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The gospel of comic books

Scott McCloud preaches the good word about graphic novels

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Despite being an innovator and visionary for the future of comic books, Scott McCloud currently lives a life better suited to a traveling preacher from a bygone era.

Creator of the cult-fave comic book Zot! and the landmark appreciation of the art form, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, McCloud is in the midst of a year-long tour of all 50 states, with detours to Canada, London and Barcelona. He's living out of a gray Toyota Sienna with his wife Ivy and their 11- and 13-year-old daughters, sharing what's part family trip, part book tour for his latest volume, Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets, Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. The McClouds sound almost like a throwback to one of those itinerant sermonizing families of yesteryear.

"I'm not very religious, but I have been compared to an evangelical preacher," says McCloud, who'll swing through Atlanta Jan. 19-21 for a three-day seminar and lecture at Georgia Tech. "I'm trying to spread the good news about comics, and I do have that turn-of-the-century-revival-meeting fervor. Hopefully I'm not just preaching to the converted."

McCloud emerged as one of many talented disciples of the art form in the comics boom of the 1980s. He earned a loyal following for Zot! a family-friendly adventure comic book created partly in response to a trend for darker content in comics, although Zot! evolved into an increasingly sophisticated, realistic study of adolescence not unlike "My So-Called Life."

His passion extended beyond just reading all kinds of comics and creating his own, but also in theorizing how they worked. McCloud attributes the scientific, experimental side of his brain to heredity: "I get that from my dad. He was, literally, a blind genius rocket-scientist inventor, and is on the patent for parts of the guidance system of Patriot missiles. I have that predisposition, but I'm a storyteller, too."

Published in 1993, Understanding Comics came from years of ideas McCloud had been cultivating since the mid-1980s. "I had to put them somewhere, and it was harder to put them into words than just to put them into pictures," he says.

Full of big ideas and little jokes, Understanding Comics features a bespectacled icon of himself as the reader's guide to the fusion of words and pictures that make comics work. Recently, McCloud's cartoony self-portrait has gotten grayer at the temples and thicker around the middle, but in discussions of comic books as a medium, it's become as familiar as any of the X-Men.

The ironic thing about Understanding Comics and its two follow-ups is that they represent some of the most exciting, engaging uses of the comic-book form in the past two decades -- they just happen to be about comics. McCloud returned to the format for what he calls a more "dense, problematic" book, 2000's Reinventing Comics. Partly, it's a history of the trends that have kept the art form in the culture's margins, and partly a manifesto for change and new possibilities, with particular zeal over online, digital comics.

For an example of McCloud's mind-boggling notions for "the infinite canvas," comics unbound by the constraints of a magazine-size newsprint page, go to page three of "Zot! Online" at scottmccloud.com. You'll find a comic-book story with a panel that, in real life, would be 10-12 feet high, and which moves in an almost cinematic way when you scroll down. It's cool!

McCloud's scholarly but playful graphic novels have made him the de facto voice of the medium, and he's spoken and taught at venues as diverse as Harvard, the Smithsonian and Pixar. Making Comics came from an impulse to get back to his storytelling roots. "For about two decades, I've had a story in my head for a long graphic novel, but I never thought I'd be the one to draw it; there are things in my tool set that aren't that polished." Creating this year's 266-page Making Comics was his way of polishing those skills. It serves as more of a how-to book, the Master Class compared with Understanding's equivalent to "Comics 101."

In 1990, his interest in the nuts and bolts inspired him to create "24 Hour Comics," an exercise to write and draw a complete 24-page comic-book story within a day. With little prompting, the idea took on a life of its own, leading to an annual event with participants including pro cartoonists and amateurs alike, as well as a compilation edited by McCloud in 1994. (It even inspired, in a roundabout way, "The 24 Hour Plays," a theatrical event often staged in Atlanta.)

Despite his diversity of interests, McCloud finds a common thread between digital comics, the "24 Hour Comics" and the rest of his ideas.

"If anything unifies my work, it's the idea of unfulfilled potential," he says. "I see contemporary comics as this little colony on the edge of this vast continent of possibility, and I want to map that continent as best as I can."

Currently, he's too busy playing cartographer to be contributor. McCloud won't be able to start the new graphic novel until after the final stop of the tour, in Hawaii, in August of 2007, and the book will take years to accomplish. He seems comfortable with his role as an advocate for the medium, and proves to be a self-deprecating visionary.

"I've always been on my own little frequency, and some of my ideas are a little weird," he concedes. "I never wanted to be too establishment. At comic conventions, I tend to notice the kids who no one's paying attention to, huddled in the corner of the cafeteria, talking about revolution."

Maybe he has an eye for spotting the comic-book apostles of tomorrow.

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