Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 21: Wondermark

We, as humans, respond to novelty. We seek new and unusual experiences, in our entertainment, in our vacations, in our food, and, more rarely, in our daily lives. Many people find a comfortable equilibrium that provides structure and stability to their lives while allowing room for novelty and excitement. However, there is a particular mindset that seeks out novelty in every experience, no matter how small. This is the mindset of a person who will not allow details to go overlooked and unremarked, who feels compelled to question even the most ubiquitous of social and cultural norms, who will never stop searching for ways to improve or at least invigorate the most mundane activities. This is the mindset you will find in Wondermark.

Full disclosure: I served as an intern to David Malki !, the creator of Wondermark, for about two years, so you could say that I have a personal emotional investment in this comic and may not be an unbiased source of information as to its merits.

Wondermark is a gag-based comic which usually has no continuity whatsoever. While certain characters may occasionally reappear, and there are a few recurring elements (such as the Piranhamoose) that indicate, for the most part, that every installment is set in roughly the same world, usually each installment will introduce us to completely new characters, with no connection to previous installments. Reading through the entire archive is certainly not a requirement to understand the setup for the current joke.

The humor leans heavily on absurdity, by which I mean it probably told absurdity that it would only need a couch to stay on for a couple of weeks but it’s been there a few years now and absurdity is too polite to ever tell the humor that maybe it’s time to leave. So, y’know, it’s metaphorical leaning.

Often, not just in comics but in all sorts of media, humor comes from shared experiences between the creators and the audience, sentiments that may be commonly felt but rarely voiced. This is the origin of the old “What’s the deal with airplane food?” staple… You can be fairly sure that a good number of people in your audience have flown on an airplane and been disappointed with the food, so it’s an easy way to get a laugh by referencing a familiar hardship.

In Wondermark, when calls are made to shared experiences, they are more particular. These are experiences that happen to possibly only a small subset of people. To those who have not done these things, they are funny on the surface… you can laugh at the fictional people who act this way. However, when these kinds of jokes build up over the years, it has the result of cultivating an audience containing a large number of people who resonate with the jokes because of familiarity. The people in the comic act the way we act, and it’s a type of behavior that is rarely represented in media because the people who act this way aren’t really relatable to the average human. Or, at least, we’ve all been conditioned to believe so.

I mean, I frequently find myself acting exactly like this frog, though usually in the form of mutters rather than clear declarations to the world.

Frequently, the characters in the comic will be larger-than-life in some true-to-life way. These are people who aren’t content to be ordinary, who continually try to take what life gives them and twist it in some manner so that it is more unique to them, or at the very least, more confusing to outsiders. Sometimes these people are entirely self-aware, deliberately crafting novelty in their lives, but sometimes they seem to be entirely unaware of their own strangeness, and one can never be certain whether that’s just because they are extremely committed to the act they’re putting on, or whether they actually are just that out of touch with the rest of humanity.

The very medium choice is unusual, consisting as it does of repurposed Victorian woodcut art (though generalizing all of these woodcuts as being Victorian is strictly speaking inaccurate, as I believe some of them are Edwardian but then as I’ve said before I’m not very good with history). Aesthetically, seeing all of these people who look like they just popped out of a history book discuss things like wifi passwords is equal parts disconcerting and engaging. One point of appeal is in seeing how parts of century-old imaged can be reassembled to form current pieces of technology, or even entirely new and unforeseen inventions.

A clear driving force behind Wondermark is the desire to make one’s mark on the world, often by taking things that already exist and using them to make something new. In the real world, clever inventions often consist of mere combinations of already existing items. Put two magnifying glasses in a tube and you have a telescope, stuff like that. The art for the comic is made out of previously created art, but it is changed into something recognizably original. One may speculate as to what other simple but unexpected combinations or alterations could come along and enhance our world.

One may even speculate that the next big innovation will be so unexpected that none will recognize its genius when they first encounter it.

The Wondermark mindset is one that seeks novelty in every situation. Ideas are followed to their extreme conclusions, wild speculation is treated as entirely serious. The types of conversations that you will find in Wondermark may feel familiar if you are the type of person who engages in such wild speculation when you have conversations yourself: Someone idly mentions an absurd premise, and another party follows along and expands upon that premise as if that premise is now to be assumed as fact. It’s a kind of improv game without formal rules, played between friends when the have a bit of extra time.

