The webcomics blog about webcomics

Jazz, XTC, Zappa, Pynchon … Webcomics?

So I was sitting at SPX a couple of years ago, talking with Harvey Pekar about jazz (he called me “man” twice — I’ve never been cooler in my entire life). He’s passionate about it, something that I’ve seen in all committed fans of the art. Part of that jazz afficionado passion comes from feeling a bit beseiged — you know all about this stuff that’s absolutely great, and the Unwashed Masses could give a shit, and no, Kenny G doesn’t count, goddammit. The potential defensiveness is matched only with an evangelistic fervor that if only you listened, you’d see how brilliant this stuff is.

Funny thing is, the most fervent of the persecuted geniuses seem to be those who are most knowledgeable in their respective fields. I spent enough time in radio during my college days to develop an XTC habit, but my passion for them pales next to my sister’s boyfriend, an audio engineer who’s worked with a lot of acts — we expound on the virtues of the boys from Swindon at Thanksgiving to a generally disinterested family. Every time I read a quote about Frank Zappa (my favorite: “This guy was self-educated in composition, but he wrote music so complex that you have to be a virtuoso to play it, you have to have a Master’s in music theory to hear everything you’re supposed to, you need a PhD to understand it, and all anybody ever remembers is Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.” I think there was a goddammit! in there, too), I’m astonished by the converatory credentials of the speaker. Eminent scholars of literatures are still seething over the inexplicable decision of the Pulitzer trustees to not give an award for fiction in 1974 after the literature prize committee unanimously selected Thomas Pynchon for the honor. Mind you, they didn’t just not give the award to Pynchon, they opted to not give the award to anybody (apparently, the ruling body had a problem with a poo-eating scene about 236 pages into Gravity’s Rainbow).

Seems like anytime you get enough people creating in an art, you get those works of genius at the fringes that casual fans of the genre may not appreciate, but the people who’re well-versed with the breadth and depth of the art all seem to concur — there’s something there. Which leads to the logical question for you, who know your way around webcomics: What’s the genius-level masterwork out there? What is it that will never make sense to most people, but has a richness and special meaning for those patient enough to dig for it. Let’s get quibbling.


No, Jeph. Just no.


Clearly I am a phillistine. I didn’t like/didn’t understand Gravity’s Rainbow, or Frank Zappa, or Jerk City. And Kenny G reminds me of playing with those big plastic forts at the doctors office when i was a kid, which, all in all, was kinda fun.

Who says there is one yet?

Phillistine? Come on, Jeph, Jerkcity is deep in the way picking your nose is a search for inner peace. Ever read Horribleville? It just gets better every week; KC Green is the Robin Williams of our medium. I’d even pitch The Thinking Ape Blues as brilliant. If you’ve never read it, it’s some consistently witty social commentary with a cast that most creators would stuggle to work with. And we can’t forget the glory that is Achewood.

Come on – there’s some fantastic stuff out there. You just gotta look.

It’s at least hypothetically possible I was being tongue-in-cheek. Or maybe I just appreciate Jerkcity on a Dadaist level?


the math dude that’s scared to death of velociraptors. And the other dude that has dinosaurs for a cast. Hmmm… I sense a formula for comic genius that I have been unaware of until this very minute: dudes + large, extinct, carnivorous lizards = good stuff.

oh, and even tho I’m going to hell for saying this, “Leave it to Jesus” by Hetrick is LOL funny.

dudes + large, extinct, carnivorous lizards = good stuff.

Don’t forget the Allosaurus.

Cat and Girl, Achewood, Perry Bible Fellowship…

Sorry, that’s all the intellectual comedy I can take. I’m getting a nosebleed.

First, I have to quibble with your question itself, GT, but I’ll get to that later.

Chris Onstad is the Zappa, Pynchon, Jamie Farr, Davy Crockett, and Danni Ashe of webcomics.

Randall Munroe of xkcd is the Feynmann of webcomics.

My quibble is that the framing of your question is flawed (and you knew that Zappa and Pynchon showing up in my feed reader is my version of the bat signal…).

Those two examples aren’t persecuted from inside their field — Pynchon (pulitzer board notwithstanding) is revered, sells well for a ‘serious’ author, and got a very nice McArthur Genius grant. He’s probably spawned more lit PhDs than anyone except Joyce.

Similarly, FZ, while not schooled, is hardly an uneducated musician. In the scheme of things, it remains to be seen whether Zappa’s music without the living presence of the man himself will be seen as important, or as Herman Hermits to Varese’s Beatles. As long as they’re still listening to his solo on “Watermelon in Easter Hay”, I think that either outcome is okay by me.

Also, it took a long time to get from the origins of those artforms to produce each of your examples — for novelists, we’ll go back to Cervantes, I guess. The only early novelist I can think of who worked to push the form would be Sterne. You can trace the traditions that Zappa’s serious music was working with back to… Hm — Palestrina?

I haven’t seen anything that really explores any of the ideas that McCloud was talking about back in “UC”, let alone the later works. My suspicion is that for ‘webcomics’ to make the jump from a publication/delivery approach into a separate medium, we’ll need someone who has either the chops to build out some more interesting infrastructure tech, or the vision and will to get someone else to build it for them. Right now, it’s like when the movies were a single fixed camera shooting a stage play. Before you get a Pynchon or Zappa, you need to get a DW Griffiths and an Eisenstein (and a Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Orson Welles, Phil Spector, and…. and….) What’s the vocabulary/structure/form/whatever that lets McCloud’s quadrants get built out?

Or is that what you were really asking?

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