and Kurt Busiek (Astro City) created on a PDP-8 computer.

In junior high school, there was a PDP-8 computer that printed on those giant, perforated sheets of green-striped paper. We programmed it to generate various random super-heroes and super-villains from a series of criteria: names, powers, country of origin. So we had a list of bizarre characters that we did very little with, but it was fun.

Do you remember your first encounter with a digital comic or, at least, an online comic?

I donít know that I can remember my first online comic. In 1992, when I bought my first computer, I was logging onto Compuserve, and the comics discussion boards did include the occasional gif or jpeg being sent around, and those images were sometimes of amateur comics art. Technically speaking, I suppose those were online comics. I very quickly got this notion in my head that more could be done with it, and I got very excited with that idea. It took a few years for anyone to do anything that was actually exciting online. The first one that struck me as at least attempting to do something a little more creative and ambitious was Argon Zark by Charlie Parker, which debuted in 1995. But it was by no means the first online comic. It was just the first one that I thought was using the medium in an interesting way. It was full-color; it was formatted to fit the screen; it used a few multimedia effects here and there.

So are digital comics the end for black-and-white comics?

My attitude about black-and-white is that black is a color. When you move online, you have to stop thinking of black-and-white as on-and-off, which is how it is in print. Print is a binary world where everything is represented by ink or no-ink; even the tones are represented that way because they are half-tones. Online, you have to accept that black is another color. If youíre going to do something thatís only two-color, then you have to give some thought to what those two colors are going to be. If youíre only using black because you were trained to think in those terms, because thatís the color of ink, then youíre probably not doing your work justice. I imagine that there are legitimate reasons to use black. Generally speaking, if youíre going to do a two-color comic, thereís a good chance that youíre best two colors are not black and white. In The Right Number, I use various shades of blue, but it is still like a black-and-white comic. Iím just using linework and a second tone. I think thereís still a lot to be said for black-and-white comics in print. The popularity of manga speaks to the power of a well-done black-and-white comic.

What do you recommend for those who would like to branch out from the usual super-hero comics into something a little different?

It depends on how fast you want to go. If you want a crash-course of literate comics, just go out right now and buy Chris Wareís Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Itís definitely jumping into the deep end of the pool. Many people find other works that are kind of a bridge from super-heroes to other sorts of things. You know, Alan Mooreís Watchmen or Neil Gaimanís Sandman series are very appealing to someone brought up on mainstream super-hero comics, but theyíre a bit more literate, a bit more challenging. As far as books thatíll knock your socks off if youíre open to them, I would include the new book Blankets, by Craig Thompson, a wonderful, nearly 600-page long autobiographical reminiscence by a fairly young artist. Itís just terrific and vastly entertaining. Itís a lot of fun. Definitely Chris WareÖJoe Sacco, his journalistic comics are a particularly fascinating use of the medium. Joe will live in a place like Palestine or Bosnia for months at a time and then write about his experiences. Jim Woodringís Frank stories are terrific.

Does nonfiction artwork have to be more literal and realistic than more fantastic material?

I think nonfiction has as much range for stylistic choices as fiction. Off the top of my head I can think of the not-at-all-realistically drawn Maus by Art Spiegelman, where the characters are all represented as mice and cats, yet it has that verisimilitude that comes from a story told very directly. Blankets is more realistically drawn than Maus, but it still has a cartoony tinge to it. Joe Saccoís work tends to be a bit cartoony. There are others that are much more realistically drawn, but Iím blanking on them right now.

Have you seen any of the recent comics-based movies? Have any of them really gotten it right?

I tend to see most of the comic book movies just out of curiosity and familial duty. I think the list of best comic book movies so far would include Spider-Man and Ghost World. Road to Perdition was pretty good. American Splendor looks like itís going to be a lot of fun. The second X-Men movie was all right. And, of course, there have been many stinkers over the years, but what can you do? Spider-Man definitely got it right. I think it was a case of good source material; those early Spider-Man stories were well-structured stories, and the moviemakers quite intelligently adapted the material and kept what was worth keeping, an instinct that seems to be rare in Hollywood.

Are there any websites where artists and writers can get together to collaborate?

I donít know of any websites specifically devoted to that. Comicon.com has a Creating Comics forum; go to the message boards and youíll see it.

I think thatís all, as far as my questions go. Do you feel pretty good with what you said? Do you need to recant anything?

No, I think that pretty much covers it. Obviously, Iím very excited with whatís happening now with the micropayments and The Right Number. Iíve thought for many years that a working micropayment system could make an enormous difference, not just for comics, but for Web content in general. Iíve got my fingers crossed. So far the signs are pretty good.