How Windows 8 Changes Everything, Part IV: The Triumph of Scott McCloud (Or: “Webcomics” Are Dead. Long Live Digital Comics.)

But for all of hypertext’s advantages, the basic ideas behind hypertext and comics are diametrically opposed! Hypertext relies on the principle that nothing exists in space. Everything is either here, not here, or connected to here, while in the temporal map of comics, every element of the work has a spatial relationship to every other element at all times.
-Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics

In an app-based future, one where social media becomes most people’s gateway to the Internet if not defining it, it’s easy to fear, as John Allison did a few weeks ago, that those who have taken advantage of the openness of the Web may find themselves increasingly abandoned and unable to gain traction. But as I said in Part II and in my response to Allison, the tools of the new Internet paradigm are open to anyone, with nothing stopping it from being as open, if not more so, than the old Web-based paradigm.

Four years ago, I wrote my Webcomics’ Identity Crisis series, the core of which (in Parts III and IV) explored the obstacles to the future of comics Scott McCloud outlined in Reinventing Comics. I felt that the one revolution McCloud advocated – the infinite canvas – was wholly dependent on the other – micropayments – in order to truly catch on, because any other revenue model (where the form the online version took was relevant, that is) depended on the breaking up of the story into parts, defeating much of the point of the infinite canvas and often even rendering it counterproductive. Micropayments, for their part, were doomed to fail, at least as far as webcomics were concerned, because of the psychological barrier against paying anything for anything – perhaps they might have become the norm if they were ready when the Internet started catching on, but so long as enough of the Internet’s content was available for free, it would be extremely difficult to produce something with enough value that, even with all the stuff out there for free, a substantial number of people would be willing to pay even a cent or two for it, especially if it was possible, even easy, for someone to repost it elsewhere for free, especially if they had to buy it sight-unseen from someone whose content they didn’t already know they wanted, and especially if they had to pay for something that had previously been free.

Ironically, one of the more famous proponents of the “psychological barrier” theory for the failure of micropayments was… Chris Anderson, in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Though he never directly mentioned it, perhaps hoping people wouldn’t notice the contradiction and accuse him of holding whatever position attracted the most attention, “The Web is Dead” could be seen as an implicit admission of how wrong he was then. The thesis of “The Web is Dead” was that people would pay for the same content they could get for free, simply because it came in a form worked better and was easier for them. If we are increasingly moving to a future where consumers are increasingly willing to pay to receive content on their smartphones once available on the Internet for free, it may well be only a matter of time before micropayments take hold in this far more fertile soil.

Already most of the apps in the Windows store are available for less than half of the magic $10 price most online retailers need to hit to justify the cost of a single credit card transaction. I’ve long felt that the fees people pay to their Internet service provider for Internet access were low-hanging fruit for micropayments, similar to how charges for pay-per-view content appear on your cable bill, if it weren’t for the numerous ways to access the Internet that other people pay for. The advent of cloud computing and the single login, including devices like those that run Windows 8 that are tightly associated with a single online account, makes it far easier to charge your credit card on the fly without introducing extra steps and at virtually any price. While producers of “fungible” content that can easily be spread elsewhere will probably continue to need to offer their wares for free (or just enough to render piracy inconvenient), we may one day see the day where producers of other types of content, to take just one example, allow anyone to access their content for a small charge, or for free if you buy their app once (and possibly pay a regular subscription fee thereafter).

It’s highly unlikely that a single comic, even a full-size comic book or graphic novel, would justify its own app, but the point is the technology exists to offer it at any price, regardless of the mechanism. We’ve already seen the development of an “iTunes” for comics, in the form of Comixology and its associated formats, and Marvel and DC have already embraced the online, digital distribution of their wares for new mobile devices, with Marvel even going so far as to produce what I call “digital stage comics” for their Avengers v. X-Men event. As Allison’s attitude shows, however, the webcomic community has been surprisingly slow to adapt to this new world order. Many webcomics have developed apps for the distribution of their content, but like webcomics in general, most of them are comic strips easily suited to distribution on a periodical basis (though Least I Could Do offers access to its archives through its app for just 99 cents).

If the web starts to be pushed to the background, you could see webcomics, as we know them today, pushed to the background as well. Even comic-strip-type webcomics may soon find their main means of distribution through “comic page” apps that aggregate them together. (One wonders if this was one of the ideas Scott Kurtz planned to hawk to syndicates with last year’s consulting offer.) But the real impact will be felt in “long-form” comic-book-like webcomics, who could jump at the chance to exploit the exposure advantages of the Internet without any of the drawbacks. It was, after all, the comic book model McCloud had in mind with his advocacy of micropayments and the infinite canvas. While the problem of spending money on unproven content hasn’t gone away entirely, some workarounds have sprung up; recently my dad published a prose novel that he promoted in part by making a short snippet available free for people considering the book on Amazon, a tactic that has apparently helped many novels achieve success through online sales, including some you may have heard of.

