Scott McCloud on the Secret of Humor

The writer draws inspiration from Art Spiegelman's Breakdowns, "a toolkit to think about humor using comics."

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Scott McCloud’s been making comics professionally since 1984, but a new book, The Sculptor, is his first full-length graphic novel. McCloud is best known as a theorist—he’s spent the better part of his career on a trio of graphic textbooks (Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics) that deconstruct the magic and mystery of the form. In our conversation for this series, McCloud explained how Art Spiegelman’s classic 1978 collection Breakdowns (recently republished by Pantheon) helped inspire his unexpected turn towards nonfiction—how Spiegelman’s early comic “Cracking Jokes” taught him about the principles of humor, and how the strip revealed to him comics’ uncanny educational potential.

Artistic creation is the key theme of McCloud’s new book. The Sculptor’s protagonist makes a Faustian bargain with Death, who comes to him in the form of a dead relative: For 200 days, he’ll be able to sculpt anything he wants, but after that he’ll die. I asked McCloud about his experience of telling a full-length story after focusing on nonfiction for so long.

“What I tried to do was bury the theory,” he said. “When going for straight storytelling, that’s what you hope to do. Internalize the theory, metabolize it, and don’t have any undigested bits floating on the surface. You hope it’s all going to be integrated into the work, and that your instincts can take over.”

McCloud has won an Eisner Award for Understanding Comics, and is a four-time winner of the Harvey Award. Other works include Destroy!!, Zot!, and the comic that introduced the world to Google Chrome. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Newbury Park, California.

Scott McCloud: I first read Breakdowns, Art Spiegelman’s collection of formal experiments in comics, after I graduated from college in the early '80s. This was when I was living in New York, working on Zot!, my first comics series. I knew Spiegelman’s work from Raw, the influential magazine he co-edited with François Mouly.  It took me a little while to get a hold of Breakdowns. But when I finally did, it was something of a revelation.

Published in underground magazines throughout the 70s, the Breakdowns pieces have a rough, raw energy I love, combined with a brilliant eagerness to rethink the art form at every moment. I see a fascinating tension in Spiegelman’s work: he has a predisposition towards formalism, but his sympathies lie with the rebels and iconoclasts. Yes, he’s the guy who won the first comics Pulitzer, and [his work] has been exhibited in museums around the world—but he’s also the guy who participated in the creation of the Garbage Pail Kids. When the formalist and iconoclast sensibilities collide headlong, you get something like the comics in Breakdowns.

One piece in particular—a comic called “Cracking Jokes”—had an especially profound effect on me. It’s a short work, just four oversized pages long, but it’s dense and rich with insight. The comic begins, naturally, with a joke:

Art Spiegelman/Pantheon Books

Using the joke as a kind of refrain, Spiegelman explains the ways in which humor works. He plays the story back and forth in different variations—tweaking, rearranging, and deconstructing its timing and logic—illustrating the ways jokes succeed and fail. As the characters of psychologist and patient are recombined and reused again and again, it starts to feel almost like this crazed Abbot and Costello routine. At the same time, there are very serious undercurrents. That contradiction—between the serious informative mission and the somewhat ridiculous execution—makes for a very rich piece.

On its most basic, instructional level, the piece is an attempt to explain Freudian humor theory, especially the idea that humor stems from disguised hostility. “Most humor is a refined form of aggression and hatred,” Spiegelman writes. “Our savage ancestors laughed with uninhibited relish at cripples, paralytics, amputees, midgets, monsters, the deaf, the poor and the crazy.” I’ve taken this idea as a jumping-off point in my own work. Whenever I’m considering why something’s funny or not, I always tell myself: find the victim. Humor is targeted. It may be aimed at an individual, at an institution, or the entire superstructure of rational thinking. But something is always being skewered.

The leadoff joke of “Cracking Jokes” is one case in point—finding the victim helps us articulate why the joke is funny. We’re laughing at the patient. Despite the doctor’s well-meaning (and self-assured) intervention, the patient can’t escape his delusions. It’s a vision of humanity as impervious to logic, impervious to rational thinking, impervious to progress. That’s a pretty bleak notion. And yet the depiction of humanity as this series of malfunctioning bumper cars, forever careening about and crashing into each other and failing to make any kind of progress—well, it’s delightful. It skewers the very idea of progress as the natural order, of learning as the natural order. What better target for one’s disguised hostility than the whole institution of education and progress? These normalizing societal forces constrain us, keep our ids forever hamstrung. And so—through humor—we fight back.

That’s probably why the shrink doesn’t get away scot-free, either. He, in all his sober wisdom, is also the butt of the joke. The entire comic demonstrates this through its use of Freud as the rubber-stamp icon who is hilariously reduced for our amusement. Yes, Spiegelman is channeling Freud’s ideas—but he does so with a wink and a nudge. It’s straight, solid theory that he also leaves open to ridicule. We’re not led to believe that Freud is the beginning and the end of the discussion, and we’re allowed to chuckle at him, too. In this way, “Cracking Jokes” completely embodies the notion that the undermining of authority can be important source of humor.

