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From doodles to Web star

Artist fulfills dream, finds success with online comic strip

Tuning out of his college lectures on physics and computer science, Randall Munroe used to draw simple diagrams and stick figures in the margins of his notebooks. Those doodles and sketches would someday lead hundreds of people to a park in North Cambridge.

The visitors, traveling from as far away as Russia and Australia last month, were loyal readers of Munroe's webcomic "xkcd" and had decoded a message that contained the geographic coordinates of the Rev. Thomas J. Williams Park.

There, signing autographs and greeting fans, was Munroe, a 23-year-old Somerville resident who called the experience surreal.

Munroe describes "xkcd" as "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language," poking fun at everything from computer programming to Munroe's fear of velociraptors. By his estimate, the webcomic averages 350,000 visitors per weekday.

According to T Campbell, author of "The History of Webcomics," webcomics like "xkcd" are changing the landscape once dominated by anime and video game strips of the early 1990s. Ten to 15 years ago, he said, "there wasn't a wide variety of topics being covered, whereas now I can sample the most successful strips on the Internet and learn new things."

Munroe grew up in Chesterfield, Va., with a love of science, but was also an avid reader of webcomics and such well-known strips as "Garfield" and "Calvin and Hobbes".

While attending Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., Munroe majored in physics and minored in computer science and math, but spent much of his time reading humor books in the school library - so much so that he can remember the Dewey Decimal System numbers in the humor section.

"I read comics and I did science, and never really put them together until I accidentally found myself in the middle of one," Munroe said.

For a while, Munroe worked on robotics for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He thought he was living out his dream, until those drawings in his notebook became bigger than he ever intended.

While working at NASA during his senior year of college, he started scanning drawings from his notebooks and posted them on his live journal in 2005. Months later, blogger Cory Doctorow posted "xkcd" (which is just a random series of letters) on his blog and many people began commenting on it.

Munroe then found himself scrambling to host his own website that would support 20,000 viewers. Soon, Munroe was selling from his apartment thousands of T-shirts sporting one of his comics about a Linux command. When this happened, Munroe decided it was time to become a full-time webcomic artist, and he left NASA last year.

The webcomic community has opened up many doors for aspiring artists who, like Munroe, might have never had a chance in the comic strip world. Without the Web, Munroe said, his comic may have had a chance of survival only in trade or technical school newspapers. Instead, the webcomic is accessible to everyone for free three times a week, and for Munroe, this makes all the difference.

While Munroe writes his comic strip for everyone, he says it relates especially to computer hackers or engineers who have "a very specific way of looking at the world. . . . It's cool for me to find other people like me and they latch on to it and read it religiously.

"A lot of the comic is inside jokes or things that only 1 percent of the population will find funny. But the thing about the Internet is that you can write something . . . for a very narrow audience and make a living at it," Munroe said.

Webcomics such as "Dinosaur Comics," for example, focus on language, while "Perry Bible Fellowship" incorporates racy jokes into its strip.

In 2003, Jeph Jacques, a full-time webcomic artist in Easthampton, launched his webcomic "Questionable Content," which serves as a platform for indie rock jokes in an angst-ridden coffee shop.

"I've always been really interested in music, and indie rock specifically, and I never saw any other comics that dealt with that aspect of our culture. I felt like there was a niche there that would work," Jacques said.

These days, Munroe creates his comics in the living room of his Somerville apartment, where he sketches out ideas on a large whiteboard and draws his webcomics by hand.

He gets an average of 50 to 100 e-mails a day from his readers. And fans have responded in other ways, as well.

Some readers, for example, sent an ornamental katana, a Japanese sword, to Richard Stallman, an activist in the free software movement, after Munroe drew a comic about Stallman sleeping with a katana to fight off Microsoft. Others gave Doctorow a red cape and goggles at an awards show after Munroe joked about bloggers wearing red capes and goggles in the future.

Since leaving NASA, Munroe earns his living selling T-shirts and speaking at colleges such as MIT and the University of Illinois. "It pays for the apartment, posting [webcomics], and enough so I can still have an electric skateboard," Munroe said with a laugh.

As for the future, Munroe hopes to publish his webcomic in book form. But for now, he's content with the life of a full-time webcomic artist, and enjoys sleeping in late and making people laugh on a daily basis.

"It's kind of hard to imagine having something cooler to do than this," Munroe said.

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