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10 August 2018updated 07 Sep 2021 11:44am

An interview with Randall “xkcd“ Munroe, the internet’s cartoonist of record

His cartoons are some of the most recognisable on the web.

By Ian Steadman

What’s the event and what’s that going to be about?

I’m going to talk about the research I did for the book, and walk through one of the questions that I answer, and then talk about some of the other xkcd calculations and things I’ve done, and then we’ll do a Q&A with the audience, and they’ll bring me their questions.

How long did it take you to write? I imagine you get bombarded with a lot of stuff.

Yeah, filtering questions is just, one of the big things, I get help with that sometimes, just to sift through and find questions I want to answer in an article.

And was the idea for the book because you felt a book was the only way to do it justice?

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Yeah, yeah. And there were a bunch of questions I wanted to answer and I needed more time to answer, and the weekly schedule makes it a little bit hard to do research and to contact experts and stuff, if I’m writing articles with a day or two of deadline. And so, with this, I got to take some of the questions I wanted to answer but couldn’t go into them as much as I wanted, and take some more time with them.

Were there any answers in there, or questions rather, that you wanted to include but couldn’t, for whatever reason?

I don’t think so. It’s more like, the way I filter questions is I’ll be reading through a list of questions people have submitted, and I’ll look for, and whenever I read a question I immediately start trying to think about what the answer is going to be, and think about how would I figure out the answer, and I do some calculations on some scratch paper, or in a text file or something, work out, try to Google things, and if it takes me in an interesting direction then either I’ll quickly confirm, oh my answer, my original thought was right, there’s not too much to say about it, it’s not that exciting an answer, or my original answer was wrong, and there’s all this crazy stuff I’m learning. And then the further in I go, the more eventually I’ll reach a point where, like, I’ve found a bunch of interesting stuff as I’ve tried to research this, I should definitely write this up. And sometimes I’m like I can’t even figure out how to get anywhere on this question, or the questions seems to be not so, if I try to pin down exactly what it means, like none of the interpretations of the questions turn out to make sense or, there’s nothing much I can do with it.

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There’s no narrative or story you can tell with it.

Yeah, or the question isn’t well-defined, in a sense.

With the questions that you do get, do you find that they tend to clump around certain topics? I saw on the blog you said around Halloween you get a lot of death-related ones.

Yeah, I’m not sure, I guess around Halloween I feel like it’s OK to do more morbid, death-related questions. I might take a death-related question that was submitted a few months earlier to answer. But one trend that I hadn’t really anticipated was that people really ask questions around superheroes. And I think it’s not just that it’s a geeky topic, but people are really interested in, it’ll be particular superheroes who are invulnerable or have infinite strength or speed or whatever, and they want to ask a question like what if this superhero collided with this other large force. And usually with that kind of question it’s this infinitely powerful superhero is pushing on one side and this other one is pushing on the other, and there’s not a lot you can analyse there, because the only relevant laws of physics in that situation are completely dictated by what the writers of different superheroes have decided. Have they ever shown that person being limited in some way, or whatever. And so it just becomes an exercise in literary analysis, understanding what, and I’ve never been a big reader of superhero comics so I don’t usually know which works to consult. But the reason I think it’s appealing is that it’s a shorthand way to refer to infinite or unimaginable forces. I think it’s very similar, the questions people submit on superheroes are very similar to the old question of can god make a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it? And it’s people asking the same kind of question, only with god replaced with Goku or Superman.

Do you think you have a favourite you’ve ever been asked?

Hmm. I really enjoyed the question about what would happen if you built a periodic table out of bricks of the actual elements. That was one where I got to consult with a professional chemist, and discuss some of the more gruesome details of what the chemicals would do to each other and then to you.

And how’s the tour been so far? I heard you flew in from Germany today.

Lots of fun. I’m getting, I’ve never been to London before, and I’ve never been to Berlin before.

I haven’t been either, but I hear it’s awesome.

Yeah it was great.

You also won a Hugo Award this year, congratulations. How did that feel?

It was really neat. It was, I was sort of caught by surprise by how tense it became as they came close to announcing it, I was like oh man, I wonder, I hope I win. And actually I had an errand I had to run, so I was driving and when I stopped I had to look on my phone on my liveblog to see if I’d won.

That was for Time, which is I guess the most ambitious thing you’ve done so far with xkcd.

It was pretty involved.

I’d love to know more about the process of creating that, because, well I don’t know if it’s right to call it a comic strip, it’s so vast in itself, and it goes through time as well as existing on a screen.

I did a comic earlier called click and drag which was a comic that was a single panel, well there were four panels but the main panel was much bigger in space than it looked like, you clicked it and dragged it and moved it, and so I thought I also wanted to do, that was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed people exploring just how far it went, and I really liked the idea, this is something I come back to a lot, is celebrating the world being much much bigger than we originally think it is. And Time, in the same way that was exploring space, I wanted to explore a comic that was much bigger than it appeared to be. It was one panel that looked like a static panel, and if you came back an hour later it’s a different panel, or it’s just changed a little bit, and then there was the initial comments when it first went up were like “oh I guess he decided to take a day off today” and it was like, that was the least off day I had ever taken. I enjoyed the process of discovery, because I really like, when I was a kid I didn’t like when something looked like it was bigger than it turned out to be. Like in video games, when you would have what looked like a really cool big world you could explore, and then you try to run and then you run onto the grass on the track and you immediately bump into an invisible wall. Or there are bushes and you can’t go past the bushes, and you can see there’s a field past them, but you can’t go there.

