A Comics-Format Interview with Scott McCloud by Scot Hanson

19 Nov 2008

What are some of the questions that you think should be asked about nonfiction comics?

Well, some of the most interesting questions are, "What haven't we done that we should?" and "How do we go about it?"

And the answer to the first question is, "Nearly everything." <laughs> I would say the vast majority of subjects that could benefit from a comics approach probably have not yet been approached. I have an impressive list of my own—I would enjoy taking a stab at a nonfiction comic about nutrition, for example, or nuclear proliferation or global warming or evolution or...the economy. <laughs> I think all of these would be fascinating challenges.

And as for how to go about it, I think that it's important with nonfiction comics to respect the material and respect the form. Often earlier attempts to do this, I think, have usually fallen down on one of those two points.

Either you have an organization which is leery of comics and is insecure enough to allow the project to use too many of comics' tools for fear of looking juvenile. So you have big blocks of sober text sitting next to pedestrian illustrations in order to maintain a false sense of dignity.

Or you have something initiated perhaps more at a—let's say a comics company level where there's a belief that the information being conveyed is some bitter pill that needs to be sweetened with a conventional narrative of some sort. The example that always comes to mind is some Teen Titans say-no-to-drugs sort of approach <laughs> where a message is slipped in surreptitiously.

But I believe very strongly that virtually any topic can be made interesting if the author has an understanding of that topic, an enthusiasm for that topic, and a willingness to employ all the tools at our disposal as cartoonists to making the intricacies of that topic visible. So that's what I've tried to do, and I certainly encourage others to do likewise.

In Making Comics you analyzed the basic process of creating sequential art into five fundamental choices. Are those the same for non-fiction? Is the mind frame the same?

Those were the choices that I identified for comics generally. So of course they do apply to both narrative fiction comics, narrative nonfiction comics, and non-narrative nonfiction comics. That is, an example of a narrative nonfiction comic being something like Joe Sacco's journalistic work, which really essentially tells you a story.

But in all cases we make these five choices: we choose our moment; we choose how to frame those moments; we choose how to render the images within those frames; we choose how to combine words and pictures, or whether to use words at all; and we choose how the eye is going to be guided, both within panels and between them. That never changes.

So in my endlessly reductive, formalist-wonky sensibility, this is what I was looking for. I was looking for something that was value-neutral, context-neutral, era-neutral, style-neutral: something that was just going to always be true.

Then within that framework, one can begin to look at the variables that change from day to day and place to place.

How would you describe the relationship between the work of information designers like Edward Tufte and comics?

Edward Tufte, I think rightfully, rails against extraneous visual information and the endless attempts to "jazz up" and sweeten information with irrelevant chartjunk, as he correctly labels it.

I think that there's a certain, built-in visual irrelevancy to the comics approach. About as close to pure information in comics form that you can get would be something like an airline safety card. And compared to one of Tufte's erudite, perfectly reduced charts, those airline safety cards contain quite a lot of just illustrative information—you know, there's really nothing about the collar on the shirt of the person putting on the oxygen mask that contributes to the essential message. <laughs> It's just the business of illustration that requires us to bring along all this visual baggage.

And there's also this unholy co-mingling of artistic expression and just the joy of making pictures that's bound to take it into a sort of benign chartjunk territory. <laughs> I think that's just our lot in life. We rarely get to the absolute zero of pure information in comics. Whereas if you're designing a train schedule, you actually can. You can get right down to absolute zero. But I think that the tide of reason can never completely wash away the encrusted barnacles of our illustrative artifacts.

I think that it's important to use work like Tufte'sas a reference because it gives us a sense of the direction that tide is going. And we can be forever washing away the stuff that really does serve no purpose, aesthetically or informationally. There's plenty of stuff that serves no purpose. And I see it all the time. I see it in comics, these thick, overly layered visual artifacts of style, inking styles, and compositional tropes that really contribute nothing whatsoever...except to clutter the page.

What would you say the line is, if there is one, between traditional visuals (like bar graphs and pie charts) and comics?

Of course, purpose is the first sorting factor there. We begin with different purposes in mind. Even for nonfiction comics, there's a certain amount of P. T. Barnum in our blood. We really are getting on our soapbox and there's a style to our presentation.

Perhaps there's sort of a push-and-pull divide in the sense that people won't be attracted to the perfectly rendered train schedule unless they want to take a train; whereas, as storytellers we believe that we can pull in people and make them interested simply by virtue of the sound and volume of our visual voices.

We believe that we can appeal to them as human beings, that all human beings could potentially be our audience; whereas the train schedule designers know that their audience is pre-selected—they really just want to know when the trains are leaving. <laughs> But everyone wants to be told a story. And so our presentation is part pitch and part delivery; the train schedule is all delivery...ideally.

How does your process for creating a single diagram differ or mirror your process for creating an entire piece?

An entire piece of nonfiction or fiction?


I would say that it's a very fuzzy, problematic, slow, and murky process to structure the whole. I spend a fair amount of time staring at a blank screen basically. When it comes time to create a single diagram, usually the ideas come pretty quickly. Because if I've done a good job of understanding what it is I want to say, then, because my mind tends to work in a spatial way, finding the right shapes and images to represent it is not that difficult.

