‘[S]hitty drawings are funny’

I don’t often read traditional comics. I have sometimes been lent them, and I have enjoyed the odd graphic novel, but, as a rule, I don’t read them. I do read quite a few online comics. I am, in fact, an addict. Saturdays are bad for me, because not one of Darths and Droids, Dr McNinja, Piled Higher and Deeper, xkcd, or Dinosaur Comics updates on that day. I also read Hyperbole and a Half, which is a blog, not a comic, or a blog with comics… I don’t know. I guess it’s something similar, but different. It is, in any case, the place from whence the above quote hails.

It would be tempting to say: ‘Gosh, look what New Media has done for comics’, but as someone who doesn’t read paper comics, I’m not qualified to judge. I’m pretty sure there are some fairly innovative things going on in that realm that I don’t know about. However, some of the comics I read do differ markedly, and in interesting ways, from the sort of thing I associate with traditional comic book format. I do read some comics that are like the traditional form. Dr McNinja is straightforwardly an online comic, although it does make heavy use of mouseover text for comedic effect. Darths and Droids is similar, but uses movie stills in place of drawn artwork. PhD Comics tends to be more of the comic strip style, but is otherwise fairly traditional. And then there’s xkcd, Dinosaur Comics, and Hyperbole and a Half.

In her FAQ, Allie Brosh answers a comment she has evidently received a lot: ‘Your drawings suck. A five-year-old could do this’ with: ‘I know. I do that on purpose because shitty drawings are funny’. And they are. But… although her drawings are reminiscent of childish drawings, I don’t think they’re actually shitty. Take the comic (blogpost? I want to call it a comic, so I will) that first drew me in: ‘This is why I’ll never be an adult

In this comic, Allie details how she occasionally has fits of trying to act like an adult, but these always end in exhaustion, guilt spirals, and procrastination. And, yeah, she could have just described it, and that might have been witty and moving, too, but it wouldn’t have been the same. This woman living half a world away so exactly pictured my experience that I laughed louder than I had for ages, and then she made me cry, too – because I’ve been there, and it’s emotionally real.
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Are these drawings child-like? Sure, but that’s part of their power. And it’s wonderful that she’s using a program like Paintbrush to create them, not just because it looks childish, but because for a large portion of those reading (20 or 30 somethings – people of similar age and experience to herself) programs like that (MS Paint, for me) were their early experiences of creating and viewing computer art. It gives us a child-like perspective on the subject matter, which her wonderfully exuberant prose mirrors. It says we’re all still children, really, looking out on the challenges of the grown-up world with excitement and fear, and looking back on our childhoods with joy and sadness and nostalgia.

And it’s not just that she’s using childish-looking drawings to evoke emotion. These are genuinely skilfully crafted to evoke emotions. In the ‘Go to the motherf*cking BANK like and ADULT’ panel the figure is crudely drawn, but every line speaks of the sort of decided determination that stems from working yourself up to do something you’re not normally confident about. I don’t want to spoil it by analysing every aspect of every panel, but… these are works of art, and although part of their appeal stems from the fact that they are drawn to look unskilled, they’re not shitty.

Dinosaur Comics is a different thing again. The drawings are not as basic as Hyperbole and a Half, but they’re still fairly basic, and it’s the same one every time. Who would have thought the same roughly sketched dinosaurs could be so expressive in so many ways time and time again. I love that some of the simplest comics strive to talk about some genuinely deep and important things, and do so with knowledge and humour. I’ve got quite a few Dinosaur Comics saved as favourites because they say something that people often miss about philosophy (as well as science, literary analysis, and many other awesome things). Perhaps there’s some thought here about how our seemingly unchanging lives are so full of wonderful, rich, and varied things. Or maybe it’s just funny – I don’t know.

And then, of course, there’s xkcd. I know I’m not going to say anything new. There are countless websites both attacking and defending (there were so many of the latter I honestly couldn’t pick one to link to) it. I’m overwhelmingly in the pro, camp. A lot of comics on the web start from pretty basic drawings and develop into something more skilled. It’s a sort of pleasing consequence of the fact that anyone can start a comic on the web, no matter haw inexperienced, and the only things that impact on whether it succeeds is whether people like it and whether the artist keeps at it. I quite like going back and reading through the whole archive, when I find something new. With xkcd, though, there’s very little change. The drawings are cleaned up a little, and they don’t tend to be on graph paper anymore, but they’re still stick figures.

And this is the point: it’s not so much ‘Who cares if they’re stick figures? It’s still funny!’ as ‘It’s still good because they’re stick figures’. Those clean lines are… sort of beautiful. It’s somehow right for a comic about maths and computer programming and beauty and life. It feels a bit like the clean lines of Tron – like lines on graph paper that speak of potential.

If we’re going to call them ‘shitty drawings’, OK, but then, being shitty doesn’t mean it can’t also be good. I love the shitty drawings of the Internet. I hope they never change.