Saturday, May 29, 2010

Comic 746: Stuck Up

Birth of A? nay, shun

Now, there may be a context in which this could make sense, but if there is one thing xkcd is not good at, it's telling you the context for its little stories. Maybe this is a particularly violent family. Maybe it's a crime fighting baby of some kind. Maybe it's a clever plot to rob the doctor by hiding in a uterus. Who knows? xkcd sure isn't going to tell you. It's just like seeing a single image of a long story, and you have no clue why it's there.

Is it possible that the whole thing is a set up for the final line? Maybe. It's hard to imagine, because the emotion focus climaxes with a gun in the woman's uterus but maybe he just really liked the idea of a doctor, so used to telling women to "push" when giving birth, changing to "pull" when something goes wrong. But why on earth choose this as your idea of a humorous way for it to go wrong? Why something so astonishingly gross and violent?

Randall does not have a very good record when it comes to comics about giving birth. Here's one example, here's another. Notice anything? Yes, they both involve male doctors abusing their relationship with their patients by making them think something horrible is going to happen. Ha, ha. Ha. And yes, like the current comic, they both involve the idea of a baby going back into you once it came out. Ha, haha. Of course, like the current comic, they all are terrible.

Now I'm no doctor, but I'm going to hazard a guess as to why Randall is making lousy comics about birth: He's a dude who is pretty young. Lots of guys his age may already be parents, but he is not. He isn't married. He doesn't have a child and when he does, he won't be the one giving birth to it. They comedy is truth and that to make fun of something you have to really know it, and I think that's why a twenty-something male really shouldn't be making comics about birth.

OK, I'll change that - I'm not going to tell people what they can or can't write about. I'm just going to say that for a twenty-something guy to be making these comics, he's going to have a harder time with it.

It is possible to make something good on the topic. Some people have been linking to a certain fetus-themed PFSC comic. I don't think this comic is as funny as the Onion article I link to below - some cuddlefish is going to say it isn't even as funny as the xkcd, but they are wrong - but it's still funny, partly because of how surreal it is ("the McDonald's inside you"), and partly because of how both characters take the events in stride, so calmly.


OK now just as a special little bonus, another terrible thing about this comic is that it epitomizes the lameness that follows from a failure to adhere to the "show don't tell" rule. The doctor sees something crazy! it's a gun! So he tells us, it's a gun. We don't get to see it, we just have someone describe it. It's like the difference between reading a really good book and reading a book that starts out "This book is awesome! It's going to be so exciting and memorable. You are going to love this book."

Now, granted, in this particular case, showing us the gun may have meant showing us the woman's uterus. Which I would have disliked even more. Is that a good argument against what I've written? No, it's a good argument about not setting your comic in a freakin uterus.

Let's get back to talking about context. Here's an old Onion article that bears a remarkable resemblance to today's comic: Nation Shocked by Pre-Natal Shooting. It's worth reading all of. Why is it funny when today's xkcd isn't? Both use the image of a fetus with a gun committing or attempting to commit a violent crime. The key difference is that the Onion has a good reason for this: It's a darkly comic piece parodying the violence among youth in America, particularly violent crimes committed by very very young children. The tone of the article makes clear that it is a parody of real stories that had only slightly older children involved. There's still an inherently icky feeling about it, but it serves a purpose. This comic's purpose seems to just be...well, I can't tell what it is.

OK, I think it's time I head on over into the forums and see what they have to say. Perhaps they can enlighten me. Perhaps they can enrage me. It'll be fun I am sure.

"For some reason, I noticed the fact that the string for the face mask disappears in panel 3."
Maybe you noticed because you were reading the comic and saw it happen? The doctor is clearly using a magic string that disappears when you look too closely at it. That must be it, otherwise the implication is that Randall forgot to finish the drawing for some reason. That would just be silly! he is a professional.

OK this is a comment I really like - admitting the comic makes no sense and suggesting at least a pun that he could have used.

....and that's all I care about. Mostly people who are complaining that this comic makes no sense.

WELL, I guess that is it then! No one can explain this comic.

One final word: Sometimes, xkcd is good. Sometimes its bad. It can be bad for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the joke is ok but it just makes you feel weird because of the subject matter. Sometimes the subject is perfectly inoffensive but the joke isn't actually funny or doesn't make sense. And sometimes, you just can't tell what the joke is. This is a case of all of them - the strange, off-putting subject matter makes you feel gross (i hope) but the payoff is zero; there's no good reason we had to read all that.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Comic 745: Untied We Stand

I'm going to do that thing I do - that thing some cuddlefish insist I never do - and say I liked this comic. I liked it because I read it and it made no sense, and then I read it again and it made perfect sense. My brain just had to figure it out, and that process was satisfying in a way that produced humor.

That said, it's not perfect - for one thing, there's a basic SAT subject/verb agreement problem (either "the support group ran into X when IT tried Y" or "the members of the group ran into problems when THEY"). A bigger issue is that the phrase "tried to make a joke fundraiser t-shirt" isn't all that clear. Of course, you know what it means eventually, but I think there's a simpler, more direct way to write it. I think it has to do with the idea that my brain can't really grasp "joke" as an adjective. I know some people use it that way, but it always sounds weird to me. I think "funny" or "humorous" or in this case even "novelty" would work better.

Also, cut out the word "fundraiser." Why should we care why they made the shirt? All we care about is that they made it wrong in a funny way.

Put that together and you have "The dyslexic support group ran into difficulties when the members tried to print funny group t-shirts." Or something. Still not perfect but I think it's better. Anyone else want to take a stab at it?

All in all, though, even though most of my post is criticism, it's still a good joke that wasn't as botched as most. It's still a good example of why an editor - or at least a second draft! - would help xkcd a lot.

