Forget being a webcomic review that’s not about OOTS, CAD, or a DMM production, it’s a UF review that doesn’t use the phrase “nag strip”! D’oh!

(From User Friendly. Click for full-sized principled treatment.)
I told you we would break out of the rut of only three or four different comics being reviewed! I told you!

In a sense, User Friendly was my first webcomic. Well before I had an inkling of what any webcomics were beyond maybe Penny Arcade, before I even had Da Blog, back in 2006 I started going through the User Friendly archives. At the time, I didn’t even see UF as a webcomic, but as a newspaper comic, even if only in “alternative” papers. (Perhaps that was because I had seen UF strips on the walls of my mom’s old job. Or because I had seen UF book collections and would have been taken aback at the very idea of webcomics – comics released only online in their first run – at the time I saw them.) The project quickly monopolized a large amount of my time, but I never had even the slightest bit of intention of going through the entire archive. I just wanted to see the strip take shape and read through the archives just to the point where User Friendly had found its status quo, where User Friendly became User Friendly.

I never found it.

Now again, UF was not only my first webcomic, it was the first comic I attempted to catch up on through the online archive, whether print-based or online, and I never attempted to start reading it on a daily basis for any length of time. So it’s possible my perspective was skewed by reading everything all at once (not to mention UF‘s reliance on ongoing storylines), and helped by how briskly I sped through the archives – even though the UF archive project started monopolizing my time, I was scared at how close I was getting to the present at the speed I was going at. (UF has been going for a while and has been running daily for ten years, but the archive’s a bit less daunting than that sounds because each strip is brisk and quick.) Still, no matter how far into the strip’s run I got, UF never felt like it had found its status quo. Miranda and AJ finally settled their “will-they-or-won’t-they” in 2003 or 2004, and it still felt like way too early in the strip’s run to resolve that plotline, even though AJ’s crush had been a background plot point for years.

Why was that?

User Friendly is a strip for which the most accurate way to describe it is as a kitbashing of several existing works, including some that postdate it, but even that doesn’t really do it justice by making it sound like a ripoff. It’s so much like Dilbert that it’s not so much the Internet‘s Dilbert as it is the Canadian Dilbert. Except the cast is large and consistent enough to also take on aspects of being more of a webcomic version of The Office (before Jim and Pam, there was AJ and Miranda!). On the other hand, the crew at Columbia Internet get into so much wacky hijinks that it’s also kind of like PVP, if PVP had never left the magazine offices and was about an actual technology company rather than a gaming magazine.

Indeed, perhaps the most fitting comparison for User Friendly is to PVP, right down to the mascot. Where PVP has Skull, User Friendly has Dust Puppy, complete with his own side cast bringing their own wacky hijinks, only Erwin and Crud Puppy are a bit more integrated into the daily life of the office (especially Erwin) than Shecky and Scratch. The diverging directions the two strips have taken are telling: while PVP let Skull become emblematic of the strip, Dust Puppy’s screen time has been significantly reduced over the years. For being the strip’s mascot, he probably appears much less often than any other “regular”. He tends to pop most often in standalones, watching TV with AJ, or when UF goes on one of its long (and infamous) “trip” storylines. Crud Puppy has become more of a general emblem of Ultimate Evil; Erwin has essentially become the office’s computer, providing an excuse for Illiad to set off a dialogue involving anything on the Internet without needing to find a full two characters to play off each other.

But if there’s one truly profound difference between User Friendly and PVP, it is in the art style. PVP regularly changes perspectives from panel to panel, and UF… doesn’t. Illiad isn’t up there with the worst abusers of copy-and-paste, but he’s at about Ctrl+Alt+Del level. The problem, when you compare him to CAD, is that, except in the Sunday strips, there are no color backgrounds or characters, making the monotony more apparent (say what you will about Tim Buckley’s use of Google Image Search for backgrounds, it’s better than the alternative), and more to the point, Illiad’s characters barely open their mouths – seriously, they never open more than a pixel or three when people talk (with occasional exceptions, such as Stef in profile).

(And please don’t make me once again fall back on the “this strip uses B^U too” argument, okay? UF‘s hated enough for it not to help. Thanks.)

Where User Friendly‘s use of copy-and-paste is most apparent is in an area that merits another comparison to another comic, because in quite a few ways, User Friendly is the Doonesbury of geek culture. This becomes most apparent in Illiad’s exterior shots of places like Microsoft and SCO and EA, which are very reminiscent of early Doonesbury‘s effectively copy-pasted shots of places like the White House. The artistic portrayal of the actual characters and how they talk is not unlike that of early Doonesbury as well, but Garry Trudeau has learned how to mix up his perspectives – even on those exterior shots of the White House – and Illiad still maintains that single-perspective look, occasionally broken up by extreme close-ups so he can claim “see, I shake up my perspectives!” (but mostly to squeeze in more dialogue).

(Then again, Doonesbury was maybe twenty years old by the time Trudeau finally figured perspectives out.)

Comparing UF to Doonesbury (or I suppose at this point, Dilbert meets Doonesbury with a dash of PVP added) provides a neat way to segue to the actual content of the strip itself, because – especially in its single-panel Sunday strips – UF is very much an editorial cartoon. Now, I’ve previously described xkcd as an editorial cartoon for the Internet, but no one would mistake it for User Friendly. xkcd tends to talk about memes rolling through the Internet, or the happenings of online forums. In short, xkcd tends to limit its satire to the Internet itself, or when it’s not doing that, on everyday things people do. UF is a lot more savage, taking on things Big Corporations do that tick a certain class of geek off.

Actually, that “certain class of geek” may hint at one reason why User Friendly, like Ctrl+Alt+Del, has attracted a hatedom that might be out of proportion to its lack of quality. Only unlike CAD, it’s not so much a result of people misunderstanding what the strip is about, except in not understanding it before they encounter it. Most of the geek strips that litter the web – Penny Arcade and its ripoffs – tend to center on gaming culture and its related realms. (You could argue there are quite a few that delve into D&D and its ilk, but most of them aim to be more like Order of the Stick, telling stories based on the D&D milieu and keeping their appeal relatively broad.)

UF does have AJ as a gamer representative and most of the cast has some gamer cred, but UF is fundamentally a strip about and for the IT industry. (Tech support industry, when Greg is the focus.) Its humor is geared towards IT professionals who like seeing Microsoft get skewered, like going “yay Linux!”, and want to see the annoying marketing guy down the hall get his comeuppance, not the gamers living in their mothers’ basements that read Penny Arcade and the like. As PA itself once said, it’s not for you. (I should make it clear: UF isn’t what xkcd is cracked up to be, either. It’s certainly worth a laugh from time to time, even from me, and most of the jokes are at least marginally acessible to any geek.)

Earlier… I guess it was last year, now, wasn’t it? – Eric “Websnark” Burns(-White), back when he was still doing his “State of the Web(cartoonist)” series, went into talking about UF expecting to utterly savage it and write a “you had me and you lost me” on it, and instead wrote at length about how UF wasn’t bad, it just hadn’t changed from when it started and the schtick was growing old. Actually, now that I re-read it, that was what Burns wrote when he first snarked UF at the very beginning, when he still out-and-out hated it, or at least didn’t like it, and it’s pretty much common knowledge among UF haters. What he actually said last year was basically what I said in the last paragraph. But anyway, there’s nothing wrong with remaining exactly the same over the years, with next to no character development. Peanuts essentially played that to perfection. So have most of the gag-a-day strips in the newspapers, to the point of never even letting their characters age.

User Friendly‘s problem… see, when Burns(-White) did his “State of the (Web)cartoonist” on Illiad, he remarked on the contrast between PVP being criticized for drifting away from simple gag-a-day strips, and UF being criticized for not doing so. I think the difference, and the reason why I never felt that UF ever really became UF (oddly, considering I mentioned earlier that it never found its status quo), was that UF became set in its ways too early. UF never really grew out of adolescence; it essentially froze in time at a point where it had yet to reach maturity, and so when I had my archive binge in 2006, I kept waiting for it to finish rounding into shape, waiting for it to take those last few steps in its evolution. And it never came. Maybe that’s because there are a few dangling threads Illiad leaves maddeningly untouched, but it’s like there’s a germ of a greater webcomic lurking inside User Friendly and that if Illiad hadn’t decided “okay, this is the comic I like” so quickly, UF could be a far greater comic strip for the experience. Couple that with its general timelessness (both in its characters and its subject matter) and the reliance on story arcs (the real reason I never got a sense it found its status quo), and UF is really a lot younger comic strip than its years.

