Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 28: Dinosaur Comics

Some people are easily excited. They approach life enthusiastically, greeting each day with joy for the new possibilities it brings. Even being around them can inspire a sense of enthusiasm and excitement in others. They make friends easily and have a variety of elucidating conversations with them, finding ways to make each day memorable where others struggle to avoid monotony.

Some people are a green T-Rex who likes to stomp on things in Dinosaur Comics.

The first thing anyone will notice about Dinosaur Comics is that the image is always the same, while the dialogue changes with each installment. I’m not going to talk much about this, the central conceit of Dinosaur Comics, because an awful lot has been said on the subject already, and there are other things that I personally would find more interesting to tell you about, and that I think are more likely to make someone actually want to read the comic. If you’re already familiar with Dinosaur Comics, then you already know what it’s like reading a comic where the pictures never change. If you’re not familiar with Dinosaur Comics, then my talking about the format and what it means and achieves artistically from a very erudite and analytical viewpoint is not going to make the comic sound fun to you.

And Dinosaur Comics is fun, you guys! It is. So. Much. Fun.

Note: Almost every installment of Dinosaur Comics works perfectly well as a standalone, so don’t worry about spoilers. There is continuity, though. If you choose to read it, your experience will be enhanced by reading it all from the beginning. It will take a while, but it will be worth it! The jokes grow in complexity, the character relationships became more natural and nuanced, and you as a reader get to understand them better and recognize certain trends and subtle callbacks when they occur. The comic will feel more natural after having seen its evolution as it progressed from its humble origins to its current megalomaniacal state.

Dinosaur Comics is about T-Rex and his friends Dromiceiomimus and Utahraptor talking about cool things like philosophy, filmic and literary techniques, or just their personal lives and plans for the future. Whatever the topic, T-Rex discusses it with flair and √©lan. He really enjoys discussing things with his friends! Oftentimes the discussions are hilarious takes on grave or serious topics, where the tone of the discussion remains lighthearted and upbeat because that’s just the way these characters interact with each other. Other times, though, the topic is not remotely serious. Sometimes the friends just sing together, or alternatively, just describe the message of particular songs.

The dialogue style is infectious. When I’ve been reading a lot of Dinosaur Comics, I tend to start imitating that style in my speech and writing. I also find myself thinking in terms of six-panel long explanation/arguments where I start an idea and then project objections to that idea, and responses to those objections. Dinosaur Comics changes the way I think.

In… in a good way? I hope?

It also teaches me all sorts of things. The first place I heard of the male gaze, the Cotard Delusion, and hapax legomenons is in Dinosaur Comics. The male gaze is something that happens in film when the camera focuses more on sexy parts of ladies than an impartial observer would. The Cotard Delusion is a mental disorder where a person thinks they’re dead. (It showed up in the TV show Hannibal and I was like “Hey I recognize that because I read about it on Dinosaur Comics!”) A hapax legomenon is a word that only appears once in a work or in a language. They gave me a word like that to spell when I was an audience participant in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It was pretty rad.

The author has a way of stringing words together that, even after I’ve been a regular reader for years, still catches me off-guard and sends me into fits of giggles. The frequency with which I burst out laughing while reading Dinosaur Comics is extremely high. Sometimes I laugh so hard that people who were in the next room hear me and come over to make sure nothing’s wrong.

T-Rex’s first line in this panel gets me every time.

I said I wasn’t going to talk too much about the format, but I do want to point out that the characters who are visible in the pictures are not the only characters in the comic. T-Rex has conversations with, for instance, God, the Devil, and a small bug who lives on his nose and is named Morris. William Shakespeare also has some lines, sometimes, though he’s pretty much always just out of frame in the last panel. (Edgar Allan Poe has some lines, too!) There’s an awful lot of variation in terms of the dialogue and character interactions. Despite the repeated images, reading Dinosaur Comics for an extended period of time really doesn’t feel at all repetitive.

And, rarely, there’s a visual change that shakes things up.

One significant factor of Dinosaur Comics is the BONUS TEXT. There’s mouseover text on all of the comics, and oftentimes that’s the funniest part of the comic, to me. (Like in this one!)

