Born June 10, 1960 (Lexington, Massachusetts)
American comics theorist, artist, illustrator
Scott McCloud—author of two works that have dissected the ways that comics and the comics industry work—has been called a "cartoonist's cartoonist" and "comic's resident futurist." As one of the few people ever to make a systematic study of the ways that comics tell stories, McCloud is widely considered to be the leading intellectual working in comics in the 1990s and 2000s. His two key works, Understanding Comics (1993) and Reinventing Comics (2000), advanced the idea that comics are a serious form of storytelling and ignited many discussions throughout the comics community about how comics and the comics industry work. McCloud's work stirred controversy with his piercing criticisms of the existing comics industry and his suggestion that the future of comics was on the Internet.
"Comics' place in society is worth fighting for. It's a matter of dignity! We should aspire to a higher place in popular culture.…"
More than just a comics theorist, McCloud has also created several innovative comics stories of his own over the years. Zot!, which appeared in serial form in the mid- and late 1980s, was collected in graphic novels in the mid-1990s, and was reborn in an online version in 2000, offered a nostalgic take on a superhero romance and allowed McCloud to experiment with the ideas he developed in his theoretical works. His comic book Destroy!! (1986) was an all-out parody of the superhero comic genre. He has also penned stories for the Superman series. In the 2000s, McCloud was actively exploring the potential of online comics in such stories as I Can't Stop Thinking! and The Right Number, available with a micropayment from his personal Web site, www.scottmccloud.com.
Comics becomes an obsession
From very early in Scott McCloud's life, he showed an intensity of concentration and interest that bordered on obsession. He was born on June 10, 1960, in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, and was one of four children. His parents provided an environment that was at once stimulating and nurturing. In his father, Willard, McCloud had a wonderful example of persevering through adversity: His father was born blind, yet he had an amazing career as a scientist and inventor. He worked for Raytheon Laboratories, a major supplier of weapons systems to the U.S. government, and he was involved with the invention of the guidance system for the Patriot missile. His mother, Patricia Beatrice McCloud, not only looked after her entire family, she also helped her husband with driving, reading, and finances.
Understanding Comics (1993).
Zot! 3 vols. (1996–98, 2000).
(Writer) Superman Adventures (1998).
The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln (1998).
Reinventing Comics (2000).
(Editor) 24 Hour Comics (2004).
Making Comics (2006).
Destroy!! (comic). (1985).
My Obsession with Chess (Web comic). (1998–99).
I Can't Stop Thinking! (Web comic). (2000–01).
The Right Number (Web comic). (2004–05).
As a child, McCloud devoted his singular attention to a wide variety of interests. "My childhood was a series of obsessions; I'd move from one obsession to another," he told Chris Knowles in an interview in Comic Book Artist magazine. "I began with astronomy, mineralogy—this was in elementary school, around fourth grade!—microbiology was a huge one." By the time he was around thirteen years old, his major obsession was chess. Then a childhood friend, Kurt Busiek (1960–; see entry), wooed him from chess to the glories of comic books, introducing him to stories about Daredevil, the X-Men, and the Avengers. "Eventually," McCloud told Knowles, "he broke through my prejudices, because I really thought I was too old for comics at the time." Together, he and Busiek committed themselves to comics, both of them believing that the medium could do far more interesting and intelligent things than the typical superhero stories they read. McCloud, who had always loved to draw, decided early on in high school that he would make his career as a comics creator. (Busiek made the same decision; he became a writer of such comics as Marvels and Astro City.)
