Category Archives: Webcomic blog reviews

I almost always seem to have trouble coming up with titles for these webcomic blog reviews.

I have been reading the Webcomic Overlook for close to four months and in all that time have remained completely stymied by the same problem: I have no idea what to say about it. I mean that quite literally: I find absolutely nothing remarkable about any of El Santo’s reviews.

In some sense, perhaps that’s a good thing; El Santo doesn’t really have any of the idiosyncrasies of a Robert A. Howard or even an Eric Burns(-White). He simply goes forth and reviews webcomics, completely unremarkably. That’s not to say he simply reports on webcomics in a completely boring style; far from it. Most of the time, his style is as playful and laid-back as the best of them, yet capable of deconstructing a webcomic when circumstances warrant. In that sense, he’s not entirely unlike Websnark, except he doesn’t get quite as neurotic as Websnark or even Tangents can get.

Nearly four years ago, Eric Burns(-White) identified several different definitions of the word “critic”, and if he strives to be the “scholarly” type of critic and YWIB exemplified the “negative” type of critic, then El Santo is perhaps webcomics’ foremost example of the “reviewer” type of critic, possibly, though I’d need a more knowledgable outsider’s take on this, the answer to the challenge set forth in the comments to that post. That characterization of Websnark may surprise anyone who read my original response to that post, but unlike Websnark, Tangents, and me, El Santo never comments on current events in comics he reads. He strictly writes a review on how good the comic as a whole is and whether or not he recommends it, occasionally doing some scholarly analysis of why it works or doesn’t work (and occasionally getting quite snarky at something he doesn’t like), and then he generally doesn’t touch it again. If Tangents was the first to succeed at treating webcomics like literary novels, El Santo is, if not the first, certainly the most prominent to treat them like movies.

Although El Santo’s style comes across as rather breezy, when compared to how Websnark and Tangents do the same sort of actual “review” review, he’s substantially closer to the latter than the former. The main thing that separates them is that, while both of them will start by saying something on some tangentially related subject that they eventually bring around to the subject of the review, El Santo does so with a bit more levity, while Tangents tends to stay more deadly serious. I made fun of Howard for that tactic, but with El Santo it’s more a part of his appeal and charm. Beyond that, both of them break down the elements of the comic and what makes it tick, or not tick.

(Considering how Websnark almost never did any actual reviews except in connection with some current moment – though my inability to find them wasn’t helped by the fact they never did get around to fixing their old archives – it’s hard to say it had a style.)

El Santo bills his main reviews as “ridiculously long”, but I never get the sense that they’re really that long. It’s not like he’s launching into a detailed dissertation on every aspect of a webcomic; I’m not even sure they’re longer than my own reviews. They’re certainly longer than what Websnark and Tangents engage in, but that may say more about them – and thus, the state of webcomics criticism – than about him. For the most part, El Santo fills out his reviews with detailed descriptions of the plot (as opposed to the brief descriptions of the concept Websnark or Tangents would use) that he’ll sometimes use as a jumping-off point to talk about his thoughts on the comic’s evolution and aspects of the comic, coming back around to more general aspects towards the end. One of my few quibbles with him is his reliance on formula, tending to focus on explaining the plot and using that as a jumping off point for analysis rather than using the analysis as a jumping off point for explaining the plot as I would do.

He seems to be most in his comfort zone when talking about a humor comic or a comic he hates, as that’s when he’s at his snarkiest, but that’s to be expected; what’s impressive is his ability to switch to extremely serious analysis of a good dramatic webcomic, maybe even in the same review. He’s almost found a way to take the Websnark approach and evolve it into a more professional (for lack of a better word) form. I get the sense that his review style has evolved as it’s gone on, with him finding his voice and a review style that works for him and does the medium more justice; he was plenty snarky even in his five-star review of Gunnerkrigg Court and didn’t go on so long about the plot (admitedly at a time when it didn’t have much plot). Beyond his focus on plot exposition, he might be the closest of the three to my own reviews stylistically, and those early reviews even more so.

I can’t say we have a common taste in actual webcomics – I have to disagree with his calling Scary Go Round one of the best webcomics of the last decade, and how dare he blaspheme Order of the Stick by only giving it four stars (and then only because it does what it does with stick figures)?!? Considering our shared enjoyment of OOTS, Gunnerkrigg Court, Questionable Content, and even Darths and Droids, my tastes seem to run more in parallel with those of Robert A. Howard, though I don’t know if I would like The Wotch or some of the other comics of that sort Howard has reviewed in the past or whether he would like Ctrl+Alt+Del (or at least that comic’s early days), though I do get the sense that both Howard and El Santo would really like Homestuck (El Santo even gave its predecessor Problem Sleuth five stars).

That, combined with the fact that as snarky as El Santo can get, he doesn’t really give me an actual reason to read his reviews (unlike Websnark), makes me ambivalent about adding the Webcomic Overlook to my RSS reader full-time. He’s not giving me a reason not to, so it’s staying on my RSS reader for now, but the Webcomic Overlook is just sort of there to me. Perhaps I’d get a kick out of his comments on current happenings in webcomics now that I’m not reading Comixtalk anymore, but I wouldn’t read it just for that if I found I liked Fleen.

The Sad Decline of Comixtalk

O Comixtalk, how art thou fallen, light of the morning.

Comixtalk started life as Comixpedia, an online magazine dedicated to “comics in the digital age”. As such, it strove for the same level of in-depth interviews and analysis of comics as a medium that you would expect of a print magazine, with some names you’ve probably heard of contributing columns. Before there was Websnark, Comixpedia strove to be the site of record for the webcomics community, taking the medium as seriously as it deserved to be taken and serving as the backbone of the growing community.

Or, so I’ve gotten the impression from its entry on the current Comixpedia, old Websnark posts, and its own flashbacks. By the time I encountered Comixtalk in 2009, it had largely abandoned the more “magazine”-like aspects of its format, instead serving as a news blog, rehosting and rebroadcasting blog posts from all over the webcomics community with Xaviar Xerexes’ own posts as the backbone. Supposedly, only the best, most important posts found their way onto the front page, but while I found the “webcomic blog aggregator” format useful enough to add to my RSS reader – it often exposed me to interesting things or topics I’m not sure I would have ever encountered otherwise – there sometimes seemed to be so little rhyme or reason to what posts made the front page, and the workload implied for Xerexes seemed to be so great, that I reached the conclusion that certain blogs were simply given a rubber stamp to have all their posts put on the front page automatically. As such, I planned to wait until I had reached the point that my own posts had achieved the same status, and then write a post detailing my issues with Comixtalk, that would then be reposted to the Comixtalk front page. You see, the plan was totally brilliant.