There’s also archive text, which I didn’t even know about when I first started reading the comic. I think I discovered it when I started using RSS, because in addition to being the text that you see on this page, it’s the text that identifies each Dinosaur Comics installment in an RSS feed. If you’re reading through the archive from the beginning, it’s kind of tricky to see the archive text. One way to see it is to go to each comic from the archive page, reading the text before clicking the link for the comic.

And there’s even more hidden text, that I didn’t know about until far more recently. (Several months ago, if memory serves!) This is the email text. If you click the “Contact” link above each comic, it opens an email to the author, with a subject line containing yet more jokes. I usually view that by holding my mouse over the contact link and reading the subject in the displayed URL. Sometimes the subject is too long to read that way, though!

In those cases, I view the source code. Because I am the kind of person who finds viewing source code more convenient than opening an email. Also, you can view the source code in order to read the archive text too, so it’s a kind of two-birds-with-one-stone deal.

Dinosaur Comics: lots of laughs, but sometimes you have to work for them! Don’t worry, though, most of the laughs come pretty easily.

I enjoy reading Dinosaur Comics because it makes me laugh, it teaches me things, and it reminds me that loving deep thought about serious issues is not mutually exclusive with being silly and carefree. The characters reflect an attitude that learning new things is exciting, that our world is a pretty cool place, but that we can still work on making it cooler, and that there are very few things that can’t be made fun and interesting with the right mindset.

There are over 2,500 comics in the Dinosaur Comics archive, and they are pretty much all memorable and distinct. Even if there were changes in the pictures, that would be a damn impressive feat. Dinosaur Comics, I salute you.

Dinosaur Comics is written by Ryan North and updates Mondays through Fridays, although sometimes there’s no Friday comic in a particular week. I recommend it for people who like being excited about things.

By the way I have been kind of doing a Ryan North impersonation throughout this whole post because I just wind up doing that when talking about Dinosaur Comics and I don’t really know how to turn it off. Hope you enjoyed it!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 27: Questionable Content

Grab a group of dysfunctional twenty-somethings, throw them together, and watch them struggle to overcome their insecurities and become friends. If this form of entertainment proves difficult to achieve given your real-world resources, you can experience a reasonable simulacrum by reading Questionable Content.

Questionable Content is a plot-driven humor comic that’s focused on the developing relationships of a diverse and fascinating cast of characters, most of whom are not at all equipped to maintain healthy relationships with other people. Some of them are just your typical bundles of insecurity, but others are dealing with more serious issues. Some characters lay themselves out there when first introduced so that their friends (and the reader) know what’s going on from the get-go, like Hannelore and her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Other characters, such as Faye, are less up-front and take some time to reveal what they’re going through.

Note: Since Questionable Content is heavily story-driven, I strongly recommend reading it from the beginning. I’m going to avoid directly spoiling anything for you, but there are a lot of plot points that come as surprises even very early in the comic, so it’s possible that an astute reader could infer some spoilers from the excerpts provided here. Also, please note that some excerpts may come from comics that contain spoilers while the excerpts themselves do not. Click those images at your own risk.

In terms of the plot, Questionable Content resembles a webcomic soap opera. There are unrequited crushes, requited crushes, characters getting together, characters splitting up, unfounded jealousies, founded jealousies, and all manner of the sorts of complications that can turn up in friendships and romantic relationships. Given the neuroses and unhealthy coping mechanisms of certain characters, it’s no surprise that things get messy. Questionable Content is extremely melodramatic.

There are two main factors that, I feel, keep the melodrama engaging rather than allowing it to become tedious.

1. The witty dialog/playful banter of the characters.

The cast of Questionable Content is snarky and fun and mean to each other in that way that people are mean to their close friends. They use humor as a defensive mechanism or just to fit in, and it’s fun to see what insults and comebacks they’ll deliver to each other each day. Not every character takes as easily to the dark tone that the humorous dialog sometimes embodies, but that works out well, because the straight man has an important role in the comedy.

