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

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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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “The Infinite Canvas: An Interview with Scott McCloud, the Google Chrome Comic Guy”

  1. That is why Google is king. They take creative people from all genres and incorporate them into their products. Do you think Microsoft would hire a comic book illustrator for their products? I doubt it.