Sunday, February 1, 2009

Comic 537: Duck You, Randall

woo hoo, circles

My first thoughts, on reading the latest gem from our good friend Randy, was simple confusion. "What is going on here? Is this a metaphor for some computer science process of which I am unaware? Is this the beginning of a hilarious new tale in which a kidnapped duck plays a role? Is it, as the alt text perhaps suggests, some bizarre way of duckrolling the reader and demonstrating, yet again, that he knows slightly more about memes than they do?"

Apparently there's nothing though, it's just tricking ducks into walking in a circle. Ducks! In a circle! And...that's all! wooooo? I am left just saying "so what?"

Oddly, a lot of people seem to enjoy this comic. I can't explain why. Commentor Jay, for example. But among other people, this comic created far more vitriol than usual - One e-mail to me said "I fail to see how this comic has any relevant value (comedic, serious, etc.)....Because a bunch of ducks are being made to run in a circle by two jackasses? Hillarious..."

I was thinking about it and while this comic didn't anger me like some do, it was indicative of a major problem I hadn't quite been able to express in words before: when it comes to what kinds of jokes xkcd makes, it is completely all over the map. Puns one day, topical humor the next, long format stories, charts, one-panelers, multi-panelers, something in between - and of course, the occasional example of romance, sarcasm, math, and language. You have no idea what you are going to get from one day to the next. This, I posit, is bad.

Few other comics are like this. In fact, none that I can think of has less consistency in terms of topics than xkcd (that is not to say that xkcd doesn't have an artistic style, which it obviously does. But in terms of what that art is representing, it does not). Dinosaur Comics limits itself in terms of characters and what they do, by having the same characters from day to day. Achewood nearly always uses the same characters that are fully developed that they make xkcd's one recurring character, Mr. Hat, look like - well, a stick figure. Penny Arcade is about video games, usually. A Softer World is pictures with depressing and tangentially related narration. Perry Bible Fellowship was usually about very dark twists on childhood things. Natalie Dee is all about putting faces on inanimate objects. I don't think there's anything you could say about xkcd that applies to even a majority of its comics, let alone nearly all.

Even some recurring characters would be nice - as it is, xkcd is freely roaming all over the intellectual landscape, searching for jokes anywhere and everywhere it can (and, as its desperation makes inevitable, usually coming up pathetically short). It seemed for a time that Randall was trying to introduce some continuity (remember Mr. Beret?) but that now seems abandoned. Perhaps one path to success for Mr. Munroe would be to try to stay consistent in some way with his ideas, at least most of the time, for a while.

And with that, I am handing the blog off to rob for a week. I imagine it will be much like when I did this last december. I'll still be around, I'm just busy with the life some people accuse me of not having so I don't want to sacrifice the quality here just 'cause of that.


  1. Nonsense. This is a terrible comic just because it's a terrible comic: It has no point, there's no joke, no greater meaning, no redeeming value whatever. If xkcd's comics were funny, or otherwise valuable, being a little bit over the map would simply not be a relevant issue.

    It's funny that you endlessly criticize xkcd for being repetitive, and now for being too inconsistent. You're looking for a useful lesson to learn from xkcd's failure, to find method in the madness, an illuminating fundamental problem from which all of xkcd's suckiness arises. But there isn't any. xkcd has always been all over the map, and it used to be funny. xkcd sucks now just because Randall has run out of interesting things to say. But his livelihood depends on his comic, so he has to keep posting so he doesn't have to get a real job.

  2. My feelings on this comic are simple.

    Comic? Amusing, although it technically falls under "quirky relationship."

    The alt text is terrible and should be thrust into hell with the force of a million fucking turbines.

    I mean, come on. That isn't a meme joke. It isn't even meme vomit, that'd be too good. 13-year-old forum kiddies could come up with better alt text.

  3. It's likable in the "bizarre, but [arguably] clever" sense. It would've been better with, well, ANYTHING else as the alt-text, and if there were anything close to a practical purpose.

