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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

YWIB Part II: Wherein I nearly have a nervous breakdown.

Note to self: In the future, if I'm going to start a post that may become a two-parter, start working a week in advance. Not only has this post and its predecessor eaten up my time for the past week (and I have one more post coming tomorrow to make up for two weeks ago), I lost it at least twice, and the first time was the reason for writing Sunday's Blogger feature request. Even though this post only really took me Saturday to write, if it weren't for the fact that the crash occured in the act of copying this post out of Part I and into a separate post, I might not have posted either part. This is more of a supplement to Part I than an actual follow-up, so I recommend you read Part I first.

So how "objective" is John Solomon? Are his criticisms valid? After all, many of those problems could be water under the bridge if he wasn't bringing too many of his own biases into the picture. If he was attacking comics for egregious enough errors, for errors that only a complete moron would think didn't exist, I might be willing to forgive his errors in strategy and style. As such, let's look at his review of a comic you probably never heard of, Cartridge Comics, because if I'm right a comic that committed such egregious errors should never become popular. (Although it does see PW ad rates of 50-60 cents, although that's in part because it only allows bidding in 10-cent increments.) Before we enter, keep in mind that the strip has subsequently undergone a complete reboot as Cartridge, so some of this might not be completely extant anymore.

First complaint: it splits the work between a writer and an artist. The main complaint, aside from being a "gamer comic" but I have some of the same issues with that that I do with this, is that this is a problem because everyone else does it and it's a hallmark of crap. When Solomon goes after "gamer comics" there is sometimes the implication that gaming comics are inherently bad, but here he only says that a lot of people split the work because Penny Arcade does, and Gabe and Tycho are (in his mind) competent at what they do while imitators aren't. So far, (almost) so good, and I've spent one paragraph on it instead of four and a half.

Next complaint: "Even my rather meagre drawing talent is sufficient to replicate this kind of shit. Or this kind of shit." Well, mine isn't. Okay, so the drawing of Batman's costume in the second one (what is it with some of these webcomics and superheroes, especially Batman?) is a bit oversimplified, but like Ctrl+Alt+Del, it's passable. Once again, in webcomics, art is overrated. It's possible to create complete chicken scratch that's even recognizable that still turns off readers, but the bar is far lower than some critics claim. Solomon chronicles some examples here. Have a look at the first two examples. Cartridge Comics isn't anywhere near as bad as that crap (computer-generated stick figures might actually be preferable).

Okay, so this one actually falls below CAD level, suggesting those two were bad examples (and at least one of them is linked to with the wrong date, and linked to again later, twice, with two more wrong dates and a bad description, suggesting some strips have been censored from the archive even more completely than with Dresden Codak, the result of the aforementioned reboot and ongoing shafting of self-admitted "quite shitty" comics into a side archive that itself eventually got deleted), and in fact it's bad enough that it does raise the bar a little for the writing for me to appreciate it, but "muppets"? So the art could definitely use improvement, more than CAD ever could, and the artist could stand to learn some perspective. And the body bends and stretches in really weird ways, and there don't seem to be any knees - but the art had developed enough by that 2007 strip that it doesn't raise the bar for the writing anymore. The wonkiness doesn't get in the way of my enjoyment of the strip. It's a minor point. (And maybe the weird bending and stretching is intentional, which would probably get boiled down by the creators as "it's a STYLE" which would just get mocked to oblivion by Solomon.)

On to Solomon's criticism of the writing, and this section sees quite a few links to strips censored, and it's more important I see the actual strip being referred to, not just any old random strip. I'll only make mention of those strips I can see. Is the girl in this strip a "walking cliche"? It's more than a little unfair to judge someone's character off of one strip when it's implied that character has made appearances in the past, but it appears she's being portrayed as a little more than Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's stereotypical webcomic idea of "The Girl", supposedly based off the webcomicker's mom and slightly disdainful of, but willing to put up with, the wacky antics of the male characters. She also appears to be obsessed with cleanliness. So she's a walking pair of cliches. (Not that kind of pair, you perv.) Maybe Solomon sees that as only "half a fucking micron," I don't know and I don't know if I would even be able to look at her prior appearances.