Beyond micropayments making the infinite canvas far easier to monetize, the advent of touchscreen-enabled devices eliminates the main interface-based constraint on the infinite canvas as well. Maintaining an “unbroken reading line” would seem to imply the horizontal infinite canvas, where the row of panels scrolls off to infinity to the right, but most applications of the infinite canvas have been of the vertical variety, due to the nature of mouse wheels, the most hassle-free way to scroll on the computer. But the touchscreen does away with the need to scroll entirely; all it takes is a swipe to move to a different part of the canvas, or moving the finger across the screen. It’s even possible to zoom in with the double-tap. This isn’t limited to comics; I really don’t like how the Kindle and other e-readers feel the need to stick to the norms of print by chopping up books into discrete pages. I don’t know this either way, but I hope Comixology’s formats and others allow people to make their “page” whatever size they wish if they so choose; we could see an explosion in long-form stories told in forms unthinkable not too long ago. I can’t help but wonder if, when McCloud semi-unintentionally anticipated the iPad in Reinventing, he was giving a look at the sort of device that he had in mind when talking about the infinite canvas, without explicitly stating so.

Many of the applications of the infinite canvas McCloud proposed will probably always be too gimmicky to catch on, but there’s nothing stopping those applications with real storytelling potential from changing the way you look at comics. It’s possible the digital comic of the future will look a lot like Homestuck – essentially, a variant on the digital stage comic, only told in many thousands of tiny chunks, highlighting another failing of hypertext: the way advertising on the Web rewards breaking stories up into as many tiny units as possible so as to score more pageviews to drive up the price of advertising. With alternate business models, it would no longer be necessary to exploit perverse incentives like this, because the reader could be charged directly in a way that makes sense.

This is only a hint of how the move to an app-based future can be a boon to independent producers of content prepared for it, despite the decline of the open, free-wheeling web they have taken advantage of to this point. We could be on the verge of an explosion in content of all shapes and sizes, a golden age of artists flocking to the most rewarding environment the arts has ever seen, creating content that takes forms never before possible, and potentially achieving the long-deferred vindication of Scott McCloud’s original vision. The rise of devices like the iPad and Surface doesn’t mark the end or a decline of the great revolution impelled by the rise of the Internet over the course of the last decade. Rather, it’s just the beginning.

Some Quick Thoughts on the Future of Webcomics

Last week John Allison of Scary Go Round and more recently Bad Machinery fame wrote a blog post expressing his fear that, as more and more webcartoonists took to social networking sites like Tumblr, it would be harder for them to make money off their work because even if their work went viral, it would get lost in the shuffle of people’s Tumblr feeds and no one would make the connection to them as the creator of that work. As a result, he fears the decline of the sort of “community” that has so characterized webcomics up to this point.

Personally, I think his fears are overblown; for one thing, I find it hard to compare Tumblr cartoonists with other webcartoonists, in part because most blogging platforms that aren’t modified WordPress make poor places to put up webcomics anyway, mostly due to archive management. As such, I suspect most Tumblr cartoonists aren’t very interested in fame and fortune anyway, and are more of the David Morgan-Mar frame of mind, of just wanting to share their creations with the world. In any case, the question is, would, say, Kate Beaton still have attracted a large following if she’d started out on Tumblr instead of LiveJournal? (After all, the former is essentially an evolved version of the latter.) Since most webcomics got their start through word of mouth, I find it hard to believe that the boom in social networking is anything but good for them (though whether it’s good for the quality of content that becomes popular is another matter, if it means the most popular comics essentially become nothing but meme factories).

But Allison’s broader fear is the notion that, for many, “social media ARE the Internet”, making it harder for web sites like his to catch anyone’s notice. I think this too is overblown, but mostly because of a far larger force reshaping the Internet that’s both largely responsible for that notion and that could end up sweeping both visions of the Internet under its feet, one that does pose a tremendous challenge, but ultimately a tremendous opportunity, for webcomics. I’ll have more on that next week.

Also, I could have made an obvious Monty Python reference instead of a forced comic book reference.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized Black Lantern creation.)

After teasing us with the resolution of one death prophecy, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to see Rich actually resolve the other one.

While it’s a bit earlier than when I thought it might happen, I have less of a problem with Durkon’s death coming here than with Belkar’s. As I mentioned in my last post, what really hammers this home is the fact that Durkon and Malack were so chummy earlier, only to see them turned against one another and for Malack to ultimately be responsible for Durkon’s demise – as well as the fact that this sequence represents Durkon’s biggest time in the spotlight in the entire comic. (On the other hand, it loses some impact because we don’t really know what caused Durkon to leave the rest of the group, considering he was still with them when last we saw them… and rereading that strip now could cause you to tear up all over again.)

I kind of wish I’d been able to post on the previous comic, the one with Durkon’s actual death, which I could have done if I’d started writing just a few hours before – not just because that’s the important moment in the sequence, but Durkon’s eventual resignation and ultimate acceptance effectively harkens back not only to Durkon’s initial reaction to the prophecy, but also the death of the previous most important character to remain dead at the moment (not counting Xykon), Miko. Malack isn’t really much of a threat to the gates, and things still aren’t looking up for Belkar, but it’s still, all things considered, a rather fitting way for Durkon to go out.