That said, the comic's still not as funny as this.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Comic 744: It's All a Game

Guys, remember how xkcd used to be super obsessed with sex? I had almost forgotten, it had been so long. Luckily the theme's absence has now ended. This quirky character was so nerdy that he has confused sex with video games! How is that even possible??

The humor begins with the fact that this character is going to be uneducated about sex. You see, that will lead to awkwardness and if there is anything funnier than sex, it is awkward sex. So we know, simply because he says he'll need instructions, that he will have some hilarious troubles.

And then he can't even do that right! He gets the video wrong, and so he had even more awkward sex! I haven't laughed this hard since middle school when a teacher farted.

My goodness. How much lamer can you get than this comic? It's like a machine was told to look at all the previous xkcd comics and figure out how to make new ones, and it spit out "SEX PLUS VIDEO GAME. COMBINE THEM. THINK OF ONE IN TERMS OF THE OTHER." Does it matter that there couldn't even be a speedrun of sex? That it doesn't make sense as an idea?

I guess there will always be adults who are still amused by this sort of thing. Look: I have no problem with jokes about sex and stuff. It's just like reference-based humor: There's nothing wrong with making jokes that reference other works, and there's nothing wrong with making jokes about sex. The problem is when there is no real joke, and instead you are supposed to laugh merely because sex was brought up at all, and ha ha we are all still nervous about that.

That's really all this joke is: there's sort of a pun thing about video games and speed runs but it makes so little sense that i think we can all agree that the only reason anyone laughs at it is because: sex. and that is just lazy, when you get down to it.

as long as we're talking about speed runs, this comic always made me really happy.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Comic 743: Smugly Superior

the alt text i wrote is 100% a lie

Oh man. This comic - so terrible. So very terrible. So bad that a single weekend is not enough to document its problems. In fact, I'm having trouble contemplating the idea of even ripping it apart now. I guess I'll have to just take it panel by panel.

So far so good. The comic appears to be taking a stand that, while perhaps not explicitly opposed to free software in favor of working software, is at least opposed to annoying advocates of free software. It's nice because xkcd usually takes the opposite stance, advocating against proprietary stuff and making jokes for users of open source operating systems or other programs.

As an added piece of evidence that the facial hair character is meant to be the non-sympathetic one, his dialog is much less natural than the regular stick dude. Regular stick dude's speech is probably the most realistic dialog Randall has written in months. This comic is looking good!

(of note for later: the relationship between the two characters is that of a student and a teacher, with the student e-mailing an essay to his teacher. This is not definite, but the fact that one is portrayed as older, with facial hair, suggests it).


Oh man, this comic is turning out great! That guy totally stuck it to that nerd! This is so weird, but enjoyable. And what is awesome is that people are always using those same complaints against Randall and xkcd. I mean, I am not going to accuse anyone of being autistic because that's dumb if it's false and completely obnoxious if it's true, but the "you are only saying X nerdy thing to feel smugly superior" thing could have been taken from the the comments here. Or the blog posts, for that matter. Dang, this comic is full of promise!

but wait - you can use openoffice to both create and read .doc files. So is it really not "open" ? I mean, you can go a whole lifetime making only .doc files (not odf or whatever) and never buy, steal, or use a Microsoft product. So...philosophically, what is wrong with .doc?

Oh, I know, this will probably turn into a joke about .docx, those are annoying. I mean, Openoffice can read them, sure, but it can't make them I don't think, and yeah, that is annoying, along with all the other changes we all hate about word 2007.

wait, what? How is facebook even involved in this? What is going on here? Why is this person being dumb? Why is Facial Hair acting like this vindicates him? Let me list some issues I am having with the flow of this story:

--Facebook may be closed source, but that is hardly relevant to the argument in panels 1 and 2. The problem is stupid people who say "You want all this information? OK!" and then get annoyed when facebook - a for-profit company! - uses that information for profit! amazing. But how is this a problem of open vs closed source?

--Is this comic really trying to say that using .odf in 2003 would have somehow prevent the rise and/or evil-ification of facebook? How does that make sense? I know plenty of open source folks who still have a huge facebook presence. There's no connection there!

--Why did the person who was talking so naturally in panels 1 and 2, the guy who actually sounded like a real person suddenly switch to a particularly terrible strawman? "We handed control of our social world to facebook and they're doing evil stuff" is clearly not something a real person would say.

Sometimes people get annoyed at the argument that dialog is "unrealistic" so I'll spell it out more than usual this time. The guy is mad at facebook, right? So in real life, he would just complain, and the other person would mock him and say "well that's what you get for giving them control of your social world." In other words, he's clearly admitting that he caused the problem in the first half of the sentence, and then complaining (in a simplistic, almost childlike way) about the problem in the second half. It's the kind of thing that only really would make sense in, say, an elementary school play: "I am the King of England, and I think it would be bad for the Americans to be independent because I want all their money for myself!" or "I am the sugary food group. I want to break all your teeth, and I hate it when you eat healthy vegetables!" You know what I mean? It's usually used in strawman arguments like the one here.

--Where the heck was I. OK so here's a thing: Why are the two people acting basically unchanged over 7 years? They are acting like they just are continuing their conversation with nothing having filled in in 7 years. I certainly never went back to my teachers 7 years after I turned in an essay and mocked them for something they said at the time, but then again, I also never called my teachers autistic, so who knows. I'd like to say that maybe they were just friends, but what kind of friends talk like that? No one. This comic wasn't thought out at all, and I'd like a defender of it to explain what the relationship between the characters is for me. I don't think there's one that makes sense.

--Facebook has been doing evil stuff since forever. Remember the uproar over the newsfeed? that was way the heck back in 2006 and people got real mad and then stopped caring. Is it evil? That is hard to say. But is the panic justified? I'd say not. All we are left with, then, is the Beard Dude taking joy in his astounding vindication when really he has no reason to be vindicated. In a month this guy is going to forget he was ever mad at facebook.