McCloud and Busiek both attended Lexington High School, which McCloud described in an interview with Graphic Novelists (GN) as "a repository for a lot of impressive brains. Many of the students were the children of scientists, inventors, or professors." There were so many "nerds" in the school, related McCloud, that they had their own cafeteria. "I was lucky. I didn't have the horrific persecution that nerds get at some schools," McCloud told GN. The two comics fans traded stories and encouraged each other's interest in a career in comics. They worked as a team, with Busiek writing the text and McCloud providing the illustrations. When they were both sixteen, in fact, they penned a comic called Pow! Biff! Pops! for a fundraiser put together by the Boston Pops Orchestra. The comic featured DC and Marvel Comics heroes and sold, at the time, for $10 a copy. (Recently, McCloud related, someone paid $1,000 for one of the few remaining copies.) McCloud and Busiek both attended Syracuse University, where McCloud majored in illustration. They founded a comics fan club at the university and together created a sixty-page comic called "The Battle of Lexington." McCloud graduated from college in 1982 and, thanks to the boom enjoyed then in the comics industry, he immediately went to work for DC Comics, one of the two biggest comic book publishers in the United States. McCloud worked in the production department, he told interviewer Erick Ferguson, "which involved random paste-ups, little editorial corrections, whiting out lines when they went over the panel border.…" It was perfect work for someone starting out in the comics business: not only did it expose McCloud to all the stages in comics production, but it also made him very aware of the difficulties facing independent-minded creators who wanted to push the boundaries of what might be covered in a comic book.
Working at DC through 1982 and into 1983, McCloud felt himself begin to slip into the mindset that he would work at this nine-to-five job, slowly moving up the corporate ladder, until getting DC to publish one of his own comics. Then, he had a jolt. "My father died," he told Knowles, "and I sort of had a change of heart … and I decided to go for it, to do my own comic, and see if I could sell it, rather than waiting to get approval to do my own comic." That comic would be Zot!, a futuristic story about a teenage boy searching for the "Doorway at the Edge of the Universe." McCloud poured all of his various interests into Zot!, from his study of Japanese manga to his love of the movie The Wizard of Oz to his desire to use comics to explore intellectual ideas, and he prepared an enormous package of materials to take to publishers. He finally decided on Eclipse, because that publisher offered him creative control over the series—something that was to become increasingly important to McCloud over the years, especially after he observed how even well-known comics creators often struggled to gain creative control and full rights to their works.
With Eclipse's purchase of Zot!, McCloud left DC and became a full-time freelance comic book creator. With its clean and artful full-color illustrations, engaging storyline and characters, and innovative method of storytelling, Zot! soon won accolades: the comic won the Jack Kirby Comics Industry Award for best new series of 1984, and also earned McCloud the Russ Manning Promising Newcomer Award at the San Diego Comic Convention in 1985. Despite its success, both critically and in terms of sales (which started at around 28,000 copies, then slid to around 13,000 copies later in the series), Zot! did not earn its author a great deal of money. He was, McCloud told Knowles, "a medium-sized fish in a small pond." McCloud worked at odd jobs, continued to publish Zot!, and penned another single-issue comic called Destroy!!, which parodied the superhero comic genre (McCloud described it to GN as "very large and very loud"), and began to try his hand at journalism, using his intense interest in comics to offer criticisms of the industry that he was coming to know so well.
In the mid- to late 1980s, McCloud once more became obsessed, this time with the potential that he saw in comics that were either self-published or published by a number of very small comics publishers. He continued to make money from his journalism, and from the black-and-white continuation of Zot!, but by the late 1980s he began to turn in a new direction. In 1987, he married Ivy Ratafia, a storyteller and children's theater director, and at about the same time he put together a proposal for a new kind of work, a comic about comics. The man who finally bought the proposal for the book that would become Understanding Comics was Kevin Eastman (1962–), half of the pair that had created and then struck it rich with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Originally, Eastman just wanted to give McCloud money to finance his work, but McCloud insisted that he only be paid for work that he had done. They came to an agreement in which Eastman paid McCloud an advance on each page of the book that he completed, supplying McCloud with the money he needed to continue on his ambitious project to relate to readers how comics work—in comic book form. By 1993, the book was published by Kitchen Sink Press, then picked up and reprinted by the much larger publisher HarperPerennial in 1994.
