Friday, 22 June 2007

Standing on the shoulders of giants: On Ctrl-Alt-Del

Ctrl-Alt-Del is written, drawn, published and maintained by Tim Buckley, also known as Absath. CAD, for short, centers around the lives of dedicated idiot Ethan and sarcastic straight man Lucas, a pair of twenty-somethings devoted to their love of videogames. You are starting to notice the trend here, aren't you?

Behavioural patterns

Don't worry, you aren't turning into a paranoid. The zany adventures of a pair of roommates in their twenties is almost a staple of the webcomic genre. Now, let me ask you to exercise your mind. Imagine...
Imagine that someone had an idea before you. It may be a good idea, so good, in fact, that you just can let the opportunity presented go to waste. Imagine there's people out there that are near universally regarded as the most upstanding example of what your idea represents. Wouldn't you be tempted to use at least some of that material in your best interest? It wouldn't be blatantly copying, mind you, think of it more like borrowing some change until you get back on your feet. Call it inspiration, if you will.
That's exactly what Tim Buckley did with CAD: he took what was possibly the most successful self-published strip on the net at the time, Penny Arcade, and he... Well, drew his inspiration from there. There's nothing wrong with it, mind you, lots of webcomics out there right now, at least at the very beginning, wanted to be the new Penny Arcade by copying the old one in more or less blatant fashion. It gives you a head start in finding your own voice and style. However, this head start comes at a price, namely, greatly limiting you when exploring new avenues of expression, in other words, when you try to do your thing.
And that's precisely where CAD suffers, when the time comes for Tim Buckley to stand out, to make his own jokes, to be himself. Not because he is a bad cartoonist, not because he can't come up with good jokes. When the time comes, he is as good a jester as anyone else. The problem there is that the characters have already established themselves, they have a voice of their own, a philosophy of life, if you will. And that voice is probably not what Tim Buckley really intended. Ethan looks like Tycho and acts like Gabe at his most exalted. Lucas has his own look, but he has a bitterly sarcastic style, not unlike Tycho when he rants about his legendary hatred for humanity. Of course, being established characters, anything that deviates from usual or expected behaviour is going to feel forced. Now, this was all fine and dandy, until CAD started being an story-driven comic.

As the story goes...

Most criticism to CAD stems from the fact that it borrows heavily from the master formula Holkins and Krahulik established. I, however, believe that it is when it deviates from that path that CAD is at its weakest. Here's why:
Tycho and Gabe were designed for a gag-a-day strip, in which continuity is no object, whereas CAD, although still a comic strip, started making heavy use of continuity. In other words, it told a story. And good stories need introspection, evolution and quiet reflection on said evolution by the characters. Tycho and Gabe aren't equipped to deal with that, nor do they have any reason to be. Ethan and Lucas, however, do need exactly that.

I am woman, hear me roar

So, sometimes, for the sake of the story, both of them have to deviate from their established pattern, and it doesn't feel right at all. Tim Buckley, of course, immediately realises that, and comes up with what I personally think is the biggest mistake he has ever made.
Enter Lilah, sexual tension device and girl gamer.
I may come off as a grim and bitter fellow, but if there's something to be learnt about the way women are portrayed in three of the most influential webcomics, it's that we, as a species, have failed miserably. I know not everyone can write for female characters effectively. I, for one, am horrible at it. But Lilah is so stilted, so defined by her stereotype of female gamer out to prove that she can play with the best of them, that it misses that point entirely. I'm not asking for wapsi girls, nor a Candi of sorts, not even Doras or Fayes, a passingly believable female would suffice. I'm well aware girl gamers exist, but the ones that I know feel real, not like a walking clichè, and Lilah just isn't up to the task. No cookie for her.

Good endings come to those who wait

Do I think that Tim Buckley is a bad writer because of that? No, not at all. I sincerely think few people could have found a more elegant way of handling that situation. Do I think that he made a decision without really considering the consequences it could have for the strip? Not really. He has probably studied carefully the model he used for his characters. The problem there is that when he realised that he wasn't really planning to do something that was right and fitting for these kind of characters, it was already too late, and people had already started loving them.
The fact that there are more links in this post to other comics than there are to CAD may be misleading. I don't really think CAD is a bad strip. I just think it's much worse than it could have been, because Buckley is a master of his trade, that trade being comedy. He is witty, he has a fantastic sense of time, pauses and opportunity. If only he had created something from scratch, we could be talking of one of the best webcomics out there. Things as they are, it's nothing more than a enjoyable strip among the thousands there are on the Internet. Still, a very, very popular one, which is a quite a feat on its own.

On Monday: Walking amongst monsters: On Goats

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