--"This is the world's tiniest open-source violin" ?? Is this the single lamest retort in all of xkcd? All that tells me is that the violin is probably not going to work right. Now granted, the concept of telling a person that you are playing a sad song on the world's smallest violin has never actually made much sense to me. Urban Dictionary sort of helped me out but it doesn't really make sense in this context. Why should the metaphorical tiny violin be open-source? Just because the dude was complaining about open-source stuff seven years earlier? What does it even mean for a violin to be open-source? Did a lot of people help build it? Can anyone edit it? And what is the tiny violin playing? That's the way the joke usually ends, no? And isn't it a little dumb to be making your punchline a slight variant of a joke at least 30 years old?

And after all that, the character I liked is shown to be an idiot, and the nerd who was just trying to be smug is shown to be the wisest of them all. Well hot damn. So much for having hope anymore.

relatedly, new member of the xkcd forum for the win. The forums in general on this one are refreshingly honest about the fact that this comic makes no sense. Some folks are trying to defend it, it is MOST amusing.

as long as we are talking, I should point out that the xkcd store is selling something new and it is a thing with which i can find no fault. That said, it may be time for the store's page to get a little better organized - perhaps by product type.
Also, I would be more than happy to stop blogging entirely if I knew that Al Franken would be analyzing xkcd comics on the Senate floor. As it is, I have to settle for him analyzing Tom Toles. I think Al Franken is quite funny so I assume he's being at least 75% ironic here, but it's hard to tell, and certainly other people are going to be less likely to give him the same benefit of the doubt that I have. Weird.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Comic 743: coming later

Being the world's least professional blogger, I'm going to be a bit late on this post. I was suddenly called away to a mysterious castle to face an ancient nemesis. Anyway, comic 743 deserves a lot of time, so I am just going to wait till tommorow. In the meantime, you guys are all better at this than I am at this point, so start talking about the new comic if you would like.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book Review: "Problem Sleuth Volume 1: Compensation, Adequate"
I think it's safe to say that MSPaintAdventures has hurled itself to the top of the webcomic world faster than just about any other comic. 2 years ago Andrew Hussie had little more content than two frenetic, abandoned stories called "Bard Quest" and "Jailbreak." Taking their narrative developments from reader suggestions, the stories had little cohesion and were not that much fun to read.

But then he started writing a third story, Problem Sleuth, and he used a little more discretion in deciding which suggestions he would use to advance the plot. The story exploded into a year-long epic and MSPA has been going strong ever since. The plot follows a detective, Problem Sleuth (really his title but functionally his name) and his two compatriots, Ace Dick and Pickle Inspector, as they attempt to leave their office building. Jumping in and out of "reality," acquiring new weapons and skills, duplicating themselves, dying, going back and forward in time, and dealing with all sorts of Weird Puzzle Shit, the story is complex, to say the least. It takes the form of a text-based adventure game, with a command for a character at the bottom of each panel. Online, the reader clicks the command and the next page shows the consequence of that action, with a new command underneath that. Repeat 1700 times.

There are, of course, two ways to read the story online: In real time, a panel or two a day, stretched over a year, or all at once. The two are quite different, as I am realizing - I personally jumped on the MSPA bandwagon after PS was over, and I've been reading the current story, Homestuck, more or less in real time for the last year. PS, though, I went back and read all at once.

The main difference, I think, is that these stories are full of incredible detail. If you are reading a particularly long scene, for example, it may stretch over several weeks (remember that the final boss fight of PS is the entire second half of the story). If reading the story is something that you do a few minutes a day for months, you are liable to forget some of the details as large chunks of the rest of your life happen in between installments. Reading all at once, with only a few breaks, that's less likely to happen. Hundreds of panels ago may only be an hour or so back.

About a year ago, I spent a while looking around online for some site that had all of Problem Sleuth in one long, long page. I wanted to be able to load it all up and then read it over a long train ride, not knowing what else to do with that time. It occurred to me then - before I had read it - that a book might be the perfect format for this story. All the panels are about the same size, and you could just put a panel on each page. Yes, it would be a 1,700 page book, but it could be done. No? But then I started reading the thing, and I realized that putting it to the page would be a formidable task, not just for length reasons.

But PS's popularity remained strong enough that people decided a book would be a good idea, though not all in one installment as I had amusingly imagined. Volume I, "Compensation: Adequate" takes its name from the first chapter of the story and includes chapters 1-5 (there are a total of 22 chapters in the story). That gives you the introduction, where we get to know the world and the mechanics (as well as the main characters) and a few early boss fights. The book ends just as PS and AD reach some surly mobsters, just before the whole story does a high dive into the pool of crazy.

So how does the story work after it makes the jump from screen to page? For the most part, quite well. I'll talk about the positives first, since there are more of them. As I wrote above, this is a story that benefits from reading all at once. Say what you will about ebooks and reading online, I think most people will have a more pleasant time reading a long story on a printed page, all other factors aside. It's also faster to read this way, since you never have to scroll around for the next command to move ahead and wait for it to load. No internet connection is as fast as just looking a few inches over. In short, it feels less like a text-based game, the genre it is emulating, and more like a graphic novel. I think it does the story more justice this way and makes for a better read.

One thing I had just assumed they would do is print all the panels equally sized - as they are online. But I was wrong, luckily. As I said above, most pages have four panels, and that's good: the pace is kept brisk that way, since most of the panels are just barely advancing the plot. The panels that are important - the ones that deserve more emphasis in the rhythm of the storytelling - they get a full page. Like this one, or this one. Occasionally a large block of text means that a page only gets two or three panels, but it is always done intelligently. Like any good breaking up of rhythmic elements, the fact that you don't notice it means that it's been done well.

