Saturday, August 2, 2008

Review: Dresden Codak

So: it's Dresden Codak review time, as promised.

You probably already know about Dresden Codak. It's the subject of much buzz in the webcomic world, some of it positive hype, some of it scathing criticism. Nonetheless, for those few of you who haven't come across it before, Dresden Codak is essentially a weird free-wheeling exploration of philosophical esoterica. With huge, experimental, lavishly-illustrated comic canvasses, DC creator Aaron Diaz takes concepts from science and philosophy, and takes them on bizarre creative journeys like something out of your strangest dreams. It's very much a comic for nerds.

Dresden Codak has gone through several stages in its creative development. Early comics have an experimental style and no consistent cast, although there are a few recurring characters (such as the geriatric superhero Oldman-Man and Victorian intellectuals Rupert and Hubert). However, by comic #22 or so, a cast has begun to emerge: science geek Kimiko Ross, her "possibly nuclear-powered" (?) friends Dmitri and Alina Tokamak, and Tiny Carl Jung, who is exactly what his name suggests: a foot-tall version of one of modern psychology's founding fathers. The comic follows this cast fairly consistently (with a few diversions) on freewheeling, self-contained adventures that descend into weirdness and folly. Then, with the 32nd comic, DC changes format again: as of February '07, it's been following an ongoing storyline titled "Hob" about a robot from the future and transhumanism and stuff. The art settles into a consistent look (which is a wise stylistic choice when you're entering the realms of continuity), the tone gets a bit more serious, and there is, on the whole, more comic-book-style action. At present, the storyline has not yet concluded.

So, what's to like about DC? The most obvious thing is the artwork: Diaz clearly has chops. I could talk at length about how great his artwork is, but a picture is worth a thousand words, so go check out his gallery. The man has outrageously creative concepts and the skill to illustrate them beautifully. My only real complaint about the artwork is that he tends to use bold colors, which can look overly cartoonish. Also, while the gratuitous chest shots of its protagonist may draw in more readers, they really don't add much to the work. But those are minor complaints. His backdrops are particularly imaginative: towering edifices and floating things and funky Mayan-esque robot tanks.

DC's writing, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. I'll be honest: while I've enjoyed the Hob storyline, I really do think pre-Hob DC is some much stronger work. It's fueled by a solid premise--the exploration of an esoteric concept through cartooning--which gives Diaz an opportunity to play with science and mythology and get creative in his illustrations, and the length of each comic gives him ample opportunity to take each comic to some crazy conclusions. For example, Rupert and Hubert begin with a preposterous armchair-science discussion of how to exceed the speed of light, and end up, through a series of surreal turns, end up elaborating on Victorian table manners. Another of my favorites, "Dungeons and Discourse", cleverly combines philosophy and tabletop role-playing. The illustration is top-notch, particularly in the subtlety of the shading and texturing, and the application of philosophical concepts to a fantasy RPG gives ample opportunity for wit. For example, a horde of skeletal dire postmodernists who are immune to causality and attack with arrows of deconstruction.

In addition, the older DC comics are bound together by a more subtle theme: a motif of folly. Kimiko pursues a goal yet consistently finds her efforts not so much thwarted as made trivial. She finds employment in her subconscious, only to discover that working in your dreams violates federal labor laws. She faces down shadow-creatures to acquire a vial of absolute truth, which she drinks, only to find out it's supposed to be applied topically. Her ideas get stolen by a bear. Her failures, which often stem from her overly analytical nature, make her more accessible and human. But, like I said, this is subtle. It's in the background of the comic-fun-with-esoteric-ideas premise.

This approach, I think, better suits Diaz's strengths as a cartoonist, particularly as a writer. However, in the Hob storyline, he's...well, decided to tackle actually having a storyline. The results, in my opinion, have been rather uneven. There are some promising moments, such as an intriguing show-rather-than-tell beginning, and some funny lines, mostly coming from the time travelers' clueless grasp of past culture. Additionally, this action sequence captured what I liked best about old DC: getting creative with science through sharp illustration. The notion of science superheroics is both awesome and funny! However, the story has also been rife with misfires: several episodes of Wall-o'-Text Exposition Theater and a confusing narrative jump, for starters. Additionally, some comics feel like contrived, heavy-handed attempts at character development that exist solely to manipulate the reader into sympathy for Kimiko. "I come in peas?" Come on, Diaz. That kind of "endearing" malapropism is generally reserved for The Family Circus. Fact is that Kimiko, in her nerdiness, is not a very charismatic spokesperson for transhumanism, and when she actually succeeds at things, she runs the risk of becoming a Mary-Sue. This is a risk which Diaz has not entirely been able to mitigate.

But for all its flaws, Dresden Codak is a pretty good comic. However, no discussion of it would be complete without addressing the panel layout and update schedule. Some people complain that DC's panel layout is unorthodox to the point of incomprehensibility, but I've rarely had trouble following it. Maybe it’s just me. Additionally, DC updates quite irregularly, sometimes taking upwards of two months between new comics. It’s up to you if it’s worth the wait to stay tuned in. As for me, I’ll happily pass the time between updates with Dr. McNinja and Nobody Scores.

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