Important Webcomic Post Update

I was going to post on Robert Howard’s Tangents on Tuesday, but its current host is shutting down, and Howard’s plans to move it to an independent host were not far enough along yet for him to implement. So it is currently being hosted on LiveJournal and is archivefree. That last bit, plus my reluctance to link to a temporary site, means you get something completely different (as in, an actual webcomic) on Tuesday.

I will make a post on Tangents when it moves to a permanent host in “a couple of weeks”, though I may have a week delay to actually read the archives and write the post. I have at least three comics which I’ve read enough of to make it through any delays, plus a second post on Order of the Stick, so I’m good through August 19. Now I need to get to actually writing them. Throw in another webcomic blog, a fourth comic I have some things to say about even though I’ve actually read none of it, and a third OOTS post and I’m good through September 9. I can probably throw together something on Penny Arcade or User Friendly if I need to after that.

In other blog news, I made a change to this week’s Sports Watcher upon being reminded of something.

Whoops, I forgot to include a title for this post!

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized golem considerations.)

Skip this post if you’re not any more familiar with OOTS than what I wrote in my initial post, for both spoilers and geekiness.

There are only two reasons I’m writing this post; if either weren’t in place, I wouldn’t write it. The first is that the forums are down as Giant in the Playground moves to a new server. The second is Celia’s line in the third panel.

Two strips ago, a discussion broke out in the forums over whether or not Celia knew Belkar was in the cart or not. The general consensus, and my personal opinion, was that she did. Belkar’s last line – “If we make any noise, the magical Cart Fairy might not take us on the enchanted trip to Happy Fun Sunshine Land” – was interpreted as meaning “Celia wants us on our best behavior”, not “Celia doesn’t know we’re here”. In fact I think some people hadn’t even considered that Celia might not know Belkar was in there, despite it being consistent with her sometimes-ditzy and naive personality and hatred of Belkar.

The main reason was that Belkar appears to be so sick it’s hard to believe he’d be able to make it into the cart under his own power. More to the point, so far as the three of them know, Belkar still has to stay within the bounds of the Mark of Justice, which means he still has to stay within a mile of Roy’s body (and in that context, the sign in 573’s penultimate panel, “Greysky City one mile”, takes on a certain importance in hindsight). Also, Celia mentions finding “clerics”, which are only strictly necessary (so far as they are concerned) for curing Belkar (although raising Roy would require a cleric of some sort; so far as they know, they can conceivably cure Belkar without a cleric). Keep in mind the original point of the expedition was to find someone capable of contacting the other half of the Order, and only secondarily to bring Roy back to life.

Well, now we know that Celia didn’t know Belkar was there after all.

I’m saying this now so I can plausibly avoid the self-flaggelation the rest of the forums will undergo once they come back up. And if this sounds weak, well, it’s partly because I don’t have the forums to look up what the strongest reasons really were. Not that I would want to go there, of course.

Now for a strip so bland I can’t even think of a title for this post.

(From xkcd. Click for full-sized reassurance.)

I think I’m regretting choosing this strip for this week’s webcomic post.

xkcd is damn near impossible to encapsulate in a single sentence. That’s because, much like Irregular Webcomic, it often feels like several webcomics rolled into one. It bills itself as “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”, and that can often seem to be the best way to put it. Some strips are almost like visual love letters, majestic tributes to passion and love. Some strips expose just how little Randall Munroe has grown up and how much he still wants to hang on to his childhood. Some strips are (or at least used to be) ridiculously obscure math jokes. Some strips seem like political cartoons applied to Internet culture. Some strips are almost visual Twitters or blog posts. And then, of course, some strips are meme factories. Oh, are they meme factories.

The whole thing can feel like a bunch of disconnected randomness, which is in keeping with its origin as a place for Randall Munroe to post his sketchbook drawings on the Web. Not only is there no continuity (except for a few occasional arcs and themes), there are no real characters at all; there are a few distinct personas that can be identified, such as the “Black Hat Guy”, but every strip (or arc) exists on its own, isolated from everything else. xkcd can perhaps best be compared to a “thought of the day”; every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, there’s something new to make you think.

So it’s harmless enough, and it’s thought-provoking and occasionally even funny. The problem is… well… I’m not sure what to make of it.

It gets a bad rap for making obscure math jokes (which hasn’t really been a problem for a while, I find, which probably says more about me than it does about xkcd), but it’s still very much targeted to a specific well-educated nerd demographic. In fact, this probably accounts for much of its broader popularity; it makes a number of strips tightly wound in with programming, and the people in those sorts of jobs are probably the largest group with the deepest immersion in the Internet. I mean, they’re in all the various sites that could conceivably be used for networking.

