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Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): Nicholas Gurewitch

Pbf221-Service Culture

From The Perry Bible Fellowship.

The Webcartoonist: Nicholas Gurewitch

Current Webcomics: The Perry Bible Fellowship

Enthusiasm: The Hoi Polloi

How Frequently Read: Occasionally Checked

There's no real rhyme nor reason to how I do these things. I decided I didn't want to just launch into the rabid favorites and then work my way down to "why on Earth do I still read this thing," but at the same time I didn't want to start with "why on Earth" and work up to "God I Love This Strip." So, like all good veterans of the Tabletop Roleplaying wars, I randomly rolled and got my next topic.

Which might be problematic, because right here on the second summation we're going against conventional wisdom. Well, you know, it's been some months since I got hate mail, and that seems all wrong to me somehow.

Anyway, today's topic is Nicholas Gurewitch, the webcartoonist behind The Perry Bible Fellowship.

Before I go on, I should indulge in definition. I know, I know. I'm nothing if not a definer, but this is a little different. See, a lot of people have only heard "the Hoi Polloi" contextually. It's fallen out of common use, and while I'm all for making people hit dictionary.com, it also deserves to be talked about.

The Hoi Polloi, for the record, refers to the Common Masses. Just Plain Folks. Everybody Else. As I tag lists, I have the stuff I'm really excited about, the stuff that makes me just plain old happy, the journeymen strips -- good enough to keep me going, but not really mind blowing, and the stuff I'm at best on the fence about. The Hoi Polloi are the journeymen. They're perfectly good webcomics. They're fine.

But they don't set a bomb off under my chair. Oh, there's the occasional brilliant strip, and the occasional dud, but for the most part they're just there. An entertaining diversion on the way to the grave, as Achewood says.

And that's where we are with The Perry Bible Fellowship.

It's worth noting I came to the Fellowship pretty late, and for the worst possible reasons. Back in the heydey of Websnark, I would get recommendations. I still do, now and again, generally from people who haven't figured out the heydey of Websnark is somewhere behind us, not in front.

Well, this one guy recommended Perry Bible Fellowship.

Several times a week.

Sometimes several times a day.

Seriously. A new strip would come out and there would be three e-mails. "Dude! I know you don't read PBF but just look at today's! It's awesome! You should totally snark about it because it's fantastic! I know I write a lot but I don't understand how you can avoid being a part of such an incredibly good thing! It's awesome!"

And so on. Repeat until blue in face.

Needless to say, I decided it would be a cold day in Hell before I would read the Perry Bible Fellowship.

Eventually, the correspondent dropped off. Note this was a good few months after I sent him a note or three saying "dude, stop it." Which is one reason I don't feel badly about writing this now. And quite some time after that, I finally began to read the Perry Bible Fellowship.

And, like everyone else, I thought it was brilliant. Creative, well designed, beautifully drawn and with a great sensibility. It was, in all ways, a David Lynchian sense of wonder brought to the page, and that is not a bad thing.

Well, it's been some time since then, and let's see where we are.

Perry Bible Fellowship is a comic that works in subversion humor. Note, this isn't subversive humor. Not always, anyway. This is the humor of building expectations in panels 1-3 and skewing them in panel 4. And Gurewitch is a master at it. Take one of the better ones, in my estimation: Billy the Bunny.

Everyone check the link? And you're back now with me? Excellent.

We have three different styles going here. The style of the actual picture book, the style of the woman and her son hating on Mean Old Farmer Ben, and the very realistic style of the last panel. And there's nothing funny in any of these four panels. The first two set up an unhappy picturebook situation, the third shows a mother and her child, well to do and affluent, reacting the way the book's author intended. Certainly there's no mirth there, though one expects that Mean old Farmer Ben will have his comeuppance one day. And of course, the fourth panel is stark, the sign of the family in starvation, the home falling apart, the man -- the provider -- having failed. And even his wife, clearly comforting him, has no joy in her bearing. It is a brutal fourth panel. There is nothing funny here.

Take all four together, and I laughed my ass off. Fucking Billy. The subversion of intention made the innocent into the horrible, and it made the whole thing funny even though no part of it was funny.

