Piled Higher and Deeper: A Graduate Student Comic Strip Collection
Writer and artist: Jorge Cham
Piled Higher and Deeper Publishing, 2002
$12.00, 176 pp.
Jorge Cham’s is another name I was less familiar with before the first Webcomics Weekend. While I knew his name and the name of his strip (Piled Higher and Deeper, a comedic look at the lives of graduate students), I had never put the two together. By the end of the weekend, however, his casual and friendly ways had snookered me into buying the first volume of the comic. And even though Bill Barnes had previously suggested I buy the latest volume of any collected work in order to get the best work, I chose to pick up Cham’s first offering.
As an artist, I can appreciate the process behind the creation of a body of work and what it takes to get from one style, which might be rough and untested, to another that employs both experience and experimentation. For this reason I like to take in entire bodies of work rather than a sampling of the best stuff and webcomics really offer the best venue to witness this transformation firsthand. With that in mind, I started the book at the point where most webcomics begin their tales; joining a creator who has an idea to convey and at least a bit of talent with which to cultivate it.
PHD (clever title, eh?) is the tale of Cham (at least I think it’s Cham, but we’ll come back to that) and his cohorts as they struggle through grad school, more specifically Stanford University. This premise is nothing original and the first hundred or so strips are nothing too remarkable, simple sequential comedy to give his fellow students at Stanford something to chuckle about from day to day (the strip was originally published in the student paper, the Stanford Daily Newspaper).
Staying true to the journal comic code, PHD, at least in it’s formative years, was written and drawn for the Stanford crowd and contains jokes that might miss the mark for anyone else (subtle digs at rival school, Berkeley, for example, see below). True, there are bits of common amusement that play on the geek guy to gal ratio as well as riffs about the life of a grad student set to the tune of The Little Mermaid hit, “Part Of That World”, but overall this collection is full of stories that are geared towards Stanford students who attended from 1997 to 2002.
Around 1999, however, Cham began to work on the story structure and crafted stories about the characters and started to explore them from viewpoints not tied to university-specific incidents like qualifying exams (called quals in the grad world, apparently). Pop-culture runs like takes on Star Wars: Episode I,Â Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The MatrixÂ offer a different setting for at least a few strips and stories focused on grad students in general, not just at Stanford, became more the norm from that point on. It’s also this point where the art took a leap from crude to more refined, featuring thicker lines and more detail that help to really differentiate one character from the next.
There are really only four characters to speak of: the nameless main character, presumably Cham himself if you go with the journal comic setting; Cecilia, a deceptively normal girl who finds it hard to admit her geek roots; Mike Slackenery, a self-professed slacker who is perfectly comfortable staying in the grad program for the rest of his life (see below); and Tajel, a more liberal grad student who takes on nearly every cause to cross her path. It’s only towards the end of this collection that any of the characters, save the easy-to-slot Slackenery, break out of any mold to have personalities of their own. However, given that this is merely the end of one volume and not an entire series, I’d say this in acceptable, especially given that all show some promise by the time the volume wraps up.
Of course, it’s impossible to judge a dead tree edition of anything related to webcomics without talking about extra content, and PHD contains a few tidbits to entice readers past the typical strips. An afterword written by one of Cham’s professors at Stanford (who is featured in several strips, though usually in an off-panel manner) and a few sketches are joined by choice notes about some strips which Cham felt the need to expound upon (the sparse, dialogue-free September 11th strip is made much more poignant with the commentary). Nothing too spectacular, but enough to say at least someone tried.
Overall, PHD: Vol 1 was an enjoyable read that started off predicatably and ended up in a much better position by the time the fifth year came to a close. While I am inclined to get that first volume of a strip to get a feel for the journey the creator(s) and I are embarking upon together, it does take something special to get me to pick up the second. Luckily, Cham learns the ropes pretty quickly and decides to invest in his characters which will eventually become the backbone of the strip.
Most webcomics do start with an idea and a bit of talent. But it’s the successful creators that are able to take that initial idea and really push it, transform it, and turn it into something special. And for this effort, I applaud him and can’t wait to pick up the second volume. Look for that review sometime in the future, and in the meantime, pick up a copy of the first volume of Piled Higher and Deeper to begin a journey with one of the friendliest and talented creators around.