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Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): David Morgan-Mar

Irregular Webcomic

The Webcartoonist: David Morgan-Mar

Current Webcomics: Irregular Webcomic, Darths and Droids

Enthusiasm: The Hoi Polloi

How Frequently Read: Sporadically Checked

When I tagged Perry Bible Fellowship as 'Hoi Polloi,' I was highlighting one kind of strip from the commons -- a strip that was occasionally brilliant but often missed the mark. Well, we're back to Hoi Polloi, but oddly enough my feelings towards David Morgan-Mar are quite different. It's not that there isn't occasional brilliance or occasional lameness in Irregular Webcomic. However, what seemed almost defensive in the Gurewitch essay is far more... just plain solid here.

And that, to me, is Irregular Webcomic in a nutshell. It's solid. A solid performer. I don't usually get up with an anxious twitch in my leg, desperate to check it, but it's pretty much always a smile or a pleasant stopover for me.

This is also the first of these to be tagged as "Sporadically Checked." (Which applies, all told, to Darths and Droids too, which I'll also get into below.) Sporadically checked, in this case, means "checked on a regular basis, but not anywhere near as regularly as, say, Morgan-Mar updates." Which is true. I tend to read Irregular Webcomic on Saturdays or Sundays, depending on the weekend, and I'll catch up with the week's updates at that time. I read Darths and Droids at the same time. This differentiates from "Occasional checking," which is haphazard but somewhat often, or "when I think of it" checking, which is... well, just what it sounds like. All clear? Aces.

David Morgan-Mar must have an interesting reaction to xkcd.

Seriously. He was around years before. He has what on the surface seems like an easy means of producing a webcomic -- lego figures or miniatures (and more about why this 'easy' method isn't easy below) which show a sense of whimsy, a significant amount of geek love, and a tendency towards physics, math and science in great, heaping gobs. Like Randall Munroe, Morgan-Mar has a degree in Physics -- only unlike Munroe Morgan-Mar's degree is a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, and he's worked in his degree in many different ways for many different years, including teaching at the University of Sydney. He enjoys scientific and mathematical puns.

Which isn't to equate Irregular Webcomic with xkcd. They're very different animals. But you have to wonder if sometimes Doctor Morgan-Mar sits back in his Australian Observatory of Doom, steeple his fingers, and ponder the stick figure comic.

Morgan-Mar is also something of an interesting case for me to write about, because my connections to him predate webcomics by a good many years. He and I are both in the fraternity of RPG writers, specifically those writers who've been paid by Steve Jackson. As we've both got some GURPS credits (mine by the back door, thanks to GURPS In Nomine stats being mandated in my last couple of In Nomine pieces) we're connected that way too, and we crossed paths here or there on Pyramid, both as contributors and as forum hacks. But that was years ago and alas the wench is dead. Certainly, Morgan-Mar has been more successful toiling in Warehouse 23's subbasements than I have.

And that's really where Irregular Webcomic came from, and that highlights one of the areas where it really is brilliant: its navigational engine.

Back in the day, I would be asked about innovations in webcomics, new and exciting techniques in webcomics -- all kinds of stuff about things. And what the interviewer inevitably meant was "what new and exciting kinds of comics will we see now that we're... on the web?" And there would be expectations that the discussion would be on Flash or the Tarquin Engine or Infinite Canvas or animated gifs or something. And the first few times I was interviewed I didn't have good answers, but later on I got better, because I knew what the real revolutions were about. Distribution. The mere fact that a comic didn't need a middleman was huge. The drop in storage and bandwidth was huge too. These days, for Websnark alone, not counting other projects I coordinate, we do about sixty gigabytes of bandwidth a month -- a drop from the glory days, but still a nice hefty chunk. In 1999 or 2000, a sixty gig a month bandwidth bill would have been hundreds of dollars a month, and I'd be struggling to stay online. These days, my bandwidth allocation is expressed in terabytes and my monthly bill doesn't even crack double digits. And that doesn't even count the reams of crap I've stored online, the e-mail stuff, Banter Latte, the corpse of Gossamer Commons, and all the rest. If you're producing a webcomic, you need to be doing really massive numbers before bandwidth becomes a dealbreaker. And if you're doing really massive numbers, you're already ahead of the game in so many ways.

That's the revolution. And hand in hand with distribution is site usability and navigation. I think one of the true seminal innovations in webcomics -- one of the things that really pushed Webcomics forward -- was the development and release of Gav Bleuel's Autokeen Lite. Here was a system, moderately easy to set up and configure, by which you could automate the release of a backlog of comic strips, the archiving of those strips, and the navigation from strip to strip in a convenient and intuitive way. While there's a lot of other ways to do that kind of thing today (the Comicpress addons for Wordpress seem to be some of the most popular) as well as sites like Webcomicsnation or Comic Genesis that'll do it for you, that doesn't detract from the sheer significance of that early content management system for webcomics.

