Scott McCloud’s 2000 comics theory essay Reinventing Comics brilliantly captures the spirit of its era. In it, McCloud waxes optimistic about the glory of the internet revolution as it relates to the comics medium, and like most speculative rhetoric back then, McCloud’s ideas proved fundamentally misguided and financially catastrophic.
McCloud resurfaced in the web’s collective consciousness last week as the author of the introductory comic for Google’s new browser, Chrome. It’s a stunning read. McCloud created a document that’s as effective at teaching technical wizardry to normal folks as Tracey Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Soul of a New Machine, and it works because it ignores McCloud’s own jumbled ideas. Comparing McCloud as wide-eyed cyber fortuneteller in 2000 to technobabble translator in 2008 reveals some important clues about the forces that make both comics and the internet tick.
To be fair, McCloud makes several reasonable arguments in Reinventing Comics. But history has not been kind to his two boldest claims. On the money side, McCloud predicted that webcomic artists could make a living by charging readers a tiny fee, or micropayment, for each strip they read. This idea never made any sense, and it fell apart when put into practice. But that’s old news.
Artistically, McCloud frothed with excitement at the prospect of what he called “The Infinite Canvas.” Basically, he believed that, without the physical constraints of the page, artists could go wild exploring innovative panel layouts.
In a digital environment there’s no reason a 500 panel story can’t be told vertically, or horizontally like a great graphic skyline. We could indulge our left-to-right and up-to-down habits from beginning to end in a giant descending staircase, or pack it all into a slowly revolving cube (223).
What could go wrong with that?
McCloud’s own efforts to bring digital technology to comics are pretty terrible. Never do his experimental layouts amount to more than a gimmick. Also, he never uses his panels in a way where cramming them into a book would damage his storytelling. Those experiments failed artistically and technologically because they break hidden rules of both comics and web design.
Comics first. On its face, the idea of an artist having free reign over her panel design makes sense. If she wanted to show a man falling off a building, for instance, wouldn’t it be cool if she could force the reader to scroll way down to emphasize the scale of the fall? But a problem creeps in here, one that damages the experience of reading the comic. And to figure out why, we need to ask Scott McCloud from 1993.
His book from that year, Understanding Comics, is more timeless than Reinventing, and still offers many insightful ways to think about comics. In the third chapter, McCloud tells us why comics will never need crazy layouts. When discussing the space between panels–the “gutter”–he says:
The gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics. Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea (66).
In those sentences, McCloud captures why comics are an essential artform. Other media combine art and language, but none offer a space for the reader to give life to the story. The shape and arrangement of that space is irrelevant. The mind will find its way into the break whether it’s a dotted line or cascading staircase.
McCloud designed his Chrome comic for paper, but that didn’t curb its effectiveness online. Quite the opposite. McCloud’s simple, logical panel layout made the comic instantly accessible regardless of media. It’s universal. His concessions to readable iconography and airy whitespace take the intimidating edge off the technical jargon, and his brisk, colloquial dialogue sets just right tone — not computer science lecture, not corporate training video. And, because the gutters force the reader to fill in the gaps, somehow learning about a web browser becomes engaging and fun.
Could his comic have been more useful if he had infinite control over the panels? Doubtful. While the web does allow for infinite expression, it’s foolhardy to use that power without understanding the most important rule of clear online communication: simplify. It’s no coincidence that the most interesting and useful web design comes from the careful manipulation of text elements. There’s a reason everyone hates Flash interfaces. People don’t go to a website to be dazzled or dumbfounded by its layout. They want to use it.
The truth about web design is that it offers fewer outlets for creativity than print design. A print designer controls her paper, ink, typefaces, and precise look of the final product. A web designer controls none of these. In designing for widest array of browsers, a web designer must sacrifice expression for clarity.
This is why the most exciting experimentation in panel layouts has taken place in print comics. Chris Ware makes huge, beautiful books with wild, circuitous panels. He can do this because it’s easy to manipulate a physical book, while scrolling all around a website is a pain in the ass. Even the most artistically rich webcomic uses a straightforward layout.
No one should be surprised that McCloud’s dream of unbridled creativity never caught on. After all, what great art was ever made without constraints?