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  • How To Be a Theory Dinosaur
  • Jordan Alexander Stein (bio)

Since the 1990s, internet surfers have enjoyed a proliferation of online serial comics. Though similar in design to many print comics, webcomics are distinguished by their accessibility, as they are effectively free and updated regularly (often daily). As of 2007, the number of webcomics in production globally was estimated to be in the tens of thousands (Manley). Webcomics have little in common as a genre besides their internet publication platform. Different webcomics use different media forms (including illustration, clip art, or animation), and different webcomics have very different styles of humor. Several, such as xkcd and Ph.D. Comics, take the life of the mind as their object of satire. Yet only one webcomic manages not only to thematize intellectual life, but also to contribute to it.

Designed by Canadian writer and computer programmer Ryan North, Dinosaur Comics (or Qwantz for its domain name, is a webcomic that first appeared in its current form on February 1, 2003.1 Since that time, it has been syndicated in several newspapers and published in two print collections, and it has spawned a sizable amount of retail merchandise, including t-shirts. Dinosaur Comics has developed something of a cult following, and its geeky mixture of highbrow philosophy and theoretical science with adolescent imaginings and corny humor has earned it wide-spread acclaim—and a central place in my undergraduate literary theory lectures.

This comic proves teachable for at least two reasons. First, as I will elaborate below, the comic emphasizes dialogue over drawing. Its three principal characters are constructed primarily out of words. This emphasis on language dovetails nicely with many of the theoretical lessons taught in an average introductory literary theory course: lessons about the ties that bind language to power, the difference between speech and writing, the relation of ideology to symbols, and, especially, the role of language in subject formation. Moreover, the comic explores not just the fact of linguistic construction, but the act of constructing itself. Thus, the second reason Dinosaur Comics is teachable: it turns the stumbling drama of learning to think abstractly about the world toward humorous ends. The comic offers its readers the opportunity to watch others thinking, enabling the pleasures of identification alongside the challenges of theorizing.

Dinosaur Comics realizes this heady combination of elements using only six frames and three main characters, chief among whom is a Tyrannosaurus rex named T-rex. We quickly learn that T-rex is a dinosaur with big ideas, farcical commitments to logic, and a deep desire to appear cool. His thoughts take the form of theoretical speculation. The first two panels of Dinosaur Comics feature T-rex by himself, making an assertion or two. He often imagines how cool it would be to find himself in a particular situation—testifying as a witness in a murder trial, for instance, or enjoying a clean house. Like the logical propositions that initiate Socratic questioning, his assertions start a dialogue whose endpoint is often amusingly far from the original statement. The reason T-rex might enjoy being called as a witness in a murder trial, for example, is that he could enter into the court's official records an announcement of how awesome he is (see Fig. 1).

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Fig. 1.

Dinosaur Comics #213

© Ryan North. Used by permission.

Other Dinosaur Comics installments begin with recognizable theoretical postulates: an evolutionary principle like island dwarfism, or a description of the Turing Test (which determines whether machines are capable of intelligent behavior), or a redaction of a post-Kantian Romantic philosophy which posits that individual consciousness adjudicates moral value.

Regardless of whether the initial proposition comes from T-rex's imagination or from someone else's, the course of events is generally the same. Following T-rex's initial proposition, he will distort the theory, either by applying it speciously (and perhaps failing to see any likely consequences) or by misrecognizing a minor aspect as the main point. Thus, evolutionary theory becomes meaningful because it is cute (Fig. 4 below), moral theory because it is indulgent, and emotional bonds because they are sexually arousing. Inevitably...

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