Speaking of gamer comics with a reputation for crappiness, after reading today’s Ctrl+Alt+Del, I may have to push back the Penny Arcade review a week or two.

(From Powerup Comics. Click for full-sized blissful ignorance.)

As much as I’ve criticized YWIB over the past couple of days, I do sympathize with their frustration, and to tell you why I need to tell a little story.

Once upon a time, some people at the Truth and Beauty Bombs forums (the forums for Dinosaur Comics and some others, and the place that gave us the “Garfield without Garfield’s lines” meme, which eventually became “Garfield without Garfield” himself) decided to take a bunch of cut-and-pasted elements, throw them in MS Paint, and create the crappiest gaming comic they could. The result was Powerup Comics, and once it started picking up steam among the members, they started a DrunkDuck account and started storing their comics there.

But here’s the real punchline: Powerup Comics – intended to be a parody and the worst gaming comic ever – attracted people who treated it completely seriously. And liked it.

A comic intended to be the worst gaming comic ever, attracted actual fans.

When the people at YWIB reviewed Powerup Comics as an April Fool’s joke (which actually attracted some defenses of the comic from people not in on the joke), and ended the review by claiming that there was no point in continuing and so they were ending YWIB, I would not have blamed them for quitting for real. Heck, it’s enough to make me wonder if it’s a lost cause.

It’s hard to see what the strip’s fans see in it, unless they’re actually T&BB members furthering the parody. The art definitely falls on the “distraction” side of the line of badness, for lack of a better term; it’s blatantly an MS Paint copy-paste job, more so than others of the type, but instead of looking computer generated like sprite comics and Dinosaur Comics, it just looks like a 12-year-old drew it (or younger). My artistic abilities must be the crappiest in the universe, yet I actually could ape the Powerup Comics style. There’s the same propensity towards violence as Ctrl+Alt+Del, only so much more unnecessary as to seem completely random. Some strips have no punchline whatsoever (which is itself supposed to be the punchline), some have been done a gazillion times before.

I could go on, but I’ve made my point already. I’ll just point out that the YWIB folks may have inadvertantly hit on something without realizing it, and that’s the real reason for CAD‘s popularity, the distinction between Ctrl+Alt+Del and the mounds of crappy gaming comics they’ve reviewed. Say what you will about CAD‘s art, it’s positively Rembrandt compared to Powerup Comics or even Cartridge Comics. I could go on, but I’m on a bit of a clock here. Gotta go!

For some reason I thought I had already posted this when I hadn’t even added the images.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full sized Common Sense, or lack thereof.)

Well, it’s been over a month since the last time I talked about Order of the Stick at length (and it feels like much longer), and it’s high time for me to revisit the territory. As I’ve stated, OOTS started out as a jokey, funny gag-a-day strip about a bunch of adventurers trawling through a dungeon. It’s now a multilayered political drama, soap opera, and high fantasy tale. In other words, it’s been turned inside out by Cerebus Syndrome, and been about as successful as you could be in doing so, thanks in part to losing none of the humor and metahumor that characterized its early days, and if anything, increasing it.

OOTS even lightly poked fun at its descent into Cerebus Syndrome in this strip, made at a time when Websnark was still king of the webcomics world and still had many of the tics of its height, including the “submitted without comment” routine. For those of you who weren’t here when Sandsday made a blatant push for linkage from the now-mostly-defunct Websnark, I point you to the third panel of this strip. Sure enough, soon there was a comment-filled non-comment from Eric Burns, which contained this doozy: “It was funnier to me since there really isn’t a Cerebus Syndrome going on here, of course.”

A strip makes a joke about its own descent into Cerebus Syndrome when there isn’t one? How does that even make sense? But the first commenter to Burns’ non-comment comment agrees about the lack of Cerebus Syndrome. A later commenter claims “you can’t really start invoking Cerebus when the comic remains consistently and deeply funny” (I’ll have more on this in a sec, but for now I’ll say this seems to imply OOTS still hasn’t fallen into Cerebus Syndrome even now) and compares it to Goats (considering that strip’s descent into fate-of-the-planet-at-stake randomness, probably not the best example, but I’ll check the strips that were out at the time and get bac to you). Even now, if you ask people on the OOTS board when that strip went into Cerebus Syndrome, they’ll probably cite the sequence revealing the Snarl’s existence (a few may alternately cite the introduction of Miko), and the OOTS being tasked to stop Xykon from freeing it, even though if anything that sequence comes at the end of a long transition to a more plot-based model for the strip.

Let’s take another look at the definition of Cerebus Syndrome:

The effort to create character development by adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension (or meant to be a joke character) and making them fuller and richer. The idea is to take what was fun on one level and showing the reality beneath it. ‘Cerebus Syndrome’ refers to Dave Sim’s epic, sometimes tragically flawed magnum opus, Cerebus the Aardvark. Cerebus started life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian starring an Earth-Pig born. Over time, it grew extremely complex, philosophical, and in many ways much much funnier. Then, Dave Sim went batshit crazy and Cerebus went straight to Hell, but that’s for another day. People saw how Cerebus’s humble roots could lead to glorious heights, and as cartoonists get bored with what they’re doing, they decided to pull a Cerebus of their own. […]

It is extremely hard to take a light, joke a day strip and push it through a successful Cerebus Syndrome. Dave Sim did it in stages, and at least in the early days of the transformation brought massive amounts of Funny to cover it over. Done perfectly, one only realizes in hindsight that the strip has turned out to be quite different than it used to be. Done sloppily, the Cerebus Syndrome fails, and the webcomic enters First and Ten Syndrome. Unfortunately, a failed Cerebus Syndrome is an excruciating process for the webcomic’s fans to endure. Please note that one can continue to bring the Funny while going for Cerebus Syndrome — and in fact, probably should. It is far more common to drop the Funny, which increases geometrically the chance to fall into First and Ten.

In the second paragraph quoted above, you could easily substitute out “Dave Sim” for “Rich Burlew”, because that’s exactly what Burlew did with Order of the Stick. There’s a long list of milestones in the march to Cerebus Syndrome taken by OOTS dating at least back to the revelation of the underlying plot in #13, and arguably continuing well after this sequence. Similarly, I suspect part of the reason most people cite the last of these major milestones as the tipping point is that that is the point where these people realized just how far the strip had come from its origins (especially if they weren’t there for those origins and didn’t realize how different they were).

It’s true that the revelation of the Snarl’s existence gave the strip an overarching plot driving all the action and ended about 75 strips of what amounted to aimless wandering, but it’s important to remember that the definition of Cerebus Syndrome says nothing about myth arcs or anything of the sort. It refers only to greater character development or, more colloquially, a general increase in drama and an arc-based model. The former starts appearing at least as early as the opening sequence of the second book, the middle at least as early as Miko’s introduction, and the latter far earlier than either. (And it’s important to remember that Burns specifically notes that a strip need not abandon humor to undergo Cerebus Syndrome.)

Besides, the quest to keep the Snarl imprisoned only really replaced the “hunt down Xykon and kill him” plot of the first book, and by the time it happened it didn’t really mark that seismic a shift. At least as early as Miko’s introduction the specter of Shojo and Azure City was already forming some sort of plot that was promising to carry the OOTS for quite some distance. The first hints of that were laid down at the end of the first book – where, remember, the strip had overturned its entire premise. And by the time the OOTS was brought before the court, Haley was speaking gibberish, the sort of thing that isn’t just a sign of Cerebus Syndrome but a hallmark of the nonstop angst that heralds full-blown First and Ten. And then there’s the little niggling matter of strip #242, where Haley remarks “we were a lot safer when we just made fairly obvious jokes about the rules!” By that point, The Order of the Stick hadn’t “just made fairly obvious jokes about the rules” for some time. A long time.

You want to point out the most important tipping point in Order of the Stick‘s march towards Cerebus Syndrome? The one strip that could best be used to separate the early, happy-go-lucky, almost continuity-free days of the early strips from the more plot-based OOTS we know and love today? The one point that you can point to and say, “This is where The Order of the Stick as we know it truly begins”?

You have to go all the way back to the first book, way before there was even any hint of the Snarl or even of any “gate”. You have to go all the way back to strip number 43.

And I’m not just saying that because I’ve had a fascination with the number 42 since even before I learned of its importance in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It doesn’t look like much, especially if you’re someone used to the sort of strips that characterized the first 42 of OOTS’ existence. But trust me, Elan doesn’t just open the door to the Linear Guild at the end of this strip; he opens the door to plot, to story arcs, to gates and paladins and pseudo-Asian cultures. And Vaarsuvius’ monologue in the middle of the strip proves to be far more prescient, and far broader in scope, than most fans could have ever envisioned.

