Understanding Comics on the Wabash Cannonball

I took the last “left” to Clarksville because, contrary to popular belief, there is no train.  Driving up the Interstate from Nashville, I wondered idly how many other people had been disappointed to learn that when it comes to travel tips, you just can’t trust the Monkees.

I was making my first visit to the campus of Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tennessee where, for this semester, Scott McCloud holds the Roy Acuff Chair of Excellence.  And between you and me, I would’ve gladly made the trip just for the pleasure of writing that last sentence.  What’s not to love?  Scott McCloud, the most famous and “brainiest” comics theorist in the world, is teaching at a university in northern Tennessee, filling a position named after Roy Acuff—a long-time staple of the Grand Ole Opry whose signature song, “The Wabash Cannonball” was a big hit in 1936.  If you wrote all that in a column, nobody would believe it.

But it’s all true.  Such is the power of university endowments.  You don’t always have to go to New York to brush up against the most brilliant creative minds in the world.

It’s hard to believe that Understanding Comics is over twenty years old.  In fact, it’s probably the same age as most of the students taking McCloud’s class this semester.  From its publication in 1993, Understanding Comics has been the definitive work on comics and comics theory.  And even though some parts of it are dated—indeed, as McCloud points out, instantly dated thanks to the rise of the Internet—it remains the “go to” book for almost everyone interested in how comics work.  He’s written a couple of good follow ups, but nothing so far has replaced the illustrative power and clarity of that first book. Not to mention the fun.

As I slipped into my seat in the Trahern Theatre, the first thing I noticed was I couldn’t see.  It’s not that my seat was bad, but the theater had a number of incredibly bright tracking lights that seemed to be aimed directly at the audience.  It felt like being in an interrogation room, and I was pretty sure that after another five minutes under those lights I would’ve confessed to anything.  Was I speeding on College Avenue tonight?  Yes.  Was I supposed to be grading papers right now?  Yes!  Did it take me three tries before I could understand what McCloud meant in his chapter on the picture plane?  Yes, yes, yes!  A thousand times yes!  Just turn off the lights!

Fortunately, they turned some of the lights down, though not all, when Kell Black, the art professor who is team-teaching with McCloud this semester, took the stage to make the introduction.  Black, who might well be the most envied art professor in the country, described the experience as “teaching at the feet of Leonardo.”  Black was funny and animated, and he used a carnival barker’s voice to introduce the man he described as “the eighth wonder of the world!”  His introduction certainly set the tone for the evening.  It was loose, relaxed, and fun.

Just like Scott McCloud.

Because his cartoon self is so indelibly etched in my brain, I assumed I knew exactly what he would look like.  But when the real McCloud took the stage with rimless glasses and a head full of graying hair, I realized I couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup.  Stupidly, I was expecting to see him in a lightning bolt t-shirt and a plaid green jacket, but I guess wearing the exact same clothes every day went out of style with Bonanza.  At least his layered t-shirt and button down were in the same general vein, and his personal demeanor was almost identical to his cartoon self—casual, smart, and funny.  He doesn’t toss around a lot of big words, but he speaks with total command over his subject, moving from one idea to the next without pause, stammer, or stumble.

Listening to him is, in many ways, like reading one of his books.  He’s such a clear presenter of complex ideas that as long as you keep up, you feel like you are just as brilliant as he is, reveling in the wonder of whatever point he is making at the time.  But you do have to focus.  It’s a bit like keeping up with one of those Aaron Sorkin-scripted, walk-and-talk characters from The West Wing.

His presentation, “Comics 2014: Writing with Pictures in the 21st Century,” included over 100 slides and lasted almost an hour, but the time passed so quickly it felt like a fifteen-minute TED Talk.  He explained that he uses lots of slides because no slide or image should ever contain more information than what the audience needs to understand at that particular moment.  If you’ve ever sat through a presentation where the speaker crammed lots of information onto the screen, that person was doing it wrong.  McCloud’s mantra for the night was, “If I don’t need to think it, I don’t need to see it.”  The philosophy reminded me of what it’s like reading a comic with ComiXology’s “guided view.”

McCloud’s central thesis was that pictures are essentially words, and that when those pictures are juxtaposed in a sequence—like comics—they constitute a form of writing.  However, as he then made clear, we don’t respect drawing in the same way that we do writing.  We correct children for misspelled words, but when a child’s drawing fails to effectively capture an emotion like happiness or anger, we rarely offer any corrective instruction.  The result is that culturally, we don’t cultivate drawing as an effective form of communication, and our collective ignorance then makes us especially vulnerable to the manipulation of images in corporate advertising.

