Sporadic Sequential
Saturday, July 15, 2006
Scott Free

I attended Scott McCloud's free lecture at MCAD last night. (Thanks to Tom for pointing this out.) It was an interesting, entertaining presentation (for the most part; audience interest, including my own, started to wane in the third portion of McCloud's talk when he seemed to forget about the audience momentarily (generally he was very good about engaging the audience with quick, funny jokes) and started talking with himself about webcomics). If McCloud ever gets tired of lecturing on comic art theory, he could probably make a killing in the corporate world teaching people how to liven up their public speaking: McCloud's PowerPoint presentation was one of the best I've seen, with lots of great visual examples reinforcing his points rather than simply repeating them word for word.

Making Comics I arrived a little late, so I missed some of his opening section discussing his new book, Making Comics. To be honest, I didn't really have much interest in this book before attending this presentation, probably because the title brought to mind all those horrible-looking "How To Draw Manga" tutorials you see at Barnes & Noble. McCloud actually referenced these types of books, saying that in a way they inspired him to create Making Comics. McCloud hopes to fill in the gaps these other books leave by talking about things like "choosing the moment" (which scenes to depict and which to leave off-panel) and "choosing the words" (thinking about the different ways in which words and images can interact on the page). As a self-described formalist, McCloud is very interested in the theoretical language underpinning sequential art (comics), and it sounds like a lot of that will make it into the book. After seeing some of the examples from the book, I'm now highly anticipating it.

Other high points I remember (I'd hoped to take notes but the auditorium was too dark, so these may be somewhat distorted by my poor memory):

McCloud asserted that Western comics (especially superhero comics) reveal the influence of film through their reliance on pin-ups and close-ups (either figures in a tight frame with each other or close-ups of characters looking out directly at the reader), whereas European comics are more interested in naturalistic scenes (scenes showing the action as it unfolds with fewer "cuts" to focus on close-ups) and Japanese comics* are more adept at reflecting characters' inner states (pages where the focus is entirely on the character with distinctive visual cues to depict her emotional state). McCloud showed several examples from various comics that seemed to support these generalizations, but all I could think about was trying to find counter-examples. (I think it might be more useful to talk about the different ways of framing scenes without labeling them by nationality, but then again I have little interest in uncovering who used these techniques first and where they were originally most widespread, unlike McCloud.)

McCloud discussed his theory of "The Four Tribes," or the four broad ways of approaching / doing comics:
  • Animist - primarily concerned about getting one's story out with as little distraction as possible from how you're telling the story (prototypical example: Kurt Busiek)

  • Classicist - interested in comics as a craft; trying to perfect one's technique in a more representational way (e.g., Hal Foster)

  • Iconoclast - interested in "keeping it real" -- using the medium to express truths about life (e.g., R. Crumb)

  • Formalist - concerned with exploring the formal properties of the sequential art medium (e.g., Art Spiegelman)
McCloud admitted that this will probably be the most controversial part of his book and the Q&A session seemed to bear this out: Most of the questions centered around this classification schema, with people wondering why he applied it to creators rather than works or suggesting examples that didn't seem to fit neatly into any single camp. I'll wait to read the book before I attack the theory too much (just as the scientist in McCloud needs to categorize things, the philosophy major in me can't resist criticizing others' theories), but if you're interested in learning more about it, McCloud discusses it in more detail here. (And the TCJ message board responds to that interview in typically hilarious fashion here.)

McCloud walked the audience through some examples of his favorite webcomics (most of which can be found on his links page). Personally, I'm not very interested in webcomics (mainly because I sit in front of a computer so much the rest of the day I'd prefer to sit down with a print object when I do read comics), but the ones McCloud showcased were great. One of my favorites was PoCom-UK-001, a stunning "hypercomic" that has much better navigation than the traditional browser scrolling (even McCloud admitted: "Scrolling sucks -- let's just get that out there") and a multi-path structure that could provide hours of amusement.

Finally, McCloud revealed that his all-time favorite comic is Jim Woodring's Frank. Not a bad choice.

* I wanted to ask McCloud about Pat O'Neill's opinion that manga aren't comics, but I chickened out, mainly because I couldn't think of a way to express O'Neill's position that didn't sound ridiculous.