Gutter Space #3 by Leslie Salas
Pushing the Boundaries between Comics and Animation
in Randall Munroe’s XKCD
No discussion of comics on the Internet would be complete without taking a look at Randall Munroe’s xkcd. Self-described as “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” xkcd is known by its substantial following as “the smart stick figure comic” with seemingly simple illustrations conveying more thought-provoking themes, often referring to current events in fields such a s science, literature, Internet culture, and popular culture. One of the most fascinating aspects of xkcd that sets it apart from other webcomics is Munroe’s ability to embrace technology and provide a unique reading experience to his readers that would not be possible in print. To highlight Munroe’s unique use of the webcomics medium in xkcd, this discussion will focus on how Munroe blurs the lines between comics and animation in his 1190th comic, “Time.”
At first glance, “Time” does not seem to be about anything exciting—but that’s because the url only shows the last panel in an epic sequence of continual updates over the course of several months. While at first the changes between the comic panels seemed mundane and simple, eventually the story grew to capture readers’ wonder and challenge their deduction skills as Munroe left hints about the setting of the comic through the two protagonists’ interactions with plants, animals, topography, abandoned residences, and shaky interactions with people from a different culture. Munroe trusts his readers to be smart and he takes no shortcuts with respect to researching and presenting his story.
Perhaps two of the most impressive undertakings of “Time” are the portrayal of a character having difficulty speaking a language and the illustration of the night sky. Munroe’s deliberate blotting-out of words in dialogue serves as a visual representation of garbled speech, giving the reader a similar difficult in understanding as the protagonists may have encountered. The reader only gets bits and pieces of the translator’s speech but learns the gravity of the situation with the help of context clues from the other two protagonists. This kind of visual depiction of an audible struggle would be impossible in a traditional prose medium, but feels natural and makes sense in the realm of this webcomic.
The starfield Munroe draws and animates clearly shows the main characters silhouetted against an unfamiliar Milky Way. The movement of the stars in the background mimics the movement of our own night sky so deliberately that is serves as a hint that time period of the comic is not contemporary. The subtle changes from frame to frame would probably be lost in a traditional print comic, but with each of the panels in “Time” being set on top of one another in a sort of slow animation, the differences appear more obviously and readers gain a distinct sense of movement and the passage of time.
As Munroe describes in a blog post about this epic project:
When the comic first went up, it just showed two people sitting on a beach. Every half hour (and later every hour), a new version of the comic appeared, showing the figures in different positions. … And as Time unfolded, readers gradually figured out that it was a story, set far in the future, about one of the strangest phenomena in our world… All told, I drew 3,099 panels. I animated a starfield, pored over maps and research papers, talked with biologists and botanists, and created a plausible future language for readers to try to decode. … To the intrepid, clever, sometimes crazy readers who followed it the whole way through, watching every pixel change and catching every detail: Thank you. This was for you.
You can watch/read the entire sequence of “Time” at your own pace, view a 40-minute video of the comic, or read reviews by Wired and The Verge. It’s well worth the time.
Leslie Salas writes fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and comics. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and attended the University of Denver Publishing Institute. In addition to being an Associate Course Director at Full Sail University, Leslie also serves as an assistant editor for The Florida Review, a graphic nonfiction editorial assistant for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and a regular contributing artist for SmokeLong Quarterly.