Thursday, October 15, 2009

xkcd: volume 0 - The Review

woah hey, it's carl! i'm back to post this super special book review. then: aloria!
the cover is really boring, don't worry about it

First off, I want to start this by expressing deep and sincere thanks to Alexis Ohanian at Breadpig for sending me a copy of the xkcd book. The quick backstory is this: I wanted to do a review of the book; I didn't want to pay for it; I wanted free things. So on a whim I e-mailed Alexis (who, in addition to being a founder of reddit and breadpig, is the guy interviewing Randall in the Reddit Interview). He said yes, and I was excited, but also skeptical that it would actually work out (I mean, getting my mailing address is probably a good way to play a wonderful prank on me). So that's why I didn't mention it too much on the blog - I wanted it in my hands first. Doubleplus thanks to Alexis because not only did he send me a copy of the book, he sent me a second copy when I told him -truthfully, don't worry- that the first hadn't arrived.

My first feeling, after reading through the book, was genuine surprise. Not that it was particularly good or particularly bad - it isn't either. Just that the things that are bad are not the things I was expecting to be bad, and the things that are good are not the things I was expecting to like.

So let's talk about the details. The book is about 112 pages long (the page numbers, as discussed below, are mostly useless). Some larger comics (442, 556, 475) are split up on multiple pages; some pages get multiple smaller comics (page "10001," for example, has four one-panel comics - 179, 191, 210, and 200, in that order). Of course, some pages fit exactly one comic. This is just a necessary effect of how xkcd uses vastly differing sizes for its comics, but the result is a little jarring - the images and text on page, say, "page 111" are huge while the comics on "page 12000" have tiny little words and pictures. Stick figures that look about the same when you read xkcd on screen grow and shrink as you read on paper.

Yes, there are annotations and little drawings and stories included in the book, but not many. Perhaps 1/3 of the pages have them drawn in (in bright red). A few pissed me off (usually of the "if you don't get this joke, here is what it is referencing" or "lots of people love this comic" variety), but a few were interesting. Particularly those where he mentions that he made an error in the original comic and had to go back and change it - not something he usually admits. What I was not expecting was the codes. There are lots of different codes all over the place - series of letters, braille, dancing stick figures, numbers, puzzle poems, etc. The page numbers, which appear to be in ternary, are also apparently part of the code. While that might be fun for some readers, for most it will just make the book unpaginated for all intents and purposes. I personally don't care about the codes - to me, they are just annoying distractions that I won't be able to or care to solve. I guess I'll just look up the answers online sometime and see how clever they are.

That said, I am generally pleased with which comics Randall chose to put in the book. Only one of my "most hated" comics - 513 - made it to the book, but a few that I really like - 284, 285, 290, 487, to choose some at random - are there as well. Some choices are inexplicable - for example, Journal 1 and 2 are there [next to each other, unlike online] but none of the rest of that story. Why have the beginning but not the rest?

Now here is where we are going to get to one of the stranger aspects of the book, something I think is a fault, and I can't think of why they did this: Though Randall is careful to mention in the book's description that every comic's alt-text is included ("discreetly," though i don't see why that is necessary), neither the title nor the date of the comics are included. The Penny Arcade and A Softer World parodies aren't labeled as such, so if you don't know those comics, you are just going to be confused. And then there are some - ok actually we're going to do this differently.

Read this comic. I've deliberately taken the title, date, and alt-text away. Now, if you happen to remember that key context, this next question isn't for you. But otherwise: did you think it was funny? Why? Just because it was a nerd playing a nerdy game?

The point I'm getting at is that this comic came out right after Gary Gygax died, and that's him in the comic (the alt-text is "RIP, Gary"). But without that information - which is not present in the book - how is a reader supposed to know that? (The same problem exists, to a lesser extent, with comic 500. did you get it?) update: the alt-text for the Gygax comic is in fact included, as are all the alt-texts. But even with that, the context is still hard to get.

That is enough criticism for now, I think. The book is nicely printed, with the few comics that are in color looking pretty good. The "copyright" page is nice, though the introduction won't tell you much new beyond the "How I got Started Writing XKCD" stuff. And I do really like the back cover.

In short, it's a book that an xkcd fan - or even someone who used to be a fan - will like, but if you are expecting much more than what you can find online, you'll be disappointed.

(update: Hey, look which book review is on twitter. if you said "this one" well yeah, that was obvious)
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update: OH, and today's panel 5 utahraptor? I totally get your secret hidden reference. totally! but thank you for not using your obscure reference as a punchline, only as a throwaway line that people can ignore with no problems. thank you utahraptor, for all that you do.

