Love, Art, Memory, And Reality: Scott McCloud Discusses ‘The Sculptor’ [Interview]
Since Scott McCloud first shot onto the cultural radar in the mid-80s, with his "reconstructionist" superhero series Zot!, he's been known as one of the modern masters of the comics form – his seminal 1993 volume Understanding Comics set a benchmark for intelligent analysis of graphic narrative language and technique (and became a go-to reference for college courses worldwide), his sequels, Reinventing Comics (2000) and Making Comics (2006) met with critical and commercial success, and his 1998 graphic novel The New Adventures Of Abraham Lincoln remains a fascinating and underrated attempt at melding the worlds of traditional and computer-generated cartooning. He's written a heaping handful of Superman stories, spoken and lectured around the world, and established himself as a comic creator, commentator, scholar and theorist without peer.
And this week, First Second Books is releasing his latest work, the five-years-in-the-making opus The Sculptor, the story of David Smith, a young sculptor living in New York City who makes a deal with Death that gives him only two hundred days to live, but allows him to shape any material, creating art with his bare hands from whatever he wishes… Which seems like a great deal, until he meets a mysterious woman named Meg, and falls desperately in love with her. It's a 500-page multi-layered romantic magical-realism treatise on life, passion, art, and memory that manages to be equal parts technical triumph and an emotionally affecting personal statement; a book that rewards careful reading and inspires detailed analysis.
So in this, the first part of our in-depth conversation with McCloud about The Sculptor, we've tried to stay as spoiler-free as possible, sticking to structure and set-up – and in two weeks, we'll return with the second half of the dialogue, which delves more deeply into the specific plot and technical elements.
ComicsAlliance: Without disappearing too far into hyperbole, I think it's safe to say this book captures some deep, human emotions that comics rarely touch on. It wrestles with love and selfishness and selflessness, and conveys a certain melancholy that I don't often find in a comic. I started reading it on a night where I had a couple deadlines to meet, and when I had a down moment, I sat down to start flipping through it. And then I couldn't tear myself away.
When I emerged a couple hours later, having devoured it in one sitting, I felt like I'd just been lost inside someone else's life, I was so immersed. It was a bit disorienting, and deeply affecting… And it was also two in the morning, which meant that I was going to have to stay up all night to get all my work done.
Scott McCloud: Well, let me confess that I do actually measure my books in how much inconvenience they cause. I've been told that Understanding Comics caused people to fall off chairs, miss important meetings, miss train stops... I always take that as a good sign.
CA: So, given that… What works have had that sort of emotional impact on you, be it comics or film or fine art or music or whatever?
SMcC: Well, I've gotten that sort of impact, that feeling and emotion from many different kinds of media. Music, certainly. Throughout my whole life, there've been pieces of music that have had that effect on me. And movies, certain movies. And occasionally comics. It saddened me that I didn't have quite as many memories of comics doing that for me…one that did was Jim Starlin's Warlock, I think it might've been issue #9. And granted, I was only fifteen years old, I don't know that I would've necessarily had that same reaction at the age of forty, but that definitely was a powerful feeling, reading that particular book.
Aside from that, I think one of the more moving comics I read was a short story by Carol Tyler called "The Hannah Story" [from Drawn & Quarterly #1, 1994] – I remember that one really hit me emotionally. And there have been a few others. But I would like to see more comics carry an emotional wallop, and I guess this was my bid to put one on that list.
CA: Well, this book… It's super-cinematic, but not in the way that term usually gets bandied about for comics. It's not filmic, per se, but the mood, the story, the whole package ends up feeling, for me, almost like a mix of the ethereal vibe of French New Wave and that '80s magical realism of Terry Gilliam and Bill Forsyth – nothing literal, but the overall feeling, and your use of small stylistic flourishes that western comics often overlook.
SMcC: Well, I think part of it might just be the sense of presence. I wanted to give everything in the story an authoritative presence and realism, a sense of nowness – I wanted it to feel like it was happening in front of your eye, that you were plunged into a story and and the events were happening in a solid, irrefutable way. Sometimes I think comics can be cinematic in the sense that they're influenced by cinema, sometimes I think they can be cinematic simply because they reach for a sense of verisimilitude and achieve it from different directions than cinema does. In other words, they're arriving at the same place, through different means. If you can just make it feel like it's all happening now, then you're achieving something that cinema achieves very naturally, and in comics, we have to be a little more clever to pull that off.