As it turned out, I only had one post posted to the Comixtalk front page before Xerexes ended the blog aggregator format late in the year, citing high server bills. And now? Now it’s basically a poor man’s Fleen. And while it lacks some of the cutesy names Fleen sometimes indulges in, it doesn’t update nearly as often.

Oh, for a while Xerexes tried to put up an update every day, but right now you tend to get lucky if you get two full-fledged updates a month. And when you do get them, or other posts, they’re basically Xerexes putting up some big piece of webcomics news or something he found somewhere on the Internet relating to webcomics and often giving some sort of personal opinion on them. It’s really become just another personal blog talking about webcomics, at best a bulletin board for various happenings Xerexes comes across somehow. Even if I was interested in any of the news he posts about, it updates too rarely and is too mixed with more frivolous matters for any of it to draw me in. It barely even makes enough of a sustained impression on me for me to get invested in it, and that’s not a good thing. It’s moderately interesting if you’re interested in Xerexes’ rarely-posted opinions, but if you’re looking for a reliable, comprehensive source of news (or even opinion on it) from around the webcomics community? You’re best off looking elsewhere.

That’s a bit of a shame. Comixtalk used to be the one must-go place for webcomics aficianados like myself for smart opinion about webcomics, and to see it reduced to the state it’s in is quite disappointing. My impression is Fleen now has a bit of a monopoly on reliably reporting and pontificating on webcomics news, but I’m not sure it’s as reliable about that as it could be. Admittedly I’m probably a bit hesitant about wholeheartedly embracing Fleen as a result of my documented fondness of the old Floating Lightbulb blog, but the fact that Comixtalk doesn’t provide anything you can’t get at Fleen (with a few occasional exceptions)? Or that the closest I can think of that any other blog does to what Fleen does is occasional news posts at review blogs like the Webcomic Overlook?

Clearly, I’m not the only part of the webcomics community that has slipped tremendously since 2009.

By my standards, I think I’m a month late with this.

In February, at the end of my “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series, I said this about The Floating Lightbulb:

I’m probably going to do a review of the Floating Lightbulb itself one day, and when I do I’m probably going to say that Bengo is a more cerebral John Solomon. Bengo doesn’t hate all webcomics – though the Floating Lightbulb doesn’t do much in the way of actual reviews at all – but he certainly seems to hate most of the personages in mainstream webcomics. In his eyes, most big-time webcomics creators are self-promoting jerks who probably cheated to get to the top and as such are bad role models, and most webcomic bloggers are ego-strokers, often with rampant conflicts of interest, who shill the same comics over and over again. Not every webcomic blog gets this charge, not even biggies Tangents and Websnark; mostly the vitriol goes to Gary “Fleen” Tyrell and [Xaviar] Xerexes, proprietor of Comixtalk.

Shortly thereafter, Bengo wrote a post explaining, among other things, that he didn’t hate all mainstream webcomics, he just reserved his vitriol for those grouped under the names of Dumbrella and Halfpixel. And even though he never mentioned me by name and I’m still not sure if he even knows of Da Blog’s existence, I started to panic and planned to start this post with a comedown, stating that maybe I’d overstated his hatred.

Well, earlier this week he banged out a post that seemed to show where I might have gotten the idea he was a curmudgeon. Apparently a large number of webcomic creators are engaging in an e-e-evil plot to mislead Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere in order to maintain their own standing and keep webcomics mired in a cesspool of mediocrity. Oh yes, what they disseminate is nothing but a mess of LIES! But they won’t succeed, oh no, even now their kingdoms are falling, and soon the curtain will fall away and THE TRUTH SHALL BE REVEALED! They can’t keep it down forever! Ha ha ha, ha ha ha, aha ha ha ha ha hahahahaha!!!!!!!!!!!!

(This isn’t the first time I’ve sat through Bengo putting his tinfoil hat on, either. He seems to think that people who think Scott Kurtz is “nice” are victims of an elaborate charade and front so dead-on and uncanny he should be an actor, not a webcartoonist! Because it can’t possibly be that Kurtz is just a complex, contradictory – GASP! – human being who feels nice in some circumstances and egotistical in others! Not that Kurtz being an arrogant jerk who thinks he’s Scott McCloud’s heir as Representative of All Webcomicdom but always ends up putting his foot in his mouth in doing so is exactly a secret…)

I don’t want to give the impression I find TFL the conspiratorial ramblings of a madman. In fact, TFL is one of the better, or at least more interesting, blogs you’ll find when it comes to advice for aspiring webcomickers. About a year ago, Bengo started trying to research webcomics in preparation of a new project he hoped to do with his wife Pug. Distressed at the paucity and contradictory nature of information, he started the Psychedelic Treehouse website as a storehouse of his findings, and started keeping a running log in TFL. Bengo nonetheless plowed on and ultimately contributed to two webcomics and a side project, while continuing to look for information on what to expect on the financial front. He became so distressed at the information in the HalfPixel group’s “How to Make Webcomics” that after a bad interview with Dave “Sheldon” Kellett and Brad “Evil Inc.” Guigar, he wrote a scathing post casting severe doubt on the book’s business model that made him a lifelong enemy in Kurtz and is largely singlehandedly responsible for much of TFL’s popularity, such as it is (which is to say “more than that of Da Blog”).

The metaphor implied by the title is probably the most succinct summary of most of TFL’s contents. Well, kind of. Sort of. Actually, according to an informal overview I did, only a little more than half Bengo’s posts were classified as “ideas webcomickers can use, perhaps to increase their revenue or help their art, sometimes taking their cue from things existing webcomickers are doing. Often this takes the form of cool stuff on the Internet people can use. Other times it’s highfalutin’ ideas, concepts and classifications that would make Scott McCloud and Eric Burns(-White) blush.” The rest, for the most part, is split fairly evenly between actual webcomic reviews, mere observations about the webcomic community, or ripping into people Bengo hates.

All of those three categories, to some extent or another, furthers the same goal as the first: educating aspiring webcomickers. Bengo reviews webcomics so we can learn from them, his recent posts on webcomic traffic trends were made with an eye to trying to find out why so aspiring webcomickers wouldn’t fall into the same traps, and he doesn’t want anyone looking to Scott Kurtz as a role model or have their business plan ruined by “How to Make Webcomics”. This isn’t just generic stuff you can find anywhere else on the Internet, either. Bengo pretty much assumes you’re looking to enter webcomics for the long haul, and make some money from it at the same time, and maybe even join the Tier 1 Pantheon of Popular Webcomics. I can’t vouch for the effiacy of any of the advice Bengo gives – I’m afraid I would have to classify his comics as Tier 3 and unreviewable until proven good (or at least potential-filled) – but there’s a lot of stuff you won’t find anywhere else (by which I mean you won’t find any competing or affirming advice) and a few things where Bengo seems to be downright pioneering, daring to go where no one has gone before. Where else are you going to find stuff like this?

