Recently in 2008 State of the Web(Cartoonist) Category

Dinosaur Comics!
The Webcartoonist: Ryan North

Current Webcomics: Dinosaur Comics, Whispered Apologies

You May Remember Him From Such Webcomics Related Technologies As: Project Wonderful, Oh No Robot, RSSpect, God knows what else....

Enthusiasm: Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again

How Frequently Read: Regularly Checked

Some of these are a little weird to write. For example, this one.

Ryan North is brilliant. He really is. I've read at least one of his theses and it was amazing. He is probably one of the top two best friends Webcomics have ever had -- certainly, he has done as much or more to value add to other peoples' webcomics as anyone I can think of. He's been the major force (though not the solo force, always) behind two innovations that quite honestly make webcomics in general better: Ohnorobot.com, which is an embeddable search engine for webcomics which creators can either use themselves to make dialogue searchable, or something they can let their fanbase take point on in getting dialogue in place; and Project Wonderful, which absolutely takes website advertising and makes it simple for both webmasters and advertisers. You'll notice I use Project Wonderful myself -- it has garnered me significantly more coin than Google ads ever did (by a significant factor), and while my ad rates aren't anywhere near the top tier, Project Wonderful is way better than being slapped in the face by fish. Right up until gasoline prices went pear-shaped, Project Wonderful could generally fund of the full tanks of gas I needed to get to Ottawa to see the woman I'm going to marry in a couple of weeks.

Okay, that's fun to type, even if it has nothing to do with Ryan North.

North's brilliance was further brought forth -- and initially spread among our community -- through the award winning Dinosaur Comics, once called Daily Dinosaur Comics. For those who aren't familiar, Dinosaur Comics has taken a moderately simple and rough looking clip art comic strip featuring a few dinosaurs, one of whom stomps on buildings and people, and made it downright sublime through static art comics. A static art comic, as the name implies, is a comic strip where the art doesn't ever change. It's the same clip art every day, and only the words change. This was done a few times before North -- most (in)famously by director David Lynch in his comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World, which ran in various newspapers from 1983 to 1992. (North tipped his pen to Lynch in a strip that encapsulated the entire run of The Angriest Dog in the World into Dinosaur Comics). And Dinosaur Comics, through its fresh, inventive (and most of all funny) writing burned through our consciousness like a wildfire, devastating the infrastructure and calling out the National Guard. FOR FUN!

It's also worth noting that North didn't just embrace static art comics -- he also raised the bar on them. Lynch did nine years of static art strips, but he didn't dive into multiple characters, continuity, or for the most part even relevance. Most of the off-panel comments were near non-sequitors. Very few if any had anything to do with the dog in question. Folks who've jumped into static art since then have either varied what static panel they use from day to day (more properly making them the broader realm of constrained comics), or don't have multiple characters -- aping Lynch more than North. I know from what I speak -- for a while I did my own static art strip in conscious emulation of North. It was the Adventures of Brigadier General John Stark, and it was about a possessed statue who bitched about Ethan Allen and his wife, made breast jokes about Peggy Shippen, had adroit commentary on the politics of his time and ours, and had a total man-crush on Ice Cube. But as my strip was, by definition, a monologue, I was free to expound however I wished. (And it's worth noting, said strip didn't last nearly as long).

But Ryan North has multiple characters. He has interaction, and a supporting cast, and he has continuity from one strip to the next. North isn't just doing a static art comic strip -- he's doing a static art comic strip, with an expanding (and increasingly off-panel) cast of divinities and disturbing mammals. He has T-Rex, Utahraptor, and all the rest interacting and expounding, trying to mostly match the recurrent art. And he's done vastly better with it than anyone could have expected. It's got a strong readership of devoted fans. It gets referenced. (For a couple of years, David Willis referenced it in the Shortpacked April Fools Day strips, which I can't link to because of catastrophic failures of their electrical infrastructure. Man, they're not having a good weekend.) North's significance and influence is clear and broad.

And, if you look at the last few Daily Dinosaur comics, they continue to be wacky fun. T-Rex continues to be somewhat innocent with the selfishness of innocence. Utahraptor is a good friend though sometimes he has to be the wiser counsel. Dromiceiomius is still... um... occasionally speaking in the third panel. God talks every so often. It's fun!

Fun!

Fun.

Yeah.

Okay, here's the dirty truth. The big problem with static comics? Are they're static. And Ryan North has pushed his comic in incredible directions given that. But... North has written 1,234 (hey! 1-2-3-4!) comics as of this writing. Honestly, they're not blowing my mind any more. They seem... really... the same. Day in, and day out. It's not that there hasn't been evolution -- there has. But there's just so far that North can go in any direction, because tomorrow Utahraptor and Dromiceiomius are still showing up in a few panels and T-Rex is still stomping on that building, and there's no way to focus on another character for a while. It's got to be T-Rex. He's in all the panels!

Look, I like Dinosaur Comics. I really do. Heck, I did a Reader Art strip for it once. North is funny and smart, and may be conquering North America. Heck, he already got it named after him -- like in a merger! But... it's....

I've seen it. Not just the art, but the strip. The patter. The rhythm. All too often the joke.

It's... well, getting kinda dull.

This reminds me a little bit of my comments on Perry Bible Fellowship -- it's much the same reaction, really. It's not that North has lost some of his skills. It's that we've done this often enough that the impact has become dilute.

I have this on "Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again" not because I dislike it, mind. I do like it. It's just... when I ask myself that question, I don't really have an answer. Why do I read Dinosaur Comics? If I end up having to ponder it and not really coming up with an answer, it's pretty much got to go in this category.

At the same time, I don't really plan on stopping reading it, so it might better belong in the Hoi Polloi instead. I dunno.

Right. Let's do the metrics before I become a mass of wish crossed to wash.

Strengths

North is consistent. The writing tends to be solid, the characters are well defined and well distinguished, the updates happen with the regularity one would hope they do, and the layout of the web page is clear.

I mentioned how far North has pushed the boundaries of Static Art. That's not nothing, to use a Sorkinesque construction. He really has done amazing things with the static art form. He tries his best to change up the formula and disrupt our expectations. The fact that he's gone so far with the number of posted strips is a testament to that.

The breadth of topic that the strip addresses and expounds upon are amazing, as are his carefully considered positions.

In other words, North is, in fact, a good writer.

Weaknesses

As said before, we're pushing 1,300 strips and he's running out of wiggle room. All too often, we can often predict where things are going to go. With no real room to move other cast members forward, there's no way to give T-Rex a rest for a while without compromising the basic device being used. I mean, even Hagar the Horrible doesn't have Hagar in every strip doing most of the talking. That's not an enviable position for anyone.

On the Whole

Ryan North is a mad scientist who has mostly used his powers for good. He is clever and wise and very creative, and I like his comic strip very much. But... it may be time to consider something radical... like a new page of clip art -- maybe something that can be alternated or switched between. Otherwise, fatigue is going to slowly weed out readers.

Of course, by then he'll have built a new content distribution system, found a way to project force beams from CRTs, compiled a natural language parser for search engines that doesn't suck and found a way to make hydrogen cell cars affordable. He's like that.

Sorry this took a bit, I got sidetracked with about half a rememberance which then had stuff I need to look out. Also work and eBay auctions, which are going great. More stuff up soon, for people who want to buy! With luck, the next one of these tomorrow... which might be an interesting one to do.

User Friendly

The Webcartoonist: J.D. "Illiad" Frazer

Current Webcomics: User Friendly

Enthusiasm: Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again?

How Frequently Read: When I Remember To Check

This is not the essay I expected or intended to write when I first worked out that J.D. Frazer was next on the list.

You know how it goes. You have an opinion form over the course of a decade or more. It grows firm, and then crystalizes, and then becomes barnacle-encrusted and rusted into place. You know what you know about a given subject, and when you have to sit down and actually codify that knowledge, it is the catalyst that finally forces the supersaturated solution into a crystalline mass that is the essay you have waited years to write.

