Let’s talk about how crappy the comic strip Dilbert looks. (The strip’s creator, Scott Adams, has made a wholesale conversion to Trump-worshipping gender essentialist and fitness/mindset guru, so I don’t think we have to worry much about hurting his manly feelings.) I want to discuss Dilbert because I believe that, from the start, it foretold the visual blandness of the webcomics that followed — that its blasé rejection of ink’s most elemental advantages in rendering shape and space gave rise to a school of trash illustration.
The more I look at this trio of panels, the more it strikes me that every appearance it presents is wrong. We start with an impossible perspective on an office that cannot exist in the fashion presented. The next frame is meant to give us “action” in the form of Dilbert doing something on his computer; instead he looks utterly frozen, perhaps paralyzed. God knows what’s going on with the colors at the end, but even in black and white, there’d be a glaring sadness to that couch. It’s difficult to follow the arc of the joke here, such as it is, because Adams has drawn what seems to be a comic of a comic — aggressively flat, the blank voids for eyes, and nothing rendered with more care than Dilbert’s shirt, which manages to seem like a quilt of variously sized bath towels.
Adams views the drawing of Dilbert as an economic chore in the service of his “reasonably good sense of humor,” much as Ayn Rand’s trainwreck prose is only there to prop up her rabid arch-libertarian theory. He draws what’s necessary, and no more, to convince you of the verisimilitude of his already accepted premise — that white-collar life is a deadening anti-meritocracy. I can’t actually hate him for this since he’s nailed an ideal solution to his wholesale lack of artistic talent and proved his point besides: You don’t have to be any good to get ahead as long as you understand the game. That’s a different talent.
I should say that I can’t draw myself. My girlfriend, a phenomenal illustrator, insists that she likes my doodles, but she’s just being nice. In school, I was bored and scribbled plenty, though along a troubling, narrow vein: I’d say 90 percent of my output was skulls and knives and towering mushroom clouds, the last of which I tried to shade richly, like the explosions in Calvin & Hobbes, one of the most beautiful ink productions the late 20th century had to offer. But there was no devilish spark like you see in Bill Watterson’s work. It was just sad. My sardonic freshman history teacher saw the pages of my notebook once and remarked with some clucking — this was a year after Columbine — “Later they’ll ask why we didn’t see the warning signs.” Writing felt right, and drawing felt wrong; I didn’t think it was something I could learn, let alone master.
I’m amazed, then, by how many people, mostly men, have brushed aside this basic prerequisite to become webcomic artists of noteworthy success. Let’s be clear about what I mean by “bad” webcomic art, however, as sometimes a superficial shittiness is exactly what’s so delightful, to the degree that you understand it’s more of a stylistic choice, regardless of the limitations in play. I’m thinking of the amoeba-like characters of Alex Norris’ Webcomic Name and the more rumpled blobs of Drew Fairweather’s Toothpaste for Dinner. Both species look unhappy to be illustrated the way they are, which makes them all the more human, despite their reduction to near featurelessness.
A third and perfect example of this tension between undercooked doodle and brilliant craft can be found in Perry Bible Fellowship, by Nicholas Gurewitch, who sands his humans down to polished bowling-ball heads, which reads as a kind of grotesque minimalism when contrasted with his lushly beautiful mixed-media backgrounds. There’s nothing to suggest Gurewitch can’t do “normal” faces, but there’s plenty that says he doesn’t care about them, and the result is humor that leans on the mute simplicity of expression.
The flip side would be something like xkcd, by Randall Munroe, which hews to the Dilbert formula of excusing ugly art with engineer-type nerd humor. I assume Munroe would be the first to admit that his stick figures are hard to look at with anything like empathy or appreciation — and since he makes a living off them anyway, that’s not much of a problem — but it always bothered me, no matter whether I enjoyed the rarefied concept of a strip or not. That is, you can tell how Munroe’s artistry is limited, and that in itself has a negative effect on the finished product, even if the figures are technically no “worse” in execution than what you get from the likes of Norris and Fairweather. Think of it as the Picasso problem. Just as one can’t invent cubism without mastering figurative painting first, one wants the “badly” drawn webcomics to show subliminal assurance. The aesthetic wrongness of a panel can’t be due to laziness or hackery. It has to be innovation.
Fittingly enough, a portraitist known as @Tw1tterPicasso walks that line with precision. As if to demolish the control we exert over our image on social media, he produces grotesque ballpoint “fan art” of celebrities, always based on a publicly available photo, often a selfie. You might be tempted to dismiss his creations as the crude best efforts of an incurable amateur, yet the buried details and caffeinated lines hint at an outsider virtuoso. Like a caricaturist, he exaggerates key elements of a face and body and even the setting; in other respects, you wonder if he’s able to draw any other way. Regardless, he doesn’t fall into the trap of poor illustrators who make their scribblings a mere vehicle for all-important narrative, because the story, as it were, is told in the scribbling alone: where he seemed to struggle, or overdid it, or couldn’t be bothered with accuracy. What here can you call a mistake, and what appears deliberate? His poker face never slips, and that’s @Tw1tterPicasso’s strength.
I see his aesthetic as an indirect response of sorts to the polished banality you get in the continuous or serialized webcomics that are the true heirs to Dilbert. These comics dispense completely with a resemblance to anything drawn by human hand; they are to the charming schlubbiness of The Far Side what the high-def episodes of The Simpsons are to the show’s early, fluid classics. Characters occur as static entities moved around a screen with a few points and clicks, posed repetitively, with their mental states represented through minimal, emoji-level indicators of surprise, annoyance, or contented neutrality. (Truthfully, all of it is quite neutral, which makes it so boring to look at.) Once you start to see this trash, you’ll notice it everywhere. To feel the distinction, first acquaint your eyes with comics that provide some verve and texture at The Nib, which publishes a number of outstanding editorial and essayistic cartoonists. Then try scrolling through the portfolio of Instagram-famous cartoonist Adam Ellis, who commands an audience of 1 million followers. Vision slides right over this stuff, and it’s only by dint of being “relatable” that people connect to it. Again, style is irrelevant.
Even so, Ellis has honed a format you might consider the airbrushed successor to the greatest bad webcomic of all time, Tim Buckley’s Ctrl+Alt+Del, which began as a riff on video game culture in 2002, but over the years has strived for high melodrama. Buckley’s singular triumph, or folly, was a 2008 strip entitled “Loss,” which attempts to show, in four wordless panels, the heartbreak of a miscarriage. This tragic overambition, paired with the absolute mediocrity of the scenework, results in a shittiness so profound that “Loss.jpg” became an inside reference that many regard as timeless. Meme cliques, keen to venerate and exploit the particular badness of misguided creatives, love how Buckley leaned on his pen to carry off a ham-fisted curveball: Hoping to manipulate the reader to tears, he pulls an amazing pratfall instead. And it’s not just that. Because the art sucks, it’s more easily copied and abstracted for parody.
Reassuringly, Buckley does evince a morsel of shame over the cynicism and insulting execution that is “Loss” — it’s said that anyone who attempts to buy a print of the notorious strip has their order received and then quietly canceled on Buckley’s end. Money is no compensation for spreading and extending his moment of humiliation. In that refusal, we see the conundrum of those who decided to make a livelihood of digitally assisted art that devalues the art itself, regardless of whether they achieve popular and financial success with that (now proven) gambit: All they publish has a toneless, claustrophobic, or, indeed, desperate air of a man who has drawn himself into a corner.