The Webcomic Overlook #100: xkcd
Submitted by El Santo on November 14, 2009 - 23:01
Ah, 100 reviews.
This is truly a milestone in the annals of The Webcomic Overlook lore. True, I’ve also written 20+ smaller reviews, which are actually longer an more elaborate than the earlier Webcomic Overlooks. Plus all those reviews I wrote for ComixTalk and Comic Fencing (all lovingly catalogued on this very site).
Still, 100 reviews and 500k page views is a hell of a milestone. So a big thank you to all the readers who have been following The Webcomic Overlook all this time. I seriously would not be writing these columns if it were not for you, your input, and your enthusiasm.
Now, let’s get past the valedictorian speech and on with the review. To commemorate the 100th, I asked you, the readers, on the Twittersphere — and if that term hasn’t been coined yet, I’m totally going to claim it — which webcomic I should review: xkcd or PHD? In an awesome demonstration of my Twitter prowess, I got four whole replies. One vote went to PHD, one vote went to Girls With Slingshots (automatically disqualified because it was not one of the options), one vote went to xkcd, and one vote went to something called kxcd.
I think the latter was written by bRYAN NOORSOOMAIKXCD. (And yes, that reply WAS from Sarah Zero writer Ace Plughead.)
I had strong inclinations to do a review of PHD. It’s a curious, long-lived webcomic in its own right, attracts audiences beyond the typical webcomic spectrum, and yet doesn’t typically get much attention when discussion turns to webcomics. I may still review it some day. But I decided to settle on Randall Munroe’s xkcd after all. Because deep down inside, I really am a glutton for page visits.
Why would I do this? Hasn’t everyone and their brother talked about xkcd already? I typed “xkcd review” in Google and got some 533,000 results (though only about 2,700 if I enclose it in quotation marks — which is probably more accurate but nevertheless still impressive from a webcomics standpoint). Why, this is more reviews than for, say, the Partridge Family! And who doesn’t love the Partridge Family? So really … does the world need another xkcd review?
For one, the power of this webcomic fascinates me. It has an audience that other webcomics cannot come close to touching. Let me tell you something about myself. In real life, I am an aersopace engineer. I work in a fairly large engineering department. Yes, seriously! And like any office environment, sometimes people print out comics strips and post them at their desks. The most common, is, unsurprisingly, Dilbert. It’s like sticking it to the man, only in a socially acceptable way. There’s also no shortage of Far Sidebooks and day-by-day calendars. Habitual coffee drinkers (an typically office assistants) put up an Adam@Home toon. There’s even a weirdo (i.e., me) who puts up the defunct They’ll Do It Every Time.
There’s also xkcd. In fact, xkcd is the only webcomic anyone in our offices ever puts up. (Well, except for my desk, which, in addition to my previous example, also sports a Savage Chickens comic.) xkcd is patronized by people who have advanced engineering degrees and folks who spend their days hunched over their computers and typing long strings of code. They are what the outside world calls “smart people.” I don’t know if they read xkcd regularly or if they’re aware of the existence of any other webcomics. My suspicion is “no.” Yet the comic speaks to them like Dilbert spoke to the masses of misbegotten cubicle dwellers scattered in artificially-lighted offices all across the land.
A comic this popular, which is perhaps THE most read webcomic on the internet, is bound to attract a lot of playa haters. Mention xkcd anywhere online — like say in an interview with Neal Stephenson — and you’ll find comments like “Randall Munroe is a creepy sperging manchild who built a goddamn chuck-e-cheese ballpit in his living room in place of a sofa and in any sane society would be looked down upon as the human garbage he is.” Ouch. Elsewhere, there’s an xkcd sucks blog dedicated to the full time hating of xkcd. xkcd even has an entry on the bad webcomics wiki, which sneers: “this comic is the very picture of Asperger’s disorder.”
And yet, none of that stops the xkcd juggernaut. The comic gathers readers like it’s going out of fashion.
