Understanding Scott McCloud

As a thinker, Scott McCloud is usually ahead of the curve. He is so ahead of the curve that I didn’t get him at first. As a young illustrator back in the 90s who wanted to do comics, I bought and read Understanding Comics from cover to cover—and didn’t understand it. It went over my head.

It’s not that it isn’t a great book—it is—it’s just that in the 90s, I wasn’t ready for what it had to teach. I wasn’t ready to make comics. I thought I was ready to make comics, but I really was only ready to make samples. I spent time making submissions, which involved making sample pages of characters from Marvel, DC, and Image. I made Punisher pages. I made Superboy pages. I made Justice League pages. I made Spawn pages. I even made some Pitt pages (this was the 90s after all).

For my efforts, I got a bunch of rejection letters and eventually stopped sending in submissions. It appeared that no one wanted to pay me to make comics.

I made comics anyway. I did cartoon strips, fan fiction, and parodies. Some of the work, like a comic strip I did with Troy McDevitt called The Big Gap, we put out on the web, but a lot of it was seen by almost nobody.

I felt somehow uneasy about this. Was this a waste of time? I liked doing comics, but I was getting almost no outward validation, and certainly no money directly from it as if this were the whole point. Somehow, the rejection letters I received in my early 20s left a lingering feeling of un-validation—that somehow I wasn’t good enough to make comics—or at least good enough to make it in comics.

And yet, I kept making comics. In 2011 I met Bryan Richmond and we started making Space Corps together. As I became immersed in making my own comics, I reread Understanding Comics and Scott McCloud’s most recent instructional effort, Making Comics, and they suddenly made a lot of sense to me. I just needed the context of making my own comics for the lessons to seep in.

I understand Scott McCloud far better than I used to, but the most valuable lesson I learned from him didn’t come through his instructional books–it came through his fiction. Scott McCloud helped me see that the outcome wasn’t really the point.

When McCloud was on tour for his new book, The Sculptor, I made sure I went to see him speak when he came to Washington D.C. In a nutshell, The Sculptor is a graphic novel about an artist who wants to create something that lasts for the world to remember him by after he’s gone. The protagonist made art that he was worried no one would care about. This hit a bit close to home for me.

In talking about The Sculptor, McCloud talked about the themes he was wrestling with in the book, and about how ultimately nothing lasts. Some things last longer than others, but immortality is an illusion. Sooner or later we’re all forgotten. Sad though that may be, for McCloud’s protagonist in his graphic novel and for us, McCloud sees something beautiful in fighting against that futility.

Being at peace with the fact that nothing lasts is about asking the right question, and during the talk McCloud gave about The Sculptor, he asked it. We all have a limited number of minutes on Earth, McCloud explained, and even though we don’t know what the number of minutes is for each of us, there IS a number. Knowing this, the most pertinent question to ask is, “How do you want to spend your minutes?”

I like to spend a lot of my minutes making art. Hopefully people enjoy the art I make, but I’ll make it regardless. It’s just how I like to spend my time. Realizing this about myself has freed me from much of the anxiety I used to feel about my art.

2016 is a leap year so there are 527,040 minutes in the year. That’s a lot, but it’s not unlimited. How do you want to spend them? That’s different than asking what your goals are, or what you want to accomplish in 2016. How do you want to spend your time? Not just the time in the nebulous future, but right now? What do you want to spend your minutes doing and who do you want to spend them with?

How do you want to spend your minutes? I hope the question is as much a gift to you as it has been for me.