I’m getting better at writing these quicker. Of course, I thought I lost this for a couple of days, re-found it, and stayed up until 3 AM last night to finish it.

(From Dresden Codak. Click for full-sized transformation.)

Just in case you thought I was only ever going to review webcomics I liked.

Dresden Codak should be incredibly thought provoking. It should be able to completely transform the way you think and make you think deeply about ideas you’d never even conceived before. Aaron Diaz should be right up there with Ryan North and Randall Munroe as webcomics’ premier thinkers.

It should. But it isn’t and it doesn’t and he isn’t.

Instead, Dresden Codak proves what I said in my review of Ctrl+Alt+Del: art is overrated. By almost any measure, DC looks gorgeous – but 90% of the time, there’s so much of it crammed into such small spaces that it’s damn near impossible to have any idea of what’s going on whatsoever, which is probably a good thing for the comic’s popularity, as it sometimes seems that there’s nothing going on, and what is going on isn’t worth following.

Start with… well, how do we start? Aaron Diaz seems to want to completely disavow the existence of any comics prior to the one you click when you click on a “first” link: “dc_013.html”. This URL is the only clue you get that you’re being sold a bill of goods. I can kind of see why Diaz would censor his first 12 comics (actually 11, as comic 7 is itself skipped in the archive and reappears in the public archive as comic 13a) – the first two are very simply drawn, short pieces where random violent things happen, things that would make DC look a lot like a lot of other comics that are incredibly simply drawn and that have random violent things happen. The third adds naught but color and no real violence. But the fourth features the first appearance of Old Man-Man, who subsequently appears in the part of the archive Diaz does want you to see, in a strip marked “The Return of Old Man-Man”, your second clue you’re being sold a bill of goods by being told that comic 13 is comic 1.

Basically, the formula here is that random shit happens, often almost completely incomprehensible and rendered even more incomprehensible by being brought to us in media res. The main distinction between the comics in the public archive and the ones prior to it are that the Dresden Codak formula – cram as much artwork in there as possible, in addition to everything else – is in full effect. Throw in occasional science-based jokes (hey, if it works for Irregular Webcomic! and xkcd, it should work for my strip, right?) and you have what seems to be a formula for success. Metaphors – sometimes dense, sometimes transparent – reign. (The first strip in the public archives comes with a note claiming that “Tomorrow Man”‘s ultimately fatal sojourn to the future is a “thinly veiled metaphor for the youthful obsession with progress”. Well, I certainly would have never known if you hadn’t pointed it out to me, Aaron, and I don’t think that’s what “thinly veiled” means.) Oh, and did I mention the wildly swerving art style? Even Kim Ross’ first appearance appears to be in watercolor.

Kim Ross is the well-endowed (as her appearances mount up, her breasts keep getting bigger and bigger until they’re practically independent objects during the Hob storyline), wannabe-scientist who, immediately upon appearing in the strip, completely takes it over. Her appearance coincides with the sheer volume of art beginning to obfuscate any sense the strip may have once had; her second appearance features a moment of confused panel order and her third, while decipherable if you ignore the flash-forward sequence, is clearly well on its way to confusing the heck out of anyone trying. And when it isn’t, it’s so random and full of non-sequiturs that it might as well. (And don’t forget the incredibly crowded space of the strip between the two.)

So the pattern is established, perhaps even more with Kim and her friends around. Exotic journeys to the farthest reaches of the mind. Metaphor on top of metaphor. Cramming as much art in as possible. Occasional bouts of out-of-nowhere randomness.

Then Diaz did something that, for all appearances given what his strip had done so far, could never in a million years end well.

He went for Cerebus Syndrome.

Enough happens in the beginning of the story that it’s hard to know where to begin, but here goes: Kim discovers a satellite in low-earth orbit, and her “nostalgia” store (which uses a machine to “pull old events temporarily back into your short term memory”) is visited by time travelers (using ridiculously archaic slang, and in fact may ironically be the funniest thing to happen to the strip in its history) who Kim confronts about the satellite, sending them running. After attempting to call her friends about the incident, she encounters a massive robot, which she promptly obsesses over and takes to like a charm. The robot, which Kim names “Hob” (hence the name of the storyline), uses ridiculously advanced technology (including data stored on the molecular level, allowing virtually endless duplication) but doesn’t have any sort of memories whatsoever, and we learn the real reason for Kim’s “nostalgia” store: taking people’s memories as the baseline of an AI which Kim now intends to use Hob as a host body for.

At this moment the time travelers reveal themselves and have a sit-down with Kim over their situation; Kim deduces that they need Hob to return home, at which point the time travellers tell the history of their own time, in one of the most crowded-with-art strips (even by Dresden Codak standards) ever seen in webcomics. To make a long story short, by their time computer technology had grown so advanced “that we no longer had the capacity nor any real desire to understand our motherly caretaker”. As the “mother” expands, “transhumans” willfully lose their humanity to become essentially “mediator” cyborgs, intended to keep the “mother” in check, but even they soon are powerless to stop the “mother’s” ravenous appetite to assimilate, Borg-style, large chunks of the planet into its collective, until humanity fights a “last war” to stop the “mother’s” expansion. They succeed, but lose their sight in the process (possibly a metaphor) and the “mother” wipes its own memory, and thus the entire history of humanity. Thus, humanity has to pick up the pieces from whatever it can salvage from the “mother’s” technology.

