Scott McCloud on artistic frustration, optimism, and evolution in 7 comic books

Scott McCloud on artistic frustration, optimism, and evolution in 7 comic books

Comics’ leading theorist explores works by Eisner, Tatsumi, and more

With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.

The reader: One of the leading theorists of the comic-book industry, Scott McCloud has done considerable work expounding on the unique properties of the medium in his works Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics. This month, he releases his first full-length graphic novel, The Sculptor, detailing the experience of a creatively stifled 26-year-old sculptor that makes a deal with the devil allowing him to effortlessly sculpt any material with his bare hands, an extraordinary ability that reawakens his artistic drive but introduces new problems for his personal life. With a deep knowledge of comics and graphic novels, McCloud spoke to The A.V. Club about seven works that look at artistic frustration from multiple angles.

The Dreamer by Will Eisner

Scott McCloud: Eisner is the first one on this list that I encountered as an artist. When I was still a teenager, I found his old Spirit strips, and a lot of the early 20th century stuff had not necessarily floated my boat when I was a kid. But I took to Eisner very quickly, and when he had his third act in the late ’70s, early ’80s with his first graphic novels, he became something of an artistic role model. I like the way that he continued to try new things even after he retired. He literally had retired from the Army. So The Dreamer was very interesting to me as just a chronicle of those early days, and it was very interesting to me to see his approach, trying to portray that period as almost kind of parable. He has a fairly direct sense of the destiny of the hero and his artistic struggles definitely have that more theatrical sense of destiny.

That idea of confidence as the driver for artistic success is definitely one way to look at it. And when I was a kid, I had a lot of confidence. Almost like this bizarre, serene, ridiculous confidence that I could pull it off. And I think he had that too, and I think a lot of it just comes down to disposition. I think Eisner was—despite facing some extraordinary tragedies in his life—just seemed to have a natural positive disposition and an optimistic way of looking at his circumstances and of the possibilities of art. That can really get you a long way to simply not get depressed and discouraged. He saw whole decades where comics was just a smoking crater and still believed that this art form could rise and thrive and achieve wonderful things. In that he was clearly right, and he seemed to have applied that same optimism in his own artistic career.

And so that’s something that I identify with just because I think I share a similar kind of naturally optimistic temperament, and I know that’s not true of a lot of artists. A lot of artists are really quite pessimistic in their outlook or at the very least have a dark, somewhat morbid streak to them. And often, that’s the source of their strength. This relates back to my notion of these different tribes in comics. There are tribes that derive a lot of their artistic inspiration from those darker tones, and they produce very different work and sometimes very profound work. But that just doesn’t happen to be Eisner’s own personal disposition, and I think The Dreamer definitely shows us that; that he’s simply on a hero’s journey is basically the way that character progresses through his story.

The A.V. Club: You’ve mentioned Eisner as a mentor of yours beyond just the similar attitude. What role did he play in your artistic development as a visual storyteller?

SM: There were different stages. When I was just starting out, two years in, when I still a teenager, that old Spirit stuff opened a dozen doors at once. It was like I was in a stuffy house and everybody opened every window in the house. Look at all of these compositional possibilities. And that was great. But then when he was doing things like A Contract With God, he also pointed toward a kind of very precise human theater, something that I was only seeing a couple other artists do at that time. This was the late ’70s. And I remember I was also into Wendy Pini’s Elfquest, which had a similar sense that you wanted to capture each mood through facial expressions, body language, and pacing, and even lettering. Just see if you could capture the moment of the way somebody spoke or the pauses of conversation, the rhythms of conversation. These are things that Eisner was doing that really spoke to me and influenced the stuff I did in my first comic book, Zot!, and are still influencing me today. In my new graphic novel, I’m doing very much the same thing, just trying to get the particular rhythms of people in conversation, people interacting with one another.

AVC: Is there anything about the old comic book industry that you’d like to see embraced by today’s comic culture?

SM: Oh, hell no. The old comics industry was horrific. I think that for Eisner, much like [Yoshihiro] Tatsumi, it was a battle to survive in the industry. The desires of the industry and the desires of the artist didn’t intersect very often. And The Dreamer is also very much a personal survival story. It’s a cheerful survival story, but still. Nobody really cared what Eisner thought about the art of comics. Nobody gave a shit. And now I think there’s some benefit to having an industry that is lying in disarray because the industry will not be imposed quite as strongly because there isn’t a coherent will. The industry is scrambling. Nobody knows what works. Everybody is trying a million different things, and that’s actually pretty healthy. No, I would never go back. I have very little nostalgia.

