As was the case for many, my first encounter with Scott McCloud‘s work came through a book called Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Having spent much of my youth poring over back issues of Justice League of America and Avengers in my basement, my parents bought my the black-covered tome as a gift, presumably to take me deeper into the hobby I so loved. Written in 1993, Understanding Comics takes an academic approach to comics, explaining the component parts of the medium, the historical development of the artform, and how the various elements come together to construct what we now understand as graphic novels and comic books. It has, for many, become a bible for approaching and creating comic books, and cemented McCloud’s status as a cult figure looming over the American comics landscape.
Yet McCloud is much more than his non-fiction work. He first burst onto the scene in 1984 with his sci-fi series Zot!, which took a lighthearted approach a genre that seemed increasingly bleak. In addition, he also penned some issues of Superman Adventures for DC Comics. His newest work, however, may eclipse everything he has done so far. The Sculptor is, as our reviewer Benjamin Bailey put it, “a haunting, visionary work”. The 500-plus-page graphic novel tells the story of David, a struggling young sculptor living in New York whose art career has all but stalled out. Broke, bummed out, and beaten down, David is ready to give up when he strikes a bargain with a mysterious stranger: he will gain the ability to create whatever he wants, but he will only have 200 days to live. Would you take it? It’s certainly a chilling, but compelling question.
Delving into themes of loneliness, compulsion, creativity, alienation, and acceptance, The Sculptor is a powerhouse work of fiction, and one that demands to be read. Though it was just released yesterday through First Second Books, it is already a shoe-in for “Best of 2015” lists. To celebrate its release, I spoke with McCloud via telephone about his creative process, how technology has impacted the ways in which comics can be made, and much more.
N: I have to say, I really, really enjoyed The Sculptor. Job well done – it was a fantastic read. I’m very excited for other people to get their hands on it.
SM: Thank you. Did they give you the advance galley, or did you have one of the print galleys?
N: I think I had an un-proofed advanced reader’s copy.
SM: Just so you know, the color is going to be a lot richer. You know how that blue was sort of light?
SM: It’s actually going to be like two tones darker than that.
N: Oh, interesting! Actually, I kind of enjoyed the lightness of it. It lent sort of an ethereal quality to it that I thought played well, especially with sort of some of the scenes where you’re seeing Death, and everyone else fades into the background and he hones in on Meg.
SM: Yeah, I’m a little worried about people getting used to the reader’s copies, and then getting the real thing and going “I can’t believe it’s darker.” But I think you’ll find that it settles and has a richer feel to it without losing some of the more ethereal qualities.
N: Oh, I’m sure it will not damage the overall experience! [laughs] So let’s talk a little bit more about The Sculptor. What about the medium of sculpture, in particular, grabbed you? Of all the starving artist tropes, what about the idea of this 25 year old sculptor on the ropes hooked you?
SM: Well, first of all, it’s very physical. And it exists fully in space – it’s 3-D, and one of the things about comics is you want to bring out form as much as you can. It just seems to work really well on the comics page. Something that I like, I don’t know why – reading about a painter, I guess you can do that, but somehow it’s really nice to have it taking place in space, and this is a power that I think lends itself to pretty dramatic gestures.
Also it’s where it started, because it started with that idea, that power that was kind of like a super power, that occurred to me when I was really very young. So that initial idea for the thing came decades ago, when I still had one foot in the super heroes, but then when I actually sat down to draw it, I was a lot older and the story took on a more – I don’t know, kind of a more weathered, more reflective air.
N: I agree with you – it is a very physical medium and it adds a tactile quality to a very visual medium, because it’s being told through comics. I think that it adds another element of depth to the narrative that was very nice to see.
SM: We only have our sense to work with. I have to go through the reader’s eyes, and somehow they’ve got to imagine all five senses being activated, so that’s a nice challenge, too. That sense of touch, that’s something we don’t always take advantage of in comics.
N: Especially those sequences where he’s sort of smashing the solid rock of granite then you see it erupt like a rush of liquid – that was such a visceral but exciting moment.
