(From User Friendly. Click for full-sized principled treatment.)
I told you we would break out of the rut of only three or four different comics being reviewed! I told you!
In a sense, User Friendly was my first webcomic. Well before I had an inkling of what any webcomics were beyond maybe Penny Arcade, before I even had Da Blog, back in 2006 I started going through the User Friendly archives. At the time, I didn’t even see UF as a webcomic, but as a newspaper comic, even if only in “alternative” papers. (Perhaps that was because I had seen UF strips on the walls of my mom’s old job. Or because I had seen UF book collections and would have been taken aback at the very idea of webcomics – comics released only online in their first run – at the time I saw them.) The project quickly monopolized a large amount of my time, but I never had even the slightest bit of intention of going through the entire archive. I just wanted to see the strip take shape and read through the archives just to the point where User Friendly had found its status quo, where User Friendly became User Friendly.
I never found it.
Now again, UF was not only my first webcomic, it was the first comic I attempted to catch up on through the online archive, whether print-based or online, and I never attempted to start reading it on a daily basis for any length of time. So it’s possible my perspective was skewed by reading everything all at once (not to mention UF‘s reliance on ongoing storylines), and helped by how briskly I sped through the archives – even though the UF archive project started monopolizing my time, I was scared at how close I was getting to the present at the speed I was going at. (UF has been going for a while and has been running daily for ten years, but the archive’s a bit less daunting than that sounds because each strip is brisk and quick.) Still, no matter how far into the strip’s run I got, UF never felt like it had found its status quo. Miranda and AJ finally settled their “will-they-or-won’t-they” in 2003 or 2004, and it still felt like way too early in the strip’s run to resolve that plotline, even though AJ’s crush had been a background plot point for years.
Why was that?
User Friendly is a strip for which the most accurate way to describe it is as a kitbashing of several existing works, including some that postdate it, but even that doesn’t really do it justice by making it sound like a ripoff. It’s so much like Dilbert that it’s not so much the Internet‘s Dilbert as it is the Canadian Dilbert. Except the cast is large and consistent enough to also take on aspects of being more of a webcomic version of The Office (before Jim and Pam, there was AJ and Miranda!). On the other hand, the crew at Columbia Internet get into so much wacky hijinks that it’s also kind of like PVP, if PVP had never left the magazine offices and was about an actual technology company rather than a gaming magazine.
Indeed, perhaps the most fitting comparison for User Friendly is to PVP, right down to the mascot. Where PVP has Skull, User Friendly has Dust Puppy, complete with his own side cast bringing their own wacky hijinks, only Erwin and Crud Puppy are a bit more integrated into the daily life of the office (especially Erwin) than Shecky and Scratch. The diverging directions the two strips have taken are telling: while PVP let Skull become emblematic of the strip, Dust Puppy’s screen time has been significantly reduced over the years. For being the strip’s mascot, he probably appears much less often than any other “regular”. He tends to pop most often in standalones, watching TV with AJ, or when UF goes on one of its long (and infamous) “trip” storylines. Crud Puppy has become more of a general emblem of Ultimate Evil; Erwin has essentially become the office’s computer, providing an excuse for Illiad to set off a dialogue involving anything on the Internet without needing to find a full two characters to play off each other.
But if there’s one truly profound difference between User Friendly and PVP, it is in the art style. PVP regularly changes perspectives from panel to panel, and UF… doesn’t. Illiad isn’t up there with the worst abusers of copy-and-paste, but he’s at about Ctrl+Alt+Del level. The problem, when you compare him to CAD, is that, except in the Sunday strips, there are no color backgrounds or characters, making the monotony more apparent (say what you will about Tim Buckley’s use of Google Image Search for backgrounds, it’s better than the alternative), and more to the point, Illiad’s characters barely open their mouths – seriously, they never open more than a pixel or three when people talk (with occasional exceptions, such as Stef in profile).
(And please don’t make me once again fall back on the “this strip uses B^U too” argument, okay? UF‘s hated enough for it not to help. Thanks.)
Where User Friendly‘s use of copy-and-paste is most apparent is in an area that merits another comparison to another comic, because in quite a few ways, User Friendly is the Doonesbury of geek culture. This becomes most apparent in Illiad’s exterior shots of places like Microsoft and SCO and EA, which are very reminiscent of early Doonesbury‘s effectively copy-pasted shots of places like the White House. The artistic portrayal of the actual characters and how they talk is not unlike that of early Doonesbury as well, but Garry Trudeau has learned how to mix up his perspectives – even on those exterior shots of the White House – and Illiad still maintains that single-perspective look, occasionally broken up by extreme close-ups so he can claim “see, I shake up my perspectives!” (but mostly to squeeze in more dialogue).
