The Webcomic Overlook #130: Ctrl+Alt+Del (Part 1)
I like Rob Liefeld.
It’s sort of an out there thing to say. Nowadays, when most people mention the name “Rob Liefeld,” they like to talk about pouches, no feet, ridiculous muscles on muscles, impossibly small waistlines on the women, and that one Captain America picture. I get that.
Still, if people were craving artists who drew in “How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way” dimensions, how come there’s no alternate movement to honor the likes of Dan Jurgens, Tom Grummett, or Jerry Ordway? What people are forgetting is that when Liefeld broke out onto the scene, the rigidly standard character designs were prevalent and, frankly, very dull. A style, though, that placed more value in the visceral over realism? The guy running the “I Love Rob Liefeld” blog summed it best:
I thought it was AWESOME. The energy, the power, the thrill of super-heroes beating the snot out of super-villains. I loved it.
I understand all the criticisms. I know Liefeld can’t really draw well. Look, you don’t have to send me that link to Progressive Boink. I’ve seen it. But I don’t care. Liefeld was one of the biggest reasons I started collecting comics, so he’s OK by me.
I mention Liefeld because, in a way, I totally understand what it’s like to be a fan of Tim Buckley’s much maligned webcomic, Ctrl+Alt+Del. Perhaps no other webcomic has been so widely mocked by critics and by fellow webcomic creators. Yet it still frequently pops up on a lot of people’s “Best Of” lists, including many people whose opinions I value.
Once upon a time, I called Tim Buckley “the Rob Liefeld of webcomics” … maybe he can’t draw, maybe he’s a bit of a hot-head, maybe a lot of his fans hate what he did to the genre … but if you ignore him, you’ll never get a full picture of what webcomics (or in Rob’s case, comics in the 90′s) were really all about. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s time to put that theory to the test.
I do get asked, from time to time, “What’s the big deal with Ctrl+Alt+Del? Why the haters? Is it as bad as everyone says it is, or is this just more internet drama from a field that isn’t exactly short on irascible, drama-hungry raconteurs?”
To tackle such a hefty subject, I am, for the first time, going to split a review into two. I think there are two big questions when it comes to CAD. The first being, “Is CAD as bad as everyone says it is?” and the second being, “After Tim Buckley retooled CAD, is it now worth reading?” For the first part, I’m going to run a sort of live review covering the years between 2002 to about 2008. The second part will take us to the present day.
What’s easy to forget is that Tim Buckley was not always the pariah of the webcomic world. I understand Jerry Holkins wrote the intro to the first CAD book. Ryan Sohmer, of Least I Could Do, was one of the people behind the pay-for-play CAD Animated Series. We also forget that CAD was once the darling of fans as well: in 2004 and 2005, CAD was nominated for the WCCA’s Outstanding Gaming Comic Award, while in 2005 it was nominated for Outstanding comic. The webcomic remains ridiculously popular. According to Compete.com, CAD had 418K unique visitors in June, which is below Penny Arcade (773K) and above PvP (114K).
But, yes, Buckley’s responsible for a multitude of transgressions. It’s unoriginal. The pacing is terrible. It’s preachy. Not funny. Not particularly well drawn. But let’s not beat around the bush and get directly to the elephant in the room: everything completely went to hell when he decided it was a good idea to turn a comic where the characters said “XBox” every three sentences into a miscarriage drama.
The controversy doesn’t end there. Just a few months ago, someone discovered that his latest character, Abby, was ripped off the first result for “punk girl” on a Google Image Search. (Buckley has since recolored the character to eliminate the similarities.) What made things worse was that, in the past, Buckley, had very publicly torn into someone with a long, angry rant for using his characters in a school project. These mistakes and more have been well documented in fine publications like Encyclopedia Dramatica (NSFW) and The Bad Webcomic Wiki.
But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment.