Comics Creators' Bill of Rights
In the mid-1980s, Scott McCloud was one of many comics creators who had grown tired of allowing large comics publishers like DC Comics and Marvel to dictate the terms of the contracts they signed to create comics. Though contracts varied widely, it was generally felt to be the case that publishers, not creators, reaped the greatest financial rewards from a successful comics creation. In the fall of 1988, a number of creators convened in Massachusetts for a two-day summit to discuss creators' rights. McCloud brought with him a draft version of "A Bill of Rights for Comics Creators." The document contained twelve essential rights:
- The right to full ownership of what we fully create.
- The right to full control over the creative execution of that which we fully own.
- The right of approval over the reproduction and format of our creative property.
- The right of approval over the methods by which our creative property is distributed.
- The right to free movement of ourselves and our creative property to and from publishers.
- The right to employ legal counsel in any and all business transactions.
- The right to offer a proposal to more than one publisher at a time.
- The right to prompt payment of a fair and equitable share of profits derived from all of our creative work.
- The right to full and accurate accounting of any and all income and disbursements relative to our work.
- The right to prompt and complete return of our artwork in its original condition.
- The right to full control over the licensing of our creative property.
- The right to promote and the right of approval over any and all promotion of ourselves and our creative property.
This Bill of Rights was widely discussed by those working in the comics industry, and numbers of creators were persuaded to seek—and publishers to grant—the rights listed. However, it is hardly the case that creators now have all the rights requested in this document. As McCloud put it on his Web site, "that creators already have the right to control their art if they want it; all they have to do is not sign it away."
Understanding Understanding Comics
Understanding Comics was unlike anything ever published about comic books and is considered McCloud's greatest work to date. Though it bore some similarities to Will Eisner's (1917–2005; see entry)Comics and Sequential Art, published in 1985, McCloud's work not only shows readers how comics work to tell a story, it is told via comics. Guiding readers through the book is a comic character named Scott McCloud, a blazer-wearing young man with huge round glasses that hid his eyes. The character McCloud offers readers a definition of comics—"juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence"—and then proceeds to demonstrate how comics have been used throughout history. McCloud spends the better part of the book showing readers how comics work, breaking down the devices by which comics creators signal emotions, ideas, and the passage of time. There is no element of storytelling that McCloud does not address, and to provide examples he draws liberally from the work of other comics from around the world.
Understanding Comics does far more than show readers how comics work, however. In fact, what was most commented on about this book was McCloud's sustained argument for the literary and cultural value (or rather, potential value) of comics. McCloud insisted in the book that comics could be more than "crude, poorly-drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable kiddie fare"; in fact, he argued, "the potential of comics is limitless and exciting!" He concluded his book by saying that "comics offers tremendous resources to all writers and artists: faithfulness, control, a chance to be heard far and wide without fear of compromise.… It offers range and versatility with all the potential imagery of film and painting plus the intimacy of the written word."
Reviewers and fellow comics creators heaped praise on Understanding Comics. Publishers Weekly called it a "rare and exciting work that ingeniously uses comics to examine the medium itself," while fellow comic Garry Trudeau (1948–), of "Doonesbury" fame, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that McCloud "guides us through the elements of comics style, and shows us how the mind processes them through inferred transitions and how words combine with pictures to work their singular magic. Never has the didactic seemed so charming." The back cover included words of support from some of the giants in the industry, including Will Eisner (who called it a "landmark dissection and intellectual consideration of comics as a valid medium") and Art Spiegelman (1948–; who said it was "the most intelligent comix I've seen in a long time"). Understanding Comics won multiple awards in the United States and abroad, and earned McCloud the reputation as a leading intellectual in the comics world.
In the summer of 1990, Scott McCloud was visiting with fellow comics creator Steve Bissette, whom he knew to be terribly slow at producing his work. What if, McCloud wondered, both he and Bissette were faced with an impossible deadline? What if they were required to finish an entire 24-page comic, plus cover, within a 24-hour span? Thus was born the "24-Hour Comic."
