ARCHIVE DIVE #3: Five Wondermarks that Foresaw the Future
 
In our last Archive Dive, I shared five Wondermark comics that were based upon, or in some way inspired by, actual real-life events. 

This time we’re flipping the equation other way: looking at five times when things went forward from Wondermark into real life. 

Friends, I can’t, and wouldn't claim to be able to, predict the future, any more than you can predict what color pants I’m wearing right now. (Spoiler alert: I’m not wearing pants!) (I was going to reveal that later, sorry for the spoiler.) 

But that doesn’t stop me from feeling a swell of accomplishment when something I make a comic about — some clever idea I want to suggest to the world, or an observation of an emerging trend, or in more distressing cases, a terrifying scenario that should never come to pass — slouches its way along the same forest trail the comic walked down, perhaps nosing open and sneaking through the wardrobe door I failed to latch properly, and finds itself quite improbably in the real world. 

Let us stipulate that there are different ways that a comic might be said to “come true.” 

As a way to define it for our purposes, I’ll rule out comics that have simply been recreated in some way: that’s the comic CAUSING the future, not FORESEEING the future.

The most concentrated example of people recreating comics was when I straight-up asked readers to recreate any panel from any comic, as a contest. There were some great entries:

One of the entrants was a lady named Helena, whom I had also met at a steampunk convention in Detroit that same year. Her steampunk costume — I consider all steampunk costumes to be Wondermark cosplay, by the way — included tiny watch gears glued to her head. 

She explained to me that she’d been “steampunk’d”, referring to Wondermark #538:

Unfortunately this was in 2011, before phone cameras were very good, so this is the best record I have of her costume:

Tremendous!

Helena made THAT comic come true, but here are some others that came true on their own.

Five Wondermarks that Foresaw the Future

POLITICS IMITATES ART // #782; The Winning Catchphrase (December 20, 2011) 

I never set out to make a “political cartoon”, i.e. something with a consistently ideological bent, strip after strip. 

But because the comic has no set theme, it’s free to explore any topic I find interesting. Like many of us, I imagine, my interest in politics burgeoned during the Obama years. 

Overtly political comics don’t age well, unfortunately; in my books I include a “Topical Reference Explanatory Index” so readers years later can understand some of the context a contemporaneous reader would know from having been a human alive in the world during that particular week. 

A good way to mitigate that issue is to couch the concept in a metaphor. In retrospect I think it’s really clunky that the mini-storyline in episodes #1306 and #1307 baldly uses the name “Trump”. 

I do feel that sometimes you have to call out what you’re talking about or you can’t make your point, as in #1002; or, it can sometimes work to combine the real and the made-up, as in #1209

But whenever you call out something by name, besides the problem of aging the comic, you also risk robbing the reader of the experience of making a cognitive leap — the moment when they get the larger idea, the thing you’re really trying to say. 

When you write the story as a metaphor, the comic is more likely to be evergreen. (Even if it does allow the overly literal-minded to try claiming the sea lion is a racist.) The sad tale of Bendon Whiltbang (#1203) gets tweeted around whenever there is a mass shooting, and it works as commentary on any of them:

(A bit of behind-the-scenes trivia: The guy on the right in panels 2 and 3 is saying things that people say after mass shootings. His lines in panels 4 and 5 are things people say about the unearthing of sexual misconduct by a famous person — at the time of the writing of the comic, the specific case in the news was Peyton Manning. Weird how the two sets of excuses work so well together.) 

Waaaay back in 2005, after I had started to read Dinosaur Comics and begun to think that Wondermark didn’t need to be such a black box with no authorial comment of any sort on the website, I wrote the 3-part Making of Wondermark, an in-character, completely fictional description of how the strip is made. 

An excerpt:

Every step in the process is difficult, but coming up with the concept is by far the most emotionally taxing. Our creative staff reads several newspapers every day, staying abreast of current events both domestic and international, momentous and mundane, searching for those small items that — to the trained eye — represent the ever-changing character of the culture.
For example, recently in Italy a love-struck lunatic stole an ambulance and careened through city streets, wailing the siren to serenade his (hopefully impressed) bella. While this might rapidly become fodder for an E! Original Movie, it has to pass through a much more rigorous gauntlet of inquiry before being considered to be potential Wondermark material:
Is the subject riding the Zeitgeist like a tidal wave?
Our research department took an informal survey of 10,032 Americans and Western Europeans, asking them a variety of questions including their emotional reaction to this news item. The survey also included “dummy” questions designed to disguise the true nature of the survey, so as to weed out “prampters”, or respondents who concoct bogus answers for sport (“prampting”).
The dummy questions included such irrelevant gems as “What criteria do you use when deciding which brand of mung beans to purchase?” and “Did ‘moral values’ play a role in deciding who you would vote for in the Presidential election?”