How pivotal is this strip? By the time all the loose ends are tied up from the ensuing story arc – by the time Durkon, left behind in the inevitable battle with the Linear Guild, finally returns to the group – it is strip number 85. Which means, when dated back to strip number 43, the entire sequence has gone 43 strips. Or just over half of all the strips published to this point. The Linear Guild sequence has lasted longer than the strip’s entire existence prior to it.

There’s a lot in the Linear Guild arc that hints at the strip to come in ways the Original 42 does not, starting with the slower pace of the plot compared to the limited arcs done in the Original 42. Not to mention the existence of some sort of long-form plot. We get some of the early hints of deep characterization (the OOTS were basically two-dimensional characters before the Linear Guild arc gave us such things as Elan’s backstory) and relationships between characters (at least nominally, virtually all of Nale’s actions after the arc concludes derive from a single panel in this strip). We see long-term planning starting to bear fruit, including the realization of a prophecy dating to #15 (which Haley even points out!).

We get the start of multiple ongoing running gags. We get the introduction of not only the group of villains secondary only to Xykon and his minions (at least through the end of the third book), but also Celia, who subsequently reappears to defend the OOTS in front of Shojo in the sequence that introduces us to the Snarl, becomes at least a brief fling for Roy, and is currently adventuring with Haley’s half of the OOTS. Although the art continues to evolve until at least Miko’s introduction, it’s during the Linear Guild arc that the dialogue reaches its current font size. And it’s before those last loose ends are tied up that we learn the deeper motivation for Roy’s hunt for Xykon.

The very next arc involves bypassing the entire rest of the dungeon and cutting straight to Xykon’s lair. That’s V’s plan from the start and, although that attempt doesn’t end well, that’s essentially what ultimately happens. If I was wrong in my initial post – if Rich’s descent into Cerebus Syndrome, as Eric Burns describes in part of his description I didn’t quote, was a result of boredom, not planned from the start (and remember, I own none of the OOTS books with accompanying commentary) – it came either after the original 42, or during or immediately after the Linear Guild episode, through the “bathroom break” of #86-87. The sheer number of subsequent subplots set up in the Linear Guild storyline suggests to me that, if Burlew didn’t decide from the start what he was going to do with his strip, he sure did before completing 43 strips. (And he probably had some idea before completing 15, judging by the long-term nature of Eugene Greenhilt’s prophecy. Even Elan’s recovery of a Belt of Gender-Changing in strip 9 winds up having importance over 200 strips down the road.)

From Rich Burlew’s perspective, I would think that strip 43 is where the transition – in retrospect, shorter and quicker than I let on earlier – from the gag-a-day OOTS of the Original 42 to the arc-based, plot-based strip we know and love really occurs. And from the perspective of someone who was around for those Original 42 strips (which again, I am not) it would have seemed impossible before #43 that in just 80 more strips, the Dungeon of Dorukan would be blown to smithereens and Xykon presumed dead (well, deader than before). And that such an event would not herald the end of the strip.

Even at the time, it would take until the revelation that Xykon still stands to really convince anyone that the end of the strip was not imminent, and until Miko shows up there’s not really much in-story reason for the OOTS to stick together at all. Take a look at this strip, fairly deep into the second book (deep enough that not only is it a wonder the OOTS stuck together long enough to reach the town (remember, I’m not a D&D player), it’s a wonder they’re still together even after reaching there) – Roy’s hunt for the starmetal is the only reason why the Order sticks together after destroying the Dungeon, and Roy’s swift-talking of Belkar and Haley is the only reason they stay in the group. Had it not been for that, the Order may well have never been tasked to stop Xykon from freeing the Snarl.

(Hmm. And Roy’s hunting of the starmetal was caused by Sabine shifted into a blacksmith. The Linear Guild are responsible for keeping the Order of the Stick together! I smell a fourth post brewing…)

Even in the Order’s subsequent relatively aimless wandering, no one would mistake it for being a gag-a-day strip, and in fact there are next to no “fairly obvious jokes about the rules” at all. The strip is fairly tightly organized into arcs, with a good part of the strip between the Order’s departure and Miko’s arrival taken up by the Order’s encounter with a group of bandits. There are also two semi-lengthy interludes involving Team Evil that help to establish their plot, one before the bandit arc and one, as previously mentioned, between the recovery of the starmetal and Miko’s arrival.

I mentioned some of the points in this post the last time I wrote a lengthy post on Order of the Stick. I mentioned how OOTS managed to overthrow its entire premise by the time the first book was over, and how it managed to keep going thanks to a strong balance of a compelling story and funny jokes. This, then, is something of an expansion of that post, showing just how early Order of the Stick started its metamorphosis into the rich, multilayered strip it is today, and both how much more sudden and more gradual that transformation was. And it ends, as I tend to, with a whimper because I always have trouble wrapping these posts up.

So I’ll see you in another month with an analysis of another aspect of OOTS.

I’m getting better at writing these quicker. Of course, I thought I lost this for a couple of days, re-found it, and stayed up until 3 AM last night to finish it.

(From Dresden Codak. Click for full-sized transformation.)

Just in case you thought I was only ever going to review webcomics I liked.

Dresden Codak should be incredibly thought provoking. It should be able to completely transform the way you think and make you think deeply about ideas you’d never even conceived before. Aaron Diaz should be right up there with Ryan North and Randall Munroe as webcomics’ premier thinkers.

It should. But it isn’t and it doesn’t and he isn’t.

Instead, Dresden Codak proves what I said in my review of Ctrl+Alt+Del: art is overrated. By almost any measure, DC looks gorgeous – but 90% of the time, there’s so much of it crammed into such small spaces that it’s damn near impossible to have any idea of what’s going on whatsoever, which is probably a good thing for the comic’s popularity, as it sometimes seems that there’s nothing going on, and what is going on isn’t worth following.

Start with… well, how do we start? Aaron Diaz seems to want to completely disavow the existence of any comics prior to the one you click when you click on a “first” link: “dc_013.html”. This URL is the only clue you get that you’re being sold a bill of goods. I can kind of see why Diaz would censor his first 12 comics (actually 11, as comic 7 is itself skipped in the archive and reappears in the public archive as comic 13a) – the first two are very simply drawn, short pieces where random violent things happen, things that would make DC look a lot like a lot of other comics that are incredibly simply drawn and that have random violent things happen. The third adds naught but color and no real violence. But the fourth features the first appearance of Old Man-Man, who subsequently appears in the part of the archive Diaz does want you to see, in a strip marked “The Return of Old Man-Man”, your second clue you’re being sold a bill of goods by being told that comic 13 is comic 1.

Basically, the formula here is that random shit happens, often almost completely incomprehensible and rendered even more incomprehensible by being brought to us in media res. The main distinction between the comics in the public archive and the ones prior to it are that the Dresden Codak formula – cram as much artwork in there as possible, in addition to everything else – is in full effect. Throw in occasional science-based jokes (hey, if it works for Irregular Webcomic! and xkcd, it should work for my strip, right?) and you have what seems to be a formula for success. Metaphors – sometimes dense, sometimes transparent – reign. (The first strip in the public archives comes with a note claiming that “Tomorrow Man”‘s ultimately fatal sojourn to the future is a “thinly veiled metaphor for the youthful obsession with progress”. Well, I certainly would have never known if you hadn’t pointed it out to me, Aaron, and I don’t think that’s what “thinly veiled” means.) Oh, and did I mention the wildly swerving art style? Even Kim Ross’ first appearance appears to be in watercolor.

Kim Ross is the well-endowed (as her appearances mount up, her breasts keep getting bigger and bigger until they’re practically independent objects during the Hob storyline), wannabe-scientist who, immediately upon appearing in the strip, completely takes it over. Her appearance coincides with the sheer volume of art beginning to obfuscate any sense the strip may have once had; her second appearance features a moment of confused panel order and her third, while decipherable if you ignore the flash-forward sequence, is clearly well on its way to confusing the heck out of anyone trying. And when it isn’t, it’s so random and full of non-sequiturs that it might as well. (And don’t forget the incredibly crowded space of the strip between the two.)

So the pattern is established, perhaps even more with Kim and her friends around. Exotic journeys to the farthest reaches of the mind. Metaphor on top of metaphor. Cramming as much art in as possible. Occasional bouts of out-of-nowhere randomness.

Then Diaz did something that, for all appearances given what his strip had done so far, could never in a million years end well.

He went for Cerebus Syndrome.

Enough happens in the beginning of the story that it’s hard to know where to begin, but here goes: Kim discovers a satellite in low-earth orbit, and her “nostalgia” store (which uses a machine to “pull old events temporarily back into your short term memory”) is visited by time travelers (using ridiculously archaic slang, and in fact may ironically be the funniest thing to happen to the strip in its history) who Kim confronts about the satellite, sending them running. After attempting to call her friends about the incident, she encounters a massive robot, which she promptly obsesses over and takes to like a charm. The robot, which Kim names “Hob” (hence the name of the storyline), uses ridiculously advanced technology (including data stored on the molecular level, allowing virtually endless duplication) but doesn’t have any sort of memories whatsoever, and we learn the real reason for Kim’s “nostalgia” store: taking people’s memories as the baseline of an AI which Kim now intends to use Hob as a host body for.