    On the bright side, you apparently can't even really find anything to dislike about it. You dislike xkcd's lack of a consistent style, focus, and even always at least making an attempt at a joke. That may be a valid criticism of xkcd as a whole, but not any specific strip. At the same time, if you dislike the comic as a whole, you wouldn't have read it, ever. The earlier strips are the most inconsistent, if anything.

    It's a good, not great, comic, as long as you keep it well away from your cursor.

  4. Consistency is an important element of establishing and maintaining a base, actually. Randall's comics were once all in the same key, as it were. Increasingly he appears to have exhausted his ideas for the original genre, so when he posts something based no math, romance, science, or sarcasm, it is a masturbatory shit-fest, but when he doesn't he's out of his element and ends up coming across as aimless.

    It's a problem CAD started having (apart from being written by a shitty writer), though more pronounced there because he started trying to do continuity: he had a tendency to wander off on useless tangents and random one-offs. The main premise of the comic, the thing that had originally drawn his readers, was neglected, even while he was beginning to put a heavier emphasis on them. It had the effect of making everything drag on and generally making reading the comic more frustrating than it already was.

    Penny Arcade, Scary-Go-Round, Questionable Content, Dinosaur Comics, Girls With Slingshots, A Softer World, Diesel Sweeties, Overcompensaing, Wigu, Octopus Pie--all of these are pretty consistent in their content, and fairly successful in the webcomics world.

    Consistency of content is important to establishing and maintaining brand loyalty. It's why many people I know prefer albums to mix CDs and would never put their playlist on shuffle. It's important to maintaining readership on a blog--breaking tone and content can easily turn people off to continued reading.

    Randall has not been consistent lately--even when he makes a comic which is decent it seems so out of nowhere that it's distracting.


  5. Carl I will read this later and leave a more in-depth comment but first:

    LAZY ARTIST ALERT! The ducks in panels 1 and 2 and 4 are copy/pasted.

    Nitpicking? Yes. But I only noticed because the overhead views of the ducks are all so inconsistent (except for Momma Duck, who is copypasta as well).

    More thoughts later!

  6. I rarely here people complain that their work isn't predictable enough... I suppose that's an accomplishment for Randall.

    Many webcomics take time off every number of strips or so for something that's just silly for the sake of silliness (though, usually it's between story arcs which XKCD very rarely has).

    If you're looking for constant lasting value and thought-provoking imagery from a singular freely provided product on a constant basis... the internet is not for you. Go to the library.

  7. Do I really have to go through every single website I read which has consistency in content that keeps me coming back even if the content is not always that great? Because I fucking will.

  8. I really don't see how variety of content is bad. Now if the content ITSELF is bad, yes, that's a problem, but the very fact of many different topics isn't a detriment.

    And Rob, most of my friends love mix CDs and ONLY put their iPods on random. Quality material does not necessitate consistency.

  9. OH GUYS i forgot to mention: rob is guest posting next week. I'll go add it to the post.

  10. @Amanda:

    The first two overhead views are also copy pasted, but the order of the ducklings changes.

  11. Cuddlefish:

    I enjoy a good mix CD, but only if it's put together in such a way that it's consistent and not jarring. And your friends, who like shuffle, are clearly horrible monsters with the attention spans of deranged goldfish who have no place in human society. NEXT.

  12. Totally, variety blows. If you're not going to do the same damn thing all the time, every day, you just need to quit life.

  13. Variety is fine; inconsistency in a single artistic medium is not. Literacy: it's not just for humans anymore!

    it's also for cuddlefish

  14. I have a soft spot for ducks, so the harmless experiment portrayed here didn't raise my ire like it did for others.

    Quack quack!

  15. I think the problem here is that the "comic" evokes no reaction, at least for me. I simply do not care. Ducklings in a circle. And....?

    I would understand if the result was amusing, or if the process was clever. But it isn't. The end result is meaningless. The process is not particularly strange/clever.

    This is very much a "so what?" kind of moment for me.