Like I said, this is Gurewitch's bread and butter, and there's no one better at it.

The problem is, this is a well that's way too easy to drain dry. Twenty or thirty times, you'll get a horrified laugh. Then, people will expect it. Finally, it will have no impact. It's just what Perry Bible Fellowship does. It's like watching the parody of M. Night Shyamalan on Robot Chicken shouting "WHAT A TWIST!" When you're expecting the twist, the twist has to be awesome. And every time, it has to be more awesome than the last. Otherwise, it just becomes mundane. O. Henry wrote 400 short stories, but we don't bother reading most of them today -- the 390th twist ending just reduces the impact that The Gift of the Magi or The Ransom of Red Chief have on us.

As an interesting side note, the Perry Bible Fellowship strips that don't have a twist, gruesome or otherwise, end up being some of my favorites. For example, there's a quiet little strip called Christmas Surgery that I really like. No twist, but somehow it just works.

Anyway, none of this should be taken to mean Perry Bible Fellowship is bad. It's not. Not at all. It's just... you know. There.

Thus, the Hoi Polloi.

Right. On to the usuals:

Strengths

Gruewitch has a great imagination and an ability to see connections that others might miss. In playing to his strengths, he reinforces just how good at them he is. Added to that is his artistic style, which is really great and highlights his skill base. And when he's on his A game, it's hard to think of anyone who's better in webcomics -- particularly in four panel gag-a-day.

Further, Gruewitch might lack a certain thematic variety, but his variety in detail is astounding. He's great at creating an unexpected view of a subject. And there really isn't anything else like The Perry Bible Fellowship on the giant mass of internetworked nodes, and that's very much to Gruewitch's credit.

I mentioned it above, but let me throw in again -- this has some absolutely beautiful art. It really does. There are people in this world who halfass the art in their comics, but Gruewitch is their antonym.

Weaknesses

Beyond the one-note nature of a lot of his strips, as mentioned above, we have to point out Perry Bible Fellowship's site design. I suspect there are some folks who like a design like this one, but for my money it's user hostile at best. It's unintuitive -- you keep thinking there should be a way to bring the 'most current strip' up, but there really isn't. The graphical elements in his masthead don't actually do anything, so they can actually confuse a new reader for some time. Even the center column of actual strips has "Random" above the most current strip, so it doesn't even draw the eye.

This, by the by, is one reason I list this as "Occasionally Checked." Sporadically Checked means there's some pattern to my checking, but lacking a page to just hit the most current strip means that I'm I only actually check Perry Bible Fellowship, while surfing the Safari Tabs, when I happen to notice that I don't recognize the top strip's title.

This is made more difficult, in its own way, by its update schedule, which is sporadic at best. Which is entirely Gurewitch's right -- he's gone on the record as saying it's infrequent because of the effort he takes on each strip, which shows in the gorgeous art -- but which makes it harder to actually keep track of when a new strip has come out. It's entirely possible that the only good way to follow Perry Bible Fellowship is by subscribing to its RSS feed. RSS -- it's the friend of the occasional webcomic.

However, I don't happen to like using RSS for my webcomics trawling, so there we are.

On the Whole

Gurewitch is one of the most celebrated of those webcartoonists currently stripping, and it's easy to see why. He swept through the WCCAs for a couple of years, he's hit mainstream awards hither and yon, and recently he took an Ignatz. And it's all deservedly so. At the same time, I have to wonder if each new crop of awards reflects a new crop of readers coming upon his work, in a new venue, while the people who have been reading for some time let his strip slip lower in their consciousness. It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, and that is an unfortunate thing. But, when one's stock in trade is the skew, sooner or later there seems little to be done for it.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at February 19, 2008 8:00 AM

Comments

Comment from: Meelar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 19, 2008 10:41 AM

I can totally confirm your intuition on RSS. I found PBF, loved it, read the entire archive, then stopped completely for months. Eventually I started using RSS, and it's really the only way to get it (compare to something like xkcd or Questionable Content, which I haven't even bothered adding to the reader because they're so regular).