At this moment the time travelers reveal themselves and have a sit-down with Kim over their situation; Kim deduces that they need Hob to return home, at which point the time travellers tell the history of their own time, in one of the most crowded-with-art strips (even by Dresden Codak standards) ever seen in webcomics. To make a long story short, by their time computer technology had grown so advanced “that we no longer had the capacity nor any real desire to understand our motherly caretaker”. As the “mother” expands, “transhumans” willfully lose their humanity to become essentially “mediator” cyborgs, intended to keep the “mother” in check, but even they soon are powerless to stop the “mother’s” ravenous appetite to assimilate, Borg-style, large chunks of the planet into its collective, until humanity fights a “last war” to stop the “mother’s” expansion. They succeed, but lose their sight in the process (possibly a metaphor) and the “mother” wipes its own memory, and thus the entire history of humanity. Thus, humanity has to pick up the pieces from whatever it can salvage from the “mother’s” technology.

From this Kim deduces that all the technology thus salvaged eventually evolves back into “mother” and the time travelers are out to “destroy it before it turns the entire planet into some kind of mechanical abomination”, but refuses to help them do so, deciding the promise of “revolutioniz[ing] human civilization within a decade” makes “the potential threat of global extinction… piddling by comparison”, at which point the time travelers reveal that the whole conversation has been little more than a diversion while the task at hand is completed and “if you insist on leaving… troubles will manifest”, at which point Kim’s friends Dmitri and Alina turn out to be a parody of the Wonder Twins. No, really.

The resulting battle is fairly hard to decipher, as Diaz’s art starts becoming even more impenetrable than before, but it appears that, as Hob starts “returning to its original form“, Dmitri and Alina help hold it in place while one of the time travellers destroys Hob for good, while Kim babbles about “if only they understood what they hated, they’d evolve too”. And it’s this that I want to talk about. To this point, it’s clear that Kim is the central figure in the story, but she’s a transhumanist who not only believes in the technological singularity, but in using technology to produce the future “evolution” of the human race. In a heated and telling debate with Dmitri after the battle, she indicates that she would have “let it” “wipe out the planet” because “it was the next paradigm shift” and when Dmitri warns that “you’re going to wipe out the human race” she responds “Good! All they ever do is die!

Someone who’s out to destroy the entire human race is seldom a sympathetic figure, if not an outright villain (and in fact Dmitri had earlier called Kim’s memory-stealing scheme “supervillain-level stuff”), and it’s somewhat jarring for Kim to be portrayed this way when she had heretofore been essentially an extention of Diaz and his own views. Yet almost immediately, Kim breaks down into a crying fit and is comforted by, of all things, one of the Hob-duplicates. (So far this doesn’t particularly seem to be a full-on descent into First and Ten Syndrome, if only because we learn so little about how everyone really feels to get any sense of whether or not the tone is any different from what’s come before.) It seems clear that Kim’s loathing of the human race is, to some extent, little more than the result of parental-abandonment issues, and that in fact we are to, if not sympathize with Kim, at least pity her. And that’s even more jarring.

Whether or not Kim is to be seen as the hero or the villain has perhaps more fundamental consequences as well, if we are to take a line of reasoning proposed by John Solomon (and trust me, I’ll have plenty to say about his site at a later date, and very little of it will be positive). Let’s take what we know about Kim’s character: She’s an aspiring scientist who subscribes to the incredibly nerdly philosophy of transhumanism, has problems emphasizing with other humans to the point of being willing to destroy humanity, and is generally more comfortable around computers than people. Oh, and she has huge boobs. In other words, a male nerd’s wet dream, especially one with their own issues getting along with humanity, perhaps with Asperger’s syndrome along for the ride. If it weren’t for her villainous tendencies Kim would border on Mary Sue-dom, which means if her seeming intent to destroy the human race is just dealing with the emotions of her mommy-wommy being deady-weady, she becomes little more than Diaz’s attempt to pander to a specific audience.

Anyway, the art becomes incomprehensible again at this point, as “time colonists” announce their intention to take over the planet from the satellites (during the meeting of the minds, the time travellers announce that “there are now three” even as they disavow any involvement) and our time traveller friends turn out to be the real villains – somehow – apparently involved in some scheme to transport their young people back to the future, or is it to take the people of today and move them to the future? And when Alina mentions Kimiko in passing, “Number Zero”, the time travellers’ real leader, recognizes that as the “mother”‘s “name… before the world changed”. The time travellers once again attempt to get through to Kim, who now claims “Hob computerizes matter without undermining biology. Whatever their intent was, the methods are harmless!” And then the time travellers set off an explosion, and then I can’t even tell what happens after that. Apparently Kim drags the incapacitated Dmitri and Alina behind her while leaping… somewhere? And then there’s a bunch of firing, and then Hob starts enunciating “mediator”, and Kim gets hit with something, and… Diaz probably learned the old canard “show don’t tell”, but when the “showing” is crammed into such small spaces, you might want to throw us a bone to allow us to figure out what, exactly, we’re being shown.

Even what appears to be an interesting flashback to Kim’s childhood, comprehensible enough to provoke a response out of Robert A. “Tangents” Howard at the time (which I’m not linking to for various reasons), gets derailed by a random montage. And then there’s a… journey into Hob‘s mind and Kim‘s invasion of it? And is Kim now defending humanity in this sketch? And then Kim comes out of some sort of… butterfly… thing? And what was the point of the last three comics? However incomprehensible Dresden Codak once was, it’s downright straightforward compared with what the Hob storyline has seen recently. I’m sure there’s a decent storyline lurking here, which could be told by someone more competent at writing and panel structure, and in not just showing a lot, but showing smart.

Right now Dresden Codak is on a bit of an indefinite hiatus, a casualty of injury and computer damage, but you might be pardoned for not being able to tell the difference. Twice in the Hob storyline Diaz promised weekly updates. “A new comic every Monday,” he promises, even going so far as to quit his job, after early strips in the storyline were separated by a month or more. After roughly gaps of a week and a half before each of the next two comics, each accompanied by apologies, the date on #44 (Hob #13) is 12/1/07. The next strip is 12/17/07, with no apology for lateness, implying Diaz is already letting his schedule go to pot. Then 1/7/08. In the annotation for Hob #13, Diaz explains “Christmas sales rush plus other business strains threw off my schedule,” so the former is no longer an excuse. The next strip is 1/26/08, 19 days later, so still far from a weekly schedule.

The strip after that is dated 3/2/08.

Diaz explains that he “had the flu and then recovered just in time to move” and promises faster updates, and the next update is dated 3/16, which does seem to be faster, then 4/5, then 5/2. Then, after promising an update “in a few days”, the next strip is dated 5/18. Then 6/7, then 7/1 with not even an explanation. Keep in mind that all these updates I’ve looked at came after Diaz promised weekly updates, yet he’s pretty much never been able to deliver better than a twice-monthly schedule, and his repeated promises of quicker updating since then have never really delivered on their promises.

Solomon attacks Diaz for deciding to make his webcomic his job and promptly falling off the face of the earth, accusing him of “getting paid to do as little work as he possibly can”, but this lack of updating, near as I can tell (as someone more willing to give Diaz the benefit of the doubt), is really a direct consequence of having to make such detailed art in his strips. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how many corners he decides to cut, it still takes him two weeks to produce a single page, especially since the art has grown more complicated as it’s standardized. He spends two weeks per strip painstakingly drawing intense, sprawling landscapes and it all ends up being damn near impenetrable to read anything into and in the service of a story that seems lacking.

It makes me wonder if Diaz is in the wrong medium, or not only should have never delved into Cerebus Syndrome, but should have stopped trying to tell multi-panel stories entirely. The popularity of comics like Order of the Stick, xkcd, and countless others shows that a lack of art is hardly a barrier to success in webcomics. It’s often said that what OOTS and its ilk prove is that bad art can be saved by a good story. But in Dresden Codak, it doesn’t matter how good the story is because good art is so detrimental to the strip’s quality the mere presence of a continuing story only makes it worse.

This is not meant to be a stubborn creator of an art-free comic dismissing the “cool kids” as not really “hep” to my obviously-superior way of thinking. In fact, admittedly, DC‘s problem isn’t really so much that its art is good as that it’s cluttered – but the fact that it’s good means it takes a long time to produce, and on the Web, the longer the time between updates the more ignorable you are (and as I’ve said before, the greater the penalty for missed updates). This is meant to point out something that I’m a trifle surprised isn’t obvious: people do not read webcomics to look at the pretty pictures. In fact, people don’t read newspaper comic strips to look at the pretty pictures. The defining feature of Peanuts, GarfieldDilbert, and quite a few others is the sheer simplicity of their art (Dilbert‘s creator has at times gone so far as to be very self-depreciating about his art abilities). If people wanted to look at pretty pictures they’d go to the art museum, or the art museum’s web site. People read comics to read a story, or at least a funny joke, and the pictures exist only insofar as they help tell the story. That’s all they need to do, and the quality of that art has little or nothing to do with it.