  16. I saw this as a computer science joke. Or at least, strongly tied to the CS/hacker attitude. Essentially, the idea is to create something new out of an existing system of behaviors.

    The assumption is made that ducklings have only one behavior: following the object in front of them. Normally they are prevented from doing anything silly because the mother duck is leading, and is autonomous. Change the configuration, and you get ducklings endlessly marching in a circle. Of course, I don't yet know what the alt-text was about.

    Also, I agree that xkcd is in an exploratory artistic phase right now, which is why it's been so uneven (or, if you prefer to be unremittingly hostile, sucky). I don't think there's any point in Randall arbitrarily limiting his subject matter unless he hits upon something he wants to pursue in depth. And really, there have been more multi-comic series in the past year than any previous period in the comic. And you've hated them, for the most part.

  17. It's not my fault, pat! they've all been terrible!

    Anyway, I do like your CS explanation for the comic. Maybe if this had been the last few panels of a comic where two cs people debated whether you could make something new out of whatever processes, and then this was one guy's way of proving you could. then it would take a computer thing and broaden it to an elegant real life example.

  18. I agree with feba, about the clever-ish-ness. This one feels more old-school xkcd for me, because it's like awww look they're cute and look at this cool thing you can do with these cute things! Also this is a play on something that used to be popular but has now faded and let me test my power as The Great Randall to bring about memes!

    Also good eyes to the second Cuddlefish (do not be afraid to have a name! We are for the most part friendly), I noticed as well and it bothers me not just because he is lazy but now inaccurate in his laziness as well, and I was saving that for when I came back to re-comment.

    Hmmm. I don't know if I agree, but what do you guys think?.

  19. "And your friends, who like shuffle, are clearly horrible monsters with the attention spans of deranged goldfish who have no place in human society. NEXT."

    I'll take this as you saying that different people have different tastes, and therefore consistency of topics doesn't automatically make something good or vice versa.

  20. XKCD doesn't necessarily have a consistent *topic* so much as a consistent *target audience*: geeks. It aims for stuff that geeks will find particularly funny (such as or Sometimes it manages to exceed that and make everyone laugh ( , Sometimes it falls short and doesn't even make most geeks laugh (most recently But in general it consistently aims for the target audience of geeks.

    (For the record: I personally find XKCD hilarious on average, but that average has decreased significantly of late.)

  21. Ya know, I take back what I said last week- this blog should keep commenting on every strip, because Randall defies possibility and is actually getting worse. There's a real smell of his running out of ideas here- where will it end...?

  22. The alt text ruined it. He could've used that place to say something thought-provoking about cellular automata, and it would've made a pretty good comic.

  23. Rob, I only have one thing to say to you: the White Album.

    It's a mish-mash of everything from Folk (Ob-La-Di) to basically inventing Heavy Metal (Helter Skelter), and yet as a whole the album works, and is incredibly awesome to boot.

    Now, may not be a Revolution 9, but the idea that something has to fit together and have continuity and a similar style to be good is just wrong.

  24. Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da isn't a folky song, it's more Reggae influenced. Blackbird or Mother Nature's Son are kind of folky.

    Anyway, that's a good point- there's nothing wrong with a mix of styles. But when the jokes get worse and more inconsistent at the same time, you have to wonder if Randall's inspiration is running dry.

  25. Bad:
    * Totally radically lame-o img title.
    * I really don't think ducklings would do that, so it's unrealistic. BUT, who says comics should be realistic?
    * Too simple art.
    * Ducks will probably get hurt by too avid fans?

    * Simple and undistracting drawings and idea execution.
    * SUGARY CUTENESS! Ducklings are cute.
    * Original idea. (am I wrong?)
    * The img title could have been worse, right?
    * No ducks were hurt in the making of this strip.

    This one made me smile. I like it.

  26. *Scaring mama duck is mean.
    *Mama duck would FUCK YOUR SHIT UP if you tried to pick her up like that
    *Baby ducks would not react in that way, they would likely spazz out and freeze up
    *What the hell is the point?
    *Ducks are cute (and tasty!,) fucking with them, not so much
    *"DUCKLOOP'D" makes me want to murder people

    That is all.

