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Is ‘xkcd’ actually good?

In case you don't know, "xkcd" is the greatest webcomic of all time. Equal parts hard science, pop culture, and whimsy, it's drawn by a guy named Randall Munroe, who worked as a roboticist for NASA before "xkcd" became profitable enough, via merchandise sales, to allow him to be a professional cartoonist. Billed as "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language," Munroe's clever creation has, since its beginning in 2005, presented fresh insights into life in the digital age and remains the funniest, truest aesthetic rendering of our Internet culture. It's a work of art that could only exist online - not only because it's way too esoteric to print next to "The Family Circus," but because its fans never leave the computer.

It's such a great comic that it took me years to realize I can't stand it.

It's not just that I don't know anything about math or computer programming and so can't understand about a quarter of the jokes. It's not just that, although Munroe has been drawing these stick figures for seven years now, he still doesn't know how to draw a stick figure correctly (his don't have necks). It's the way the comic's intellect, which it's always worn on its sleeve, has gradually morphed into a shallow, exclusionary smugness: "xkcd" has become a kind of smart-alecky bubble of nerdy superiority, in which countless geeks take refuge and sneer at everyone else.

If you visit a few random "xkcd" strips, the first thing you'll notice, if they're not centered around goofy throwaway gags, will probably be the perspicacity of their observations: how they emerge from an intelligence that seems to grasp intuitively how most things in our society - highway engineering, tech support hotlines, pop lyrics - just don't make sense. Which is cool, and often the points Munroe makes are kind of hilarious and even cathartic - though, ultimately, there's an element of Jon Stewart glibness to them.

Then, after a while, you'll begin to notice how rarely an "xkcd" comic exists for some purpose other than to show how much smarter its author is than some other group of people - specifically, in most cases, some group of people generally disliked by tech geeks: philosophy majors, mainstream journalists, people who don't know stuff about computers. It doesn't have real characters, just these stick figures - one of whom nearly always functions as the author's mouthpiece, the other as a straw man of non-geek stupidity. It's in this way most of all, perhaps, that "xkcd" differs from its obvious inspiration, "Calvin and Hobbes," in which the author filtered his essays through the perspective of a human boy, whose viewpoints appeared to grow out of a personality shaped by the people and things around him, and who had to live with the consequences of his perceptions: Calvin's monologues were not stand-alone screeds. In short, Bill Watterson was an artist; Munroe is just a snarky pundit with a gift for the absurd - though you can hear a distorted echo of Watterson's voice every single time Munroe attempts unsuccessfully to inject into his own work some of the human warmth for which "Calvin and Hobbes" was rightly celebrated.

The other purposes "xkcd" serves are to make allegedly comical references to recondite mathematical concepts or obscure Web memes like (in order to congratulate readers who understand them), and to construct large, visually impressive graphs produced by intense analysis of some totally trivial subject (like "The Lord of the Rings"), ostensibly because it's somehow very amusing to apply scientific rigor to trivialities but probably mostly because Randall doesn't have a real job anymore to occupy his time.

It's seductive, this witty-nerd culture of "xkcd" - as long as you're smart enough to qualify, or think you are. It invites Internet-intellectuals - redditors, especially - to participate in a fantasy in which a lone, unemployed non-expert can, by roving message boards and Wikipedia, outsmart the world's politicians, marketers, academics, and pretty much everyone else, all by writing a couple sarcastic sentences on the Web. After all, "xkcd" is the creation of a guy who earned a bachelor's degree in physics and then, after brief office stint, became, improbably, a full-time webcomic artist at age 22; it retains a distinctly undergraduate sensibility - comedy and commentary for people who know just enough to think that they know everything.

Actually, it's when "xkcd" goes non-sarcastic that it gets really bad - when it becomes earnest, joyful, celebratory of the all wonders of the universe, like distant planets and previously unknown aspects of dinosaurs, that scientists are on the verge of discovering but whose marvelousness will, alas, remain forever unknown to those of us who are too dumb and uncurious to care. Sometimes, the comic comes across as a kind of Bill Nye-esque propaganda on behalf of the viewpoint that the world is awesome and fascinating and that science is super-cool: it's like those "I ****ing love science" memes that my friends keep sharing on Facebook. The only thing they love more than science is themselves for loving it - for being one of those brilliant few existing clear-headedly in the present and looking fearlessly toward the future, refusing to remain stuck in some muddled ignorant past. None of my share-happy Facebook friends are actual scientists. Neither, currently, is Randall Munroe.

Anyway, as I see it, sometimes the world is awesome, and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's boring. Or maybe I'm the one who's boring, and only "xkcd" - and its fans - are awesome enough to see the truth. Either way, this comic isn't going to help them or me very much, except with the occasional laugh: it's just another product of our increasingly interconnected and yet increasingly insular online culture, in which, every day, there's more superficial, pleasing content designed to bolster every worldview out there, and it becomes easier and easier to live in a digital universe consisting of nothing but funny pictures that agree with us.

Tagged: xkcd, generation y