Not much chance of me missing anything in THIS end-of-sub-act flash!

(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized geometric solar system.)

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the start of Act 6. Perhaps nothing has best exemplified how completely superfluous the past year has been to the rest of Homestuck than whatever the hell it was that just happened.

Between the epic flash that concluded Act 5 and the start of Act 6, Andrew Hussie squeezed in a second “intermission” that was nothing more than a single flash formally introducing Lord English. Now, he’s done it again… with an actual sub-act within Act 6. To put that in perspective, we just concluded an intermission within Act 6 that lasted for about two months, introduced us to about ten new trolls, and advanced numerous plots, including the main ongoing plot. The intermission was more important than the actual act.

It would be one thing if this flash was an incredible, awesome epic advancing numerous plot threads, but despite being the fourth-longest flash in all of Homestuck, it barely advances the plot at all, having one of the lowest content-to-length ratios of any flash. (To be fair, when it comes to long low-content flashes, it’s pretty tough to top this – and I apologize in advance for the nightmares that will give you.) All it essentially does is elide a time-skip for the post-Scratch crew – implied to be nearly half a year, judging by the scratch marks on the walls of Jack Noir’s cell, if they’re taken to refer to days, which makes the first half of Act 6 all the more puzzling, as the characters are all likely to be very different and have all sorts of things happen to them that will make the numerous romantic subplots and other frivolous elements of the first three sub-acts seem all the more superfluous. The only thing that “happens” in this flash is that we’re introduced to the other three post-Scratch lands and witness the kids in action, including facing off against actual foes Jane didn’t initially encounter. (Are these re-animated salamander corpses, intended to resemble Lord English, or both?)

Since Act 6 Intermission 3 didn’t really do that much either, even by the standards of Act 6 intermissions, we haven’t really had anything that felt all that weighty since the end of Act 6 Act 3, which, because of breaks Hussie took around that time, came near the end of July, three and a half months ago, and we haven’t had a sustained period of updates with actual content since the period leading up to July 1st, four and a half months ago. To put that in perspective, the epic wait that helped build the anticipation for the end-of-act-5 flash was only two months.

It doesn’t help that by essentially skipping a sub-act (and thus a full sixth, if not fifth, of the act proper, with only one or two more sub-acts to go), we’re skipping a number of plot points most people probably expected to be resolved within it, including advancing Caliborn’s background plot (which I’m now really worried won’t be advanced beyond that end-of-act-6-act-3 flash, making it nothing more than a really convoluted, unexplained, unnecessary, and detrimental backstory for Lord English that could end up bordering as setup for a lame deus ex machina), as well as answering why and/or how Roxy blacked out the session (though admittedly, the latter does make a good in-universe explanation for the time-skip). The implied length of the time-skip effectively drops other subplots and raises questions that didn’t need to be raised, such as what happened with the other kids’ sprites (there was a fairly popular theory that Dirk’s auto-responder would end up prototyped in a sprite).

I guess this is Hussie’s way of signalling once and for all that we’re going back to the main plot now, with another intermission likely to follow to advance the plots we left off at the end of the last one, as well as further advance what’s going on on the meteor and battleship, ending with said meteor and battleship finally arriving in the session to start Act 6 Act 5. But that’s essentially going to leave just one or two sub-acts to actually have the climax and final battle, essentially rendering the first four sub-acts superfluous and effectively wasted, especially if the new kids are completely shunted to the background and rendered mostly spectators now that Calliope’s done with them, which would confirm my worst fears about the real purpose behind the past year. I should feel happy that this move to the background is happening and that the main plot’s train is fully and officially leaving the station, but this only underscores the fact that it stayed too long in the station to begin with.

Some quick stuff

So I lost most of the day because I was going to post on this newfangled Surface thing, but then I slept and then I had less than an hour to put something together.

Between one or two politics-themed posts, being just about ready for a new sports graphics roundup, stuff actually happening in Gunnerkrigg Court, and the impending start of Act 6-4 in Homestuck, next week should have no shortage of material, and maybe even the week after as well… if I can balance it with everything else I’m trying to balance.

Oh, and I can neither confirm or deny that there will be something extra special for Twitter followers in just over a week’s time.

Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds, for the site or for me. How’s that for cryptic statements?

How is it that the pre-Scratch trolls are all one-dimensional annoyances transparently introduced only so Hussie can kill them all… and they’re still FAR more interesting than the post-Scratch kids?

(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized one ring to rule them all.)

Something’s been very odd about the recently-completed intermission; so much of its content was concentrated in three non-flashes that it’s felt unnaturally short, and I felt like we spent almost no time with the meteor crew, with Karkat and Terezi only making appearances in those flashes where the meteor crew wasn’t even the focus. And yet, it’s left me feeling as optimistic as I’ve ever been about the direction of the comic.