On the Google comic, for example, the hardest part was sort of chunking it out, understanding what was being said, and understanding the order in which to say it, and how to break down these quite lengthy transcripts that we had of the engineer interviews. When it came time to actually visualize it, if I understood it, if I understood what they were saying, it was a pretty quick process to coming up with individual diagrams to show it. That's kind of the fun and easy part.

It's when you have twenty-nine thousand little, tiny seashells sitting on the desk and figuring out how on earth you're ever going to put them in order. That's the hard part.

Chris Ware has described his approach to creating images that are as easy to read as words. Do you see any kinds of constraints or limitations to that approach?

I think it's very much this era's mission. By "this era" I mean sort of the last twenty years or so. I count myself in this movement, although I don't think that Chris Ware would consider us all that similar; we're not. We're very dissimilar artists. For one thing, he's a lot more talented; his work has been more impressive to me personally. But we very much admire the communicative power of images and the notion of comics as a language. And the idea that we're really not trying to show off our drawing ability so much as we're trying to convey interesting and stimulating ideas through drawing.

It's the interrelationship of these moments that I find the most exciting and unique to this medium. I guess because I'm a formalist, I like the things that are unique to comics; I find them especially gratifying. And using those simple forms [we accept the] notion of a picture as just sort of a small language-like component like words that can be strung together in sentences. I think that we stress that interrelationship and we perhaps focus less on just bravura, virtuoso drawing, which had gotten a lot of attention just previously. Twenty years ago we were beginning to move from a very strong emphasis on who could draw the best cheekbones <laughs> to who could create the most magic between the panels. I found the later more interesting, and in many ways I still do.

Some of the most sophisticated texts seem to arise when the text and the image seem to be just marginally connected. Does that sound accurate to you? And how would you explain that trait?

Yeah, again one of the essential characteristics of comics is reader participation. You see words and pictures as these two components between which there's a certain amount of alchemy...

Or actually, let's pick a different metaphor: there's a certain magnetic pull between them, a magnetic pull of our predisposition to infer relationships, even when there are none. You know, frankly, clip out a bunch of random magazine pictures and a bunch of random magazine titles and start putting them together—people will always start finding some relationship between them, even when there is none.

So if we look at them that way, then there's something to be said for pulling those magnets apart where the field still is there. You can pull them apart so far that the attraction ceases, that the magic, the pull between them, ceases. But finding that... perfect distance, I think, is one of the interesting challenges of comics.

When words and pictures are only marginally connected, when there's an interdependence between them, when we have to take a moment to infer the relationship or to note the contradiction between them or to find ironic interplay between the two, that's very exciting. It's similar to when the distance between images—between the panels and the gutter—when those moments are pulled far apart, when the relationship between one panel and the next is perhaps not as clearly delineated and we need to do a little extra work as readers, I think that there's a similar sense of constructive engagement on the part of the reader, and the relationship between the reader and the artist, I think, is a little bit richer.

One can't do it too self-consciously, but perhaps the further apart you pull, before that magnetic force disappears entirely, you may be moving momentarily into that outer orbit, that sort of comics Oort Cloud of something that might be more comparable to poetry. Certainly I think it's those non-linear relationships, those pulled-apart, distant relationships of words to pictures or of one image to another that constitutes something closer to poetry in comics.

Comics seem more difficult to prepare than alphabetic prose, but comics seem easier to read than prose. What would you say about that apparent inequality?

Somebody made that statement a couple of years ago, a friend of mine, and he got into a lot of hot water—saying that prose was easier to write. It did not go over well with writers.

Well, Ware has talked about the work-to-benefit ratio of comics. <laughs> That comics is a cruel task master that expects us to put a tremendous amount of work into every moment and yet those moments fly by for the reader.

I don't know that I have anything terribly interesting to say about it. I do feel instinctively that to convey an equivalent passage of time in a narrative space in comics does take longer, and more meticulous labor than in prose, but of course, that's not to say that you can't pour a tremendous amount of effort into even a fairly short passage. Just on average, I think we're probably about at a 2:1 ratio to get the same story told. It is more work to do it in comics—no question about it. But every line I draw I manage to assert a little bit more control over my universe, so it's very good for ego-mania. <laughs>

I think that prose writers are a little bit more at the mercy of their readers than we are. Readers do contribute a great deal to the comics reading process, but if there's something I want to absolutely nail to the floor, I can. And that's very gratifying for those who, like me, have that particular personality defect.

There seems to be some qualitative differences between composing in a single panel, a strip, a single page spread, and a two-page spread. Would you agree with that? And how would you describe the differences there?

I don't know.... I mean, the answer is "Yes, there are differences." I don't know that I could make them particularly interesting.

Just mulling it over here...Certainly what we're looking at generally is just the principle of containment. And matters of scale and separation. I will say this about that particular principle, and that is that when new formats are introduced which change that equation, as the graphic novel changed it for American comics (when we went from the short, twenty-page installments and their need for brevity to graphic novels), one's face does not automatically change.

