In the early 2000s, men were real men, the internet was a new and wild frontier, and nobody had quite figured out how to do comics on the web yet. "Bang! Zoom! Inter-comics on the inter-tubes!" The earliest pioneers had been around since the 1990s, but technologies we now take for granted, such as well-defined HTML standards, CSS, Flash, dependable Javascript support and so on, barely existed. Web design itself was still a fairly unrefined science.

And so there was a great deal of hand-wringing and chattering about how, exactly, one adapts the conventional paper comic book or the daily newspaper comic strip to the medium of the internet. What to make of these new possibilities? In his book Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud observed that, unlike any piece of paper or painter's canvas, the size of a web page is potentially infinite, and thus presents unique artistic possibilities. Why constrain yourself to just four panels? You can create vast, wandering artistic works, taking up thousands of pixels in every direction, scrolling in all directions, not just from left to right and top to bottom. There is no longer any real need to paginate a comic. You can use space and variation in panel sizes to control the pace of the story.

This seemed like a great idea, and several notable one-off comics have made good use of the concept. But there aren't too many of them, and, unlike any consistently popular long-term comic, they aren't ongoing endeavours, for two good reasons.

One is that you have to create that comic. That means that either you need a graphics program with an infinite canvas of its own in which to generate your infinite image, or you need to figure out a way to use HTML to arrange the small pieces that you've created in a sensible way on the infinite page. Either way, understanding and using the underlying technology is quite a hurdle, even for an enthusiastic creator. Think of the RAM requirements alone.

The other is that other people have to read that comic. Let us be clear. The medium we are talking about is not the HyperText Transfer Protocol, nor HyperText Markup Language, nor Portable Network Graphics or some other image compression algorithm. The medium is not the potentially infinite web page. The medium is the web browser.

Web browsers are terrible for displaying comics.

A web browser positions itself at the top left of the page, and usually the user has a scroll wheel with which to browse up and down. That is all!

If you are making an ongoing comic which is routinely wider than the user's browser window, then they will need to scroll left and right to see it, which they will not be prepared to do. Yes, left and right arrow keys exist; nobody cares, because web pages should not be "too wide" and this is a universal convention of the modern internet. In addition, if the comics in your archive are consistently sized too tall for a single screen, then the reader will also have to scroll down to see all of it and click the "next" button, which is mildly frustrating to begin with and intensely tedious after a few dozen strips. The browser always starts at the top left of the screen, and while your canvas may be infinite, the portion which is visible to the reader at any one time is very small and cramped. There's no real capability for zooming. And oh, boy, be prepared to suffer when your readers find out how long it takes a 3000-pixel-wide image to load. It's simply not a good way to digest a piece of art - or, to put it another way, creating a piece of art which is best digested through a web browser is very difficult and not often rewarding.

You could create a customised comic-reading application in Flash or AJAX, something like Google Maps, and you could even add cunning interactive features and automated scrolling and user-triggered animations. But each of these bells and whistles represents another big technological hurdle and, whatever you do, you still don't have any way to expand the user's window. With a basic browser, the best you can do is a long narrow vertical pan from the top to the bottom - like a skyscraper, or a falling scene. Other than that, you are more or less constrained to the traditional 800x600 or 1024x768. Minus the browser's frame, of course, and anything else you want to put on the screen, like the name of the comic.

Infinite canvas is not a stupid idea, but it's not a big idea either. The possibilities are limited and capitalising on those possibilities is difficult. There are other ways for a comic to exploit the web...

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