Yeah there some bushes you can cut with a sword and others you can’t.

Yeah yeah exactly, or there’s a stream but you can’t cross it. They’re getting a little bit better at that, but I still, I just recently, I was like I’ll check out, I’ve never really played phone first person shooters. And I was like wow phones have really advanced a lot, they can now do graphics comparable to what my computer could do five years ago. So I downloaded all these shooters, and was immediately like immersed in this really rich world and I was like wow I want to walk around for a minute first, but immediately it was like no, you can only go down the passageway where the mission is taking you. You can’t explore any of these side streets. So I feel like the opposite experience is thinking a world is limited and poking one of the boundaries a little and discovering it’s not. And I love that feeling. So that’s what I was trying to do with both click and drag and Time is give people something that was satisfyingly big in a way you might not assume it’s going to be.

How long did it take to make? The details in there, like the stars were plotted to be some ancient time ago, the attention to detail was amazing.

It took a while. You mentioned the stars, that was something I had talked a little bit to Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer about, he’s really great, and he had some tips that were helpful.

You mentioned gaming. Are you a gamer?

Well, I feel these days gamer is a loaded term. These days I’m, I don’t know, in different sense of the word a very casual gamer and a very intense gamer. I tend to take just a few games and then play them very very obsessively. But like, in my senior year in college I had a semester that was effectively a semester off, and I spent that getting very very good at Mario Kart: Double Dash. Just playing, I would play time trials on one level.

Which two drivers?

Oh, for Double Dash, now it’s all corrupted by when I did a similar thing with Mario Kart Wii, and in that one the bikes were better, but in Double Dash, I always played with trying to get two shell-juggling characters for playing in Grand Prix. I think, I’m trying to remember, there was a, I think in time trials I guess you have two but I know it was the locomotive was the optimum one for time trials. And I think it was Diddy Kong and another lightweight character, it didn’t matter.

I always go for Diddy Kong and one of the Toads, for the golden mushroom.

Oh yeah, and in time trials the rules are kind of different, what I’d concentrate on was executing some of the difficult maneouvres. Like DK Mountain, in Gamecube, has this section where you can go up against the wall and jump the gap. And there are some similar, I had this friend who played Mario Kart Wii, and she was one of the few, I had this roommate and this one friend from Atlanta who played Mario Kart Wii, and she, they were some of the few people who played it as obsessively as I would, so we set up a wiki to keep track of our times to the nearest milliseconds, and I drifted away from it for a while, I remember I was playing against this friend, and I drifted away for a while, and then because I had set record times on most of the courses, and I drifted away for a while, then went back and checked like a year later, thinking oh yeah I had that wiki, and found that in that time, the intervening time, my friend, she had logged, methodically beaten my scores on every track.

I had a very similar college experience. Only it was Double Dash and Civ, Civ IV I think it was at the time. But not to get onto gaming and gamergate, you occupy quite a unique role as a cartoonist and a science communicator, but also one who has issues of social justice in them, which I think is unusual. Do you think that’s an important thing in the field right now, the idea of ethics and equality? It’s a broad topic obviously. It feels like one of the main people out there actually doing it.

Yeah, I dunno. I think there’s a lot of people who are writing and talking about this, and it’s good to say things about it, and sometimes there are really quite a few nerdy male voices in this debate, and maybe to listen, instead of talking. So I try to say things when I have things to say, and the rest of the time try not to make this about me, because there are a lot of people writing very important and interesting things and I do my best to listen and support them, and not hijack it for myself. It’s easy to cast yourself as the hero, and in doing so end up marginalising the people you are ostensibly trying to help.

One topic you are a keen proponent of is open access. Are you encouraged by recent moves in that field towards open access?

Yeah, it’s certainly helpful for me, I’m not attached to an institution and often run into paywalls, and have to ask my friends hey can I have this paper.

I sometimes ask work experience kids who are still in college if I can borrow their jstor logins.

Yeah, I dunno. I think my position there is kind of unusual, because the fact is that the people who are working seriously on this do have jstor logins, and I think there are institutional issues in science which run deeper.

Like what?

Like, you know we’re talking about this question of journals being open access, but at the same time they’re really, how many people are affected by journals not being open access? Because everyone you or I talks to who does serious research has logins through their institutions or whatever, but maybe the institutions, they’re, I think it’s good to think who do we open, who is open access to benefit? Who are we trying to benefit here? Are there a lot of small labs cut out of the system, or is this about international access, or what? And I’ve read statistics about the percentage of grants that go to people like, the average age of someone who gets a physics research grant or something has gone up like under 30 to over 50 in the last 20 years, and the number of graduate students versus the number of jobs available for them, and there’s an increasing backlog of people trapped in this post-doc world. And I dunno, I think some of those issues can sometimes be, the open access is not getting to the root of the problems you may be wanting to solve with it. But it’s, it’s certainly good, and I think that, I dunno, I think, I think that my ability to say useful things about this is limited by the fact that I’m not a scientist. I’m happy to help with open access, I think it’s good to make more data more available in more ways, and also make it egalitarian, but I also don’t want to pretend that it’s the solution if I don’t understand the problem.