McCloud and Bissette were the first to take the 24-Hour Comic dare, and the idea could have died there, but Bissette sent copies of their efforts to several other comics creators with the question: "What can you produce in 24 hours?" Soon creators around the world were taking the challenge, and succeeding (or not) in various ways: some, like Neil Gaiman (1960–; see entry) of Sandman fame, couldn't finish 24 pages, but submitted what he could; others, like Kevin Eastman (1962–) of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame, couldn't stop once they had started, and worked more hours to produce more pages. But many others did turn out interesting work within the time constraints.
In 2004, McCloud edited a collection of these quickly produced works in 24-Hour Comics, noting that those in the book represented just the tip of an iceberg that reached into the thousands. Soon, others took the 24-hour challenge: some Australians organized a group event in which forty creators came together in one place to produce the comics; in New York, a theater group came together to write a 24-hour play, and this in turn inspired the 48-Hour Film Project, begun in 2001 (see www.48hourfilm.com). No matter the medium in which the dare takes place, the need for speed has spurred creativity and produced consistently interesting work.
Understanding Comics opened a number of doors for McCloud: he was invited to talk at comics conventions and to deliver lectures at universities. Perhaps most importantly, it opened the door to a sequel. Working on the first book had opened McCloud to thinking more carefully about a whole range of other issues associated with comics, and he took those on in Reinventing Comics, published in 2000. In the introduction, humorously titled "Understanding Sequels," McCloud writes that while the first book was about "comics' exciting internal life, I was equally fascinated with its external life—the story of what people have actually done with comics in the 20th century." In the first half of Reinventing, he reports "on the many ongoing battles to reinvent the way comics are created and perceived in North America," and his story—again narrated by the Scott McCloud figure—provides details on the workings of three generations of American comics creators. In the second half of the book, McCloud takes on a bigger challenge: he spells out a road map for how comics creators could—perhaps should—use digital technology, especially the computer and the Internet, to revolutionize the way they create and distribute comics.
The first half of Reinventing Comics generated some praise and discussion in the comics industry, though nothing like his first book. In the print and online forums where comics are discussed, McCloud's work inspired urgent conversations about ethnic and sexual diversity in comics, the need for greater creative control among artists and writers (see sidebar), and public perception of the worth of comics as a literary form. But it was the second half of the book that caused a real firestorm of controversy. McCloud argued that the wave of the future of comics is on the Internet, and he urged that creators figure out ways to sell their works through small payments, called micropayments, in which customers who want to view a "comic book" paid a small sum, perhaps a nickel, a dime, or a quarter, for viewing rights. He also proposed that the "infinite canvas" of new technologies could change the form of the comic book, allowing it to progress in different fashions that would enhance storytelling.
There are many who love Reinventing Comics. In an oft-quoted remark, comic book creator Frank Miller (1957–; see entry), best known for Sin City, called McCloud "the smartest guy in comics." A Library Journal reviewer called Reinventing Comics an "exceptional book" that "may just be the blueprint for the very future of the comics industry." Yet it was McCloud's detractors who earned the most attention. Writing in the Comics Journal, arguably the leading journal in the field, Gary Groth criticized McCloud for being too quick to embrace technology as a positive creative force in the comics world. Reinventing Comics, wrote Groth, "is for the most part visually grotesque and … a refutation of many of his grandiose claims about the superiority of computer technology over and against such antiquated techniques as applying ink to paper with pen or brush." Groth called McCloud to task for his "wholly uncritical, indeed, breathless and drooling enthusiasms for technology irrespective of their grounding in reality or even common sense." Such was the tone of much of the criticism that followed, mainly from people who felt that McCloud was too optimistic about the ability of the Internet to provide comics creators with a source of income.
