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.

I can post CAD-related posts at least once a month without even trying. Take that, OOTS!

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized introductory collage.)
Ah yes. Another one of these. Is it just me, or could I care less after the last one of these and certainly after the madness we just went through?

I know Tim probably wants to bring us through a comedown after the exhausting spell he put us through for most of the time from September through November, if not longer, but color me less than fully interested. I suspect I’ll read the first couple, and if nothing happens to get me more fully interested I’ll probably just drop out until the strip titles betray that it’s over.

I was interested in this considering the first time involved a “choose your own adventure” aspect, and while it involved sending in votes via e-mail, the prospect of repeating that did get me interested enough to see what was happening with the forums. Sure enough, there is once again a forum for the actual webcomic, after getting taken down in the aftermath of the miscarriage storyline.

Also, what should we read into the fact we’ve had two of these in a year, especially coinciding with the direction the comic has taken? Is this Tim’s way of saying “let’s have some wacky fun like in the good old days!”? Is this the only wacky fun we can expect from now on?

And for all my preaching about the Angst-O-Meter, there’s still a part of me that’s waiting with baited breath to see what’s next for the “regular” versions of Ethan, Lilah, and the rest. We might be able to see the cast again just in time for Christmas, but I still have a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth from how Buckley left us hanging after all the crap he put the characters through – his last strip in that sequence left Ethan in charge of the store, which seems to demand us finding out how he deals with such a circumstance. Not to mention the whole elopement thing…

It seems more than a little disrespectful to completely shake up the status quo, perhaps more than has ever happened in the history of CAD, in a couple of strips, and then wait until the Christmas season to even come close to showing the consequences. Buckley’s way of celebrating Christmas has, in the past, pretty much consisted of interrupting whatever storyline he already had planned to post a perfunctory acknowledgement of the season, but it seems like an odd time to end a month-long period of limbo amongst CAD fans, where we don’t even know what the status quo is anymore. Which may be part of the point.

Regardless, the main purpose of this post was to show you this, which I found Tuesday at my school’s main cafeteria:

Either there are a few CAD fans at my school, or Ethan’s little invented holiday has had more real-world legs than I might have otherwise suspected…

Someone linked to me on the forums and I got over a hundred hits yesterday. And I missed it. Oops.

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized commitment. And click here for what I mention in the title. Oh, and this post contains spoilers. Oops.)

You notice I’m not even bothering with the Angst-O-Meter for this one.

My first reaction to this was: WHAT???

I couldn’t help but think of Lucas and anyone else who might have been invited to the originally planned wedding. This might actually raise the Angst-O-Meter depending on what happens from here. How might these people feel about being told the wedding was postponed, then finding out the bride and groom effectively eloped without them?

(In retrospect, the fact that Ethan and Lilah were going to use their respective tickets to go on a vacation might have been a bit of a tip-off that they weren’t just going to go on gondola rides…)

I’m going to keep reading for a few more strips to find out what, substantively and regarding characters other than Ethan and Lilah, will actually happen as a result of everything in this arc. There are a few ways Buckley can keep me on board for the long haul (this and Zeke’s destruction being a symbolic “growing up” for Ethan, for one) and there are many ways, very tempting ways, Buckley can turn me off for good (the entire arc turning out to be a shaggy dog story, various plot threads getting dropped like nothing happened, or really just rubbing me the wrong way at all).

The Angst-O-Meter: Day 5

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

First, with the election approaching, for at least four of the next five weeks Tuesday will become webcomics day again on Da Blog, counting this post. Second, I’m linking to this post from here and here, so expect at least a slight bump in traffic.

With this apparent resolution, we can, presumably, all take a sigh of relief, and the Angst-O-Meter can come back down to 52%.

My frustration with Tim Buckley and the strip, however, is higher than ever.

Last time, I could have justified an Angst-O-Meter reading higher than the one I actually gave; this time, I could justify one lower than this, as there isn’t really much left to patch up. Zeke is still headless and Lucas still doesn’t completely trust Kate, but the main problem was always Ethan’s problems with Christian and Lilah. Those appear to have been taken care of, so for the moment at least, everything is back to some semblance of normal.

