Scott McCloud

Zot!, Scott McCloud

Zot!, Scott McCloud

Harper, 1987-1991 (2008 omnibus), 575 pages, C$26.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-06-153727-1

These days, Scott McCloud is best-known as the thinker who came with Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, three of the most important analytical works about comics published over the past decade-and-a-half.

But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and for years before Understanding Comics, McCloud was best-known as the writer/artist behind the comic-book series Zot!. Until recently, though, only dedicated collectors or lucky readers could read McCloud’s formative work: Collecting single issues of older comics books has always been an enthusiast’s game, and a decade-old trade paperback reprint series hadn’t managed to collect all issues of Zot!

That’s partly what makes the news of this new Harper collection so exciting: for the first time, a good chunk of Zot! is back into print, along with restrospective comments by McCloud and some extra material thrown in for good measure.

Zot!, simply put, are the adventures of a young teenage girl, Jenny, after she discovers a portal to another dimension –a perpetual 1965 utopian retro-future in which lives Zot, a teenage super-hero who takes a liking to Jenny in-between battling super-villains. Jenny’s world is ours, and it’s suitably complicated: Jenny isn’t doing too well at school and finds no solace at home where her parent’s marriage is disintegrating. Zot is a rare ray of sunshine in her life, especially given how his 1965 seems to be incarnated perfection.

McCloud being McCloud, there’s a lot of clever material at play here: From a first half that seems to present light-hearted superhero stories with unusually good writing, Zot! gradually evolves along with its creator to a second half that’s grounded in our reality, tackling issues of racism, alienation and discrimination. The characterization in the last half of Zot! is daring for comics of its time, and it manages to hit emotional notes that are seldom seen in serial comics. There’s a remarkable five-issue sequence late in the book that simply follows five friends, and moments of it are heart-wrenching.

In short, fans of the Understanding Comics trilogy won’t be disappointed by McCloud’s “early work”: It’s already witty, ambitious and multi-layered. There’s a fair bit of experimentation here, and most of it does succeed at its own objectives. McCloud’s commentary helps in placing Zot! in its proper context, and reflect on how well his experiments have held up more than fifteen years later.

If there’s a problem with this Harper anthology, it’s that it doesn’t actually present the entire Zot! run. For reasons of economics in presenting a cheap volume, McCloud has opted to leave out the first ten full-color volumes of the series, along with a guest-illustrated issue. Let’s hope that this material will be collected in another volume entirely: despite McCloud’s assurances that the series was “rebooted” at issue 11, the first few volumes are like dropping into a party already in progress.

Fans who have some of the previous comics or trade paperbacks may also want to hold on to them for curiosity’s sake: This Harper trade paperback is a bit smaller than the Kitchen Sink full-page reprints, and McCloud has made a few changes to the art: While those changes are all justifiable in context as they clarify facial expressions, there’s a curious pleasure in comparing the before-and-after pages.

From a wider perspective, it’s interesting to see Zot! Being re-edited in a thick trade paperback, much like how mangas are published in Japan: given how McCloud’s been one of the pioneers in combining the strengths of both comics cultures, the physical form in which Zot! will earn its definitive run is a perfect way to give it form. Don’t be put-off by tags such as “McCloud’s first comic book series”: even today, Zot! more than holds up to careful reading. In fact, it’s a bit of a shame to see that the series ends at #36 when it reads like a prologue to an even longer sequence.

Making Comics, Scott McCloud

Harper, 2006, 264 pages, C$28.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-078094-0

Though I’d like to doodle a bit better than I currently do, I really don’t ever intend to make comics. The entire field remains half a mystery for me even as a reader: though I’m always game for good graphic novels, I’m not what you’d consider a comics fan. I go in comic book shops to get what’s recommended to me. A generic book called Making Comics is definitely not a book for me.

But this is Scott McCloud’s Making Comics: the usual rules don’t apply. Over the past decade, I’ve found myself recommending his magisterial Understanding Comics to all sorts of people: it’s such a lucid book that it can ring a sensitive chord for all storytellers and a bunch of readers as well. His follow-up, Reinventing Comics, struck a bit too close to risky speculation and suffered for this overreach: It still reads very well even today, but you can feel the world moving away from it. In Making Comics, McCloud tackles comics from yet another angle: that of a creator speaking to other creators, taking the opportunity to reflect upon the craft and the state of the art. But civilians shouldn’t worry: It’s fully accessible (even compulsively readable) for all readers, regardless of doodling skills or lack thereof.

