Robert A. Howard, this one’s for you! Or: On art in webcomics. Or: This really would have worked better if it was color like every other Wotch strip.

(From The Wotch. Click for full-sized awkward moments.)

Good evening. Today I’m here to talk about a grave condition afflicting webcomics all across the land. I call it Casey and Andy Eyes.

This condition, afflicting many a webcomic but especially those drawn by marginal artists or those overly inspired by anime, has as its major symptom extremely large eyes, often taking up more than half the face, with outlines that stop in the inside. Also accompanying it is rather cartoonish-looking faces, with features formed very simply. No cure is known aside from a general improvement in art skills, either on the part of the artist or, in more extreme cases, a replacement of the artist with someone more skilled.

Okay, so the only two webcomics I’ve actually seen the condition in are Casey and Andy itself and The Wotch. And El Goonish Shive. (You might be able to stretch it out enough to include Sluggy Freelance as well.) But isn’t it odd that they share almost the exact same art style? How can this sort of weird coincidence possibly happen? The Wotch FAQ implies that Anne and Robin might not have the genders they’re portrayed as; is it possible that Anne Onymous is secretly Andy Weir?

And what the hell am I doing criticizing art styles? Am I not the guy who has long held that art doesn’t matter?

Well, yes.

This is not a review of The Wotch in general. I might decide to write that review at some later date. But this is because I still haven’t found anyone backing my opinion and I’ve seen plenty of people hold up art as the holy grail. This is an attempt to codify what art in webcomics actually means, what counts as bad art and what counts as good art, and why the art of Order of the Stick and, in my opinion, Ctrl+Alt+Del fall under the latter.

Because I still don’t understand why CAD gets hammered for its art style. The lines are straight and polished, there’s actual shading on the characters, there’s variety in character’s noses, the hairstyles aren’t a few semi-random angular lines but often sport actual, separated tufts, not just random spikes, and the characters look reasonably like real people you might actually meet on the street somewhere. Casey and Andy can’t claim any of that. Yet CAD having bad art is a joke as old as the strip itself and no one talks about Casey and Andy‘s art. Nor can C&A claim, like OOTS or xkcd or Dinosaur Comics or Irregular Webcomic, that its art style isn’t off-putting enough to turn me off to what might otherwise be a pretty good comic strip.

But why? If art really does matter after all, what do those strips do right that Casey and Andy doesn’t? At first glance, it might look as though there isn’t really that much difference between the OOTS art style and the C&A art style. It’s not just, as it was once explained to me regarding CAD, that those comics have good stories that overcome their marginal art, because that would seem to just as easily explain Casey and Andy‘s popularity. I think it comes down to this:

OOTS, xkcd, and Dinosaur Comics all revel in their cartooniness.

They accept that their art styles will never be any appreciably different from how they started out, and so they create their own bar of realism. A comparison of OOTS to any (well, most) of the hordes of its worse-drawn ripoffs will help to show this. OOTS follows its own rules of proportion, maintaining a proper amount of space between facial features and within the face, and none of it comes off as artificial. Casey and Andy is at least as cartoony as OOTS, yet it attempts to go for a realistic rendering of its characters, and in the process falls into its own twisted version of the Uncanny Valley.

For all that people criticize it, CAD‘s much-maligned “B^U” is actually a rather ingenious way of getting around this problem. Something that often doesn’t get a lot of credit is that Tim Buckley gets quite a bit of mileage from variations on a single face. It can be used to portray wonder, anger, shock, panic, excitement, happiness, and of course, boredom. The result is that CAD succeeds in creating its own bar for realism and only needing to pass that bar on any given strip. That’s all anyone needs to ask of it. Compare CAD with Real Life, which truth be told, has its own version of B^U. In fact its art style is strikingly similar to CAD‘s (at least Buckley has real eyes with different levels of closed-ness and not just dots!), yet it has never attracted anywhere near the same level of vitriol for it. (Neither, for that matter, has PVP, but PVP characters do vary in the size of their eyes, if only a little.)