And I was ready to write that essay. And that Essay was going to be my triumphant return to the old standby, "You had me and you lost me." I was ready to launch into all the points I've had simmering in the back of my head since the day I started this here blog, and finally say "look, I gave it every chance in the world to keep me, but..." and then write all the rest.

Those points, by the by, will be familiar to almost everyone -- not from me (or not just from me), but from lots of places on the web. User Friendly is tired. It has no character development. Absolutely nothing ever happens. The art hasn't evolved even the tiniest bit and was never great shakes to begin with. It's staid. It's got an agenda that it sacrifices humor to fuel. It's dull. It's boring. It has a 1997 view of a 2008 world. It has "nag" strips and....

You know. Blah blah blah.

And I sat down to write it, and I considered options for gathering supporting evidence. That's essay writing 101. (Which, technically, is "English Composition," but I digress.) You state your thesis, you support the thesis with evidence, you sum up, you wait for grading. (Or in blog terms, comments.) And when I did it, I realized I hadn't actually read User Friendly in well over a year.

Understand, it's still on my list. It's still in the Firefox Tabs. I visit the site every day, but my eyes had been sliding off the actual comic for so long I didn't remember any of the characters' names. Not even "Dust Puppy."

Now, it can be argued that this just reinforces the point. The drab sameness had soaked in so much that the strip itself became teflon. However, the abject lack of reader response, while evidence of a sort, does not itself constitute a response. In order to address the weaknesses of the strip -- especially if I was going to post an essay swearing off User Friendly and publicly announcing that it had "lost" me, I had to address what User Friendly was, right now. Not my parasite covered frozen in rust opinion of it based upon... well not reading it. In order to fairly discuss User Friendly, I first had to read User Friendly.

So. I decided that I was going to give it the best benefit of the doubt I could. I decided that I would actually start reading from the August 20, 2004 strip. For those playing along at home, August 20, 2004 is the day I started this here blog. Which means, first off, that we've been doing this for almost four years, which means we've gotten a good two years worth of posts done here. Yay us! But it also means that if I could just force myself to read through four solid years of archive, I would have every possible justification and bit of evidence I would need for my essay.

So I did. Over the course of the weekend, in and around things like Speed Racer (which I really, really loved, so there), going out with Wednesday, eating food, sleeping and the occasional watching of stuff on the television, I clicked on "Next Strip" after "Next Strip," slowly and inexorably, making my way through hundreds of strips.

And let's not kid ourselves. There were hundreds of strips. There's many things you can claim about User Friendly and J.D. Frazer, but sloth isn't one of them. As near as I can tell, he's never missed an update in almost 11 years of strips. Seven days a week. That's downright stunning.

By the end of it, I was fully soaked in User Friendly once more. My brain was releasing details and information from the seven years previous to my archive trawl as well -- I've been reading this strip since the days when there was less than one year of archives to go through. At the time, we called that the User Friendly Productivity Virus, reflecting the hours of the (work) day that were consumed by reading the archives. In those days, of course, there wasn't much on the web like User Friendly. It was, if anything, Dilbert done right, done pure, done I.T. joyous. Users were dumbasses who asked about cupholders that slid out of their computers, marketing executives were perverse and stupid and deserved humiliation, bosses were clueless and often naively cruel, and I.T. workers were somewhat shortsighted and misguided, but the last bastion of human reason. As a systems administrator/M.I.T. type in the late nineties, User Friendly was a panacea -- a comic strip (on the web of all places) that understood my life and lifestyle.

But that was then. Now, it's 2008, and I'd just read (or reread) nearly 4 years of strips. And now, now I was ready to write my essay about Frazer and User Friendly.

Here it is.

User Friendly is a damn good comic strip.

I know, it surprised me too.

Here's the thing. Most of those complaints, up above, have a certain validity to them. User Friendly hasn't actually evolved in the last several years. It's exactly the same strip, with the same characters, the same humor, the same punchlines, the same punching bags as before. In fact, this was reinforced to me by an accident. See, if you go to any given archive page, you'll see that the navigation bar (cleverly looking like a pencil) has all the usual elements. A Previous Cartoon button, a Search Button, a Next Button, an E-Mail this Cartoon button....

...and a Random Button. Right next to the Next Cartoon button. In fact, I selected my "any given archive page" link by hitting that random button.

When I was in the late 2005 strips, I accidentally clicked "Random" instead of "Next." The next cartoon I read, as a result, was from 2001. And it was about twenty strips later before I realized I'd actually gone backwards in the archive more than four years. Everything was so similar, with so little change in everything from art to character design to font choice and layout to actual humor that it was essentially seamless. If Frazer uses copy and paste to put his characters in, he's been using the same clip art for the entire 21st century. If you go back further, into the 20th, you can see some evidence that he redrew the core art at some point, used a different font -- stuff like that, but when he got settled down into his routine, he stayed there.

And yes, the characters don't evolve. Stef has never learned a lesson, even when he temporarily becomes a geek. The Smiling Man has no salient qualities other than his smiling and his evil (and almost never appears). Pearl has indiscriminate sex. Sid is an Old Geek from the Old Guard. (Something that, honestly, every other geek at Columbia Internet could claim, should someone current actually go to work there. They can all remember the days of Windows NT, Usenet predominance in the forum sphere, IRC and all the rest. MySpace and Facebook and YouTube and Livejournal and Flickr and Google all the rest of the tools of day to day internet life all essentially postdate when we picked up the lives of Our Heroes).

And yes, the strip is unremittingly pro-geek -- meaning old school Open Source/Unix Hacker/sysadmin/Tech Support/LED-flashing-light-attracted geek, rather than today's more general 'person who thinks he or she is a geek and identifies as such.' Every time we see Greg working, it's to deal with yet another annoying, self-important clueless user who hasn't gotten his brain around the digital world and doesn't know that the cupholder that comes out of his computer is actually a CD tray. (Honestly. We still get cupholder and any key humor in these strips, which implies that Columbia Internet's customers are mostly in the Northwest Territories or deeply rural Alberta or something, because the civilized parts of Canada (and no jokes, already) have had computers for decades now and no one's that mystified by them any more.

(I mean, for Christ's sake. My mom doesn't call me because she can't find the Any Key on her keyboard, she calls me because her POP3 settings have become corrupt and she's having some trouble getting the streaming video feed from the Met. And no, my Mom is not an atypically savvy computer user for her generation.)

I remember when I first got into Help Desk, one of the things I found so refreshing about it was its subversion of the basic User Friendly tropes. The lead character was tech support, just like User Friendly, only the users were the reasonable ones and the tech was the one spreading disinformation and pain, or just plain not knowing what to do next. And yes, Ubersoft was a Microsoft riff and of course Microsoft is and was the enemy in both strips, but there was still a real palate cleansing involved in the affair.

So yeah. The art never changes and was never that great to begin with. The characters never evolve -- even when things happen to them (like Miranda and A.J. finally... um... well, we know they kiss and they sort of make noises about buying presents for each other so I guess we'll call it a relationship) it doesn't really impact their basic characters. It's tech/geek centered humor where the users and the corporations are almost always wrong and the geeks are almost always right. All these things are true. All these complaints we've had have validity.

The question is... so what? The strip is funny.

You might not agree. You might read a hundred strips in a row (amateur) and not laugh at any of them. But if you don't, barring a lack of sense of humor or a full on dislike of four panel gag-a-day style comedy (in which case, quite honestly, it's unreasonable to expect User Friendly to entertain you), the chances are likely you've never worked I.T. And even if you've never worked I.T. and you have no more computer expertise than my aforementioned mother, chances are likely you found something in that hundred strips amusing. If you are in I.T., you probably found most of it funny -- even if you disagree with parts of it.

And that may well be where the core of the problem is. Due to the circumstances of User Friendly's birth, people have mistaken it for a general webcomic for years, when in fact it was and has always been a targeted audience webcomic.