Yes, you can’t tell as many stories with Dinosaur Comics or Sandsday as you can with a more flexible art style, but there’s little to say that if I really wanted to, I couldn’t use the Sandsday art style, with next to no improvement over the status quo, to tell more complex stories. Yes, you can better differentiate between characters if you’re not using Order of the Stick-style (or heaven forbid, xkcd-style) stick figures, but I find it hard to believe Tim Buckley couldn’t create as many different characters as he wanted in the Ctrl+Alt+Del art style. So long as the art style you’re using allows you to create as much diversity in your cast (and in what you portray) as you desire, and so long as it isn’t so bad that it’s an active turn-off (or serves to obfuscate what you’re trying to say), your strip will live or die on your story and your jokes, and despite the claims of some critics to the contrary, your art style will have little to do with it. You may want to adjust your art style to help become part of the message or mood your strip is trying to send, but beyond that go with the art style you’re capable of that will keep your story comprehensible to the reader and that will allow you to keep a regular schedule. Dresden Codak shows what happens when you focus too much on the quality of your art and suggests that perhaps webcomics are a medium that works best when the art is simplified and doesn’t try too hard to be a museum piece.

On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by Diaz’s everyone-is-really-immortal hypothesis.

No, this isn’t because David Morgan-Mar always comments whenever I post about one of his strips.

(From Darths and Droids. Click for full-sized pawns.)

I’ve talked before about Darths and Droids, and on both those occasions I mentioned that I found it a superior strip to the one that inspired it, DM of the Rings. But I don’t think I’ve done the distinction between the two justice.

You know how sometimes, a company will come along and become the pioneer in some new field, and possibly popularize it to the general public, but a second company will become more famous, expose the true potential of the field, and become virtually synonymous with that field? It’s similar to how I described Irregular Webcomic! as a pioneer but not the definitive multi-webcomic. Atari virtually invented the video game console as we know it today, but self-destructed along with the rest of the video game market in the 80s, allowing Nintendo to define video games for my generation. Netscape brought the Internet to the masses but everyone uses Internet Explorer now. Lycos and Yahoo made search engines popular with the general public but only Google managed to turn itself into a verb. Bob and George didn’t invent the sprite comic, but did inspire most of the others, including 8-Bit Theater, which truly transcended its origins to create a strong comic in its own right (it is no insult to call 8BT a poor man’s Order of the Stick). And so on.

Well, DM of the Rings is the Atari to Darths and Droids’ Nintendo, which is odd because it means Darths and Droids is in the opposite role as Irregular Webcomic! DM of the Rings asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Lord of the Rings were an RPG campaign?” That was really the extent of what it was trying to do. Not only is the DM a railroader, but as much as I hate to say this, the characters make Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s characterization seem deep. Through the first 70 strips I think we know the names of two of the players, and one of them, Dave, plays Frodo and leaves less than midway through the whole strip’s run. But even all of that pales in comparison to DMotR‘s real problem:

DM of the Rings was a comic about a role-playing game.

Darths and Droids is a comic about Star Wars.

The funny thing is, it’s also still about a role-playing game, which is the beauty of it. The conceit of DM of the Rings was that Lord of the Rings still existed in that universe, it’s just that, somehow, the DM was the only one in the group to have heard of it. Darths and Droids literally is Star Wars as played by a group of role-players. Whereas DMotR used the Lord of the Rings plot as a backdrop for wacky hijinks and commentary on Things You Experience When Playing Role-Playing Games, Darths and Droids appropriates the Star Wars plot as its own, while also containing its own metaplot involving the gamers playing the characters. Just look at how often the DM of the former is interrupted or talked over by the players, with the result that we don’t get to know Gandalf anywhere near enough to know why the players hate him so. If the LOTR trappings were removed from DM of the Rings, it wouldn’t be much different, which suggests the LOTR setting is little more than a gimmick. It’d be hard to imagine Darths and Droids without the Star Wars trappings.

As DM of the Rings became popular, and flaring up again closer to the end, people flooded Shamus Young’s inbox with calls for him to skewer other popular movie or book franchises. As it was winding down, Young wondered why, with how popular DMotR was, no one else had decided to marry movies and RPGs in a biting satire. One of his fans suggested that the reason why was that it was rare for the kind of person who wanted to spoof popular culture to coincide with the kind of person willing to put in massive amounts of effort into creating a webcomic.

That discussion prompted Morgan-Mar to create Darths and Droids, and now that we’ve seen it, I can’t help but wonder if the real reason was twofold. First, because DMotR was more about role-playing games than about Lord of the Rings per se, there wasn’t much left to skewer; DMotR had done it all. Second, DMotR made the concept look juvenile, and a potential sure sign of a sub-par webcomic. If the person willing to “spend time and effort making a high-quality webcomic” rarely coincided with the person wanting to spoof Star Wars, it was because a comic spoofing Star Wars not only looked like it was hardly going to be high quality, it exposed that person to potential legal threats. After all, webcomicdom is a haven of geekdom.

Darths and Droids starts out remarkably like DM of the Rings, with complaining players trying to figure out the GM’s dense plot. The major difference, as becomes apparent early on, is that the game world is largely made up by the players on the fly, with the GM constantly having to revise and make contingency plans to fit in everything the players try to do, rather than force them to do what he intended as the DMotR DM would. But a difference just as profound but not nearly as played up is that (unlike in DMotR) there is a difference between the players themselves. Jim is the wacky, aggressive, offensive one, while Ben is the smart, calm, collected straight man who has to deal with Jim’s wackiness, which often involves coming up with more sensible explanations for Jim’s actions. Still, the two of them together aren’t much different from the players in DM of the Rings, constantly nitpicking the science (Obi-Wan/Ben), going into foolhardy charges (Qui-Gon/Jim), and thinking up ways to outsmart the GM (both, but especially Obi-Wan).

Things change virtually the instant Sally is introduced and plugged into the role of Jar-Jar Binks. The Comic Irregulars have explained that one of their chief goals was to make Jar-Jar likable, and well, you’d certainly never tell a 9-year-old she needs to be blown out the airlock. More to the point, Sally brings a perspective not only on this game, but on all of roleplaying, that was sorely absent from DM of the Rings. Sally is being brought into the game solely to keep her amused while Ben is ostensibly babysitting her. In most of her early appearances, the GM and the players spend a good amount of their time easing her into the game. Eventually she gets into the hang of the game more, but never loses her childlike innocence.

But in a development of more importance to the strip itself, Sally has the imagination of a 9-year-old, and so allows the Comic Irregulars a place to attribute all the more outre and ridiculous – in short, Lucased up – elements of the Star Wars movies, with the additional justification that the players and GM don’t want to make her cry, so they run with her ridiculousness. Jar-Jar? Sally. An elected 14-year-old queen? Sally. An underwater path straight through the core of Naboo? Sally. I can’t help but wonder if Sally will stick around for the rest of the prequel trilogy, disappear for A New Hope and Empire, and somehow get shoehorned into Return of the Jedi to bring us the Ewoks.

I talked before about the introduction of Darths and Droids’ other non-traditional player, Annie, but I want to reiterate the broader importance of her playing Anakin. Darths and Droids has had, at least since Sally’s introduction, some form of master plot (the Comic Irregulars integrate the players’ quest for the “Lost Orb of Phantastacoria” so seamlessly with the movie’s plot you find it hard to believe they just made it up if you’re not familiar with the movie) and subplots (Jim is convinced that Sio Bibble is a traitor in the making, mostly because of his goatee, so naturally he probably finds Senator Palpatine completely trustworthy), not to mention relationships with and between the players, all of which is completely absent from DM of the Rings and the latter of which is impossible without Darths and Droids’ differentiated, rich characterization. But Anakin’s development not only looks to have a profound impact within the game world, it could have profound impact with the players as well, as the GM and the players try to figure out what to do with a player who’s hijacking the game for her own tragic story.

Darths and Droids has a bunch of elements that DM of the Rings does not. A tolerant GM (perhaps excessively so). A GM and NPCs that aren’t overshadowed by the players. Differences between the characters that go beyond “are you sure Legolas isn’t a hot chick?” A grand, overarching, real plot. Subplots upon subplots. Real integration within its milieu. Sally. Annie. In short, Darths and Droids has taken the interesting concept Shamus Young thought of, and ran with it as far as they could make it go, creating a pretty darn interesting webcomic in the process. No surprise, then, that it’s attracted a collection of devoted fans, no small portion of which is probably crossover audience from Irregular Webcomic!, with most of the rest coming over from DM of the Rings. But especially as it goes on, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a large contingent of fans with connections to neither strip, mostly from Star Wars fandom, who can’t help but wonder what Annie does to Anakin, how the players put up with that, what the players end up doing as they are forced to switch characters between movies, and so on and so forth.

