Scott McCloud at MIT
Post #872 • September 19, 2006, 8:24 AM • 7 Comments
Scott McCloud is touring the US in support of his new effort, Making Comics, and in the process is providing a yearlong, fifty-state family trip for his wife and two daughters. At MIT last Thursday, he noted that the standard work on this topic is How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which I owned as a teenager. If you aspired to draw Thor it was a decent enough reference. But McCloud rightly pointed out that frustrated parents have been taking Marvel Way to bookstore info counters nationwide, for years, and asking, this describes how to draw comics - where's a book about how to actually make comics? And besides a few helpful but somewhat hard to find references by comics legend Will Eisner, there wasn't one - until now.
Well, I'm exaggerating in the mighty Marvel manner. Christopher Hart produces a comics drawing series, with similarly overblown titles like Drawing Cutting Edge Anatomy: The Ultimate Reference for Comic Book Artists. DC produced a how-to series in 2003, with a book each on writing, inking, and so on. The manga guys have been making similar references for longer than that. (I can't stand the manga aesthetic - particularly, the fetishistic admiration for overendowed, noseless schoolgirls leaves me cold - but the manga books have a ton of useful information, some of which I've put to good use in figure drawing classes.) Again, if you want to draw Spider Man (or Sailor Moon), they're adequate. If you aspire to art, you'll want Making Comics. While divulging all the how-to that you could possibly need, it draws on the insights of McCloud's previous two works: the indespensible Understanding Comics, which for many years has served as the primary serious analysis of the form's fundamentals, and Reinventing Comics, now an awkward middle child about the future of the medium. (As he put it in his talk, Reinventing Comics is about the future of comics, and six years after its publication, it's still about the future.) It may need mentioning that despite their citation-quality scholarship and prodigious length (200+ pages), all three of them are actual comic books - comics about comics.
McCloud describes himself as a formalist. The particular mechanisms of comics - images, text, word balloons, panels - fascinate him. He is concerned with the elements of comics that don't exist in other media, and like other skilled formalists in the fine-art realm, he separates the elements and observes their behavior with enormous acuity. His expertise makes it possible for him to describe how to make comics, in comics format, using the devices he's describing. His delivery has all the meta-ness that the average high-criticism stylist strives for, without the pretentious aftertaste. You hardly know it's happening, in fact.
McCloud gave a whirlwind tour of Making Comics to an audience of 200 at MIT. In the process, he revealed a fiercely taxonomic mind. His triangular map of the comics world in Understanding Comics, with its nodes of meaning, reality, and the picture plane, set a new standard for analysis of the form. (It's also applicable to other visual pursuits, including painting.) In the talk, in the space of a eight seconds, he sped through a chart that classified creators into classicists, animists, formalists, and iconoclasts, then drew a line through the middle that put the classicists and animists on the side of tradition and the formalists and iconoclasts on the side of revolution, and finally drew a perpendicular midline that separated the classicists and formalists on the side of art and animists and iconoclasts on the side of life. It sounds like garbage in text but it makes enormous sense when described graphically. (This is one of his larger points: possibilities exist at the intersections of words and images that don't exist in either alone.) An aficionado of Jung, he has a knack for encoding images as icons. This relates directly to his comics work, but it also allows him to surf elegantly on waves of words and images as he explains his ideas. The talk gave the sense that McCloud can actually think in comics, in the way that one might count in English.
I have long recommended Understanding Comics to anyone who handles images professionally. I now recommend Making Comics with equal ardor to anyone interested in the form. (But be warned - if you ever wanted to make comics, this will make you want to again. It's all I can do to put off my own project until after my show.) And if you can see him speak, so much the better. McCloud is one of the most interesting visual theorists alive. In some ways, the medium hasn't caught up with him yet. Following trends that McCloud identified as important before anyone else, comics promise to pull up alongside painting, film, and photography as one of the crucial two-dimensional visual repositories of human experience.