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.

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