Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 34: Weregeek

Today’s comic is about a group of friends who take games very seriously. Some might say too seriously, but that’s a matter of personal opinion. Indeed, the separation between “geeks” and “others” tends to be a matter of what they define as “too seriously.” While a “normal” person might look at a group of people who are heavily invested in the plot of a D&D session and declare them to be taking it too seriously, the geeks who are playing the game most likely think they are taking it just seriously enough.

There are geeks doing this all over the world, but we’re going to focus on one group in particular. We’re taking a look at the lives of the cast of Weregeek.

Weregeek tells the story of a group of self-identified geeks as they go through the mundane challenges of real life, the extraordinary challenges in their games, and even the occasional extraordinary challenges of real life. They make friends, tell fun stories together, deal with interpersonal drama, and crack a lot of jokes.

Note: Weregeek is heavily continuity-based and the story won’t make a lot of sense if you don’t read from the beginning. However, many individual installments can stand on their own, and I’ll avoid spoiling any plot points in this post. This is a rare case of a story comic that I don’t think suffers for knowing a little extra before you start reading, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it if I were you.

There are many kinds of geek, and the ones in Weregeek are of the gaming variety. They play Dungeons and Dragons, other dice-rolling rpgs, and sometimes do live-action role-play, which in their case usually consists of pretending to be vampires.

The story alternates between showing us what’s going on with the characters and showing us what they’re doing in their games. Each game has its own plotline, which will progress when the characters play… resulting in a handful of stories that are only picked up on rare occasions. There’s just not enough time in the characters’ schedules… or the author’s life… to keep everything moving forward all the time.

My favorite is the vampire larp. I always look forward to finding out how things are going when they get to another session of that. But they’re all compelling in their own ways.

The heart of weregeek, I feel, is in the character interactions. I like watching this group of friends through their personal character development and the shifts in their relationships. This mostly has to do with Mark, the outsider, getting to know the others better and becoming firmly entrenched in this tight-knit group of friends.

Character development happens gradually over time, so slowly that you can’t always see it in action. It takes looking back on subtle shifts to really get an idea of how these people and their relationships are growing.

As such, most of what I feel are the most important parts of Weregeek happen when there’s not a lot going on, plot-wise. When characters sit around talking to each other, making terrible puns or just enjoying each other’s company, that’s when I love this comic the most. It’s not about the particular conversations or the punchlines, it’s about seeing these people hang out and be friends.

Even early on, there are hints that these characters don’t quite live in a world exactly like our own, but it’s difficult to tell for certain. The typical geek-jock rivalry takes on new dimensions in Weregeek, though the non-geeks aren’t necessarily jocks. Some aspects of this storyline bother me, painting an arbitrary line and declaring that those on either side must be mortal enemies, but I’m waiting to see how things resolve before I cast judgement. I think it’s entirely possible that things will be less black-and-white than either side believes.

The visual shorthand for “geeking out,” representing the geek in question as a shadowy, almost monstrous figure, is more literal than symbolic.

At times, this real-world conflict feels so similar to a role-playing game that I wonder if there’s not something else going on behind the scenes. For the meantime, I have to be content to wonder.

The story in Weregeek progresses slowly, in such a way that I think it is better read in large chunks than with one day’s installment at a time. It is certainly easier to keep track of things when reading through large swaths of the archive than while following daily updates. Not only will details be more fresh in the reader’s mind, there will be less likelihood of frustration while waiting for a particular plot line to be picked up again. This is definitely a good comic for binge-readers.

Get into the story, enjoy some jokes, become invested in the character drama… there are a lot of ways to enjoy Weregeek, and hopefully you will find some of them to your liking.

I really, really like the idea that this is the true meaning of Canadian Thanksgiving.

Weregeek is written and drawn by Alina Pete, with some help on the writing side from Layne Myrhe. It updates Monday through Thursday, and usually has a sketch of some sort put up on Fridays. I recommend it to people who totally know all about larping, and to people who don’t know anything about larping but find the concept interesting.

Next Entry: PVP

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 33: Not Invented Here

If you’re reading this blog right now, you’re using software. There’s gonna be some hardware in there too, like a screen and something to take input. And html, I guess. I don’t think html is software. I think it’s something else. I don’t know a lot about software. But what little I do know, I was taught by Not Invented Here.

