Died in a Blogging Accident has lived up to its name and died... in a blogging accident. That is to say it has concluded. You can still re-live the magic by clicking here to start at chapter 1. For genuine criticism of XKCD, please click the top link to the right (XKCD Isn't Funny).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Comics 1 and 7: The Style - a Retrospective

Title: Barrel - Part 1

Alt text: Don't we all.

It's been a while. Well I delayed this review in part because I couldn't really think of anything to say about comic 1, except that I do quite like it. It think it's cute. I think the alt text makes it very relatable without having to over-analyse it.

As such, I don't feel comfortable assigning alphabetical grades to this one - it's too different, too unconventional - well except perhaps A++++ for not being a stick figure. Like seriously, that's a breath of fresh air. More on that later.

I find it interesting how the alt text is a rhetorical question, so grammatically it should have a question mark, but doesn't. Whereas Barrel Boy's remark does have a question mark, despite not being phrased as a question. I'm not going to give a negative mark for that, because I feel it adds to the wistful nature of the comic. The child is innately curious about where the sea will take him, so much so that it is even expressed in his punctuation. And we are all like the boy in the barrel, wondering where we're going. That much is such a certainty that it doesn't even need a question mark. Can you see why I like this comic so much?

Xkcd had a lot of potential, and this was a good start. But it was not in fact the first comic. He posted comics for a while on his LiveJournal, and uploaded them to in a different order. As I found out while researching this post. The honour of first Xkcd in fact goes to...

Title: Girl sleeping (Sketch -- 11th grade Spanish class)

Alt text: I don't remember her name at all, but she fell asleep on the floor in front of me.

Posted on 30 September 2005. The next few comics were followed within minutes of this one, but I presume he chose to upload this first because he drew it first.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that this would be the first Xkcd. It's a well-drawn human figure. It even has shading! By the time he drew Barrel Boy, he had already began to simplify the style. However can see that at the time of this sketch, he loved drawing, and cared about detail, right down to the studs on her belt. But we would never see another one like it. By the time he drew his first fully faceless stick figures in comic 24, there was no going back.

It reminds me very much of a the artistic journey taken by a certain other artist. Now, I would otherwise consider Piet Mondrian much too flattering of a comparison for the likes of Randall, but since I was made to study him in secondary school, I hate his guts.

Mondrian and Munroe actually have a lot in common. They both started their careers by experimenting with pictures of actual things like trees. They both dropped the act entirely and moved on to only doing very simple lines and figures, then they both become very widely acclaimed (read: overrated) for it. Their full names are even anagrams of each other!

Before he moved to Paris, Mondrian was painting landscapes like this:

Trees along a river, 1907

Compare it to what he painted in his later years:

Composition no. 10, 1939-42

You see the dates on that second painting? He took three years to paint that. And though I can't speak for you, I would much rather have the first one on my wall. And yet, Mondrian is infinitely more famous for the second kind of painting. You are probably familiar with his style, even if you don't know the artist by name. That is how ubiquitous it is.

But there's no doubt about it. Mondrian would not still be famous today if he had stuck to representational painting. And while I think that early painting is beautiful, the latter one is so much more eye-catching, like a road sign. For similar reasons, I don't think Xkcd would have become the mind-virus that it is today if it didn't have the gimmick of stick figures.

And like Xkcd, you can't get away from it. Piet Mondrian's influence continues to be felt in architecture, product design, fashion, etc. Even Windows 8 has its design roots in The Style. And if you're wondering why I capitalised the last two words of that sentence, it's because the 'De Stijl' art movement he founded literally translates as 'The Style'. With a pretentious name like that, it is not hard to imagine it achieving a pseudo-intellectual following on par with the Xkcd fandom.

According to the Wikipedia caption for the above image, fellow De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg responded to this painting by "suggesting a link between non-representational works of art and ideals of peace and spirituality." The citation note goes on to explain that he said "it produces a most spiritual impression…the impression of repose: the repose of the soul."

So, yeah.

Regardless of your opinion, minimalism comes in ebbs and flows. And every generation does the opposite of what the previous one does. Right now, the idea that less is more seems to be gaining ground, especially in the last few years of interface designs, but it won't always be. And in my personal opinion, more is more, but then again I am a greedy Jew, so I would say that.

Today, it is stick figures that define Randall Munroe, just as primary colours and perpendicular lines define Mondrian. But Munroe would do well to remember where he came from, for the first comment, the first ever piece of praise he got for an Xkcd comic, was given to the sleeping girl, in all her realistically drawn glory.

