At one point, I almost mistyped “Ethan” as “Elan”. I really do have Order of the Stick on the brain.

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

Webcomics community? We need to have a talk. It’s about Ctrl+Alt+Del.

In case you don’t know, CAD is the strip virtually everyone on the Internet loves to hate. To read most of the commentary on it, Tim Buckley can’t draw, can’t write to save his life, is the biggest a-hole in the history of the Internet, burn it with fire so the purification of America can begin, yada yada yada.

In particular, the Internet recently broke to pieces over Buckley’s miscarriage storyline, which caused even CAD‘s few defenders to freak out. For them, this was an unacceptable sojourn into angsty drama, one from which only unspeakable crap can come. For the strip’s existing detractors, this seems only to be vindication, a sign that the unexplainable mass of fans surrounding the strip may finally be seeing the light. And it’s caused a whole new round of soul-searching surrounding Buckley’s strip and Buckley himself.

Well, I’ve just completed a thorough read-through of the entire CAD archives, and I feel that I’m in a position to make an informed judgment of the strip’s quality.

Drum roll please:

Ctrl+Alt+Del… is not the spawn of Satan.

I know, shocking, isn’t it?

But it’s true. In fact, Ctrl+Alt+Del is good enough that it is joining the rarified air and hallowed halls of the “webcomics” section of IE7’s RSS reader, alongside only Darths and Droids and Order of the Stick. That’s something that can’t be said for the dean of gaming webcomics, Penny Arcade. And trust me, I’ve tried to get into Penny Arcade.

(UPDATE: Okay, CAD isn’t joining the RSS reader until it learns how to separate its news posts and its comic posts into separate feeds. But that’s part of the reason it’s popular: I can decide to hold off on that decision, because CAD updates so regularly.)

Now, I’m not saying Buckley doesn’t have problems he needs to work on. He does occasionally need to learn where the joke is and move it to the final panel, and if he has more than one joke he might want to consider putting them in more than one strip. At least some of the time, he does it right (warning, possibly NSFW), even if only by accident, and besides, it should be excusable to have a joke in an early panel if you have a sufficient punchline in the final panel. And some strips are funny despite violating that rule entirely. (And yes, Ctrl+Alt+Del is sometimes actually funny!) And he does tend a little too much towards being violent. And some of the jokes (like the one above) are really obvious and have been done to death already. And it is a little jarring to wonder why Ethan is even considering getting married and having children when he’s such a manchild (it’s just a webcomic, you should really just relax). And Ethan in general seems a bit too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but then again it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy common among gamers. And the dialogue balloons tend to be arranged in nonintuitive ways. The Western eye is trained to read left-to-right before up-and-down, and Buckley’s tendency to reverse that order can make his wordier panels challenging to read. And he can be wordy.

(Okay, maybe I’m damning with faint praise. As for the charge that Buckley’s characters are one-dimensional, I doubt I would be the best judge of that, but I suspect it’s a little unfair. Okay, back to damning with faint praise.)

And the artwork needs work too, but he’s certainly a far better artist than, say, me. He tends to overuse the expression at the left, which essentially looks like someone being bored but has been known to be used for several other emotions as well, especially earlier in the strip’s history, creating a jarring disconnect. (Buckley seems to take this in stride, using that same expression or variants of it for every picture accompanying every profile on the cast page, with a couple of exceptions. Of course, some detractors see that face in every single expression Buckley draws, so maybe that isn’t so good of a characterization, but still, Player 3 is the only one with his mouth closed, and of the others that have mouths at all, Chef Brian is the most different from the others.) And he has been known to use shortcuts at times, such as using images as backgrounds. But honestly, take the former away and the artwork (which has much improved from the earliest strips, which make the current strips look like Rembrandt) isn’t that different from that of Penny Arcade. Which I’m sure CAD‘s detractors will say is evidence that Buckley is ripping off his art style from PA.

