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Outside the Lines

The cartoon and comics industry is expanding in all directions, and theorist Scott McCloud couldn’t be more optimistic.



Scott McCloud couldn’t believe his luck.

Finishing up his undergrad degree at Syracuse University, he was hired by the very first company to which he applied: the venerable DC Comics.

McCloud always wondered what special magic took place behind the scenes to make his favorite comic titles come to life. Whiting out boards and correcting letters for the legendary company, McCloud soon realized that it essentially was what he’d done all along — putting pen and paper together to create heroes and villains.

Since those early days of his career, McCloud has become known for demystifying the realm of comics, with those in the business referring to him as the Aristotle or Marshall McLuhan of sequential art. If the former holds true, his 1993 book, “Understanding Comics,” could be deemed his “Poetics.” The nonfiction work explores the history and inner workings of comics, and now is considered to be the standard textbook of the medium.

And he’ll be in Richmond Monday for a lecture on visual communication at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Before earning his title as the great communicator of comics, McCloud first achieved success with “Zot.”

At a time when superhero comics were going toward the gritty violence of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” McCloud merged old-school superheroes with Japanese manga, which was relatively unknown in the United States. Mixing superhero tropes with the realities of growing up, McCloud touched on issues of teen sexuality and homophobia.

“Japanese artists had demonstrated a lot of techniques for making the reader feel like a participant in the action,” McCloud says, “and those were things I was desperate to try out.” Mostly, he adds, “it’s just a playground for my ideas about how comics could work.”

After “Zot” McCloud published “Understanding Comics,” which has become a standard text in many college art classes.

“‘Understanding’ was really just a massive pile of notes that kept growing and growing. I had it in a file folder, and it was tearing off the hooks because it was becoming so heavy,” he says. “I thought if we could better understand how the medium works, we could better understand its potential.”

McCloud followed “Understanding” with two similar works: “Reinventing Comics,” exploring the possibilities of the medium, and “Making Comics,” further delving into how comics are put together. With “Reinventing Comics,” McCloud pushed the boundaries of the medium and put forward his idea of the “infinite canvas” allowed by the Internet. Comics were no longer limited by the two-dimensional conventions of a physical book, and can go in all directions endlessly.

An example is McCloud’s own online comic strip, “The Right Number,” where readers jump through a succession of comic panels to read the story. McCloud’s forward thinking led to a collaboration with Google on a comic book for the launch of Google Chrome, explaining how the browser worked.

In McCloud’s graphic novel, “The Sculptor,” an artist is granted the abilities to sculpt anything he wants, but he only has 200 days to live.
  • In McCloud’s graphic novel, “The Sculptor,” an artist is granted the abilities to sculpt anything he wants, but he only has 200 days to live.

This year McCloud published “The Sculptor,” a 496-page graphic novel about a man who makes a Faustian deal to become the world’s greatest sculptor. With the ability to morph material into any shape through touch, the story’s protagonist has only 200 days to live. The stunning work explores love, life, art and their relationship with each other. McCloud spent five years writing and drawing the work, which Sony plans to turn into a film with producer Scott Rudin.

“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about even since my superhero days, and you can see that in the book,” McCloud says. “I spent years and years trying to present how comics could be much more than superheroes, and yet I still find myself drawn back to that style of fantasy.”

As one of the world’s greatest authorities on visual communication, McCloud is keenly aware that, were his genetics slightly different, he’d be in a different field altogether. Stargardt’s disease, an inherited form of macular degeneration that can gradually cause legal blindness, struck both McCloud’s daughter and his late father.

“I’m generationally perched between two blind loved ones,” he says. “So that always remains in the background when I talk about the power of visuals to communicate information.”

McCloud is in the midst of another nonfiction work, and says he looks forward to the future of comics.

“We have so many changes brought on by the graphic novel movement, we have so many changes brought on by the manga generation — which is influencing all ages and kids comics — and we have so many changes brought on by the Web,” McCloud says.

“To throw them all in at once has turned comics into a rainforest of crazy species.” S

Scott McCloud will speak April 6 at 7 p.m. at the Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St. Free. For information call 828-0593.

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