The problem is, Munroe has subsequently broadened his webcomic’s appeal in response to this broader audience, but he hasn’t completely forgotten his roots – and the result isn’t entirely successful. I originally wrote this post with a note saying that from now on I needed a two-week buffer to decide on a webcomic to post on, and I’m still going to take a look at another webcomic blog next week, and may spend the following three weeks on strips I’m already familiar with. Then today’s strip came out, and I realized the reason I didn’t have much to say on xkcd wasn’t because I hadn’t gone through the experience of opening up the day’s strip, it was because… I didn’t have much to say on xkcd.

Like I said, xkcd is a perfectly servicable little webcomic, but there’s nothing in it that makes me feel anything in particular whatsoever. That it doesn’t compel me to read it every time it updates the way Order of the Stick does may be damning in and of itself, or it may betray a personal bias towards story-based comics. (Or, depending on your point of view, it may expose my lack of qualifications for reviewing webcomics. After all, I like Ctrl+Alt+Del. What do I know?) But it’s not impossible for a gag strip to pull me in simply because it’s knock-your-socks-off funny every time it updates. Eric Burns has identified that being funny may be a more important prerequisite to getting a webcomic off the ground than having a compelling story, because on some level, everyone identifies with humor, but not everyone wants continuity in their Internet entertainment.

Well, xkcd isn’t consistently funny. There, I said it. Oh, it has flashes of brilliance, but… even they aren’t as funny as even Ctrl+Alt+Del can be at its funniest. It’s almost more Funny Peculiar than Funny Ha-Ha. The recent “MacGyver Gets Lazy” strip is about as funny as xkcd tends to get these days. xkcd used to be funny, back when most of its humor was only comprehensible to math majors, but it’s clear that Munroe is out of his element trying to speak to non-nerds.

Humor and story are the two biggest tools a webcomiceer could have for bringing in readers. Munroe used to have humor but no story; now he has neither. He brings the Saccharine, and the Romance, but he doesn’t bring the Funny, in Burns’ vernacular. The result is that xkcd tends to be very sentimental when it’s not steamy, but it’s rarely funny (so says the Department of Redundancy Department), so it tends to play to its existing audience, occasionally propping up its flagging popularity by churning out another meme for the Internet to go ga-ga over, such as its recent “xkcd loves the Discovery Channel” strip.

I don’t hate xkcd. And I’d be an idiot to slam it for its art style, not only considering that I “draw” a minimalist webcomic myself, but that I exonerated Ctrl+Alt+Del for its artistic failings last week, claiming among other things that “art doesn’t matter”. I’m of the opinion that you should actually be suspicious of a webcomic with good art, because if it’s trying to be nice to look at it may be trying to distract you from its lack of substance (see: Dresden Codak). But it feels kind of bland to me, a vanilla webcomic, for lack of a better term. The featureless stick-figure art isn’t so much a problem in itself as it is emblematic of a general ethos, one where a bunch of little things happen and add up to nothing in particular.

xkcd isn’t a bad webcomic. It can be great at times. But it doesn’t give me any reason to commit to it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s almost the very definition of mediocrity.

Contest! Come up with the most pleasant use of “we need to talk” you can by 8/1 and I’ll use the winner in Sandsday or Da Blog, cause I got nada.

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized The Talk.)

Oh no.

Oh hell no.

Near as I can tell, this can only lead to one thing: the dissolution of their impending marriage, thus causing two years of storyline to be reduced to “shaggy dog story” in less than three months or so.

I mentioned in my CAD post that I was leaving open the possibility of the miscarriage storyline being the start of a descent into First and Ten Syndrome, but that I also wasn’t ruling out CAD recovering from it. Things are not looking good for the latter possibility right now.

The silver lining is that the Lucas-Kate relationship is, at the moment, the only other piece of dramatic continuity in Ctrl+Alt+Del (not counting the main characters’ jobs; Ethan’s and Lucas’s have never really been used as a source of any real drama, and Lilah’s hasn’t even been brought up in ages). If the Ethan-Lilah relationship is reduced to “just friends” (going with a full-scale separation leaves open the door to more drama) it could mean pulling back from the Cerebus Syndrome ledge, returning to a largely pre-2006 status quo, and devoting more strips to wacky hijinks.

So it’s entirely possible that, far from jumping off the ledge to First and Ten Syndrome, this strip marks a hard slam on the brakes before reaching it. If so, though, it’s a clumsy way to drop the relationship, and it’s kind of doubtful anyway.

And if Buckley manages to throw in one more heart-wrenching dramatic turn into his comic, even after coming through with this? That may be enough to drive me away from Ctrl+Alt+Del.

Tread lightly, Buckley. I’m watching you.

(I promised two posts over the weekend and delivered neither. They are forthcoming but will probably wait until Thursday, and one of them may take even longer.)

I could certainly say something about David Morgan-Mar’s experiences trying to nitpick the plausibility of Coruscant in IWC, except I just did.