User Friendly isn’t bad. I’m sure in certain subcultures, its humor is rip-roaringly hilarious. It’s just that… it just isn’t good. Certainly not good enough to make my RSS reader, if it were even modern enough to have an RSS feed. It’s decent enough that I can chuckle at some of the jokes, and find myself hooked enough to go through the archive for longer than I intended, but it’s not good enough to draw me to it. It’s just cripplingly mediocre, and that might be one of the most dreaded things you can say about a webcomic.

Robert A. Howard, this one’s for you! Or: On art in webcomics. Or: This really would have worked better if it was color like every other Wotch strip.

(From The Wotch. Click for full-sized awkward moments.)

Good evening. Today I’m here to talk about a grave condition afflicting webcomics all across the land. I call it Casey and Andy Eyes.

This condition, afflicting many a webcomic but especially those drawn by marginal artists or those overly inspired by anime, has as its major symptom extremely large eyes, often taking up more than half the face, with outlines that stop in the inside. Also accompanying it is rather cartoonish-looking faces, with features formed very simply. No cure is known aside from a general improvement in art skills, either on the part of the artist or, in more extreme cases, a replacement of the artist with someone more skilled.

Okay, so the only two webcomics I’ve actually seen the condition in are Casey and Andy itself and The Wotch. And El Goonish Shive. (You might be able to stretch it out enough to include Sluggy Freelance as well.) But isn’t it odd that they share almost the exact same art style? How can this sort of weird coincidence possibly happen? The Wotch FAQ implies that Anne and Robin might not have the genders they’re portrayed as; is it possible that Anne Onymous is secretly Andy Weir?

And what the hell am I doing criticizing art styles? Am I not the guy who has long held that art doesn’t matter?

Well, yes.

This is not a review of The Wotch in general. I might decide to write that review at some later date. But this is because I still haven’t found anyone backing my opinion and I’ve seen plenty of people hold up art as the holy grail. This is an attempt to codify what art in webcomics actually means, what counts as bad art and what counts as good art, and why the art of Order of the Stick and, in my opinion, Ctrl+Alt+Del fall under the latter.

Because I still don’t understand why CAD gets hammered for its art style. The lines are straight and polished, there’s actual shading on the characters, there’s variety in character’s noses, the hairstyles aren’t a few semi-random angular lines but often sport actual, separated tufts, not just random spikes, and the characters look reasonably like real people you might actually meet on the street somewhere. Casey and Andy can’t claim any of that. Yet CAD having bad art is a joke as old as the strip itself and no one talks about Casey and Andy‘s art. Nor can C&A claim, like OOTS or xkcd or Dinosaur Comics or Irregular Webcomic, that its art style isn’t off-putting enough to turn me off to what might otherwise be a pretty good comic strip.

But why? If art really does matter after all, what do those strips do right that Casey and Andy doesn’t? At first glance, it might look as though there isn’t really that much difference between the OOTS art style and the C&A art style. It’s not just, as it was once explained to me regarding CAD, that those comics have good stories that overcome their marginal art, because that would seem to just as easily explain Casey and Andy‘s popularity. I think it comes down to this:

OOTS, xkcd, and Dinosaur Comics all revel in their cartooniness.

They accept that their art styles will never be any appreciably different from how they started out, and so they create their own bar of realism. A comparison of OOTS to any (well, most) of the hordes of its worse-drawn ripoffs will help to show this. OOTS follows its own rules of proportion, maintaining a proper amount of space between facial features and within the face, and none of it comes off as artificial. Casey and Andy is at least as cartoony as OOTS, yet it attempts to go for a realistic rendering of its characters, and in the process falls into its own twisted version of the Uncanny Valley.

For all that people criticize it, CAD‘s much-maligned “B^U” is actually a rather ingenious way of getting around this problem. Something that often doesn’t get a lot of credit is that Tim Buckley gets quite a bit of mileage from variations on a single face. It can be used to portray wonder, anger, shock, panic, excitement, happiness, and of course, boredom. The result is that CAD succeeds in creating its own bar for realism and only needing to pass that bar on any given strip. That’s all anyone needs to ask of it. Compare CAD with Real Life, which truth be told, has its own version of B^U. In fact its art style is strikingly similar to CAD‘s (at least Buckley has real eyes with different levels of closed-ness and not just dots!), yet it has never attracted anywhere near the same level of vitriol for it. (Neither, for that matter, has PVP, but PVP characters do vary in the size of their eyes, if only a little.)

Part of this is because part of what people really hate about CAD is its use of copy-and-paste as a shortcut. Copy-and-paste can be a turn-off, but mostly when it’s really obvious. There are a couple of different things someone can do when they catch themselves copy-and-pasting. They can attempt to hide it, either by trying to introduce certain subtle or not so subtle variations or putting the focus on the content of the dialogue. Or they can go whole-hog and embrace it, often limiting themselves to one piece of art per character, in the vein of Dinosaur Comics. Both approaches have their pitfalls. The former often works best when combined with the latter, or when there are a lot of variations, or when the writing is really good (or at least controversial). (CAD falls into the “lots of variations” category.) The latter works best when you go so far as to use clip art for it, or when the art is good enough to overcome the fact there’s not much of it, or when you set the bar for detail at a point that fits the quality of the art itself. (Trying to get really detailed when all you can draw is stick figures probably isn’t a good idea.) Sadly, I’m not sure Sandsday does the best job of any of those options.

So yes, it’s very possible that it is important for a webcomic to have at least passable art, and not seem like the random scrawlings of a ten-year-old. But at least in webcomics, it’s clear that there are some exceptions to that rule, including what I like to call The Wick Scalar Exemption: if the quality and detail of the art scale with all other aspects of that quality appropriately, whether it be by reducing the quality of the features to size with the quality of the body (while still maintaining good proportions) or by mitigating the impact of engaging in cut-and-paste, even if the overall quality is completely primitive (as in xkcd), it doesn’t count as bad art for the purposes of maintaining an audience because it should achieve a level of internal consistency.

This level can seem rather hard to reach, and I suspect part of the problem people have with “B^U” is that it is ever so slightly jarring with the quality of the rest of Tim Buckley’s bodies, and gives just a little too little detail. (Similarly, I’d say Sandsday‘s biggest problem is that, for the most part, it has an Order of the Stick level of detail, but only two or three mouths per character, not to mention no hair and no skin color. On the other hand, perhaps the reason Real Life escapes the B^U charge is because it doesn’t provide as much detail in the eyes!) Certain features, such as straight lines and appealing curves, are pretty much sacrosanct, but in at least some areas of webcomic art, it’s more important to know how good you are than to try to be any better than that. Strips like Casey and Andy and The Wotch try to be better than they really are, stuff their comics with too much detail, and fall flat. The lesson of strips like Ctrl+Alt+Del is that, assuming you aren’t a photorealistic artist, it takes a Goldilocks to make an appealing webcomic – you have to get the balance just right, but the balance is more important that how much you stuff on each side.

And I promise that next week, it’ll be a real review of a real webcomic that won’t become a review of any of the Big Three out of nowhere.

For some of the more overzealous forum members, re: 614: Celia may be ridiculously, stupidly naive, but that doesn’t translate into being dead meat. Just ask Elan.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized minty-fresh breath.)

So my time this week has been monopolized by various other things, such as the whole college-football-tournament thing, and the webcomic post has been pushed to Thursday as a result, and this is what happens when I don’t have much time to write it: I fall back on OOTS and produce something fairly hastily thrown together. And still take much longer to write it than my schedule should by all rights allow.

So what the hell is going on with Belkar? I touched on this once before, but as just about every single thing Belkar does is being viewed in light of Shojo’s challenge to him, I think it’s important to establish a baseline for what that actually means.

So far, though more so in his first couple of strips back in action, not much seems to have actually changed in Belkar’s behavior, which has only stoked the speculation on what he will do differently, and how that’ll affect his much-prophesied death, and what it means for when that’ll happen. The general consensus, so far as I have observed on the forums (and as over-interpreted by me), seems to be that Belkar is going to toe the line and, outwardly, do everything Haley and later Roy asks of him, effectively turning into the ultimate team player, more committed to the main quest than anyone, appearing to have seen the light and turned good, trying to play the Great Hero, while only occasionally “cheating” somehow, out of sight of anyone else. And in an addendum that’s growing in popularity, actually becoming good in the process.