As for this strip, the basic setup should be clear, if a bit cliche: someone sends his roommate to turn down the neighbor's noise, and said roommate is completely distracted by what said neighbor is doing. The punchline is a bit mystifying - "adding a topping to your pizza" doesn't sound threatening - I'm guessing what got added was something bad, but it is a little hard to tell. But just because it makes no sense doesn't mean it's not a joke at all. And I don't have any reaction to using Google image art as posters, as Solomon accuses the strip of doing. It looks a little odd if you look closely, but it's not jarring.

Moving on... Misplaced breasts? Again, passable enough not to pull me out of it, and the first example doesn't even seem to be a problem for me at all, though like Solomon accuses of the artist, I've never seen porn in my life and I hope I never will. But you shouldn't need to have seen porn to figure out where to put breasts unless you're talking specifically about the nipples. Just look at a picture of a woman, or something. (At this point, the artist could even look at the ridiculously-endowed webcomic-reviewer-avatar that sometimes appears in the PW ads.) But again, I probably wouldn't have even noticed if Solomon hadn't pointed it out. The alleged sprites are both out of the archive, and while the appearances by TV characters are all still in, I don't have a problem with them either. Sometimes they're part of the joke. I wouldn't put it past Penny Arcade or Ctrl+Alt+Del to do that sort of joke. Okay yes, actually lifting the characters whole-cloth from their surroundings instead of drawing them yourselves and fitting them into your art style is jarring and just doesn't reflect well on you, but I could probably run with it.

So maybe Cartridge Comics wasn't a good example, because it's probably improved since the reboot and it probably still isn't that good. But I do know I like Bob and George. And by "like", I mean "once I get much further than where the current annotations are I find it hard to stop". So I'm sure I'm going to be in a position to defend it.

Let's ignore that Solomon starts out claiming that "the only redeeming quality it possesses" is that it's over yet subsequently says the first game parody storyline "wasn't so bad", and praises it at least one other time later on. "Poor art": I'm not sure you can really call "poor art" on a sprite comic. You can't compare sprite comics to non-sprite comics without making a value judgment on sprite comics in general, and you can't generally compare sprite comics to other sprite comics without making a value judgment on the graphics quality of the games they come from, since they should all use the same sprites. Maybe you can say "good manipulation" or something of the sort, to get things you can't get in the original sprites. Or maybe it's staging or something. Anyway, in the strip in question, I'm guessing Solomon's referring to the use of a "big gray block" as a "fridge" instead of, you know, making it look something like a fridge. At least a narrow rectangle representing the door or something.

Unlike what seems like everyone in the universe, I don't have a problem with Comic Sans in webcomics, seeing as I use it myself. It's worth noting that in my case Comic Sans contributes to the overall simple, cartoony feel of Sandsday. So remember kids, if you're going to break the rules, make absolutely sure you know why you're breaking them. But although I rejected the Comic Sans early Bob and George uses for Sandsday, after using it for maybe a week, I don't have a problem with it here, in part because the color and the use of an actual box prevent it from really getting in the way. What I have an issue with is the small-size, tightly-spaced, all-caps, wall-of-text-inducing Comic Sans used by strips like Sluggy Freelance or General Protection Fault. And any strip that uses Arial or Times New Roman.

I can understand having a problem with a self-insertion character, and it's true that the Author's first appearance is basically a deus ex machina, but he's not a Mary Sue there to steal the show; he generally only appears when necessary. For that matter, the Author is far from perfect; he had a nervous breakdown once, threatening to shatter the strip itself to pieces, and often gets ridiculed by his own characters. The Author turns Bob and George, such as its plot is, into a meta-plot that folds in on itself, bringing forth a new outlook on the relationship between creator and created. It's not exactly 1/0, but it's not having a walking deus-ex-machina Mary Sue derailing the strip either.

Although judging from his problem with the Author, Solomon probably wouldn't like 1/0 either; he thinks it's "retarded" to equate the author of a story to a creator god. If you prefer, John, the Author isn't really a self-insertion, he's just the comic's local god. Or if that's not enough for you, you can read up on willing suspension of disbelief and the idea we're supposed to think a story depicts real events while we're reading it, even if we know, deep down, it isn't, and even if it contains flying saucers running around everywhere. Yeah, I know this kind of metahumor and knowing-you're-in-a-comic-strip is supposed to break willing suspension of disbelief, but it doesn't really seem to negatively affect Order of the Stick that much. David Morgan-Mar has even been known to insert his "me" character into Irregular Webcomic! plotlines as the ostensible "GM", and as just a cartoonist. It's a funny thing, the relationship between the reader and the comic. But it's far from "objective" to say it's "retarded" to equate the author of a story to a creator god. (And let me riff off the comments for a sec: What did Grant Morrison do right in Animal Man that Anez doesn't do with the Author? Or more to the point, that isn't done in 1/0?)

I'm going to ignore the hand-drawn comic because all parties agree it's bullshit in every way possible. Let's also ignore the suggestion that Anez just stick to parodying each Mega Man game in order and end the comic with the last game, and the idea that he screwed up that plan by bringing the Author back as Dr. Wily's McGuffin. I won't defend Anez sticking with his hand-drawn comic after the first attempt at it should have told him it wouldn't work. But I will say I can't defend Bob and George at the transplant of the title characters into the Megaman plotline, or the supposedly "shitty original character" of Mynd, if I don't know why Solomon thinks Anez shouldn't have imported Bob, George, or Mynd. In my view, he did a pretty good job of integrating Bob and George into the Megaman madness.

As for the crossover storyline, so far as I can tell there are no references to any fan comics there, since it's not a crossover with a webcomic, and it's mostly there so that Anez could claim to have had a crossover (coming at a time when it seemed crossovers were all the rage in webcomics). And by this point Bob and George is really a comic with Megaman characters in it, not a comic about Megaman, and game parodies were basically rare treats, so a bit of Cerebus Syndrome could probably be excused as long as it's well executed, and by that point we felt for the characters enough to want to see them kick Mynd's ass or at least stop him from destroying the universe. Maybe it crossed the line into First and Ten, and certainly there aren't really punchlines bringing the Funny, but only people who really don't like to see comics devolve into suckfests wouldn't at least want to stick around to see how it plays out. It's not like negating basically an entire running plotline and engaging such a sudden shift from funny to super-serious and vice-versa it almost makes the serious stuff seem funny, in a bad way, like some webcomics I know.

I can't share your opinion on the chick saying "nyu" because I haven't had your bad experiences with that word, or non-word, across the Internet. Perhaps because I stay as far away from 4chan as possible and don't let it, or its bretheren, rot my brain. As for completely remaking the plot of Megaman 4 around Ran, that just creates more excitement in wanting to find out what the new plot is. And I haven't gotten far enough ahead in my reading to see if the descent into mounds of exposition is as present as it seems in this strip, but all I can say is that I was okay with the ending, dating all the way back to "The Seventh Party". And before you deride it as "Dragonball Z with (somehow) even more exposition", keep in mind that DBZ was enormously popular.

Probably none of these comics are perfect. Probably quite a few of the criticisms Solomon lays into them for are valid criticisms. But there are quite a few that belie Solomon's claims to "objectivity", if only because they're nowhere near deal-breakers. Solomon tears into quite a few comics that he sees as, not just mediocre or even bad, but BLARGH THE WORST WEBCOMICS EVER and they just aren't, because if they were he wouldn't need to ask why they were popular. Art is overrated, and Solomon even seems to recognize this, because at one point he claims that "while good writing can save bad art, good art can do nothing to salvage terrible writing," yet he still bashes comics for having terrible art when, at the very least, they're no worse than Cartridge Comics. As for plot, the issue Solomon has with the plot of Bob and George isn't so much that it's badly structured, so much as its source material (the happy-go-lucky Megaman games) and its level of exposition. Mounds of exposition is a point against a plot, but it's hardly enough to say "this plot COMPLETELY sucks and I'm going to compare it to DBZ". I didn't even encounter a claim of bad dialogue I could assess properly; the closest I came to one ("nyu") seemed to come down to personal annoyance, hardly "objective".

It's a bit of a shame that the people flooding YWIB to defend the strips Solomon attacks so often have tended to say little more than "u sux lol" because it's tended to reinforce Solomon's popularity when he can use his critics as a source of humor, distracting from the fact that he's not only subjective, but arrogant. I said in Part I that it wouldn't matter so much that Solomon's reviews took the form of profanity-laden tirades if there was some meat on those bones, and the fact is there is, but it's diluted by irrelevant points and personal opinions disguised as fact. Perhaps it's prose writing, in the form of blog posts, that really needs the right combination of style (art) and substance (writing), and the fact is Solomon's reviews just don't have enough of the latter to make up for the off-putting style.

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