The "infinite canvas" is a challenge to think big; a series of design strategies based on treating the screen as a window rather than a page. 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.
A handful of cartoonists and developers have taken up that challenge in the decade since I started beating the drum on my own site, with occasionally impressive results, but its been a rocky road. By the early '00s, most using the term had only a sketchy idea of what it meant, and such formats are still a poor fit for most readers' day-to-day reading habits.
As bandwidth increases and hardware matures, such expanded-canvas comics may become increasingly practical, but our understanding of the advantages and obstacles will also need to improve if "infinite canvas" webcomics are going to be more than just a temporary novelty.
Despite its weird beginnings, the expanded-canvas approach isn't just for propellerheads and formalists. In fact, most of the advantages to telling stories on a single picture plane are surprisingly practical and contribute to the reading experience without the need for radical designs or dancing bananas.
Print cartoonists (myself included) make a constant series of compromises in pacing and design to stuff our stories into pages. We add and subtract panels, restrict size variation, break reading flow, and rarely if ever vary the distance between panels for fear of wasting paper. Without such restrictions, though, every one of those choices can be made exclusively on behalf of the needs of the story.
Pacing. For any given sequence a cartoonist dreams up, there's going to be an optimum number of panels to get the job done. On an expanded canvas, he or she can add or subtract "beats" until the sequence feels right, just as a film editor might do. But in print, the size of the page and restrictions on page count make the length of a given sequence the first consideration, instead of a byproduct of good pacing as it should be.
Dynamic Range. Just as music allows for a wide range of volume, comics artists can vary panel size and shape for dramatic effect and they frequently do so in both print and online comics. On a single large canvas, those variations can again follow the needs of the story, but when a fixed page is involved, every decision about the size and shape of one panel restricts the size and shape of the next one.
Distance=Time. In a century of printed comics, featuring every size and shape of panel imaginable, it's striking to see how little has been done with panel distance. Comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels have all kept their panels within an eighth to a quarter inch from one another for fear of wasting paper. But in a medium that measures time using space, readers will feel a slowing of the action as panels drift apart (as used toward the end of this early attempt from this site) and a quickening when they run closer. It's only an accident of technology that's kept this basic tool in check for all these years, it's past time to begin using it.
Flow. Page breaks set up a rhythm which have nothing to do with stories they're in (or worse, force storytellers to match their stories to that rhythm). When the pages fit the screen and navigating between them is intuitive, that problem is reduced, but most page implementations online are clumsy hybrids of printed page shapes and a smattering of scrolling and clicking that distract from the reading experience. Expanded canvas webcomics can be just as clumsy (see The Wish List below) but done right, they can feature a single mode of navigation that vanishes after a minute or two. More importantly, the only breaks that need to occur are those that fit the stories natural break points.
The Z-Axis*. Introducing a third dimension doesn't have to be just a novelty. I'd like to think it contributed to the mood of The Right Number and I'm convinced it could be used for other storytelling purposes including layered narratives, flashbacks, and tonal variation. There's bound to be a wide range of techniques that fall under the heading "cool shit" when a form is new, but which gradually reveal themselves to have practical uses. I think this is one of them.
Identity. Comics won't survive and thrive on the Web without a solid identity as an art form. Cartoonists can attract temporary attention with wannabe movies or multimedia, but readers will always be lured away by the real thing eventually. By putting comics "back together" on a single plane, the expanded canvas approach can deliver a reading experience more like comics and less like any other medium than anything we've seen to date. And for all the bells and whistles it's associated with now, its emphasis on a single unbroken reading line and uninterrupted single mode of presentation can also provide what readers want most from any storytelling medium: a seamless, transparent window into the world of the story.
The most common critique of the whole infinite canvas mindset—and of me, the dork who coined the term—is that it's nothing but a gimmick that's past its time, and that it doesn't fit with the culture, technology, and economy of the Web as it is. Browsers aren't built for this sort of thing, there's limited interest in long-form comics of any kind, readers want their formats simple, etc... Most of which is reasonable enough, though I'd obviously disagree with the "past its time" part.