Unlike online, the chapters are noted in the text, with each one getting its own title page. I like this, and not only because the title pages have cool drawings that are a sort of more advanced take on an image from that section. Dividing them up explicitly gives the book a better sense of structure. You can feel closure at certain points, and know at others that a climactic moment is coming up.

Lastly, the book is printed nicely. The colors look good, the commands are in gray so they still feel different, and the panels are legible while still retaining the faux-MS Paint charm that the original had. In addition to the main text, there are a few pages extra Obnoxious Notes (a la this) in the back, and Ryan North wrote as fawning and toady a forward as we were all expecting (not a bad thing) (except, I usually love everything Ryan North does and quite frankly I didn't like this as much. I wonder if he really does love MSPA too much to write a good forward? think about this later).

Most pages (maybe 3/4) also have short notes by Andrew Hussie at the bottom about those panels. These I didn't like as much. Most felt unnecessary and pointless; the vast majority just make fun of the logical or artistic flaws in the story. Quite frankly, most of them felt forced into the book to give it some extra content. There are some interesting ones - a lot - that give insight into the story and the process of creating it, and I wish Hussie could have added more of these.

As an aside, a lot of the expository author's notes remind me of those from the Achewood book, in that they are the author, speaking seriously about the work we're reading. They are sort of the textual equivalent of a director's commentary on a DVD. They are interesting, but I can't help but think that there's something lost when the reading of a work is constantly being interrupted by the author telling you about it. You never get to experience the work, alone. On a DVD, of course, you just turn the commentary off, but you can't do that with a book, and skipping the comments altogether seems like a shame. Something to think about.

ALRIGHT, this review has gone on long enough already. Let's get to the serious problems and we can all go home.

As expected, a major loss in the book is the lack of animations. This is, of course, inevitable, but there are certain ways to get around it. The way Hussie chose was to either ignore the animation in some cases (where it was minor and not particularly interesting) but in the important ones, he splits up the frames and shows you all of them. So here's a comparison of one panel online and its print equivalent.

And how it looks in the book (with a little lens flare from my camera in the lower right corner):

Another one:

And how we see it now:

The fact that the notes below these sections always apologize profusely for the stacity of the image (i made that word up but it's good so whatever) only makes it more irritating to think that you are missing something. Luckily for now, the animations aren't too critical in chapters 1-5. But who knows what later chapters will need? I assume Hussie &co understand what they have to do and have a good plan.

One might wonder what the author could reasonably be expected to do, short of not produce a book at all. I think the best thing, though it would have been much more work, would have been to rework the story slightly and not hew so strongly to the original animations. Change the dancing, for example, to a new panel showing the same thing. If the art is created to be still, you can add details you wouldn't need if it was made to be animated. It would have made the story a little different from the one online, yes, and some purists (I assume there are MSPA purists) would have been annoyed. But the reader would benefit.

Other small notes: I was surprised that there were no page numbers. I was hoping for panel numbers, so that one can more easily cross reference the book with the online edition. Short of that though, I figured the pages would at least be numbered so you can remember where you left off (given that so many images are so similar). Not happening though. Also there are some typos and other small mistakes, that is unfortunate. I am sure the second edition can take care of these.

My final recommendation would have been to make one of the front pages a map of the Problem Sleuth world, like many fantasy books have. It could have been a nice place for some new art (not that there isn't plenty of new art spread throughout) but more importantly, it could have made a complex story far easier to follow.

(update: People point out that there is a map, thought it's not part of the story, but a more polished version of that is very close to what I meant)

"Problem Sleuth Volume I: Compensation, Adequate" is fun for the same reasons the online version of Problem Sleuth is fun. The story is good and told with humor, and the art adds to the strange tone of the whole thing. It's an easier story to follow on paper too, though some animated details are lost. There are those people who will love MSPA no matter what, and I don't think they will be disappointed by this. But the people who will be best served by this are those who tried to read the story online and didn't have the stamina for it. It goes faster and makes more sense in print. If you've been trying to get into MSPA, this is the easiest way to start. I look forward to seeing how the rest of the story works in book form.

Comic 742: Horror Story

wish i could still see Are You Afraid of the Dark

"The call is coming from inside the house!" is one of the most cliched lines in American scary story culture. How cliched is it? The very first Simpsons' Halloween Special features Lisa ending a story with it (Bart is not scared in the least). That's from nearly 20 years ago. Now I'm not trying to say that Randall is actually trying to be scary here - of course he's not - but I'm just saying that all he's done is take something incredibly cliched and add some nerd cred to it.

I actually think the easiest way to explain why this bothers me is to do it with a different medium telling the same joke.

This comic is nearly identical to the shirt which reads "There's no place like" (a slogan thinkgeek likes so much they sell not only the shirt, but a bumper sticker and a doormat too), which I dislike equally. All it's doing is taking a word, "home," and replacing it with a computer nerd phrase that essentially means the same thing. Wearing this shirt is akin to saying "I know that means 'home' " -and nothing more- and laughing at it means saying "So do I," and no more. In short, it's a way to signal to others that you have a piece of knowledge. Nothing else. As such, I find it incredibly obnoxious.

[a quick note: contrary to what some people will say, you do not need to know exactly what 192.168/16 means in order to get this joke. the "it's coming from inside the house" line is so strong a cliche that any reasonable person, like myself, can figure out what 192.168/16 means exactly]

All that aside, this is the second comic in the last three that has cooler than usual art - it doesn't make up for bad jokes, of course, but it's better than the same thing with lousy art. I hope it represents a new direction for the comic.

i feel like I should link to this old comic but I can't quite say why, besides the fake-horror-story connection.

Problem Sleuth review should be up later tonight.