Nearly a year ago, on the heels of the undisputed most dramatic moment in Homestuck history, Andrew Hussie ground the plot to a halt to introduce us to four new players, shunting virtually any appearances of the four original kids, or the twelve trolls that had supplanted them as the most popular characters in the comic, to intermissions within Act 6. And no matter how much what we were witnessing might have been relevant to the big picture, I and I suspect many others just wondered when we were going to return to the characters we came to Homestuck for, when the plot was actually going to ramp back into gear and get moving.

Hussie had done this before; the proper introduction of the trolls in Act 5-1 came on the heels of the previous most dramatic moment in Homestuck history, right as, as I mentioned in my original review, the plot was finally starting to get interesting. But the trolls didn’t disappoint, turning out to be perhaps the most interesting characters in the comic, as opposed to the cyphers that were the four original kids. But the post-Scratch kids were almost just the opposite. Oh, they were interesting in their own way, especially Roxy’s alchoholism and Jake’s zest for adventure, but we hadn’t spent two-thirds of the comic’s total run time (including unreleased pages) on them the way we had with the pre-Scratch kids and trolls, and the new kids weren’t anywhere near interesting enough to overcome that, especially given my suspicion that they will all be shunted to the background or killed once the real heroes come back. Those brief glimpses we got of the kids and trolls only underscored how little we were invested in the new characters.

But now… now I finally feel like we’re picking up the main plot where we left it off at the end of Act 5, and after going off track for so long, we’re now starting to become laser-focused on the end of the comic. Just in the opening non-flash, we see that the incident at the end of the last sub-act has turned on the crew on the meteor to who Lord English is and the threat he poses, as well as get what amounts to confirmation that yes, Caliborn is in fact a young Lord English. (I hope the only reason for that wasn’t to set up the use of Calliope as the method of defeating him, because if so Hussie went so all-out in doing so he may have actually weakened Lord English as a villain.)

Over the course of the act, three ghost-troll plans arise for taking him out: Aranea’s plan to find Calliope’s ghost (which, given what we know, makes very little sense to me), Meenah’s plan to raise an army to go after Lord English directly (which is probably how the pre-Scratch trolls, and some of the post-Scratch ones, will all be unceremoniously disposed of), and Vriska’s plan to find some sort of MacGuffin that can defeat him somehow. They aren’t mutually exclusive, and Vriska suggests they might actually be working in concert even as they largely ignore one another, while the end of the “ministrife” flash, while not resolving its own conflict, suggests they might end up working a little closer than that, though Vriska seems to want to use Meenah’s army as little more than a pack of redshirts to light the way to her MacGuffin.

(By the way, with all apologies to Dave Strider, I think Meenah had already replaced him as my favorite character in Homestuck even before this intermission made her a lot more sympathetic.)

We’ve spent three sub-acts and the better part of a year focused on what has amounted to a sidetrack, but now the end goal of all of Homestuck has come into laser focus, with Lord English taking center stage as its main villain and the efforts of all the characters focused on defeating him. In this intermission, we’ve seen what the plans of the ghost trolls are, but they will still amount to a sidetrack and at best support for the real heroes. The bigger development on the horizon is the impending arrival of the kids we’ve come to know and love into the post-Scratch session sometime within the next sub-act. Once that happens, it’ll be nothing but full-speed ahead right to Homestuck‘s climax, on as many tracks as possible, no matter how circuitous the route we took to get to this point. Hopefully it won’t be the long, drawn-out, tedious battle the climax of Problem Sleuth turned out to be.

Warning: this is an extremely sensitive issue, and I’m about as sensitive as an atom bomb. On a totally unrelated note, I can neither confirm or deny that this post was an excuse for me to stare intently at images of fictional women.

(From Questionable Content. Click for full-sized self-dug grave.)

I want you to take a good, long look at the comic to the right, clicking on it to see it full-sized if necessary, and telling me how you would describe Marigold’s appearance, especially outside the first row of panels when she’s just wearing the bikini.

Now, I want you to take a look at the previous comic, and think about how you might describe Marigold in that comic, particularly in the first panel where you can see below her waist.

Now, if you’ve never seen Questionable Content or Marigold before, your reaction to the first comic, especially if you’re a heterosexual, perhaps subconsciously sexist male, was probably, “Wow, that is one fat chick.” Regardless of your familiarity, you were probably still struck by how flabby she looks. But if you’re like me, and you compared the bikini-clad Marigold to the one in the first row or the one in the previous comic, you probably realized that you were struck more by her flabbiness in the former compared to the latter.

