Tuesday, April 29, 2008

NYCC 08: Interview With Douglas Rushkoff and Scott McCloud

19 April 2008

l to r: Scott McCloud, Douglas Rushkoff, and moderator, Marianne Petit.]

New York’s third annual Comic Con marked another largescale celebration of geekdom, in its countless, oft-divergent manifestations. For all of the fanfare around Red Hulks and virtual worlds and maddeningly enigmatic 30 second movie trailers, for the attendees of a small but packed downstairs meeting room at 1PM on Friday afternoon, the Douglas Rushkoff/Scott McCloud panel was something of an intellectual equivalent to some long awaited and shockingly undisappointing teamup between, say, Spider-man and Superman.

Much of the limited buzz proceeding the panel could no doubt be chalked up to the fact that the event’s organizers, in their infinite wisdom, opted to schedule it two hours before the Con opened to the public, while artists and comic shop owners and members of the press stalked down the lonely aisles upstairs, looking to broker a half year’s worth of deals, before the flood gates opened to the costumed masses.

In many ways it was something of a blessing for those in attendance that the meeting of these analytical minds wasn’t hyped and reserved for some cavernous meeting room, like later convention appearances by folks like Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman, and perhaps in the midst of three days worth of geeky excess, it’s nice to have taken part in something of a surprisingly well kept public secret.

In the admittedly insular world of comic criticism, our gods read McLuhan and can wax analytically at length about memes, while still feeling that tinge of excitement in anticipation for any number of forthcoming superhero movie adaptations. It’s among precisely this contingent that Scott McCloud and Douglas Rushkoff are superstars.

McCloud began his initial descent in our low-culture writing and illustrating his own superheroic creation, Zot, a path that has subsequently led him to both flirt with mainstream comics writing through books like Superman Adventures and to help pioneer the decidedly more indie concept of the 24-hour comic. But it’s McCloud’s more meta works for which he is best known, books like Understanding- and Reinventing Comics, which have helped earn him recognition as one of the medium’s leading theorists.

Douglas Rushkoff is one of today’s most highly regarded media theorists, penning a long line of well received books on the subject, including Cyberia, Media Virus, and Playing the Future. Rushkoff has also had his share of dips into the world of sequential art, penning the graphic novel Club Zero-G, and more recently completing work on the biblically-themed Vertigo series, Testament.

We had the privilege of conducting a brief interview with the duo, just prior to their panel, which was moderated by NYU associate arts professor, Marianne Petit. Check out our interview, as well as video and a complete audio recording of the panel, after the jump.

I know the plan on the panel today is, in part, a discussion of the future of comics. Twenty years from now, how do you predict people will look back on the present era, in terms of the state of the medium?

Scott McCloud:
We’ll, I’ve gotten in trouble making predictions just two years out. I think we share that anxiety about predictions, Douglas and I. but I will say that there’s a tendency for that parabole of change to look like a flat line, after you get to a certain point, so I think we’ll probably have a sense of this being in the infancy of the Web and certainly comics’ flirtation with it. I’m sure it will look as if nothing had happened yet. If you go 20 years from now, I’m sure people will look and say, “yeah, well, there was inklings of stuff,” because that’s usually how it is. In 1983, the computer was Time Magazine’s Entity of the Year. At the time, it felt like it was at the top of this enormous parabolic curve of progress and change. In retrospect, we look back and that period and think that things hadn’t really started yet.

Are you referring specifically to Webcomics?

McCloud: I think it’s true with the Web, generally. We’ll probably have the sense that it’s just the moment after the big bang. But of course now it already feels like there have been these momentous changes.

Where does that leave print? Is it flatlining?

McCloud: Print’s always gonna be there for something. I think there are some uses of print that are going to be sliding away. Already it’s clearly not the quickest, easiest way to get your message across. [To Ruskoff] What do you think of that one?

Douglas Ruskoff:
Well, I think print’s moving more toward souvenir status. You’ll hear about an idea on a TV show or on the radio or you’ll read something online, and then you’ll buy the book to have the souvenir of that idea.

A tangible manifestation.

Or something like a movie tie-in?

McCloud: Except we were never really that used to holding movies in our hands. They never had a tangible manifestation. The tie-in is a genre thing. Sometimes that genre media thing can throw off our senses a little. I think I may be a little more inclined to look at the medium in isolation and know that genres are going to trace in and out like they live here, but they’re really just transient.