SM: You know what’s the secret of that moment is actually the panel right before it, where you have a moment where his hand is just on the granite, and he has to say that it’s granite, because no matter how good I am at drawing, there’s no way I’m going to be draw something where you say, “Oh, that must be granite instead of sandstone.” You have no idea what it is, it’s just lines on the paper. But if you take a moment and you think about it and you think about a hand on granite, that’s when you remember what it feels like. That’s when you remember how hard it is. And that’s why it matters when he’s able to just go ‘poosh,’ and make the whole thing explode like that.
N: It’s those subtle details that I think made this such a fun book to read. And it’s funny you mention that, because in college I was in a mime troupe, and part of the thing that you had to do, you always had to make sure to take time to establish the object. Like you said, it’s just lines on paper. You’re creating something in a space and you need to establish for the reader what it is. Otherwise, it’ll be like, “Oh, you just blew up a cube.”
SM: Yes, and this is the challenge of comics. It’s not just about what these things and what these people are doing. It’s also about first conjuring that thing on the page, first bringing that character to life, and sometimes that takes a little while, before anything really is happening in the story.
That’s why I think it’s kind of a shame that we only have 23 pages in a lot of popular comics. The magazine has that problem where there’s not a lot you kind of have to establish the characters sort of on the fly, something for which we had about twice as many pages.
N: It’s nice because it feels like you can really take your time and unfurl the story at a pace that is not going to hamper you. You’re not sacrificing details for page limit.
SM: I had my first scene – it’s just two guys in a diner, right? That scene is what, 30 pages? [laughing] That’s like two issues of Iron Man, almost.
N: So you mentioned that this original sort of super power idea came to you when you were a child. Between now and then, have you ever tried your hand at sculpting?
SM: Only very briefly when I was a kid. I actually had trouble with 3-D, come to think of it. Isn’t that interesting? This is my way of sort of getting around it from another angle, but yeah. There were other students in school who were really good at making stuff and cutting up cardboard and doing 3-D. I just wanted to draw. I was scared. I was scared of knives and cardboard and clay and Styrofoam. I didn’t want anything to do with that stuff. I wanted to make it all in my head and then just draw it, just make it happen.
N: It seems difficult enough realizing it on a piece of paper, let alone having to mold enough clay, fire it, glaze it – all those steps, and then it’s breakable!
SM: Yeah, yeah. It was just – I’ve always felt a little inferior. I don’t know – now that you’re asking me, I’m starting to wonder. I wonder if that’s part of it? Maybe this is something that I couldn’t master when I was a kid. I couldn’t put my hands around this stuff, so now I’m sort of coming back around and trying to hook into it another way.
N: The artwork, in particular, was excellent. At times it felt manga-influenced, other times it had this surreal quality, especially when seeing the realized sculptures, and all the different art installations. What sort of planning and research do you have to do to realize those sequences, or is it just sort of like this is what I imagined it would look like?
SM: A lot of the stuff for the sculptures came out of my imagination, but I still had to do a lot of research, just on things like living in New York. I mean, I’m stuck out here in California. So that was a lot of air fare, trying to find any excuse at all to come back to Manhattan for a meeting or for a lecture or something. Every time I did, I’d give myself a couple of extra days, and I would take tens of thousands of photos of the city. I would talk to people who lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where most of the story takes place. I talked to a couple of people in the art world there.
I just had to look into all these things to make sure that – thank god for Google Street View! Oh my god! What did we ever do before Street View? I have a guy trying to walk from Williamsburg back to Chelsea, and I can go along the route, I can plan a route and see what it looks like all along the way. Amazing.
N: It’s amazing the way in which technology has sort of expanded the stories we can tell, or at least the accuracy of those stories.
SM: You know, technology changed it in every conceivable way, because of course I did the whole thing in Photoshop – everything was done in Photoshop, even the layouts. And I drew the whole thing on a Cintiq. So even though it’s a hand-drawn comic, the thing is just all digital, top to bottom.
N: Do you find that you prefer doing it that way now, as opposed to the old-fashioned way?