A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

SM: I wasn’t familiar with Tatsumi’s work until his U.S. translations. I’d seen a few here and there, but I was no scholar of it. But I had seen The Push Man collection and two or three others in that same format coming out of [Drawn & Quarterly], and I really liked his short stories a lot. And I think A Drifting Life—though I suppose it’s his magnum opus in one respect—my favorite is still the short stories. I really like the way he composes his short stories. Life, of course—real, actual life—tends to be a little bit more structurally baffling, and there’s a sort of meandering in A Drifting Life. The title maybe says it all. But here again I think in terms of the industry; you still have that sense of always trying to find a niche to find your way past all the obstacles that have been set in your path, to work not only on your skill but also to navigate to safer ports, places where you can make some money. Everybody is always trying to survive—the publishers, the artists. Money is not so plentiful. So everybody in a lot of ways is just scrambling. And you see people trying to sort of invent the industry and invent the artform all at once, and this is how it is for a lot of people.

I’ve been very lucky. In a lot of ways, this is not my lot in life. The first job I had in comics was in DC Comics’ production department. I got it just out of school. In fact, three weeks before I left school, I got the job. And I worked there for a year and a half, and I got to see mainstream comics from the inside, and I got to sort of have a picture of myself struggling within that and trying to get little jobs doing this and that and just basically grabbing at whatever work I could and then different things happened in my life. My father died and I decided to go it on my own, and I had a pretty independent life after that where it was primarily about what was it that I wanted to draw today. I don’t think either Tatsumi or Eisner in the early years woke up each day thinking, “What do I want to draw today?” I think they woke up thinking, “How can I survive?”

And then gradually [Tatsumi’s] artistic convictions began to overtake his survival instincts until finally he was able to do something that was more meaningful in the long run to him and more aesthetically adventurous. But there’s still that sense that you are as an artist, this is your job and you’re part of a society that only values you to the extent that you can give society what it’s looking for, what it wants. And that determines the shape of that career, and so you can feel a bit like a pinball just going from bumper to bumper trying to make your way in that life. But in the end, those artistic convictions did carry Tatsumi through it all. And without some kind of coherent aesthetic desire or sense of mission, one can just get rolled over by the day-to-day needs. And I see a lot of artists suspended in the present. I see artists just trying to work to do what they think everybody wants to see, and I feel as if I can already see how it’s going to end up. Even if they’re talented, even if they’re getting some success, if they’re not stretching beyond that, then it may not end happily for them. Fortunately, Tatsumi did transcend that day-to-day struggle.

AVC: So much of the book is about how he has to break through the limitations that have been placed on this medium at this really early stage in its development, and how he had to push through that to explore the stories he wanted to tell. In your own growth as an artist, have you encountered any of these limitations that you’ve had to forcefully push past?

SM: No, that’s just it. In fact, when this particular theme was suggested, all I could think was I can find comics about struggling artists, but in a lot of ways my struggles have been a bit cushy. I’m just lucky. My timing was really good. My wife and I—we’re always running out of money by the end of the year. There’s never been a time when I could take six months off, so I’m always working. But at the same time, I’m always working on something I love, and that’s just never really changed. And I realize how incredibly rare that is.

I have not had the same kind of pressures that Tatsumi and Eisner had because I just happened to come out of college with these various dreams, just as the comics industry was starting to grow and I grew with it. You can’t underestimate the importance of economy. The economy was on the rise, the independent publishers were starting to proliferate. The direct market shops were starting to grow. I grew as they grew. I still failed. Technically, I suppose most of my career has been failure. I had a series in color and it failed. It got canceled. Then I had another series in black and white, and it failed. It got canceled. Understanding Comics was the first thing I had that succeeded, and that was followed by projects of questionable value to the market. But somehow I could always do another one, is the thing. I always survived, and it was almost always entirely mine.

AVC: How did the discovery of manga change your approach to making comics?

