The Nerd Boy language

I know, maybe more than anyone, that it can be hard to understand the art in my web comic. It's small, compact and constructed entirely of typographical symbols; it's what is sometimes referred to as mini ASCII art. Sometimes, readers have e-mailed me and asked what a certain piece of art is meant to represent. That's always a bit depressing, but the converse also happens, where readers commend my art and feel that I have conveyed a great deal of information with only a few characters. The latter mostly happens with long-time readers, and the former is a problem that many new readers face. What I believe to be the reason for this is also what I think is the most fascinating aspect of The Adventures of Nerd Boy; it's a sort of visual language. You have to learn the symbols of the language to fully understand the web comic. Sometimes the problem is that the reader doesn't know the language well enough, but since it's a language in development, it often makes it very hard for me to express myself clearly enough.

Before discussing it, let me illustrate the construction of the Nerd Boy language through example. The following was my reply to a challenge posed in the Usenet group alt.ascii-art. The challenge was to draw a cat using only two lines of characters.

    m m _/)_,'   jg

The "jg" is my signature. The rest is hopefully possible to make out, given that I've told you what it is. If you can't see it, look at this variation where its eyes are open and I've cheated and added a third line.

    _   _
    m m _/)_,'   jg

In the following image, the cat dreams that my signature is a rat. I used a common "one-liner" to illustrate the rat.

    m m _/)_,'   <O~

Then I decided to curl up the cat in a ball to make it more cat-like.

 (__-.m m   jg

It spotted a real rat this time! Get it!

 (__-.m m   ~O>

Get the.. Aww, the rat escaped into its hole!


Keep watching the hole, cat, the rat has to come out sooner or later.

Did you understand the last image? (From left to right, it's the cat's tail, a paw, its face and another paw.) Do you think you would have understood it without having seen the others first? As Rainer Rosenthal pointed out to me in alt.ascii-art, that last image would have been a totally abstract combination of characters if not for the preceding images. At that point, he had discovered the secret of my art: Familiarisation.

I use context a great deal to maximise the comprehensibility of my mini ascii art. I always try to find a way to explain, as subtly as possible, what my art is supposed to represent. Dialogue is a great help in my Nerd Boy strips, since people can quite naturally talk about what's occuring around them, implying the meaning of the art around them of or their body language. By doing this, I'm teaching the reader new symbols. Above, I used this technique to teach the reader that an m is a cat's paw, and a certain string of characters is a cat's face. Then I could combine those symbols in a new way that represents a cat lying on its belly. I do this in Nerd Boy all the time.

This is Nerd Boy, with whom you're probably familiar if you've ever read the strip:

    Nerd Boy

Sometimes I rely on the reader being accustomed to seeing Nerd Boy's glasses as OO. This is a symbol, a combination of two or more ASCII characters, that take on a meaning. When the readers have learned that symbol, I can use it in a new context and they still understand that the symbol represents Nerd Boy. I'm always afraid new readers will be completely lost when I pull stunts like that, because they don't know the symbols I've defined in previous Nerd Boy strips; they don't know the Nerd Boy language like my old readers do. For example, how would a new reader interpret the following?

      / "

New readers, provided they see anything at all in that jumble of ASCII characters, might see a wizard. Older readers would probably identify it as Nerd Boy in a wizard's robe, because for them the symbol OO has taken on the meaning of Nerd Boy.

Sometimes, to avoid any misunderstanding, I establish (or re-establish) the meaning of certain symbols in the very strip where the symbols are to be combined in a new way. One example of this is strip 315, which sets up the usage of the OO symbol in preceding panel art and dialogue. If Nerd Boy hadn't been standing next to the drumset in the first two panels, the reader might not understand what's happening when Nerd Boy is sitting behind it. I always try to walk the line between accommodating new readers like this, and giving my old readers something more than just the same old symbols.

Old readers would probably easily identify the OO as Nerd Boy's face. They have not only learned the symbols of the Nerd Boy language, they also seem quite attached to them. For this reason, it becomes increasingly hard to create new characters for new story arcs, because there are an increasing number of symbols that represent certain characters. I faced this problem when I introduced Dr. Spivak.

   Dr. Spivak       

Some readers commented on his appearence, voicing suspicions that Spivak was one of two other characters in disguise, or maybe even a genetic combination of those two characters. Those characters were Dr. Nerd Boy (which is Nerd Boy from a rather distant future), and Nerd Boy's friend Fan Boy.

        _              ,,,
       ".O             '..
      .((              .||.
      | bb              ||
  Dr. Nerd Boy       Fan Boy
(from the future)

There are certain similarities, but I had no idea that my readers had so familiarised themselves with the look of my old characters that they almost refused to accept a new one that was slightly similar. In retrospect, I can see that there are certain symbols at play here. The hair represented by commas is a symbol for Fan Boy, especially when combined with straight lines representing torso and legs. The different sized eyes (representing a monocle for Dr. Nerd Boy, and a lunatic stare for Dr. Spivak) combined with the quotation mark representing sideburn/hair, appear to be the main symbol for Dr. Nerd Boy.

Up until now, the creation of symbols in the Nerd Boy language has been a semi-unconscious process. By that I mean that some symbols were created intentionally, some symbols were created unconsciously, and in some cases I did have an intention to define certain aspects of my art so that readers would recognise them later on, but I never explicitly thought of them as symbols. Below are some examples of what are quite obviously symbols.

      *             ?           !
     ,,,           ,,,         ,,,
     '..           '..         '..
     .||.          .||.        .||.
      ||            ||          ||
  Penny drops    Perplexed   Shocked

The unconsciously created symbols have already been covered above. These symbols are what toons or objects are defined by or consist of. I either lucked out on most of them or subconsciously created symbols in order to set my toons apart. One example is Fan Boy's hair, which I didn't intend to become so central to his identity. In retrospect, I don't know what else could symbolise Fan Boy; it's the only thing that sets him apart from the generic "extra" character.

      ..    ..    ..
     .||.  .||.  .||.
      ||    ||    ||

As for the symbols of the Nerd Boy language that were intentionally created before I thought of them as symbols, they are probably the most common ones. Subcategories here are facial expressions, body language and even some full-blown events. Examples follow.

,-Facial expressions------------.
|                               |
|   ,,,       ,,,               |
|   'oo       '--         @@    |
|   .||.      .||.       .||.   |
|    ||        ||         bb    |
|                               |
| Shocked   Angry or   Hyper or |
|            weary      scared  |
,-Body language-----------------.
|                               |
|   ,,,       ,,,               |
|   '..       '..        OO     |
|   ((        -||-       -\\-   |
|    ))        ||          bb   |
|                               |
| Sad or    Agitated    Shocked |
| tired                         |
|                               |
|  ,,,                          |
|  '.#                          |
|   ||              qq          |
|__ || _____   ______\\______   |
|                               |
| Black-eye     Nerd Boy stuck  |
|               in the ground   |

The only conclusion I can draw from all this is that I should treat the Nerd Boy symbols more carefully, and consciously take a few things into consideration, like which symbols I've clearly defined (in previous strips and in the current strip), which symbols might clash because of their similarity, which symbols are superfluous, et cetera. I should simply start thinking more about what I'm doing, because at this low level of detail I'm not really drawing so much as communicating using abstract symbols.

6. The Nerd Boy language
5. Nerd Boy behind the scenes
4. PBeM tips, aka "Sorry, my mistake"
3. alt.ascii-art = forum
2. Rants, PHP and "geeky" comics
1. Scott Kurtz has a time machine?

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Copyright © 2001-2005 Joaquim Gândara. Fan art copyright © their respective owners.