Comment from: Johnny Assay [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 19, 2008 11:32 AM

What's a "Gruewitch"? Something from D&D?

Snarkiness aside — I probably only check the PBF fellowship once a month these days, and I'm usually rewarded with one or two strips. One of these days I'll get in to RSS, but for the time being this system works just as well. (Especially because like you, Eric, the strip amuses me but not enough to want to know the instant a new one comes out.)

Comment from: Darth Paradox [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 19, 2008 12:56 PM

Have you checked out Piperka? I use it for all my webcomic trawling, now. Basically, you "subscribe" to a comic, and it'll show you a link to the earliest unread update for each comic on your list, based on what the latest one was when the link was clicked last time.

It's awesome (in theory) for occasional comics, as well as daily comics with unpredictable update times, or anything in between. Only problem is, once in a while, it'll stop catching updates for certain comics... and then it'll dump them all on you at once. (Like suddenly there'll be a link that says "Something Positive (12 new)", after two weeks of no listed updates.)

But my favorite part about it is that I no longer have to maintain bookmarks and check through them all. I only have to visit a comic's page when there's a new comic up, and it simplifies my webcomic reading greatly.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 19, 2008 1:33 PM

I guess I just don't "get" Perry Bible Fellowship. Even the strips people tell me are great do nothing for me. I realize I'm the one missing out, but I just don't see it.

Comment from: Shaenon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 19, 2008 6:37 PM


I always swore I'd never be That Pedantic Grammar Asshole, but my mentor and spiritual guide Daniel Pinkwater schooled me on this, so I might as well pass it on: "hoi" means "the," so "the hoi polloi" is redundant.

Also, "La Brea" means "the tar," so when people say "The La Brea Tar Pits," they're saying "the the tar tar pits."

Thank you.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 19, 2008 6:44 PM

You're correct, Action Shaenon, but in using the phrase I'm invoking its common usage. So for best effect, one should be in a smoking jacket and drinking a gimlet when they say it.

And said common usage is, in fact, "the Hoi Polloi," and so my list is as well.

Karl Kasel would be on my side in this.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 19, 2008 7:45 PM

Eric, if you're going to call in common usage, a lot of people use "Hoi Polloi" to mean "the upper class". Wrong's wrong.

My favorite is when the California meteorologists start talking about "the El Niño". I believe in French, it's "le the El Niño."

Comment from: Andrew [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 19, 2008 8:47 PM

Ooh, ooh! Do a State of the Web for Questionable Content!

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 19, 2008 11:10 PM

I just saw a post to RAC.strips copying a letter to the papers who publish PBF...Gurewitch is closing shop on it after doing one more strip, being interested in doing something else with his creative time.

Comment from: Ununnilium [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 20, 2008 1:49 AM

The thing is, an untranslated "the" that's part of the word doesn't, to me, feel like it functions as an English "the". "The hoi polloi" feels right to me, as do "the La Brea tar pits".

"The El Niño" is wrong for an entirely different reason, since "El Niño" is a name. ``

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 20, 2008 9:38 AM

Andrew -- Jeph Jacques is in the list, so when his number comes up, the writing I shall do.

Comment from: Confusador [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 20, 2008 1:20 PM

I'm with Ununnilium, here. I could see "The Brea Tar Pits" being preferable, but we have a long tradition of including foreign articles in proper names, eg The Las Vegas Strip, the Las Angeles airport.

Comment from: Lore Sjoberg [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 2, 2008 6:19 PM

My understanding was that Rancho La Brea is a place name, so what you're saying is "The tar pits at a place named after them." I don't see that as any more ridiculous than talking about "The Redwood City redwoods."

Specific example: I grew up near the Holy Cross Church. Which Holy Cross Church? Why, the Santa Cruz Holy Cross Church! "Santa Cruz" may be Spanish for "holy cross," but it would be silly to say "I grew up near the Santa Cruz Church" and unnecessarily complicated to say "I grew up near the Holy Cross Church of the town of Santa Cruz."

Anyhow, got to go. I just went clothes shopping on the East Coast and I want to try on my new New Jersey jersey.

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