Scott McCloud: Constructive Rage
The graphic novelist Scott McCloud’s manifesto on visual communication is rooted in what he calls “constructive rage.”
Scott McCloud is a notable cartoonist, known for his nonfiction picture books about comics. He won a prestigious Eisner Award in 1994 for Understanding Comics.
Born in Boston in 1960, McCloud decided to become a comic book writer in high school and earned a BFA in illustration from Syracuse University. He worked for illustrious publisher DC Comics after college, writing twelve issues of Superman Adventures and creating the light-hearted superhero series Zot!
In 1993, McCloud published the first of three books about the history, methods, and business of comic books. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Arts was followed by Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form (2000) and Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels (2003). These works established him as a popular comics theorist, leading to his nickname the “Aristotle of comics.”
McCloud continues to write fictional cartoons; his latest graphic novel, The Sculptor, was published in 2015.
Scott McCloud is unique in the world of comics. More than a draftsmen, he’s a philosopher of sorts, who uses his medium to explore and explain complex subjects, including comics themselves. In 1993 the award winning non fiction graphic novel, Understanding Comics, put a then 33 year old McCloud on the proverbial map and into cartooning curricula the world over. And a string of follow ups have further explained the power of McCloud’s favorite mode of expression.
Scott McCloud: The advantage to comics, is that we trade in static images and we trade in static images in our own minds when we remember. We remember symbolically, we remember in static images that’s why when you’re in an airplane and you reach in the seat pocket in front of you you’re going to be looking at comics because they know that if you’re given a series of symbols, something still that that’s closer to the texture of memory.
The so called “Aristotle of comics” is himself a very gifted communicator but he says it’s the mastery of a subject and not the drawing of it that takes the most time.
McCloud: When you’re explaining something visually acquiring sufficient understanding for yourself, that’s 80 percent of the work. The actual execution is the easy part, making the comic is the easy part.
AJC: But since your job is always going to be to make something easy, to understand by simplifying it, can one get better at being simple?
McCloud: Yes, and this is actually a bit of a trap for me personally. I find that almost every project that I begin, I begin with the intent to make it simpler than it winds up being and I’m always a little sad that it becomes more complicated, more baroque that the drawing becomes more realistic or more labored than I wanted it to be.
McCloud: Sometimes it’s just the necessity of what I’m rendering but sometimes also I think that there’s this kind of seductive pull towards proficiency, towards showing off technically and for me as well because I’m just a so so draftsmen there’s also that little part of me that’s always trying to prove that yes I can draw the car, yes I can draw the bicycle yes I can draw the hat. When I really would’ve been better off just doing something a little simpler. And so I think in a lot of ways for decades now I think I’ve been moving towards this place that I hope I can get to eventually where my work can be truly simple.
McCloud spent five years in search of what he calls “eloquent simplicity” for his most recent work of fiction, 2015’s The Sculptor. A love story very loosely based on his own relationship with his wife, Ivy. His upcoming project, cross disciplinary compendium on visual communication returns McCloud to the realm of fact, that was motivated by some very strong feelings.
McCloud: The older I get, I find that my love of good design is being gradually replaced by an intense hatred of bad design. So that I’m more and more aware when things are wrong and more and more I realize that the default production of simple visual communication, just simple iconography, warning signs that sort of thing are almost always wrong in some fundamental way. I could write a whole book just on fire safety signage, I’m fascinated by how gloriously incompetent any kind of signage is when your life depends on it. Good visual communication should speak and be silent, it should communicate what it has to say but then not go shuffling off mumbling as it walks away and I think there’s so much mumbling out there, so much unintended messaging, so many ancillary visual messages that weren’t intended at all but were just the tritest of all this wasted effort and stuff around the edges.
McCloud: Overthinking it. Collateral meaning, you know all of these things. Good visual communication just lands, it just achieves what it had to say and then let’s you get on with your life.
McCloud’s current project, already five years in the making, will codify fundamental principles of good visual communication that can be applied across disciplines.
McCloud: If I’m to be honest with myself the best book I could possibly write about this subject would probably be only about 50 pages long this big and fit in your pocket because that’s what people really want hey just want a little boy scout handbook like here are the ten things I need to know about visual communication. I cannot write that book, the world is too interesting so I’m going to write too much about it. I’m going to go down too many side roads, I’m going to get too excited about too many little aspects of it but hopefully at least the little book will be embedded in the big book.
Now 58 years old, Scott McCloud still exudes a child like enthusiasm for discovery that he sees both as a great personal strength and as a weakness.
McCloud: I think as I’ve gotten older maybe I’m seeing that as part defect there are some aspects of my extended childhood that I want to try to overcome. I think ultimately the best synthesis is an enlightened or a more constructive joyful conception of adulthood and I’m still working on that. I’m trying to have it both ways, I’m trying to become an adult without having to relinquish that joy and I’m maybe half way there. My wife and I both of us really are overgrown kids but I think that we did decide that we were not going to mortgage our happiness for the sake of our children because then they would have the same fate later in life. So while we provide it for them we also try to provide for them a model of a joyful but slightly irresponsible way of living. So hopefully, and I think they already are pursuing their own passion, pursuing their own joy but pursuing it with the knowledge that they’re going to have to work like hell to ever be lucky enough to do what they love for a living. Very very often I would remind them that it’s not the usual way of things it’s not guaranteed, it’s the exception it’s not the rule. Most people don’t.
But Scott McCloud most certainly does.