It’s not all mockery, though. Ultimately, laughter serves a crucial cathartic function—the strip’s final point. The comic’s last panel contains a quote from Mark Twain, one that’s helped guide my work for a long time:

Art Spiegelman/Pantheon Books

I think Twain’s right. It’s a very artful and poetic way of saying that laughter is rooted in discomfort and pain. But I think he’s also saying that laughter transforms pain—humor is sorrow’s catalytic converter. It’s the emotional process by which we’re able to convert the dark substance of living into something that can be expelled like carbon dioxide.

This idea has been continually useful to me in my work. As wrote The Sculptor, my latest graphic novel, I wanted to balance darkness with levity. In any story, I think the more serious themes benefit from the inclusion of humor. (Shakespeare’s high-minded but irreverent plays are one timeless example.) Humor inoculates a work from being overly solemn and overly self-important. And moments of dramatic magnitude can be bolstered by the inclusion of the ridiculous, or the intimate, or the smallest of human moments.

In these ways, “Cracking Jokes,” gave me a vocabulary, a toolkit to continue thinking about humor using comics. This single, four-page comic was an entire college course. It’s not just that I learned everything that Spiegelman had to teach me: It’s also that I spent the last twenty or thirty years empowered to watch how humor works, and develop my own theories growing out of that. I think I have a better grasp of humor, and I’ve made more progress in thinking through why I think certain things are funny, having read this comic.

At some point, I became interested in why the lessons from “Cracking Jokes” registered with such uncanny power. I can remember every panel, every frame! Why did it stick with me so well? Over time, it led me to a central belief of mine that comics are really, really good teaching tools. In a way, “Cracking Jokes” educated me in the educating potential of comics itself.

Comics can be a fantastic teaching tool. If your plane is going down, you’re going to reach for that little safety card in the seat in front of you—and that card is 100 percent comics. As a sequence of static images, the safety card can communicate a series of steps, or course of action, with complexity, and at the molecular level. And yet it does so quickly, in a way that’s easy to understand.

I’ve learned, from my own experience, that the things we learn in comics really stick. Static images seem to be tied to the way memory works. In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer talks about the strange world of professional memory experts and memory contestants. Nearly all of them are able to remember series of numbers, or complex playing card combinations, by attaching them to particular memorable imagery. The whole notion of “memory palaces” is based on this idea—static images are used to keep ideas grounded in one’s mind. These are the people best qualified to report back to us on what sticks in our minds, and nearly all of them defer to static imagery.

That’s part why I’ve had so much fun working on instructional nonfiction—comics just feel like such a natural vehicle. I think “Cracking Jokes” set me on this course: along with James Burke’s BBC series and Larry Gonick’s The History of the Universe, it was one of the crucial influences that inspired me to head into nonfiction. Understanding Comics simply began as a big pile of notes that I wanted to communicate as clearly and as directly as possible. At first, it was a simple premise: I just set out to explain as clearly as I could all of these ideas that I had about how comics worked, in the form of a comic. In this, I know I was inspired by the simultaneity of Spiegelman’s approach: the way “Cracking Jokes” performs the wonderful task of deconstructing humor while actually being extremely funny in and of itself. I loved the fact that you could demonstrate something through form and content at the same time—I just thought it was brilliant.

That Spiegelmanian meta-message—using the comics form to dramatize the theoretical comics concepts being discussed—is something I picked up on as I started my non-fiction work. Though I wasn’t actually searching for that kind of complex, ambiguous, flickering, shimmering quality that something like “Cracking Jokes” has, I stumbled into the meta territory that Spiegelman mines so well. By demonstrating as I went every single I idea I had, I felt like form and content began to hook up—and produce some very strange children in the process. Even as I’m peeling back the curtain and showing you all the ways that art is artifice, drawings still have the strange, paradoxical persistence of the illusion of life. I can show you a cow and tell you it’s just made of lines, but you still see a cow. It’s like if a lover opened up his or her chest, to reveal nothing but machines underneath—but you’re still looking into their eyes, and they’re still just as living.

I remember, many years ago, discussing Spiegelman’s comic with my editor at the time, Cat Yronwode. After reading “Cracking Jokes,” she said she felt it was not only the perfect comic, but that there was no point in doing any comics after it. Clearly, I didn’t feel the same way. For me, it raised the bar: It made me want to write, create, and explore new possibilities. But Cat’s statement it gives you a sense of the intensity of the presentation. For her, “Cracking Jokes” somehow wrapped up the 20th century, and I know it had that sense for some people. For me, it got my head going in a lot of different directions at once—at exactly the right time.