29 comments:

  1. Eh, I guess I could like it. =)

    Not that I'm considering, I'm not that enthusiastic anymore... but it sounds neat.

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  2. If it did have 631, Carl would have perished from WTF syndrome.

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  3. didn't they finish the book before 631 was unleashed?

    anyway, that's a pretty solid review there carl. i don't mind the dashy statements; in fact, i probably wouldn't have noticed them had you not pointed them out. WAY TO GO

    so wait he wrote in annotations in bright red? explaining the joke? if yes: ughhhh. if no: what did you mean then

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  4. I had no idea that D&D comic was actually about Gary Gygax until I read this. Although you're right, it does make it even better (although it's pretty amusing anyway).

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  5. I think thats a very, very, very fair review coming from the guy who leads the world in anti-XKCD,ness.

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  6. he said he would be fair.

    I might consider buying this now. Maybe.

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  7. Fair enough review, but you're questioning of comic 500 sans title/alt-text is a prime example of what I hate about this blog. The Death comic, I can see your point. I still found humor, but it was less funny with it just being a random geek. However, the election comic doesn't require a title to be funny. He's talking about an election. We know this because of all the terms he uses. At the end he looks up 2012 statistics. In the US, where Randall lives, elections for the president are held every four years and are commonly referred to by year. They are the most visible elections and generally the only ones referred to simply by the year they are held. So, no problem there.

    What can I say? You shoot for the stars, you just usually come up empty handed.

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  8. I do think that D&D xkcd is funny without understanding the context. However, I think it's a lot of missed opportunities given that it's supposed to be an homage.

    Gary Gygax did the freakin' Tomb of Horrors! Either he's the DM, making everything impossible for Death ('your character steps through the doorway, and instantly disappears from existence in every possible way'), or, more fittingly for comedic irony, that could have been what Death did to him.

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  9. IT'S FINALLY HAPPENING!

    http://www.reddit.com/r/comics/comments/9ukwk/nowhere_xkcd/c0eif7t

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  10. Ch00f, thanks for that link! We have discovered a new Could Be Better!
    http://imgur.com/yKTMd.jpg

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  11. Im glad to see you are not actually a crazy-for-nothing hater.

    The fact you can actually recognise when something is decent makes your criticism a lot more trustworthy as harsh as it might be.

    I really misinterpreted this site

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  12. First time poster, long term listnerOctober 16, 2009 at 11:44 AM

    Um, am I the only one who thought that without the aid of faces and randall's penchant for kissing the rose- today's comic looks like the girl is thinking about dinaraurs while the guy gives her head?

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  13. I'm certainly thinking about it now.

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  14. hahaha "kissing the rose"

    i love you

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  15. Nope, mostly because the male stick figure would have a severely broken back if he was kissing the rose.

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  16. Holy shit those could-be-betters are down right hilarious.

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  17. I'm surprised you didn't talk about the widely varying comic sizes more. That struck me as being beyond lazy in the actual creation of the book, as if he cared more about his addons and annotations that for the most part didn't really add anything that an avid xkcd reader wouldn't already know instead of making his book look like he put in, you know, effort.

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  18. Also the fact that his head doesn't appear to be touching her crotch. At all.

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  19. Lack of visible contact proves nothing--remember how Randall draws people sitting in chairs?

    Unless they're really hovering...But that still wouldn't explain the strips where peoples' heads aren't connected to their necks.

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  20. i didn't know about Gygax's death even when i read the comic - hell, i didn't even know who he was, and so of course wasn't aware of his death. i still found 500 hilarious. if it were monopoly, i would have chuckled. it's just that the idea of using an absurdly long game to play against Death is funny in and of itself.

    meh, i was somewhat disappointed in the annotations as well. but i've been a collector of printed comic books for years, so even having annotations in the first place is a good mark in my book (pun, though horrific, is intended).

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  21. Look at page 101100 where the D&D comic is... The Alt Text is right there between the panels! "RIP Gary"

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  22. CARL!

    I know this is months late, but how could you not realize that that MSPA comic that you claim Utahraptor is referencing is, in fact, a reference another, vastly superior comic, which is much more likely to be what Ryan North was thinking of? In case your PLEBIAN MIND hasn't figured it out yet, the reference was to this: http://www.mspaintadventures.com/sweetbroandhellajeff/?cid=005.jpg

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  23. oh FINE, you are right. i am just so stupid, i linked to the WRONG PART of the mspaintadventures.com domain

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  24. I had never read that comic before, and I think it's pretty obvious that it's supposed to be Gary Gygax.

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  25. Why? What clues can you point to that show that it is Mr. Gygax, and not some random D&D player?

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