The recent popularity of the “moth meme” has led to the usual reaction from the corners of the web interested in cultural trendspotting. In just a matter of days coverage went from “what is happening” to “let’s chat with a lepidopterist” to “let’s piggyback on this viral moth content and share this video of a moth literally drinking tears out of the eye duct of a sleeping bird.”
Most of this coverage is less interested in the moth meme and more interested in capitalizing on the popularity of the moth meme. Unlike moths, who seem to spend the entirety of their short lives focused on one, specific thing, writers who work the viral coolhunting beat (and their editors) work quickly to summarize, embed relevant content, optimize material for search results, disseminate through their usual channels, and hope that search engines are kind to their offerings. The window for catching the attention of the web, depending on the meme, is very small. “Even though the meme is basically dead at this point,” writes Peter Hess of Inverse on October 4th, he notes that “lots of people are still reading” an explainer post he wrote way back on September 30th. Peter has moved on, and the “people” who are just catching up are stuck way back in last week.
In fact, Peter himself was months late to the moth meme party, which first got started over on Reddit back in July before it started circulating on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and then eventually made its way to the explainer blogs (most of which end up repackaging content from Know Your Meme alongside the same half-dozen embeds of more popular meme iterations from various social media accounts). But he still made it there before it became a victim of its own success, popular with people who are only staring at their phones twelve hours a day instead of the eighteen hours needed to stay current and trendy on the dank meme front. “Moth memes are normie and lame,” writes a Reddit user over at r/MemeEconomy at the end of September, reflecting on their popularity, “but I know I can profit so much from them. I have become such a fucking capitalist pig.”
Why are (sorry, “were”) moth memes so popular? All a moth meme needs is a copy of the close-up image of the moth seen in other moth memes (originally posted to r/creepy, but you don’t need to go back to the source text: screenshotting or saving a derivative image is fine), a reference to a moth’s love of lamps, and a third ingredient of an aspiring meme lord’s choosing.
Many moth memes “reference pop culture,” notes Susanna Heller at Business Insider, and yes, the moth has found its way to Aladdin, Blink-182, Weezer. Most of these reference points come from 1990s North American popular culture, which might give you a sense of who is making and reading this particular meme.
“The moth is you, the lamp is what you love,” offers Beckett Mufson at Vice. Or maybe it’s “less about desire and more about confusion,” suggests Hess. These sound like the sort of things one might write about the metaphysical poets, though those authors preferred other insects. Are moth memes instead beyond our comprehension, “next-level creepy” forms of viral content, further evidence that (as one YouTube commenter put it) “every day we stray away from God”? How little that which thou deniest me is.
I’ve been thinking a lot about moth memes in the particular context of comic strips. The storytelling beats and structures of memes, particularly image macros, are a lot like comic strips. Some of the more popular meme templates, like Distracted Boyfriend or this Drake meme, rely on character interactions that generate a telegraphed punchline. Interested readers can quickly become content creators and comedians by swapping out particular images or pieces of text within these templates.
Webcomics were here first. Ryan North, whose popular (and still-running!) Dinosaur Comics strip is built from a comic strip template created with dinosaur clip art, has demonstrated the potential of this kind of approach since 2003. A Softer World mined similar terrain at the same time: writer Joey Comeau and artist Emily Horne made short paneled stories out of interesting and unexpected juxtapositions of text and photography. In 2003, these creators required their own web sites to host and share these images, whereas today’s meme makers may just need a social media account and a smart phone. North, Comeau, and Horne didn’t reinvent the form of comics, but they certainly mastered a great deal within familiar conventions and did so with an inspiring regularity. And they created their own worlds and aesthetics within their online spaces, rather than use their talents to create iterations of other people’s jokes.
There have been a few instances recently where comic strips from pre-webcomics periods have been misread as memes: the conversation around “the first meme” earlier this year was a bit odd to comics readers, in that it suggested that memetic storytelling had invented itself rather than always riffed on familiar structures and beats from the funnies. Just last week, a “quality meme” about fall made its way to Twitter and Instagram: as some users have pointed out, this is clearly a comic rather than a piece of found art or repurposed imagery.
