What Web Journalists Can Learn from Comics

9/5/08Follow @wroush

While the tech-blog world is exhausting itself testing and writing about Google Chrome, the new open-source Web browser released by the search giant on Tuesday, I’m still just having fun paging back and forth through the 38-page Scott McCloud Web comic that Google commissioned to explain the whole project. A lot of Silicon Valley companies, when they’re launching big new products, will rent a hotel ballroom, erect a glitzy set, and invite a bunch of journalists and pundits to a scripted dog-and-pony show. Chrome’s launch may mark the first time in history that a company simply hired a comic book artist instead.

Google couldn’t have found a likelier candidate than McCloud, who is the author of Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006), and has written (or should I say drawn?) extensively about how the Web is expanding the boundaries of comics as a genre. It’s a perfect pairing to see McCloud—who has done comics on topics as technical as the constraints imposed on digital-comics authors by HTML tables—writing about something as fundamental to the Web as the browser itself.

A panel from Scott McCloud\'s Chrome comicIf you haven’t heard the story behind Chrome already, it’s Google’s attempt to update the very notion of the Web browser—which was, after all, invented 15 years ago—to reflect the realities of the Web 2.0 era. These days, if you’re on the Web, chances are you’re interacting with an application rather than simply consuming content. “People are watching and loading videos, chatting with each other, playing Web-based games…all these things that didn’t exist when browsers were first created,” Google software engineer Pam Greene points out in McCloud’s comic. (She’s one of the many Googlers whose words McCloud drew upon for the comic. His drawings of her remind me a lot of the Jodie/Julie character in McCloud’s terrific experimental Web comic, The Right Number.) Chrome is designed to make such applications run faster and more reliably, and to protect users and their computers in the process—in part, by separating the activity occurring on each open browser tab into its own process, as if it were a separate program. (As McCloud explains, current browsers like Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox attend to the scripts running in each tab one at a time, moving between them serially—which is why the more tabs you have open, the slower your browser gets.)

I won’t go into the real details—plenty of other bloggers and journalists have done that this week. What’s amazing about McCloud’s Web comic is that he’s able to distill some fairly high-level points about things like multi-process architecture, memory fragmentation, rendering engines, virtual machines, hidden class transitions in Javascript, and incremental garbage collection into a few panels in a comic, and make it all feel fun and non-threatening. Take it from a longtime technology writer: explaining a new technology’s significance while getting the details right and keeping it all accessible to your Aunt Mae is a difficult feat. But a lot of us tech journalists could take lessons from McCloud, who doesn’t bring in a concept unless he can clarify through a clever combination of graphics, iconography, and text.

So, a lot of what I’m saying here boils down to one craftsman admiring another. Envying, even: the comic medium gives McCloud access to a lot of visual devices and idioms that are denied to us lowly copywriters. One of McCloud’s frequent tricks is to make the Google engineers part of the very diagrams he uses to explain Chrome’s new features. Every time you open a blank tab, for example, Chrome populates it with small, clickable tiles representing your most-visited Web pages (the program figures that you were probably on your way to one of those pages anyway). To explain what’s happening on this page, McCloud puts a couple of Googlers inside the tiles, not unlike those washed-up actors who used to appear on Hollywood Squares. In other places, the Google guides are climbing around on flow-chart boxes or perched on the borders of the comic’s panels.

Given how long McCloud has been working on various forms of Web comics and how popular his books have been, it’s odd that his example hasn’t caught on more widely. It’s true that traditional comic publishers like Marvel are finally using Flash and other Web-based technologies to put their classic superhero comics online. And in the non-Web world, comics and graphic novels are still in the midst of a renaissance that’s been underway for more than a decade now, even crossing over into film (e.g., 2003′s American Splendor, based on the comic books of Harvey Pekar). But I don’t have the sense that many comic artists are creating the kinds of new Web-based experiences McCloud was hoping they would back in 2000-20001, when he published “I Can’t Stop Thinking,” a series of Web comics that continued the themes in Reinventing Comics—especially, his speculations about the future of digital comics.

Scott McCloud\'s Google Chrome comicIn one great strip from “I Can’t Stop Thinking,” for example, McCloud examined how the endlessly scrolling nature of a Web page—he called it the “infinite canvas”—might allow comic artists to play with reader’s expectations about the sequential nature of comics, perhaps by connecting panels via unconventional types of lines, links, paths, or trails. The Right Number used a unique zooming interface to get from one panel to the next—and this idea has found an unlikely reincarnation in the form of Seadragon, an experimental Microsoft program that uses zooming to ease the navigation of massive amounts of graphical information. But while software engineers and information architects may be busy experimenting in these directions, I’m not aware of a lot of artists who are.

Perhaps Web comics aren’t flowering (outside of McCloud’s opus) because drawing well is simply harder than writing well. Or perhaps it’s because we still equate comics with Superman and Batman. But a blogger at the Dublin, Ireland, Web design company iQ Content noted this week that the usual association between comics and low-brow superhero stories is a Western thing. “In some cultures, notably Japan, comics (or Manga) are not only an accepted form of entertainment for people of all ages, they are used as product instruction manuals and even on government tax forms,” iQ Content senior analyst John Wood wrote. That sounds pretty smart to me. There are some cases where you just have to RTFM, as they say—and I think we’d all be happier if the M stood for Manga.

Not everyone is enchanted by the McCloud comic. It has already inspired a savage (but amusing) parody over at the website of Conde Nast’s Portfolio magazine, which argues that the comic simply panders to Google’s geeky constituents, and that some software concepts are so arcane that they don’t lend themselves well to illustrations. And there have been a few complaints that at 38 pages, McCloud’s comic is too long. But I’m with Wood, who writes, “Personally, I’d rather wade through a 30+ page comic than 15 pages of technical detail, randomly salted with marketing bumpf.”

In short, the comic leaves a stronger, clearer impression than any writeup could have. Now we get to see whether Chrome is really as shiny as it seems in McCloud’s drawings.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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