From this Kim deduces that all the technology thus salvaged eventually evolves back into “mother” and the time travelers are out to “destroy it before it turns the entire planet into some kind of mechanical abomination”, but refuses to help them do so, deciding the promise of “revolutioniz[ing] human civilization within a decade” makes “the potential threat of global extinction… piddling by comparison”, at which point the time travelers reveal that the whole conversation has been little more than a diversion while the task at hand is completed and “if you insist on leaving… troubles will manifest”, at which point Kim’s friends Dmitri and Alina turn out to be a parody of the Wonder Twins. No, really.

The resulting battle is fairly hard to decipher, as Diaz’s art starts becoming even more impenetrable than before, but it appears that, as Hob starts “returning to its original form“, Dmitri and Alina help hold it in place while one of the time travellers destroys Hob for good, while Kim babbles about “if only they understood what they hated, they’d evolve too”. And it’s this that I want to talk about. To this point, it’s clear that Kim is the central figure in the story, but she’s a transhumanist who not only believes in the technological singularity, but in using technology to produce the future “evolution” of the human race. In a heated and telling debate with Dmitri after the battle, she indicates that she would have “let it” “wipe out the planet” because “it was the next paradigm shift” and when Dmitri warns that “you’re going to wipe out the human race” she responds “Good! All they ever do is die!

Someone who’s out to destroy the entire human race is seldom a sympathetic figure, if not an outright villain (and in fact Dmitri had earlier called Kim’s memory-stealing scheme “supervillain-level stuff”), and it’s somewhat jarring for Kim to be portrayed this way when she had heretofore been essentially an extention of Diaz and his own views. Yet almost immediately, Kim breaks down into a crying fit and is comforted by, of all things, one of the Hob-duplicates. (So far this doesn’t particularly seem to be a full-on descent into First and Ten Syndrome, if only because we learn so little about how everyone really feels to get any sense of whether or not the tone is any different from what’s come before.) It seems clear that Kim’s loathing of the human race is, to some extent, little more than the result of parental-abandonment issues, and that in fact we are to, if not sympathize with Kim, at least pity her. And that’s even more jarring.

Whether or not Kim is to be seen as the hero or the villain has perhaps more fundamental consequences as well, if we are to take a line of reasoning proposed by John Solomon (and trust me, I’ll have plenty to say about his site at a later date, and very little of it will be positive). Let’s take what we know about Kim’s character: She’s an aspiring scientist who subscribes to the incredibly nerdly philosophy of transhumanism, has problems emphasizing with other humans to the point of being willing to destroy humanity, and is generally more comfortable around computers than people. Oh, and she has huge boobs. In other words, a male nerd’s wet dream, especially one with their own issues getting along with humanity, perhaps with Asperger’s syndrome along for the ride. If it weren’t for her villainous tendencies Kim would border on Mary Sue-dom, which means if her seeming intent to destroy the human race is just dealing with the emotions of her mommy-wommy being deady-weady, she becomes little more than Diaz’s attempt to pander to a specific audience.

Anyway, the art becomes incomprehensible again at this point, as “time colonists” announce their intention to take over the planet from the satellites (during the meeting of the minds, the time travellers announce that “there are now three” even as they disavow any involvement) and our time traveller friends turn out to be the real villains – somehow – apparently involved in some scheme to transport their young people back to the future, or is it to take the people of today and move them to the future? And when Alina mentions Kimiko in passing, “Number Zero”, the time travellers’ real leader, recognizes that as the “mother”‘s “name… before the world changed”. The time travellers once again attempt to get through to Kim, who now claims “Hob computerizes matter without undermining biology. Whatever their intent was, the methods are harmless!” And then the time travellers set off an explosion, and then I can’t even tell what happens after that. Apparently Kim drags the incapacitated Dmitri and Alina behind her while leaping… somewhere? And then there’s a bunch of firing, and then Hob starts enunciating “mediator”, and Kim gets hit with something, and… Diaz probably learned the old canard “show don’t tell”, but when the “showing” is crammed into such small spaces, you might want to throw us a bone to allow us to figure out what, exactly, we’re being shown.

Even what appears to be an interesting flashback to Kim’s childhood, comprehensible enough to provoke a response out of Robert A. “Tangents” Howard at the time (which I’m not linking to for various reasons), gets derailed by a random montage. And then there’s a… journey into Hob‘s mind and Kim‘s invasion of it? And is Kim now defending humanity in this sketch? And then Kim comes out of some sort of… butterfly… thing? And what was the point of the last three comics? However incomprehensible Dresden Codak once was, it’s downright straightforward compared with what the Hob storyline has seen recently. I’m sure there’s a decent storyline lurking here, which could be told by someone more competent at writing and panel structure, and in not just showing a lot, but showing smart.

