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GNLIB - Graphic Novels in Libraries
Hundreds of Librarians Can't Be Wrong! 


Interview with Scott McCloud,
author of Understanding Comics.

December 6, 2002 phone interview by Steve Miller, Graphic Novels in Libraries.

Author Bio

Born in 1960, McCloud spent his childhood in Lexington, Massachusetts.  The youngest son of a rocket-scientist inventor, his childhood was ďa long series of surreal creative activities,Ē such as astronomy, mineralogy, microbiology, radio drama, politics, chess, and comics.  His best known works include the ground-breaking Understanding Comics, and its supplement, Reinventing Comics.


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Miller:  I got turned on to you with Understanding Comics, just a phenomenal piece of work, and I was doing some research recently and Iíve seen you described as everything from ďgeniusĒ to ďcomics theoristĒ Ö

McCloud:  to ďraving lunaticĒ Ö

Miller:  Ö all the way down to aesthetic philosopher. So I was wondering, what does your actual business card say?

McCloud:  Actually, I donít have a business card!  The reason is that my projects often run a year or more, and getting work is not really the problem.  My major challenge in life is finishing the work that Iíve begun.  So, Iím not often spreading my name out there.  Iím a little worried that too many opportunities will come my way as a result.  So, Iíve never printed one up, except once when I was first announcing my website.

Miller:  I was thinking back to Understanding Comics, and thereís a lot of existentialism in there, and I was wondering how after years of stepping back and looking at the howís and whys of information and ideas, and how people perceive things, and then pondering the ramifications of different media, is there any one thought that inspires you to actually get out of bed every morning and face this miasma of symbology.

McCloud:  Well, for all its abstract musings, that aspect of Understanding Comics was probably more a purging of myself.  Having put all that on paper nailed it down, as it were, to the board.  I think I was able to exorcise those demons and get on with the practical matter of actually wanting to make some of these things. 

Thereís a very practical side to Understanding Comics that doesnít always come across.  The primary message, at least for my own community, for the comics community, was that if we draw that map of comics, we could see this tiny little settlement way up on the east coast, and a whole lot of unexplored territory.  As a cartoonist, I was interested in exploring that territory.  So that has a very practical dimension; looking at all the different styles, approaches, and compositional strategies that had never been tried.  That was my primary impulse, to encourage others to try them and also to try a few myself.  So, having nailed down as much of the abstract ďnavel-gazingĒ as I could, I didnít feel at all paralyzed. 

There was a little paralysis, actually, and that was the feeling, after the book was out, that I was at a cross-roads with a thousand different directions that I could go with.  My biggest problem was that I couldnít go down all of those roads at once.  That became a little paralyzing for a while, but it was definitely my intention to travel those roads, to try out as many things as possible.

Miller:  From taking a look at your website, its looks like youíve definitely diversified the artistic spirit.  One of my favorites was the concept piece Porphyriaís Lover..

McCloud:  That was my very first web comic, I believe.  Porphyriaís Lover was also the first instance and use of what I call trails, which is a different protocol for reading.  This notion that, rather than expecting the reader to have this complex protocol in their heads that they read left-to- right and up-to-down, and that when there is confusion that one takes precedence over the other in some sort of complicated little two-step, often leading to very confusing page layouts.  I thought what if the panels linked together with the curls, with linking lines, then the artist would be free to let the story flow in any direction they wanted.  The readerís flow could actually go from down-to-up, from right-to-left; and it wouldnít really matter.  Youíd always know where the next panel was. 

And so, in adapting the Robert Browning poem Porphyriaís Lover by using these linking lines, I was able to create a reading direction, a reading rhythm that actually reflected the rhythm of the stanzas.  Each stanza had its own shape.  I donít know that itís a particularly good adaptation of a poem, I think in a lot of ways it probably fails as a adaptation of that wonderfully spooky poem of Browningís, but I think it pointed to some of the possibilities when youíre free from the page, when you no longer have to cram it all into those little rectangles.