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

No, this isn’t breaking up my plans for a webcomic post on Tuesday. This is what Robert A. “Tangents” Howard would call a “secant”, a look at a particular strip or a moment in time for a comic, as opposed to a “tangent”, or a look at a strip as a whole. Of course, if you know your geometry, you might expect those meanings to be reversed, with a “tangent” only touching the circle at a single point, while a “secant” cuts through the circle and thus includes a broader span. But if you prefer, the tangent leaves the circle whole, while the secant takes a section of a circle and looks only at that.

The strip I intend to look at isn’t today’s, above, but the one put out a week ago, in which we finally learned the name of the player playing Anakin. (So maybe the thumbnail should be that strip instead of today’s.) The reason I didn’t write this then was because I was knee-deep in my Ctrl+Alt+Del write-up. And when that was published on Tuesday, there was a new strip up. And so I didn’t decide to write this until I woke up Friday morning thinking, “You know, I should probably write a blog post about this.”

Darths and Droids intends to answer the question, “What if Star Wars, instead of being a series of movies, was an RPG campaign played out by several players and a GM?” I explained the concept some in my Irregular Webcomic! post, but what’s important to understand now is that this means that each character (that isn’t an NPC played by the GM) exists as both a player and as the character in the game/movie that he plays. For example, Jar-Jar Binks, the Gungan that everyone loves to hate, is also Sally, the 9-year-old girl who plays him. Sort of.

To someone familiar with the in-jokes of the movies, it makes sense that Qui-Gon Jinn would be named by someone named Jim, or Obi-Wan Kenobi would be named by someone named Ben. But Anakin was introduced as an NPC before Annie was introduced, as Anakin’s mother Shmi. She then switches to playing Anakin for the pod race, who himself is briefly moved to Jim when Annie is late for a game session, and then moves back to Shmi when the pod race is over, all the while trying not to give away that Annie would play Anakin for good, and in my opinion, failing. All the while, the Comic Irregulars take care never to mention her real name. (In fact, it virtually never comes up at all. This isn’t a situation where all the characters constantly and awkwardly dance around “that thing” to the extent that the effort being expended into keeping “that thing” secret seems like it’s not worth it. There are maybe one or two times where Annie’s name would even warrant mentioning at all.) The annotation for the revelation of Annie’s name reveals the reason for all this misdirection: “Shmi had a meatier role which lined up better with how we wanted to characterise Annie initially.”

And what was it that the Comic Irregulars wanted to portray Annie as before moving her into the role of Anakin? She’s introduced as a friend (or at least acquaintance) of Ben’s who learned about the game in her drama class and wanted to observe it, but was immediately pressured by the GM into joining. She takes to the game almost immediately and not only almost never speaks out of character (unlike all the other players), she quickly becomes a font of ideas about her character, her son, and the game world. (Until I reread these strips I was worried that the Comic Irregulars were themselves getting too immersed in the game world and forgetting the “as a role-playing game” aspect of their premise. In my defense, Sally was being quick to make stuff up as well, and the GM is often disturbing when he’s talking to himself.)

Watching Annie getting introduced to the game early is an enlightening experience. An early annotation sums it up well:

Being a drama student, Shmi’s player was a bit sceptical about this roleplaying game thing at first. She thought it might just be a group of gung-ho guys rolling dice and pretending to fight one another. But she’s rapidly learning a lot of the subtle nuances that can be brought to bear to make the characterisation of PCs intensely rich and detailed.

Most RPG players have probably never thought about their game the way Annie does. They’re probably science fiction or fantasy fans who fancy themselves as their own little Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker, out to save the kingdom and ravish the beautiful princess. Certainly that’s how Jim sees the game in Darths and Droids. Some (rather notorious) classes of players, like Pete, ignore the “role playing” and focus solely on the “game” aspect, trying to perfectly optimize their characters as much as possible for the biggest impact in combat. (Pete plays R2-D2, who speaks in bleeps and bips so Pete could use the bonus skill points from making him mute to make him an absolute, well, machine. It’s a well-known RPG tactic: take the weaknesses that don’t hinder you in any appreciable way and make the resulting character unbeatable.)

The Comic Irregulars looked at the concept of what an RPG game would be like for someone completely unlike the standard RPG player stereotype before, when they introduced Sally, who also sees it as solely a “game” but for whom “game” means just having as much fun as possible (not trying to “win” like Pete), except it’s a “role playing” game so it’s also an opportunity to play make-believe. But they hadn’t explored it nearly as much with Sally as they have with Annie. Annie is the complete opposite of Pete: she ignores the “game” and focuses on the “role playing” aspect. For her, this is no different than what she goes through in drama class. It’s an excersize in acting and improvisation. She’s also prone to point out standard tropes of heroic tales. In a sense, it’s a perfect choice for her to go through the sort of development Anakin goes through, turned to the Dark Side through his passions to become the major villain of the original trilogy, all in the name of increasing the dramatic tension. But having her play an innocent little kid from the start might have, by necessity, given people the wrong idea about her character, that she’s fundamentally not much different from Sally, and (without revealing her name) possibly male to boot. Although it’s certainly doable.

