September 23, 2009

The Planet Of Inexperience

In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera writes:
We are born one time only, we can never start a new life equipped with the experience we've gained from a previous one. We leave childhood without knowing what youth is, we marry without knowing what it is to be married, and even when we enter old age, we don't know what it is we're heading for: the old are innocent children of their old age. In that sense, man's world is the planet of inexperience.
What a beautiful encapsulation of the human experience.

Like many I suspect, I sometimes dream of having the opportunity to live life over again, to revisit poorly thought out decisions, or adjust for factors unknown at the time. Alas, we are given no such second chances. Our only alternative is to make the best choices we can based on the information available to us. We can content ourselves that every other hapless soul finds itself in the same quandary.

Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), a pioneer botanist in the American Northwest, can literally be said to have been one of those lost souls. Despite taking part in several expeditions on the American frontier, his fellow explorers knew him to be almost permanently astray. They lit watch fires every evening because it was the only way he could make it back to camp.

His woeful itinerancy culminated one evening when, despite the fires, he failed to return, and his companions were forced to go look for him. They called out his name, and made enough noise that Nuttall heard them through the trees.

But perhaps they were Indians. They might have heard the others use his name. So he went charging into the brush in the other direction. For three days, he led his party on a winding, meandering chase through the woods. Eventually, and by fortunate accident, he led them right back to the original camp.

History remembers Nuttall as one of history's greatest failures, but he did not allow his deficiencies to prevent him from also being one of America's most important early botanists. Like Nuttall, we all bumble and bluff our way, trying to convince ourselves their is some meaning in all the bluster, and doing our best to make something of the great practical joke of life. As Kundera points out, every one of us, no matter how accomplished, is a miracle of ignorance.

Lyric Of The Day:

Teachers keep on teachin'
Preachers keep on preachin'
World keep on turnin'
Cause it won't be too long

Lovers keep on lovin'
Believers keep on believin'
Sleepers just stop sleepin'
Cause it won't be too long

I'm so glad that he let me try it again
Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I'm so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin'
Till I reach my highest ground

"Higher Ground"
-Stevie Wonder

September 21, 2009

First There Was Nothing...Then There Was Calvin

#1 Calvin and Hobbes

See Introduction | #9|#8| #7|#6|#5|#4|#3|#2

Not fair, you cry. It's not a webcomic. It was a newspaper comic strip, and its creator retired well before the rise of the Internet.

Perhaps, but thanks to UCLICK and Google Reader, I can still read it every day. And whether or not it truly belongs on a list of webcomics, its tremendous influence on the medium cannot be denied. An entire generation of Americans has been shaped by reading Calvin and Hobbes every morning.

As the folks at Progressive Boink expressed it:
I can confidently state that Calvin and Hobbes outclasses the rest of the comic strip world more than anything else has ever outclassed the rest of its medium. Sans this strip, the industry is characterized by guys sitting on rocks making stupid puns, a Family Circus kid misunderstanding the meaning of a word, or an overweight father playing golf while telling jokes such as I LIKE GOLF and GOLF IS HARD. It's a medium that doesn't really deserve something as good as Calvin and Hobbes, but it got it anyway, and the newspaper-reading world was made a better place by it.
Hyperbole, yes. But not by much. Calvin and Hobbes was much more than just entertaining. It made us think. Even as children, we recognized ourselves in the two protagonists, whether in their stringent refusal to yield to authority, their inability to escape their own nature, or the way in which they are so misunderstood by the adults around them. They are miniature philosophers, and we will forever owe Bill Watterson a debt for their creation.

Since his retirement, Watterson has become our generation's Salinger. The longer he resists any kind of compromise or comeback, the more the legend of Calvin and Hobbes grows. He is the Beatles, minus the solo careers, Abraham Lincoln, absent a bullet in the head.

It is incredible to realize that Calvin and Hobbes only ran for a single decade. It is as much a part of my mornings as the New York Times, breakfast cereal, or oxygen.
Be thankful we lived to see it, and feel sad for those who passed their lives in the interminable dark ages that proceeded its advent.

