Understanding Scott McCloud, Comics’ Great Teacher
Scott McCloud was born on this day in 1960, as Scott McLeod. (Like all great self-made iconoclasts, he changed his name.) Cartoonist, scholar, orator, inventor, and champion, Scott McCloud is one of the most important creators of his era, and perhaps the Ben Franklin of comics.
McCloud has been making comics since his high school days. Growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, he was good friends with another comics lover, Kurt Busiek, and they collaborated on a few stories together, including what they've each essentially described as a sixty-page fight scene between Marvel characters called The Battle of Lexington. Around the same time, McCloud contributed illustrations to magazines like Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journal, and eventually each made his own way into the industry.
For McCloud, the big bang was Zot. While the trend in superhero comics at the time was toward grit and violence, in 1984 McCloud went against the grain of the industry with a bright sci-adventure heavily influenced by Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, and reminiscent of the pure, mad joy of the Golden Age.
But McCloud has the rare ability to look back while moving forward, and throughout the entirety of Zot, McCloud displayed a progressive yen, honing his craft in leaps and bounds pushing the series into more emotionally mature territory. After an absence of a few years, the series returned for 26 further black-and-white installments, and that's where McCloud really digs in. Zot earned McCloud the first of his many awards, and it remains a must-read.
In the late 80s, McCloud wrote the first draft of a Creator's Bill of Rights, arguing for creator ownership and control as the industry standard, with signatories that included Steve Bissette, Dave Sim, and TMNT creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Although the document had no lasting effect on the industry, it was at least important symbolically, and showed that McCloud's love for the industry went well beyond the page.
In 1990 McCloud created the 24-Hour Comic. What began as a dare with Bissette to write and draw a twenty-four page comic in a single day became a game, an anthology, a challenge to the industry, and a gauntlet that thousands of young creators are still running. October 10th has since become worldwide 24-Hour Comics day, with Red Bull-fueled events and drawing parties taking place all over the globe.
His biggest contribution to the medium is obviously Understanding Comics. A grammar for the language of sequential art, Understanding Comics is generally regarded as the one book that every would-be creator must read. A brilliantly incisive breakdown of the mechanisms that drive graphic sequential storytelling, Understanding Comics introduced the subtlety and grace of "the invisible art" to a wider audience.
A crossover success that's found its way into endless academic programs and become a dog-eared favorite of libraries, Understanding Comics is intelligent without being stiff; and academic while still being playful and immensely readable. An energetic dissection of movement, space, time, iconography, and design, Understanding Comics raises the comics IQ of the reader with its immaculately-drawn instructional storytelling.
In his follow-ups, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, McCloud went on to advocate for new forms of comics, including web and digital, and delved even deeper into the workings of the medium. He also performed numerous speaking tours, including his popular lecture "The Visual Magic of Comics."
McCloud has probably produced fewer pages of actual comics than many of his contemporaries, but they've had far more impact. His other accomplishments include being an early adopter of micro-payments; writing one of the best Superman stories of a doomed era, Superman: Strength; and introducing Google Chrome to the world via the web browser's instructional comic --- but don't hold that against him. In 2015 he released a 500-page graphic novel called The Sculptor that many rate among the best works of the year, and among the best works of his career. He's spent that career one step in front of the crowd, and one page ahead of the industry. Happy birthday, Scott McCloud!