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TOONBOTS: Blank Verse Applied to Webcomics

Looking back on 2004, it's worth noting the changes, or lack thereof, that the year brought to the ever-fluctuating world of webcomics. Keenspot and ModernTales continued to expand and branch into other areas. The fully independent webcomic remains with us. New webcomics appeared, and many of the same have already vanished. A few of the old standbys have come close to retirement, as some cartoonists have had to rely increasingly on reader support to keep their strips alive. Still other webcomics have returned from seeming oblivion. Falling into the latter category is Toonbots by Michael Roberts. Toonbots, both one of the strangest and most irregularly scheduled strips, resurfaced this past August, following a nine month hiatus. It remained active in time for its fourth anniversary in October 2004, but as of this writing, it hasn't updated in quite a while. However, this is hardly a sign of trouble for such an out-of-the-ordinary strip which steadfastly refuses to conform or bow to such meager concerns as reader demand.

As the awareness, definitions, and perceptions of webcomics continue to grow and become more prominent, Toonbots certainly stands as an example of a pure web creation, something which, by its very design, could not work as well in any other medium. Creator Roberts is a software developer by trade and long-time webcomics fan by choice; the concept behind the comic, and the source of its name, is basically the use of Perl script and XML specifications to generate panels, layout, captions, and character details. The earliest Toonbots, in fact, were just captions, with witty, semi-faux-intellectual blurbs dissecting each installment like a speaker at an MLA conference.

Indeed, as this entity developed, beyond the technical rigors, it's almost surprising Roberts' surreal, free-wheeling approach, and particularly his unusual choice of characters, has garnered comparatively little attention. The initial "stars" were merely a dot, initially the result of a technical glitch, and the Toonbot, a square box. Dot is the cynical questioner, well aware that a webcomic surrounds her; Bot merely spouts nonsense. Though still cast members, the pair were soon overshadowed by the use of actual personages, living and dead, mostly dead. Though Bot, Dot, and a handful of other characters (a stick figure pair used sporadically early on, BoxJam in a cameo) were actually drawn through the code specs, clip art icons soon came to the fore, and are one of the oddest aspects of the strip. Of these iconic characters, Al Gore and George W. Bush are primarily stereotypes, while Karl Marx remains a cipher used to service a punchline but with no clear personality. An angry Shakespeare and French-speaking Fidel Castro are one-note oddities.

The true stars of this motley troupe are undoubtedly Mao Tse-tung and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Mao, with his catch phrase "Hey, Fred!", at times longs for friendship and at others exhibits a zen-like calm, like the Toonbot, satisfied with his own logic and world viewpoint. Lenin, or "Len," for his part, is over-eager, usually getting things wrong, as displayed by his flirtation with capitalism, marketing "Pickles for Breakfast" in a running thread. The fact that these ascribed personalities are completely opposite of these famous tyrants' personas accentuates the surrealistic sight of floating Communist heads, and succeeds in making these figures, with their famous misdeeds and frankly eerie clip-art stares, oddly likable. Toonbots has continued its post-modern, vaguely Stoppard-esque revisionist characterization, recently introducing a flighty Hurricane Frances, but Mao and Len are the pinnacle of this approach.

In its actual writing, Toonbots is perhaps most variable; at times using poetic forms for rhythmic effect, at other times merely stream-of-consciousness blathering amongst the talking heads about pop culture and the world, and quite often very self-referential (or "meta," as its author, the self-described "meta-cartoonist," prefers). Characters wonder what the point of a strip is, object to dialogue, fiddle with the source code, and argue with the author (usually represented in orange text), and there have been cameos by both author and members of the strip's fanbase (an odd group collectively known as the Toonbots Jihad, amongst whom your humble critic is numbered). Indeed, the Jihad-spawned wolverines (amongst other fan concepts) have become a distinctive, off-screen presence.

Frank "Damonk" Cormier of Framed, arguably the foremost fourth wall breaking webcomic, was one of Roberts' early admirers, and invited the meta-cartoonist to participate in the infamous, sprawling multi-strip crossover "Framed Great Escape." This brings up one of Toonbots' problems, in terms of accessibility. As inventive as the strip is, the odd choice of characters, iconoclastic panel layout, and massive blocks of code can be distancing for some casual observers. Moreover, while Roberts is expert at integrating any and all references and themes for purpose of a gag, storytelling is problematic, due to the nature of its cast and the inherent technical limits of the strip itself (no backgrounds, minimal character movement, etc.) In general, Toonbots has managed a few short continuities, generally lasting four to six strips, which have been resolved. However, it has also amassed a vast collection of plot elements, themes, and conflicts never resolved, from an "Alice's Restaurant" spoof to Lenin's further capitalist troubles. The elements are introduced, dropped, often as the result of a hiatus, sometimes picked up again, but almost never resolved. Even the Framed crossover, where Damonk did the writing, proved tiresome and technically complicated for Roberts.

Further obstacles to Toonbots becoming a household name include the unwieldy archive (lacking a calendar, the only way to surf is from the first strip, or use Google to locate a favorite oddity) and especially the frequent downtimes (Toonbots probably has the smallest archive of any four-year strips). Yet through it all, it survives. New uses of iconic imagery continue to surface. In addition, Roberts has plans for further expanding the capabilities of the Toon-o-matic software, with the possibilities of average users actually creating their own toons.

Clearly, for all of its irregularities, Toonbots has a unique place in the webcomic community. Whenever talk arises of using the Internet as a testing ground for new aesthetic, narrative, and technical approaches to comics, Toonbots should be remembered as a prime example. The next four years should be interesting, assuming the strip's not still on hiatus by then.