At least, temporarily. Because the comic I’m actually posting on completes the other half of what I thought might happen to Belkar, with Malack raising Durkon as a vampire, and suggesting a rather disturbing origin for Malack’s former “children”. While Malack clearly has some respect for Durkon that goes above and beyond what he had for almost anyone else, and we’ve already seen an image of a vampified OOTS member, even in black, that keeps some semblance of their former personality, the consensus on the forums seems to be that the Durkon we knew isn’t there anymore, and given his initial reaction to being raised it’s hard to disagree… not to mention the other prophecy surrounding Durkon from one of the prequel books.

It’s hard for me to take this as the fulfillment of that prophecy, though; this would seem to be a short-term threat for the OOTS to have to deal with, and it’s hard for me to see Durkon going very far in his current state. At the very least I would have to imagine we’d end up at the next gate as soon as the next book for this to tie in. Regardless, the OOTS is now finding itself in very dangerous territory… and given the circumstances, Xykon and company would seem to be overdue to show up.

Now THAT’S what I call Lawful Evil.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized planning ahead.)

Well, this is hardly the first time I’ve jumped the gun on a comic – after Rich teased us with the prospect of Belkar’s death, along came Durkon to save the day, at least temporarily (and potentially setting up his own demise). The result has perhaps been Durkon’s biggest spotlight moment in the entire comic; he had enough of a story arc in the first prequel book to get the cover, had a side-plot in the first book, and had a chance to shine in battle in the third, but none of those have been as effective at pulling Durkon out of his status as the OOTS’ “forgotten” member as this sequence.

To be fair, the groundwork for this was laid much earlier in the book, with how chummy Durkon and Malack were earlier, but I may have missed the other important development, and ultimately the only one, from the last comic I posted on: Malack’s status as a vampire. After Durkon saves Belkar, the two of them have a heart-to-heart discussion on how this revelation changes their relationship and Durkon’s feelings of betrayal as a result, in a brief sequence more than a little reminiscent of Enor and Gannji, before ultimately deciding their differences are now irreconcilable and turning their spells on each other.

This allows Durkon to show off his combat skills for an extended period against a real threat in a sense we’ve rarely if ever seen in the comic before, forcing Malack to retreat and use more stealthy tactics. That leads to this strip, where Durkon, low on options, begins taunting Malack verbally in an attempt to sniff out where he is, at which point Malack starts going on about his long-term plan to outlive his former adventuring cohorts, hoping to inherit a unified empire from the three empires they control.

Ultimately, it stands as a marked contrast to Redcloak’s stance on the status of undead. 45 comics ago, Redcloak told Tsukiko that all undead, no matter how powerful or seemingly free-willed, are ultimately tools for the living, claiming that as much as Xykon may appear to control Redcloak, it is really Redcloak who controls Xykon, however subtly. If this were the case Durkon would be more spot-on with his original query than he thinks, but instead when he hears Malack’s plan he sees it as, effectively, the relationship between Redcloak and Xykon, only with the roles of undead and living reversed, and Malack would then stand as a towering counterargument to Redcloak’s conviction. Instead, Malack and Tarquin’s relationship is contrasted with Redcloak and Xykon only for the genuine friendship between them and how open they are with their planning – miscellaneous disputes on tactics (or Tarquin’s own vision for the end of his reign) aside.

But Malack’s final answer is ultimately a somewhat sublime response to Redcloak’s position: “Living or dead, we are all of us marching to our orders – you no less than I, Durkon. It does not matter whence these orders come, be it man or god. Our place is an obedient slave to those who command us. Through service, we are rewarded. That is the true natural order.” Considering Redcloak’s own personal story arc of loyalty to the Dark One, those words must hit especially hard for him were he to hear them. Of course, they take on a different meaning in a comic where the gods are known quantities that interfere directly in the lives of mortals, but even then Malack’s words are an interesting lens to view the whole comic through.

To take some of the candidates for the “nine sides” I haven’t covered already: The OOTS marches to the beat of Roy’s drum, who initially put together an adventuring party to fulfill his father’s Blood Oath, which Eugene put him up to because the powers that be won’t let him into his ultimate reward. Malack cites Nale as a “fool” who “resists” this “natural order”, but he might not even be successful at it, ultimately controlled without his suspicion by Sabine as the IFCC’s representative. There’s quite a bit of evidence that the Order of the Scribble were duped, willingly or unwillingly, into doing the gods’ bidding, and the Sapphire Guard was so hamstrung by their oath that it ultimately hindered the planet’s fate (though Shojo’s attempt to “resist” ended with Miko’s sword through his body, as Rich points out in the commentary for that book). The whole comic could be seen as a great drama staged by the gods through their creation of the rifts (and possibly other interference in the lives of mortals); indeed, Malack’s words might hint at future comic developments, such as the real reason the Order of the Scribble broke up and the nature of the “planet within a planet“. (Considering the comic seems most sympathetic to its Chaotic Good characters, I doubt Rich actually agrees with Malack, but whatever.)

Ultimately, that one penultimate panel may be one of the more critical ones in the comic. I’ve spoken before about OOTS‘ literary merit, and it’s possible that this comic may be critical to a literary appreciation of it, at a time when I’ve doubted Rich’s continuing storytelling ability given the ups and downs of this book. (And how long it’s running; do you realize that previous books were 120, 180, 184, and 188 online pages long… and this one has crossed the 200 mark without the end in sight?) That it would come between two clerics, whose entire job revolves around service to their god, and would serve as such a strong contrast to the position of another cleric, only makes it all the more fitting.

