30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.


Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, discussing 'visual closure'

I have been a fan of Scott McCloud since high school. Writer? Artist? Technology guru? Genius? All of the above.

Of all these articles I’m writing for this 30 for 30 series, McCloud will be, by far, the most obscure.

But his influence on me is possibly the biggest of all my personal idols. Every day, I approach work, thinking and life in ways influenced, if not out right mimicking, Scott McCloud.

Let me tell you about him.

McCloud’s most groundbreaking work is Understanding Comics. Published in 1993, it was the first really serious study on the artform of comics. And it reflected the all possibilities of words and pictures combined, not just men in capes and tights.

This is the first wonderful thing I learnt.

Comics don’t equal superheroes. Don’t equal kids entertainment. That little flying in theseat pocket of a plane, with instructions to put on a life vest – that’s a comic.

Although he started in the world of comics, he went on to talk about digital distribution, micropayments and how to distribute comics online. The things he discusses can be applied to any discipline.

McCloud is, in short, the smartest person I’ve ever read discuss the sweet point of Art, Commerce and Computing.

Revelations abound for those who LOVE to take things apart.

Q) Ever wonder why people don’t use photographs to illustrate comics? Or maybe a better question is, why do people avoid doing that, or when they do, why does it seem so jarring?

A) A picture in a comic is not an instant. It can’t be. A picture in a comic suggests movement and time – especially when there is speech. Imagine a panel when two people are talking to each other.

If you think about it, the left side of the panel is not set at the same time as the right side – the two people aren’t talking at the same time.

Q) Why don’t people draw comics more realistically?

A) Because the more realistic you get, the less you relate to a character.

This is an AWESOME fact.

We see ourselves in everything.

Look at a power point.

Doesn’t it make you think of a face?

Look at a car.

Doesn’t it make you think of a face?

Draw a circle. Add two dots.

Doesn’t it look like a face?

Yet, compared to the Mona Lisa, it looks nothing like a face.

Which is the great point of all this. Mona Lisa looks like…Mona Lisa. A smiley face looks like…us.

Look at the greatest cartoon characters of all time. Homer. Mickey. You can put yourself in their shoes. Dick Tracy however, was larger than life.

The lesson; the more you abstract something, the more you relate to it.

And then there is a further abstraction – the word FACE.

Look at it.


Something in your mind tells you to think of the concept of a face. Just like a circle with two dots does. Words and letters are the ultimate abstraction of an idea.

There is a lot more stuff like that in his books. Lots more.

McCloud’s is an art theorist and takes things apart. In understanding comics, he defines several styles of panel jumps, then graphs the number that occur in popular American comics and popular Japanese comics. Here, we see some scientific data on the difference between Manga and Superheroes.

Here are two things I love that McCloud has said about art.

1) Art can be split into 4 groups.

Classicist – those who admire form and beauty.

In music I would say artists like Cole Porter, James Taylor and Crowded House.

Animist – real gutteral, expressive, uncensored

In music I would say punk rock, but also people like Neil Young.

Formalist – exploration of the form and launguage of the art

I would say the Beatles and the Beach Boys, their exploration of sound and song structure. Later, people like Sonic Youth, Beck and people who played around with form.

Iconoclast – where the message and the personal experience is king. Very much the look-at-me kind of art.

I would lop in Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and expecially Joni Mitchell in here.

(Of course, not every fits neatly into a square).

You find this in comics. Films. Books. Everything.

More of this in the video below.

2) What the fuck is art anyway.

Get me drunk and ask me to define art, and I will give you the Scott McCloud definition of art.

Firstly though – there is a lot of pop psychology on what art is. Some say as long as you call it Art, then it is. Others look at Jackson Pollack or Norman Rockwell and decide it’s not Art.

McCloud puts his definition back at the reasons of creation rather than the result.

I’ll try and sum up this complicated notion as best I can.

We all act, and those actions have reasons – most boil down eventually to our survival instincts.

Maybe I’m trying to impress someone. There are lots of ways I can do it. I can buy them a present. I can make a speech in their honor. And at the end of the day I could be trying to impress them to get money, get a promotion, or simply sex (or companionship). Boil it down to food and reproduction – our most basic instincts.

But what if I decided to paint a picture to impress this person? Well, all those other reasons to impress still exists. But there’s a new reason – I like to paint. I like the form and I like that way of expression. In that new space, that spurs creation, is Art.

McCloud in the late 90s onwards became the poster-boy(/man) for the Digital Revolution. One that never quite came, but he was an investor in micropayment companies (that are once again getting traction), defined the possibilities of an infinite canvas and most importantly, removed expression from form.

In short, he’s a very forward thinker.

When the rest of the comic industry panics about the death of print, McCloud stuck his neck out there and said – hey, it’s about the stories, not the paper.

Just as with music. A song is not about the CD it comes on (although, that stuff can be fun). The CD was always about the promise of some great music.

In his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, when iTunes was but an idea, McCloud clearly laid out the steps that we have followed. The elimination of the supply chain. Direct-to-fan relationships.

But he also pointed out some of the reason bigger companies are needed. Production budgets is the big one. In music, the record companies have access to expensive studios and film clip budgets that a MySpace hobbyist cannot touch. There are others in the book.

McCloud was an early Mac adopter (like another person I will write about in a couple of weeks) and discusses technology a lot. I learnt ideas like Moore’s Law from him.

But McCloud has great things to say about technology and it’s predictable future.

Computers will get more powerful.

Computers will get smaller.

Resolution (monitors, speakers) will get better.

You can tell Apple knows all these sorts of rules. McCloud also spends a lot of time discussing the web and using it as a form of expression.

But if there’s one piece of thought I use every day that McCloud gave me, it’s this:

Look for patterns.

There is so much more. I always devour the latest McCloud book. Even more amazing is none of these books are written in words. They are written as comics. There’s no fight scenes, or curvey babes. It’s a science/art book written as a comic, using icons, text, graphics to tell te story in a more powerful way.

But McCloud’s next book is a return to fiction. He’s keeping it close to his chest, but it’s set in New York.

Which I am excited about. Because as much as I’ve learnt from him, he is also the writer of possibly my favourite comic ever – Zot!. I wrote about Zot! previously.

If you are a comics fan, especially with an alternative bent, you must read this.

So, that’s a brief intro to the world of Scott McCloud. An amazing writer and illustrator. And an amazing futurist and thinker. He continues to be ahead of his time, and I think his influence is only growing.

At any given time in my head, it’s swirling with ideas – for songs, stories sometimes. But sometimes about technology, web and interaction. And sometimes about business, how we work and where the world is leading.

Art. Technology. Commerce.

And the place where the three of them meet.

And sitting there is Scott McCloud.

Below is a talk McCloud did for TED, which touches quite nicely on some of his big ideas.

And his website is here – http://scottmccloud.com/

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