Scott McCloud: an interview about The Sculptor


Scott McCloud is one of the most important theoreticians in the world of comics. That’s a title he has earned throgh had work with books like Understanding comics: The invisible art, such an essential volume as Will Eisner’s Comics & sequential art, the other “bible” of the medium, can be. But McCloud is more than just a theoretician; he is also a great complete author whose comics appear less frequently than we would like them to, and sometimes it seems like people just remembers his wonderful Zot, from some decades ago. Thankfully this drought came to an end with The Sculptor, his latest work, which we told you about recently. Taking advantage of their presence in the Salón Internacional del Cómic de Barcelona, we had the opportunity to chat with him and his wife Ivy, who’s in part an inspiration for the work. We would like to thank them both as well as to Planeta comic for their kindness and for all the effort they made in order to make of this battery of questions about The Sculptor a friendly talk that we hope you enjoy reading as much as we did having.

Zona Negativa: First of all we would like to know about the genesis or origin of the story; how was the project born?

Scott McCloud: How it all began? The story is very old. It goes all the way back to my twenties. I’m very old now (laughs), I’m 54, so you can just imagine, decades. But it was only a simple idea. First, the power: sculpting with your bare hands. Yes…you know, I was a superhero fan and this was almost a superhero power, right? , so that was maybe my teens, I don’t remember exactly. Then comes the dial with death, and then comes the romance. The romance was inspired by my wife Ivy who I wasn’t yet married to but I was in love with for seven years in my twenties. So all the basic story came together in my twenties but I waited. I didn’t do the story right away. I put it off, and I put it off…and I think maybe that’s because I really wanted comics to be much more than just superheroes, you know. I knew comics could be more than superheroes and I saw this like almost a superhero story. But I finally decided to do it because the story, to me, the basic story was too compelling, too interesting, it kept calling to me. And I knew it could be a good story if done right. Part of the way I made it the way the story that I wanted it to be was to accept that maybe there is a little American superhero power fantasy fan in me, you know? This is where I come from; this is what I grew up with. So maybe it’s OK that there´s a little bit of that inside of the story because there’s a little bit of that inside of me.

Scott and Ivy during the interview
Scott and Ivy during the interview

ZN: Why did you choose to publish it with First Second?

SMC: First Second Books was one of several publishers that were interested in the story, but First Second had Mark Siegel, my editor. He was just right because he had the sensibility of a literary editor, a New York literary editor in a great twentieth century tradition. But he was also a working cartoonist, he also understood the process. And they clearly wanted the project and they felt that it had an important place in their line. And I liked the idea of my career as a writer, which was very new in a way (laughs) -You know, I’m an old man but I’m a young writer – I liked the idea of growing up with them as they continued to grow. And they’ve become a very formidable company, a very formidable publisher in the United States.

ZN: I read, I don’t remember if it was in your blog or in an interview, that you say that the story was meant to be printed, not to be read online. Why did you say it? What do you think a story must have in order to be printed or in order to be published online?

SMC: The story to me always felt like a book, which is funny because I’m very very excited by the things we can do in webcomics and digital comics. But I believe you need to decide to design for that. And so, when I did my first webcomics, I designed them completely for the web. In fact, I made them 72 dots per inch, so low-res that they couldn’t be printed because I knew then I would never restrict what I was doing in hopes of printing it ever. Because I felt that if we want to find what online comics are capable of, we have to push everything that computers can do all the way to the edge to understand that potential. And that meant not cutting it off or restricting it because we may want to print it later. That was the idea with webcomics. Well, if I’m going to make a printed book, I’m going to do the exact same thing and I’m going to do everything that print can do and push what print can do, push it all the way to the edges of the page, sometimes literally, I have a lot of panels that go to the edge of the page, you know? And now I’ve created something that I feel exist as a book, is comfortable as a book, and uses the book in a meaningful way, instead of somehow thinking that we can just push a button and have it spray out to multiple formats.

ZN: That’s very interesting. You first announced the project in 2009 and you said in that moment it was going to be four hundred pages more or less…

SMC: …About 420 I think I thought it was going to be (laughs)

ZN: Yes! What happened along the way? You seemed anxious for the project to see the light.

SMC: Well, I knew I had to be very ruthless and I had to cut whatever was I’m working in, just cut it down and finds any seams that I didn’t need and just cut them away, cut, cut and cut and cut…and then I had five hundred pages (laughs). And I don’t know how this happened (laughs)!!! It’s a cruel joke, you know?

ZN: It came alive.