And who knows? Maybe it’ll even spawn a horde of imitators.

Now for a strip so bland I can’t even think of a title for this post.

(From xkcd. Click for full-sized reassurance.)

I think I’m regretting choosing this strip for this week’s webcomic post.

xkcd is damn near impossible to encapsulate in a single sentence. That’s because, much like Irregular Webcomic, it often feels like several webcomics rolled into one. It bills itself as “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”, and that can often seem to be the best way to put it. Some strips are almost like visual love letters, majestic tributes to passion and love. Some strips expose just how little Randall Munroe has grown up and how much he still wants to hang on to his childhood. Some strips are (or at least used to be) ridiculously obscure math jokes. Some strips seem like political cartoons applied to Internet culture. Some strips are almost visual Twitters or blog posts. And then, of course, some strips are meme factories. Oh, are they meme factories.

The whole thing can feel like a bunch of disconnected randomness, which is in keeping with its origin as a place for Randall Munroe to post his sketchbook drawings on the Web. Not only is there no continuity (except for a few occasional arcs and themes), there are no real characters at all; there are a few distinct personas that can be identified, such as the “Black Hat Guy”, but every strip (or arc) exists on its own, isolated from everything else. xkcd can perhaps best be compared to a “thought of the day”; every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, there’s something new to make you think.

So it’s harmless enough, and it’s thought-provoking and occasionally even funny. The problem is… well… I’m not sure what to make of it.

It gets a bad rap for making obscure math jokes (which hasn’t really been a problem for a while, I find, which probably says more about me than it does about xkcd), but it’s still very much targeted to a specific well-educated nerd demographic. In fact, this probably accounts for much of its broader popularity; it makes a number of strips tightly wound in with programming, and the people in those sorts of jobs are probably the largest group with the deepest immersion in the Internet. I mean, they’re in all the various sites that could conceivably be used for networking.

The problem is, Munroe has subsequently broadened his webcomic’s appeal in response to this broader audience, but he hasn’t completely forgotten his roots – and the result isn’t entirely successful. I originally wrote this post with a note saying that from now on I needed a two-week buffer to decide on a webcomic to post on, and I’m still going to take a look at another webcomic blog next week, and may spend the following three weeks on strips I’m already familiar with. Then today’s strip came out, and I realized the reason I didn’t have much to say on xkcd wasn’t because I hadn’t gone through the experience of opening up the day’s strip, it was because… I didn’t have much to say on xkcd.

Like I said, xkcd is a perfectly servicable little webcomic, but there’s nothing in it that makes me feel anything in particular whatsoever. That it doesn’t compel me to read it every time it updates the way Order of the Stick does may be damning in and of itself, or it may betray a personal bias towards story-based comics. (Or, depending on your point of view, it may expose my lack of qualifications for reviewing webcomics. After all, I like Ctrl+Alt+Del. What do I know?) But it’s not impossible for a gag strip to pull me in simply because it’s knock-your-socks-off funny every time it updates. Eric Burns has identified that being funny may be a more important prerequisite to getting a webcomic off the ground than having a compelling story, because on some level, everyone identifies with humor, but not everyone wants continuity in their Internet entertainment.

Well, xkcd isn’t consistently funny. There, I said it. Oh, it has flashes of brilliance, but… even they aren’t as funny as even Ctrl+Alt+Del can be at its funniest. It’s almost more Funny Peculiar than Funny Ha-Ha. The recent “MacGyver Gets Lazy” strip is about as funny as xkcd tends to get these days. xkcd used to be funny, back when most of its humor was only comprehensible to math majors, but it’s clear that Munroe is out of his element trying to speak to non-nerds.

Humor and story are the two biggest tools a webcomiceer could have for bringing in readers. Munroe used to have humor but no story; now he has neither. He brings the Saccharine, and the Romance, but he doesn’t bring the Funny, in Burns’ vernacular. The result is that xkcd tends to be very sentimental when it’s not steamy, but it’s rarely funny (so says the Department of Redundancy Department), so it tends to play to its existing audience, occasionally propping up its flagging popularity by churning out another meme for the Internet to go ga-ga over, such as its recent “xkcd loves the Discovery Channel” strip.

I don’t hate xkcd. And I’d be an idiot to slam it for its art style, not only considering that I “draw” a minimalist webcomic myself, but that I exonerated Ctrl+Alt+Del for its artistic failings last week, claiming among other things that “art doesn’t matter”. I’m of the opinion that you should actually be suspicious of a webcomic with good art, because if it’s trying to be nice to look at it may be trying to distract you from its lack of substance (see: Dresden Codak). But it feels kind of bland to me, a vanilla webcomic, for lack of a better term. The featureless stick-figure art isn’t so much a problem in itself as it is emblematic of a general ethos, one where a bunch of little things happen and add up to nothing in particular.

xkcd isn’t a bad webcomic. It can be great at times. But it doesn’t give me any reason to commit to it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s almost the very definition of mediocrity.

At one point, I almost mistyped “Ethan” as “Elan”. I really do have Order of the Stick on the brain.

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized decimation.)

Webcomics community? We need to have a talk. It’s about Ctrl+Alt+Del.

In case you don’t know, CAD is the strip virtually everyone on the Internet loves to hate. To read most of the commentary on it, Tim Buckley can’t draw, can’t write to save his life, is the biggest a-hole in the history of the Internet, burn it with fire so the purification of America can begin, yada yada yada.

In particular, the Internet recently broke to pieces over Buckley’s miscarriage storyline, which caused even CAD‘s few defenders to freak out. For them, this was an unacceptable sojourn into angsty drama, one from which only unspeakable crap can come. For the strip’s existing detractors, this seems only to be vindication, a sign that the unexplainable mass of fans surrounding the strip may finally be seeing the light. And it’s caused a whole new round of soul-searching surrounding Buckley’s strip and Buckley himself.

Well, I’ve just completed a thorough read-through of the entire CAD archives, and I feel that I’m in a position to make an informed judgment of the strip’s quality.

Drum roll please:

Ctrl+Alt+Del… is not the spawn of Satan.

I know, shocking, isn’t it?

But it’s true. In fact, Ctrl+Alt+Del is good enough that it is joining the rarified air and hallowed halls of the “webcomics” section of IE7’s RSS reader, alongside only Darths and Droids and Order of the Stick. That’s something that can’t be said for the dean of gaming webcomics, Penny Arcade. And trust me, I’ve tried to get into Penny Arcade.

(UPDATE: Okay, CAD isn’t joining the RSS reader until it learns how to separate its news posts and its comic posts into separate feeds. But that’s part of the reason it’s popular: I can decide to hold off on that decision, because CAD updates so regularly.)

Now, I’m not saying Buckley doesn’t have problems he needs to work on. He does occasionally need to learn where the joke is and move it to the final panel, and if he has more than one joke he might want to consider putting them in more than one strip. At least some of the time, he does it right (warning, possibly NSFW), even if only by accident, and besides, it should be excusable to have a joke in an early panel if you have a sufficient punchline in the final panel. And some strips are funny despite violating that rule entirely. (And yes, Ctrl+Alt+Del is sometimes actually funny!) And he does tend a little too much towards being violent. And some of the jokes (like the one above) are really obvious and have been done to death already. And it is a little jarring to wonder why Ethan is even considering getting married and having children when he’s such a manchild (it’s just a webcomic, you should really just relax). And Ethan in general seems a bit too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but then again it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy common among gamers. And the dialogue balloons tend to be arranged in nonintuitive ways. The Western eye is trained to read left-to-right before up-and-down, and Buckley’s tendency to reverse that order can make his wordier panels challenging to read. And he can be wordy.

(Okay, maybe I’m damning with faint praise. As for the charge that Buckley’s characters are one-dimensional, I doubt I would be the best judge of that, but I suspect it’s a little unfair. Okay, back to damning with faint praise.)

And the artwork needs work too, but he’s certainly a far better artist than, say, me. He tends to overuse the expression at the left, which essentially looks like someone being bored but has been known to be used for several other emotions as well, especially earlier in the strip’s history, creating a jarring disconnect. (Buckley seems to take this in stride, using that same expression or variants of it for every picture accompanying every profile on the cast page, with a couple of exceptions. Of course, some detractors see that face in every single expression Buckley draws, so maybe that isn’t so good of a characterization, but still, Player 3 is the only one with his mouth closed, and of the others that have mouths at all, Chef Brian is the most different from the others.) And he has been known to use shortcuts at times, such as using images as backgrounds. But honestly, take the former away and the artwork (which has much improved from the earliest strips, which make the current strips look like Rembrandt) isn’t that different from that of Penny Arcade. Which I’m sure CAD‘s detractors will say is evidence that Buckley is ripping off his art style from PA.