Ventures into the digital beyond
To his credit, McCloud did not shrink from the criticism that came his way as a result of his provocative assertions in Reinventing Comics. (In fact, he anticipated such criticism, acknowledging in the introduction to his book that his ideas were "under construction.") Instead, he became ever more engaged in responding to his critics, even reconsidering some of his earlier positions, and he became more involved in exploring the possibilities afforded to comics by technology. On his Web site, McCloud freely admits that his 1998 book The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, which he had created completely on his computer, was "clunky" (Groth had written that it "failed on every conceivable level"). He also acknowledged that Reinventing had "genuine flaws" and that he had perhaps been overly optimistic about the speed with which the digital future would arrive. He told Graphic Novelists: "I wasn't able to make that revolution happen all by myself. I've discovered that one man can't move a mountain." But, he wrote on his Web site: "After 8 years of intense investigation, I remain convinced that the digital delivery of comics has the potential to revolutionize the industry, and that the aesthetic opportunities of digital comics are enormous."
McCloud also set about to prove his assertions by creating digital comics of his own. In I Can't Stop Thinking, linked from his Web site, McCloud basically continued Reinventing Comics on a Web page: instead of turning pages, readers scroll down the page, and are led from frame to frame by a variety of lines, links, or trails to the next part of the story. Other online strips, from as early as 1995, saw McCloud experimenting with different ways to tell stories on the Web. Clearly his most successful effort is The Right Number. In this oddly engaging and mature story, a man tries to discover some mathematical correlation between his ideal woman and her phone number. The series was available online in 2005 for a micropayment of 25 cents.
Also in 2005, McCloud was working on the next installment in his ongoing series about comics. This one, to be titled Making Comics, is about "what goes on in that really fundamental level of storytelling in comics. That's the stuff that interests me," he told the Newsarama Web site. Unlike his first book, which was focused on helping people understand the complexities of how to read comics, this one would focus on how best to tell a story in comic form. Only time will tell what kind of reaction this work will evoke for one of the most provocative thinkers in comics. Once that book was completed, he told GN, he was ready to take on his next obsession, a "big fictional story that I've been thinking about for twenty-five years and that may take me three years to draw. It's big, it's audacious, it's about life, the universe, and everything. And now that I've taught myself to draw, I think I'm finally ready to do it."
For More Information
McCloud, Scott. Making Comics. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics. New York: Perennial, 2000.
McCloud, Scott, ed. 24-Hour Comics. Thousand Oaks, CA: About Comics, 2004.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993; reprinted, New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
Boxer, Sarah. "Comics Escape a Paper Box, and Electronic Questions Pop Out." New York Times (August 17, 2005): p. E1.
Library Journal (September 15, 2000): p. 68.
Publishers Weekly (June 14, 1993): p. 66.
Radford, Bill. "Heroes and Villians? No, It's Abraham Lincoln." Seattle Times (February 24, 1998): p. E5.
Boime, Albert, and David Dodd. "Profile Interview: Scott McCloud." PopImage.http://www.popimage.com/profile/082200mccloud1.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Ferguson, Erik. "An Interview with Scott McCloud." Bookslut.http://www.bookslut.com/features/2003_10_000772.php (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Harvey, R.C. "Scott McCloud" (interview). Comics Journal.http://www.tcj.com/2_archives/i_mccloud.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Hatfield, Charles. "Scott McCloud, Still Thinking" (interview). Comics Journal.http://www.tcj.com/232/i_mccloud.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Knowles, Chris. "Zot! Inspection: Scott McCloud on his '80s Comic Series" (interview originally published in Comic Book Artist, no. 8). TwoMorrows.http://www.twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/08mccloud.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
McCloud, Scott. "Zot! Online." Comic Book Resources.http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/zot/heartsandminds.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Robinson, Tasha. "Interview: Scott McCloud." A.V. Club.http://avclub.com/content/node/22835 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Scott McCloud.http://www.scottmccloud.com (accessed on January 8, 2006).
"Scott McCloud on Making Comics." Newsarama.http://www.newsarama.com/pages/McCloud_Making.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).
24-Hour Comics.http://www.24hourcomics.com/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a telephone interview with Scott McCloud in November 2005.