First published 30 years ago, Scott McCloud’s understand comics is the ultimate comic book about comic books. An illustrated lecture on storytelling mechanics and visual vocabulary, it has become a must-read for those creating graphics for everything from street signs to app icons. Andy Hertzfeld, who helped design the original Apple Mac, called the book “deeply wise.”
McCloud has spoken at Google and Pixar, as well as gaming companies like Blizzard and Electronic Arts. At Bitmoji, the cartoon avatar developer in the group that owns Snapchat, understand comics receives every newly recruited artist. “It’s our bible in the studio,” says Bitmoji founder Ba Blackstock.
A particularly fertile area for McCloud’s ideas right now is avatars. Out of World of Warcraft to Fourteen days to Roblox, Millions of gamers take on the cartoon form to play and socialize online every day. As Silicon Valley strives to create the “metaverse,” big tech companies want their own avatar systems, too.
Last month, TikTok was the latest company to release its own avatars, allowing creators to add virtual caricatures of themselves to their videos. With their airbrushed features and plastic hairstyles, TikTok’s digital dolls use a style similar to Apple’s Memoji or Meta’s avatars. They started in their virtual reality headsets and are now available on Facebook and Instagram as well.
Any company developing these types of products faces a dilemma: where should they position their designs on the spectrum between realism and abstraction as described by McCloud? “If you go too far in either direction, you’re in trouble,” says Blackstock.
Recognizable avatars can be more effective, he says, but making them both familiar and easy to personalize is difficult. Too many configuration options (endless eyes, noses, haircuts, and chin shapes) can overwhelm users. Too little and the character looks generic.
Some scientific research and intuition suggests that we prefer to live a photorealistic version of ourselves online. Epic Games, the company behind it Fourteen daysHe built a “Metahuman Creator”, a free tool for game developers to create photorealistic virtual humans “in minutes”. Which begs the question, why do avatar designers choose cartoons instead?
Even with advances in machine learning that have helped refine digital humans, real humans are well-equipped to spot scammers. They instinctively scare us.
“We didn’t want to enter the uncanny valley,” says Nick Fajt, another McCloud acolyte and CEO of Rec Room, a social gaming platform. It designs avatars that look more to outfits and accessories than their faces for personality (they have similar basic functions to Lego or Playmobil characters).
Bitmoji’s Blackstock argues that a simple avatar can be more expressive than a realistic one. “When you present someone with a clean and clear illustration, you can convey so much information,” he says. “Not just how this character looks, but how her body poses, her facial expression, the raising of her eyebrows.” This is a realization McCloud understood and explored in his book.
In a professional environment, it is all the more important to convey the nuances of communication. Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg has predicted that in the metaverse we will use photorealistic avatars for work and more stylized avatars for “hanging out” with friends. But after reading understand comicsI think I’d rather go to the (virtual) office dressed up as a cartoon character than as a creepy almost-human.
Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s global technology correspondent. consequences @FTMag on Twitter to be the first to know about our latest stories