June 2, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(Cartoonist): Ryan North
The Webcartoonist: Ryan North
Current Webcomics: Dinosaur Comics, Whispered Apologies
You May Remember Him From Such Webcomics Related Technologies As: Project Wonderful, Oh No Robot, RSSpect, God knows what else....
Enthusiasm: Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again
How Frequently Read: Regularly Checked
Some of these are a little weird to write. For example, this one.
Ryan North is brilliant. He really is. I've read at least one of his theses and it was amazing. He is probably one of the top two best friends Webcomics have ever had -- certainly, he has done as much or more to value add to other peoples' webcomics as anyone I can think of. He's been the major force (though not the solo force, always) behind two innovations that quite honestly make webcomics in general better: Ohnorobot.com, which is an embeddable search engine for webcomics which creators can either use themselves to make dialogue searchable, or something they can let their fanbase take point on in getting dialogue in place; and Project Wonderful, which absolutely takes website advertising and makes it simple for both webmasters and advertisers. You'll notice I use Project Wonderful myself -- it has garnered me significantly more coin than Google ads ever did (by a significant factor), and while my ad rates aren't anywhere near the top tier, Project Wonderful is way better than being slapped in the face by fish. Right up until gasoline prices went pear-shaped, Project Wonderful could generally fund of the full tanks of gas I needed to get to Ottawa to see the woman I'm going to marry in a couple of weeks.
Okay, that's fun to type, even if it has nothing to do with Ryan North.
North's brilliance was further brought forth -- and initially spread among our community -- through the award winning Dinosaur Comics, once called Daily Dinosaur Comics. For those who aren't familiar, Dinosaur Comics has taken a moderately simple and rough looking clip art comic strip featuring a few dinosaurs, one of whom stomps on buildings and people, and made it downright sublime through static art comics. A static art comic, as the name implies, is a comic strip where the art doesn't ever change. It's the same clip art every day, and only the words change. This was done a few times before North -- most (in)famously by director David Lynch in his comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World, which ran in various newspapers from 1983 to 1992. (North tipped his pen to Lynch in a strip that encapsulated the entire run of The Angriest Dog in the World into Dinosaur Comics). And Dinosaur Comics, through its fresh, inventive (and most of all funny) writing burned through our consciousness like a wildfire, devastating the infrastructure and calling out the National Guard. FOR FUN!
It's also worth noting that North didn't just embrace static art comics -- he also raised the bar on them. Lynch did nine years of static art strips, but he didn't dive into multiple characters, continuity, or for the most part even relevance. Most of the off-panel comments were near non-sequitors. Very few if any had anything to do with the dog in question. Folks who've jumped into static art since then have either varied what static panel they use from day to day (more properly making them the broader realm of constrained comics), or don't have multiple characters -- aping Lynch more than North. I know from what I speak -- for a while I did my own static art strip in conscious emulation of North. It was the Adventures of Brigadier General John Stark, and it was about a possessed statue who bitched about Ethan Allen and his wife, made breast jokes about Peggy Shippen, had adroit commentary on the politics of his time and ours, and had a total man-crush on Ice Cube. But as my strip was, by definition, a monologue, I was free to expound however I wished. (And it's worth noting, said strip didn't last nearly as long).
But Ryan North has multiple characters. He has interaction, and a supporting cast, and he has continuity from one strip to the next. North isn't just doing a static art comic strip -- he's doing a static art comic strip, with an expanding (and increasingly off-panel) cast of divinities and disturbing mammals. He has T-Rex, Utahraptor, and all the rest interacting and expounding, trying to mostly match the recurrent art. And he's done vastly better with it than anyone could have expected. It's got a strong readership of devoted fans. It gets referenced. (For a couple of years, David Willis referenced it in the Shortpacked April Fools Day strips, which I can't link to because of catastrophic failures of their electrical infrastructure. Man, they're not having a good weekend.) North's significance and influence is clear and broad.
And, if you look at the last few Daily Dinosaur comics, they continue to be wacky fun. T-Rex continues to be somewhat innocent with the selfishness of innocence. Utahraptor is a good friend though sometimes he has to be the wiser counsel. Dromiceiomius is still... um... occasionally speaking in the third panel. God talks every so often. It's fun!
Okay, here's the dirty truth. The big problem with static comics? Are they're static. And Ryan North has pushed his comic in incredible directions given that. But... North has written 1,234 (hey! 1-2-3-4!) comics as of this writing. Honestly, they're not blowing my mind any more. They seem... really... the same. Day in, and day out. It's not that there hasn't been evolution -- there has. But there's just so far that North can go in any direction, because tomorrow Utahraptor and Dromiceiomius are still showing up in a few panels and T-Rex is still stomping on that building, and there's no way to focus on another character for a while. It's got to be T-Rex. He's in all the panels!
Look, I like Dinosaur Comics. I really do. Heck, I did a Reader Art strip for it once. North is funny and smart, and may be conquering North America. Heck, he already got it named after him -- like in a merger! But... it's....
I've seen it. Not just the art, but the strip. The patter. The rhythm. All too often the joke.
It's... well, getting kinda dull.
This reminds me a little bit of my comments on Perry Bible Fellowship -- it's much the same reaction, really. It's not that North has lost some of his skills. It's that we've done this often enough that the impact has become dilute.
I have this on "Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again" not because I dislike it, mind. I do like it. It's just... when I ask myself that question, I don't really have an answer. Why do I read Dinosaur Comics? If I end up having to ponder it and not really coming up with an answer, it's pretty much got to go in this category.
At the same time, I don't really plan on stopping reading it, so it might better belong in the Hoi Polloi instead. I dunno.
Right. Let's do the metrics before I become a mass of wish crossed to wash.
North is consistent. The writing tends to be solid, the characters are well defined and well distinguished, the updates happen with the regularity one would hope they do, and the layout of the web page is clear.
I mentioned how far North has pushed the boundaries of Static Art. That's not nothing, to use a Sorkinesque construction. He really has done amazing things with the static art form. He tries his best to change up the formula and disrupt our expectations. The fact that he's gone so far with the number of posted strips is a testament to that.
The breadth of topic that the strip addresses and expounds upon are amazing, as are his carefully considered positions.
In other words, North is, in fact, a good writer.
As said before, we're pushing 1,300 strips and he's running out of wiggle room. All too often, we can often predict where things are going to go. With no real room to move other cast members forward, there's no way to give T-Rex a rest for a while without compromising the basic device being used. I mean, even Hagar the Horrible doesn't have Hagar in every strip doing most of the talking. That's not an enviable position for anyone.
On the Whole
Ryan North is a mad scientist who has mostly used his powers for good. He is clever and wise and very creative, and I like his comic strip very much. But... it may be time to consider something radical... like a new page of clip art -- maybe something that can be alternated or switched between. Otherwise, fatigue is going to slowly weed out readers.
Of course, by then he'll have built a new content distribution system, found a way to project force beams from CRTs, compiled a natural language parser for search engines that doesn't suck and found a way to make hydrogen cell cars affordable. He's like that.
Sorry this took a bit, I got sidetracked with about half a rememberance which then had stuff I need to look out. Also work and eBay auctions, which are going great. More stuff up soon, for people who want to buy! With luck, the next one of these tomorrow... which might be an interesting one to do.
May 27, 2008
Eric: State of the (Web)Cartoonist: J.D. "Illiad" Frazer
The Webcartoonist: J.D. "Illiad" Frazer
Current Webcomics: User Friendly
Enthusiasm: Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again?
How Frequently Read: When I Remember To Check
This is not the essay I expected or intended to write when I first worked out that J.D. Frazer was next on the list.
You know how it goes. You have an opinion form over the course of a decade or more. It grows firm, and then crystalizes, and then becomes barnacle-encrusted and rusted into place. You know what you know about a given subject, and when you have to sit down and actually codify that knowledge, it is the catalyst that finally forces the supersaturated solution into a crystalline mass that is the essay you have waited years to write.
