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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Now for a strip so bland I can't even think of a title for this post.

(From xkcd. Click for full-sized reassurance.)

I think I'm regretting choosing this strip for this week's webcomic post.

xkcd is damn near impossible to encapsulate in a single sentence. That's because, much like Irregular Webcomic, it often feels like several webcomics rolled into one. It bills itself as "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language", and that can often seem to be the best way to put it. Some strips are almost like visual love letters, majestic tributes to passion and love. Some strips expose just how little Randall Munroe has grown up and how much he still wants to hang on to his childhood. Some strips are (or at least used to be) ridiculously obscure math jokes. Some strips seem like political cartoons applied to Internet culture. Some strips are almost visual Twitters or blog posts. And then, of course, some strips are meme factories. Oh, are they meme factories.

The whole thing can feel like a bunch of disconnected randomness, which is in keeping with its origin as a place for Randall Munroe to post his sketchbook drawings on the Web. Not only is there no continuity (except for a few occasional arcs and themes), there are no real characters at all; there are a few distinct personas that can be identified, such as the "Black Hat Guy", but every strip (or arc) exists on its own, isolated from everything else. xkcd can perhaps best be compared to a "thought of the day"; every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, there's something new to make you think.

So it's harmless enough, and it's thought-provoking and occasionally even funny. The problem is... well... I'm not sure what to make of it.

It gets a bad rap for making obscure math jokes (which hasn't really been a problem for a while, I find, which probably says more about me than it does about xkcd), but it's still very much targeted to a specific well-educated nerd demographic. In fact, this probably accounts for much of its broader popularity; it makes a number of strips tightly wound in with programming, and the people in those sorts of jobs are probably the largest group with the deepest immersion in the Internet. I mean, they're in all the various sites that could conceivably be used for networking.

The problem is, Munroe has subsequently broadened his webcomic's appeal in response to this broader audience, but he hasn't completely forgotten his roots - and the result isn't entirely successful. I originally wrote this post with a note saying that from now on I needed a two-week buffer to decide on a webcomic to post on, and I'm still going to take a look at another webcomic blog next week, and may spend the following three weeks on strips I'm already familiar with. Then today's strip came out, and I realized the reason I didn't have much to say on xkcd wasn't because I hadn't gone through the experience of opening up the day's strip, it was because... I didn't have much to say on xkcd.

Like I said, xkcd is a perfectly servicable little webcomic, but there's nothing in it that makes me feel anything in particular whatsoever. That it doesn't compel me to read it every time it updates the way Order of the Stick does may be damning in and of itself, or it may betray a personal bias towards story-based comics. (Or, depending on your point of view, it may expose my lack of qualifications for reviewing webcomics. After all, I like Ctrl+Alt+Del. What do I know?) But it's not impossible for a gag strip to pull me in simply because it's knock-your-socks-off funny every time it updates. Eric Burns has identified that being funny may be a more important prerequisite to getting a webcomic off the ground than having a compelling story, because on some level, everyone identifies with humor, but not everyone wants continuity in their Internet entertainment.

Well, xkcd isn't consistently funny. There, I said it. Oh, it has flashes of brilliance, but... even they aren't as funny as even Ctrl+Alt+Del can be at its funniest. It's almost more Funny Peculiar than Funny Ha-Ha. The recent "MacGyver Gets Lazy" strip is about as funny as xkcd tends to get these days. xkcd used to be funny, back when most of its humor was only comprehensible to math majors, but it's clear that Munroe is out of his element trying to speak to non-nerds.

Humor and story are the two biggest tools a webcomiceer could have for bringing in readers. Munroe used to have humor but no story; now he has neither. He brings the Saccharine, and the Romance, but he doesn't bring the Funny, in Burns' vernacular. The result is that xkcd tends to be very sentimental when it's not steamy, but it's rarely funny (so says the Department of Redundancy Department), so it tends to play to its existing audience, occasionally propping up its flagging popularity by churning out another meme for the Internet to go ga-ga over, such as its recent "xkcd loves the Discovery Channel" strip.

I don't hate xkcd. And I'd be an idiot to slam it for its art style, not only considering that I "draw" a minimalist webcomic myself, but that I exonerated Ctrl+Alt+Del for its artistic failings last week, claiming among other things that "art doesn't matter". I'm of the opinion that you should actually be suspicious of a webcomic with good art, because if it's trying to be nice to look at it may be trying to distract you from its lack of substance (see: Dresden Codak). But it feels kind of bland to me, a vanilla webcomic, for lack of a better term. The featureless stick-figure art isn't so much a problem in itself as it is emblematic of a general ethos, one where a bunch of little things happen and add up to nothing in particular.

xkcd isn't a bad webcomic. It can be great at times. But it doesn't give me any reason to commit to it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It's almost the very definition of mediocrity.

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