A few moments definition is in order. Most webcomics have an audience they're targeting. That's the nature of the beast. A lot of those aim for very broad categories: "geek," "Internet Enthusiast," "Anime Fan," "Fan of Pornography," "Male," "Female," "Human" or the like. Others aim for very specific audiences: Penny Arcade aims at gamers. +EV aims at online poker players, Unshelved aims at Librarians, and so forth. There are ways that the strategy of defining an audience have been really effective and even innovative in reasonable years. +EV and Unshelved are both massively successful even though they have little to no penetration outside their niches -- a lot of their strips aren't universal, which makes it harder to secure a casual fanbase. Penny Arcade broadened their own scope some time ago to "general geek humor," along with lots of flights of fancy and weirdness along the way, but their core niche is one they continue to support and give love to -- the fact that there are millions of gamers just means they hit the niche jackpot, not that their niche isn't... you know, a niche. Shortpacked has a lot of David Willis fans following it, and a lot of 80's culture fans, and a lot of general goofy humor fans, but its core niche is toy enthusiasts and collectors, and he's good enough at it that he gets paid to do a version of the strip for a toy website. And so on and so forth.

In 1997, a disproportionate number of internet users -- especially those with the free time to waste hours of the day on the net, and the at the time still expensive at-home internet connections -- were in the I.T. Industry. When User Friendly began gathering momentum, there wasn't just little to nothing like it on the web -- it appealed and spoke to a much larger percentage of the internet reading audience than mainstream society would support outside of that filter. It wasn't as universally true as, say, in 1991 -- when if you were on the internet you were a college student, rich, using a college student's account or really good at tricking PSINet -- but it hadn't reached the point where most American teenagers spent a portion of their weeks online, much less the point where instant messaging and texting became a core component of life.

So, people recommended User Friendly to all their friends. And they linked to strips or reposted strips. They talked it up. They loved that damn strip. And in the waning years of the 20th Century, it was a safe bet that if someone had an internet connection in the first place, they'd find User Friendly funny.

But with each year came another wave of users. Younger and younger users. Users with less and less interest in the meat of the internet. Users who think 'perl' is a knitting term and emacs were that educational computer that Apple came out with how long ago? Or simply have no idea what you're talking about. And so the universality of User Friendly declined. Strips became less commonly linked -- especially when fewer of the people you sent the links to got the joke or found it particularly funny.

It is perhaps natural that long time fans would become upset at this -- they were used to User Friendly being a touchstone -- a common denominator. It bothered them that unlike, say, PvP or even Penny Arcade, User Friendly wasn't evolving. It wasn't trying to broaden its appeal, reach out to more people, throw in more general humor or create more engaging storylines. They started to describe it as being in a rut. In being just the same-old same-old.

The thing is? That's not Frazer's fault. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Frazer continuing to write and draw the same comic strip he started doing in 1997, targeting the same audience. Whether or not the wider Internet audience has ballooned, Frazer writes his comics aimed squarely at the Open Source/Unix/IT crowd. That has always been his intended audience, and he has clearly had no desire to change that. And there's no reason he should have to. We don't complain that the often brilliant Unshelved spends all that time focusing on -- and marketing to -- librarians. We expect that. It's a strip about a library.

Well, User Friendly is a strip about an Internet Service Provider. It targets Open Source advocates, I.T. workers, systems administrators, Unix Grognards, command line jockeys, people who remember (or still use) Usenet and Linus Torvalds. The geeks at Columbia Internet are, in fact, geeks, so they do touch on some stuff that more general geeks appreciate, but it's often just in passing. The Columbia gang aren't addicted to World of Warcraft, they still mostly play Quake or Counterstrike derivatives. The one designated hardcore gamer on staff might get thrilled or frustrated by the release of Doom III, but we're going to have a lot more jokes about Nethack or Civilization or even Zork. They don't explain grue jokes, either. They expect that if you're reading this strip, you already know about twisty passages that all look alike, the dangers of losing your brass lantern, and the dining habits of the darkness.

And if you don't? Hey, they're just as happy for you to find the strips funny. Frazer is a good writer, especially of humor. No one minds if you come along for the ride. But they're not going to change things to meet your needs. It's the Penny Arcade Defense all over again -- it's not for you.

As for the lack of evolution in either the characters or the art... well, that too is fine, if one remembers what it is Frazer is doing. He's doing a gag-a-day comic strip, and he's taking an open source/unix hacker approach to it. He has built his tools and his library, and that toolset and library produces the product he's shooting for. There is no good reason to upgrade them when they actually work, and right now Frazer can easily tell the jokes and create the strips he wants to. Changing for change's sake makes no more sense than upgrading your copy of Microsoft Office to the latest version because there's a notebook feature in it now. If what you want to do is write letters, you might as well stick to VI. Or emacs. Depending on the user.

And further, it's a scurrilous lie to say that the site hasn't evolved. The strip has stayed the same, but the bits around it change and push forward -- and reinforce once again the target that Frazer is aiming at. Userfriendly.org has developed as a website and as a business model as time as gone on. There are front page links of general interest, book reviews and the like -- culminating in the almost infamous Link of the Day (which at its height was as effective as killing sites as Slashdotting). There have been advertisement upgrades, and new services, and most of all community building. UFies are a discrete entity at this point with a site of their own. For quite some time, Iambe, the "Garden Variety Goddess," also contributed daily content for the fans to follow at her own page on the site. She also put together a Geek Dating Service. Frazer and his cohorts developed a strategic partnership with the Register 4 Less domain registrar service. They developed a Geek/IT Specific Job Search service. And, in the ultimate sign of community building (and community-buy-in), a key component of the business model are User Friendly sponsorships, letting readers support User Friendly and Frazer directly, and getting a few perks for their trouble. Heck, the somewhat infamous "nag strips" (animated gifs that are an advertisement for 30 seconds, then shift to the actual strip in question) generally either advertise Register 4 Less or the sponsorship level -- and come across like nothing less than the click through nag dialog boxes on shareware.

But the most prevalent and obvious example of community building can be found on every archive page (assuming you don't select "no comments"). Look at a strip, and below it you'll see user comments. Those comments aren't active discussions of the strip in question -- oh, there's usually an obligatory threat on the comic strip itself -- scroll down, it's generally buried quite a ways down. Most of the comments are on the news of the day, or geek topics, or whatever people feel like doing. They use the comments block as a forum, as a chatroom, as a place for any kind of geek debate they feel like. Each and every new strip becomes a meeting place -- rather than using the strip as water cooler conversation fodder, Frazer has managed to repurpose his comic strip into the damn water cooler itself. And a strong majority of the commenters have jobs in I.T. and disposable incomes to use on GeekStuff.

Now that's a business model.

So, you may have noticed way up above that despite a long litany of praise, I've got User Friendly listed as "why do I read this webcomic again." That's the thing -- I can recognize, having pushed myself into actually reading the strip for years' worth of archive, that this strip actually accomplishes what it's setting out to do, and more importantly is actually funny. That doesn't mean, despite my day job in I.T., that I'm in that aforementioned target audience. I'm a Mac user who mostly likes his computer to get out of his way, and I generally enjoy helping my users. Sure, I can feel kinship with Greg's frustration, but we're (mostly) past the any key issues where I work. (Okay, the time I went up and patiently explained to a Dean that no, the network wasn't down -- they just needed to plug the blue wire into the port in the wall and the port on their computer and then the pictures will flow was close, but that was some time ago. Really.) And that remains my central point. Would I recommend User Friendly? That depends on who you are. You might get it, and if so you'll probably find most of it funny. But you might not, too.

There's a part of me, having just posted one of these for Scott Kurtz, which finds the juxtaposition interesting. Kurtz reinvents his style and intention rather often. He pushes for broader audiences -- be that the print/Image audience or 'other.' His art evolves. He tries new tools and new experiments. He does new kinds of storytelling. Kurtz evolves. And whenever he does it, it pisses a chunk of his readers off. To this day, he gets complaints that he's not just doing gag-a-day gamer humor now. Well, now here's J.D. Frazer, and his strip is exactly the same today as it was in 1998.

And it pisses people off.

People are funny that way.

Strengths

Frazer is so rock-steady you could time atomic decay to his posting schedule.

User Friendly is consistently funny. The characters' very broadness gives Frazer ample room to build jokes with a minimum of setup needed -- he is an expert at the execution of the four panel strip. Given that 99% of Frazer's strips are based on words instead of visual language, his style not only suits his humor well -- getting the art out of the way except for reaction shots -- but is actually more elaborate than straight talking heads would require.

Frazer's knowledge of Unix culture and geek reference is significant, and he executes that knowledge well. You might not get the joke at all, mind, but if you do there's a good chance you're going to find it hysterical and be a little amazed that he made a reference to a thing you were sure no one knew but you. And Frazer's cynicism, geek rage and satirical edge haven't dulled even slightly -- when he posts a Microsoft strip today, the hatred flows as freely as it did at the turn of the century.

Finally, Frazer leverages that community he's built around his work really well. These are people who are having a great time, mostly entertaining themselves and each other, and crediting Frazer and the other User Friendly folks for it. Say what you like -- that is a sweet position to be in.

Weaknesses

We've hit the high points, but let's go through them just for kicks. Frazer's art isn't good. His women in particular look like vaguely misshapen men. While I understand why he's show little to no improvement in eleven years, that doesn't mean I'm not stunned he's shown little to no improvement in eleven years.

One strength from above is also a (related) weakness. This is a talking heads comic. Essentially, this is Dilbert, only actually funny and Frazer didn't start phoning it in early on. Which is to say "not Dilbert at all," but still -- he could stand to greatly upgrade his use of visual language and composition. As it is, he's really really really good at using the couple of tools he has, but he's very limited in what direction he can go.

Given that this is Gag-a-Day, he could do way better at making the strip accessible to new readers. He desperately needs a primer to get people into things: User Friendly For Dummies would be a very very good thing for this strip. A cast list would be a monumental start, and given Frazer's habit of dropping a new character into the strip, not picking them back up for a year and a half, and then having them walk back in without explanations, the omission of a cast list is downright stupid. Hell, this is one of those areas that powerful, invested community would come in handy. Have someone build a wiki on UFies.org, then let them populate it with background and links to strips for all the characters. I'd lay odds that if there was a call to action, someone would have a hand-rolled wiki up and running within three days, and by this time next week it would be so exhaustively complete as to put all other efforts to shame. This was made for the UFies community.

If nothing else, they'd explain why Cthulhu was wearing a business suit, and just who Crud Puppy is. That's not bad information to have.

The times Frazer has drifted into actual continuity in his comic (not counting, say, a week and a half of related strips -- you can have a storyline without it becoming continuity per se), he hasn't done it terribly well. He can do tactical pacing between strips. If the gang goes to Antarctica for a couple of weeks he can build that storyline well, have every strip be funny, and wrap it all back up. But if we have Pitr nip off to Google for a year (or until he's fired) or have A.J. and Miranda flirt with a relationship, there tends to be far too little trackable process to make it worth the time and effort.

Also, sometimes the jokes wear way too thin. Yes, I know that Steve Ballmer once (allegedly) threw a chair at Mark Lucovsky while ranting that he would bury Google, but that was three years ago and most of us have forgotten about the incident. There's plenty of things to rag on Ballmer for -- chair throwing pales in comparison to calling Linux a cancer, if you get right down to it. And jeez, they pelted the man with eggs! Let's go on to that long running joke instead, shall we?

On the Whole

I don't know if I'm going to keep reading this strip or not, to be honest. I'm on something of a wave with it right now -- four years of archives will do that to a person -- but in the end it may just not be able to hold me. At the same time, I'm no longer comfortable with the thought of a "You Had Me and You Lost Me" essay for it. It's unfair, I think, to tell a strip that they had me and then lost me when they're delivering exactly the same thing, at the same level of quality, as when they hooked me in the first place. If I'm the one who's changed, then my giving a laundry list of complaints before I leave is at best entitlement -- Frazer's never claimed to be anything other than he is, and he does a damn good job doing the very specific thing he does, for the very specific target audience he's going for.

If he reaches the point that he wants to broaden that target audience, mind, then he's going to have some work to do. But that day might never come.

And having knocked the rust and barnacles off my opinion, and actually formed an intelligent opinion instead of an assumption... I can't say that day has to come. In the end, Frazer's hitting the target he's aiming at, and that really is all we can ask.

EDIT: Something was making the RSS feed unhappy. We'll see if this fixed it.

PvP

The Webcartoonist: Scott Kurtz

Current Webcomics: PvP: Player vs. Player, Ding

You Might Remember Him From Such Comics Projects As: Wedlock; Samwise; Truth, Justin and the American Way

Enthusiasm: PvP: Happily Reading; Ding: The Hoi Polloi

How Frequently Read: PvP: Regularly Checked; Ding: When I Remember to Check

First and Foremost, it seems ma.gnolia has done some changes to how it collects lists, which has broken my links to my lists. I will be fixing them later today (which includes fixing them in all the different entries. Mrph).

Secondly, we seem to be doing this. I am excited, though we are just shy of graduation here. However, having gotten Weds into the apartment (finally) life is significantly different now, and it hasn't finished changing, so we're just going to have to see where all of this goes from here.

And so, since there are a lot of changes in the ol' Burns-White household, it makes sense that we're touching on Scott Kurtz today, since change is kind of his byword at the moment.

Essay-wise, Kurtz is one of the bigs ones. In a lot of ways, Scott Kurtz is the reason any of you who are still reading this found it in the first place. He's the one of the first major links I got. Due diligence requires I mention that I consider him a friend these days -- albeit one I have little contact with. Certainly, an essay comparing Miranda and Jade and highlighting his character development ranks among my better early efforts, almost four years ago. Which is itself weird to type.

Which means in ways, PvP is one of those strips I've been following most closely for the longest. I've been reading since the days of four panel gag-a-day zing and abrupt art style changes. So on the one hand I've been down close, at ground zero, watching this strip develop. On the other hand, PvP has been going for ten years now, Kurtz started PvP just days after I started working at my current employer's, and we've gone through two and a half cycles of Freshman-to-Graduation classes since then. An eternity, in Internet Years.

And there are some who feel that's a little too long. More and more, I hear comments from friends or acquaintences that PvP's sell-by date has passed. He's become stale, they say -- too reliant on the same tropes over and over again. Others, amusingly, say he's too different. The tone's shifted. I get mail asking if with the recent wedding storylines Scott's done hit the Cerebus Syndrome once and for all. Over on the Snarkoleptics LJ Community, a friend of mine has actually aped my "you had me and you lost me" style, while ducking the Cerebus Syndrome call and instead saying Scott has hit a "Cerebus Lapse." It's good reading, both in the places I agree with him, and in the places I don't agree with him.

Not that there's anything radically new about these calls. As long as I've been reading PvP, there have been people who talk the strip down -- it's cut-and-paste, they said. It's talking-heads, they said. It's too sitcommy. It's too gamer-oriented. It's not gamer-oriented enough. It's too pop-culture. It's too 80's. It's too...

...well, you get the point.

One thing is certain. PvP is not Player vs. Player, the strip Kurtz started back in '98. Indeed, every few years, whether drastically or slowly, Kurtz seems to regenerate PvP all Doctor-Who-Timelord style, the result having recognizable elements from what came before. He changes art styles. He changes storytelling styles. He changes pacing and execution. And for the last several months, we've been seeing him prepare for one of these state changes.

I won't say he's always been effective at it. If we look back 3-4 years ago, Kurtz hit almost every ball lobbed at him. These days, he does more swinging and missing than he used to. The recent paintball story arc, for instance, had me excited when it went into place -- in part because it seemed like it could build, conceptually, on some of the coolest elements of the earlier LARP arc he had done. (To jump back to that linked essay, above, in the LARP storyline we saw Jade-the-RP-geek and Miranda-the-not-RPer in sharp contrast. Well, Miranda is a paintball veteran and Jade isn't, and Miranda showed up in full cosplay gear where Jade didn't. I had been hoping to see their different styles contrasted in Miranda's world instead of Jade's. I also wanted to see just how much both Jade and Miranda had grown over the last few years put into perspective.) Instead, it felt like a lot of setup followed by an emergency ejection.

And, like a lot of folks, I'm entirely okay with not seeing Shecky again. I don't hate him as some people do, but I also don't particularly like him .

Still, there was a sense of marking time -- the occasional whiff of staleness, of one too many Panda joke, of one too many reference back to the General Lee or the ambulance pulling away or of Scratch Fury being evil or... you know, stuff.

Now, we have the wedding storyline. The one teased for years. And PvP has regenerated again. It's not quite the same strip today as it was on April 20. We have closed the twin circles of the Jade/Brent breakup and reconciliation and the Jade pregnancy scare storylines. Brent's taken off his sunglasses. And Skull has walked out of the strip, forced to go because the little boy he was assigned to shepherd has finally grown up.

In that earlier linked Snarkoleptics post, Sean punched out -- in part because he knows that Skull's coming back. This is a ridiculous exercise, as far as he's concerned. And he's right. Skull will be back -- not just because he's the franchise, but because Kurtz finishes the stories he starts. But I'm okay with knowing that. Conflict, as I have said more times than I can count, is a good thing. And though this capstone to the wedding storyline echoes any number of movies or afterschool specials or Pete's Fucking Dragon, right down to the "I need to go, because there's another little boy out there that needs a special friend, Brent. I'll always love you, but you don't need me any more" speech.

Only, and this is a significant only, Brent called Bullshit on that. Skull liked it at PvP. He might have been Brent's Special Friend, but he had his own plotlines, his own keys, his own place. Hell, he had a girlfriend. He had a life. And PvP loved Skull, not just Brent. When Jade finds out that Skull is leaving, she reacts with horror and pain too. And in the current strip as of this writing, Cole promises that they will get Skull back, somehow.

That's not a series exit. That's setup. That helps to set the tone and the conflict moving forward, and that is a good thing. That is a hopeful thing. Skull will, I believe, return to the strip. The question is not the destination -- it's the ride we're going to take to get there. And I have hope for that ride.

I'm not as enthusiastic for PvP as I used to be, I'll admit. It's a comfortable strip -- an old friend. And as Brent gets older and wiser and his relationship with Jade evolves, I find myself identifying with him more and more. (But then, I'm a Starbucks fan who has used Macs for years, I have a degree in English Literature and I am pretentiously superior. I am Brent.) Even as his career at PvP started along with the strip almost at the same time I started in my current job, so too is his wedding frighteningly close to my own. As Jade grows as a character, she becomes more well rounded, and more recognizable to me as well. That's all to the good.

I haven't touched on Ding! much here. Um... yeah. There's a strip called Ding! It's World of Warcraft humor. It's more or less the PvP crew playing WoW. Um... it seems pretty good. I dunno. I'm a City of Heroes player.

Oh, and he did the whole 'PvP animated' thing, and I actually liked it quite a lot. At this point, I hear Brent, Jade, Francis and Skull when I read their dialogue, and they sound like the series in my mind's ear.

Right. Lest I run out of steam, let's do the metrics.

Strengths

Let's talk art, right off the bat. Kurtz has been bringing his A game with art for some time now. He's clearly pushing himself and his boundaries. And, thanks to his recent video-casting of his strip work, you can actually follow along and see his screen as he works on it. Seriously, look at this one. It's absolutely beautiful, and it's clear that he wants to keep improving instead of resting on his laurels.

Secondly, the Brent character arc has been very strong all along, and now that it's peaking it's engaging. We have every reason in the world to care about Brent and what's happening. He has grown and matured, and as the series protagonist (more about that below) his evolution drives the series forward.

Third, a lot of the characters, particularly among the secondary cast, are really well developed and have just incredible potential. Reggie, Miranda, Robbie, Butler, Brent's parents and Jade's mother all add great depth and breadth to the strip.

Fourth, Kurtz isn't afraid to let his characters be the bastards in a situation. I once said that Max Powers is the hero of the piece, and that much is true. Cole, Brent, Jade and the rest are as motivated by pettiness and selfishness as anything else, and that's refreshing and cool.

Finally? There is Marcy. Marcy is the best character in the strip. Really, Marcy is the best example of a gamer girl geek in webcomics today. She is realistic, well motivated, well designed, and pretty close to note perfect whenever she appears. She is the antithesis of Helen the Sweetheart of the Internet and all her Supermodel Unix Goddess Gamer Amazon ilk, and that is a good thing.

Weaknesses

There is hope in the regeneration/reboot/launching of the new season/whatever we call the end of the wedding arc, and thank Christ because there's been lots of days leading up to it where it all felt phoned in. Hey hey, panda. Hey hey, Scratch Fury. Hey hey, Shecky. Bring us the Story or Bring us the Funny or Bring us Both, I don't care, but Bring us Something.

Update wise, Kurtz -- who for years was rock steady at least on the daily side -- has been less so in recent months. From things he's said on the blog, it sounds like his father had it out with him in part on that, and there is a clear commitment on Kurtz's part to be steady and regular -- and, he says, to build a buffer to have at hand should things arise. That's a good thing, because as he goes into more detailed and emotional story arcs, the pacing of strips gets all the more important and gaps in updates can disproportionately frustrate the reader. Yes, I know. I'm calling the kettle black here.

Also, I mentioned a plethora of characters up above, all of whom are really well developed. That's all well and good, but the problem is the primary cast, looking here, is Cole, Brent, Jade, Francis, Skull and Scratch Fury. And of that group, the real standout in characterization is Brent. After that comes Jade. Cole seems more and more like an afterthought: in the midst of many other things in the past year, Cole's marriage began to fall apart. We've seen Cole move in briefly with Brent. Then Brent's father found him living in his office. And he was ordered to go home and talk to his wife and he did. And since then nothing. The entirety wasn't Cole's marriage falling apart, it was Brent and his cast reacting to Cole's marriage breaking up, and that's dull. The Reggie/Miranda relationship storyline got a thousand times more attention than this lead character's life falling apart.

So it was too with Cole being able to buy out Max's share of the magazine. This deal with the passive-aggressive devil had been beautifully set up, but its resolution was so remote and sudden it lacked emotional resonance.

So too do we have Francis. Francis gets slightly more stories (at least so it seems) than Cole does, but Francis is more and more of a cypher all the time. Part of the problem is, Francis is an eternal student, but with Brent growing older, having a multiyear relationship including a breakup and a pregnancy scare and then ultimately getting married, it seems like Francis should at least be a Senior in high school -- and more likely a college student -- by now, even with the slow aging of cartoon characters. Like I said up above -- the students who were freshmen at my school the year PvP launched are now two years out of college. I actually work with one of my former students, and he has a wife and children now. While it's a mug's game to ascribe that kind of aging and evolution to a comic strip, you can't have one side of the strip get older while the other side stays the same.

Besides, as Kurtz gets older, he also gets farther away from teenagers. Francis looked very typical gamer when he launched. Now he seems stereotypical instead of typical, and that can be an issue.

Finally, I mentioned Marcy, and what a great character she is. She is utterly underutilized. I'd love, in the next year, to see Marcy and Francis start researching colleges and career aspirations. But these days, the protagonist of PvP, de facto if not stated, is Brent, and the teenagers are falling out of his orbit fast.

On the Whole

A year ago, PvP would have topped my rabidly following list. These days, I'm happily reading it, but it's not the must-see as soon as possible thing it used to be. Kurtz may not be as note-perfect as he used to be, on the other hand, but he's still got strong writing and if anything the best art of his career going, and with the shift of gears and plotlines following the wedding we may be going into an absolutely kickass year. There's a lot to be hopeful.

One dangling point I opened above but haven't closed is Cerebus Syndrome. For those who are new to this, it's explained in depth in the Lexicon, but the short form is this: when a comic or comic strip goes from light, funny, gag-a-day stuff to deeper, richer characterization, layering in story and drama into the comedy, it is trying to work through Cerebus Syndrome. It is very rare that it's successful, and a failure brings a price in suck.

From the sheerest definition of the term, I think PvP did the Cerebus Syndrome shuffle years ago. It mostly works in Funny, mind, but the pregnancy storyline, the breakup/reconciliation of Brent and Jade, this wedding storyline -- especially the bits with Jade's mom, the growing isolation of Robbie (and the disappearance of Jase) -- have been working the dramatic elements for years. The better Cerebus Syndrome attempts are the subtle ones, and Kurtz handled this as well as could be expected.

Which still upsets the people who just want geek culture humor and gaming jokes, and that's fine too. Whenever you make changes, you lose some folks and hopefully gain some more. We'll have to see what the future brings.

Which also applies to here. I'm going to try to have stuff for weekdays for right now -- at least until my own wedding eats my brain. Thanks as always, and please enjoy the shrimp plate.

Kevin and Kell

The Webcartoonist: Bill Holbrook

Current Webcomics: Kevin and Kell

You Might Remember Him From Such Nationally Syndicated Newspaper Comic Strips As: On the Fastrack, Safe Havens

Enthusiasm: Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again?

How Frequently Read: When I Remember to Check

For some of these strips, it's easy enough to be cavalier. It's a little bit like selecting a lobster for dinner. "That one," you say with the disinterested air of a sociopath. "It looks like it has fight -- perhaps might be considering rebellion. That one. Boil it until its skin turns red and then I shall consume whatever I find when I crack the shell."

It is worth noting I am from Maine, a state that used to have lobsters on their license plates. A state where we actually have turned lobster, which is generally $22.50 for a relatively poor one on the plates of New York restaurants, into fast food. Seriously. We scoop out the meat, mix it with mayonnaise, slap it into a hot dog roll, and grill it. McDonalds sells lobster rolls around here during the summer.

It is also worth noting I hate lobster. It tastes like rubber dipped in butter. This is one reason I cannot live in my home state, but must forever live across its border, staring mournfully back from New Hampshire, yearning to be one of the special. I do not like lobster. I do not claim to like lobster. And when I describe lobster, I compare eating it to psychosis.

Once, in Camden, I saw children being entertained at a dockside restaurant by a chef who plucked out lobsters and teased them. They laughed, and then the lobsters got thrown into boiling water so their parents could eat them. The children laughed some more. As did many others. I am not a vegetarian. I am a classic omnivore, and I do enjoy meat. Still, I was creeped right the hell out that day and stuck to salad for about a week. Laugh, children, laugh.

Still, there are strips I can be that jaded about. Sooner or later, User Friendly is going to come up on the random rolls, after all, and whatever emotional connection I had to that strip suffocated sometime after the missile silo storyline.

This isn't one of those strips. Bill Holbrook isn't one of those cartoonists. I have immeasurable respect for Bill Holbrook, and I think his webcomic, Kevin and Kell, is one of the most significant in the history of webcomics. It legitimized the form from an early start. Heck, Holbrook has intimated in the past that he continues to produce his two nationally syndicated comic strips so that he can afford to keep Kevin and Kell going. And he did this years before anybody made a living at being an online cartoonist.

It is also worth noting those nationally syndicated strips are high quality, with good jokes, good art, excellent writing and continuing storylines full of strangeness and mirth the likes of which we haven't seen since Pogo. And Kevin and Kell is the strip that he does for love as much as money, and it turns all of the above up to 11.

And God help me, I'm falling out of love with it. Have fallen out of love with it, really, but I can't quite let it go and I'm not sure I ever can.

Kevin and Kell was one of the earliest online comics I read, just after the aforementioned User Friendly. (Which also wasn't the first, but this is not the venue to discuss Slugs! except to say I'd like it to come back, please.) It was a webcomic that featured good humor, a good situation, excellent geek jokes, good art, and social relevance all wrapped up with an ethernet cord chewed by a half-wolf/half-rabbit baby who was busy spitting up full elk skeletons. Which was a testament to Holbrook -- Kevin and Kell is, after all, an anthropomorphic comic. A furry strip, in other words. And 'furry' has baggage these days, deserved or not.But in Holbrook's world of Domain, the gruesome side of society is presented with as much cheer as the suburban side. Predators and prey both live and work together, but it's well known and understood that the predators eat the prey, and we see evidence of that all the time. Casual jokes about the slaughter of innocent sentient beings so that other sentients may live. A carnivorous baby who sometimes kills and eats the antagonist of a given series of strips as a resolution to a given plot. Seriously. And then the followup isn't "our nonverbal daughter in diapers just consumed a living being with hopes and dreams, solving some of my problems in a horrific but brutally final way," but "boy, I hope this doesn't screw with Coney's toilet training."

This is not the only time the day has been saved by Coney eating the antagonist. I seem to recall a sequence where a feline Human Resources manager discovers Kell is domesticated and is going to ruin her life, but the baby doesn't just eat him, she mounts his stuffed head on the wall as a trophy. But I can't find it and honestly, absent Oh No Robot access it's too hard to track down for the purposes of writing this.

As a side note, even back at the time I found the consuming of a living being perfectly acceptable, but fishing in a toilet made me a little ill. Ah, situational ethics.

The thing is? The strip was about racism. Or anti-semitism. Or gay marriage or homophobia. Or anything else you want to talk about where one person hates other people because they're not like he is. Kevin (Heaven) is a rabbit. Kell (Hell) is a wolf. They met in an online chatroom, they fell in love, and then they discovered that she was a predator and he was prey. And they decided "well, what the heck," both having had bad experiences before -- Kell's first husband was trampled to death trying to impress people by bringing down too-large prey. Kevin's first wife, though a rabbit, was a bitch who ditched him for a skunk, then got ditched by the skunk after adopting his large number of skunk children. Later still she would be ejected from Rabbitdom and downgraded to "rodent," which she cheerfully accepted, had surgery to make herself resemble a rat, and married a predator herself.

The point is, the tension point of the strip -- the situation of the situation comedy -- is "here's a couple that's supposed to avoid each other. The wolf eats the rabbit. This is how the world works. You don't go against the order. Only they love each other, and they've had a baby, and they have children from their earlier marriages, and now they have to make it work."

And it did work -- as a marriage and as a strip. It worked for a long, long, long time, Jesus, this thing's been running since 1995. There are people reading this right now who weren't alive when this strip started. (And if you're one of them, talk to your parents about whether or not you should be reading this site. I use bad language, talk about art, and am a liberal. I just don't want you to get into trouble.)

So, why am I falling out of (fallen out of) love with this strip? It's clearly great, right?

Well... yeah. Yeah it is.

But I mentioned the tension point above. The interfactional marriage. (Interspecies marriage seems to be such a common occurrence that the taboo is clearly predator/prey.) Kevin and Kell trying to be accepted by their society, trying to hold a sometimes resentful family together, and trying to have a decent life despite being different. That's the cornerstone of the series -- the prime motivating factor behind the story and the funny.

And... well... it's been thirteen years, almost. Society's pretty well adapted. In fact, they've had several storylines to prove it. (Not the least of which was when the entire neighbor came out with mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the Dewclaws' tree -- it had lost its access to sunlight -- so that it wouldn't die and force them to move.) Heck, Kevin and Kell saved the world from the Y2K bug by fixing the code and "infusing it with their tolerant personalities." These days, when someone reacts negatively to the predator/prey relationship, it seems almost quaint and ridiculous. Jeez, man. This is yesterday's news.

Not to mention there have been lots of other interfactional marriages since then.