Milan Kundera writes:
Once upon a time I too thought that the future was the only competent judge of our works and actions. Later on I understood that chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty. For the future is always mightier than the present. It will pass judgement on us, of course. And without any competence.
Who can say how the future will judge Calvin and Hobbes. In two hundred years, will our sons and daughters will be reading it alongside Faulkner, Beckett, and Fitzgerald? I can only assert that they should be.

Lyric Of The Day:

He's a miniature philosopher
He takes notes on all he reads
But that doesn't satisfy his needs
He's a desk clerk at the bank and trust
There's so many contracts and paperwork to do
He gets so busy at the bank and trust
There is no time for Nietzsche or Camus

He's a miniature philosopher
He writes essays on Voltaire
But if he died no one would care

He doesn't know why his life turned out this way
No one ever reads his dissertations or allegoric plays
So he comforts himself while searching a rhyme
That the public rarely recognize a genius in their time
(poor little guy)
He's a miniature philosopher
Though he hasn't got a friend
He's sure he'll be famous in the end

"The Miniature Philosopher"
-Of Montreal

September 18, 2009

T-Rex De Le Mancha

#2 Dinosaur Comics

See Introduction | #9|#8| #7|#6|#5|#4|#3

It would be natural to assume that one of the major appeals of the comic as an art form is the illustrations. Dinosaur Comics proves that you are wrong.

You see, in Dinosaur Comics, every strip has identical artwork. Panel 1, T-Rex in three quarters profile, tail extended behind him. Panel 2, close up on T-Rex, mouth agape in seeming excitement. Panel 3, the scene pulls out to reveal T-Rex stomping on a log cabin, with a car parked out front, and a female Dromiceiomimus glancing back at him. Panel 4, T-Rex about to step on a human, with restless Utahraptor standing behind him. Panel 5, T-Rex peering over his shoulder at Utahraptor. Finally, panel 6, T-Rex again alone, standing pigeon-toed.

With every strip visually identical, there is no story. Nothing happens. It is much akin to Calvin and Hobbes riding the sled down the hill. You know there will be a crash every time. The allure lays in the conversation.

And every day, T-Rex and his two friends have a new conversation. They muse on all manner of subject matter, including racism, epistemology, time travel, and space murder.

Over the years, we have learned that T-Rex is an everyman. He is also an overly enthusiastic man-child in love with himself. Most of all, he is a modern day Don Quixote, passionately committed to his vision of the world, and refusing to allow setbacks, society, God, or common sense prevent him from fully effectuating his own reality.

From reading this interview, I gather the author is much like his short-armed creation. Ryan North, I salute you. You have taken the art form of Internet comics to its pinnacle.

And by the way, to carry the comparison to Don Quixote to its logical conclusion: Utahraptor is Sancho Panza, Dromiceiomimus is Dulcinea, the log cabin is Rocinante, and the windmills are God.

Lyric Of The Day:

Dinosaurs lived a long time ago
They were terrible lizards don't you know
Some ate plants and some ate meat
Some ate fish and some ate beasts
One was called Diplodocus
One was bigger than your school bus
One was called a Triceratops
Three horns to stop anything that hops
Now can't you just see yourself walking along
Leading your pet Trachadon
Or feeding your Brontosaurus Rex
Or scratching your Diplodocus' neck
Or riding on a Stegosaurus' back
Or swimming in Brachiscaurus' track
Oh what a time and oh what a fun
Playing tag with your Ignanondon
And if we had Dinosaurus now
Could they get along with a horse and a cow
Well I wish they hadn't become extinct
Dinosaurus would be nice pets and friends
To have around to run outside
And play with every day don't you think

"Dinosaur Song"
-Johnny Cash

September 14, 2009

The Balloon Is A Metaphor, Which Represents A Balloon

#3 Daisy Owl

See Introduction | #9|#8| #7|#6|#5|#4

Popular entertainment is littered with strange, dysfunctional, and variegated nuclear families. The Brady Bunch brought together a family of all boys with a family of all girls. The Munsters included a Frankenstein, a vampire and a werewolf. Different Strokes told the story of a rich, white widower, his Caucasian daughter, and two sassy black children.