SMC: Yes. It came alive, exactly. And it breathed. And one of the things that I discovered was that to me one of the things that gave it live was having conversations with characters that included every bit. Conversations are delicate things; when we recognize that two people are talking to each other in a way that’s real, it makes the story come alive, but part of that means it’s not just words. It’s not just a loooong list of the words that we say. There are also the silent moments; there are also the slight changing facial expressions. Even stopping talking and looking down and thinking for a moment can be part of the rhythm of the conversation and you need to be able to include that too. Well, what does that mean? It means I had some thirty pages long conversations (laughs).

ZN: At that time you also showed a small image in your blog in which we could see the layout of all the pages. Since that moment until the end, did it change a lot?

The almost undecipherable layouts of The Sculptor published in his web.
The almost undecipherable layouts of The Sculptor published in his web.

SMC: It changed a lot, yeah. I spent the first year…well It took me five years to do the book as a whole. The first year was spent doing the layouts, this is a rough version of the comic that I do before I ever draw a single finished panel: I do a rough version, so that I can read it, so that my friends can read it, so that my editor can read it, so they can have the experience of reading it as if it was a finished comic. But then…there is no finished comic, there’s nothing at all (laughs). That’s the first year. The second year I rewrote it, and rewrote it, and rewrote it again. With my editor, with my friends, who gave me a honest input. I took it apart and put it back together. I scrapped all scenes, I killed characters…not that I killed them, I mean I took the out (laughs). I took out characters, I put in new characters, I put in new scenes, and this helped me fix a lot of problems. But in the final rewrite –Now it’s two years, right?- the final rewrite was different. I wasn’t fixing it so much as suddenly seeing what my story was, understanding what my story was about. And in that I was able to dig my story out, you know, like an archaeologist. I was brushing away the dirt and finding my story buried in the ground and pulling my story out.

ZN: Like sculpture.

SMC: Like sculpture, yeah, exactly like sculpture.

ZN: It’s a very similar process in fact.

SMC: It is, it is exactly like that, yes. As a matter of fact I should abandon the sand metaphor (laughs). It was like “now my story is in that block of stone” yeah, exactly.

ZN: At which point did you decide that sculpture as an art was going to be so important in the story?

SMC: Well, actually it’s funny because the very first decision that I made was the idea of the power, well, that was the power for sculpture, which meant that the choice of sculpture versus graphic art or painting or writing, or anything else, that decision was made in a way before I even really started thinking about the story. And so it was the one decision I never reconsidered. The only time I ever thought why sculpture and not something else was when the book was done and people started asking me in interviews (laughs). I didn’t have a good answer.

ZN: Did you have to do some research for sculpture or you were already familiar with that art?

SMC: I was already familiar with various sculptors’ work. I go to museums whenever I can and enjoy their work, but I’m not a scholar of modern sculpture, and neither is my protagonist, and in fact we only really see the outsides of the art world, we don’t see much of the insides of it because my character is trying to get into the art world but he can’t. So he only sees a little bit from the outside. So for me, I enjoy sculpture and other forms of modern art in a very uncomplicated way, I just enjoy going to museums, some things I like, some things I don’t . But I did do some research into the world…nevertheless, I went to New York a lot, I spoke to a representative for artists, spoke to an artist who’ve had some success in that world and still does, and I visited I think almost gallery in Chelsea (laughs) to get a sense of it, you know, to get a sense of the kind of work that was being displayed at the time. But no, I certainly wouldn’t want to present myself as a scholar of modern art form or modern artists or the modern art business; I’m not, not even close.

ZN: We have a few questions about some story moments. When I read that part, as I continued reading, when I was in the middle of the story I thought about that moment. Did you think about it like a Plan B? I mean, like… change the end of the story and make everything was a dream, and choose that end?

SMC: (Laughs) Well, I could never have any kind of ending that involved all being a dream although even at the very beginning I thought of it. I thought of what kind of story would it be if this was all in the head of my protagonist. My hero, he is not… (Gestures) very well in the head, you know? He almost has hallucinations sometimes. So the idea of all being in his head is credible. But this idea that he is presented with an ordinary life towards the beginning of the story, that is something that echoes, it’s not a dream, but it has echoes later on when he sees the life path that he is being presented again in a different way and he almost wishes he could have taken it. Plan B. The ordinary life is something that most of us take, and most of us maybe don’t even regret it. But he feels like he would. At the beginning of the story the idea of choosing an ordinary life instead of a short extraordinary life to him is impossible, he can’t imagine it.

The ordinay life rejected by David
The ordinay life rejected by David

ZN: This moment is absolutely brilliant.