I’m not trying to accuse Jeph Jacques of drawing Marigold fatter to capitalize on her insecurities about her weight. I don’t intend to compare each version of Marigold pixel-by-pixel, and certainly I can see how the looseness with which her shirt fits her might hide her body shape. Nor do I intend to go on a spiel on how we perceive how people look, even before we assign value judgments to them. What I do want to point out is that, for whatever reason, in the transition from the fully-clothed Marigold in the previous comic to the bikini-clad Marigold of this one, the word “fat” moved far closer to the forefront of words that come to mind when looking at her, in a way that some people seem to be taking offense at.

Perhaps no webcomic creator is more well-known for their treatment of women (excluding those who are simply mocked for overt sexism) than Jeph Jacques; we’re a little over a month away from the eight-year anniversary of Eric Burns(-White) asking “when did we become the No Fat Chicks club?” while defending QC‘s portrayal of women. On the one hand, Jacques has a very large cast of very well fleshed-out characters, male and female, and a very large proportion of his cast, indeed probably the majority, are women. And as much as QC fans like to joke about “Marten’s harem”, the fact is that none of these women are sexualized to the point of existing primarily for men, inside or outside the comic, to gawk at, not even the lesbians like Tai (with the possible exception of Marten’s mother, who exists partly for Dora to gawk at). All of Jacques’ women are extremely well fleshed-out and complex characters with their own motivations, and at least in the case of Faye and Dora, are anything but “delicate flowers” but headstrong figures who can go toe-to-toe with any of the men in the comic.

On the other hand… there are a lot of women, and they are very prominent, and while they aren’t overly sexualized they do live in a comic where sex and romance are key themes, one where the underlying conflict of the first 500 strips could be summed up as “Marten pines for Faye while she grinds him underneath his boot”, and so never completely free of heterosexual male fantasies, not to mention that the way they’re drawn tends to be rather… noticeable.

Marigold being fat has been a part of her character from the start, part of a larger portrayal of her as an ordinary-looking geek girl, cute but hardly a knockout, whose constant insecurities about her imperfections prevented her from coming out of her shell, seeing herself as she really is, and finding happiness in the world around her. The whole thing was just formulaic, just cliche, just male-fantasy enough that it’s resulted in a constant uneasy tension in how Marigold has been perceived by the fanbase.

For the record, this isn’t why I hate Marigold; as I said in my original review, I’ve been rooting for her to find that happiness ever since she first appeared. My problems have more to do with the way Marigold nearly took over the comic both literally and figuratively for a time after Dora and Marten broke up as the vanguard of a potential shift in its focus while her own personal plot that was her main attraction to me spun its wheels when it wasn’t ignored entirely. On her own merits, I’d take Marigold a thousand times over Emily (who thankfully has not been very prominent in this plotline at her own house).

In any case, however much Marigold may have come off as more of a cypher compared to the other women in QC, she did fit into (and perhaps even exemplified) one theme of the comic, however positive or negative you make of it, that the comic’s women tend to blow whatever insecurities they may have out of proportion, exaggerating their imperfections and blinding themselves to how good they actually have it. Marigold may be a bit curvy, but until now she was hardly what most normal people would have called “fat”. Nor are her concerns about her weight even unique within the comic; for a long time (especially after Dora showed up) Faye was regularly teased about her own flabbiness, despite the comic’s art style at the time making her look downright thin, and I’m actually a little concerned that Jeph has overcompensated as time has gone on, portraying Faye as fatter than she really should be to drive the point home among fans.

By the way? Take a look at this comic and tell me with a straight face that Faye’s assessment in the second panel isn’t essentially accurate. Then tell me with a straight face that you would call Faye in that comic “fat” by any stretch of the imagination, the end of the previous paragraph notwithstanding.

Jeph Jacques has pretty much earned a free pass when it comes to his treatment of women; he’s demonstrated more than enough his ability to skillfully write for the fairer sex (to the point I wouldn’t be surprised if QC‘s fanbase is more than half female), and in and of itself I’m finding it hard to find anything particularly offensive about this sequence. Anyone who thinks Marigold is being reduced to a fat joke has either never followed the character before (and thus grasped how this comic fits into her larger character arc) or is letting their own biases seep through more than exposing any of Jeph’s, maybe both. At the same time, his treatment of women has never been as completely respectful as you might think, and with Marigold in particular has come concerningly close to lapsing into tired and simplistic stereotypes, and this comic may have exposed that, inadvertently or not. Understanding this comic in its full context should help people realize just how ultimately unfounded any criticisms of it might be, while also suggesting that those same criticisms may contain within them the germ of a deeper truth.

It’s only a matter of time before Rose signs up for Bubblr.

