In 2005, Randall Munroe – then a physics student at university in Virginia – started scanning the doodles he’d been scribbling in lectures, drawing square boxes around them and uploading them to a website to share with his friends.
Today, xkcd is one of the most popular webcomics on the internet, with millions of readers a month. Munroe’s simple line-art is instantly recognisable, and his growing library of more than 2,000 science-tinged comics pops up all over the internet. Just as The Simpsons has tackled every conceivable plot-line in its three decade run, there seems to be a relevant xkcd for everything. It has stayed on top by constantly evolving beyond its initial nerdy niche.
The strip launched before the widespread adoption of social media – MySpace was a thing, but Facebook was yet to spread beyond US colleges – so it blew up in the old fashioned way, via email forwards and posts on bulletin boards. In mere months, it grew into something so big that it allowed Munroe – who briefly worked at Nasa during college – to make xkcd his full-time job.
“I think this was before the term, we had the term ‘going viral,’” Munroe says (the term had been coined in the mid-1990s but hadn’t found widespread use). “I remember kind of struggling to explain to people that I put up this thing and then someone sent it to someone else, and then someone else sent it to someone else, and it’s just gone all over the place now. I didn’t have a term for it.”
The jokes and references in xkcd are sometimes esoteric – there’s a whole website dedicated to explaining them – and touch on everything from SQL database queries to obscure physics equations. Munroe says that people often assume he’s an expert in all of the things he writes about, but that’s far from the case. “Sometimes I’ll make jokes that hopefully are accessible to people who have heard of something and know the basics but they don’t necessarily have to be really steeped in it,” he says. “I feel like it’s often easier to make jokes about a subject when you’re first encountering it. Because the stuff that’s weird about it stops seeming weird to you after a while.”
At the start, a lot of the jokes in xkcd were about physics and why it’s better than other fields – the sort of humour that The Big Bang Theory subsequently squeezed dry over ten painful seasons. But that’s changed through the years, and now Munroe’s work is informed more by the various side projects he might be working on at any given moment. He’s built underwater drones and written an algorithm to determine the ideal number of urinals in a men’s bathroom. In 2008, he invented ‘geohashing’ – where participants have to travel to a randomly generated GPS location.
A career in academia didn’t appeal because he didn’t like the idea of devoting himself to just one topic. Instead, he’s dabbled in lots of different areas, but to a level of depth that sets him apart – he’s always down one rabbit hole or another. “A lot of the time that will bring up a new question, which leads to having to learn a new thing,” he says. “And then you can ask the same question about that and you can just follow rabbit holes in any direction.”
Over time, what started as a simple webcomic has evolved into something much more: over the years Munroe has dabbled in immensely detailed infographics about climate change and global finance, through to interactive works of art like Time. This was a sprawling story set 11,000 years in the future, and told through a single frame that updated every 30 minutes for 118 days – in 2014 it won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.
He’s also dabbled in the printed word, with books including Thing Explainer, an illustrated encyclopedia that only uses the 100 most commonly used words, and What If?, in which Munroe answers hypothetical questions sent in from readers such as, ‘What would happen if you threw a baseball pitch at the speed of light?’ (spoiler alert: it would not be pretty).
“I think a lot of the time, writing comics is about taking a normal idea and then just taking it to its logical extreme, to where it no longer makes any sense at all,” he says. “Just extending it to the point of absurdity.” That’s a theme that reappears in his latest book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems which builds on Munroe’s love of ridiculous hypotheticals with advice on everything from the best method for delivering a package from the International Space Station, to the most efficient way of crossing a field of molten lava (pictured, above).
For someone plugged into the worlds of maths and physics, the attack on science of the last few years has been difficult to watch, but Munroe has largely resisted the temptation to use his platform to comment on political matters. Instead, he’s tried to use xkcd as a means of helping get scientific messages across, particularly in relation to climate change. “Any conversation about the public and science communication has the giant spectre of climate change hanging over it, which a topic where there’s been a massive disconnect between the science and the public,” he says. “A lot of scientists kind of blame themselves.”
In 2016, Munroe published an infographic comic charting the change in global temperatures alongside historical events. Again, he went further than most people would have – getting deep into the academic literature and interviewing climate scientists over the course of a couple of years, on and off. “I think it was more effective than reading the news every day, seeing one thing I’m upset about and writing a little screed about it which is what I would be tempted to do otherwise,” he says. It became the most shared image he’s ever posted to the internet – and perhaps xkcd’s combination of deep research and absurdity is what we need for these troubled times.
“It’s hard to avoid falling into the trap of just shouting at people,” Munroe says. “It’s really a challenge to be funny about something when you’re also really angry.”
Randall Munroe is at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on October 7
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