SMC: Oh, thank you.

ZN: When we were reading it we thought “oh, it’s part of the story, she’s a real angel”.

SMC: (Laughs) I liked the idea of having two supernatural occurrences in a row and having one of them turn out to be not supernatural. I won’t say which, but the idea of that giving doubt in his mind to both, the idea of this is… here are two incredible things; one of them is a lie. And because one of them is a lie he forgets the other. He lets the other one slide, but the other one then stays waiting and turns out to be true. This is in fact really the only supernatural presence in the book, a book that isn’t so much about the supernatural world and magic at all, because the book really is about the world as I think it is. Death occupies a special place in my book, and has these special powers, but death is real. Death, for a non religious person like me, death is not a myth, death is not a legend, death is not a supernatural being; death is a fact in our lives, and so is a fact in the story.

Enter MegEscultor_Entrevista_02
Enter Meg

ZN: Also in that moment, let me show you… is incredible.

SMC: Thank you.

ZN: How do you create a moment so natural, so tender? What did you have in mind in that moment?

SMC: This is one of my favorite moments also, and simply the act for somebody who is so disconnected from the human race -and this is a thing throughout the book, that we see our hero pulling away from people, we see people pulling away from him, there’s even scenes where a crowd surrounds him on a ring as it almost…as if he pushes everyone away, like a drop of soap in dirty water. And here, the simple act of touching somebody’s face to me had great power and I wanted to get across that power and so I did it with the power of comics. And this is the…in comics our eyes are drawn to what changes, to the things that change, and so it’s possible to create something that’s a very strong and dynamic scene with very very small changes. So, to have a woman’s face straight ahead looking at the camera but with eyes closed, and to have hands reach and touch, and then change their position again and again and again and again…it’s not the kind of change that we usually see in a world of superheroes and explosions and car chases. To have something as simple as one human being touching another human being in a non-sensational way…I found that magnetic, and I wanted to communicate that to my audience.

Buscando en el fondo la formaEscultor_Entrevista_11
Looking for the background in the shape

ZN: This moment was also incredible. What can you say about it? Because, when I was reading this scene, I thought “this is a perfect moment, the perfect scene, like a…millimetric moment”.

SMC: Thank you; this is one of the scenes that I added late in the story, one of the latest scenes I added, but it became very important to me also as I worked on the story. I think one of the things I like about David’s sculpture that he makes under the ground in Central Park, is that it has enough resonances that even I only understand half of them. It has a dark feeling, like a burial, it brings us back to the idea of the unseen, which is so important. In so many ways we’ve been talking throughout the book about the artist whose work is not seen, and how he cannot resist it. It’s a way of allowing the reader to imagine something. Comics is an art of the unseen. Comics is about what we do not see: between the panels, between the pages we use our imagination, and you… here I’m asking, with the story itself, to use your imagination to see something that‘s unseen. But to actually show us the blacks, to show us that what conceals at the grass, and her hand, and to know that’s something under it…this kind of knowledge can be very powerful. It’s big to artists, some very interesting artists who worked over the years, who worked in a similar way, or who worked with a sense of impermanence. People like Smithson and his Spiral Jetty that the tides come in and wash away, that sort of thing. Or Joseph Cornell, I think his boxes are also like the artist mirror that have unseen places in them. And to me it’s a tender moment, but also an eerie moment, and it was important to me as a storyteller who’s the son of an engineer, and very scientific, and all my story points there, carefully placed… and everything has to be just so and everything has to be explained. And my editor told me –and I think he’s right- that there had to be some mystery, there has to be parts of the story that resonates, but in ways that we maybe can never fully understand. And this is one of those, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite moments as well.

Uno de los muchos momentos increíbles de El escultor.Escultor_Entrevista_09
One of The Sculptor's many amazing scenes

ZN: It also means their love becomes something titanic, something seismic, doesn’t it?

SMC: Yes! Oh, I like that. (Laughs) Yeah, the idea that their relationship is erupting and causing vibrations causing ripples too. And the idea that the widening effect of their relationship, and the idea that they are, in some way, in the old Greek sense, challenging the gods, they are challenging the fates…yeah, I love this things. One of the nice things about symbols that have a physical end, visual form, is that sometimes they create resonances that find other resonances that link up with others just in ways that the writer can’t predict and this is one of them. I like that observation, yeah.

ZN: Without explaining the moment -we don’t want to spoil it for our readers- I must confess that when I read this page I closed the book, I left it for two days, and I didn’t want to open it. Was it hard for you to write that moment?

