Interview: Scott McCloud On The Sculptor and Balancing Art and Life

Scott McCloud/First Second
Scott McCloud/First Second / Scott McCloud/First Second

Scott McCloud changed the way we think about comics with his groundbreaking 1993 comics theory book Understanding Comics. After two follow-up books exploring other aspects of the medium (Reinventing Comics and Making Comics), he has returned to the world of fiction with a nearly 500 page graphic novel called The Sculptor.

The Sculptor is about a young artist named David Smith who makes a deal with Death to be able to sculpt anything he can imagine, from any surface he touches. In exchange, he now has only 200 days to live. The deal gets even more complicated when he meets the love of his life in the eleventh hour. The Sculptor hits stores in the U.S. and the rest of the world beginning Feb. 3.

I had the honor of talking with Scott about his new book, life, art and, of course, comics. 

The protagonist of The Sculptor has to make a choice between his art and his life. Being a husband and a father and having just completed a 500-page graphic novel—on top of everything else you’ve done in your career—you seem like you’ve found some sort of personal balance in this struggle yourself. What’s your secret?

Ha. Yeah, that’s a good question actually. I have found that balance and until this moment I hadn’t really thought about it. I’m very lucky. I work really, really hard, but then we play hard and have fun afterwards. I’ll work an 11 hour day or more for years on a book—like this one—but then when I’m done, my wife and I will hop in the car and go have fun. Travel and go see the world and get to reconnect again. When you’ve done the hard work, it’s a lot easier to goof off.

I do think a lot of artists really struggle with that and I think a lot of them will relate to this story because of that. Do you think that many artists feel like they have to sacrifice one for the other?

I just think that most artists find that there’s some kind of sacrifice involved. Sometimes it’s something dramatic like the kind that people make movies about, like Van Gogh or Michelangelo. But sometimes it’s just more subtle than that. We make the decision every day to spend our time with the people that we love, or to enjoy the world as it is, or to create these imaginary worlds. We’re making choices all the time. We don’t do it in such a dramatic way as my protagonist does, but we always do it and there’s always that tension.

Sometimes there’ll be a relationship where both are workaholics and they’ll just be together for ten minutes at the end of the day to have a glass of wine and that works for them. But in most cases, one mate or the other is working really hard and the other is left feeling abandoned.

How long did it take you to make this book?

Five years from when I sat down to actively make it. Before that I spent a year just thinking about it very intensely. But, before that it was almost thirty years that it just sat in the back of my head. It’s a very old story that goes back to my 20s.

I think that’s really fascinating to think about when it's the right time for an idea to come to fruition. How did you know when it was the right time to start working on it?

Well, I loved the story, but for many years I felt it was too close to my superhero roots. Too much of that preposterous, adolescent power fantasy that we dream up when we’re young. But as the years went by I realized there was something powerful about the basic story as I had perceived it and that, if done right, this was worth doing as a graphic novel. The challenge, as my editor put it to me, was to see if I could preserve the vitality of that young man’s idea but bring in the wisdom and perspective of an older man. A man twice the age of the kid who dreamed it up. And that’s what I tried to do.

Do you think it would have been drastically different if you had done it as a young man?

I think it would have had some of that same energy, but it would have been about something entirely different. I can’t imagine the 20s version of me ever doing a story that in the end was more about acceptance, letting go and understanding that we all get forgotten. It’s just not a story that young men tell, but it’s something that I’m more at peace with now as an older man.

What made you choose a sculptor?

The fact that he’s a sculptor and not a painter or a draftsman is the one part of the story that I never chose at all because sculpture was the initial point of inspiration. The whole time I was working on it, I never considered anything else. I think if I had, I still would have chosen it because it’s uniquely visual and spatial. A lot of magic happens in trying to capture three dimensions within two. Trying to create the illusion of space. That’s something that sculpture is really good at bringing out in a book.

I think if I had chosen an artist who was working in a vein closer to mine it may not have worked. Although there is another artist, Dylan Horrocks, who has a book out called Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen and it actually involves a man who, through supernatural means, is able to bring about new worlds with his pen. So, in a way, he got to do that story and I got to do this one.

Well, it does seem that a lot of cartoonists tend to tell stories about cartoonists so it’s interesting that you steered away from that.

Yeah, although there’s something similar in that a sculptor does work alone and that’s something that a lot of cartoonists, especially these days, tend to do. We’re loners. We do it all ourselves.

Speaking in sculpting terms, is making comics an additive or subtractive process?

You know, when we’re adding, we’re using the skills of drawing, word craft, figure drawing, anatomy. But, when we decide what doesn’t belong—when we take panels out, when we take out what’s between those panels that activate the readers’ imagination—that’s even closer to the heart of what comics are. So I think the identity of comics are wrapped up in the subtractive more than the additive.

I think a lot of people might be surprised, given you’re such a proponent of the digital medium, that—as far as I know—there isn’t a digital or webcomics version of The Sculptor. Is there a digital version planned for the future?

Well, I like the all-at-onceness of it so we decided not to serialize it on the web. My editor Mark Siegel, who had his own wonderful graphic novel, Sailor Twain, which he did serialize, he and I felt, in the end, that it would be more interesting if the whole thing landed with a boom.