(Annie also borders on being a role-playing Mary Sue, making up a new language with the GM without the latter even realizing it and giving the GM virtually an entire book on how she wants to play Anakin.)

The way in which the Comic Irregulars handled a possibly unavoidable problem (they are restricted by the original movies) was a bit clumsy in places, and by their own admission, raised a couple of problems. But now that that’s past, I’ll find it very intriguing to see how Annie spins multilayered tragedy out of a character Pete originally dismissed as “a completely unimportant NPC”. I’m perfectly willing to forgive a few bumps in the road leading to this point for a story that promises to become, immediately, infinitely more rich and interesting, and very… dare I say it… Order of the Stick-esque.

Well played, Comic Irregulars. Well played.

At one point, I almost mistyped “Ethan” as “Elan”. I really do have Order of the Stick on the brain.

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized decimation.)

Webcomics community? We need to have a talk. It’s about Ctrl+Alt+Del.

In case you don’t know, CAD is the strip virtually everyone on the Internet loves to hate. To read most of the commentary on it, Tim Buckley can’t draw, can’t write to save his life, is the biggest a-hole in the history of the Internet, burn it with fire so the purification of America can begin, yada yada yada.

In particular, the Internet recently broke to pieces over Buckley’s miscarriage storyline, which caused even CAD‘s few defenders to freak out. For them, this was an unacceptable sojourn into angsty drama, one from which only unspeakable crap can come. For the strip’s existing detractors, this seems only to be vindication, a sign that the unexplainable mass of fans surrounding the strip may finally be seeing the light. And it’s caused a whole new round of soul-searching surrounding Buckley’s strip and Buckley himself.

Well, I’ve just completed a thorough read-through of the entire CAD archives, and I feel that I’m in a position to make an informed judgment of the strip’s quality.

Drum roll please:

Ctrl+Alt+Del… is not the spawn of Satan.

I know, shocking, isn’t it?

But it’s true. In fact, Ctrl+Alt+Del is good enough that it is joining the rarified air and hallowed halls of the “webcomics” section of IE7’s RSS reader, alongside only Darths and Droids and Order of the Stick. That’s something that can’t be said for the dean of gaming webcomics, Penny Arcade. And trust me, I’ve tried to get into Penny Arcade.

(UPDATE: Okay, CAD isn’t joining the RSS reader until it learns how to separate its news posts and its comic posts into separate feeds. But that’s part of the reason it’s popular: I can decide to hold off on that decision, because CAD updates so regularly.)

Now, I’m not saying Buckley doesn’t have problems he needs to work on. He does occasionally need to learn where the joke is and move it to the final panel, and if he has more than one joke he might want to consider putting them in more than one strip. At least some of the time, he does it right (warning, possibly NSFW), even if only by accident, and besides, it should be excusable to have a joke in an early panel if you have a sufficient punchline in the final panel. And some strips are funny despite violating that rule entirely. (And yes, Ctrl+Alt+Del is sometimes actually funny!) And he does tend a little too much towards being violent. And some of the jokes (like the one above) are really obvious and have been done to death already. And it is a little jarring to wonder why Ethan is even considering getting married and having children when he’s such a manchild (it’s just a webcomic, you should really just relax). And Ethan in general seems a bit too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but then again it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy common among gamers. And the dialogue balloons tend to be arranged in nonintuitive ways. The Western eye is trained to read left-to-right before up-and-down, and Buckley’s tendency to reverse that order can make his wordier panels challenging to read. And he can be wordy.

(Okay, maybe I’m damning with faint praise. As for the charge that Buckley’s characters are one-dimensional, I doubt I would be the best judge of that, but I suspect it’s a little unfair. Okay, back to damning with faint praise.)

And the artwork needs work too, but he’s certainly a far better artist than, say, me. He tends to overuse the expression at the left, which essentially looks like someone being bored but has been known to be used for several other emotions as well, especially earlier in the strip’s history, creating a jarring disconnect. (Buckley seems to take this in stride, using that same expression or variants of it for every picture accompanying every profile on the cast page, with a couple of exceptions. Of course, some detractors see that face in every single expression Buckley draws, so maybe that isn’t so good of a characterization, but still, Player 3 is the only one with his mouth closed, and of the others that have mouths at all, Chef Brian is the most different from the others.) And he has been known to use shortcuts at times, such as using images as backgrounds. But honestly, take the former away and the artwork (which has much improved from the earliest strips, which make the current strips look like Rembrandt) isn’t that different from that of Penny Arcade. Which I’m sure CAD‘s detractors will say is evidence that Buckley is ripping off his art style from PA.

Besides, when you’re a humor webcomic like CAD is, art is overrated. As long as there’s enough that’s intelligible to get the joke across, you can throw some palettes of paint on a wall and call it a webcomic if the jokes are funny enough. People have noticed that Buckley, like Rich Burlew, is a better artist than his strip lets on, yet instead of figuring out that maybe Buckley’s style might be an intentional design choice, they attack him for not carrying over his “better” art over to his populist comic strip.

You have to wonder what Buckley did to get so devotedly vitriolic enemies. Did they see early critics end up verbally abused or even censored by the famously abrasive Buckley and turn their subsequent opinions of the man into opinions of the strip? Did they see his characters willingly use Microsoft products and fail to bow at the altar of Apple and Linux and go all “lol microsoft sux windows sux this guy sux micros**t competitors are teh r0xx0r5!!!!!111!111!!!eleven!”? Or did they look at Ctrl+Alt+Del, think “I could do that!”, and then, when their strip failed to reach Ctrl+Alt+Del levels of popularity, think, “How come that strip is so popular and mine isn’t? No strip could possibly be better than mine! Ctrl+Alt+Del must suck and I must correct these dear misguided and deluded souls who won’t recognize my brilliance!” So they come up with, honestly, fairly feeble criticisms. “Umm… it doesn’t follow the normal rules for jokes! Uhh… he’s too wordy! Umm… he reuses images of characters! Uhh…” For all that its many enemies attack it for, there must be some reason why it’s so mind-numbingly popular despite all of it, other than that its fans are all brain-dead sycophants.

I suspect many of these critics may be falling prey to a very common misconception. It’s a misconception so common that even many of his fans may fall prey to it, but Buckley himself seems to have some grasp on it. (By contrast, my theory on Irregular Webcomic! hadn’t even occured to its author when I proposed it.) So let me set the record straight right now:

Ctrl+Alt+Del is not a gaming webcomic.

Yes, Ctrl+Alt+Del – a strip named for the command to bring up the Task Manager and reboot in Windows, whose lead character’s devotion to video games borders on addiction, whose two main characters both have jobs selling electronics, whose principal female character is that (supposed) rarity of rarities – a woman who plays video games – a strip that created the gamer-centric “holiday” of Winter-een-mas, that occasionally features four numerically named and color-coded “players”, and that frequently features strips set entirely within a game’s milieu – is not a gaming webcomic.

All of those things are important aspects of the strip, but CAD‘s real core – and, at least in my case and so far as I suspect, the reason I’m adding it to my webcomics list – lies in its characters and relationships. It lies in the relationship between Ethan and Lilah and between Lucas and Kate. It also lies in the friendship between Ethan and Lucas and Ethan’s occasionally tense relationship with Zeke. It lies in wondering what wacky thing Ethan will do next and whether Lucas will find it in him to truly love Kate and what wackiness will Zeke cause next and what punks will get their much-deserved comeuppance and what wackiness will Chef Brian bring us this time around and just what is Scott doing behind that metal electrified door anyway?!?

And this extends even to the game joke strips. It turns out there’s a method to Buckley’s madness, a reason why he misplaces the punchline, overexplains the punchline, overrelies on violence, and does obvious jokes. Unlike almost every other gaming webcomic on the Internet, Buckley is writing, at least in part, for non-gamers. One of CAD’s detractors is Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, who has gained some level of Internet fame with his Zero Punctuation video game review series (about which I will have more to say later in the week). In February, he expanded on his hatred of CAD on a post on his blog (scroll down to “You Cad” and remind me to change the link to the archive page later). In it, he contrasted this Penny Arcade with this Ctrl+Alt+Del.

Both comics identify the humour in the situation – that the rules of a game world seem absurd when applied to the real world – but while Penny Arcade understands that the crux of a joke should be reserved for the final panel, Ctrl-Alt-Del is apparently so excited about the idea that it blurts it out right away, leaving three more panels to flounder in excessive dialogue and pointlessness.

A punchline should be equated to an actual punch in the face. That’s why it’s called a punch-line. You deliver it and run. You do not hang around explaining how you did the punch and that the recipient should probably be in a lot of pain now.

Identify the funny part of the idea and save it for last. Leave with the audience laughing. If you do nothing else, finish strong. That’s a rule any humourist will agree with. But with the centrepoint of the gag already uselessly spent, Buckley’s comic is forced to fall upon its old standby of violence as a sort of prosthetic punchline. Now, violence can certainly be funny, modern cinema was virtually built on the tradition of slapstick, but it doesn’t work in static, non-animated media. There is humour to be found in shock value, but most people have been on the internet long enough to not be shocked by anything as mundane as a claymore through the sweetbreads.
But even if the joke were structured properly, there is still far too much dialogue. This is a problem common to a lot of webcomics, but since we’re already in the CAD-bashing groove we’ll stick with it. Shakespeare wrote that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. He did not then add ‘unless you’re writing a webcomic’. It applies to everything, and don’t tell me you’re arrogant enough to claim to know better than Shakespeare.

But recently (for a reason I’ll get to in a bit), one person came along and decided that, to the extent either was funny, CAD was funnier.

For those who have no idea that Penny Arcade is a gaming comic or is not exactly up on all of the stupid games out there, or is aware of such things but does not give two shits, the Penny Arcade strip is a total non-sequitur. Is this supposed to be funny? Because it isn’t, you know. It assumes a level of familiarity that if it’s not there, it simply does not work on any level. (Personally, I still think the timing or whatever is way off on the damned thing even if you are familiar with Puzzle Quest, but I bitched about that already)

The Ctrl+Alt+Del one, on the other hand, does not make knowledge of the game a prerequisite to get the humor. In fact, it kind of explains it a bit so I have a slightly better understanding on what the fuck is going on.

Over-explaining the joke makes the strip accessible to people who aren’t gamers. The same strip done by a “better” gaming comic would be damn near incomprehensible. It should be noted that I side with Croshaw on this one – I find the PA version funnier, and I do find it funny, and I’m not even necessarily familiar with the game in question, and I don’t think I say that just because CAD and Croshaw explained the punchline for me – and I suspect the best way to make this joke would be to split the first panel of CAD into three to four panels.

Maybe that’s what I should do with Sandsday: fix CAD jokes that aren’t perfect but contain at least the germ of a good idea.

On that note, let’s move to the ongoing miscarriage arc.

One of Eric Burns’ most obvious contributions to webcomics criticism is the term “Cerebus Syndrome”, which he describes like this:

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. […]

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….Note also that not all strips that bring heavy Story, mix humorous and serious elements, and have bad things happen to their characters are undergoing Cerebus Syndrome. It’s only those strips that began on a very light, even limited dimension level and then transform into something different that really shoot for the Cerebus Syndrome.

It takes a strong hand to successfully pull off Cerebus Syndrome, and the successes are few. Order of the Stick managed it (and I’ll have more on it at a later date). So did Bob and George and El Goonish Shive. Sluggy Freelance was one of the first, serving as the model for later ones. But Rich Burlew, Dan Shive, and Pete Abrams are all undisputed masters of the medium (or at least skilled storytellers), and if Dave Anez doesn’t quite fall into that category, it’s still telling that his fans might be surprised to hear that Bob and George went into Cerebus Syndrome – after all, it was laugh-out-loud to the end. (And the exclusion of Anez from that group isn’t meant to demean him – I’ve been known to go on addictive archive binges of B&G strips.) When a strip doesn’t succeed, the results can be grisly, and it becomes something else entirely, which Burns calls “First and Ten Syndrome”, after a now-obscure HBO show:

A strip falls into First and Ten Syndrome when they take a shot at Cerebus Syndrome and miss. Rather than be a mix of the Funny and the Story with much better developed characters and more of a sense of reality, the strips fall into a suckfest of angst and misery, with bad things happening to characters we like and all sense of fun beaten out with a stick. While webcomics that fall into First and Ten can continue to have good — even great — moments, it’s an exercise in masochism to find them.

For many, the miscarriage arc represented Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s headlong plunge into First and Ten Syndrome. And there is much to object to about it; it was excessively angsty at its height and played out too much like a “very special episode” of some 80s sitcom, it was transparently a way to get out of the seeming contradiction of Ethan having to deal with the tremendous responsibility of being a father (and thus the whole episode was seen by detractors as evidence of Buckley’s general unwillingness to let his characters change and shake up the status quo), but mostly, the main objection to it was that, as Burns would put it, Buckley didn’t continue to bring the Funny (an error amplified by the jarringly gag-based preceding and following strips and the general suddenness of the seriousness). But as Croshaw points out (and remember, he’s one of the strip’s detractors), Buckley probably shouldn’t have made it too humorous if he was going to do the arc at all:

You’re established as a wacky humor comic, so this is going to mean an awkward tonal shift at best, and hugely disrespectful [sic] to the subject matter at worst. Your most hardcore supporters will feebly attempt to go along with you about this, smiling nervously at each other as they would around a mentally unstable friend with a shilleagh, but mean-spirited embittered c**ks are going to call you out on it.

It’s also worth noting that Ctrl+Alt+Del has itself already gone through Cerebus Syndrome and succeeded, transcending the standard “two gamers with a couch” strip (which it lampooned from the very beginning) into the complex relationship-driven strip I talked about earlier. So we know Buckley can handle the transition as well as Burlew, Shive, or Abrams. Of course he’s stumbled here, but all indications are that he’s learned his lesson, as recent strips have managed to balance the gravity of the situation with enough humor to lighten the mood, without being offensive. (Well, without being more offensive than CAD‘s very existence is to some people.)

It’s still very possible that this is the start of CAD‘s mad descent into First and Ten Syndrome, and if the coming months see Lucas and Kate (or worse, Ethan and Lilah) break up over a misunderstanding worthy of Three’s Company (or worse, Kate turning out to be pregnant out of the blue), Ethan and Lucas getting fired from their respective jobs (or worse, their respective businesses going out of business), Lilah losing her competitive gaming cred for whatever reason (for example, losing her partner and needing to replace him with Ethan when it’s been established that Lilah’s leetness is at its best when she’s angry at Ethan for whatever reason, which given Ethan’s idiocy is never hard), Ethan or Lilah running at the altar for no discernable reason, Zeke declaring war on humanity (again) or discovering his inner humanity, everyone getting evicted from the house, and/or major characters dying for whatever reason, especially if there aren’t any jokes anymore and even the Players start angsting like hell (if they even keep appearing), I won’t hesitate to join the march of ex-CAD fans marching out the door. I may even borrow a phrase from Burns and say “you had me, and you lost me”, which might be the quickest transition from joining a webcomic to uttering that phrase ever.

But for the moment, it’s important to remember that the miscarriage arc is still ongoing, and Buckley still has a chance to salvage something from it. So for now, I’m willing to see what he will salvage and give him a second chance to keep delivering one of the most popular webcomics on the Internet. (Even if his forums currently contain forums for links, CAD-related projects, translations of CAD strips, chances for fans to post their own efforts at writing and art, and gaming discussion boards, but not discussion of the strip itself.)

And I won’t let the irrational hatred some have for it stop me.

If that makes me naive, well, let me be naive then.
(Why do I have a feeling this won’t be the last I have to say about CAD even within the week?)

Sticks and stones

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized rules. Oh, and spoilers.)

I know I promised to write this “later in the week” on the Irregular Webcomic post. I’ve been looking for a good time to sit down, with a fairly consistent Internet connection for cross-reference purposes, and make sure I said what I really wanted to say.

Which is this:

The Order of the Stick is the best damn webcomic on the entire Internet, bar none.

Now have a look at the thumbnail to the right, and have a look at the first comic or two. It’s a bunch of stick figures (hence the name – admittedly FAR superior to anything I could produce, even in the first strip) making lame and obscure Dungeons and Dragons jokes. How the hell is this the best webcomic on the Internet? Has Mr. Wick lost his bleeping mind?!?

(Or is he just an incredible geek? We can rule that out, at least in the way you’re thinking, because as I said before, I’m not a D&D player. Stay with me here.)

Well, first, don’t judge it by its first few strips. It Gets Better. I promise.

Well, actually, I’ll give a few details: First, the titular party was given a backstory, and while it may appear terribly generic – the party is adventuring through a dungeon run by a mad lich, on a quest to kill said lich – it actually contains hints several key elements for later strips. (Including the fact that it is not terribly accurate when it says the dungeon was “created” by said lich.)

Then, far from simply treating the lich Xykon as some abstract enemy sketchily described just enough to provide motivation for the Order’s actions, we actually got to see him plot strategy, and have a look at some of his closest minions. Then we got to see him plot again. And again. And we started to see not only Xykon, but also his minions, get a significant amount of character.

Then the Order encountered their own evil counterparts and engaged in a lengthy combined adventure-turned-predictable-betrayal-and-battle with them.

Then the Order defeated Xykon and destroyed his dungeon.

No, really.

Keep in mind, this all occured within the first 120 strips. The panel above is from strip number 572. How on Earth did The Order of the Stick manage to keep going after overturning virtually its entire premise and effectively ending the story?

Well, first, it wasn’t the end. Xykon turned out not to be dead after all (he was, after all, undead to start with), and the act of destroying the dungeon caused the Order to run afoul of a feudal-Japan-cariacture nation – apparently the dungeon housed a gate that was holding back a creature of chaos that would destroy the universe if he was unleashed.

But that only hints at the large, complex story to spin from this inauspicious beginning. I haven’t read any of the book collections or prequels with accompanying commentary, but my impression and my theory is that Rich Burlew never at any point intended to stick with the strip he started with, but was using it as a backdoor to get an audience for the story he really wanted to tell.

You’ll notice I haven’t spoilered anything about any of that description (though there is a spoiler for the rest of this post). That’s because, with the exception of most of the statement about the Japan-cariacture nation, it’s all backstory. There’s a concept in literary criticism of the “inciting moment” (I’ve also seen it called the “trigger event” – that event, either before, during, or after the start of the telling of the story, that sets in motion all the events in the story that follows. If it comes some time into the telling of the story (and it usually does), all that comes before is just exposition. Well, The Order of the Stick‘s inciting moment is Elan’s pressing of the proverbial “do not touch” button – destroying not only the Dungeon of Dorukan (and thus running afoul of said Japan-cariacture nation, from which they learn of – and are tasked to stop – Xykon’s bigger plot), but also virtually the entire concept the comic had followed to that point. The entire first 120 strips – an entire book collection unto itself – is nothing more than backstory for the story that follows, and shares little in common with it to boot. Although OOTS would continue with a funny, joking, independent spirit for some time, it was no longer even approaching a gag-a-day strip, and even then the build to its dramatic shift in focus was well underway for most of it.

