xkcd is a very interesting, intellectual, and entertaining webcomic. Certainly nothing like I’ve ever seen before. It’s the brainchild of Randall Munroe, a former roboticist for NASA and programmer whose love of science, computers, mathematics, and pop culture infuses every pore of every strip of this comic.
The Subject: Intelligence Meets Entertainment (Yes, It IS Possible)
The majority of the humor in Munroe’s comic is derived (ha ha, calculus joke) from any of the following subjects that he takes an interest in:
- Advanced physics and mathematics
- Digital rights management (DRM)
- Linux, Unix, and the open source movement
- Computer science and programming
- Pop culture (especially Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Firefly)
Beyond those categories, there are dozens of other strips just making puns or random observations. A few strips are actually self-contained story arcs, like “Choices,” “The Race,” and “1337,” which are great set-ups for both jokes and storytelling.
The Cast: Easy To Animate, Easy To Like
With help from the good people editing TV Tropes and my own close reading, I’ve been able to determine a few standard characters that occur in xkcd:
- A standard stick figure who appears to be author avatar for Randall Munroe, or at least just a stock character.
- A female stick figure (read: with longer black hair) who shows up either to be a stock female character or the first character’s love interest.
- A guy in a black hat who sees other people as his playthings and enjoys inflicting humorous torture on them.
- Yet another stick figure guy in a beret, who poses existential questions and takes a lot of things at face value.
- Assorted celebrity cameos by Cory Doctorow, Carl Sagan, and various other notable scientists, mathematicians, actors, and programmers.
Final Verdict: Required Reading For Scientific Rigor (And Raptors)
What gets me most about this comic is that it doesn’t apologize for anything: not for its geekiness, not for its blatant use of mathematics and advanced science as casual topics, and not for its simplistic illustration. And even though I was an English major in college, I was also raised to have a healthy respect for math and science, so I don’t find its use in xkcd all that intimidating.
Of course, it might seem that way for first-time readers. All I can say is, don’t worry so much. Just relax and take the humor as it comes. The nerd world is not as scary as you think it is.
Except for velociraptors. You should totally be afraid of them.
xkcd updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Bibliography: xkcd. Written and illustrated by Randall Munroe. 2005 – present. http://www.xkcd.com.