Episode 131: The Roots of Gaming Webcomics and Their Place in the Webcomics Canon

Last week I went to a pretty cool conference, PAMLA in my first trip ever to California. I made this pretty cool paper and then my computer ate half of it the morning of the presentation. What you see here is the rushed polished version of what I said that day. The conference itself was meh but a few presentations including one where Hipster Hitler showed me how humor can be added to anything. Also, because of flight craziness, I missed my connection and ended up staying the night at the Newark airport. Such depravity changes you. Anyway, here have some webcomic academic goodness.

While the Internet has been around since the 50s with the ARPANET system, webcomics didn’t begin to be published until almost 20 years ago.  Hans Bjorgdal’s Where the Buffalo Roam, a slice of life comic strip about the goings on in Boulder University started as part of the campus newspaper. In 1992, Bjorgdal was convinced to upload his comic strips on to a USENET website and thus the first webcomic made its way unto world.

And a strip that had never left Colorado before got readers from as far away as… Ohio. And Michigan. And NASA, but mostly because of its Colorado University alumni. Even in 1992, just before the Web exploded in popularity, the Internet showed almost no signs of what was coming. It was still limited almost exclusively to college campuses, military bases and research facilities. And therefore, so was Bjordahl’s audience. (Campbell, From Out of the Desert…)

It was not until the mid-90s and the advent of Windows 95 that accessibility of owning an actual personal computer in the average household was now possible. With computers being heralded as the wave of the future, investors sought the next digital trend and the idea of monetizing webcomics, though not necessarily the plan, enticed authors to create and different services to help publish the new digital generation of comics. Of course that led to first dotcom boom and bust at the turn of the millennium. The dream that one day a webcomic cartoonist could get millions of dollars for his/her work rose and quickly faded but the potential to reach a massive readership remained.

By gaming webcomics I refer to webcomics whose main theme of storytelling and/or humor is done through gaming. Gaming itself can be divided into many sub categories. The division of game styles led to a division of gamer types. Originally, gaming referred to old school pencil and paper role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. But even in this classic format we find that there are webcomics about people playing the actual like Knights of the Dinner Table and other take place in a setting governed by the rules of gaming. Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick jokingly states that the webcomic exists in a world “governed by the laws of physics, the more mysterious but requiring no less calculus laws of magic, and the laws of gaming” as the titular group uses its metaawareness of gaming mechanics for the sake of humor and problem solving. Alongside classic RPGS, we have video games, which exist in many forms and are best illustrated with the two gamers on a couch genre pioneered by Penny Arcade. Here, the storylines aren’t centered on games so much as that commentary on video games drives the content, usually in a gag a day format. Of course just like how RPGs have characters talking about games and characters in those games, we have webcomics like 8-bit Theater, a sprite webcomic that parodies the first Final Fantasy game. Campbell differentiates between the “real” and “fictional” formats of gaming webcomics as “gamer life” and “gamer fantasy”. I further distinguish these categories through the analog and digital of formats of how the games are played, or at least originated since MMORPGS and JRPGs have codified many tropes of classic RPGs into a videogame format.

One of the more interesting aspects of the previously mentioned examples is that they fall under various categories but prevalent among them is humor. Somewhere down the line of readership over the years, the idea that for a story to be taken seriously it had to be of a serious tone. Comic books for example were still treated as kid’s stuff up until darker and grittier narratives like Watchmen or The Dark Knight received critical and financial success. This also came along with the transition of categories from comics to graphic novels. When it comes to webcomics, many think that some of the earlier material should be dismissed because these texts were done during the infancy period of the medium where no one was taking things seriously. The geeks and the nerds told their jokes but now it was time for professional artists and writers to take center stage. And even the web cartoonists who started out thought that they had to achieve a more stern tone in their storytelling.

The process became known as Cerebus Syndrome, coined by Eric Burns on his website “websnark” where he defines the motivation for such a change: “Boredom is generally the key to a Cerebus Syndrome attempt. After a while, even a successful webcartoonist gets tired of fart jokes and sight gags and wants to make these characters more than they’ve been.”

