Scott McCloud has solidified his position as an elder statesman of the comic book and cartoon medium over the past three decades. Through his trifecta of educational texts — Understanding Comics, Making Comics and Reinventing Comics — the cartoonist and theorist has dissected the major tenants of what comics are, will be and could be. With his new massive graphic novel The Sculptor, McCloud marries that rigorous academia to an evocative epic that explores the metaphysics and emotions of creation. Drafted over five years, this 500-page tome chronicles David, an abrasive, obsessive artist, in his journey to create a masterpiece that will survive his own mortality. David soon makes a faustian pack with Death — in the guise of his amicable Uncle Harry — for the power to construct whatever concept he can visualize with whatever materials he can find. The catch? David only has 200 days to confirm his artistic legacy before departing the mortal plane.
After spending the past 60 months executing this ambitious vision (released this Tuesday by First Second), McCloud has crafted a work that adeptly channels the fragility of growing artists and their fractured relationships. Paste spoke with McCloud via phone to chat about the subjective goal of art, reconnecting with your inner starving artist and the difference between Tommy Wisseau and Stanley Kubrick.
The Sculptor is so emotionally raw. Compared to your other work, and even going back to Zot! and The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, how was the process different for creating something this vulnerable, as opposed to your educational and more light-hearted material?
Scott McCloud: A lot of the emotional character of the story just comes from the content of the idea. I’m just basically following through from that original idea. It was just this cascading line of dominos. If it was going to be a story about this, and it was going to take these turns, then you needed a character who had this particular emotional tenor to him. He had to be young. He had to be raw. He had to even be a little on the autism spectrum. I can see him having little OCD tics as well. But it just felt right for the story. It wasn’t so much me in that emotional place, as much as me — the calculating narrative overlord — deciding [protagonist David] needed to be in that emotional place, and then I had to put myself in that emotional place.
But all I had to do was put myself back to what I was like at that age. And it wasn’t like I was super obsessive. I guess I still am, but I guess (I was) obsessive and alone, which is different than obsessive and married, which is what I am now.
Paste: You say that so casually, but I don’t think it’s an universal skill to transport yourself back so many years. It’s almost like a method acting trick. How did you get back there?
McCloud: Well, method acting is a really good comparison. One of the things that I’ve been trying really hard to do in recent years is to discover a way of channeling characters on the page. My editor talked a lot about what we called human theater, and how comics haven’t been that great about human theater over the years. Comics don’t always quite get that right: the rhythm of conversations, body language and facial expressions are so important. With this book, that was one of the most important aspects of it for me. And the only way I could do it was like a method actor. I would somehow conjure that feeling in me.
I think maybe it’s just my character. I’m pretty sentimental and earnest. I like my protagonist. I have that condition that Leonard Bernstein’s kids called being irony deficient, which is something I have to overcome as a writer, but at the same time it also gave me a very open channel to emotions. I mean, I went through a lot of tissues on this. Anything sad in the story — anything that might make any reader cry — I was probably crying at some point when I was drawing it. Because I knew I had to produce that emotion in myself to even have a hope of producing it in anyone else. Dustin Hoffman was interviewed about the film that he directed, Quartet, but he said something that I’ve always remembered: actors never wipe away tears, because when they manage to force themselves to cry, they want the audience to see the tears. It’s like I’m not gonna waste this. I’m not gonna wipe this away. But of course, in real life, we always wipe away tears. Even when we’re alone, we always wipe away tears. That’s what real people do.
Paste: Creating the book took you five years. What were the factors that took you the longest to work out?
McCloud: Well it broke down into two parts: there were the layouts and there was the actual finished art. It was two years on the layouts and three years on the finished art. To be more precise, the first year I did the rough. When I say rough, my roughs aren’t all that rough. You can read them like a comic; they look like a comic. They’re all done digitally, but they were hand drawn. All the words were in word balloons. So it was just a little wobbly and rough and sketchy — but if you squint, it looks like a finished comic. So I did that for the whole thing. It took me a little less than a year.
And then, with the help of some friends of mine — these friends I call my “kibitzers” — who come in and they read the thing and they basically tell me every single thing they think stinks about it. They’re brutally honest. And my editor did that too. And then for the next year, I revised it and then I revised it again. And then I revised it again — I did four drafts of this 500-page book, ripping up old scenes, adding in new scenes, eliminating characters, adding characters until I thought it was solid. And then for the next three years, that’s when I drew the finished comic. But in those first two years, there wasn’t a single finished panel. It was just the roughs.
Paste: What were some of the elements you tossed out for the final version?
McCloud: For instance, toward the beginning of the story, my protagonist, David, talks about what his struggles are. In the first draft, it was all about feeling overpowered by the skyscrapers of Manhattan and feeling like all these great stone edifices didn’t care about him, he was so anonymous…blah blah blah. There was this whole aesthetic philosophy that grew out of that feeling of impotency. That completely went away because once I had written the story, I knew that was not what the story was about.