The most succinct interpretation of the matter I could find on short notice probably came from Robert A. Howard of Tangents:

One of the greatest flaws of Belkar’s character was that he has been a two-trick pony for the longest time. He was a violent comedic foil who had no social graces, no interest in blending in, and whose solution for everything was “stick a knife in it until it’s dead.” And it was getting old and boring. What’s worse, it was hurting the rest of the comic as well. The rest of the cast have undergone character growth and have had some truly intriguing stories behind them. Belkar? Outside of killing things, he was useless. The visitation of Lord Shojo (whether it was Shojo’s spirit, a manifestation of the curse Belkar was under, or even just a hallucination) ended up providing Belkar with a chance (and a reason) to grow, while staying fundamentally who and what he is.
Thus Belkar is going to pretend to have character growth. Yet I must wonder… in pretending, and while playing the same game everyone else is, some of that faked character growth may actually rub off. In the meanwhile, watching Belkar slaughter his way through a horde of low-level thieves, leaving the one girl alive after kissing her breathless, has actually become amusing again. What’s more, he may actually get to play the part of hero once again, and enjoy himself immensely while doing so. And while he is fated to die (according to the Oracle, whose death activated Belkar’s Mark of Justice to begin with), I can’t help but wonder if maybe he’ll gain a measure of redemption in the process… or at the very least enter into the Abyss ready to kick butt and chew bubblegum.
There is a bit of a problem with this interpretation, at least judging what it is by the first paragraph: it’s not necessarily new to Belkar. But in large measure it’s pretty much what I’ve seen presented elsewhere: Belkar making a show of being the hero, while still being his old self if he can get away with it, whatever that means.

Okay. What was Shojo actually saying when he made his challenge to Belkar?

For starters, he invites Belkar to play

The Game, the big one. The one that each of us plays every day when we get out of bed, put on our face, and go out into the world. Some of us play to get ahead, some of us just want to get through the day without breaking character. It’s called “Civilization”. No, wait, there’s already a game called that… OK, it’s called “Society”. Your problem is that you don’t want to play the game at all, you want to sit on the couch and eat Cheetos while everyone else is playing.
Belkar snaps back, “Well, why shouldn’t I? What’s the point of their Society, anyway? It never did anything for me.” Shojo’s response is that if he keeps mocking them and ignoring them, they’ll kill him.

To this point, it seems that Shojo’s point might be bigger than whether or not Belkar should be a “hero”, but whether he should simply live a life bigger than just stabbing everyone at every opportunity. Consider Belkar’s life immediately preceding being struck by the Mark of Justice: skipping out on the entire explanation of the Gates because he’d killed a guard and fled, leading Miko on a wild goose chase and slowly driving her more and more insane with fury, pretty much trying to get her to kill him out of blind fury for kicks. Belkar doesn’t even care about staying alive as long as he believes he can be quickly resurrected. The only reason he doesn’t simply kill the rest of the group is so he has people to back him up if he ever gets in deep, to be led to people to kill, because if he kills one the rest will turn on him, and as an audience to his deeds. (As I’ve said many times in the past, I have neither prequel book, but according to Wikipedia, the main reason he joined the Order in the first place is a variant of the first reason.) The purpose behind the quest doesn’t matter so much as “Those people? Bad. Take care of them.”

For further insight, look no further than strip #58, when Vaarsuvius gives Belkar Owl’s Wisdom so he can give Elan a couple last-minute healing spells. Before V dismisses the Owl’s Wisdom, Belkar briefly seems to undergo some actual character growth: “I’ve wasted my life on anger and needless rage, when I could have been healing. My eyes are finally open. From this day forward, I’m never hurting a living creature ever again.” (That last sentence would prove oddly prophetic…) With this piece of evidence, we can place a name to Belkar’s life through the Mark of Justice experience: “anger and needless rage”. He’s spent too much time consumed with both to realize his true potential, whether that involves “hurting…living creature[s]” or not.

Interestingly, that Miko chase I mentioned? Might be a perfect metaphor for what Shojo was talking about. Belkar cared only about his own fun, and missed something far more interesting and important in the process. As many people have suggested, this whole episode may cast into a new light why Shojo afflicted Belkar with the Mark of Justice in the first place.

Belkar interprets “playing the game” as “show[ing] up and play[ing] by everyone else’s stupid rules”, and Shojo replies, “Of course not, my wooly friend [Belkar at this point has metaphorically turned into a sheep]. You can cheat.”

Nudge die rolls, palm cards, “forget” penalties… but you have to sit down to play first. As long as the people at the table see a fellow player across from them, they’ll tolerate you. A crooked player is a pain in the ass, but someone who refuses to play at all makes them start questioning their own lives – and people HATE to think. They’d rather lose to a cheater than dwell too long on why they’re playing in the first place.
The apparent implication of this speech is that it doesn’t even matter if the other players know Belkar is cheating, so long as he plays at all. It’s entirely possible that Belkar could continue to be the same stabby, backstabbing jerk he’s always been, so long as he gives a rat’s ass about what everyone else is doing, and doesn’t display a willful ignorance of the rules. But Belkar doesn’t seem to interpret it this way: “So, you’re saying that if I can trick all the other mindless drones into believing that I subscribe to their arbitrary moral framework, they’ll just leave me alone?” Shojo doesn’t correct him: “They all assumed I followed the Paladin’s Code, didn’t they?” That calls back to Shojo’s addendum to the “you can cheat” comment: “Twelve Gods know that I always did.”

Now, let’s refresh your memory as to the nature of Shojo’s deception. We first encountered him as a senile old fool who took advice from his cat. There was some evidence he wasn’t what he appeared, but only a speechless Haley seemed to catch on. As Shojo explains to Roy, he puts on an act of senility in order to shirk any public responsibility for his edicts, which might result in certain upset parties putting an end to his life. Shojo also explains that he is “the commander of the paladins of the Sapphire Guard by virtue of my inheritance, not merit. In other words, I command the paladins. I have never claimed to be one. … Technically, I’m a 14th level aristocrat. Heck, I’m not even Lawful!”

Shojo explains that he hides his true nature from the paladins to get away with acts he feels might be the right course of action but which technically violate the code the actual paladins swear to uphold – taking the Gates as an example. Shojo felt that with two gates down, there was a clear and present danger to the others, but none of the paladins would be willing or able to investigate or reinforce them without violating an oath of non-interference in the other gates, so he created a complex scheme to bring in the OOTS and have them do his dirty work instead, including misleading Miko as to the true purpose of the arrest and putting on a show trial with a largely predetermined outcome issued by Roy’s own disguised father’s ghost.

(Incidentially, this is why Roy is pretty much blameless for not leaving open the possibility that Xykon might strike against Azure City when consulting with the Oracle: that’s not why he was hired. Re-read #290: Shojo did not even technically hire the Order to reinforce either of the other two gates, only to report on their status so Shojo would have an excuse to, presumably, send the Sapphire Guard to do the reinforcing.)

For two or three reasons, this isn’t completely applicable to Belkar’s situation. Belkar’s evil, his only “responsibility” is to the OOTS, and he’s far from in a position to make any decisions, or manipulate anyone. He barely even has any “true” motivations to work towards while technically still following the Order’s “arbitrary moral framework”. Even if viewed from the lens of his desire to kill as many bodies as possible, it’s not necessarily in line with the Order’s goals. The point is that Shojo wasn’t pretending to have the good of Azure City, or even the universe, at heart. If anything, Shojo had the exact same goal as the paladins – but he still felt the need to be deceptive in the way he achieved that goal.
The Order of the Stick has a place for non-Good members. Haley has described herself as “Chaotic Good-ish“, and even before going insane Vaarsuvius had a decidedly Neutral streak. For that matter, there’s nothing preventing Belkar from achieving anything just from being Chaotic Evil at all – Xykon is Chaotic Evil, and he has his sights set on nothing less than world domination, yet oddly, the old Belkar probably would not get along well with him, as he wouldn’t care so much about the mission as about the next target to kill.

Shojo’s not saying Belkar needs to stop being evil, even outwardly. Really, nothing about the conversation says Belkar needs to stop acting outwardly evil; only the circumstances would determine that at any time. I think there are two more appropriate interpretations, and both feed into each other, and which is more correct depends more on where Belkar is than on what Shojo says.

The first of which is that Shojo wants Belkar to act more Lawful. Shojo was a Chaotic passing off as at least a reluctant Lawful, and it’s a Chaotic alignment that Shojo and Belkar have in common – rather important when Shojo starts the conversation by saying “We’re rather alike, you know.”

The second interpretation is that Belkar needs to stop acting like he’s above the alignment system entirely, and start acting Chaotic Evil.

There is a difference, although the TV Tropes description may be more helpful in illuminating it than anything in any “official” source (which may suggest it’s a wild misinterpretation):

Chaotic Evil characters might intentionally help the heroes save the world by doing terribly evil things. … Chaotic Evil characters are incredibly self-centered and evil, but can get along with good guys by being eerily charming at times. They are often crazy, but they don’t have to be. Only Chaotic Stupid characters will trek 500 miles to slaughter a random village for no reason. Chaotic Evil’s goals may well make no sense to anybody but himself, but he does have goals. He may “want to watch the world burn”, or prove that he’s the best, or the most feared, or get the most attention.
If Belkar were to strictly emulate Shojo’s example, he’d attempt to hide anything he did that might be seen as flouting the normal rules of society, evil or not, but otherwise do anything he wished openly as long as that still consisted following the rules. That doesn’t mean giving the impression of good – D&D 3rd edition does have the “Lawful Evil” alignment – just so long as he at least appears to fit in with his surroundings. But the second interpretation may be more interesting, and at least as backed-up by Shojo’s words. Belkar, in this interpretation, is entirely within his rights to do exactly what he has been doing, but only as long as he at least makes an effort to get along with the rest of the Order of the Stick, and pay some effing attention to everything else that’s going on.