  27. feba: I don't really like the White Album nearly as much as any of their other stuff; Sgt. Pepper's or Abbey Road in particular. Both of them are very well assembled and flow together nicely. Consistency.

    Here is a lengthy description of why most things I read would be bad without consistency.

    This is not a complete list of things I read but it is a fairly representative sample.

    1. I'll start with blogs. I frequent Wonkette, which is a left-leaning political humor blog. Some of you may be familiar with it! They provide a constant, consistent stream of snark about politics and politicians and general DC gossip. If Wonkette was snarky about politics one day and switched over to deep introspection about philosophy and religion the next day, I would not read it. That would be inconsistent and I would no longer have an expectation of what is going to happen next. I do not want to read a blog without knowing what sort of information it contains.

    2. I frequent XKCD: Overrated, which makes fun of XKCD. Some of you may be familiar with it! Carl, Rob, and Thomas provide excellent, intelligent discourse on a webcomic that has severely declined as of late. They do this consistently! I would never have bothered continuing reading if they only ever did one post about XKCD and then moved on to just randomly bitching about 4chan and talking about what kind of tea they like to drink and what NYU's student culture is like, with no real constant theme. It would be inconsistent and I really have no interest in that.

    3. Now on to webcomics! I read A Softer World, which is the best thing that has ever been written by anyone, ever. Joey Comeau and Emily Horne provide a very consistent artistic medium with jokes which are all in the same genre, and depressing stories which also fit the same genre. They never break form. It is consistent art. If they were a photo comic one day and done with clay armitures the next and written with Joey's joie de vivre and love of adventure one day and with the sarcastic voice of Wonkette the next and with some of Penny-Arcade's more surrealistic moments the next, I would not continue reading it, because he is not offering a consistent product.

    4. I read Questionable Content, which is about hipsters. Jeph Jacques provides consistent characters and storylines and even one-off comics mostly remain within continuity unless he is having a legitimate off day, which happens infrequently. If he tended to punctuate his storylines with a bunch of random unrelated bullshit about video games and go off on story arcs that do not feature any of the characters or affect the overall arc of the comic, I wouldn't read it because that would just be annoying as fuck.

    5. Things I write! I write a blog called Dreamers Often Lie, which features morose microfiction on a consistent level. People would not read it if it suddenly switched over to the Rob Mason Book Review Club or livejournal-style postings asking my nonexistent readers if I should take a nap today. (The answer is no.)

    6. I write another blog called When I Like Something, which is my personal blog. People don't read it because it has no unifying theme and is inconsistent.

    7. Music! I seldom listen to music when it is not in an album structure, because within the consistency of an album there are no jarring changes in emotional content, and the album is much more capable of creating an overall artistic and emotional experience as opposed to an individual three-minute bite-sized chunk. I enjoy concept albums for this reason. I also enjoy seeing bands I know live for this reason, because of the tasteful arrangement of music in a way which is new and different.

    8. Movies! I do not want to watch Amelie immediately before watching Casino Royale. That would just be jarring and weird.

    Honorable mentions: Penny Arcade, Dinosaur Comics, Gawker.

    I hope you are starting to see a trend.

  28. Well, I'm sorta late, but I'll still explain why I liked this comic. Basically, it was cute (at least, ducklings in general are cute - these aren't well-drawn enough to have any personality) and free of the angsty bullshit that's permeated xkcd lately. More importantly, it was original, at least as far as I can tell. You realize we had two weeks there where we had nothing but reference-comics? And we haven't had a completely original joke for a long, long time.

    Obviously, my expectations for xkcd are low.

  29. Rob:
    "I will proceed to prove that consistent things are better.
    1) I like consistent things.
    1a) For example, here are some things that I like that are consistent.
    2) Therefore, consistent things are objectively better."