There are qualitative differences when creating a graphic novel. It's just not a series of daisy-chained, twenty-page installments. You can do things that you couldn't do before. You can have a single, small event broken down into a thirty-page sequence. It's not a problem. You may try the patience of your readers, but if you're good at it you may really earn that thirty pages. People may really be grateful that you spent thirty pages showing a man with kidney stones just trying to go to the bathroom or whatever.

So, there's that lag time. And I think that we're coming to the end of a lag period where the graphic novel pace has finally settled into the psyche of American...or North American comics artists. I think people like Ware or Seth or Craig Thompson—and these are all very different artists from one another, of course—but I think they've all found a certain harmony with their format. They've learned how to use that scale.

And it should be said that this same thing happened back in the mid- to late-thirties, when comic strips were being collected into these magazines that came to be called comic books. It took people like Will Eisner to say, "You have a whole page here! You can do things with that. It doesn't just have to be a row of little boxes." Once again we've faced the same thing with the Web, where the notion of the page itself might be called into question, but people still feel that it's somehow an "essential" unit of comics, when it's not necessarily.

I find that one of comics' strengths seems to be metadiscourse—a visual style that can simultaneously communicate many things beyond just identifying a character or an action. What would you say about the role of metadiscourse in comics?

I've never used that term to describe it, but I would think it operates probably on several levels.

On the one level, you have the synaesthetic opportunities of different styles to communicate emotion and sensations, just through line quality, through amplitude and the timbre of lines, just as the amplitude and timbre of sounds can communicate emotion. Most of the things that we can do in music, we can do in lines.

But then there's also reference. I mean, a given style of inking or rendering or color choices might evoke a particular era, either of comics or of art in general, and this can affect the reading as well. You can have these moments when suddenly you enter something that feels more like it belongs in an E. C. horror comic. This could be used for humorous effect or to make a comment on an overlap between, let's say, some real world horror and some fanciful horror of decades past, or some link to one's childhood.

I think that this probably happens unconsciously far more often than it happens consciously because people are constantly embedding their artistic roots without realizing it, <laughs> and betraying the decaying newsprint smell of their own childhood. Certainly there's that potential for using it for deliberate ironic or referential effect.

Do you think that we'll ever reach a mix of alphabetic prose and content-valuable images that could be described as a "21st century hieroglyphic"?

<laughs> I'm not sure I can completely unpack the question. It sounds interesting.

Unfortunately, we'd have to get into the definition of hieroglyphics. This is a bit tricky. I think I know what you're saying; really what you're asking relates to this notion of "visual language" that's been kicked around. Usually that's paired with the notion of the "universal" visual language. I'm not sure. I'm not sure how it's going to go.

I think we may be leap-frogged by technology there because one of the imperatives that a universal visual language would address would be the lack of easy passage from one language to another, and I think that we're probably coming to the end of that era. I think we're probably going to have real-time speech-to-speech universal translators in the next twenty or thirty years. They won't be perfect, but they'll be a helluva lot better than what we have now. <laughs> Things like video conferencing and gestures and all will probably help to burnish the edges of their imperfections, as will the ever-evolving database of actual real-time communications by recording errors and things like that. I think that's probably going to ease the need for that. So the notion of an international commission for that sort of thing might start to fade from view.

We are seeing the natural evolution of certain universal symbols, and that in some ways becomes something like a 21st-century hieroglyphic.

What developments in technology do you think would really help in promoting composing with more than text (i.e., composing with images)? If you could design a software tool that would make this wonderful and easy, what would it be?

I think it's virtually inevitable that we would have at our hands a midi-orchestra of players and clothing and props and backgrounds and objects. First as 3D-models, but soon enough as rendered in any style.

The results will be dry for the time being for a while. They'll be dry, a little sterile, and people will be able to tell. At a certain point though it could be that the illustrator's primacy in that regard might start to fade from view and virtually anybody might be able to set up those visual scenarios, just using pre-selected components and what not.

That doesn't scare me too much. The role of the artist is always evolving, but I know that some of my peers, they find it a bit creepy. And I can't say I blame them.

Would that be something like Comic Life?

Yeah, Comic Life is a very simple version, but obviously there are far more complex and nuanced equivalents coming down the road. But you know, even with that, you can get a lot done in that program. If you don't have any artistic skill, but you want to tell stories visually, you may need to grab some friends, find some sets, borrow some props, but you could do a graphic novel if you really wanted to, just with that.

I'd like to propose a sophomore-level English course that includes creating comics. What kind of support or rationale would you make for a proposal like that?

The recipient of your reasoning really has to be convinced that, though we love language, we're primarily in the business of conveying meaning. One can best understand the nature of language, and the means by which we convey meaning through words, by being able to understand [words] in the context of other forms of communication.

That which is ubiquitous becomes invisible. If words are our only tool for communication, we begin to lose sight of the nature of words. To bring into the mix the creation of meaning through other means not only gives those other means their due, but I think helps to illuminate the beauty and power of that original form of communication.

Also, it's just a lot of fun.