Does anyone know if you can still buy gift certificates at TopatoCo? I know you used to be able to but I can't find it anymore. I am trying to get contest prizes but it is difficult. I may have to switch to some other form of prize.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Comic 741: Blogging About My Content Generation

I think there's a lot of debate over just what the point of this comic is. The Forums, certainly, are a mix of confusion and differing theories. My own theory is that it's making fun of people who claim to know how to work well with new media but are really full of BS.

As I read it, the character on stage is supposed to look stupid, and the guy in the audience is being sarcastic in both of his comments.

The fun part, as many people here and elsewhere are pointing out, is that xkcd has exactly this problem nowadays, to the point that many of us think this may be thinly-veiled self mockery. Except, of course, that Randall Munroe is incapable of self-criticism and mockery and can't really take mockery or criticism from others [I am not speaking of my own, of course, because mine is the toughest of love and the hardest to accept]. Most readers have already substituted "webcomic" for "blog" in the text, and noted that silly "relationship with readers" stuff (think "get out of my head, Randall!") is exactly what makes xkcd popular these days, because we all know the content is lame.

And hey, as long as we are talking about what a blog should do and how it should interact with its readers, this seems as good a time as any to say that I am really happy with the little community that this site has built up and I try to participate in it as much as I can, because I do think that makes it more fun to read and more fun to comment, for you guys and for me. I've been really slow with e-mails these days so if you wrote me one and I didn't respond, you should probably send it again because at some point I just give up and need reminders.

In other news, my review copy of the first Problem Sleuth book came in the mail yesterday! I will write a review in the next few days. First impressions: the story loses some of the fun when it goes to print (in terms of lost animations), but it's a lot easier to follow and read.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Comic 740: Softer, Worse, Slower, Weaker

omgz a poe reference let's all get TOO EXCITED

alright so CLEARLY we are all looking at this comic and saying "woah hey that art looks different! it looks cool!" As you know, though, I am a crappy artist and thus do not like to really talk about what the art in xkcd is like. I agree that it's cool. I think it adds a lot to the feel of this comic, and lets everyone know "HEY GUYS, YE OLDE TIME HORROR" genre without having to outright say "poe reference! poe reference!"

A lot of people like to take comics like this and give the joke a pass, saying that at least the art is good, so we should be nicer on the joke. I, of course, disagree wholeheartedly. The whole reason that this is a comic format is to tell a joke; the art (as well as the text and any other details) should be serving that end. If we just want nice art we can go to a museum.

Now this is, actually, one of the few cases where I think the art in xkcd does help advance the joke, as stated above. But the art can only do so much - how is the joke, on its own?

I say: Pretty bad! The joke seems to be that much like the character in The Telltale Heart, who (spoiler alert!) hears the beating of the victim's heart after the murder has happened, the main character here hears the pounding bass of one "Daft Punk" band of musicians, known, as we are aware, for their steady techno beat (commenters! this is your chance to harangue me for my usage of "techno" right there! go!).

So, to reduce it further, the joke is that he killed the band, and then he heard their beating, which is sort of (like most beats) a heart beat, so it is a lot like the story. But - that doesn't really make sense. Throwing out the whole premise of "wait, you killed the band? what's the story there? why did you do that? oh, i guess we are supposed to not care and just go with it," it's still not done right: The "crazy twist" is that he killed a modern popular band, giving what should be a humorous contrast between the format (gothic-y horror) and the content (daft punk). But that contrast is given away in the first panel! and it doesn't even get emphasis, it's just an aside! it's just "ever since I murdered daft punk, [rest of the sentence]."

An even better joke, as many people pointed out, if to have the beating be real, and just be coming from the floor below (bass being a frequency of sound noted for causing reverberations elsewhere nearby). In fact, he could basically have just pasted comic 411 right underneath this one, and that would have worked pretty well.

that is all i have to say on THAT matter, I think.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Contest Winners! Finally!

SO! more than 4 months after I announce this contest, I finally have me some winners! Sweet. The Finalists were, as you may recall, Jason, Way Walker, Dan, and Fred (click their names to see their entries).

About 65 people voted in the contest, which I think is pretty good. The winner was, by a fairly good margin, DAN!

congratulations dan. I will be e-mailing you about getting your prize. GUYS: do you remember what the prizes are? Dan won $100 at Topatoco, that is pretty good. I strongly regret promising people that much money.

The honorable mentions were JASON and WAY WALKER, who will each get $20 gift certificates to Topatoco. PS WAY WALKER YOU HAVE TO E-MAIL ME.

The loser was Fred. Sorry fred. I don't know what to say to make you feel better. It is really my fault for picking 4 finalists.

Here lets all look at the winning comic together!
I really like this comic. I think it makes fun of xkcd (not a requirement for the contest) but does it in the context of making a good joke. All the elements of the punchline are set up in the comic, but you still don't see the punchline coming (unless you are way smarter than me, I guess). It also uses a lot of comics that had just come out when this contest was around, which I think is nice. It heavily recontextualized them though, so it wasn't just "make fun of comic X using the art from comic X" it was more like "make fun of the whole xkcd process, using a punchline related to comic X and art from comics A, B, C, D etc."

The final panel, presented as an end result comic on its own, is of course lame, but that's the point. As the final panel of the whole thing, though, I think it's quite funny and a great, tidy ending to a massive comic.


Did people like this contest? Do you want more in the future? What if I am too poor to pay for nice prizes, and just have cheap or nonexistent prizes?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Comic 739: Malady


Hello dear readers! It is good to be back. Alas, I regret that once each year I must visit my hidden moon base and ensure that my robots are harvesting its sweet moon juices, though I hope that soon I will be able to do this via telecommunico-transporanarium. Until then, I think Harrison for dealing with a tricky week, and Rob can go suck a cow.

Today's xkcd comic genuinely mystifies me. I'd like you to try to imagine me writing the following post (the beginning of it, at least) with a more honest voice, not the sarcastic one I usually employ. Today's comic asks us a question: "Ever notice how Wikipedia has a few words it really likes?" And the thing is, I haven't. I have never noticed that. Have you?