SM: Even though I wasn’t overly familiar with Tatsumi’s work before he got translated, manga was enormously important to me starting in the early ’80s. I first discovered manga in college, and when I moved to New York City to work at DC Comics and discovered that three blocks away was the biggest Japanese bookstore in America, that was it. For a year and a half, that was my lunch hour. I would make myself a cold-cut sandwich or get a knish on the corner and dispatch with lunch in about five minutes on my lunch hour and then I would run to Kinokuniya Bookstore at 10 West 49th Street in Rockefeller Center, and I would go upstairs to the section that was all manga. The whole second floor was pretty much manga. And I would just stand and read and read and read. And I didn’t read Japanese, but I knew how to read comics. And I studied every single technique, and that stuff informed my storytelling. And it has informed virtually everything I’ve done since.

In terms of state-of-the art storytelling techniques, the manga artists post [Osamu] Tezuka were just extraordinary. So was Tezuka of course. But the industry is quite oppressive from what I can tell. From the little bits and pieces that I’ve heard of people who have traveled there or from manga artists themselves in print, I get the feeling that being in a successful industry sometimes can be a curse because you have editors and publishers who believe that they know what works and when businessmen believe that what they know works and they have control over the means of distribution and publication and can decide whether or not you are to be invisible, it can be a very oppressive environment for artists, and I think you see a bit of that in A Drifting Life.

Set To Sea by Drew Weing

SM: I’m a great admirer of Drew Weing’s work, and I liked his webcomics, his mini-comics, his diary comics, long, long ago. It seems like a million years ago. Set To Sea is a very simple book. It’s a small book, lovingly rendered. It’s a simple parable of a big lug, who is a struggling aspiring poet, who gets himself shanghaied—kidnapped—and pressed into service on a ship and winds up getting his eye shot out tangling with pirates and going through virtually everything you can on the sea and just becoming a better poet. That remarkably simple idea that you’ll be a better writer if you’ve lived—which is something that seems alternately ridiculous and irrefutable, depending on what mood you’re in. That it’s as simple as that. Go out, live: You’ll be a better writer.

But because of his presentation, that lesson has a kind of authority to it. It’s an enormously satisfying read because his visualizations of each and every piece of the story are so lush and beautiful. He’s a master draftsman. It’s almost like medicine, reading this thing again, like taking a melatonin when you want to get to sleep or something. It’s just very effective. I love it. It’s just a reading experience. It also harkens back to the sort of morality plays of those early woodcut novels of people like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel. It’s instructions for living. It’s a small book and so it has that sense of something that you might slip into your jacket pocket and take with you on a long hike. It feels timeless. It doesn’t feel like it necessarily belongs to any particular era. You could imagine it having been done in the 1920s or the 1810s, if they made things like this in those days. But its lesson of artistic struggle is very simple. Struggle all you like. Until you’ve done something with your life, you’re probably not going to write anything worth reading. That’s it. Simple as that.

AVC: The story is told with one panel per page. How does that change the reading experience compared to the rest of these books?

SM: I think that simple formal conceit means that it has a childlike simplicity in the reading and an unpretentious quality for all the tremendous skill that goes into his drawing. He’s also not showing off. There’s a work ethic to it. It has the simple structure of a protestant hymn. He’s not into flourishes. He’s not into showing off crazy panel structures or showing off as an artist really at all. Though he does demonstrate this mastery as an artist. It’s a deeply unpretentious presentation. You don’t need to know comics. It’s not about comics. It transcends the graphic novel scene, the comic-book scene, the alternative comic scene. It’s completely independent of that. It’s something anybody anywhere in the world could pick up and read and understand, but for the language and the balloons. It’s something that children could understand. A child could read this and get quite a lot out of it. I think it would work very well as a children’s book. There’s violence in it, but kids don’t mind that. Parents mind it. The kids don’t.

AVC: This is such a nicely designed little graphic novel. How important do you think production design is to the general appeal of a book, and how did you take that into account with the design for The Sculptor?

SM: Well, I was obsessed with the production design for The Sculptor, but I think ultimately it’s a matter of not letting anything get in the way of your story. So for instance, the design of The Sculptor, in the interior it was simply a matter of finding good printing. One of the first things I told Mark Siegel, my editor up at First Second, was whatever we do we need a good paper stock with minimum show-through because there’s one point in the book where it really matters. Because I have blank pages as part of the story content and if the previous or next page is showing through that paper, it’s going to ruin the effect. So they went and found some very nice white paper with very little show-through at all. In fact, I’m almost astounded how little show-through there is. It’s really beautiful.

