Comic Writer Scott McCloud on Visual Communication and Storytelling

The first interaction that Rutgers University- Camden had with comic writer Scott McCloud was his kind refusal, in front of the audience, to use the presentation projector closest to the window because “it wasn’t bright enough.” That being said, Scott McCloud is the most down to Earth guys you could ever meet. He made jokes about the fact that he was “tragically under dressed” and said the word “awesome” about everything from the projector to the audience.

McCloud is famous for his comic books including the Zot! series, The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, and, most recently, The Sculptor, which Neil Gaiman called, “the best comic book he has read in a long time.” However, McCloud is most popular for his career as a comics theorist and the three books that he has written about visual communication: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics.  He began his presentation by saying that his Power point held over 100 slides. I admit that that sounded like way too many at the time. Little did I know that it was just right.

McCloud discussed the importance of becoming visually literate and encouraging others to understand and correctly interpret visual literacy. Illustrating his point, he produced image after image of emergency signs that were drawn incorrectly and impossible to understand without the subtitles. One picture was so jumbled that it looked like it meant: “In case of fire go downstairs, get inside and try to escape by hiding in the elevator.” This may not seem like a big deal. You may be saying, “What does it matter? The words underneath clearly say: In case of fire walk slowly to the nearest exit, but do not take the elevator.” However, this is a bigger issue than you may think.

According to McCloud, not being able to understand images properly is one of the reasons why consumers are so powerless against advertising slogans. We, as consumers in the information age, devour images so greedily and so speedily without really wondering what they mean and how they are influencing our brain. He made it clear that he was not there to judge the advertising industry, but it is true that if consumers could understand the images that so easily enter their minds and lives, perhaps they would make smarter choices and have smarter reactions.

And McCloud knows about reactions. He is obsessed with them. He has always loved, and tried to understand, the way people’s expressions are formed. It’s one of the reasons why he became an artist in the first place. One of his first slides involved a series of human faces displaying the basis for the thousands of expressions we make. It’s simple math, addition really. An angry face and a smile create a face of cruel enjoyment. A disgusted face and a smile create a face of trying not to feel uncomfortable. A sad face and a smile create what McCloud calls “the love face.” He proceeded to show a series of pictures from movies in which women and men in love look at each other. All of their faces looked very much in love, but on a closer look, an expression of sadness was there as well.

“What do our faces know that we don’t?” he asked the audience. Our faces tell the endless stories of our experiences, our backgrounds, our hopes and our dreams.

As the presentation went on, a full hour and a half not including the many questions that people had, I realized that the hundred slides no longer mattered. I was enjoying myself, and learning about comics, something I have never fully appreciated.

McCloud ended his presentation by giving an anecdote about a year long road trip that he took with his wife and two daughters. He talked about the scenery, the experience of being in nature, and spending valuable time with his family. He said that a lot of the trip, however, was spent “escaping.” The PowerPoint flipped to one of the last slides, a picture of his young daughter reading a book, entranced, captivated by the world that she was experiencing. Humans are storytelling creatures and though we create stories that may involve road trips and vacations, we also need to hear other people’s stories. Real or not. Storytelling follows us wherever we go: in advertisements, in movies, in art, and especially in literature. It is time to appreciate the power of visual images and encourage others to do the same. That was the invaluable lesson that I learned from Scott McCloud.

By: Tiara Guzman

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