The comment was posted no more than 5 hours after comic itself. And I've checked, none of the other comments predate it. The immortal words of the Anonymous poster simply said:

"I'd hit it."

I can't help but wonder what went through Randall's head when he saw that comment, because I know how it feels to post something on the internet, and wait what feels like forever for just one comment. It can either be brilliant or disappointing.

Maybe he was overjoyed by the appreciation. But then again, there is quite a possibility that he was horrified. To think that some creepy stranger on the internet would think sexually about one of his drawings, when to him it was nothing more than an innocent doodle. And then there was the guilt of exposing the image, drawn and uploaded without her consent, to the collective eyes of LiveJournal, or worse.

Perhaps it is on that day that he resolved to go down a Mondrian-like path, eschewing all traces of the real in his work, and representing humans in the purest and simplest way possible, stick figures.

Anon 12:54, what have you done?

I am probably preaching to an audience of one, but I'd be interested to hear what you think about minimalism, and whether the comparison is apt. Or you could just do the usual thing and flame me in the comments below.


  1. I don't write all the comments, so unless you write the others, Jon, there's more than one of us here.
    Comic 1336

    I'm no artist. Minimalism strikes me as the sort of pretentious stuff "modern artists" do. Randall is pretentious, but he's a different kind of pretentious. Not sure if its better or worse though.

    1. Agreed, though in terms of pretension, neither comes close to the art movement that called itself Minimalism, which was a little after Mondrian's time. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and the lead image is an entire canvas painted blue, for fuck's sake.

      So at least Xkcd doesn't categorise itself as part of a pretentiously titled movement. But bear in mind that a lot of these movements were named by art scholars after the fact. So who knows what history will remember Xkcd as?

  2. According to my wife (who just finished her fine arts degree) a great deal of contemporary art is shit. Literally. Sculptures and writings and paintings of excrement.

    I do like performance art, like Rhythm 0 by Marina Abramovic.

    5/5 for the review

    1. Minimalism has a great purpose. It shows the world that the upper echelons of the visual arts market are a complete joke.

  3. Regarding minimalistic art, I think it can work if it doesn't get too repetitive and has strong suits in the writing, like punk rock with simple chord progressions and short songs but good lyrics.
    Regarding "I'd hit it.", I think that puts #631 in a new perspective. Maybe it was done in a fit of rage one night, "Are you not entertained?"-style.

  4. Great review!
    I personally dislike minimalist (read "lazy") art. When I was in college, there was a painting on the wall of one of the hallways, and it was just a bunch of shapes, smears, and scratches (at least to me). One day I took a photo of it and uploaded it to my Facebook and captioned it with "You call this art? It should be called 'Oops, I left my painting supplies out when I was babysitting'". Then my friends commented and said it was beautiful, and came up with all these "meanings" of what the different shapes represent.

    I think that the root cause of Xkcd being overrated is that our culture is one that enables laziness in art, be it through finding supposed "meaning" in randomly selected shapes/smears, or finding "beauty" in hastily drawn comics.

    1. The thing about art is that there is no way to objectively measure its quality. So it happens that 'good' art is just art that a lot of people have paid attention to. This is why a silly music video by an unknown artist can get hundreds of millions of views on Youtube, while an equally silly video by another unknown artist only gets hundreds. This is also why Youtubers are so desperate for you to like, share and subscribe. It gives the perception that their videos are good, and that's all that matters. This is also how advertising works.

      So I'd argue that when you drew attention to that painting, even though it was supposed to be negative attention, you made 'better', simply by exposing it to more people's eyeballs.

      Art succeeds on a combination of luck, promotion and skill. Yes skill is important, but it's not the only thing that matters.

  5. commenting to make you happy.

    I like minimalist art, but XKCD isn't enjoyable for the reasons I like that kind of art, because the meaning of XKCD is just as prescriptive as a picture of trees. you can stare at an xkcd forever and you still won't understand unless you know that obscure reference.

  6. I can not relate to 1 at all. I know exactly where I'm going. All the way down until I hit the bottom. My destiny is to die as a bloated 53 year old virgin seated unsteadily against a wall, drunkenly flinging bitter slurs at passing women that arouse my thwarted desires. I end up bleeding out after one of them reacts by stamping her stiletto heel into my eye socket. The judge rules it reasonable self defence against a shockingly sexist assault.

    Congratulations on producing a comments section approaching the xkcd forum in levels of philistinism, by the way. Maybe next time you can write about how there's no objective difference between expensive wine and vinegar.

    1. I live to serve. It's just a shame I can't make all my comment sections like this

  7. Post sommat new ya lazy Brit-fuck!

    1. ALTF, ya toothy cunt, welcome home!