Scott McCloud's career is something of a litmus test.
If you're old enough to remember the black and white comics boom and bust cycle (which gave us "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" as one of the breakout successes, back when the book was a Frank Miller homage and not a kid's cartoon), McCloud is best remembered for "Zot!" and "Destroy!!" - a pair of black and white comics with seemingly nothing in common other than a love of exclamation points.
If you're young enough to not have remembered either when they hit stores - and to be vaguely surprised at the notion that the TMNT ever had anything to do with Frank Miller - McCloud's the guy who thinks deep thoughts about comics for a living, beginning with "Understanding Comics" in 1993 and later with "Reinventing Comics" in 2000.
This fall, the two sides of Scott McCloud get reconciled, when he puts out his third book on comics, "Making Comics."
"It's closer to 'Understanding Comics' than 'Reinventing Comics,' because it's more about the internal than the external [aspects of comics]," McCloud said earlier this month. "Except this time, I'm talking about strategies for making the comics do your bidding.
"They're the same format, although the books are very different. When I did 'Reinventing Comics,' what the publishers wanted me to do, I think, is 'Understanding Comics II.'" "Understanding Comics" has been published in more than a dozen languages to date. "But it's such a radically different book. In a way, 'Understanding Comics' and 'Creating Comics' are twins, and 'Reinventing Comics' is the odd one."
Appropriately for a man whose last book touted, among other revolutions, the role of computers in the reinvention of comics, "Making Comics" was drawn using a digital tablet.
"It's the first thing I've ever published where I've ever been happy with the art," McCloud said. In contrast, with "Zot!" "I think the artwork was always straining just to reach the level of OK. There were some nice panels in those."
McCloud's dissatisfaction with his own work provided a springboard for his how-to book on comic book creation.
"The person I'm most trying to get to be a better comic artist is me. ... I did set out to see what ways my own comics needed work.
"I was actually getting better as I went, which was funny, and I had to go back to earlier pages, because I'd gotten better."
Although his other books skirted the territory staked out by an undisputed master of the comic book form, "Making Comics" is the first time that McCloud is really going head-to-head with Will Eisner's seminal how-to books, "Comics & Sequential Art" and "Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative."
"In a way, I was already dipping my feet in that pool, but now I'm jumping in," McCloud said. "The book is actually dedicated to Will, because it very much is in his neck of his woods. ... I find myself quoting Will in the course of the book, because he says some things that are really important."
But true to the man whose last book seemed to polarize readers into "love it" or "hate it" camps, "Making Comics" has a new take on things:
"The book starts with a radical new look at the process of comics. I just blow past the layout, penciling, inking thing (which I really think only applies some of the time nowadays, when we have all these new tools)."
Instead, McCloud breaks the creation of comics into five choices made as part of the creative process: Choices of moment, frame, image, word and flow.
"Ninety percent of the book is about those subjects that the other books just aren't talking about. I hope if I've done my job right, it's the book you want to read first, before you learn how to draw thigh muscles or how to draw the cape or how to make the runes on that sword look really cool."
"The thing about 'Making Comics' is that it goes beyond just comics because I talk about things like storytelling and world-creation and elements of style and these are things that go just beyond 'How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.'"
Which isn't to say he doesn't like "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way": "It does what it does masterfully."
McCloud also gets into the practical aspects of comic creation.
"I do show examples. For example, there's a chapter called Tools, Techniques and Technologies ... and I show samples of art using each one.
Although he already knows he has more in him about the creation of comics - "There's always something I've left out. I might have thought I was finished when I did 'Understanding Comics,' but that book didn't even mention computers." - his next project is an actual honest-to-goodness comic, not a book on comics or a Webcomic.
He's closed-lipped about what the 400 to 500 page graphic novel will be about, at the moment.
"It's a story I've had in mind for two decades."
"It does have one thing in common with 'Destroy!!' it takes place in New York City."
(McCloud destroyed the Big Apple in the oversized mindless slugfest "Destroy!!" which he published "a full 20 years ago. Good god.")
But for now, his energies are devoted to putting the finishing touches on "Making Comics."
"I'm hoping this is good timing, because I see a generation of young readers ... I see a tidal wave of new artists about to enter the market, and I would love to hand them a copy of this book at the door, just as they enter."
"Making Comics" will be published on September 5 by HarperCollins and supported by a nationwide book tour of universities and comic shops.