But a simple thing like that, that somebody might overlook was actually incredibly important to us. Finding the right Pantone color. In May, I was in Atlanta, Georgia, giving a lecture at a place called MailChimp, and I managed to find a pantone swatch book. My Pantone swatch book was at home in my studio, and my studio was locked and I had the key and I was 2,000 miles away from Southern California where it was. So I couldn’t have anybody go and get my own Pantone swatch book and FedEx it to us, and we needed it to select the color. This is one of the most important decisions I ever made, and thank God for the folks at MailChimp. They had Pantone swatch books and a quiet room that they could lend me for an hour. They saved my life, and I was able to select Pantone 653. This was not just production because if I had picked the wrong color, the form would have been lost. As it was in the galley, I don’t know if you’ve seen the galley, the advanced reader’s edition.

The Sculptor

AVC: That’s the one I have.

SM: The color is completely wrong. It’s about three or four tones too light, and when you see the actual finished book, you’re going to see that the shape of things, the form of things, the texture of things, all just sort of settles in as if that whole world is coming into focus for the first time. It’s a completely different experience from the galley. So yeah, production matters. It’s just like in webcomics. With webcomics, it was liberating because you could get away from all that stuff, but at the same time you had to hope that the other side reading it was reading on a monitor like yours because colors on monitors could vary dramatically, especially from Apple to PC. It was pretty harsh sometimes seeing my webcomics shown on other people’s monitors. It could be horrifying.

Beanworld Book 1: Wahoolazuma! by Larry Marder

SM: Beanworld was one of the first comics of that era that was in the same category as my own. It was the first time that I was a fan of something where I was also a peer. And I became friends with Larry Marder. And in fact I think he wrote me my first fan letter. I think I also wrote one to him about the same time. But the coming out of Beanish, what he called “the breakout”; this is when one of the beans every once in awhile will suddenly have a unique identity. They’ll just discover a unique identity. And in the fourth issue of Beanworld, one of my favorite comics, one of the beans discovers art and he becomes an artist. And I’ve had a lot of conversations with Larry about art. Some of them work their way into The Sculptor.

And Larry, who is very fond of [Marcel] Duchamp, had this very detached view of art, and there was part of me that wanted to believe that there was some kind of arbiter of quality out there, that there was some kind of measure, and Larry very much believed that art was whatever society decided was art and that it was up to the viewer to make the painting, as Duchamp used to say. And this was something that, even though I didn’t have a logical refutation for it, I always found it a little frightening and cold. This idea that there’s just no meaning. There’s no final verdict on anything. But when he portrays this artist breaking out in this story, one of the things that struck me the most was that it simply becomes a transaction. Right away, it’s a matter of this character now makes art and he proposes that he will make art for food. And it’s like, “How about I do this thing and you give me this.” He’s simply defined by his function in society.

The idea that you even have a function in society is something that artists often choke on. They don’t like the thought of that, that it’s all just a matter of transactions and societal functions and whether society values us as the only measure of our worth. Artists don’t generally like that. I don’t like that on a gut level. But that’s often what it comes down to, and that’s what it came down to for Tatsumi. That’s what it came down to for Eisner. Will society permit you to continue to do this? You are at the mercy of society’s judgment. And right away, even in this small cartoon context, I think Larry Marder really drives that home. But the discovery of art, the moment where Beanish breaks out and discovers art, is for me extremely exciting.

At one point, he simply has a caption that’s just when Beanish manages to communicate with the other beans and make this thing that looks like this thing made out of inanimate objects, that looks like something in their lives. Once they understand that, he has a caption that says: “What is art? What switches does it flip? What is this power that makes our minds race, our pulses pound?” I was ready to hear that. I was ready to read that. That was an exciting moment in comics where this comic is showing you the birth of art, not the birth of an artist, but the birth of art itself in a society. And it can be very inspirational for me personally to go back to first principles like that. To go back to that moment of the big bang that you thought you would never see firsthand. It gave me that sensation. So I really like that comic. That was one of my favorite comics for the longest time.

AVC: You mentioned Larry Marder and James Sturm in your acknowledgments for The Sculptor. How did they assist you with that book specifically?

SM: They were two of what I call my “kibitzers.” The other ones being my wife, Ivy, Jenn Manley Lee, Kurt Busiek, and Vera Brosgol. They have some similarities in temperament, the two of them. But Larry was mostly helping me on a broad conceptual level, helping me with my engagement with art. Although in the end, I think the story is less about art itself or the art world and more about an outsider artist protagonist. I really don’t spend a lot of time in the art world. I wouldn’t pretend to know the inner workings thereof. Larry, generally as a kibitzer, he’s looked at everything I’ve done with Understanding Comics and really taken a good hard look at it and suggested major revisions and that sort of thing. But on this project, it was more about trying to understand the challenges that I had to examine my own attitudes toward life and see in what ways that was shaping the story, and in what ways I had to come to terms with things that I had been putting off for years that I basically never grew up. I needed to grow up in order to write that book because I was telling a young man’s story, but I had to tell it from the point of view of an older man. So I had to basically age out. I had to embrace my place in the continuum and be the fiftysomething-year-old guy who had maybe had time to work through some of the delusions of youth.

Market Day by James Sturm

SM: This, by the way, I have to say just right up at the top. Market Day is my favorite graphic novel from the last five years or so.

AVC: I had never read it until I got this list and was able to grab it from the library. It was amazing. I loved the pacing of it all. It’s really immersive, and the way he depicts the passage of time and all those different environments is so great.

SM: It’s such a master class. You could teach a six-month course just on this one book. I’ve always loved James’ work. I was especially fond of The Golem’s Mighty Swing, which is his previous graphic novel. But this one just really blew me away. I knew James’ work going all the way back to the ’90s. James was one of the “five who came to dinner.” That’s what my wife and I call them. Right after Understanding Comics, there were five young artists who came to dinner one time that I got to know and that I always look forward to seeing. James was one of them and the others were Jason Lutes, Megan Kelso, Jon Lewis, and Tom Hart. And so you didn’t have to sell me on the idea that he had a new graphic novel. I was looking forward to reading it, but I didn’t quite know what a powerhouse it was going to be, partially because I am an artist.

And this book, more than any of these others, speaks to the theme that we’re mulling over here. The struggle of the artist. But it also relates to A Drifting Life and The Dreamer in a sense that it also deals with a cold harsh reality that all artists exist in the societal context and that whatever your artistic dreams, there’re still mouths to feed. There’s still a market that can crush you. You’re still in this hyper-competitive world, which everybody is clambering up the ladder hoping not to be eaten by the crocodiles underneath.

The idea that James is teaching at a school at the time—he’s more presiding over the school now, he’s not quite as active in the day-to-day I think at this point—but The Center For Cartoon Studies up in Vermont, he’s essentially encouraging the kind of aesthetic purism as the character of Finkler, who encourages Mendleman to work to ever greater heights of craft and artistic dedication. And in a way, that’s what James encourages through this school. So the fact that he’s questioning that or allowing us to find the limitations of that kind of dedication is fascinating and I think speaks to his own doubts probably. And spoke to mine too. This idea that at any moment the ax could fall, that there’s nothing to guarantee that you can continue to be so dedicated to these artistic principles while you have mouths to feed, as our protagonist does, as I have. It made me feel very lucky to live in these circumstances, where I can continue to do what I do. But it also, in the end, embraces the value of community and family in an unexpected way.

And when the sun comes up, he’s taken us on this long dark journey of somebody who’s really had a crisis of faith with his art and who’s felt the cold touch of death. Really being reminded of his own vulnerability and mortality, but when he finds himself back in his village, the sun is coming up. I think most readers will feel as it they’ve also gone through that exact same emotional journey and with the sun, there’s that sense of pessimism burning off like the morning fog and the sense that it will be all right because you have that community, you have that family, you have people that will be looking out for you. And it’s a real testament to that notion of life over art, which I think for an art teacher is a very bracing, interesting and complex statement.

AVC: I didn’t know that about his teaching situation.

SM: Well The Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, is a small school, which offers a two-year program. There’s a documentary [Cartoon College] about it. Find it. It’s really cool. And James started it and got some great people like Steve Bissette, one of my other kibitzers, to teach there and some other people and they’ve turned out some great cartoonists. And they are very dedicated to artistic expression but also to finding ways for that artistic expression to ultimately find you work somewhere.

And recently James published a little cartoon manifesto called Applied Cartooning, which is about the different ways that cartooning can ultimately make you a living or can help to communicate. Cartooning as a form of visual communication and education and all the different ways that cartooning can enter into different purposes. You can tell there’s an inner debate in his work and in his life that’s very interesting and doesn’t easily resolve itself. But Market Day—it’s a very eloquent exploration of that tension between an artist and their society, and also of course a portrait of industrial change because it’s very much about these great forces at work in the world as industrialization is beginning to spread across the world and this lone carpet weaver and his donkey and his cart are about to be forced out by history.