Y'know, one of the things I wanted to do was to get that moment-to-moment progression – whenever two people are in conversation, I make sure that I get the rhythms down, just the way a real conversation would happen. There are silent beats in real conversation. Sometimes in comics, we think we don't have time for that, but you need to make time for that, make time for somebody to wipe coffee off his lip before saying the next three words. You need time for somebody to put their head down and think for a moment. These are important beats, because we recognize that this is the music of people in conversation, and without that, it's just illustrated writing. And there's no way I wanted this to just be illustrated writing.
CA: Yeah, I try not to use "cinematic" when talking about comics, but in this case, I couldn't think of a better term. It implies a very specific form of attention – you're sitting in a darkened theater, watching something happen in front of you. And when I finished reading this, I had that same sort of feeling that I get walking out of a theater after having seen something, and that return to reality.
SMcC: Exactly. That was very conscious on my part, I described it as wanting readers when they were done to feel like they were coming up, blinking in the sunlight.
CA: Well, it seems it worked!
SMcC: [laughs] Yeah, that was very deliberate! I want it to be immersive. I wanted the story to reach out, grab you, pull you in, and not let you go until it was done.
CA: I think the duotone treatment also adds to that sense of a unique reality, and that immersive nature. Did you always envision the story taking place in that palette, or did you toy with different approaches?
SMcC: Well, I can imagine a story like this being told in full color, but I'm not the person to do it – my color sense just isn't that good. And I really liked the idea of doing it all myself.
The reason I chose the two colors is that was something where I could control it, I could choose a specific pantone color, so I knew that the hue was under control, and then I could use it to help bolster the form. Some artists are really great at bringing out form with black line alone, but I'm not one of those. It really helps to have the tone, because when you do, you can clarify shapes, you can clarify forms, you can make the whole thing seem more solid, and make it more quickly understood. I like the idea of somebody looking at one of my pages, and it may be a very complex page, but you very quickly understand the spaces – you see that you're looking at a subway station in panel one, you see that you're looking at a skyscraper in panel two, you see that you're looking at two people talking in the rest of the page. You should be able to see it all in an instant, and that's something that's really helped by having that second color: those tones to put in shadows, to clarify overlaps. It just helps.
So now, when you turn through the pages, if you quickly flip through the book, I think that instead of seeing ink and paper, you're seeing cities and people and actions, and that's just more interesting.
CA: The cover is full color, though. And not just color, but carefully shaded dimensional color. Did you color that yourself?
SMcC: Yeah I did that myself, and every time I look at it, I'm reminded of my limitations! [laughs] I did the best I could…color is not my strength, but I think it turned out okay.
The cover is the one part where there are ten different things you have to keep in mind, it's a much more complicated affair. You know, I don't think I've ever been completely happy with any cover, but I think it sums up the book, at least.
CA: As that thing to pull you in, I think it works quite well. The style seems a bit more literal than the interior work, but the image itself depicts the themes rather than a particular moment. I guess again, film creeps in, it's like one of those great movie posters, combining elements…
SMcC: Absolutely. But then again, you can imagine that there was a moment in the story when that might have literally happened, where David all by himself, yearning for her, might have done something like that.
CA: So to hop back for a moment, you mentioned the buildings, the subways, the awareness of the settings, and that's something else I wanted to ask about. You really play with the structures of panels and pages in this book… When you're laying a story out, how do you weigh what needs to happen for a concrete story reason, like expanding the panel to show a tall building or a wide expanse, against the design choices that are more subliminal cues, that convey a feeling or do things that a reader interprets without necessarily noticing?
SMcC: Well, what you just described is actually very methodical. I wanted the story to feel very organic and very intuitive, but in the telling, there's a reason for just about everything. And it's designed in such a way that you shouldn't necessarily be able to tell – the only real clue to how systematic and methodical it is [can be seen] on the side of the book. When you see the printed book, you can actually see these stripes along the side: that's where all the bleeds are, and the bleeds are all in exactly the same grid. The whole thing is on a grid, it's on a three-tier or two-tier grid. And it's very regular, and the choice of bleeds is always for more or less the same reason: to expand the space, to give a sense of continuous space, often without words, so that it lingers in the memory even as we're reading panels after it.
