Sunday, March 15, 2009

Storytelling on the infinite canvas

Imagine reading a fully immersive and highly interactive graphic novel online. Would it be a lot like a video game? Maybe, but with story as the goal. At Potlatch 18, author Ursula K. Le Guin led a panel with Lenny Bailes, a Potlatch organizer and editor of the fanzine Whistlestar, along with artist Jenn Manley Lee, creator of the web comic, Dicebox. They talked about the future of graphic novels.

The panel took place following a discussion about how to read Le Guin's uniquely structured novel, Always Coming Home (1985). The book includes a traditional linear story in three parts, interspersed with poems, maps, and sections of fictional non-fiction revealing the invented culture of the Kesh people. Originally, it was sold packaged with cassette tapes of Kesh music and poetry
(now available on CD). The book invites the reader to jump between pages creating an experience of a world that feels wider than a traditional front to back narrative.

It's easy to imagine
Always Coming Home adapted into an immersive video game or online experience wherein the reader could roam around exploring aspects of the Kesh world.

Technology invites non-linear experience, an idea akin to what artist Scott McCloud calls the infinite canvas. He explains the art form of the graphic novel in his book, Understanding Comics (1993), and predicts its future in the follow up, Reinventing Comics (2000).

At the Potlatch panel, examples were given of Web comics using the infinite space of technology to push the boundaries of storytelling including:

• Scott McCloud's The Right Number, a projected three-part online graphic novella presented in a "zooming format".
• Patrick Farley's The Spiders and Delta Thrives, comics making use of hyperlinks and flash animation (The links are archival. Farley plans to move his site to, but it's not there yet).

Get a longer list of
Web comics and graphic novels mentioned at the panel: here.

The possibilities for the future of storytelling using electronic media are intriguing and desirable. But how would the artists get paid? The production value of works making use of the infinite canvas looks incredibly high, requiring a huge investment of time, tech and expertise. To tell one story invokes the creative talent of either one multi-talented savant or a creative team of artists, writers, and technical gurus. In a "don't quit your day job" reality, will artists be able to afford to invest the time needed to push barriers and produce infinite creations? Even artists driven to create by passion and obsession have to eat. Arts patronage helps, but does it provide enough security to encourage people to take risks? Fortunately, people continue to think and innovate along these lines (or beyond them).

No comments: