WCO#239: Dresden Codak

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Aaron Diaz’s Dresden Codak is a strange creature. It debuted back in 2005, back when webcomics were developing a reputation as the sophisticated alternative to their comic strip brethren. xkcd launched in the same year, and A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible not long before that. Perry Bible Fellowship was starting to gain a strong following. At the core of these comics as a brainy just-out-of-college mentality. The gags were still sometimes juvenile, but at its core were concepts and ideas that were smarter and more clever than ones on the Sunday Funnies. Except Marmaduke. That comic is pretty dang subversive.

And all of them, including xkcd sometimes, would surprise you by hitting you with some great looking art. It may be easy to forget, since a lot of art grads now know of webcomics as a great way to expand their portfolio, but aesthetically webcomic art was pretty dire. The medium, after all, was originally conceived as an amateur hobby where some folks got lucky despite the artistic merit, e.g. tons of pixel comics. As a result, comics like Dresden Codak were incredibly eye-catching in comparison.

Typical of early Dresden Codak is a comic like “Li’l Werner.” It’s a one-shot comic with no continuity baggage. Diaz is still experimenting with his art style: this time homaging the black-and-white cross-hatching of Edward Gorey. The strip hinges around a tongue-in-check parody of Aryan physics (the Nazi nationalist scientific movement to discredit Jewish scientists like Albert Einstein). There’s a sharped-toothed Philip Lenard recalling anti-Semitic caricatures, a tiny Heisenberg, and something about “current momentum.” I don’t pretend to know what the heck any of this is about. But it sounds smart and the multiple tiny Heisenbergs is a cute visual gag. It’s a lovely comic to introduce to your local Tesla fan.

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The seeds of the modern Dresden Codak begin with “De Los Muertos“. Not because the humor is less academic. (It’s about a high school student who’s punished for being inattentive during mythology class, and then must venture into the Underworld where she meets a very accommodating Aztec deity.) We’re introduced to Kimiko Ross, a girl genius.  Like, literally.  It’s revealed that she’s the daughter of a notorious mad scientist, for example.  But for now she’s just a cute girl in a school uniform who’s a little shy around boys. I remember when she was first introduced that it was kinda nice Diaz was developing a recurring character, which sorta set Dresden Codak apart from Perry Bible Fellowship. Little did I know at the time how much Kimiko would become the focal point for all future strips.

While it wasn’t apparent at the time, Diaz hinted that he had something greater in greater in store for his clever ingenue with “Epilogue“. In this gag strip, Kimiko peers in the future, and she sees a bunch of robot hands, clenched in fists and raised in the air like she was robo-Stalin. She sees an image of herself as an older woman who is also a cyborg. Like, the most inconvenient cyborg, too: one hand has long claw fingers and the other hand looks like it came off an elephant. Seriously, how is that even close to being efficient? She also has some fancy Liefeldian pipes sticking out of one side of her head because reasons. Hey, man, I too loved The Brigade.

In any case, it’s sort of a sign that gag strips, such as the one featuring Oldman Man just one strip before, are a thing of the past. Dresden Codak is hurtling headlong into Final Fantasy territory, baby, and Kimiko Ross is the robo-Jenova who’s taking you there.

The true litmus test of whether or not you’re going to like Dresden Codak is if you can tolerate “Hob.” The storyline, which took all of 27 strips, took almost two years to complete. (As we shall see, this is brutally efficient storytelling by Dresden Codak standards.) It actually starts off quite promising. The first strip is wordless, which starkly contrasts with the absurdly flowery dialogue from previous strips. We’re introduced to Hob, a robot that looks like Kanti from FLCL crossed with one of those dowel men that you can buy from Michael’s. It’s a simple but striking design. Kimiko Ross, meanwhile, is doing mad scientist stuff, searching the skies with a comically oversized telescope. Her eyes light up and scans the sky blissfully. While her romantic life may be in the dumps, it does not matter for her true love is science.

And then the refugees from a 90’s Nickelodeon cartoon show up and my interest dives to zero.

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I think I can see Diaz’s dilemma. He wanted to tell and epic story, but didn’t want to let go a the sort of wackiness where Kimiko was hanging out with a tiny Carl Jung. But, wow, sticking people in silly hats is such a non-joke that I think that anything that may have resembled a smile may have faded a bit. “Hob” suffers from a tonal clash. The grand space opera is continually undermined when ever character is Jar Jar Binks.