Of course, Belkar’s own interpretation practically matters at least as much or more as Shojo’s outward intent. But early indications are that, while he is turning into more of a team player on the outside, he hasn’t exactly abandoned his old ways entirely, and if anything, has only refined them. So what can we expect from Belkar in the future? A Belkar with a little more refined palate than Vaarsuvius’ “hate/lust” distinction, one who knows who his friends are and who his enemies are, one who appears to be a little more controllable in his dealings with the rest of the OOTS, but who’s still quick to slit the throat of any captured enemy and may even be more dangerous, in a certain sick, twisted way, than ever before.

(Hmm. Maybe I should take Shojo’s advice and do something with my life rather than post OOTS exegeses every month.)

On April 4, 1748, the French were embarking in the last major offensive in the War of the Austrian Succession, and someone wanted to run a human through the then-new field of taxidermy.

(From mezzacotta. Click for full-sized complex games. IE users will need to get something to allow them to see SVG files.)

On October 10, 2008, the long-running, once-delayed-but-twice-changed, countdown running at finally reached its conclusion, unveiling the latest project from the circle of friends known as the Comic Irregulars (named for Irregular Webcomic! and best known for Darths and Droids).

The centerpiece of the site was a webcomic. One requiring SVG support in order to be able to see it. One with archives going back before the site’s launch… indeed before the advent of the Internet… indeed extending into the BC era… indeed before the estimated age of the entire universe. Obviously such a comic would need to be automatically generated in order to have archives dating back that far, and indeed most of the characters and lines seem to fit a cookie-cutter pattern, from identified sources ranging from the Dungeons and Dragons manual to Irregular Webcomic! In fact, there are certain patterns with certain “characters” that has led to the creation of a cast page.

(The only thing missing? Lines from other webcomics not affiliated with David Morgan-Mar. I know he’s done at least three xkcd pseudo-parody strips, I’d like to see the characters spout some lines from that – that’d be really surreal. Dinosaur Comics would add an… interesting vibe to say the least, and might fit best of any other webcomic. Order of the Stick would make the whole thing even more surreal yet paradoxically give the D&D manual quoter someone to talk to. Really crappy idea, but it kinda fits, for reasons I get into below.)

But how? The strip “for” the most famous date of this millenium (and a few others) call it a “randomly generated comic“, which would seem to suggest each strip in the “archive” is only generated when someone visits that date. Since each date generates the same strip each time, that would in turn seem to suggest the mechanism in place then saves that comic to that date for any future visitors. 24 hours after the site’s launch, David Morgan-Mar (the group’s apparent leader and proprietor of IWC) seemed to back up that theory by proclaiming mezzacotta the new comic with the most strips (supplanting Sluggy Freelance) on the basis of how many strips had been viewed in the archive, a statistic that would be most relevant under such a model.

But why use a two-part mechanism for that purpose? Why set yourself up for future potential space strain down the road by even having the endless archive in the first place? How do we know this “evidence” isn’t a misdirection, and the comics are actually generated based on some formula from the date, one complex enough it might seem random? With the evidence seemingly this obvious, why are Morgan-Mar and the other Comic Irregulars still putting on a show about being tight-lipped about all the workings?

With the method of comic generation, the vast majority of the comics are bound to be incomprehensible crap, but that comes with the territory; a comic rating system allows more comprehensible and even funny comics to rise to the top and get viewed more. But mezzacotta the webcomic – which derives its name from some form of the Italian for “half-baked” (good luck reverse-engineering that result from an automatic translator though) – is just one example of a, well, half-baked idea to come out of mezzacotta the site. As Morgan-Mar described it on the first day:

I lamented that the problem with our furious generation of ideas and our attempts to implement them was that we kept needing to register new domains for sites that might turn out good, but are in fact more likely to turn out truly half-baked and never do much. What we needed was a single site which could be a central repository of half-baked ideas that we sort of half-implement, to see if they’re any good.

mezzacotta is that site. […]

So, the initial idea was half-baked. The countdown timer was half-baked. … The webcomic is half-baked. Everything about this site is half-baked. That’s what mezzacotta is.

Welcome to our central repository for half-baked web implementations of half-baked ideas. Most of the stuff on this site won’t be great. But by just throwing it all out there and daring to be stupid, you’ll get to discover the rare gems that we might generate and not immediately recognise ourselves.

Coming up with ideas is easy – anyone can do that. Actually doing something about them is the hard part. Anyone who’s done it knows how much sweat you have to put in to get an idea beyond the “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…?” stage. This is our place for doing the hard work. It’s a spur to drive us to do something with some of those crazy half-baked ideas we get. And hopefully we’ll entertain a few of you, rather than just ourselves.

It’s impossible to say anything about the above without in some way rephrasing it. Beyond being a single… experiment, for lack of a better word, mezzacotta is a place for throwing ideas on the wall and seeing what sticks, some of which amounts to little more than that, some of which results in some actual implementations. That includes even a couple other webcomics.

Lightning Made of Owls, inspired by a completely random phrase posted on the mezzacotta blog, is essentially a redo of a pre-mezzacotta concept, Infinity on 30 Credits a Day, both of which are attempts at collaboratively-written-and-drawn comics. Because ∞ on 30Cr a Day has an ongoing story, it’s gotten bogged down in administrative tasks and competition for the “best” strips. LMoO was conceived from the start as a gag-a-day comic with six characters that are very rough sketches, with comics to be sent in completed, not as scripts for artists to work on. Needless to say, the result is somewhat… disjointed, and there’s very little to unite the various appearances of the characters into coherent, well, characters.

More interesting – and potentially making its way into my RSS reader – is Square Root of Minus Garfield, inspired by Garfield Minus Garfield and other mashups of the Garfield comics. Let me say upfront that I don’t really get the hatred many have for Garfield. I find it entertaining enough, and in fact it’s one of only four newspaper comics I have really taken an interest in getting the book collections for and following in any way. In recent years (by which I mean the most recent years to be released in the book collections) it’s felt like it’s been running out of ideas, and the seeming disappearance of such characters as Arlene, Pooky, and to a lesser extent Nermal seems ill-timed and exascerbating to the ongoing decline, but the early years, through the mid-to-late 90s at least, were funny enough comics to hold me captivated. (But then, I read Ctrl+Alt+Del.) I hear (again, I only keep up with the book collections) that in recent years Jim Davis has resorted to advancing the Jon-Liz relationship beyond the unrequited and hopeless puppy love it had been for, what, two decades? That just smacks of desperation to me.

Secondly, as popular as G-G has become (to the extent of actually inspiring an officially sanctioned book), I actually find the mashups that remove Garfield’s dialogue, not Garfield himself, to be more appealing. G-G essentially says, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we took these Garfield strips and get rid of the title character? See how crazy Jon looks!” Only stripping the dialogue, on the other hand, has a more appealing hook as – assuming Garfield isn’t actually speaking despite the thought balloon and isn’t communicating through telepathy – it depicts how things actually happen from the perspective of the human characters. It really drives home the idea that Jon is crazy when it actually reflects something actually happening in-universe.

(Incidentially, take a look at the strip to the right, from page 3 of the original T&BB thread. It attracted such comments as “I can’t even imagine it with Garfield saying something” and even “This is one of those weird ones, where you know Jon isn’t actually supposed to hear Garfield, but clearly this is in response to something Garfield said. Huh.” Certainly that’s a common enough feature that it’s sometimes confusing whether or not Jon is or isn’t supposed to “hear” Garfield’s thoughts. Replying to the latter comment, one poster psychoanalyzed the resulting mashup:

I like it because it’s as though Jon takes a moment to consider what he said, mentally kick himself and then project that hatred onto his cat. It’s a neat little psychological study that I quite like. I’m not entirely sure that Jim Davis didn’t plan this all along and that we’re merely forging the next step of his global empire.

The kicker? The original comic – posted at left because the Garfield web site doesn’t seem to have a way to permalink to old comics, which is kind of ironic and stupid when you think about it because it forces people like me to “pirate” the strip, and forces √-G to link to the individual comic images, neither of which allows Garfield to benefit from its web advertising – doesn’t actually have Garfield saying anything in the second panel. In fact, all he says in the strip is “I didn’t say anything”. Jon’s remark actually was in response to nothing in particular, and much of his neuroses in the “modified” strip actually were intended, rather obviously, by Davis all along – or don’t exist even in the “modified” strip. Does this say more about Garfield (and if so, is it positive or negative), or about the people who like to bash it?)

