A Flowering of Genres: An Interview with Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud’s 1993 book Understanding Comics has been hailed as seminal work in the field of comic art. A hypersmart but eminently approachable guide to the medium’s history, theory and aesthetics, it’s a comic book about comic books — with McCloud wittily narrating from within the very form he’s explicating. His follow-up book released in 2000, Reinventing Comics, employs the same visual vocabulary to peer into comics’ digital, online future. McCloud currently maintains several creative projects on his sprawling and ambitious website, ScottMcCloud.com, and stays busy with a seemingly endless schedule of public appearances, lectures, and guest scholar appointments.

McCloud recently spoke to PopMatters about the digital marketplace, newspaper funny pages, and comics’ dimensional Z-axis.

In Reinventing Comics, you advocate digital distribution as a way to serve both the creator and the reader of comics by cutting out the middleman. That was six years ago. How has the webcomics scene developed since then?

The overall webcomics scene is basically a validation and a victory for those who had confidence in digital distribution as a powerful way for the medium to grow. It definitely serves both creators and readers to have a much more efficient connection between points A and B. Even though the economic side of it is still looking fuzzy, there are some ways that people have found to make a living at it. And the medium has been growing by leaps and bounds. In fact, overall comics readership has been growing tremendously. There are far, far, far more people reading comics in the world today than there were 10 years ago. And the Web has had a lot to do with that. The core of the scene these days doesn’t have too much to do with my kind of “frontier theories.” It’s more about the settlers than the pioneers.

Are comics generally finding a wider, more sophisticated readership?

What’s been happening creatively in the last few years has completely changed the demographics. When it was just superheroes and the daily newspaper strips in, say, the late 1980s, the content was radically different. The Web is not the only factor in that growth, of course; there are other forces. You also have the literary graphic novel movement, which has grown considerably since then. Then you have this massive influx of Japanese comics. Their readers, the manga readers, have represented a tremendous demographic shift, too. You see a lot more girls reading comics than ever before. In my day, when I was first getting into it, the skew was probably 90-10 percent, with 10 percent being girls or women reading.

Part of that is genre diversity. When a new genre appears on the Web, it doesn’t have to compete for shelf space. If a new comic has just 20 readers at a given time, it can build on that to become 40, to become 80, to become 800, to become 8,000. And it’s a nice frictionless slope. Whereas in the physical marketplace, if you have 20 readers, you don’t get shelved at all, and that 20 is driven down to zero.

So the Web allows for comics to develop that might not otherwise find a readership in print?

That’s the big difference with digital distribution and webcomics — there’s no penalty to having a small readership. If you have a small readership, you have a small readership. But you get to keep it, because your work is always available. If you go into an average comics shop — or even a Borders or Barnes and Noble, for all their tremendous variety and selection compared to previous eras — it’s a different situation. A comic which isn’t expected to sell at least a few thousand right out of the gate will not be seen at all. It will never appear.

It’s the principle that any given square inch of shelf space needs to generate a certain amount of revenue for a shop to survive. And so the people who buy the material for that shelf quite reasonably try to skew their ordering toward those products that are going to sell to the highest number. And if you have five genres, and one sells to 40 percent of the fans, one to 30 percent, and one to 10 and one to five, etcetera, the one that sells to the 40 percent is going to take up 80 percent of those slots.

I just boil it down to: There’s no shelf space in cyberspace. We’ve seen that principle played out all over, especially in music. There’s this flowering of genres, and ever-increasing genre cell-splitting. These developments — they’re not coerced. It’s natural creative evolution. Artists don’t have to worry about crossing from one bin to another as they would in the music store. They don’t have to worry, is this hip hop? Is this rock? Is this R&B? Nobody cares. Genre has evolved seamlessly.