Now it's true that I don't spend as much time on wikipedia as some people, those who notice some very specific facts about the website, so perhaps I am not in the best position to judge.

But really- what word is he even referring to? It can't be "Malamanteau," since that isn't a real word and isn't on wikipedia (though of course some xkcdicks tried). Some have suggested that the joke of this comic is that wikipedia loves the words "neologism" and "portmanteau" but that seems silly; the fictional page on "malamanteau" should have all those words in it, as they are crucial to understanding what the word "malamanteau" means.

Alas, like all xkcd comics, and wikipedia ones in particular, many xkcd fans assume that it is the height of cleverness to attempt to twist wikipedia to fit the world of xkcd. Why people do this, I do not know. Some seem to take a perverse joy in it. (that last forumite would be particularly terrible to argue with, I suspect - "let's get enough of us shouting the same thing and it will have to be correct!").

Anyway - I still have to ask: What words do they mean? Do they mean words that have articles about them (ie, wikipedia likes some words so their pages get to stick around while others are deleted) or do they just mean some words get used more often in articles?

this comic is like observational comedy but no one has shared the experience it is describing.

Here is an example of a terrible way to tell a joke. He starts with the conclusion, then explains the process which got us there, then says the conclusion we've already seen as though it is a punchline. BAD JOB.

I got way far behind on Homestuck recently and am trying to catch up. It is not fun, and I do not know why I am doing it.

Achewood has taken a turn a turn for the very, very creepy recently, but as should be expected, is doing it well.

Dinosaur Comics and Overcompensating both have new DISTURBINGLY SIMILAR shirts for sale. I see their sale and i call: shenanigans.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Comic 738: Incisive Comedy

It is with a heavy heart that I inform you that, after writing this, Harrison died a tragic death, murdered by a swarm of cuddlefish. In honor of his noble sacrifice, please join with me in enjoying Harrison's final words.

cutting words

Maybe they're right. The cuddlefish, I mean. Maybe I do just hate xkcd and discriminate against it unfairly. 'Cause after last Friday's train wreck of a comic, this one is, by any objective standard, pretty good. And yet it leaves me feeling... meh.

My initial reaction (after "meh", anyway) was that this concept might actually make a pretty damn good SMBC. It's the sort of recontextualizing joke Zach Weiner does best, after all, since it's obvious what's going on in the panel. (Or at least it's obvious that "Operation" is somehow involved.) And the alt-text mirrors SMBC's dark streak pretty exactly.

But, as usual when Randall tries to rip off SMBC, it just doesn't work. Again, part of this is overreaching: With one panel and no facial expressions, you can't get the same oomph as, say, Sunday's edition. But most of it is, how you say, fucking bad jokesmanship. All humor is based on an element of surprise: you're led to expect one thing, but instead you get a swift kick in the balls. (See what I did there?) And the gap between what the panel leads you to expect, and what the caption says is actually going on, just isn't wide enough to provoke more than an "eh."

To be honest, I can't even imagine how Randall thought this was funny, except maybe as anti-comedy. (If you look at it as a deliberate subversion of your expectation of a joke, though, it fucking kills. [Okay, it's not that great even then, but little Randy needs to build up his self-esteem somehow.]) There's a classic Steve Martin bit, from back when Steve Martin was funny, which goes as follows:

"I guess I'm kinda thinking about my old girlfriend. We were together about three years, and uh... sometimes when I get on stage I think about her, because she'd travel with me, and I'd be performing, and I'd hear her laugh... I guess I kind of miss her. And, uh... she's not living anymore, so... [laughter] You think that's funny? I guess I blame myself for her death. We were at a party, we were fighting... And she began to drink. She ran out to the car, I followed her, I guess I didn't realize how much she'd been drinking. She asked me to drive her home. I refused. We argued a little more, she asked me again to please drive her home, and I didn't want to... so I shot her."

That's funny shit, and of course it's even funnier when you hear it delivered by the master instead of in black-on-white on the Internet. But imagine for a second if the punchline had been replaced by: " she got in the car, drove off, and was hit and killed by a drunk driver."

Way less funny, right? Yet it still technically subverts your expectation of how the story's going to end -- it's just so close to those expectations that it doesn't work as a joke. Because I have a constant hunger for newer and ever more mixed metaphors, second only to my craving for pure uncut Bolivian marching powder (damn STRAIGHT I'm making fun of addicts now, ISHMAEL), I'm going to describe 738 as a paint-by-numbers duck. It looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, but it's still not a real work of art. I think my meaning is pretty clear.

Unorganized thoughts: 1. A number of you have said that this would only work if the kid swallowed batteries, too; I've never taken an "Operation" gameboard or whatever you'd call it apart (or seen one in the past 10 years), but aren't the batteries contained under the buzzer? Anyone wanna do some science and get back to us? 2. This is disgusting; hat tip to Bangs Cheese (eww) for pointing it out. 3. Why does it take place in October '04? Like on Friday, I have only conjecture: Either he's appealing to his Bostonian fanbase -- October 2004 being of course the month the Red Sox toppled the Yankees in the greatest series of all time -- or he pulled a date out of his ass. 4. Your deja vu is justified.

P.S. I only just thought about this now, but I wonder if last Wednesday's comic had something to do with the "marathon post-ROFLcon epitaph session" that led to this far superior Dinosaur Comic. If so, maybe Randall should talk to funny people more often, as it doesn't look like the relative success of last week's first two comics is gonna be repeated anytime soon.