SMC: Well, yeah, it was. You know I have some of the same…I’m a reader too, you know? I read this book as I wrote it and all of the reactions that people had, all the emotional reactions that people had, I’ve also had them as a reader. The idea of closing the book, of choosing not to go forward is fascinating too, because this is what makes comics unique. Yes, you can pause a DVD, but it’s not the same, because the story waits for you to make it run, you are the one who brings it to live in time. And the idea of stopping time as an act of will as a reader, this is your right as a reader, to stop time. And one of the things…in the final pages of the book… in the final thirty pages of the book one of the sensations I hope to give the reader is a sense of time slowing and slowing and slowing and slowing. I wanted the reader to feel as if almost they could reach through the pages and reach out to the hands of the clock and grab it. I wanted them to want to stop time. This is what comics does, is…we map time. So I had this book… many people read the book very fast, they read it in just two or three hours, some just like pile through it, like a rushing river, but then there are these other moments in the book when things slow and slow and slow and you just want it to stop. I like that manipulation of time.

NOTE: Don’t have a look to the image under spoil unless you have read the story.

Aviso de Spoiler

This moment when time suddenly stops and you know something's going absolutely wrong
This moment when time suddenly stops and you know something's going absolutely wrong

ZN: At a technical level, how do you achieve that in a comic?

SMC: Space equals time in comics. As we move through, if you have a long panel, then it has a slower beat, right? Long panels are going “thump” …“thump”… “thump”, like a heartbeat. If you let see half page wide, then your panels are going “thump”, “thump”, “thump”, “thump”. If they are, like four panels wide, then they are going: “thump thump thump thump thump”. I have five panels wide at one point: “thumpthumpthumpthumpthump”. That’s natural, right? It’s a simple equation that we have in our minds: space equals time. You make the space smaller, time speeds up, and so I have a gradual speeding and speeding and speeding from a compression that happens in the chapter, in chapter four. This is something I think I first encountered in Art Spiegelman’s class. I took…I was able to see some of his classes way back, 1992, and he talked about EC comics, Harvey Kurtzman’s layouts, where he would have, you know, two panels wide, three panels wide, four panels wide, and you would have that quickening. This is something amazing that comics can do.

ZN: As an artist, which was the most difficult moment to draw?

SMC: The most difficult moment was at the very end of the book, which I can’t go into much detail of course, because we don’t want to spoil it, but it was an extremely hard scene because of its complexity. There is an extremely complex scene towards the very end of the book. It was not only very very difficult drawing but very very large photoshop files. So big that it would take me twenty minutes just to save them (laughs). It was: “Do I keep drawing or do I save them in case there is a blackout”? So yeah, that was hard. They were just huge, huge files.

ZN: And which was the moment you most enjoyed drawing?

SMC: Let me think, hold on (pause while thinks). I’m going through the whole book (still thinking). I think the one I most enjoyed drawing was when David has a breakdown in the subway station and I was able to draw his hands like this (gestures) with a rushing subway train behind it , because it was liberating to be able to draw big rough brushstrokes behind, so that you had the raw sound… like you could hear the sound of the subway station. One of the interesting challenges in comics is that you have only one sense, your sense of sight, through which you have to represent all five senses, and when you do this effectively that can be very powerful. I like that I was able to…with just these simple brushstrokes, I was able to represent the sense of sound like I had two speakers on my ears. I liked that; that was fun.

One of Scott McCloud's favourite moments at a technical level
One of Scott McCloud's favourite moments at a technical level

ZN: Can you explain the materials you used to create…

SMC: You mean physically?

ZN: Yes.

SMC: Oh, yeah, very simple, it was a photoshop brush!! (laughs) Everything in the book, even though the book is all hand-drawn by these hands (gestures), it was all digital. It was all drawn in photoshop on a Cintiq graphic tablet, and so I created this rough brush that you can do, you can create this in software, digital, you can create a rough brush that looks like a, you know, a crayon, or a china marker, something like that, and it was one of my brushes, I had it in my palette. And then I created layer after layer after layer after layer. One of the things I was able to do was to take the basic idea of the comic, the idea that, you know, each panel is a window and I made it literal, that is, they are really literally windows. The front layer, the top layer in photoshop is a white layer with panels punched out of it, so that the word balloons in the artwork happen behind that, and this allows me to draw more freely because when a line goes over the panel border it doesn’t matter because it’s not just a border, it’s an actual rectangular window.

ZN: Do you consider this work as your masterwork?

