The Infinite Canvas: An Interview with Scott McCloud, the Google Chrome Comic Guy

9/10/08Follow @wroush

Over the last week, I’ve had several people tell me that the most interesting thing about Google Chrome isn’t the browser itself, but the way Google chose to present it to the world: via a comic book. Indeed, for at least a day or two, Scott McCloud’s Google Chrome comic—which was accidentally leaked to journalists over the Labor Day weekend, before Google’s official release of the software—was the only information available about the project. Which meant that thousands of Internet users, for perhaps the first time in their adult lives, found themselves reading an extended comic—a genre familiar to millions of adult manga readers in Japan but still mainly relegated to the kids’ sections of U.S. bookstores.

The Google Chrome comic---excerptI wondered aloud in a column last week whether all that exposure might help put the comic genre back on the map as a vehicle for serious fiction and non-fiction work. On Monday, I got a chance to put that question to Scott McCloud himself. The author of a bestselling trilogy of comic books about the comic genre’s history, future, and practice—Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006)—McCloud is both the profession’s leading theoretician and one of its most versatile practitioners. He’s also a true geek, and has had his eye on the Web for more than a decade, writing and drawing about its potential as the medium for a new generation of comics that would be liberated from the printed page by emerging interface paradigms such as hyperlinking, zooming, and scrolling.

At its most basic, after all, a comic is just a sequence of pictures that tells a story. And computers and the Web offer many new ways to create and arrange these sequences and to move from panel to panel—they supply what McCloud called, in Reinventing Comics, an “infinite canvas.” Which helps explain how Google was able to interest McCloud in the Chrome project. McCloud says, as you’ll read below, that one of the aesthetic ideas driving the Chrome developers (though this idea didn’t make it into his 38-page comic about the browser) was to “sweep the path clean”—essentially, to get out of the way of content developers and Web users by reducing the software’s onscreen footprint, as well as its functional bells and whistles, to the bare minimum. That’s music to the ears of an artist like McCloud.

Here’s the full text of our interview.

Xconomy: Tell me how the comic came about. How did Google get you on board, and how did you do the research and gather the visual materials you needed?

Scott McCloud:
I was first approached by Eric Antonow at Google. He had actually had me out to speak at the Googleplex in August of 2007, during the tour for Making Comics, my last book. He knew that Chrome was coming up—they had been working on it for a year and a half —and he had a sense that comics might be a good way to help explain the project.

But beyond that, it really only took shape when I came up to the campus and we started brainstorming about it. This was Eric, and another Googler, Anna-Christina Douglas, and we were joined by a third, Mark Sabec. In brainstorming we considered a lot of possible forms. Everything was up in the air. We didn’t know if it would be print or online. We didn’t know what sort of length. We weren’t sure what the focus would be. But gradually we came to agreement on what would be an effective strategy.

And then the research was primarily these video interviews that we did with about 20 engineers. These were substantial interviews, running on average about 30 to 40 minutes, some longer. And they had markers and a whiteboard and would occasionally use it, but that was about it for visuals. It was mostly just these explanations, which we then culled through and tried to find a common narrative. I took this sort of raw transcript and pared it down. But [it was] still pretty rough around the edges. And I tried to pound it into a coherent, connected story and then make it visual.

X: You must have had to wait around for the developers to finish certain things about the look and feel of Chrome before you could represent it in the comic.

SM: There were only one or two visual elements that we were hanging on—one or two icons that changed. But for the most part, its shape was concrete enough that I was able to work concurrently in that last couple of months. For example, they knew the shape of the tabs. I wasn’t drawing screen-shot-level detail. My cartoon version of Chrome was … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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