For some reason I thought I had already posted this when I hadn’t even added the images.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full sized Common Sense, or lack thereof.)

Well, it’s been over a month since the last time I talked about Order of the Stick at length (and it feels like much longer), and it’s high time for me to revisit the territory. As I’ve stated, OOTS started out as a jokey, funny gag-a-day strip about a bunch of adventurers trawling through a dungeon. It’s now a multilayered political drama, soap opera, and high fantasy tale. In other words, it’s been turned inside out by Cerebus Syndrome, and been about as successful as you could be in doing so, thanks in part to losing none of the humor and metahumor that characterized its early days, and if anything, increasing it.

OOTS even lightly poked fun at its descent into Cerebus Syndrome in this strip, made at a time when Websnark was still king of the webcomics world and still had many of the tics of its height, including the “submitted without comment” routine. For those of you who weren’t here when Sandsday made a blatant push for linkage from the now-mostly-defunct Websnark, I point you to the third panel of this strip. Sure enough, soon there was a comment-filled non-comment from Eric Burns, which contained this doozy: “It was funnier to me since there really isn’t a Cerebus Syndrome going on here, of course.”

A strip makes a joke about its own descent into Cerebus Syndrome when there isn’t one? How does that even make sense? But the first commenter to Burns’ non-comment comment agrees about the lack of Cerebus Syndrome. A later commenter claims “you can’t really start invoking Cerebus when the comic remains consistently and deeply funny” (I’ll have more on this in a sec, but for now I’ll say this seems to imply OOTS still hasn’t fallen into Cerebus Syndrome even now) and compares it to Goats (considering that strip’s descent into fate-of-the-planet-at-stake randomness, probably not the best example, but I’ll check the strips that were out at the time and get bac to you). Even now, if you ask people on the OOTS board when that strip went into Cerebus Syndrome, they’ll probably cite the sequence revealing the Snarl’s existence (a few may alternately cite the introduction of Miko), and the OOTS being tasked to stop Xykon from freeing it, even though if anything that sequence comes at the end of a long transition to a more plot-based model for the strip.

Let’s take another look at the definition of Cerebus Syndrome:

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

It is extremely hard to take a light, joke a day strip and push it through a successful Cerebus Syndrome. Dave Sim did it in stages, and at least in the early days of the transformation brought massive amounts of Funny to cover it over. Done perfectly, one only realizes in hindsight that the strip has turned out to be quite different than it used to be. Done sloppily, the Cerebus Syndrome fails, and the webcomic enters First and Ten Syndrome. Unfortunately, a failed Cerebus Syndrome is an excruciating process for the webcomic’s fans to endure. Please note that one can continue to bring the Funny while going for Cerebus Syndrome — and in fact, probably should. It is far more common to drop the Funny, which increases geometrically the chance to fall into First and Ten.

In the second paragraph quoted above, you could easily substitute out “Dave Sim” for “Rich Burlew”, because that’s exactly what Burlew did with Order of the Stick. There’s a long list of milestones in the march to Cerebus Syndrome taken by OOTS dating at least back to the revelation of the underlying plot in #13, and arguably continuing well after this sequence. Similarly, I suspect part of the reason most people cite the last of these major milestones as the tipping point is that that is the point where these people realized just how far the strip had come from its origins (especially if they weren’t there for those origins and didn’t realize how different they were).

It’s true that the revelation of the Snarl’s existence gave the strip an overarching plot driving all the action and ended about 75 strips of what amounted to aimless wandering, but it’s important to remember that the definition of Cerebus Syndrome says nothing about myth arcs or anything of the sort. It refers only to greater character development or, more colloquially, a general increase in drama and an arc-based model. The former starts appearing at least as early as the opening sequence of the second book, the middle at least as early as Miko’s introduction, and the latter far earlier than either. (And it’s important to remember that Burns specifically notes that a strip need not abandon humor to undergo Cerebus Syndrome.)