Due to the nature of the comic, sometimes it is hard to tell whether the characters are merely speculating (which they often do) or whether their world really is that strange (which it often is). Sometimes the ambiguity is better than the payoff of an answer could ever be.

Sometimes, rather than two people engaged in an escalating exercise in absurdity, the comic will feature only one person attempting to do this, with another acting as the straight man. Notably, while the sympathetic party is often the person with the crazy idea, which would be expected when the creator and the typical audience member often identify as crazy-idea-havers, there are times when the one talking crazy is the one who is clearly unreasonable, irrational, or just insensitive. This goes to show a level of self-awareness, that while seeking novelty is worthwhile and compelling, there are limits and there are other concerns.

Finding the limits for oneself, spending just enough time trying to shake things up and live life to the strangest, rejecting enough baseless cultural norms while still being a functioning member of society and enjoying the benefits that affords… it’s a careful balance, one that we walk in our daily lives and one that these characters struggle with on a fairly regular basis.

Some characters do better than others.

There’s a level of overthinking that is inherent to Wondermark. The characters won’t let ideas rest, will examine them from every angle, trying to find a new facet or an inadequately explored possibility. Simple things are only simple if one doesn’t spend an adequate amount of time considering all of the ways that they could be more complicated.

A reader of Wondermark, or a character therein, cannot take anything for granted. The smallest assumption is fit to be questioned. Idle speculation takes on a whole new, gravely serious weight. Be prepared to commit to the things that occur to you when your brain is just running with its basic input. If you start to wonder about something, you should expect to do some research or experiments to try to answer your question. Be careful, though. If your question is along the lines of “What’s the worst that could happen?”... the answer is could be fairly severe.

In addition to curiosity and speculation, an important element of Wondermark is enthusiasm. This is a comic for and about people who don’t just have wild and crazy ideas, it’s for people who commit to those wild and crazy ideas… for as long as the initial rush lasts, at least.

Enthusiasm in Wondermark is effusive, affecting not just those who love novelty or its trappings, but also those who love just about anything, whether it be conceptual or immaterial. Wondermark is for and about people who feel things strongly, who get really caught up in whatever their interest is today. Sometimes enthusiasm lasts a lifetime, sometimes it lasts an hour, but it is everywhere in Wondermark. Many of these people are determined to do or have one thing above anything else, and, as this is overall a fairly optimistic work, they sometimes get what they want.

Whether or not they are happy with it once they’ve got it is another matter, of course. But, you know, some people are.

The people who inhabit the world of Wondermark are often strange or just the types who seek excitement in unusual places, but the world they live in sometimes proves itself to be stranger than they are. Most of the time you can assume that Wondermark takes place in a world much like our own, albeit one where everything looks pretty old-fashioned. Sometimes, though… sometimes, the world of Wondermark proves itself to be strange and wonderful in ways that our own world will never match, as much as we might try to force it. Keeping our own behavior on the strange and novel side will, sadly, never effect a complete transformation into a world where things like this happen.

So, if you ever find yourself constructing elaborate hypothetical explanations for everyday phenomena, if you sometimes feel like maybe you’re the only person in the world who’s come up with a particular solution for a common problem, or if you just plain love new and unusual things for the sake of their being new and unusual, Wondermark is for you.

Everyone else: Wondermark is for you to gather round and laugh at the absurdity that the people above come up with. Seriously, this stuff can get crazy.

Oh, and you know that whole thing about common experiences and questioning assumptions? People compare things to the size of football fields an awful lot. When I was a kid, I didn’t know how big a football field was, but people always used it as a comparison to emphasize how huge something was, so I wound up thinking that football fields were way bigger than they really are when apparently, they’re just a little bigger than an acre. Thanks for clearing that up for me, Wondermark!

Wondermark is written and assembled by David Malki ! and updates on Tuesdays and Fridays.

I recommend it for people who overthink things. If you’re spending several minutes trying to figure out if that’s you… it’s you.

In addition to mouseover text, there’s also the perpetually-changing line that ends in WONDERMARK.COM, which you can see in the images here, and each installment has a title which you can see when you view them on the website.

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