World of Webcomics: ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’

World of Webcomics is a series devoted to exploring the world of online comics and their target audiences, as well as their art styles, storylines, and the general enjoyment that they provide.


The world of Academia is a very unique and unusual place, where people experience some of the weirdest adventures possible, all of which appear in this comic.  Beginning in 1997, the comic centers on the lives of graduate students at a prestigious research university and the troubles they endure from their families, their advisors, and their lack of affordable housing.  It's not a good vs. evil comic (unless evil is represented by tuition costs), but it is certainly as entertaining as a graphic representation of data points as a Figure 1 on a thesis.  Piled Higher and Deeper updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at phdcomics.com.

MINOR SPOILERS BELOW

Art Style

The first couple of years were very rough and sketchy in terms of quality, and the size of the dialogue was so small that I often had to blow up the image in order to accurately read what was being said.  A year later, it improved drastically with better-defined shapes and edges. Seven years later, it changed to full color, making it more attention-drawing, and it has continued to improve over the years.  Much of the style focuses on interactions between two characters or characters and an aspect of their personal life (which, as a graduate student, they don’t have much of one as defined by the comics), but I don’t believe that it is excessive in any fashion.  Creator Jorge Cham has done a great job of conveying emotions and exasperation over the years, though I feel that the character of Brian Smith has a Jamie Hyneman way of neutral facial expression that can be profoundly disturbing at times.

For the comics that aren’t full of characters and settings, in which data points or graphs are shown, the artwork is not exactly out-of-this-world, but it’s not meant to be, either.  It is simple and to the point, showing the needed information without it being too flashy to distract, exactly what someone wants in a graphical representation of data and research.  I believe that Jorge’s experience in research has given him a great understanding of how to get the point across without burdening the reader with a lot of unwanted details.


Writing and Dialogue



While there isn't much in the way of a cohesive overarching story, there are bits that are relevant to each other in small packs of plots.  At times, the plots of the principle characters overlap or switch with one another, and while this is useful to make it so multiple angles are explored, it can result in a bit of confusion and lack of focus on just where the comic is at a given point in time.  The characters also show a strong sense of growth over the years, changing as their lives do, and yet still keeping true to who they are at their center, especially in terms of spoken dialogue.  It is eerie just how realistic the conversations between the graduate students and professors are, as I've witnessed and experienced first- and second-hand such interactions; I felt as though I needed to check to see if Jorge had a hidden camera in our research labs.

A few things that don't work, however, are that some of the plots and jokes are re-used.  It's not uncommon for a comic that is over 18 years old to recycle things, but as Academia has changed, I would expect some of the jokes to, as well.  Another issue that comes up is that with one exception, none of the characters have progressed as a graduate student in all the time the comic has been published.  It's not unusual for some students to take an excessive amount of time to earn their doctorates, but it's rather unrealistic for all of the principle characters not to have.  Though it would require a change in the status of the comic, I think it would be appropriate for some of the characters to graduate and become faculty at the university; it isn't likely to happen, but it would continue their growth.


Appeal

It may not be as widely appealing to people who aren’t at least familiar with some aspect of the world of Academia, but it is quite an enjoyable read to those who are.  While some of the anecdotes are exaggerated, the fact that many are not can be both an intriguing and frightening experience.  Aside from the actual story-themed comics, there are also random charts and data fields showing parts of academic life that are surprising and very informative.  An entire subsection of comics are told from the perspective of the creator’s experiences doing interviews, tours, and collaborations with other doctoral holders.

Personally, I enjoy the comic, but I also work in Academia, so the truthful hilarity is more relevant to me than it would be to someone who works in other fields; however, I believe that certain aspects of it can be appealing to anyone who enjoys the long-term suffering of graduate students, interns, or anyone who has a brain.  If you enjoy humor and realistic sarcasm, then you'll enjoy reading this gem of higher education.

Go to top