(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized DRUNKEN LESBIAN GLOWING VAMPIRE TROLLKISS 2012.)

I have said very little – okay, nothing – about the progress of the intermission so far, and I suspect I’m going to save most of my remarks for when the intermission is over. I’ve been trying to put together two posts’ worth of coherent thoughts on Homestuck in general, but as anyone who’s been reading my other posts knows, it’s been more of a distaction than anything else.

For now, let me say that while the walkaround non-flashes have been fun to play and explore in, the pre-scratch trolls are so much one-dimensional cariactures that Hussie has seemingly telegraphed that they’ve only been introduced for him to kill them off, and I’ve had… mixed reactions at best to the segments with the original kids, which is odd considering how much I’ve missed them. (The sooner the new sitcom “The Adventures of John and Jade” gets cancelled, the better, and watching Rose stumble around falling-down drunk is making it hard to read her earlier appearances as arguably the most clear-minded member of the group.)

However… whatever your reaction may have been to this, I will freely share it. Well, unless maybe you were a Rose/Kanaya shipper. Not putting down your preferences, I’m just not into that sort of thing. But for anyone else who underwent some combination of shock, bemusement, and bewilderment, well, allow me to add my name to the list.

(While I’m here, and need to fill out space to fill out the thumbnail, let me say that I was very surprised to see John learn of Vriska’s life-free status before finishing his journey, especially since Vriska went straight into exposition mode before John had a chance to commiserate about it.)

(Wow… have I spent a year in this place already? Funny how the time flies… and how long Act 6 has seemingly ground everything to a halt… really puts things into perspective just how much the post-Scratch kids have taken over the comic… feels like the comic’s really going to have to rush to its conclusion if Act 6 is still going to be shorter than Act 5…)

Stupid browser cache.

(From Questionable Content. Click for full-sized land of unlimited cartriges.)

Have you ever had an experience where something really weird and awkward happened, and then afterwards you just went about your business like nothing happened at all, never even understanding why it happened to begin with?

That’s how I feel about this QC after the two strips immediately preceding it (not counting yesterday’s filler art). I fully expected Jeph to be trolling his fanbase (who I suspect hate Emily as much as I do), though after he continued the setup for two strips I was fully prepared to renounce QC entirely if it turned out he was sending the comic headfirst into PVP/Goats Syndrome.

What I did not expect was for the succeeding comic not to even reference it at all, but to have the characters go about their business as though there was nothing odd or awkward about their arrival whatsoever, not even getting so much as a suitably crazy explanation out of Emily, her holding the mask in the first panel the only sign that anything happened at all.

The end result is that, if you had that awkward moment with someone else, no matter how you try to gloss over it, it looms over the entire rest of that interaction. I can’t read this comic without thinking about the two prior ones, and I can’t help but wonder whether the start of the sequence is going to hang over it for the duration, seeking a closure that never comes. And yet, if we were given an explanation, wouldn’t the same thing happen in a broader sense, with no one willing to completely trust it?

I’m left utterly numb and wanting to both compliment and castigate Jeph, and not do those things, all at the same time. I don’t even know what reaction I even have other than “What?

I will admit, I am morbidly curious to meet Emily’s parents. I have a feeling they’ve got to be at least as eccentric as Hannelore’s.

(From Questionable Content. Click for full-sized space constraints.)

Why is it that I was groaning when I was reading this comic?

Was it because this presages a lengthy storyline involving wacky hijinks among most of the cast which Jeph seems to specialize in? It shouldn’t; such a storyline should be fun and provide for some unique interactions between characters, including some character development for the new ones, advancement for the Dora/Tai relationship, and perhaps some new relationships brewing. Perhaps it’s because I have a sinking feeling that despite all of that, the storyline is ultimately going to amount to Marigold and Emily being shoved down our throats for weeks on end.

Or maybe it was because of what’s implied about the size of the house, which makes me wonder if this is going to be Space Station Arc 2: Electric Boogaloo. Even if Emily’s parents don’t live in the equivalent of a space station, if the arc focuses primarily on its setting, and perhaps on characters we’ve never seen before and will barely see again, that might actually be worse than having Marigold and Emily shoved down our throats for weeks on end.

I think Questionable Content is an awesome comic, at its best one of the three best comics I read, so why does it give me similar feelings to those I get while reading Ctrl+Alt+Del? My relationship with this comic might be even weirder: I absolutely love the comic, and yet I keep expecting it to fail and frustrate me at every turn.

(Damn you, exceedingly tall comic, for forcing me to flesh out every QC post I make, in this case while Jeph is livestreaming the drawing of the next one!)

The Zen of Toasterdom

(From Questionable Content. Click for full-sized ambitions.)