Let’s look at that case, for instance. The latter for instance. Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins have made no secret that they don’t like how Buckley, a.k.a. Franzibald, is basically ripping off their creations, either. However, when they get into hot water for depicting a “sexy” Strawberry Shortcake, they’re hailed as martyrs because they were being hassled by American Greetings. I understand they’re two slightly different situations, but consider this: if it were Buckley getting in trouble over the Strawberry Shortcake strip, would we be as charitable?
And, really, with regard to the infamous “Loss” strip: who in webcomics HASN’T made a bad decision by plunging into drama? Shortpacked!‘s “ironic” pulling of the drama tag or xkcd‘s creepy Megan strips are only a couple of examples. Buckley’s may be the most spectacular, but that’s because his comic is under a microscope full time.
I should state off the bat that I don’t have very high opinions of CAD, but I’ve only seen bits and pieces… basically the worst-of-the-worst highlight reel. So to formulate a fuller opinion, I’ve decided to keep a running blog as I read CAD from beginning to end.
10/23/2002: So. It begins. Two guys. A couch. Video games. “Random” gag. So far, so generic.
The zeitgeist among gamers at the time was that there was an all new console war going on. Once upon a time, we had Nintendo vs. Sega. Now we had Sony vs. Microsoft (with Nintendo becoming a threat later when the Nintendo Wii outsold both of ‘em). Enter Ctrl+Alt+Del, one of the many game-oriented comics popping up on the scene to feed off the trumped up faux-animosity between gamers … who, let’s face it, aren’t very well known for their social graces.
While “inspired” by Penny Arcade, CAD itself became the inspiration for many other webcomics out there, plenty of which have since become defunct. And thus the era of the video game webcomic entered its Golden Age. The rest of my these can be found in Part One of my hopefully 47-part series: “An Ode to Video Game Webcomics.”
But, yeah, this is the one with the watermelon.
4/07/2003: My guess is that one of the earliest criticisms about CAD is encapsulated in that B^U meme. If you’re unfamiliar with “B^U,” turn it 90 degrees clockwise to see the “B” form permanently frozen half-lidded eyes, while the “U” forms a slack-jawed expression. Now, I was prepared to dismiss it early on as part of a learning curve. After all, early PvP‘s and Penny Arcades look pretty rough, too.
5/30/2003: You know, given that Ethan is a game-obsessed man-child (and quite possibly Tim Buckley’s Mary Sue character), I thought that Lucas, who’s set up as the straight man, would turn out to be sympathetic. But goddamn is he ever smug.
7/21/2003: I will say this, though. I do like Scott.
8/23/2003 – 10/03/2003: OK, this is the first storyline that really, really annoyed me. Basically it goes like this: Ethan gets all his “friends” together to ambitiously put together a video game. He’s supposed to be taking art duties. Ethan starts getting on everyone’s case to get their stuff done, while he does jack. Eventually, he alienates abuses everyone he knows, but Lucas realizes it was the tie controlling him all this time (which doesn’t even make sense, since he wasn’t wearing it the whole time). So, in the end, all is forgiven. Oh, ETHAN!
Now, I’ve heard fans defend Ethan by saying that he’s basically Homer Simpson. As in, Ethan is basically an idiot savant, he does stupid things, but in the end, we root for the guy. Sure, I see the point … if we’re talking about the “jerkass” Homer Simpson from Season 12 onward.
That’s the point former Simpsons diehards like myself typically think the show jumped the shark, plus or minus three seasons. But back to the analogy: the reason we put up with Homer’s stupid antics is that, in the past, there have been touching times when the Simpsons pater familias has proved himself to be someone who cares about his family.
Do we ever get a moment like that with Ethan? So far, the guy’s been portrayed as being utterly selfish and unreasonable. So Ethan makes life miserable for everyone around him, and that’s supposed to be funny? Maybe for a few toss off gags, yeah. But we’re entering the second year of CAD here, and I can tell you that cruelty without anything behind it just isn’t that humorous.