But first, let’s get into the legend behind xkcd. Randall Munroe, the creator, has a degree in physics from the Christopher Newport University. He worked as a programmer at NASA in the the Langley Research Center before his contract lapsed and he decided to take up doing webcomics full time. I have, by the way, a high degree of respect for people who abandon high-respected fields in science to follow dreams that most people would ridicule. (Other heroes: Peter Adkinson, a former Boeing engineer who founded Wizards of the Coast and David Morgan-Mar, a Ph.D. graduate who also creates webcomics — which I reviewed here and here — and writes RPG manuals.)
xkcd, according to its subtitle, is “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” And what do the letters stand for? Is it some sort of obscure axis system only known to people with advanced physics degrees? It is a name of one of the less heralded sub-atomic particles? Or is the word some sort of Linux command that inspires peals of laughter in programmers? Again, Wikipedia, aggregator for the wisdom of the masses, has the answers: “He had originally used xkcd as an instant messaging screenname because he wanted a name without a meaning so he wouldn’t eventually grow tired of it.”
That’s fairly clever, actually. I’m pretty much doomed doing a Mexican luchador gimmick for all eternity. Oh, if I’d only picked out a more nonsense moniker… like “Lady Gaga”, for example. Surely I would’ve conquered the internet singlehandedly by naptime.
So here’s how the typical xkcd joke: setup, obscure nerd reference, and punchline. It’s telling jokes to a subset of people that don’t usually hear humor targeted at them … in much the same way gaming comics found popularity in the early days of webcomics. I mean, before Penny Arcade, was anyone really making jokes about, say, Team Fortress? In the same way, xkcd is telling jokes to a subset of geekdom that’s even nerdier than gamers: programmers, physicists, and engineers. The only reason that imitators haven’t really followed in xkcd’s wake — and I mean in the sense of content rather than aesthetics, since the webcomic world is not exactly lacking in lazy stick-figure webcomics these days — is that the barrier to entry is high: there are few are as comfortably conversant and keenly humorous about physics and computers as Randall Munroe.
I don’t think Munroe has ever claimed that his comic was only going to be about physics, math, and programming. Here’s how he describes xkcd in an interview with the New Yorker: “a webcomic about stick figures who do math, play with staple guns, mess around on the Internet, and have lots of sex. It’s about three-fourths autobiographical.” Assuming that “have lots of sex” was the one-fourth non-autobiographical, that still leaves two-thirds of the comic about being a giddy manchild. It doens’t matter, though: xkcd is basically saddled with the reputation that it’s the smart webcomic with obscure physics stuff.
I did a random sample of 20 comics, though, by clicking the site’s random button. (Disclaimer: I didn’t read the entire comic before writing this review. However, I must’ve read 50% of it and frankly a lot of it is the same.) Only 2 could really qualify as obscure physics-based jokes. There were 7 jokes based on obscure computer commands, so I guess that can count as smart, but those are typically divided between “the punchline is Linux” jokes and “look at me I am applying video game logic to everyday life” jokes.
So, how about those 11 other comics? The “romance” ones don’t get much play. They only appear 2 times, and they’re clearly the weakest of the bunch. More on that later. The rest are split out among nerdy pop culture references, nerd fantasies acted out, and things that look like they were written by, er, a “creepy sperging manchild”.
In fact, once you expand the sample size, you get a fairly clear understanding what xkcd really is. It’s not a webcomic about math and physics. For the most part, it’s a nerd’s whiny journal comic. Like when Munroe goes on about how much he hates DRM protection. Or when he rants about the Federal bailout and talks about a strawman issue that no one in the world was even angry about. (Long story short: he thinks people were mad at “billions” as opposed to “millions.” This puts severe doubts about Munroe’s status as an egghead.) Or one of the many times he epically rails against society by publishing a furious and ill thought out essay:
The infinite possibilities each day holds should stagger the mind. The sheer number of experiences I could have is uncountable, breathtaking, and I’m sitting here refreshing my inbox. We live trapped in loops, reliving a few days over and over, and we envision only a handful of paths laid out before us. We see the same things every day, we respond the same way, we think the same thoughts, each day a slight variation on the last, every moment smoothly following the gentle curves of societal norms. We act like if we just get through today, tomorrow our dreams will come back to us. And no, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how to jolt myself into seeing what each moment could become. But I do know one thing: the solution doesn’t involve watering down my every little idea and creative impulse for the sake of some day easing my fit into a mold. It doesn’t involve tempering my life to better fit someone’s expectations. It doesn’t involve constantly holding back for fear of shaking things up. This is very important, so I want to say it as clearly as I can: FUCK. THAT. SHIT.