Part of this is because part of what people really hate about CAD is its use of copy-and-paste as a shortcut. Copy-and-paste can be a turn-off, but mostly when it’s really obvious. There are a couple of different things someone can do when they catch themselves copy-and-pasting. They can attempt to hide it, either by trying to introduce certain subtle or not so subtle variations or putting the focus on the content of the dialogue. Or they can go whole-hog and embrace it, often limiting themselves to one piece of art per character, in the vein of Dinosaur Comics. Both approaches have their pitfalls. The former often works best when combined with the latter, or when there are a lot of variations, or when the writing is really good (or at least controversial). (CAD falls into the “lots of variations” category.) The latter works best when you go so far as to use clip art for it, or when the art is good enough to overcome the fact there’s not much of it, or when you set the bar for detail at a point that fits the quality of the art itself. (Trying to get really detailed when all you can draw is stick figures probably isn’t a good idea.) Sadly, I’m not sure Sandsday does the best job of any of those options.

So yes, it’s very possible that it is important for a webcomic to have at least passable art, and not seem like the random scrawlings of a ten-year-old. But at least in webcomics, it’s clear that there are some exceptions to that rule, including what I like to call The Wick Scalar Exemption: if the quality and detail of the art scale with all other aspects of that quality appropriately, whether it be by reducing the quality of the features to size with the quality of the body (while still maintaining good proportions) or by mitigating the impact of engaging in cut-and-paste, even if the overall quality is completely primitive (as in xkcd), it doesn’t count as bad art for the purposes of maintaining an audience because it should achieve a level of internal consistency.

This level can seem rather hard to reach, and I suspect part of the problem people have with “B^U” is that it is ever so slightly jarring with the quality of the rest of Tim Buckley’s bodies, and gives just a little too little detail. (Similarly, I’d say Sandsday‘s biggest problem is that, for the most part, it has an Order of the Stick level of detail, but only two or three mouths per character, not to mention no hair and no skin color. On the other hand, perhaps the reason Real Life escapes the B^U charge is because it doesn’t provide as much detail in the eyes!) Certain features, such as straight lines and appealing curves, are pretty much sacrosanct, but in at least some areas of webcomic art, it’s more important to know how good you are than to try to be any better than that. Strips like Casey and Andy and The Wotch try to be better than they really are, stuff their comics with too much detail, and fall flat. The lesson of strips like Ctrl+Alt+Del is that, assuming you aren’t a photorealistic artist, it takes a Goldilocks to make an appealing webcomic – you have to get the balance just right, but the balance is more important that how much you stuff on each side.

And I promise that next week, it’ll be a real review of a real webcomic that won’t become a review of any of the Big Three out of nowhere.

This post rambles on for ages and ends up going nowhere. I think I need a biscuit.

Prelude: At one point, when I was very young, before I had an e-mail address, I would occasionally use my mom’s e-mail account to give certain people a piece of my mind. Hey, I didn’t have anything else to work with. I would end up lectured as much for their content as for the act of using her e-mail address to do it, and sometimes Mom would discover the message before I even sent it and dissuaded me from it, like the time, shortly after the TV rating system was introduced, when I started writing an e-mail to some random web site as a starting point for starting to assign a Web site rating system, but Mom found it and dissuaded me from it. Keep in mind, I WAS, LIKE, TEN YEARS OLD! And I’m acting like huge committees all by my lonesome.
Anyway, as this behavior progressed I started including entreaties not to reply to my e-mails, lest my mom found out about them. And lo and behold, they DID reply, and my mom DID find out about them, and I DID get lectured. Such as the time (bringing this to the topic for the rest of this post, which has nothing to do with the “about me” tag) when I made some comments about how some guy could improve his web site, complete with entreaty not to reply, and I got a Notepad file on the desktop saying, among other things, something like “PLEASE don’t make comments on other people’s sites, or you will have to be chaperoned while using the Internet!!!”

(Since 2000, I haven’t had to share a computer with Mom while using the Internet, and I got my own e-mail address in 2002, minimizing the problem. And I finally started getting the hint as well.)

Anyway, the point of all this rambling is, I don’t like making critical comments on another web site.

