Skip to main content

Dresden Codak by Aaron Diaz, reviewed by Larry "El Santo" Cruz

Larry "El Santo" Cruz takes a look at Aaron Diaz's too-surreal-for-you webcomic, Dresden Codak.

A few nights ago, I was flipping through the channels on TV and the remote roulette eventually landed on the History Channel. You know ... that channel that passes imaginary monsters and prison gangs as genuine moments in history. Really! What caught my ear, though, was a mention of something called the "Dresden Codex." Later research on Wikipedia tells me that the Dresden Codex is a folding book developed by the Mayans containing important astronomical information that were used to develop their renowned calendars. The History Channel episode, though, made a bold speculation that the Dresden Codex was proof that the world was going to end in 2012.

This, by the way, goes a long way in understanding the title of Aaron Diaz's surreal, Salvador Daliesque webcomic, Dresden Codak. At the very least, it strikes down my previous theory that the series was named after a German photomat chain. (Because ... see ... "Codak" sounds like "Kodak," and ... eh.) Dresden Codak, by dude-with-a-cool-hat Aaron Diaz, is one of those series that seasoned webcomic veterans seem to want to make sweet, sweet love with at first sight. The comic has garnered props from red carpet luminaries like Perry Bible Fellowship's Nicholas Gurewich, Bad God's Lore Sjoberg, and Shortpacked!'s David Willis --- all gentlemen whom I hold in high regard and seem really, really smart. (And yes, Willis is pretty smart in that charming obsessive-compulsive-over-toys way.)

So what is Dresden Codak about? I've read several comics over the past half year, and I can say without unnecessary hyperbole that it's a comic that defies explanation. It may be this unabashed ambiguity that attracts readers in the first place. What I can tell you, though, is that the series starts off with a guy's head blowing up. So let's start with that, an apt illustration of what Dresden Codak can do to the unguarded mind. (In a happy coincidence, an exploding head is featured in both the first Dresden Codak (#1) and the first one available in the archives (#13). I suppose I should speculate why Mr. Diaz doesn't link to Dresden Codak #1-#12 in his archives, but I'm sure he has his reasons. Besides, I'm still not over his obsession with exploding heads.)

The early part of Dresden Codak is swamped in the sort of brainy, whimsical chaos that Frank Zappa would've put together. It's almost as if the comic were assembled in a psychedelic haze, yet infused with such logic and lucidity that you figure there's no way Diaz could have been on drugs. Diaz frenziedly illustrates one absurd high-concept idea after another. Usually he shoe-horns some sort of obscure genius reference ---- science, history, or whatever card you pull out of "Trivial Pursuit - Nerd Edition." There's a comic about Atheist heaven, which probably earns massive Dork Love points because it features Nicholai Tesla (the nerd Elvis). There's some philosophical discourse between two proper gentlemen living in a castle on the moon. And one features my favorite egghead-sounding concept with an important-sounding name, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. (By the way, my favorite previous use of Heisenberg was on Aquateen Hunger Force, where a genius Meatwad uses it to explain away how he could now teleport.)

I've come to the conclusion that Diaz writes the comic from his subconscious. It's no surprise, then, that most of Dresden Codak feels like it exists in a dream state. Objects transform into other objects for no real reason. Non sequiturs pop up like the most normal thing in the world. On accompanying blog posts, sometimes Diaz recommends musical accompaniment, which only adds to my supreme bafflement. What does the guitar solo in Guns N' Roses' "November Rain" have to do with a character called "Old Man-Man?" I tried to queue to the soundtrack in my mind, but it somehow transformed Dresden Codak into something ultra-pretentious. In fact, you could say that the comic --- with its focus on transhumanism, intellectual superiority, and abundance of gentlemen with one eyebrow arched just so --- is always on the verge of becoming a snooty professor's lecture. Fortunately, Diaz keeps the pretentiousness in check. He never takes his comic too seriously. Just when you think you've got him pegged as a dry intellectual, he throws in a screaming vampire's head. It's almost as if Diaz is winking at the audience and toying with our expectations. How else to explain a strange cameo of Nelson Mandela as a freedom fighter against invading aliens, or the appearance of Tiny Carl Jung?

