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.

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