Miller:  I was talking to someone recently about comics.  This person was a neophyte: she doesnít like to read comic whatsoever, she finds them confusing.

McCloud:  Sheís in good company.  I think many people feel that way.

Miller:  When I tried to get out of her what the problem was, she said that she had trouble figuring out what to read next.  Now, I can see that with the more mainstream comics, particularly in the superhero genre, that the page layout can get downright chaotic.  So, I think the trails are a good thing to help the reader.  People are very used to the comic strip format, which I like to call it panel-panel-panel-punchline.  It seems that some people have trouble maintaining a rhythm throughout the story, theyíre so busy trying to figure where to go next that they lose track of the storyline in anything longer than four panels.

McCloud:  This is very true.  This is one of the reasons why, in some cases the most progressive wave in comics is not necessarily that group that is most adventurous with layout.  Some of them quite conservative with the way that they lay out a story, because they want the story to be readable.  Their ambitions are directed more at the content of the panel, the sorts of stories they can tell.  But, if you take out all the pictures, you may see a fairly sober, relentlessly simple grid of just 2x3 panels, or 3x4, and its very clear where to read in all cases. 

Now, there are exceptions to that, of course.  Chris Wareís work is very challenging in all respects.  It is quite a daunting task to hike through the landscape of a Chris Ware page.

Miller:  During my talk with this non-reader of comics, we discussed those pages in comics where a single panel is sprinkled with speech bubbles and that panel takes up the whole page.  She didnít know what to read first.  I tried to explain that this page layout is very much like a shot from a movie, where you start with a wide-angle shot and are zooming in to one or two characters, and you get all this cross-speech going on as you zoom in.  That seemed to make total sense to her. 

Do you think that using the concept of movie points of view, of storyboards, would be a good way to explain to people who are having trouble with comics literacy how to make sense of the whole thing?

McCloud:  On the matter of storyboards, unfortunately, there arenít too many more people familiar with the technique of storyboards than they are familiar with comics.  Thatís an industry-specific thing.  But in terms of the movies, of course all of us are movie-literate.  Comics have been appropriating language from film for many years, so to some extent that could be a gateway into comics.  In fact, I think the language of movies could be a first step when encountering comics for the first time.  Its our first guess as to how it might work, that it may be like movie.  But then, the differences are what trip us up. 

I do believe that its possible to create a page that is clear enough that almost anyone encountering comics for the first time might just need a little nudge, a little suggestion on how to read them.  Then theyíll be able to sail through them pretty smoothly through it from then on. 

Itís a sad fact that many people in our society just havenít read a comic book in many, many years, and that some of them have never read them at all.  So, thatís the sort of mountain that an art form like cinema, for instance, does not have to scale on its way to respectability.  Over the last century, movies had to fight very hard to gain respect as an art form, but they always had that popular anchor: the notion that everybody at least knew how to negotiate them.  The only question was whether familiarity would breed contempt.  In our case, its more that obscurity breeds contempt.

Miller:  Recently, I was talking in the GNLIB chat-room about the popularity of manga with teen-agers. Was it the action?  Was it the plotline?  Was it the sexual innuendo?  Why did the kids like it so much?  A hush fell over the room when I mentioned your name.  I told everyone I felt that the low-definition of the characters made the artwork more iconic, therefore the reader could place more of themselves into the action.  Do you have any experience with Manga, what do you think about that type of approach.

McCloud:  Manga and anime both have their own dynamics. 

I think that the storytelling in anime is fairly sophisticated.  I think that that much of the attraction to Japanese animated film is based very much on their merit Ė its good work.  My children, 7 and 9, have fallen in love with Miyazakiís work now.  I wasnít sure that my 7 year old, who still has a very gentle disposition, was ready to see Princess Monoke.  We decided that she was, as long as we were there and sat with her for it.  She absolutely loved it, its now here very favorite movie of all time, at for the next couple of weeks.  Her second favorite is Spirited Away.  So, I have enormous respect for whatís being done in that form.