Anyway, √-G is essentially a different mashup of a different comic each time it comes out. Some of them so far are really little more than changing the dialogue or the pictures in a slightly surreal way, and one really only shines a light on an old series of strips with two identical panels. But it’s somewhat fascinating nonetheless for anyone who’s been interested in Garfield mashups. And… I don’t know why I wasted time with other Garfield related stuff.

But I do have to sympathize with the Comic Irregulars’ plight. I too have way too many ideas than I would ever be able to work on. The web site is, in many ways, my own version of mezzacotta, a repository for all my many and varied ideas, be they the 100 Greatest Movies Project (still on indefinite hold), my street sign gallery, Sandsday, the football lineal titles, or my college football rankings. And then there are the projects I host right here on Da Blog. There are some ideas that, for some reason or another, I just can’t implement, at least alone. Here’s a brief start on getting started on a list of ideas I may not be able to implement myself, but that I’d like to see fruition in some way, shape, or form:

  • Election results based on my projection formulae. Would require a source of results and a group of people willing and able to call races based not on their own biases, not on unreliable exit polls, not on past performance, but on nothing but the results themselves.
  • Truth Court: Sorting out fact from fiction in politics based on hard evidence, and always open to new evidence or a new interpretation of old evidence. Like Mythbusters or Snopes, but more focused on questions like “Do people cause global warming?” and “Was the 2000/2004 election stolen?” and “Do gun control laws help or hurt violent crime?” and “Was 9/11 an inside job?” and “Does supply-side economics really work?” and “Who’s really to blame for economic and/or foreign turmoil, the current president or the preceding one?” and…
  • Similarly, a (bi/nonpartisan) web site dedicated to “keeping the media in check – and the blogs that watch them”.
  • The 100 Greatest Movies Project, currently on hold indefinitely on my end unless and until my old USB drive’s stuff comes back. Even if I have to shut it down, I’d like to see someone else take it over and do it justice; even if it does come back, I know for a fact I need a third person to do write-ups (I have two at the moment, including me). More here.

That’s just the ones for which I’ve solicited comment at mwmailsea at yahoo dot com (except the third). I have a bunch more ideas bouncing around in my head, some of which I just haven’t mentioned, some of which I’d still like to try to do myself, some of which I don’t feel I can reveal yet. I’m a veritable font of ideas in a wide variety of topics. I can only hope that I can bring as many as I can out into the open for you to peruse… and that they don’t turn out half baked.

If this post is full of the HTML code for an ampersand in hyperlinks that get broken as a result, blame Blogger’s “draft” post editor.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized lingering resentment.)

I’m here to talk about a serious malady sweeping the nation. It’s called OOTS Gamer Theory Syndrome, or OGTS.

The malady is restricted to readers and fans of the popular webcomic Order of the Stick, and is caused by falling under the perception that the strip is actually a chronicle of a D&D campaign, rather than merely being set in a universe that runs on D&D rules. Symptoms are generally only manifest on the OOTS forums, and include referring to “_____’s player” and “the DM” (which may or may not actually be a representation of Rich Burlew), and interpreting characters’ actions through the lens of the “player” supposedly carrying those actions out.

It’s reasonable to fall under this perception anytime (I myself once proposed that the strip would end with just such a revelation), as the distinction can be hard to grasp for new readers (especially those already immersed in D&D), and to some extent Rich has played with the notion of a GM being present from time to time, but for whatever reason it has become particularly common recently, with virtually every strip’s thread (and a few others as well) eventually including some post that looks at what’s happening from a “game” point of view, despite Rich being on record in stating that there are no “players” at all, and despite evidence ranging from NPCs as fleshed out as any PCs (especially the main villains) to the very existence of the prequel books. Rich even made reference to the phenomenon in a recent strip.

One result has been a mere shift in terminology: “_____’s hypothetical player, if there was a player…”

It’s hard to figure out what’s causing this sudden move to proclaim it merely a game. Perhaps it’s a result of a few people happening upon and reading too much Darths and Droids for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s a result of impatience with the seeming abandonment of the megaplot.

Or perhaps it has something to do with the specific content. At least one forum member recently complained that the strip had traded in being “consistently funny” for “player motivated drama”. More than a few people, including one thread I linked to above, have compared the current state of the OOTS to a gaming party in disarray, with everyone upset at the DM and the DM himself slowly losing control of everything. (Oddly, although the interpretation of OOTS-as-campaign has become popular, the exact nature varies: some see the split as partly player-driven – possibly as a means of filibustering a main plot they didn’t sign up for – some see it as the DM railroading the players and wasting everyone’s time, and some even see it as being the victim of circumstances.)

That may at first be just a variant of the megaplot being abandoned, but consider:

  • Celia has effectively slid into Roy’s role in the Order, if only in filling out the Order’s nominal six members.
  • Within the current book, we have seen what has been happening with Team Evil for exactly one stint. We haven’t seen the Linear Guild at all. Not since the first book has any book been so Order-centric.
  • Similarly, Vaarsuvius appears to be the only member of the Order that cares that much about the gates anymore. (Well, and Roy.) Durkon and Elan don’t even seem concerned about reuniting the Order, and Haley, Celia, and Belkar (and for that matter, V) are powerless to do anything about it, and are a bit distracted at the moment.
  • The whole sequence with Roy’s pseudo-ghost seems more pointless than the sidequest itself. Roy can’t affect the material plane, the use of his looking down on the mortal world as a framing device has mostly been abandoned, etc. This strip may be the most pivotal strip of his time as a ghost.
  • Vaarsuvius’ behavior has been seen as out-of-character by many fans. Either V’s player is sending a not-so-subtle message to the DM to get the plot moving, or he’s been taken over by someone else. (This is undermined both by V’s decision to splinter the group further, and by considerable evidence in earlier strips that, if not un-Good, V’s certainly not Lawful.)
  • Previously, there was a fairly straight line, with only a slight diversion for the climactic confrontation with the Linear Guild, from the revelation of the nature of the gates to the Battle of Azure City. (As I may have mentioned in the past, the end of the Azure City arc could well, had it ended slightly differently, been a potential stopping point for the whole strip.) The tone of the strip now is actually quite similar to what it was prior to that revelation, and could be seen as a reaction to the considerable darkening of the strip/campaign that didn’t come that long before.
  • The OOTS has been split for nearly a quarter of the strip’s entire existence, and Roy has been dead for more than a quarter. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Rich has never been shy about shaking up the status quo, but this shake-up is literally blocking the plot from moving. If you don’t have faith in the relevancy of all this to the main plot – and that faith has been waning with every strip, especially those focusing on the Therkla and Thieves’ Guild subplots – you might think Rich had written himself into a corner, intending a fairly brief diversion to cool down from the ramped-into-gear main plot and going out of control. Forget a breather episode, this is an entire breather book and most of the forum-bound fandom thinks it’s overstayed its welcome.

Last time I wrote about OOTS, I said that “this section of the OOTS’ story is going to have far-ranging consequences that could prevent some of those goals from ever being completely fulfilled.” I was referring to V’s decision to leave the Durkon/Elan branch of the OOTS in #599, which I suspected could result in the de facto permanent removal of Durkon and Elan from the OOTS. That’s one far-ranging consequence that may be being set up, but what about everything else? What was the point of introducing Kubota and fleshing him out just to abruptly kill him? What was the point of the whole Therkla thing? What’s the point of what’s happening now with the Thieves’ Guild? What’s the point of stretching out the split itself this long?

Not only is the fandom starting to get restless about their ability to believe that this will all matter in the end, it’s starting to take several leaps of faith to link this to the main plot. Kubota was just a feint to introduce Qarr; Elan and Haley’s relationship is going to be strained; the Thieves’ Guild is going to become a recurring villain group; by the time the OOTS get back together Team Evil is already at Girard’s Gate. The mere fact I’m making these leaps of faith rather than treating it as a diversion is a sign of how it’s gone longer than most people would probably have expected or liked.

The OOTS has drifted off the beaten path before, of course. Their lengthy encounter with the bandits has had zero impact on anything that’s happened since then, but it came before the Order met Miko, let alone learned about the Snarl, and can be excused by the strip still being at least partially a gag strip then. All their encounters with the Linear Guild have of course had next to nothing to do with the gates (so far, but that will almost certainly end the next time they show up, given evidence here and here), but the encounter in War and XPs, besides tying up a loose end from the pre-Snarl era, leads to Haley getting her voice back and keeps the OOTS distracted enough not to run off to the wrong gate – which in fact, given some of what we know about Girard’s Gate and the potential of the Oracle’s prophecy to be twisted, could well be what’s happening here. (More on how the Linear Guild’s encounters with the OOTS has really affected them in a later post.) So far, it’s far from clear even if this will have any long-term impact.

