Scott McCloud: Comics & the Art of Visual Communication

ScottMcCloudComic books are finally coming of age as an artistic and literary form. And comics artist and author Scott McCloud has a lot to say about it. McCloud is the award-winning author of Understanding Comics, Making Comics, Zot! and many other fiction and non-fiction comics. He’ll be presenting at HOW Design Live 2016, offering both a comic artist’s view on the transformation of comics and insight into the evolution of the media environment.

We recently chatted with McCloud about his conference session, the intersection of comics and digital media, and the evolution of the comics craft.

You’re doing a session called “Comics and the Art of Visual Communication” at HOW Design Live. What types of takeaways can attendees expect from your talk?

I’ll be covering a wide variety of topics, beginning with the underlying principles at work in my home discipline of comics and cartooning, and quickly branching out to the application of those principles in communication and education more broadly. Drill down deep enough in any one discipline and you’ll often find bedrock design principles shared by many others. I plan to demonstrate that this is true comics and cartooning, also touching on information graphics, presentation software, interaction design and data visualization. I’ll also look at comics’ recent course of media evolution with the advent of new technologies. It’s a fast-paced, stimulating visual presentation; frequently funny and not boring, I promise.

You’ve lectured and consulted on comics and digital media for Google, MIT, Pixar, Sony and the Smithsonian Institution. What types of opportunities do you see when it comes to the intersection of comics and digital media?

In terms of distribution and commerce, comics’ fate is intertwined with nearly all other forms of narrative media. On an aesthetic level, though, many of the most interesting opportunities require us to isolate, distill and amplify comics’ unique properties; a crosscurrent of diverging artistic sensibilities in the face of converging methods in the commercial realm.

How has working in the comics industry changed over the past 30 years since you entered the profession? Do you see more changes on the horizon?

In the past 30 years, we’ve seen the birth of the American graphic novels movement, the rebirth of the all-ages comics market, a flourishing of independent voices, an explosion of diverse genres, a massive shift in demographics (including, quite possibly, an impending majority female industry) and an invasion of international storytelling styles, particularly from Japan. And, as important as all of these trends are, they pale in comparison to the role that the Web and digital tools have played during that same period. On a personal level, I’ve moved from creating my comics 100% through paper and ink to working 100% digitally. I don’t see any sign that the rate of change out there is slowing, though the shape those changes might take is harder to predict than ever.

You’re the founder of the 24 Hour Comic phenomenon. Can you tell us more about that?

In 1990, I challenged my friend Steve Bissette to create a 24-page comic in a single 24-hour period and I knew that the only way to get him to do it was if I agreed to do one too. So I made mine, then he made his, then other friends followed suit. Within a few years, hundreds and then thousands of artists had tried the challenge. In 2004, an annual 24-Hour Comics Day was begun by my friend Nat Gertler, and now every year, tens of thousands of pages are produced all over the world. The movement has also spawned offshoots such as Tina Fallon‘s long-running 24 Hour Plays, and similar challenges in film, video games, music and animation. I think we all have within us a much greater capacity for wholesale creativity and productivity than we realize. The 24 Hour Comics turned out to be a great way to unlock that innate potential.


Spread from Scott McCloud’s first 24-hour comic

What are you especially excited about and/or challenged to be working on right now?

My next book will be about those crossroads of visual communication and education across disciplines that I mentioned. Comics are part of the mix, of course, but I’m casting a wider net this time, including information graphics, data visualization, educational animation, live presentation, book design, even facial expression and body language. Despite the bedrock principles they all share, practitioners in each discipline keep trying to reinvent the wheel. If I can distill those principles down, I’m hoping it would be useful across the board. (I’ve been calling it an “Elements of Style for visual communication.”)

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned in your career thus far?

Too many to list, but the four rules I mentioned in my TED talk a decade ago still occupy a prominent place in my thinking:

  1. Learn from Everyone
  2. Follow No One
  3. Watch for Patterns
  4. Work like Hell

Who are your comic book and/or industry heroes?

My heroes come from a diverse array of fields. But nearly all of them bypassed, overturned, reinvented or otherwise subverted everything that came before them. In comics, Will Eisner, Osamu Tezuka, Moebius, Chris Ware, Jim Woodring and Art Spiegelman lead the pack. In other fields: Hiyao Miyazaki, Edward Tufte, Joni Mitchell, David Byrne, Wes Anderson, Amanda Cox and the gang at NYTimes visualization team, J.S. Bach, Malala Yousafzai and tons of others.

Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your session?

I am short and pudgy and look less like my cartoon avatar every year.

Don’t miss “Comics and the Art of Visual Communication” at HOW Design Live in Atlanta, May 19-23. Register now!

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