State of Darths and Droids: It’s Not You, It’s… Well, It’s Both of Us

(From Darths and Droids. Click for full-sized things that go bump in the night.)

I may be leaning towards removing Darths and Droids from my RSS reader.

I’ve said in the past that Darths and Droids is incredibly innovative, taking the basic concept introduced to it by DM of the Rings and building a rich, layered metaplot on top of it, creating a comic I found more captivating than either its predecessor or Irregular Webcomic!

IWC has since moved into a rich, unified plot of its own, but that’s not the only problem I’ve been finding with Darths and Droids. I still believe every word of that description – I was remiss in leaving Darths and Droids out of any consideration for the greatest webcomics of all time last week, at least in those places where it would be on the same list as IWC. Yes, I mean that; it would rank low, but its sort of innovation is worthy of notice, and if it somehow sparked a wave of “RPG screencap comics” there could be no denying its influence.

But as it’s progressed, it’s gotten disjointed.

This problem started as we entered the climax of Phantom Menace, as the strip, following the lead of the movie, split into three separate subplots: the battle between the Gungans and the droids, Anakin and R2D2 taking off on their own little mission, and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan squaring off against Darth Maul. The resulting cross-cutting can work when the comic is read all at once, but when the comic is read on Darths and Droids’ Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday schedule, each switch to a new plot, the one snippet of the story we get on a particular day, has no connection to what has come immediately before, and one is forced to think back more than a week to remember what we’re picking up on. Each strip becomes an individual moment in time. Imagine going about your day and remembering it’s Tuesday and Darths and Droids must have a new strip up, and seeing this. Oh, and imagine waiting two days later for this.

Once again, with a “long-form” comic you have to maintain that balancing act between making sure your comic makes sense read all at once, and also makes sense read in bite-size chunks. This is a major reason gag-a-day strips have held the edge over longer continuity strips to this point in webcomics.

Things calmed down a little after Qui-Gon was critically injured and we settled into Darth Maul’s flashback. That meant several strips of fairly linear, strip-to-strip storytelling. Even when we went back to cross-cutting afterwards it was mostly to mop up the aftermath. It was fairly slow-paced, but readable.

Then we went through an intermission of several strips.

Then came Attack of the Clones.

The Comic Irregulars are explicitly making each movie a separate campaign played out with several years between them. So we’re introduced to the players as they exist two years after the events of the first campaign/movie, including a Sally significantly older and wiser. It’s a significant change to the dynamic, one that’s been brought into sharp focus with the recent huddle-up involving all the PCs. It’s awkward seeing everyone all huddle up as an established group after ten game years apart.

When we actually get into the plot, it resumes the disconnectedness while maintaining a single plot thread. Now I admit, I’ve seen almost zero of Attack of the Clones, and what I have seen is nearer the end. But we basically launch into the story in media res and almost immediately are subjected to something that’s basically a gag. At this point, it feels like the Comic Irregulars are rushing through the story much faster than the occasionally stalled pace at which they moved through The Phantom Menace. They spent a lot of time in Phantom Menace trying to establish the characters and building hints of their personalities and relationships with each other. We got to know the various characters, we paced through the story and every single thing the characters did, and the characters, in turn, slowly learned about the world and the campaign. In Attack of the Clones, the Comic Irregulars basically barge into the story guns a-blazin’. We already know the characters, they already know about the world and we can take care of the campaign in one strip, so let’s take a pure utilitarian approach and get through the plot as quickly as we can.

In The Phantom Menace, the Comic Irregulars may have created a more captivating story than they ever intended.

Truth be told, that may be partly because they actually created a story. So far, Attack of the Clones has mostly felt like a bunch of disconnected moments loosely strung together. Each individual strip has mostly served the purpose of a gag. It’s almost been a reverse Cerebus Syndrome, where the strip has developed less of a reliance on the plot and become more gag-a-day in nature.

Consider the succeding sequence, where Padme/Jim meets with the Jedi Council and Chancellor Palpatine over the vote to create a Grand Army of the Republic. The first strip involves everyone discussing Padme’s character, and Padme walking in, checking the Jedi’s support for the Army, and trying to boss Palpatine around. The second strip creates the subplot of rebuilding the moon of Naboo, destroyed by the Trade Federation during The Phantom Menace. And strip #3 mostly involves back-and-forth dialogue between Padme and Bail Organa. All three are somewhat disconnected from each other, especially when read one at a time. The last strip in particular comes off as being disconnected even when read in sequence all at once.

I say that a “long-form” webcomic should take care to make each strip a complete, satisfying experience, but it’s a balancing act. If it’s too diffuse, it loses cohesion; it may come off like a complete comic when read all at once, but as a day-by-day comic, it almost no longer becomes a plot-based strip.

Two factors may make that sound absurd. The first is the popularity of gag-a-day webcomics, and the second is the specific fact that The Order of the Stick is very much gag-a-day and yet balances that out with an ongoing plot. But gag-a-day strips don’t have an expectation of a plot unless they’re undergoing Cerebus Syndrome, and OOTS substantially advances the plot with each strip, building a strong connection from one strip to the next, and still lets each stand on its own and end with a funny gag. The two share billing on OOTS while the Comic Irregulars seem to be sublimating the plot to the funny. (So you don’t think I’m showing my OOTS bromance too much here, I’ll also ask you to look at Sluggy Freelance. And the OOTS balance between plot and gags has been especially apparent in recent strips, as I’ll cover in a day or two.)