“Discovering America” by David Mazzucchelli

AVC: Mazzucchelli is the only person that has two works on this list. What attracts you to his work?

SM: It’s very hard to describe Mazzucchelli, and these are two very, very different works, separated by quite a few years, too. Mazzucchelli stands alone. If you were to map out comics, he’d be this guy standing off without a country. He doesn’t really belong to any particular category. He did mainstream work that was very effective. Actually, some of the best mainstream comics—Daredevil was great, and Batman: Year One is just terrific. And then he took a sharp left turn and began doing some beautifully told but also formally jarring semi-avant-garde stuff in his anthology Rubber Blanket with Richmond Lewis and I think one or two other people. But what’s funny is that he seems to have swallowed a lot of the post-[Jack] Kirby compositional tropes that have driven mainstream comics for 30 to 40 years and broken them down into a system and metabolized them and worked them into wholly new muscles and organs until he learns so much that people never learn from people like Kirby. People always pick up on the surface. He seemed to have picked up on the core in terms of composition, his framing, his pacing such that every panel is just compositionally satisfying in ways that are almost impossible to describe.

And then in “Discovering America,” he has these short pieces that are real classics. These short pieces in Rubber Blanket: “Dead Dog,” “Big Man,” and “Discovering America,” which is my favorite, and that’s indeed about a struggling artist but this time struggling with his own unfulfillable needs, which in some ways is most similar to what I tried to do in The Sculptor. This is somebody who—if we had to classify him—he’s probably somewhere on the spectrum, as I think my protagonist is in The Sculptor, a little autistic or OCD or something going on there. He has some kind of internal mechanism working that separates him a little from the people around him. But he has that intense devotion to his work. And the struggle for him is an interior one. It’s a struggle of trying to wrap his mind around something that is resistant to rational thought.

That that’s how I interpret it and I don’t know if I’m right or not because it’s not a very explicit story. But this is the way I read it. The way the story plays out is that he’s trying forever to impose a rational superstructure, almost more like a scientist, but with the passion and devotion of an artist. He’s trying to impose that rational superstructure over a world that is resistant to rational thinking. And it’s very male in some ways. It plays into certain dynamics of men and women and relationships. And that idea that things can be controlled, that things can be contained, that things can be mapped is something that he continues to try to pursue that even as the story is over, even as we’ve seen the limitations of that.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

AVC: You specifically singled out Hana for the frustrated artist in this book. How do you connect to her story?

SM: First of all, I think that the lead character in Asterios Polyp, his struggle is one of personal growth primarily, of letting go. So as an artistic struggle, it’s not really what the story is about, ultimately. But I do think that we have to—in talking about an artist’s role in society, there’s also the society of those closest to us and one of Hana’s struggles in this story is the fact that she is living in the shadow of somebody with such an overpowering ego that he sucks all the sunlight out of the room and we see that. And because its comics and because Mazzucchelli knows that he’s working in a system of visual icons, that becomes literally true. We see her just outside of the spotlight several times, just outside of the sunlight because she has all the same artistic passions but without that sense of self promotion, without those demands to be recognized, to be the center of attention. She’s not receiving it because she’s not demanding it, she’s not demanding it of life.

But when on her own, post-breakup, and much of the story is post-breakup, she does manage to find her way. But that artistic struggle—it’s a struggle simply to reduce the noise in one’s life, to reduce all the demands on oneself that distract one. Sometimes I think artists just need to clear everything away, to hear the hum of the universe, and that seems to be what she finally does and what her artistic fulfillment consists of is finally removing the chatter and the weight of other people’s expectations long enough to find what she truly needed as an artist. So there’s the greater mechanisms of society, there’s having to make a living, there’s the demands of publishers or markets and that sort of thing. But then there’s also the demands of those closest to us.

And there are a lot of people whose artistic careers—especially women over the centuries, of course—whose artistic careers were stunted or eliminated altogether simply by the expectations of those around them. I’m told that Fanny Mendelssohn was quite the composer. I’ve heard a little bit of her work, but I don’t know that she got to produce as much in her lifetime as her brother Felix, which to me was always funny because as soon as you know that their names are Fanny and Felix, you can picture their parents talking about how, “Oh, Fanny’s a very good pianist too.” Suddenly it’s all a little too vivid, sitting around at dinner. “Oh, Fanny play that for the nice man.” Can’t you just hear their parents?

