The Webcomic Overlook #37: Subnormality

In an earlier post, I remarked that webcomics were the new independent comic book scene. I can’t take credit for that analogy; I remember reading it somewhere online, but for the life of me I can’t remember who said it. There’s a huge difference though, between “independent” and “indie.” In fact, the “indie” term can no longer be considered a shorthand of “independent,” since the term has taken a life of its own and now alludes to an attitude rather than a business model.

For example, what’s your favorite indie comic book? A few of you probably said Peter Bagge’s Hate! A few others might mention David Sim’s Cerebus. Some old timers might profess their love for Love & Rockets. And I’m sure some of you had Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on the tip of your tongue, but weren’t sure if something under a DC imprint totally qualified as indie or not.

What you probably didn’t say was Jeff Smith’s Bone, which is beloved by all. According to Wikipedia, Bone is “one of the longest-running self-published comic book series by a single writer/artist.” It’s just too polished and too kid friendly! It’s not at all something that someone with jet black hair, too much mascara, and a love of punk music would ever consider “indie”! (I have seen some of Mr. Smith’s earlier, pre-comic book Bone strips, which I assume he created in his college years. Ironically, they would have easily been regarded as “indie.”)

While I said that I have been covering the “indie” comics of the independent comic genre, that’s not totally true. None of the comics I’ve reviewed really exemplify the type of comic enjoyed by disaffected liberal arts college students. The type of comic that strives to be more than simply entertainment and tries to make a the world a better place. Something that echoes the anxieties and black humor of young adults.

That changes today. Generation X may have come and gone, but its spirit — or at least its aesthetic — lives on in the subject of today’s Webcomic Overlook: Winston Rowntree’s indie-flavored webcomic, Subnormality.

Full disclosure, by the way: Mssr. Rowntree sent me an e-mail asking if I wouldn’t mind reviewing his webcomic. He only requested one thing: to provide an honest analysis, even if I savage the hell out of it. (I took a glance at Winston’s review section, and he proudly displays both positive and negative reviews. An encouraging sign.) El Santo smiles on that sort of moxie. I always dish out my honest opinion anyway, but it’s refreshing when the author very authoritatively assures you that he’s on the same page.

Also, the man knows how to dress impeccably.

Subnormality is a collection of gag strips with various themes near and dear to hearts of today’s young, North American adults. Although Rowntree covers a wide assortment of subjects and themes, he sticks closely to politics, sociology, and alternative music (especially if it means slamming Nickelback). Or, to put it succinctly and rather rudely, anything that pisses Rowntree off. (To give Winston some credit, though, he does it with heaping doses of absurdity and self-deprecation.)

There are only a few recurring characters. The most visual striking is The Sphinx, an ultra-feminist, perpetually irate creature who is blessed with both a pretty, Egyptian face a fearsome leonine body that pretty much assures that she’ll always get her way. Another is a pink-haired consumer who is a hapless victim to the annoying shortfalls of customer service.

At some point in his life, Mssr. Rowntree must’ve developed a vile hatred of Shakespeare, or Hamlet’s Lord Polonius at least, because Subnormality frequently seems to be at war with the phrase, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” (And yes, I’m aware that’s a pretty ironic statement coming from someone who regularly types out 2,000+ word webcomic reviews.) In Subnormality, Rowntree fills entire panels with gibberish for no other reason than to hammer home the point that, “Boy, people sure are chatty, aren’t they?”

To drive the point home, here is the complete dialogue in panel two of strip #417:

Basically, I’ve posed the question: is it enough to merely decide to build a time machine to set in motion a series of events that will result in instantaneus and drastic changes across the time continuum — the changes becoming visible, in fact, at the very moment the decision is made — or do you instead have to complete a finished time machine before such changes occur? The changes, of course, resulting from the inevitable misuse of the time machine by those whou would out of curiousiity or malice travel back in time and deliberately or inadvertently cause significant deviations in the course of history. I’ve argued that it’s impossible — that you would actually have to build the thing before anything would happen, amd moreover, that nothing would happen anyway becuase consequent to its construction the technology would be considered so dangers as to be prohibited in use — much like nuclear weapons, human cloning, and so on. No one would have the chance to misuse it, and so the point is moot.

Whew! And that’s not counting the equally long rebuttal in panel three. So after all this talk and a dig at professor types reducing everything to a stupid wager, the punchline is … meddling with time becomes Nazi Germany?