Not Invented Here is a workplace sitcom set in the software industry. Our main players are Owen and Desmond, that good ol’ comedic standby of a competent individual and his totally useless companion. Most of the wacky hijinks are centered around these two guys’ exploits, but they are surrounded by a cast that only seems normal at a cursory glance. I suspect that the focus is actually on two of the most sensible and low-key characters just because focusing on anyone else would mean losing any remaining tether to sanity. One of their coworkers is a robot, as you can see above. We’re pretty far removed from the real world.

But as is true in the case of satire and metaphor, something unrealistic can often do a better job of representing the truth than a strictly accurate portrayal would. Indeed, exaggerations and caricaturizations are part of what make comics work as a medium: A single panel is not a picture of a single instant, but a compression of moments into one image, wherein all the motion and change that occurs during a brief span of time is laid out and visible.

As a panel compresses and exaggerates moments in time so that they form a meaningful communication to the audience, so does the cast of Not Invented Here compress and exaggerate personality traits so that the audience may observe and understand them. I doubt that there actually are coders who are quite this crazy (though I admit I cannot be certain) but I’m sure the neuroses on display here are merely writ large versions of ones that do crop up in this kind of work environment.

Note: Not Invented Here does employ continuity, but it is a gag-based comic and most installments can stand alone. I’d recommend reading it in order from the beginning because it’s easier to understand where characters come from and what’s going on, but I wouldn’t worry too much about spoilers or stress out about remembering continuity details.

Like any comedy involving technology, the “technophiles vs luddites” conflict gets trotted out. Usually those kind of jokes take the form of “let’s all laugh at people who don’t know as much about computers as we do.” In Not Invented Here, though, we see characters who are so knowledgeable about computers that their non-tech-savvy friends often come off as the reasonable, relatable party.

I say “often,” not “usually,” because, this being a comic of extremes, the only alternative to being hyper-competent when it comes to computers is basically being able to blow a computer up by touching it. There still are plenty of jokes at the expense of those who don’t know how to make their computers work, but we go into them knowing that the other characters know more about computers than we -- or, rather, I -- ever will.

For instance, I totally identify with Owen here. I mean, sure, I use shortcuts now, but for years my only experience with shortcuts was accidentally hitting them when I didn’t want to. And then I would have to call my sister who works in tech support and get her to figure out why Word was putting red squiggly lines under everything I wrote, not just the misspelled words. True story!

The setting informs the humor, providing natural motivations and obstacles to create conflict and therefore story. But the humor isn’t limited to software and the foibles of creating it. Much of Not Invented Here is a comedy of personality, just stirring up this pot of characters and seeing what they’ll do when they bump into each other. This is fairly common in sitcoms, where the setting is merely an excuse to have the characters be together. (How much of The Office was actually about selling paper?) The setting of Not Invented Here actually is integral to the story, but that doesn’t stop the characters from giving us some fun that’s not directly related to their actual jobs.

Not Invented Here provides a fun look at what it’s like to work in an industry that affects us all. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from reading it, though that’s probably a dangerous assumption on my part. Someday I’m going to be in conversation with a software engineer and I’ll think I know what we’re talking about because I read about it in Not Invented Here and then the software engineer will give me that “You’re crazy and I don’t want to talk to you anymore” stare and I’ll have scared away another new friend. Even if a good portion of what I’ve learned is inaccurate, though, I do think there’s some value in hearing a little bit about the software industry from someone who’s actually been there, as one of the authors has.

I’m always excited about comics that can teach me things, but even if you’re not eager to discover the hidden secrets of software and those who make it, Not Invented Here is an entertaining little comedy with a lot of heart and character to offer even the most casual and disinterested of Internet denizens.

Not Invented Here is written by Bill Barnes and Paul Southworth, and is now drawn by Jeff Zugale. It used to be drawn by Paul Southworth, but I guess he’s got more important things to do or something. Readers of this blog may know Bill Barnes as the artist on Unshelved, another workplace sitcom but set in a library. For no reason whatsoever, people who enjoy the art in Reptilis Rex may enjoy the early look of Not Invented Here.