Beyond that, I feel very strongly in designing for the device. I think we should make our comics with the final result in mind and not expect it to be able to adapt to whatever format that we stuff it into. If you’re designing for a book you should design it for a book. If you’re designing it to exist as a mobile app you should design it specifically to exist for that app or even for a mobile app on a specific device. I think the idea of Responsive Design—the idea that content can flip into a variety of formats automatically —is a noble idea for some kinds of communications and expression but comics isn’t one of them. In comics, shape matters. The concrete shape a work takes is tied too closely to its identity to expect it to just morph into a hundred shapes.

So, this particular book I designed as a book. My next book, I might design to be native to the web or to mobile devices, and if I do, I’ll care as little about the print version of that as I do about the digital version of this one (laughs).

Now, there will be a digital version of The Sculptor, you know, for iPad and Kindle, but I’ll be encouraging people to consider buying the print version because that’s going to be the closest to what I had in mind for it.

Do you think it is possible to do a comic that would work across as many formats as possible?

It’s possible. Now, you can do a comic where every single panel was the same shape and size and it would just reflow. So it would be one panel at a time if you were reading it on the bus on your phone and then it might be three wide and two deep on your iPad. That’s one way to go about it, and if that suits your set of goals, I say go for it. Art Spiegelman did that for a reissue of a comic anthology that he did called Breakdowns. But for me, I want to use the full orchestra. I want to choose every tool imaginable to tell this story and that meant pushing to the very limits of what print can do. And when you do that, then you’re illuminating the shape of print. And when you're illuminating the shape of print, the thing's gotta be in print.

It is a very substantial book to hold in your hands, but also your use of the black and blue ink to make certain elements fall into the background really works very well on the page.

Thank you. Good old Pantone 653. Special thanks to MailChimp in Atlanta who gave me a Pantone book and a quiet room when it came time to really make a decision on what color it would be. I was thousands of miles away from my own Pantone book so I’m glad they had one.

Did you always intend the book to be two-color? Did you ever consider full color?

I really enjoy a lot of black and white work, but two-color seemed great because I could really bring out the form. When you look at a couple of pages of this book, I want you to see characters and faces and buildings and trees. I don’t want you to see lines on paper and have to work at discerning the form. And that second color can really help there. You just instantly see the shapes and silhouettes of everything you’re looking at so it flows quickly. We talk about load time on web pages, but now we're talking about cognitive load time. I want the cognitive load time to be very fast on this thing.

But full color I’m just not good enough at. My color choices aren’t that great and it would have added enormously to the workload unless I had someone else color it and then I would just have to give up some of the control. So, basically, these two colors were the fullest palette I could work with while still having full control.

It seems like a lot of comic creators these days are moving more towards smaller works rather than big graphic novels like this one because the idea of holing yourself up in isolation for years without serializing it in some way is not favorable.

Right, you want to get some sort of gratification along the way. And if I had to do this thing while also working a 9 to 5 job, then it would have been a ten-year book instead of a five-year book. So, I understand why people are reluctant to do something quite this huge unless they have a publisher willing to support them during that period.

I guess that’s the key, so this was an enjoyable five-year experience for you?

It was fantastic. I’ve never enjoyed working on anything so much in my life. This was just as much fun, if not more so, than working on Understanding Comics back in the early ‘90s. It was very hard work. Very long hours. 11 hours a day, seven days a week. Even longer during the last year. But it was gratifying, interesting work. I was finally pushing my skills in directions I’d never gone before. And, frankly, also just filling a big hole in my resumé. You know (laughs), I’m out there for years telling people how to understand comics, how to make comics, and now I had to put my money where my mouth was. And that put a lot of pressure on me to not screw it up. Rather than as a burden, I took that pressure as a kind of rocket fuel to push me forward.

That almost answers my next question about any fears you might have had having to resell yourself as “Scott McCloud, the graphic novelist” vs. “Scott McCloud, the comic theorist”.

Well, I’ll tell you, there’s a journalist named Gary Tyrrell who writes for who said he expected to see The Sculptor push Understanding Comics out of the first line of my obituary (laughs). And that was really just what I was trying to do.

Well, I also couldn’t help while reading it to think about Understanding Comics like “Oh, look he’s using Aspect to Aspect transitions here..." Do you think you can say that working on those books made you a better storyteller and artist?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Well, Making Comics, in particular, if you go back to the introduction I say that one of the reasons I was doing that book was to teach myself to be a better cartoonist because I had this big book in mind for afterwards. That wasn’t just hyperbole. I was getting up on my own shoulders and then pulling myself up because I knew that there were gaps in my storytelling ability. I especially wanted to study facial expressions and body language because that’s one of the great untapped resources in comics. It’s extremely important that cartoonists improve on that front. Especially because I think we have a young readership that is more attuned to those things that are coming in through the all-ages comics now and will be arriving at our doorstep shortly. A very big wave of young readers, many of whom are female, and who absolutely care about what’s on the minds of ordinary human beings and how they interact with one another. These are things that they have enjoyed watching in the comics of people like Raina Telgemeier (Smile, Sisters) and they are going to be expecting it from their more mature, literary comics.

