October 21, 2014

Finished With Greatness

Several people have remarked to me over the past year that the overarching storyline in Conversations With Greatness since January or so—Karl Marx fading into obscurity—had a swan song–ish quality to it. And, indeed, those same people (and other regular readers) can't have failed to notice that the comic strip went quietly into the night two weeks ago. It was almost exactly ten years since the very first instalment appeared.

Back then, I was starting my second year of a sociology degree at McGill—my fourth year of university overall—and my friends found Conversations With Greatness cool in the overwhelmingly enthusiastic, you're-going-to-change-the-world way that only college students can really find things cool. (What happened to us, guys?) It was probably thanks to their encouragement that I kept it up, or in any event that I kept it up beyond, say, the first twenty or thirty strips, when it inevitably began to require more effort beyond the obvious jokes.

Then, a week or two shy of the two-year anniversary of the strip, I moved to London and took a job at an investment bank. This probably would have been a natural time to wind things down, between my first 9-to-5 and my new improv group and my capoeira classes. Certainly my new friends at the bank, while really lovely people, were not reading my web comic about the father of socialism. But the old Montreal crowd had a remarkably robust online presence back then, and I continued to blush at their enthusiasm, so I kept it chugging away.

Within a few more months I'd been accepted to grad school, so just a month or two shy of the three-year anniversary of the strip, I moved back to Boston and was plunged back into academe. Here I discovered that, shit, people in the program were Googling me, and when they found the comic some of them were wildly enthusiastic about it too, in the overwhelmingly dry and quietly admiring way that only grad students can really find things cool. (What happened to us, guys?) That was when I really revamped the CWG website, buying a URL for it, and coming up with a more professional way to present the strips, and opening the CafePress store for merchandise—which, seven years later, has still sold precisely nothing outside my immediate family.

By now I'd pretty much scraped down to the last of the sociology jokes (probably for the better), and on enrolling in my writing program I considered adding a famous dead author to the cast—Sartre or something—to keep things fresh, and also to give myself the same opportunity to vent homework frustrations that Marx et al. had given me back at McGill. In the end, though, I decided against it, because I wanted to keep the spirit of the strip intact; to keep indulging my nerdy social sciences side rather than letting the strip get taken over by whatever was forefront in my day-to-day life.

What's funny, though, looking back at the strips from grad school, is how much my day-to-day life took over anyway. This was the year of Obama's historic first campaign, so for two months I ran nothing but election jokes (featuring Canada as a recurring character). When there was a blizzard on my birthday, there was a blizzard in the strip. When my neighbour kept stealing my newspaper, someone stole Marx's newspaper. I even copied a pick-up line I used on the future Mrs Pundigrion, more or less verbatim. (I'm not going to link to that one.)

On the other hand, keeping up the strip also gave me a good reason to keep indulging my nerdy social science side, just as I'd hoped; when a new magazine piece or right-wing politician or book discussed Marx or Engels (or one of the other cast members), I read it. Proximately this was to find new material for the strip, but ultimately it was a way to stay connected to those happy years during my undergrad degree. (Not that I wasn't still happy, you understand. But nostalgia and all that.)

Anyway, it was only after I moved to New York, in the strip's eighth and ninth years, that I started to think seriously about winding things down. Partly I didn't want to drag it out long after it should have ended, à la the Simpsons. Partly ten years seemed like a nice round number. But mostly, to be honest, with another 9-to-5 and my book getting published, I really wanted to devote most of my spare time to writing.

On the other hand, I also didn't want to just end it; I wanted a satisfying denouement. (Blame the novelist in me.) That's how I landed on the fading-from-existence idea, because with 50 strips per year I could fade out Marx by 2% a week, and though at first that would be completely undetectable, by going back and looking at it later you'd be able to see the early signs of trouble—just like a good book.

And now, here we are, all finished. I'm not going to say that my life feels hugely different now, because, you know... Come on. It's a web comic that like thirty people read. (Except on the rare occasions when my dad forwards a particular one around his colleagues, usually because it's making fun of Steven Pinker. Then, maybe fifty people.) But looking back at the five hundred weeks of silly jokes—"The greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century acting like idiots," as one friend put it—I'm proud of the accomplishment. I still giggle at some of the older punchlines I'd forgotten writing. And somewhere, hopefully, a fresh-faced social science nerd is giggling too.

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