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.
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.
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.