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Shakespeare and Webcomics

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Disclaimer: I own none of the photos uploaded here. Sources are provided whenever possible.

Presented by:
Franz Edric Bangalan

UP Diliman, Quezon City

Later, they would go on to write Moby Dick

The truth revealed

In my spare time, I would scour the internet for interesting stuff, from weird articles to entertaining games and everything in between. It’s surprising how much weird shit you’d find on google search.

One of the interesting quirks in the internet is that because of the internet’s open nature and relative accesibility, almost anyone can upload and show off their skills (or lack thereof) to anonymous strangers all over the world. This is most exemplified by the proliferation of the webcomic, where artists struggling to find an audience and whom are unable to find an outlet for their creative work would turn to the internet to spread their art.

I’ve taken an interest in webcomics, since they provide a good venue for people unable to gain notoriety for their comics in traditional venues. Furthermore, since webcomics are not subjected to the same regulations found in traditional comics, their topics can range from the humorous to the serious, from the cheery to the morbid. This can lead to webcomics on widly different topics. Webcomics focusing on gaming like as Penny Arcade, on mathematical and scientific concepts applied to daily life like xkcd or even dead baby comedy in Cyanide and Happiness.

For today, I’ll be focusing on the interaction between the webcomic and the character of Shakespeare. I’ll be using examples from two popular webcomics, Dinosaur Comics and Irregular Webcomic!, examining how the two webcomics utilize the character of Shakespeare.

Is this a dagger I see before me?

T-Rex engages in soliloquy

Dinosaur Comics is updated daily, reusing the same artwork every day, changing only dialogue. While this sounds like a boring idea, the dinosaur characters T-Rex and Utahraptor are surprisingly erudite and well-learned. Amongst its supporting cast is William Shakespeare, although he remains off-panel and is never seen. In a series of strips titled “Literary Technique Comics”, T-Rex would explain a literary technique such as allusion or foreshadowing, or even perform a monologue from a Shakespeare play, as shown on the right. He would then refer to Shakespeare, asking him for clarification or explanation. The punchline of these strips often revolve around the off-panel Shakespeare explaining any mistakes in T-Rex’s explanations, correcting him, or engaging in an act that illustrates the example shown. For example:

You're way late, man. iPods are where it's at.

Curiously, the author chooses to use Shakespeare in these “Literary Technique Comics” as if Shakespeare was the be-all and end-all of literature. Whenever T-Rex makes an example of the literary technique he is using, he would refer to Shakespeare, even if it is clearly obvious that Shakespeare never used the technique personally (just like what’s shown on the left. Shakespeare, using an mp3?!)

The strips run on the assumption that the audience is familiar with the name of Shakespeare, and specifically, on his “celebrity” status to arrive at a joke. Essentially, these dinosaurs are engaging in bardolatry of the highest degree, attributing to Shakespeare literary techniques that may or may not necessarily have been invented by the man. However, it is irrelevant whether or not Shakespeare is the correct man to illustrate the examples given; rather, the author of the strip operates on the assumption that Shakespeare is the authority on literature.

Irregular Webcomic! is a webcomic that uses Lego figures to portray each of its characters. It is very charming and works well in execution, although great effort is taken to capture the images used for each strip. Like Dinosaur Comics, it runs a series of strips with Shakespeare as the main character, with the concept of “If Shakespeare had been born 400 years later…”. While the Shakespeare seen here is very much visible (if portrayed with Lego figures), both comics are similar in that they work with the assumption that the audience is aware of Shakespeare and his influence. In fact, most of his punchlines depend on awareness of characters and lines from Shakespeare’s most notable plays.

Best. Powerpoint Presentation. Ever.

The joke in this strip, for example, would be lost to anyone who isn’t familiar with Hamlet.

Out, I say!

The joke here, on one level, would simply about the dog named “Spot”, but anyone familiar with Macbeth would find a different joke.

Poor Ophelia (She's Shakespeare's co-worker in this era)

This one’s just a hurricane of puns.

A later development shows Shakespeare bemoaning how plays are not selling, so he turns to a genre that a lot of people read: Harry Potter fanfiction.

I’ll let the strips speak for themselves.

The humor in these strips, once again, is derived from the knowledge of who Shakespeare is. Otherwise, we’re just reading about a random Joe Schmoe who’s unlucky in his career and has a friend who might be interested in her, and might be borderline crazy. While the author makes notes for those unaware of these references, they are often placed at the bottom of the page when these comics are published. Sometimes, they even go without explanation. Basically, if the reader does not know any of this stuff, he’s excluded from the joke.

After looking at these two webcomics, one might conclude that their respective authors are “educated”, in the sense that they know some things about Shakespeare. To be fair, these are but parts of their outputs. Dinosaur Comics boast a wide range of strips of different topics, and Irregular Webcomic! has numerous themes besides Shakespeare. However, it is interesting to note that both series of strips are long-running and are continuously updated by their authors. Both remain popular webcomics, with sizable fanbases, and they have shown support for the authors’ projects. And these authors continue their “Literary Technique Comics” and Shakespeare-themed comics, implying that their respective fanbase accept these comics, and by extension, are not resistant to the topic of Shakespeare.

While we may imagine that using the topic of Shakespeare and applying it to a body of work would give it a certain elitist feel, these webcomics suggest to me an interesting point. We imagine Shakespeare as a figure that would attract only a certain crowd, something of a niche. Yet when presented to the internet, people online are willing to accept this Shakespeare. The jokes are certainly not lost on them; they are not excluded from the joke.

In summary, I find that these webcomics and specifically the strips I’ve examined require the reader to have foreknowledge and awareness of Shakespeare, yet instead of driving them off, readers are accepting of this condition and all it entails. We assume that Shakespeare is not “for everyone” but in this medium, a variety of people are accepting of it.

A cynical person could say something negative towards the perceived audience, but that’s a topic for a different day, and I’m not willing to go into that (yet). I’ll just end on the idea that it’s possible that today’s internet-savvy generation may, perhaps, be more interested in Shakespeare than we think.

Categories: Multimedia Essays
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