Well, Morgan-Mar's got an engine and a half on his website. You see, Irregular Webcomic actually has seventeen different themes (counting the "Me" theme) around the very, very loose idea that Morgan-Mar is running a series of role playing games and we're seeing the in-character perspective of them. Many, like the Cliffhangers, Espionage, Imperial Rome or Supers themes very clearly are based on GURPS (with lots of cheerful pop culture references thrown in -- Espionage may be based on GURPS, but the whole of the theme has been a parody of the James Bond movie Doctor No, starring James Stud. (Well, the last two strips were the very start of From Russia With Love, but still) And, in researching this essay, I could easily read just the Espionage themed strips, or read them five at a time if I prefer. Or I could read the strips that came out in the order they came out, regardless of theme. Underneath every strip are the usual "first, previous, next, last" navigational elements, along with "first five, previous five, next five, last five," but to them they add these same breakdowns for that day's theme. And on days when two themes cross over, you have navigational elements for both themes.

If that sounds confusing, let me put it this way -- Irregular Webcomic will let you either read the webcomic, straight up, reading each strip as it comes out regardless of what story it's set in, or any of seventeen separate stories without any distraction, from start to finish, all with the navigation tools that are sitting right there.

Engine wise, it's brilliant. It allows for story branching and interweaving and yet lets all the bits you don't want right now just get out of your way.

Now, Morgan-Mar could do a lot of work to set that up manually, but one look at one of his URLs shows that no, he's built the specific database engine that lets him do this. Looking at the Shakespeare theme for a moment (the Shakespeare theme not being GURPS based, but instead assuming that William Shakespeare is alive today and working as a technical writer who writes Harry Potter self-insert fan-fiction in his spare time, which may be the most fun I've ever had describing a high concept in my life), I went to the most current strip in the Shakespeare theme, and then clicked "previous five in the Shakespeare theme." Obviously, I got a top-down list of the five strips, but let's look at the actual URL that the engine returned:

http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/comic.php?current=1837&theme=14&dir=prev5

Doing a little sentence diagramming (yes, Virginia, the Internet has a Grammar. Now shut up. Daddy's talking.) we see that the comic.php script has a variable setting the current comic (1837, the most current Shakespeare themed comic). We then wanted the previous five strips specifically in theme 14 (Shakespeare) to be delivered. So, however Morgan-Mar uploads his comic strips, he just has to tag it with what theme the strip is in and the engine does all the other work.

The engine, by the by, also lets you decide if you want annotations or not. If you do, you get Morgan-Mar's notes on each strip -- convenient for the strips that are obscure math puns or if you enjoy reading Morgan-Mar's observations, which I for one do. If not, they're gone and you just get the strips. However, the engine renders it pretty much transparently depending on what you have set.

You're very likely sitting there thinking "yeah? So what?" Unless, of course, you're a database programmer, a website designer, a PHP jockey or the like, in which case you're staring at the screen saying "that's brilliant. That's fucking brilliant." And then you sit back and start figuring out how you'd do the same thing with the database of your choice. And probably coming up with a good answer -- the hard part having been conceptualizing it in the first place.

Right there? That's innovation in webcomics. Randy Milholland might want to steal something like this for his own site, given the plethora of strips he's working in. I can think of whole storytelling techniques that can come out of this infrastructure. (I came up with one, once, and actually got some artists interested and excited to be a part of it, including my old collaborator, the brilliant Greg Holkan, and the downright visionary Neal Von Flue. I then completely flaked on them. There are things in this world I regret, and that's one of them.)

As for how he produces Irregular Webcomic? For the most part, that's deceptively simple. He sets up either miniatures or (more often_ LEGO figures on sets he constructs, photographs them, photoshops the digital pictures, adds dialogue and updates. (The exception is Supers, where he has other people actually draw the strip. Supers is one of the least common themes, it's worth noting.) Now, on one level that sounds really easy. Much like "I'm going to write a novel" sounds really easy, if you've never done it, really. Only Morgan-Mar's hardcore. He builds sets (and takes notes so he can reconstruct them later as needed). He photoshops heavily, adding in background elements (everything from putting actual computer screens on some of the LEGO computers to taking a grey Lego stand and extending it to the horizon to make 'an infinite plain of grey.' Heck, look at the picture at the top of the screen. That's Morgan-Mar himself, having been murdered in his own comic, sitting in a chair on the infinite plain of grey, arguing with the Head Death (a LEGO figure). And damn it, that's pretty good Photoshop work, any way you look at it.