  30. Rob, now that you have revealed that you read Questionable Content I cannot respect your humour analysis anymore. :(

    Anyway, I always get here too late to make any original and insightful comments, so let's just repeat some that have already been made:

    - This comic was actually pretty funny. A while back someone was accusing this blog of being unable to grasp XKCD's 'unusual humour', but that's total donkey-feathers, because it's mostly just memes and that's not unusual. But this is genuinely unusual humour. And no, it doesn't have a point because it doesn't need one. It's a webcomic. Not an instruction manual, a webcomic. So hats off to Randall for this one.

    - That said, 'DUCKLOOP'D?' should be dragged through a field of burning leprosy.

    - This comic can also be thought of as a clever metaphor for the XKCD forums. Mama Duck is Randall of course.

  31. What I mean to say is, Rob, that you seem to be elevating your preference to a universal truth about entertainment. A lot of people like the White Album. You don't like it as much, and that's cool.

    You can either not listen to it, or you can devote a significant portion of your life to listening to it repeatedly and writing about how you'd rather be listening to Abbey Road.

    I agree with you guys that xkcd is becoming less entertaining (although I usually disagree with your reasons). But there are a lot of unfunny things... why on earth are you wasting your time immersing yourself into something you dislike? As xkcd has shifted towards mediocre, I've become less likely to read it regularly. It seems the opposite has happened to you?

  32. It's okay, Stephen, I'll forgive you. HUGS.

    No, this is just common sense. Consistency is how you generate readers with any sort of regularly released content. It's how you generate fan loyalty. If you want people to keep coming back, you need to make posts which consistently appeal to them. Since nobody can please everybody you need to make posts which consistently appeal to a certain audience. This implies a general level of consistency. This is why Gawker Media has a series of blogs about consistent topics, and why they consistently write posts only about those topics. This is /how brand loyalty works./

    You can argue that XKCD is not inconsistent lately. You can't argue that consistency is not necessary for brand loyalty. Brand loyalty is all about consistency. Consistency in release dates, consistency in quality, consistency in content. If you are not consistent about release dates, people lose interest. If you are not consistent about quality, people lose interest. If you are not consistent in content, you lose your audience. To suggest otherwise is to be wrong. There's really nothing else to it. This isn't just personal preference, this is a basic element of marketing--blogs, webcomics, television series, book franchises. When I buy something with the X label, I expect it to be similar to all the previous X I have read. This isn't a matter of artistic preference, though I certainly prefer consistency and established narrative; this is a basic element of branding and marketing. You provide consistency or you lose your market. You lose your market because people want consistency in their products; people want consistency in their products for the same reasons I do. If I go to a political blog I want it to be political. If I go to ASW I want it to be like the rest of ASW's comics. I like what they have done and want them to continue. They can expand and develop, of course, and even subvert some of their previously established tropes--but they have to be, fundamentally, similar to ASW or I am no longer reading ASW.

    In conclusion, you are wrong and also fundamentally misinterpret what I have to say, and your mother and I are very disappointed in you.

    BlackbirdSquared: I like hipsters, what can I say?

  33. Rob: consistent quality also builds brand loyalty. This is the argument for the White Album in a nutshell. Who cares what genre the Beatles play if everything they do is going to be fantastic (alright, aside from "Piggies"). Or in more traditional brands, you have companies like Toshiba and Honda, whose brand specialty is essentially "physical objects", or Sony, who is also willing to sell you IP (not that anyone has loyalty to Sony IP as such).

    Anyway, I'd argue that early-to-mid era XKCDs were consistent mainly in quality and artistic style. There was a period of time when the main thrust of xkcdsucks was pointing out that Randall was doing the same things over and over again. And now if we are seeing an inconsistent period, it would seem to at least mean Randall is trying to stretch his boundaries. This is always a healthy thing for an artist, if not always the audience.

    Carl: I already see this precisely as "an elegant real-life example." It uses ducks rather than code, does it not? But I may be primed to see it that way by years of building and breaking systems. I feel like the average D&D player should understand this impulse as well -- but that's not a massive demographic either. This is the main problem with jokes about specialized knowledge; you need to set up the joke for the general audience without boring the specialists to tears.
    Remember, any joke correctly explained ceases to be funny.