And I was ready to write that essay. And that Essay was going to be my triumphant return to the old standby, "You had me and you lost me." I was ready to launch into all the points I've had simmering in the back of my head since the day I started this here blog, and finally say "look, I gave it every chance in the world to keep me, but..." and then write all the rest.
Those points, by the by, will be familiar to almost everyone -- not from me (or not just from me), but from lots of places on the web. User Friendly is tired. It has no character development. Absolutely nothing ever happens. The art hasn't evolved even the tiniest bit and was never great shakes to begin with. It's staid. It's got an agenda that it sacrifices humor to fuel. It's dull. It's boring. It has a 1997 view of a 2008 world. It has "nag" strips and....
You know. Blah blah blah.
And I sat down to write it, and I considered options for gathering supporting evidence. That's essay writing 101. (Which, technically, is "English Composition," but I digress.) You state your thesis, you support the thesis with evidence, you sum up, you wait for grading. (Or in blog terms, comments.) And when I did it, I realized I hadn't actually read User Friendly in well over a year.
Understand, it's still on my list. It's still in the Firefox Tabs. I visit the site every day, but my eyes had been sliding off the actual comic for so long I didn't remember any of the characters' names. Not even "Dust Puppy."
Now, it can be argued that this just reinforces the point. The drab sameness had soaked in so much that the strip itself became teflon. However, the abject lack of reader response, while evidence of a sort, does not itself constitute a response. In order to address the weaknesses of the strip -- especially if I was going to post an essay swearing off User Friendly and publicly announcing that it had "lost" me, I had to address what User Friendly was, right now. Not my parasite covered frozen in rust opinion of it based upon... well not reading it. In order to fairly discuss User Friendly, I first had to read User Friendly.
So. I decided that I was going to give it the best benefit of the doubt I could. I decided that I would actually start reading from the August 20, 2004 strip. For those playing along at home, August 20, 2004 is the day I started this here blog. Which means, first off, that we've been doing this for almost four years, which means we've gotten a good two years worth of posts done here. Yay us! But it also means that if I could just force myself to read through four solid years of archive, I would have every possible justification and bit of evidence I would need for my essay.
So I did. Over the course of the weekend, in and around things like Speed Racer (which I really, really loved, so there), going out with Wednesday, eating food, sleeping and the occasional watching of stuff on the television, I clicked on "Next Strip" after "Next Strip," slowly and inexorably, making my way through hundreds of strips.
And let's not kid ourselves. There were hundreds of strips. There's many things you can claim about User Friendly and J.D. Frazer, but sloth isn't one of them. As near as I can tell, he's never missed an update in almost 11 years of strips. Seven days a week. That's downright stunning.
By the end of it, I was fully soaked in User Friendly once more. My brain was releasing details and information from the seven years previous to my archive trawl as well -- I've been reading this strip since the days when there was less than one year of archives to go through. At the time, we called that the User Friendly Productivity Virus, reflecting the hours of the (work) day that were consumed by reading the archives. In those days, of course, there wasn't much on the web like User Friendly. It was, if anything, Dilbert done right, done pure, done I.T. joyous. Users were dumbasses who asked about cupholders that slid out of their computers, marketing executives were perverse and stupid and deserved humiliation, bosses were clueless and often naively cruel, and I.T. workers were somewhat shortsighted and misguided, but the last bastion of human reason. As a systems administrator/M.I.T. type in the late nineties, User Friendly was a panacea -- a comic strip (on the web of all places) that understood my life and lifestyle.
But that was then. Now, it's 2008, and I'd just read (or reread) nearly 4 years of strips. And now, now I was ready to write my essay about Frazer and User Friendly.
Here it is.
User Friendly is a damn good comic strip.
I know, it surprised me too.
Here's the thing. Most of those complaints, up above, have a certain validity to them. User Friendly hasn't actually evolved in the last several years. It's exactly the same strip, with the same characters, the same humor, the same punchlines, the same punching bags as before. In fact, this was reinforced to me by an accident. See, if you go to any given archive page, you'll see that the navigation bar (cleverly looking like a pencil) has all the usual elements. A Previous Cartoon button, a Search Button, a Next Button, an E-Mail this Cartoon button....
...and a Random Button. Right next to the Next Cartoon button. In fact, I selected my "any given archive page" link by hitting that random button.
When I was in the late 2005 strips, I accidentally clicked "Random" instead of "Next." The next cartoon I read, as a result, was from 2001. And it was about twenty strips later before I realized I'd actually gone backwards in the archive more than four years. Everything was so similar, with so little change in everything from art to character design to font choice and layout to actual humor that it was essentially seamless. If Frazer uses copy and paste to put his characters in, he's been using the same clip art for the entire 21st century. If you go back further, into the 20th, you can see some evidence that he redrew the core art at some point, used a different font -- stuff like that, but when he got settled down into his routine, he stayed there.
And yes, the characters don't evolve. Stef has never learned a lesson, even when he temporarily becomes a geek. The Smiling Man has no salient qualities other than his smiling and his evil (and almost never appears). Pearl has indiscriminate sex. Sid is an Old Geek from the Old Guard. (Something that, honestly, every other geek at Columbia Internet could claim, should someone current actually go to work there. They can all remember the days of Windows NT, Usenet predominance in the forum sphere, IRC and all the rest. MySpace and Facebook and YouTube and Livejournal and Flickr and Google all the rest of the tools of day to day internet life all essentially postdate when we picked up the lives of Our Heroes).
And yes, the strip is unremittingly pro-geek -- meaning old school Open Source/Unix Hacker/sysadmin/Tech Support/LED-flashing-light-attracted geek, rather than today's more general 'person who thinks he or she is a geek and identifies as such.' Every time we see Greg working, it's to deal with yet another annoying, self-important clueless user who hasn't gotten his brain around the digital world and doesn't know that the cupholder that comes out of his computer is actually a CD tray. (Honestly. We still get cupholder and any key humor in these strips, which implies that Columbia Internet's customers are mostly in the Northwest Territories or deeply rural Alberta or something, because the civilized parts of Canada (and no jokes, already) have had computers for decades now and no one's that mystified by them any more.
(I mean, for Christ's sake. My mom doesn't call me because she can't find the Any Key on her keyboard, she calls me because her POP3 settings have become corrupt and she's having some trouble getting the streaming video feed from the Met. And no, my Mom is not an atypically savvy computer user for her generation.)
I remember when I first got into Help Desk, one of the things I found so refreshing about it was its subversion of the basic User Friendly tropes. The lead character was tech support, just like User Friendly, only the users were the reasonable ones and the tech was the one spreading disinformation and pain, or just plain not knowing what to do next. And yes, Ubersoft was a Microsoft riff and of course Microsoft is and was the enemy in both strips, but there was still a real palate cleansing involved in the affair.
So yeah. The art never changes and was never that great to begin with. The characters never evolve -- even when things happen to them (like Miranda and A.J. finally... um... well, we know they kiss and they sort of make noises about buying presents for each other so I guess we'll call it a relationship) it doesn't really impact their basic characters. It's tech/geek centered humor where the users and the corporations are almost always wrong and the geeks are almost always right. All these things are true. All these complaints we've had have validity.
The question is... so what? The strip is funny.
You might not agree. You might read a hundred strips in a row (amateur) and not laugh at any of them. But if you don't, barring a lack of sense of humor or a full on dislike of four panel gag-a-day style comedy (in which case, quite honestly, it's unreasonable to expect User Friendly to entertain you), the chances are likely you've never worked I.T. And even if you've never worked I.T. and you have no more computer expertise than my aforementioned mother, chances are likely you found something in that hundred strips amusing. If you are in I.T., you probably found most of it funny -- even if you disagree with parts of it.
And that may well be where the core of the problem is. Due to the circumstances of User Friendly's birth, people have mistaken it for a general webcomic for years, when in fact it was and has always been a targeted audience webcomic.
