An interview with Scott McCloud: 'The Sculptor' author on the 'growing pains' of comic books
There’s no one working in comics quite like Scott McCloud. He is, in a sense, the Bill Nye of comic books. With his 1994 graphic nonfiction book Understanding Comics, McCloud gave the world an accessible, friendly crash course in art appreciation, breaking down the infinite complexity hidden away in simple comic strips, and helping the world to understand why comics as a medium resonate so strongly with readers.
This is the second part of an in-depth interview with McCloud, in which we take a brief detour from discussing his long-awaited graphic novel The Sculptor to talk a bit about a quiet revolution in comic books and the redemption of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.
Be sure to read the first part of the interview here. For the final part, be sure to pick up this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on sale Friday.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re still incredibly up-to-date in the comics world—last year you edited the Best American Comics anthology. What sort of contribution do you hope this will make to comics now?
SCOTT MCCLOUD: I think that readers are beginning to reconnect with the joy of reading true storytelling and they’re doing so primarily through the all-ages comics movement because I think that’s a vitally important component of that movement.
I think that everyone from Raina Telgemeier to Kazu Kibuishi to Vera Brosgol to Jeff Smith are telling stories that young readers have been able to lose themselves in—in a way that I think some of the comics aimed at older people don’t necessarily aspire to.
But that kind of storytelling can be exciting for adults too, if the themes explored and the characters created have a sufficient complexity and nuance to them. I don’t think that’s exclusively the province of kids. But those kids are growing up and so I like the idea that my book will be waiting for them. When they move from Babysitters Club and Bone up to Hawkeye or Saga I hope that they’ll catch my book along the way, on their way to Jimmy Corrigan and Maus.
Do you think this is something that comic creators are catching onto?
I think it’s something that has to happen on a grassroots level. I think the changes in storytelling – you know there can be top-down efforts that can be initiatives by publishers. You can start lines or make deals with distributions but in the end it’s going to be one or two artists who change the world. It’s always been that way. Right now, I think Raina Telgemeier is instrumental in creating a new generation but she has plenty of help.
I spoke to Ian Ballantine from Ballantine Books back when I first did Understanding Comics – this would be 1994. Ian was probably about 94 years old at the time; he was quite old, he died not long after. He talked about how, at the very beginning before science fiction was a genre, it was a book. It was a book called Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and the book inspired reader after reader. It simply went around the world like Johnny Appleseed, planting a kind of reading experience in the mind of the readers and they were hungry for more – to mix a metaphor – and gradually the book became a shelf of books and the shelf of books became a bookcase and the bookcase became a whole section and you know a genre was born.
And it led to the same growing pains that we have with the adult comics movement, with graphic novels. This is how revolutions start and how revolutions win. It’s one artist at a time, one reader a time. And before you know it, there’s an army of readers coming over the hill.
Are you still concerned to see the sort of “oh comics aren’t just for kids” rhetoric in the more mainstream publications?
You know we, we engaged in that rhetoric in the 80’s and 90’s and we had a lot of success in getting that idea out that comics weren’t just for kids. The problems is we woke up one morning and found out that kids weren’t reading comics anymore, which wasn’t the idea. We wanted to extend the art-form to adults, not just simply move the chess piece from one square to the next.
And so it took a while I think where we were lost in the wilderness there, and where people had this idea that comics were just for 40-year-old guys living in their parents’ basement, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’m really happy now that we seem to be finally turning a corner there, where it isn’t just about aging baby boomers reaching for one last gasp at their favorite fantasies. It’s something being embraced by all ages with tremendous diversity now in our art-form both in print and online. We corrected that little deficit.
But for a while there, we cut off our future by cutting off young readers. I’m really glad that that’s changing. And we, very soon we may have – for the first time in a long time we may have an industry and a genre and an art-form which has something to offer each step along the way of growth; from very young readers to mature, intellectually engaged adults; with every single rung of the ladder fully installed and ready to bear the weight of that generation.
Going back to The Sculptor—with regard to David’s love interest, Meg—were you worried about the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
Oh yeah. Absolutely.
There’s one line that seems to directly comment on the trope, when she tells David “The sun’s gonna shine on me too.”
Yeah. Exactly. You don’t live in anyone shadow.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
I was concerned about that, because this story has been around in my head for a long time and it was in the works for five years—Nathan Rabin’s article came along where he coined that term while I was still working on it. We were aware of the trope but I was not gonna run screaming from it because for one thing, my wife actually really loved some of the characters that he was coloring in that article [laughs]. She really enjoyed some of those movies.
And more importantly, I wasn’t just going to completely exterminate any traces of that free spirited character because I married her. I married that woman. You know, he was treating her as some fictional construct but to some extent, some of the qualities that he was writing about were the qualities that I fell in love with and both my wife Ivy and I had some affection for some of the more positive aspects of that character.
But I think that Nathan was right to identify some of the sexist leanings of the way that character was used sometimes. You put your finger on it, but in part, it’s the notion of only living for the male protagonist. But the idea of somebody who embraces a vision of adulthood that doesn’t have to abandon everything good in childhood, which I think is one of the things that appeals to people about some of the characters like that. And someone who wants, who gains fulfillment partially by helping others, not just necessarily the protagonist but many others, like in the case of Amèlie.
I think that that’s an important character that we would to better to try to understand than to simply destroy every time any character displays three out of the ten list of traits, you know? I think in literature it’s important not to kill what we don’t understand. Ivy memorably—we were talking about the article and she said, “they’re telling me I don’t exist.”
I think that is a really interesting way to look at it. I knew I was on a rendezvous with that particular problem [laughs]. I did take steps to make sure that I steered clear of some of the more toxic aspects of that fictional trope.
Most people merely know you from the cartoon persona you’ve adopted for Understanding Comics and its sequels, which makes you a bit of a cipher. What do you want people to know about you as a storyteller with The Sculptor?
I really hope that I’ll vanish. You know, I’m very visible in my books about comics. I’m there in every panel, although on some level of course I’m also not present because it’s really this external cartoon concept that you don’t think of as necessarily a specific purpose, just a voice inside your head.
This time, I wanted to be in no panels at all, except maybe some sense of the person that I am writing that little last text epilogue at the end of the book.I really wanted to disappear inside the story. I was hoping that within two or three pages, any sense of an author would vanish along with any sense of paper and ink. I wanted only the story left. I wanted people to step into a world—all literature if it does its job right allows the reader to step into a world and lose themselves to one degree or another.
That was my hope for this, was that it would provide that opportunity for people to experience life through the eyes of another person for nearly 500 pages. And forget about the author, forget about the guy in the checked jacket explaining everything. I could explain every panel in this book, but I hope no one will be thinking about those things while they’re reading it.