It’s possible that Rich had over-emphasized the plot from about #275 (or even #200) onward, and that the plot has only ever been incidential to the humor. In this theory, people who are complaining about the pace at which the plot is moving are misinterpreting the nature of the entire strip. But if so, it’s a widespread enough misconception that at least some of the blame has to be heaped at the feet of Rich Burlew, because he created the circumstances that are now ruining people’s enjoyment of what might be, beyond the surface, actually a fairly entertaining part of the strip’s history. And if it’s not a misconception, and Rich really is taking a long time on what might be a comparatively small plot point, it may well be the most major blemish on the Giant’s record. (The first snag in a new fabric of reality, perhaps?)

None of the people complaining, to my knowledge, have ditched the strip. And I’m not among those who isn’t appreciating the strip for what it is at the moment. I’m not one of the players complaining to the GM. But it’s clear that the player mutiny is growing to disturbing levels, and it’s something the GM may have to address with more than a wink and a nod soon. Ultimately, the spread of OGTS may be most directly attributable to Rich Burlew himself.

I would have at least revised, if not done away with, the third-to-last panel. Awk-ward.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized anti-climax.)

Once again, this post has nothing to do with politics, despite my spending two days and a weekend without a word on the subject. I should be returning to it later today.

“I bet everyone was expecting a big battle for strip #600.”

Apparently Grandpa really hasn’t spent much time looking at the world of the living.

There are a lot of things that people were wondering about for strip #600. Perhaps a return peek at Team Evil, with potential huge ramifications, or a look at some other faction we haven’t looked at for a while. Perhaps contact finally being made between the two halves of the Order. Perhaps the prophecied death of Belkar. The previous sequence of strips probably led many to expect either a confrontation or alliance between Vaarsuvius and the imp Qarr. The start of this strip led me to wonder if it was going to end with Roy being called to be resurrected.

But a “big battle”? Not given the state of the OOTS right now, where they’d settle for being in one piece. The closest thing anyone would have predicted to a “big battle” was a confrontation between Haley and the Thieves’ Guild’s Crystal. Maybe, before #599, a confrontation between Vaarsuvius and the rest of that half of the OOTS plus the remnants of the Sapphire Guard.

Since nothing big happened in #600 (unless you count the start of the switch back to Haley, Celia, and Belkar), it’s looking increasingly likely that none of the major objectives of this book will be completed until it’s about over. No resurrection of Roy, no union of the two halves of the Order, no retaking of Azure City, nothing.

Now, given the pace at which Rich Burlew writes, it’s possible that “it’s about over” may be sooner than many of us think. Certainly the union of the Order and resurrection of Roy are things that should probably be taken care of by the end of this book if they are to be taken care of at all. Those are things that need to be set up in turn, and that may take multiple tens of strips. Judging by the last two books, we’d expect this book to end somewhere in the 660s, which means we might expect one of those objectives to be completed possibly as early as the 640s. Or maybe the build will begin about now, considering how much into high gear both plots were starting to move last we checked.

But it’s becoming apparent that this section of the OOTS’ story is going to have far-ranging consequences that could prevent some of those goals from ever being completely fulfilled. This first really became apparent last strip, where Vaarsuvius announced his departure from the ship to find Haley and Roy’s body without distractions, referring specifically to Elan and Durkon. And announcing “I have no intention of returning”. And that he might decide to arrange a meeting between Haley and Elan/Durkon elsewhere… “but probably not”.

It may well turn out that with this action, Vaarsuvius just unilaterally, in an instant, without Roy even being alive to object, kicked Elan and Durkon out of the Order of the Stick. This is especially likely when you consider this strip, in which Vaarsuvius not only fails to grasp who Therkla is but comes to the conclusion that she was Elan’s active girlfriend (despite being present in disguised form when Elan brushed her off). If V can convince Haley of that idea, (s)he might dissuade her from pressing V to chase Elan and Durkon back down.

(Incidentially, early on in my reading of OOTS I had trouble seeing Vaarsuvius as anything but female, partly because of the hair… but as he’s grown more insane and his hair has become more frazzled I’ve found myself using male pronouns more often. Is that worth reading anything into?)

Now comes evidence that Roy hasn’t paid any attention to the travails of Haley, Celia, or Belkar since this strip – he’s still talking about that group having reached Cliffport by now. Which sort of makes me wonder if he’ll even be able to find them. Unlikely, but he will have no idea what’s been going on. (And neither will we. No way “weeks” passed between #572 and the end of our last look-in on Haley/Celia/Belkar.) In a more important development, Roy probably will even be confused by something in evidence towards the end of the last check of Haley and Co.: the curse of the Mark of Justice potentially starting to wane from Belkar.

And there are other far-ranging consequences that have been built for a while that seem inevitable. Vaarsuvius’ insanity won’t be fixed just by finding Haley, or even by finding Haley and a good, long trance, because the last strip seems to suggest V has given up trances for good. Belkar’s been afflicted by the curse of his Mark of Justice and “will draw his last breath – ever – before the end of the year. (That’s an “in-comic” year, not a real-time year, Oracle fans!)” Unless Roy keeps all his memories of what happened while he was dead, including his memories of his conversation with the Oracle, it’s likely that, at the least, something important will happen before he’s resurrected.

It is even entirely possible that no one’s predictions on the future or ending of the comic are correct, because they all assume that the composition of the Order at the end of the strip will consist of some combination of Roy, Haley, Durkon, Vaarsuvius, Elan, and Belkar, and almost always all of the above. The revelation that Belkar’s death would come “before the end of this [in-comic] year” first put a wrench in those plans, but one could easily deal with that. But now that it’s possible that, for the moment, Elan and Durkon are no longer members of the Order, we could be looking at a semi-full-fledged Order of the Stick at the end of this book that shares only Roy and Haley with the Order of the first 500 strips or so (with V insane or even a god, Belkar dead, and Celia officially one of the new members), one that spends as much if not more time trying to find and rope back Elan and Durkon than trying to foil Xykon’s plot. And the prospect of a very different Order of the Stick becomes especially chilling when you consider the Oracle’s prediction of a “happy ending – for [Elan], at least”. If Elan is no longer a member of the Order, what does that say about the Order?

And who’s to say this wasn’t an incredibly important strip… in its very lack of importance?

As for the plot… what can I say? It’s a plot.

(From Girl Genius. Click for full-sized discussions of idiocy.)

This post, like the last one, has nothing to do with politics or voting, so if you just came in yesterday and you have no interest in this sort of thing, just skip past it. If you’re the sort of person who only ever came to Da Blog for the webcomic reviews, I have an OOTS review down the pipe for next week – which will essentially be a moment in time; I’ll recap my thoughts on the past few strips, probably running through #600 – and that’ll be it until the week after the election.

Phil and Kaja Foglio are miniature Gods of the webcomic community for their decision to switch Girl Genius from a print comic book to a fairly standard full-page webcomic – a decision that implicitly validated the webcomic form as a viable form, and which, to hear Phil tell it, partly came out of a feeling that the Internet was a good business model for comics and partly out of a financial crunch.

But what Phil and Kaja actually did was take the stories they were already writing for the comic book and just release them page-by-page to the web. The result shows, as the strip is rather clearly plotted with the comic book in mind, and there are some strips that make little sense on their own, including at least one splash page. A splash page that leads to another strip that tells us little that we didn’t learn in the previous strip. While following Girl Genius for the past two weeks, I often found myself looking back at the previous strip to see how we got to where we are in this strip. In essence, Phil and Kaja are still writing a comic book, not a comic strip – or rather, are writing a graphic novel rather than a comic strip.

It’s almost like, somewhat appropriately, in Victorian days where writers like Charles Dickens would publish chapters from their coming novels in serial forms in popular magazines – only that really describes the model that has seemed to be the status quo in print comic books, and what Phil and Kaja are doing is to release their novel a paragraph at a time. What I’m trying to say is, the result is rather awkward. When you have different media, you have different expectations and mechanisms for moving the story forward, and the Foglios are using a… different mechanism to say the least. Not that I fault them for doing so – that’s what they set out to do, and especially given the serious nature of the subject matter, they can’t be expected to change to a more episodic form. And they have certainly adjusted their style from the print comics, pages from which have been assigned what appear to me to be arbitrary dates and placed in the archive. Read from the beginning and it’s obvious this was never intended to be released in an episodic form – the story establishes itself too slowly. That’s why most webcomics start with a strip-a-day format and undergo Cerebus Syndrome later.

