Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Creative, complex web comics reach for audience beyond the funny pages

For most readers, comics come in two flavors: the venerable, kid-friendly stuff on the funny pages and the intermittently hilarious panels on the editorial page.

But the web has created a new kind of comic — a thousand new kinds of comics, as varied and eccentric as the people who read them. Just as blog publishing has turned everybody with an Internet connection into a political commentator, anyone who can draw stick figures can start a comic and build an audience online.

In fact, my favorite comic is nothing but stick figures. It’s called The Order of the Stick, available at www.giantitp.com. Creator Rich Burlew started OotS in 2003 as a kind of parody of/tribute to the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game. Early strips were full of story tropes and gamer in-jokes, but Rich has matured as an artist and a storyteller — crafting a brisk, engaging story full of nuanced characters and deeply satisfying plot twists.

Yes, I just used the word “nuanced” to describe a stick figure comic. That’s what the Internet has done for comics. Web delivery and photo editing tools haven’t just streamlined the medium, they’ve allowed creators to do things that would be impossible under a traditional distribution model.

The Order of the Stick enjoyed a 22-issue run in Dragon Magazine, but since then, the webcomic format has allowed Burlew to change his style. Rich has adopted a slower, more deliberate writing style. He cut back on the jokes but started adding depth and personality to his characters. He still pokes fun at game rules and story tropes, but now the jokes are backstopped by a complex plot and a cast that readers really care about.

These days, new OotS comics are greeted like new episodes of a beloved TV show. The story is on par with what Joss Whedon did on “Buffy” and “Firefly.” Rich has the same knack for genre-bending that Joss has, leading readers down conventional story paths so he can break the rules and turn your expectations against you.

It’s hard to incorporate plot and character into webcomics because the entire medium is built around the idea of instant feedback. The OotS forum is a boiling cauldron of obsessed fans struggling to guess what Rich will do next. Creators who try to please everybody will quickly end up overwhelmed. The truth is, fans don’t want you to follow their suggestions. They want you to surprise them, while staying within the rules you set for your own story.

A comic about video games?

While you weren’t looking, video games grew up. Video games are their own medium now, with their own rules, their own lexicon and their own unique place in our entertainment landscape. More than any other force, I think the webcomic Penny Arcade (http://www.penny-arcade.com) has made gamers realize that they are part of a shared culture. Since 1998, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik have been poking fun at games and gamers.

Sometimes they’re just in it for a laugh — mocking a gamer culture that’s happy to laugh at itself, as long as the attacks come from inside. The punchline always comes first, but frequently the humor has a bite to it. Mike and Jerry aren’t afraid to pick fights with activists, politicians or game companies, and they’re not afraid to lose.

They lost a fight in 2003 when their “dark, edgy” parody of Strawberry Shortcake generated a legal threat from American Greetings. Mike and Jerry chose to take it down rather than fight the case in court. I was sad to see it go and saved the image on my hard drive as soon as I heard about the threat.

The parody captured a perfect moment in time, mocking a video game trend that had developers making “twisted, edgy versions” of beloved childhood stories.

Whenever the industry gets too full of itself, Penny Arcade is there to show them the error of their ways. Whenever game manufacturers take their customers for granted, PA is there to remind them who they work for. And the next time Jack Thompson promises money he can’t deliver, Mike and Jerry will be there to write the check.

Penny Arcade tangled with Thompson in 2005. Thompson wrote his own misguided version of “A Modest Proposal,” promising to donate $10,000 to charity if someone created a video game that allowed players to murder some specific gaming industry executives.

A group of modders made an add-on for “Grand Theft Auto” that allowed players to murder the named execs, but Thompson refused to pay up, saying the whole piece was just “satire.”

Mike and Jerry were so enraged by this they decided to donate their own $10,000 to a children’s charity in Jack’s name.

And that’s how you do it; that’s how a simple “comic about video games” became a cultural force — by giving gamers a voice and using humor to stand up for things they believe in. Today Penny Arcade runs a massive annual game expo and sponsors a charity that has donated (as of this writing) $4.9 million worth of electronics and video games to children’s hospitals.

Proof that comics on the web are not just “funny pages” anymore.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 20, 2009 at 15:08

Posted in Columns, Games

5 Responses

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  1. Great column!

    Kenny Ketner

    August 21, 2009 at 13:11

  2. Also, thought of you and your column when I saw this video on social media:

    Kenny Ketner

    August 21, 2009 at 14:02

  3. […] you believe I missed Duff’s column about webcomics? Loved the reminder of demented video-game hater Jack Thompson’s many […]

  4. You did a column on good webcomics and didn’t mention Chris Onstaad’s Achewood? http://www.achewood.com For shame.

    JP Acreman

    September 5, 2009 at 01:54

  5. Can you imagine what would happen if I unleashed Achewood on the A-J print audience? They’d jam the phone lines trying to call their Congressmen.


    September 5, 2009 at 11:08

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