Besides, the quest to keep the Snarl imprisoned only really replaced the “hunt down Xykon and kill him” plot of the first book, and by the time it happened it didn’t really mark that seismic a shift. At least as early as Miko’s introduction the specter of Shojo and Azure City was already forming some sort of plot that was promising to carry the OOTS for quite some distance. The first hints of that were laid down at the end of the first book – where, remember, the strip had overturned its entire premise. And by the time the OOTS was brought before the court, Haley was speaking gibberish, the sort of thing that isn’t just a sign of Cerebus Syndrome but a hallmark of the nonstop angst that heralds full-blown First and Ten. And then there’s the little niggling matter of strip #242, where Haley remarks “we were a lot safer when we just made fairly obvious jokes about the rules!” By that point, The Order of the Stick hadn’t “just made fairly obvious jokes about the rules” for some time. A long time.

You want to point out the most important tipping point in Order of the Stick‘s march towards Cerebus Syndrome? The one strip that could best be used to separate the early, happy-go-lucky, almost continuity-free days of the early strips from the more plot-based OOTS we know and love today? The one point that you can point to and say, “This is where The Order of the Stick as we know it truly begins”?

You have to go all the way back to the first book, way before there was even any hint of the Snarl or even of any “gate”. You have to go all the way back to strip number 43.

And I’m not just saying that because I’ve had a fascination with the number 42 since even before I learned of its importance in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It doesn’t look like much, especially if you’re someone used to the sort of strips that characterized the first 42 of OOTS’ existence. But trust me, Elan doesn’t just open the door to the Linear Guild at the end of this strip; he opens the door to plot, to story arcs, to gates and paladins and pseudo-Asian cultures. And Vaarsuvius’ monologue in the middle of the strip proves to be far more prescient, and far broader in scope, than most fans could have ever envisioned.

How pivotal is this strip? By the time all the loose ends are tied up from the ensuing story arc – by the time Durkon, left behind in the inevitable battle with the Linear Guild, finally returns to the group – it is strip number 85. Which means, when dated back to strip number 43, the entire sequence has gone 43 strips. Or just over half of all the strips published to this point. The Linear Guild sequence has lasted longer than the strip’s entire existence prior to it.

There’s a lot in the Linear Guild arc that hints at the strip to come in ways the Original 42 does not, starting with the slower pace of the plot compared to the limited arcs done in the Original 42. Not to mention the existence of some sort of long-form plot. We get some of the early hints of deep characterization (the OOTS were basically two-dimensional characters before the Linear Guild arc gave us such things as Elan’s backstory) and relationships between characters (at least nominally, virtually all of Nale’s actions after the arc concludes derive from a single panel in this strip). We see long-term planning starting to bear fruit, including the realization of a prophecy dating to #15 (which Haley even points out!).

We get the start of multiple ongoing running gags. We get the introduction of not only the group of villains secondary only to Xykon and his minions (at least through the end of the third book), but also Celia, who subsequently reappears to defend the OOTS in front of Shojo in the sequence that introduces us to the Snarl, becomes at least a brief fling for Roy, and is currently adventuring with Haley’s half of the OOTS. Although the art continues to evolve until at least Miko’s introduction, it’s during the Linear Guild arc that the dialogue reaches its current font size. And it’s before those last loose ends are tied up that we learn the deeper motivation for Roy’s hunt for Xykon.

The very next arc involves bypassing the entire rest of the dungeon and cutting straight to Xykon’s lair. That’s V’s plan from the start and, although that attempt doesn’t end well, that’s essentially what ultimately happens. If I was wrong in my initial post – if Rich’s descent into Cerebus Syndrome, as Eric Burns describes in part of his description I didn’t quote, was a result of boredom, not planned from the start (and remember, I own none of the OOTS books with accompanying commentary) – it came either after the original 42, or during or immediately after the Linear Guild episode, through the “bathroom break” of #86-87. The sheer number of subsequent subplots set up in the Linear Guild storyline suggests to me that, if Burlew didn’t decide from the start what he was going to do with his strip, he sure did before completing 43 strips. (And he probably had some idea before completing 15, judging by the long-term nature of Eugene Greenhilt’s prophecy. Even Elan’s recovery of a Belt of Gender-Changing in strip 9 winds up having importance over 200 strips down the road.)

From Rich Burlew’s perspective, I would think that strip 43 is where the transition – in retrospect, shorter and quicker than I let on earlier – from the gag-a-day OOTS of the Original 42 to the arc-based, plot-based strip we know and love really occurs. And from the perspective of someone who was around for those Original 42 strips (which again, I am not) it would have seemed impossible before #43 that in just 80 more strips, the Dungeon of Dorukan would be blown to smithereens and Xykon presumed dead (well, deader than before). And that such an event would not herald the end of the strip.