If there’s any strip that has managed to balance the episodic format of the web with the coherent storytelling of the print format, it’s – guess who! – Order of the Stick. Every strip is a coherent strip in itself, with its own gag wrapping it up, yet also makes sense as a page in a larger book. To pull this off, Rich Burlew will sometimes release multiple pages at once as double or even triple pages, and is flexible enough in the format that he’ll even pull infinite canvas techniques that would be difficult to pull off on the printed page. The Foglios would benefit from double or triple strips on occasion, but that would increase their workload as they’d then have to complete another page faster.

It’s just that I’d be a bit amazed if – as, paradoxically enough, I suspect they do – they had an audience that was much more than just the people along from the print comics, especially ones that hadn’t already taken the massive archive binge, as the pace of the story and the incompleteness of the fragments would likely turn anyone else off from trying to follow it day-by-day.

A webcomic post that isn’t about Darths and Droids or Order of the Stick? It’s the apocalypse!

(From PVP. Click for full-sized awkward re-introductions.)

Here’s what’s happened over the past year in PVP:

First, Jade was invited to a high school reunion, which started out fairly normally, until it turned into a murder mystery (and a locked room mystery to boot!), with the obvious suspect soon ruled out and turned into the murderee. Oh, and there’s a fairly blatant continuity error.

Then Brent and Jade showed up as superheroes for a halloween party, which thankfully lasted for only two strips, before Cole pressed Francis into training the rest of the gang for a Halo 3 battle with Max Powers, prompting Brent to ask, “Since when is this comic strip about video games again?” The match itself takes place entirely off-screen, though, and is also mercifully brief.

Then a panda in the office nearly dies, and with Brent’s interference almost does, attracting the attention of the WWF, touching off a flashback sequence that’s really a three-strip Liberty Meadows tribute, complete with Frank Cho art, ending with Brent bringing in the panda and trying to pass it off as Skull. The WWF reintroduces the panda to the office on the grounds that it can’t survive outside an urban setting, and effectively bribes Cole into keeping him, allowing Cole to buy out Max Powers and end the financial support he’d been providing.

That leads into the annual rising of Kringus, demon god of Christmas trees, which – in a last-minute change in Scott Kurtz’s plans – consists of Kringus and Scratch teaming up to steal presents and steal the secret of world-travel-in-one-night from a mall Santa, only for said Santa to turn all bad ass on Kringus, only for Scratch to taze him and reveal him not to be the genuine article.

I’m only three months into the past year. That’s before Shecky, Skull’s cousin, shows up and takes Skull to impress the woman he wants to be his fiance, only for her to decide that just because Skull loves Shecky, doesn’t mean Shecky has any redeeming qualities. Since it can’t just end like that, Skull and Shecky get into a bit of a bother, which Madeline (who did I mention is a Gorgon, better known as a Medusa?) exonerates Shecky for, though not for the reasons Shecky thinks.

Then things return to some semblance of normalcy as it only now dawns on Brent how much Francis looks up to him, just as he set a date for his wedding with Jade, which he makes up for by making Francis the ring bearer and making it sound like Lord of the Rings. Then Francis decides to keep the name Brent changed one of his World of Warcraft characters to as a joke, and along with Skull, starts forming an in-game guild, in a setup to the launch of a spinoff comic.

Then Scratch starts modeling his world domination plans after Garfield, then considering modeling it after Calvin and Hobbes. Then Cole trash-talks his way right out of being the best man, briefly plopping Francis in the role until it turns out to be a result of trouble in his own marriage. That leads to Cole rooming with Brent for the moment. And then Brent gets surprised by his parents who don’t want to wait any longer to meet Jade, and Brent’s father pressures Cole into making up with his wife, which leads to an office paintball tournament, which Miranda turns out to be an expert at, and which ends when Brent suffers a dislocated nipple. A dislocated nipple. Which means he has to wear a bra. And it turns out they left Skull behind in the woods which turns into another super-serious mystery as he goes on a mushroom-induced high.

Seriously, you will never see a more ridiculous serious line in your life than “Cole, get the equipment out of the van. We’re painting troll tonight.” Not even in a fantasy story.

And the whole thing ends when Kurtz himself shows up and ridicules the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

Then, after a lengthy bout of guest strips, the wedding arc itself starts with – if you saw this coming collect your prize! – Jade backing out. Well, turns out it’s not Jade, it’s her mother by way of Miranda, so Cole has to ask Robbie for a favor. And even the wedding becomes super-serious when Skull’s case worker shows up to tell him his job is done. And Brent is slow enough to let go that he knocks a statue’s head off with a golf club.

Sensing a pattern here? Utter silliness wrapped up in mega-serious plots. Perhaps we call this PVP Syndrome?

Okay, I know that didn’t make sense, so to further clarify what I mean by PVP Syndrome (or maybe it’s Goats Syndrome), let’s compare PVP to Order of the Stick. Both underwent Cerebus Syndrome, but OOTS was always very well-grounded in a fantasy setting. It wove a compelling plot with new elements that made sense in the setting. I haven’t read much PVP at all beyond the past year, but I get the sense that once upon a time, it was just about a bunch of people in a magazine newsroom. Yes, they had a giant blue troll as a friend, but other than that it was essentially a standard workplace comedy. Well, some of those more outre elements have become even more outre, yet they’ve also helped provide the underpinnings of what’s presented as a fairly serious plot, and it just doesn’t mesh.

Eric Burns described Cerebus Syndrome as “the effort to create character development by adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension (or meant to be a joke character) and making them fuller and richer.” That’s essentially what, over the years and especially recently, Kurtz has tried to do with Skull: create a broader underpinning for the character and his concept – but not really changing the fact that he’s a big blue cuddly troll who hangs out in a magazine office. He tried to put Skull through Cerebus Syndrome but he failed. That’s PVP Syndrome: trying to put your strip through Cerebus Syndrome, but through a misunderstanding of your own material, botching it so badly and creating something so unintentionally hilarious it comes off as something out of Bizarro Monty Python.

Seriously. Brent knocked the head off a living statue with a golf club. At his own wedding. And at least superficially, it’s supposed to be treated completely seriously.

Something tells me PVP needs to lose Skull at this point – if not to shake up the status quo (how much does the wedding of Brent and Jade change things, really?), to stop from becoming totally insane. Yet he just returned to Brent and the PVP gang (more on that later). It’s been hardly four months since the wedding and the strip is inexorably being drawn back to its old status quo.

And I’m not even going to talk about the Francis-and-Marcy-have-sex thing.

Then we get the misadventures of Skull’s new charge, which ends badly. Then we have more panda misadventures, this time involving a female panda who has to be brought in to copulate with the one they already have, which ends with the revelation that Brent has “the spirit of the panda inside [him]” and dressing up in a panda suit to fight the real panda, which ends when he accidentially knocks the real panda out and gets the girl panda all hot and bothered for him. But at least the boy panda has a new respect for Brent.

I swear to God I am not making any of this up.

Then Skull’s misadventures continue with a Family Circus parody, only to be saved by a Foxtrot parody. Then Robbie tries to work out his personal issues with Brent and Cole, prompting them to try to work things out with his friend Jason, who assures them that everything’s fine, which is belied by their actual interaction. The operation, then, is a success, much to Cole’s dismay.

Then we get an “interlude” where a bunch of literary supervillians team up to take on “the Lolbat”, a Batman parody that speaks mostly in Internet slang and mangled grammar, which ends badly. Then Francis and Cole get into an argument that seems intended to mirror D&D 4th Edition debates. And finally, in the current story arc, Scratch vows to get Skull back come hell or high water, starting by confronting Shecky, who gives him a key to the land of magic, where Scratch goes on a rampage, leading Madeline to agree to return Skull.

I haven’t even talked about the extraneous stuff, like the guest strips and the parody of 60s cop shows.

The funny part is, I actually developed more of an appreciation of PVP after reading all of that, and the growth and development of the characters and their relationships taking place all the while. But the two times I’ve attempted to start reading PVP have been during the second panda storyline above and the most recent storyline, and neither one has left a good taste in my mouth, seemingly proving to me that the general rule of webcomic popularity is that the weirder and more surreal, the better. I’m not even sure I understood the current storyline on first read.

This is a reference I know will resonate with Kurtz: Julius Schwartz was a comic book writer and editor, and one of the things he was fond of saying was that “every comic is someone’s first.” (I know I’ve heard that quote, but all of a sudden I’m not sure it was Schwartz’s, since he also said “the Golden Age of Comics is seven” or something like that.) Now, comics since then have largely forgotten those sage words, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less relevant. Webcomics also have a propensity to forget them, maybe even more so, a natural result of the fact that any story-based comic is likely to have someone join in in the middle of some story arc, which is one reason why Eric Burns has recommended that any webcomic have some sort of cast page – any cast page, even one that hasn’t been accurate since the very first strip (which is why he’s also disdained webcomics that have taken down out-of-date cast pages).

