Strange Planet and the Instagram Mainstream

Instagram comics are an emerging field of comic art, and one of the (if not the) mostly widely consumed types of comics in American culture, simply due to their ease of access. But these are seldom seen as proper comics, in large part due to their format. Far from the infinite canvas envisioned by Scott McCloud, comics on Instagram are clunkily viewed as single images and gated behind the usual account restrictions. But with the recent release of the Strange Planet animated show on Apple TV+, one Instagram native, at least, has tried to break into the broader mainstream.

The example of Strange Planet is far from an endorsement for artists looking for a breakout hit to move to the platform. Nathan W. Pyle had already published several books with HarperCollins by the time he debuted Strange Planet in 2019, and was able to leverage an existing online following so quickly that its first print collection appeared later that same year. A New York Times bestseller, Strange Planet is a small square of a book, lacking page numbers or a table of contents. It was released under the Morrow Gift imprint, as was its 2020 sequel, Stranger Planet - cute little stocking stuffers to be consumed casually.

If your local bookstore deals in comics, you've probably seen this. Strange Planet was the 10th bestselling comic tracked by NPD BookScan in 2019, behind various Dav Pilkey and Raina Telgemeier titles.

"Consumed" is a key word here, as there’s not very much about Strange Planet that can be very easily analyzed due to its sheer simplicity. The premise of any given four-panel strip is that these blue aliens—drawn with the stereotypical Roswell look—use stiff, awkward words to bluntly describe everyday experiences. Fundamentally, this is a comic that is intended to be relatable, even universal, though its target is actually tighter than its 6.6 million followers might suggest. Despite the four-panel structure, Pyle’s work is broadly comparable to New Yorker comics, in the sense that they’re intended to appeal to a specific subsection of American culture, and also in that the comics aren’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny - they’re just wry observations.

This profitable lack of ambition has limited the reach of the Strange Planet TV show, which concluded its first season last week and has underperformed expectations, despite Dan Harmon of Rick and Morty being attached as co-creator. The animated adaptation is about as accurate to the comic as it reasonably can be, and Pyle is involved enough that he’s promoted it on his own social media accounts and in interviews. But there’s only so much that can really be done with the idea of aliens who act indistinguishably from humans while describing their actions with unusual words. Strange Planet the animation is so dedicated to the concept of Strange Planet the comic that it doesn’t even have named characters. This, coupled with the highly generic name, doesn’t make either the comic or the animation easy to discuss casually.

Oh those aliens. Art by Nathan W. Pyle

Instagram comics in general, even popular ones, tend to come off like in-jokes, where sympathy with the work in question is a necessary prerequisite to even understand it, let alone like it. Last year, Mary Catherine Starr of the Instagram comic Momlife was mocked mercilessly on the wider internet for a comic where she appears to criticize her husband for selfishly taking the last peach in the house for himself, rather than keeping it around for the kids. But many of Starr’s comics seem to take a resentful stance to her husband; they are probably more about blowing off steam than actual vindictiveness. These are comics for a very specific audience, with neither the depth nor the broad appeal to click far beyond its 305,000 followers online.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to find genuinely weird, avant-garde work native to Instagram, just that Instagram as a platform, as well as its core audience, isn’t really well-suited to cultivating readers who are interested in anything but vaguely therapeutic affirmations. The pseudonymous GrateArtiste, for example, serialized an untitled comic on Instagram that superficially appears reminiscent of Strange Planet, with its simple blob characters performing human actions in a way that seems wrong. But for GrateArtiste the emphasis is more on the art than the dialog, the structure is far looser, and the resulting images are oddly unsettling. The comic remains unfinished, languishing in obscurity with less than 850 followers as of this writing.

Molten affection by "grateartiste."

The main problem with Instagram as a comics platform isn’t the quality or tone of the comics that appear on it as it is how unsuited Instagram is as a platform for comics. Indeed, it might be less accurate to call Strange Planet an Instagram comic as it might be to call Instagram a promotional mechanism for a line of books that Nathan W. Pyle almost certainly discussed with the publisher ahead of time. There’s no real reason why Instagram even should be a major comics platform, save that there aren’t many options for webcomic artists in the United States aside from self-hosting. The contrast with foreign countries is particularly stark. South Korean webtoons, hosted on portal sites, have an infinite canvas, a wide variety of genres, and contract options for creators.

But the bigger irony of Instagram comics is how they tend to be pigeonholed as 'adult' comics, despite their often not having anything that can really be called mature content. Maybe this is a function of Instagram user guidelines, or a desire by artists and fans to think of themselves as "adulting," or maybe it’s just a matter of it being easier to pitch Apple TV+ on an adult animated comedy than an extremely soft-spoken show about humanlike characters doing things that aren’t terribly interesting. Whatever the reason, we likely haven’t seen the last of Instagram comics trying to break into the mainstream, even if the lackluster performance of the Strange Planet animation has a chilling effect on interest in similar future projects.