12/20/2003: CAD often gets slammed for being wordy. The first year has been relatively breezy, so this is the first time I’m really noticing it. One of the recommended reading techniques pointed out by haters is that the comic is greatly improved by reading only the first and last panels. I try this technique out. It works out surprisingly well.
1/03/2004: Great now that technique’s not working out too well, either. So the punchline here is Ethan does something wacky and Lucas goes, “Any explanation you could possibly offer will only further destroy my faith in the future of humanity.” Holy crap, was that the most unnecessary punchline to add at the end or what? I’m starting to think that a greatly improved CAD would be entitled CAD Minus Lucas. By they way, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this exact same punchline repeated like ten times already.
3/05/2004: I guess this is as good a time as any to point this out: using the results of a Google image search for your backgrounds? Really obvious, and really lazy. And Tim Buckley does this every other page. The first couple of times, I chuckled. Afterwards, I just sorta put my head between my hands and sighed forlornly.
5/15/2004: Goddammit, I am seriously getting sick of these stupid “random” Chef Brian strips.
5/19/2004: Oh, boy, no sooner do I say that than we get the first of the Player One, Player Two strips. I’ll be honest with you, though… these don’t really bother me. When you have to slog through the utter wordiness of a typical CAD strip, the Itchy & Scratchy like antics of Players One and Two (and later Three and Four) are almost a blessing.
8/11/2004: Here’s something I don’t get. Gamers in CAD are depicted here as cruel, violent psychopaths, dangerous morons, and he-man woman haters. Yet we’re supposed to be tut-tutting when the media depicts them as such? I know what Buckley’s going for here … but, crap, way to give your tormentors an easy excuse, eh?
9/22/2004: Here’s a Chef Brian strip showing a fork having sex with a spoon. There’s nothing really remarkable here except for the absolutely perfect B^U face on that spoon.
11/15/2004 – 12/14/2004: OK, I’ll admit that this was funny. Ethan creates a machine that can freeze time. Why? So he can play more video games. He walks around the apartment and find Lucas and Scott frozen into place. It turns out they were messing with him. And they carry out the joke as long as possible. Perhaps I was just more than a little impressed that someone in the comic was allowed to put one over Ethan.
1/1/2005-12/31/2005: Overall, the comics put out this year aren’t terrible. They’re still far too many words to explain a punchline when less is more (especially in the last panel), the characters are still unlikable, and there are far too many instances of Buckley face … but compared to the stuff that came the years before, it’s, at best, inoffensive. Lucas and Ethan by an HDTV. Lucas finds a date (the running gag here is that every woman Lucas dates is insane). Zeke (the XBox robot) goes robo-crazy. For the most part, it’s been a 3 star year so far instead of the typical 1 or 2 stars. I imagine this is the year everyone remembers when they stick it on their “Best Of” lists.
10/12/2005: And then we get to the really awful Jack Thompson strips. Please, Buckley … I think I speak for everyone when I say never ever open your mouth about politics again. There tasteful ways to go after people who you disagree with … and then there’s implying that the guy you hate was raped as a child. I’m sorry, but if your argument boils down to drawing yourself as the smuggest man on the planet while railing threats like “We outnumber you, and the people who think like you. Don’t fuck with us,” I am strongly inclined to side with the opposition just on principle.
1/30/2006: I’m only bringing this up once, because I don’t want to make the same argument every year, but goddammit but I do so hate Winter-een-mas stories. Winter-een-mas stories come off as embarrassing exercises in masturbatory wish-fulfillment. It doesn’t help that Ethan wearing that stupid crown makes his smug-ass face 200% more punchable.
Winter-een-mas 2006 is especially infuriating because, at the end, Ethan is crown king of all gamers. I don’t normally use obscenities on this site, but fuck that. Unwittingly, Buckley highlighted the most awful element of this comic: Ethan as a stupid, worthless sack of crap, yet the audience is supposed to worship him. The excellent yet defunct Bonus Stage cartoon parodied this scene in its very last episode, putting into animation why this particular conclusion is stupid stupid stupid:
Speaking of Winter-een-man, here’s an excerpt from the wiki page on CAD: “The holiday, which began in the webcomic, where it was celebrated by the characters, has become popular in real life. Many gaming stores, such as EB Games, celebrate the holiday.” There is no  big enough. Plus, there’s this: in 2005, EB Games was taken over by Gamestop, which then fired 800 EB Games employees (and keeping only 65). Coincidence? I think not.
