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Understanding Comics Understanding Comics

Rank: 2

Learning From Comics

Thursday, July 1, 9:00 a.m.-10:30 a.m.

• Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics has become a favorite tool of many web designers, though the book never mentions computers. (Maybe that's why it's a favorite!)

• McCloud sees comics as a metaphor expressing words and pictures together in different media, from computer interfaces to wall paintings.

• Comics in print are limited by the space on each page. The limitlessness of digital space can reclaim some of the magic of pre-print "comics" which appear in tapestries, murals, columns, and on walls.

• Listen to the interview in RealAudio.

Scott McCloud Scott McCloud didn't write Understanding Comics to help web designers, but the book has proved inspirational to designers of multimedia CDs, web sites, and games. McCloud presents "Learning From Comics" in an open session at Web99, Thursday, July 1. We asked him how his book on pulp and ink became important to the web developer community.

Scott McCloud: I wasn't thinking about web design when I wrote it.

Understanding Comics was the culmination of my obsessions with comics itself. But I found in doing the book that it branched out into to so many other areas of visual perception, that it had a pretty broad focus by the time it was done.

Within a few months I got a call from Michael Schrage at the Los Angeles Times, who was doing an article on multimedia CDs. As you remember at the time—this was the early 90s, before Mosaic—CDs were pretty much the only game in town for somebody reaching a very large audience with something digital. And Bob Stein at Voyager, who had already offered to work with me on a CD of Understanding Comics, had mentioned that he thought comics were a good metaphor for multimedia.

Schrage caught me just as I was beginning to become very interested in this. And I didn't know much, and I was sort of running to catch up. But I found that as I was talking, I realized that I actually did have a lot of ideas about how comics could be relevant to multimedia. As time went on, I found that the book became relevant not only to that world, but first to interface design, then to web design, then to game design. And as more and more people called me up, I found basically that I was becoming very interested in it and that people in those communities were becoming interested in the book.

The great irony of course is that Understanding Comics doesn't mention computers once.

How are comics a metaphor for screen interfaces, whether that's games, multimedia, or the Web?

McCloud: Most people's ideas of how the book was relevant to digital media weren't the same ideas as mine. They focused on certain chapters of the book dealing with the ways we process certain imagery. For instance, in chapter two I talk about the combination of very cartoony characters in very realistic environments. This was an idea that a fellow named Bumgardner picked up and created a chat interface called The Palace. He's been quoted as saying that pretty much came from an idea in Understanding Comics.

It's strange, that wasn't really where my focus was. My focus was back at the beginning of the book where I talk about definition. I was interested in finding out how comics would evolve in a digital environment. And I was finding some very exciting stuff when you take that idea of comics and drop it into a new petri dish.

But this wasn't what people were picking up from the book. They were talking about the nature of cartoons, and they were talking about the combination of words and pictures. That one comes up a lot. And they were comparing the experience of surfing the Web to the alchemy that occurs between the panels.

Sims: I recently had an experience where I was trying to explain a Sunday comic to my 3-year-old daughter, and it was a two-row Sunday comic. And I understand where the geography was when someone on the lower panel looked to the left and they were actually looking at something that in the layout of the page is in the upper right. But it did take some time to explain it to someone 3 years old. And it made me think that there's some complicity between the comics and a reader, that we're going to start at a baseline, that you're going to understand this much, then I don't have to explain it to you again.

McCloud: Yes, it is a deeply collaborative art, even for a very sophisticated user. It still requires a much more conscious participation than, say, film. Film also requires a series of still images, but we string those images together involuntarily. Even somebody who is not at all sophisticated in film will still see that motion.

Whereas somebody who isn't steeped in the protocol of comics, will approach that page as a collection of still images until they understand that as you move across that page, you're actually moving through time.

What's interesting is that printed comics require a fairly sophisticated protocol. They operate on this idea that as you move left to right or up to down, you're moving forward in time.

But you have to actually have a pretty sophisticated notion of when to go down, when to go to the right. The panels are all sort of jumbled together. And it's easy when you're looking at the Sunday page. When you're looking at a lot of modern comics, though, the panels are in almost a jigsaw puzzle fashion, and you have to have a pretty complex understanding of where to go next.

The funny thing is that in studying comics as this simple idea of sequential art. I found that there were a lot of comics that predate print. Of course, obviously not called comics. But, if you take comics as this idea of placing one image after another to tell a story, a kind of temporal map, really, that as you're moving across the space you're moving through time and using that to tell some sort of story, you can actually find examples of that going back. ...

Sims: The Bayeux Tapestry.

McCloud: The Bayeux Tapestry, Trajan's Column, certain Egyptian wall paintings, not hieroglyphics—people often misunderstand me there, I'm not saying hieroglyphics are comics—and pre-Columbian picture manuscripts are very much comics. And the more you look at them and actually read the things, you can see that they're using the exact same visual language. The only things missing are really quite superficial, things like rectangular panel borders and word balloons—although even word balloons go back hundreds of years.

But the funny thing is that the complex reading protocol that print demands from us in comics is absent in all the pre-print versions. Because in all these proto-comics, these ancient comics, the idea was much, much simpler than that. Just that whatever moment you were on in time, the next moment was right next to it. You mentioned the Bayeux Tapestry, that's just one long straight line. Trajan's Column, you move in a spiral up that stone column. In pre-Columbian picture manuscripts, it's a little jumbled, but what you actually do is move in a backward zigzag, all the way back through this long screenfold, really something like a mural, although it can be folded like a book.

They approached this simple idea of sequential art with a very open-minded and simple approach of simply saying, if space equals time, then the more time you need, the more space you give it. So Trajan's Column, if you wanted to tell a story ten times as long, you'd need a column ten times as high. Or the Bayeux Tapestry would have to stretch all the way across Europe if you wanted to tell a story that long.

But there's a limitation to physical matter. There's not a limitation to the length of these constructs in a digital space. And you can actually reclaim some of that magic from pre-print comics in a digital space, get the best of both worlds. Because I think in some ways we actually betray the strength of comics when we chop it up, slice it, and dice it to fit into these flat and rectangular wood pulps we call books. I think in some ways we've actually done the idea of comics a disservice by cutting them to fit.

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