Scott McCloud Interview

Scott McCloud is best known for his superhero creation Zot! and the critically acclaimed Understanding Comics. He recently spoke with Worlds of Westfield Content Editor, Roger Ash, about his latest project, The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln from Homage/Image.

Westfield: What can you tell us about The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln?

Scott McCloud: The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln is a 129-page full color graphic novel done entirely on computer. It's about a fraudulent Abraham Lincoln who manifests himself to some grade school students and takes them on a bogus tour of American history, then manages to stage a bloodless coup of the American government by bamboozling everybody into thinking he's the real thing. Suddenly, the real Abraham Lincoln comes back from the dead to challenge him. Unfortunately, the real Abraham Lincoln is this kinda tall, lanky guy with bad skin and a high, reedy voice who has to go to the bathroom a lot, so he has a lot of trouble living up to his own image, whereas the fake one knows all about our symbols and our shallow ideas about American history and its heroes and he uses them expertly, like a true modern politician. I'm not going to give away the ending, but there's a great confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial. All of the backgrounds, all of the settings - the rooms, the buildings - are done as 3-D models, so they're quite realistic in that shimmering, computerish way. The characters, on the other hand are very cartoony, a little bit like cel animation. So it's as if the Simpsons stepped into the Toy Story world.

Westfield: Why do a story about Lincoln?

McCloud: In a way, this was just the idea that just came down the gumball shoot at this particular time. I had a huge list of projects that I wanted to do after Understanding Comics. I felt more pressure than usual to come out with something big and pretentious, so I decided to do something kinda goofy and loose instead, just to deflate things a little. I thought I could do it quickly. Unfortunately, what I didn't anticipate is that I would lose two years of my life to touring and lecturing and doing the various side projects that Understanding Comics lead to. I began to travel outside of the country for the first time, I went to a lot of universities, I did comic-style articles in magazines like Mondo 2000 and Publishers Weekly, the interviews kept coming, and before I knew it, two years of my life had just slipped away into oblivion. During that time, I also became fascinated by computers so I lost even more time as I began to investigate digital tools to see what they could offer. Coincidentally, at the same time, people in the computer industry started using my book as a reference for everything from user interfaces to web site design and before I knew it I was off to speak at MIT's Media Lab and going on Retreats in the Rockies and a million other distractions. It was fun, but it cost me a lot of time. Oh yeah, and we had two kids!

Westfield: Is history an interest of yours?

McCloud: I found that in researching for Lincoln, I became interested in that period. I think that any period of history can be fascinating in the hands of a good writer and I found some well-written books. But really the history came about through the back door. It wasn't the prime motivating force that got me to do this book. In fact, I play fast and loose with history for much of the book because the phony Abraham Lincoln is presenting exactly the kind of short hand, muddled history that we all carry around in our heads from grade school. Just a few dates, a few characters, a few simple ideas. It's only for the creation of the real Abraham Lincoln, who shows up about half way through, that I wanted to do some real research and make sure that he conformed to our best sources.

Westfield: Why did you decide to do this project on the computer?

McCloud: It's really just a convergence of my interests. My fascination with computers was heating up so the two just collided together. I think whichever project I had decided to do after Understanding Comics, computers would have played a role in. It was time for me to reinvent myself. I'm very devoted to digital production. The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln is what I refer to as a "zero ink" production. Although I did some pencil sketches for the characters, everything that sees print will have been created entirely on the computer, including the linework.

Westfield: What sort of learning curve was there for you to learn how to do everything that ended up in the book?

McCloud: It wasn't too steep, partially because I have a Mac, and the fun part of using Macs, or any computer with a graphic user interface is that you're encouraged to just play around and have fun. I think it helps to have a very playful and adventurous attitude towards the new tools and not look at them as this difficult course in mathematics or going back to the worst memories of school or anything like that. It's really just a massive playground. So although I had quite a lot to learn and I had an enormous amount of stuff to read over the course of a few years, there was always more pressure pushing me into it because of my enthusiasm than there was a sense of duty pulling at me. I'm fascinated by the possibilities of the software I've acquired so far and even more fascinated by the future ramifications of digital distribution and digital comics; areas I'll be approaching soon.

Westfield: Getting a bit technical, what programs did you use in the creation of The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln?

McCloud: Three programs primarily created Lincoln. The backgrounds were done in a 3-D modeler called Studio Pro from a company called Strata. The whole book is assembled in Photoshop and I used Adobe Illustrator for the lettering and for a lot of precision design requirements in creating things like texture maps. The three programs work together well. Many images will have cycled through the three programs two or three times as bits and pieces. Fortunately I've got enough memory so that I could keep two or three of them open at a time. Some other programs also make cameos, like MetaTools' terrific program Painter which I'll probably do whole comics with in the near future. Like most graphic artists, I use a pressure sensitive tablet and stylus to do the actual drawing. Drawing with a mouse is pretty much a fool's errand.

Westfield: What will people notice that's different between this and your previous work?

McCloud: It's going to look very different. Raytraced environments can be quite startling in the way that light plays on forms and shadows and reflections. The illusion of reality, while not perfect, can still be a bit of a shock when you first see them. I did a 3D model of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. that shows up on a few pages and I've encountered a couple of people who thought it was actually a photograph. In most cases, it doesn't quite look photographic, but it has that "hyper-reality" that the people at Pixar referred to when they were doing Toy Story. That sense of reality with a little current running through it; a sense of heightened perception, which I find really interesting. And it's in full color, of course. I haven't worked in color since 1985, so that was fun.

Westfield: Do you have any other upcoming projects you'd like to mention?

McCloud: As soon as this book is done, I'll probably begin work on the sequel to Understanding Comics which will deal a lot with computers. The tentative title is Reinventing Comics. Also I may finally create my own website. I don't think the Web is fast enough to accommodate long form comics yet, but there are some fun things I can do with short form strips and there are enough people doing it now, in spite of the limitations, that I'm kind of inspired by that pioneer spirit. "Pioneer," here defined as that guy in the path ahead of you with the arrow in his back [laughter]. There are a lot of very quixotic efforts.

Westfield: Are you going to do any more work on Superman Adventures?

McCloud: I don't think so. 12 issues seemed like a nice round number. I had fun working with Rick Burchett and Terry Austin and Marie Severin. Quite a team there. Mike McAvennie was a great editor. It was a day job, but it was about as enjoyable a day job as I could have asked for. And it was a nice technical exercise. Thirty years from now, if anyone remembers me, I don't know that it'll be for Superman Adventures, but still it was a rewarding experience, and I'm glad I did it.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

McCloud: Despite all the problems with the industry lately, I'm just very grateful that over the years, almost without interruption since 1984, that somehow, miraculously, I've been able to make a living making comics. I hope I never take it for granted. This is the world's greatest job.