All of which means TFL has a rather interesting clientele in that it is written primarily not for the general public at large, but for aspiring webcomickers. What really makes this interesting is that a blog written entirely for aspiring webcomickers would ordinarily go entirely into the advice pool. Bengo writes for a specific subset of that clientele, yet he’s also calling out the webcomics community at large for their practices that derail aspiring webcomickers. I think the closest thing to an equivalent I can think of would be Bengo’s mortal enemy at Halfpixel at webcomics.com, yet even that site doesn’t really go into current events or reviews or that sort of thing, yet despite the tagline of “webcomics news,” TFL isn’t really a news site either (by which I mean it’s not much of a news site at all). (The tagline used to be “Webcomics Eureka”, which was a little more accurate if a little redundant with the title and not entirely sensical.)

Now so far, my webcomic blog reviews have been of review sites, so I should probably say a few words about TFL’s reviews. Briefly, they tend to focus on obscure webcomics, and somewhat surprisingly for TFL’s normal subject matter, they tend to be rather basic, focusing on such things as what the setting is, what the format is, how good it is with mechanics, and what Bengo likes and what he thinks could be improved. They’re short, general, and to-the-point, without too much of the rambling or dwelling on specifics of the Burns(-White)/Howard/Solomon/Wick crowd.

The Floating Lightbulb is the closest thing I’ve yet found to the Order of the Stick of webcomics blogs, in that it’s hard for me to find anything (well, much) bad to say about it. If Bengo’s insights into webcomics are vindicated – which really only happens when you become popular, as people either deconstruct your arguments or tell people how much you helped them; it’s damn near impossible to do what the opposite of vindication is, since you generally don’t get popular if you’re wrong, and in any case Bengo may be well on his way – TFL (and Psychedelic Treehouse) could become an absolute must-read for anyone looking to jump into webcomics, as well as anyone else examining the field. And the Webcomic Blog List is not only a useful form of webcomic blog promotion, it’s a useful resource for anyone looking for webcomic blogs to read, such as someone like me who’s looking for more webcomic blogs to review.

The one big elephant in the living room where TFL is concerned is Bengo’s sometimes-obsession with Dumbrella, Halfpixel, and their cohorts, which can come off as just trying to drum up attention by picking fights and proclaiming “everything you know is wrong!” (If Bengo decides to respond to this post in any way, I fully expect him to go on another possibly-conspiratorial rant about all the damage Kurtz and Co. do to webcomics just like all his others.) When Bengo isn’t ripping into the self-proclaimed “role models” of webcomics, his posts are thought-provoking and insightful. Even when he is they can be enlightening and affirming. Either way, you’re guaranteed to get your recommended daily allowance of brain food just about every day.

The Floating Lightbulb is, pending verification of Bengo’s advice, most highly recommended. And I’m not just saying that to get on the Webcomic Blog List – TFL’s on my RSS reader for good. As I said back in February, I’d bet anything Bengo would rip me and Da Blog to shreds, both for lavishing praise on him and focusing too much on popular webcomics for my own good (and maybe echoing Robert A. Howard’s critique on top of that).

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…

YWIB Part II: Wherein I nearly have a nervous breakdown.

Note to self: In the future, if I’m going to start a post that may become a two-parter, start working a week in advance. Not only has this post and its predecessor eaten up my time for the past week (and I have one more post coming tomorrow to make up for two weeks ago), I lost it at least twice, and the first time was the reason for writing Sunday’s Blogger feature request. Even though this post only really took me Saturday to write, if it weren’t for the fact that the crash occured in the act of copying this post out of Part I and into a separate post, I might not have posted either part. This is more of a supplement to Part I than an actual follow-up, so I recommend you read Part I first.

So how “objective” is John Solomon? Are his criticisms valid? After all, many of those problems could be water under the bridge if he wasn’t bringing too many of his own biases into the picture. If he was attacking comics for egregious enough errors, for errors that only a complete moron would think didn’t exist, I might be willing to forgive his errors in strategy and style. As such, let’s look at his review of a comic you probably never heard of, Cartridge Comics, because if I’m right a comic that committed such egregious errors should never become popular. (Although it does see PW ad rates of 50-60 cents, although that’s in part because it only allows bidding in 10-cent increments.) Before we enter, keep in mind that the strip has subsequently undergone a complete reboot as Cartridge, so some of this might not be completely extant anymore.

First complaint: it splits the work between a writer and an artist. The main complaint, aside from being a “gamer comic” but I have some of the same issues with that that I do with this, is that this is a problem because everyone else does it and it’s a hallmark of crap. When Solomon goes after “gamer comics” there is sometimes the implication that gaming comics are inherently bad, but here he only says that a lot of people split the work because Penny Arcade does, and Gabe and Tycho are (in his mind) competent at what they do while imitators aren’t. So far, (almost) so good, and I’ve spent one paragraph on it instead of four and a half.

Next complaint: “Even my rather meagre drawing talent is sufficient to replicate this kind of shit. Or this kind of shit.” Well, mine isn’t. Okay, so the drawing of Batman’s costume in the second one (what is it with some of these webcomics and superheroes, especially Batman?) is a bit oversimplified, but like Ctrl+Alt+Del, it’s passable. Once again, in webcomics, art is overrated. It’s possible to create complete chicken scratch that’s even recognizable that still turns off readers, but the bar is far lower than some critics claim. Solomon chronicles some examples here. Have a look at the first two examples. Cartridge Comics isn’t anywhere near as bad as that crap (computer-generated stick figures might actually be preferable).

Okay, so this one actually falls below CAD level, suggesting those two were bad examples (and at least one of them is linked to with the wrong date, and linked to again later, twice, with two more wrong dates and a bad description, suggesting some strips have been censored from the archive even more completely than with Dresden Codak, the result of the aforementioned reboot and ongoing shafting of self-admitted “quite shitty” comics into a side archive that itself eventually got deleted), and in fact it’s bad enough that it does raise the bar a little for the writing for me to appreciate it, but “muppets”? So the art could definitely use improvement, more than CAD ever could, and the artist could stand to learn some perspective. And the body bends and stretches in really weird ways, and there don’t seem to be any knees – but the art had developed enough by that 2007 strip that it doesn’t raise the bar for the writing anymore. The wonkiness doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the strip. It’s a minor point. (And maybe the weird bending and stretching is intentional, which would probably get boiled down by the creators as “it’s a STYLE” which would just get mocked to oblivion by Solomon.)