SMC: No, no, no, no. I try not to use words like that, I leave that for other people. I like it a lot, I like it and I’m proud of it, but it’s… no, no artist should have the chance to use words like that about their own work.

No one could stop the love the felt for each other
No one could stop the love the felt for each other

ZN: Obviously, you have created very important books about comics’ theory. Did you have these books in mind when you created The Sculptor?

SMC: When I first did the story in that first layout, I tried to think about nothing but the story, try to forget all the theory. And I only used that theory when it came time to figure out what was working and what wasn’t working. Then I needed my theories, then I needed my techniques, then I needed to diagnose like a scientist. But you can’t think in that way, you have to bury all, and then, when I brought up the theories to fix it and find the story within the story, then it was time to bury my tools again. I didn’t want anybody reading this and thinking about techniques. I wanted them to, three or four pages in, just be thinking about the story, to lose themselves in the story, even people who had read my books. I didn’t want them thinking about these books, I wanted them only thinking about this, I wanted them to blink and have read five hundred pages like that.

ZN: Have you already thought about a new project?

SMC: (Laughs) I do. Well it’s simple because this was a two book deal (laughs), so there was a second project even before I was done with the first project, and that’s a non-fiction book. This next book is going to be about visual communication and visual education. I’m doing another non-fiction comics project. But this time it’s not just about comics, it’s about the way that we learn by seeing, in many different ways, in many different disciplines, everything from information graphics to data visualizations, to diagrams and charts, to PowerPoint presentations, even things like facial expressions and body language. All of these are different ways that we learn by seeing, and I think all of them have common principles underneath that. I want to figure out what these common principles are and finally read a book about it

ZN: Our last question is for her, for your wife Ivy, if you don’t mind.

SMC: We’ll need to turn down the camera (Laughs) (Ivy is not very tall)

ZN: When I finished reading the book, the only thing I could thought was “Wow, that’s incredible”. What did you think and feel when you finished reading it?

Ivy McCloud-Ratafia: The thing is I read it several times before the finished version, so it’s hard to say. Ow, what did I say when I just…?

SMC: Yeah, it wasn’t one moment, it’s like, there wasn’t a moment when I finished the book either. I just kept finishing and finishing, and finishing.

IMC-R: You have to understand, he’s been talking about this…uh, we just had our 27th anniversary. I have been hearing the story since before we got married!!! (Laughs).

SMC: Yeah, yeah, it’s very old.

IMC-R: So, there were things I think when I finished maybe I got excited because he changed some things that bothered me, that’s probably what I thought: “Yes, he changed it!!!” (Laughs) But I don’t remember anything else.

SMC: It’s because it wasn’t a moment. It was just so many moments.

IMC-R: Like he said, I read the very first draft, I read the second draft…I read pieces of the thirty-fourth draft, and then just I kept saying: “I can’t even remember what’s different between the story I was originally told, the first version…I really don’t know what has changed anymore”. So, by then I have read it a million times.

SMC: (laughs) It had many different lives.

IMC-R: But I loved it, so I’m very proud…

Ivy signing The Sculptor
Ivy signing The Sculptor

ZN: And what did you think of the story? It is obviously a love letter to you.

IMC-R: It is, and I would say something about the end, but I won’t because we don’t want to spoil it. But I loved her and the idea that he sees me like that makes me very happy, and the fact that all of our friends have read it is like: “Oh, my god! She’s so Ivy”…

SMC: Strangers, too; it happened yesterday, somebody said: “You are so Meg!”

IMC-R: I know. And I loved her. I loved her. So I like the idea that there are only a few differences between her and me, like, I’m afraid of heights (laughs). I’m not afraid of a lot of other things that people are afraid of. And…I’m shorter. That bothers me (laughs).

SMC: She’s a whole head shorter than me, and Meg is a half head shorter than David because I wasn’t a good enough artist to figure out how to have them in close conversation. Like, when they are very close to each other it’s like “oh, but then I have to pull back the camera to do that, how about…“ It’s my own incompetence (laughs).

IMC-R: That bothered me!!!

SMC: Fair enough, fair enough. Someday I’ll be good enough I can do a real short person.

IMC-R: But David is so tall!!!

SMC: Well, I’m not David; David is definitely taller than me. They’re both taller than us, we are very short. She’s very very short.

IMC-R: I’m three quarters of an inch too tall to be considered a little person in America, so I am very short and Meg is not very short. But she even played the same plays that I’ve played, she is in Antigone.

ZN: Ok, thank you for these moments, we have enjoyed a lot. It’s been a real pleasure.

SMC: Oh, thank you, I appreciate it.

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