2/13/2006: OK, since we’re apparently starting the long-running marriage arc, I think it’s fair to ask the question: what in the world does Lilah SEE in Ethan? Lilah has always been ill-defined, as if Buckley wrote down “Gamer Girl” in her profile but couldn’t figure out anything after that, but this attraction to Ethan? What the hell? Yes, gamers CAN have girlfriends, but typically there’s something a woman sees in the guy beyond ignoring her for hours at the time just so he can play XBox, right?
This plot, where Ethan meets Lilah’s parents, acts like a 12-year-old, and gains their love doesn’t help matters much. Reality check: when you ask someone about school and all they talk about is Everquest, you don’t merely dismiss the man who’s marrying your daughter as a “buffoon.” If you entertain the idea of disowning your own daughter, you would not be in the wrong.
4/14/2006: Laziest. Paris Hilton joke. EVER.
7/31/2006: I would say that now is the first time I’ve really gotten so tired of this comic that I dread coming back to it. I am typing the URL and cursing myself for getting into this. I am CAD fatigued.
Starting with the marriage arc, by the way, I’ve noticed a definite uptick of sappy storylines. Does Buckley pull it off? Imagine if you listen to a band that pumps out albums of novelty tune after novelty tune. And then, all of the sudden, they start introducing sincere love songs. Not only is it jarring, it’s really laughable in all the wrong ways.
8/21/2006: Also, the “wall of text” has grown to ludicrous levels. A transcript:
Lucas: Ethan, I think we should talk about this E4 thing. I know you’re upset that you never went to E3. I feel bad too. You would have loved it.
Lucas: But I’m not going to let you get carried away with this, and blow it all out of proportion.
Lucas: There will be other shows in the future, and maybe — Ethan? Are you listening?
Lucas: Ethan, your hair is on fire. Ethan, a kangaroo is eating your face.
Ethan: I hear talking coming from your vicinity, but I don’t think it pertains to helping me kill these zombies.
Ethan: And since your talk has nothing to do with zombie slaughter I deem i unimportant, and must ask you to keep the chatter to a minimum.
Lucas: Ugh, your brain changes changes channels faster than I can keep up, and every single one of them has poor reception.
Lucas: Whatever, I’m leaving before it flips to a channel that has you playing with scorpions again.
I’ve seen many parodies about the “wall of text” … but it doesn’t beat the real thing.
The worst part? This isn’t even the most extreme case.
9/02/2006: Oh, wait! Lilah does have a personality!
Lilah: So I think Ethan… scratch that, I know Ethan is upset that I got invited to this thing and he didn’t. He’s kind of being pissy about it too. I hate that he can’t get over it, because I want him there with me. On the other hand, I do feel like I’m partially to blame for the whole thing…. Maybe he has a right to be upset. I’d don’t know what to do.
So here’s the lesson from the day, ladies: stay far, far away from videogames. Or one day you may turn into a doormat like Lilah.
5/09/2007: Is it just me, or is every argument in CAD sound like a strawman argument?
7/05/2007: Yes, they do. I’d forgotten about the story arc where Ethan and Lucas pwn all the world’s religions.
It starts when Ethan starts his own gamer-based religion. (Ugghhh….) This somehow offends all the religions of the world. (UGGGGHHHH….) Never mind that religions are founded every day on shakier premises. The world’s organized religions form a summit to block Ethan’s new religion, but Lucas totally pwns all of them with perhaps the smuggest expression ever captured in webcomics: “He will completely shut down the Church of Gaming if you can provide an argument for why his gods don’t exist, that can’t also be used to disprove the existence of your gods.” To which the religious leaders stand agape and in awe at such unassailable logic.