Even at the time, it would take until the revelation that Xykon still stands to really convince anyone that the end of the strip was not imminent, and until Miko shows up there’s not really much in-story reason for the OOTS to stick together at all. Take a look at this strip, fairly deep into the second book (deep enough that not only is it a wonder the OOTS stuck together long enough to reach the town (remember, I’m not a D&D player), it’s a wonder they’re still together even after reaching there) – Roy’s hunt for the starmetal is the only reason why the Order sticks together after destroying the Dungeon, and Roy’s swift-talking of Belkar and Haley is the only reason they stay in the group. Had it not been for that, the Order may well have never been tasked to stop Xykon from freeing the Snarl.

(Hmm. And Roy’s hunting of the starmetal was caused by Sabine shifted into a blacksmith. The Linear Guild are responsible for keeping the Order of the Stick together! I smell a fourth post brewing…)

Even in the Order’s subsequent relatively aimless wandering, no one would mistake it for being a gag-a-day strip, and in fact there are next to no “fairly obvious jokes about the rules” at all. The strip is fairly tightly organized into arcs, with a good part of the strip between the Order’s departure and Miko’s arrival taken up by the Order’s encounter with a group of bandits. There are also two semi-lengthy interludes involving Team Evil that help to establish their plot, one before the bandit arc and one, as previously mentioned, between the recovery of the starmetal and Miko’s arrival.

I mentioned some of the points in this post the last time I wrote a lengthy post on Order of the Stick. I mentioned how OOTS managed to overthrow its entire premise by the time the first book was over, and how it managed to keep going thanks to a strong balance of a compelling story and funny jokes. This, then, is something of an expansion of that post, showing just how early Order of the Stick started its metamorphosis into the rich, multilayered strip it is today, and both how much more sudden and more gradual that transformation was. And it ends, as I tend to, with a whimper because I always have trouble wrapping these posts up.

So I’ll see you in another month with an analysis of another aspect of OOTS.

I’d be more optimistic about the concept if I knew what the heck was going on in the demonstration.

(From Penny Arcade Bogey Golf. Click for full sized… whatever the hell this is.)

I got an e-mail telling me my Freehostia account was now working shortly after I posted with today’s strip, so I guess that was unnecessary. On to other things.

Penny Arcade, like Ctrl+Alt+Del, has no forum dedicated to its own strips, Websnark has been reduced to Eric Burns popping in once a month to spout off on whatever’s making the rounds in geek culture, Tangents is still a homeless bum, and I know of no other blog that comments on webcomics as up-to-the-minute as those two. So I have no way of knowing for certain if Friday’s news post is a joke or not. It probably is, but it’s nowhere near April.

All I know is if it isn’t, it really screws up my plans, because I had been planning on PA being one of the two posts I was planning to make early in the week to make up for having no webcomic post this week.

Even if it is, I’m only really going to have two strips to work off of, so I’m probably reviewing another webcomic blog for the second instead, reviewing PA next week, reviewing one other comic the week after that, and maybe posting a third OOTS post the week after that.

And that’s assuming I don’t get too sidetracked by other things, like Buzzcomix’ recent relaunch, about which more later…

I so hate Robert Howard right now.

“In a couple of weeks I should have enough money to rent server space,” Robert A. Howard says on his LiveJournal. Tiny problem: It’s been a month since Howard was forced to leave Tangents’ old host, and every time he’s updated since then he’s said it would be “a couple of weeks” before he would have enough money for server space. I have little reason to believe he’ll make any real progress this time, or that the next update won’t say something similar.

It’s a bit of a shame, not just because I had been planning a review of Tangents (although I’m starting to rethink that), but because OOTS this week reached a point that would have been perfect for me to write a certain post I had in mind, just as I reached a point that I was going to spend on an OOTS post… but it required the existence of a post of Howard’s that’s not on the LJ backup.

I might have a webcomic post later in the week, but it’s probably not the one I was going to post here and it might not even be on OOTS. If I don’t have anything, you get two posts next week.

Quickly typed in a closing library…

Very quick check-in.