But Daisy Owl may just feature the most unorthodox nuclear family ever conceived. Two human children, Daisy and Cooper, are raised by their adoptive father, an owl, and his best friend Steve. Steve is a polar bear.

What sets Daisy Owl apart, besides the absurdity, is the tenderness it displays. It lacks the cynicism that has come to suffuse our popular culture, while not drifting too far into the saccharine. It pays attention to the minutiae: small gestures, a lingering touch, an awkward silence. I will go so far as to say that Daisy Owl is the Charlie Chaplin of webcomics.

To quickly catch up to speed with Daisy Owl, check out Daisy comforting Cooper after a bad dream. Or the whole family playing basketball. Or when Cooper finds a monocle.
Or dinner at the Owl residence. Finally, the balloon.

Best of all, Daisy Owl has an entire sub-culture of dinosaurs. As when Cooper plays with his toy dinosaur. Or Cooper and his birthday cake.

It just makes me wish that I had been raised by an owl and lived in a tree house.

Lyric Of The Day:

When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father to your sister he explains
That you're tired of yourself and all of your creations
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane ?
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane ?

Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you
And the smell of their roses does not remain
And all of your children start to resent you
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane ?
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane ?

Now when all the clowns that you have commissioned
Have died in battle or in vain
And you're sick of all this repetition
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane ?
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane ?

"Queen Jane Approximately"
-Bob Dylan

September 11, 2009

Sad Children Cannot Help But Be Awful

#4 pictures for sad children

See Introduction | #9 |#8 | #7|#6|#5

Everyone hates sad children. Pictures for sad children promises to make them stop crying. By helpfully pointing out the meaningless nature of their existence, the tears magically dry up. Because, really, what's the point?

Pictures for sad children is funny in the same way a joke at a funeral is funny. It feels weird, perhaps even wrong, to be laughing, but it is the only legitimate response when coming face to face with your own mortality.

Paul who is a ghost and his coworker Gary, who is not a ghost, switch back and forth between maudlin and melancholic as they face a life--and a death--that has failed to meet their expectations. Their work life sucks and their home life sucks.

Other moments of bitter without sweet reality include when a boy gets stuck in a mattress. Or when Gary finds an ipod in the trash. Did I mention that Paul who is a ghost is asian?

This one is my favorite.

Pro Tip: Many webcomics use alt text, which shows up when you position your cursor over the image and wait a second. "Too Late."

Drop whatever you are doing, and read the entire archive now.

Lyric Of The Day:

Turn off your mind relax and float down-stream,
It is not dying, it is not dying,
Lay down all thought surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.

That you may see the meaning of within,
It is being, it is being,
That love is all and love is everyone,
It is knowing, it is knowing.

That ignorance and haste may mourn the dead,
It is believing, it is believing,
But listen to the color of your dreams,
It is not living, it is not living.

Or play the game "existence" to the end.

"Tomorrow Never Knows"
-The Beatles

September 8, 2009

It Is Also Well Drawn

#5 Dr. Mcninja

See Introduction | #9 |#8 | #7|#6

Do you remember when ninjas all of a sudden became really cool? It happened at about the same time robots became cool. And dinosaurs. And zombies.

Therein lies the beauty of Dr. McNinja: its mastery of our cultural zeitgeist. Dr. McNinja is not simply chasing after the latest iconography. It is creating it. The comic's love affair with the pop of our times goes way beyond the pirate killing ninja protagonist. It includes his gorilla receptionist, Judy, and his raptor-mounted, bandit child sidekick, Gordito. Yes, he has faced off against zombies and vampires, but he has also fought the clone of Ben Franklin, and an antagonist known simply as the Ghost Wizard.

