The Cartoonist and The Sculptor

I was so engrossed I only remembered to take one picture!
That's McCloud on the right. 
This past Sunday, Scott McCloud came to Austin Books and Comics.

He was, unsurprisingly, gregarious, and very funny. The afternoon was a Q+A moderated by the Austin Chronicle's Wayne Allen Brenner, who also did an interview that ran in the alt-weekly last week. The Q+A, like the interview, was wide ranging, with Brenner asking McCloud to return to and elaborate on several themes and specific questions from their earlier conversation. The early going was taken up with a discussion of McCloud's imminent graphic novel, The Sculptor, a project he's been working on for about a half a decade. Using powerpoint, he shared with us his all digital workflow, which, at the thumbnail stage, includes sequences many pages long. This setup, he says, prevents him from getting "hung up on a given page" and enables him to see the forward flow more clearly. It also makes for an easier revision process, allowing him to move pieces around-- or take them out-- like sentences or paragraphs in a word processor. Using photoshop further allows him to draw layers on top of layers, he estimated an average of 40 per drawing, making complex illustration easier to do, undo, or redo. Ultimately, McCloud says, he likes digital because it allows him to stay focused on his work all day, getting caught up on the art rather than the tools that he uses to make that art. The only time he ever prints the sequences out is to see the whole flow-- and he does that at a very small size.

This idea of a comic's flow, and flow's relation to length, seems central to McCloud's thinking these days-- he spent a lot of time talking about how American comics are limited by the 22 page average. Citing his friend Kurt Busiek, he called that standard "the original sin of American comics," and suggested that the industry made a mistake half a century ago when it chose to keep prices steady rather than keep page count high (the idea that we might have even had a choice, that it was one or the other and not both, now seems utopian). As McCloud describes it, this compression has lead to a problem where both words and pictures are used as shorthands, with art talking precedence over characterization and words used as a short cut to the kinds of description proper to the juxtapositional grammar of comics. Later, during audience questions, he said that he believes that this is why we get the same stories over and over; there's only so many things that "fit in the shoebox." Comics that are longer have more room to breathe, and both elements of the invisible art become more effective, and you get an entire page of a character coming to a realization or actually get to work out the rhythm of a conversation--silences, essential to any natural talk, are impossible when every panel needs to be action packed.

With this in mind, and with prompting from Brenner, he praised several creators.  Most notably, he cited David Aja's work on Hawkeye, saying that the Spaniard's work with Fraction on that series represents nothing less than a deconstruction of the form of the 22 page comic (which, I think, we can generally understand as superhero-length) in order to try find a way around some of the problems with that duration. He also mentioned Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's This One Summer ("it's like virtual reality, you just plunge right in") and James Sturm's Market Day, which he called "bulletproof" even as he described it as a story about a rug merchant having trouble selling his rugs. He finally turned to Raina Telgemeier, whom he praised in both formal and cultural terms, saying that she solves the compression problem by giving every emotion a panel, while also putting her at the vanguard of a group of young, largely female, fans who have comics for childhood and adulthood and every step in between. This group, McCloud says, is charging over the hill-- "in nine years, the industry will be majority female."

That last little bit was, I think, the most important of the afternoon, in both its generalities and its specifics. At this point, McCloud is an optimist before all else, and what he sees in a medium constantly in the process of reinventing itself is infinite possibility, much like the infinite time and infinite space signed by the gutter.

I'm very much looking forward to reading The Sculptor.

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