He also expressed his concern over the notion of producing design responsive comics—the idea that a comic should fit every form of display device or medium.  According to McCloud, when it comes to comics, shape matters.  A comic that works well in print shouldn’t necessarily work as well on an iPad and vice versa.  He pushed, instead, for creators to “design for the device.”

I must add that during this march through one mind-blowing idea after another, I noticed a bizarre visual effect, and it had to do with those lights I mentioned earlier.  McCloud was wearing dark pants and for some reason, whenever he moved in front of the projector screen, something about the brightness of the lights caused his legs to disappear.  It was like an illustration from one of his books with the legless McCloud talking to us, his upper torso hovering in midair.  I wanted to shout out, “Look everyone!  His legs are gone but we still ‘see’ them!  We’re performing closure!”  Ah, but sometimes restraint is the better part of valor.

As good as his presentation was, I think I learned more from the Q & A session that followed.  Most surprising to me was the news that McCloud has just finished work on a 484-page graphic novel called The Sculptor.  Though he is as famous as anyone in the industry, it’s almost entirely for his non-fiction books and lectures.  It’s hard to imagine the kind of “put up or shut up” pressure someone like McCloud must feel when creating such an ambitious original graphic novel.

Equally fascinating is McCloud’s belief that in another ten years, as the Manga-reading generation continues to take pen in hand, we could actually see the number of women comics creators outnumber the men.  Given this past year where the comics industry has been rocked by stories of sexual harassment and the well-documented abuse many women creators suffer online, the idea of a female majority could really turn things upside down.  If it is indeed happening, will the Neanderthal-like behavior of late finally be stamped out or will we see an even stronger backlash against women as their numbers continue to grow?  Likewise, what kind of impact would such a demographic shift have on the depiction of women in mainstream comics, where they’re often drawn in exploitative ways?  If McCloud’s predictions are even half right, this gender shift could result in some of the most profound changes in comics that we have ever seen.

But my favorite Scott McCloud moment came near the end.  Earlier, he had been asked the proverbial “Where do you get your ideas from” question, and he had pointed out that unlike some, who try to only expose themselves to the best in books, music, and film, he draws an equal amount of inspiration from silly and trashy things.  Then, a few minutes later, when someone started asking about a particular book, McCloud suddenly made a connection to a comedy video he had recently seen on YouTube.

As his eyes lit up, he shouted, “Oh! Oh!” and with the zeal of a new convert who just had to share this video, he forgot all about the question and insisted that everyone “just Google book, monk, and tech support!”  Watching his face brighten and his energy level spike with this boyish enthusiasm, it was clear that, at least for that thirty seconds, sharing news of this goofy video was the most important thing to the world’s leading comics theorist.  That’s why he’s such a great ambassador for comics.  Even though he’s always working to elevate his audience, he’s also more than happy to just bum around with us in the gutter.

After the lecture I was keenly aware that no matter how many books I read nor how many lectures I attend, I will never be as smart as Scott McCloud.  Not even close.  But I’ll always be able to Google that video.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Nick Ford says:

    Thanks for writing about this, Greg. Like most I am sure, Understanding Comics was a treat to read and I hope to read his other follow up books as well.

    Man what I wouldn’t give to see a lecture by him, definitely a little jealous!

    Did he talk about his thing for micro payments and the like? Just curious.

    Thanks again and I liked that video!

    …One problem though…how do I get the video to play? ;)

    • Thanks Nick. I don’t remember him saying anything about micro payments. Since it was a community lecture open to the public, it was a little more introductory and conceptual in nature.

      • Nick Ford says:

        Makes sense. I figured not but also figured I would ask.

        Did you get a chance to talk to him? Maybe got an interview for Sequart? :P

      • [Not sure where this comment will show up, but I'm responding to Nick Ford's comment from March 10 at 1:37 pm. There's no "reply" button on his comment.]

        I did get to talk with him very briefly afterwards. He was signing books, but it was late and, as they announced, he had not yet had dinner. So alas, no interview.

      • Nick Ford says:

        Hey Greg.

        What I have found is that as long as you got “reply” on the original comment you should be fine.

        (Maybe Sequart should think about giving a manual on the comments section and have a permalink around the comments section. Just a thought. ;])

        But darn that is a shame. Sounds like a great experience either way though! :)

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