A few moments definition is in order. Most webcomics have an audience they're targeting. That's the nature of the beast. A lot of those aim for very broad categories: "geek," "Internet Enthusiast," "Anime Fan," "Fan of Pornography," "Male," "Female," "Human" or the like. Others aim for very specific audiences: Penny Arcade aims at gamers. +EV aims at online poker players, Unshelved aims at Librarians, and so forth. There are ways that the strategy of defining an audience have been really effective and even innovative in reasonable years. +EV and Unshelved are both massively successful even though they have little to no penetration outside their niches -- a lot of their strips aren't universal, which makes it harder to secure a casual fanbase. Penny Arcade broadened their own scope some time ago to "general geek humor," along with lots of flights of fancy and weirdness along the way, but their core niche is one they continue to support and give love to -- the fact that there are millions of gamers just means they hit the niche jackpot, not that their niche isn't... you know, a niche. Shortpacked has a lot of David Willis fans following it, and a lot of 80's culture fans, and a lot of general goofy humor fans, but its core niche is toy enthusiasts and collectors, and he's good enough at it that he gets paid to do a version of the strip for a toy website. And so on and so forth.
In 1997, a disproportionate number of internet users -- especially those with the free time to waste hours of the day on the net, and the at the time still expensive at-home internet connections -- were in the I.T. Industry. When User Friendly began gathering momentum, there wasn't just little to nothing like it on the web -- it appealed and spoke to a much larger percentage of the internet reading audience than mainstream society would support outside of that filter. It wasn't as universally true as, say, in 1991 -- when if you were on the internet you were a college student, rich, using a college student's account or really good at tricking PSINet -- but it hadn't reached the point where most American teenagers spent a portion of their weeks online, much less the point where instant messaging and texting became a core component of life.
So, people recommended User Friendly to all their friends. And they linked to strips or reposted strips. They talked it up. They loved that damn strip. And in the waning years of the 20th Century, it was a safe bet that if someone had an internet connection in the first place, they'd find User Friendly funny.
But with each year came another wave of users. Younger and younger users. Users with less and less interest in the meat of the internet. Users who think 'perl' is a knitting term and emacs were that educational computer that Apple came out with how long ago? Or simply have no idea what you're talking about. And so the universality of User Friendly declined. Strips became less commonly linked -- especially when fewer of the people you sent the links to got the joke or found it particularly funny.
It is perhaps natural that long time fans would become upset at this -- they were used to User Friendly being a touchstone -- a common denominator. It bothered them that unlike, say, PvP or even Penny Arcade, User Friendly wasn't evolving. It wasn't trying to broaden its appeal, reach out to more people, throw in more general humor or create more engaging storylines. They started to describe it as being in a rut. In being just the same-old same-old.
The thing is? That's not Frazer's fault. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Frazer continuing to write and draw the same comic strip he started doing in 1997, targeting the same audience. Whether or not the wider Internet audience has ballooned, Frazer writes his comics aimed squarely at the Open Source/Unix/IT crowd. That has always been his intended audience, and he has clearly had no desire to change that. And there's no reason he should have to. We don't complain that the often brilliant Unshelved spends all that time focusing on -- and marketing to -- librarians. We expect that. It's a strip about a library.
Well, User Friendly is a strip about an Internet Service Provider. It targets Open Source advocates, I.T. workers, systems administrators, Unix Grognards, command line jockeys, people who remember (or still use) Usenet and Linus Torvalds. The geeks at Columbia Internet are, in fact, geeks, so they do touch on some stuff that more general geeks appreciate, but it's often just in passing. The Columbia gang aren't addicted to World of Warcraft, they still mostly play Quake or Counterstrike derivatives. The one designated hardcore gamer on staff might get thrilled or frustrated by the release of Doom III, but we're going to have a lot more jokes about Nethack or Civilization or even Zork. They don't explain grue jokes, either. They expect that if you're reading this strip, you already know about twisty passages that all look alike, the dangers of losing your brass lantern, and the dining habits of the darkness.
And if you don't? Hey, they're just as happy for you to find the strips funny. Frazer is a good writer, especially of humor. No one minds if you come along for the ride. But they're not going to change things to meet your needs. It's the Penny Arcade Defense all over again -- it's not for you.
As for the lack of evolution in either the characters or the art... well, that too is fine, if one remembers what it is Frazer is doing. He's doing a gag-a-day comic strip, and he's taking an open source/unix hacker approach to it. He has built his tools and his library, and that toolset and library produces the product he's shooting for. There is no good reason to upgrade them when they actually work, and right now Frazer can easily tell the jokes and create the strips he wants to. Changing for change's sake makes no more sense than upgrading your copy of Microsoft Office to the latest version because there's a notebook feature in it now. If what you want to do is write letters, you might as well stick to VI. Or emacs. Depending on the user.
And further, it's a scurrilous lie to say that the site hasn't evolved. The strip has stayed the same, but the bits around it change and push forward -- and reinforce once again the target that Frazer is aiming at. Userfriendly.org has developed as a website and as a business model as time as gone on. There are front page links of general interest, book reviews and the like -- culminating in the almost infamous Link of the Day (which at its height was as effective as killing sites as Slashdotting). There have been advertisement upgrades, and new services, and most of all community building. UFies are a discrete entity at this point with a site of their own. For quite some time, Iambe, the "Garden Variety Goddess," also contributed daily content for the fans to follow at her own page on the site. She also put together a Geek Dating Service. Frazer and his cohorts developed a strategic partnership with the Register 4 Less domain registrar service. They developed a Geek/IT Specific Job Search service. And, in the ultimate sign of community building (and community-buy-in), a key component of the business model are User Friendly sponsorships, letting readers support User Friendly and Frazer directly, and getting a few perks for their trouble. Heck, the somewhat infamous "nag strips" (animated gifs that are an advertisement for 30 seconds, then shift to the actual strip in question) generally either advertise Register 4 Less or the sponsorship level -- and come across like nothing less than the click through nag dialog boxes on shareware.
But the most prevalent and obvious example of community building can be found on every archive page (assuming you don't select "no comments"). Look at a strip, and below it you'll see user comments. Those comments aren't active discussions of the strip in question -- oh, there's usually an obligatory threat on the comic strip itself -- scroll down, it's generally buried quite a ways down. Most of the comments are on the news of the day, or geek topics, or whatever people feel like doing. They use the comments block as a forum, as a chatroom, as a place for any kind of geek debate they feel like. Each and every new strip becomes a meeting place -- rather than using the strip as water cooler conversation fodder, Frazer has managed to repurpose his comic strip into the damn water cooler itself. And a strong majority of the commenters have jobs in I.T. and disposable incomes to use on GeekStuff.
Now that's a business model.
So, you may have noticed way up above that despite a long litany of praise, I've got User Friendly listed as "why do I read this webcomic again." That's the thing -- I can recognize, having pushed myself into actually reading the strip for years' worth of archive, that this strip actually accomplishes what it's setting out to do, and more importantly is actually funny. That doesn't mean, despite my day job in I.T., that I'm in that aforementioned target audience. I'm a Mac user who mostly likes his computer to get out of his way, and I generally enjoy helping my users. Sure, I can feel kinship with Greg's frustration, but we're (mostly) past the any key issues where I work. (Okay, the time I went up and patiently explained to a Dean that no, the network wasn't down -- they just needed to plug the blue wire into the port in the wall and the port on their computer and then the pictures will flow was close, but that was some time ago. Really.) And that remains my central point. Would I recommend User Friendly? That depends on who you are. You might get it, and if so you'll probably find most of it funny. But you might not, too.
There's a part of me, having just posted one of these for Scott Kurtz, which finds the juxtaposition interesting. Kurtz reinvents his style and intention rather often. He pushes for broader audiences -- be that the print/Image audience or 'other.' His art evolves. He tries new tools and new experiments. He does new kinds of storytelling. Kurtz evolves. And whenever he does it, it pisses a chunk of his readers off. To this day, he gets complaints that he's not just doing gag-a-day gamer humor now. Well, now here's J.D. Frazer, and his strip is exactly the same today as it was in 1998.
And it pisses people off.
People are funny that way.
Frazer is so rock-steady you could time atomic decay to his posting schedule.