But this is a blog, not an e-mail. And a blog is different from a web site as well. And I do feel I should probably explain this strip, because to this point I haven’t really done much to connect to the broader “webcomic community”, and I may as well make some comment on the site of which I speak.

And it helps that I’ve met several blogs that precisely do make critical comments on other websites, including, especially, the one of which we speak today. (Nonetheless, I still feel somewhat queasy about the enterprise…)

Websnark was originally the final evolution of a series of blogs by Eric Burns (as I’ll explain later, that’s not quite accurate); in fact, before the blog’s “official” birth date of August 20, 2004, one will find a number of posts dating back to January of that year, only much further spaced apart, longer form, and about more random topics – the remnants of Burns’ attempt to revive his “online journal”, ported to Websnark.

Specifically, Websnark was Burns’ plan to clear the junk out of his still-running Livejournal and allow it to be refocused. I’m going to make a metaphor using the structures in place at this site: Burns wanted his Livejournal account to be composed mostly of the sort of posts I would tag “about me”, but instead it was mostly the sorts of things I would tag “internet adventures”. In his case, “internet adventures” usually meant whatever random memes were criscrossing the Internet and “pictures of dogs”, which basically meant whatever webcomics struck his fancy, but in theory, Websnark was going to be specifically devoted to neither, just shuttling between the two. In practice, after the first post it would be another 11 posts until the next non-webcomic post. Websnark has had its fair share of non-webcomic posts – in fact, I would estimate that as it became more popular as many posts were not about webcomics as were (especially, circa early 2005, posts about itself) – but webcomics would be its bread and butter, the ticket that took it to the dance.

And as it turned out, it would deliver Eric Burns fame, fortune, and even, as made official just this past weekend, a wife.

The Internet has redefined the phrase “overnight sensation” but even by its standards Burns’ ascent seems amazingly literal, both for the speed from which he went from being maybe as famous as me to one of the biggest names in webcomics, and how quickly that ascent came after his blog’s foundation. No less than four days after starting Websnark, Burns wrote an unusually sarcastic and, well, snarky post (despite the name, Websnark does not particularly make fun of its subjects as it does neutrally, or even positively, comment on them with a funny tone) that started a chain of events that netted his little corner of the ‘net thousands of readers. He ragged on popular webcomic PVP for how unpredictably it might update each day, his ragging was brought to the attention of PVP’s creator, Burns was rapped by the PVP forum regulars, and went on his merry way.

Just two days after that, Burns returned to the topic of PVP, for substantive reasons this time, PVP’s creator liked it enough to link to it on his front page, and the floodgates were opened.

There are a few more stops along the way, and Burns himself goes into plenty more detail on the rapid rise of Websnark here. Long story short, Websnark became as much of a go-to place as some of the webcomics it remarked upon, including with webcartoonists themselves. This despite the fact that Burns engaged in a form of advertising known as “none whatsoever”.

Maybe it was the smartness of the criticism. Maybe it was the respect Burns paid to the medium. Maybe it was how constructive and neutral he could be with the criticism, coming from the perspective of a reader without a horse in the race. Or maybe it was that he was doing it at all.

…But a surprisingly large number of webcartoonists started regularly reading.
This surprised me. This surprised me a lot. And it made me realize that there
weren’t that many people out there doing what I was doing — offering up
critiques of the medium and discussions of the individual executions. […]

The dialogue is all important in art. It’s criticism — in the truest sense of the word. The understanding and analysis of what is there. The placing of art within the cosm of its fellows. The distillation and discovery of new truths from interpretation. I’m not going to claim to be the first webcomics critic, nor anywhere near the best, but through luck and timing I managed to become one of the better known. It got me two gigs that mean the world to me — writing for Comixpedia, and contributing to the Webcomics Examiner — and it’s spawned others trying to do the same thing. Tangents, by Robert Howard. I’m Just Saying, by Phil Khan. Journey Into History (and the HB Comic Blog) by Bob Stevenson. Webcomic Finds by Ping Teo. The Digital Strips Blog and Podcast, by Zampson and Daku. And many, many others.

