Posted by: Ken Brown | April 6, 2013

Comics and the Power of a Simple Idea

There may not be a simpler comic than xkcd. Its characters are literally faceless stick-figures, most of its images are black and white with little background, and many are only a single frame. Some have no images at all. Yet Randall Munroe’s minimalist comic somehow manages to capture the absurdities of life with a geeky humor that few better-drawn comics surpass. For instance:

The comic at the top of the page takes this embrace of superficial simplicity to the extreme. Posted last Monday with the title “Time” and the hover-text “Wait for it,” this image of two people on a beach was deceptively banal. Many readers probably assumed that was all there was to the strip–a clichéd allusion to the association of sand with time–but if you returned to the comic later you would find a slightly different image. Every half-hour to an hour since the comic was first posted, the image has been replaced by a new frame (the current one is on the right, and should stay up to date). Some of the images have captions, most do not, but the old images never repeat, and there is no way to skip ahead. All you will ever see upon visiting the comic is the constantly-changing present–an outstanding illustration of the nature of time, captured in a very a simple image.

Naked Pastor - All The Wrong Peoplexkcd is hardly the only comic to exploit a simple approach to address big ideas in a meaningful way. For example, Naked Pastor, by David Hayward, also uses simple black and white images (though these ones have faces), while Coffee with Jesus, by Radio Free Babylon, goes so far as to reuse the exact same image in the second and fourth frames of virtually every one of its strips. Yet both succeed in expressing witty commentary on the contemporary church with an enviable clarity.

Coffee with Jesus - Favorite Christian Singer

It is easy to lament the way television and the internet have created a society dominated by the one-liner. Write a well thought-out essay and few people will read the whole thing. Summarize the idea in two sentences with a picture of a cat and a thousand people will share it on Facebook. As someone who likes to think things through, I often find this frustrating, particularly when my carefully-phrased blog posts get less of a response than my throw-away quips on Twitter.

But comics like xkcd or Coffee with Jesus are good reminders of the power of simplicity. As an academic, I struggle to be concise–I can’t even write a post about comics without dragging it out to six paragraphs. Part of the problem is the common assumption that serious thinking shouldn’t use simple language, as though intelligent ideas need to be expressed in lengthy and complex prose. This simply isn’t true. The most effective arguments are often the least adorned, while complicated writing is often a cover for fuzzy thinking. But other times the problem is that I try to address every side of any issue I discuss, and in the end that is never possible. No writer can address every side of any issue, and no reader will have the patience to let them try. Comics remind us that every statement is part of a larger discourse, and it is more important to make your point clearly and memorably than to cover every objection.

That doesn’t mean we should abandon long-form writing for a Twitter feed. The fact that fewer people are willing to read a good essay or non-fiction book is lamentable, but it is also a valuable reminder to keep things simple. Or as the greatest comic of them all put it:

Calvin and Hobbes - The Purpose of Writing

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