I bleeping hate Emily. Her “endearing” loopiness is fast grating on my nerves, and the fact she’s starting to supplant Marigold as the figure taking over the comic only makes it worse. If the two of them were ever to meet, I’m quite sure the universe would explode.

The only thing I might hate more than Emily are the occasional hints of robot racism in QC that constantly threaten to send it divebombing headlong into PVP/Goats Syndrome. And here’s a comic where the two meet head-on in the Large Hadron Collider.

And yet… there’s something weirdly sublime about Emily’s response here. Momo is presumably chafing at being compared to a mere tool, a machine to perform a task for humanity and nothing else, as opposed to humanity’s equal… and Emily would be perfectly fine with being a toaster. I actually wonder how the conversation might continue, with Momo pressing Emily on her seemingly self-degrading dreams; would they talk past each other, or would Momo at least recognize Emily’s train of thought even if she didn’t find it valid? While it’s possible to read it as a desire for a simpler sort of life (and I’d much prefer Emily as a toaster than as a sentient human being), one can’t help but wonder if Momo is wondering exactly what it is she aspires to be equal to.

Let me be clear: I don’t care how well Jeph Jacques would be able to write it if he made robot racism a focus of the comic, it’s still not what I and I suspect the vast majority of people come to QC for. But if he was able to surprise me with a more philosophical take on the subject than would otherwise be expected, the sorts of people who are interested in that sort of thing would certainly get their money’s worth, and I might wait just a little bit longer before bailing on the comic.

So, what’s this newfangled “webcomics” thing, anyway?

DISCLAIMER: The linking of a webcomic in this post should not be taken to mean these are the only good webcomics out there, or even that I necessarily endorse them. They are primarily intended as demonstrations where they appear.

“Wet tonic”? What’s that?

A webcomic is, basically, a comic that appears on the web. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

Okay, so what kind of comic are we talking about? There’s a lot of different kinds out there. Are we talking newspaper comic strips, comic books like with the X-Men in them, stand-up comedians, or something else?

All of the above and then some. (Well, maybe not the stand-up comedian part, although that kind of “webcomic” could exist too.) Many of your favorite newspaper comic strips are available online, and have been for well over a decade, complete with archives of at least a month, at sites like GoComics.com. And both Marvel and DC comics have made a substantial portion of their libraries available online as well. The beauty of the web is, because it’s not tied to the size of a printed page, a comic can be any size you want – but we’ll get to that later.

So, those newspaper comic strips and comic books that I can read online, those are webcomics?

I guess technically they are. This is where we get into the thorny area of our definition of webcomics. For the most part, calling something a “webcomic” typically means it appeared on the web first, before appearing in some other form. For example, there was a series of steampunk graphic novels called Girl Genius whose creators decided to start publishing its pages on the Web for eventual collection into print form. Once they did that, it became a webcomic.

On the other hand, that still means you could conceivably call most newspaper comic strips webcomics, not to mention a handful of comic books that show up online on the same day they’re published. So I guess it’s not good enough to be simultaneous; they have to appear on the web before they ever appear in print. If they ever appear in print.

Okay, but I still don’t have a good have a good idea of what a webcomic is. What does a webcomic look like?

Well, again, there’s really no constraints as to what a webcomic might look like, so webcomics come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, though most try to look like newspaper comic strips to some extent, and most of the rest look like comic book pages. PVP is about the goings-on in the offices of a gaming magazine, and essentially looks like it would fit right in in your local newspaper. Penny Arcade, a commentary on video games so wildly popular it’s become a franchise spawning its own gaming conventions, uses substantially taller panels. Ctrl+Alt+Del, a comic about a group of gamers and the subject of a very vocal section of the Internet that hates its guts, arranges its panels in a 2×2 grid. Questionable Content, which can probably be best described as a snarkier Friends, uses four panels stacked one on top of the other. And plenty of other webcomics don’t use a consistent style at all, especially the more memetic or editorial-cartoony ones like the even more wildly popular xkcd. Most webcomics in the comic-book tradition, like the aforementioned Girl Genius, post a single page each time they update, though the lack of constraints the format provides means that some, like The Order of the Stick, can be more flexible with the format when circumstances warrant. And then there are comics with even weirder formats.