Besides, when you’re a humor webcomic like CAD is, art is overrated. As long as there’s enough that’s intelligible to get the joke across, you can throw some palettes of paint on a wall and call it a webcomic if the jokes are funny enough. People have noticed that Buckley, like Rich Burlew, is a better artist than his strip lets on, yet instead of figuring out that maybe Buckley’s style might be an intentional design choice, they attack him for not carrying over his “better” art over to his populist comic strip.

You have to wonder what Buckley did to get so devotedly vitriolic enemies. Did they see early critics end up verbally abused or even censored by the famously abrasive Buckley and turn their subsequent opinions of the man into opinions of the strip? Did they see his characters willingly use Microsoft products and fail to bow at the altar of Apple and Linux and go all “lol microsoft sux windows sux this guy sux micros**t competitors are teh r0xx0r5!!!!!111!111!!!eleven!”? Or did they look at Ctrl+Alt+Del, think “I could do that!”, and then, when their strip failed to reach Ctrl+Alt+Del levels of popularity, think, “How come that strip is so popular and mine isn’t? No strip could possibly be better than mine! Ctrl+Alt+Del must suck and I must correct these dear misguided and deluded souls who won’t recognize my brilliance!” So they come up with, honestly, fairly feeble criticisms. “Umm… it doesn’t follow the normal rules for jokes! Uhh… he’s too wordy! Umm… he reuses images of characters! Uhh…” For all that its many enemies attack it for, there must be some reason why it’s so mind-numbingly popular despite all of it, other than that its fans are all brain-dead sycophants.

I suspect many of these critics may be falling prey to a very common misconception. It’s a misconception so common that even many of his fans may fall prey to it, but Buckley himself seems to have some grasp on it. (By contrast, my theory on Irregular Webcomic! hadn’t even occured to its author when I proposed it.) So let me set the record straight right now:

Ctrl+Alt+Del is not a gaming webcomic.

Yes, Ctrl+Alt+Del – a strip named for the command to bring up the Task Manager and reboot in Windows, whose lead character’s devotion to video games borders on addiction, whose two main characters both have jobs selling electronics, whose principal female character is that (supposed) rarity of rarities – a woman who plays video games – a strip that created the gamer-centric “holiday” of Winter-een-mas, that occasionally features four numerically named and color-coded “players”, and that frequently features strips set entirely within a game’s milieu – is not a gaming webcomic.

All of those things are important aspects of the strip, but CAD‘s real core – and, at least in my case and so far as I suspect, the reason I’m adding it to my webcomics list – lies in its characters and relationships. It lies in the relationship between Ethan and Lilah and between Lucas and Kate. It also lies in the friendship between Ethan and Lucas and Ethan’s occasionally tense relationship with Zeke. It lies in wondering what wacky thing Ethan will do next and whether Lucas will find it in him to truly love Kate and what wackiness will Zeke cause next and what punks will get their much-deserved comeuppance and what wackiness will Chef Brian bring us this time around and just what is Scott doing behind that metal electrified door anyway?!?

And this extends even to the game joke strips. It turns out there’s a method to Buckley’s madness, a reason why he misplaces the punchline, overexplains the punchline, overrelies on violence, and does obvious jokes. Unlike almost every other gaming webcomic on the Internet, Buckley is writing, at least in part, for non-gamers. One of CAD’s detractors is Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, who has gained some level of Internet fame with his Zero Punctuation video game review series (about which I will have more to say later in the week). In February, he expanded on his hatred of CAD on a post on his blog (scroll down to “You Cad” and remind me to change the link to the archive page later). In it, he contrasted this Penny Arcade with this Ctrl+Alt+Del.

Both comics identify the humour in the situation – that the rules of a game world seem absurd when applied to the real world – but while Penny Arcade understands that the crux of a joke should be reserved for the final panel, Ctrl-Alt-Del is apparently so excited about the idea that it blurts it out right away, leaving three more panels to flounder in excessive dialogue and pointlessness.