Around 2006, Diaz begins to plant seeds that would eventually germinate into a long running plot. Around the same time, he starts to get obsessive over the cute character Kimiko Ross. Whether one has to do with the other is up for debate. (I think this unintentionally sends a message of "Aaron Diaz has finally discovered girls," but really there's no need for me to get mean here.) This led to "Hob," a long-running story that ditched most of the earlier whimsy to craft an ongoing narrative. Fans can argue amongst themselves whether Dresden Codak was better pre-"Hob" or post-"Hob" ... or more specifically, pre-Kimiko or post-Kimiko. Personally, I thought the "Hob" storyline was an improvement. Kimiko finds and takes care of an innocent, childlike robot named Hob. Meanwhile, time-travelers wearing funny clothes arrive to ... do stuff. It turns out that, in the future, robots have turned on their creators, and humanity is on the verge of being wiped out. So this is a retelling of Terminator and Matrix, only it's more colorful and less emo. It manages to roll together some mystery, some action, and some superpowers based on scientific principles.

Even though I didn't know what was going on half the time, I thought "Hob" was a decent enough story. However, Diaz makes the same mistake that Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clarke, and other high profile science fiction writers make: his characters have the personality of drywall. Perhaps characters in science fiction novels are merely observers to fantastic events, and their personalities would only distract the reader from the marvels of science. Or perhaps science fiction writers come from a primarily academic background and are unused to writing about realistic human emotions.

This is certainly the case with Kimiko. She starts out the series as an uncomfortable college girl who unfortunately blurts out nerdy quantum mechanic theories. She's thrust in a series of one-off fantasy scenarios where she experiences crazy flights of fancy. Then, all of the sudden and without warning, Kimiko goes insane. I'm not sure if it's a fundamental transhumanist philosophy to see the extinction of imperfect humans in order to give rise to beautiful humanoid machines, but that's the philosophy Kim espouses. And I'm not sure if we're supposed to root for her. If Kim is still the hero, then we're effectively rooting for a genocidal maniac. If she's a villain, there's nothing from the previous strips that indicates this sudden transformation. Going from a scientifically curious young woman with fairy tale adventures to a full-blown monster in under 60 seconds? Shenanigans!

Most of the time, though, the colorful artwork is so eye-catching that you're willing to forgive Diaz for any narrative lapses. Pre-"Hob" entries had an experimental mix of styles, most looking like an exceptionally drawn indie comic. By the time of "Hob," the style becomes more consistent. Diaz settles on a fluid, cartoon style ... which, for good or for ill, looks like something out of Cartoon Network's Codename: Kids Next Door. I especially love the detailed illustrations of a giant Hob towering over the countryside. And, of course, Diaz's loving detail of Kimiko's lady lumps.

Diaz also opted for non-traditional panel layouts, which has its benefits and drawbacks. They look something like stained glass windows at times. They're arranged in the Scott McCloud-approved long vertical format, which attempts to tell whole stories by scrolling down the browser. This doesn't work for all comics, but Diaz's illustrations do tend to govern the flow. What I have a problem with are the word balloons. They're a chore to follow ... and there's an awful lot of dialogue in Dresden Codak. The comic is one of the few that I'll go back to earlier pages to make sure I didn't miss anything. Maybe this is part of Diaz's overall plan. The story is so boggling and layered that his panel layouts force the reader to reread old strips and slow down a bit. Still, few comics spur as much discussion and analysis as Alan Moore's Watchmen, and that sucker had the world's most straightforward panel layouts.

The comic --- despite the confusing story and layouts and all --- does succeed in getting the reader to think. Like, for example, what in the world is "transhumanism"? I had to search the Wikipedia for that. It boils down to a belief that becoming a super-cyborg is a good thing. In the context of transhumanism, then, is Kimiko a hero? She's not actively wiping out humanity, but she sees no problem in hurdling toward that possibility if she can be a catalyst in the next stage of evolution. Now, I don't agree with Kimiko's stance. But you don't have to be a supporter of fascism to recognize that Heinlein raised up some interesting points in Starship Troopers. So what's the final analysis on Dresden Codak? Is it a transhumanist propoganda piece? Is it a harmless adventure with the world's most academic jokes? Is it a feeling of joy for all time? I'm going to have to conclude this review with the world's most non-commital praise: I have no idea what's going on in this comic, but I kinda like it. It's rare to come across a webcomic that even attempts to tackle sci-fi beyond the Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica templates, so the very existence of "Dresden Codak" is appreciated. Like Kimiko Ross, "Dresden Codak" is pretty, smart, and will likely destroy me if I hang around it for too long. Probably by exploding my head. With snakes.