SM: I love it! I love it! There are artists out there like Jillian Tamaki or Craig Thompson. Those guys are always going to be drawing rings around me. There’s no way I can ever compete with natural ability. But what I do have is I have a pretty good eye. So I can draw a crappy figure and look at it and say, “Oh, that’s crappy,” and I can figure out how it’s crappy, like the neck is too long. Now in digital, I can grab that and move it down. If the head is a little too small, I can change the size of that. I can just keep changing things until it looks less crappy. I couldn’t do that in pen and ink. Once it’s on paper, you’re stuck. If you want that figure 3 millimeters to the left, you’re just out of luck.
N: Yeah, in that regard, I have to imagine that it’s made life easier for a lot of artists. It’s nice to be able to make those adjustments and not have wasted hours and hours creating it.
SM: Oh, it’s fantastic. I love my tools. These are the tools I want. When Kurt Busiek and I were in a bus in the late ’70s, going back to Syracuse University, I swear to god I described what I use today. I said, “This is what I’m going to draw on some day,” because my dad was an engineer, and I knew all about Moore’s Law and stuff, and I described this machine where you could draw right on the screen, and you’d be able to move lines around and change things, add all these layers and all these things. I thought it was going to be like this big fat thing, the size of a steamer trunk, you know? I didn’t know that it was going to be so small, so light. But I said, “This is what I want to draw comics on some day, and I’ll just wait until they have it,” and that’s exactly what happened.
N: That’s awesome. I’m glad your prophecy came true.
SM: I’m very glad, because my artwork kind of sucked before. [laughing]
N: [laughing] Well, it’s all subjective. I’m sure you’re probably your own harshest critic.
SM: I guess everybody is, but I have back-up on that one. I have people who’ll back me up. Even people who were my fans were like, “Yeah, Scott – he may not be the best writer, he may not be the best artist, but he’s a good writer-artist.” That’s usually the way they would say it.
N: [laughs] The all-important hyphen!
SM: Yeah, exactly. I’ve got the hyphen – I’ve mastered the hyphen.
N: So one thing that really grabbed me about David is that he’s such a single-minded guy when it comes to pursuing his dream that he often misses the forest for the trees.
SM: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
N: Is that something sort of unique to this character, or is that more of a statement on how in our youth we sort of forget that we still have a whole life time ahead of us to live?
SM: Well, David is partially a construction of what it is to be young. But there are also things that are just uniquely David. The guy’s got problems! I think in a lot of ways, even though he’s not a religious person, he kind of has this personal religion. This idea that the whole universe will break if he strays off of this path that he chose for himself. And this is something that he has to get over. This is something that this love of his life, who comes in at the eleventh hour, helps him to overcome.
N: It’s very interesting, all his rules for living, like he can’t accept any hand-outs, you have to pay your own way, you have to keep all these insane – some of the prophecies, like when he mentions never watching a Swedish movie.
SM: Or Animal Planet.
SM: We’ll never know why he had to stop watching Animal Planet, but that’s one of his solemn vows that he made to himself.
N: They know what they did! They probably took someone out of the Puppy Bowl.
SM: [laughing] Couldn’t watch the meerkats any longer.
N: Exactly! I like that, because also I know people like that. People have their own weird rules for themselves that they just insist on. I will never go back to a particular Chinese restaurant, because I got sick after eating there one time. I was fine the other 90 times I ate there.
SM: You know, in a way this is the story in a whole, in the fact that David – we laugh at him for it, and he clearly needs to get over himself and stop being so stubborn about these things. But at the same time, the lengths to which he’ll go – his stubbornness is also admirable. In the end, even at the very end of the story, I think there’s a sense that he’s a fool, for not letting go, but at the same time we kind of admire him for not letting go.
N: If nothing else, you have to appreciate his dedication because, at the end of the day, he’s trying to improve himself, albeit sometimes at the expense of other people. He never actively intends harm, and he’s always trying to do something good, something important, and that’s an admirable quality.
SM: It’s a kind of nobility, it’s a kind of morality that he is absolutely loyal to, to the end.
N: The book overall poses a lot of these sort of existential questions about what lengths people are willing to go for greatness, what is important to leave behind, what being remembered really means. So what would you like readers to take away from the experience of reading The Sculptor?