Not to mention that Diaz really could have learned a thing or two about the basics of comics storytelling. Cramming everything into a single strip was fine when it was all in service of a long, drawn-out gag. It was basically like when someone’s telling you a joke (“I know this big guy who worked at a candy shop”), adding in some details to sorta get your brain off track (“He was six-foot-two, wore size 38 pants, spent his whole day catching up on Scandal”) to distract you (“What does he weigh?”) from the otherwise obvious punchline (“Candy!”) But now, since we’re into serious fantasy epic territory… there is no punchline. Or rather, there is a punchline sometimes, but it’s outsize the main focus, which is to establish a new sci-fi universe. As a result, Diaz’s panel layouts get quite suffocating.

There’s a strip where Kimiko and her friends all have superpowers and they engage robots in an X-Men style battle. (Not even my snark here. The page is entitled “You Gotta Make Way For the Homo Superior.”) We go from scene to scene in the span of one page where every attack seems like it’s supposed to have impact, but it’s all lost in the clutter of panels and jellybean colors. Rereading the strip, I was actually reminded of one of my favorite take-aways from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: that the spaces in between panels are one of the most underrated tricks in a creator’s toolbox. It controls the pacing, the focus, and the sense of the passage of time. There is no sense that any of these individual panels are worth paying attention to.

I also wonder why Diaz didn’t just separate this and many other strips into ten or eleven smaller strips. Seriously, I’m imagining an alternate comic that’s far stronger visually. One strip focuses on the appearance of the robot army. The second shows the two blonde kids combining their powers. Then perhaps another where the blonde girl is kicking the robolady in the face. Not only would the action have been far more decipherable, the gags would have had more impact. How much funnier would it have been if powers based on the “probability distribution of the electron cloud” and “density with mass reaching the boundaries of the Chandrasekhar Limit” have been if they were given their own strip? I mean, if this storyline was going to take two years to complete anyway, why not give it some room to breathe rather than forcefully compacting several visual elements on one page?

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The current storyline is “Dark Science,” which is at 31 pages and has been going on since 2010. That’s right, people: this June, this storyline will have been going on for four years already. Were there people out there really looking for the further adventures of Kimiko Ross? Even after the events of Hob, when Kimiko become a robolady with the powers of a god or whatever, she remains awfully milquetoast. Fortunately, there is an improvement on the storytelling front, and I think it has a lot to do with “Dark Science”‘s reserved color palette. Much of it is rendered in hues of blue, black, and gray, and they help ground focus to the pertinent subjects, usually rendered in brighter colors. I think it could still benefit from splitting out some strips into separate strips. However, since so little happens in “Dark Science”, it’s less of a problem here. Most of it is wordplay, anyway.

I’m actually pretty fond of the panel layout in “Masks“. Kimiko’s pushy friend Vonnie discovers that the dress she selected has been abandoned for a less awkward tuxedo. We see her expression fall in very tiny panels, reminiscent of some of the mini-panels from earlier gag-oriented. Crushed, she tried to make friends with another party-goer, who totally brushes her off. Vonnie runs off somewhere with tears in her eyes. It’s both comedic for her overreaction, but also surprisingly affecting, revealing how lonely this character is. I’m rather impressed how Diaz has managed to effectively convey facial expressions. In just one strip, I ended up caring far more about Vonnie more than those unremarkable blonde sibling from earlier strips.

We trade the somewhat modern day world of previous Dresden Codak stories to a sort of steampunk future, where everyone’s dressed in dapper bow ties and fancy dresses. (I strongly suspect that Diaz has played both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite.) It’s also quite Orwellian: there’s a department for everything, including a shrinking Department of Archaeology that gets folded into the Department of Interpretive Dance. Science has become so ossified that it’s become a religion, employing even some sort of high priest. I find that the absurd humor actually works far better here, since it’s in service to the world building. One of my favorite scenes, for example, is when we discover that the Department of Archaeology is just a tiny storefront that no one cares about.