You know, Randall Munroe might not know it, but he’s inadvertently provided pretty solid evidence that us nerds deserves to be shoved into lockers. And given wedgies every day. If our extremely knowledge-based culture was responsible for bringing about a rant that sounds like it came straight out of the mouth of “a creepy sperging manchild,” then we deserve that punishment as atonement for our sins and much much more.
Worse is pretty much any strip that dwells on the “romance” part of equation. I think I speak for many readers when I say that xkcd would be much, much more tolerable if he’d left “romance” out completely. One of the most famous xkcd strips is “Angular Momentum,” a strip that’s hyperlinked straight from he main page and which gave the world: “Spinning counterclockwise / Each turn robs the planet of angular momentum / Slowing its spin by the tiniest bit / Lengthening the night, pushing back the dawn / Giving me a little more time here / With you.” No doubt many of you readers find this particular sentiment to be sweet. I, however, am firmly in the camp of the opposition, who finds its very nausea-inducing. My BS-meter only goes so high, you see.
There’s also Munroe’s incessant white knighting. Does he white knight Twilight fans? Oh yes he can! You can count on Randall Munroe to clumsily protect the maiden honor of girl geeks everywhere from weird and creepy nerds like … well, you know. (Noted xkcd critic Kris Straub addressed this issue far more succinctly.) Overall, romantic xkcds are either pathetic and kinda creepy or unfunny and kinda embarrassing.
Despite all that, I don’t think xkcd is a bad webcomic.
When Munroe does have a hit, he smashes it out of the ballpark with a force unmatched by other webcomics. There’s a reason why many would rank xkcd as the best webcomic of all time. One of my personal favorites included an Ender’s Game vignette and the likely result that the Locke-Demothenes would have on today’s world. This is the inside baseball stuff that I alluded to earlier, catering to nerds because, hey, look at me, I get the reference! But you know what? I laughed. The comic showed keen insight into Ender’s Game beyond the superficial. At that moment, I understood why Firefly fans might love the Firefly strips so much.
I liked his recent tribute to Geocities, where Munroe converted the site into a confusing morass of tables, animated gifs, as ugly wallpapers. I thought hismap of online communities was fun, especially trying to mentally catalog all the sites I was familiar with. A similar strip mapping space from a logarithmic scale was, despite all the cutesy nerd references sprinkled throughout, was pretty damn fantastic at illustrating the magnitude of the universe. And he gets the romance thing right once in a while.
As for the art… yes, nothing to write home about. It’s guilty of convincing thousands of webcomic creators out there that they don’t actually need any modicum of artistic talent to do a webcomic. When you think about it, though, could xkcd have been done any other way? I tried imagining what xkcd would look like with slightly stronger art — say, clip art — and it just wouldn’t work. If xkcd incorporated anything aesthetic, it would be simply distracting.
With stick figures and minimal art, the writing becomes the focal point for the reader. Most stick figure comics are total failures because the writing isn’t great either. With xkcd, though, the writing will at least provide something interesting, whether it’s a humorous twist on a textbook equation or whether it’s Munroe being a “creepy sperging manchild” again.
In the end, though, this review is probably the most superfluous that I’ve ever written. Anyone who has ever read webcomics knows about xkcd, and they know whether they love it with the passion of a thousand suns or hate it with the fury of a thousand storms. I’d actually like to hear from you.