To compensate, Holbrook has put in other analogues. Bruno, Rudy's best friend, started the comic as a "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing," ostensibly as a hunting technique, but in actuality he was wearing his sheep girlfriend on his back the whole time (kinnnnnky....) After she was revealed (and later revealed to be half-wolf, and Ralph Dewclaw's daughter, making her Rudy's cousin and Kell's niece and -- yeah, there's a Hell of a lot of this kind of thing going on), he went back to his sheepskin disguise in part to make the character look right, but also to be reminded of Corrie (said half-sheep/half-wolf). And after that it became an analogue to crossdressing/transgendering/transsexuality when Bruno gets three extra stomachs put in so he can become a herbivore. This leads to arguments and friction and prejudice and "will Bruno be allowed to stay on the Hunting team" and Rudy and Bruno having a fistfight and...

Or how about Domestication, the homosexuality of Domain. Kell develops spontaneous domestication, which she's passed on to her son genetically, and they have to disguise the signs and compensate for it so Kell doesn't lose her job and be downgraded to Prey, et al. Later, several other people (including R.L., the Alpha Male destructive force of a wolf who owns and runs Herdthinners, Inc.) And then there's lots of ways Domestication proves to be an advantage (at least, Fiona, Rudy's girlfriend, is willing to take advantage of it).

Oh, Fiona. Half-fennec fox with rabbitlike ears that she hates at first, as her father generally does, but later accepts. Fennecs are actually African foxes and we go through a Fennec pride storyline and she wears modified "traditional Fennec dress" and are you getting the subtle point here?

Oh, and Lindesfarne, who was a herbivore in the registry because she was adopted as a porcupine but as it turns out she's really an English Hedgehog so she becomes an insectivore overnight, only she and her insectivore bat boyfriend Fenton are best friends with a firefly and a moth--

Oh, did I mention that Kell hated cats until she became best friends with Aby, who's a feline car mechanic who teaches her the feline language and Kell learns to--

Oh, and now we have Kevin's mother entering the strip, and she hates carnivores with a passion and tries very hard to convince Coney to be a herbivore exclusively only she and Kell's mother who despise each other really don't and learn to--

...are you seeing a pattern here?

Without the societal tension implicit in the situation, the strip loses cohesion. Holbrook is a pro (oh man is he ever) and knows this, so he has to reintroduce tense situations. Only at this point they go straight into formula, because everyone involved has huge amounts of practice. And we see a lot of repeating as a result. And yeah, every so often someone gets eaten to boot (though not "name" characters, though Holbrook used to tease it.)

The next issue is the sheer complexity of the strip. At this point, the FAQ for the strip is seventeen thousand words long, and a huge amount of that FAQ comes down to answering who all these secondary characters are. Which is a godsend and good on everyone involved, but it denotes something -- Holbrook is very creative and very careful with his continuity, and has been doing this for thirteen years. Of equal value is the Comixpedia writeup, which is very long and very complete and an excellent synopsis and oh my God there's a lot going on here, and that's not even counting the Birds.

It gets exhausting. And not unlike the Simpsons, more and more of the strips deal with the extended cast instead of the primary cast because honestly, the primary cast has done so freaking much it's hard to give them new situations.

And though he's slowly begun aging his cast (Lindesfarne was finally allowed to graduate and go to college, while Coney finally became a Toddler, for example), there are ways that aging isn't fast enough. Lindesfarne won't get married until she graduates from college, which might not take long (she is, after all, a supergenius), but if it happens before Rudy graduates from high school that would be difficult, only Rudy and Fiona moving into college would take the strip further from its roots in one sense... and in another give us another situation to set up....

And that doesn't even touch on the phrase that drives me the most insane. The phrase that for long as I've been reading this comic has knocked me right out of the moment. The phrase that doesn't happen all the time but recurs just often enough that I want to pound my head into brick walls when I see it.

"We canines use our tails to communicate--"

"We felines use our tales to indicate displeasure--"

"We bats use echolocution as--"

"We rabbits have a complicated strategy of--"

Gah.

Every time I see a character say "We [whatever] do [a thing]," my brain is thrown back into the bad side of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. "As you know, Bob, the gravity reductionist device has enabled us to fly our ships without regard to inertia!" "Why yes, Steve, and as you'll recall our oxygen comes from the O2ameter here in the corner...." I know. I know Holbrook has to get us information on the way an entire civilization from the Whales to the insects are intelligent manages to operate without thermonuclear genocide, but for God's sake we know she's a cat. We can see she's a cat. Aby doesn't have to tell us she's a cat when describing cat behavior! SHE'S A CAT!!!!!!!!!!!

Sorry. I got frothy there for a second.

Look, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Kevin and Kell is bad. It isn't. It's very, very good. That Holbrook still manages to make nine strips out of ten funny in the fourth panel even to a new reader is a testament to his sheer competence in this arena. But at this point, after all these years, I no longer think anything will really go wrong for these people. Society's pretty well adjusted. They adjust to each new wrinkle. Problems get solved, usually within a couple of weeks. The years of long extended metastory are well and truly behind us. We are left with domestic comedy, and we've heard the jokes a bunch of times.

It's not a hate. It's not even aggravation (outside of the phrase mentioned above, but we critics fixate on language and recurrence, as you know, Steve).

But it's hard to feel the love. It's hard to care. Rudy's not going to flunk out. Fiona's not going to cheat on him (again). And she's certainly not going to end up pregnant or anything. The family's going to make it through whatever comes up, and so are the secondary characters. Mom Kindle's got her new boyfriend and his criminal record? No big deal. Mom Kindle and Mom Dewclaw will spar as they both work at Aby's garage, but the wolf won't turn, seize the rabbit in her jaws and shake until the rabbit lies dead, waiting to be devoured. The only speaking characters who end up devoured are bad people, and it'll probably be Coney who eats them.

Laugh, children, laugh.

I'm not giving up on the strip. I've loved it too much and I don't hate it enough to try and kill the inertia. I go two or three weeks and I catch up, and usually that gets me through a conflict or two, and I enjoy Holbrook's clear skill.

But I'm falling out of love with it. Have fallen out of love with it. I'm just sticking with it because I don't actually dislike it, and that's a little sad for me.

Anyway, 2800 words in and we'll get to the metrics.

Strengths

As stated at length, Holbrook is a consummate professional. He's rock steady on updates. His strips are perfectly executed from panel one to panel four. The art is distinctive and clean and lovely. The characters are well written. The jokes are funny. It's hard to say anything bad about someone who's so good. And the FAQ and other website elements (on the several websites where Kevin and Kell appear) are well done and easy to work with.

Weaknesses

Beyond the malaise I mention in the body of the essay, the biggest issues are actually pretty trivial. The tag lines added to the strips can sometimes spoil them if you don't train yourself not to read them before looking at the strip. Though it would be a monumental task for the fanbase, incorporating Oh No Robot would be a very cool thing and helpful to boot. And while there may not be anything to be done for it, the cast really is unfeasibly large at this point, and it might behoove Holbrook to do some series surgery to narrow things down.

On the Whole

Kevin and Kell is still a damn good comic. Better than most, really.

It's like in any relationship. You want to say how they've let you down, but really sometimes the magic just fades.

It's not you, it's me.

And that's a sad thing to write.

Right-o. We roll the dice for the next one of these -- hopefully not so complex, so I can get it out in a more timely fashion....

Oh! Cool. Right. See you then.

Devil's Panties

The Webcartoonist: Jennie Breeden

Current Webcomics: The Devil's Panties, Geebas on Parade

Enthusiasm: The Devil's Panties: The Hoi Polloi, Geebas on Parade: Happily Reading

How Frequently Read: When I Remember to Check

It's interesting to me, writing these, to hit a cartoonist who's doing multiple strips. It's certainly reasonable that my enthusiasm might be different for two or more strips done by a given artist -- after all, if the two strips are so identical that my reactions are identical, it raises the question of whether or not multiple strips are really called for. After all, it's nice to see a webcartoonist stretch -- even if they're following paths they've gone down before, working in multiple areas and with multiple intentions keeps the writing and drawing muscles supple.