SM: Well, you know, in a way I’m hoping that they can feel two things at once. I’m hoping to get two different parts of their brain buzzing by the time they’re done, because I’m celebrating something even as I’m saying you have to let it go. I’m saying everybody gets forgotten. You need to accept that. Even as I’m saying that I love artists who won’t accept that, who keep fighting. I think that’s just magnificent, and I think it’s beautiful. Futility can be beautiful, and the futility involved in what he wants is, I think, something that makes him sort of a hero to me, personally. I just really love that.
Also, one thing that’s good to remember about the story is that in a way, it’s not so much about an artist who wants to be remembered. It’s about an artist who is terrified of being forgotten. There’s something slightly different there, because what’s really happening is that his whole body needs it, his whole body is just afraid of sliding into the abyss, and that’s something that I think comes from a much deeper place. It’s not about putting on airs and wanting to, like, put on a tuxedo and go and accept an award. It’s not about galleries and audiences. It’s just about the terror of fading to nothing, and knowing that most all of us do. That’s what drives him forward.
N: It’s a very compelling dichotomy. This Sisyphean struggle that he’s has to come to terms with, and I think it plays out quite beautifully in the book.
SM: Thank you.
N: Did the experience of writing this make you reevaluate anything in your own life?
SM: Yes, I think I accept a lot of things more now. I had to work through things on my own. I’ve been really lucky. Unlike David, I’ve had at least some attention on my work the whole time. I never had that experience of kind of fighting to be seen at all. People were usually looking. But I know that most artists – most people that go to art school because they’re going to be great comic book artists someday, most of them will never achieve their dream. They might have a few people looking at their stuff, but by the time it’s all over, they will be largely forgotten. Many of them will be forgotten in their lifetime. And I feel a kinship with them, because I think that’s kind of the human condition, right?
You can believe that you’re escaping it, you can believe just because maybe you got 10,000 hits yesterday on your site or just because people are buying your merchandise. You can believe that you’re going to last. But you know deep down that you probably aren’t. This is who we are. We get forgotten. And I think we should take some comfort in the fact that all of us are together in this. We’re all sliding down that ramp together, and maybe we should concentrate a little more on what’s here and now.
N: Oblivion is coming for all of us eventually, so we may as well enjoy the time that we have.
SM: Yeah, exactly. Enjoy the ride.
N: Well, on a slightly more hopeful note, what are some comics that you’re reading and enjoying right now in your own life?
SM: Well, I’m on record on now – some of the comics that I really enjoyed last year, because I just edited Best American Comics, and I got to pick a wide range of stuff. The only thing that was a little sad was that I picked an issue of Hawkeye, the one with the dog, but because of rights issues, we couldn’t include it. But I really like the idea of a collection that would have everything from Hawkeye to Michael DeForge, you know? That’s American comics – that’s the range of stuff that’s out there. Everything from Raina Telgemeier, to DeForge, to Saga – there’s just so much stuff, there’s so much range, and I love that!
But I’m always falling behind. There’s so much I haven’t read, and it’s driving me nuts. The book took me a long time. It was five years to create the graphic novel, about 500 pages, and I was working at least eleven hours a day that whole time, seven days a week. So my ‘to be read’ stack just built – just grew and grew and grew and grew till it could reach the moon. And that’s a shame, because I don’t just love drawing comics – I love reading comics. So it was nice to do Best American Comics, because it forced me to read a lot of comics, and I really enjoyed them.
But I have a long way to go, a lot more stuff. I will tell you that my favorite book in 2014 was This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki.
N: Yes! That book is excellent.
SM: Just an amazing book.
N: I completely empathize with that problem of having too many comics to read. It’s a good problem, but at the same time, I just wish I had more hours in the day.
SM: If our past selves from 15 years ago could come and visit, they would just punch us in the face for complaining that we have too many good comics.
SM: “You ingrate! You’re living in paradise – what’s wrong with you?”
The Sculptor is in stores now. You can read Benjamin Bailey’s review here.