P.P.S. This is the last comic of my guest-posting run, and I just wanted to thank y'all for being as active and often hilarious in the comment threads as ever, as well as for not finding my home address and mailing me bombs and/or rotting foodstuffs. (They haven't come yet, anyway.) AFAIK, Carl will be back on Wednesday, but I thought there should be some way to repay you for your support/patience. I've been thinking about some advice my father gave me in my younger, more vulnerable years, which I've been turning over in my mind ever since and which I want to share with you guys tonight. It's relevant to the purpose of the blog, too; I think we can all learn something from it.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that robot bacon can has Christopher Walken."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Comic 737: Dated Humor

You clamored for more Rob, you begged and pleaded, but instead you got Harrison, who explains why XKCD sucks in general as well as specifically!


Sigh. Okay, so this is one of those weird comics that comes up from time to time that just don't seem to have a purpose. It's not a joke, it's not an attempt at interesting or insightful commentary, it's just a couple of stick people exchanging "witty banter" (or perhaps, in the striking phrase of one commenter, "two douchebags arguing over something inconsequential") that is neither witty nor banter. (Discuss!)

I don't have anything against actual witty banter, mind. It's one of the defining elements of screwball comedy, and I love me some screwball comedies (plus stuff that doesn't really qualify but is clearly screwball-influenced). But there are two major, major differences between something like this and something like (the good, 1940s) Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

One: All good screwball movies -- actually, most comedies of any stripe that are worth anything -- ground their dialogue in strong characterization. Since everyone in xkcd-land is indistinguishable unless they're a girl or wear a hat, Randall has never developed strong characters. So this strip lives in a vacuum, a portal to a few seconds of two friends' lives (or are they really friends, after all? Can anyone really ever know another person well enough to be a true friend? Yes, duh, you're fucking retarded for asking) with none of the before or after to provide valuable context. It's another example of Randy doing something that might be funny in the right hands, but fails miserably thanks to the arbitrary restrictions he's set on his comic.

Two: Screwball comedies are, y'know, funny. This is more like a bad Johnny Carson joke: "This yogurt is really old. "HOW OLD IS IT?" "It's so old, people were using a different calendar when it was packaged!" Except Carson would never use that, since it's terrible and makes no sense, thus the May 7/May 12 crap to make it "work." Except even then, if you dig into it, it still doesn't actually make sense; the Julian calendar is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar (which we use), so yogurt that expires May 12 Julian would expire May 25 Gregorian -- in particular, it'd still be good on May 7 of whatever year. Plus, to get technical about it, "civilization" never used the Julian calendar exclusively (think China), and between the 1400s and 1918 even different parts of the Western world used different calendars. Oh, and more importantly, it's incredibly awkward (would any real person ever say "when this was packaged was civilization using the Julian or Gregorian calendar"?) and unfunny. So there's that.

In conclusion, this is textbook bad xkcd: Randall writes a "joke" that's way too complicated for its payoff, puts it in the mouths of characters we've never seen before and will never see again (with not one but two lines of post-"punchline" dialogue), and draws it shittily. And then to top it off he can't even think of anything different for the alt-text.

A postscript: some commenters have said shit like "I've never seen a perishable product with an expiration date that did not include the year." So I'mma blow your friggin' minds now by telling you what I believe to be the SUPER-SECRET ORIGIN STORY of this terrible comic.

We know a certain dorm at MIT, which shall remain unnamed to protect the weird. A long time ago, there lived in the dorm a mildly lactose-intolerant senior, who decided one fine October afternoon to make himself some macaroni and cheese. (He was only mildly lactose-intolerant, remember.) So he bought some milk, cheese, macaroni, made his dinner and put the rest of the groceries in the community fridge. For the rest of the year, however, he never gave a thought to that milk when he opened the fridge -- after all, it couldn't be his, since he was lactose-intolerant!

Anyway, eventually the spring semester came and went, and the lactose-intolerant student cleaned out the fridge for the last time, but left the milk, thinking it was someone else's. Summer passed, August came, and people started to move in to the dorm for the fall. They noticed the milk, with its stated expiration date of OCT 18, and thought: Huh. I didn't know milk kept for that long.

Well, it doesn't.

Pretty quickly the truth was discovered, but instead of throwing out the year-old milk (now known as The Milk), the students (perhaps addled by the courseload) decided to keep it. It's still there, some 15 years later, living in its very own mini-fridge. A few years ago, it even had a bar mitzvah (question for Jewish readers: would it be kosher for sentient The Milk to eat meat?) I don't know if there are special plans for its 16th, but if they are, I'm sure they're awesome. Unlike the comic.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Comic 736: The Joke Is Dead

Hello, everyone. It is Harrison week, but I, your faithful guide Rob, wanted to note that Carl is an inferior human who had POOR POOR HARRISON sending his emails to the wrong email address. That is why this is later than usual. Without further ado:

Sup, bitches? I'm Harrison, and I'll be your guide for the next few days on our fantastic tour of all the different ways in which xkcd is a terrible, terrible comic, and Randall Munroe is history's greatest monster (yes, worse than Jimmy Carter).

First let me wish you all a happy Cinco de Mayo. In honor of the Mexican battle or whatever today commemorates, I will write the remainder of this post entirely in Spanish.


Eso comico es horrible. Primero, no estoy loco. Donde esta la biblioteca? Somos extremos, como la television. Claro que si?

La cucaracha, la cucaracha, para bailar la bamba. Besame mucho. Soy un perdedor.

...Fine, I can't write the post in Spanish. But I totally would if I remembered anything at all from high school, because that's the kind of crazy bastard I am. But this blog isn't about me, it's about the comics, so let's move on to that.

This comic... actually, this comic isn't that terrible. My biggest beef with Randall has always been his inability to stick to a basic setup-punchline structure -- see e.g. his repeated use of PPD and propensity for telegraphing the joke. And to his credit, there's none of that here. The title doesn't describe anything that's not made clear in the panel, and the punchline is safely tucked away underneath, with no extraneous crap afterward. If Randall's stealing from SMBC, it at least seems like he's learning something in the process.