Besides, when you’re a humor webcomic like CAD is, art is overrated. As long as there’s enough that’s intelligible to get the joke across, you can throw some palettes of paint on a wall and call it a webcomic if the jokes are funny enough. People have noticed that Buckley, like Rich Burlew, is a better artist than his strip lets on, yet instead of figuring out that maybe Buckley’s style might be an intentional design choice, they attack him for not carrying over his “better” art over to his populist comic strip.

You have to wonder what Buckley did to get so devotedly vitriolic enemies. Did they see early critics end up verbally abused or even censored by the famously abrasive Buckley and turn their subsequent opinions of the man into opinions of the strip? Did they see his characters willingly use Microsoft products and fail to bow at the altar of Apple and Linux and go all “lol microsoft sux windows sux this guy sux micros**t competitors are teh r0xx0r5!!!!!111!111!!!eleven!”? Or did they look at Ctrl+Alt+Del, think “I could do that!”, and then, when their strip failed to reach Ctrl+Alt+Del levels of popularity, think, “How come that strip is so popular and mine isn’t? No strip could possibly be better than mine! Ctrl+Alt+Del must suck and I must correct these dear misguided and deluded souls who won’t recognize my brilliance!” So they come up with, honestly, fairly feeble criticisms. “Umm… it doesn’t follow the normal rules for jokes! Uhh… he’s too wordy! Umm… he reuses images of characters! Uhh…” For all that its many enemies attack it for, there must be some reason why it’s so mind-numbingly popular despite all of it, other than that its fans are all brain-dead sycophants.

I suspect many of these critics may be falling prey to a very common misconception. It’s a misconception so common that even many of his fans may fall prey to it, but Buckley himself seems to have some grasp on it. (By contrast, my theory on Irregular Webcomic! hadn’t even occured to its author when I proposed it.) So let me set the record straight right now:

Ctrl+Alt+Del is not a gaming webcomic.

Yes, Ctrl+Alt+Del – a strip named for the command to bring up the Task Manager and reboot in Windows, whose lead character’s devotion to video games borders on addiction, whose two main characters both have jobs selling electronics, whose principal female character is that (supposed) rarity of rarities – a woman who plays video games – a strip that created the gamer-centric “holiday” of Winter-een-mas, that occasionally features four numerically named and color-coded “players”, and that frequently features strips set entirely within a game’s milieu – is not a gaming webcomic.

All of those things are important aspects of the strip, but CAD‘s real core – and, at least in my case and so far as I suspect, the reason I’m adding it to my webcomics list – lies in its characters and relationships. It lies in the relationship between Ethan and Lilah and between Lucas and Kate. It also lies in the friendship between Ethan and Lucas and Ethan’s occasionally tense relationship with Zeke. It lies in wondering what wacky thing Ethan will do next and whether Lucas will find it in him to truly love Kate and what wackiness will Zeke cause next and what punks will get their much-deserved comeuppance and what wackiness will Chef Brian bring us this time around and just what is Scott doing behind that metal electrified door anyway?!?

And this extends even to the game joke strips. It turns out there’s a method to Buckley’s madness, a reason why he misplaces the punchline, overexplains the punchline, overrelies on violence, and does obvious jokes. Unlike almost every other gaming webcomic on the Internet, Buckley is writing, at least in part, for non-gamers. One of CAD’s detractors is Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, who has gained some level of Internet fame with his Zero Punctuation video game review series (about which I will have more to say later in the week). In February, he expanded on his hatred of CAD on a post on his blog (scroll down to “You Cad” and remind me to change the link to the archive page later). In it, he contrasted this Penny Arcade with this Ctrl+Alt+Del.

Both comics identify the humour in the situation – that the rules of a game world seem absurd when applied to the real world – but while Penny Arcade understands that the crux of a joke should be reserved for the final panel, Ctrl-Alt-Del is apparently so excited about the idea that it blurts it out right away, leaving three more panels to flounder in excessive dialogue and pointlessness.

A punchline should be equated to an actual punch in the face. That’s why it’s called a punch-line. You deliver it and run. You do not hang around explaining how you did the punch and that the recipient should probably be in a lot of pain now.

Identify the funny part of the idea and save it for last. Leave with the audience laughing. If you do nothing else, finish strong. That’s a rule any humourist will agree with. But with the centrepoint of the gag already uselessly spent, Buckley’s comic is forced to fall upon its old standby of violence as a sort of prosthetic punchline. Now, violence can certainly be funny, modern cinema was virtually built on the tradition of slapstick, but it doesn’t work in static, non-animated media. There is humour to be found in shock value, but most people have been on the internet long enough to not be shocked by anything as mundane as a claymore through the sweetbreads.
But even if the joke were structured properly, there is still far too much dialogue. This is a problem common to a lot of webcomics, but since we’re already in the CAD-bashing groove we’ll stick with it. Shakespeare wrote that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. He did not then add ‘unless you’re writing a webcomic’. It applies to everything, and don’t tell me you’re arrogant enough to claim to know better than Shakespeare.

But recently (for a reason I’ll get to in a bit), one person came along and decided that, to the extent either was funny, CAD was funnier.

For those who have no idea that Penny Arcade is a gaming comic or is not exactly up on all of the stupid games out there, or is aware of such things but does not give two shits, the Penny Arcade strip is a total non-sequitur. Is this supposed to be funny? Because it isn’t, you know. It assumes a level of familiarity that if it’s not there, it simply does not work on any level. (Personally, I still think the timing or whatever is way off on the damned thing even if you are familiar with Puzzle Quest, but I bitched about that already)

The Ctrl+Alt+Del one, on the other hand, does not make knowledge of the game a prerequisite to get the humor. In fact, it kind of explains it a bit so I have a slightly better understanding on what the fuck is going on.

Over-explaining the joke makes the strip accessible to people who aren’t gamers. The same strip done by a “better” gaming comic would be damn near incomprehensible. It should be noted that I side with Croshaw on this one – I find the PA version funnier, and I do find it funny, and I’m not even necessarily familiar with the game in question, and I don’t think I say that just because CAD and Croshaw explained the punchline for me – and I suspect the best way to make this joke would be to split the first panel of CAD into three to four panels.

Maybe that’s what I should do with Sandsday: fix CAD jokes that aren’t perfect but contain at least the germ of a good idea.

On that note, let’s move to the ongoing miscarriage arc.

One of Eric Burns’ most obvious contributions to webcomics criticism is the term “Cerebus Syndrome”, which he describes like this:

The effort to create character development by adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension (or meant to be a joke character) and making them fuller and richer. The idea is to take what was fun on one level and showing the reality beneath it. ‘Cerebus Syndrome’ refers to Dave Sim’s epic, sometimes tragically flawed magnum opus, Cerebus the Aardvark. Cerebus started life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian starring an Earth-Pig born. Over time, it grew extremely complex, philosophical, and in many ways much much funnier. Then, Dave Sim went batshit crazy and Cerebus went straight to Hell, but that’s for another day. People saw how Cerebus’s humble roots could lead to glorious heights, and as cartoonists get bored with what they’re doing, they decided to pull a Cerebus of their own. […]

Please note that one can continue to bring the Funny while going for Cerebus Syndrome — and in fact, probably should. It is far more common to drop the Funny….Note also that not all strips that bring heavy Story, mix humorous and serious elements, and have bad things happen to their characters are undergoing Cerebus Syndrome. It’s only those strips that began on a very light, even limited dimension level and then transform into something different that really shoot for the Cerebus Syndrome.

It takes a strong hand to successfully pull off Cerebus Syndrome, and the successes are few. Order of the Stick managed it (and I’ll have more on it at a later date). So did Bob and George and El Goonish Shive. Sluggy Freelance was one of the first, serving as the model for later ones. But Rich Burlew, Dan Shive, and Pete Abrams are all undisputed masters of the medium (or at least skilled storytellers), and if Dave Anez doesn’t quite fall into that category, it’s still telling that his fans might be surprised to hear that Bob and George went into Cerebus Syndrome – after all, it was laugh-out-loud to the end. (And the exclusion of Anez from that group isn’t meant to demean him – I’ve been known to go on addictive archive binges of B&G strips.) When a strip doesn’t succeed, the results can be grisly, and it becomes something else entirely, which Burns calls “First and Ten Syndrome”, after a now-obscure HBO show:

A strip falls into First and Ten Syndrome when they take a shot at Cerebus Syndrome and miss. Rather than be a mix of the Funny and the Story with much better developed characters and more of a sense of reality, the strips fall into a suckfest of angst and misery, with bad things happening to characters we like and all sense of fun beaten out with a stick. While webcomics that fall into First and Ten can continue to have good — even great — moments, it’s an exercise in masochism to find them.

