Obsessive Tendencies: Scott McCloud on 25 Years of Understanding Comics

Twenty-five years ago, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art began appearing on the bookshelves of discerning comic book lovers everywhere, and changed the way the medium is created and consumed.

Writer/artist Scott McCloud’s examination of the art form managed to impress readers as not only a thoughtful exploration of the medium, but as an entertaining work of comics art in its own right. For a quarter century, it’s been loved, analyzed, argued over, quoted, and dog-eared by academics and fans alike.

Significantly, it’s a deeply scholarly work that doesn’t feel like work. Formatting it as a comic book is part of it (what better way to explore comics than with comics?), but the tone is also breezy and unpretentious, without sacrificing depth. At its center is a definition of comics that relies on the idea of sequential images, and the ways in which our eyes and imaginations fill in the gaps between panels to construct a narrative in cooperation with the writer/artist.

The book arrived  at the perfect time: a new generation of creators in the ’80s brought with them a growing mainstream acceptance of comics as more than just kids stuff, and McCloud’s book helped to cement that. It makes a solid case for comics as a distinct art form with its own history, strengths, and limitations.

On the anniversary of the book’s release, we talked with McCloud (Zot!, The Sculptor) about his most influential work.

What sparked your interest in comics, and what brought on the deeper interest that lead to Understanding Comics?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this tendency to get obsessed with things. By the time I was done with elementary school, I’d gone through love affairs with mineralogy, the space program, microbiology, chess, and even politics. Comics was NOT one of those obsessions at first—I thought I was too old for comics in elementary school—but in middle school I met fellow nerd Kurt Busiek and he got me hooked on them.

Even in my early teens, my interest in comics went beyond the stories and characters. I thought of it as an art form, and I was just pretentious and nerdy enough to think that I could somehow contribute to that artform—even help change it. When I sold my first comic series (Zot! 1984-1991), I had a ton of ideas about how comics works to create stories in the minds of readers. When those theories grew to a mountain of notes, I knew I had to put them all in a book, and that book was Understanding Comics.

How did working on the book influence your other work?
After the book came out, and was successful, I actually hit a wall; just massive writer’s block for a few years. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any ideas—I had far too many of them. Understanding Comics was partially about how the artform was a blank slate, how you could do anything with it, and a little part of me as a result wanted to do EVERYTHING with it. Needless to say, that wasn’t practical. Also, my wife and I became parents for the first time that same year and I tumbled into a new obsession with digital technology…It was a confusing time.

Thinking back to 1993, I’m curious about the reception to Understanding Comics—from comics experts on the one hand, and from the broader art world on the other. I’d imagine that different camps had very different things to say.
Comics experts gave it a mostly warm reception at the beginning, but then the various debates started and have never really stopped; which is how it should be. I haven’t been directly engaged in a lot of those debates; I like to let the book speak for itself; but the last few years have been interesting. I might dive back in a bit more soon.

The broader art world has been increasingly receptive to comics as a whole. I can’t say for sure that my book had much to do with that, but it’s an encouraging development for the art form. In some ways, the two communities have grown closer together. I’m not an active part of the art scene myself though.

That era seemed to be the beginning of a broader acceptance of comics as more than just disposable entertainment. Do you think the book had an impact on that?
I’d like to think that Understanding Comics helped contribute to comics’ broader acceptance by both the general public and by various institutions like libraries, museums, and universities. But guys like me are only half of the solution. We can talk about how great comics are until we’re blue in the face, but it’s the best cartoonists (people like Spiegelman, Ware, Bechdel, Yang, etc) who prove it in the long run.

You’ve written about the digital landscape of comics. A lot of people consume comics via reader apps that present single panels at a time: does that change the form? I’m thinking about your description of comics as a medium in which past, present, and future are all visible at once.
I had a mountain of crazy ideas for how comics could evolve in a digital environment, and I pushed them very hard in the web’s early years. That experimental scene yielded some fascinating results, but it’s mostly fizzled in recent years. A lot of the formats that won out in the marketplace are frankly dissatisfying and boring to me, but until I get back in the game, I don’t really have a right to complain.

I do think that juxtaposition (putting one panel after another in space to tell a story) is important to comics’ core identity. Showing one panel at a time may be clear and effective enough to get the job done, but it’s basically a slideshow. It would be hard to make a case that a movie or TV treatment wouldn’t be more satisfying to the average audience. I don’t want comics to be a second-rate version of any other art form. I want comics to have an identity all its own. We’ll see if future mutations can deliver that or not.

There’s a bit in Understanding Comics about the physical process of assembling a book, which is very different now. Has digital design, assembly, etc. changed the form, or just made things more convenient?
Just as the profoundly non-physical world of the Web was ascending, a lot of rebel young artists began experimenting with formats. They started using all kinds of different shapes and materials. It was as if the tactile qualities of comics had suddenly become discoverable in ways they never were before.I like that interplay and I hope it continues.

When I started making comics, the physical form was taken for granted. We barely even noticed it. Now the form is more mindfully designed than ever, often because of digital tools that have given us an unprecedented level of control. Meanwhile, the formless world of digital delivery has taken over in the efficiency department; it’s now the quickest way to get from A to B. It’s pretty good balance. I would never want to go back to the way things are when I started.

Are there artists or works right now that you feel are pushing the boundaries of the form, or at least using it to its fullest?
In the year 2000, I wrote (in Reinventing Comics) about 12 different revolutions in comics that could help move us forward. Those revolutions are still underway, now more than ever, and artists are working on many different fronts at once. I like what’s happening in kids’ comics with artists like Raina Telgemeier; queer and gender themes with artists like Melanie Gilman, Ngozi Ukazu, Tee Franklin, and Jen St. Onge; surrealists like Jesse Jacobs; solid SF like Vaughan and Staples’ Saga; moving international stories like Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do; all-around powerhouse talents like Jillian Tamaki, Gene Luen Yang, and Eleanor Davis… Even the superheroes are getting better! It’s just a very diverse generation.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is 25 years old. It’s a great time to check it out.

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