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Some thoughts on the infinite canvas

I haven’t done a webcomic review this week and if you haven’t been following me on Twitter you missed my Random Internet Discovery of the Week. So consider this a makeup for both.
I don’t read Scott McCloud’s blog regularly, and right now I’m still leaning towards not starting. But a common topic there (and at Comixtalk) involves developments related to the potential of the basic, core idea of webcomics, especially those raised by McCloud himself in Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, and especially especially the notion of the infinite canvas.

I’ve pretty much always found the infinite canvas, in practice, to be mostly of use in artsy and experimental works. Things that make the creation of a work more “practical” are generally embraced more by experimental artists that aren’t concerned with making money, but rather with the purity of a work. During my Webcomics’ Identity Crisis series, I explained that the infinite canvas wouldn’t take off unless McCloud’s other Reinventing-proposed revolution, micropayments, also took off, since that was probably the only way it could make money, certainly while maintaining the purity of the format. Micropayments probably aren’t taking off anytime soon, so the infinite canvas looks to be fairly doomed, but if micropayments and the infinite canvas were to take off, what form would it take?
Back in February, I was convinced that the sorts of models McCloud proposed in Reinventing were problematic in their own right, as they focused too much attention on the form, away from the work itself. That makes them inherently more applicable to artsy, experimental fare no matter how good the market for the infinite canvas gets. For the infinite canvas to really take off as more than a gimmick it needs to offer a superior experience to the reader; it must be applied in a way that the reader gets the advantages of the infinite canvas without having the model become a piece of art in itself, because that will cause people to scream “artsy” and either walk away or study the form itself without regard for how good the work is. The medium cannot get in the way of enjoyment of the work.
Things like this or even this, while praiseworthy for (at least in the former) doing things not strictly possible in print, don’t really fit McCloud’s vision of the infinite canvas, viewing the screen as a “window”, which aims to free artists entirely from the trappings of print. Most applications of McCloud’s vision, such as they are, often control how the reader views them in such a way that you view one panel at a time, ignoring how overlapping panels can sometimes be used in print. (For example, take a look at the first two panels of this and think of a true, McCloudean infinite canvas you’ve seen where that would be possible.) But the best way to apply that is probably a click-and-drag interface that – at least without a touchscreen or something like that – might be more user unfriendly than your average “really long page”.
I’m concerned that even McCloud’s notion of the screen as a window and of the spacial model might be too limiting. It’s not possible to view all of the space at once when the infinite canvas is applied the way McCloud wants, so we have to zoom in on part of the space and work our way around it; the one-panel-at-a-time approach is just the simplest way to do that. Distill that to its basic elements, and remind yourself that the purpose of this is to further the cause of comics, and you realize that all that resource-hogging zooming and sliding and moving and twisting and shouting and grooving and all that jazz is just another gimmick that’s not part of the story itself and therefore takes your attention away from it – a gimmick that doesn’t benefit readers or creators that just want to entertain, since they have to think about arranging everything.
Which is why I think the application of the infinite canvas that has the most potential is the format used in these two comics from February, which McCloud linked to in March.
In some sense, it actually involves turning the screen, not into a window, but into a stage on which events happen. It’s an intuitive design with a simple click-click-click interface (no sometimes-difficult scrolling) that doesn’t start a bunch of unnecessary animation (seriously, read some of these and try and keep your focus on the story), so the emphasis remains on the story itself. At the same time it not only fits the goal of the infinite canvas – to, at least partially, free comics from the restraints and contortions of the page – it opens up a variety of new frontiers (some explored in the above-linked comics themselves) for things that can be done with the “panel” that, at the very least, wouldn’t have the same effect in print, but despite taking some cues from animation (and not “juxtaposing” panels side by side as in McCloud’s definition) it’s still fairly convincingly comics, replete with all the aspects of comics’ “unique visual language”. (One important factor in this: the reader controls the pace at which he reads, with some assistance from the author “pacing” them from “panel” to “panel”.) Apply this model to a good story, slap a paywall on it, and maybe the infinite canvas might take off in the way McCloud always envisioned.
(And if McCloud is concerned about turning comics into a slideshow he should look at his own The Right Number and ask himself what makes it different from a glorified PowerPoint slideshow with fancy slide transitions turned on.)