(Then again, Doonesbury was maybe twenty years old by the time Trudeau finally figured perspectives out.)
Comparing UF to Doonesbury (or I suppose at this point, Dilbert meets Doonesbury with a dash of PVP added) provides a neat way to segue to the actual content of the strip itself, because – especially in its single-panel Sunday strips – UF is very much an editorial cartoon. Now, I’ve previously described xkcd as an editorial cartoon for the Internet, but no one would mistake it for User Friendly. xkcd tends to talk about memes rolling through the Internet, or the happenings of online forums. In short, xkcd tends to limit its satire to the Internet itself, or when it’s not doing that, on everyday things people do. UF is a lot more savage, taking on things Big Corporations do that tick a certain class of geek off.
Actually, that “certain class of geek” may hint at one reason why User Friendly, like Ctrl+Alt+Del, has attracted a hatedom that might be out of proportion to its lack of quality. Only unlike CAD, it’s not so much a result of people misunderstanding what the strip is about, except in not understanding it before they encounter it. Most of the geek strips that litter the web – Penny Arcade and its ripoffs – tend to center on gaming culture and its related realms. (You could argue there are quite a few that delve into D&D and its ilk, but most of them aim to be more like Order of the Stick, telling stories based on the D&D milieu and keeping their appeal relatively broad.)
UF does have AJ as a gamer representative and most of the cast has some gamer cred, but UF is fundamentally a strip about and for the IT industry. (Tech support industry, when Greg is the focus.) Its humor is geared towards IT professionals who like seeing Microsoft get skewered, like going “yay Linux!”, and want to see the annoying marketing guy down the hall get his comeuppance, not the gamers living in their mothers’ basements that read Penny Arcade and the like. As PA itself once said, it’s not for you. (I should make it clear: UF isn’t what xkcd is cracked up to be, either. It’s certainly worth a laugh from time to time, even from me, and most of the jokes are at least marginally acessible to any geek.)
Earlier… I guess it was last year, now, wasn’t it? – Eric “Websnark” Burns(-White), back when he was still doing his “State of the Web(cartoonist)” series, went into talking about UF expecting to utterly savage it and write a “you had me and you lost me” on it, and instead wrote at length about how UF wasn’t bad, it just hadn’t changed from when it started and the schtick was growing old. Actually, now that I re-read it, that was what Burns wrote when he first snarked UF at the very beginning, when he still out-and-out hated it, or at least didn’t like it, and it’s pretty much common knowledge among UF haters. What he actually said last year was basically what I said in the last paragraph. But anyway, there’s nothing wrong with remaining exactly the same over the years, with next to no character development. Peanuts essentially played that to perfection. So have most of the gag-a-day strips in the newspapers, to the point of never even letting their characters age.
User Friendly‘s problem… see, when Burns(-White) did his “State of the (Web)cartoonist” on Illiad, he remarked on the contrast between PVP being criticized for drifting away from simple gag-a-day strips, and UF being criticized for not doing so. I think the difference, and the reason why I never felt that UF ever really became UF (oddly, considering I mentioned earlier that it never found its status quo), was that UF became set in its ways too early. UF never really grew out of adolescence; it essentially froze in time at a point where it had yet to reach maturity, and so when I had my archive binge in 2006, I kept waiting for it to finish rounding into shape, waiting for it to take those last few steps in its evolution. And it never came. Maybe that’s because there are a few dangling threads Illiad leaves maddeningly untouched, but it’s like there’s a germ of a greater webcomic lurking inside User Friendly and that if Illiad hadn’t decided “okay, this is the comic I like” so quickly, UF could be a far greater comic strip for the experience. Couple that with its general timelessness (both in its characters and its subject matter) and the reliance on story arcs (the real reason I never got a sense it found its status quo), and UF is really a lot younger comic strip than its years.
User Friendly isn’t bad. I’m sure in certain subcultures, its humor is rip-roaringly hilarious. It’s just that… it just isn’t good. Certainly not good enough to make my RSS reader, if it were even modern enough to have an RSS feed. It’s decent enough that I can chuckle at some of the jokes, and find myself hooked enough to go through the archive for longer than I intended, but it’s not good enough to draw me to it. It’s just cripplingly mediocre, and that might be one of the most dreaded things you can say about a webcomic.