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I also still have no idea what the heck “Dark Science” is about. So… “Dark Science” is science that isn’t arrive through via scientific method? Uhhhhh… whatever you say, Aaron Diaz. Still, I’m going to go ahead a recommend the “Dark Science” portion of Dresden Codak. It’s the strongest art that Diaz has produced, and it is filled with some decent gags about the balance between science and funding. Kimiko Ross is still not that interesting of a character, but hey, I sorta do want to see where Vonnie ends up.

What do you think the over/under is on “Dark Science” ending sometime in the next four years?

Rating (Dark Science): 4 stars (out of 5)

Rating (all of Dresden Codak): 3 stars (out of 5)

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on April 7, 2014, in 3 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, sci-fi webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Apparently, Diaz has thrown himself out with the bathwater, complaining that you “haven’t read a book or seen a movie since 1999″ and that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    I’d also like to say that I agree with you entirely that he needs to chop his comics up into smaller, more readable pieces.

    • Haha, wow, I looked at his twitter feed, and boy, SOMEone sure can’t take criticism. Also, he calls this a “scathing review.” I wasn’t aware that rating something 3 and 4 stars out of 5 was scathing.

    • What? I totally saw The Matrix.

      Wait a minute.

      That was 1999! Holy crap!

      • His work primarily references Metropolis and Brazil. Though, in my opinion, the stinging critique of Brazil is watered down to nothingness and the fantastical imaginative strengths of Metropolis are only occasionally present. Diaz may want to believe that his work isn’t most similar to Bioshock, but it really is a closer match that whatever he may think he’s aiming for. I should note, I stopped reading two years ago figuring that if I wait ten years I could just read the series in full and it might actually make sense.

        The largest problem I have with Dresden Codak is that Diaz doesn’t have anything interesting to tell us. He wants to impress us with his art deco, and I do love art deco. He wants to show us how great he is at being nonconformist he is by referencing Carl Jung instead of the more mainstream Freud and by breaking his panels into indecipherable arrays. He wants to impress us with his awesome science-y ass-kicking female protagonist. And maybe back in 2007 it was good enough for me to be impressed by those things. But lately I can’t help but actually want a story told that I can relate to, on some basic level, that I can understand, even if I don’t get all of the references, and something that I can think about. Diaz’s comic feels like smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that he doesn’t understand human-human interactions, doesn’t have the capability to do inner conflict, and doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to bring about characters who express real feelings.

        Dresden Codak is ,unfortunately, one of the notorious comics that has a guest strip that is far superior to any of the work he has done. The dude that does the Overside Comics did a strip that’s just plain brilliant. He transformed Diaz’s caricature and sex symbol to a gritty human/androd-y girl. He transformed the generic Metropolis-ripped art deco blandness to something darker and scarier. And his strip was INCREDIBLY relate-able. I wish the main strip was more like that one.

        • “Diaz’s comic feels like smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that he doesn’t understand human-human interactions, doesn’t have the capability to do inner conflict, and doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to bring about characters who express real feelings.”

          Judging by his tweets I think you hit the nail on the head there.

    • It’s “has never read a book or seen a movie *before* 1999″, according to the link given below. (Which seems to fit better with complaining about the Bioshock reference).

  2. Dresden Codak is a glacier: scenic and slow.

  3. I used to be a loyal reader of Dresden Codak. Of course, I was a young adult who thought he was the world for knowing physics was a thing, so I was bound to be one. I actually preferred the original gag comics. The art was attractive, and the absurdism meshed well with the succint points each individual gag made. Early Dresden Codak was a lot like Hark! A Vagrant, but with science instead of history. Cute gags about simple, entry-level knowledge.

    Then came Hob. The early Kimiko Ross gags are still entertaining, but there’s a disturbing warp in the content where Diaz seems to fall in love with his own character when he starts Hob. There are even unsubstantiated rumours that she’s based on an unrequited love interest. She goes from a slightly sexualized mouthpiece character to being the author’s waifu. This is where it becomes uncomfortable, because the comic becomes less witty and more focused on what is still a very 2D character. Kimiko is never what made the comic interesting, and here she is fore and centre spewing her pseudo-scientific technobabble all over the place. She seems more like a cute paper doll for him to pour into new outfits, and have function as his own presence in the comic, rather than a fully developed character.

