Today, it’s not just the government that’s back in business! The internet gives us two great articles about cartooning (and technology!) that go great together.
First, Mental Floss scored a huge coup and interviewed the elusive/reclusive/exclusive Bill Watterson, author and artist of Calvin and Hobbes. (As I said on Twitter, this is like ten Salingers times a Pynchon.)
Where do you think the comic strip fits in today’s culture?
Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own. Obviously the role of comics is changing very fast. On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on. All the new media will inevitably change the look, function, and maybe even the purpose of comics, but comics are vibrant and versatile, so I think they’ll continue to find relevance one way or another. But they definitely won’t be the same as what I grew up with.
Cue up Onion A/V Club’s Todd van der Werff, who looks back at that other great grandchild of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, Mike and Matt Chapman’s pioneering web video series Homestar Runner.
Much of Homestar Runner’s animation is fairly rudimentary stuff. Arms go up and down. Mouths flap open. Characters stand in place while the background races past them to indicate movement. But all of that belies the program’s true strength: terrifically designed, perfectly written characters. The weirdos that populate Homestar’s world aren’t drawn from animated kids’ shows or even children’s books, but from another great American art form: the newspaper comic strip. As with Peanuts or Pogo, the characters may have hidden depths, but they’re largely defined by striking, singular personality traits. Homestar is the good guy, and even if he’s a bit of a nerd in the process, he’ll always return to that basic decency. Strong Bad proved too slippery for the antagonist role and ended up becoming something like a 10-year-old boy’s conception of everything that is awesome in the world. His brothers, Strong Mad and Strong Sad, were just what they sounded like. Coach Z was motivational, in his own weird way. The Cheat was basically Snoopy.
It was a boys’ universe, designed by two men who sometimes seemed like overgrown kids themselves. (The series’ one significant female presence, Marzipan, is mostly notable for being The Girlfriend, though she gets some stories of her own as the site progresses.) What made it work was how open and earnest the whole project was. Nothing here was intended to be mean or downbeat. It was all happy and peppy and shot through with color and light. The Chapmans’ bright, shiny surfaces and colorful character design took what can be a weakness of Flash animation—the way everything seems to so easily boil down to a series of connected shapes, like in one of those “I can draw!” books—and made it a strength. The designs were simple, poppy, and instantly recognizable. Even better, the two loved to switch them up by twisting the characters into all manner of different visual styles, or dressing them up in ridiculous costumes for the yearly Halloween episode. Couple those appealing visuals with the well-defined characters and sneakily amusing scripts, and the two had a recipe for Internet success.
I was in graduate school when Homestar Runner hit its stride (2002 to 2005, according to van der Werff) and assumed it was targeted at my demographic: kids who’d grown up with dot matrix printers and Nintendo easter eggs, crappy action cartoons and crappier correspondence courses and 1990s raves. But I’m amazed at how many of my juuuuust younger friends associate Homestar with their childhood.
Andrew Briggs is a good example: “Homestar was big for me in middle school and early high school, so now so much of that weirdness is baked into my sense of humor… It was so specific.” And “I see Calvin and Hobbes in my brother, I think that’s all he read between ages five and ten.”
Kids who didn’t have the experience of looking over their mom’s and dad’s shoulders at the Sunday paper, eyes drawn to the one patch of color, instead looked over their moms and dad’s shoulders at a still-young internet. Instead of trading paperbacks, they traded URLs. And now they’re building our world.
PS: I also love this bit of hope at the end of van der Werff’s story, which also happens to be the fundamental difference between Homestar-era web video and Calvin and Hobbes-era comic strips (apart from, you know, motion and electricity):
The beauty of Internet television is that it never really has to go away, particularly when it’s a two-man show like Homestar Runner was. The Chapmans could roll out a new cartoon tomorrow and start updating the site all over again, and it would likely light up Twitter with nostalgia.
Having nostalgia for something of the Internet era still feels a bit strange, since the ’net has been with most people for only 20 years or so. And yet Homestar and Strong Bad already feel of some other Internet era entirely, which may be why they’ve slipped into the past, without so much as a wrap-up video.
Read the whole thing; it’s smart start to finish.