I was very happy to see that Google hired Scott McCloud to help explain Chrome, their new Web browser, in comic form. McCloud’s Understanding Comics and two follow-up books are explaining and comics masterpieces. If you want something explained right, he is a very fine choice indeed.
However, the new comic ends up being uneven, in an interesting way. There are brilliant moments, but other sections are confusing and flat. The problems stem from the choice to have Google engineers, product managers, et al talk about how the product works and what their thinking has been as they developed it. According to McCloud the script actually came from the engineers:
I helped conduct interviews with about 20 engineers who worked on the project, then adapted what they said into comics form. Some paraphrasing, lots of condensation, and one or two late drop ins, but basically it was a very organic adaptation and I had a lot of latitude.
This approach seems to have led to a few problems:
1. There are too many speakers. I lost count of total talking heads, but McCloud says 20, and I see seven in the first seven panels alone. Each is introduced only with small text by their picture, listing name and occupation (e.g. “Been Goodger, Software Engineer”). Many are indistinguishable from each other, which largely defeats the purpose of having real people walk you through the product at all. If this were a documentary, you would expect to hear from a small number of key people, and you would expect to get a sense of how they related to the product. If this were an essay or press release, you would expect a small number of quotes and you would expect the writer to explain who each person is before quoting them. A nonfiction comic should go about this its own way, of course, but it’s still important to establish identity when you quote somebody.
2. Many of the speakers end up being poor explainers, at least to a general audience. For example, this panel is unnecessarily jargon-heavy, and there are no definitions provided:
I wonder if McCloud considered putting himself in the comic, as in Understanding Comics and it’s follow-up books. He could be a non-techy advocate for the reader, helping the experts explain themselves by rephrasing their points and asking follow-up questions.
3. Pulling from the transcript makes the comic text-heavy and comics-light. McCloud’s books make full use of the comic form, keeping things lean and clear by hitting every concept with a perfectly balanced combination of essential words and pictures. Some sections of the Chrome comic do this very well, but others feel like an illustrated transcript. The art doesn’t have a chance to carry its share of the load.
All that being said, it’s fantastic that Google chose to explain Chrome this way. To me, the shortcomings are fascinating, because they show just how original an approach this is. There aren’t any tried-and-true standards on how to do such a thing, and I applaud McCloud and Google for charging ahead. I hope they do it again and push the form further.