Scott McCloud, a comic writer and artist who revolutionized the way people saw the medium in the early 90s when he created Understanding Comics, wrote a sequel, Reinventing Comics, in 2000 where, among other things, he suggested that the freedom the Internet and computers in general provide from the constraints of the page could allow comics artists to sprawl out indefinitely, allowing comics to take whatever shape might seem natural, even in three dimensions, an idea he somewhat inadvertently gave the name of the “infinite canvas”. So far such ideas have mostly been limited to gimmicky works where the idea is part of the point, with limited application in other works, partly because it’s harder to make money when your work isn’t serialized, and there’s a lot less reason to use the infinite canvas when it is serialized, leaving the infinite canvas to those who have free time and are more concerned about “purity” than anything else. Nonetheless, there are certainly a goodly number of interesting applications out there if you know where to look, and perhaps smartphones and tablets may make it more viable. For more traditional comic-book-style webcomics, McCloud suggested a half-page format that could fit within a monitor window to minimize scrolling.

I notice that a lot of these webcomics have to do with video games and other nerdy pursuits. Are there any webcomics a normal person might be interested in?

Yeah, that’s the thing about the Internet and technology in general: the first people to flock to something new will generally be geeks, nerds, geeknerds, and nerdgeeks. Unless it’s porn. But then, is there really a difference?

But yeah, nerds definitely seem to be over-represented in webcomics, even the ones that aren’t so obviously nerdy (Randall Munroe has a degree in physics and xkcd used to be infamous for its esoteric math jokes). Heck, many of the less nerdy gag-a-day strips have ended, though Kevin and Kell, a comic about a society of anthropomorphic animals made by a newspaper-comic veteran, is still going strong. Beyond that, a lot of the rest tend not to be for the faint of heart, whether it’s a comic about a sex freak (Least I Could Do) or a comic that just goes for as much shock value per comic as it can (Cyanide and Happiness).

I’d like to read a good story. What are some good comic-book-style webcomics out there?

There are three “long-form” webcomics in particular that tend to get praise heaped upon them for their stories, two of which we’ve already mentioned. Girl Genius, in addition to becoming a milestone for migrating from print comics to the web, tends to rack up a ton of awards; its steampunk – er, “gaslamp fantasy” – setting is utterly overrun by mad scientists. The Order of the Stick started out as a simple stick-figure comic riffing on what the Dungeons and Dragons rules must look like within the game world- and achieved enough popularity that way to start looking like the Penny Arcade of D&D – but eventually expanded that out into a truly epic fantasy story that I would be willing to put among the greats of the genre. Gunnerkrigg Court may look superficially like Harry Potter with a female protagonist, but it has its own themes and direction that give it a more mythological feel. All three are available in print, though I doubt you’ll find them at your local bookstore.

There are plenty of other good stories to be found among the world of webcomics as well; one of the deans of webcomics is Sluggy Freelance, which started out as a wacky anything-goes style comic, and never really stopped being such, but managed to turn its anything-goes nature into a huge sprawling plotline that now spans close to a decade and a half of material. Schlock Mercenary has been churning out its own brand of space opera every single day for over a decade now. And special mention should go to Homestuck, about a group of kids who begin playing a knockoff of The Sims – with a twist that leads them down a road beyond imagination, which has become a phenomenon that must be seen to be believed, and whose unique format defies description even as a webcomic.

Wait, all of those are incredibly nerdy too! Are there any story comics that aren’t sci-fi or fantasy?

Yeah, same problem as with the gag-a-day comics. Here’s the thing: a lot of the older, more successful webcomic creators tend to all know each other, as well as a number of more prominent webcomic bloggers, and they often tend to circlejerk around to work with each other and promote each other’s work, and since they tend to all be nerds, when they’re not promoting each other’s work they’re typically promoting stuff that’s equally nerdy. As a result, there’s a certain ecosystem of webcomics out there that tend to be more prominent than the others (which doesn’t necessarily correlate with popularity) and which tend to determine which comics occupy the next tier of prominence, and it’s very difficult for a non-nerdy webcomic to break into that logjam, especially when you consider that webcomics, as a whole, are still in many ways sort of a niche.

The closest things there are to a non-nerdy story-based webcomic – or really, the most prominent non-nerdy comics at all – are really more akin to soap-operatic newspaper strips that follow the ongoing trials and tribulations of a group of friends and the relationships between them, like Something Positive, Girls with Slingshots, and the aforementioned Questionable Content. But even those comics tend to have wacky elements that can border on the fantastic, to the point that QC has actually been described as sci-fi (though the other two aren’t really any weirder than, say, Dilbert). Then there’s Red String and Megatokyo, two manga-styled romance comics. But for the most part, it’s slim pickings if you’re not a nerd and want to add a true webcomic to your daily routine, though there are more than a few out there if you know where to look.

Aren’t all webcomics piles of utter bullcrap, often bordering on porn, created by egotistical d-bags with no one to stop them from publishing their monstrosities for the world to see?