Because my dad told my mom he feels disconnected from me when I don’t post on here, an Eric Burns(-White)-esque comeback.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized rebirth.)

Despite what some forumites have thought, I never believed Belkar’s little encounter with Malack was in any way leading to the former’s death; it seemed like it would be too anticlimactic for me. The sequence itself hasn’t been particularly well-done; I feel like Rich has been a bit rusty since his return from thumb-injury-forced break (the first strip back from it was at least the second time in recent memory OOTS‘ penchant for metahumor worked against it), and while I’m normally willing to put up with Rich’s nonexistent update schedule these comics have been too mediocre for me to put up with just one or two a week. Belkar’s vow in the previous comic seemed overwrought and irrelevant, and Malack’s realization in this one similarly seems to come from out of nowhere (even if it might be a reference to a previous comic I’ve forgotten).

I think most people felt – certainly I did – that whenever it happened, Belkar’s death would be the climax of a thread of character development stretching back throughout the book and ultimately reaching back to his conversation with Lord Shojo. But while Belkar has gone through some character development, it hasn’t been much more than what’s described in that post, and that may have been intentional; after all, having “something to fight for” may have only had the effect of changing the nature of Belkar’s assholery. As such, I think I wouldn’t have had as much of a problem with this sequence if Malack had actually been a threat to Mr. Scruffy, yet it seems like it’s a big part of the point of the sequence, and of Malack’s character, that he doesn’t really have a beef with Mr. Scruffy or Belkar. If anything, this is more a result of Belkar being too quick to jump into a fight he can’t win, especially when neither of them really has a reason to fight the other.

I also continue my exasperation regarding Rich’s penchant for confirming wild forum theories, and the notion that Belkar would become some sort of undead was the ultimate wild forum theory, one that was extant in various forms as far back as the oracle’s “last breath” prophecy. Yet here we are, and I’ll admit it will be interesting to see whether Belkar becomes a full-on servant of Malack’s, or will remain free-willed enough, and retain enough of his previous personality, to continue adventuring with the OOTS in undead form. (Given Malack’s thought process in the previous comic, it may well be both, at least in the short term.)

Of course, if Belkar does continue adventuring with the OOTS, we do still have one more death prophecy to potentially permanently reduce the OOTS’ numbers…

Was… was Marten originally going to ask Tai to join him?

(From Questionable Content. Click for full-sized exit, stage left.)

By the middle of last week, I was fully expecting to write a post expressing my severe trepidation at a storyline that would clearly serve the purpose of teasing a Marten/Claire relationship, which I’ve already gone on record as opposing. Besides teasing a relationship that would make me uncomfortable on multiple levels, it’s also becoming abundantly clear that Claire is the new intern that’s becoming most fully integrated into the larger QC cast, which I suppose is better than if it were Emily, but which I’d be more comfortable about if it weren’t for Claire’s secret.

I’m a little more okay with it since it looks like Marten and Claire are probably in primarily for some Wacky Roadtrip Hijinks(tm) that would more happen to them than in any way involve the relationship between them; at the most it would probably serve to highlight Claire’s personality and little beyond that. That’s not to say we’re entirely out of the woods yet; besides the potential for a road trip to serve as a “bonding experience”, there’s also the potential for Claire to be mistaken for Marten’s new girlfriend left and right at the wedding itself, and the mere fact this is the next storyline Jeph is putting Marten and Claire through is not a good sign for his thought process regarding their relationship being the same as mine. I’m hopeful that even those two possibilities could be used to further Claire’s storyline down the track I thought and would prefer it go down, especially since this is a gay wedding, but I will certainly be reading this storyline guardedly.

(Hey, cut me some slack, this is my first real webcomic post of the new year. I still haven’t caught up with what’s happened in Homestuck since, what, the very start of Act 6 Act 5? Let’s just say my Comic Rocket/Archive Binge experiment is… not going as well as hoped, though it may actually produce better webcomic reviews than I otherwise would produce.)

Webcomic reviews! That’s a completely original idea!

Back in 2009, during my previous webcomic-reviewing life, I discovered Komix! after that site made multiple appearances in the ads for Da Blog. Though my initial main concern was the ability to add RSS feeds for comics that didn’t have RSS feeds at the time, I got the sense that the real core of the site was its interface for browsing comics’ archives and tracking your progress, which I ended up making use of for my Scary Go Round review. On the other hand, it was essentially run by a single person who gave it a weird gimmick of adding exactly one new comic to the service a day. Eventually, several comics (including Order of the Stick) lost the ability to use Komix to browse their archives (which, since Komix’ browser loaded the full content of each page without stripping out or adding ads, I didn’t quite understand), and the site as a whole inevitably fell by the wayside as its proprietor became busy with real life.

When David Morgan-Mar and his friends started mezzacotta, one of the “half-baked” ideas they trotted out on it was Archive Binge, Morgan-Mar’s attempt at creating a Ryan North-esque webcomic tool. The idea was to make it easier to catch up on webcomics with massive archives by allowing people to create their own custom RSS feeds to read them in chunks of up to ten comics a day. Somewhat paradoxically, the entire point of it was not to “binge” on a webcomic’s archives in a short amount of time, but rather to consume the comic in more sane portions spread out over a period of time. Perhaps something like “Archive Diet” or “Archive Tour” would have been more appropriate. Regardless, I got the sense that the project eventually stalled with a somewhat disappointing number of strips supported.