For example, the gamer comic genre made it safe to do comics about a couple of guys just sitting around talking. But once that happens, even though we could identify that as a genre — “Oh, that’s just a gaming comic” — suddenly another comic can come along and have a couple of guys who aren’t talking about gaming at all, but talking about music. Then that leads to something like [indie webcomic] Questionable Content, where you see people just sitting around and talking about anything. [laughs] But that was a seamless evolution from one to another. And there was nothing to stop it because there was no market slot that they all had to fit into. What you’ve removed, essentially, is the feedback loop of the traditional market, where the slightly more popular in terms of sales becomes much more prevalent until you have a market that’s basically composed of one genre.

You’ve long been a proponent of micropayments [paying a few cents at a time to access online content] as a way to establish a fair market for webcomics. Is this catching on as a way for webcomic artists to make a living?

Well, right now merchandising and advertising are the only real success stories on the Web. Certainly subscriptions and micropayments are still marginal. These are still experiments on the frontier that haven’t really caught on. I think subscriptions have been entrenched for longer and have had some success with things like the Modern Tales site. [The micropayment concept] is me sitting on a mountaintop just pleading that this is a really good idea. [laughs] We gave it a good shot a few years ago, but that’s still a pretty marginal part of the business landscape. Merchandising — selling t-shirts and art — is particularly common right now.

Are you still optimistic about micropayments?

Well, sure. Anytime I get discouraged I just click over to iTunes. [laughs] It depends on how you define micropayments. With iTunes you have millions of people a day paying small amounts for content. The whole idea of paid content is not alien to the Web as we have it right now. Bitpass and PayPal are being used every day, but on a smaller scale. Again, this is something that, on the first pass, didn’t catch on enough to change the marketplace completely. But it’s still an idea and a technology that’s out there. Things are mutating on the Web at such a rate that it’s hard to predict whether some version of this won’t still come about.

The iTunes model is not the model I wanted to see become dominant in every way, because I don’t like the idea of a single vendor. That’s a potentially toxic situation there. Right now we have a relatively benign presence in Apple, but that doesn’t mean things couldn’t turn ugly. It’s not a good thing to have just one company able to turn off the spigot at any time.

I read on your blog that iTunes is partnering with an outfit called Clickwheel to sell digital comics for mobile devices.

That’s something that’s still in its embryonic stage, doing comics for that format. It does particularly illustrate one of the reasons I wanted to see an independent form of payment, rather than a form of payment tied to a single vendor. Because that vendor now gets to choose what format those comics will come across in, what they’ll look like. If iTunes becomes the primary vendor for comics, all of a sudden we have this one company deciding what all comics have to look like — what format they have to be in, what spatial metaphors they have to use. And I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. That’s not to say that Clickwheel isn’t an interesting foray into the territory; I certainly wish them luck. They have some good cartoonists involved. But I do worry about the one giant middleman.

You’re using the micropayment model for your ongoing webcomic The Right Number, which incorporates an interesting approach to spatial sequencing. Instead of scrolling down or across, you click right into the picture and drill down into the image.
Right. As CGI people will tell you, you’re moving along the Z axis instead of the X or the Y. That one 90 degree rotation creates this really alien-looking interface. But the idea is the same — that as you’re moving through space, you’re moving through time. Which I think is the fundamental idea behind all comics.

The nomenclature of comics can get confusing — comic books, comics strips, cartoons. In Understanding Comics, you define comics as “juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence.” But this seems to exclude single panel newspaper or editorial cartoons.

Well, you just said it, calling these cartoons. I think that that’s cartooning, when you talk about things like The Far Side or Family Circus. I see that as a branch of cartooning, and I think those guys generally call themselves cartoonists. It’s no knock on them to say that they’re working in a slightly different medium. The reason I made the distinction is not because I have anything against Gary Larson or Bill Keane or whatever. It’s because I didn’t like the idea that “comics” was tied to a particular style of drawing. If they’re comics just because they’re sitting on the same page, and drawn in the same style, then that excludes a lot of interesting stuff that’s being done in comics. Or is about to be done. You know, some people use photo collages as comics. I think that certainly qualifies — comics can include any number of stylistic approaches and media. And it’s important that we break out of that notion that it all has to look like that stuff on the newspaper page.

