xkcd is an online comic strip that has gained a cult following. Penned by Randall Munroe, it presents naif, stick-like figures doing strange, wonderful and weird things. There is a strong geek element to the cartoons, with physics jokes, science fiction references, and spin-off comic What If? which seeks to answer absurd questions with mathematical precision.
I love the sentiment which imbues the comics. Its wistful, and has an appropriate sense of awe at humanity, the world, and the universe. However, I can see how others might find it whimsical, precious or twee.
The latest cartoon in the series, Click and Drag, is really something. A man clutching a balloon drifts over the landscape. “From the stories, I expected the world to be sad, and it was. And I expected it to be wonderful. And it was. I just didn’t expect it to be so big.”
Underneath this is a large panel with a cartoon landscape. The reader can click and drag to reveal more of the image, and see little vignettes featuring other stick figures, pop-culture references, and rendering of architectural structures and geological features. Its a huge image in total, approximately 160,000 pixels wide, and so clicking and dragging takes a long time!
Why is this so good? Commenter Pochacco has a good, simple analysis on the NeoGAF meesage boards:
I have a feeling the author is trying to troll us.
It’s so “big” that you can’t see it all. You will miss some parts and it will haunt you. Just like life.
I suspect this is right.
But there’s more: This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare. While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online. The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art. Users on the NeoGAF board are busy trying to download the entire panorama in its entirety, but doing that is a mistake that spoils enjoyment of the cartoon – that you can only see a small part of the image at any one time, and that you may miss something, is precsiely the point.