            Now, the Japanese comics, what we call manga, were the launching pad.  They were the cultural petri dish out of which the Japanese animation industry grew.  Most of the great Japanese animated films, even to this day, are either adaptations of comics or they are created by people who first made their name in comics.  The reason why manga is so popular in Japan, and the reason why its making such inroads here in America, stem from just a tremendous mastery of storytelling.  Iím happy to say that a lot of American artists are beginning to pick up on some of the techniques that Japanese comics artists have known about for 20-30 years, and Iím dismayed to report that some of the Japanese comic artists are picking up some of our bad habits.  Manga, in some ways, is not quite as effective as it used to be.  Some of the work is over-rendered, and over-wrought.  The sense of dynamic variation is beginning to vanish a bit with the more American technique of always keeping everything at the highest possible pitch.  You lose that dramatic contrast.

Miller:  Its becoming more standardized.

McCloud:  Yeah, a little bit.  At their height, Japanese comics were selling 100x Ė200x the comics being sold in America.  In the 70s and 80s, Japanese comics were insanely popular.  Everybody read comics, there were comics for people in all walks of life in Japan; adults and children alike, men and women alike.  No matter what profession you were in, there was probably a comic about that profession.  Comics were read in public.  

Is there any number of reasons for this?  One of the founding fathers of anime, Osamu Tezuka, had such a varied output and dabbled in so many different genres, that from the very beginning there was no concept that comics had to be about one particular type of story.  There was no danger of that notion ever taking over. 

Miller:  Thatís the antithesis of here in America, where the comics mainstream was all superheroes for a good 30, 40 years. 

McCloud:  Exactly, and hence the very notion of the mainstream was turned on its head in America - where this tiny, hole-in-the-wall cult genre virtually took over all of comics!  Weíre beginning to reverse that trend, I think, in the last 15 years. Weíve seen many more major works which are not superhero comics. That was one of the factors that went into making manga so popular in Japan and so attractive to fans here in America who discovered manga.  Interestingly enough, on the web there are almost no superhero comics at all. 

Probably the greatest strength that manga has, is that there is a relentless pursuit of reader participation.  In the best of manga, even in the garden-variety, run-of-the-mill manga, there are quite a few techniques employed to make sure that the reader does not feel like an observer in the story, that they feel like a participant.

Miller:  Can you give an example of that?

McCloud:  You mentioned the notion of iconic participation, this thing I first identified in Understanding Comics and that I still believe is a factor.  The simple characters and rich background demonstrate a style of art in which we are given one set of lines to see, and another set of lines to be.  We put ourselves inside of these characters, because they are so non-specific.  They more reflect the way we see ourselves, than the way we see others. 

Their whole attitude about motion, in which a static character is shown against a streak or a blurred background.  We have a sense that we are moving with the character, because thatís how we experience motion.  When we are the moving object, we experience motion as the entire world sweeping past us in a blur.  Whereas in American comics we use these motion lines to simply show the moving object in a diagrammatic and objective way.  Weíre merely observing the motion, weíre not participating in it. 

Miller:  And that places more of a barrier between the reader and the story.

McCloud:  Exactly.  Also, the way the Japanese comics establish a scene.  Theyíll tend to do it through fragments.  Bits of a scene will be shown, silently, in one panel after another.  For instance, if you wanted to establish a scene in a suburban home, the first panel might be simply a picture of a couch.  Then another picture of framed paintings on the wall.  Then another picture of a kitchen with a knife, and a half cut loaf of bread sitting on a countertop.  This is the way we experience the world.  If you walk into a home for the first time, your eyes will be roving about taking in details.  You donít have an omniscient point of view.  So, Japanese comics, by using that technique, they make you feel as if you have just walked into a new place and youíre assembling it from fragments as we do in everyday life. 