User Friendly is consistently funny. The characters' very broadness gives Frazer ample room to build jokes with a minimum of setup needed -- he is an expert at the execution of the four panel strip. Given that 99% of Frazer's strips are based on words instead of visual language, his style not only suits his humor well -- getting the art out of the way except for reaction shots -- but is actually more elaborate than straight talking heads would require.
Frazer's knowledge of Unix culture and geek reference is significant, and he executes that knowledge well. You might not get the joke at all, mind, but if you do there's a good chance you're going to find it hysterical and be a little amazed that he made a reference to a thing you were sure no one knew but you. And Frazer's cynicism, geek rage and satirical edge haven't dulled even slightly -- when he posts a Microsoft strip today, the hatred flows as freely as it did at the turn of the century.
Finally, Frazer leverages that community he's built around his work really well. These are people who are having a great time, mostly entertaining themselves and each other, and crediting Frazer and the other User Friendly folks for it. Say what you like -- that is a sweet position to be in.
We've hit the high points, but let's go through them just for kicks. Frazer's art isn't good. His women in particular look like vaguely misshapen men. While I understand why he's show little to no improvement in eleven years, that doesn't mean I'm not stunned he's shown little to no improvement in eleven years.
One strength from above is also a (related) weakness. This is a talking heads comic. Essentially, this is Dilbert, only actually funny and Frazer didn't start phoning it in early on. Which is to say "not Dilbert at all," but still -- he could stand to greatly upgrade his use of visual language and composition. As it is, he's really really really good at using the couple of tools he has, but he's very limited in what direction he can go.
Given that this is Gag-a-Day, he could do way better at making the strip accessible to new readers. He desperately needs a primer to get people into things: User Friendly For Dummies would be a very very good thing for this strip. A cast list would be a monumental start, and given Frazer's habit of dropping a new character into the strip, not picking them back up for a year and a half, and then having them walk back in without explanations, the omission of a cast list is downright stupid. Hell, this is one of those areas that powerful, invested community would come in handy. Have someone build a wiki on UFies.org, then let them populate it with background and links to strips for all the characters. I'd lay odds that if there was a call to action, someone would have a hand-rolled wiki up and running within three days, and by this time next week it would be so exhaustively complete as to put all other efforts to shame. This was made for the UFies community.
If nothing else, they'd explain why Cthulhu was wearing a business suit, and just who Crud Puppy is. That's not bad information to have.
The times Frazer has drifted into actual continuity in his comic (not counting, say, a week and a half of related strips -- you can have a storyline without it becoming continuity per se), he hasn't done it terribly well. He can do tactical pacing between strips. If the gang goes to Antarctica for a couple of weeks he can build that storyline well, have every strip be funny, and wrap it all back up. But if we have Pitr nip off to Google for a year (or until he's fired) or have A.J. and Miranda flirt with a relationship, there tends to be far too little trackable process to make it worth the time and effort.
Also, sometimes the jokes wear way too thin. Yes, I know that Steve Ballmer once (allegedly) threw a chair at Mark Lucovsky while ranting that he would bury Google, but that was three years ago and most of us have forgotten about the incident. There's plenty of things to rag on Ballmer for -- chair throwing pales in comparison to calling Linux a cancer, if you get right down to it. And jeez, they pelted the man with eggs! Let's go on to that long running joke instead, shall we?
On the Whole
I don't know if I'm going to keep reading this strip or not, to be honest. I'm on something of a wave with it right now -- four years of archives will do that to a person -- but in the end it may just not be able to hold me. At the same time, I'm no longer comfortable with the thought of a "You Had Me and You Lost Me" essay for it. It's unfair, I think, to tell a strip that they had me and then lost me when they're delivering exactly the same thing, at the same level of quality, as when they hooked me in the first place. If I'm the one who's changed, then my giving a laundry list of complaints before I leave is at best entitlement -- Frazer's never claimed to be anything other than he is, and he does a damn good job doing the very specific thing he does, for the very specific target audience he's going for.
If he reaches the point that he wants to broaden that target audience, mind, then he's going to have some work to do. But that day might never come.
And having knocked the rust and barnacles off my opinion, and actually formed an intelligent opinion instead of an assumption... I can't say that day has to come. In the end, Frazer's hitting the target he's aiming at, and that really is all we can ask.
EDIT: Something was making the RSS feed unhappy. We'll see if this fixed it.
May 22, 2008
Eric: State of the (Web)Cartoonist: Scott Kurtz
The Webcartoonist: Scott Kurtz
You Might Remember Him From Such Comics Projects As: Wedlock; Samwise; Truth, Justin and the American Way
First and Foremost, it seems ma.gnolia has done some changes to how it collects lists, which has broken my links to my lists. I will be fixing them later today (which includes fixing them in all the different entries. Mrph).
Secondly, we seem to be doing this. I am excited, though we are just shy of graduation here. However, having gotten Weds into the apartment (finally) life is significantly different now, and it hasn't finished changing, so we're just going to have to see where all of this goes from here.
And so, since there are a lot of changes in the ol' Burns-White household, it makes sense that we're touching on Scott Kurtz today, since change is kind of his byword at the moment.
Essay-wise, Kurtz is one of the bigs ones. In a lot of ways, Scott Kurtz is the reason any of you who are still reading this found it in the first place. He's the one of the first major links I got. Due diligence requires I mention that I consider him a friend these days -- albeit one I have little contact with. Certainly, an essay comparing Miranda and Jade and highlighting his character development ranks among my better early efforts, almost four years ago. Which is itself weird to type.
Which means in ways, PvP is one of those strips I've been following most closely for the longest. I've been reading since the days of four panel gag-a-day zing and abrupt art style changes. So on the one hand I've been down close, at ground zero, watching this strip develop. On the other hand, PvP has been going for ten years now, Kurtz started PvP just days after I started working at my current employer's, and we've gone through two and a half cycles of Freshman-to-Graduation classes since then. An eternity, in Internet Years.
And there are some who feel that's a little too long. More and more, I hear comments from friends or acquaintences that PvP's sell-by date has passed. He's become stale, they say -- too reliant on the same tropes over and over again. Others, amusingly, say he's too different. The tone's shifted. I get mail asking if with the recent wedding storylines Scott's done hit the Cerebus Syndrome once and for all. Over on the Snarkoleptics LJ Community, a friend of mine has actually aped my "you had me and you lost me" style, while ducking the Cerebus Syndrome call and instead saying Scott has hit a "Cerebus Lapse." It's good reading, both in the places I agree with him, and in the places I don't agree with him.
Not that there's anything radically new about these calls. As long as I've been reading PvP, there have been people who talk the strip down -- it's cut-and-paste, they said. It's talking-heads, they said. It's too sitcommy. It's too gamer-oriented. It's not gamer-oriented enough. It's too pop-culture. It's too 80's. It's too...
...well, you get the point.
One thing is certain. PvP is not Player vs. Player, the strip Kurtz started back in '98. Indeed, every few years, whether drastically or slowly, Kurtz seems to regenerate PvP all Doctor-Who-Timelord style, the result having recognizable elements from what came before. He changes art styles. He changes storytelling styles. He changes pacing and execution. And for the last several months, we've been seeing him prepare for one of these state changes.
I won't say he's always been effective at it. If we look back 3-4 years ago, Kurtz hit almost every ball lobbed at him. These days, he does more swinging and missing than he used to. The recent paintball story arc, for instance, had me excited when it went into place -- in part because it seemed like it could build, conceptually, on some of the coolest elements of the earlier LARP arc he had done. (To jump back to that linked essay, above, in the LARP storyline we saw Jade-the-RP-geek and Miranda-the-not-RPer in sharp contrast. Well, Miranda is a paintball veteran and Jade isn't, and Miranda showed up in full cosplay gear where Jade didn't. I had been hoping to see their different styles contrasted in Miranda's world instead of Jade's. I also wanted to see just how much both Jade and Miranda had grown over the last few years put into perspective.) Instead, it felt like a lot of setup followed by an emergency ejection.
And, like a lot of folks, I'm entirely okay with not seeing Shecky again. I don't hate him as some people do, but I also don't particularly like him .