At the risk of sounding like an internet meme, I see what Rowntree did there. We’re supposed to laugh because the two eggheads argue over a crucial issue and come at an impasse, only to throw it all away over a stupid bet. However, does all the text make the strip any funnier? If you gloss over the text like it were some sort of alpha-numeric based wallpaper, then the punchline feels trite. If you actually stop to read the text, then the punchline feels disappointing. It doesn’t matter if dialogue is placed in the mouths of pushy salespersons or waitresses: long, pointless dialog is just not funny.

It would be easy for me to say that Rowntree just doesn’t know how to tell a joke. Untrue. Among my favorites are an artistically minimalist strip on an irony detector and a Christmas strip about a suave Santa. Plus, you just can’t go wrong with a strip about Hitler getting attacked by time travelers. But do you know what’s the common denominator with all these strips? None of them are pointlessly wordy! Plus, they have decent punchlines, and I’m all over that crazy non-sequitur action.

Besides, Rowntree has demonstrated success with “conventional” humor before. Over time, Virus Comix — the parent title — changes and evolves, much like a bacteria … and not like a virus, which spreads but remains pretty much the same hexagonal form, if I remember my high school AP Biology correctly. (You folks with medical degrees can chime in whenever you want.) Subnormality (which mysteriously starts at page 324) is perhaps only the most recent of a long string of experiments. If you dig back far enough, you come across several past projects with more conventional forms of humor: a series of comedic public service announcements starring the ultra-violent Jumbo Ranger, and a parody of children’s books called Things They Don’t Tell You. I found all of these past efforts to be genuinely humorous. (And by the way, what kind of world do we live in where a trigger-happy armored law enforcer can be considered too mainstream?)

One of his earliest works though, is Gee, Marie, a fairly tame strip that was meant to be printed in newspapers. Rowntree gamely prints a couple of rejection strips he received from the syndicates, including one that advises “try to use less dialog.


Perhaps the long strings of dialog is an experiment of some sort? Perhaps Rowntree is an Andy Kaufman of webcomics: deliberately making the reader uncomfortable through protracted spells of awkwardness, and then turning the tables when the reader laughs at the absurdity of the situation. Or maybe this can be directly tied to content of that rejection letter? Since simpler dialog is easily the lowest common denominator for the unwashed masses, can longer dialog cater to a more sophisticated crowd?

If Subnormality is any sort of indicator, the answer is: not always. The Perry Bible Fellowship is one of the most sophisticated comics around, yet is one of the world’s best examples of the brevity/wit theory.

I found that the wordiest strips failed for the most part in medium where communication is more than 50% visual. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work from time to time. “The Future” features a dialog-rich argument between a couple debating over the semantics of past, present, and future. And, I have to say, the punchline is rather creative. What makes this work? The logorrheic discussion actually means something.

I also have some issues with the childishness of the political strip, which more or less boil down to “Dubya sucks and looks like a dog/rat/snake/weevil.” That is some seriously lazy political commentary. But, you know, I won’t harp on it too much. I pretty much spent all my mental energy trying to deconstruct the long-windedness of the Subnormality strips. Besides, I don’t want to give the impression that Rowntree is on a political crusade. They’re rather rare, actually. I suppose I should cut foreign cartoonists (and yeah, Canada is foreign) slack over simplistic editorials. We Americans aren’t really above the lazy stereotyping of foreign world leaders ourselves. I mean, I thought Kim Jong Il was hilarious in Team America: World Police.

The art is quite nice, by the way. I ran into a highly rated panel of Subnormality on reddit before I sat down to do a formal review, and I have to say that the illustrations — and the colors, particularly — were very eye-catching. Rowntree illustrates with traditional pen-and-ink. As a result, Subnormality feels more organic and personal than the soulless Flash-based comics that dominate the web these days.

And I’ve got to had it to him, despite his gripe on how women are portrayed as unattainable Barbie dolls in comic books, Rowntree knows how to draw aestheically pleasing hotties. He runs into a couple of problems with poses. Sometimes his characters stand in positions that look too stiff or too unnatural (see below). Those are minor quibbles, though. What matters is that the illustrations manage to retain an appearance that looks right at home in an alternative weekly.

Subnormality is very experimental, yet it’s not altogether successful. It’s not Rowntree’s best project on the Virus Comix site, though it is the prettiest. If I had to recommend one project on Virus Comix that would be worth your while, it would be Captain Estar Goes to Heaven, a fairly moody, well paced thriller about a bounty hunter and the ultimate prize.

