“Have you read Understanding Comics?”
More often than not, the answer between me and the other party is a resounding, “yes!” Upon which, it’s as if we migrate from casual acquaintances to fellow members of a secret club. All thanks to this amazing book.
Understanding Comics is Scott McCloud’s industry-changing analysis of the comic art form. This unique book, which gave both the comics industry and the larger world a language to discuss sequential storytelling, was first published in 1993. Though entirely non-fiction, the book itself is told in comic form: a break-out choice at the time with impact that still resounds.
Today McCloud is still one of the most influential voices in comics. Is it any wonder, then, that comics fans and creators around Milwaukee blocked their schedules last Thursday night and came to hear him speak?
No wonder at all, I can assure you.
One of them was me.
As a fan of McCloud’s analytic work, and a fledgling creator of graphic novels myself, I was excited to attend but unsure what to expect. My experience with famous names at conventions has been a “mixed bag,” much like humanity itself. Creators often fall into two categories: the nice but introverted type who’ll sign your book but clearly feel uncomfortable making conversation. Or the self-absorbed but extroverted kind who’ll chat you up as much as you like … in a series of sentences carefully constructed to make themselves look better.
Fortunately, McCloud fit neither of these stereotypes in my head. In fact, he is so down-to-earth in person that I wasn’t convinced at first that that “guy” on the platform was really him.
He had only to open his mouth to prove his identity.
Over the course of his fascinating (and appropriately visual and interactive) lecture titled “The Art of Visual Communication,” McCloud traced not only the journey of the visual story art form but his own journey as an artist within it. While I enjoyed the fresh approach to history, and his excitement for the expanded borders and bright horizons for the comics and graphic-novels of the future, what encouraged me most was his own testimony about his approach to art.
There are two types of artists, he asserted.
McCloud first extolled the virtues of Artist Type #1, who possess what he called “chops.” This, he said, is the artist who is constantly honing craft, drawing day and night to beat his/her own personal level of achievement. This is also the artist type most likely to advance the art form.
Then McCloud told us about Artist Type #2, which he framed as “shambling mammals.” These are artists with which he identified himself: the kind with a strong storytelling vision for whom art is important more as a means to unfold their ideas than an aesthetic aim in itself.
As a case in point, he showed us his gorgeous new graphic novel, The Sculptor. He somewhat sheepishly describing the way he sketches the panels “as best he can” but has to do a lot of clean-up work and layers on his Cintique in order to achieve his desired level of quality. [Note: This is my paraphrase.]
While no doubt some of this narrative is mere modest self-deprecation, much of it rang true for me personally. And it was also an encouragement.
You see, at events like these, I find it hard not to fell like a second-class citizen, even if that feeling is all in my own head. I came back to art late after “wasting” ten years of my life trying to be a writer. (Okay, not wasting per se … but that’s another story.) I draw to bring my ideas to life, and get them out there, not out of pure aesthetic need to produce excellence. And from the original sketches, like McCloud I spend a lot of time in Photoshop to create a finished piece that’s useful.
In the shambling mammal analogy, I recognized a kindred spirit. It both made me proud and gave me great comfort on my own creative journey.
If one of the smartest minds in comics can persevere past his own perceived weaknesses, I can, too. This “race” (if we can even call it that) is not merely for the most talented or most showman-like, but for the persistent and hard-working.
Above all, excellence of expression may require a process to reach its full maturity. And that’s okay.
Mostly because Scott McCloud said so.
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If you’re a Scott McCloud fan, what’s your favorite book?
Please share with me below!