I will post a Random Internet Discovery tomorrow, but I have a LOT on my plate. I need to do something to find a job this week and my schedule is all out of whack after I went to the wedding of a relative’s AND ill-advisedly subscribed to RSS feeds from both Media Matters AND Newsbusters. New street signs coming by Friday, and plans I had made to re-announce Truth Court on Thursday now look to be waiting for Saturday or later.

Robert Howard posted on 7/30 to say it’ll still be two weeks before Tangents is on a new site. I’m probably returning to Order of the Stick next Tuesday, and that’ll be on the 12th, so I should have a full week after that to look at Tangents.

More from one of the most innovative comics on the Internet in a post that’s a retype of a post I lost, so it may be shorter than it would have been.

(From Darths and Droids. Click for full-sized sunset.)

What little name I have I owe to Darths and Droids (and David Morgan-Mar in general), so perhaps I owe it to that strip to take another look at it.

I mentioned in my two previous reviews of Darths and Droids that the Comic Irregulars were willing to explore the possibilities of the “RPG screencap comic” much more than its inspiration, DM of the Rings, and broaden people’s horizons in the process.

Well, it appears they’ve done it again, because in the past few strips they’ve adopted a fairly radical new convention that they’ve only acknowledged in the annotation for today’s strip. They’ve adopted a “show-don’t-tell” policy for settings we can see but which the GM must describe to the players. In those cases, the GM’s description is omitted, and we only see, well, what we can see.

It’s sort of jarring that we’re no longer privy to every single thing the players and GM say, and it points to a general problem with RPGs. In the last panel of today’s strip, the sunset itself is stunning by any definition, but Ben’s comment, by necessity, is in reference not to the sunset itself, but to the GM’s description of the sunset. In an RPG, there could be the most brilliant landscape in the world if the players could see it, but no matter how brilliant it is they cannot; they can only attest to the GM’s description of it. Should the GM get a sheet of paper and draw the image he wants the players to see? The obvious answer is no; no drawing could do it justice unless the GM was Rembrandt, and if he was then it would take a year’s worth of sessions to get through a single battle, so that the GM could get enough time for his drawings.

(Okay, that paragraph was a lot better in the version I lost earlier. This would never happen if I had a real Internet connection.)

I don’t think DM of the Rings could have done something like this, because several times in that strip the players directly riff off the DM’s descriptions. I recall at least one strip (which I’m not looking up because, again, I still don’t have a real Internet connection) where the players enter a place, look around, and realize the only course of action is to go back the way they came. If that strip had been done as a series of images of the surrounding landscape followed by the characters deciding to turn around and go back, it would have lost much of its impact (as opposed to today’s Darths and Droids, which would have lost much of its impact if we had been privy to the GM’s descriptions) and its importance to what little metaplot DMotR had. An important part of DMotR was the conflict between the DM and the players; take away the DM’s descriptions and you take away an important part of the strip.

As I said in my earlier review, DM of the Rings was a comic about a role-playing game, while Darths and Droids is a comic about Star Wars. Darths and Droids can get away with omitting scenery descriptions because it’s about the scenery, not the descriptions. Nonetheless, there are still pitfalls with this approach, and I hope Darths and Droids can manage to avoid them.

Now THIS is how you pimp your book!

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized sexy context.)

If I commented every time OOTS moved me to comment on a strip you could use my webcomic label to find out whenever there was a new strip, so I try to shy away from doing that.

But the last two panels of this strip? I’m going to reiterate what I said on the strip’s forums: Best. Recap strip. EVER.

Also, while I’m here, I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on a tendency I’ve noticed on the OOTS forums to treat the events of the two prequel books, especially the more recent and more revolutionary (for lack of a better word) Start of Darkness, as virtually common knowledge. Granted, part of that is me looking at the spoiler tags that contain the prequel-rooted information, but many people seem (or at least seemed in the past) to base predictions on the events of the prequel books, while forgetting that Rich is on record as saying the prequels are not necessary to enjoy the overall story.

In that context, I’d like to take a brief look at the previous strip, and suggest that Rich may have erred, “prequels not necessary to enjoy the story” or otherwise. The cliffhanger only really has resonance for someone who has read On the Origin of PCs or has had relevant parts already spoiled for him or her. For someone in neither category, they may be able to infer that the Thieves’ Guild is bad news and may even be able to draw a connection to Haley from the accompanying caption, but that’s probably too much thought to really go “dun dun DUN!!!”