When I started talking about this stuff in '95, I was talking about the "future of comics." Maybe I still am, and I can't offer much evidence that the "future" I'm trumpeting is particularly imminent. Most who've explored this area have moved on. Even I'm not going to be very active in this space while I work on a graphic novel due in 2011.
The reason I'm still hopeful—apart from the basic logic of the premise in my admittedly-biased eyes—is that the winds of change all seem to be blowing in the right direction for this ship to sail eventually, especially in regards to hardware, platform, bandwidth, and software.
For the infinite canvas approach to ever get out of diapers, a few things need to happen.
An Alternative to Scrolling. In a post-iPhone world, multi-touch displays look poised to invade desktop and laptop computing reasonably soon. If implemented with the kind of seamless motion seen in multiple prototypes over the years, we may finally leave the clumsy world of scroll bars behind for good. Traditional scrolling's tiny buttons and jerky refresh rate have made navigating extended canvases created in HTML distracting and even painful to look at.
Display and Bandwidth Gains. Both display resolution and bandwidth has limited the size of the big comics maps that this design strategy depends on. We're not out of the woods yet, but Moore's Law still seems to be on track.
A Reader-Centered Philosophy. The only way the infinite canvas approach can ever come of age is if the readers' needs come first. Advancing from one panel to the next should be as easy as hitting a spacebar or tapping the screen. Bookmarking locations for return reading should be as easy as, well... a bookmark. If all-in-one downloads would be convenient, readers should have that option.
The first reference to the term “infinite canvas” I've been able to dig up in my records was a lecture I gave at Ohio State University in 1995. I’d been working on a proposal for a Voyager CD-ROM version of Understanding Comics at the time and was hatching ideas for how comics in digital environments might take different shapes from their print counterparts. I imagined all of the book’s 1200-plus panels visible at once—from a great “distance” as it were—allowing the reader to then zoom in and start navigating from one panel to the next.
Voyager went belly up soon after, but within a year or two, the Web was looking hospitable for some small scale versions of the idea. I launched my site in 1998 and never looked back.
For the next couple of years, I found a receptive audience at places like MIT, computer conferences, and trade magazines. Webcomics artists were split at first, and print comics artists mostly thought I'd lost my mind. When Reinventing Comics came out in 2000, the term "infinite canvas" came into broader usage, for good or ill. I spent the next several years alternating between Pied Piper and punching bag.
My own webcomics, many of which played with infinite canvas-style ideas, were mostly between 1998-2004, after which I put new web content on hold for Making Comics and my family's year-long 50 State Tour.
There's a faction out there that thinks all experimental webcomics formats are unreadable garbage for pretentious blowhards. I have no beef with these people. It's a fair enough complaint (and even if it wasn't, there's no logical counter-argument to a spitball). But there are a few other misconceptions worth tackling.
Comic Strips. For the most part, comic strips and the infinite canvas have nothing to do with each other. From the beginning, this was a movement related to long-form webcomics (the online equivalent of comic books and graphic novels). I'm not suggesting for a moment that daily gag-strip artists start creating 40-foot tall staircase-shaped cascading storylines. Comics strips work fine online and have been one of our biggest success stories of the last decade. They don't need any help from mad scientists.
The Multimedia Model. Comics using cinematic sound and motion like Broken Saints, or with complex autonomous panel rearrangements as in Nawlz or the work of artists like John Barber are sometimes lumped in with the "infinite canvas" crowd. I admire the work of these artists, and recommend checking them out, but their comics are really another animal entirely; part of the broader category of experimental webcomics, but representing a different design strategy overall.
"Art Needs Limitations." A frequent objection to the very idea of an "infinite canvas" is that comics, and art generally, thrives on limitations. It's true that working within limitations has forced cartoonists to devise elegant solutions over the years, but those solutions were the byproduct of pushing hard against the edges of what the technology of print allowed. When those limitations change, that same work ethic should direct us to expand our efforts to the new outer reaches of the possible. Reproducing old limitations out of habit serves no purpose other than making us feel comfortable in the delusion that nothing has changed.
Needless to say, I think things have changed, and will change much more before the fat lady sings.