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 often quite a bit simpler. For example, when showing the switch of the tabs from inside the window to above the window, it wasn’t important to fill the tabs with words or to include the close buttons or to include all of the text or icons. It was enough just to show a tab or two jumping to the top. Those extra details were not only unnecessary, they actually would have distracted from the visual point that I was making.

X: Why did Eric Antonow think that a comic would be a good medium for explaining Chrome?

SM: Predictably enough, he had read Understanding Comics. And its sequels, I’m guessing. And in many ways [software and comics] are not that dissimilar. Even though this is a concrete piece of software—if that’s not an oxymoron—it nevertheless deals extensively in abstractions, like branching, separation, confinement, freedom, and spatial relationships. These are principles that underlie its design and its architecture. And those can be visualized every bit as effectively as I could visualize the psychology of pictures in sequence.

X: There’s also a lot of material, toward the end of Reinventing Comics, about Web browsers and the idea of the “infinite canvas.” I wonder if Antonow was attracted by that.

SM: I’m betting that the first book made a more persuasive case in a way. In Reinventing Comics, I was shooting for the moon, in hopes that we could create these radical departures from traditional comics. And in many ways that’s just as remote a bit of science fiction as it was when I drew it, although there have been some impressive strides in that direction. Still, most online comics are still pretty conservative in format and style.

I will say this—I think that from the mid-90s onward, my interest in the Web transcended the technology of the day, and I did look at the browser as this perishable window frame, far less important than the world that we could see through it. And…I got the impression that for some of the engineers who worked on Chrome, they also were far more excited by the content that this new window could give us a view into than they were about a fancy frame [called "chrome" in the software biz]. Hence the irony of the name. “Content not chrome” was their unofficial motto. “Chrome” may have been one of those working titles where just because it was familiar and comfortable they could not let it go.

One quote that didn’t make it into the final book was that in one of our first conversations with Sundar [Pichai, vice president of product management at Google and one of the prime movers behind Chrome], he talked about this notion of a path swept clean. That is the sort of aesthetic they were going for. It is not about decorating a path. It is about allowing us to pass through that path without obstacle, without distraction, without risk or irritation.

X: So do you think Chrome is a better, less obtrusive platform for digital comics and other materials than other Web browsers?

SM: I think the Chrome team can congratulate themselves on taking a step in that direction. Meanwhile, I feel a lot of frustration that I have a lot of work to do on my end. I don’t see that path swept clean yet for the long-form digital comic. I think the strips are in good shape. People who work in the daily format, doing three- or four-panel strips, those I think have matured wonderfully, and they have taken quite naturally to the Web, but their long-form cousins, the equivalent of graphic novels, those are still struggling on the Web.

X: One of the many parodies of your Chrome comic—I think this one was from the website of Conde Nast Portfolio magazine—made the point that some subjects, such as big software projects, have so many high-level abstractions that they don’t lend themselves to illustration.

SM: I’m sure there are some subjects that resist visualization, but I don’t think I’ve taken it anywhere near the limit. I do know that if I had been able to get a stronger grasp of the inner workings of JavaScript I probably could have done a more nuts-and-bolts section on V8 [Google's open-source JavaScript engine]. My V8 section is very general. I ended up illustrating the verbal concepts more than the nuts and bolts.

X: Aren’t the V8 guys in Denmark? That couldn’t have helped.

SM: Yes, and the video was also very grainy, and I don’t think my likenesses were all that good. I was looking at screenshots of video, and I couldn’t see their whiteboard. In the end I was able to come up with visualizations of principles that applied to V8 but it wasn’t quite rock-solid and specific.

X: Now that the Google Chrome comic is finished, and now that you’ve seen some of the reaction to it, how do you feel about the future of digital comics in general—more optimistic, less optimistic, the same?

SM: This project doesn’t really affect the prognosis for digital comics. I think it affects the prognosis for comics, in the sense that I think that we managed to make the case to a new group of people that 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.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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