Still, for this bounce-back? If the Eric Burns of 2004-2006 were here, he’d give this man a biscuit of some virtual variety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He went for Cerebus Syndrome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This must be what Eric Burns felt after Scott Kurtz gave him such glowing praise and hits.

Wow. Wow.

David Morgan-Mar went beyond just commenting on one of my posts this time, linking to my Darths and Droids review with a thumbs-up on his LiveJournal. (And I didn’t even ask for the link!) Between that and Morgan-Mar’s various LJ friends, I got 60 hits yesterday and I’m already approaching that mark today, numbers Da Blog has never heard of outside football season.

So a quick welcome to new readers and a polite request to read my various other posts, on webcomics or otherwise. Of course I also invite you to check out my web site, link is on the top of the sidebar.

No, this isn’t because David Morgan-Mar always comments whenever I post about one of his strips.

(From Darths and Droids. Click for full-sized pawns.)

I’ve talked before about Darths and Droids, and on both those occasions I mentioned that I found it a superior strip to the one that inspired it, DM of the Rings. But I don’t think I’ve done the distinction between the two justice.

You know how sometimes, a company will come along and become the pioneer in some new field, and possibly popularize it to the general public, but a second company will become more famous, expose the true potential of the field, and become virtually synonymous with that field? It’s similar to how I described Irregular Webcomic! as a pioneer but not the definitive multi-webcomic. Atari virtually invented the video game console as we know it today, but self-destructed along with the rest of the video game market in the 80s, allowing Nintendo to define video games for my generation. Netscape brought the Internet to the masses but everyone uses Internet Explorer now. Lycos and Yahoo made search engines popular with the general public but only Google managed to turn itself into a verb. Bob and George didn’t invent the sprite comic, but did inspire most of the others, including 8-Bit Theater, which truly transcended its origins to create a strong comic in its own right (it is no insult to call 8BT a poor man’s Order of the Stick). And so on.

Well, DM of the Rings is the Atari to Darths and Droids’ Nintendo, which is odd because it means Darths and Droids is in the opposite role as Irregular Webcomic! DM of the Rings asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Lord of the Rings were an RPG campaign?” That was really the extent of what it was trying to do. Not only is the DM a railroader, but as much as I hate to say this, the characters make Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s characterization seem deep. Through the first 70 strips I think we know the names of two of the players, and one of them, Dave, plays Frodo and leaves less than midway through the whole strip’s run. But even all of that pales in comparison to DMotR‘s real problem:

DM of the Rings was a comic about a role-playing game.

Darths and Droids is a comic about Star Wars.

The funny thing is, it’s also still about a role-playing game, which is the beauty of it. The conceit of DM of the Rings was that Lord of the Rings still existed in that universe, it’s just that, somehow, the DM was the only one in the group to have heard of it. Darths and Droids literally is Star Wars as played by a group of role-players. Whereas DMotR used the Lord of the Rings plot as a backdrop for wacky hijinks and commentary on Things You Experience When Playing Role-Playing Games, Darths and Droids appropriates the Star Wars plot as its own, while also containing its own metaplot involving the gamers playing the characters. Just look at how often the DM of the former is interrupted or talked over by the players, with the result that we don’t get to know Gandalf anywhere near enough to know why the players hate him so. If the LOTR trappings were removed from DM of the Rings, it wouldn’t be much different, which suggests the LOTR setting is little more than a gimmick. It’d be hard to imagine Darths and Droids without the Star Wars trappings.

As DM of the Rings became popular, and flaring up again closer to the end, people flooded Shamus Young’s inbox with calls for him to skewer other popular movie or book franchises. As it was winding down, Young wondered why, with how popular DMotR was, no one else had decided to marry movies and RPGs in a biting satire. One of his fans suggested that the reason why was that it was rare for the kind of person who wanted to spoof popular culture to coincide with the kind of person willing to put in massive amounts of effort into creating a webcomic.

That discussion prompted Morgan-Mar to create Darths and Droids, and now that we’ve seen it, I can’t help but wonder if the real reason was twofold. First, because DMotR was more about role-playing games than about Lord of the Rings per se, there wasn’t much left to skewer; DMotR had done it all. Second, DMotR made the concept look juvenile, and a potential sure sign of a sub-par webcomic. If the person willing to “spend time and effort making a high-quality webcomic” rarely coincided with the person wanting to spoof Star Wars, it was because a comic spoofing Star Wars not only looked like it was hardly going to be high quality, it exposed that person to potential legal threats. After all, webcomicdom is a haven of geekdom.

