Flowchart Art and Comics

Flowchart art uses a multilinear diagram that convey stories or experiences. Examples such as EGBG’s ???Telemarketing Counterscript??? were discussed earlier on WRT in relation to interactive fiction mapping practices. Some other examples of flowchart art include works by Scott McCloud, Chris Ware, and Craig Robinson.

Scott McCloud’s ???Carl??? sequence from Understanding Comics is a multilinear story without connecting lines to indicate flow - instead, the implicit motion between any adjascent panels recalls the rules of a board game. The online followups to the original Carl involved both a collaboratively authored Choose Your Own Carl and a non-branching interface in which loops could be expanded and closed as stretchtext (see also Michele Salvador’s Carl as a stretchtext interface).

While he doesn’t use them in “Carl,” McCloud is also notable for suggesting the use of flowchart-like linking-lines. He proposes the term ???trail??? to describe a line that indicates reading flow between panels. McCloud’s first work with trails, Porphyria’s Lover (1998), was not multilinear, but rather used trails to establish a spatial reading order and rhythm along a large artfully nonconventional arrangement of panels - and this has been typical of most of his use of trails. Linear though McCloud’s trails may be, trails are also a vital technique for multilinear flowchart art, and the coinage ‘trails’ is an interesting one in terms of flow - while the practice in many professional flowcharts is to use what might be termed ‘arrows,’ ‘vectors,’ or other unidirectional indicators etc., McCloud’s term is direction-neutral and his examples of trails are visually bidirectional.

The work of Chris Ware includes examples of diagrammatic flow constantly throughout his work - so much so that both intricate diagrams and the periodic use of propositional connectors (AND, BUT, SO, THEN) have become signature styles. While Ware has experimented with multipath reading much more extensively than McCloud, his paths are often not causal - rather than posing choices for the reader, they instead bifurcate along points of view, allowing the story to quickly trace a number of people distrubted in space and time. In this example, a child, her birth and adoptive parents, and even the delivering doctor and adoption officer are united schematically in a complex family history.

Craig Robinson’s ???What If??? depicts a forking-path timeline in which one man’s life decisions create his own personal family tree. (Robinson was previously mentioned on Grand Text Auto, also in relation to “Carl.”) While the trails are alternate choices, as in the original ???Carl,??? and while both have a central figure for whom all roads lead towards death, the experience of viewing ???What If??? is not the experience of making choices. McCloud’s sequence is meant to be read, following trails from panel to panel, as are Ware’s diagrams, however Robinson’s large image can be scanned or browsed while ignoring the trails as easily as not. In ???What If??? the flow lines are somewhat inscrutable at first, as all the action is hidden behind a sequence of identities - there are no visible verbs, only nouns. In order to read, one must either click each identity for a pop-up description or else hover the mouse until the text appears - somewhat comparable to the practice of adding secret mouse-over subtitles to webcomics (e.g. A Softer World, Dinosaur Comics) or of the use of a hidden text layer in annotated photographs (e.g. the flowchart Google’s Master Plan).

While McCloud and Ware’s flowcharts are comics, and Robinson’s is image-based, there are other examples of text-based flowchart art that are more comparable to EGBG’s ???Telemarketing Counterscript??? - in particular Bill Barker’s ???Schwa??? flowcharts and David Bryne’s tree drawings. But more on how text changes the flow later.

Read Part II: Flowchart Art and Comic Flow Types

10 Responses to “Flowchart Art and Comics”

  1. 1 Andy Baio

    If you like those, you’ll love Jason Shiga’s “Meanwhile…”.

  2. 2 Eliot Phillips

    I was amazed when I first saw that particular page from Chris Ware in a gallery. Those original pages are the reason I ended up buying his book.

  3. 3 Gary Chou

    I second Andy’s recommendation of Jason Shiga.

    In fact, the landmark book that Jason did was “Hello World”. It’s totally crazy delicious. It was rumored to be out of print, but if you can track him down, he usually has a few in stock.

  4. 4 Christy

    I love the 5 by 5 matrix version and asked Jason last year if he would photocopy it for me (paid of course), to no avail… :(

  5. 5 Tim Tylor

    I respectfully submit for consideration Tragic Lad’s cartoons. The Bunny & Cantelope series especially.

  6. 6 Neil

    Tym Godek’s My Life with Pets is also recommended along these lines.

  7. 7 Bryce

    Also worth mentioning is McCloud’s long-promised Story Machine, a flow-chart style idea-generation device.

  1. 1 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Designing Story DNA
  2. 2 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Flowchart Art and Comics Flow Types
  3. 3 N?he, Distanz und wie man sie liniert verbindet * flying sparks

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