And so it was time to find a way for his struggles to have something to do without those themes. The real themes are more about that terror of being forgotten, and the fact that we all get forgotten. So now he has the dream where the whole city is being tipped on its side by a giant hand and everybody is sliding down into oblivion. The idea that we’re all sliding down into oblivion — that is connected to the themes of the book. But you have to finish that story to really understand what it’s about, and now you know what belongs and what doesn’t belong. You start to rip up the floorboards and start over. The first draft of everything is shit, just like Ernest Hemingway said.
Paste: There are so many panels in The Sculptor that reinforce the atmosphere — it all feels very New York City. Did it take you long to establish that feel? And those last scenes where David’s life is flashing before him in cascading tiny panels….
McCloud: [Laughs] You want a counter on how long that took? It took a very long time.
Paste: That scene was almost a comic within itself. I feel like anyone else might have vouched for a double-page spread.
McCloud: To the first part of your question, when you asked about establishing the mood and establishing New York City, both of them have an architecture. Mood has an architecture to it. You need to build the foundation for a mood, and then you need to build the skeleton, the struts, the girder underneath, and then the stuff on the outside. It’s an architectural process. Stories are architecture. Moods are architecture. And in the case of New York City, architecture is architecture. [laughs] So yeah, it’s a constructive process, and that means really getting down into the fundamental of how these things are established in the mind of the reader, and at the end of the day, that’s your medium — the mind of the reader. It’s not pen and ink. It’s not pixels.
It was genuinely time consuming putting together some of those scenes. This book, when it was all done, was about three days per page, which is very slow compared to a lot of cartoonists. But things like the climatic scene that you were just talking about, that was especially difficult. As you say, it was a comic within a comic, because there were just so many panels. It was a collage-like process, where I was able to devise a system, working from a place where I could move things around and play with them, but in the end it was just the hard work of drawing one picture after another after another after another. To make it even worse, after all that overlap, they were also huge files. And because they were huge files, it also took forever after I wanted to save them. I wasn’t able to save my files as often, which meant if I had a blackout, I could lose a lot of work. It was pretty terrifying, but it was gratifying too, because I knew I was going the distance on this one.
I can open my book to any spread, and I can see panels that I know could have been better if a more skilled draftsman was working on them. But I also know that I could not have made them better in the moment. I was finally able to do something where I could look at every page and also know that this was generally the best I could do at the time. And that’s gratifying.
Paste: In your afterward you write that “I’m less like David every day, [your wife Ivy] is less like the object of his affection. But, whenever my pen hit the screen, there she was just the same; in the hands and the voice and the freckles and the smile.” How much should the reader assume that David’s story resembles your own, save the fantastical elements?
McCloud: There was less of me in David than there was Ivy in Meg. My wife (Ivy) really brought the character of Meg to life. David has me in him, mostly just from a practical standpoint, because it’s hard for him not to. It would have been more work to keep me out of that character, then to put me in, which is my natural, default thing. If I’m going to write about a struggling artist, I’m going to tap into whatever struggles I’ve had as an artist. My glib answer has been 40% of me and David, and 70% of Ivy and Meg, if we want to get really specific about it. But what do all writers do? They say write what you know, and if you’re writing in the context of fantasy, then that becomes a commandment for interior interrogation. There’s more about finding something within you that resonates as real. But in the end, the strongest guiding principles were the themes of the book. Even the strongest real-life influences on the characters still have to orbit around those ideas and take whatever course was necessary for the whole book to reflect the parts and the parts to reflect the whole.
Paste: As far as being “real” is concerned, Meg had shades of being bipolar and David had shades of lying somewhere on the autism spectrum. I loved how those conditions wrecked the characters’ Christmas and New Year’s, which isn’t a situation you’d find very often in a comic book.
McCloud: In a way I cheat. If this was a story about ordinary people in ordinary situations, I would need to keep the camera rolling through the most uncomfortable aspects of that. But you’ll notice where it’s the hardest — the day-to-day struggles of people with emotional problems — some of that gets summarized, because I do have a broader story to tell. Wheels have been set in motion. I think readers would be justifiably frustrated if they found themselves in 10 or 20 pages of just the small, daily frustrations of broken people in a relationship. So gave myself and the readers the gift of what we might think of as emotional fly-over country. We’ve sufficiently summarized that particular period and we’re going to move on now
Paste: I read the overarching message here to say that it’s misguided to sacrifice your life for your art….
McCloud: Well, here’s the thing…
Paste: Uh oh. [Laughs]
McCloud: Here’s the fun part for me. My story points in two directions, and it never, ever resolves it. I talk about the themes, but if we even try to articulate them, we run up against a bit of a wall because the fact is, this is a story about somebody learning to accept that we all get forgotten, and that struggling against it is futile. It’s also the story about somebody who struggles against it to the very end, beyond any reasonable measure. And I hope that people can hold both those thoughts at the same time. Not in the sprit of mushy, blurry ambiguity, but in the spirit of great, powerful opposing forces. What I’ve been calling a robust ambiguity, where a story rises and falls all at once, just like we’re told of David’s early sculptures, the ones we never see. I hope I leave the reader with a sense of that acceptance, and how beautiful it is to not accept it.