On to Solomon’s criticism of the writing, and this section sees quite a few links to strips censored, and it’s more important I see the actual strip being referred to, not just any old random strip. I’ll only make mention of those strips I can see. Is the girl in this strip a “walking cliche”? It’s more than a little unfair to judge someone’s character off of one strip when it’s implied that character has made appearances in the past, but it appears she’s being portrayed as a little more than Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s stereotypical webcomic idea of “The Girl“, supposedly based off the webcomicker’s mom and slightly disdainful of, but willing to put up with, the wacky antics of the male characters. She also appears to be obsessed with cleanliness. So she’s a walking pair of cliches. (Not that kind of pair, you perv.) Maybe Solomon sees that as only “half a fucking micron,” I don’t know and I don’t know if I would even be able to look at her prior appearances.

As for this strip, the basic setup should be clear, if a bit cliche: someone sends his roommate to turn down the neighbor’s noise, and said roommate is completely distracted by what said neighbor is doing. The punchline is a bit mystifying – “adding a topping to your pizza” doesn’t sound threatening – I’m guessing what got added was something bad, but it is a little hard to tell. But just because it makes no sense doesn’t mean it’s not a joke at all. And I don’t have any reaction to using Google image art as posters, as Solomon accuses the strip of doing. It looks a little odd if you look closely, but it’s not jarring.

Moving on… Misplaced breasts? Again, passable enough not to pull me out of it, and the first example doesn’t even seem to be a problem for me at all, though like Solomon accuses of the artist, I’ve never seen porn in my life and I hope I never will. But you shouldn’t need to have seen porn to figure out where to put breasts unless you’re talking specifically about the nipples. Just look at a picture of a woman, or something. (At this point, the artist could even look at the ridiculously-endowed webcomic-reviewer-avatar that sometimes appears in the PW ads.) But again, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if Solomon hadn’t pointed it out. The alleged sprites are both out of the archive, and while the appearances by TV characters are all still in, I don’t have a problem with them either. Sometimes they’re part of the joke. I wouldn’t put it past Penny Arcade or Ctrl+Alt+Del to do that sort of joke. Okay yes, actually lifting the characters whole-cloth from their surroundings instead of drawing them yourselves and fitting them into your art style is jarring and just doesn’t reflect well on you, but I could probably run with it.

So maybe Cartridge Comics wasn’t a good example, because it’s probably improved since the reboot and it probably still isn’t that good. But I do know I like Bob and George. And by “like”, I mean “once I get much further than where the current annotations are I find it hard to stop”. So I’m sure I’m going to be in a position to defend it.

Let’s ignore that Solomon starts out claiming that “the only redeeming quality it possesses” is that it’s over yet subsequently says the first game parody storyline “wasn’t so bad”, and praises it at least one other time later on. “Poor art“: I’m not sure you can really call “poor art” on a sprite comic. You can’t compare sprite comics to non-sprite comics without making a value judgment on sprite comics in general, and you can’t generally compare sprite comics to other sprite comics without making a value judgment on the graphics quality of the games they come from, since they should all use the same sprites. Maybe you can say “good manipulation” or something of the sort, to get things you can’t get in the original sprites. Or maybe it’s staging or something. Anyway, in the strip in question, I’m guessing Solomon’s referring to the use of a “big gray block” as a “fridge” instead of, you know, making it look something like a fridge. At least a narrow rectangle representing the door or something.

Unlike what seems like everyone in the universe, I don’t have a problem with Comic Sans in webcomics, seeing as I use it myself. It’s worth noting that in my case Comic Sans contributes to the overall simple, cartoony feel of Sandsday. So remember kids, if you’re going to break the rules, make absolutely sure you know why you’re breaking them. But although I rejected the Comic Sans early Bob and George uses for Sandsday, after using it for maybe a week, I don’t have a problem with it here, in part because the color and the use of an actual box prevent it from really getting in the way. What I have an issue with is the small-size, tightly-spaced, all-caps, wall-of-text-inducing Comic Sans used by strips like Sluggy Freelance or General Protection Fault. And any strip that uses Arial or Times New Roman.

I can understand having a problem with a self-insertion character, and it’s true that the Author’s first appearance is basically a deus ex machina, but he’s not a Mary Sue there to steal the show; he generally only appears when necessary. For that matter, the Author is far from perfect; he had a nervous breakdown once, threatening to shatter the strip itself to pieces, and often gets ridiculed by his own characters. The Author turns Bob and George, such as its plot is, into a meta-plot that folds in on itself, bringing forth a new outlook on the relationship between creator and created. It’s not exactly 1/0, but it’s not having a walking deus-ex-machina Mary Sue derailing the strip either.

Although judging from his problem with the Author, Solomon probably wouldn’t like 1/0 either; he thinks it’s “retarded” to equate the author of a story to a creator god. If you prefer, John, the Author isn’t really a self-insertion, he’s just the comic’s local god. Or if that’s not enough for you, you can read up on willing suspension of disbelief and the idea we’re supposed to think a story depicts real events while we’re reading it, even if we know, deep down, it isn’t, and even if it contains flying saucers running around everywhere. Yeah, I know this kind of metahumor and knowing-you’re-in-a-comic-strip is supposed to break willing suspension of disbelief, but it doesn’t really seem to negatively affect Order of the Stick that much. David Morgan-Mar has even been known to insert his “me” character into Irregular Webcomic! plotlines as the ostensible “GM”, and as just a cartoonist. It’s a funny thing, the relationship between the reader and the comic. But it’s far from “objective” to say it’s “retarded” to equate the author of a story to a creator god. (And let me riff off the comments for a sec: What did Grant Morrison do right in Animal Man that Anez doesn’t do with the Author? Or more to the point, that isn’t done in 1/0?)

I’m going to ignore the hand-drawn comic because all parties agree it’s bullshit in every way possible. Let’s also ignore the suggestion that Anez just stick to parodying each Mega Man game in order and end the comic with the last game, and the idea that he screwed up that plan by bringing the Author back as Dr. Wily’s McGuffin. I won’t defend Anez sticking with his hand-drawn comic after the first attempt at it should have told him it wouldn’t work. But I will say I can’t defend Bob and George at the transplant of the title characters into the Megaman plotline, or the supposedly “shitty original character” of Mynd, if I don’t know why Solomon thinks Anez shouldn’t have imported Bob, George, or Mynd. In my view, he did a pretty good job of integrating Bob and George into the Megaman madness.