But the way things returned to normal, in a single strip, with a ridiculously expedited, bad-sitcommy, almost deus ex machina ending, that still does not sit well with me. Hell, this resolution is almost a single panel, and Buckley did such a good job of convincing people (well, me) that Christian’s words of departure were 100% correct that this resolution almost comes across as out of character. More to the point, it seems to prove CAD‘s critics right once again: the strip revolves around Ethan and nothing bad can happen to him for very long. The entire story arc may no longer represent a descent into First and Ten Syndrome, but only because it may have been turned into something far worse: the same as every other CAD story arc, only with a tease that it would be different.

If things immediately return to the status quo before this storyline it gives the impression that Buckley really is a bad sitcom writer who doesn’t really aspire to more than cheezy soap opera writer. If things immediately return to the status quo before the pregnancy and miscarriage, then people will pretty much riot. The only way for Buckley to save any face from this resolution – and there’s no way he can save face entirely – is for Ethan to realize he almost lost Lilah and perform some sort of soul-searching. But one of the points CAD‘s critics have long held is that real “change” is anathema to the CAD cast, especially Ethan.

The first time I ever wrote a post on Ctrl+Alt+Del, I said that the core of the strip and its popularity was not in being a gaming comic, but in being what Buckley called a gamer comic, in Ethan, Lucas, Lilah, and the rest, and their relationships. When Buckley performed the miscarriage, he said he wanted to “stress-test” what was in many ways the central relationship: that between Ethan and Lilah. I also said that too much emphasis on the “craft” elements of storytelling and art tended to miss the point and try for masterpieces when “kinda good” would do. Tim Buckley is hardly Charles Dickens or Rich Burlew, but he didn’t need to be. I was attracted because I became engaged in the plot, and because I wanted to see what happened next. I didn’t care about the accusations that Ethan was a Mary Sue or that he never really changed from being a manchild despite having impending changes that would require an actual adult to deal with. Those are nitpicks. All that matters, if you’re not going for the funny (which CAD is when it wants to be), is whether the plot is entertaining and/or compelling – no matter what era you’re in. And CAD passes that bar.

But this? This is insulting your audience. This is getting them emotionally invested in a story, wondering how Ethan could possibly extricate himself from this situation, if he ever did… and then pulling the rug out from under them, waving a magic wand, and putting everything back to normal.

I’m not leaving Ctrl+Alt+Del. Not yet. Let me at least see where Buckley is going with this. But this may be a situation where the right thing to say is “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

The Angst-O-Meter: Day 4

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

I know I said I was done with the Angst-O-Meter until after the election, but circumstances have intervened and I have to comment on today’s strip, despite the mountain of other stuff on my plate.

So it seems that if, when Shannon was first introduced, you had Ethan leaning on her as an escape from Lilah, well… you were half right. Ethan wasn’t having any of it, but Lilah was sure going to think he was.

This strip, in a way, is really a summary of the past month or so of strips, with a couple of peeks into Lilah’s actual situation and some looks at Lucas’ attempts to patch things up with Kate. As that relationship appears to be on the mend, if slowly, it’s possible the main reason for that subplot may be the last panel of this strip.

Ethan really has been focusing almost singlemindedly on his contest with Christian, and looking back on previous strips, it’s partly his fault. How far has his relationship with Lilah deteriorated that he’s not telling her about his day-to-day life, his day-to-day struggles? Even after Christian reassures him he’s not looking for Lilah, Ethan acts like a paranoid maniac with someone he knows is sensitive right now, leaving him unable to talk about his situation with someone who might be a more useful font for ideas than Shannon turns out to be, which leads to a phone conversation that inadvertently backs up Christian’s story about a cheating Ethan.