Like that argument would ever work in real life. Still, you have to marvel Buckley’s construction of the world’s biggest strawman argument for something that no one in their sane mind would even argue for: a video-game based religion.
Hold up. Lucas, despite being a victim to Ethan’s selfish shenanigans multiple times, stand up for him. Ethan being proved right and can do no wrong. Ethan effortlessly defeating his enemies. Huh! It may be … YES! Ethan is the biggest Mary Sue of all time!
Congratulations, Tim Buckley!
11/03/2007: I have come to the realization that Ethan is not so much “wacky” as he is “wacky in the most belabored way possible by a person whose definition of ‘wacky’ comes from watching Family Guy episodes.”
1/25/2008 – 1/31/2008 : “It’s a Gamer’s Life” may be one of most sincere moments in all of Ctrl+Alt+Del … and that is so terribly sad. I’ve theorized that it might be a parody of Capra-esque movies (this is a Winter-een-mas story after all), but there’s very few hints that this is the case … especially since every other parody in CAD is explained in long, arduous detail. I almost feel bad for mocking it, but it’s impossible not to when the moral of the story is, “Playing video games is crucial to happiness.”
Incidentally, if anyone I knew ever told me that that was their life’s motto, I’d sit them down and tell them that they may be a tad obsessive. I mean, I love comic books, but I’d never say, “Reading comic books is crucial to happiness.” We begin our story with a lonely boy whose only solace in the world is video games. As he grows up, he drifts away from games, which may be why he’s feeling so distaff from his pregnant wife. But, lo, a kindly and apparently magical man thrusts a gaming system in our hero’s hands, free of charge. It apparently saves his marriage. What really sends this story over the edge to sheer madness is that Buckley includes an ending where an old man looks back at his life and reminisces about video games. Video games. Video games…..
And here I thought the Penny Arcade guys were obsessed with video games. This is just disturbing.
2/15/2008: Lilah tells Ethan she’s pregnant.
You know what’s coming.
It’s as terrible and as misguided as everyone makes it out to be. Just to give you an idea of how ridiculous it is, two strips ago Ethan was trying to repair a hole in the wall because he’d launched a rocket powered brick through it. And this happened after a lengthy “Choose your own adventure” story about space-faring Ethan entitled “Idiots in Space.” Which happened after Ethan tried to name his baby “Darth.”
Yes, it was that abrupt.
Plus there’s the added bonus of a terrible blog post rationalizing the plot development and the aftermath. But, again, it’s been talked to death. I don’t imagine there are that many people out there defending it. (If you are going to defend it, leave a comment here. I am genuinely interested.)
What the strip signals, though, is perhaps one of the biggest shifts the comic has seen. You know how video games are really a younger man’s game, best for people who have the luxury of time, i.e. between the ages of 12 and 30? This may be a sign that, for the first time, Tim Buckley is feeling his age. As the comic shifts to trying to give the characters a personality worth following, the video game references have felt more and more forced. It’s been six years, and you can’t talk about video games indefinitely.
Unfortunately, there’s a cautionary tale here, too: for the webcomic creators trying to follow in Tim Buckley’s footsteps, there’s no way to make a turn toward the maudlin without looking really, really stupid.
So where does CAD go from quite possibly the most embarrassing nadir in the history of comics? Find out next time, when the Webcomic Overlook powers through the aftermath of the miscarriage, the Ethan/Lilah wedding, Buckley’s new art style, and beyond.
Rating (2002-2008): 1 star (out of 5)
(Haven’t had enough of CAD? What the hell’s wrong with you? Anyway, check out Part 2 of this review… IF YOU DARE.)
Posted on August 2, 2010, in 1 Star, comedy webcomic, dramatic webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, video game webcomic, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Ctrl+Alt+Del, ctrl+alt+delete. Bookmark the permalink. 70 Comments.