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

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comics is an effective form of non-fiction. People seemed genuinely surprised by the degree to which they understood what they were reading and the degree to which they were interested in what they were reading. That wasn’t true for everybody but it seemed to make the case as well as I could have hoped that comics are capable of dealing with such subjects successfully. But that is not specific to online comics. That’s simply about the medium itself in any format.

As to the fate of online comics, obviously I’ve still got my eye on this notion of the infinite canvas. And some of the things that needed to happen may be in the process of happening. Certainly, the notion of Web applications being as robust as desktop applications has placed us closer to that hope that we may finally be able to create those spaces in a seamless way online. Right now it’s very difficult to do that. And I think we are about to see some major evolutions in hardware. It’s really only a matter of time before we have multi-touch displays encroaching into the laptop space and the desktop. If the drag and momentum metaphors that you see in the iPhone become more natural and familiar and more pleasing to the eye, I think you might see that world I was talking about in the mid-90s really explode.

X: There are plenty of people out there working on new multi-touch, zooming, and scrolling interface technologies—look at Microsoft’s Surface computing project, and Seadragon, and Jeff Han’s work at Perceptive Pixel.

SM: Right, there are several different standards now. I think there are at least three different multi-touch patents out there being exploited, so it’s not even as if one company has their mitts on it. I’m very optimistic about it. But I would have told you the same thing even 10 years ago, before we saw any of these prototypes. To me, this is just manifest destiny. It’s a more natural way to compute. I’ve always been confident that eventually we would arrive at some kind of direct manipulation on the hardware level. I remember when I did my first online comic, the most common complaint was that people hated scrolling. And my answer was always the same: So do I! This is just a proof of concept. But we’re not always going to be hunting for these little arrows. We’re not always going to be watching the screen clunk by, refreshing every 5 pixels. That’s not a permanent situation—that’s just where the technology was at the time, and I’ve seen nothing to dim my optimism on that score.

X: You’re working on a graphic novel now. Is it digital, or is it for print?

SM: I’m at the very beginning stages. The Google project postponed it a bit. It will be for print. I’m a great believer that you design for a medium. You can’t have it both ways. You can retrofit and adapt something; that’s what we did for the Google comic, which was a print comic by design. I think some of the early implementations of it as a Web comic were kind of clunky—they pretty much broke every rule I have when it comes to Web comics, but that’s okay, we’re just adapting it.

X: I’m really surprised to hear you say that. For most people, the online version of the Google Chrome comic is the only way they are ever going to encounter it.

SM: Exactly. In retrospect, it’s blindingly obvious that that was going to happen. But I was so focused on its original incarnation, and I knew that I would get the best result if I thought about nothing else other than making it good for print. I knew it was true that the moment it came out it would be scanned and that most people would encounter it online. The only thing that surprised me was the magnitude—just how quickly it spread. Of course, there was the mistake—the circumstance that it went out a couple of days early [before Google’s actual announcement about Chrome]. Some people have accused Google of doing that deliberately. I can’t say that’s not true, but to my knowledge it was a genuine mistake.

X: It was a brilliant mistake, then, because it generated huge amounts of curiosity about Chrome.

SM: It certainly did me a world of good, because for at least a day or so, I was the story.

X: I hope that once the graphic novel is done, you’ll be able to get back to experimenting with new digital content.

SM: It might even happen before that. But I started this whole infinite canvas thing on the assumption that it wouldn’t have to be a one-man revolution—that if I just put the idea out there, I could just sit back and relax. That’s been true to a degree. There have been some brilliant artists that have tried this out. But there have been a lot of people sitting around waiting to see what McCloud did. Maybe it’s best if McCloud does something else for a while.

Addendum, September 15, 2008, 2:00 pm EDT: TechCrunch is auctioning off one of the small number of Scott McCloud Google Chrome comics that Google printed on paper. The bidding has reached $1,501 as of today and ends at 3:00 pm EDT/12:00 pm PDT, according to the site; proceeds will go to the education non-profit DonorsChoose.

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

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