A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

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

Archives: Hark! A Vagrant and the Game Changer

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 31 December 2010. Apparently I had nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve.

As big as the world of webcomics has become since its genesis in the late 1990s, occasionally we get a reminder of how much room there is to grow.

It’s easy to get tunnel vision on the internet, because the sheer number of destinations, people, and potential activities is mind-boggling enough to create mental gridlock if you actually stop to think about it.  We’ve had the internet for so long that it’s hard to remember where we began, and how we initially came to read and participate in the various websites and discussion groups that now secure a significant proportion of our daily time.  The level of participation is largely unconscious and changes slowly.  When we think about the internet, we’re more likely to think about our regular thoughts than the vast howling madness that constitutes the whole thing.

That is, after all what most of the internet is, a great Miltonic chaos, mostly full of negative conceptual space: the people we’ll never meet, ideas we’ll never consider, content we’ll never discover.  The only way to navigate it and retain our sanity (and perspective, which is really the same thing at a lower level) is to focus on the stuff we do know, jumping from familiarity to familiarity like protruding rocks in an infinite pond.  To grow and cultivate a community on the internet is equivalent to Satan in Paradise Lost bridging the gap between Heaven and Hell, albeit with a slightly more constructive goal in mind.  But the motive is still generally selfish, the builder is still driven by pride (because who, other than an utter egomaniac, would believe that they could write something on an infinite canvas and get a significant number of people to read it?) and the primary tool is still temptation.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of getting to the main point, which is that in late 2007 the webcomics scene seemed all grown up.  Gone were the days where comics like Penny Arcade and Pvp could gain huge audiences simply by posting a bunch of GIFs to a webpage.  Any new webcomic creator had dozens of other quality strips to compete with for a limited number of merchandising dollars, and success had become less about inspired opportunism than steady update schedules, dynamic writing, and continuous artistic development.  Site design had to be up to a certain standard, archives had to be easy to navigate, and artists had to be ready to create a bunch of guest strips to give to other, more popular sites.  Growing a community became as important a talent as figure drawing.

More importantly, all the big-ticket niches had already been filled.  New videogame comics had to face a murderer’s row of veteran talent, most of whom had fanbases that considered the existence of another videogame webcomic to be an insult to their personal favorites (to this day, I don’t think there’s a split in webcomics as bitter as the divide between fans of Penny Arcade and Ctrl+Alt+Del).  Comics about directionless post-college 20somethings had to compete with Questionable Content and Scary Go Round.  Comics about Linux had to compete with xkcd and User Friendly.  Comics about grad school had to compete with PhD Comics.  Comics about ’80s nostalgia and internet memes had to compete with Dr. McNinja and Shortpacked.  Fantasy comics had to compete with Order of the Stick.  Sci-Fi Comics had to compete with Starslip Crisis and Schlock Mercenary.  Comics that ripped off high-rated CBS sitcoms had to compete with Least I Could Do.  Sure, each of these comics had a fanbase that was generally eager to discover more comics in the same niche, and could thus be considered an asset, but almost every one was also a runaway success, the likes of which were not likely to be seen again.

Then Kate Beaton reminded us that, silly us, we’d forgotten about history comics.

When Beaton began posting comics from her LiveJournal to a bare-bones website with the singularly unmemorable name katebeaton.com in 2007, it was a bona fide late-90s-style sensation.  Her initial run of history comics was sloppy, crude, and hilarious, and the site kept crashing each time another webcartoonist discovered her and posted the URL.  Within a year Beaton had launched Hark! A Vagrant, come out with a book and several T-shirts that sold successfully, and had enough regular traffic to crash other websites herself.  And what made this even stranger is that Beaton hadn’t deliberately set out to make the Next Big Thing in webcomics.  She posted some amateurishly-drawn jpegs to a website and asked for requests, and the audience found her.  The early website sucked, the update schedule remains sketchy, and while her art has hugely improved, she still tends to post rough, basic stuff.  True, even her rough art has an undeniable energy to it, but it’s unusual to see such unpolished work see widespread success.  Clearly there was still room in webcomics to grow, and grow fast.

Like all runaway successes, this was simultaneously inspired beyond belief and head-slappingly obvious.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it when I found the site.  I have every volume of Larry Gonick’s “Cartoon History of the Universe” series, and as many different “Horrible Histories” books as I could get my hands on.  The high school U.S. history curriculum is still sufficiently standardized that almost anyone you talk to will know that, say, Marbury v. Madison established judicial review, and the juciest bits of history tend to get remembered and re-recorded, so there’s a huge potential audience and endless subject matter.  Beaton blended the historical content with comic recreations of famous literature, creating a sort of Masterpiece Theatre that was smart and sarcastic and silly, and rewarded fans for knowing the material.  As wonderful as it is to learn something from her webcomic (ha!  I knew these hundreds of man-hours would amount to something!), it’s much more effective when discussing topics that you learned about independently:  the strip feels less like a humor delivery device than talking about a well-loved subject with a friend, and seems to give a personal connection that other strips lack- with the notable exception of Penny Arcade, whose authors also choose to make comics that rewards knowledge of the source material.