In American comics, we have a much more ďjust the facts maíamĒ approach. We have a single establishing shot showing you the scene, from an omniscient point of view, and then we get on with the story as quickly as possible.  This is in part due to the fact that American comics tended to come in smaller chunks. They couldnít depend on these weekly installments telling huge stories that would later be collected in 300-page volumes.  The American tradition was for these 22-page miniature stories that were published in disposable packages, and sure enough, disposed of by mothers across America.

Miller: To the dismay of collectors!

  From a librarians standpoint, we have to factor in the mores and ethics of our individual communities when we purchase materials.  Generally, the larger the community, the more progressive the libraryís collection could be.  For example, From Hell, a well done and well annotated graphic novel, would work well in larger cities.  Some of the images, however, might be more open to challenges in smaller communities. 

I agree that magna artists are masters of storytelling, yet it seems to me that the stories sometimes have difficulty crossing a cultural barrier.  The first time I showed my wife a copy of Sailor Moon she replied ďThat girlís a slut and I would never let my kid read that comic book!Ē  I tried to explain that itís a cultural thing.

Have you run into that with your family, or with anyone youíve heard of?

McCloud:  Some of the Japanese comics include content that does, at first blush, seem fairly lurid.  As long as we depend on community standards as a measure of what appropriate and whatís not in libraries, weíre going to run up against these barriers.  I donít really see much way around it.

Miller: Iím hoping that slowly, but surely, we can educate the communities and let them know that this was made in another country, with its own intrinsic mores.  This point should be mentioned in discussion groups that have not only the kids, but also have the parents, participating.

A while back, I worked with a teen advisory group that was lucky enough to have a Japanese exchange student visit one of the meetings.  We spend an hour and a half talking about manga and anime in Japan from a first-hand perspective.  The kids really got their eyes opened as to how the comics reflect the culture.  I think some contextual actions are often missed over here and interpreted, as you say, as lurid.

McCloud:  Its interesting, there are historic reasons for it in Japan.  If Iím not mistaken, since the world war, there were provisions against censorship following the war.  The tradition was a fairly open market.  As always, freedom of expression leads to some people expressing things that many wish they wouldnít.  So you can have the somewhat seedier side of free expression.

Miller: Let me make sure I understand you, since WWII there has been a decrease in the amount of official censorship in Japan?

McCloud:  I mean in those crucial years following WWII, I believe that there were laws in place, following the defeat of the Japanese army, which essentially gave printed matter a fairly free reign.  I shouldnít really go too far in that direction, this is what Iíve been told, but I donít have a lot of expertise in that area.  You might want to look into that.  How much did the legal changes in post-war Japan, due to the defeat of Japan, how much did those affect what the public?  I think there was some connection there.

I donít know that thereís any way around the reactions of local communities to some of the more sensational Japanese content.   Some of it is very strong.  Generally speaking, it just makes me laugh.  Its bizarre, the sexuality in Japanese comics is just funny, deranged. 

I think the more interesting opportunity now is that, in American adult comics, I think weíve worked through some of that adolescent shock of the underground and the content in modern comics (not erotic comics), tends to be of a more understated variety.  There are some very shocking things going on in From Hell, but its in an understated way.  It doesnít seem calculated to shock in a sensationalist sense, but to simply repulse, as any competent literary work would want to when discussing darker subjects.

Jimmy Corrigan, same thing.  Thereís some adult content in Jimmy Corrigan, but its presented in an understated way. Joe Saccoís journalistic comics discuss some terribly shocking realities, but they do so in a very responsible way.  This is the trend.  I think this tends to be the trend.

Miller:  And thatís how we get some really good graphic novels out there. 

McCloud:  Essentially, weíve gotten beyond the underground.  During the underground years, to be progressive was to be shocking.  There was no dividing line.  But that was comics adolescence.

Miller:  The difference between a ďstand-up comicĒ and a thoughtful comedian.

I do have a couple of questions on your website.  I noticed you have a version of the big triangle.  Thereís a note that youíre thinking of making it interactive someday.

