01 January 2011

The End of the Infinite Canvas?

Yesterday I reviewed Scott McCloud’s six types of transitions from one comics panel to the next, and posited that the page turn was still an important, higher-level transition.

Theorizing presciently in Reinventing Comics, McCloud imagined comics without any page turns, or at least any necessary ones. He presented this idea in 1995 as the “Infinite Canvas”:

The basic premise is that there’s no reason that long-form comics have to be split into pages when moving online. Pages are an option—and they can work well when screen shapes are taken into account—but the advantages of putting all panels together on a single “canvas” are significant and worth exploiting.
Freed of page trims, comics could spread in whatever direction and at whatever length their stories suggested. That would necessarily make panel-to-panel transitions the norm. McCloud tried it out with his Zot! characters.

Fifteen years later, the critical consensus is that the Infinite Canvas just hasn’t worked as a storytelling device. So says TV Tropes. And El Santo at Webcomic Overlook declared in October:
The Infinite Canvas will die. It’s fun as an experiment. However, it’s not working. And with iPad limiting the screen even more than the computer does, the canvas is shrinking and shrinking.
However, on the same day I read that, I also read Emily Carroll’s “His Face All Red,” which offers a wonderful use of scrolling in a comic designed to be read on screen (see especially page 7). Another example is her “The Death of José Arcadio.”

Of course, Carroll’s comics also include “page turns” as transitions—moments when readers must consciously shift from one set of panels to another, not seeing what will come next. Sometimes the next page/canvas consists of a single panel on the screen, sometimes many spilling off the screen.

Perhaps the problem with the Infinite Canvas is the daunting name. A “Flexible Canvas,” with “pages” changing size and aspect as necessary, and the possibility of at least two levels of transitions (panel-to-panel and page turns), provides comics creators with the freedom to use many storytelling tools, but not the burden of infinitude.

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