For a humor strip, Subnormality is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. It is, however, frequently clever. It’s too cultured to stoop to gross-out jokes, yet isn’t too stuffy to show Keanu Reeves in a blender. If you plan on reading this, take it one strip at a time. The dialogue can be hellishly fatiguing.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on March 13, 2008, in 3 Stars, alternative webcomic, comedy webcomic, political webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Aahh! The dreaded three stars! Couldn’t you knock it down to two so I can put this in my “bad reviews” section?? Wait, never mind!! I’ll take the three!! Anyway, I very much enjoyed your review (you’ve raised some rather interesting points) and thanks for noticing that I don’t stoop to gross-out jokes–I’m pleased about that. Oh, but you could have attacked me further for the “Dubya sucks and looks like a dog/rat/snake/weevil” comic, since it was such a bad caricature of Tony Blair that you thought it was George W. Bush! I don’t like that strip either, except for the lion man. Anyway, I would like to address the whole wordiness thing–not as a personal rebuttal or anything, just to clear my head on an ongoing issue.

    Obviously the #1 complaint I hear about the strip is that it’s “too wordy,” but most of the time it’s been clear that those complaining have not been saying the strip needs further editing–they’re simply too lazy to read and thus object to any comic that forces them to do so (and I’m NOT talking about you here). Perhaps being raised on Garfield and Peanuts has given people the impression that comic strips should fundamentally be a brief read, and thus my huge blocks of text strike some people as being “Wrong.” But in that context it’s simply not a valid complaint, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction, so I’ve been ignoring it. However, when people such as yourself object in an actually intelligent manner, then I do have to take notice and consider the criticism. The thing is, there are so many comics out there that DON’T have tons of dialogue (ie: most of them), I haven’t felt particularly obliged to change anything. I feel like I can just say, “you don’t like it, go read the Perry Bible Fellowship–ain’t no dialogue there!” There are thousands of alternatives out there for people who don’t like wordiness, so why should I change? Shouldn’t I continue to offer an alternative of my own? Some people have said they LIKE the wordiness, so shouldn’t I cater to THAT crowd? Shouldn’t I…? Coupled with the fact that this is just the way that the jokes are coming out (the wordiness just “feels” right to me, and I can’t get around it presently. I’m definitely not trying to “hammer home the point that, ‘Boy, people sure are chatty, aren’t they?'”), and I can’t see a drop-off in huge blocks of text anytime soon. Plus I feel like it’s good value, you know? You get the new PBF strip, you read it in three seconds, and then you have to wait three weeks for another one–why not just go watch TV instead? Why even bother? (because it’s a funny strip–ed.) I’d like to think that my strip keeps people semi-entertained for at least a minute or two. I can’t get past that right now–I just feel like I’m getting away with something if I do a faster comic. Personal issues, I guess. The wordiness is…it’s Me. It’s My Thing. I like to write, often to my detriment. If the comic doesn’t substantially grow in popularity in the next year or two, then I’ll know that My Thing ain’t no good and I’ll resignedly pursue other avenues. Stay tuned!

    Anyway, I could go on and on about this (which I guess is my problem), but I’ve gotta go. I’m trying to shoehorn 500 words into four panels for this weekend’s comic… Thanks for the review, and keep up the good work!

    Go Red Wings!

    • If the comic doesn’t substantially grow in popularity in the next year or two, then I’ll know that My Thing ain’t no good and I’ll resignedly pursue other avenues. Stay tuned!

      So, how did this work out?

    • I speak for every person of my kind on their behalf, “DON’T ever STOP producing wordy works of art!!!” your wordy one off strips are the best and to be honest, sometimes I just don’t want them to end!

    • Oh My God I beg you, keep it up. There are exactly TWO things in my 45+ long RSS Google Reader list that i spend more then a minute or two reading. One of them is Erfworld, mostly because of it’s text updates, and the other is Subnormality. Yes, your comic does take a lot of time to get through, but I love every second of it and that’s exactly why i keep coming back. It’s something different, a short(or long more-so) distraction from the daily “go through 40 daily strip updates, giggle, get to work” routine. Please don’t change that! I can’t produce that amount of words myself! (not in english anyway)

    • i immediately recognized tony blair, and the alt text confirmed it. looks nothing like dubya.

  2. About the three stars thing: sorry about that. Believe it or not, I was waffling quite a bit between the two to three stars region. Then I realized that I did like a good portion of the strips, and the good joke/bad joke percentage was roughly the same as “Thinkin’ Lincoln” (which I gave 3 stars), so I thought, “Eh. Push.” Plus, you know, hot girls. They’re always good for that extra star.

    And, pah, now that I look at it, that caricature does look like Tony Blair. I think it was the Texas belt buckle that threw me off though. (Was that a commentary on Blair kow-towing to the US, or that he acts like a cowboy like Dubya?)

    Plus, excellent rebuttal on the wordiness issue. I think that catering to a crowd of people that do enjoy the fairly long string of words is as good a justification as any.

