A Lesson is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible was a webcomic made by writer Dale Beran and artist David Hellman, hosted at alessonislearned.com. The comic was produced on an irregular schedule between July of 2004 and May of 2006; during this short run the site produced only 41 full-page comics, but won a good deal of critical praise and a fairly loyal audience. Beran and Hellman announced a hiatus for the comic in September of 2006, but to date the comic has not returned from hiatus and both of the authors have moved on to other projects. Beran has gone on to produce a new long-form comic on his own called The Nerds of Paradise, while Hellman most notably served as the lead artist for the acclaimed indie computer game Braid.
The writing of the comic was intelligent, often surreal, often sparse. This is in sharp contrast to the art itself, lush and colorful. Action wants to pop off the page, and much more of the story is told visually than is typical for web comics. Critics often remarked that the artistic style was more similar to painting than to drawing; the work features very few hard lines and does not use an "inking" style, relying instead on contrasts between colors to differentiate shapes and even frames of action on the page. The synthesis between this style of writing and this style of art made for stories of surprising depth and humanity in very few pages.
In one of my favorite strips, titled "Can You Come and Dig Me Up?" the strip opens with David receiving a phone call from Dale, who has been buried alive "where the blossoms shed by the cherry tree across from the pet shop are the thickest." Shovel in hand, David rushes to save Dale, but near the pet shop becomes distracted ("Aww! Puppies!") by adorable puppies in the window, all of which he subsequently buys. The downward flow of these events along the left-hand side of the strip gives way to a very tall panel just to the right, Dale now seeing the open sky from the bottom of a deep hole in the ground, framed by the cherry blossoms, David and his shovel, and a large number of puppies. The puppies tumble down into the hole to lick at Dale's face ("Aww! Puppies!") and the continuous flow of action from one frame to the next is terminated there, with the pink tongues of the puppies resembling the ephemeral, fallen petals of the cherry blossoms. In the lower right corner of the strip, separated from the previous events by both time and physical space on the page, we see Dale and David together at home, their house now crowded with fully grown dogs. "These dogs are a burden," Dale says, "but I love them despite how much I have to work for their happiness." At a stroke, the comic has become a parable about how our affection toward the fragility of youth gives way in time to a more enduring, but also more demanding form of love. This kind of sentiment, honest and beautiful but with a cynical barb to it, is strongly present throughout the comics.
The way the strips were drawn made for beautiful full-sized poster art; almost from the beginning Beran and Hellman focused the comic's merchandising heavily around those possibilities. Hellman also attempted to raise revenue for the site by offering to draw portraits of the donors. The most notable donor to take advantage of the offer was Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, which is why the site includes a portrait of Tycho standing in a kitchen, dramatically eating a large sandwich.
The comics were divided into two series. The first series constitutes the bulk of the work that was posted to the site. Strips often feature Dale and David as characters, and there isn't much (if any) continuity between the strips. News posts attached to the comics during those early days were also peppered with long-form writing from Dale; mostly prose, often fiction, occasionally answers to reader mail, or fiction disguised as answers to reader mail that probably hadn't actually come from the readers. He once wrote about meeting Sniper Wolf, a character from a video game called Metal Gear Solid. Beran's posts dropped off in frequency as time went on; it's not clear to me whether his attention was elsewhere or if he just shifted that writing from the news feed into the forum threads. The second series ended abruptly, producing only six strips in two months. Each strip still told its own story, but these final pages seemed much more ambitious. They featured a more consistent art style, with thematic elements from one page flowing into new action and context on the next page. Throughout the life of the comic, fans analyzed each page almost endlessly on the site's forum; the comics certainly rewarded that kind of careful attention, and the authors of the comic rewarded the analysis through participation in many of the threads.
When I think about this strip in retrospect, I find myself using words like: haunting; profound; rewarding; irreplaceable. Beran and Hellman had a unique and wonderful partnership; their use of words and art have shaped the way I see and consume digital media; their language has become a part of my conversational idiom. The conclusion of their partnership has left me with an enduring ache, but it's an ache that I feel strangely grateful to carry with me.