I tell stories.

I’ve been telling them since I started drawing comics professionally at the young age of seventeen. By “professionally,” I mean I was getting paid, steady income, to tell these stories, something any cartoonist will tell you is a feat unto itself.

I referenced a lot of music and animation in my comics.

I’d always felt limited by static pencil and paper, two-dimensional, linear storytelling. I’d mastered that form of storytelling, but even though my comics were online, I couldn’t push the boundaries much beyond what I was doing in print. For instance, I couldn’t play my favorite music while making witty references to it (which I did a lot of). I couldn’t animate transformation sequences. I couldn’t get input from the reader in any way except comments.

Then, when I was at the height of my career, just after winning two awards, life struck: I needed surgery.

I needed a “real job” with real insurance to pay for it. So I switched gears into web development, something I’d been doing to help promote my comics, but hadn’t actually tried turning into an income.

I thought I would never tell stories again.

Sure, I continued to tell stories in presentations, illustrations for articles. But now storytelling supplemented my web development. The tables had turned. I threw myself into my work and didn’t look up for five long years.

Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics wrote of something called the “Infinite Canvas,” a sort of final destination for digital comics, ever expanding, ever engaging.

Many years ago, comics legend Scott McCloud wrote about something called the “Infinite Canvas,” a sort of final destination for digital comics, ever expanding, ever engaging. Scott has always been ahead of his time, the first to the party on micro-payments for instance, often arriving long before the market had caught up. This made a lot of his ideas from his book Reinventing Comics seem like pie-in-the-sky dreams that failed on their first implementation… only later to come on full force when technology caught up. The Infinite Canvas is one such idea.

It took me a few years and a few CSS specs to figure out that the Infinite Canvas had been in front of me all along: the browser. And it wasn’t just a infinite in direction. It is infinite in content and interaction as well. HTML5 has all these APIs, these wonderful APIs we build as a community: audio, animation, text to speech, geo location… and I’d spent the past five years mastering the foundations to wield them.

Unfortunately, evangelizing open source technology is about as profitable as making comics for a living.

The power went to my head and I quit my job to tell stories with code full time. I’ve traveled the world spreading the gospel of the Infinite Canvas. The most common thing I hear is, “I wish I could draw like you.” (My response to which is that it’s easy, just spend seven years drawing and earning 75% less than what you currently make.) But the images are only the surface treatment. There’s so much more happening underneath.

I made Alice in Videoland (the name is a tribute to one of my favorite bands) for Adobe’s Inspire magazine. I knew it would mostly be seen by designers, so I wanted to introduce them to some tools for making their own stories come to life: it uses SVG for retina displays, CSS to animate the different illustrations, and jQuery and a handful of plugins to trigger events.

Some JavaScript developers after seeing my talk on Alice asked why I didn’t do everything with plain old JavaScript instead of jQuery, since the things I was doing were not too complicated for a JavaScript developer to do. I chose to use jQuery because I knew cramming five years of JavaScript development into an article meant to get artists thinking about telling stories in new ways would occlude its core message. When we want to tell stories, we reach for the fastest tool to tell them with instead of setting out on five year journeys of reinventing ourselves.

The feedback I hear most often after I give talks at web development conferences is, “I wish I could draw like you!”

Just as developers often wish they could “draw like me,” those artists often wish they could “code like you.” (I should know. I’ve got the emails to prove it.) But neither of you have five to seven years to sink into learning the other’s craft when there are stories to be told today.

Oh man, if only we had each others’ super powers. Then we could do everything ourselves.

Which is why collaborating with people outside your comfort zone is so important. Together we can build amazing things. It is not a matter of learning how to draw or code like me. It’s a matter of seeking out and collaborating with those people whose skills you wish you had.

When you look at the things I make, you’re not looking at my stories, my art. You’re looking at the culmination of many creators: the people who contribute to big libraries like jQuery; the team who releases some unassuming script they couldn’t imagine using outside of that one weird project; the editors who argued until the spec was ready and the programmers who actually implemented it; that person who answered my “silly question” on Twitter; the author of the original Alice in Wonderland; the inventor of the multiplane camera.

I can tell stories because you help me tell stories. When you build tools for storytellers, you become a storyteller, too.

“Those who come before us lift us up.”

Let’s tell stories forever together.


How it was made

The storyboard for an early version of the talk

I originally gave this keynote at OSCON 2014 in Portland, Oregon to thousands of opensource enthusiasts in person and watching live online. It was my first keynote, and I wrote a comic script for it, drawing each slide as a comic panel. This post is based on that script and accompanied by each associated comic panel/slide. The original script is on my site, should you wish to compare them.

The art was drawn with Manga Studio using a Wacom Intuos tablet and stylus, and colored in Photoshop. I chose to use monotone colors for all but the highlights of the talk both for speed and to underscore the important beats.

I formulated the talk using the Kishōtenketsu story structure, which I adore as a more wandering alternative to the more traditional premise-crisis-resolution story structure used in most Western media.

The talk given at O’Reilly’s OSCON in 2014 http://youtu.be/Q9CB7EiU9xg

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