A punchline should be equated to an actual punch in the face. That’s why it’s called a punch-line. You deliver it and run. You do not hang around explaining how you did the punch and that the recipient should probably be in a lot of pain now.

Identify the funny part of the idea and save it for last. Leave with the audience laughing. If you do nothing else, finish strong. That’s a rule any humourist will agree with. But with the centrepoint of the gag already uselessly spent, Buckley’s comic is forced to fall upon its old standby of violence as a sort of prosthetic punchline. Now, violence can certainly be funny, modern cinema was virtually built on the tradition of slapstick, but it doesn’t work in static, non-animated media. There is humour to be found in shock value, but most people have been on the internet long enough to not be shocked by anything as mundane as a claymore through the sweetbreads.
But even if the joke were structured properly, there is still far too much dialogue. This is a problem common to a lot of webcomics, but since we’re already in the CAD-bashing groove we’ll stick with it. Shakespeare wrote that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. He did not then add ‘unless you’re writing a webcomic’. It applies to everything, and don’t tell me you’re arrogant enough to claim to know better than Shakespeare.

But recently (for a reason I’ll get to in a bit), one person came along and decided that, to the extent either was funny, CAD was funnier.

For those who have no idea that Penny Arcade is a gaming comic or is not exactly up on all of the stupid games out there, or is aware of such things but does not give two shits, the Penny Arcade strip is a total non-sequitur. Is this supposed to be funny? Because it isn’t, you know. It assumes a level of familiarity that if it’s not there, it simply does not work on any level. (Personally, I still think the timing or whatever is way off on the damned thing even if you are familiar with Puzzle Quest, but I bitched about that already)

The Ctrl+Alt+Del one, on the other hand, does not make knowledge of the game a prerequisite to get the humor. In fact, it kind of explains it a bit so I have a slightly better understanding on what the fuck is going on.

Over-explaining the joke makes the strip accessible to people who aren’t gamers. The same strip done by a “better” gaming comic would be damn near incomprehensible. It should be noted that I side with Croshaw on this one – I find the PA version funnier, and I do find it funny, and I’m not even necessarily familiar with the game in question, and I don’t think I say that just because CAD and Croshaw explained the punchline for me – and I suspect the best way to make this joke would be to split the first panel of CAD into three to four panels.

Maybe that’s what I should do with Sandsday: fix CAD jokes that aren’t perfect but contain at least the germ of a good idea.

On that note, let’s move to the ongoing miscarriage arc.

One of Eric Burns’ most obvious contributions to webcomics criticism is the term “Cerebus Syndrome”, which he describes like this:

The effort to create character development by adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension (or meant to be a joke character) and making them fuller and richer. The idea is to take what was fun on one level and showing the reality beneath it. ‘Cerebus Syndrome’ refers to Dave Sim’s epic, sometimes tragically flawed magnum opus, Cerebus the Aardvark. Cerebus started life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian starring an Earth-Pig born. Over time, it grew extremely complex, philosophical, and in many ways much much funnier. Then, Dave Sim went batshit crazy and Cerebus went straight to Hell, but that’s for another day. People saw how Cerebus’s humble roots could lead to glorious heights, and as cartoonists get bored with what they’re doing, they decided to pull a Cerebus of their own. […]

Please note that one can continue to bring the Funny while going for Cerebus Syndrome — and in fact, probably should. It is far more common to drop the Funny….Note also that not all strips that bring heavy Story, mix humorous and serious elements, and have bad things happen to their characters are undergoing Cerebus Syndrome. It’s only those strips that began on a very light, even limited dimension level and then transform into something different that really shoot for the Cerebus Syndrome.

