Jan 17, 2013

Webcomic Spotlight: xkcd

By Paul Krueger

Webcomics are one of the oldest forms of web entertainment, right up there with cat pictures and Harry Potter slash fiction.  Early notables, such as Penny Arcade and PvP, grew out of the burgeoning video game culture of the 90’s, and still regularly update today.  Others eschew the Two Gamers On A Couch setup, resulting in titles like the boundlessly imaginative Gunnerkrigg Court and the thoughtful cut-and-paste strip Dinosaur Comics.  More and more are being created all the time, and just as many of them die within weeks or even days of their inception.  Unbound by printing constraints, webcomic-dom is a constantly changing landscape with no hard rules except for one: don’t suck.

And even then, there are many exceptions.

Into this wild creative frontier strides Wine & Pop.  Once a month, we’ll put the spotlight on a particularly excellent example of what the webcomic medium is capable of, and hopefully checking them for updates can slowly assimilate itself into your morning internet rituals.  This month, we look at a work that takes the freedom afforded by webcomics and runs with it: geek cultural touchstone xkcd.

xkcd began as the scanned notebook doodles of NASA employee Randall Munroe, and quickly grew into a comic that knew no bounds of genre, convention, or even plot.  Its cast is made up entirely of nameless stick figures.  Certain characters recur (notably Black Hat, distinguished from other stick figures by something he wears), but for the most part they’re anonymous, each group tackling a different question, creating an unusual situation, or simply acting as a pun delivery service.  Munroe includes a “Random” button on his comic’s navigation controls, and indeed first-time readers can safely click it over and over again without fear of continuity lockout or jokes that are too inside.

Some are quite inside, of course; with a background in physics and computer programming, Munroe’s sense of humor skews very nerdy and intellectual, commenting with equal frequency on internet culture or obscure mathematical principles.  But this is the first of many points for which Munroe should be lauded: though he talks about some seriously heavy science, he reliably makes it funny without ever dumbing it down.  xkcd often changes what it is from day to day, but one thing it’s always been is a celebration of intelligence and imagination.

Munroe’s confidence in his work is, if nothing else, refreshing.  Many webcomics feel the need to force their gags.  Some of it comes from restrictions created by things like self-enforced panel limits.  Others reek of desperation to make you laugh, like the guy who hangs out with the popular crowd that knows he’s one punchline away from exile.  xkcd, on the other hand, is happy to take its time getting to its punchlines, if there’s even one to begin with.  For every oddball chart:

There are just as many that take a contemplative, Calvin & Hobbes-ian tack:

And then, sometimes, you get ones like the one below, which completely blow away all conventions, restrictions, and basically anything else:

You can get lost in that one for a long time.  It’s okay.  I’ll wait.

Clicking the “Random” button a few times will demonstrate the deceptively high quality of Munroe’s art.  He’s put out plenty of absolutely gorgeous strips like the “Error Message” one above, but even his sequences of chatting stick figures showcase a strong storytelling ability.  That’s a damned notable thing, considering the vast majority of his cast don’t have faces.  He clearly has an eye for the way people carry themselves and expertly transposes all of that body language onto collections of lines and circles.  It’s not enough to just put words in bubbles above each figure’s head; Munroe shows his readers that his characters feel those words.

Alright.  Enough out of me.  Get back to exploring #1110, “Click and Drag.”  If you think you’ve seen all of it, trust me: you haven’t.

xkcd is written and drawn by Randall Munroe.  It updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  It may be found here.

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