McCloud:  I would like to.  Iím afraid that went on my to-do list.  My list is a sad and musty place, and a crowded one.

Miller: Did you do all the website design yourself?

McCloud:  Yes, Iíve done it all by myself.  I encourage anyone who wants to get into this to try doing it themselves.

Miller:  I read through the piece My Obsession with Chess.  Is that really autobiographical, or did you take a lot of license with that.

McCloud: No, its all true, as far as my feeble memory can reassemble those events.  Its all very true.

Miller:  So then, you traveled from Chess, to Comics, to Family, now to Computers.  Youíve been doing the digital media for a few years now.   Is the computer obsession growing, or is there some new fascination on the rise? 

McCloud:  Its growing and changing.  Iím joining that with an obsession with storytelling.  That is, my interest in telling stories effectively has been rekindled.  Whereas in the last few years, I think I was perhaps more obsessed with formal experimentation, trying to change the shape of comics.  I think that enough people are already jumping on that bandwagon and doing some really wonderful stuff with it, that I can relax a little on that front and move on to the next thing.  Thereís no shortage of formal experimentation.  Many, many people online are creating some wonderful new shapes for comics and pushing the envelope in every which way.  So I feel that thatís taking care of itself, now Iím going to move onto what I think we need next.  Which is some very compelling, good storytelling.  Which is not dependent on either medium Ė it could exist in either medium, it could exist on print or online.

Miller: Still pushing the envelope?

McCloud:  I guess.  Iím kind of a peculiar character.  I was obsessed with Japanese comics in the 80s.  As soon as people seems to catch on to why Japanese comics were important, I didnít really feel the need to concentrate on that.  So thatís when I became obsessed with understanding how the medium worked, and that culminated in Understanding Comics.  Once that book was out, I had said what I needed to say on that score.  As everybody started talking about that, in the wake of the book, I figured I could stop talking about that and move onto the next thing, which turned out to be computers and digital comics.  I think weíve just now passed that threshold where I no longer have to convince people that digital comics are something with discussion.  The discussion is now serious, and ongoing, and ubiquitous.  Its everywhere.  So, on to the next thing.

Miller:  One thing Iíve noticed is that libraries, in general, are very conservative in their use of technology.  They tend to wait for technology to become established before investing in new ways to expand their services.  One things thatís going on now is that libraries are getting over that hurdle; more internet resources, some libraries are working e-books and allowing patrons to download copies of books and they rent the machinery, thereís a couple of services that have, instead of books-on-tape, they have mp3 versions of audio books.

McCloud  I have been so waiting for MP3 versions of audio books, because then the bloody things donít have to be abridged!  I refuse to read abridged audio-books.  If itís a digital file, you donít have to worry about how many cassettes youíre slapping into that little molded plastic machine.  Its perfect!  My God, you could have half the Library of Congress on those things.

Miller:  Then youíd just have to arrange time to sit down and listen to it after that.

McCloud: Oh, thatís not a problem with me.  I have a very sedentary job!

Miller:  Along this line, one of the debates in library circles has been the degree to which electronic media is going to take people away from the books.  There are some who think that computers are anathema, that they will be the death of the printed word.  I just wanted to sound you out on this.  Its great to shake off the dust and to move comics from the printed page to electrons and photons, but doesnít the very inflexibility of the printed medium have special challenges?

McCloud:  It does, it does.  In fact, much of the beauty of the art form of comics came from those who were willing to struggle against those limitations.  But its important that when a limitation is not longer required, when you move into a technology in which that limitation no longer exists, you canít take the limitation with you.  Thatís what we see with almost any new technology.

Early television was frequently just radio plays in which someone had just plunked down a camera in front of the people reading their scripts.  You had people like Walter Winchell, who were unable to make the transition because the early attitude towards television was simply that it was going to be radio with pictures.  Early motion pictures, of course, had the same sort of growing pains.  On the web you can find these films from the early 1900s - many of them were simply vaudeville acts in which a camera had been placed in the front row.  It took years for people to even think to pick up the camera and move it.  That was the phenomena that McLuhan talks about, of course, this notion that each successive new medium appropriates the form of the old one as its content.