I noticed at the end of the book you thank a lot of people that modeled for you throughout the making of this book. Was using that much photo reference new to your process?

Yeah it was new and it turned out to be vital. Basically, I finally acknowledged my own limitations and did something about them. I always bemoaned my figure drawing and I worked at improving it, but I was pretty fatalistic about it and assumed nobody was ever going to be impressed by my figure drawing. But then I realized, if I have that problem, maybe I should get some help. And one of the best things you can do for that is to look at actual human beings (laughs).

So I went out and found some people. I thought a friend of mine would make a pretty good model for David and he found us our Meg. My father-in-law posed for the character of David’s grand-uncle Harry. And they were invaluable. And I managed to capture the nuance of some of these moments because I took thousands of photos. I also took a lot of video. Video is terrific when you’re taking reference because you can move that little scrubber back and forth until you have the exact instant where a whole gesture is captured in a moment. That’s something that’s harder to do when you’re just taking still pictures.

A lot of times when cartoonists use photo reference it really sticks out, but it felt very seamless here. You did a great job of retaining your style while really making these characters feel like real people.

Well, thank you. That was certainly a worry in the beginning that they might feel overly photo-referenced. What I tried to do was to keep them fluid and pretty iconic and to try to capture the gesture rather than copy the gesture. And that seemed to make a difference.

What’s the one thing about making comics that has changed the most since you began your career?

Of course, one of the biggest changes is the tools. I was never really a master of my tools in the pen and ink era, so I was uniquely suited for digital. I didn’t have a tremendous natural skill for drawing but I had a pretty good eye. So, I could look at my drawings and see that they sucked and I could figure out what needed to be fixed. When it was pen and ink or brush on paper, fixing things was very hard. You can’t decide after you've drawn a figure with a sable brush on bristol board that the head should be 10% smaller. You can’t decide that the figure should be half an inch to the left. But with digital you can. And by working in very high resolution, I was able to exactly that.

When I see a figure or a face that looked wrong, I fixed it. I made it a little less crappy and a little less crappy and eventually it looked okay and I moved on (laughs). And that seemed to do the trick. But, that meant that I had found my right tool. If I had the drawing skills of a Moebius or a Craig Thompson or a Jillian Tamaki, then I might not have needed to go digital. But that wasn’t my strength so I tried to play to my strength.

So, are you 100% digital or do you, say, thumbnail in pencil or anything like that?

No, even the thumbnails were digital this time. I laid out the book on massive Photoshop documents that had 40 comic pages on each document in these two long strips with these open areas above where I could take panels and move them above to move them out and then move them back in to the narrative, trying to think more of panel-to-panel flow across pages rather than getting too hung up on what was going on in any individual page.

What was your favorite comic that you read in the past year?

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, also from First Second, I think was my favorite one from last year. A really important book, especially in terms of its sense of place and pacing. It’s kind of a tone poem in a lot of ways. I’m very fond of that one.

First Second had a very good year last year. You’re coming in at a good time with them.

Yeah, it’s amazing because I’ve been able to see them grow up as I worked on this book. When I first signed up with them they were a little scrappy and new and now their line has really filled out beautifully. Part of it has to do that they invested a bit in the young reader end of of the spectrum and that’s grown in importance in the last year and become an important sector.

Who do you think is doing the most interesting or innovative comics right now?

In addition to Jillian, I think…that’s a hard one…who do I pick? It’s like you just showed me the MGM Grand buffet and are like, "Okay, pick a food, quick!"

Well, for most innovative, I really like Michael DeForge’s stuff. I really like Glyn Dillon’s The Nao of Brown. It came out just a couple of years ago. Jim Woodring’s really going strong right now, though he’s been around for quite a while. Again, the all-ages category as a whole I’m fascinated by. Vera Brosgol, Gene Yang. These folks are going to be very important down the road. Let’s see…what am I looking at right now…things change so much. Oh, Boulet, the French artist, I’m very fond of what he’s doing online. He does some really cool webcomics.

I’m glad you mentioned Boulet. If I had thought about it I would have asked you about him because he’s sort of the perfect webcomic cartoonist to ask Scott McCloud about I guess.

(laughs) He’s really covered those cycled looped animations as a comics-friendly extension that doesn’t break the boundaries of the medium but kind of knocks on the wall in a really interesting way.

What are you working on next?

I’m really excited about my next book, the only problem is my last book won’t leave me alone (laughs). I’ll be doing promotions of The Sculptor. I’m going to be traveling like CRAZY, talking about The Sculptor. We’ve got six European stops just in the first few months and then there’s going to be a Korean edition and, oh god, it’s just going to be everywhere.

But, yeah, I am working on the next book which is going to be about visual communication, generally. It’s a return to non-fiction but not quite as limited to comics as my previous books were. I’m interested in trying to distill some of the comics principles and the best practices of communicating and educating with pictures. I think there are a lot of common principles to be derived from information graphics, data visualization and any number of other disciplines.