There are two reasons I’m not setting the Angst-O-Meter to 100%: Lucas still appears to be on the mend with Kate and the strip is still nominally having punchlines each day. But this strip about a week ago is the last strip that can be said to have a real punchline, and I can just see Ethan going on a woe-is-me diatribe within a couple of strips. And don’t forget Buckley’s ominous warning, back during the miscarriage, that “I know who moves out and when”. He assured people there wouldn’t be too much in the way of woe-is-me diatribes, but it’s sure looking like that’s only because he’s too busy adding more angst-worthy stuff to the fire.

So up goes the Angst-O-Meter to 92% and I could easily justify setting it higher. And I’m pretty darn close to the end of my rope with Ctrl+Alt+Del – it’s pretty much train-wreck fascination at this point.

The Angst-O-Meter: Day 3 or Conclusion

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized surprises.)
This will be the last Angst-O-Meter, at least for now… I’m about to launch into something big and webcomics posts are about to be curtailed sufficient to force me to stop. Neither of the conditions I set when I started are extant; I just need to save time.
Last time, I set the Angst-O-Meter at 62%. Since then:
  • Ethan met Shannon, Christian’s representative in absentia, and established her competence. I was concerned when Shannon announced her hatred of Christian that, despite the opening this now opened up for Ethan to escape some angst, it also opened up an opportunity for Ethan to find a little love and escape Lilah, offsetting those gains. So far, though, their relationship is purely strategic.
  • Meanwhile, Lucas attempted to get back on the dating scene, with disastrous results.
  • Ethan, post-strategy session, challenged Christian to find out who could run the store better. This was sort of a big bet on the strip’s angst: if Ethan won, the status quo would be restored; if Christian won, Ethan would “work for me for free for the rest of your life.” So a lot of the strip’s standing was at stake here.
  • Lucas managed to recover some semblance of normalcy by getting back in with Kate. So it looks like the strip is managing to bounce back from the dark days of earlier in the summer.

And then came today’s strip to shoot the Angst-O-Meter through the roof.

Ethan just lost everything he was counting on on the flop (Shannon won’t help even in subtle ways) and Christian just pushed him all-in (trying to get back with Lilah).

(Pardon the poker metaphors. I’ve just been trying to catch up on WSOP episodes.)

At this point, if Ethan loses this bet, it would send the Angst-O-Meter straight up to 100% and it would be game over anyway. There are only two reasons I’m not sending the Angst-O-Meter well over 75%: Lucas getting back with Kate and the fact that somehow, someway, Ethan has to win this bet for the sanity of the strip.

Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if Christian won, given what Buckley has said in the past.

So the Angst-O-Meter, for now, jumps up to 72% on its last edition until at least after the election… and even if I would otherwise feel like picking it up afterwards, I might not under the ground rules I set for it anyway.

The Angst-O-Meter: Day 2

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

A couple of notes about today’s Ctrl+Alt+Del.

First, I’m starting to wonder if Tim is starting to send the message that Ethan is not nearly as much of an idiot as he’s long been made out to be, and never has been (pointing to the creation of Zeke). That seemed to be pulled back into focus by the start of this story arc, which this strip calls back to. If Ethan is really a misunderstood genius, it can’t be good for the accusations of Mary Sue-dom that have been leveled at him.

(Man, I’m reeeeeally bummed at Tangents being reduced to a LiveJournal backup at the moment, because this would have been a really nice tie-in to my OOTS post that requires the real Tangents to be up. Stupid lazy Robert A. Howard.)

And yes, I know Ethan originally convinced Lucas to nix the tie, and tells him he should have worn it here.

And all that is related to my other point. We’ve seen Lilah start to go mad, but it’s starting to look like Ethan may be starting to go mad as well, snapping a little at Lucas when he mentions arguably the least of his problems.

And all that means it’s time to bump the Angst-O-Meter up to 62%.

Good day.

The Angst-O-Meter: Day 1

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

Time to play the game that’s sweeping the nation: the Ctrl+Alt+Del Angst-O-Meter! I was going to post this yesterday, but Monday Night Football, and other TV-watching pursuits, largely monopolized my time.

