October 12, 2006

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xkcd: A comic strip for the computer geek

by Rebecca Fernandez

Mix together a little Linux, a handful of romance, a spark of profanity, and a hint of genius, and you've got Randall Munroe and his webcomic, xkcd.

Released under a Creative Commons license, xkcd became an overnight hit when the folks at BoingBoing linked to the website. After we saw his "sudo-sandwich" comic strip, Red Hat Magazine knew we had to meet the man behind the pen.

ecks kay see what?

Like most people, we wondered what "xkcd" stood for. The answer? Nothing.

A typically random xkcd sampling.

"Actually the domain name came after the instant messenging screen name, which I picked late one night. Five, six, maybe seven years ago, I was tired of having names that meant something. Skywalker4, Animorph7... I wanted to pick a name that I wouldn't get tired of. That would just always mean me," Munroe explains, "So I just went down combination of letters that weren't taken, until I could find one that didn't have any meaning, didn't have any pronunciation, and didn't seem like an obvious acronymn for anything."

But four letters with no meaning inspire creative guessing on the part of xkcd fans, as Munroe notes, "I have had a lot of people suggest acronyms."

"Duck x backwards without the vowel."

"Extreme keyboard configuration daemon."

Randall Munroe, web cartoonist

Although he registered the domain name shortly thereafter, he did not use it until he began--in his words--"drawing stuff." And draw, he does. Three webcomics each week, faithfully posting each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

And the rest of the week?

A former NASA contractor, Munroe now ekes out his living from xkcd. "I'm still sort of transitioning over to doing this full time," he says, "A lot of my time I spend packing t-shirts, which is what I make my primary income off now. I'm always responding to email, reading forum posts, and having a regular life, being social, and getting outside and seeing interesting things."

The best-selling xkcd t-shirt.

Munroe finds his inspiration in daily life. "I think it's really important to have a source for new ideas. Try using new programs, see what's going wrong with them these days. Try working on math stuff," he says, "Otherwise you just write comics about sitting at home on your computer. There are a lot of web comics based on that idea. Very few of them are very interesting."

Despite trading space ships for stick figures, Munroe does not believe he has given up a career. His fans hail from all over the technical spectrum, and if he gets tired of drawing pictures, Munroe can easily post his resume on xkcd.com. He gets plenty of traffic. And "Internet Celebrity" is an awfully creative reason for a gap in employment.

Munroe doesn't regard himself as particularly noteworthy. "I had always assumed that there was some kind of special brain that you needed to come up with jokes, you know, you just switched it on and a joke came out," Munroe says, "But really it's just the everyday stuff that you notice, the cliches, you just take that and try to work it around and make it more pointed."

Programmer geek humor.

A friendly, unassuming fellow, Munroe seems, at times, surprised by his own success. "Sometimes I think no one actually reads these comics," he jokes, "It's always weird to have it intersect with real life."

A different sort of artist

Truly an artist of the digital age, Munroe always wanted people to share his comics. Cory Doctorow first suggested that a Creative Commons License might be a good fit for xkcd. "It was what I was doing already," Munroe says, "so I just made it official."

There's this idea that there are the real business people who want to make money, versus the kids who want free stuff. But no one seems to realize that Creative Commons serves both of those.

Munroe sees Creative Commons as the logical step in doing business today. "There's this idea that there are the real business people who want to make money, versus the kids who want free stuff," he says, "But no one seems to realize that Creative Commons serves both of those. It isn't just an idealism of wanting culture to be free. It makes business sense."

The Internet, Munroe says, has changed the rules of cartoon syndication, "Bill Waterson worked for, what, 5 or 10 years on Calvin and Hobbes, before he really made it big. Now, any kid with a notebook or a Wacom tablet writes something and makes it available for free."

And making money?

"Once you develop a big following, there are plenty of other opportunities for business. T-shirts. Merchandise. Speaking engagements."

For an ordinary guy with a website, Munroe has an impressive following. "Someone sent me a photograph of a copy of one of my comics that had been drawn on a whiteboard inside a conference room inside Amazon headquarters. That was pretty cool," he muses.

xkcd brings stick figures into Office Space

The magic of the Internet, Munroe says, is that you can be an anonymous celebrity. "If it starts to get too weird, you just go outside. You're just a guy with a website. No one knows you."

Well, except for the people wearing those t-shirts.