You know, no one can ever really take a meaning away from words. When I suggested that we think of comics as putting one picture after another, as sequential art, I thought of myself as adding another definition to our little mental dictionary. I wasn’t trying to erase anyone else’s. If you look in the book, my proposed definition is one of four definitions I arrived at once I got through debating myself. The words “comics” can mean those floppy magazines you buy at the newspaper stand, or the little cramped boxes on the newspaper page, or the guy that stands up and tells jokes on the stage.

What do you think about the state of newspaper comics — the funny pages — as opposed to what we’re seeing in webcomics, or more generally comic books and graphic novels?

Well, all are entirely legitimate, of course. I grew up more reading comic books than comic strips, and sometimes there’s that prejudice from either side of the fence. But I think I’m on pretty solid ground – and I think a lot of good strip artists like Patrick McDonnell (“Mutts”) would back me up on this — that the comic strip has had a hard time of it in the last couple of decades. Certainly there are a lot of very good, very creative people working in the field, but it’s been much more restricted than, say, graphic novels. We’ve seen less experimentation, and clearly there’s less latitude [on the newspaper page] for cutting-edge or potentially troublesome content. There’s just not as much variety of style. I mean, we do have people like McDonnell, who are extremely talented and gifted in the tradition of a Charles Schultz or a Bill Watterson. But generally speaking, there’s a lot of dead wood there. And it seems kind of sad.

The newspaper comics page seems inherently conservative, because of the syndication system and reader feedback. There have been a lot of articles describing the massive outcry from older readers when a newspaper tries to replace an ancient strip like “Blondie” with something new.

Right, well, you know the average comic book artist or graphic novel artist has an editor. The average newspaper comic strip artist has about 10,000 editors, in the form of the individual newspaper editors. In one sense, they have many millions of editors because newspaper readers have a great deal of power to kill that which upsets them over morning coffee.

You’ve got a new book coming out in the fall called Making Comics Can you talk a little about that?

Well, September 5 is the “pub date,” as they call it. I’m starting to learn these terms. [laughs] It’s 255 pages, all about the art of making comics.

Is it designed to be part of a series, with Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics?

Well, it certainly looks like the others. It’s the same size and shape, and it has me narrating. But it’s pretty different from the first two, just as the second was wildly different from the first one. This takes a different tack; this time it has a more practical eye toward the art of telling stories with pictures. But because it’s me, of course, I stray into all sorts of theoretical territory along the way. It’s hard for me to stay on that yellow line. I’m writing while under the influence — always driving over the line and getting arrested. [laughs]

It’s really for anyone interested in creating comics, telling stories with pictures, or just interested in the process behind it — the various crafts and disciplines that making comics touches on. It’s a pretty long list, of course. Because anyone that wants to make comics essentially has to be actor and director and set designer and cinematographer and writer and artists, all at the same time.

I see you’re planning a pretty ambitious tour when the book comes out.

Yes, we’re going to go for an entire year — my whole family; my wife and our two little girls, 11 and 13. We’ll be hopping in our van and seeing every state in America, plus four or five Canadian provinces, and London and Barcelona. It’s terrifying but exciting, and I think it’ll be a great experience. We’re lining up lectures and seminars, and we’ll be blogging it. My older daughter will be doing a video podcast, interviewing various artists around the country who are making comics about their creative process. It’ll all be up at the website.

Anything else coming up?

The thing I want to do next is a graphic novel based on a story that I’ve had in mind for more than 20 years. One of the reasons I did this last book on making comics is because I wanted to finally teach myself everything I didn’t already know, in preparation for doing this book. It’ll probably run to about 400-500 pages and it’ll be a true graphic novel.