In a sense, Ctrl+Alt+Del is becoming the anti-Order of the Stick. Whereas if I were to post every time OOTS prompted me to, I would post with every strip because it’s just that good and entertaining, under normal circumstances if I were to post every time CAD prompted me to, I would post with every strip because CAD seems to want to send its characters even further into a tailspin with every strip. There’s only so many ways you can say “CAD is descending into First and Ten Syndrome, just as people feared during the miscarraige arc” over and over.

Just look at everything Tim Buckley has put his characters through in the past two weeks plus: revealed Kate hanging out with another man, broke up Kate and Lucas almost out of nowhere, sold the store where Ethan works to Lilah’s ex, and now Lucas just punched Zeke’s head clean off. It’s nothing Ethan hasn’t been able to fix before, but this strip is important for more than Zeke’s capitectomy. Lucas is in full-on angst mode here, fully dwelling on just how far down his life has gone in two real-time weeks. Remember when Buckley told readers that he wouldn’t dwell on every moment of Ethan and Lilah’s post-miscarriage anguish? Well, that sort of “woe is me” anguish is already starting to creep into the strip and I don’t know if we like it.

At the same time, there’s still a punchline in today’s strip, and Buckley has put his characters through the wringer before, including once having their house destroyed as a result of a rampaging gone-mad Zeke. So for now, the Angst-O-Meter will start out at 58%. 0 means that every panel is a joke in itself, 100 is no-fun-at-all First and Ten Syndrome. The feature will continue until the Angst-O-Meter reaches 0 or 100, or until I can’t take it anymore.

This makes three straight CADs I’ve posted on and four straight I’ve commented on.

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized imagined nut shot.)

Sure. Attack me for not recognizing someone we last saw in, what, 2004 now? Under a different art style?

I stand by the idea that CAD is ramping up the DRAMA~! faster than some people might be willing to put up with. Just look at the cross-cutting nature of the current storyline; there’s so much drama that we have to cram two examples of it into one storyline.

Is this more of what Buckley called the “stress-testing” of the relationship between Ethan and Lilah?

Tim Buckley probably isn’t interested in a word I say, but I have to get it off my chest anyway.

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

So it looks like Lucas and Kate are splitting up, rather suddenly, just as Lucas was about to tell Kate he finally does love her.

This as we, basically simultaneously (through cross-cutting), learn that Gamehaven, the store where Ethan works (well, sort of), has been sold to someone else… who, whoever it is, apparently doesn’t intend to keep it a video game store (unless there’s something I’m missing).

This on the heels of Ethan and Lilah starting to grow distant, itself on the heels of Lilah’s decision to postpone the wedding.

And of course, all of that comes on the heels of the infamous miscarriage.

In case you’re incredibly dense, all that – despite my hopes that the miscarriage would be a one-time bump in the road, and that while CAD‘s Cerebus Syndrome would continue unabated, it wouldn’t continue to descend into angst – would seem to add up to a full-fledged case of First and Ten Syndrome.

For all the hatred Ctrl+Alt+Del has engendered on the Internet over the years, mostly from a few really loud sources, it has, in actuality, been one of the most popular webcomics on the entire Internet. I believe one of’s last rankings of webcomics by traffic, distilling the results of traffic-ranking services like Alexa, had Ctrl+Alt+Del behind only Penny Arcade in popularity – outpacing such giants as User Friendly, Order of the Stick, even PVP, even the web homes of newspaper comics like Dilbert and Garfield. People didn’t care that Ctrl+Alt+Del had allegedly bad art, or that it overrelied on violence because its jokes were over by the end of the first panel, or that Ethan was allegedly essentially Tim Buckley’s personal self-insertion Mary Sue. They laughed at the gaming jokes anyway, they enjoyed the wacky scrapes Ethan got into, and moreover, they followed the characters, and their trials and tribulations, with rapt attention.