    In the end, Dresden Codak is not a bad comic by any stretch. The art is easily on a professional level, even if you don’t ignore the jumble of panels (I’ve actually always liked the experimentation he goes through with that). The pacing is slow and terrible, but that’s not really going to affect you if you go through the archive. Just don’t expect a storyline to conclude in a rodent’s lifetime.

    Also, because I read the blog I know how Kimiko and Vonnie arrange their pubic hair. I kind of feel that this information doesn’t stroke with Diaz’s supposed enthousiasm for feminism. I’m not opposed to nudity and sex in comics, but like I said, Kimiko is a paper doll. This wasn’t information anyone needed. It looked like porn.

    Overall my verdict is that the comic’s style just doesn’t work with storylines. The humour is overshadowed by the big, serious feeling and the need for plot. The plot itself is farther away from science than the gag comics were. This comic went from science to SCIENCE!, and that’s definitely a step back.

    Another whopper of a comment. Well, I did read this thing for years.

  4. Brazil, if you want to know, is where Diaz stole, I mean, “took influence from” to make this non-city.
    I say non-city because what’s-its-name is not a living city, unlike the one in Brazil where people actually live and interact, where stuff happens outside of what the main protagonist does to interact with it.
    Also, I don’t think Diaz liked the retrofuturistic look from Brazil too much and decided to steal Rapture from Bioshock instead of coming up with something original.
    Also, as some people have pointed at, this “dark scientific method” is nothing but scientist who ignore ethics to get the results they want.
    You know, like in Bioshock!

    • Brazil, if you want to know, is where Diaz stole, I mean, “took influence from” to make this non-city.

      Huh… I guess I can see that. Man, the things you miss when you haven’t watched a movie since 1999…

  5. “Fortunately, there is an improvement on the storytelling front, and I think it has a lot to do with “Dark Science‘s reserved color palette.”

    That’s part of it for sure, but I think his page compositions are helping more. It feels like the recent strips are clearer and characters have more breathing room. I think the ratio of dialogue to action has something to do with it too.

    Breaking things into small pages could help, but large pages can be just as clear. It’s all in how it’s handled.

  6. First I was like “huh, 3 stars. Apparently the comic has improved somewhat from the days when Solomon did his review on it, I wonder why Dresden Codak even earned a place in Solomons blog in the first place since this isnt the worst thing out there.”

    And then I read these comments and I understood why, lol.

  7. so, did you choose to not mention the funny hat people were the tng bridge crew, or just miss it?

  8. In a way you are being too generous. What the comic has going for it: Truly awesome, often breathtaking art. What the comic has against it: everything else. The storytelling is confusing and glacial, and one simply does not get the feeling that it is about anything interesting. To the degree that there actually is any decipherable meaning behind any of it, and nobody appears to have mentioned that aspect here so far, it is obnoxious promotion of singularitarianism and transhumanism.

  9. Haven’t seen a review of Dresden Codak since the old days of Solomon, so it was nice to see a review that does not assume the author is an arrogant pompous ass just because the comic uses words with more than 3 syllables.

    But then the very first comment thread comes and confirms that, indeed, he is an arrogant pompous ass.

    I mean, “scathing”? Does he know what “scathing” even mean? 4/5 reviews are hardly “scathing”, really. And then there’s the rest of the conversation which… ugh.

    For those who care: I follow the comic because the art is amazing and the concepts are intriguing(especially in one-off comics), not to mention if you look into the science it comes off as a sort of Genius Bonus(oh noes, I used TV Tropes terminology, I’ll probably be banned from reading it or something). Do hate how the long arcs seem to take the Lost route of “just add more concepts with each installment and explain as least as possible” storytelling.

  10. I stuck with this webcomic for years despite the weaknesses mentioned here and elsewhere, right up into the current story arc. I could put up with the confusing panel layout, the tonal schizophrenia, and the futurism wank, because it was entertaining. What finally killed it for me and made me stop reading DK was the ever-worsening update schedule. At one point a while back I think he updated just 4 times over the course of a year. That’s not worth keeping up with religiously no matter how well stylized the art is, especially when the story pacing is now quite slow, and this has been Diaz’s full time gig for some time now. But never fear – excuses for delays are never in short supply, be they relocating to a different city, computer crashes, con schedules, slinging merch, or dithering with side kickstarter projects when you can’t even deliver your main title on the regular.

