Scott McCloud wrote the book on comic books.
In 1993, his nonfiction graphic novel “Understanding Comics” became the standard-bearer for analyzing this often-misunderstood medium. The book was revolutionary, making him a star and the art form’s most renowned theorist.
Twenty years later, people are still hanging on his every word balloon: McCloud has 365,000 followers on Twitter. His TED talk on comic books is nearing 1 million views. But after years of providing the analysis, he’s ready to be put under the microscope.
This month, he published his first full-length graphic novel, “The Sculptor” (First Second, $29.99). In it, a down-on-his-luck artist named David Smith strikes a deal with Death. He’s given absolute power to sculpt anything with his bare hands. In exchange, he has 200 days to live.
The 500-page tome is brimming with philosophical questions about the meaning of art, life and love. Early reviews have been ecstatic.
McCloud will discuss the book Sunday at Macalester College. He recently spoke by phone from New York about living up to expectations, the vanity in art and superhero films.
Q: “Understanding Comics” left a lasting impression on the industry. Have you ever felt pigeonholed as the “theory guy”?
A: I’m grateful for any time in the sunlight. A lot of artists struggle to have any. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. But I did feel like I had a big gaping hole in my résumé and I was eager to fill it. I thought it was going to be a fun challenge to see if I could create a large, substantial work of fiction that actually might make a case for the possibility that I actually did understand comics.
Q: A major theme in “The Sculptor” is how artists want to be remembered. Do think about your own legacy?
A: I think about it less now. I thought about it a lot as a young man. I suppose that’s not a natural order of things. You’re supposed to think about it more the older you get. I think a lot of young artists experience that notion of wanting to create a timeless masterpiece or whatever. It’s a common, I suppose we could say, delusion. I’m more or less casting it as a delusion in my story.
Q: You’ve been outspoken about the limits of print comics and the importance of going digital. Yet here you are publishing a massive book. Why?
A: Even though I’ve been one of the harshest critics of the compositional restrictions of print, I also felt like I might have a useful perspective on working within those limitations. So I engaged this project in that spirit. When I was working on my Web comics, I wanted to create something that was uniquely suited to the Web. When working on a printed comic, I want to create work that is uniquely suited to print. I really believe you need to choose, and not just lazily hit a button, and expect your work to be repurposed for new formats. Choose a format, push it to its limits.
Q: Did you feel added pressure to succeed after all these years of writing about comics?
A: Of course! I’ve described myself as having a great big target on my back. I found that pressure exhilarating. I was pushed to success because failure was not an option. I worked extremely hard for five straight years to get this one right.
Q: The main character of your book gives his life for his art. Is this a commentary on the vanity in art?
A: That’s part of it. Art is supremely selfish and supremely selfless. If done with a full heart, then art bypasses any earthly self-interests. But at the same time it’s also narcissistic. I think art and humility have nothing to do with each other. A truly humble person would never pick up a pen. There has to be a certain amount of arrogance on the page for a piece of art to work. You have to be a bit of a dictator on that canvas, with that clay, on that stage. You have to be a little power-hungry to pull it off.
Q: Now that superheroes are so popular in Hollywood, does the public understand comics any better than it did 20 years ago?
A: There are plenty of people who still associate comic books with guys in tights. The success of superhero movies has only increased that. On the other hand, the guys-in-tights movies are a lot better than they used to be. I actually find them perfectly enjoyable movies. But I do think that people who are interested in reading generally accept the proposition that comics can be heady and sophisticated. I think many people have finally sorted out the fact that like any art form, comics are capable of the ridiculous and the profound in equal measure.
Q: You’re in the fourth decade of your career, and this is your first large-scale narrative book. Do you wish you’d done this sooner?
A: No, I think I picked exactly the right time! I definitely needed to wander a couple of decades in the wilderness before I had the perspective and the skills to do this one. I needed to have pushed the limits of digital comics to better understand print. I needed to write and draw the book “Making Comics” [in 2006], literally to teach myself to be a better cartoonist. And I needed a few decades of living as an adult to have the perspective to properly render this story. It has a lot of the bombastic, preposterous ambition of a young man’s story. But I think the only way to really write that story is if it’s counterbalanced by some of the perspectives you find in an older man. And that’s what happened. So, no regrets.
Follow Tom Horgen on Twitter: @tomhorgen