Saturday, July 26, 2014

Guest Review: The One True Review

[Today's guest review comes from Jon "Jon 'History's Greatest Monster' Levi" Levi. It is precisely one year out of date. I haven't read it. -Ed.]

As my birthday treat to you all, I am writing a review of what has been described by many as Randall's magnum opus, the comic that was nominated for a Hugo award, and is affectionately known by its fans as the One True Comic.

And since yesterday marks a quarter of a century since the day of my birth and subsequent circumcision, I thought the comic's title would be especially appropriate for the occasion. Yes, I am of course referring to:

Comic title: Time

Alt text: Wait for it.

This is what XKCD visitors saw on Monday the 25th of March last year. I am reminding you of this in case you don't know that it went on to become the first panel in an ongoing story, or if you do know this, then you might not remember how it all started.

It wasn't until half an hour later that someone noticed that they had moved a tiny bit. Anyone who checked in the next 12 hours would have seen something similar, since they didn't really do anything until midday (local time). And over the next five weeks, observant people followed their progress day by day, hour by hour as they... built a sandcastle.

No really, that's all they did until the 29th of April. By that time some people had made little Javascript applets and .gifs that played each panel so far in order. So you could actually see what had been going on. You couldn't really slow them down to see the dialog, but they weren't saying much at this point anyway.

And that's when I lost interest. It wasn't until late July that I noticed it was still going... and it had a twelve hundred page forum thread. Someone had also built a better viewing applet, allowing me to catch up on 3000+ panels of Time, and engross myself in hourly updates for the next few days, and then it all ended on the 26th of July, a year ago today.

What made this story so fucking great? What was wrong with it? Let's find out together!

Useful links:

This is your last chance to turn back before I spoil the ending, so if you haven't read it yet, I suggest you click the Geekwagon link above. If spoilers never bothered you anyway, Wikipedia's plot summary is more than adequate, but I'll try to explain as I go along.

First let me say how bizarre it is that proper viewing of this comic requires going to a third party site (which Randall has since linked to). The comic page itself only showed the most recent panel, and to this day it only shows a loop of the final few panels. There is no way you could follow the story by staying up all night, every night, to watch a series of hourly (initially half-hourly) updates. Even XKCD fans have their limits.

In short, the gimmicky format made the comic a lot harder to read. Is this a problem? Well no. The confusingness of it is what brought a great many fans together, and they formed a community around it. More on that later. But for the rest of us, I think the sense of mystery is what kept it exciting. Make no mistake about it; there is no way this would have received the attention that it did if he released it in a more conventional format. It was enough to not know what would happen next. So with all that in mind you'd think he would have paced out his story to take the most advantage of this. Well not exactly...

The Pacing

I can't be any more frank than this: the pacing was awful. You may have noticed this figure on Geekwagon where yellow squares are important, and red squares are less important. The data is crowdsourced, so take it with a pinch of salt, but notice that there are very few yellow boxes near the top. There is an entire quarter of the story where almost nothing happens. The plot didn't even get going in earnest until panel 2651, in the last sixth of the comic.

And the black squares are just filler.

It matters less now you can fast-forward through the boring parts. But imagine waiting a whole month of realtime for this. Some people did. And for them that the ending must feel really rushed by comparison. It's almost like the comic called Time never quite got the hang of timing. So without further ado, it's time to dissect that plot.

The Plot

So, as their epically boring sandcastle nears completion, Cueball and Megan (that's what the fans decided to call them) realise that the sea is rising and will wash away their hard work. My first response to that was to wonder why they didn't know about tides, but we soon find out this is no ordinary tide. One could be forgiven for assuming their ignorance, because they admittedly don't know much.

Panel 661 – To quote Isaac Newton, “I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.”

They try to figure out between them what is causing the sea to rise. “Does it rain on the sea?” asks Megan. “I don't know,” Replies Cueball. “If it does it feels like a waste.” They wonder if water might be rising out of the ground, or if some solid object has displaced a large amount of seawater. They don't know if there are other rivers (which is an odd thing to not know), so they decide to explore.

Oh and before I forget, there's a bit where Cueball tastes the seawater (why would he taste seawater?) and finds it to be less salty than usual. That's going to turn out to be important later.

Panel 488 – To be fair, there are worse ways to foreshadow a recurrence of the Zanclean flood.

And then, agonisingly slowly, it fades to white while the tide laps against the sandcastle. It took three days of Outside time for this to happen, and it takes a patient fan to endure this. Most of those on the forums believed the story would end there. Ah, gotta hand it to those XKCD fans and their low, low expectations.

Panel 951 - The Great Fading. Oh, and don't forget the cameo from Little French Girl. She will turn out to be important later.