Still, there was a sense of marking time -- the occasional whiff of staleness, of one too many Panda joke, of one too many reference back to the General Lee or the ambulance pulling away or of Scratch Fury being evil or... you know, stuff.
Now, we have the wedding storyline. The one teased for years. And PvP has regenerated again. It's not quite the same strip today as it was on April 20. We have closed the twin circles of the Jade/Brent breakup and reconciliation and the Jade pregnancy scare storylines. Brent's taken off his sunglasses. And Skull has walked out of the strip, forced to go because the little boy he was assigned to shepherd has finally grown up.
In that earlier linked Snarkoleptics post, Sean punched out -- in part because he knows that Skull's coming back. This is a ridiculous exercise, as far as he's concerned. And he's right. Skull will be back -- not just because he's the franchise, but because Kurtz finishes the stories he starts. But I'm okay with knowing that. Conflict, as I have said more times than I can count, is a good thing. And though this capstone to the wedding storyline echoes any number of movies or afterschool specials or Pete's Fucking Dragon, right down to the "I need to go, because there's another little boy out there that needs a special friend, Brent. I'll always love you, but you don't need me any more" speech.
Only, and this is a significant only, Brent called Bullshit on that. Skull liked it at PvP. He might have been Brent's Special Friend, but he had his own plotlines, his own keys, his own place. Hell, he had a girlfriend. He had a life. And PvP loved Skull, not just Brent. When Jade finds out that Skull is leaving, she reacts with horror and pain too. And in the current strip as of this writing, Cole promises that they will get Skull back, somehow.
That's not a series exit. That's setup. That helps to set the tone and the conflict moving forward, and that is a good thing. That is a hopeful thing. Skull will, I believe, return to the strip. The question is not the destination -- it's the ride we're going to take to get there. And I have hope for that ride.
I'm not as enthusiastic for PvP as I used to be, I'll admit. It's a comfortable strip -- an old friend. And as Brent gets older and wiser and his relationship with Jade evolves, I find myself identifying with him more and more. (But then, I'm a Starbucks fan who has used Macs for years, I have a degree in English Literature and I am pretentiously superior. I am Brent.) Even as his career at PvP started along with the strip almost at the same time I started in my current job, so too is his wedding frighteningly close to my own. As Jade grows as a character, she becomes more well rounded, and more recognizable to me as well. That's all to the good.
I haven't touched on Ding! much here. Um... yeah. There's a strip called Ding! It's World of Warcraft humor. It's more or less the PvP crew playing WoW. Um... it seems pretty good. I dunno. I'm a City of Heroes player.
Oh, and he did the whole 'PvP animated' thing, and I actually liked it quite a lot. At this point, I hear Brent, Jade, Francis and Skull when I read their dialogue, and they sound like the series in my mind's ear.
Right. Lest I run out of steam, let's do the metrics.
Let's talk art, right off the bat. Kurtz has been bringing his A game with art for some time now. He's clearly pushing himself and his boundaries. And, thanks to his recent video-casting of his strip work, you can actually follow along and see his screen as he works on it. Seriously, look at this one. It's absolutely beautiful, and it's clear that he wants to keep improving instead of resting on his laurels.
Secondly, the Brent character arc has been very strong all along, and now that it's peaking it's engaging. We have every reason in the world to care about Brent and what's happening. He has grown and matured, and as the series protagonist (more about that below) his evolution drives the series forward.
Third, a lot of the characters, particularly among the secondary cast, are really well developed and have just incredible potential. Reggie, Miranda, Robbie, Butler, Brent's parents and Jade's mother all add great depth and breadth to the strip.
Fourth, Kurtz isn't afraid to let his characters be the bastards in a situation. I once said that Max Powers is the hero of the piece, and that much is true. Cole, Brent, Jade and the rest are as motivated by pettiness and selfishness as anything else, and that's refreshing and cool.
Finally? There is Marcy. Marcy is the best character in the strip. Really, Marcy is the best example of a gamer girl geek in webcomics today. She is realistic, well motivated, well designed, and pretty close to note perfect whenever she appears. She is the antithesis of Helen the Sweetheart of the Internet and all her Supermodel Unix Goddess Gamer Amazon ilk, and that is a good thing.
There is hope in the regeneration/reboot/launching of the new season/whatever we call the end of the wedding arc, and thank Christ because there's been lots of days leading up to it where it all felt phoned in. Hey hey, panda. Hey hey, Scratch Fury. Hey hey, Shecky. Bring us the Story or Bring us the Funny or Bring us Both, I don't care, but Bring us Something.
Update wise, Kurtz -- who for years was rock steady at least on the daily side -- has been less so in recent months. From things he's said on the blog, it sounds like his father had it out with him in part on that, and there is a clear commitment on Kurtz's part to be steady and regular -- and, he says, to build a buffer to have at hand should things arise. That's a good thing, because as he goes into more detailed and emotional story arcs, the pacing of strips gets all the more important and gaps in updates can disproportionately frustrate the reader. Yes, I know. I'm calling the kettle black here.
Also, I mentioned a plethora of characters up above, all of whom are really well developed. That's all well and good, but the problem is the primary cast, looking here, is Cole, Brent, Jade, Francis, Skull and Scratch Fury. And of that group, the real standout in characterization is Brent. After that comes Jade. Cole seems more and more like an afterthought: in the midst of many other things in the past year, Cole's marriage began to fall apart. We've seen Cole move in briefly with Brent. Then Brent's father found him living in his office. And he was ordered to go home and talk to his wife and he did. And since then nothing. The entirety wasn't Cole's marriage falling apart, it was Brent and his cast reacting to Cole's marriage breaking up, and that's dull. The Reggie/Miranda relationship storyline got a thousand times more attention than this lead character's life falling apart.
So it was too with Cole being able to buy out Max's share of the magazine. This deal with the passive-aggressive devil had been beautifully set up, but its resolution was so remote and sudden it lacked emotional resonance.
So too do we have Francis. Francis gets slightly more stories (at least so it seems) than Cole does, but Francis is more and more of a cypher all the time. Part of the problem is, Francis is an eternal student, but with Brent growing older, having a multiyear relationship including a breakup and a pregnancy scare and then ultimately getting married, it seems like Francis should at least be a Senior in high school -- and more likely a college student -- by now, even with the slow aging of cartoon characters. Like I said up above -- the students who were freshmen at my school the year PvP launched are now two years out of college. I actually work with one of my former students, and he has a wife and children now. While it's a mug's game to ascribe that kind of aging and evolution to a comic strip, you can't have one side of the strip get older while the other side stays the same.
Besides, as Kurtz gets older, he also gets farther away from teenagers. Francis looked very typical gamer when he launched. Now he seems stereotypical instead of typical, and that can be an issue.
Finally, I mentioned Marcy, and what a great character she is. She is utterly underutilized. I'd love, in the next year, to see Marcy and Francis start researching colleges and career aspirations. But these days, the protagonist of PvP, de facto if not stated, is Brent, and the teenagers are falling out of his orbit fast.
On the Whole
A year ago, PvP would have topped my rabidly following list. These days, I'm happily reading it, but it's not the must-see as soon as possible thing it used to be. Kurtz may not be as note-perfect as he used to be, on the other hand, but he's still got strong writing and if anything the best art of his career going, and with the shift of gears and plotlines following the wedding we may be going into an absolutely kickass year. There's a lot to be hopeful.
One dangling point I opened above but haven't closed is Cerebus Syndrome. For those who are new to this, it's explained in depth in the Lexicon, but the short form is this: when a comic or comic strip goes from light, funny, gag-a-day stuff to deeper, richer characterization, layering in story and drama into the comedy, it is trying to work through Cerebus Syndrome. It is very rare that it's successful, and a failure brings a price in suck.
From the sheerest definition of the term, I think PvP did the Cerebus Syndrome shuffle years ago. It mostly works in Funny, mind, but the pregnancy storyline, the breakup/reconciliation of Brent and Jade, this wedding storyline -- especially the bits with Jade's mom, the growing isolation of Robbie (and the disappearance of Jase) -- have been working the dramatic elements for years. The better Cerebus Syndrome attempts are the subtle ones, and Kurtz handled this as well as could be expected.