On the other side, he also produces (apparently with help) Darths and Droids, which is a conscious emulation of the rabidly popular, now ended DM of the Rings. Morgan-Mar et al have elected to go with the Star Wars movies starting with the first, and while it is, indeed, trodding ground DM did, Morgan-Mar is unafraid to take it in a different direction. Where DM of the Rings detailed the ultimate railroading DM who loved his background so much that he forced his players to follow his plot come Hell or high water, the Darths and Droids gamemaster just wants his players to be happy -- including the little kid sister of one of the players, who to keep quiet they let make up a character, who turned out to be Jar Jar Binks, and the entire campaign is a wild digression run entirely by the seat of the gamemaster's pants when his players refuse to do anything that he has preplanned. In recent events, they've had a side trip to some desert world because the players want to buy lots of cool weapons and armor for their ship, and despite his out and out demanding that they ignore the punk kid in the office, they're convinced he's important and have the NPC Padme chick flirting with him even though he's like nine years old.

Honestly? It's a heap of fun. And the idea that the whole Gungan race exists because a six year old girl asserted it and they didn't want her to cry because that would end the game real fast just feels good.

She also asserted that the Naboo queen is wise, kind and fourteen years old. And was elected. Admit it, it makes sense for the first time.

So, you're saying -- he's innovative and solid. Fine and dandy. Why then is he in "the Hoi Polloi" instead of "Rabidly Followed" or "Happily Reading?"

Well... the thing is... Morgan-Mar's defining characteristic is clever.

Seriously.

His engine? Clever. His site design? Clever. His techniques? Clever. His puns? Clever.

And there's nothing wrong with clever.

But it is actually pretty rare that 'clever' and 'fall down funny' cross paths. It's not impossible, but it's rare. Really, Darths and Droids has more of a chance to hit consistently fall down funny than Irregular Webcomic does, but it's probably always going to be overshadowed by DM of the Rings, sheerly by virtue of DM having come out first. Even if Darths and Droids ends up being funnier (which is certainly possible) that's a hard stigma to heal up and wash off.

So, you know. I'm always glad to see it, but it's not something I anticipate. I know it'll be a smile, and that's more than enough.

So, let's break this puppy down and head for home:

Strengths

The aforementioned engine is a big one. Morgan-Mar is also good at making every four panels of Irregular Webcomic hold together -- even if you don't know what's going on you're likely to smile at any given strip. The storytelling possibilities are awesome, and Morgan-Mar is a craftsman and his dedication shows.

He also has a really, really big LEGO collection, and he's not afraid to mess around with it for an effect.

And... you know. He's clever. That's not a bad thing.

And his update schedule is rock solid, and that's a very good thing.

Weaknesses

As much potential as I see in his engine, his UI and site design could use some work. It's very minimalist right now -- which might describe Morgan-Mar to a T -- but that means that the innovative navigational markers are in the middle of a block of text. And it's lack of fall down funny means it's not often copied and shown around on Livejournal or Facebook or the like, which makes it harder for it to grow. (Though it has a dedicated fanbase of its own, as does Morgan-Mar himself. Actually, I recruited Morgan-Mar for Modern Tales during my brief time there, in part because of how solid and dependable the comic is, and in part because I wanted to try to lure that very not Modern Tales audience over to some of our other offerings. I haven't discussed any of this with Morgan-Mar or Shaenon Garrity since I left, but I note that the last Modern Tales Irregular Webcomic was 1545 back in April of 2007, while as of this writing he's up to 1849 on his own site. Ah well, blame it on me.

On the Whole

Morgan-Mar is part of the foundation of modern webcomics. Not a lot of people think of him or his comics first, but when they read them they enjoy them, and if some of the things he does both in his comics (some of those photoshoppings are brilliant) and as part of his engine were to get some wider use and implementation, we could see some real leaps forward in storytelling online in those ways that the web is capable of and paper is not. And that's always a good thing, in my big ass book.

Next up, I roll the dice (the Custom Random Number Generator is my... er... custom random number generator of choice) and see where we end up....

...oh. There.

Well, that should tick off the last two Ma.gnolia lists all right.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at February 21, 2008 8:00 AM

Comments

Comment from: matthewabel [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 10:26 AM

I like his organizational system. It would be very useful for folks who have guest strip/filler weeks. I do enjoy a good guest strip, but it is very distracting reading through them in the archives. It would also be good for Dave Willis and his plethora of characters.

Is his organizational engine available for use by the unwashed masses? I think it would be helpful to folks who just webcomic as a hobby and change strips to suit their daily tastes. It would still allow them to keep things organized.