Re: Dresden Codak by Aaron Diaz, reviewed by Larry "El Santo" Cr

Little late to post here, but I thought maybe I could help explain page 46 (the one that starts with apemen and ends with time colonists).On a basic storyline level, it's simply depicting (a) what the historical precreation society actually does and (b) how the Tokamoks end up separated from Kimiko so that she has to come save them from Jean-Luc Picard. *beep* That was easy.On an overarching plot level, it's foreshadowing. In singularitarian terms, the difference between between transhumans and homo sapiens sapiens is supposed to approximate the difference between the latter and the lesser apes (as Diaz has has remarked in his satire on "Post-simianism"). The conflict between the apes and the humans closely parallels the conflict between Kimiko and the time colonists, including the portrayal of the apes/neoluddites as raving fanatics and the humans/Kimiko as desperate survivalists. The tower, in turn, is a MacGuffin representing Kimiko's goal of ascending to the next phase of evolution. Finally, the intervention at the end (leading, presumably to a peaceful resolution) by the "robot with a human heart" closely parallels Kimiko's upgrade to Hob with the brain scans she's performed, especially given the role he has since announced as "mediator". I expect that Hob will be attempting to fulfill that role shortly; what happens next is anyone's guess. (Maybe the clouds will start talking again? Those multiplying dots in the sky are still unresolved, I believe.)In the meantime, feel free to think through the implications of portraying anti-transhumanists as fanatical, luddite apes.

Re: Dresden Codak by Aaron Diaz, reviewed by Larry "El Santo" Cr

El Santo's picture

Thanks for the thought-out explanation.  I'll have to read that page again (as well as the entire "Hob" arc, most likely) with that in mind. It still sounds overly complicated for casual readers ... but, hey, my opinion on Templar, Arizona, changed after a second reading, so I'm willing to give Dresden Codak a whirl again.

Re: Dresden Codak by Aaron Diaz, reviewed by Larry "El Santo" Cr

Thanks for the Excellent review of D.C., Larry.  You did it justice.  Not many reviewers can. I'll be the first to admit that I don't catch every obscure cultural homage or academic reference in Dresden Codak. It took me a long time to understand the meaning of the phrase "Dresden Codak" itself, but I'm pretty sure I finally got that one-- Nevertheless, this is one comic that is both funny and requires the reader to think--hard--about big, deep ideas.  I would say it is more of an intellectual exercise than funny, though, even when you do read it through enough times to "get" it.  (It takes me about 3 readings, plus some web research, for each page of the comic).  And I do believe A. Diaz is making a point in favor of Transhumanism.  I personally disagree with his point of view, or Kimiko's anyway, but Diaz presents it in such deliciously rich and interesting context that it makes reading about Transhumanist thought fun, at least for me-- an anti-Transhumanist.Diaz clearly relishes the dialog of ideas as much as, or more than, the pure ideas themselves.  Hence the debate about whether ultimate Transhumanism is desirable (Kimiko's point of view) or not (Dmitri and Alina seem to have their doubts).  Fortunately for me and other avid D.C. fans, we relish the dialog of ideas as much as the ideas too.  D.C. is not for fundamentalists attached to any one point of view, but for the type of mind that wants to set up several rival philosophical principles and then watch them fight it out for intellectual authenticity.  The strip "Dungeons and Dialogs" makes this point most clearly, but the theme runs through the whole strip. -M.S.

Oh the ironies of life

El Santo's picture

 I mentioned that the comic goes beyond the Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica templates.  The sci-fi franchise I didn't mention, though, was Star Trek.  Good thing I didn't, too, becuase the latest Dresden Codak has a fellow who is a transparent homage to Next Generation's Jean-Luc Picard.  I guess I should've seen it coming: an earlier character looked an awful lot like Geordi LaForge (and, in retrospect, the other two were Commander Riker and Counselor Troi).

Dresden Codak by Aaron Diaz, reviewed by Larry "El Santo" Cruz

That's a pretty damned decent review. I too have no idea what's going on in Dresden Codak, and I'm not convinced it's because I'm thick or haven't been paying attention. I think the problem is that the story is like the art: a melange of things the author wanted to throw in there because they're "cool" (whatever that means). It's self-indulgent in the extreme, but there's so much work that's gone into it that an audience is bound to gather. And why shouldn't they? It looks nice, and it's not like anything else, which is more than you can say about 90% of comics. It's just too bad that it's so damned opaque, because though people will like the comic, I can't see them loving it. There's not enough to hold on to. Kudos to the reviewer on this one for some well-thought-out insight.