Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 32: Nedroid

Join me now as we enter a land of absurdity, where concepts come to life merely because it would be amusing if they did, and where humorous misunderstandings take on a serious and biting edge. Come burble with laughter, as I do, at Nedroid Picture Diary.

A note on nomenclature: I refer to this comic as “Nedroid” in my head. I think the proper title might be “Nedroid Picture Diary” but I’m not actually sure. I’m going to call it Nedroid during the course of this post because it’s shorter.

Nedroid usually (though not always) features the exploits of Beartato, a bear/potato hybrid, and his friend Reginald, a man-sized bird of some kind. Continuity shows up occasionally, with most installments being stand-alone windows into a strange and unsettling little world. There’s no need to read the entire archive to understand and appreciate later installments, so feel free to jump in just about anywhere.

I find myself giggling like a madperson over this comic with surprising frequency. The jokes are typically simple, but they take things in such unexpected directions or are so nonsensical that they get me right in my humor spot. Not only will I laugh like crazy, I’ll often find myself thinking about a particular Nedroid installment months after I’d read it. They just have a way of sticking with me. That one up top about the pumpkins, for instance, will probably never get out of my head.

There may be a lesson in here for those who want to write comedy. Something about not overselling the joke. Something that should be summed up in a pithy saying instead of a paragraph of speculation. Something like: “Less is more.”

Central to Nedroid is the theme of friendship. Beartato and Reginald are best friends, and that’s their primary driving force. Reginald, though, is pretty bad at being a friend. I mean, sometimes Beartato can be a bad fried too, but he’s more often the sane one to Reginald’s cruel or maladjusted behavior.

Of course, despite his negative qualities I can’t help but love Reginald, for kind of the same reason I love the eponymous character from Bob the Angry Flower. He’s a jerk, but the endearing kind of jerk, y’know? (These kinds of people are only endearing in fiction, note. In real life Reginald or Bob would be decidedly offputting.)

I'm pretty sure this is Reginald lashing out at Beartato out of confusion, rather than Beartato
deliberately taunting Reginald... but then again, I guess I can't really be sure.

Still, the two are mostly inseparable and consistently fond of one another. Their friendship manages to survive Reginald’s issues and their combined cluelessness. In a way, Nedroid provides a beacon of hope, a shining example of friends who remain dedicated despite all odds. It really feels like most of the time these guys are totally content being best buds and that there’s nothing in the world they’d rather do than hang out together.

There’s just also this subversive undercurrent that makes you think that maybe friendship isn’t the happy beautiful thing it’s chalked up to be. If two best friends can maintain such closeness while often treating each other outright maliciously, well maybe there’s something wrong with them. Or even something wrong with friendship, as an idea. Maybe having a best friend isn’t the greatest thing in the world. Maybe it’s a terrible, deadly trap.

But, uh, Nedroid doesn’t usually get that heavy. Terrible things might happen, but this is the sort of comic that could turn being arrested for manslaughter into a lighthearted romp. It’s a very particular kind of messed up, where the experience of reading it is easy even when the characters are dealing with what in real life would be serious issues. I guess that’s because in Nedroid there are no serious issues. There are only very, very silly ones.

Reginald is even a bad friend to his cat.

Occasionally there are little “Ask Beartato” segments. I would not recommend taking any advice from Beartato; his choice of best friend alone leads me to question his judgement. But if Beartato is around while a decision is being made, I would certainly want to get his opinion, if only to see the bizarre direction he will no doubt take the discussion.

If you read Nedroid you will find idiosyncratic jokes, elegant in their simplicity. This comic is the product of a fertile imagination, one that comes up with ideas that would never have occurred to someone else. That’s one of the things I look for, not just in comics but media in general: I want to see stuff I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. I want to think new thoughts. Nedroid makes me think new thoughts, and it does it in such a way that I often fall apart laughing while doing so.

Head forth, immerse yourself in the mad, dream-logic sensibility of Nedroid, and enjoy.

Nedroid is written and drawn by Anthony Clark and updates irregularly. I usually check in every couple of weeks to see what’s new.

Long-time readers of this blog may recognize the name Anthony Clark because he also does colors for Doctor McNinja. He also helped Ryan North propose to his girlfriend, in what is one of my favorite comics/marriage proposals ever*. He’s a pretty versatile dude. I would recommend his comics to people who are also versatile.

Oh, and keep an eye out for that mouseover text!

My nephew would like you to know that his favorite part of this comic is the birthday party scene.

*I mean, of course, that it is both one of my favorite comics and one of my favorite marriage proposals. I don’t actually know of other comics that are also marriage proposals, though I imagine there are some out there.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 31: xkcd

Today’s comic is typically flippant, often insightful, and it occasionally strikes me as profound. Stick figure characters elucidate on the particular worldview of the author, or set each other up for puns, or point out flaws in the others’ reasoning. They typically embrace the unusual and seek unexpected solutions their problems, resulting in the unmistakably eccentric milieu of xkcd.

xkcd is a gag-based strip with little to no continuity. Each installment is usually capable of standing on its own, and reading the whole archive is by no means necessary to following and appreciating the comic. There are occasional callbacks or series of comics making up a single story, but these are the exception. For the most part, each installment represents its own idea, understandable in isolation or in conjunction with others.