Which still upsets the people who just want geek culture humor and gaming jokes, and that's fine too. Whenever you make changes, you lose some folks and hopefully gain some more. We'll have to see what the future brings.
Which also applies to here. I'm going to try to have stuff for weekdays for right now -- at least until my own wedding eats my brain. Thanks as always, and please enjoy the shrimp plate.
March 14, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): Bill Holbrook
The Webcartoonist: Bill Holbrook
Current Webcomics: Kevin and Kell
Enthusiasm: Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again?
How Frequently Read: When I Remember to Check
For some of these strips, it's easy enough to be cavalier. It's a little bit like selecting a lobster for dinner. "That one," you say with the disinterested air of a sociopath. "It looks like it has fight -- perhaps might be considering rebellion. That one. Boil it until its skin turns red and then I shall consume whatever I find when I crack the shell."
It is worth noting I am from Maine, a state that used to have lobsters on their license plates. A state where we actually have turned lobster, which is generally $22.50 for a relatively poor one on the plates of New York restaurants, into fast food. Seriously. We scoop out the meat, mix it with mayonnaise, slap it into a hot dog roll, and grill it. McDonalds sells lobster rolls around here during the summer.
It is also worth noting I hate lobster. It tastes like rubber dipped in butter. This is one reason I cannot live in my home state, but must forever live across its border, staring mournfully back from New Hampshire, yearning to be one of the special. I do not like lobster. I do not claim to like lobster. And when I describe lobster, I compare eating it to psychosis.
Once, in Camden, I saw children being entertained at a dockside restaurant by a chef who plucked out lobsters and teased them. They laughed, and then the lobsters got thrown into boiling water so their parents could eat them. The children laughed some more. As did many others. I am not a vegetarian. I am a classic omnivore, and I do enjoy meat. Still, I was creeped right the hell out that day and stuck to salad for about a week. Laugh, children, laugh.
Still, there are strips I can be that jaded about. Sooner or later, User Friendly is going to come up on the random rolls, after all, and whatever emotional connection I had to that strip suffocated sometime after the missile silo storyline.
This isn't one of those strips. Bill Holbrook isn't one of those cartoonists. I have immeasurable respect for Bill Holbrook, and I think his webcomic, Kevin and Kell, is one of the most significant in the history of webcomics. It legitimized the form from an early start. Heck, Holbrook has intimated in the past that he continues to produce his two nationally syndicated comic strips so that he can afford to keep Kevin and Kell going. And he did this years before anybody made a living at being an online cartoonist.
It is also worth noting those nationally syndicated strips are high quality, with good jokes, good art, excellent writing and continuing storylines full of strangeness and mirth the likes of which we haven't seen since Pogo. And Kevin and Kell is the strip that he does for love as much as money, and it turns all of the above up to 11.
And God help me, I'm falling out of love with it. Have fallen out of love with it, really, but I can't quite let it go and I'm not sure I ever can.
Kevin and Kell was one of the earliest online comics I read, just after the aforementioned User Friendly. (Which also wasn't the first, but this is not the venue to discuss Slugs! except to say I'd like it to come back, please.) It was a webcomic that featured good humor, a good situation, excellent geek jokes, good art, and social relevance all wrapped up with an ethernet cord chewed by a half-wolf/half-rabbit baby who was busy spitting up full elk skeletons. Which was a testament to Holbrook -- Kevin and Kell is, after all, an anthropomorphic comic. A furry strip, in other words. And 'furry' has baggage these days, deserved or not.But in Holbrook's world of Domain, the gruesome side of society is presented with as much cheer as the suburban side. Predators and prey both live and work together, but it's well known and understood that the predators eat the prey, and we see evidence of that all the time. Casual jokes about the slaughter of innocent sentient beings so that other sentients may live. A carnivorous baby who sometimes kills and eats the antagonist of a given series of strips as a resolution to a given plot. Seriously. And then the followup isn't "our nonverbal daughter in diapers just consumed a living being with hopes and dreams, solving some of my problems in a horrific but brutally final way," but "boy, I hope this doesn't screw with Coney's toilet training."
This is not the only time the day has been saved by Coney eating the antagonist. I seem to recall a sequence where a feline Human Resources manager discovers Kell is domesticated and is going to ruin her life, but the baby doesn't just eat him, she mounts his stuffed head on the wall as a trophy. But I can't find it and honestly, absent Oh No Robot access it's too hard to track down for the purposes of writing this.
As a side note, even back at the time I found the consuming of a living being perfectly acceptable, but fishing in a toilet made me a little ill. Ah, situational ethics.
The thing is? The strip was about racism. Or anti-semitism. Or gay marriage or homophobia. Or anything else you want to talk about where one person hates other people because they're not like he is. Kevin (Heaven) is a rabbit. Kell (Hell) is a wolf. They met in an online chatroom, they fell in love, and then they discovered that she was a predator and he was prey. And they decided "well, what the heck," both having had bad experiences before -- Kell's first husband was trampled to death trying to impress people by bringing down too-large prey. Kevin's first wife, though a rabbit, was a bitch who ditched him for a skunk, then got ditched by the skunk after adopting his large number of skunk children. Later still she would be ejected from Rabbitdom and downgraded to "rodent," which she cheerfully accepted, had surgery to make herself resemble a rat, and married a predator herself.
The point is, the tension point of the strip -- the situation of the situation comedy -- is "here's a couple that's supposed to avoid each other. The wolf eats the rabbit. This is how the world works. You don't go against the order. Only they love each other, and they've had a baby, and they have children from their earlier marriages, and now they have to make it work."
And it did work -- as a marriage and as a strip. It worked for a long, long, long time, Jesus, this thing's been running since 1995. There are people reading this right now who weren't alive when this strip started. (And if you're one of them, talk to your parents about whether or not you should be reading this site. I use bad language, talk about art, and am a liberal. I just don't want you to get into trouble.)
So, why am I falling out of (fallen out of) love with this strip? It's clearly great, right?
Well... yeah. Yeah it is.
But I mentioned the tension point above. The interfactional marriage. (Interspecies marriage seems to be such a common occurrence that the taboo is clearly predator/prey.) Kevin and Kell trying to be accepted by their society, trying to hold a sometimes resentful family together, and trying to have a decent life despite being different. That's the cornerstone of the series -- the prime motivating factor behind the story and the funny.
And... well... it's been thirteen years, almost. Society's pretty well adapted. In fact, they've had several storylines to prove it. (Not the least of which was when the entire neighbor came out with mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the Dewclaws' tree -- it had lost its access to sunlight -- so that it wouldn't die and force them to move.) Heck, Kevin and Kell saved the world from the Y2K bug by fixing the code and "infusing it with their tolerant personalities." These days, when someone reacts negatively to the predator/prey relationship, it seems almost quaint and ridiculous. Jeez, man. This is yesterday's news.
Not to mention there have been lots of other interfactional marriages since then.
To compensate, Holbrook has put in other analogues. Bruno, Rudy's best friend, started the comic as a "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing," ostensibly as a hunting technique, but in actuality he was wearing his sheep girlfriend on his back the whole time (kinnnnnky....) After she was revealed (and later revealed to be half-wolf, and Ralph Dewclaw's daughter, making her Rudy's cousin and Kell's niece and -- yeah, there's a Hell of a lot of this kind of thing going on), he went back to his sheepskin disguise in part to make the character look right, but also to be reminded of Corrie (said half-sheep/half-wolf). And after that it became an analogue to crossdressing/transgendering/transsexuality when Bruno gets three extra stomachs put in so he can become a herbivore. This leads to arguments and friction and prejudice and "will Bruno be allowed to stay on the Hunting team" and Rudy and Bruno having a fistfight and...