It’s almost impossible to remember now, but in the 2004 Bush-Kerry election, that particular phrase — “moral values” — was an obsessively-repeated catchphrase in every debate and discussion for months. And every other election has had similar memes. 

In early 2008 (#377), I anticipated then-candidate Obama’s “change you can believe in.” 

In 2012, the catchphrase was “creating jobs”. I joked on Twitter about how, absent any other value, that was a nonsensical goal:

Which finally leads us to #782, the comic under discussion here! It’s an antecedent of essentially the same joke (though not as on-the-nose as in #877, in which I revisited, in comic form, that specific joke from the tweet).

I did not anticipate that the heightened, absurd #782, a world of ludicrous scandals galore, would go on to become almost literal truth in the political world of 2016 and 2017. 

Discussing this strip in particular also allows me to share a technical piece of trivia! Occasionally, I’ll re-run comics on the site. Most people haven’t read the whole archive, and I always choose an episode I really like.

But after I changed up the comic shape/typeface for increased legibility starting with #1008, I decided I could no longer re-run any comic from before that point — it would be too jarring to the new visual format that readers had gotten used to. 

I’d hoped the larger format, with extra breathing room, might allow me to republish some of the exceptionally text-heavy earlier episodes (such as #285) with less cramped visuals. When I decided to re-run #782 in 2016, it was the first time I actually did just that, adapting an older comic to the new format:

It works fine, but redoing it all was enough work that I don’t think I’ll be going back and remastering a ton more. (Besides, I’ve definitely had my moments of cramming the newer format full of text too — looking at you, #1277.)  

THE SMARTEST PHONE POSSIBLE //  #371; In which the Whole Point is missed (January 13, 2008)

The first iPhone was released in January 2007, so when I wrote this, it had been out for about a year. I didn’t have one — though I’d joked about it just weeks earlier, in #366

My first experience with smartphones and apps was still years away (I got an iPod Touch at the end of 2009), but I knew iPhones had maps and GPS and stuff on them. A bunch of digital things, like email and web browsers.

But this comic represented my first dawning realization of something we all take for granted today: there has been a cultural shift toward the “phone” being a magic accessory you carry with you all the time that represents your fundamental connection to everything — your jack-in socket to the global cybersphere; the funnel that the world in general pours through in order to reach the you-node.

It’s a cliché at this point to say that phones aren’t really “phones” anymore. Phone has become a word divorced from the principle of telephony, the transmission of sound, the way “microwave”, a modifier word referring to a type of radio wave, has lost its superfluous “oven” noun; the word “fridge” simply refers to a box with doors and doesn’t need to be understood as a descriptor for a device that makes things “re-frigid”; and the word “plane” describes a type of vehicle without having to be connected to the concept of a flat structure interacting with moving air. 

(Before there were even “airplanes”, see, there were only a subset of “airships” which happened to incorporate one or more “planes”, what we now call wings.)

So, as we know, today's smartphones are really pocket computers that can be connected to all types of peripherals the way any computer can. They have audio recording and playback capability, but also accelerometers and video cameras and Bluetooth, and they can interface with all manner of useful doodads such as credit card swipers, medical imagers and scanners, etc. 

Most of the things the guy talks about in the comic now exist. For some reason I always figured the tire pressure gauge would be the too-weird, outlier example of something the all-digital iPhone couldn't accomplish, but I just checked, and apparently tire pressure apps have been around for years.

There also, of course, exist modular, build-to-suit-from-different-pieces phones that are more precisely what the guy is describing — though CNET wrote earlier this year that the concept is basically dying.

Improved camera technology was the real killer app, the thing that made it so the smartphone could be everything — in fact, to use the real-life tire pressure app as an example, it's the phone's camera that the app uses to examine the tire, analyzing minute variations in tire shape and comparing your bulging tire to its own database.

I used to carry around a separate digital camera, and I used to PLEAD with the technology gods to invent SOME way to upload photos to the cloud (as I understood the concept in 2004) so as to never run into memory card storage problems again. 