  11. Well this is interesting… I am seeing a critic I adimre (which is pretty rare) and an artist I admite both act a little silly…. and a bit childish. On one hand, i certainly agree that that the update schedule is a little appalling, and I think that at least for his stories he might want to thunk about just issueing them all at once are at least multiple pages at a time, and maybe think about trying what some other webcomic artists have done to keep a regular schedule: have a buffer of comics finished before they get published (tom siddel of gunnerkrigg court and sam logan of sam and fuzzy come to mind… I’ve been reading them since 2006 and I have yet to see either of them miss an update, even their hiatuses are preplanned, and the comic starts back up right when they say) the Hob storyline did have some layout issues, as I did find myself wondering where to look sometimes, but the subsequent one-shot that followed seemed to have worked those out- in that he has made the designs interesting (including that space you talked about) but made them in a way where the eye follows the panels naturally, even if they are arranged unconventionally….
    On the other hand, you essentially putting down the subject matter for not understanding it is pretty off the mark.. look up the heisenberg uncertainty principle; the joke will make a lot more sense. By essentially stating that the joke is bad because you didn’t get, you’re pretty much vindicating his (albeit childish and petty) twitter remark. You don’t know what you are talking about. You said it in the review that you did not get it. That’s not a bad thing though. So you just might not understand physics that well, ok, but that doesn’t make the material bad. Basically, from your review it pretty much showed that though you understand comics, you didn’t get some of the subject matter, and not because it wasn’t laid out clearly, but that you literally just did not understand the concepts he was referencing. It came off like a kid in a literature class who says shakespere is stupid just because he didn’t get it (not saying this comic is shakespere either, it’s just an analogy…I’m looking at you, trolls in the peanut gallery).
    As far as the authors emotionally maturity… it was just a couple of comments on twitter.. are we really taking twitter seriously (this is why I stay off that and facebook. And yes I am better than all of you for not using them -ok now I’m just trolling you people-)? He did also put “scathing” in quotes, meaning that was probably how the article was brought to his attention, though the last comment was pretty rude and uncalled for. Anyway, you should check out his artblog, it. Is actually pretty educational and personally I’ve learned quit a bit from it. Your comments about it here are really unfounded and it just makes you sound like a bully. The stuff he writes about is actually incredibly mature and well thought out, such as why his protaginist is a female (very non-sexist reasons), which is why I was a little surprised when I clicked the link to the twits. ( they are twits. It accurately portays the act much better than tweet) because even though you had some unkind things to say, in the end you did give him 4 out of 5 for his latest work…
    So, in conlusion to my hastily written-while-half-asleep essay (pardon any typos) you are both being dicks. Internet dicks at that. Now shake hands and make up this insant.

    • “On the other hand, you essentially putting down the subject matter for not understanding it is pretty off the mark.. look up the heisenberg uncertainty principle; the joke will make a lot more sense. By essentially stating that the joke is bad because you didn’t get, you’re pretty much vindicating his (albeit childish and petty) twitter remark.”

      My impression was that, despite not understanding the “Li’l Werner” strip (and drawing some incorrect conclusions as a result), El Santo’s comments about it were intended to be positive. He said, “But it sounds smart and the multiple tiny Heisenbergs is a cute visual gag. It’s a lovely comic to introduce to your local Tesla fan.” That sounds very positive to me, despite the fact that there weren’t “multiple tiny Heisenbergs” in the strip. If you had applied your criticism to what El Santo said about the Hobb arc (and substituted transhumanism for quantum mechanics), I would have agreed, though. It was clear that El Santo didn’t understand that arc at all, so how could he know if the arc was any good or not? The only things he could judge were superficial things such as the panel layout, which I agree could have been better.

      I think it’s probably fair to criticize Diaz for frequently behaving like an arrogant jerk, but I wouldn’t conclude that it’s due to a lack of “emotionally maturity.” For all I know, it could be a persona that he’s trying to cultivate. I’m not sure how it’s relevant here, anyway. I don’t need to like an author to like the work that he or she creates. But it wasn’t El Santo who made things personal; it was Diaz and some people writing comments.

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