It’s true that there are more than a few egotistical webcomics creators out there that rub people the wrong way, most prominently Scott Kurtz and Tim Buckley of PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del respectively, but most webcomics creators seem to be genuinely interested in their fans, the world at large, and the development of the medium. The formation of a “webcomics community” may have formed a circlejerk that keeps the attention focused on certain kinds of work, but it’s also a mutually supportive place that seeks to elevate the standing and success of all involved, and it’s possible to become popular without it anyway, the same way anything else on the Internet becomes popular.

And while there are relatively few barriers to entry in webcomics, just as on the Internet as a whole, creating a webcomic is a bit more technically complex than creating something more textually oriented – the Internet is really more optimized for text than images, so the popularity of webcomics vis-a-vis more text-based fiction (webnovels?) is somewhat surprising if not mystifying. At the very least, you need someone with artistic skills, a useful art-making program like Adobe Illustrator (possibly along with expensive add-ons like a drawing tablet) or a good scanner, and the ability to upload images to a web site and stitch them together with hyperlinks in a coherent way. Between that and the general difficulty of making it in the crowded marketplace of the Internet, in my experience a webcomic generally needs to be pretty good in order to achieve the level of popularity necessary for success, so the cream does rise to the top. There are certainly plenty of crappy and porny webcomics, but also a number of truly worthy works, some of which I’ve named above, and which aren’t even that hard to find.

But if they were really that good, wouldn’t they have been published by a real comic publisher or syndicate?

Well, for one thing, a publisher or syndicate is a middleman who takes a cut of whatever money you make and often tries to exert control over your work, which has good and bad aspects. Perhaps that’s a tradeoff you’re willing to make when you compare it to the uncertainty that you’ll make one red cent off your comic online. But neither publishers nor syndicates are really all that good at it anymore; newspapers are dying, and while you can make some guaranteed money getting your strip syndicated, if your comic is really worthy you can get a larger, more devoted, and younger fanbase online. As for comic books, that market hasn’t been that big to begin with since at least the mid-90s, especially outside the big two superhero publishers, so if nothing else publishing your story online to start with can be a massive advertisement for potential readers, growing your potential fanbase exponentially, as the creators of Girl Genius can attest. So the creators of the best work might actually be better off on the web, regardless of their desire to make money. In other words? Webcomics are the future. Resistance is futile.

Okay, I’m interested. Where do I go if I want to learn more or discover more webcomics?

You can check out some of the webcomics I’ve reviewed, including some listed here, though keep in mind that I tend to be focused on my own enjoyment of a comic more than anything else and my tastes may not be the same as yours. At the least, be sure to read the full review and take my comments (especially some of my older reviews) with a grain of salt. There are some other webcomics critics out there, but you can probably count them on one hand; the dean of webcomics criticism is Eric Burns-White of Websnark, but these days he tends to post very rarely if at all, and even in his heyday he didn’t really “review” comics so much as comment on the ones he personally regularly read. Still, you can trawl through some of his older posts for some interesting insights. Really, the only other active, worthy webcomics critics I’m really aware of (aside from some occasional ventures on broader comics-focused sites) are Tangents and The Webcomic Overlook, both of which do engage in actual reviews of webcomics, though Tangents, like Websnark and myself, tends more often than not to go off on comics he’s already reading.

There are a number of other sites that aim to help you find webcomics you might enjoy, such as The Webcomic ListInk Outbreak or Just the First Frame. TopWebComics is the last bastion of what used to be a fairly big thing in webcomics, the ongoing popularity contest; while the big comics don’t need the publicity and so don’t partake in it, it’s still a good way to find some up-and-coming webcomics with a devoted enough fanbase.

I’m considering creating a webcomic. What should I do?

First, if you’re considering creating a webcomic for the fame or fortune, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. It is still incredibly difficult to make money on the Internet, with advertising rarely being a sufficient money stream by itself, and only a fraction of a fraction of webcomics are actually successful; by most counts, you’ll need a readership in the thousands before you can expect to see more than a trickle of money. The number of webcomics to make any sort of impact anywhere remotely resembling broader culture can probably be counted on one hand (namely, xkcd and Penny Arcade). Most webcomics attempt to make money through selling T-shirts, which generally means finding something memetic that people will lap up, with the comic itself struggling to become more than a thinly-disguised T-shirt advertisement. Selling print collections of the online comics is another popular monetary stream, though the availability of the comic free online kind of undercuts it. Still, it seems to be the main money stream for long-form, story-based comics, though it undercuts the whole idea of the infinite canvas. Since McCloud, the messianic promise of “micropayments” has hovered over webcomics and the Internet as a whole, and probably always will.