My favorite is the appearance of gun wielding dolphins. As the t-shirt says, dolphins don't need thumbs...for revenge.

Dr. McNinja is unlike most comics you find on the Internet. It is not a single strip of panels, which always features a self-contained joke. It is also well drawn. Because it is instead modeled after a comic book, reading one panel will not mean much to you. It might just be a picture of the doctor driving with a wizard in his backseat. It might be a sketch of a giant lumberjack smashing the doctor's office. The only way to truly appreciate the adventures of Dr. McNinja is the way God intended, from the beginning.

Dr. McNinja is always bizarre, and always fun and interesting, and worth reading from cover to cover. Except there is no cover. It's a webcomic. And you can read it for free on the Internet. Awesome.

Lyric Of The Day:

If you were here
Would you calm me down
Or settle the score?
The feelings I fight (I'm a stranger in town)
Burn so bright (but if you were here)
The feelings I fight (would you ease my mind?)
(Come on!)

The sleep fled from my eyes
And I, I know that I need some
Give a thought to the one that you know

Or would you calm me down
When the breath gets shallow and fast?

"The Ghost Of You Lingers"

September 5, 2009

Humor In Two Dimensions

#6 Order Of The Stick

See Introduction | #9 |#8 | #7

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that every webcomic falls into one of the following three categories: those that revolve around video games, those concerned with role playing games, and everything else (this third category is the smallest).

Having never been inclined to worship Satan, I have not been much into role playing games. But I am a fan of fantasy epics such as Lord of the Rings and the war in Iraq, so I know a fair bit about the genre. Enough to know that most of these comics suck.

Order of the Stick is the exception. Imagine Lord of the Rings, but with stick figures. In the early days, a large part of the humor was making fun of Dungeons & Dragons, but that joke could only stretch so far. The reason the comic is now consistently among the best is because of the humorous characters and long, convoluted story which meanders randomly without ever seeming to come to a conclusion. On second thought, it's just because of the characters.

However, I know my readers are not the type to invest many hours pouring over the archived strips in order to catch up on their back stories. Therefore, here are a few of my favorites: Belkar faces workplace harassment, Roy takes a sick day, and here's your supreme leader.

I sort of feel like I started telling a funny story, realized no one was laughing, and ended by saying, "I guess you had to be there."

Lyric Of The Day:

"There's a worm in my head and a fish in the bed," she said
Confused, you will be
He's got the car on the lawn and he's using the horn again
Annoyed, she will be
Cartoon boyfriend, when you gonna rub yourself out?
"There's a girl at my door and she's begging for more," he said
"Abused, you will be"
"If you touch a hair on my head then you'd be better off dead"
She said "Oh joking, you must be"
Cartoon boyfriend, when you gonna rub yourself out?

"Cartoon Boyfriend"
-The Wonder Stuff

September 3, 2009

We Love The Ordinals

We are irate with Wired Magazine right now. Normally one of our favorite magazines, they have failed miserably when it comes to to their list of the greatest science fiction movies of all time.

They have a comprehensive list of movies, but its lack of ordinals means that we have no actual context.

Imagine you are sitting around with friends, and the following conversation occurs:

"I'm in the mood for some science fiction."

"Sounds good. What should we watch."

"Nothing too awesome. But it needs to be mildly fantastic."

"I agree. How about the 8th greatest science fiction movie of all time."

Simple right? Except how are you supposed to know what the 8th greatest science fiction movie of all time is if magazines like Wired fail to inform you.

I have been forced to interrupt my list of the best webcomics in order to quickly rectify the situation. What follows are the 14 Greatest Science Fiction Movies In The Known Multiverse:

#14 The Road Warrior

With The Road Warrior at #14, we don't have to wait to use the word dystopian.

#13 The Iron Giant

All of you who failed to see this in the theater, shame on you. It's because of poor choices like this that we end up with Transformers II and G-Force 3-D (Just wait).