The miscarriage arc changed all that – arguably going all the way back to Lilah’s announcement of her pregnancy back in February, which seemingly went against what everyone knew about the strip. There was no way – no freaking way Ethan would ever be mature enough to be a father. No way in the world. But when that point was rendered moot in the miscarriage arc, it basically broke the Internet, and turned everyone against Ctrl+Alt+Del. The strip went right from wacky hijinks, with basically no warning (and one easily-misinterpreted strip’s worth of buffer), into an angst-filled suckfest where everyone brooded over what had happened, prompting everyone to fear that full-out First and Ten Syndrome was imminent, if not already started… and back again, kicking right into a joke about D&D 4th Edition as though the main characters weren’t engaging in a round of soul-searching. Attempts to be touching and serious about the matter just fell flat on their face. It didn’t help that the miscarriage came across as a response to people’s objections to the pregnancy, as a hackneyed plot device to paint Buckley out of a corner.

And Buckley didn’t do himself any favors with his attempt to explain himself. Sure, he reassured readers that the strip wouldn’t focus on every second of angst, but that’s offset by the revelation that this was in the works at least as far back as the marriage proposal – which itself was planned as far back as the very earliest days of the strip when Lilah was introduced. Like Order of the Stick, Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s Cerebus Syndrome was planned from the beginning – only it wasn’t a transition to a coherent story like OOTS. It looks like this trip into Cerebus Syndrome will just be nothing but misfortune after misfortune – and right there, as he attempted to explain the miscarriage, and as he attempted to reassure readers the angst wouldn’t continue, he also dropped warnings that there was more to come. “I know who moves out and when”? “I know who dies and who doesn’t die”?!?

Characters don’t need to obsess over their misfortune to bring about First and Ten Syndrome (a term, by the way, I think is a bit too much of a finely-grained subset of Cerebus Syndrome for us to appropriate from Websnark, especially when it’s named after a TV show no one my age has heard of, but it’s useful for my purposes here). Recall the definition of First and Ten Syndrome:

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. (emphasis added)

I don’t read that to mean that every moment where something bad doesn’t happen to our heroes, is a moment where they whine about bad things happening to them instead. Nor should it, because a strip that’s nothing but whining has its own problems separate from whatever it’s whining about. What makes First and Ten Syndrome is the general tone or mood. If we’re not having fun anymore, if everything has to become a soap opera, if all the characters are just pathetic, that‘s when a comic can become unbearable to read and that’s when people start leaving in droves.

It’s true that Ctrl+Alt+Del still has moments when it’s fun and funny, but that arguably just makes the problem worse. It creates a dissonance between the gravity, or at least stress, of the situation and the humor brought to it. The Players and the one-shot game commentaries don’t seem to have decayed one iota, which makes it all the more odd that Ethan and Co. have very little to smile about. It almost seems that Buckley launched the Sillies in anticipation of the suckfest the main strip would become. These strips, the size of three-panel daily newspaper strips, are essentially gag-a-day exploits of the CAD characters, essentially frozen in time, with no mouths or even arms. Anyone who doesn’t like how the lives of Ethan, Lucas, and Lilah are collapsing before their eyes can look at the Sillies and pretend it’s still 2005.

It’s a good thing Buckley has the Sillies because otherwise he’d lose his one defense against the critics he already had. Buckley’s stock defense against people criticizing Ctrl+Alt+Del has been to proclaim how many more readers he has than they can ever hope to have, often in a belligerent enough tone to contribute to the hatred. But it’s a good point: Those readers have stuck with Buckley through thick and thin, often defending him against the likes of John Solomon. But for many of them, the miscarriage was the last straw, and for quite a few more of them, the recent events are the last straw for them, and there are many more last straws to come for others. I’m not among them – in fact I’m finally adding CAD to my RSS reader – but I can see it coming from a mile away.

Buckley may have a story he’s always wanted to tell from the beginning, with a path he’s always intended for it to take, but the beginnings of that story’s kicking into high gear have driven off many of his unwilling defenders. Perhaps Buckley is willing to sacrifice all his readers for his artistic integrity, but considering he’ll also be sacrificing the base of Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s financial success and the public face of his excuse to the John Solomons of the world, what will he really have left?