Darths and Droids starts out remarkably like DM of the Rings, with complaining players trying to figure out the GM’s dense plot. The major difference, as becomes apparent early on, is that the game world is largely made up by the players on the fly, with the GM constantly having to revise and make contingency plans to fit in everything the players try to do, rather than force them to do what he intended as the DMotR DM would. But a difference just as profound but not nearly as played up is that (unlike in DMotR) there is a difference between the players themselves. Jim is the wacky, aggressive, offensive one, while Ben is the smart, calm, collected straight man who has to deal with Jim’s wackiness, which often involves coming up with more sensible explanations for Jim’s actions. Still, the two of them together aren’t much different from the players in DM of the Rings, constantly nitpicking the science (Obi-Wan/Ben), going into foolhardy charges (Qui-Gon/Jim), and thinking up ways to outsmart the GM (both, but especially Obi-Wan).

Things change virtually the instant Sally is introduced and plugged into the role of Jar-Jar Binks. The Comic Irregulars have explained that one of their chief goals was to make Jar-Jar likable, and well, you’d certainly never tell a 9-year-old she needs to be blown out the airlock. More to the point, Sally brings a perspective not only on this game, but on all of roleplaying, that was sorely absent from DM of the Rings. Sally is being brought into the game solely to keep her amused while Ben is ostensibly babysitting her. In most of her early appearances, the GM and the players spend a good amount of their time easing her into the game. Eventually she gets into the hang of the game more, but never loses her childlike innocence.

But in a development of more importance to the strip itself, Sally has the imagination of a 9-year-old, and so allows the Comic Irregulars a place to attribute all the more outre and ridiculous – in short, Lucased up – elements of the Star Wars movies, with the additional justification that the players and GM don’t want to make her cry, so they run with her ridiculousness. Jar-Jar? Sally. An elected 14-year-old queen? Sally. An underwater path straight through the core of Naboo? Sally. I can’t help but wonder if Sally will stick around for the rest of the prequel trilogy, disappear for A New Hope and Empire, and somehow get shoehorned into Return of the Jedi to bring us the Ewoks.

I talked before about the introduction of Darths and Droids’ other non-traditional player, Annie, but I want to reiterate the broader importance of her playing Anakin. Darths and Droids has had, at least since Sally’s introduction, some form of master plot (the Comic Irregulars integrate the players’ quest for the “Lost Orb of Phantastacoria” so seamlessly with the movie’s plot you find it hard to believe they just made it up if you’re not familiar with the movie) and subplots (Jim is convinced that Sio Bibble is a traitor in the making, mostly because of his goatee, so naturally he probably finds Senator Palpatine completely trustworthy), not to mention relationships with and between the players, all of which is completely absent from DM of the Rings and the latter of which is impossible without Darths and Droids’ differentiated, rich characterization. But Anakin’s development not only looks to have a profound impact within the game world, it could have profound impact with the players as well, as the GM and the players try to figure out what to do with a player who’s hijacking the game for her own tragic story.

Darths and Droids has a bunch of elements that DM of the Rings does not. A tolerant GM (perhaps excessively so). A GM and NPCs that aren’t overshadowed by the players. Differences between the characters that go beyond “are you sure Legolas isn’t a hot chick?” A grand, overarching, real plot. Subplots upon subplots. Real integration within its milieu. Sally. Annie. In short, Darths and Droids has taken the interesting concept Shamus Young thought of, and ran with it as far as they could make it go, creating a pretty darn interesting webcomic in the process. No surprise, then, that it’s attracted a collection of devoted fans, no small portion of which is probably crossover audience from Irregular Webcomic!, with most of the rest coming over from DM of the Rings. But especially as it goes on, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a large contingent of fans with connections to neither strip, mostly from Star Wars fandom, who can’t help but wonder what Annie does to Anakin, how the players put up with that, what the players end up doing as they are forced to switch characters between movies, and so on and so forth.

And who knows? Maybe it’ll even spawn a horde of imitators.