Monday, July 08, 2013

"Well, They've Seen Us"

Back in March, Randall Munroe posted to his webcomic, XKCD, an unassuming drawing of two stick figures, a boy and a girl, sitting on a slight incline. The comic was titled, "Time," and the alt-text (what you see when you hover your mouse over the image) said only, "Wait for it." I clicked it a couple of times, stared at it for a little while--maybe it was a slow-moving animation of some kind?--but nothing happened. A couple of hours later, though, the picture had changed--now the two people appeared to be building a sandcastle. A quick look at the source code of the page revealed the trick: every half hour, a javascript call was updating the picture, creating an ultra-slow motion animation of two people building a sandcastle on a beach. So after a day or so the cartoon showed a partially built sand castle; a few days later the sand castle was quite elaborate--the two builders created a scaffolding so they could build higher. They went away and came back with a mini trebuchet so they could play Sand Castle Siege. I thought it was cute. I assumed eventually it would reach its natural end and the cartoon would start over. I thought that because I'd forgotten that Randall Munroe doesn't do anything to any scale that's not epic.

XKCD is one of the most popular web comics out there, and one of the few that allows its creator the luxury of making a living doing his art. The "art" portion of his art is at first glance very simple--stick figure people, black and white drawings, basic outlines of things. The subject matter of his cartoons, which are posted every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, are anything but. He constructs Math jokes, Linux jokes, Quantum Physics jokes; ofttimes a deep knowledge of coding, science-fiction/fantasy tropes, and/or general nerd culture are required to have any idea where lies the humor. 

And then there are the big things: a subway map of all of North America, a drag-able map of an enormous world of which the viewer can only see a tiny part at any one time, a log-scale drawing of the  height of the universea log-scale drawing of the depths of the universe, an exploded view of money, a map of online communities scaled by population circa 2007, then circa 2010 (in which you learn that Farmville is only the second-biggest farming-based social-media game in the world). And it goes on. Every now and then Randall Munroe will completely blow you away with the scale of his effort. 

It is, as of this writing, 106 days after frame one of "Time" was posted. More than 2500 drawings have come and gone, now at a rate of one an hour. There is dialog--in individual frames one of the two characters will have a word balloon and a frame or two later, the other character will answer back. After they had built their fantastically detailed sand castle, had a little bit of fun destroying and repairing it, and resting a bit, the couple started to notice the sea level rising. It began to eat up their castle, but it also caused them to wonder what was going on in the world they were in, a world they seemed not quite to understand fully. So they left and began hiking; mostly they seemed to be searching for some kind of answer about that world and what was happening to it. They have been hiking for months now. They have climbed mountains, seen far off seas, and come across buildings long abandoned. Night fell and it was stunningly beautiful--black and white drawings of the sky and Milky Way, slowly rotating through the sky.     

XKCD is, according to its own epigram, a "webcomic of romance, math, sarcasm, and language." I've always thought "romance" was an awkward word right there at the front--a better word might be longing--but it's also not wrong either. XKCD's first read may be as a comic about math jokes, but it also can't help but reflect the author's ongoing awe with all the things he finds in the world and his attempts to convey that awe to a broader audience. You might get a good chuckle from reading one of his comics, but read them continuously for months and you will find that you are following along something bigger, more profound, and more (literally) awesome. 

Today, for the first time in three and  a half months, the explorers of "Time" have come across some other people--they seem to be wearing Toessels. An initial read might be that the comic is nearing its end, but I suspect it's probably just the beginning. 

(a continuously updating visualization of the entire "Time" comic can be found here)