Scott McCloud is the creator of comics like Zot!, Understanding Comics, Making Comics, and digital comics like one about Google's new browser. He's as much an evangelist for comics as he is a creator of them.
This interview focused on The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, an original graphic novel he did entirely on computer -- something still uncommon today but utterly revolutionary in 1997-1998. Scott's website is www.scottmccloud.com. The original version of this interview included lots of behind-the-scenes artwork, but that's sadly not here since I retrieved this from the Internet Wayback Machine. Another sign of the changing times? The art arrived on a CD sent via Fed Ex, instead of via e-mail.
by Chris Galdieri
"You can do anything in comics. That's my religion," says Scott McCloud, author and artist of Zot! and Understanding Comics.
McCloud is putting that belief to the test with The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, a 144-page graphic novel that will explore the myth and the reality of American history through the conflict between two versions of Lincoln. One will be an impostor reminiscent of the idealized Lincoln everyone remembers from their fourth-grade history textbook: the tall, heroic frontiersman who freed the slaves and saved the Union. The other will be the genuine article: a flawed, human figure, whom McCloud describes as "this tall lanky guy with bad skin and a high, reedy voice who has to go to the bathroom a lot."
"The big controversy in the book is which one is the real McCoy," McCloud explains. "The first that comes back grabs a bunch of grade school kids and takes them on a tour of American history, but something's definitely wrong with it. One of the kids figures out pretty quickly that he's a phony. When the real Abraham Lincoln comes back to challenge him, he doesn't quite fit our idea of what Abraham Lincoln is supposed to be like."
The Lincoln impostor's version history is heavy on mythology and light on accuracy. "It goes to the American Revolution where three ragged guys with a fife and drum are facing off a troop of British soldiers. Ben Franklin captures electricity in his kite and sends it straight into Thomas Edison's lightbulb. Lincoln frees the slaves himself, up on a mountaintop. Everything is screwed up, but in a way that feels right. I wanted to see what would happen if someone started teaching that stuff as gospel," McCloud says. "The fake Abe keys into this idea of American history that most of us already have buried deep in our heads from grade school. He hoodwinks everybody from Congress to the President to the American public and just about the only person who doesn't believe him is this 12-year old kid named Byron, who goes on this crusade to prove that this guy is a fake, but it isn't easy. As soon as the fake Abe shows up, he stages a bloodless coup of the United States government."
When the real Lincoln returns and tries to reveal the impostor, however, he doesn't meet with resounding success. "The two Lincolns have a debate and it turns out that the phony Lincoln is a much better modern politician. He understands the sound bite, and the real Abraham Lincoln thinks that all the people are really interested in are the facts. And it turns out that that's not exactly true."
While The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln definitely comments on the state of contemporary American political culture, McCloud says he's not out to promote a personal or particular ideology. "It's been a long while since I've wanted to identify myself as either a Democrat or a Republican," he says. "I think that party politics have gotten really kind of creaky. And I think some people may be surprised at how apolitical The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln is. It's not really jumping into the fray."
McCloud says Lincoln will focus more on symbols and their power than on politics, current or otherwise. "Our minds sort out the details of what we can use to represent the world metaphorically, [in] a way that makes sense to us but doesn't necessarily have anything to do with actual history. We revere the Constitution as some holy document rather than some piece of paper that was written on by actual living breathing human beings. In a way, that's closer to the truth because of the power [the Constitution] really does have," he explains. "So in some ways that magical idea of history can be closer to the power of truth than the real thing. But there can be dangers, too, because modern politicians can use those symbols in a way that can actually degrade the things that they mean."
Adams sees a very real example of this kind of manipulation of symbols in recent years' debate over banning flag burning through a Constitutional amendment. "I think the symbol of the flag represents the ability to express a negative feeling about the country," he says. "That's what makes the country so incredibly strong. But that's an example of a symbol that has overtaken the truth. Suddenly this red, white, and blue piece of cloth is somehow supposed to be elevated above what it means. I think the sacred part is the freedom itself, not the piece of cloth. Don't ever get them mixed up."
Lincoln himself, of course, has become something of a symbol in modern society. One of McCloud's biggest challenges was to separate Lincoln the symbol from Lincoln the man. McCloud made some interesting discoveries about the sixteenth President in the course of researching Lincoln's life in preparation for this book. "I didn't turn into a scholar but I definitely read up on him and found a lot of interesting stuff," he says. "The real Abe Lincoln was a real oddball. He wasn't a saint and wasn't a sinner but he was really interesting. What's sad is that the more you learn about him you realize what a really hard life he had. He probably had the most miserable time of any President. For most of his Presidency he thought he was going to lose [the Civil War]. He was criticizes from within his own Cabinet. People made fun of the way he looked. His wife had terrible emotional troubles. He lost children to disease and tragedy. And he still managed to have a great sense of humor and be as positive as he was. To make Abraham Lincoln a human being itself is a very shocking thing. It's shocking to read him as a real person and not as some marble statue sitting on a throne somewhere."
The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln is an unusual project for more reasons than its subtle look at American symbols and history. Like his last project, Understanding Comics, Lincoln will be released as a graphic novel rather than as a monthly comic. McCloud feels that the nature of the story he's telling is best suited to the graphic novel format. "I think the graphic novel format can really build up an emotional story. When you have to break things down, you kind of lose the emotional resonance of the story. It usually takes a few pages to get into something emotionally. In 24-page chunks, it seems like as soon as you're getting into the story, it's over. So if I wanted to do something with a wider arc, a story that follows a lot more emotional ups and downs, I've found that the graphic novel tends to work a little bit better that way. [Lincoln is] not just adventure and superhero type action, where all the conflict is who is going to get beaten up. It's somebody battling for the minds of an entire nation."
Lincoln will stand out from other comics in another way: McCloud's artwork for the project is completely computer-generated. "Apart from some pencil sketches for the characters, everything that you see on the page was generated digitally. All the backgrounds are 3D modeling. The characters were colored and drawn in Photoshop, the lettering and the panels and a lot of the detail work was done in Adobe Illustrator," he says. "I think the computer is an extraordinary tool and the style of art in Lincoln is actually just a small part of what it can do."
McCloud is enthusiastic about the role computers can play in creating comics, so much so that his next book Reinventing Comics, a follow-up to the wildly successful Understanding Comics, will largely address computers' impact on comics. "Just as I finished Understanding Comics I got my first computer and began an obsession that has become more and more intense ever since," he explains. McCloud feels that computers and comics are a natural combination and represent the next giant leap for the medium. "In Understanding Comics I spend some time talking about how I think comics predates print, that is, comics is not automatically tied to print. And if comics can predate print, it should be able to postdate print as well. Comics is such an exciting and resilient artform, it certainly can travel beyond wood pulp and glue, and do all kinds of exciting things in a digital environment. But it will change how comics are perceived and how they are made, just as comics were very different before print."
After Reinventing Comics, McCloud is uncertain what his next project will be. "I have a list as long as my arm -- literally as long as my arm, because I use these long sheets of paper -- of projects I would like to do at some point," he jokes. "Many short subjects are going to wind up on my website, scottmccloud.com, which will be launching sometime in the middle of next year. Some are adaptations of poems. Some are autobiographical. I want to do an adaptation of Oedipus Rex entirely in black and red silhouettes. There's just a million things. I think that if I'm lucky, in the course of my lifetime I'll be able to do most or even all of them."