Scott McCloud: Everything we see means something

The comic-world genius (and also regular-world genius) appears free on Monday night courtesy of VCU arts. That means it’s free for everyone, and here’s why you should care deeply.

If you ask any comics enthusiast about Scott McCloud, they are likely to get adorably shiny-eyed and excited. There are legends who’ve created iconic figures, and then there are legends who communicate fascinatingly about the comic art form, the industry, the world, and whatever else you want to know. McCloud is the latter. At one point in our interview, I mentioned the country of Sweden. McCloud heard “Joss Whedon,” and after I clarified, he said, “We can talk about either one or both if you want!”

You get the sense that–although McCloud will insist multiple times that he isn’t as skilled using just words (as opposed to words + art) to communicate–you could get him going on anything at all, and you’d have a few minutes of recordable, replayable, thoughtfully considered content on your hands.

The public, thankfully, has a chance to experience a good hour+ of Scott McCloud in full glory–that is, accompanied by his trademark lightning-speed visuals. Thanks to VCU, McCloud will appear (as if from the very ether) at Grace Street Theater on Monday, April 6th at 7:00 PM. FOR FREE!?

While technically touring to promote his new graphic novel, The Sculptor, McCloud will be giving us a much larger experience.

“This is sort of my everything-everything talk about comics and the art of visual communication–the different way that pictures communicate ideas, story, emotions, and narrative content. I’m really interested in the different signs and signifiers in comics, the way we arrange our panels, facial expressions and body language. Pictures talk. They’re a form of writing, and the best cartoonists understand that.”

To get a sense of McCloud’s style, check out his 2005 TED talk. You’ll want to block off some time, because you will become instantly transfixed.

The Sculptor

From The Sculptor, 2015

From The Sculptor, 2015

His 1994 graphic work of nonfiction Understanding Comics breaks down a lot of these ideas of image + words, symbols, icons, what pictures mean, and how comics fit into it all. It’s completely accessible, even for someone who doesn’t know Captain Marvel from Captain America. And there’s something indefinable about McCloud’s welcoming approach and warm “We can do this, guys!” tone that makes you feel truly empowered to suss it all out.

From Understanding Comics, 1994

From Understanding Comics, 1994

Just because he’s decided to harness his energy and throw it at fiction this time around, doesn’t mean he’s not still fascinated with the process, the philosophy, and the meaning of his art form.

“In 2015, I’m comfortable enough with the technology that I use that I was able to concentrate on the story and the art. All my stuff is digital now but it’s also all hand-drawn. So there’s still some of that same warmth and imperfection that we expect from comics–the notion that a single person tried to create a world with just thin lines. The hardest part was learning how to write,” says McCloud, who took all of five years to create a finished product.

McCloud enjoyed the feeling of starting at the beginning level at a skill, and relished the challenge of honing a story (and then re-honing and re-honing). His first year was spent entirely on doing rough layouts, about 500 pages in all. Then he read it and began to rewrite, wanting to express what he wanted to express precisely as it should be.

“It’s about why artists create more than it’s about what they create. It’s about…a certain type of artist who’s motivated not so much by a desire to be remembered as by a terror of being forgotten. A lot of it is just the way that artists by their nature are railing against the natural parade of life, the ways in which we fall in line with this parade of survival and reproduction, and the artists steps outside of it, in a way, and creates something that’s of no use to either of those twin goals. I see artists at their best are just gloriously useless, and it’s a story about acceptance in a lot of ways, about an artist who accepts futility of what he’s doing. I wanted to write about somebody who gets that but still tries.”

Let me remind you that McCloud–MULTIPLE TIMES–apologized for not expressing himself well in words. I am truly afraid for my soul, brain, and retinas if it is more fascinating than this when accompanied by pictures.

The Talk

Scott McCloud works super hard on making a presentation interesting and engaging for his audience, which, if you think about it, is a thing not a whole lot of speakers take the time to do. A seasoned veteran in the field of Enrapturing Audiences, he’s got a good system down. “They’re a lot of fun, but they’re not lightweight,” he warns.

And sure, they look at the world through the lens of comics, but if you drill down deeper in any subject, he says, “You’re going to hit bedrock principals–something more universal and more of interest to anybody in any discipline.”

I drilled down a little deeper, as requested, and asked for an example of one of those bedrock principals.

“The fact that we are trained not to see the ways in which pictures communicate information, and as a result we live in a society that’s largely visually illiterate. But every day, we’re bombarded by information that we don’t recognize as information. From the advertising world or what’s being communicated to us by politicians–we don’t see it as comunication at all, we see it as environment or entertainment. We’re seeing instructions and acting accordingly,” says McCloud. “I’m trying to pull the veil somewhat on the environment that we live in each and every day.”

So poor with words, this guy!

“Look, any speaker might tell you ‘There’s something for everyone in my talk,’ but they’re all lying. But I’m telling you the truth.” His voice isn’t serious when he says this, but I believe him without hesitation and think that maybe he should consider a life of sales, if this whole thing doesn’t work out.

Scott McCloud

  • Monday, April 6th • 7:00 PM
  • Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace Street
  • Free!
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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