Story Minus Character: Dresden Codak

This is one of those things that’s Brennen’s fault.  I’m pretty sure I found out about Dresden Codak from his LinkDump, and if I’m remembering correctly, it was a link to the Childhood’s End strip near the end of the “Hob” plotline that just wrapped up.

Dresden Codak is a webcomic, and so that I’m starting off with the positive, I should note that it’s a fairly unique webcomic.  Unfortunately, my ability to describe it ends there.  I’d say what it’s about, but it’s not really about anything.  I could mention that it’s a fusion of very academic scientific ideas with occasionally whimsical humor, but there are a lot of times where that fusion is not a positive thing.  For the first half of its run it was a disconnected series of single shot strips.  It eventually developed a recurring cast, but just barely.

Then, in January 2007, Aaron Diaz began a longer story called “Hob.”  Like most webcomics, it promised a weekly schedule it not only did not meet but might as well have thrown out the window.  The finished story, running 25 chapters, took a year and nine months to reach its conclusion.  A schedule of approximately a page a month is neither good for the audience nor the author.

I was frustrated with Codak the first time I read it, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.  I reread the full run a couple of times since July, when I followed the link from Brennen’s site, and every time came away strangely put off by the whole thing.  The art was beautiful, and I liked the ideas fueling the story, but each page felt so disconnected from what came before and after that I kept worrying I had accidentally skipped a section.

It was the disconnection that ate at me.  Every page was so packed with scientific musings that there was often very little room for characterization.  Then, the next page would jump to another idea in such a way that whatever minor character work had been done was lost as I tried to reorient myself in the next bit.  This got especially bad near the end, as Kimiko is seemingly killed before resurrecting as the man/machine “Mother” that we’ve been hearing about for most of the story.  Huge developments take place with no examination whatsoever.  At the moment I needed to be caring, I don’t even know what I was supposed to care about.

It clicked for me this morning.  The Big Ideas are good enough, and the art is great, but Dresden Codak uses its characters very poorly.  The main character, Kimiko, gets a lot of screen time, but most of that is spent explaining wormhole theory.  Her friends step on long enough to use cool powers and drop that Kimiko’s lack of compassion for humanity is scary, but two pages later have been captured by villains and a page later have been saved.  All of that last stuff without saying more than a line.  It’s like being given Cliff Notes for a Philip K. Dick novel.  Without reading it the actual work, it just looks pointlessly weird.

Then I found a quote from an interview with the creator:

I really don’t want to have a comic that’s appealing mainly because of its cast. There’s nothing wrong with that, people do it, but I’m always afraid people will come back only out of continuity and “what are the characters doing this week?” Even with this big story, I wanted to make sure that the universe itself and the ideas presented are kind of the star of the show. It’s helpful to balance.

So I was right.  To be fair to Codak, based on the quote above, it’s obvious he was actively avoiding a lot of characterization.  The problem – and I know this is my opinion – is that this is sort of the wrong way to tell a story.  The ideas presented can be and are the star of non-fiction, but the story is the star of a fictional work.   A story about the gestation of the Earth-Fetus is a pretty cool idea, but there needs to be a character, even if its not a human character.  It can be the earth itself, but even then we need to get some sense of causality resulting from the character’s actions.  “Hob” comes across as 25 random snapshots of a larger story, one in which I’m not sure what I’m supposed to care about.

These are problems I can see in the earlier strips as well, where more time is given to dissertation than it is to giving me a sense of who these people are.  The artist is clearly very, very smart, but I can’t help but think his intelligence and interest in vast topics isn’t a detriment to his storytelling.  I’d be very interested in a non-fiction webcomic about his ideas, like Scott McCloud has been doing for the past decade or so.  But I see a bunch of characters on screen and I expect…I don’t know, something from them besides pedantic dialog.

This is something I can only imagine is exacerbated by his posting schedule. Having been there myself, I can confirm that time away from actively writing a story separates you from the heart of it.  You get back and you remember the skeleton, but you’ve lost the vital fluids.  I wonder if that’s what’s happened to “Hob.”  If in his head he had found a balance for the story, but was unable to maintain it over the on and off schedule he maintained.

Still, I’m scratching my head at the quote above much as I scratched my head at the story itself.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author say that he didn’t want people coming back for his characters or for continuity.  I suppose that’s a bold, experimental thing to say on one level, but as a writer I find it perplexing.  Why would you write characters with whom you don’t want your audience to connect?

All that aside, you should check it out.  It’s definite its own thing, and unique work should never be ignored.  Something like Dresden Codak challenges you to respond to it, which is perhaps the most successful part about it.  A good challenge is nothing to sneeze at.

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4 Responses to Story Minus Character: Dresden Codak

  1. opuli populi says:

    I think you are misunderstanding the quote. He’s just explaining why he doesn’t want a permanent cast of characters. Strong character writing does not require a recurring cast. The web comic Partially Clips is a good example. Also, a recurring cast can get in the way. Think of Calvin and Hobbes, where in order to wrestle with some big ideas we get all these strips of them sledding off a cliff while they have a discussion. Those sledding strips barely count as comics because once you have seen a couple the visual aspect and what happens to the characters is totally predictable and could be left out.

  2. saalon says:

    Very good points about comics that work without continuity in its stable of characters, but I disagree that he was talking about not having a permanent cast, if only because Dresden Codak has one, and this quote references his intent in the Hob storyline as well as the overall strip.

    While I agree that a comic can work without consistent characterization, I don’t think a coherent storyline can. My critique is leveled primarily at the Hob storyline, which had some a fair amount of intended continuity.

    I brought up the quote to suggest that the author aversion to people returning to the strip primarily for the cast was the reason Hob came off disjointed and disconnected. That a stronger attention to characterization would have made the Hob story both easier to follow and more satisfying, even if the intention for the strip as a whole was not to be a character driven one.

    Thanks for your perspective on this. It’s very appreciated.

  3. immuccitita says:

    Just looked through the thread. great job.

  4. immuccitita says:

    Hello nice thread you have going here.

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