Second, the easiest way to set up a webcomic site is through something set up for the purpose. Webcomic hosts like Comic Genesis, the Duck and Webcomics Nation can give you everything you need to get going quickly, though they may not be the best choice for aspiring professionals, especially since they tend to attract works of mixed quality. Generally, the best comics on those sites leave when they really start going. Another approach is to use pre-boxed tools to build your own site; there are several plugins you can install on a WordPress site (like this one) to optimize it for webcomic publishing, ComicPress (and its sister Comic Easel) probably being the most well-known, though stripShow and Webcomic are options as well. Not having experience with any of these, I can’t tell you which is best. If you have programming knowledge or know a programmer, you could code your own site by hand, but that could very easily run into problems; I took a crash course in PHP and coded a fairly simple webcomic script when I dipped my own toe into webcomics for about a year and a half, but it doesn’t seem to work with modern versions of PHP and I can’t seem to get it to work.

Third, keep in mind that the setting of the web allows you to do a lot of things that aren’t really feasible in print, and not just making your comic any size you want. You can flesh out your comic beyond the comic itself with all sorts of metatextual information, such as cast descriptions and other aids to new readers, or hide exposition about the world or characters of your comic on separate pages so they don’t get in the way of the comic itself, or leave little notes alongside each installment of your comic that might include reminders of past events, comments on the action, or just whatever’s on your mind. It can help to see your webcomic as an entire web site of which the comic is only a part.

Finally, try to suck up as much knowledge as you can about how to do this; I can’t tell you everything you need to know, not least of the reasons why being I don’t have much experience at it myself. How to Make Webcomics, by four successful webcomic creators, is often considered the Bible for making a successful and profitable webcomic, though it definitely reflects the authors’ agendas and points of view, so take it with a grain of salt. There’s plenty of other advice out there on the web, including by webcomic creators themselves, reflecting that community I was talking about earlier. You might also want to check out McCloud’s books Understanding Comics and Making Comics, especially the online chapter of the latter all about webcomics.

Anything else?

Nothing leaps to mind. You might want to leave a comment on this page if you have any other questions, though. With the way webcomics continue to evolve, I’m sure most of this post will be obsolete within five years.

Because when even the Webcomic Overlook – which NEVER comments on comics unless it’s to review them or they’re making actual news – is commenting on something, I have to join in.

(From xkcd. Click for full-sized big world out there.)

I think I’ve become more than a little fascinated with xkcd and its wild popularity that seems to transcend anything you might call a “webcomic”. (Questionable Content is over twice as popular as Homestuck? Who knew?)

When I originally reviewed it, I was wholly disappointed by it. I didn’t find it consistently funny or provide me enough of a reason to read it on a consistent basis. It was a meme factory with appeal to geeks and that was pretty much the core of its popularity. And while I still find it to be the vanilla ice cream of webcomics, something’s struck me about it as I’ve read other similar comics like Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Namely, it has a certain heart that those other comics don’t.

Perhaps that’s a result of Randall Munroe’s idealism, which goes well above and beyond anything you’ll find in any other webcomic. Or perhaps xkcd, while it often tries to be funny, is not a humor comic. It is, rather, what I described it as in my original review: a “thought of the day”. Sometimes that thought will be a whole new way of organizing or seeing the world. Sometimes it’ll just be a casual slice of life. Sometimes it’ll be some musing on something making news in geekdom. Sometimes it’ll be a straight-up meme factory, more than once setting original compositions to the tune of existing songs. Sometimes it’ll be what SMBC calls “graph jokes“, often without the joke part.

And every once in a while it’ll blow you away completely with Randall’s grasp of the infinite canvas.

Usually this takes the form of some massive, poster-sized thing, be it his “maps of the Internet” (themselves showing a unique grasp of metaphor) or more generic measurements of scale. Recently, though, he’s taken advantage of other elements of his Internet setting to create unique experiences unlikely to even be replicated anywhere outside the Internet. It probably started with the fairly simple “Umwelt” comic, but now he’s combined the two forms of infinite canvas and created something so expansive that, even given his past work, you can’t help but wonder if he’s every bit as much a space alien as David Morgan-Mar. I almost get the sense that this is something where you’re not supposed to reach the edges, to maintain the illusion that Munroe has created a world as large and expansive as our own.

(Though Robert A. Howard? Rest assured that when Randall doesn’t provide something, his insanely dedicated fanbase will.)

I’m still not likely to take up xkcd on a regular basis. I’ve gone on record repeatedly that, typically, a webcomic needs one of two things to be successful, at least in my eyes: humor, or story. Darths and Droids wormed its way into my heart with innovation, doing something I hadn’t seen before. xkcd occasionally dabbles into humor or innovation, but not enough to keep me coming back; even its innovations don’t really strike my fancy, and its humor isn’t that funny. Still, I might give it another shot at some point down the line, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a newfound respect for the most popular webcomic on the Internet.