There’s no affected exaggeration in saying that Alex Norris’s Webcomic Name is an online comics phenomenon. The three-panel strips, all ending in the same simple but plaintive punchline of “oh no” appear uncomplicated in structure but on occasion can be profound in theme and message, juxtaposing joy and disappointment with a dexterous flourish. Their popularity is undoubted with the best part of 300,000 people following the artist on Twitter. Next month sees the official publication of a collection of the strips in print – understandably retitled oh no – with half of the book presenting all-new material.
Self-deprecation has always been a vital ingredient of Webcomic Name – as has a healthy dollop of the meta – and oh no opens with Norris poking fun at the analogue qualities of print with a typically self-indulgent wink in the readers’ direction. The strips herein range from observational humour to experimental playfulness with the very structure of the form, depicting both the familiar rituals of everyday life and a sometimes more philosophical use of visual metaphor; all of them linked by their three-panel build-up and running gag punchline.
That “oh no” plea can be provoked then by anything as basic as the slapstick failings of culinary disaster to the harsh realities of the creative life. Man-spreading, accidental human contact on a tube carriage, and sex being observed by household pets are some of the daily incidents that readers may find recognisably funny. But oh no is far more nuanced than a catalogue of life’s minor irritations. It also captures the zeitgeist with, for example, its subtle yet cutting dissection of the idiosyncrasies of our online lives or its gentle ribbing of our dependence on technology.
Artists picking up this print incarnation will be pleased to see so many references to self-doubt and the creative process and Norris’s more symbolic strips always communicate deeper truths about our fears and aspirations. For the comics connoisseur though it will be the strips that subvert and manipulate the very structure of the form that will most delight – offerings that play with the formal elements of comics, teasing us with clever uses of its unique relationship with the passage of time and changing the very way we interact with the page as readers.
Always perfectly paced in rhythm, the simple, representational qualities of Norris’s art ensure our instant identification with his blobby, ever put-upon protagonist in ways that more elaborate rendition never could. With its accessible existential angst and populist line in social commentary, oh no is a perfect introductory point for anyone unfamiliar with Alex Norris’s online presence.
Alex Norris (W/A) • Andrews McMeel Publishing, £9.99
Review by Andy Oliver