AVC: In terms of all the books on this list, this is the one that takes the most advantage of how malleable the medium is in terms of how Mazzucchelli is constantly shifting visual styles depending on where the story is, what the characters are doing. Is that inspiring to you as visual storyteller?

SM: Yeah, although Asterios Polyp was published at a time when I was moving in the opposite direction, but that was just where I personally was going. But I’m always delighted by formal experiments, obviously. Just look at my career. Obviously this is something I have a taste for. Stuff like Asterios Polyp—that’s just catnip for guys like me. Of course I love it. He’s just playing with the medium. He’s also playing with the physical medium as well, with printing. The whole thing is printed in cyan, magenta, and yellow. There’s no black in the whole book that I can see except when he takes all three colors and gives you that sort of slightly muddy pseudo-black that you can get with CMY printing from time to time. And that’s really a kind of love letter to the process by which comics were printed in the 20th century. And it’s very fitting that this looks back at that century having just concluded. I assume it did. When did it come out? 2004? 2005? Not really sure. Maybe later.

AVC: It came out a little later than that. 2009.

SM: 2009, yeah. I just like that aspect of it. But I’d say it’s an odd book in some ways. But in a lot of ways, I see Asterios Polyp as a witty satisfying conversation with the art form. It’s a very satisfying book. I’ve always enjoyed Mazzucchelli’s work. In fact, City Of Glass is one of my all-time favorite graphic novels, and extremely teachable, by the way. City Of Glass is fantastic in the classroom. If there are any teachers out there, go get that book. Kids eat it up.

AVC: You’re considered a futurist of the industry. Moving forward, what do you see the comics industry looking like?

SM: Well, I suppose this would be a good time to offer my mea culpa that this list I picked for you is a bit of a sausage fest. I could have included some works by women artists that might have fit the theme, but I wasn’t sure that I could talk about them very well without a good re-reading. Lynda Barry’s What It Is would have been a really good addition. But I just didn’t have time to re-read everything, and that one would have required a re-read at least. But I think that probably the single most important trend right now is the coming army of girls reading all-ages comics who will be moving into the industry. And I think within about eight or so years, we’ll have a majority female industry. I think there’s going to be a massive shift in terms of who writes comics and who reads comics. So again, sorry that these are a bunch of guys in this list. That was a matter of circumstance. A lot of my favorite comics happen to be by women but—This One Summer, for example—not about an artist. So I was out of luck. I love that book.

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

AVC: I really like the Mariko and Jillian Tamaki in general. They’re just wonderful comic creators.

SM: Agreed. I think Jillian’s art really shot up the charts into Craig Thompson territory. So that’s very important. Just this army of baby readers being daily churned out by people like Raina Telgemeier. They’re going to have an enormous effect on the industry, and they’re probably the most important trend right now. The web is in a transitional phase and I think we’ll be better able to see what the important trends are in a couple of years. I think historically we’ll look back on this time as this in-between time, where there didn’t seem to be a lot of violent change going on, but where probably just the seeds of something genuinely new were beginning to take root but we couldn’t quite tell what they were yet.

Certainly the growth of crowd-funded work is very intriguing and the fact that it’s held on as long as it has is encouraging. But artistically, there’s so much more we can do. I’m on record with that. I don’t want to beat that dead horse just now. James Sturm himself talked about the notion of “the beachhead.” Around 2004, they had a 10th anniversary issue of The Comics Journal where a number of people responded to Understanding Comics and they got James to respond in comics form to the last chapter of my book. And he talked about how without a real beachhead of canonized works, great works of comics, that we could all agree on, on the shelf, that this would be a shallow revolution. And I think that we are starting to genuinely build that beachhead, and I actually think Market Day by Sturm himself will go on that shelf. I think it’s one of those books.

There’s a rhythm to the generations. Out comes Maus, Watchmen, and Dark Knight [Returns]. And then it takes a little while for people to take the lessons of that period in the late ’80s and start to turn out the work of the ’90s. It takes a little while before you get Jimmy Corrigan. It takes a little while for people who have read Jimmy Corrigan to turn around and create their own masterpieces. But with each growing wave of substantial work, you have the potential for a new generation to come back with 10 times the tonnage of good work. It just takes them awhile. There’s a slight lag time. And I’m very hopeful for what might be on the drawing boards of artists we haven’t even heard of yet.