Flowchart Art and Comics Flow Types

Flowchart art involves lines of flow between pages, lexias, or, in the case of comics, panels. Common examples of flow include both multilinear plot branching and the arrangement of monolinear elements - as was previously discussed using examples of flowchart art in the work of Scott McCloud, Chris Ware, and Craig Robinson. After receiving some excellent suggestions of further examples, I have some thoughts on types of flow - including aleatory (random) flow, inaccessible (hidden) flow, and procedural (performed) flow. The examples are Scott McCloud (again) and his “The Story Machine,” Tym Godek’s “My Life with Pets”, Tragic Lad’s “Bunny and Cantelope,” and Jason Shiga’s “Meanwhile.”

Scott McCloud’s “The Story Machine” is a grid map of hundreds of small iconic symbols connected by trails. The Machine flows in all directions, and “reading” done by rolling a four-sided die and moving north, south, east or west through the grid. The purpose is “a random idea-generating device along the lines of various surrealist games and devices,” with a sequence of symbols inspiring and constraining the author “by throwing an endless series of conceptual curve balls to stimulate unpredictable turns of thought.” Like other surrealist games and conceptual art pieces, The Story Machine is as much the specification of a process as it is an actual text - McCloud doesn’t provide the final Machine, but instead publishes a few sample swatches and encourages people to create their own. Some related techniques of visualizing constrained story structure were recently discussed by Christy Dena in Designing Story DNA.

Tym Godek’s “My Life with Pets” is a classic parallel timeline - multilinear reading only in the sense that you experience each simple line simultaneously, and jump in parallels between them. The story, in as much as there is one, lies not along the lines but between them - in the lateral jumps between the ownership, births, and deaths of pets and how these relate to the central timeline of Tym’s relocations, educations, marriage etc. Godek’s “My Life with Pets” is read across the lines, not down them. From this example and from the earlier observation that Robinson’s “What If” is browsed, not read, we can see in general that flow lines don’t simply dictate reading paths. Reading happens both along them and across then.

Tragic Lad’s “Bunny and Cantelope” uses the flow of trails across a large canvas for some interesting effects - in one example to mimic the motions of a chase scene, in another to create a parallel distraction, where the reader is tempted to jump the tracks and skip off the officially indicated flow (an urbane dinner conversation at a restaurant) and over to more exciting fare (a fight scene in the kitchen). Tragic Lad’s flow somewhat resembles Scott McCloud’s use of trails in “Porphyria’s Lover” to add a spatial rythm (rather than plot branching, as in McCloud’s “Carl”). On the other hand, Tragic Lad’s parallel tracks somewhat resemble Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan” - not so much in style, as in their assumption that branches are not alternate possibilities, but sets of parallel occurances distributed across space and time. Like Jason Shiga’s “Meanwhile,” certain sections are unavailable unless you “cheat” the trails system - either by jumping the tracks to investigate unlinked nearby panels, or else by reading backwards from where two branches merge.

Jason Shiga???s “Meanwhile???” uses a tubular, unidirectional trails to map a complex plot-branching narrative. This involves a complex graphic vocabulary - available option trails generally leave the borders of a panel as open tubes, and arrive in another panel as closed ones. A selection trail may encircle an object within a panel to indicate a choice, or it may bifurcate arbitrarily midway at a dot. Designed for print and later adapted to the web, “Meanwhile” trails move between pages using a system of tabs - a trail runs off the page at the edge location that indicates which tab to turn to, and the trail arrives on the page from that location.

“Meanwhile” uses flow in a wild variety of ways. Flow branches along moment-to-moment transitions, such as flipping a coin or hesitating by a medicine cabinet. Flow dramatizes the passage of time, as when a panels interflow with the second-by-second countdown of a digital clock readout. Flow stages complex interactions, as when the reader is invited to enter a password by “entering” the digits in combinatoric explosion of choices. This procedural flow may also increase the complexity of the flow path in order to make choices significant - for example, the process of ‘entering’ one of twelve possible codes is made more significant by making the process of tracing the code path to its conclusion a difficult, time-consuming tangle. Flow sounds easy, but it can be serious work - in the sense of Espen Aarseth’s “ergodic” conception of cybertext.

While flow can cause difficulty, it can also create impossible choices, unfollowable trails, inaccessible pages, and unreachable panels. That is, unreachable in theory - while some panels can never be reached by following Shiga’s trails, they are read nonetheless. As just one example, on one page, two panels that say “End” are connected by a single tube, cut off from the rest of the story’s flow. What do these panels mean on the page? Is the flow of these endings “next to” the main story in the way that cats and dogs parallel Tym Godek’s lifeline in “My Life with Pets”? Or is it an invitation to jump the tracks and just end, like the track-jumping in Tragic Lad’s “Bunny and Cantelope”? These techniques indicate all the ways in which flow does not create reading sequences, but instead suggests them. Reading against the flow happens too, and some of the most interesting experiments with flow are not just specifying it, but making counter-flow artful as well. Shiga provides plenty of that - but more on Shiga’s work later.

[Thanks for suggestions from Andy Baio, Tim Tylor, Neil, Bryce]

3 Responses to “Flowchart Art and Comics Flow Types”

  1. 1 James

    Not quite flowchart art, but similar is delta thrives

  1. 1 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Flowchart Art and Comics
  2. 2 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Flowchart Photography

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