Right now Dresden Codak is on a bit of an indefinite hiatus, a casualty of injury and computer damage, but you might be pardoned for not being able to tell the difference. Twice in the Hob storyline Diaz promised weekly updates. “A new comic every Monday,” he promises, even going so far as to quit his job, after early strips in the storyline were separated by a month or more. After roughly gaps of a week and a half before each of the next two comics, each accompanied by apologies, the date on #44 (Hob #13) is 12/1/07. The next strip is 12/17/07, with no apology for lateness, implying Diaz is already letting his schedule go to pot. Then 1/7/08. In the annotation for Hob #13, Diaz explains “Christmas sales rush plus other business strains threw off my schedule,” so the former is no longer an excuse. The next strip is 1/26/08, 19 days later, so still far from a weekly schedule.

The strip after that is dated 3/2/08.

Diaz explains that he “had the flu and then recovered just in time to move” and promises faster updates, and the next update is dated 3/16, which does seem to be faster, then 4/5, then 5/2. Then, after promising an update “in a few days”, the next strip is dated 5/18. Then 6/7, then 7/1 with not even an explanation. Keep in mind that all these updates I’ve looked at came after Diaz promised weekly updates, yet he’s pretty much never been able to deliver better than a twice-monthly schedule, and his repeated promises of quicker updating since then have never really delivered on their promises.

Solomon attacks Diaz for deciding to make his webcomic his job and promptly falling off the face of the earth, accusing him of “getting paid to do as little work as he possibly can”, but this lack of updating, near as I can tell (as someone more willing to give Diaz the benefit of the doubt), is really a direct consequence of having to make such detailed art in his strips. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how many corners he decides to cut, it still takes him two weeks to produce a single page, especially since the art has grown more complicated as it’s standardized. He spends two weeks per strip painstakingly drawing intense, sprawling landscapes and it all ends up being damn near impenetrable to read anything into and in the service of a story that seems lacking.

It makes me wonder if Diaz is in the wrong medium, or not only should have never delved into Cerebus Syndrome, but should have stopped trying to tell multi-panel stories entirely. The popularity of comics like Order of the Stick, xkcd, and countless others shows that a lack of art is hardly a barrier to success in webcomics. It’s often said that what OOTS and its ilk prove is that bad art can be saved by a good story. But in Dresden Codak, it doesn’t matter how good the story is because good art is so detrimental to the strip’s quality the mere presence of a continuing story only makes it worse.

This is not meant to be a stubborn creator of an art-free comic dismissing the “cool kids” as not really “hep” to my obviously-superior way of thinking. In fact, admittedly, DC‘s problem isn’t really so much that its art is good as that it’s cluttered – but the fact that it’s good means it takes a long time to produce, and on the Web, the longer the time between updates the more ignorable you are (and as I’ve said before, the greater the penalty for missed updates). This is meant to point out something that I’m a trifle surprised isn’t obvious: people do not read webcomics to look at the pretty pictures. In fact, people don’t read newspaper comic strips to look at the pretty pictures. The defining feature of Peanuts, GarfieldDilbert, and quite a few others is the sheer simplicity of their art (Dilbert‘s creator has at times gone so far as to be very self-depreciating about his art abilities). If people wanted to look at pretty pictures they’d go to the art museum, or the art museum’s web site. People read comics to read a story, or at least a funny joke, and the pictures exist only insofar as they help tell the story. That’s all they need to do, and the quality of that art has little or nothing to do with it.

Yes, you can’t tell as many stories with Dinosaur Comics or Sandsday as you can with a more flexible art style, but there’s little to say that if I really wanted to, I couldn’t use the Sandsday art style, with next to no improvement over the status quo, to tell more complex stories. Yes, you can better differentiate between characters if you’re not using Order of the Stick-style (or heaven forbid, xkcd-style) stick figures, but I find it hard to believe Tim Buckley couldn’t create as many different characters as he wanted in the Ctrl+Alt+Del art style. So long as the art style you’re using allows you to create as much diversity in your cast (and in what you portray) as you desire, and so long as it isn’t so bad that it’s an active turn-off (or serves to obfuscate what you’re trying to say), your strip will live or die on your story and your jokes, and despite the claims of some critics to the contrary, your art style will have little to do with it. You may want to adjust your art style to help become part of the message or mood your strip is trying to send, but beyond that go with the art style you’re capable of that will keep your story comprehensible to the reader and that will allow you to keep a regular schedule. Dresden Codak shows what happens when you focus too much on the quality of your art and suggests that perhaps webcomics are a medium that works best when the art is simplified and doesn’t try too hard to be a museum piece.

On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by Diaz’s everyone-is-really-immortal hypothesis.

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