Fast-forward to about a month ago, when I learn from Fleen that Morgan-Mar has handed over control of Archive Binge to some outfit called Comic Rocket that I’m hearing of for the first time. Comic Rocket turns out to be something akin to a better-supported, more-professional version of Komix. It, too, seems to have as its main feature the ability to bookmark your place in any comic and move it as you go along, which (in theory) makes it a great home for Archive Binge, but it also seems to have considerably more support from the webcomic community, more people working on it than just one, and way more comics in its system than Komix has ever had. (It also recently finished a crowdfunding operation to create a mobile app that ended up surprisingly disappointing, only making its $5000 goal fairly late and barely cracking its $7000 stretch goal for Android support; I wonder if it would have gotten more support if it were on Kickstarter rather than the more obscure, Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman’s success notwithstanding, Indiegogo?)

One of the things that has long held me back as a webcomic reviewer is my desire to hold some sort of archive binge for all but the most continuity-free strips. Even complete gag comics with zero returning characters or continuity still get archive-binged to a limited extent, because it’s not just having a proper appreciation of the events leading up to the present, it’s also about having a large enough sample of work fresh enough in memory to form an opinion of a comic as a whole. And archive binges are time-consuming things; even Gunnerkrigg Court, which struck me by the speediness of its archive binge, damn near monopolized a weekend, and that’s time I don’t actually have. So I can sympathize with Morgan-Mar’s desire to make it easier to catch up on a long-running strip. Hell, I’ve done it; on at least two different strips (Doonesbury and Sluggy Freelance) I’ve stared a thousands-of-comics-long archive in the face and told myself that just by reading two comics each day I’m already doubling the comic’s update rate and so will have to catch up eventually, no matter how long that takes.

So I’m going to try an experiment. I’ve identified four or five comics I’ve been meaning to review and started Archive Binge feeds for all of them (as well as a few other comics I want to catch up on). Once those feeds are all caught up, I’ll move them to my tryout space for reading as it comes out for however long it takes to get an impression of it in that state, at which point it’ll be time to write the review. I hope this will allow me to write reviews significantly faster than the snail’s pace I seem to have always worked on them at without getting too much in the way of other obligations. That said, I’m a little worried about how this will change the reading experience; I’ll be getting a comic in little dribbles at a time, dribbles that will have to compete with several other dribbles for my attention, and the process of archive binging will be stretched out over a substantially longer period of time. I may be moving substantially faster than the comic’s own update pace, but catching up this way may impede my ability to get that sense of a comic as a whole.

The way Archive Binge itself is set up doesn’t help; although it’s tied in with Comic Rocket’s own interface and now supports every single one of its comics (including more than a few newspaper comics), beyond that it probably hasn’t been modified much from its mezzacotta incarnation, not even affecting the bookmark under any circumstances (while there were times I wished I could decline to advance Komix’s bookmark, not having the option to start moving it when I’m on the same page as it is a major pain with Comic Rocket). To me, the most glaring issue is that there seems to be no way to increase the rate of update beyond 10 comics a day, which seems low. It’s nowhere near sufficient for Homestuck, but even beyond that it seems to cause older webcomics’ archives to take a disturbingly long time to get through (expect me to review a lot more low-continuity gag-a-day comics and meme factories) and doesn’t provide that good sense of a webcomic as a whole I’m looking for, which could exacerbate the reading-experience issues I worry about. 20-25 would seem to be a more realistic cap; I originally intended to set the update rate for each strip at whatever would take no more than 15 minutes to get through, but quickly decided to set them all at 10.

Personally, I have to scratch my head at Archive Binge’s very structure, which dumps whatever number of links you set into your RSS reader. Regardless of the comic, they’re all links, so you have to click on them to bring them up, but you’re not going to be clicking on each link to bring up each comic; you’re going to click on the first link and then you’re going to want to use whatever interface that page presents to move to the others. Naturally, most RSS readers sort entries in reverse chronological order by default, which means the link you’re presented is the opposite of the one you want, and while Google Reader (for example) allows you to sort each feed oldest first, a) setting it for a folder’s full view doesn’t set it for the child feeds, despite the reverse appearing to be true, and b) it only allows you to set whether or not to show read items on a global basis, despite this seemingly being a prerequisite for the oldest-first view to be of any use at all (aside from, well, archive-binging) and thus defeating the point of making the latter something that can be set feed-by-feed (a lingering general issue I have with Reader).

(To be fair, the issues with Archive Binge’s implementation are multiplied by a) two false starts on getting started with this experiment causing unread entries to pile up in Reader and, more importantly, b) other things about Reader that interfere with Archive Binge’s apparent intended workings, namely, the fact that all entries are marked as read automatically as you scroll down, with entries taking a ton of space in a small window. If I were working in Internet Explorer’s RSS reader, all entries would be marked as read as soon as I left the page, and the sort order would, ideally, be completely irrelevant.)

