A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: Dresden Codak and the Soft Bigotry of Slow Updatations

Because this website is going to act as a comprehensive repository of all my internet writing, I’m transferring over my old work from previous blogs.  This post was originally published on 22 December 2010. Also, I want to point out that five years later, Diaz is still working on the “Dark Science” story I mention at the end of this blog. So that’s still a problem.

On the surface of things, the worst criticism Aaron Diaz could reasonably receive is that he’s going to put out some amazing books someday.  In addition to an art blog that reveals more knowledge about the visual aspect of comics than I ever suspected existed, his webcomic Dresden Codak is one of the most beautifully drawn webcomics around, on one of the best-designed web pages I have seen for a webcomic.  Each strip is a masterpiece of art design, with innovative panel layouts, a drawing style that can switch from hyper-realism to stick-figure simplicity in a few panels without ever losing the sense of consistency in the world, and a tendency to pack jokes and references into each panel until the comic as a whole is bursting (am I crazy in thinking that the ninth panel in this comic is a reference to the old HBO show Dead Like Me?  What’s that?  I am?  Okay).  Whenever Diaz manages to accumulate enough  material to make a good-sized color collection, I will be happy to shell out whatever he asks in order to acquire it.

The price will be no problem not only because Diaz’s art is beautiful, but because at the rate he updates, I’ll have approximately eight years to save up for it.

Of all the decisions Diaz has made in regards to his comic strip, the strangest one is the most recent:  he decided to run a “guest week”of comic strips that appeared on his site… at the rate of one per day.  I’m confused by this.  Does he really expect to update his comic five times a week?  You can’t rush the artistic process, and you certainly can’t expect pages like this to come up even three times a week.  But guest comics are generally used to fill gaps in a regular update schedule.  So why cram them all in like this?  It doesn’t make sense, especially since you can bet that the week after the guest strips finish will be update-free.  Maybe there will be another blog post.

This is a minor quibble, sure, but for me it represents a more pressing issue with Diaz’s work:  For all its technical excellence, visual brilliance, and willingness to make science fiction stories that aren’t merely cautionary tales, there’s a fundamental imbalance in the time he puts into each strip, and the amount of space he gives us to interpret it.  Yes, interpret it, because you don’t “read”a Dresden Codak strip so much as you constantly play catch-up with the densely-packed dialogue and non-intuitive (though interesting) panel layouts.  Diaz has certain visual lost causes that he keeps going back to- you can try to make your panels proceed from the upper-right to the lower-left of the page all you want, and it will never be intuitive- and these tend to clutter the page, and the various narrative, humorous, and referential claims made on each page make it hard to figure out what the hell is going on.  Content that could be easily figured out if spread out over a few more strips is made incomprehensible by trying to pack it onto a singll page (I have been trying to figure out what’s going on in this comic for two years), while other information is inserted in small bits and pieces across multiple pages, so that by the time it’s come up, we forget how the future time traveler regained his eyesight, and have to go back through the archive to remember why it’s important.  A successful webcomic narrative should do the heavy lifting for readers, not have them running back and forth over the archive like they’re trying to decipher hieroglyphs.  Diaz’s comics advocate human progress, but they too often resemble the most archaic sort of visual storytelling known to man.  Or, to put it another way (and belabor the point even further, I know), reading one of Diaz’s strips is like reading one of Kim Ross’s excited dialogue balloons and trying to figure out exactly what she’s saying.

And really, it may have been worth it, after all, if the story or characters were sufficiently interesting.  But as with most science fiction, it’s the ideas that are the real stars, and once you’ve got those on the page, there’s not much of a reason to continue reading.  Kim Ross is perhaps the most blatant example of a Mary Sue character to make it into a critically acclaimed comic, and the single long-form story that Diaz has managed to complete in the five and a half years since he started the site pretends to examine her ideas about the singularity and the rise of cyborg-humans, but instead blithely accepts them.  Kim is heroic, tragic, and forthright, and anyone who stays in the way of the inevitable rise of humans to cyber-immortality is cowardly, superstitious, and cruel.  Even the one weakness of hers they exploit is an admirable one- you see, she can’t bear for somebody to be operating under false assumptions, and her mind forces her to continue explaining until everyone understands.  She just hates scientific inaccuracy so much!  Or maybe that’s just the hologram version of herself.  Anyway, the central point of “Hob” seems to be that if we’d all just listen to Kimiko, her driving need to make her mother’s death mean something would allow humans to reach their true potential.  Which is a pretty simple point to bushwhack through for 27 pages.  At the end, nothing’s really changed except for Kim’s prosthetic limbs, and no characters have reached any sort of new understanding- Kim is still Kim (it doesn’t even seem like she gets closure over her mother’s death, which is pretty much obligatory in this sort of story), Dmitri and Alina are too slight of characters to register much at all(are they supposed to be superheroes or what?), the time colonists have been apotheosized, and the future is still unknowable.  In trying to avoid the “cautionary tale” sci-fi cliches, Diaz has stepped into another one- the reversion to the status quo.  As a story, “Hob” is unsatisfying.

None of these problems rear their heads in the one-shots that actually represent the majority of Diaz’s output.  Well, Kim’s too-adorable social deficiencies sometimes raise their head (Kim, in the great tradition of female protagonists written by lonely males, is extremely attractive and has no social skills, a combination of traits that nature abhors  nearly as much as a vacuum), but for the most part they’re immensely well-drawn and clearly laid out (though Diaz’s tendency to go from right to left in panel construction remains a sticking point), with detail that rewards re-reading rather than demanding it.  Also, his next story, “Dark Science,” seems like it could be fun, but pages have been appearing at the rate of one per month, which is too slow to keep me interested in it until it’s done.  Also, I’m afraid that Kim’s friendliness towards the robots that run Nephilopolis is going to come back in them saving her at some crucial point later in the storyline, but if Diaz manages to subvert that cliche I will be all the happier.

I  hate to repeat myself, or keep going back to the same webcomics again and again, but it’s instructive to  compare Dresden Codak to Octopus Pie, the previous comic I’ve covered on this blog.  Meredith Gran and Aaron Diaz shared the same Portland studio for much of the last year, and both webcartoonists are making two of the most critically acclaimed and popular webcomics out there.  Both pack their narratives with incidental detail that shows a great deal of thought behind their worlds, and encourage re-reading.  But Gran’s storylines always work on a fundamental level that Diaz’s seem to lack- the characters are three-dimensional, the storylines are easy to follow, the ideas are complex without being convoluted.  Hopefully Diaz was taking notes, even on the things that didn’t work out for Octopus Pie:  Gran’s experiment with releasing fully-formed stories whenever they were done didn’t suit her strip, but they would suit Dresden Codak quite well.  If Diaz were updating stories in 25-page blocks rather than one page at a time, it would allow him to stretch out his stories, work on pacing, and maybe not end so many pages in a silent landscape panel.

The problem could be me.  Most of my complaints about Dresden Codak have something to do with how hard it is to follow, and it could be I’m just not smart enough to be reading it.  I didn’t do that well in high school biology.  Diaz is clearly an artist and a storyteller on a different level than most human beings, and he is making one of the defining webcomics for the new wave of webcartoonists.  I just can’t shake the feeling that he should be doing a much better job.

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This entry was posted on 22 December 2010 by in The Glowing Screen and tagged .
December 2010

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