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'Making Comics' author decodes cartoons

A cartoon by Scott McCloud, above, serves as an online logo for his current speaking tour/family road trip, called the 'Making Comics' 50-State Tour.
A cartoon by Scott McCloud, above, serves as an online logo for his current speaking tour/family road trip, called the 'Making Comics' 50-State Tour.
Illustration / Scott McCloud

In a dissection worthy of a science lab, comic book artist Scott McCloud analyzed the dynamics of action frames and��word balloons, showing the conventions of comics to be as complex as those of any art form.

"Comics are a slightly artificial medium. They take a lot of participation on the part of the reader to come alive," McCloud told a packed audience at the Bartos Auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 15, in an appearance sponsored by MIT's Program in Comparative Media Studies.

Yet comics can open new windows into our world, he said.

"It's our birthright to create new worlds for us to step into, and a lot of what's happening -- and about to happen -- in the 21st century is creating new worlds. Because, damn it, one is not enough.'' ��

McCloud is both a practitioner and a pundit. As author of "Understanding Comics," (1993) ��and "Reinventing Comics" (2000), McCloud "has transformed the way many of us look at comic books as a medium," said MIT media studies professor Henry Jenkins. McCloud produced his own series, Zot!, from 1984 to 1991 for Eclipse and has worked for major comics companies such as DC.

He has just published a how-to guide, "Making Comics," and has launched a yearlong, nationwide tour with wife Ivy and daughters Sky and Winter.

"I was brought up on how to draw comics the Marvel way," said McCloud, who grew up in Lexington, Mass. ��However, "comics have been going through a lot of mutations lately. The traditional comic strips and comic books have been joined by the literate graphic-novel movement and comics coming in from Europe and an influx of Japanese comics, manga, and this explosion of Web comics."

When "teaching how to make comics in 2006, you have to come up with principles that apply to all these different types of comics. The most constructive way to think of creating comics (is) as a series of choices." ��

With an engineer's precision, McCloud--armed with the inevitable PowerPoint presentation--dissected these choices: moment, frame, image and flow, plus the words selected to go with the drawings.

New technologies--like multimedia CD-ROMS, 3-D modeling and ��Flash software--and the Internet are changing the relationship between artist and reader, McCloud said. Traditionally, "space equals time" as the eye moves from one panel to the next.

"The early comics owed a lot to vaudeville," with their ��sense of creating a front row seat at a stage, he noted. Scrolling and hypertext change this convention, as McCloud demonstrated with examples of online Web comics.

Yet, as McCloud's slides of Egyptian wall paintings and Mayan glyphs showed, the art of comics is thousands of years old. He looks ahead to a time when virtual reality and iPod screens may change the medium again. "I wonder if the idea of really small canvases and really big middle men is not the way we want to go in the long run," he said.

He stressed, however, the need to adapt to change. Some of his early Web comic inventions indicated "I was not really adapting to the environment I was on. It was as if I had created a flying squirrel capable of jumping from tree to tree on a planet covered with molten lava."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 20, 2006 (download PDF).

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