PRINT April 2018



Alex Norris, Webcomic Name, October 13, 2016. Online comic.

THE PROTAGONIST of Alex Norris’s Webcomic Name, hosted on Tumblr since July 2016, is a simple pink cartoon blob with four pseudopodal limbs, two dots for eyes, and a single line for a mouth, which Norris tends to draw just shy of an em dash, with the result that its owner often reads as both a little happy and a little sad, or maybe just one of those, or maybe neither. In every strip, the blob wants something. It tries on a bra or gets a new job or has a fling. It overeats and oversleeps and underprepares. It looks in the mirror, tells a secret, has a sex dream, takes public transit; it flirts, paints, texts, drinks, binge-watches. Someone takes its picture. Someone asks its gender. No matter the setup, though, every episode ends the same way. The bra doesn’t fit. The job is stupid. The blob makes accidental eye contact with a stranger. It gets in a codependent relationship. The “nice thing” it orders online finally arrives in a parcel labeled NOCE THUNG; “oh no,” says the blob, all lowercase, no punctuation.

This is a comic about disappointment. This is a tautology, because optimism and disappointment are the same thing. The blob never breaks down or cracks up; it suffers no traumatic cut. Hence Webcomic Name’s bland nonspecificity—a parody of the internet’s love of relatable content—from its generic title and genderless everyperson protagonist to its unassuming, my-kid-could-do-that house style. Disappointment isn’t some big production: It’s a bit of a letdown, actually. Turns out not getting what you want doesn’t make you not want it. Your desires are rarely brittle enough to break. This is a blob, after all, a kind of shock absorber for life’s hard knocks. This is why one easily becomes disappointed with the comic itself: The gags are mostly small, dumb, flat. Desire is a bad joke. You can always guess the punch line.

Norris knows this. He knows you know it, too, and he’s fond of displacing this knowledge you both share to the level of formal self-awareness. “optimistic expectations,” says the blob in one strip. The speech bubble pops, leaving the words “disappointing outcome” behind. “generic lament,” says the blob. In another strip, in each of the first two panels, the blob stares up at the phrase RUNNING GAG, spelled out in green bubble letters. In the third panel, the phrase turns orange and a single letter has been swapped out: RUINING GAG, it reads. “oh no,” says the blob. Knowledge is what happens in the gap between what you want and wanting it. “oh no” is a stooge’s eureka. No means know. In a rare six-panel strip, an “oh no” speech bubble floats aimlessly through the sky, as if having wandered off from some other comic. “I wish I could find a place of joy,” it sighs, “but I make every moment despair.” It comes across a couple in a park: An orange blob has just proposed to a pink blob. The bubble slides over the pink blob’s head. “oh no,” says the blob. “oh no,” says the speech bubble.

What Norris suggests is that the knowledge disappointment brings arrives at the precise moment of knowledge’s exhaustion. Knowledge is a loser’s trophy. “Good game,” etc. This makes knowledge a kind of mourning—or better, a kind of melancholy, a refusal to acknowledge defeat’s receipt, a locket full of loss. Like everyone, the blob is a critic and, like every critic, a con. Reflexivity is such a gag. Analysis is just denial with more words. This doesn’t mean that knowing better is any worse than not knowing at all. It just means that neither condition will rescue you from wanting things. At best, you may find a quantum of dumb relief in desire’s never letting up. There is comfort in repetition. In a strip titled “Repetition,” the blob gets an update on its phone from a content creator it likes. “A THING YOU HAVE SEEN BEFORE,” reads the phone’s screen. Norris has posted this strip three times. There is comfort in repetition. Repetition is all comfort is, maybe.

This is not a political comic, but it does have something to say about the comedy that politics is. Radical politics since Marx has staked itself on the wager of self-consciousness. The meat of this fantasy is that knowing will lead to knowing what to do. (The phrase is Robyn Wiegman’s.) Such an outcome was the putative goal of the consciousness-raising feminist groups of the 1970s; it remains the aim of woke TV, woke Twitter. Now a fantasy doesn’t have to be a lie. It’s just something you’d believe even if it were a lie. The strength of your belief expresses the force of a desire. This is disappointment’s upside, if you want to call it that, in a political landscape sucked dry by disappointments, electoral and otherwise. You’ll keep on blobbing, all evidence to the contrary. You’ll wake up, go on dates, feed your pets; organize and phone-bank and read things. The struggle is indeed real. But maybe it will get better. You never know. “running gag,” says the blob in one strip. “that wasn’t funny,” says its friend. “just you wait,” says the blob.

Andrea Long Chu is a writer and a doctoral candidate in literature at New York University.