To me, the more amusing moth memes are kind of like installments in a larger, still unfolding story about one desperate, obsessed moth. Like Breaking Bad, but better. Or King Lear, if it was about a moth instead of a king. It’s funny how quickly some of us (read: academics) want to read in memes traces of high art, connections that grant our interests some form of currency or prestige. We could probably go back to Ovid and rewrite his Metamorphoses in meme form to earn some attention from Academic Twitter. And maybe it’s tempting to call these memes mixed-media haikus, or Warhol-inspired reproductions, or beatnik cut-up poems, depending on the literary or aesthetic value one hopes to assign to these works (or one’s scholarly readings of them). But for me the desire for continuity and the investment in a kind of serial, unfolding story about the same moth are clearly ways of reading I learned from superhero comic books.
My brain is broken in a very particular way, in that I desire continuity and familiarity in the manner established by Marvel Comics in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Comic book continuity can be a drag, and it eventually became a drag, but the idealized version for me (i.e. the one magically detached from corporate mandates and business decisions that don’t share fractions of accrued wealth with artists, free of the influence of the comparatively glacial pace of blockbuster filmmaking) is a weird hybrid of the exquisite corpse game and the schedule of a soap opera. Certain makers of moth memes aren’t interested in developing characters, in picking up what someone else has established and working within those conditions. Others acknowledge the moth’s love of a lamp and little else. But there are some that seem part of an unfolding, surreal narrative, like something out of an 80s sitcom like ALF or Small Wonder. This week, the moth waits patiently in a car. Next week, he shows up on Wheel of Fortune.
In How To Read Nancy, Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik note that creator Ernie Bushmiller often wrote his popular strips backwards, beginning with the final scene and then figuring out how his characters got there. Nancy and Sluggo have become iconic figures in certain corners of the web, thanks in large part to Bushmiller’s craftsmanship, the fact that his strip is in hindsight extremely funny and experimental, and to the ease with which one can recontextualize and re-use individual panels from the strip’s long history. One of the more interesting legacies of Nancy has been its role in educating readers and meme makers in the art of the punchline, in comic book structure and pacing, in the humor of repetition, in developing characters and establishing traits and modes of behavior over time, in exploring what works and doesn’t work in the relationship between text and image when telling sequential stories over time. I first learned the joys of Nancy from Mike Sterling’s “Sluggo Saturdays” posts, a series of out-of-context Nancy panels redeployed for the dual purposes of documenting Bushmiller’s greatness and telling new jokes.
Olivia Jaimes may not write her new iteration of Nancy backwards, but she’s clearly borrowing from the grand Bushmiller comedic tradition in many ways. One of the more popular installments of her terrific new Nancy strip hit the web on September 3rd, 2018. An “Artist Note” tells us that Jaimes has taken Labor Day off and, in lieu of the usual installment, is offering us a “sneak peek” at panels from future installments. In quick fashion, Jaimes offers herself and Nancy up for self-parody, deconstructing what fans and critics of her take on Nancy have mentioned about her approach. We see explicit references to 2018 pop culture in a strip longtime readers view as “timeless” (Nancy on a hoverboard, holding a selfie stick, saying “Sluggo is Lit”). We see a quirky development quickly and abruptly introduced, punchline via misdirection (Nancy’s aunt explaining that she’s only going to wear snowsuits from now on). We see a panel of “phones, phones, phones,” a reference tweaking the strip’s status as a savvy observer of How We Use Technology Now. And we conclude with a repetition of “Sluggo is Lit,” a cheap attempt at establishing a viral catchphrase that ended up quickly become an IRL catchphrase and a t-shirt.
Not all memes need to follow particular rules of storytelling, but for me the moth meme is so pleasing to me because it is so familiar, so formulaic, so stupid. How much mileage can we get out of the story of a moth’s love of a lamp? There’s something refreshing, almost heartening, about a group of people taking some time out of the nightmare world of 2018 and making variations on that story. Telling the same joke again and again, in pursuit of new laughs, then looking to see what others have come up with in their own pursuits, an ongoing experiment in collaborative or crowdsourced storytelling, in the right light (sorry). Maybe Twitter is good for something after all. But there’s also something to be said about the approach Jaimes is taking with Nancy, a testament to making and unmaking your own world in a corner of the web, like the makers of webcomics in the recent past, to experimenting with form, to honing your craft and to controlling the shape of a story you can call your own. These two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, and they borrow the same techniques and traits. Thanks to the internet, the moth, and Nancy, are available to us all in our time of need.
Questions? Comments? Jim is on Twitter @JimMc_Grath (for more academic approaches to comics, pop culture, and media studies) and @poolhalljames (if you’re more interested in out-of-context panels from comics and live-tweets about professional wrestling). You can also email him: jameskennethmcgrath[at]gmail[dot]com