The Eye-Fi memory card actually kinda did this — I was excited to try it out — but now? Who cares? Your phone has taken over the duties of that separate device. Google Photos gives you free unlimited storage so long as you allow it to downsample the images to merely billboard size. 

So, yeah, probably any halfway-reasonable prediction about improved technology will someday come true. 

This comic about the phone falls into a category of comic you might call “me explaining something I wish existed, because I want the concept to be out there in the world since there’s not really anything else I can do about it myself.”

Other episodes in this category include:

There's even a comic sitting half-finished in my “works in progress” folder that's just a list of good ideas for food-related businesses. It's been in the folder for years, because I never figured out how to wrap it in a joke (burrito style) to make it work as a comic.

Sometimes, though, when I write a comic about an idea that “should exist”, I’ve just made up the on the spot while writing the comic, and then I REALLY want to see it exist FOR REALSIES, like the plan to remake every movie from the perspective of the main character’s dog who was always just offscreen in the original (described in #1031).

I’ve also meta-written about the whole impulse to “get an idea out into the world” (#541), and made fun of it too (#845 & #846).

And sometimes, SOMETIMES, when I come up with a dumb idea that lives comfortably in the heightened reality of a comic, it does make it out into the real world and ends up sounding like the most twee bourgeois hipster garbage imaginable!

THE FASHION POLICE // 300; A Crucial Message (May 15, 2007)

I have very mixed feelings about this one. Let’s start with the obvious:

This comic, written in the heyday of the “coin slot” low-rise pants style (to use a term, ahem, coined in an SNL skit starring Lindsay Lohan), anticipated a fashion shift.

Fashionable women’s pants have become mostly high-rise, these days. Good eye for trends, Wondermark.

Let’s also address the also-obvious:

What the hell is this strip? It’s an anti-joke, which I usually hate; why does it exist? What was my purpose in writing a strip explicitly to police women’s fashion choices?

I am cringing as I type, embarrassed, trying to unearth some memory that will give me a clue into my state of mind when I wrote this.

The mouseover text for this strip is: “i don't dress this way for MEN, you PATRIARCH”. 

So, like...clearly I was aware that this was out of my lane. I can dredge up a remnant of gentle paternalism, wanting the best for women or something? I honestly cannot defend it.

### Updated to add:

Commenter Daniel writes, “For what it's worth, I always figured the pants comic's joke was on the gentleman issuing the proclamation, and his futile and big-headed attempt to turn back the tides of fashion.”

My response: “Yeah, I think there's a reading of it that makes it about this buffoonish character's buffoonish opinion. I think that would be more clear if it there were another character interacting with him. 

“And I think that was KIND of my intent, like, I am an old grandpa with old grandpa opinions, here is a quasi-sarcastic ‘get off my lawn’ [about something that doesn’t really affect me]. 

“This is one of the challenges of a gag strip with no characters, it sometimes reads like a character is a transparent stand-in for the author more than may really be the case!” Even to the author reading it a decade later, I might add.

###

Of course, dissecting any single joke to examine its political content is like talking to the FBI without a lawyer. There will always be SOMETHING incriminating that can be found. 

Among the 1300+ comics I have written over the last almost-15 years, you will find examples that mention or involve to some greater or lesser degree the concepts of race, racial stereotyping, racist behavior, religious belief, gender identity, sexual activity, sexual orientation, sexual harassment and predation, individuals with disabilities, mental illness and non-neurotypical individuals, statements of political opinion that espouse liberal or progressive ideas, statements of political opinion that espouse traditionally conservative ideas, chronic illness, violence, murder, criminal behavior, and puns.

Sometimes the concept in question is incidental to the strip; other times it is central. 

I have always tried never to be mean, although I have written characters who are mean; but I admit to being, on many occasions, rather tone-deaf. 

Some of the jokes mentioned above are, in my opinion, relatively benign, while others I can’t defend. I acknowledge that someone reading through the whole archive today might consider some of the older content to be offensive.

I began writing Wondermark comics at the age of 22. I was and am a straight, cis, middle-class guy, functionally white (insofar as my race affects my interactions with society), raised fairly conservative. I was late to wokeness — here I am in 2010 only barely beginning to understand the concepts of white privilege and male privilege. I think a lot of us do things at one time we wouldn’t repeat in a different time. 