Thus begins what the fans refer to as the 'Journey Eon'. And at 1644 panels, it takes up over half of the story. It's nowhere near as dull as the Sandcastle Eon, as there's a change of scenery every few panels. The dialog changes to reflect this, but the plot is still spread rather thinly. The most important thing that happens here is when a big cat attacks Cueball (panel 2226), and Megan fights it off, injuring herself in the process.

I do like the little exchange they have in panels 1004-1006 where Cueball says that they haven't walked very far, so how can they know if the sea never ends? Megan responds that this is what the first part of not ending looks like. It's echoed in panels 1071-1073, where Megan says that they cannot even begin to know everything. And Cueball responds that this is what the first part of knowing everything looks like. And he's quite right, as they go on to learn a lot about the world in their travels.

They start by the shoreline, find a river, climb into the hills, then scramble up the mountains, find another river, and a waterfall. They also discover a range of different animals and plants along the way, including a snake, a porcupine, a squirrel, various birds and these baobab trees.

Panel 1525 – Introducing the 'Wow Baobabs'

The appearance of the baobabs prompted many to speculate on where Time was set. This actually became the most well-documented part of the comic on the wikia as forumites rushed to identify plants from their silhouettes, and animals from their... descriptions. Those who guessed Africa were only half-right. It was later revealed to be halfway between Africa and Europe, in an area that is presently covered by the Mediterranean.

We don't really get an indication of how much time has passed (again, so ironic for a comic called Time), until it's mentioned in panel 1600 that they have walking for 'days'. but we don't actually see them sleep night until this beautiful night sequence with a rotating sky sphere and everything.

Panel 2393 – Night sky in the year 13291. I think that might be Orion on the left.

This was actually a rather clever way of telling us when the comic was set, since star positions will move in a predictable way over the next 11000 years. And while only a few people would have picked up on that, it was still a rather neat trick. He even drew it without Antares, a star that may have burned out by then.

The Plot Begins in Earnest

So far the only two characters have been Cueball and Megan (unless you count LaPetite, who walked on twice and didn't say anything). That changes in panel 2659, when they meet three people from a clan that live on top of the mountain. The problem is they don't speak English. They are affectionately known by fans as 'Beanies' (due to their headgear) and their language as 'Beanish'.

Panel 2671 – If my high-school French is anything to go by, (s)he's saying "My favourite colour is red."

Actually they're more likely to be French than anything else, given the part of the world this is set in. Cueball and Megan struggle to communicate with the Frenchies Beanies at first, until someone manages to tell them, through the medium of drawing pictures on the ground, that there's a translator nearby.

And to be fair, I do like the way the comic has of showing us what's been drawn on the ground.

Panel 2740 – Although I'm not quite sure how he got ‘speech’ from that.

There's a little more walking and speaking in French Beanish, and our heroes are taken into a castle. Megan is appropriately amazed, and a little bit jealous when she compares it to her sandcastle, which is a brilliantly characterful moment.

Panel 2835 – It's not the size of the castle; it's what you do with it.

Inside they meet their translator, a long-haired lady who was named by fans as Rosetta. Her grasp of English is limited however, so her lines come out distorted and difficult to read.

Panel 2875 – Translation of the translation: “You arose here from the desert below? Nobody transpires there.”

If you're reading from Geekwagon, you might want to read the script. (Use explain xkcd if Wikia makes your browser cry.)

I can see what Randall is trying to do with this, yet it somehow makes the comic even less accessible to readers. Also, it gives the impression that her voice would be deep and booming, or possibly distorted by echoes. That's not a problem per se. I can always imagine her being voiced by Brian Blessed in the middle of St Paul's Cathedral.

Rosetta tells them this: the reason why the sea is overflowing is because there is another bigger sea (the Atlantic Ocean) that is flowing into it. This is actually something that could happen (and has happened before) when Africa and Europe join together, and the Mediterranean sea dries up leaving an inland 'sea' like the Dead Sea, and a lot of land below sea level. When the Straights of Gibraltar open up again, the Atlantic Ocean comes flooding back in and fills it all with seawater.

Panel 2907 – Everything inside that dotted line will be underwater. Italy is on the right. And at the top of the map is their present location. Told you they were French.

Rosetta explains to Cueball and Megan that the their old town is doomed. The Beanies tried to warn everyone to leave, but that one tribe must have missed the message. Horrified, Cueball and Megan run back down the hill to save their friends.

I'm not sure how long the return journey takes. Again it's implied to be days, but the comic skims over it in less than 100 panels. Along the way, they find that some rivers have already started to flood. And when they reach home, an evacuation effort is already underway.

However 12 people have been left behind, and it is up to Megan and Cueball to save them. They know where to go now because of the map they stole, but they do not have a way of crossing rivers, when suddenly...