Here, McCloud offers a fascinating look into the mechanics of comics, approaching the question as a excuse to explore craft and touching upon the techniques implicit in this particular art. The book opens on a long but fascinating overview of what the artist can choose to include on his pages. Later subjects of contemplation include character design and perspective (along with their emotional impact). The short discussion of tools boils down to “whatever works for you”, though it offers a good look at McCloud’s own process. The book finishes with a good pep talk about making it in the world of comics and a discussion of styles that classifies comics artists in four distinct categories: Classicists, Animists, Formalists and Iconoclasts.

Limiting this book to “just comics” is a mistake. Comics artists may be the only ones who really understand how “making comics” requires a lot more than simply drawing abilities. Perhaps the clearest example of this is to be found in the “Facial Expressions” chapter, which details in unsettling detail the basic “palette” of human emotions and how they can be combined to make up the wide variety of expressions. (Within days of reading this section, I ended up independently discovering Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Naked Face”, which also deals with the work of Paul Ekman. Fascinating stuff, with plenty of tangential implications.) Other standout moments include a primer on decoding (and replicating) human emotions through body language: If you think that comic book artists are simply people who draw things for a living, they may have a thing or two to teach you about how to act. Everything is connected, suggests McCloud: Making good comics is also about understanding oneself, understanding others and understanding the world. Just like all art.

And that, ultimately, is why Making Comics is such a surefire hit for all creators, regardless of their chosen method of expression: Everyone who makes something meant to evoke human emotions, from prose to sculpture to comics to acting, is trying to understand, replicate and manipulate the world with their imagination. Making Comics is, like McCloud’s first two books, an exhilarating read for everyone interested in artistic expression. When it clicks, it’s as if the mysteries of the universe recede just a bit further. Now that’s my definition of a recommended book.

As for the inevitable question “Is it better or worse than McCloud’s other books?”, there are only a couple of suggestions to offer: The trilogy is a complete set and it’s useless to try to pick a winner or a loser; It’s become a rule of life itself that nothing will ever touch the brilliance of Understanding Comics; Making Comics will find its niche as a valuable resource for budding comic artists; I found myself reading Making Comics with the same intellectual pleasure than the two other volumes; I also caught myself re-reading whole chunks of it while writing this review; I recommend the full set, but would start off new readers on the first volume.

Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud

Paradox Press, 2000, 231 pages, C$31.00 tpb, ISBN 1-56389-695-8

Panel 1: The reviewer is sitting in front of the computer, but he’s reading Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics rather than type at the keyboard.

Panel 2: Same. The wall clock goes tic-tic-tic-tic…

Panel 3: The Reviewer looks at the reader and quickly snaps the book shut. “Oh, excuse me. I was jotting down references when I just started re-reading everything again.”

Panel 4: Angle on the book’s cover, showing a hex-armed caricature of McCloud handling comic book iconography. “This is such a fascinating book that it’s hard to resist the temptation.”

Panel 5: Close-up on the reviewer’s face, his big angular glasses dominating most of his face. His hair’s much shorter than McCloud, and he does sport kind of an unkempt beard. “It seems a little bit amazing that I’ve managed to review books on a monthly basis for six years without mentioning Scott McCloud’s work at least once.”

Panel 6: A younger Reviewer at the University of Ottawa’s Library, enthralled by McCloud’s Understanding Comics: “I first read McCloud’s first book in 1995, thanks to the good people at the University of Ottawa Library.”

Panel 7: Short collage of Understanding Comics’ iconography, from the “Sequential art” drawing, pictorial vocabulary pyramid, scene transition chart and, of course, McCloud’s simplified alter-ego: “Published in 1993, Understanding Comics became an instant classic. Its influence was deeply felt in areas far removed from simple comics, as it explored the meaning of art, iconography and all sort of neat things.”

Panel 8: The Reviewerat a Coles cash register, circa-1995, plunking down some cash for a copy of Understanding Comics: “I liked it some much, I went out and bought a copy. I end up re-reading portions of it every year or so.”

Panel 9: Back on the Reviewer at his computer: “Unfortunately, though I may be sympathetic to the field, I’m not plugged into the comic book grapevine. I hadn’t even heard about a sequel until recently.”