#12 Back To The Future

Does for time traveling what The Time Traveler's Wife does for the spouses of time travelers.

#11 Aliens

Can anyone think of a better sequel in which a new director entered, transformed it according to his own personal vision, and then left the franchise to make the highest grossing movie of all time?

#10 2001: A Space Odyssey

The original was better, but Kubrick gets extra points for spawning the Macintosh commercial.

#9 Terminator

Featuring the first, and most certainly the best, of the Governator's one-liners.

#8 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

I especially appreciate that Spielburg took the time to explain the title, in the title.

#7 Terminator 2

Some people like the original better. They are wrong.

#6 Blade Runner

I always found the most frightening part of Blade Runner the giant advertisements overlooking the city like the corporate eyes of Sauron. How sad that it would also be the most prescient.

#5 Alien

A Hitchcock homage set in outer space.

#4 The Matrix

For about a 6 week period, Keanu Reeves was actually considered cool.

#3 Return Of The Jedi

Just because the prequels sucked doesn't mean the originals did too.

#2 Star Wars

It forever changed not only the genre of science fiction, but the entire movie industry. And like a true first love, we had our collective hearts broken in 1999.

#1 The Empire Strikes Back

Not just the greatest science fiction film, but the most fantabulous 124 minutes ever committed to celluloid.

Lyric Of The Day:

I look out of my window at night
I see the stars and I'm filled with fright
I got a feeling someone's looking
It ain't the aliens at the foot of my bed
It's more the ale inside my head
I got a feeling something's cooking

Science friction burns my fingers
Electricity still lingers
Hey put away that ray, how do you martians say
I love you

I read my comics from front to back
I'll be ready for any attack
I got a feeling someone's looking

"Science Friction"

September 1, 2009

Marmaduke Would Look Quite Dapper In That Top Hat

# 7 Wondermark

See Introduction | #9 |#8

The magic of webcomics stems from the freedom inherent in the medium. Unlike traditional comic strips, which are beset with strict guidelines for format and structure, as Bill Watterson famously struggled against, comics on the internet are free to evolve in any direction they wish. The variety of webcomics are stunning.

Take for example A Softer World, which takes a strip of three usually related photos and grafts a poem over them with seemingly unrelated text. Or how about Untitled Gif. I cannot even begin to explain what it is about, but I still enjoy reading it.

Imagine how great Marmaduke would be if Brad Anderson had been free to explore his full artistic vision. It might have turned out something like Wondermark.

In Wondermark, you have illustrations that look like artwork from turn of the century (the 20th, not the 21st) magazines or street fliers, with absurd story lines created. The style is stunning, and the immediate response upon first viewing it is to wonder how the artist does it. Does he painstakingly draw each one? Is their some kind of computer wizardry involved?

Apparently, the creator, David Malki ! (so astonishing, he has an exclamation point in his name) scans in the drawings from 19th century woodcuts and engravings. He then uses them as the basis for the strip. But to fully appreciate the time and labor involved, read his description of the process.

The final product is the seventh best webcomic in the universe. My favorites include In which Jody is burning some trash, In which it's Hot, and In which we went Too Far.

Wondermark is unique in that it excels in terms of both story and visuals. Not a combination you find very often in the world of webcomics. It makes me wonder why Malki with an exclamation point is not earning a real living as a graphic designer or advertiser. His parents must be very disappointed.

Lyric Of The Day:

Looking back on when i
Was a little nappy headed boy
Then my only worry
Was for christmas what would be my toy
Even though we sometimes
Would not get a thing
We were happy with the
Joy the day would bring

Sneaking out the back door
To hang out with those hoodlum friends of mine
Greeted at the back door
With boy thought I told you not to go outside,
Tryin your best to bring the
Water to your eyes
Thinkin it might stop her
From woopin your behind

I wish those days could come back once more
Why did those days ev-er have to go
I wish those days could come back once more
Why did those days ev-er have to go
Cause I love them so

"I Wish"
-Stevie Wonder