It takes a strong hand to successfully pull off Cerebus Syndrome, and the successes are few. Order of the Stick managed it (and I’ll have more on it at a later date). So did Bob and George and El Goonish Shive. Sluggy Freelance was one of the first, serving as the model for later ones. But Rich Burlew, Dan Shive, and Pete Abrams are all undisputed masters of the medium (or at least skilled storytellers), and if Dave Anez doesn’t quite fall into that category, it’s still telling that his fans might be surprised to hear that Bob and George went into Cerebus Syndrome – after all, it was laugh-out-loud to the end. (And the exclusion of Anez from that group isn’t meant to demean him – I’ve been known to go on addictive archive binges of B&G strips.) When a strip doesn’t succeed, the results can be grisly, and it becomes something else entirely, which Burns calls “First and Ten Syndrome”, after a now-obscure HBO show:

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.

For many, the miscarriage arc represented Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s headlong plunge into First and Ten Syndrome. And there is much to object to about it; it was excessively angsty at its height and played out too much like a “very special episode” of some 80s sitcom, it was transparently a way to get out of the seeming contradiction of Ethan having to deal with the tremendous responsibility of being a father (and thus the whole episode was seen by detractors as evidence of Buckley’s general unwillingness to let his characters change and shake up the status quo), but mostly, the main objection to it was that, as Burns would put it, Buckley didn’t continue to bring the Funny (an error amplified by the jarringly gag-based preceding and following strips and the general suddenness of the seriousness). But as Croshaw points out (and remember, he’s one of the strip’s detractors), Buckley probably shouldn’t have made it too humorous if he was going to do the arc at all:

You’re established as a wacky humor comic, so this is going to mean an awkward tonal shift at best, and hugely disrespectful [sic] to the subject matter at worst. Your most hardcore supporters will feebly attempt to go along with you about this, smiling nervously at each other as they would around a mentally unstable friend with a shilleagh, but mean-spirited embittered c**ks are going to call you out on it.

It’s also worth noting that Ctrl+Alt+Del has itself already gone through Cerebus Syndrome and succeeded, transcending the standard “two gamers with a couch” strip (which it lampooned from the very beginning) into the complex relationship-driven strip I talked about earlier. So we know Buckley can handle the transition as well as Burlew, Shive, or Abrams. Of course he’s stumbled here, but all indications are that he’s learned his lesson, as recent strips have managed to balance the gravity of the situation with enough humor to lighten the mood, without being offensive. (Well, without being more offensive than CAD‘s very existence is to some people.)

It’s still very possible that this is the start of CAD‘s mad descent into First and Ten Syndrome, and if the coming months see Lucas and Kate (or worse, Ethan and Lilah) break up over a misunderstanding worthy of Three’s Company (or worse, Kate turning out to be pregnant out of the blue), Ethan and Lucas getting fired from their respective jobs (or worse, their respective businesses going out of business), Lilah losing her competitive gaming cred for whatever reason (for example, losing her partner and needing to replace him with Ethan when it’s been established that Lilah’s leetness is at its best when she’s angry at Ethan for whatever reason, which given Ethan’s idiocy is never hard), Ethan or Lilah running at the altar for no discernable reason, Zeke declaring war on humanity (again) or discovering his inner humanity, everyone getting evicted from the house, and/or major characters dying for whatever reason, especially if there aren’t any jokes anymore and even the Players start angsting like hell (if they even keep appearing), I won’t hesitate to join the march of ex-CAD fans marching out the door. I may even borrow a phrase from Burns and say “you had me, and you lost me”, which might be the quickest transition from joining a webcomic to uttering that phrase ever.

But for the moment, it’s important to remember that the miscarriage arc is still ongoing, and Buckley still has a chance to salvage something from it. So for now, I’m willing to see what he will salvage and give him a second chance to keep delivering one of the most popular webcomics on the Internet. (Even if his forums currently contain forums for links, CAD-related projects, translations of CAD strips, chances for fans to post their own efforts at writing and art, and gaming discussion boards, but not discussion of the strip itself.)

And I won’t let the irrational hatred some have for it stop me.

If that makes me naive, well, let me be naive then.
(Why do I have a feeling this won’t be the last I have to say about CAD even within the week?)

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