And the panel shapes and sizes are all entirely based on that sort of internal formula that I have for what's best going to get across a particular moment. But I also allowed enough different instruments in my orchestra that when it's all done, it just feels like I'm trying out a lot of different things – I'm trying different shapes and sizes, and it feels fairly unplanned and unpredictable – but they're not! They're actually just a series of brute force calculations on how best to get across every single given moment. And the result is, when you're reading it, I hope it feels fluid and natural. And most of all, I hope, most people will barely even notice panel shapes and things like that… They'll notice what happens inside the story.
CA: This might seem like an odd question, but is there a specific reason you chose to use page numbers in the book? I happen to like that detail, and it certainly makes it easier for me to refer to specific moments in the narrative, but I find many comics and graphic novels don't number pages. I'm not sure if it's even a conscious choice, or if it's something people just don't think about…
SMcC: I'm hoping that after a while people won't notice it – just because it they're always there, or nearly-always there, then I think that's often the effect. As for the fact that it's not always done, I'm old, I didn't know that! [laughs] I grew up when there were always page numbers, I just assumed that there would have to be page numbers.
CA: Well, I noticed it, simply because when I'm reviewing a comic or graphic novel and taking notes, a lack of page numbers makes it tougher to look at specific moments – I end up taking notes like "it's the middle of the second chapter when they're talking about things, after the page with the big panel at the top".
SMcC: It never occurred to me that I had the option of not having page numbers. But even if it had, I think I still would have gone for it. I don't know, it just seems more convenient, certainly for times like this, when we're having conversations of this sort. It may be one of those things that, as I grow older, I simply hadn't noticed, like the gradual disappearance of button-down shirts.
And I was shocked to discover that we don't call them "word balloons" anymore.
SMcC: Yeah. I thought that was just the standard term. If you're under the age of thirty or so, you probably call them text bubbles or speech bubbles.
CA: I wonder if there's some comic text lobbying agency that's been campaigning to have that changed…
SMcC: [laughs] Well, Manga Studio might be the reason, I don't really know. It's just a shift in language.
CA: You mentioned how you liked the idea of doing this all yourself – did you handle the lettering too?
SMcC: The lettering is a font based on my handwriting, and that was put together for me by John Roshell. So with that proviso that I didn't design or code the font, it's still essentially my lettering, yes. But I didn't actually sit down and actually letter every letter every time, thank god! [laughs] I don't have that kind of patience. So yes, with that given, I did everything top to bottom.
CA: Colleen AF Venable and John Green are credited as the book designers – what were their responsibilities? The cover, the layout, the typesetting…?
SMcC: Well, the cover image of course, just by the nature of these things, everybody had a hand in that, that was a group effort. I did all of the execution of the actual image, including the logo that's digging into the wall, but it was after a lot of meetings and discussions and alternate designs and things like that. So that's the one part of the book where I wasn't the benevolent dictator. And I think that's appropriate, as covers are part artwork, part advertisement – unless you're trying to create something that exists only as an art object, I think it's appropriate that the people who gave you the means to do the thing might want to actually convince people to buy it. If I just wanted to put a large picture of a llama with a swastika on the cover, I think they might, quite reasonably, feel that they have a stake in this project and try to talk me out of it! [laughs]
CA: So aside from Mark Siegel, your editor, did you have any other testers or people you would show pieces to and get feedback from as you went along?
SMcC: For the first two drafts, I did… I had a panel of what I call my kibitzers. I've always done this before, from Understanding Comics onwards. Actually, even with my first comic, Zot!, back in the '80s, I would always get friends to look at rough versions of what I was doing, and help me to find mistakes, and help me to improve the thing. And I encourage them to be as brutally honest as possible, and take their advice very seriously. With Understanding Comics, I was convinced by Neil Gaiman, Kurt Busiek, and Steve Bissette to completely scrap an entire chapter and create a new one!
In this case, my kibitzers were Larry Marder, Kurt Busiek again, my wife Ivy, Jenn Manley-Lee, James Sturm, and Vera Brosgol – they were the ones for this one.
CA: That's a pretty hard-hitting line-up, I'd say!
SMcC: Yeah, they were terrific. And they helped me identify a lot of problems in the first draft and the second draft, and then at that point Mark had proved himself so invaluable that I felt confident he and I could finish the job… Also, at that point I didn't know there would be two more drafts! [laughs]
The Sculptor is released by First Second Books today, Tuesday, 3rd February 2015. Come back in two weeks for the more spoiler-filled second half of our interview!