I’m not saying I’m the reason those guys are doing what they’re doing. I’m not saying Websnark by Burns and White was necessary for all those other voices. But we clearly had an impact. We clearly caused some folks to read what we wrote and say “wait a second — I can do that!” And that’s monumental. That’s massive. That is good for comics in general. That is good for webcomics in particular. The dialogue improves everything. And if my making this blog a year ago helped that… well, that’s about as fine a thing as I could hope for.

I advise you to read that whole post, if only to marvel at how prominent Burns became after only a year of posts. There are blogs that become insanely popular for a time, there are blogs that develop devoted followings for a time, but in all likelihood Burns and Websnark takes the cake.

And there are good reasons for that. By no means was Websnark the first place that commented on webcomics, nor am I in any place to say whether it’s the best. But I can say with some degree of confidence that Websnark was probably the first place to treat webcomics like War and Peace, and certainly the first to do it in a humorous tone. And Websnark – this is important – could take webcomics seriously when webcomics didn’t take themselves seriously.

At right is a 2005 strip from semi-popular webcomic Casey and Andy. Click on the thumbnail to see it in all its glory.

Probably the majority of webcomics fall into two categories: the video game comic, in which a cast of nerds sit around all day being nerds, including playing video games and making commentary about the world of video games. Sandsday falls into this category.

The comics that aren’t video game comics tend to be strips where wacky adventures happen to ordinary people. Alien abduction? Getting turned into Bigfoot? Being made the bride of Satan? All par for the course, and in fact, child’s play for some strips. Casey and Andy falls into this category, and this strip captures the mood perfectly. (And it’s arguably tame compared to, say, Sluggy Freelance.) If a webcomic doesn’t fall into one of those two categories it’s probably some combination of the two, at times simultaneously. There are exceptions, but even the exceptions tend to be nerdy in some way.

That, by the way, is the sort of analysis Websnark foisted upon the world, and which is now far from unique to Websnark. And I haven’t even gotten into the effect created by the way Andy Weir draws eyes. But I digress.

This strip was unleashed to the world during the closing stages of Websnark’s golden age. You probably see a funny strip where wacky hijinks happen. I mean, she gets yoinked away, then returns after a few weeks of adventure and picks up the conversation as if nothing happened! And she’s wearing a bikini warrior outfit! It’s madness! MADNESS I TELL YOU!

Well, Eric Burns sees this:

Some time ago, in the course of snarking Casey and Andy, I mentioned that Jenn Brozek had become the strip’s protagonist. My thesis was simple enough: Casey, Andy, Mary, Satan, Quantum Cop and all the rest were funny characters that funny things happened to, but Jenn was the strip’s Mary Richards — she was the (relatively) normal character who had insanity surround her. As a result, her reactions echoed the reactions of the reader. She might be Queen of the Hunkinites, but her reactions are those of a normal person. More or less.

And, as a result, the major plot arcs seem to center on her. Jenn gets kidnapped transdimensionally or temporally. Things happen. Other things result. Her air of normalcy lends itself to weird situations.

However, part of character development is growth. If Jenn remained aggressively normal, she’d become a one-note joke character, existing only to not be quite as weird as everyone else. Sooner or later, she has to take weirdness in stride.

Today’s strip makes it official. Jenn getting kidnapped and going off on a several week jaunt which leads to her coming back in significantly different clothing doesn’t make her bat an eye. She’s ready to pick up her conversation.

Not to mention that even before she was kidnapped, she was casually burying a satchel in the yard.

Jenn may still be the protagonist of the strip, but she’s not Mary Richards any more. She’s gone full on Phyllis on us.

(Does anyone even remember Phyllis? I always liked her character.)

It’s a psychoanalysis of Jenn’s whole character spun out of a single strip! I haven’t even chose a particularly representative example of the sort of madness Burns brought to his craft at his height. This is a fairly good example. I think.

But I have a few more thoughts on this. (Pardon me if this post sounds really random right now. I’m really tired and I spent way too long reading Websnark posts instead of writing about it. And now I’m aping parts of its style. I really need sleep.)

