Depth and Density: Webcomics from XKCD to The Clockwork Quartet


Depth and density are overlooked commodities. They are analogous and yet distinct, different in kind rather than degree. Depth, I appreciate as an outsider. I have depths in the same way that a puddle has currents. To quote myself on twitter, and I almost need not finish the thought, I would likely be a Zen being, if only I didn’t care how my hair looked. Desiring what I lack, I believe depth is tremendously important. I would like to admire the great thinkers, and yet I would prefer to be seen to admire the great thinkers than to actually read their works. My bookshelves are precisely ordered to put the “good” books at the front and the “bad” books at the back. I am attempting to create the illusion of depth as my shallows clog and stagnate.

Depth is central to my definition of greatness; though I understand both through echolocation rather than actual experience. Depth is what allows an audience to feast time and again on a work, perhaps because it’s such a rich seam of awesome, or because subsequent tastings reveal new sensations. Depth gives mass and velocity when inertia and vapor are the norm.

Take web comics, an information age phenomenon. A generation of artists have found a way to support themselves and a handful have created industries, from the shell of the newspaper comic strip. Most, especially the successful ones distribute their labor absolutely free, trusting that their readers will purchase merchandise or donate out of love. Many of these, some of my favorites in fact, function like soap operas. Others are standalone jokes or gag strips. These web comics, as enjoyable as they are, lack depth. I can think of only one that truly has this quality, and I would urge you to read it daily.

XKCD, on the face of it, is the doodles of a bored mathematics student with limited artistic talent. Stick figures are nobodies’ idea of great art, and maths is an arid wasteland for self-expression.

It would be for me, but in XKCD these limitations allow for transcendental moment. As has been mentioned in some paper over the last few days, the distinction between art and science is a creation of the scientific laity. Understanding of higher concepts in science allows parallels to be drawn with creativity. How many previously unobtainable delights are now handheld because of the work of a creative scientist?

XKCD renders often complex thoughts, whether mathematical, romantic or beautiful, absolutely. In a few lines of text, and only a few more of illustration, XKCD has delineated two of the most beautiful testaments to love I have seen. This is a creation of depth, whether of feeling, understanding or commitment. This is a work if greatness.

Thus depth, wherefore density?

I’d offer the new web comic, The Clockwork Quartet Chronicle. It is a fiction spun from a band and stage show, and perhaps gestating an animation. Broadly speaking, this is a British steampunk tale, based loosely on the idea of the rail being discovered before the sail. Mighty engines enforce an empire across much of the globe and we’re dropped in to a world that is more fully realized than most of this ilk. The first two chapters are now online, to be joined monthly by subsequent installments.

Its art style is beautiful, washed through with the crimsons and grays of coke furnaces and steam clouds, and the composition is extremely cinematic. You’re less drawn than fired through the proceedings able to take in the broadest flashes of the terrain. Appropriate for a setting that relies on the train as primary transit.

The density of this project comes from the highly articulated and structured world that this comic portrays. Fantasy, whether steampunk, high or otherwise lives or dies on the strength of the world that enfolds it. The team behind The Clockwork Quartet Chronicle has done more than most to create a breathing plane of existence. There are games, religions and characters that lesser projects would wallow in, here dashing before your eyes for a briefest second. The team behind this is confident enough in their production that they allow the audience to further explore this elements in other media if desired, preventing distraction from the story itself. The world, the paraphernalia and the tale combine to give this project enormous density. Depth is possible, depending on the writing and plot developing further.

Density is to goodness what depth is to greatness. Good is a highly debased term today, the subprime mortgage of language perhaps. Used poorly with little regard for societal impact, it requires a qualifier to achieve merit. As “soon” used to mean “now” so “good” means “adequate” and we much search for a new comparative. Good, is a worthy achievement, beyond the talent of many (this writer included). Good, is a noble outcome to a hard endeavour. Great is, to me, a work of genius. The Clockwork Quartet Chronicle is good, but not yet great.


Written by Alex Mee

The Clockwork Quartet Chronicle, created by Edward Saperia, exists online here.


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