However, like many previous editions of xkcd, and also many cakes, this comic may be amusing and/or delicious-looking at first sight. But if you start to pick at it, it crumbles, and any attempt to repair it causes further crumbling until the comic is no longer funny, and the cake is ruined. (And I'll never have that recipe again....) So let's start picking, 'cause that's what we do.

I'll start with the most obvious flaw: sweet zombie Jesus but how is the subject not up there with airplane food or toilet seats in the pantheon of Cliche Comedy? Over 3000 Google hits for one specific phrasing. (Okay, 3000's not that big, but I gave up a good ten minutes for you trying to find a better search term. That's ten minutes of my life I'll never get back, so shut the fuck up already). Point is, "haha headsets make you look crazy/socially deviant" is not exactly the cutting edge of comedy. Even Randall's done it before, and while I'm not convinced the first time was "good," it at least had the throwaway line "Shit. Does Bernanke own a crossbow?" which is pretty much comedy platinum.

But there's even more wrong in this delicious crumbly cake of suckiness. For instance: Why the hell would using a serifed versus a sans-serif typeface ever be so important? I can only think of one obvious scenario where anyone would care about such trivialities, and am thus forced to conclude that Stick Guy is now playing the part of Don Draper. (Yes, I get that Randall made the conversation about something stupid to add an extra layer of wacky frosting. But it just comes across as forced.) That's not even the only distracting incongruity; in the background, stage left, we see a family reacting in shock and horror to Stick Guy's apparent conversation with the dead. But stage right there's another person, much closer to Stick Guy, who isn't reacting at all. Why isn't he shocked? Did he, too, once kill a man for using Times New Roman over Helvetica? Or does he just see the headset while the family can't? Either way, why the fuck is he in the comic in the first place? His only purpose seems to be to distract the eye and annoy me. Whatever. Fuck that shit. Let's talk art.

I never feel good about criticizing xkcd's art, since I'm pretty sure I would in fact be worse at it than Randall is. So I was happy to see that the art here is pretty adequate. But does the kid in the background have a Sarah Connor moustache? Or is he just pulling his forehead skin over his eyes in shame?



Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Comic 735: Natural Disaster

i have a floor RIGHT HERE
A lot of people in the comments have been saying they liked this comic more than they usually do, and I agree. This one is pretty good. It has a crazy situation that is resolved in a logical and understandable way, and while some people have claimed that makes it very much like a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, I think it's a far broader category than just that one other comic, so it is not a problem at all for me.

I also particularly like the fact that he has conveyed a lot of energy in the drawing on this one. Though there are flaws with his artistic ability, as always (in this case, it's hard to tell whether the characters are children or adults, which is important), he still managed to convey a scene dominated by chaos. That's funny, as a general rule. It's easier to do in film, of course, where you have not only moving images but sound as well, but it is certainly possible in a static image as this comic proves. It's the various explosions, they are good for this task.

Anyway, since the comic is pretty straightforward and I don't have much else to say about it, I thought I'd talk a little about the newest blog post Randall has up. We'd been wondering what the purpose of that color survey was, and after two months he finally told us. Of course, the data has no actual value in any scientific sense, as the participants were self-selected (as was the extent of their participation), there was no control group that I can tell, and all the information was self-entered. Much like any online poll, the data is worthless. You'd think a "scientist" like Randall would care about this, but at the same time, I don't think he is trying to present the data as anything more important than it is.

My real point about the post is that all else aside, it's pretty interesting! And while it has a few bits of humor and sketching thrown in, that's clearly not the focus. The point is, Randall has some interesting ideas and he wants to tell you about them. In other words, it is a perfect post for the as-yet-theoretical Randall Munroe Illustrated Picto-Blog! We really have got to make sure he gets the message that a blog is the right outlet for his ideas.

I think anyone talking about humor on the internet should really read the newest Overcompensating comic. And anyone looking for humor on the internet should really read every Overcompensating comic.
To cover my lazy ass for the next week, the next three comics will be reviewed by guest HARRISON, who you may recall from this post, which, though he did not know it at the time, was actually his secret tryout for guest posting in the future. it was a tryout which he passed, clearly. enjoy folks. I AM WATCHING YOUR EVERY MOVE.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Comic 734: Spreading the Virus

Outbreak yarrrr
It's not bad enough that zombies are played out as hell. Because they are. I'm not saying that you can't have funny stuff about zombies (who out there is going to tell me that they didn't like Shaun of the Dead?) I'm just saying, if you want to make zombie jokes, they're going to have to be damn good to stand out from the crowd.

Is this joke good enough? I don't think so. Maybe you do, but come on. It's a pretty boring, somewhat obvious subversion of a genre. You could just as easily have gone for Frankenstein (the monster) getting the normal brain instead of the messed-up one, and being an ordinary person. Or a radioactive spider who is released into the world, but is then crushed by someone's foot before he can bite anyone. I feel like I've heard these jokes in tons of different places. [update: Apparently I was getting Frankenstein confused with the Mel Brooks' parody Young Frankenstein, which, while it means that I've referred to two generations of Brookses in this post, also is a dumb mistake. so here's a new example: Man gets turned into werewolf, but it's always really cloudy out and so he can't tell if the moon is out or not.]

One such place, as Tomical pointed out in the comments, is a recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (recent here meaning last 6 months), which has the exact same joke (zombie movie is really romantic comedy). This is hardly the first time xkcd has copied SMBC, and I'm sure it's hardly the first time that some xkcd defenders will try to explain how it is a totally different joke (xkcd is left to right, smbc was top down!) and hopefully we can all yell at them. STOP COPYING OTHER PEOPLE'S JOKES, IT IS EXTREMELY LAME.

ps. it has been more than two months since the xkcd blog was updated, just sayin'. ok, let's all admit that i am fucking psychic.