Geek comics: an illustrated history

27 Dec 2012

We explore the evolution of the online comics that lampoon geeks

Among all the flowing tributes to Neil Armstrong, it was a small cartoon from xkcd.com that best summed up his achievements. Tweeted and retweeted, the comic didn’t lament the great man’s passing. Instead, it pointed out the number of people to have walked on the moon and the depressingly small number who were likely to do so in the future. As clearly as any opinion piece, it said “we’ve lost our way”.

xkcd - Neil Armstrong

It’s no surprise that xkcd managed to do in a single panel what most obituaries were struggling to do in a thousand words. Geek comics are the tech world’s fairground mirror, presenting a truth that’s distorted but still familiar. They’ve been with us since before the internet took its first tottering steps, distilling complex issues into a few panels and a dozen words.

In this feature, we talk to some of today’s most prolific tech cartoonists, discussing the difficulties of what they do, how their profession is changing, and the joys of tackling the tech world’s biggest issues. Meet the men holding the pencils.

Weekly wisdom

It’s difficult being funny on a weekly basis, especially in an industry where issues tend to be as inflammatory as a footballer’s tweets. So it’s testament to John Klossner’s skill that he’s been a professional cartoonist for 25 years, contributing illustrations to The UNIX-Haters Handbook and numerous other publications, before being taken on as Computerworld’s resident comic writer.

“When I started out, I didn’t even have a computer, much less create technology-related cartoons,” says Klossner. “But cartoons and humour aren’t necessarily about the specific topics; they’re about the relationships, human and otherwise, within those topics. A caveman having trouble lighting a fire is experiencing the same emotions as someone whose computer keeps crashing.”

Anybody who’s ever dealt with a belligerent office printer will understand how apt this image is. Just like the caveman, Klossner claims the dark art of being consistently funny is more hard work than inspiration, especially in those rare weeks when the tech industry forgets to do something amusingly calamitous.

“I read a lot to familiarise myself with multiple topics,” says Klossner. “I find the best process for me is to spend a couple of hours sketching and thinking about a topic for a day or two, and then coming up with two to three ideas after sleeping on it. I like to share a couple of possibilities with clients and, after getting their reactions, pick one of the ideas to draw the finished piece, which takes me anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. I have a weekly deadline, which definitely helps me. It makes my thoughts flow. If I waited until the perfect joke or idea came along, I’d end up doing one cartoon a year and then putting that off until next year, in case I came up with something better.”

Data security

It’s a slightly different story over on GeekCulture, where the wonderfully monikered Nitrozac and Snaggy produce the Joy of Tech comic. GeekCulture is an ad-supported website pushed into the black by merchandise sales, giving its artists free rein when it comes to their creations. So long as people keep clicking and buying T-shirts, the artists can draw whatever they want – which is like giving somebody the gift of flight, just so long as they keep flapping their arms.

“We publish thrice-weekly, so the constant deadlines hinder our lives as human beings more than as artists,” says Snaggy. “We used to publish a new comic every day, which was brutal, but it honed our technical and creative skills, and our discipline. That was the fire we were forged in. I like to think of it as our Hamburg Period, à la The Beatles.”

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