Artist Scott McCloud speaks at Grace Street Theater

Amelia Heymann
Contributing Writer

Scott McCloud, a popular comic book artist, visited VCU on Monday, April 6 to give a presentation on the language of comics. Photo by Mary Clark

On Monday, April 6, VCU students of all majors lined up outside the Grace Street Theater hours before a special presentation by Scott McCloud in the hopes of getting a good seat.

Scott McCloud is a comic artist who has created everything from graphic novels to books on understanding comic structures. He came to VCU to discuss the language of comic arts in his books “The Sculptor” and “Understanding Comics.”

While McCloud has had an impact on other’s lives, there are many outside influences that have affected his own work as well. From picking up his first manga novel, to leaving DC Comics, the world around him has shaped the comics and books he has created.

Toward the end of college in 1982, McCloud picked up his first volume of Japanese manga, from which he would gain a lot of inspiration. McCloud said he loved them because they were completely different from what he had been looking at, and it was a new take on comics. He got a job at DC Comics right out of college, and found the largest Japanese bookstore in Manhattan three blocks from his work.

While he couldn’t read Japanese, McCloud said he could read comics. He used these books to pick up on different storytelling techniques, some of which he would feature the book he would publish years later, called “Understanding Comics.”

“Over the next couple of years I realized that all of these techniques were essentially one technique,” McCloud said. “And that is the technique of making the reader feel as if they were a participant in the story … so that the whole world surrounding them was to make them feel they were in the story, which was wildly different from what was being done in North America.”

Despite his interest in Japanese comics, McCloud never made it to Japan. He was offered the chance to go to Japan a few times through a program, but said he wanted to wait until his book was in Japan. He was asked every year and said no, because it was not out in Japan yet. By the time it was, though, McCloud said they had stopped the program.

“The program seemed to be more about talking to the editors,” McCloud said. “That would not have been as interesting to me as talking to an artist.”

McCloud worked for a short time at DC Comics in production. He said he did things like make corrections to other people’s comics, and it sort of demystified the process for him. He talks about this in his book “Making Comics” when he discusses how there is no magic tool that will make you a great comic artist.

McCloud said he left DC Comics after his father’s death to pursue making his own comics. He had originally thought he might be okay with working his way up the ladder, but he one day woke up and decided he wasn’t going to wait. He then took a week off from work, where he worked on his original story idea, pitched it to multiple publishers, including DC, who did not offer him the ownership rights independent publishers did, and then went on his own from there.

One of McCloud’s earlier works, “Zot,” came out in the ’80s. It had a slightly more upbeat approach with its story compared to a lot of the dark and gritty themes being explored by the comic industry at the time. Scott said this is because he believes himself to be a contrarian.

“It was the contrarian impulse not to just do stuff dark and gritty because I found that stuff boring,” McCloud said. “I didn’t find ‘Watchmen’ boring. I didn’t find ‘Dark Knight’ boring. Most of it had this angry humorless quality to it and I thought, ‘Well that’s not progress, I don’t think comics have to be angry and humorless.’”

McCloud said that comics can be subversive in other ways. His were a lot more cheerful, and he said this was because he didn’t have a lot of rage toward the world, he just thought the comics were fun.

McCloud said this approach to his comic has caused people to cast him into the movement of people who just wanted comics to be “fun and innocent like they used to be.” He didn’t believe that to be true though, he thought comics could have a very subversive feel to them while being cheery on the exterior.

Later in the series, “Zot” earth became more like the world we live in. McCloud said this is because at that point in his career he began to realize that the world around him was much more interesting than the one he could make up.

“I could go out and find really neat stuff to draw. It was just richer,” McCloud said.

While he does take a lot of inspiration from his own life, McCloud said that there is also invention and characters created out of nothing in his work. Though his protagonists have bits of himself and people he knows in them, McCloud said it’s because it is natural for a writer to draw inspiration for his characters from his life. A character that gets the most attention inevitably draws from the lives of the authors, whether they are making comics or writing fantasy, because they tend to return to their own experiences.

McCloud said he did not face instant success like people believe, one example was his comic “Zot,” which was not an instant success. McCloud said the first run was canceled as a colored comic; then it was brought back in black and white before being canceled again.

“The primary means to success are creating something that no one can ignore and then just waiting,” McCloud said. “The problem is that (it) can take years, even decades of hard work to get your work up to that level.”

McCloud was also the author of the “Creator’s Bill of Rights,” which was a document created in 1988 outlining comic creators’ rights. McCloud said it was a product of the time. There weren’t a lot of rights that comic book artists had, and often if they created a comic and it was produced through a large company, they would lose all of the rights to their work. The “Creator’s Bill of Rights” simply stated the interests of creators, which was not to enter a contract unless they had control over the rights to their work, and the creative direction they took.

“The Bill of Rights didn’t have much impact at the time,” McCloud said. “A few people saw and they just went about their business. It’s only really in subsequent generations that people have looked back on it, and seen it as a filter of debates going on at the time.”

When McCloud started out there was a big difference between working for the major companies and working for independent publishers, mainly in rights to your work. However, he said that today, comics have become much more diversified as a market thanks to the Internet. Rather than two models, there are about 12. There isn’t really a set way to become successful; he said; everyone seems to have their own way.

McCloud said he attributes a lot of this new means of success to the creation of the Internet, and the new version of self-publishing, which is posting your work online. While a lot of comics can be seen on the internet for free, artists are finding ways to make profit through crowd funding, or merchandise sales. He also said that nowadays the competition is much more fierce, and that to be successful you need to be the best at something.

“The key is to excel at something. To have one particular aspect of your work head and shoulders above everybody else,” McCloud said. “Good enough isn’t good enough anymore.”

McCloud said that the innovations of technology have had an influence on his work as well. He said that he is fascinated by the way you can use digital technology to create an image, and that his own work is all digital these days. However, McCloud believes that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg with this new technology, and there is a long way to go before it is fully developed and worked out.

McCloud tends to like to work by himself while creating his own comics, and said that he even has his own font based off of his handwriting. McCloud said that he believes work tends to be more organic when it is created by one person.

“And I’m a control freak,” McCloud said, chuckling afterwards. “But then I can look at (a comic) and be like, ‘I made that,’ rather than, ‘I made part of that.’”

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