Panel 3037 – Little French Girl ex machina!

So they use the wooden parts of the sandcastle as a raft, which they ride up the river and reunite with the rest of the village. Their voyage continues overnight until they reach land. When they do, it's a place they have never been before. And that's where the story ends.

Panel 3092 – The last piece of dialog in Time.

Yeah, I also felt the ending was a bit sudden, but that again is a pacing problem.

The Facts

The story of Time came off as incredibly well-researched. The wildlife (a mix of European and African species) was obsessively catalogued by Randall. It goes without saying that the night sequence is scientifically accurate for 11,000 years in the future. He even consulted with a linguist to construct an entire language for the French Beanie people. That's fucking impressive.

That being said, you don't write a story for the sake of dropping every single piece of your research into it. And that's what I think Randall has done. The extensive journey sections look like they were written simply to show off Randall's knowledge of Afro-European fauna. As a writer, you are not supposed to do this. I think research is a fine way to make your fictional world feel more real, but there is such a thing as overdoing it.

Panel 1867 – They spent a whole 35 panels on these two birds.

But sometimes the things you research can give you the idea that sparks off an entire story, which is what I think also happened here. Randall must have heard about the Zanclean flood that happened 5 million years ago, and decided he wanted to write a story about it.

Let's give him credit where it's due. It takes some special creativity to take an interesting geological event, yet one that seems remote and outside the human scale, and to create a compelling story out of it. That is what Randall has done here, and I commend him for it. But it wouldn't be a story without its characters.

The Details

Does it strike you as weird that none of the characters are named? Someone suggested (most likely correctly) that Randall avoided naming them for the very same reason he draws them as faceless stick figures – it's supposed to make them more relatable – an empty shell that we inhabit. I'm just not sure if it works that way with names (I'm not sure if it works with faces either, but we'll get to that).

I mean I never once thought the main character was called Jon, or related to him because he was unnamed, and I'm a massive egotist. That might just be me though. For what it's worth, the fans have assigned a name to every single character. Every. Single. Character.

Whether it works or not, the decision to draw faceless characters is probably rooted in a teaching (which Randall takes way too literally) from Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics. Simply put:

I own that book. And it mentions another reason for why cartoonists draw simplified faces (besides laziness, which I don't deny is also a reason). The more detail you remove from a drawing, the greater the emphasis on the detail that's left. It's a subtle way of telling the reader which parts are important. But if you leave no detail behind, there's nothing to emphasise.

There are reasons why artists put those details in: to differentiate characters from each other (hair colour, etc.), to emphasise certain traits, and to differentiate characters from their surroundings. This comic put all its detail in the surroundings; every tiny plant was researched thoroughly. But it would have benefitted from more detail in its characters.

Panel 1909 – Can you see Megan and Cueball in this picture? I can only see Cueball's head. And I can't tell if he's been beheaded or just lying down.

I'm being facetious of course, but you get the point. Detail should, at the bare minimum, clear up this sort of ambiguity, and do a whole lot more. It should tell us what we need to know about a character. There are some cheap ways of doing this, like giving visible scars to a battle-hardened veteran, or glasses to a nerdy character. I can see why Randall avoids this, but it can and should be done more subtly.

For instance, anything to tell us who Cueball and Megan are would have been welcome during that sandcastle scene. For all I knew, they could have been spoilt tourists on a shit-pile beach in Norfolk. (No offence to you if you're from Norfolk; I'm sure all your beaches are lovely.) It makes it difficult to evaluate them as characters, which is precisely what I am about to do.

The Characters

Neither Cueball nor Megan know very much about the world, but they are curious enough to find out. They speak in awkwardly simplified English. And they like building sandcastles. Thus I came to the obvious conclusion: they are children. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.

Panel 833 – That Isaac Newton quote seems more relevant than ever.

I wasn't the only one who believed they were kids, until it was pointed out that they do quite a few things that a child wouldn't do, such as fight off a wildcat, and take on the responsibility of saving their town. But I still see them as adventurous little youngsters. Why?

Maybe it's because I was brought up in a media landscape where kids can build secret laboratories, transform into aliens, and whatever the fuck they do on Codename KND. And I use these to justify my kid-theory. But in reality it was the other way round; I wanted Time to be more similar to those shows, because I have a soft spot for stories about children. (Dammit, I can't think of a way to say that without sounding dirty.)

So I guess the thing about relatability is true. The characters were drawn as blank slates. So I filled in the blanks with what I want to see, and I hate myself for it.

However despite everything that can be said about it's characters, they are not what made Time succeed. This is a comic that owes almost all of its success to: 

The Community

I can't believe I've gotten this far in a review of Time without mentioning the One True Thread, the only forum thread (that I know of) which spawned its own mock-religion. If you go to the page where it ended, you'll notice a lot of the people posting there have Time-related avatars and signatures. Or perhaps more correctly, they are OTT-related because for many, the thread has become a bigger focus than the comic itself, along with its own unique vocabulary.

