What is it with me and forgetting to put titles on webcomic posts?

I should probably stop talking so much about YWIB&YSFB. It was popular for maybe five months last year, made a brief (and far less productive) comeback early this year, and hasn’t updated since. But when it was at the height of its (reluctant) popularity, one of its favorite targets, when it took aim at something other than the subject of a post, was Robert A. Howard, proprietor of Tangents.

Referred to simply as “Bobby Tangents”, Howard was regularly painted as a “c**ksucker” with a gender-switching fetish, apparently because he reads a disturbingly significant amount of gender-switching comics, which might have something to do with the fact that there are a disturbingly significant amount of gender-switching comics. When he did a review of Tangents itself, John Solomon compared him to the kid in the playground who desperately wanted to be anyone’s – anyone’s – friend, no matter the cost, because if you asked him to eat a bug, by golly, he’d practically cook up a bug sandwich if he felt it would make him your friend. (What’s everybody looking at me for all of a sudden?) So with Howard, as Solomon saw it, he would tell a webcomic author how great they are supposedly just so they would give him the attention, or at least credibility.

Well, ol’ Bobby Howard took that to heart, and he started shifting, becoming less of a suck-up and throwing in more actual criticism in his reviews, thanks in part to the influence of other webcomic reviewers who could call out a webcomic’s flaws without being, well, John Solomon. (I know Howard has talked about this somewhere, but I’m not sure if it’s in the part of the archive that’s been reposted to the new site, or if it was even on Tangents at all.) He’s even gone so far as written what amounts to a “you had me and you lost me” for College Roomies From Hell!! What I’m here for is to determine how well he did that, and take a general look at Tangents, because I wasn’t able to find an actual webcomic I could review for today (though I think I’m good for two weeks after this, by which point it’ll probably be time to revisit the world of OOTS), and as Websnark and Tangents are really the only two webcomic review blogs that have ever mattered, an examination of the latter is long overdue, especially when a review of Websnark might have been the very first post to win the “webcomics” tag and I’ve already reviewed YWIB already. (I haven’t reviewed Tangents already because of the lengthy hiatus while the site was down, which I complained about several times at the time.)

You wanna know what’s something I’ve noticed about Tangents from reading, really, a smattering of reviews?

The writing style.

Apparently Howard learned in English class that, when writing an essay, you are supposed to “hourglass” your argument: start with a broad topic, narrow the focus down to whatever you’re writing about, then bring things back out to a broad level at the end. Howard certainly has the first part of that down. He will start most reviews by talking about some general trend in webcomics, or about writing, or about some other topic that ties into the comic he’s reviewing, or occasionally about the comic itself. It’d be easy to consider a parody of Tangents just looking at the beginnings of his posts:

Games have been played since the beginning of time, but it has only been in the last quarter-century or so that people have taken to the idea of playing them on computers. As the video game industry has evolved and taken its place as a medium on par with any other, it has become natural that a medium which involves the one-time release of single, complete stories, like movies, would see the attraction of sequels and trilogies, and so forth. And like movies, it’s easy to see how this would lead to an overreliance on said series. Sandsday has brilliantly skewered this trend in its latest comic

Part of that is that Howard’s style is different from that of Eric Burns. In Websnark’s heyday, he would review a specific episode of a webcomic, and often the same webcomic at least twice a week, or at least twice a month, with little more than “this is funny,” or saying something about the webcomic in general at the same time; Howard started out trying to do long-form reviews about entire comics, not unlike what I try to do in the regular Tuesday space, but for the sake of his own sanity, he has more recently moved on to shorter, more condensed and moment-in-time reviews – though he still tries not to review the same webcomic all too often, and he still tries to pull it back to the comic as a whole.

Still, he reviewed Megatokyo once on September 30 and again on December 13. He’s also reviewed Order of the Stick, Gunnerkrigg Court, The Wotch, and xkcd twice in similar timeframes. In fact, he’s reviewed xkcd at least four times over the course of this year, including once on October 13 and again on December 5, which begs the question: does he intend to review xkcd as often as I review Order of the Stick? (And that’s not even counting the reviews posted on Howard’s LiveJournal when Tangents was down, which aren’t part of the new archive. Yet. OOTS and the Court haven’t been reviewed twice since the new site went up, only once each.)

And the thing about this shift is that Howard has, really, started making Tangents more like Websnark, but he still seems to want to write his reviews like they’re essays. Once upon a time, Howard introduced the “secant” as a way of differentiating his moment-in-time posts from his webcomic-in-review “tangents”. As Howard started trying to condense all his reviews, by his own admission the definitions flipped, and while he attempted to rectify that situation, the truth is that not only had the secants become the lion’s share of the posts by that point, almost all the posts on the new site are tagged “secant”. The distinction, truly, means nothing anymore and I’m not sure Howard can get it back.