If I were designing it, I would tie it in much more closely with the other functionality of the site, and indeed make it something that was less of an RSS feed and more something that applied to your Comic Rocket account directly, essentially providing a direct reminder (or something) to stop once you reached the end of your allotted pages for the day, and tracking pages still to be read for the day as a subset of the entire unread portion of the archive.

But then, I’m not sure Comic Rocket understands what the point of bookmarks are when it comes to webcomics, because they seem to be trying to give their site a “social” dimension, allowing you to “share” what comics you’re reading (and not allowing you to choose which ones to share except indirectly by content rating), despite the fact that the bookmark function (which is how “reading” is defined) is primarily useful for catching up on webcomics, not reading them as they come out, or in other words, when you’re trying out a new webcomic as opposed to already knowing you like it. As it stands, Comic Rocket is of limited usefulness for tracking comics you’re already reading, especially if you have an RSS reader (which, you know, you kinda need to use the whole Archive Binge thing); if anything, without Archive Binge being more integrated into the main Comic Rocket interface, trying to use it to read comics as they come out just gets annoying because it gets in the way of the comics you’re trying to catch up on.

As such, I’m not sure I know what Comic Rocket is actually trying to do, and I’m not sure they know either. I think they have potential as a “comics page” to keep up with your favorite webcomics as well as those comics you’re trying to catch up on (without losing the aspect of linking to the original site as opposed to simply stealing images from it), but right now they seem to be trying to serve several masters at once and serving none of them well. It is in “beta”, as meaningless as that can seem on the Internet, but there are definitely enough signs of unfinished business, especially where Archive Binge is concerned (besides the above, clicking to set up a new Archive Binge feed doesn’t take you directly to actually set it up; you have to click again to “edit” your new feed to do so, which seems to violate User Interface Design 101) but also in other areas (the site and Archive Binge in particular is damn near useless when it comes to Girls with Slingshots, where its crawler picks up old, outdated news posts along with actual comics, which probably afflicts other comics as well), that maybe it can improve over time.

Regardless, I’m going to give Comic Rocket and Archive Binge a go, and I’m going to press on with this experiment for the time being, so look forward to more webcomic reviews sometime in April; I’ve added a tentative schedule to the Webcomic Review Index that I reserve the right to change at any time (and incidentally, with ArtPatient not updating in ages, I’m running low on ideas for future webcomic blog reviews; any other good webcomic blogs you know of, preferably not podcasts or behind a paywall?). But I do hope the proprietors of Comic Rocket try to figure out why some webcomics had Komix access shut down and avoid those same mistakes; fortunately, their robust system of bookmarklets, partly designed as a way to avoid using the interface, seems like a potentially viable backup plan if they can continue to collect archive links (not to mention being the only competent way to read comics like Girls with Slingshots).

It’s interesting to compare QC’s revelation of a transgender character last month with the Court’s exploration of one for whom gender doesn’t matter.

(From Gunnerkrigg Court. Click for full-sized extreme uncanny valley.)

As is its wont, Gunnerkrigg Court has answered the question of what, exactly, Jones is in a way that a) doesn’t actually answer the question (turns out Jones doesn’t really know herself) and b) raises more questions than it resolves.

The just-ended chapter began with a series of mostly frustratingly contentless flashbacks, starting with a number of interactions between Jones and Eglamore, then going back through the numerous identities Jones had taken throughout history, then dropping dialogue as it progressed through older and older time periods, until finally it wound up at a time before the existence of humans themselves. At this point I was about ready to call bullcrap on the explanation for Jones this was building up to, as it didn’t make any sense for Jones to have a human form before humans themselves existed, unless man was created in her image or humanity “retconned” her in to the formation of the Earth.

As it turned out, Siddell intended to use that seeming contradiction as a jumping-off point for an exploration of her psyche. It seems that when humanity arose, Jones initially thought she was no longer alone, that she had encountered others like herself, only to find that she could not experience the emotions common to all humanity. As such, she does not consider herself “living”, no different from the stones and rocks that make up the Earth itself, and simply hops from identity to identity taken from people she knows, with it being heavily implied that Mr. Eglamore will be next on the list. I still call bullcrap (it’s the classic “creature feels bad about not having feelings” paradox, though again the last page suggests this didn’t escape Siddell’s notice either), but at least Siddell used it as a jumping-off point for an interesting story rather than a gigantic hole in his existing one. It also means Jones is not that different from an autistic, developing social skills only through conscious “close observation and mimicry”.

But an exploration is not an explanation. It’s easy to see how Jones represents the apex of Coyote’s “great secret” we learned in the previous chapter; Jones is the imprint of man in every era of the Earth’s existence, billions of years before man himself came into being. Despite Jones’ very existence not making any sense without humanity retconning her in before their own existence, Antimony was prepared to use her existing before humanity as evidence against Coyote’s “theory”, on the grounds that such “retconning” should be impossible, or not having crossed her mind. Jones then proceeds to explore the apparent paradox, without actually coming to a conclusion; rather, the point seems to be to hammer home in Antimony’s head just how much power could be lurking in the ether, how much power the Court seeks to harness, if Coyote’s “theory” is true.