They refer to themselves as OTTers. They refer to Time as the One True Comic (OTC) and Randall as the One True Author (OTA). They have OTTifications, where they modify an Outside comic or song to make it OTTerrific. Instead of hours as a measure of time, they use newpix. ONG is a word for when a new image is posted (which, despite the all-caps is not an acronym, but an onomatopoeia). Blitzing is when you read the entire thread, named after forum user BlitzGirl, who was the first person to admit to doing this. A ketchup is when you catch up on all the new posts after this. An animal in the comic is called a molpy. The big cat that attacked Cueball is called a keyboard. And this review, because it speaks ill of any of those things, is known as heresy.

And you know what? I can't bash it. It's all very tongue-in-cheek, they're clearly having a lot of fun with this, and it's inspired a lot of creativity, even long after the comic is over. And that, to me, is awesomeful.

I do believe they would have done the same thing if none of them had ever seen a novel before, and Randall wrote and released a dull sci-fi tome, one page at a time. When the format of a story is so... novel, and compelling, none of the events in the story matter so much as the story itself, and the shared experience of reading it.

Conclusion (TL;DR?)

With all that in mind, I think Time is the best that XKCD has to offer. That is meant as both a compliment and a criticism. It didn't really deserve all the acclaim it got. But as far as I'm aware, no one has tried to copy it. And that is probably for the best. This sort of thing can only be done once.

I won't give an alphabetical grade for this comic because Randall has been the one teaching me all this time. I learned a lot from his mistakes and successes in writing long-form fiction, and I hope to see him give a grade to me when I get my own story out, Died In A Blogging Accident.



    I love you Rob.

  2. Thoughtful, insightful review. I think your criticisms of the characterization and pacing are spot on. Even reading Time way after the fact, in one sitting, the beginning dragged on and on, and the ending... just kind of sucked. Not only are the protagonists fairly nondescript blank slates, but they aren't even consistent; their conversations in the beginning ARE childlike and innocent, which isn't how they come across once the story really gets going. You're not just projecting, their characterization definitely shifted. For me the conversation with Rosetta was the highlight, I thought the smudged font was a creative (and slightly creepy) way to suggest a language barrier and I loved the sense of mystery being revealed.

    I think a reasonable summary of Time would be: cool concept, impressive research and detail, far more effective use of the stick figure art style than is typical for xkcd, but objectively, as a story, somewhat lacking. Not trash by any means, not a masterpiece either.

    1. At the risk of betraying everything I stand for in this vale of tears, I think it's important to note that Randy probably intended for this to be something for his readers to explore and discover and obsess over, rather than for it to be a complete story. So for those superfans it presumably paid off.

  3. jon given you've read Xkcd for a long time I'm not sure I see why the concept of 'adults who act like children' confuses you

  4. This comic is only really rewarding for people who have the time to obsess over it. I think it says a lot that Randall was comfortable posting something that would require such an amount of effort to follow. Despite the fact that there were so many people who were willing to follow a storyline that was actually quite dull, I think it is a little bit arrogant.

    As Rob says, it is probably more about the exploration and obsession, which just adds to my feeling that XKCD is hyped up by people who like to class themselves as nerds. The concept itself was quite cool and different, and must have taken a lot of work, but I actually imagine that the main motivation for many readers was to prove that they were superior nerds to the average XKCD fan.

  5. The most damning criticism of this comic is that you've already said as much as (or perhaps more than) can be said about it in a block of text which took me under 5 minutes to read.

    1. Haha, I'd love for you to be right, but you're wrong. Imagine when Time is considered a classic by literature professors, and they write whole books about it, analysing every last detail, from the subtle differences between frames, to the speech bubble placement, to the script of the constructed language. That is what the future looks like.

    2. Haha, I'd love for you to be right, but you're wrong. Imagine when Time is considered a classic by literature professors, and they write whole books about it, analysing every last detail, from the subtle differences between frames, to the speech bubble placement, to the script of the constructed language. That is what the future looks like.

    3. This is why I hate Blogger's commenting system.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. jon levi there is no property of you that is not worse than all properties of all other entities

  8. Chris Houlihan's room

    You know, for old times' sake

    1. Since when nostalgia for a terrible forced meme become okay?

      I don't think it's okay.

  9. Replies
    1. no-body cares

    2. Damn right I do.

    3. Anon 2:09, you seem like a sad and frustrated individual. I understand how that can be. Here's chapter 3 for you. Hope it takes your mind off things. :)

  10. Oh good, this place is dead.