Or how about Domestication, the homosexuality of Domain. Kell develops spontaneous domestication, which she's passed on to her son genetically, and they have to disguise the signs and compensate for it so Kell doesn't lose her job and be downgraded to Prey, et al. Later, several other people (including R.L., the Alpha Male destructive force of a wolf who owns and runs Herdthinners, Inc.) And then there's lots of ways Domestication proves to be an advantage (at least, Fiona, Rudy's girlfriend, is willing to take advantage of it).
Oh, Fiona. Half-fennec fox with rabbitlike ears that she hates at first, as her father generally does, but later accepts. Fennecs are actually African foxes and we go through a Fennec pride storyline and she wears modified "traditional Fennec dress" and are you getting the subtle point here?
Oh, and Lindesfarne, who was a herbivore in the registry because she was adopted as a porcupine but as it turns out she's really an English Hedgehog so she becomes an insectivore overnight, only she and her insectivore bat boyfriend Fenton are best friends with a firefly and a moth--
Oh, did I mention that Kell hated cats until she became best friends with Aby, who's a feline car mechanic who teaches her the feline language and Kell learns to--
Oh, and now we have Kevin's mother entering the strip, and she hates carnivores with a passion and tries very hard to convince Coney to be a herbivore exclusively only she and Kell's mother who despise each other really don't and learn to--
...are you seeing a pattern here?
Without the societal tension implicit in the situation, the strip loses cohesion. Holbrook is a pro (oh man is he ever) and knows this, so he has to reintroduce tense situations. Only at this point they go straight into formula, because everyone involved has huge amounts of practice. And we see a lot of repeating as a result. And yeah, every so often someone gets eaten to boot (though not "name" characters, though Holbrook used to tease it.)
The next issue is the sheer complexity of the strip. At this point, the FAQ for the strip is seventeen thousand words long, and a huge amount of that FAQ comes down to answering who all these secondary characters are. Which is a godsend and good on everyone involved, but it denotes something -- Holbrook is very creative and very careful with his continuity, and has been doing this for thirteen years. Of equal value is the Comixpedia writeup, which is very long and very complete and an excellent synopsis and oh my God there's a lot going on here, and that's not even counting the Birds.
It gets exhausting. And not unlike the Simpsons, more and more of the strips deal with the extended cast instead of the primary cast because honestly, the primary cast has done so freaking much it's hard to give them new situations.
And though he's slowly begun aging his cast (Lindesfarne was finally allowed to graduate and go to college, while Coney finally became a Toddler, for example), there are ways that aging isn't fast enough. Lindesfarne won't get married until she graduates from college, which might not take long (she is, after all, a supergenius), but if it happens before Rudy graduates from high school that would be difficult, only Rudy and Fiona moving into college would take the strip further from its roots in one sense... and in another give us another situation to set up....
And that doesn't even touch on the phrase that drives me the most insane. The phrase that for long as I've been reading this comic has knocked me right out of the moment. The phrase that doesn't happen all the time but recurs just often enough that I want to pound my head into brick walls when I see it.
"We canines use our tails to communicate--"
"We felines use our tales to indicate displeasure--"
"We bats use echolocution as--"
"We rabbits have a complicated strategy of--"
Every time I see a character say "We [whatever] do [a thing]," my brain is thrown back into the bad side of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. "As you know, Bob, the gravity reductionist device has enabled us to fly our ships without regard to inertia!" "Why yes, Steve, and as you'll recall our oxygen comes from the O2ameter here in the corner...." I know. I know Holbrook has to get us information on the way an entire civilization from the Whales to the insects are intelligent manages to operate without thermonuclear genocide, but for God's sake we know she's a cat. We can see she's a cat. Aby doesn't have to tell us she's a cat when describing cat behavior! SHE'S A CAT!!!!!!!!!!!
Sorry. I got frothy there for a second.
Look, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Kevin and Kell is bad. It isn't. It's very, very good. That Holbrook still manages to make nine strips out of ten funny in the fourth panel even to a new reader is a testament to his sheer competence in this arena. But at this point, after all these years, I no longer think anything will really go wrong for these people. Society's pretty well adjusted. They adjust to each new wrinkle. Problems get solved, usually within a couple of weeks. The years of long extended metastory are well and truly behind us. We are left with domestic comedy, and we've heard the jokes a bunch of times.
It's not a hate. It's not even aggravation (outside of the phrase mentioned above, but we critics fixate on language and recurrence, as you know, Steve).
But it's hard to feel the love. It's hard to care. Rudy's not going to flunk out. Fiona's not going to cheat on him (again). And she's certainly not going to end up pregnant or anything. The family's going to make it through whatever comes up, and so are the secondary characters. Mom Kindle's got her new boyfriend and his criminal record? No big deal. Mom Kindle and Mom Dewclaw will spar as they both work at Aby's garage, but the wolf won't turn, seize the rabbit in her jaws and shake until the rabbit lies dead, waiting to be devoured. The only speaking characters who end up devoured are bad people, and it'll probably be Coney who eats them.
Laugh, children, laugh.
I'm not giving up on the strip. I've loved it too much and I don't hate it enough to try and kill the inertia. I go two or three weeks and I catch up, and usually that gets me through a conflict or two, and I enjoy Holbrook's clear skill.
But I'm falling out of love with it. Have fallen out of love with it. I'm just sticking with it because I don't actually dislike it, and that's a little sad for me.
Anyway, 2800 words in and we'll get to the metrics.
As stated at length, Holbrook is a consummate professional. He's rock steady on updates. His strips are perfectly executed from panel one to panel four. The art is distinctive and clean and lovely. The characters are well written. The jokes are funny. It's hard to say anything bad about someone who's so good. And the FAQ and other website elements (on the several websites where Kevin and Kell appear) are well done and easy to work with.
Beyond the malaise I mention in the body of the essay, the biggest issues are actually pretty trivial. The tag lines added to the strips can sometimes spoil them if you don't train yourself not to read them before looking at the strip. Though it would be a monumental task for the fanbase, incorporating Oh No Robot would be a very cool thing and helpful to boot. And while there may not be anything to be done for it, the cast really is unfeasibly large at this point, and it might behoove Holbrook to do some series surgery to narrow things down.
On the Whole
Kevin and Kell is still a damn good comic. Better than most, really.
It's like in any relationship. You want to say how they've let you down, but really sometimes the magic just fades.
It's not you, it's me.
And that's a sad thing to write.
Right-o. We roll the dice for the next one of these -- hopefully not so complex, so I can get it out in a more timely fashion....
Oh! Cool. Right. See you then.
March 12, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): Jennie Breeden
The Webcartoonist: Jennie Breeden
How Frequently Read: When I Remember to Check
It's interesting to me, writing these, to hit a cartoonist who's doing multiple strips. It's certainly reasonable that my enthusiasm might be different for two or more strips done by a given artist -- after all, if the two strips are so identical that my reactions are identical, it raises the question of whether or not multiple strips are really called for. After all, it's nice to see a webcartoonist stretch -- even if they're following paths they've gone down before, working in multiple areas and with multiple intentions keeps the writing and drawing muscles supple.
Jennie Breeden interests me, having said this, because my reactions are actually pretty atypical for me, looking at her current stuff, in two ways. One, while the subject matter of her two ongoing strips are significantly different, there is a real core similarity between them. Both star, for lack of a better word, her. Both are humorous elaborations and exaggerations on aspects of her own life. The Devil's Panties is at its heart a journal comic, even if it takes creative liberties with what's happening in Breeden's life for the sake of the punchline, if nothing else. Geebas on Parade details the goofy and funny side of Breeden's long years of playing SOLAR. The art style is virtually identical between the two strips, some characters appear in both strips, the humor is very similar between the two strips and most importantly -- though we call her "Jennie" in one and "Talia" in the other, Breeden is the same in both.
And yet, my reactions to the two strips are really quite different. And even more unusually, the strip I'm indifferent to is her primary strip, while her secondary, specialist strip is the one I actively look forward to. And that's very unusual, in my experience.
It's worth noting I didn't always feel this way about The Devil's Panties. I used to be very into it. It's over the past year to year and a half that it's just sort of faded into the background -- not quite 'why do I read this webcomic again' but I can see it's house from where we're camped out. Geebas, on the other hand, almost never fails to make me laugh.
