The Right Number – A New Reading Convention

Scott McCloud’s The Right Number is a compact, experimental web-comic.  It is also one of the most successful web-comics ever produced.  This is primarily due to it questioning something that most creators take for granted – reading convention.

In my last article, I discussed how using reading convention in imagery could alter the way an audience perceives a story.  These alterations stem from the fact that the act of reading flows in a specific direction – in the west, from left to right, in the east, from right to left, and so on.  But what if we established a new direction of reading?  What if we introduced a new method of organizing and understanding information that had never been used before in the medium?

That is exactly what Scott McCloud undertakes in The Right Number.  Upon opening the comic, a small window loads, and explains how to read the comic.  The web-comic is set up so that at the center of each image there lies a very small version of the next image – or next panel.  Upon clicking the arrow provided at the bottom, or using your arrow keys, the image zooms in until the smaller image fills the entire screen.  And just like the image preceding it, there is once again a tiny panel at the very center, waiting for you to click the arrow to enlarge it.  An example of what it looks like can be seen in the story’s first panel, just to the left.

Initially, this might seem distracting.  A small image in the center of the panel?  Wouldn’t it get in the way of the actual image and obstruct reading?  While it would seem that way in theory, after a few moments of trying it out, one quickly discovers that the small images are not obtrusive at all!  Why?

Well, in a print comic, when we open a page, we are able to make sense out of a large image and separate it into six panels.  We then read these panels in the correct sequence, and our focus keeps us from being overwhelmed by the page as a whole.  This same process of visual selection is at work in The Right Number, but rather than separating the panels in a cardinal direction, from left to right or otherwise, we begin to separate the images with the concept that forward is now our reading direction.  Once this is recognized, our brains process the image in the center as an entirely separate entity, ‘editing it out’ of the current fictional time frame.  We can read and enjoy the current image without being distracted by the smaller image inside of it – it is the same process that we use to make sense of printed comics, only in reverse.

1. The Zoom vs. The Internet

Now, web-comics have been around for awhile, and they’ve been getting along quite fine without any fancy flash zooming or the like.  But The Right Number is not just a fancy gimmick – it is in fact, the most intuitive way to read a comic on the web that has been produced so far.

To clarify this claim, let us examine the competition.  There are two other main methods of presenting web-comics.  The first is simply scanning the image as a traditional page or strip, and devoting an individual webpage to each comic page.  These are then navigated via ‘next’ and ‘previous’ buttons placed above or below the image.  The second method of presentation is when the comic is brought to us as one, long scroll-like image, entirely devoid of page divisions.  This is then navigated through the browser’s downward scroll bar.

The experience of reading web-comics from the first category is often fraught with many jumps and stutters.  Between a constant loading and reloading of images, cumbersome navigation, and possible website banners, menus, and ads, there is a lot to ignore to focus on the story.  To get to the next part of the story, the reader must search for the ‘next’ button, which often changes places as images load into their browser.  This consistently takes the reader out of the story experience in order to continue reading – very counterintuitive.

If that were not enough, traditional web-comics also lack any visual link between their respective pages.  There is no glimpse of the preceding page, nor is there any indication of the page that will come afterwards.  The reader views only one page at a time, and between a reloading webpage and a possible need to scroll down to see the entire image, this creates a very stilted and awkward reading flow, which can make keeping track of everything that’s been happening quite a chore.

Both these issues, the stilted experience and the lack of visual links, were solved when web-comics started experimenting in the scroll format – with the comic simply as one, long image to be scrolled through.  No longer would readers need to reload the entire webpage for the next image, or grope about for a ‘next’ button.  Nor would they have trouble visually linking each story section to the next, because the comic was all one image!  But while the scroll format effectively eliminates both of these problems, it comes with a new problem of its own.  Without any page breaks, much of the rhythm in reading a story is lost.  The comic simply drags on and on, with no visual breaks or stops – no chance for the eye to rest until it reaches the end of the episode.  This is very tiring to the reader, and it makes scrolling web-comics a cumbersome, weighty experience.

The Right Number is the best of both worlds.  With its compact design, it avoids the problem of scrolling web-comics – there is no long and drawn out image to tire the reader, just a small image area where it easy to maintain focus.  Due to the zooming format, no reloading is necessary, so the ‘next’ button remains unobtrusively in the same place, where the reader can settle their mouse and click onwards in the same manner that they might turn the page of a print comic – simply, easily, and automatically. The reader’s eyes then remain sucked into the panels where the story is actually happening.