Which goes back to sitting back and listening to people I suppose.

I think that that’s especially an issue that people with physics backgrounds have, is assuming that the model of the situation that you’ve constructed in the first few minutes of looking at it is all you need to know to understand it. It’s sort of like a particularly physics-specific way of looking at things. I’ve had to train myself out of making the assumption that the problem as I understand it is in fact the real problem, you know. And instead listening to people who have been thinking about the problem longer than I have, and maybe have some insights.

It’s a valuable skill to learn though I suppose. You’ve been doing this for eight years, according to Wikipedia.

I think it was October 2005 when I uploaded the first ones, but it was only 2006 when I started doing it regularly.

I wanted to ask about the times before that though, about what your influences are as a cartoonist and as a science communicator as well.

I grew up reading newspaper comics, so Calvin and Hobbes was the big one, the first and the best of what I read, and also things like the Far Side, and also Foxtrot, another one by someone with a physics degree.

I don’t know that one.

Yeah yeah it’s a newspaper comic, it came out sometime in the mid 90s and I think it’s still running in the Sunday strips as far as I know. And also Bloom County and Doonesbury and Garfield and Dilbert, all those book collections. Then I also read Popular Science and popular science books, stuff like, I don’t know, I would just go through each section and read about, you know, string theory or whatever, before I was even studying anything in an academic context. And things like Feynman’s autobiography. But what I think of as my big influence in comics is the newspaper comics I read growing up.

Particularly Calvin and Hobbes?

Yeah. I think everyone, there’s sort of a consensus that that’s the best comic of its generation. Kind of in the way that I think there’s a consensus that Peanuts was the best of the generation before.

The story I’ve read is that is that you left Nasa and started doing this, were you doing this while there or was it something you only started after?

Yeah, I actually started putting up comics after my first internship at Nasa when I was back at school for my final year. My internship was actually 3D, virtual reality stuff, and then when I went back as a contractor I was working on robotics stuff. But I had been filling up notebooks with charts and drawings and maps and graphs and stuff, and eventually just scanned some and put them online, and it sort of accidentally turned into a web comic.

When was the point at which you could live off it?

There was a point where one of my contracts ran out at Nasa in summer 2006.

How old would you have been at that point?

21, about to turn 22? I turned 22 in the fall of 2006. And, so I was working on contracts, and the contract ran out and they were like we aren’t going to renew this contract, we can find you another contract if you want, and you know do you want to work on another project? And at that point I had just started selling a bunch of t-shirts, and I was like man I have a lot of t-shirts to ship, I don’t know if I can keep doing this and do my comics, so I had to pick one or the other, so I said you know what I’ll get back to you, and I went to do comics for a while.

And it worked. And I guess the merchandise sales are, because the comics are distributed under creative commons, but it’s the merchandise that you live off, which is impressive. There can’t be many cartoonists who can do that.

I think it’s easier now to make a living than it was 20 years ago. What the newspaper people went through to get published was just awful. Bill Waterson, maybe the most gifted cartoonist of a generation, shopped Calvin and Hobbes around for years before it got published somewhere. And now you can reach different audiences more easily, and there are lot of different ways you can make money. It’s sort of a nightmare for tax people, because it’s like I have this money from giving a talk at a university, and this money is from doing, I sold t-shirts, and this is from Patreon, and these are PayPal donations, I don’t know who they’re from.

Does anyone syndicate xkcd in a physical paper?

There are a few who run it, who basically ask permission and I say OK, and we don’t have any kind of advanced access or whatever so they just decide to put it in their paper. But I’ve always had the sense that there’s so much work involved in that kind of syndication that I’ve never pursued it as a goal. I feel like all the way that the people I’ve read described working for newspapers made me think like oh you don’t want to do that, I’ll do something else.

I think we’re almost out of time, so the last question so the last question is what’s the future hold? Is there going to be another book? More strips. What’s the goal.

I don’t know, I’m always juggling a bunch of different projects, and I’ll be like this is a really cool project, and then one day I’ll wake up and I’ll remember that project and dive into it, and 40 hours later it’s like I’ve constructed this thing and that’s not what I knew I was going to do, and I feel like I’m that way with a lot of these things. The one thing that I think will be coming up soon is I found a wonderful research article which, it was on the force required to drag sheep over different rough surfaces. It was a bunch of sheep handlers, and they got a bunch of tension meters, and had them grab the sheep by the harness with the tension meter, and determine how much force was needed to pull them across the room for sheep sheering and stuff. And now I just need to find some way to apply this research.

Where was that published?

I don’t even remember. Someone just sent it to me saying look at this pdf. So I think at some point I will be doing some research on some sheep.