As for the crossover storyline, so far as I can tell there are no references to any fan comics there, since it’s not a crossover with a webcomic, and it’s mostly there so that Anez could claim to have had a crossover (coming at a time when it seemed crossovers were all the rage in webcomics). And by this point Bob and George is really a comic with Megaman characters in it, not a comic about Megaman, and game parodies were basically rare treats, so a bit of Cerebus Syndrome could probably be excused as long as it’s well executed, and by that point we felt for the characters enough to want to see them kick Mynd’s ass or at least stop him from destroying the universe. Maybe it crossed the line into First and Ten, and certainly there aren’t really punchlines bringing the Funny, but only people who really don’t like to see comics devolve into suckfests wouldn’t at least want to stick around to see how it plays out. It’s not like negating basically an entire running plotline and engaging such a sudden shift from funny to super-serious and vice-versa it almost makes the serious stuff seem funny, in a bad way, like some webcomics I know.

I can’t share your opinion on the chick saying “nyu” because I haven’t had your bad experiences with that word, or non-word, across the Internet. Perhaps because I stay as far away from 4chan as possible and don’t let it, or its bretheren, rot my brain. As for completely remaking the plot of Megaman 4 around Ran, that just creates more excitement in wanting to find out what the new plot is. And I haven’t gotten far enough ahead in my reading to see if the descent into mounds of exposition is as present as it seems in this strip, but all I can say is that I was okay with the ending, dating all the way back to “The Seventh Party”. And before you deride it as “Dragonball Z with (somehow) even more exposition”, keep in mind that DBZ was enormously popular.

Probably none of these comics are perfect. Probably quite a few of the criticisms Solomon lays into them for are valid criticisms. But there are quite a few that belie Solomon’s claims to “objectivity”, if only because they’re nowhere near deal-breakers. Solomon tears into quite a few comics that he sees as, not just mediocre or even bad, but BLARGH THE WORST WEBCOMICS EVER and they just aren’t, because if they were he wouldn’t need to ask why they were popular. Art is overrated, and Solomon even seems to recognize this, because at one point he claims that “while good writing can save bad art, good art can do nothing to salvage terrible writing,” yet he still bashes comics for having terrible art when, at the very least, they’re no worse than Cartridge Comics. As for plot, the issue Solomon has with the plot of Bob and George isn’t so much that it’s badly structured, so much as its source material (the happy-go-lucky Megaman games) and its level of exposition. Mounds of exposition is a point against a plot, but it’s hardly enough to say “this plot COMPLETELY sucks and I’m going to compare it to DBZ”. I didn’t even encounter a claim of bad dialogue I could assess properly; the closest I came to one (“nyu”) seemed to come down to personal annoyance, hardly “objective”.

It’s a bit of a shame that the people flooding YWIB to defend the strips Solomon attacks so often have tended to say little more than “u sux lol” because it’s tended to reinforce Solomon’s popularity when he can use his critics as a source of humor, distracting from the fact that he’s not only subjective, but arrogant. I said in Part I that it wouldn’t matter so much that Solomon’s reviews took the form of profanity-laden tirades if there was some meat on those bones, and the fact is there is, but it’s diluted by irrelevant points and personal opinions disguised as fact. Perhaps it’s prose writing, in the form of blog posts, that really needs the right combination of style (art) and substance (writing), and the fact is Solomon’s reviews just don’t have enough of the latter to make up for the off-putting style.

A comment on a blog, and a manifesto for this one.

Warning, this post contains uncensored obsenities.

Perhaps it’s cruel to pick on Your Webcomic is Bad and You Should Feel Bad when it hasn’t posted since April (which may or may not be part of an extended joke on Dresden Codak). Perhaps it’s needlessly keeping alive a meme that was stale from the start to pick on a site that was only really extant for five months, plus another two of much slower posting, and whose current hiatus spans its first birthday. Perhaps it’s a blatant ploy for hits, since YWIB uses a trackback feature that links to any post that links to it, which has resulted in more than a few people coming over and looking at my Dresden Codak post.

John Solomon never intended to create, depending on your point of view, the whipping boy or the alterna-Websnark of the webcomics community. YWIB was originally intended for a small circle of friends, essentially for them to go, “This is a pile of crap! Look and laugh at the pile of crap and the crapper that produced the crap!” But word started spreading around the blogosphere, and Solomon found himself bogged down with readers (which he continues to disdain the existence of) both praising and critical, neither one exactly as brain-using as the group surrounding Websnark.

The resulting dynamic is interesting to say the least. Solomon (or one of his friends) finds a webcomic, goes on a profanity-laden tirade against it and rips it to shreds (Solomon is more prone to profanities than his friends but the tone isn’t much different), and the fans of the blog go “gr8 j0b, u dun it agin!!!!” and the fans of the comic show up and go “u sux f0r r1ppn teh b3st com1c in th3 hole wrld!!!!!” Lather, rinse, repeat until you’ve lost all respect for humanity.

Although Solomon has said once or twice that he originally started YWIB to “entertain” a few people, he’s also, far more commonly, seen himself as a white knight saving webcomics from themselves, despite his own observation that most webcomic creators are not interested in listening to suggestions for improvement. In his eyes, the webcomic community is a place where everyone is nice all the time and where someone needed to come in and throw around some of the meanness common elsewhere on the Internet, that the majority of comments made towards webcomics beyond his own blog were made by “sycophants. Circlejerking little plebians who feel it is their solemn duty to fellate the creator for every single thing, regardless of quality or anything.” He would review comics that were popular “for reasons that God himself could not begin to fathom even if he spent all eternity working on it.”

Which might have been a good point, but from the very beginning he claimed that YWIB was “a wholly objective blog where I take it upon myself to discuss, at length, these webcomics and the multitude of reasons why they are excruciatingly terrible and are worse than Hitler.” He actually continued that “objective” tack, attacking people for claiming “it’s not bad art, it’s a STYLE” or “font choice doesn’t matter” or “you can’t be objective about ART”. So far as he’s not talking about the “broad content” of a strip, only the “plots, the dialogue, the art,” he’s sticking to that goal of being “objective”. And he can talk about the plots, the dialogue, and the art all he wants and still be “objective”. (Let’s not forget the font choice for the dialogue as well.)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Ideally, no comic that was “objectively” bad would get the popularity of a Ctrl+Alt+Del. I say “ideally” because in any medium, complete bullshit gets released and becomes inexplicably popular. Some people liked Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans enough that they’re now putting out Disaster Movie. Rob Schnieder kept putting out the same sort of shitty movies for years. Far be it for me to try to explain why. But although anyone can take whatever crap their dog shit on the sidewalk that morning, post it on the web, and call it a webcomic, webcomics do actually have a survival of the fittest system that weeds out the crappy comics, or at least keeps them with only one or two readers, and rewards at least a semblance of quality. Webcomics grow almost exclusively through some form of word of mouth. Yes, there are webcomics that advertise elsewhere on the web, sometimes in other webcomics, but those webcomics have the money to advertise in the first place. That means they already grew an audience, probably through word of mouth. That means people linking to it on forums, and sending it through e-mails, and recommending it on their blogs.

