Geek comics: an illustrated history

It’s a far cry from the early days of the web, when geek comics were dominated by the weekly belittling of Dilbert – the office automaton being ordered around by a clueless manager in a shirt and tie. Dilbert resonated with every IT worker whose boss had more desk than brain. These days, it’s just as likely the boss will be wearing a hoodie as a shirt, and unless he’s handling an IPO, he’ll be far from clueless. As a result, Dilbert’s imitators, which were ubiquitous in the early 1990s, have disappeared, replaced by comics that take aim at wider issues in the industry, rather than the offices they take place in.

“Sure, just like everything else, comics have changed,” says Paul Johnson, who graduated from writing jokes for chat-show host David Letterman to drawing comics for ITworld.com. “The audience has changed as well, but I’m not sure they’re more sophisticated than they used to be. People’s sense of humour has changed, related to general changes in society and culture. Almost anything is fair game for a cartoon these days; that’s probably the biggest change.”

Snaggy agrees. “I think the audience is more sophisticated as to the language of comics, the types of speech balloons and comic devices, but I think our collective attention span is way down due to the ‘point and click’ factor of the internet. We find if a comic has more than a few speech balloons, a large segment of the internet population doesn’t have the patience to finish reading it. So although in some ways the audience is more sophisticated, another part of it has become less patient.”

Superman

Don’t be meme

Readers may be less patient, but they’re certainly more vocal. Dilbert creator Scott Adams stoked up a great deal of support early in his career by printing an email address on his strips, allowing the public to communicate with him directly. To his credit, he usually responded, although as the cult of Dilbert grew, that became increasingly difficult. Nowadays, an email address is practically antiquated. Cartoonists have websites, are reachable over Facebook and Twitter, and have their work dissected on their own forums – fun when everybody is laughing; a digital scourging when they’re not.

“We don’t receive a ton of criticism,” says Snaggy. “Occasionally, we encounter someone on the internet who makes it their mission in life to tell everyone we are never, ever, ever, funny. Trolls will be trolls. When we do get a rabid email, it’s usually from Google fanboys who think we never, ever make fun of Apple – a view that I find extremely puzzling. When we do skewer Apple, it seems that Apple fanboys can take a joke and can laugh at themselves.”

iPhone 5

Yes, we’re as shocked as you are by that comment. According to Johnson, it’s this tribalism that makes tech such a rewarding pasture to stomp around in. “Tech is an interesting cartoon and comedy topic these days because it’s everywhere,” he says. “Most people have smartphones or tablets or laptops, and they know what Apple and Google and Facebook are, so it’s a large base of shared knowledge and experiences. That makes it ripe for lampooning.”

Cartoon mash-ups

Beyond interacting with the cartoonist, the internet also allows people to interact with the cartoon itself. This fate befell Mark Stivers, a part-time cartoonist and full-time piano tuner who woke up one morning to discover that his “what atheists cry out during sex” cartoon had been co-opted by the 4chan community. Replacing the speech bubbles, the joke swiftly became “what 4chan cries out during sex” followed by answers that would have lawsuits hitting us like meteors if we republished them. Should you choose to seek them out, please make sure there are no children present, or indeed human beings of any description. We’d also lock away any family pets you may have.

This torrent of crude humour was finally capped by Randall Munroe over at xkcd, who published his own cartoon ridiculing the meme overload. Thankfully, Stivers had a sense of humour about it all. “I liked it!” he says. “And my younger friends, including my daughter, were impressed. If you don’t want your work to be appropriated in that way, you shouldn’t post it on the internet. Some of the variations were hilarious, some were dumb, and some were obscure. Just like graffiti on a wall.”

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