Artist Scott McCloud looks to future of comics in 2011 Goldtrap Lecture

Cristobal Matibag

Comic book artist Scott McCloud gave ISU students a primer in comics’ past and a glimpse into their future Thursday night.

Delivering the 2011 Goldtrap Lecture — titled “Comics: An Art Form in Transition” — McCloud spoke on the place comics have in the history of art, how readers decode their meaning and how they’ve changed in the digital age.

Issues like these have consumed McCloud since 1993, when he published the book “Understanding Comics.” Since then he has published two others — “Reinventing Comics” and “Making Comics” — in the process turning himself into the art form’s most acclaimed theorist.

Punctuating his words with hundreds of slides, McCloud defined comics as “sequential art.” He said they derived their power from the mind’s tendency to make connections between disparate images. This, he explained, is what lets readers see the passage of time as their eyes go from one still panel to the next.

“We see something within the panels and between the panels,” McCloud said. “It’s the way our minds work.”

He then tracked the long history of sequential art, moving from Egyptian wall paintings to Native American works on animal hides. Common to all, McCloud said, was the way their stories “moved through time and space in an unbroken line.”

McCloud said the popularity of print comics, which peaked in the twentieth century, changed that movement drastically. Though the action of pre-print comics had been unbroken, the limited page size of print comics forced breaks at the end of every panel row and the end of every page.

Because digital comics don’t need to fit within the confines of a page, or follow the left to right reading style of conventional books, McCloud said they could restore the unbroken continuity of pre-print comics to comics of the present, thus immersing the reader more deeply.

“Immersion is the holy grail of art,” McCloud said.

But McCloud argued that many artists had missed the chance to immerse their readers, treating computer screens the same way they had pages. He advised them to approach the screen “less like a page and more like a window — something we look through to see a much larger world.”

Underscoring his point, McCloud showed webcomics that used their freedom from the page more fully. One such comic was Drew Weing’s “Pup Ponders the Heat Death of the Universe.” As McCloud scrolled from one side of the page to the other, the main character, Pup, floated from his doorstep and into space. As Pup left Earth, the size of each panel increased, finally filling the entire screen when the planet was swallowed up by the sun.

After McCloud ended his speech to take questions, a woman asked if he thought social media would push comics “more into the mainstream.” He suggested comics had already made it there, citing the popularity of movies like “Iron Man 2.”

“We kind of took over,” McCloud said. “We’re kind of running things. But I think it’s a benign dictatorship.”