How do see pop-culture’s recent flirtation with comics as affecting the medium?

McCloud: I think it’s benign right now, it will turn ugly.

So it’s not necessarily a bad thing at the moment?

Yeah, well, it’s bringing some people to the medium and at the moment, in this particular time in our cultural history, it’s produced some okay movies. I mean, I’ll go see Iron Man.

Yeah. It’s dark in a way. You get some people—like actors that act in certain plays to get into a movie. Sometimes I get the sense that some people are doing graphic novels—more that just straight comics—as attempts to get screenplay deals. Certainly I know the business is structured that way.

McCloud: It is, but it’s interesting, because you have two currents. You definitely have that. There are companies like Platinum that obviously have their eye on the movie deal, above all other things, but you also have the success of people like Miller and Clowes, where the artist becomes the brand, and even the movie seems to be kowtowing a bit to the artist’s name. “Here’s the name that goes over the credits.” In some cases, like Miller, the top of the tree is the artist, and then moving down from that, you have the movie and the comics, but the artistic conception seems to be what’s driving the bus for a lot of people.

Ruskoff: > I would definitely say that pop culture and major conglomerates are swallowing up media at their own risk, because they’re taking in more bottom-up fringe culture than they’re used to digesting. Absorbing the book industry or Hollywood or even the music industry is one thing, but when they come after comics, they’re reaching down into the gutter. I think there’s some good, undigestable material down here. When people look back on this moment, 20 years hence, they may remember this as the moment corporatized media ate the thing that killed it.

Scott, you mentioned the recognition of artists like Frank Miller and Dan Clowes. Inversely, there are established artists like Joss Whedon or Michael Chabon coming into the medium. Does that help lend an air of legitimacy?

McCloud: it certainly sends a signal that it’s a lateral move for some of then. We don’t necessarily feel like Chabon is slumming, because he’s already established his interest in and affection for comics. Joss Whedon is also definitely a comics fan—a lot of people who worked on Buffy, I get the feeling they are. So, even though, in terms of dollars moved, or eyeballs captured, yeah, maybe it’s a step down, but I think that if you talked to those creators, generally they’d see it as just another outlet for their stories.

For the two of you who have become well known for your critical works, is it hard to come back into the medium as creators?

McCloud: Well, everything I do is comics—I’m not as cross-medium as some people.

Do you somehow feel the need to perform extra well after demonstrating the critical aspect of your work?

McCloud: I need to perform extra well because I have my own history of mediocre comics. I just want to be a better cartoonist, that’s all.

Rushkoff: Sure, I think people who are familiar with my non-fiction writing might scrutinize my comics work with a bit more distance, at least at first. If they’ve got my other work in their heads, it might be a little bit tougher for people to enter into my comics as freely as they might otherwise because they’re trying to see if I’m applying this principle or that one into my work. Am I being true to some ideal that may have I put forth in ‘94? So I need to grab them into the story straight off, maybe with greater force than I might have otherwise, to get them out of one frame of mind and into another. It’s something I have to do myself as a writer, too.

Are you applying that same eye for detail to yourself, critiquing your own work more than you think your standard comics artist or writer might?

McCloud: Well, there are certainly artists out there who aren’t too self-critical, but there are plenty who always look at the last thing they did, and just want to toss it off a cliff. I’m in the latter category—also, I have the addition problem that I just wrote a how to- book, so I’m really in trouble, if the next thing I do stinks. I have a story that I like, and I want to do a graphic novel. I’ve been spending a lot of time making it better than anything I’ve done before, because that’s a bare minimum requirement for me, personally. If it’s not a lot better than anything I’ve even done before, it’s not worth doing.

What was the initial seed for you, as far as launching into this new book?

In my case, I just happened to have an idea I liked—everything else just follows from that.

Douglas, how do you settle on the medium you’re going to use to tell your latest story?

Well, it’s one of two reasons. Either because the idea is really just perfectly matched to that medium, and can only be told in that medium, or because it seems like it would be impossible to express that idea in that medium, and I want the challenge.

Audio of the Ruskoff/McCloud panel.

Check out our Grant Morrison interview from NYCC.

More NYCC Coverage.

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