If I was a total pedantic asshole, I might be tempted to make some kind of semi-joke review about how this comic isn't funny. And that's like, technically true, but Futurama had "The Luck Of The Fryrish", The Simpsons had "Lisa's Substitute", XKCD can have "Seven Years".
I'm aware as I write this that I don't have the exact right words for it, but there's a phrase that I've come up with to describe things like this, and it's "This thing has stuff in it.". Like, Mulholland Dr. has stuff in it. 2001 has stuff in it. Finnegans Wake has probably too much stuff in it. (This blog, I hope, has some stuff in it somewhere.)
What I mean by "has stuff in it" is something between "This work of art* conveys an idea in a way that is arguably more impactful than if it was outright said." and "This work of art conveys an idea that is at best difficult to put into words.", with maybe a splash of "This work of art teaches the viewer something.". It's kinda like how impressionistic paintings don't make sense up close, element-for-element, but if you back away the seperate elements combine and it's a picture of a swan. Except the elements might make sense and instead of a picture it's a sense of dread or joy or amusement. I know I'm not doing the best job at explaining this concept I have, but keep in mind I'm trying to get across an idea about "Art", that thing that after thousands of years of argument been best described by the phrase "Art is what artists do" or, if you like, "Art defines itself". It's something like 'montage' or 'juxtaposition' or 'the way that music can make a scene seem more important' but on a larger scale, one step up on the rung. Basically like, 'can a liberal arts student overanalyze it in a paper?', and 'was the art intentionally made in a way that it could be analyzed in such a way?'.
So, if all that made sense beyond my own pretensions, here's why I think that this comic has stuff in it.
Y'know, putting aside the obvious actual emotions that went into this comic (emotions are usually a form of stuff), it's just a well-done depiction of a situation that I hope I'm never placed in. I have a friend who had a brief AIDS scare, and I couldn't fuckin sleep, man. That lasted for less than a week before the test came back negative. Cancer is a scary scary thing and it's bad and it has lasted as a feature in Randall's life for (as the title says) seven years. I had trouble dealing with the possibility of something similar for less than seven days. It's easy for you or me to semi-jokingly quote "Fuck cancer" or to look at panel six and call it maybe a little blunt or poorly done, but to quote Mark Prindle:
The mental torment is real. When your life falls apart, it's difficult to (a) envision how you could possibly build a new one in its place, and (b) muster up the strength and energy to actually do so. [...] I can vouch for the fact that when one considers one's life and art to be intertwined, one can only work through the pain by using it as inspiration -- even if that means displaying your failings to the world in all their unpleasance and embarrassingness.The message of this comic is not necessarily a new one - I thought of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Grave Of The Fireflies** after reading it - but it is the first time I've seen the message made from such a personal experience. And for the record, it's a good message, and it's a message that's hard to remember in trying times. And the personal experience related does make the delivery more powerful, although I'm aware that to analyze what is essentially just Randall's life as if it were only a story is to belittle it slightly.
The message, at least by my reading, is hard for me to put into words, and I hope it's understandable that again, it's because these are Big Concepts. Yknow, like real respected philosopher people talk about. I don't want to further belittle this incredibly good, well-meaning, if-you-make-fun-of-it-you're-an-asshole comic by trying to inject my personal ideas or politics into it either.
By putting the scenes of vacations and recreation against the more dramatic scenes, Randall forces us to reconcile them together. We get a 'fun' panel as number three, which is really quick. It's almost jarring, especially if you follow XKCD and already know what's happening. And then in panel five, we get a 'cancer' panel and a 'fun' panel at the same time, yknow, for a given value of 'fun'. We, as viewers, are forced to figure out how someone can enjoy parts of their life and do things when their wife is suffering from cancer... which is exactly what Randall had to figure out. By continuing this pattern, Randall hammers home the need for humor, levity, and fun when dealing with a stressful situation. Because the alternative is an absence of those things, just sorrow all the time. And that's no way to live or to die.
In the last panel, I think the message maybe shifts to be a little bit more broad, at least by how I'm reading it. We have to enjoy the time we have while we have it. We are all going to die, and it's better to die with happy memories than with sad ones. As one of only three 'state rock song's goes:
"Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die? And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast, it's hard to make the good things last..."And as the aforementioned Eternal Sunshine goes:
Clementine: "This is it, Joel. It's gonna be gone soon."And, from a short story that some will think I'm quoting ironically or as a joke but I'm really not:
Joel: "I know."
Clementine: "What do we do?"
Joel: "Enjoy it."***
"It's like summer," he said. "We know it won't last forever. We know one day the leaves will fall from the trees and winter will come. I could spend my life worrying about the coming winter or I could enjoy every precious day of sunshine. I can walk. I can talk. I can think. It's still summer and I want to savour every last day."And that message/idea maybe needs a handful of asterisks for people in different kinds of situations, and for a whole thing about hedonism & escapism and productivity & devaluing a person down to their labor, etc; but let's not get into that cause that's a whole other thing.
If I had to make a criticism, the solar eclipse panel could have maybe been more detailed and artsy, yknow, to bring across the beauty of it, but like everything else I could complain about, it's just a nitpick. This is essentially a perfect comic that is not only engaging on both the visual and storytelling levels, but also important and good and full of stuff. And even if you disagree with the message, the presentation, etc; you have to at least respect Randall's willingness to put his life out here, and to put as much thought and work into it as he did.
*Yes I'm calling this XKCD art. XKCD has been art before and it will be art again.
**I've never seen Grave Of The Fireflies.
***Included in the script, but not the actual movie, is an extra bit said by Joel that continues from the last line given: "Say goodbye."