Miller: Until it evolves.

McCloud:  Until it evolves, right.  So, yes, the limitations of print, struggling against those limitations, that created very beautiful results. 

Now, as online comics come along, the limitations have changed, the parameters of that medium have stretched out to a greater distance.  And now its time to struggle against those limitations.  Print and digital are different, but each has its own beauty. 

One of the interesting side effects of online comics is that those who are making their comics in print are choosing print deliberately.  That is, they no longer accept print as the only way to get it done, as my generation did.  They have to actually consider whether or not they want to do this in the printed comic?  Do we want to do this online?  If we choose print, what are the reasons?  What does print offer?  How can we use the tactile qualities?

Miller:  Thereís also the distribution angle as well.

McCloud: Right.  Essentially now that online comics are out there, print is no longer the quickest, dirtiest way to get from A-to-B.

Miller:  A few last questions.  Now, I wouldnít be worth my citations as a librarian if I didnít ask:  Do you have a library card?

McCloud:  Yes I do.  Iím in the Thousand Oaks Library System, here in Thousand Oaks, California.  I believe I still have a LA County library card, as well.  Although I donít get down to the city as often as Iíd like.

Miller: Do you have a favorite book?

McCloud:  So many, so many.  I have this sneaking suspicion that my favorite book is one that I havenít read yet.

Miller: Whatís at the top of the list these days?

McCloud:  Iím reading a Phillip K Dick book called The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which I just love.  The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker, that was fun.

Iím not ready to pick a favorite book. I think I have another 10, 20 years before Iíll know what my favorite book is. I have a very long to-be-read list.  You see, Iím cursed:  Iím a very slow reader, and Iím a very slow artist, and because Iím a very slow artist, I have so little time left at the end of the day.

Miller:  Thatís where the audio books come in handy.  Do you have a graphic novel that you like?

McCloud:  I loved the Jimmy Corrigan collection, by Chris Ware.   I love the work of Jim Woodring, an absolute genius.  Epileptic, by David B., great, great new book.  Itís a Good Life, If You Donít Weaken, by Seth.  The Golemís Mighty Swing, by James Sturm  came out last year, I think it was 

Miller:  Youíre definitely a comics artist.  I ask you about books, and you canít decide, but I mention graphic novels and you get a dreamy sound in your voice!

McCloud:  Thereís so many wonderful comics out there.  Jar of Fools, by Jason Lutes.

Miller: Have you had a chance to read Tale of One Bad Rat.

McCloud:  Yes, by Brian Talbot, thatís terrific.  Age of Empire, while probably would get you in trouble in many counties in this country for stocking it in a library, is actually quite an amazing piece of work, too.  Its sort of the pinnacle of that British dystopian trend that Alan Moore popularized.

Miller: You canít go too wrong with anything on Alan Moore.

McCloud:  Of course, and From Hell is a terrific book.

Miller: Whatís your favorite comic strip?

McCloud:  Iím not getting the paper currently.  Comic strips tend to make me feel a little depressed these days.  Its gasping for air, right now.  There are some great comic strip artists; Iíll always like Patrick McDonnell, I think heís really terrific.  Watterson was great in his day, but its been a while.  I think there would be some there that I would really love if I were following it regularly.  Iím afraid Iíve slipped back more into the long-form mode.  Newspapers are so big, and thick, and they pile up so fast.  I think Iím more an NPR junkie when it comes to news.

Miller:  Thatís all the questions I had for you today.  I really appreciate your time this morning.

McCloud:  My pleasure, Steve.


© 2002, Steve Miller, Graphic Novels in Libraries.  May be printed for personal use.  For reprint permissions, email gnlib@alltel.net..


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