Comment from: Dragonmuncher [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 10:46 AM

I know what you mean, even though I feel really guilty about agreeing. I read IW every day, mostly because it's just THERE on my "Every Day" group of Firefox tabs.

As for how he feels about xkcd, he parodied it at
http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/1458.html and
http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/1640.html in which explains why he hates alt-text. I disagree, by the way. I LOVE alt-text.

In any case, he seems to poke fun about how they both do "science geek"-type jokes, but I still like the image of an Australian Observatory of Doom

Comment from: Meelar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 10:48 AM

Not to be pedantic, but don't you mean ass-book?

Comment from: Will "Scifantasy" Frank [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 10:51 AM

Well, that should tick off the last two Ma.gnolia lists all right.

You just enjoy teasing things like this, don't you? Now I'm really curious what tomorrow's is.

Comment from: David Morgan-Mar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 3:48 PM

Wow, you picked me for one of your State of the Webcartoonists? I'm flattered, though I'm disappointed you had nothing to say about Infinity on 30 Credits a Day.
http://www.infinityon30credits.net/

Yeah, it's currently still very experimental and slow to progress and needing more coding work, but there are still interested contributors working on it and I still have hopes it will take off properly one day.

Apart from that, I'm happy with what you have to say. I wish I could be funnier, but inspiration can stretch a little thin sometimes.

And I do ponder xkcd. I wonder how a webcomic with under 400 strips can be so darned popular. :-)

And nice to see you on your feet again and snarking comics.

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 4:22 PM

Anyone that can have Jane Goodall agree to be in a webcomic gets points from me.

I particularly marvel at his Me series. He basically looks like an extra from the Astrix comic series: drinking magical potions and beating up Romans while discussing the finer points of bathtub design with Archimedes.

Comment from: Ununnilium [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 5:13 PM

After ignoring Darths and Droids every time he mentioned it on Irregular Webcomic, I read your summary of it, went over, read the whole archives, and returned to your article. Dangit.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 5:23 PM

Dr. Morgan-Mar -- I didn't bring up Infinity because I don't have a strong opinion yet.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 7:59 PM

....wow, that was glib. I was hurried when I wrote it.

I mean to say that I'm following it, and it seems promising, but it hasn't gelled enough in my mind to make a coherent essay work. Check later. :)

Comment from: Xaviar Xerexes [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2008 11:08 PM

Interesting spin on things.

I wanted to comment on the navigation point. The focus on the navigation engine reminded me of Greg Stephens' ZWOL.org and the still not-quite-duplicated php/MYSQL script he wrote to run multiple storylines/comics through the site in a similar way that Morgan-Mar here is described as doing.

I don't know who did it first but I have the ZWOL script (with permission from Greg) and it's very well thought out functionally(although the actual coding isn't 100% beuatiful).

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 12:56 AM

Heh, my ponderance on xkcd is that I often find it funny... so why don't I enjoy it more? I'd give a shiny nickel to anyone who could answer that.

As for Irregular Webcomic... yeah, that sums me up on it. With one caveat - because there was nothing that just smacked me by how good it was, I couldn't get into it. There was nothing in it that ever smacked me with the proverbial fish and yelled at me "Pay attention, dammit!" And so, I never stuck with it.

Comment from: Connor Moran [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 25, 2008 2:39 AM

I think the key reason why xkcd has become more or less the Official Comic of the Internet and Irregular Webcomic remained a niche comic is two-pronged. First, xkcd has some of the best-executed jokes I've ever seen. This classic? Sure, it has a fun pop culture reference and some dorky physics stuff, but the reason why it makes me giggle uncontrollably is just how well it manages a complex set-up to a brilliant punch line. The concept isn't even that funny if you were to explain it, but the delivery is note-perfect.

Second, and probably more important, is the relatability factor. The "GET OUT OF MY BRAIN!" factor. The "Stand back, I know regular expressions!" feeling that I totally relate to even though I know nothing about regular expressions. The "Someone is WRONG on the internet feeling, or the various things mentioned as What xkcd means. The near-universality of these feelings--at least among those of us who live on this internet of ours--is why you see xkcd linked on basically every blog ever, regardless of subject. The fact that all these things ring totally true and yet seem to have never been pointed out before makes it all the more compelling, and make people not only enjoy reading xkcd but want to share it, because he speaks for things about ourselves that we never thought to say.

The absence of these two factors is a big reason Irregular Webcomic never became a regular (hah!) read of mine even though I read the whole archive once. The jokes are reasonably clever pokes at culture and characters but I don't recognize anything in the characters as relating closely to me and I don't think the execution of the jokes is good enough to make me fall off my chair laughing. So I have no compelling reason to read, and no compelling reason to link Irregular Webcomic. I think other people feel the same way, and so it won't take off in the same meteoric way.

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