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.
Paste: In your world, what would you say the optimal outcome for creating art would be?
McCloud: Well, maybe the illusion that you think you’ve made something that will last, whether it does or not. You know, Bach’s doing OK. Will we be listening to Bach at the heat death of the universe? It’s not necessarily true that nothing will last, especially as we enter an age where it’s quite possible that we’re at the beginning of fully-recorded history through technological means.
I don’t even necessarily agree with my own message that everyone gets forgotten. That may not be true. But within the world of [The Sculptor] it is. And as a second death, as a way of looking at that second death, it’s also a way of grappling with what one might call the religious belief that even the atheists — I’m an atheist personally — cling to. And that is the religion of the secular life after death, of somehow creating works that last. It’s certainly a noble impulse, and it’s an impulse that’s responsible for some of the most beautiful works human kind has ever produced. But it also may be a blind faith that, in the end, is kind of foolish.
Paste: You’ve created books specifically for artists and comic producers to understand and execute on a vision in the comic book or cartoon medium. Though this is a fictional narrative about sculpting, this doesn’t feel dissimilar. When you started this project, was it done with the intention to help others understand the metaphysics of art?
McCloud: No. It’s a nice thought, and we’ll see how it plays out in that regard, but I think my only chance to do what you described is to not do it consciously. I wanted to say something that feels true and relevant to myself, and to my own personal world view, but there’s really an absence that anyone else might be guided by it.
Since finishing the book, it’s occurred to me that some might derive some comfort from it, but I think it’s maybe on a more emotional level. The thing that we forget in stories about artists, is almost all stories about artists are stories about great art and masterpieces and undiscovered geniuses. That’s not most of us. The great majority of artists will get a little time in the sunlight maybe if they’re lucky, and maybe their children will remember, maybe even their grandchildren will hang onto a little of what they did, and then it’s off to a storage facility somewhere in Lansing, Michigan. And that’s it. That’s most of us.
Part of what I’m trying to say is that I have a love and affection for them, and that they should feel a fellowship with others on that similar path. They should still strive to be remembered. They should still strive to do something great, why not? But they shouldn’t feel as if it was all for nothing, if that’s not the result, because that’s so rarely the result.
Paste: One point the book reinforces quite a bit is that there are no external absolutes, only personal absolutes. I found the point interesting, as you’ve written three of the guidebooks about the structure and format of how to create and appreciate the comic book medium. Do you think there should be any common standards or metrics to appreciate art?
McCloud: I think it’s a good impulse to feel as if there’s some kind of arbiter out there — to project an absolute value that says, without question, that Stanley Kubrick is creating something more meaningful than…OK, who am I going to….
Paste: Tommy Wiseau?
McCloud: [Laughs] No, not Tommy….come on…..I’m not going to beat up on Tommy Wisea. It’s not fair. Michael Bay. The idea that we’re living in a universe in which the only arbiter is how many people went to see the film is terrifying. So we come up with these real-world metrics, like ‘I believe in ten or twenty years more people will be watching and talking about Stanley Kubrick’s films than Michael Bay’s films. And what we’re saying is probably true, but all we’re really doing is pushing back the terror — even that’s just a matter of circumstance. That doesn’t mean one of them is more significant than the other. We don’t want to think about that. We really want to believe that there’s some kind of art-o-meter on Jupiter, like David’s friend says in the book. We want to believe that — there has to be. Or as David says, “Even if nobody was around to see it, there would still be a difference between what we think of these great works and what we don’t.”
That’s the kind of faith that we have. Even those of us who have no religious faith, still have that faith. Even that is ultimately a fiction, it’s something we construct around ourselves, to protect ourselves from the fact that we do live in a random, uncaring universe.
Paste: You have a mastery on the tenants of online and print comics. The Sculptor was very specifically made for print. It reminded me of David’s devotion to working in granite, as opposed to Finn’s DJ Lance jpeg art. What was the decision process to work exclusively in paper?
McCloud: I think if you want to really push the limitations of a physical medium, you have to know what they are. I guess that’s what I was studying in a lot of ways. The whole time that I was working on the possibilities for digital comics, I was also revealing the limitations of print for myself. The way we work within the page can illuminate a lot of compositional possibilities within that rectangle.
But I don’t think too many cartoonists give much thought to the fact that, well, it’s kind of fucked up. Why is it that when we choose the size and shape of panel one, we’ve automatically restricted the size and shape of panel two. In what ways does that interfere with our pacing? If you have a scene that is best told in 17 beats, and you want to do those nine panels to a page, you have a problem. That lands you one panel short on the right-hand page. Do you stall? Do you compress? What if you want a really big panel after that, and now you’ve only got a tiny piece of space.
So one of the things I did when I was working on this book was to transcend that a bit. Each page, I hope, is an interesting composition, but I wasn’t trying to think of it as a completed composition. I wanted storytelling that propelled you forward, and a certain amount of imbalance is one way to do that. And so I was thinking in terms of panel to panel to panel to panel. I’d kind of let the axe fall at the end of the page more naturally, after the fact, but first the challenge was to figure out the linear progression through the story and where the beats were, and to allow for a little bit more imbalance. I probably could have pushed that further than I did. I probably should have pushed it even further than I did.
I always think of Laurie Anderson talking about how walking is just falling and then stopping yourself from falling. That’s how we should be propelled from panel to panel. Each panel should allow you to fall into the next panel.