But perhaps more than any of that, is the problem that gag-a-dayness is not in Darths and Droids‘ DNA. The strip has been funny throughout The Phantom Menace, but it’s been a sort of punchlineless humor, where the humor has existed in equal amounts in every panel, a natural result of the personalities of the characters (especially Jim, Sally, and Pete, in that order), so if each strip ended with a gag, it did so as part of the natural progression of the story. That’s helped to minimize the extent to which the Comic Irregulars have had to contort the story to fit each page and actually built the sense of the strip as a long-form, drama-based, comic-book-style webcomic. While I’ve certainly laughed along with Darths and Droids, that wasn’t the reason I read the comic, and the plot is starting to fall out of focus, especially read one-installment-at-a-time (I didn’t quite grasp much of what was going on until I re-read these strips). I wonder if the Comic Irregulars are/were trying to move Darths and Droids in the direction of gag-a-day in order to avoid the Girl Genius/Gunnerkrigg Court problem, and are running into the limitations of that.

Now, it’s early in Attack of the Clones, and the basic situation is only just getting set up. The last two strips have had a bit more of a connection with each other, which bodes well for the future (at least the near future), and I think I have a better idea of where the plot is going and might better be able to follow the strip from this point forward. Part of the problem may have been the need to follow various strips I’m planning to write reviews of over the next month or two, and those strips distracting me to some extent from Darths and Droids. It might be a shame if Darths and Droids were to chase me away, because it’s become apparent, especially towards the end of The Phantom Menace, that the strip is going to be using a very different plot from the movies (on top of alternate interpretations and the things the players bring to their characters) and that would mean we might be in for more surprises than one might think. (I can’t tell from the strip; was the destruction of the moon of Naboo part of The Phantom Menace or not?) But Darths and Droids has recently hit a bit of a rough patch, falling into some easy mistakes made by continuity strips and weakened my investment in the strip. The bad news is it needs to spend some time to win me back. The good news is anyone else looking to dive in can learn from it.

2 Comments

  1. David Morgan-Mar
    Posted March 1, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Well now…

    Firstly, although we regularly trawl the web for comments on D&D and absorb the critical reviews, we are firm in the knowledge that we can never please everyone. If we consciously try to please everyone, we'll either fail to please anyone or give up because we can't produce anything.

    So it's interesting that your comments are diametrically opposed to those of some other people who say that D&D's story is too complex and each strip is not funny enough. Really, given that the middle ground is what we’re aiming for – a decent story and a decent amount of humour – these comments mean we’re close to the mark we’ve set ourselves.

    Of course, people who prefer laugh-up-your-lunch, gag-a-day strips will think we’re not funny enough, and those who prefer straightforward complex drama will think we’re not dramatic enough. But those people are the fringes of our target audience.

    Secondly, of course we’re constrained by the movie scenes. It would have been nice to re-establish the characters, but Attack of the Clones begins deeply in medias res, so we just had to run with it.

    Thirdly, it’s interesting that you mention the apparent lack of plot coming into the second film. Because we’re busily layering down elements of plot that will become apparent in time. You just can’t see the whole picture yet. Heck, there are plot seeds we very deliberately planted in the first half of Phantom Menace that won't bear fruit for another movie or two…

    Which brings up the fourth point: You mention that D&D reads more strongly in archive format than as a three-a-week serial. I think all of us creators agree that this is the case, and speaking for myself, I think this is actually desirable. One of my strongest goals as part of the creative team is to make sure D&D stands up when read through quickly, like a graphic novel. As you point out, this can make the serial reading format suffer. My personal feeling is that the serial format is purely a constraint of the fact that we do this in our spare time. I would prefer to make each movie and release the whole lot in a graphic novel format – but that's impractical for many reasons.

    So I agree that the serial format is a weakness of D&D. Some of the other Irregulars take pains to introduce things that aid reader memory and understanding in the serial format, such as subtle recaps. I'm always the one arguing against those – but if they can be done subtly enough to avoid harming the archive format, then I'm happy to let them in.

    Anyway, the gist of this comment is to say (a) please keep reading, because the deep plot is there, and will become more apparent as the players uncover it. And (b) we recognise D&D is not perfect, but the major goals we have are to keep our target audience in our sights and aim squarely at them, and to maintain the update schedule. There are people on the fringes or outside our target audience, and that's fine – we can't please everyone and we're not going to change the way we do things to try, because the output will suffer. We want this to be a project we can all look back on when we're finished and say that we're pleased with what we did, not that we swerved mid-stream to try to make someone else happy. :-)

  2. Morgan Wick
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    I’m not asking you to change, certainly not just to please me. I actually have an odd little fear about changing anything directly or indirectly, which clashes oddly with my goals. (That explains why I snapped a little at Robert A. Howard when he said he would take my comments into account.) This post is written with other webcomic writers in mind, and I actually hope they’ll read your comment as well.

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