2. The depth and believability of the characters.

If you read the comic from the beginning, as I recommend, the characters may not originally strike you as particularly three-dimensional. Part of this is just the author finding his feet, but it actually works, because as you get further into the story and get to know the characters better, you can see more of their facets. There are plenty of moments from later on that, if taken out of context, could make the characters seem shallow and stereotypical. Having read thousands of pages of these characters interacting with each other, trying to fit in with their chosen subcultures, and quietly introspecting, they all feel like real people to me.

When there’s a conflict, it’s rarely a matter of one character being right and another being wrong, or even a case where I, as a reader, want to take sides. Far more often, I can understand and sympathize with both characters even as they are at each others throats, metaphorically. (Or literally. Some of these characters have remarkably violent tendencies.)

In fact, most of the time, even if a character is definitely in the wrong, I can still sympathize, and often, the other characters can, too.

(The other characters are not necessarily sympathizing in this particular instance.)

This is one of those works that has a massive cast of characters, all of whom are lovable in their own ways. I find it comparable in my mind to Six Feet Under, because any time a character makes an appearance, my response is “Yay! We get to see this person again!”

One of the joys of reading Questionable Content is seeing all of these characters, not just on their own, but interacting with the myriad other characters. Unexpected character combinations lead to fun and novel interactions that wouldn’t be possible without such a large and varied group of people to mix up.

While the characters’ relationships tend toward the dysfunctional and their barbs and snarks tend toward crudeness, overall they relate to each other and deal with their issues in a mature and reasonable manner. While they may get into spats over relatively unimportant matters, they’ll usually own up to that behavior and apologize or try to make it up to other characters. There are many calm, rational discussions of the serious problems that these people sometimes face, and those discussions tend to balance out the wild and unreasonable reactions that they sometimes have to their situations.

Over all, these characters treat each other with dignity and respect, and that serves as the foundation for the friendships that unite them all.

This is one of the few comics I’ve read that features characters going to therapists to deal with their emotional issues. Oftentimes therapy is treated as a last resort, or something that only “crazy” people need. Questionable Content portrays therapy as a positive, helpful tool for many of its characters, even those who don’t necessarily have any particular diagnosis. I feel like our culture needs more examples of therapy helping ordinary people, because then more ordinary people might find it easier to accept the idea that therapy might help them.

The world of Questionable Content is similar to ours unless otherwise noted. It takes a while for the more interesting aspects of the setting to sink in, because most of the plot, dialog, drama, and so forth would work just as well in a mundane setting as in the Questionable Content universe. The biggest difference between this world and ours is present right from the first page, though the implications of that difference aren’t explored much until later in the story.

That difference is that sentient artificial intelligence has existed in Questionable Content for some time now. Several characters have robotic companions known as AnthroPCs, and humanity is in the process of adjusting to having nonhuman intelligences around and figuring out how to get along with them.

You’ve got well-defined characters and complex emotional drama, against a science fiction backdrop that is rarely of importance but is really cool when it’s noticeable. It’s the type of story that just keeps going and throwing new loops at its audience and I never want it to stop. For the most part Questionable Content is a lot of fun, and it frequently catches me off guard and makes me laugh like hell.

It can also catch me off guard and make me cry. There are parts of the archive that I cannot get through without tears forming in my eyes, so be warned. There are some serious emotions in this sucker. But it’s worth it, and the overall tone is one of forcefully cheerful irreverence. The bad news is that the witty banter and general silliness is at least partly something that the characters use to distract themselves from the rough parts of life. The good news is that it usually seems to work pretty well.

Questionable Content is written and drawn by Jeph Jacques and updates on weekdays. I recommend it for people who think friendships are valuable, regardless of whether said people are actually capable of maintaining friendships.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Change In Schedule

When I started this blog in April, getting one entry up a week seemed like a reasonable schedule to set myself, and until now, it was. I've only missed two weeks during that time.

However, those two weeks were both because of familial obligations, and I'm now in a situation where familial obligations are taking up a great deal of my time and energy on an ongoing basis.

For that reason, I'm going to be updating Webcomics Worth Wreading once every two weeks. I love working on this blog and I wish I could be dedicating enough my time and energy to it to keep it going on the schedule I've kept so far, but there's just not enough of me to go around right now.

I'll be back next week with a comic to tell you about, and two weeks later to tell you about another one!