To me, this sense of personal connection with the author seems to be as big a reason for Hark! A Vagrant’s success as its filling of the History Webcomics niche (seriously, how did everyone miss that one for nine years?).  From the beginning, the strip was as much a journal comic as a history/literature comic, with a significant percentage of the strips being autobiographical, often in the form of Beaton’s conversations with her younger self, exchanges that often seem disarmingly intimate and personal.  The hacked-together look of her first site (hell, the fact that the site was initially made for her friends) helped emphasize the personal connection, and to this day the Hark! A Vagrant site is made entirely of hand-drawn images that make it look like a grad student’s doodling notebook.  Niches grow on a sense of personal connection- hey, you liked this, and I like it too!- but Beaton has always moved beyond that, creating a distinctive artistic sensibility that persists even as her subjects change from comic to comic, and fostering the idea of personal connection through bonus journal comics that she puts in her twitter feed.

At the same time it’s about more than networking.  Every webcartoonist is a veritable font of self-promotion, always letting you know about their latest update or merchandise or commission piece through every social networking device possible.  Many of the least interesting comics on the web are devoted to sharing every detail of the cartoonist’s tedious, stupid, uninteresting life with readers, most of them copying the form of James Kolchaka’s horrible, inexplicably successful American Elf.  It’s a delicate balance between maintaining a sense of personal connection with your readers and being perceived as whoring out, and Beaton’s success at walking this line comes as much from her insistence on putting up boundaries between her and her fans- boundaries that are all the more necessary because she is an intelligent, attractive woman whose audience, being on the internet, consists of thousands of lonely, introverted, and emotionally stunted men (and many more well-adjusted people, to be sure).  There are plenty of other intelligent, attractive women in webcomics, but none of them felt the need to post to twitter that “I want to have your babies” is not an acceptable way to express admiration of her work.  That Beaton has to deal with this kind of shit while Gabe and Tycho have had, at most, half a stalker between them is a disparity that, while seemingly an inherent result of current internet society, should be remarked upon as something particularly shameful.

(In a tangentially related anecdote, one of the strangest things to ever happen to me involved two discussions of Hark! A Vagrant.  While studying abroad in England, I struck up a conversation with a man who not only loved Beaton’s work and “wanted to marry her” (see?), but had sent her a guest comic as a token of his admiration.  I was intrigued, because I hadn’t known this man to draw comics, and after some polite pressing he admitted that the comic basically consisted of Henry II saying “fuck” a lot.  Two years later, I was at HeroesCon listening to several webcartoonists, including Beaton, speak at a panel, and she mentioned that she occasionally gets weird, off-putting stuff from her fans, including “some comic where Henry II says ‘fuck’ a lot.”  I experienced a weird sense of closure when I heard it, like I had been granted a set of knowledge that everyone else in the world only had half of at most.)

All of this talk about niches and personal connection, interesting though I may find it, tends to overpower any discussion of Beaton’s writing talents, which are impressive.  Beaton rarely subscribes to the standard setup-punchline format suggested in How to Make Webcomics (to the detriment of that work- I’ll probably review it later, but for now let’s say it’s got some great technical advice and some okay working tips).  With the possible exception of KC Green, no one has been more prominent in bringing the smash cut into the general comics vocabulary- check out her George IV strip, which has three in six panels (if you count “a SEXY revolution!” as a smash cut, which, given the jarring leap of logic involved, I certainly do).  In Beaton’s six-panel strips, this especially works well.  Other cartoonists will generally use all six panels to build up to a joke (sort of like a truncated Sunday strip), so to see a punchline in the first or second panel that advances the story and gets a big laugh right off the bat is an welcome change in rhythm. She also uses a lot of incidental dialogue, which may have been an early technique to crowd out blank space, but continues to give her strips the comedic back-and-forth of a modern Shakespeare production, or a Howard Hawks film in miniature- check out this early comic about Elizabeth I, which has a dialogue exchange (and joke) in every panel- the exchange in panel 5 would be an entire strip for many cartoonists.

It’s worth noting that recently Beaton has been shortening her strips, boiling them down to their humorous essence in three panels.  This actually seems to be her natural style- the smash-cutting of her early strips were often used to yoke several disparate jokes together, and now she’s letting each one occupy its own space.  I personally like the longer strips more, if only because it requires a bit more ingenuity to make three barely-related jokes occupy a single coherent comment, and the extra effort exerted often makes them even funnier, plus I’m just a fan of sprawling, Achewood-style dialogue.  That said, after a semester of teaching Freshman English at a university, nothing made me laugh harder than her three-panel take on “The Yellow Wallpaper” (fifth strip down).  I’ve already discussed the art, which started to improve the moment Beaton decided to get serious about her webcomic, but this seems to me to matter the least:  her most famous peers in history comics, Martin Brown and Larry Gonick, both tend to favor a similarly cartoony style, and it fits well within that tradition.  The comic’s one weakness as a webcomic is the random update schedule, but it’s often enough that it’s rarely a problem.  And like Order of the Stick or Achewood (until recently), the random updates make me visit the website more than I would if  I knew when it was going to update.

What sets Hark! A Vagrant apart from other webcomics is its sudden success, achieved simply because a talented amateur cartoonist found something that few people were writing about, and kept putting out quality work that the right people promoted.  Beaton’s comic, along with other overnight successes like Axe Cop, testify to a basic truth that a lot of people in the world of webcomics seemed to have forgotten- anyone with the right skills and ideas can make it to the big leagues.  There are virtually no barriers to entry in this market, and this simple economic fact makes it one of the most exciting art forms around.

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This entry was posted on 31 December 2010 by in The Glowing Screen and tagged .
December 2010

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