Virtual reality video games, 3D surround-sound films, electronic music or multi-screen installations. When you think of how technology affects art, you usually think of examples that are, well, high tech. The future will involve video screens, computers, electronics and ever more digitizing, flashing lights and holograms. Multimillion-dollar 3D surround-sound superhero special effects will be set to the music of Aphex Twin as art progresses ever forward, to greater slickness and complexity.
That’s the usual sci-fi take on the coming aesthetic. But as it turns out, up-to-the-minute, tech-heavy art using the latest digital processors and virtual delivery systems, looks like this:
Lo, I have seen the future, and it is stick figures and silly rewrites of Paul Simon lyrics.
You’ve probably come across Randall Munroe’s xkcd before. It’s been around for ten years this month, and it is a ubiquitous source of memes and social media shares on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. It’s also the iconic comic strip of the 21st century, precisely because it looks like it could have been drawn on notebook paper any time in the last 100 years.
There are some web comics (like the intricate hypertext animated Homestuck) that approximate something that might be called high-tech. But many of the most successful Internet-era comics are like xkcd — simple to the point of dumpiness. In the early 20th century newspaper broadsheet sides encouraged sprawling, beautiful, intricate cartooning, and adventurous page layout indebted to the new, new, exciting technology of animation.
The limited size of the computer screen, though, and the even more limiting demands of social-media embedding, have put a premium on simple gags, easily digitized and legible at multiple sizes. To adapt to technology, comics have become less elaborate and more stripped down. From Winsor McCay’s beautiful, lavish canvases, we’ve devolved to stick figures.
It’s tempting to see xkcd as a sad betrayal of the comics form; a crass dumbed-down abandonment of craft. In fact, though, when you start bouncing around xkcd’s vast archive, you’re struck by how inventively Munroe uses his digital platform. Sometimes he just uses single panel cartoons, boxed in like the old Marmaduke or Far Side strips. But because he’s online, rather than on a newspaper page, he can also spread out if he has a more expansive idea. He often uses the strip form familiar from newspaper pages.
Notice the moment where the trauma of failing to fill in the text bubbles correctly causes the very borders to evaporate. Munroe loves such meta-moments, as you can see in the even more ambitious comic below.
Here Munroe moves from a strip to an entire composed page. It’s not as elaborate as McCay’s Little Nemo, obviously, but in its own sly way, it’s a smaller-scale tour de force, as Munroe’s more spacious format mirrors the comic’s message.
Let’s look at it again. The comic starts with the cramped Internet argument, two keyboard warriors staring at their screens, as you stare at them in their little panel boxes. Then Munroe lifts you up and out, from the closed in strip to an expansive landscape. It’s not entirely clear if the mountains were drawn by Munroe or whether they’re clip art, but that seems thematic, too. After all, the comic is about reaching out to others, and the way the computer can, or should, be a space in which people meet. So the uncertainty about whether the creation is singular or collaborative is just right — as is the lovely, clunky juxtaposition of the natural mountains and the flying stick figures.
Those stick figures look simple on first glance. Again, that’s part of their appeal —they’re instantly legible onscreen. But if you look more closely, you can see that rendering those drawings takes skill and care. The figure hanging over the mountains is really hanging; gravity has him in its hold.
Munroe as an artist is in the best tradition of Peanuts comics minimalism. With just an arm tilted or a leg cocked, he manages to convey a whole range of emotions.
The joke in “Lamp,” for example, is all in the that head tilt in the fourth panel, and the way the back leg is bent, so the figure seems to be drawing away from the lamp in horror (not to mention the perfection of the globules in the third panel, energized by those carefully placed motion lines.)
Even when Munroe dispenses with figures altogether, and draws charts or graphs, there’s a joy and energy in the art.
In the cartoon above, for example, the smaller font for the “by year” in the graph caption is a gag in itself, and the curved line sweeps so smoothly you can hardly help but follow it with your finger. Munroe makes you read the graph as a comic, which in turn makes you more aware of how all graphs and figures are created and designed, touched by somebody’s hand.
After looking at an xkcd visual element, all those other pie charts and data visualizations start to seem deliberately solemn. Serious graphs are serious because someone decided they wanted to be snobbier than xkcd. (No doubt many of those graph creators boast that they don’t have a television.)
Web comics such as xkcd can look like they’re not really making use of the technology available. Look at a panel of two stick figures standing still, and you might think that screens and the Internet have undermined or dumbed comics down. In fact, though, xkcd is a deftly inspired response to the way comic creation and distribution have changed with the rise of the computer and the Internet. In a world with ever more options for shinier, more futuristic art, comics have responded by doing one of the things it does best — getting simpler.
And then, sometimes, by not being so simple after all.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.