For many, the miscarriage arc represented Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s headlong plunge into First and Ten Syndrome. And there is much to object to about it; it was excessively angsty at its height and played out too much like a “very special episode” of some 80s sitcom, it was transparently a way to get out of the seeming contradiction of Ethan having to deal with the tremendous responsibility of being a father (and thus the whole episode was seen by detractors as evidence of Buckley’s general unwillingness to let his characters change and shake up the status quo), but mostly, the main objection to it was that, as Burns would put it, Buckley didn’t continue to bring the Funny (an error amplified by the jarringly gag-based preceding and following strips and the general suddenness of the seriousness). But as Croshaw points out (and remember, he’s one of the strip’s detractors), Buckley probably shouldn’t have made it too humorous if he was going to do the arc at all:

You’re established as a wacky humor comic, so this is going to mean an awkward tonal shift at best, and hugely disrespectful [sic] to the subject matter at worst. Your most hardcore supporters will feebly attempt to go along with you about this, smiling nervously at each other as they would around a mentally unstable friend with a shilleagh, but mean-spirited embittered c**ks are going to call you out on it.

It’s also worth noting that Ctrl+Alt+Del has itself already gone through Cerebus Syndrome and succeeded, transcending the standard “two gamers with a couch” strip (which it lampooned from the very beginning) into the complex relationship-driven strip I talked about earlier. So we know Buckley can handle the transition as well as Burlew, Shive, or Abrams. Of course he’s stumbled here, but all indications are that he’s learned his lesson, as recent strips have managed to balance the gravity of the situation with enough humor to lighten the mood, without being offensive. (Well, without being more offensive than CAD‘s very existence is to some people.)

It’s still very possible that this is the start of CAD‘s mad descent into First and Ten Syndrome, and if the coming months see Lucas and Kate (or worse, Ethan and Lilah) break up over a misunderstanding worthy of Three’s Company (or worse, Kate turning out to be pregnant out of the blue), Ethan and Lucas getting fired from their respective jobs (or worse, their respective businesses going out of business), Lilah losing her competitive gaming cred for whatever reason (for example, losing her partner and needing to replace him with Ethan when it’s been established that Lilah’s leetness is at its best when she’s angry at Ethan for whatever reason, which given Ethan’s idiocy is never hard), Ethan or Lilah running at the altar for no discernable reason, Zeke declaring war on humanity (again) or discovering his inner humanity, everyone getting evicted from the house, and/or major characters dying for whatever reason, especially if there aren’t any jokes anymore and even the Players start angsting like hell (if they even keep appearing), I won’t hesitate to join the march of ex-CAD fans marching out the door. I may even borrow a phrase from Burns and say “you had me, and you lost me”, which might be the quickest transition from joining a webcomic to uttering that phrase ever.

But for the moment, it’s important to remember that the miscarriage arc is still ongoing, and Buckley still has a chance to salvage something from it. So for now, I’m willing to see what he will salvage and give him a second chance to keep delivering one of the most popular webcomics on the Internet. (Even if his forums currently contain forums for links, CAD-related projects, translations of CAD strips, chances for fans to post their own efforts at writing and art, and gaming discussion boards, but not discussion of the strip itself.)

And I won’t let the irrational hatred some have for it stop me.

If that makes me naive, well, let me be naive then.
(Why do I have a feeling this won’t be the last I have to say about CAD even within the week?)

Sticks and stones

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized rules. Oh, and spoilers.)

I know I promised to write this “later in the week” on the Irregular Webcomic post. I’ve been looking for a good time to sit down, with a fairly consistent Internet connection for cross-reference purposes, and make sure I said what I really wanted to say.

Which is this:

The Order of the Stick is the best damn webcomic on the entire Internet, bar none.

Now have a look at the thumbnail to the right, and have a look at the first comic or two. It’s a bunch of stick figures (hence the name – admittedly FAR superior to anything I could produce, even in the first strip) making lame and obscure Dungeons and Dragons jokes. How the hell is this the best webcomic on the Internet? Has Mr. Wick lost his bleeping mind?!?

(Or is he just an incredible geek? We can rule that out, at least in the way you’re thinking, because as I said before, I’m not a D&D player. Stay with me here.)

Well, first, don’t judge it by its first few strips. It Gets Better. I promise.

Well, actually, I’ll give a few details: First, the titular party was given a backstory, and while it may appear terribly generic – the party is adventuring through a dungeon run by a mad lich, on a quest to kill said lich – it actually contains hints several key elements for later strips. (Including the fact that it is not terribly accurate when it says the dungeon was “created” by said lich.)

Then, far from simply treating the lich Xykon as some abstract enemy sketchily described just enough to provide motivation for the Order’s actions, we actually got to see him plot strategy, and have a look at some of his closest minions. Then we got to see him plot again. And again. And we started to see not only Xykon, but also his minions, get a significant amount of character.

Then the Order encountered their own evil counterparts and engaged in a lengthy combined adventure-turned-predictable-betrayal-and-battle with them.

Then the Order defeated Xykon and destroyed his dungeon.

No, really.

Keep in mind, this all occured within the first 120 strips. The panel above is from strip number 572. How on Earth did The Order of the Stick manage to keep going after overturning virtually its entire premise and effectively ending the story?

Well, first, it wasn’t the end. Xykon turned out not to be dead after all (he was, after all, undead to start with), and the act of destroying the dungeon caused the Order to run afoul of a feudal-Japan-cariacture nation – apparently the dungeon housed a gate that was holding back a creature of chaos that would destroy the universe if he was unleashed.

But that only hints at the large, complex story to spin from this inauspicious beginning. I haven’t read any of the book collections or prequels with accompanying commentary, but my impression and my theory is that Rich Burlew never at any point intended to stick with the strip he started with, but was using it as a backdoor to get an audience for the story he really wanted to tell.

You’ll notice I haven’t spoilered anything about any of that description (though there is a spoiler for the rest of this post). That’s because, with the exception of most of the statement about the Japan-cariacture nation, it’s all backstory. There’s a concept in literary criticism of the “inciting moment” (I’ve also seen it called the “trigger event” – that event, either before, during, or after the start of the telling of the story, that sets in motion all the events in the story that follows. If it comes some time into the telling of the story (and it usually does), all that comes before is just exposition. Well, The Order of the Stick‘s inciting moment is Elan’s pressing of the proverbial “do not touch” button – destroying not only the Dungeon of Dorukan (and thus running afoul of said Japan-cariacture nation, from which they learn of – and are tasked to stop – Xykon’s bigger plot), but also virtually the entire concept the comic had followed to that point. The entire first 120 strips – an entire book collection unto itself – is nothing more than backstory for the story that follows, and shares little in common with it to boot. Although OOTS would continue with a funny, joking, independent spirit for some time, it was no longer even approaching a gag-a-day strip, and even then the build to its dramatic shift in focus was well underway for most of it.

That story is a big part of its appeal. In a recent strip, one of the peanut-gallery demon-roaches that litter and make asides in the strips featuring Xykon and his minions (dubbed “Team Evil” by the fans – Xykon and company, not the roaches) makes references to (at least!) nine sides in the ongoing conflict. His partner yells “Ssh! They don’t know about some of those yet!”, which would imply a maximum of seven sides known to whoever he was referring to – but it’s hard to limit the number of known-to-us sides to just seven. I can think of four right off the bat (the OOTS, Team Evil, the aforementioned Linear Guild of evil counterparts that only has three permanent members, and an impending split within Team Evil), and that’s before considering the remnants of the Japan-counterpart nation, or the noble who wants to usurp the throne of said nation, or the people’s resistance to Team Evil’s rule of said nation, or or or… and then you consider that the OOTS itself is split up at the moment, that the resistance consisted of three bickering factions until recently, and the gods have their own agendas, and it’s been hinted that Sabine’s bosses have agendas of their own, and what about whatever surviving members of the OOTS’ predecessor group there might be still floating around out there, and there are individuals that have made a smattering of appearances (or even just been referred to once) that might potentially have their say, and and and…

It all adds up to a rich, complex maze of political intrigue that keeps people waiting with baited breath for each update to find out what wacky turn the strip will take this time. Throw in all sorts of hints, prophecies, potential plot turns, and subplot upon subplot upon subplot and you have a story with as much depth and intrigue as any soap opera. It’s like Lost without the confusing bits and red herrings.

Or the dead seriousness, because as great as all of that is, it could, by itself, be as much of a turn-off as a feature. But despite being laden with mounds of plot and seriousness, The Order of the Stick remains as funny and vibrant as it was in its earliest days; it’s incredibly self-aware and full of metahumor, not only about Dungeons and Dragons but of the very core conventions of story, as everyone knows they’re in what essentially amounts to a D&D campaign (especially Elan, who, being a bard and thus an experienced storyteller, can see all the tropes coming a mile off). References to and jokes about D&D rules abound, not to mention a few running gags, cultural references, and off-color jokes. The parts that aren’t funny work well as well: Burlew’s dialogue isn’t exactly a weak point.