2. Just One Second…

So, The Right Number manages to resolve the issues facing other web-comic formats.  But it also has an important advantage of its own to offer – and it lifts this experimental format from a passable trial to a laudable effort.  Indeed, the most valuable advantage of The Right Number is its sense of rhythm.

One of the most obvious and yet important devices the web-comic employs is that it takes a certain amount of time to zoom from the current panel into the next.  This zoom time gives the reader’s eye a chance to rest and recuperate, and the reader’s mind is allowed to contemplate the previous panel as it lazily dissolves into the next part of the story.  This feeling is highly similar to the unique and often overlooked sensation of turning a printed page.

When we turn the page of a print comic book, we do not register the next page instantly as it comes into view – oftentimes we will move the book a bit when we turn the page, preventing our eyes from focusing right away.  Sometimes we even sneak a small glance at the page on the right before getting back to the page on the left to continue our story.  Once focused, we take in this whole page, recognize where the first panel begins, and get to reading.  This entire act of turning the page evens out to about one second chronologically, or just shy depending on one’s reading speed.

It takes approximately one second for the small panel in The Right Number to zoom up and fill the entire image area.  This crucial time frame helps link the story together in a non-distracting manner, giving our eyes and brains a short time to rest and take in the story, with no distractions like ‘next’ buttons, reloading images, or scroll bars.  It so deftly simulates the feeling of turning a physical page that it becomes just as addicting and satisfying – there is almost a physical connection to the progression of this particular web-comic.

But perhaps the most astounding aspect of this device is that though it is an incredible facsimile of the physical act of turning a page, it could not be done without digital means!  The zoom used is only possible through digital technology and software, as are the high resolution images that change size seamlessly and flow into one another endlessly.  This comic truly takes advantage of the digital opportunities available to comics beyond simple ease of distribution and lack of print costs – it is using the technology to advance the format, and thereby further the story.

This shows that while print comics and digital comics may have their qualms, their arguments, and their respective pros and cons, both formats exist to tell a seamless, engrossing story in which the form is so well crafted that it becomes transparent to the content.  Whatever means are necessary to accomplish that goal do not matter – because once the goal is accomplished, the means become invisible.

But when we establish an entirely new reading convention and an entirely new format, should we not re-evaluate how the new convention and new format will contribute to the content of the story?  Indeed we should, for zooming panels and a compact reading space is a drastically different format than a standard size page, and while it might close some doors in terms of storytelling, it definitely opens just as many.  Join me next week, when I examine how The Right Number’s experimental format affects panel size, pacing, and story presentation!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Balan is a current student and aspiring comics creator, studying sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. He is working on becoming both a writer and an artist, and he plans to eventually script and draw his own complete graphic novels. You can see his most current portfolio at http://www.davidbalan.com

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2 Comments

  1. First off, great article. I love that you are digging into McCloud’s web comic, but you are also unpacking web comics in general. It is a very important discussion that needs to happen more.

    And you are exactly right that web comics NEED to be dealt with in a manner different than conventional physical publishing. After all, comics on the web are a new medium and should be treated as such. To relegate them to the history of the conventional is to sell it completely short.

    While I am not totally sold on McCloud’s version, not many people are going to be able to aesthetically pull off the small icon in the center and it still look good. I think it is a bold choice and smart.

    One aside: I find it funny that we of the West read from left to right and the East reads right to left. We read opposite from where we see ourselves on maps. Although, most US maps have America on the far left, even though we are considered the West. But, I think even this speaks to your point. We read left to right and America is first then, right?

    • David Balan says:

      Ha! Great point about the world maps. That’s funny. It’s worth nothing though, that not all eastern cultures read right to left, just the ones we predominately are aware of.

      And the panel-in-the-center thing is, for a start, I think ingenious, but you’re right, it’s difficult to work with, and with different art styles the whole flash-animation thing would become very difficult. But I think it’s a step in the right direction towards integrating technology with storytelling – most of the time any headway made in that forum is purely gimmick-based, and serves to distract from the story at hand. (Have a look at most 3D films!)

      But McCloud is smart enough to know that his tech shouldn’t supercede his story – that’s why I think The Right Number is so successful in its format. But you’re right, in the future, if these avenues of storytelling are pursued, it will probably look like a clunky prototype after 25 years – much like looking at an old clunker if you’re a car enthusiast. Fascinating and historically relevant, but very outclassed in terms of function.

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