[17 December 2009]
Although it may indeed come across as a platitude, the internet and technology have changed everything. The way humans communicate, buy things, and share information have all been radically re-configured by internet technology, and it is perhaps then no surprise that the way we create and consume art is no different. It is only fitting then that comics, already in some ways considered a hybrid or non-traditional medium, have, too, used the internet in interesting new ways, both in terms of how they are distributed, as well as created. In many ways, web comics now constitute a genre in and of themselves, easily demonstrated by the fact that the Ignatz awards even have a ‘Best Online Comic’ category now. While it would seem that web comics would only make what is increasingly a niche market even more fragmented, Randall Munroe’s web-comic xkcd does a surprisingly good job of being equally hilarious and accessible, both despite its form and content, as his first print collection demonstrates.
First things first, xkcd: volume 0, as far as the art goes, is generally nothing spectacular. The strip, both online and in this collection, is largely rendered either in stick figures or as graphs and equations. But rather than being a detriment to the work, the simplistic art of xkcd gives it more of a do-it-yourself aesthetic that fits its content. It comes across as the comic equivalent of punk rock, in that, ‘yeah, you could probably play those same power chords yourself, but that’s the fun of it’. In fact, many of the strips in xkcd:volume 0 demonstrate the very way in which the internet and technology could or do encourage a more democratic means of participation in the larger cultural sphere, so perhaps it is only fitting that the form of the comic mimics this.
Along with the art, the humor that xkcd employs is likewise surprisingly unpretentious. While science, physics, and math in-jokes abound they rarely come off as snootily esoteric. Instead, most of them are gently self-deprecating. A particularly good example of this is a strip that features numerous math equations with a heart symbol as the variable to plug into the problem (cosign of heart, square root of heart, etc.) that ends with the assertion that “my normal approach is useless here.” Rather than lapse into the cryptic for the mathematically uninitiated, the strip gently pokes fun at the pretension and silliness of those who insist on rendering everything in mathematical terms, while similarly illustrating the numerical world’s limits in a subtle yet earnest way.
In fact, what makes xkcd seem like such a breath of fresh air is how much more it resembles the Sunday funnies rather than the indie comic/graphic novel world that is indeed increasingly written for a niche market, replete with overly specific references. Instead, xkcd comes off as a PG-13 Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts through its sincerity and earnestness while still being incredibly incisive and smart about how it appropriates larger cultural themes. One particularly apt strip depicts a hacker writing a virus that “when someone tries to post a YouTube comment, it first reads it aloud back to them.” The strip commences with a YouTube user being subjected to the said virus. He or she then sits back stunned noting “….I’m a moron,” only to then walk outside and lay his or her head in spindly arms (hey, they’re stick figures, gender is difficult to suss out), and lament “I….I didn’t know.” In this way, xkcd does a great job in bringing both the mathematical and technological back into the realm of the human, rather than making it seem as radically outside or divorced from humanity as it is usually portrayed. The unpretentiousness and accessibility of xkcd: volume 0 alone makes it worth seeking out, but it doesn’t hurt that it’s also incredibly funny.