A lot of comics involve very specific references to pieces of pop-culture or to some particular physics or programming issue or something else that a large portion of the audience is unlikely to recognize. If you run into one of these, don’t be discouraged; I certainly don’t get every joke in xkcd but I find that the vast majority strike me as funny. And sometimes when I don’t understand it, I look it up and I learn something new!

Now I’m starting to worry that the comic I chose to use as an example at the top of the page might not be accessible to people who haven’t studied physics. You see, time is a tricky thing, and if one reference frame is moving at a speed relative to another reference frame then it can be difficult to determine whether two events occurred simultaneousl--

You know what, I’m just going to show you comic that’s not a physics joke.

There we go.

At times, xkcd feels melancholy, disappointed with the status quo and unsure how to effect change. Characters find unexpected ways to behave, not always just for the joy of the behavior itself, but as a distraction from the tedium of existence.

The tendency described above would suit a more spiritually-oriented comic, but in xkcd it is entirely secular. When characters do find meaning, or happiness, or belonging, or whatever they’re looking for, it’s always through action or connections with other people, with the real world. I think xkcd provides some excellent examples of how atheists handle concerns about life and purpose and meaning.

It’s not a comic that forces introspection, but if you’re someone who struggles with certain questions, you might recognize some of that struggle in xkcd. You might even find some ideas that help you to arrive at your own conclusions, that make your own life easier by seeing a suggested resolution and weighing it for yourself or just bouncing off of it to come up with your own way of dealing with life.

There are a handful of xkcd installments that do really interesting things with the format. For instance, read this, put your mouse somewhere in the last panel, and drag it around. Spend the next hour or so exploring. There’s also this animated piece that had my five-year-old nephew giggling like crazy, and then there’s this one, which is far more than what it first seems. To see the whole story, you can go here.

Those sorts of experiments happen rarely but I always find them exciting.

Most commonly, xkcd installments are fairly simple in terms of presentation. The format is flexible, and is adjusted to suit whatever joke is being expressed. There’s no set size for xkcd installments, no conventions of layout that are used to provide a standard framework. The comic is as large and complex or as small and simple as it needs to be.

There’s a sense of freedom and a joy that continually bubbles out of the xkcd characters. (I know, earlier I was talking about xkcd being melancholy. It does both.) They embrace opportunities to experience unexplored aspects of life, or more often, create those opportunities for themselves and others.

Sometimes these characters in xkcd make me think that my life would be better if I acted more like them, but then that leads to the realization that I can act more like them, that at any moment I choose to take an impromptu road trip or invite a stranger to go kite flying. At its best, reading xkcd is a mentally liberating experience. It makes me want to go out and experience what the world has to offer, and more, it reminds me that I can go out and see what the world has to offer.

The earliest xkcd installments are literally (and sometimes figuratively) sketchier, and often less subtle or polished than later installments, in terms of writing and presentation as much as the art. Additionally, early xkcd could be somewhat crass compared to what it would become. Early on there’s even the use of the word “gay” as a derogatory term, which is something that really stands out to me, but I’ve seen it appear in other places and I guess it’s something that some people do without really thinking about it. There’s a Wondermark installment that does the same thing, and which was later amended to remove that use of the word. The people making these comics can grow and mature, and I can look past things that bother me about their early efforts.

And even though the author was definitely finding his footsteps and figuring out what the hell he was doing for a while, there are a few of those early installments that stand out to me as pretty cool.

While xkcd is usually on the sillier side of things, occasionally it will deal with serious or difficult issues. A while back, the author’s fiancee (now wife) went through treatments for cancer. That experience worked its way into xkcd, in some of the most touching examples of the comic. Actually, I’d say that some of the comics about dealing with cancer are exemplar of xkcd at its best, making use of humor to handle rough situations, finding a way to inner peace through logic, or just processing life’s difficult truths without putting on a happy face. Those installments of xkcd are insightful and reassuring even when they are sad. Personal tragedy has, in this instance, been used to create something that can enrich us all.

xkcd can crack me up or bring tears to my eyes or make me rethink my plans for the day and I can never tell what it’s going to be until I’ve read it. I almost always feel that xkcd has made my day a little bit better than it would have been otherwise. The world is made of possibilities, and xkcd makes me want to embrace them.

It also acknowledges problems with physics analogies that have been bugging me since high school.

There’s quite a range to it.

xkcd is written and drawn by Randall Munroe and updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I recommend it to people who think the fact that we’re living on a planet that’s hurtling around a star that’s hurtling around a black hole that’s moving in ways we’re still trying to understand is fascinating and also that waterslides are pretty cool.

Keep an eye out for mouseover text.

PS If you ever find yourself not understanding a joke, there’s always explainxkcd.com to help.

Previous Entry: Girl Genius