  34. Consistent _quality_ is needed to build loyalty. Consistency in everything else is a matter of personal preference. As said, people loved the white album, despite how much variety there is in it. I'd buy an Apple product that isn't like anything they've made before.

    Some people subscribe to a "wine of the month" club. Some people would rather buy the same exact wine repeatedly. Some people would subscribe to a "random thing of the month" club, if everything it sent was awesome, and worth the money.

    xkcd fans (of which I no longer consider myself a member) keep returning because they find it consistently worth reading. It may not always be _funny_... sometimes, it's meant to be interesting instead, or "deep." I'm not saying Randall achieves this, but he does for his die-hard fans.

    Some people will subscribe to a blog that has no central topic, if they find that the author is consistently interesting to read.

    Again... why on earth are you wasting your time immersing yourself into something you dislike? As xkcd has shifted towards mediocre, I've become less likely to read it regularly. It seems the opposite has happened to you?

    If xkcd bores you so much, why would you devote a significant portion of your life to reading every comic and then writing about how bad it is?

  35. A wine of the month club is, in fact, consistently wine. I'm not convinced an "awesome thing of the month club" would ever take off, unless it was catering to a suitably niche market, like internet culture. That's pretty broad and disparate. Also, "random thing of the month" delivers "surprise" consistently. And random seldom actually means random.

    I'm unaware of the existence of any blogs with no central topic. I defy you to name one that actually has a significant readerbase. Or, for that matter, a successful business which has not created a brand based on a consistent line of products, or a successful television show without a premise.

    As for your other questions: ask your mum.

  36. "A wine of the month club is, in fact, consistently wine."

    How true; I mean, you'd be pissed off if they sent you a bottle of Advocaat or a roast chicken, wouldn't you?

  37. isn't kind of an "awesome thing of the day" club? I guess it's usually technology related.

    Anyway I haven't commented much in this conversation but I'd point out that even with the White Album, you still are consistently getting The Beatles. You get the four singers and a particular style of singing and lyrics, right? Like, if one of the white album songs just brought in like a female country singer to do a slow country song and then like an African singer to do something in some african language and there was no background music at all, and then for the fun of the beatles brought in a bunch of 5 year olds to sing "Help" etc, the album would suck.

    thinking just about albums I like (and because I mentioned african musicians) one of the reasons I love Paul Simon's Graceland album is that it does such a good job of exploring a particular style of music (s. african) as it meets another particular style (American folk-rock). All of its songs are in that area somehow and it just works very well. Sticking "Sounds of Silence" in the middle, of course, would ruin it.

    Oh and DoubleBlackbird, your analogy with this comic representing the forums is brilliant

  38. Heh. Carl, that country/African/Beatles-4-Kidz album actually sounds like a lot of fun to me. A lot of people like a certain amount of aesthetic whiplash - in fact, that can become its own sort of consistency. You're consistently getting inconsistency, if that makes sense. I'd prefer that sort of WTF mix over Graceland + "Sounds of Silence" or the equivalent, even though Paul Simon is the man.

  39. Actually its an OLD meme reference. There was a "duckroll" well before rickrolling. There is somewhat a point to it. Go google duckroll

  40. Um, Cuddlefish, did you not READ THE FIRST FUCKING PARAGRAPH of Carl's post?

  41. I'm surprised that, in all this talk of other webcomics, Jesus and Mo didn't rate a mention. They are, after all, the best thing on the Internet.


  42. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  43. This comment has been removed by the author.

  44. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  45. ah fuck, let's delete them all then


    does anyone have an opinion they'd like to share?

  47. Sure. I like my songs on mix. I like the "aesthetic mindfuck." I went to go see The Hours, and then A Guy Thing in theatres. 10 minutes apart. Look them up on imdb. I also liked this comic just for the "heh, I can't believe someone would do that" factor. That doesn't mean there's an actual joke here. Better than the recent average, but only by being not totally 'meh' inspiring.