Neither YWIB nor Websnark ever really advertised anywhere, yet both became incredibly popular almost immediately. Neither Da Blog nor Sandsday has anywhere near that level of popularity, despite what I would consider to be some pretty spiffy webcomic reviews on the former and some actual linkspam on my part, and most of what it does have is off the back of one link from David Morgan-Mar’s LiveJournal. There aren’t enough people who are reading either, thinking “you know, this Morgan Wick cat is pretty cool”, and telling their friends about it through whatever means. That means one of two things: I just don’t have that critical mass of readers yet that starts feeding itself, or what I’m doing here is absolute bullshit that no one needs or wants to tell their friends about. If I eventually got that critical mass of readers while still putting out complete bullshit, I could see someone wanting to go around and tell people “why are you reading this guy? He’s got complete bullshit.” But I only have fifty readers on my very best days. I’m suffering enough; I don’t need someone going around telling people I suck. Besides, even if people do go around saying I put out complete bullshit, it’s not really going to stop people from coming if they enjoy what I write anyway; after all, like television and any other website, they don’t directly pay for it.

Yet Solomon tears into webcomics no one has ever heard of, which is just counterproductive. He may disdain the readers he has and accuse people who perceive “more readers” as a good thing as attention whores, but he must realize that they are attention whores, and when he goes into one of his trademark rants saying “this strip is absolute crap”, he isn’t doing anything that needed to be done, because the strip he’s pointing at didn’t have any readers. On the other hand, because he’s linking to it from his blog, there are now going to be people who are going to come over and read the strip, and some of them may decide they don’t agree with Solomon’s assessment and stay there for good, and perhaps even become the kind of sycophantic, “you’re doing a great job” fans that’s exactly what Solomon hates. Far from destroying a bad webcomic, he’s fostered the culture of bad webcomicdom. Perhaps it’s better, if you’re trying to improve the culture of webcomics to foster quality, to just point out what the webcomicker is doing wrong and how the comic could be improved into something better, if you think the comic could be improved into a quality product, and if it can’t best to just leave it alone and suffer its fate, only tearing into it as it becomes popular.

The flip side of it is when Solomon reviews a Ctrl+Alt+Del or a Dominic Deegan or a Shortpacked! and attempts to tell the masses “who can’t tell trash from gold” why their favorite webcomic is, in fact, shit. As mentioned before, the problem with the internet isn’t that anyone can put out a webcomic, it’s that anyone can read any webcomic, at least any webcomic that isn’t behind a paywall. Nothing Solomon or anyone else can do or say can decrease a webcomic’s audience appreciably, except maybe the creator himself (see Buckley, Tim, re: Miscarriage). If the person enjoys the webcomic, all it costs him is a little bit of time each day, so no matter how Solomon goes about his business, he isn’t going to persuade anyone to stop reading, and might make people start reading just by bringing attention to it.

To the extent he can show people the comics they read are bad at all, and actually dissuade people from reading them, it’s by showing them the good comics and what they do well that other comics don’t. If fans of some webcomics only like those webcomics because they don’t know any better, you could say “the art’s bad, the plot goes off in random directions, no actual person would say this dialogue”, but it’s not likely to change the person’s mind because all he knows is that he likes the comic. But if you expose him to a Gunnerkrigg Court (a comic Solomon is on record as liking) or an Order of the Stick, and you tell them “this is what good art looks like, this is a tightly-wound plot, this is what real people sound like” (or in the case of OOTS, “this is actually passable art for these reasons” and “this dialogue is actually funny, unlike the excrement you read” – I’d say “this is what expressions are supposed to look like” except that to some extent, Rich Burlew’s expressions bear a disturbing similarity to the infamous Ctrl+Alt+Del B^U), there’s a chance they won’t be able to go back to their old bullshit ever again.
 
Those aren’t the only problems with YWIB, and it would be beating a dead horse to point out that the tone and insulting manner he takes is a bit of a turn-off and tends to obfuscate the points he makes. But even so, I could still at least say he might be just a little misunderstood if he really was as “objective” as he claims. But as will become apparent in Part II tomorrow, he quite simply allows too many personal opinions and even personal pet peeves to influence his analysis.
 
I really think Solomon’s stated goal was a noble one, but if he is gone from the Internet for good I suspect it’s because he’s realized he’s lost. He completely failed. There are people who started looking to Solomon’s rants for recommendations for webcomics they might like, on the grounds that if Solomon hates it, it must be good. Almost from the start of the blog there were people actually asking Solomon to tear into their comics, apparently desperate for the hits they would bring. Some progress seems to have been made – at least one comic reviewed by Solomon doesn’t seem to be on the Internet anymore, and one of the comics whose review I will look at tomorrow has undergone a reboot, presumably chasing fixes for Solomon’s criticisms – but regardless of whether or not it was intended as parody, regardless even whether or not it’s still intended as parody, YWIB has become a self-parody even in spite of itself.
 
I do agree that we shouldn’t let webcomics be dominated by absolute bullshit, or let the webcomics community become too much of a self-congratulatory happy family, but if the creators of that bullshit are anything like, say, Tim Buckley, it’s sort of a lost cause to attempt to chase out or fix the bad apples. It’s still worth it to point out the bad apples – after bashing “Bobby Tangents” became a running gag on YWIB for supposedly sucking up to any comic he reviewed, Robert Howard has subsequently taken on a more critical tone – but if it’s necessary it’s probably not all that bad, and if it isn’t necessary it isn’t necessary. What’s needed is to reward and expose the good apples, and show what it is that they do right, and how we can compare that to the comics that do things wrong, and challenge the wrongdoers willing to listen to do things right. We could even work to improve webcomics in general if that site would update at some point since October. That’s the manifesto for Da Blog’s webcomic reviews, and that’s what’s really needed in the webcomic community. If Solomon ultimately helps to create a webcomic community that’s a tough but firm mother, not only working to get the medium respect as a medium but also challenging webcomics to earn that respect, perhaps his seven months of profanity-laden tirades wasn’t a complete waste.

(And really, folks, “John Sololame”? You pass up the far better “John So-lame-on” pun?)

This post rambles on for ages and ends up going nowhere. I think I need a biscuit.

