Why the Google Chrome Comic Rocked - Scott McCloud's "Invisible Art"

Who read all 39 pages of the Chrome Comic? I did. It was awesome. It was a personal walk through of the product with the Googlers who made it but far less annoying and more informative than if the same content were in a video interview. How is it you walk away from the Chrome Comic feeling excited and not like you just got sucker punched in the face by a clueless marketing team?

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
McCloud's Book: "Understanding Comics"

Scott McCloud is how. McCloud is a rock star at communicating ideas through “sequential art” (his abridged definition of comics). His seminal work, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, is considered the definitive analysis on graphic novels. Crazily enough, back in my college Intro to Fiction course, my professor focused the course on graphic novels and used McCloud’s work as the primary textbook.

Understanding Comics has implications well beyond comics. Particularly of interest are McCloud’s thoughts on communicating new ideas and organizing user-interface design. Immediately after reading the Chrome comic I drove out to Barnes & Noble and bought another copy of the book. Here are three ideas I found particularly insightful:

Magic in the Gutter: Closure

Closure requires the reader transform two images into a single idea.

Where do you think the real magic in the Chrome Comic lies? The simple captions? The beautiful art? The googly shading? No, in Understanding Comics McCloud argues the real magic is in the space between panels, it's in the "gutter". When you read a comic book you are forced to connect each panel to the next. From an axe-murderer pursuing a frightened man in one panel to an ambiguous shriek in the next, what happened? You killed a character in your mind. The artist did nothing of the sort. Closure (no, not in the functional/lambda sense, calm down) is the work done by a reader which takes two juxtaposed images and unifies them into a single idea. Closure is the magic of comics.

Receiving vs. Perceiving Information

Pictures are quickly received, abstractions are slowly perceived.

Scott McCloud has an entire theory of "visual iconography" which, in it's most basic form, implies that the more visually realistic and concrete something is, the more instantaneously we "receive" the message. Humans receive communication with pictures. Our minds have some kind of sick parallel processing power to instantly understanding images. As visuals become more abstract (i.e. letters, words) the more time we spend "perceiving" the communication. We have to compose letters into words and transform words into thoughts.

Being aware of this continuum, and the inherent trade-offs, allows us to think about communicating ideas more effectively. Take another look at the Chrome Comic and observe where McCloud uses words and where he uses images. Watch one of Steve Job's keynotes and notice the use of concrete images on his slides. Same thing.

The Mastery of a Trade is the Survival of the Creator's Intentions

Mastery is the degree a creators ideas survive production.

Toward the end of the book McCloud discusses the progression from a novice comic artist to a master of the art and the stages which lie between. This progression holds true in software engineering and design as well. There was one set of panels, in particular, which hit home a home run: "The MASTERY of one's medium is the degree to which that percentage [of how much a finished project represents the creator's original vision] can be INCREASED, the degree to which the artist's ideas SURVIVE the journey." 

Software is the same way! How often have you envisioned a program, algorithm, user interface, arthictecture, web site, etc. and built it only to realize it represents a fraction of what you originally envisioned? This is true of mastering many crafts: writing, designing, public speaking, teaching, ... it goes on. Mastery is exhibited by how much of the creator's vision survives the journey through production. This resonates with comments Ira Glass of This American Life made in an interview On Storytelling (YouTube).

Go Experience the Book

If you were fascinated by the Google Chrome comic, go experience the book. To truly get at the value of McCloud's Understanding Comics, go pull it off the shelves of your local bookstore and spend some time with it. I'll bet you'll be as impressed as I was.