Panel 10: The Reviewer at the local Silver Snail comic book shop, Creature Tech in hand, pulling a copy of Reinventing Comics off the shelf with a big grin in his face: “Naturally, I took care of that as soon as I could.”

Panel 11: Reinventing Comics partially obscured by the shadow of a well-lit Understanding Comics: “McCloud’s first book was so successful that any follow-up act will suffer from any comparison.”

Panel 12: The reviewer duct-tapes the joint in the middle of an arrow branded with both books’ cover: “But it’s less of a sequel than an expansion on the themes defined in the first volume.”

Panel 13: The Reviewer at a lectern, clenched fist raised (grasping a crumpled X-HUMANS comic book), a huge FIGHT THE STATUS-QUO poster behind him: “While Understanding Comics was an explanation, Reinventing Comics is a call to arms.”

Panel 13: Overweight man-on-the-street muttering “that Superpeople stuff…”: “Now that we know what comics are and what they can be, it’s time to make them what they ought to be.”

Panel 14: A diagram showing McCloud’s “Twelve Revolutions” [P.23]: “To this end, McCloud defines twelve ways to make comics evolves toward increased maturity. While some of them are familiar-”

Panel 15: A university professor showing a comic book to a classroom of students: “-Like comics as literature, art, worthy of public and academic attention,-”

Panel 16: McCloud’s dollar-shaped “Industry Monster” [P.71]: “-others are more technical, like a discussion of creators’ rights and the re-invention of the industry.”

Panel 17: A picture of a randomly-selected crowd in a park: “McCloud also highlights comics’ essential need for diversity of gender, race, status or genre.”

Panel 18: Pixellized low-resolution images of comic books surrounding a fuzzy web of computing devices: “He concludes the book on the three digital revolutions that will soon affect comics, from form to production to delivery.”

Panel 19: Reinventing Comics‘s cover is shown, the right half heavily pixellized: “In fact, this book spends almost half of its length on the digital revolution.”

Panel 20: A shiny Understanding Comics is placed besides a scruffy-looking Reinventing Comics: “Explicitly written in 2000, McCloud’s follow-up dates itself rather quickly whenever discussing technical issues.”

Panel 21: Both books are enclosed in a protective glass. A security guard says “First Editions! Buy your own!”: “But then again, McCloud’s discussion of the issues is mostly theoretical, avoiding specific products and projecting far in the future. It’ll endure, don’t worry.”

Panel 22: McCloud’s “tree of justification” [p.48]: “Especially when parts of it are so good, like his discussion of the roots of art-”

Panel 23: The Reviewer standing in his local Comic Book Shoppe “-or his lucid explanation of the comics business circa 2000, which stands true for other publishing industries as well.”

Panel 24: The Reviewer weights, Blind-Justice-like, both books in his hand: “While Understanding Comics is a work of brilliance, Reinventing Comics is merely very good.”

Panel 25: The Reviewer stands in the middle of four intermingling groups of people: badly-dressed geeks with glasses, lugubrious young people with berets, overweight fan-boys and professorial middle-aged intellectuals. “Like its predecessor, its impact won’t be limited to the comics field, but will spill over in arts, academia and technical circles.”

Panel 26: The Reviewer steps in the local Chapters bookstore: “But there’s one area where it’s far more effective, and it’s in convincing readers that everyone can contribute something to the next comics revolution.”

Panel 27: The Reviewer picks up a book at the Graphic Novels section. Prominently displayed are copies of Ghost World, Watchmen, Sam & Max, Transmetropolitan, Doonesbury and -why not?- Small Favors: “I mean, I know my comic book classics, but is it enough?”

Panel 28: The Reviewer, his find in hand, walks past a Comic Books section overstuffed with X-People, X-Stuff, X-Super, X-Steroids, X-13, X-Crement, X-Asperating and other muscle-bound titles: “I’ve got friends with forty-bucks-a-week habits at the comic book shop, but are they truly comic book fans, or just addicted to super heroic power fantasies?”

Panel 29: The Reviewer is stuck waiting in line at the check-out counter: “Is this one of these cases where if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem?”

Panel 30: The Revi
ewer hands a copy of Maus to the cashier, specifying “Gift-wrapping, please!”: “If so, I’d like to help.”