Prelude: At one point, when I was very young, before I had an e-mail address, I would occasionally use my mom’s e-mail account to give certain people a piece of my mind. Hey, I didn’t have anything else to work with. I would end up lectured as much for their content as for the act of using her e-mail address to do it, and sometimes Mom would discover the message before I even sent it and dissuaded me from it, like the time, shortly after the TV rating system was introduced, when I started writing an e-mail to some random web site as a starting point for starting to assign a Web site rating system, but Mom found it and dissuaded me from it. Keep in mind, I WAS, LIKE, TEN YEARS OLD! And I’m acting like huge committees all by my lonesome.
Anyway, as this behavior progressed I started including entreaties not to reply to my e-mails, lest my mom found out about them. And lo and behold, they DID reply, and my mom DID find out about them, and I DID get lectured. Such as the time (bringing this to the topic for the rest of this post, which has nothing to do with the “about me” tag) when I made some comments about how some guy could improve his web site, complete with entreaty not to reply, and I got a Notepad file on the desktop saying, among other things, something like “PLEASE don’t make comments on other people’s sites, or you will have to be chaperoned while using the Internet!!!”

(Since 2000, I haven’t had to share a computer with Mom while using the Internet, and I got my own e-mail address in 2002, minimizing the problem. And I finally started getting the hint as well.)

Anyway, the point of all this rambling is, I don’t like making critical comments on another web site.

But this is a blog, not an e-mail. And a blog is different from a web site as well. And I do feel I should probably explain this strip, because to this point I haven’t really done much to connect to the broader “webcomic community”, and I may as well make some comment on the site of which I speak.

And it helps that I’ve met several blogs that precisely do make critical comments on other websites, including, especially, the one of which we speak today. (Nonetheless, I still feel somewhat queasy about the enterprise…)

Websnark was originally the final evolution of a series of blogs by Eric Burns (as I’ll explain later, that’s not quite accurate); in fact, before the blog’s “official” birth date of August 20, 2004, one will find a number of posts dating back to January of that year, only much further spaced apart, longer form, and about more random topics – the remnants of Burns’ attempt to revive his “online journal”, ported to Websnark.

Specifically, Websnark was Burns’ plan to clear the junk out of his still-running Livejournal and allow it to be refocused. I’m going to make a metaphor using the structures in place at this site: Burns wanted his Livejournal account to be composed mostly of the sort of posts I would tag “about me”, but instead it was mostly the sorts of things I would tag “internet adventures”. In his case, “internet adventures” usually meant whatever random memes were criscrossing the Internet and “pictures of dogs”, which basically meant whatever webcomics struck his fancy, but in theory, Websnark was going to be specifically devoted to neither, just shuttling between the two. In practice, after the first post it would be another 11 posts until the next non-webcomic post. Websnark has had its fair share of non-webcomic posts – in fact, I would estimate that as it became more popular as many posts were not about webcomics as were (especially, circa early 2005, posts about itself) – but webcomics would be its bread and butter, the ticket that took it to the dance.

And as it turned out, it would deliver Eric Burns fame, fortune, and even, as made official just this past weekend, a wife.

The Internet has redefined the phrase “overnight sensation” but even by its standards Burns’ ascent seems amazingly literal, both for the speed from which he went from being maybe as famous as me to one of the biggest names in webcomics, and how quickly that ascent came after his blog’s foundation. No less than four days after starting Websnark, Burns wrote an unusually sarcastic and, well, snarky post (despite the name, Websnark does not particularly make fun of its subjects as it does neutrally, or even positively, comment on them with a funny tone) that started a chain of events that netted his little corner of the ‘net thousands of readers. He ragged on popular webcomic PVP for how unpredictably it might update each day, his ragging was brought to the attention of PVP’s creator, Burns was rapped by the PVP forum regulars, and went on his merry way.

Just two days after that, Burns returned to the topic of PVP, for substantive reasons this time, PVP’s creator liked it enough to link to it on his front page, and the floodgates were opened.

There are a few more stops along the way, and Burns himself goes into plenty more detail on the rapid rise of Websnark here. Long story short, Websnark became as much of a go-to place as some of the webcomics it remarked upon, including with webcartoonists themselves. This despite the fact that Burns engaged in a form of advertising known as “none whatsoever”.

Maybe it was the smartness of the criticism. Maybe it was the respect Burns paid to the medium. Maybe it was how constructive and neutral he could be with the criticism, coming from the perspective of a reader without a horse in the race. Or maybe it was that he was doing it at all.

…But a surprisingly large number of webcartoonists started regularly reading.
This surprised me. This surprised me a lot. And it made me realize that there
weren’t that many people out there doing what I was doing — offering up
critiques of the medium and discussions of the individual executions. […]

The dialogue is all important in art. It’s criticism — in the truest sense of the word. The understanding and analysis of what is there. The placing of art within the cosm of its fellows. The distillation and discovery of new truths from interpretation. I’m not going to claim to be the first webcomics critic, nor anywhere near the best, but through luck and timing I managed to become one of the better known. It got me two gigs that mean the world to me — writing for Comixpedia, and contributing to the Webcomics Examiner — and it’s spawned others trying to do the same thing. Tangents, by Robert Howard. I’m Just Saying, by Phil Khan. Journey Into History (and the HB Comic Blog) by Bob Stevenson. Webcomic Finds by Ping Teo. The Digital Strips Blog and Podcast, by Zampson and Daku. And many, many others.

I’m not saying I’m the reason those guys are doing what they’re doing. I’m not saying Websnark by Burns and White was necessary for all those other voices. But we clearly had an impact. We clearly caused some folks to read what we wrote and say “wait a second — I can do that!” And that’s monumental. That’s massive. That is good for comics in general. That is good for webcomics in particular. The dialogue improves everything. And if my making this blog a year ago helped that… well, that’s about as fine a thing as I could hope for.

I advise you to read that whole post, if only to marvel at how prominent Burns became after only a year of posts. There are blogs that become insanely popular for a time, there are blogs that develop devoted followings for a time, but in all likelihood Burns and Websnark takes the cake.

And there are good reasons for that. By no means was Websnark the first place that commented on webcomics, nor am I in any place to say whether it’s the best. But I can say with some degree of confidence that Websnark was probably the first place to treat webcomics like War and Peace, and certainly the first to do it in a humorous tone. And Websnark – this is important – could take webcomics seriously when webcomics didn’t take themselves seriously.

At right is a 2005 strip from semi-popular webcomic Casey and Andy. Click on the thumbnail to see it in all its glory.

Probably the majority of webcomics fall into two categories: the video game comic, in which a cast of nerds sit around all day being nerds, including playing video games and making commentary about the world of video games. Sandsday falls into this category.