  3. Old Prof. Otter

    Subnormality is a bit uneven, but the highs are wonderful.

  4. Well, I think you are completely off-the-mark on this one. This is one of the few comics that I think deserve 5 stars, or 4.5 at least. Every single strip seems to aim at setting a new standard of over-the-top excellence, and the surprise is that it usually succeeds.

    The criticism about “too many words” is also a little strange to me, as you also gave Achewood 5 stars, and the dialogue in that can hardly be accused of brevity; rather the opposite.

    There are also many entries where there are almost no words at all… i.e.

    “For a humor strip, Subnormality is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. It is, however, frequently clever.”

    You forgot to mention moving, thoughtful and profound.

    • Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. I’m totally fine if you find Subnormality better than Achewood; everyone has different expectations. However, I will say this: Subnormality is far more reliant on dialogue than Achewood. In fact, that’s what its most known for, even amongst its fans. I understand that there are some entries with no words, but those are typically the exception rather than the rule. When put side by side with Achewood, Achewood is an order of magnitude less wordy.

      • “Subnormality is far more reliant on dialogue than Achewood”

        Well, there’s no way I can agree with that. Achewood’s art style is not very evocative (I really want to say “not very good”), and you wouldn’t be able to tell what’s going on at all if not for the words. Even with those, there seem to be so many in-jokes and references to things I don’t know about that I have a hard time following it. While it is indeed less wordy, the words that are there seem chosen less carefully to me.

        On the other hand, though Subnormality is often very wordy, it explains itself better (relies less on obscure references), and the artwork provides an integral part of the message, sometimes by far the dominant part (as in the two strips I linked).

        Very often, the two are linked intimately, as in this strip where the reader’s expectations are subverted not once but twice, entirely due to visual techniques:

        I don’t care about how hot the girls are drawn one way or the other, as that’s not what the strip is about (the fact that you focused on that as one of the main positives is revealing – thanks for that, since it lets readers know if they’re likely to agree with your take or not). I think it is about humanity, about people, about slowing down and taking the time to listen to them with the sort of intimacy that is not often found in comics. And it’s not always going to funny. Often, I feel like Subnormality is as concise as it CAN be for what the author wants to show, as those tend to not be things that can be shown in three panels.

        We can agree that novels also have a right to existence, alongside haikus? Traditional 3-panel comics are like haikus. Subnormality is often more like a novel.

        Anyway, I just wanted to say where I’m coming from. Of course I agree with “different strokes for different folks”.

  5. It’s like the War and Peace of webcomics: a great story hidden behind a wall that some (unfortunate ones) are unwilling to surmount.

  6. (Hope it’s kosher to comment on a four-year-old post, but I only recently found this site, and have been going back through some of the older reviews.)

    I love Subnormality, but I don’t tend to think of it as a humor strip. Or at least, I don’t read it specifically for the humor. I agree that it tends to be more clever than laugh-out-loud funny, but I love it for that cleverness. Some strips don’t even seem to have a joke, but whether they do or not, I often find some really interesting observations in those walls of text.

    I’m not trying to argue against your review. You raise some good points, and I certainly don’t think Subnormality is for everyone. I’m just offering another perspective.

    • Hope it’s kosher to leave a reply to a late poster to an old article.

      I completely agree with you. The reviewer takes an “every-man” approach to this article and he is certainly entitled to do so. I agree with every point he makes, but his and my bottom line differs by a couple stars.

      The equation is this:

      Lot of Words + Attractive + Introspect + Insight + Intrigue + Variety + Originality + No Inside Jokes + Full Archive of Work = ?

      In a world of fly-by drivers and visually-choking billboards, we NEED this comic. I admit to glazing over some of the more un-interesting rants, but the author successfully puts the “book” back into “comic book” in most cases.

      Shawn has nailed the reason to read this strip very succinctly. WHEN I want farts, violence, video games, or overt knee-slapping jokes, I’ll visit all of my other favorites. But when I want poignant commentary on the human condition that requires no external plug to another media, one that has subtle humor made from the emotional range of despair and hope, a comic that boldly represents itself despite mass-criticism, I read Subnormality.

      The author deftly commands my reaction to each strip, whether it be Disgust, Sadness, Laughter, or Ponderance. I don’t profess to know the author’s mindset or motivation, but I feel something when I read each strip, and I only assume that it is intended.

      As for Achewood: Not sure how that came up, but I couldn’t get into it. Much of what can be found at the following website can be much better in this style of comic:

  1. Pingback: Review: Subnormality « Virus Comix News

  2. Pingback: Happy Canada Day! « The Webcomic Overlook

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