I’ve talked about the rise of Websnark. Now I want to talk about its fall. Which Burns totally saw coming. “I’ve maintained for a while that we’ve found the audience we’re going to find, and readership is only going to decline from here,” he writes in that first anniversary post. By 2007, he was barely posting at all, as he recognized in one of the rare actual posts:

[I]n 2006, Websnark was running somewhere close to the height of its popularity. I think the “glory year” was probably 2005, but 2006 was still doing darn nicely. At the same time, I was at that point a creature of habit. There are things that I did, and things I didn’t do, and very little breaking up of them.

Which is the nature of a thing like Websnark. When you begin, you’re throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. Sooner or later, you get a sense of what sticks and then… well, you stick with it. You become formalized. You become ritualized. You become expected and perhaps complacent. And for a while, you run high on that formula, because it really is what people want to see, and you really are pretty good at it, and it’s all pretty fun.

Eventually, of course, things run their course. There is shift, and breakdown. You lose your enthusiasm. Daily posting becomes weekly posting, and then monthly posting. People might still read, but things shift from water cooler talk to “oh yeah, he’s on X again,” to nodding and moving on. You become part of the landscape, and eventually you become yesterday.

That is not a complaint, mind. It’s what we predicted from day one — there is a life cycle to these kinds of things. And no, Websnark isn’t going away. Er, more than it already has, what since it’s at best getting handfuls of posts. Regardless, I’m always happy when people come back to see what’s going on.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this. Burns portrayed his decline as inevitable, as some sort of natural law of the Internet. Until I re-read this, I was going to talk about how Websnark is not a good test case. For one thing, it dropped down to posting on certain rare occasions; for upwards of a year, Burns posted every single day. I wrote before that when you update your site every day, people forgive missed updates easier than when you update less often but still consistently. Miss a heck of a lot of updates, however, and you can see the holy fury coming down on your ass. Actually, check that. You can see people acting as if you never even existed.

Had Websnark kept updating every single day, or even a few times a week, perhaps it could have stayed popular indefinitely. Certainly there are plenty of sites on the Internet that have maintained the same level of popularity for ages. But perhaps that’s Eric’s point: he didn’t maintain the same level of enthusiasm for Websnark. Things change. Tastes change. What may seem like the thing you’re intensely, obsessively proud of today may be something you go “meh” at tomorrow. Why, just earlier this year, I fancied myself a philosopher, making pithy, insightful comments on human nature. Now? Political activist. But more on that later in the summer and into the fall. And back in high school I fancied myself a novelist, and before that a famous musician, the MTV kind (you know, if MTV still did music videos and all)…

But there are other reasons for Websnark’s decline. Nearly a full year ago, Burns explained how he was burning out on webcomics. But even at the height of Websnark’s popularity, in 2005, Websnark was starting to drift away from webcomics and into other topics. A signifcant number of posts were about Websnark itself and its growing popularity.

Anyway, the point is: Did the people burn out on Websnark, or did Eric? And if it was Eric that burned out on Websnark, does that really give us any real insight into the working of the Internet, or just into the mind of one Eric Burns?

Well, Websnark may be on the rise again. Back in February it got back into hardcore webcomic commentary with “State of the Web(cartoonist)“. Or maybe “State of the (Web)cartoonist” depending on the week. Anyway, each day Burns would take a look at one person with a webcomic and take a look at that webcartoonist’s strengths and weaknesses and what Burns thought of that cartoonist’s strip. And he posted every single day! For two weeks. Then his schedule started slipping and eventually posts became just as nonexistent as before. Recently it returned for a spell, remarked on three comics, and disappeared again.

He was going to do sixty-five webcomics. By my count, he’s done fifteen cartoonists. And I was counting on getting this strip up the instant he was done with those sixty-five comics, dammit!

Well, it’s not like he’s going to notice it in time anyway.

Right?

Dear God I need to get to bed. It’s one in the freaking morning as I finish this. It’s taken me several days to write it.

And I’m probably going to regret every word of it.