Not to mention, Burlew isn’t afraid to shake up the status quo (skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers): out of 572 strips, 148 (or 25.9%) were spent with Haley unable to speak in anything but cryptograms, 274 (or 48%, nearly half) were spent with Belkar unable to do any killing within a city lest he activate his “mark of justice” (and Belkar lives on killing), 129 (or 22.6%) have been spent with Roy, the ostensible main character, dead, and 104 (or 18.2%) have been spent with the rest of the group split in twain. There hasn’t been a moment with the entire group whole and unrestricted since #245, or 42.8% of the strip’s entire existence – less than half! And nearly half of that was in its original, “dungeon crawling” stage!

And all that just scratches the surface of the strip’s appeal. It’s funny, it’s well-written, the story is compelling, and you never really know what to expect but you sure have enough bones to try. That all plays a part in explaining why Order of the Stick is one of a very small group of webcomics that have become, essentially, their creator’s job – without any advertisements on the site (other than for OOTS books), any newspaper presence (okay, out-of-continuity OOTS strips used to appear in Dragon magazine, but still) or any subscription required.

And isn’t that any artist’s dream?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check and find out if there’s a new strip up yet, because the RSS feed is only automatically checked once a day…

Is it sad that I actually waited until 3 in the morning so I could include today’s strip in the write-up?

(From Irregular Webcomic! Click for full-sized cryptids! Man, I really am taking after Websnark, aren’t I?)

I’d like to expand on the points made in today’s strip on Irregular Webcomic!, but before I do, I want to talk about someone else.

Scott McCloud.

McCloud was a creator of comic books, mostly deconstructionist superhero stuff, but he was mostly concerned about the legitimization of comics as an art form. So in 1993, he wrote a book called Understanding Comics, in which he talked about the medium seriously, deconstructing its methods, exploring what is and isn’t comics, and the like. And because he wanted to practice what he preached, he published it as a comic book.

In 2000, he wrote a follow-up, Reinventing Comics. Whereas before he was talking to people outside the comics industry, this time he talked to people inside it, outlining twelve “revolutions” that could help comics survive and thrive as an art form. He especially talked about the then-nascent medium of webcomics and how the Web had a number of advantages that allowed it to thrive as an art form on its own. The most famous of these is probably the idea of the “infinite canvas” – that, similar to the idea that, since Wikipedia is not a paper encyclopedia, it can talk about a lot more topics than Brittanica (and for the love of God please do not make this a battleground regarding whether it really takes full advantage of this), so too can webcomics extend over a much larger space than would ever be practical on a sheet of paper.

In practice, though, creating larger, more expansive comics taking up lengthy stretches of the page is rather impractical. It takes a lot of work to create a big comic, and as a result the infinite canvas is really only utilized as occasional novelty acts in more standard webcomics, or as one shots. It doesn’t help that there really is a sort of limit on the amount of space you can devote to a comic, the size of the screen (people don’t like scrolling, and they REALLY don’t like LOTS of scrolling, especially horizontal scrolling which is harder to do with a mouse wheel), or that a lot of webcomic artists would rather prefer to be able to publish print publications of their work. After all, for most people, webcomicking is really more of a hobby.

The same goes for the other much-ballyhooed benefits of the Web for the comics medium, such as interactive or multimedia webcomics. (Especially when you consider that “multimedia webcomics” in particular can blur the lines in regards to exactly what is and isn’t a webcomic. For example, is Homestar Runner a webcomic? If not, on what grounds?) There have been occasional experiments in all of them, but generally there haven’t really been many, if any, ongoing webcomics that actually take full advantage of their medium in ways they can’t do in print.

Which brings us to Irregular Webcomic!

IWC, despite the name, is anything but irregular. David Morgan-Mar has faithfully produced a strip a day for virtually the whole history of the strip. He likes to joke about how his strip has been “more regular than many webcomics that actually claim to be updated regularly”.

The “irregular” part comes in the specifics. You see, Irregular Webcomic! is actually seventeen different webcomics, known as “themes”, and those are updated semi-irregularly with each nightly update of IWC itself. There isn’t always one a night, as the themes cross over rather often, often in combinations you would never think possible. Some (Fantasy, Cliffhangers, Steve and Terry) are updated more often than others (Supers, Imperial Rome), and a few (Martians, Nigerian Finance Minister) seem to be abandoned entirely. Some are also more like unifying elements than full-on webcomics, despite occasionally having non-crossovers (Me [yes, Morgan-Mar himself appears as a character], Death, Miscellaneous).

The original conceit was that all these different “themes” reflected different role-playing games (pseudo-board-game kind, not video game kind) Morgan-Mar (as “Me”) was playing (if there’s a third tradition in most webcomics, RPGs are it), although that seems to have fallen mostly by the wayside, especially in the newer themes. (Only Fantasy and Space really show any signs of being role-playing games anymore.) The older themes (Fantasy and Space again) were and continue to be played out by semi-realistic looking figures (well, as realistic-looking as figures of hobbits and aliens can be) but by and large, the vast majority of themes, which is to say the vast majority of strips, have been played out by LEGOs, which have become the strip’s trademark. (Exceptions are Martians, although even that has key LEGO figures; Supers, which is hand-drawn by another artist; and Miscellaneous.)

It’s important to note that, hand-in-hand with this structure, Morgan-Mar has a rather robust navigational engine that facilitates all of this. You could, conceivably, just read IWC right straight through, like a conventional webcomic, although, especially at this point, IWC shuttles between themes every day. (For example, yesterday’s comic was in the Espionage theme. The day before that was Mythbusters (yes, based on the Discovery Channel show, and done with LEGOs too – and they’re not alone; Jane Goodall, appearing above, is a character in Steve and Terry, which is itself a not-really-them-honest version of the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin from Morgan-Mar’s native Australia; Shakespeare has a theme where he’s transplanted in the modern day; Espionage is a takeoff on James Bond; Cliffhangers is a takeoff on Indiana Jones; there are actual themes named Harry Potter and Star Wars…), and the one before that was Space, and the one before that was Cliffhangers…) But you can also read each theme as an individual webcomic, following the strip as it follows one plot and completely ignoring any others. IWC has gone on for almost 2000 strips, but you don’t need to read all of them to understand just one or two themes. And the ability to read it five days at a time is just gravy.

You can’t do that in print. Well, at the least, you can’t do that in print and expect much of a following. I’ve actually conceived of a similar structure for Da Blog, where each tag could conceivably be read as its own individual blog, so that, for example, you could decide to read just my “nba” or “my comments on the news” posts, and ignore my “webcomic” or “about me” posts, except where I tag an “about me” post as “my comments on the news”. In webcomics, it actually opens up brave new worlds of storytelling possibilities. I envision a large, expansive world with several different webcomics weaving in and out of one another, perhaps even with different writers, which could be read individually but which forms a complete picture when read in total. Wait, that sounds like modern comic books. But one important difference would be the ability for strips to exist in multiple comics at once. There are other possibilities for the format as well that I probably have never even heard of. Scott McCloud, I would hope, would be proud.

The really funny part is, Irregular Webcomic! is one of those things that’s a pioneer but doesn’t really define its field; it sort of falls by the wayside, but what it pioneers is ripe to be overtaken by other, sharper minds. For example, IBM pioneered the germ of what became personal computing, including operating system writing, before Apple and Microsoft came along; now they barely even exist in the computer industry, now serving as mostly a consulting firm, near as I can tell. There are some themes I’m interested in – Mythbusters, Death and Shakespeare come to mind – but after certain current plot lines wrap up, or at least come to a stopping point, I’m probably going to stop following IWC every single day. (Of course, given the irregularity of the strip, I’ve been waiting six months for them to wrap up…) I would continue to follow just the ones I’m interested in, but Morgan-Mar doesn’t offer individual RSS feeds for each theme; instead, his one RSS theme lists the strip number and any themes it’s in. That makes it harder to follow individual themes instead of the whole comic. I kind of have to agree with Eric Burns that I actually find Morgan-Mar’s side project, the group-produced Darths and Droids, a re-enactment of Star Wars as played by RPG players (thus taking off on ground previously trod, for Lord of the Rings, by the now-ended DM of the Rings), more consistently entertaining, even if it’s hit a slow spell for the moment. In fact, D&D is one of only two webcomics that holds a place in Internet Explorer 7’s built-in RSS reader.

Which is odd, because the other one of those two is also set in that role-playing game milieu, and it wasn’t that long ago that I was barely even aware of RPGs’ existence, certainly beyond the venerable Dungeons and Dragons.

But we’ll talk more about Order of the Stick later in the week.