Mousetrap 2.0: A Comicbook

[Newsflash: this comic-book story has now appeared in print: in Massively Multi-Agent Technology in the Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science series. If your institution has access to this publication, you can view the “official” version of the paper  here (you may need to copy and paste the URL into your browser). Yay! I am now a published comic-book author].

A few months ago, Paul Scerri, an AI researcher at Carnegie-Mellon, got in touch to ask if I wanted to contribute a chapter to a book he was editing — an academic volume on “massive multiagent systems,” or systems comprising very large number of simple autonomous devices that interact with each other and humans. Somehow, that conversation led to me producing a comic-book format, quasi-fictional story. I scripted and rough-sketched the story, and a local Rochester artist, Brian Petty, turned them into finished illustrations. So here, for your merriment and technical-visionary thought-provocation, is my first graphic novelette and the story of how it came to be.

Comic cover

(Cover: click for larger image)

Though I first met Paul professionally a few years ago at a conference, and the subject is one of my research areas, he didn’t want me to contribute a traditional technical chapter with my “researcher” hat on, but something with my “blogger” hat on. Something a little fun to spice up a dry technical volume was his request, rather like my blog, style-wise. I jumped at the chance to do something boundary-blurring, and after we tossed a few ideas (including a standard `vision’ piece and a historical treatment of the field) I finally suggested a comic-book format, and Paul guardedly agreed. Paul, his co-editors and I are still figuring out whether it is possible to put something like this into that uber-academic format, a Springer paper-collection volume, but I hope we manage it. I thought it might be a first of sorts, but recently, I saw something like this in the MIT Tech Review, so I am not being as groundbreaking as I thought. Still.

But whether or not the chapter finally sees the light of day in print, here it is, in low-resolution form, minus some collateral commentary. More on the “making of” story later. Click to read each page. The pages are somewhat low-resolution, since the high-quality scans are rather large, but if you are interested, here is a link to the high-quality scans.

Page 1 Page 1 Page 2 Page 2

Page 3 Page 3 Page 4 Page 4

Page 5 Page 5 Page 6 Page 6

Page 7 Page 7

The Making of “Mousetrap 2.0″

I have to admit: though this is nowhere near accomplished works in the medium, like say the phenomenal Maus : A Survivor’s Tale which I just finished reading, for me, it really was an experience that helped me expand my boundaries. Not only did I have to learn how to use a narrative format to make a broad point about technology, I also had to figure out the craft itself, which, believe me, is much tougher than writing. The interleaving of a tightly budgeted verbal component and a visual composition is far harder than pictures or text alone, but also far more rewarding as an act of creation.

Initially, I planned to draw the whole thing myself, but after laying out the storyboard and text and figuring out the layouts, body language and expressions, I found that at my drawing skill level, it would take far too long to actually execute the drawings. Since I was doing my planning sketches during a 6-session illustration class I was taking at the time, the obvious idea was to rope in my instructor to help me finish. Brian stepped in and not only did a great job executing my concept, but in the process also helped me refine some of the more subtle elements.

All in all, one of the best creative experiences in my life so far, and I am planning to do a lot more of this sort of thing. Hope you like it! Like I said, email me if you’d like to see the high quality scans, and also if you have ideas for other subjects — non-fiction especially — that would fit the ribbonfarm theme and the comicbook format. I am right now brainstorming a lower-intensity weekly comic strip.

And oh yes, your comments on the story itself are welcome. Kinda like an anti-Matrix pro-technology thing, don’t you think?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter