Scott McCloud: Comic Substance

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, March 20, 1994

IF YOU STILL think comics are kid stuff, Scott McCloud has news for you.

His new book, "Understanding Comics," is an exploration of the medium of comics, which he defines as pictures meant to be "read" sequentially, with or without words. This is very different from the content of comics, which is usually (at least in this country) either funny animals or shallow characters in silly costumes.

Most of us are so used to thinking of "comic books" in terms of the content we usually see in them that we speak of movies with simplistic characters and melodramatic plots - like "Star Wars," for instance - as "comic book movies." And when something obviously worthwhile and literary comes along in comics form, like Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus," an authority like The New York Times declares that it isn't comics.

McCloud is coming to St. Louis Wednesday to give a slide presentation and lecture at Washington University's Lambert Lounge at 8 p.m. The presentation will include much of the material from his book, with some additional theories and a question session.

McCloud is familiar with the contempt most people have for comics. He once held it himself.

"When I was a little kid I knew exactly what comics were," he writes in the first chapter of his book. "Comics were those bright, colorful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights." But a friend introduced McCloud to comics that aspired to better things, and he realized the medium had tremendous potential.

"I decided I was going to do comics in 10th grade," said McCloud in a recent interview, "and became pretty serious about it pretty quickly. So much so that some of my friends though I was a killjoy, just sitting in my room drawing all day. I had a mission, and I wanted to pursue it."

Unlike many aspiring comic book artists, he didn't go to an art school per se.

"I went to Syracuse University and majored in illustration. I decided not to choose a school which is just about art, because making comics is about more than just the art, so I wanted to have a good background in writing and art and also just liberal arts in general, because I thought that just about anything can be brought to bear in making comics. Anything from architecture to costume design to acting to drama and writing and story structure and illustration. All those things are relevant."

Many comic book artists tell horror stories of college professors refusing to see comics as legitimate. McCloud had the opposite problem.

"My teachers respected comics and even urged me to make use of my comics-derived art styles, even though while I was in college I was trying very hard to move away from that as much as possible, so as to have a very broad education in art and not just pigeonhole myself forever as working in one particular style. So it was a bit ironic."

McCloud can indeed work in several different styles, and he includes bits and pieces of them in his book, but for "Understanding Comics" he primarily used a very "cartoony" style, particularly in the caricature of himself that narrates the book. Simplistic, cartoony styles have long been regarded, even in the comics world, as "childish," but McCloud argues forcefully that this is not so.

"I believe that cartoons have been under-used in comics, in the sense that we could use simpler drawing styles more effectively than we do, that they're capable of a lot more than they've been used for in the past."

In his book, McCloud argues that the simplified features of cartoon characters are easier for readers to identify with than more representational drawings. Realistic drawings portray an objective view of reality, he claims, while cartoons draw the viewer into the character's subjective view. He calls the combination of cartoony figures on realistic backgrounds - common in comics from Japan and Europe - the "masking" effect.

"It's really most conspicuous in Disney films," he said, when asked to elaborate. "Every major Disney feature sported fairly realistic backgrounds, if you look at them, and fairly simple major characters. Because really they're two different sorts of reality. We're supposed to experience, in a sensory way, those environments. But we're supposed to identify with the characters."

If the Disney example still seems to relegate cartoony art with things fit only for children, compare the maturity of superhero comics, which are being drawn with increasingly realistic renderings, with the simple drawings in Art Spiegelman's "Maus."

"There certainly are people working in fairly realistic, or quasi-realistic styles who are doing very mature work," said McCloud, "things like the graphic novels of Dave McKean, or the work Dave McKean did with Neil Gaiman. So the jury's still out on that one. But `Maus' certainly made an enduring and powerful statement on the power of very simple drawings to convey very complex and challenging subject matter."