That story is a big part of its appeal. In a recent strip, one of the peanut-gallery demon-roaches that litter and make asides in the strips featuring Xykon and his minions (dubbed “Team Evil” by the fans – Xykon and company, not the roaches) makes references to (at least!) nine sides in the ongoing conflict. His partner yells “Ssh! They don’t know about some of those yet!”, which would imply a maximum of seven sides known to whoever he was referring to – but it’s hard to limit the number of known-to-us sides to just seven. I can think of four right off the bat (the OOTS, Team Evil, the aforementioned Linear Guild of evil counterparts that only has three permanent members, and an impending split within Team Evil), and that’s before considering the remnants of the Japan-counterpart nation, or the noble who wants to usurp the throne of said nation, or the people’s resistance to Team Evil’s rule of said nation, or or or… and then you consider that the OOTS itself is split up at the moment, that the resistance consisted of three bickering factions until recently, and the gods have their own agendas, and it’s been hinted that Sabine’s bosses have agendas of their own, and what about whatever surviving members of the OOTS’ predecessor group there might be still floating around out there, and there are individuals that have made a smattering of appearances (or even just been referred to once) that might potentially have their say, and and and…

It all adds up to a rich, complex maze of political intrigue that keeps people waiting with baited breath for each update to find out what wacky turn the strip will take this time. Throw in all sorts of hints, prophecies, potential plot turns, and subplot upon subplot upon subplot and you have a story with as much depth and intrigue as any soap opera. It’s like Lost without the confusing bits and red herrings.

Or the dead seriousness, because as great as all of that is, it could, by itself, be as much of a turn-off as a feature. But despite being laden with mounds of plot and seriousness, The Order of the Stick remains as funny and vibrant as it was in its earliest days; it’s incredibly self-aware and full of metahumor, not only about Dungeons and Dragons but of the very core conventions of story, as everyone knows they’re in what essentially amounts to a D&D campaign (especially Elan, who, being a bard and thus an experienced storyteller, can see all the tropes coming a mile off). References to and jokes about D&D rules abound, not to mention a few running gags, cultural references, and off-color jokes. The parts that aren’t funny work well as well: Burlew’s dialogue isn’t exactly a weak point.

Not to mention, Burlew isn’t afraid to shake up the status quo (skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers): out of 572 strips, 148 (or 25.9%) were spent with Haley unable to speak in anything but cryptograms, 274 (or 48%, nearly half) were spent with Belkar unable to do any killing within a city lest he activate his “mark of justice” (and Belkar lives on killing), 129 (or 22.6%) have been spent with Roy, the ostensible main character, dead, and 104 (or 18.2%) have been spent with the rest of the group split in twain. There hasn’t been a moment with the entire group whole and unrestricted since #245, or 42.8% of the strip’s entire existence – less than half! And nearly half of that was in its original, “dungeon crawling” stage!

And all that just scratches the surface of the strip’s appeal. It’s funny, it’s well-written, the story is compelling, and you never really know what to expect but you sure have enough bones to try. That all plays a part in explaining why Order of the Stick is one of a very small group of webcomics that have become, essentially, their creator’s job – without any advertisements on the site (other than for OOTS books), any newspaper presence (okay, out-of-continuity OOTS strips used to appear in Dragon magazine, but still) or any subscription required.

And isn’t that any artist’s dream?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check and find out if there’s a new strip up yet, because the RSS feed is only automatically checked once a day…

More quick hits

Last call. Here‘s Ctrl+Alt+Del, and here‘s User Friendly.

And the opinions expressed in this comic are not necessarily those of the author. I’m not familiar enough with CAD, and all I know about UF is I started reading it from the beginning in 2006, and had to pry myself away from it when I got to 2004 because it was taking up so much of my time that I should have been using studying.

And both strips work now. Honest. ‘zojdf  ,.zdM/jivzk.lngdipioads

Quick hits

Here‘s the strip. Here‘s the xkcd. Here‘s the Dinosaur Comics.

It used to be that xkcd was full of obscure math jokes, though that seems to have transitioned, in some respects, to something called “human relationships”. Either way, I can’t get into it. Meanwhile, DC has shown that it’s hard to really shake out of a routine with a gimmick like that DC has. That, and I don’t think DC‘s sort of humor really appeals to me.

Post frequency is going to go down significantly at the end of the week and I don’t know when it’ll return. I’ll make an effort to get the currently-suspended storyline some approximation of finished over the weekend, so I’ll have a steady stream of strips for a while. My mom is REALLY on my case about finding a job and I need to get a real Internet connection anyway.