The comics that aren’t video game comics tend to be strips where wacky adventures happen to ordinary people. Alien abduction? Getting turned into Bigfoot? Being made the bride of Satan? All par for the course, and in fact, child’s play for some strips. Casey and Andy falls into this category, and this strip captures the mood perfectly. (And it’s arguably tame compared to, say, Sluggy Freelance.) If a webcomic doesn’t fall into one of those two categories it’s probably some combination of the two, at times simultaneously. There are exceptions, but even the exceptions tend to be nerdy in some way.

That, by the way, is the sort of analysis Websnark foisted upon the world, and which is now far from unique to Websnark. And I haven’t even gotten into the effect created by the way Andy Weir draws eyes. But I digress.

This strip was unleashed to the world during the closing stages of Websnark’s golden age. You probably see a funny strip where wacky hijinks happen. I mean, she gets yoinked away, then returns after a few weeks of adventure and picks up the conversation as if nothing happened! And she’s wearing a bikini warrior outfit! It’s madness! MADNESS I TELL YOU!

Well, Eric Burns sees this:

Some time ago, in the course of snarking Casey and Andy, I mentioned that Jenn Brozek had become the strip’s protagonist. My thesis was simple enough: Casey, Andy, Mary, Satan, Quantum Cop and all the rest were funny characters that funny things happened to, but Jenn was the strip’s Mary Richards — she was the (relatively) normal character who had insanity surround her. As a result, her reactions echoed the reactions of the reader. She might be Queen of the Hunkinites, but her reactions are those of a normal person. More or less.

And, as a result, the major plot arcs seem to center on her. Jenn gets kidnapped transdimensionally or temporally. Things happen. Other things result. Her air of normalcy lends itself to weird situations.

However, part of character development is growth. If Jenn remained aggressively normal, she’d become a one-note joke character, existing only to not be quite as weird as everyone else. Sooner or later, she has to take weirdness in stride.

Today’s strip makes it official. Jenn getting kidnapped and going off on a several week jaunt which leads to her coming back in significantly different clothing doesn’t make her bat an eye. She’s ready to pick up her conversation.

Not to mention that even before she was kidnapped, she was casually burying a satchel in the yard.

Jenn may still be the protagonist of the strip, but she’s not Mary Richards any more. She’s gone full on Phyllis on us.

(Does anyone even remember Phyllis? I always liked her character.)

It’s a psychoanalysis of Jenn’s whole character spun out of a single strip! I haven’t even chose a particularly representative example of the sort of madness Burns brought to his craft at his height. This is a fairly good example. I think.

But I have a few more thoughts on this. (Pardon me if this post sounds really random right now. I’m really tired and I spent way too long reading Websnark posts instead of writing about it. And now I’m aping parts of its style. I really need sleep.)

I’ve talked about the rise of Websnark. Now I want to talk about its fall. Which Burns totally saw coming. “I’ve maintained for a while that we’ve found the audience we’re going to find, and readership is only going to decline from here,” he writes in that first anniversary post. By 2007, he was barely posting at all, as he recognized in one of the rare actual posts:

[I]n 2006, Websnark was running somewhere close to the height of its popularity. I think the “glory year” was probably 2005, but 2006 was still doing darn nicely. At the same time, I was at that point a creature of habit. There are things that I did, and things I didn’t do, and very little breaking up of them.

Which is the nature of a thing like Websnark. When you begin, you’re throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. Sooner or later, you get a sense of what sticks and then… well, you stick with it. You become formalized. You become ritualized. You become expected and perhaps complacent. And for a while, you run high on that formula, because it really is what people want to see, and you really are pretty good at it, and it’s all pretty fun.

Eventually, of course, things run their course. There is shift, and breakdown. You lose your enthusiasm. Daily posting becomes weekly posting, and then monthly posting. People might still read, but things shift from water cooler talk to “oh yeah, he’s on X again,” to nodding and moving on. You become part of the landscape, and eventually you become yesterday.

That is not a complaint, mind. It’s what we predicted from day one — there is a life cycle to these kinds of things. And no, Websnark isn’t going away. Er, more than it already has, what since it’s at best getting handfuls of posts. Regardless, I’m always happy when people come back to see what’s going on.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this. Burns portrayed his decline as inevitable, as some sort of natural law of the Internet. Until I re-read this, I was going to talk about how Websnark is not a good test case. For one thing, it dropped down to posting on certain rare occasions; for upwards of a year, Burns posted every single day. I wrote before that when you update your site every day, people forgive missed updates easier than when you update less often but still consistently. Miss a heck of a lot of updates, however, and you can see the holy fury coming down on your ass. Actually, check that. You can see people acting as if you never even existed.

Had Websnark kept updating every single day, or even a few times a week, perhaps it could have stayed popular indefinitely. Certainly there are plenty of sites on the Internet that have maintained the same level of popularity for ages. But perhaps that’s Eric’s point: he didn’t maintain the same level of enthusiasm for Websnark. Things change. Tastes change. What may seem like the thing you’re intensely, obsessively proud of today may be something you go “meh” at tomorrow. Why, just earlier this year, I fancied myself a philosopher, making pithy, insightful comments on human nature. Now? Political activist. But more on that later in the summer and into the fall. And back in high school I fancied myself a novelist, and before that a famous musician, the MTV kind (you know, if MTV still did music videos and all)…

But there are other reasons for Websnark’s decline. Nearly a full year ago, Burns explained how he was burning out on webcomics. But even at the height of Websnark’s popularity, in 2005, Websnark was starting to drift away from webcomics and into other topics. A signifcant number of posts were about Websnark itself and its growing popularity.

Anyway, the point is: Did the people burn out on Websnark, or did Eric? And if it was Eric that burned out on Websnark, does that really give us any real insight into the working of the Internet, or just into the mind of one Eric Burns?

Well, Websnark may be on the rise again. Back in February it got back into hardcore webcomic commentary with “State of the Web(cartoonist)“. Or maybe “State of the (Web)cartoonist” depending on the week. Anyway, each day Burns would take a look at one person with a webcomic and take a look at that webcartoonist’s strengths and weaknesses and what Burns thought of that cartoonist’s strip. And he posted every single day! For two weeks. Then his schedule started slipping and eventually posts became just as nonexistent as before. Recently it returned for a spell, remarked on three comics, and disappeared again.

He was going to do sixty-five webcomics. By my count, he’s done fifteen cartoonists. And I was counting on getting this strip up the instant he was done with those sixty-five comics, dammit!

Well, it’s not like he’s going to notice it in time anyway.

Right?

Dear God I need to get to bed. It’s one in the freaking morning as I finish this. It’s taken me several days to write it.

And I’m probably going to regret every word of it.