Campbell makes a direct reference to Cerebus Syndrome by outlining its three phases: Phase One: Pure Humor, Phase Two: Dramatic Turn, and Phase Three: Tonal Juggling. Campbell describes the last phase in these words: Some strips never moved past Phase Two, but after a time, most at least tried to coax new readers in again, to recapture the spirit of fun with which they’d begun. This was the greatest challenge – done wrong, the humor could spill spoil the drama, the drama weigh down the humor . . . It was a sign of a new medium testing its limits and finding its way. It was more sign of freedom from old standards. (The Melting Pot: Cerebus Syndrome)

Gaming webcomics as a genre tend to almost naturally fall under the idea of comedy. Video and board games are still considered to be childish past times, though that is certainly not the case. In an activity that exists to have fun, be it in analogue or digital format, the narrative should reflect that tone. Great works of literature are a reflection of the human condition, not joke books and academy awards for best films are given to dramas, not comedies. With that logic, webcomics should be artsy and serious subject matter and yet…

Any kind of informal poll and if you look at the numbers of view counts, sales numbers and other figures we see that humor webcomics pretty much hog the spotlight. And that’s not a bad thing, because the Internet is not the limited page dimensions of the newspaper comics’ page. There is room for everyone and I’m sure that for every webcomic that has a ton of traffic there are those that go beyond the stereotype.

Now that we’ve gone over how humor is an important part of the past, present, and future of webcomics let’s get back on topic with gaming. Of the various ones we have mentioned so far most if not all have made references to role playing games in one way or another but this doesn’t make them gaming comics just as much as a comment about the Marvel Cinematographic universe doesn’t make it a superhero comic. Gaming in and of itself is designed as a social endeavor. (I love this example http://existentialcomics.com/comic/45) Even in single player games when it’s just you against the AI there is still a community of gamers that come together early on by face to face communication and now via Internet forums and what not to discuss how to solve challenges. YouTube video series like Let’s play and twitch’s live streaming shows that even solo games aren’t solitary endeavors. Gaming webcomics reflect that in their writing and art in various ways. I argue that webcomics are inseparable from these nerdy roots and that a canon of webcomics should include a “gamer life”, a “gamer fantasy” story and/or perhaps a blend of the two. Here are my nominees.

Penny Arcade by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik’s Penny Arcade started way back on November 18, 1998. Though we might know them better as Tycho and Gabe. For almost 16 years, the duo have become an influential part of both webcomics and gaming with countless imitators trying to be the “two gamers on a couch” delivering their commentary. Over this time they have delved into every aspect of gaming by saying how much a game rules/sucks, the act of gaming itself, and slice of life jokes.

As the two authors matured they eventually incorporated their spouses and children into the mix of characters but their essence of gaming and humor have been pretty consistent. Even as Krahulic and Holkins have expanded their little webcomic into huge ventures like the Penny Arcade Expo, the duo have garnered such honors as various webcomic based awards and even the title of being one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people in 2010.

The webcomic that I most love and have focused much of my research on is Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick. Since its first installment in September 29, 2003 Burlew has made the eponymous group of heroes go through every kind of fantasy gaming trope you can imagine and even create some along the way. Over the years, Burlew has made these stick figures go through some changes in tone and style as he departs the same old fashioned model of making fun of Dungeons & Dragons rules and develop an overarching story filled with emotion and a lot of jokes along the way. In rare cases, their stories are able to make me laugh and cry almost simultaneously like here http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0445.html. Even in its final years, Burlew continues to make gaming references even as his story has technically grown out of this “phase.”

Darth & Droids provides an interesting fusion of gamer fantasy and gamer life genre of webcomics. Much like its spiritual predecessor DM of the Rings, this webcomic uses screencaps of a film to rewrite the story as if it was told as part of a D&D style adventure by a group of friends. Darth & Droids does this through the Star Wars films, starting with Episode 1 and is now at Empire. Characters and plotlines are greatly reinterpreted to the point that they even make a lot more sense than the original (mostly all things regarding Jar Jar as they are conceived by the over imagination of the little sister of one of the players)

In conclusion: Webcomics are still an emerging sub format of comics and digital media. Over the years, these textual growing pains have turned to a turn of seriousness but this change is not permanent or sweeping to all authors. Gaming webcomics are not only the incunabular stage of webcomics but a genre that continues to grow and whose roots should be part of the webcomics canon.

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