WCO#239: Dresden Codak
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.
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.
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?
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.
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)