What’s more, the openings of Howard’s posts really presage something about the posts themselves. In many ways, Howard’s deconstructions of the medium makes Burns look downright normal. Sometimes, as with his recent Something Positive post, all Howard basically has to say is “this is somewhat derivitive, but hey, this part is funny!” But Howard’s most recent Megatokyo post is as much about how any webcartoonist can avoid “talking heads” as it is about anything having to do with Megatokyo itself. In fact, he has quite a few “how it’s done” posts, targeted not only at webcomickers but, at one point, at podcasters. A trip through the Tangents archives, especially more recent ones, could be considered almost “Webcomics 101”. When he reviews a story-based comic, namely The Wotch or Gunnerkrigg Court, he will go into an in-depth examination of his interpretation of the characters and where the story can go from here, which sounds downright normal unless you’ve actually read those posts. (Granted, it’s not that different from what I do with Order of the Stick, which surprisingly, Howard doesn’t seem to treat quite as in-depth.)

Maybe this is because of the weightiness of the other posts, but reading those posts that don’t attempt to explicate Howard’s feelings in depth, that spend the lion’s share of their time really just explaining the context without saying much about it, I sense a creeping pointlessness, dolled up in enough prose to attempt to hide it. We could continue the parody we started above by having it essentially say, “I laughed at this”, only hidden in a lengthy explanation of the entire history and even concept of the strip, or we could take the beginning we used and attempt to use it to write an entire theory of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Howard’s biggest problem, I think, is that a significant number of his posts aren’t much different from Websnark in substance – but he has nowhere near Eric Burns(-White)’s sense of humor. If he had more of a sense of humor, some of his three-paragraph posts could be written in three or four sentences.

Now, this is probably a conscious decision on Howard’s part. Websnark was never originally intended as the Founder of Webcomics Criticism, only a place where Burns could comment on whatever funny things he found on the Internet, which happened to mostly be webcomics. So it’s natural that Burns(-White) would create an atmosphere where he was just shooting the breeze about the webcomics he loved, even if he did spend most of his time going through it with an English teacher’s fine-toothed comb.

But one thing webcomics have always been paranoid about is respect (any non-mainstream medium is), and while the Webcomics Community(tm) was quick to seize on Websnark as the first place to treat webcomics as worthy of serious discussion, no doubt there were many who were concerned that, in tone, Websnark didn’t take anything all that seriously. I think this may have been a more overriding factor in Tangents’ creation than Websnark’s “ignoring comics that deserved reviews” (although oddly, judging by the April 2005 posts in the new archive, Howard actually started out with a bit more of a sense of humor than he does now). If Websnark was the first place to treat webcomics as worthy of any sort of serious discussion, Tangents would be the first place to treat them as worthy of the discussion you would give 1984 or Wuthering Heights.

So Howard would write what amounted to English papers on the topic of webcomics (although the first time he writes about a strip, he will basically review it to some extent, and give some sort of recommendation on whether you should read it)… and the problem is that it’s probably the wrong style for when he wants to just write these short posts that basically say “I enjoyed this”. Howard still does posts, labeled “webcomic commentary”, that are substantially such deconstructions of the medium in general that they don’t even consider one specific webcomic as their example. But when you write superficial posts in an English paper’s style, you become a target for parody, even self-parody, and you remind people why people don’t talk that way in real life.

Funnily enough, not only does Howard display some humor in the aforementioned CRfH snark, it’s not boring and rather appropriately tears into what Maritza Campos did with her comic. In fact, it’s almost as funny as YWIB, only actually convincing. When Howard has something negative to say about a webcomic, his “Webcomics 101” style helps him point out exactly what turned him off to that webcomic, while still doing so in an entertaining style. Unlike Websnark, Tangents continues going strong nearly four years in, still doing webcomic reviews on a semi-regular basis, and for potential webcomic writers and artists Howard’s opinions can be eye-opening. And as I always say, none of what I have to criticise about Tangents is a complete turn-off. But – unlike Websnark – it’s not compelling enough to make my RSS reader.

On the other hand, my own webcomic reviews bear more than a few similarities to Howard’s…

One Comment

  1. Robert
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    (Deleted an over-wordy version of this post)

    Thank you for your comments. You have a number of relevant criticisms here and I’ll definitely work on improving my work. Your comments on the Secants are especially relevant, and I’ll be rethinking the Secant classification (just because it has three paragraphs doesn’t mean it’s a Secant).

    I’m not sure if I agree that Tangents “matters” (especially when Websnark is the other choice). However, I will admit I do strive to show some respect in my reviews for the cartoonists, considering the sheer amount of work they put into their comics. That, and there are few strips I consider so horrible that they don’t deserve reading.

    I’ll definitely mention your blog over at Tangents. Take care. :)

    Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

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