Jennie Breeden interests me, having said this, because my reactions are actually pretty atypical for me, looking at her current stuff, in two ways. One, while the subject matter of her two ongoing strips are significantly different, there is a real core similarity between them. Both star, for lack of a better word, her. Both are humorous elaborations and exaggerations on aspects of her own life. The Devil's Panties is at its heart a journal comic, even if it takes creative liberties with what's happening in Breeden's life for the sake of the punchline, if nothing else. Geebas on Parade details the goofy and funny side of Breeden's long years of playing SOLAR. The art style is virtually identical between the two strips, some characters appear in both strips, the humor is very similar between the two strips and most importantly -- though we call her "Jennie" in one and "Talia" in the other, Breeden is the same in both.

And yet, my reactions to the two strips are really quite different. And even more unusually, the strip I'm indifferent to is her primary strip, while her secondary, specialist strip is the one I actively look forward to. And that's very unusual, in my experience.

It's worth noting I didn't always feel this way about The Devil's Panties. I used to be very into it. It's over the past year to year and a half that it's just sort of faded into the background -- not quite 'why do I read this webcomic again' but I can see it's house from where we're camped out. Geebas, on the other hand, almost never fails to make me laugh.

And that kind of mystifies me. Why does "Talia finds the half naked gypsy boys appealing and is unafraid to show it" make me laugh, and "Jennie finds the half naked boys at the charity auction appealing and is unafraid to show" kind of meh? The jokes are largely the same, the circumstances aren't dissimilar, the art is almost identical, and it's not like Breeden isn't good at executing a four panel gag comic -- she is, and very well.

It took me a while, but finally I figured it out.

Breeden has settled down.

Let me explain through the lens of someone else's life -- my own.

I used to write an online journal, back in the days before 'blogs,' and in its own way it was popular, and when I discovered I was looking at dying off thanks to my heart expanding like Jiffy Pop Popcorn and my kidneys deciding I must be dehydrated and drowning me in my own fluids (I'm much better now, thanks) it got very popular -- for an online journal, anyway. And that's part of the key right there, but let me talk about my later writing career -- when I started up a cultural commentary blog and named it Websnark. And if I look over several years of records, I see that some of the most popular stuff I've written for websnark are details of my life. If you look at the Evergreen section over in the sidebar of the main page, you'll see them -- Spider Webs and Shadows, and the Purgatory of New Hampshire Malls in Summer, Views of the Q List: The Dumbrella Meet and Greet, Dead Dogs and others. And some folks want to know why I don't write more of those. They like them, and they think it's the sort of thing I do well, and they wants it, their precious.

The answer can be found in that old Online Journal -- when I wasn't, you know, dying, having chemicals put in me to keep me alive, and generally trying to get better -- which was great for ratings because it was interesting -- my life was boring. Boring boring boring. Once in a few months I have an experience that makes for a good nonfiction story, and I try to do well by those stories when they come up, but if I tried to make a decent blog out of "worked until 6ish tonight, then got some food at the cafe, went home, talked to my cat and watched Iron Chef America," there would only be so long I could make that entertaining. Back in the days when I was living hand to mouth, surviving on temp salaries, rarely acting and ekeing out an existence on the streets of Boston or Ithaca or Seattle, there was a lot more grist for the mill -- that would have made great journal or blog fodder. But in New Hampshire, with a steady job I'm good at and comparatively few changes in my day to day life?

And this is the crux of The Devil's Panties and why it's not as enthralling as once it was. Once, Breeden's life was very random -- there were changes day to day. She was trying to get by. She was trying to keep sane. And she was really, really good at making those experiences funny.

And now... she's home a lot, with her boyfriend, who is cool. She sometimes goes out to clubs, but it's rare. And she goes to a lot of conventions because that's a big part of how she makes her money as an artist.

And the eighteenth or nineteenth time she does that, it's really hard to fall over laughing. We've seen it. Her life has become routine. It may be a much different routine than one you or I know, but it is still routine. There's very little chance something so new is going to happen to her at a con that it will knock me off my perch and call me Susan.

It's not that the strips are bad. They aren't. They're still Jennie Breeden. It's that they're familiar, and not in the sense of "oh, I've done that." In the sense of "is this a rerun? Check the TV Guide, honey!

At the same time, that's not the case with Geebas on Parade. Now, though I am a gamer, I'm not by nature a LARPer. I was a Renn Fest geek which is not unlike LARP, only without combat, magic, the chance to be a monster or naked fairy chicks as played by large men (at least, not at my old festival), so it's not the laughter of the other kind of familiar. However, even though the premise is locked down as much or more than The Devil's Panties, there are new spins to be found all the time. Even retreads feel fresher, somehow. This isn't a journal comic -- not really. Breeden is free to cherry pick the Funny, refine it and toss it to we the ravenous readers. It's just plain fun. And it gives us a sense of what it's really like to play one of these games -- the joys and the pains of it. And, it's taught me that if I ever take up SOLAR, I should make sure to get a Women Lore skill tag, but that's really not here or there.

In other words, The Devil's Panties is a humorous journal comic, and Breeden's settled into a life routine that reduces her chances for distinctiveness, while Geebas on Parade is a situation comedy, and she's far from mining out its comedy vein.

And every so often, something does happen that inspires The Devil's Panties to its former greatness -- and I generally feel kind of badly because it usually mean Breeden's had a nasty personal experience -- and is strong enough to share those experiences with the group. I'm reminded of a sequence when Breeden's car was stolen -- a painful and traumatic experience for anyone, and it turned into a bunch of funny strips. This puts us in the awkward position of rooting for something terrible to happen to Breeden for our pleasure, and I'm pretty sure that's the kind of attitude that led to Rome falling. I'd rather just enjoy Geebas and have Breeden have a happy life.

Strengths

I love Jennie Breeden's art. It's stylized, and dynamic -- she's great at conveying exactly what she wants to have happen on the panel. And Geebas is almost always just darn funny -- well written, well voiced, a good blend of mockery and gentle kidding -- her affection for her subject comes out.

And, because I live dangerously, I'm going to talk about Breeden's spelling. But I am not here to condemn it. (Breeden is dyslexic and often spells phonetically, and woe betide anyone stupid enough to take her to task for it.) Well, I'm not taking her to task for it: I think it's great.

Seriously.

Breeden's spelling adds something to the strip. It contributes to the overall aesthetic. It creates a slight sense of the surreal and the whimsical. I'm not saying this to talk bravely about the brave girl who overcomes blah blah blah. I'm saying both strips are improved by Breeden's word usage and phonetic renderings. It's like reading Pogo, only with the edge of reality. The effect is only enhanced by her lettering -- when Breeden hand-letters, the result is beautiful and fits the art perfectly.

And, while Breeden's life might not be inspiring new strips, Breeden is perfectly good at executing that four panels from setup to punch, and it's hard to knock someone when they get the fundamentals down so solidly.

Weaknesses

Stepping away from the above, I'll mention the slow rise of computer lettering, particularly in Geebas. I'm sure this is meant as a timesaver, but I do think it takes something away, given how cool Breeden's lettering chops are.

Also, the avatar/sprites can sometimes be overused a touch.

On the Whole

As I've tried to make clear, I think Breeden's a great cartoonist. I'm not sure what can be done to fire my interest in Devil's Panties, absent a really funny tragedy happening to her, and I'd rather just pass on that. On the other hand, Geebas showcases her strengths so well it''s hardly a surprise I'm always so psyched when we get new episodes.

Daylight Savings Time continues to kick my ass, and I continue to track the post-Gygax gaming world. I may have a few things to say sometime soon, and I hope not to bore folks when I do. In the meantime, let me do the die roll for the next one of these....

Aha. A "why do I read this webcomic again" strip. This one ought to be interesting... well, we'll see you then!

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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