One good example of this is the xkcd webcomic. Created by Randall Munroe in 2005, its tagline reads “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” Made of stick characters, the comic often carries a theme of math and computer jokes, although some panels have nothing to do with either. Recurring characters and jokes include hat guy, Wikipedia, raptor attacks, and Joss Whedon’s television series Firefly. The site started as scanned doodles from Munroe’s school notebooks, but after coming moving on to a stand alone site with merchandise, xkcd had become one of the few successful webcomics.
The success of xkcd could possibly be explained by its humor. Scientific and Internet-related humor has a unique audience, and webcomics which cater to that will be assured of followers. Much of the humor is of a more high-brow category. However, the comics are not all the same, and their variety is reflected in their style of humor.
For example, take this first comic, entitled “Newton and Leibniz:”
This one’s got a math joke, a pun, and a CSI: Miami reference all in one. Let’s start with the pun, which should automatically set off the “Incongruity Theory” alarms. Wordplay just for the sake of cleverness almost always falls under the Incongruity Theory, since there is no real winner or loser in a pun (although some may argue that the audience loses, since it has to suffer through it). A math joke can fall under Superiority Theory, since the smart ones who get the joke can laugh at those who don’t. The CSI: Miami reference could even be Relief Theory, especially with the inclusion of the pause in dialogue and ellipses, with the punchline giving relief to the buildup. All these separate features can be different types of humor, but what about putting them all together? The humor of the comic comes from the combination of these three features, which are all included in the last frame. The final punchline is not only unexpected (a Horatio Caine reference within a math pun? Really?), but relieves us of the tension built up in the middle of the panel as well as pokes fun at Leibniz for being late getting on the math-theory-discovering bandwagon.
Let’s look at a webcomic with a little less romance and little more sarcasm.
I am, of course, talking about Cyanide and Happiness. C&H has the stereotypical creation story of a webcomic: a 16-year-old Kris Wilson, while at home sick, draws comics to entertain himself. he then creates a website and posts his comics on a few forums. The website Explosm.net currently hosts the webcomic, with 3 other artist contributing on a frequent basis. The webcomic has gained notoriety with its treatment of controversial topics such as suicide, murder, cancer, rape, pedophilia, terrorism, and self-harm. However, there is still a large fan base who enjoy the comic.
Time for some examples.
A few more comics that employ the “bait and switch punchline” technique, albeit in a disturbing manner:
And, of course, the good old fashioned pun:
Up until this point, I have generalized the Incongruity Theory as a classier style of humor than the Superiority Theory, which can have a meaner edge. C&H has given me a new perspective. These comics are definitely a darker humor, but still rely on incongruities for laughs. Rather than letting me continue to stereotype meaner humor as automatically Superiority theory, Cyanide and Happiness comics are a good example that humor is not easily generalized.However, the controversial natures of many of the comics certainly adds to their draw.
Lastly, I’ll discuss a webcomic where the disturbing parts are those missing. Garfield Minus Garfield is exactly what it sounds like: classic Garfield strips with Garfield removed. What results is “a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb,” as described by the website. Many of us are familiar with Garfield, a comic strip that’s not particularly funny: a lazy cat who eats lasagna. Hysterical. Garfield Minus Garfield takes out the famous cats a leaves an awkward, highly unsettling silence.
The pure and simple humor in this strip is the incongruity of the main character of a comic strip suddenly removed with no explanation. Its beauty is in its strangeness, and we laugh at Jon Arbuckle’s now weird and sometimes creepy reactions to nonexistent things. The huge incongruity in the missing Garfield puts the webcomic under the Incongruity Theory, but Jon certainly becomes the butt of the joke as he does strange things, giving it a part of the Superiority Theory.
To summarize: xkcd employs a combination of types of humor, as well as how the comics are presented (as intellectual or everyday). Cyanide and Happiness panders to the dark comedy loving crowd, and Garfield Minus Garfield gest us laughing to fill the awkward emptiness that we don’t know how to react to. All in all, a good day.
Next time: I conquer the YouTube front. It will be a long, arduous battle. Expect casualties.