And yet, at the same time, she seems to suggest – without really realizing it – a limit to this power. “Coyote will say he [put the stars in the sky] himself, and it is not a lie,” Jones claims. “The same claim will be made by powerful creatures from other cultures around the world. However, I can unequivocally state that the stars were always in the sky. I saw them myself, long before any creature on this planet could lift their head to see them.” At first, this seems to suggest that Coyote was retconned in before even Jones, until you realize that his tale would still contradict those of the other “powerful creatures from other cultures around the world”. More generally, Jones’ personal history seems to line up with the actual, scientifically-established history of the world and the universe. The world’s history, as Jones has experienced it, is more consistent with what you’re likely to learn in science textbooks than with any stories coming out of any culture anywhere in the world, including those Coyote tells.

And yet, it’s coming from someone whose very existence – as someone with human form billions of years before life, let alone humans, existed – doesn’t make any sense without the ability of humans to “retcon” her in to the formation of the Earth, and whose presence in every era of history is attested to not only in her own telling of it, but in the actual physical evidence she’s left behind. That seems to rule out the idea that humans have shaped the memories of creatures like Coyote without actually affecting what actually happened. On the other hand, Jones claims to have no connection to the ether whatsoever, so it’s entirely possible she represents the “overwriting” of other ideas of the history of the Earth with more scientific ideas. That would put her extreme emotionlessness – and apparent separateness from both the Court and the world of magic – in a wholly new light. Perhaps Jones has not even been “created” yet, and will eventually serve as the Court’s means of imposing their will on the history of the world in a way that, they hope, leaves no room for magic. The only alternative I can think of would be the Court’s own version of DC Comics’ “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, that each culture has its own “timeline” of the history of the Earth, all of which has somehow been unified into a single timeline.

The key may be Antimony’s first visit to Coyote in the forest back in chapter 20, when Coyote let Antimony leave her thumbprint on the moon. Coyote appears to bring the moon down to Earth at the same size it appears in in the night sky, then gobble it up, at which point it appears where it did before. Kat detects no “irregular lunar activity” while all this is going on, yet still detects the aftereffects of what happened. Might the physical evidence of her existence Jones has left behind be similar? If this were to be the case, the stories of the past and the explanations for existing phenomena Coyote and others tell of may be false, but the physical evidence of their existence may not be. In keeping with the fundamental conflict of the comic – and, reversed, in some real-life defenses of religious explanations of the way the world is – there may be no way to disprove stories like Coyote’s or Jones’s even if they happen to be false. In this sense, it may well be possible for multiple contradictory accounts of, say, how the stars wound up in the sky to all be “true” in some sense. (I’m not yet willing to adopt Robert A. “Tangents” Howard’s explanation, that humanity only shapes the divine into a form it can perceive, without changing the existence or history of creatures like Coyote or Jones.)

I suggested before that the revelations in the last chapter represented the other shoe dropping, that we were finally learning exactly what it was that the Court feared in Coyote and the creatures of the forest. At first glance, this chapter seems to be moving in the opposite direction, firming up the Court’s place as the comic’s villain seeking to use the power locked in the ether for “their own ends”, and if the theory that the Court is planning to use Jones to overwrite history is true it would seem to lock in this notion. Yet the suggestion, first hinted at at the very end of the last chapter and explicitly raised by Jones in this one, of Coyote exerting some sort of power over Ysengrin that exhibited itself in Ysengrin’s attack on Antimony, certainly makes Coyote look a lot darker than he’s appeared as to this point, and Jones suggests not that the Court has evil intentions in and of themselves, but that Coyote has been trying to “sway [Antimony’s] opinion” of it through the revelation of his secret, implying that the Court’s actual intentions may be nothing of the sort; my idea of the Court as a “modern Prometheus” may still be alive.

This chapter heavily implies that Antimony is about to be named the Court’s new medium (it’s not like Jones is likely referring to Parley here), and Jones warns her that she’s likely to encounter decidedly more dangerous and less friendly creatures than she has thus far, which Coyote may have been trying to prepare her for both by revealing his secret (and giving her the homework assignment that formed the basis for this chapter) and inducing Ysengrin to attack her. Yet it seems to me that Antimony has come out of the last two chapters less prepared for the job than she was before. Before, she could hew to the approach that there’s no reason for the worlds of magic and technology to distrust one another, and indeed that there could be great boons to their cooperation; now it’s become apparent that that approach will be impossible without putting some sort of value judgments on the value of the Court vis-a-vis the creatures of the forest, and more generally mankind vs. nature, at least without establishing the extent to which Coyote’s “theory” is true. I would suggest that it’s incumbent upon Jones to lay out all the Court’s secrets for Antimony to see and to assess as reasonably and rationally as she can, so that she has a full appreciation of both sides of the issue.

After all, it’s not as though the preceding 38 chapters have given her, or the audience, a particularly cheery view of the Court as it is.

I already warned you I was as sensitive as an atom bomb. I take no responsibility if my coverage of this storyline drives anyone away from Da Blog.

(From Questionable Content. Click for full-sized brotherly love.)

I’ve been reading the Questionable Content strips following the recent revelation guardedly, not because I worry that Jeph won’t handle the topic well (there’s no reason to think he won’t), but because I worry that I won’t be able to handle his handling of it well, for reasons I’ll expand on if those fears prove founded.

