A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible

A comic by David Hellman and Dale Beran

In the webcomics graveyard, most of the headstones say “Rest in Pieces”, marking comics that no one misses, not even their creators. But some of the graves are still tended, decorated with fresh flowers, visited often by old friends. Some dead comics made such an impact on the culture of making and reading webcomics that their absence is felt to this day. But I don’t give a shit about all that.

Yesterday I talked about the epidemic of “random” “humor” that marked the early period of webcomics history. But what ever happened to that? What changed? Well, Invader Zim got cancelled, for one thing. But also, a new kind of comic began to spring up that took that bizarre, anything-goes aesthetic and began to turn it into deliberately surreal humor. The vanguard of this shift was A Lesson is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible.

For the love of god don't start your comic like this.
Don’t start your comic like this.

Beginning in 2004, ALILBTDII is actually a lot like other comics of the time – as in it’s about two white guys fucking around and wasting their lives. But each successive page is stranger than the last, and the loose and stylized panel layouts and expressionistic style that the comic adopts over time set it apart from any of its contemporaries.

"This is art" - some IT guy, probably.
“This is art” – some IT guy, probably.

A Lesson Is Learned is remembered as a classic by artsy comics dudes; it was True Art, not pedestrian crap like other comics. But while I respect its impact on the field, I’m not as fond of it. Practically every page is subtly or overtly misogynist, for one thing, and roles for female characters are limited to objects of attraction for men. The “plot” elements often fall back on racist tropes. Some of the humor still holds up, but rereading it years later reveals a predictability to its strangeness; instead of the “setup->illogical conclusion” format of normal humor, A Lesson uses a “bizarre non-sequitur->illogical conclusion” format, which requires a lot less cleverness and wit and creates a tiresome pattern over the course of the comic. Formulaic surrealism isn’t surrealism at all – stick that in your pipe and smoke it, art nerds.

Literal props, in some cases.
Literal props, in some cases.

Updates died out around 2006, but they were never that consistent to begin with – probably a factor that contributed to the comic’s popularity. “Always leave ’em wanting more,” as they say, but in this case I’d follow with “and make sure no one has your last update in their recent memory so they can’t piece together how you rely on the same joke format every time and consistently use women as props for men.” Although I guess that’s not as catchy. A Lesson Is Learned did come back in 2012 with a surprise new page – the first in over six years – and another in 2013, so it’s possible that this comic lies dreaming, not dead, in the back of our collective consciousness, waiting for the stars to be right.

Ultimately, I’m glad this comic is gone. I just wish it would take its cousin, the Perry Bible Fellowship, to the grave with it.

Final verdict: This vastly overrated comic is still influential among dudes who think they’re smart. If you’re a dude who thinks you’re smart… well.

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