There have been older jokes that I have chosen to rewrite when it came time to compile the strips into books. I have made occasional edits to eliminate words that I later came to understand were improper, or that could be misconstrued as pejorative. Other times, I have thrown away punchlines or lines of dialogue and rewritten comics from scratch.

There are other strips, such as the gem above about pants, that I wish I had thought to revisit, but that now live out there in print so long as my books will exist.

I think there is an argument to be made about scrubbing the worst old stuff from the web (or sanitizing, rewriting, or annotating it somehow), and there’s another, different argument to be made about owning the old stuff and keeping it on the record. 

There’s also a third argument that I myself might not have the best perspective on my own work — something I get embarrassed about, someone else might totally love, for legitimate reasons. 

Yet another argument can be made about simply moving forward, learning and pushing oneself to make better work today than yesterday. 

That’s the one I find the most compelling.

I remember, early on, thinking that I should push to make my jokes “edgier”. I didn’t want to swear because I knew my mom read the comic, but otherwise I made no attempt to mitigate my straight-white-cis-male-privileged comedic perspective. 

There could be a whole other Archive Dive about “misguided comics” that would just be me repeating “WHAT WAS I THINKING” for 3000 words (it would be pretty cringey to read, I fear, and moreso to write).

But something that can happen, when you produce a lot of work while you are in the process of growing as a person, is that you look back and are embarrassed. 

I am not proud of all my earlier work BECAUSE my perspective has changed to show me how I can and should do better, and that drive to do better is what informs my work today and tomorrow.

YOU’RE THE PRODUCT // #368; Facebook, Distilled. (January 4, 2008)

I remember when I first got on Facebook, back in...2007, I think? At the time I was astonished by how simple and clean it was, after the aggressive ugliness of MySpace.

But then there came a ceaseless flood of invites to play various games or install various apps, which I guess probably have tapered off by now? I’m not sure if Facebook apps are still actually a thing, I just started blocking everything I could find and installing draconian Chrome extensions and now I don’t know if I’m staring at the real Facebook through a straw.

At this point I think we have all internalized that Facebook’s business is selling advertising. I have bought Facebook ads, most recently for the Wall Buddies Kickstarter campaign (still live, just through December 1st) and as a rule have not seen very useful results, for a variety of reasons probably including my ineptitude at leveraging the staggering amount of data they have on you, the product. 

But Facebook sells MY personal data to advertisers too. And then ALSO gladly asks me for ACTUAL CASH DOLLARS for the promise of showing my ads to you

With no guarantees of results! Technology is tricky these days! Guess you better try another campaign, A/B test some different calls to action!

Facebook makes me mad. Dave Kellett has a good comic strip that explains how, as a rule, Facebook refuses to show you, the reader, all the content you have freely opted-in to receive from the various pages you have explicitly asked to see content from. 

As the page owner, you have to pay them extra to “boost your post” and reach more than some algorithmically-determined fraction of the people who have DELIBERATELY LIKED your page. 

Nothing you can do! Don’t like it, go try posting your shit on Ello! 

But at least the app invites have trickled away. There are, however, still invites of a different kind...

ACTIVE MEASURES // #450; In which Nations shoot the Breeze (October 10, 2008)

John Schindler, ex-spy and now columnist for the Observer newspaper, claims he has been sounding the alarm about Russian interference in U.S. politics for longer than anyone else

Maybe he read this strip.

# # #

NOW, WE RETURN TO THE SURFACE...

Time to put away this increasingly-depressing crystal ball! Our next Archive Dive will be the Five Wondermarks That Would Improve the World

It will be a real challenge to choose JUST FIVE because frankly ALL of them could come true and on balance we’d turn out better than not. 

...Except for the sexist one about pants. Your job here is done, pants comic, thanks for your service. Thank you for your prompt attention in the matter.

### Updated to add: The day after I originally published this post, Minnesota Public Radio cut all ties with radio host Garrison Keillor, citing accusations of improper behavior while he was host of Prairie Home Companion. 

Because of the timing, I thought this post would be incomplete without showing you one more time Wondermark nearly foresaw the future.

Here is a comic I wrote in 2001, Wondermark #726, and here is its heretofore-unpublished sequel episode, which I didn't finish or publish at the time because it seemed mean-spirited.

That’s the news from ol’ Wondermark, where all the women are strong, all the men are be-hatted, and all the children are afraid of the Piranhamoose.

Wear your pants if and/or how you like, all people of the world. See you again soon!

- Malki !