It might be a good sign that this comic gives me a reason to post that relates to said revelation only tangentially, but in a way that intrigues me rather than pushing me away. Up to this point, Claire and Clinton have been weird natural foils for one another, almost perfect opposites and yet perfect mirrors at the same time. They’re both incredibly weird, hopeless dweebs and geeks, yet in such ways that perfectly complement each other that they’re clearly embarrassed by and, so it appeared, can’t stand each other. My hunch that they hated each other because of their similarities wound up being shot down in the very next comic, so it seemed that their antagonism was rooted in their polarized differences made even more polarized by their similarities, and that that idea of them as opposite-sex counterparts and foils was the essence of their characters and little else, especially the substantially newer Claire.

The recent revelation, however, suggested that that wasn’t the whole story. Robert A. “Tangents” Howard suggested that one reason for the antagonism between the two might have been the result of Clinton revealing Claire’s secret against her wishes, but subsequent strips, particularly this one, have shown that precisely the opposite is the case: that Clinton is incredibly protective of Claire’s secret, fearful of the exact scenario Howard speculated about, and that for all they may get on each other’s nerves, this shared goal strengthens their sibling bond beyond all of it and ensures that, underneath it all, they will always love each other as brother and sister.

(I really struggled not to put “sister” in quotes. You see some of the problem I have with this topic. If you really can’t wait to see whether or not this drives me away from the comic, you can read my comments to that Tangents piece.)

Howard wonders if the similar bond Claire has created between herself and Marten might lead to them eventually dating, but unlike a number of QC fans I have never seen any of the new interns as potential romantic material for Marten or virtually any other existing character; considering Tai is their boss, any age issues I saw between Dora and Tai would go double for them. This is especially the case for Claire, given both the nature of her secret and that the bond she’s created with Marten seems to be a little more parental in nature. If anything, I could see a rift grow between her and Marten if Marten blabs her secret to his own friends he feels he can trust to be open-minded about it, such as Faye, Dora, Hannelore, and Tai.

Then there’s the implication of this for Clinton’s character development. Up to this point, Clinton has been one of the least sympathetic characters in the entire comic, as pretty much all we knew about him was that he was a weird, creepy nerd with a robot hand that we knew only through his attempts to stalk Hannelore. Now, however, we have not only discovered his soft spot for his sister, but he must now unavoidably become a part of the QC “family”,  bound through their shared friendship and unique connection for Claire. While the relationship between Clinton and Marten was still antagonistic with only a reluctant thawing in Wednesday’s comic, I think it’s inevitable that, as it is with Claire and Clinton themselves, the shared protection of Claire’s secret will ultimately lead to Clinton and Marten slowly moving towards something closer to “friends”, and through that, Clinton’s assimilation to Marten’s larger circle.

If so, though, I really hope he doesn’t end up hooking up with Hannelore. We already had Angus send the message that you can start a relationship with an ice queen like Faye by getting in-your-face and antagonizing them. If it happens again with Clinton and Hannelore, it’s going to say some disturbing things about Jeph Jacques’ view of relationships and human nature.

Come to think of it, has QC ever been explicitly for any form of “inclusion” that didn’t involve sex/gender politics or robots?

(From Questionable Content. Click for full-sized interrupted escape.)

In the news post for this comic, Jeph Jacques indicates that this is “something [he’s] wanted to do for years and I really, really want to do a good job of it”, noting that the idea of “inclusion” is one that comes up a lot in QC and so including a character of this sort is important for completeness’ sake, and reassuring us that “I have given it a lot of thought and done a lot of research, so hopefully I won’t screw up.”

If so, this is not a very good start.

Let’s be honest, you could quite literally swap in any word in the second panel and have exactly the same comic, maybe a better one. It comes off as just a buzzword, as some random, arbitrary group, delivered matter-of-factly and out of nowhere, not as a term with an actual meaning. For someone who professes to be so for “inclusion”, it comes off as a decidedly fake form of inclusion, of slapping a label on a character so you can boast about how “inclusive” you are, like a committee-designed character on a kids’ TV show.

What makes this worse is that Jeph is doing this to an established character, albeit one that’s only been in the cast for a few months, leaving me wondering whether Jeph designed her this way from the start. I can understand the notion that members of some group can be “just like everyone else” whose membership in that group doesn’t have to be all-consuming, but in this particular case – as much as this might betray my own biases, prejudices, and stereotypes – it’s hard for me to imagine how it wouldn’t have come up a lot sooner. And while she hasn’t been around for very long, I’d be hard-pressed to find a worse character to do this to than Claire, part of whose character has become “the opposite-sex mirror to Clinton” (though none of the Smif students would work very well).

Add it all up, and this comic doesn’t seem to make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense in itself, where it drops something without seeming to have any context for its implications, and it doesn’t make sense in terms of the framework it asks us to accept. It begs for further elaboration, yet it seemingly plays out in a way that precludes said elaboration by being seemingly ignorant to the need for it. Were it not for the date, I might think it was an April Fool’s joke. If Jeph Jacques really wants to seriously take on this issue, he’s really put himself behind the eight-ball right out of the gate.