But all the cast pages in the world can’t save someone’s readership of a strip if the first strip they see makes them decide it’s not their cup of tea. It’s possible for a mid-story strip to be a good introduction to the strip – I first fell in love with OOTS by reading an early strip in the battle of Azure City and becoming fascinated by the whole battle. But the current storyline is only resonant (and arguably only makes sense) if you already know who Skull is (thankfully he is listed on the cast page, which can’t be said for a good many others), that and why he was taken away, and even then you’d probably need to jump in fairly early in the storyline to understand what’s going on. With either of the storylines I started with, you might be left with the impression that PVP is a random, nigh-incomprehensible mess.

That leaves me with the impression that Kurtz is really writing for continuity-hungry fanboy geeks who jumped on board when PVP was good and popular, not trying to reach out to new readers. Perhaps this is to be expected, and perhaps Kurtz has a specific end point in mind with PVP and so doesn’t see the point in bringing in anyone new… but it’s interesting to note that Order of the Stick, a strip with a natural, clear end point, hasn’t gotten so bogged down in continuity as to turn off potential readers. All I know is that PVP gives the impression of pure chaos and randomness run amok, even if it isn’t and even if it’s still fairly decent, and that could magnify its already rather concerning flaws and obscure its virtues.

I’d like to think the ticket to webcomic popularity isn’t to be as weird and random as possible…

(Webcomic reviews will last one or two weeks into October and could resume in November depending on how easily I balance everything I’ve already signed up for until then.)

You know the drill. OOTS fawning ahead. Here there be spoilers.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized planning ahead.)

I found a recent comment from Robert Howard that stated that Tangents would take a couple of months to come back in full. Which means I can put up all my other OOTS thoughts while I wait. I’ve added yet another one to the stack, and neither one of the two I was thinking of is the one I want to look at today.

This one concerns the very structure of OOTS that has sprung up recently. At the end of the last book, Rich Burlew split the Order in twain after killing off their fearless leader, and since about #500 the strip has largely consisted of shuttling between the two groups: Vaarsuvius, Elan, and Durkon on the one hand, and Haley, Belkar, and non-member Celia on the other. (Roy’s ghost has popped in once or twice with the latter, though the Oracle of Sunken Valley has been the only living being to see or hear him so far, and we also shuttled over to Team Evil for a spell, and their captive paladin O-Chul.)

Nominally, both branches of the Order have been concerned with reuniting, resurrecting Roy, and continuing their quest to stop Xykon’s evil plot. The former, and thus the latter two as well, has been restricted by a magical spell surrounding Haley and Belkar that only they and Celia know about, coupled with the fact that the only members of the group able to make magical contact with them, or resurrect Roy, are with the other group (while Roy remains with Haley and Belkar).

Haley, Celia, and Belkar have remained largely focused on their goal, although the group dynamics between them have been, in large part, the focus, and the last time we saw them Haley’s past looked to be catching up to her. However, Elan and Durkon, powerless to do anything about the situation, have found themselves distracted by the travails of their hosts, Hinjo and the in-exile government of Azure City, especially the plot against Hinjo by the rogue noble (possibly with otherworldly backing) Kubota. (V has been just the opposite, so focused on trying to find Haley and Belkar it’s caused him/her to do the elvish equivalent of “lose sleep” and grow distant from the rest of the group.)

As a result, the story of this half of the Order has little to do with the overall superplot of the strip at all, and has been, essentially, a self-contained story of its own. It is, essentially, Elan’s story, which is why I was hoping to link the Tangents-derived post to this stage of the story, even though recent strips have cross-cut between the tribulation in the strip above and the battle with a massive demon. Kubota’s top minion, Therkla, has been distracted from her “kill-Hinjo” mission by her growing “feelings” for Elan, which until recently Elan was mostly oblivious to, and Kubota was barely oblivious to. Now that plotline has been building to a climax worthy of a Bond movie, which makes it all the more appropriate that Elan would be at the center of it – and which, especially coupled with the renewed promise the last time we looked at Haley, Celia, and Belkar, pretty strongly suggests the group will reunite at or around #600.

Interestingly, it’s not clear exactly what role Therkla plays in this story. At first glance, she’d appear to be a classic femme fatale, especially since Elan has been an item with Haley since just before the battle over Azure City. However, Elan has never been at risk of turning to the side of evil, or even really being distracted from whatever he needed to do. When Therkla suggested just being together until Haley returned, Elan rejected even that without a second thought (although it’s unclear just how much he’s willing to stick to that position). If anything, it’s been Therkla who seems to have genuinely been drawn, if not exactly to the side of good, at least away from the side of evil, with Elan being the unwitting “femme fatale” in this case – a point driven home when Kubota initially put Therkla in the “him or me” position instead of Elan. In fact, it’s been suggested that Therkla has never even really been evil, but has only been loyal to Kubota for giving her a place where she can fit in. (Therkla’s a half-orc and there’s a long tradition in science fiction and fantasy of half-breeds being rejected by both sides of their lineage.)

This is not the first time Burlew has brought us a story quite this divorced from the overall superplot, which hasn’t really advanced that much since the battle of Azure City. The lengthy bandit episode had little to do with the superplot, as did the starmetal quest that it took up the bulk of. The only real time we had a story quite this divorced from the superplot, at least since the effective start of it, has probably been the last encounter with the Linear Guild, which by and large, Elan also stood at the center of. The foreshadowing of that story, incidentially, started at the very beginning of the starmetal quest and wasn’t resolved until right before #400, a delay of over 250 strips – suggesting it may be a long wait indeed for anything quite so momentous to befall the one thing there’s any real foreshadowing of at the moment, which ironically, would be the next advancement of the superplot. In a sense, it’s stories like these that keep the strip from going “mad”, as it were, with focusing on a single plot it advances above all else, and allows it to keep a little bit of the magic from the Original 42.

Don’t worry, the webcomic reviews should return to Tuesday after this.

(From Penny Arcade. Click for full-sized infinite Tigers.)

Because of time constraints, low battery power, and the fact my first attempt at this post got lost partly because of my own stupidity, this post will be an experiment in shorter webcomic reviews.

Penny Arcade is, by almost any measure, the most popular primarily-web-based comic in history. Millions of people peruse it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and who knows how many of them have tried their own knockoffs of the PA formula. Jerry Krahulik and Mike Holkins often do promotional work for actual big time game companies and their actual games. “Gabe and Tycho” have created more memes than anyone this side of xkcd (Greater Internet F**kwad Theory, anyone?) and managed to channel their many readers’ efforts into their Child’s Play charity. They’ve even started their own gaming convention, the Penny Arcade Expo, on the backs of their wildly successful comic strip, further establishing their bona fides as among the most powerful people in the video game industry.

And for the life of me I can’t figure out why.

Now I’ve only read a couple weeks’ worth of strips and almost nothing outside of this year, so maybe the strip has jumped the shark and I just missed all the good strips. But Penny Arcade, in a lot of ways, reminds me of xkcd, in that I don’t know what to make of it. Many strips, like with xkcd, feel like little more than moments in time; Gabe and Tycho famously disdain continuity, and in fact are really the only two recurring characters. Often their strips are like editorial cartoons for the game industry, except they tend to be laden with injokes and sometimes are incomprehensible without the accompanying blog post. I don’t know if I’m in a position to appraise the writing, but the art… isn’t bad, and it’s certainly better than most PA knockoffs (then again, so is Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s art), but it isn’t spectacular either. On the rare occasions when the strip does dip into continuity, they can lack flow even with the blog post. (So, exactly what did happen to Tycho between these two strips?) Some strips feel like they’re missing a panel, or crammed into one panel too few, or fall flat for other reasons.

If you go to the Penny Arcade home page, you’re not taken to the comic but to the daily blog post. I can’t help but wonder if this is the real core of Penny Arcade‘s popularity; if most of the site’s readers come in not for the strip, but for Gabe and Tycho’s various musings on the goings-on of the video game industry, including the occasional video game review. Which makes it odd that Gabe and Tycho are so often held up by webcomic boosters as an example of All That’s Right with webcomics, when their strip may well be mediocre at best and probably isn’t the main draw to the site. Their praise may just encourage PA knockoffs who actually do a better job than they’re often given credit for of aping the PA style and quality, but don’t really get it, and don’t really grasp why PA is so popular, even having perfunctory blogs but letting the strip drive the blog rather than the blog drive the strip.

Of course, on the other hand, the geeknerd core audience of many a webcomic tends to like semi-surreal rule-breaking things. I guess it’s up to people like me to point non-geek webcomic shoppers to strips that are actually doing good things with the form like Order of the Stick.