Monday, January 5, 2009

An xkcd Critique

The nice thing about famous comics is you can critique them without much fear that you are squelching someone's fragile dream.

Here is a recent episode of xkcd. I'd like to share what I see when I read it, to see how eccentric I am, or you are.

Read it twice, if you would. I decided to select the latest comic for this analysis without rifling the archive, so we'll work with what we have.

The goal is to constructively criticize, not worrying about the episode's merits, of which the improbably redemption of Rick Astley is one.

The problem for me is this is a gimmick comic. It's built around some internet pop culture, and presents itself as a humorous comic strip.

It's not unfunny, but when you care about comics deeply you tend to linger over them and see what makes them work, and this comic lacks substance for that.

  • There is no explanation for the motives of the prankster. Maybe that's the sarcasm promised in the masthead, but then, I haven't seen much "advanced mathematics" either. (Perhaps the sarcasm comes during the jibe at liberal arts majors, but ironically, what this comic needs is an immersion in liberal arts)
  • The prankster disappears from the story immediately
  • In the central frame, the girl appears twice, but is not so well rendered that we all recognize her instantly
  • The limits of stick figures are especially apparent in the second figure of her, in which she lacks the arm length for a proper freak out pose. They also appear in the final frames, where close-ups lack faces. The face is the most concentrated pallet. When it is featureless, depth is sacrificed.
  • The dramatic sequence is wrong in the last three. No one dons shades to speak to someone. The proper cartoon universe unfolding (again, limited in stick work) is Rick Astley arrives in sunglasses, and his eyes peer out over the frames in the last panel.

These execution defects, while distracting, are not fatal. What leaves me queasy after too many cartoons like this, is that it's soulless and ephemeral. It's laughing gas, without the comic equivalent of literary merit.
I tend to think that comics like this are widely read because comics are not widely respected in English-speaking countries. For the same reason that Maus got a "special" Pulitzer, comics are regarded as a demeaned medium associated with young, dumb people. Frivolous. Throwaway. Unable to withstand deeper analysis. I would enjoy a chance to compare xkcd's circulation with thoughtful, popular comics in countries where comics are accorded more respect. It would be interesting to see if there was a difference, wouldn't it?
Titles that serve as the Lite Beer of comics bug me a little, though it's tempered by the enjoyment I know they produce for people who seek a laugh without commitment. It's like gaming: people stop video games when they are able to occupy their minds more enjoyably than the distraction they get from games. In pop culture, it's called getting a life.
I looked at this comic again. I can feel it: somewhere, the author scours the internet for a gimmick to work into a cartoon. I find this depressing, because it's much less pleasant than thinking up the ideas yourself.

Got an alternate take? Comment away. And may I remind readers that the previous post about Kidjutsu features an invitation to demo a new tool without leaving or spending much time. The creator of the tool is greatly interested in feedback, and shares my observation that people visiting this site tend to be thoughtful and sharp. Thanks for taking a couple of minutes to share your opinion.

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