And that kind of mystifies me. Why does "Talia finds the half naked gypsy boys appealing and is unafraid to show it" make me laugh, and "Jennie finds the half naked boys at the charity auction appealing and is unafraid to show" kind of meh? The jokes are largely the same, the circumstances aren't dissimilar, the art is almost identical, and it's not like Breeden isn't good at executing a four panel gag comic -- she is, and very well.
It took me a while, but finally I figured it out.
Breeden has settled down.
Let me explain through the lens of someone else's life -- my own.
I used to write an online journal, back in the days before 'blogs,' and in its own way it was popular, and when I discovered I was looking at dying off thanks to my heart expanding like Jiffy Pop Popcorn and my kidneys deciding I must be dehydrated and drowning me in my own fluids (I'm much better now, thanks) it got very popular -- for an online journal, anyway. And that's part of the key right there, but let me talk about my later writing career -- when I started up a cultural commentary blog and named it Websnark. And if I look over several years of records, I see that some of the most popular stuff I've written for websnark are details of my life. If you look at the Evergreen section over in the sidebar of the main page, you'll see them -- Spider Webs and Shadows, and the Purgatory of New Hampshire Malls in Summer, Views of the Q List: The Dumbrella Meet and Greet, Dead Dogs and others. And some folks want to know why I don't write more of those. They like them, and they think it's the sort of thing I do well, and they wants it, their precious.
The answer can be found in that old Online Journal -- when I wasn't, you know, dying, having chemicals put in me to keep me alive, and generally trying to get better -- which was great for ratings because it was interesting -- my life was boring. Boring boring boring. Once in a few months I have an experience that makes for a good nonfiction story, and I try to do well by those stories when they come up, but if I tried to make a decent blog out of "worked until 6ish tonight, then got some food at the cafe, went home, talked to my cat and watched Iron Chef America," there would only be so long I could make that entertaining. Back in the days when I was living hand to mouth, surviving on temp salaries, rarely acting and ekeing out an existence on the streets of Boston or Ithaca or Seattle, there was a lot more grist for the mill -- that would have made great journal or blog fodder. But in New Hampshire, with a steady job I'm good at and comparatively few changes in my day to day life?
And this is the crux of The Devil's Panties and why it's not as enthralling as once it was. Once, Breeden's life was very random -- there were changes day to day. She was trying to get by. She was trying to keep sane. And she was really, really good at making those experiences funny.
And now... she's home a lot, with her boyfriend, who is cool. She sometimes goes out to clubs, but it's rare. And she goes to a lot of conventions because that's a big part of how she makes her money as an artist.
And the eighteenth or nineteenth time she does that, it's really hard to fall over laughing. We've seen it. Her life has become routine. It may be a much different routine than one you or I know, but it is still routine. There's very little chance something so new is going to happen to her at a con that it will knock me off my perch and call me Susan.
It's not that the strips are bad. They aren't. They're still Jennie Breeden. It's that they're familiar, and not in the sense of "oh, I've done that." In the sense of "is this a rerun? Check the TV Guide, honey!
At the same time, that's not the case with Geebas on Parade. Now, though I am a gamer, I'm not by nature a LARPer. I was a Renn Fest geek which is not unlike LARP, only without combat, magic, the chance to be a monster or naked fairy chicks as played by large men (at least, not at my old festival), so it's not the laughter of the other kind of familiar. However, even though the premise is locked down as much or more than The Devil's Panties, there are new spins to be found all the time. Even retreads feel fresher, somehow. This isn't a journal comic -- not really. Breeden is free to cherry pick the Funny, refine it and toss it to we the ravenous readers. It's just plain fun. And it gives us a sense of what it's really like to play one of these games -- the joys and the pains of it. And, it's taught me that if I ever take up SOLAR, I should make sure to get a Women Lore skill tag, but that's really not here or there.
In other words, The Devil's Panties is a humorous journal comic, and Breeden's settled into a life routine that reduces her chances for distinctiveness, while Geebas on Parade is a situation comedy, and she's far from mining out its comedy vein.
And every so often, something does happen that inspires The Devil's Panties to its former greatness -- and I generally feel kind of badly because it usually mean Breeden's had a nasty personal experience -- and is strong enough to share those experiences with the group. I'm reminded of a sequence when Breeden's car was stolen -- a painful and traumatic experience for anyone, and it turned into a bunch of funny strips. This puts us in the awkward position of rooting for something terrible to happen to Breeden for our pleasure, and I'm pretty sure that's the kind of attitude that led to Rome falling. I'd rather just enjoy Geebas and have Breeden have a happy life.
I love Jennie Breeden's art. It's stylized, and dynamic -- she's great at conveying exactly what she wants to have happen on the panel. And Geebas is almost always just darn funny -- well written, well voiced, a good blend of mockery and gentle kidding -- her affection for her subject comes out.
And, because I live dangerously, I'm going to talk about Breeden's spelling. But I am not here to condemn it. (Breeden is dyslexic and often spells phonetically, and woe betide anyone stupid enough to take her to task for it.) Well, I'm not taking her to task for it: I think it's great.
Breeden's spelling adds something to the strip. It contributes to the overall aesthetic. It creates a slight sense of the surreal and the whimsical. I'm not saying this to talk bravely about the brave girl who overcomes blah blah blah. I'm saying both strips are improved by Breeden's word usage and phonetic renderings. It's like reading Pogo, only with the edge of reality. The effect is only enhanced by her lettering -- when Breeden hand-letters, the result is beautiful and fits the art perfectly.
And, while Breeden's life might not be inspiring new strips, Breeden is perfectly good at executing that four panels from setup to punch, and it's hard to knock someone when they get the fundamentals down so solidly.
Stepping away from the above, I'll mention the slow rise of computer lettering, particularly in Geebas. I'm sure this is meant as a timesaver, but I do think it takes something away, given how cool Breeden's lettering chops are.
Also, the avatar/sprites can sometimes be overused a touch.
On the Whole
As I've tried to make clear, I think Breeden's a great cartoonist. I'm not sure what can be done to fire my interest in Devil's Panties, absent a really funny tragedy happening to her, and I'd rather just pass on that. On the other hand, Geebas showcases her strengths so well it''s hardly a surprise I'm always so psyched when we get new episodes.
Daylight Savings Time continues to kick my ass, and I continue to track the post-Gygax gaming world. I may have a few things to say sometime soon, and I hope not to bore folks when I do. In the meantime, let me do the die roll for the next one of these....
Aha. A "why do I read this webcomic again" strip. This one ought to be interesting... well, we'll see you then!
March 11, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): Brad Guigar
The Webcartoonist: Brad Guigar
I told you we would return on Tuesday. I never said which Tuesday. Regardless, we should now be back.
Some webcartoonists -- especially the ones who've been around since Valentine's Day of 2000 -- get stale. It's not that they become bad. It's just... you've seen what they have to offer, and they've kind of peaked, and they're slowly descending. They're not bad, but they're just... not as good as they were. If you think about it, you can come up with a list of your own.
But don't put Brad Guigar on that list, because he's awesome. In fact, Brad Guigar's pushed to a whole new level in the past couple of years. Brad is better now than he's ever been.
In fact... and I'll say this quietly... Brad Guigar is the best webcartoonist at Halfpixel, for my money. And Halfpixel ain't pikers, kids.
The last couple of years have been good to Guigar, it's worth noting. First, he made the leap along with several others to be a founding member of Blank Label Comics, who went on to have as good a collective relaunch as any of the guilds. And while Guigar had a successful webcomic in Greystone Inn, he did a soft reboot of his strip, sliding carefully out of the Greystone Inn premise and into the Evil Inc premise, so that by the time he officially ended the one strip and launched the next, he'd been running Evil Inc strips for weeks. It gave his fans a chance to acclimate, and gave him a good foundation to build -- despite the fact that the new strip premise was incompatible with the old strip premise.
Seriously -- the old strip premise postulated that comics were acted out, and that comic strip and comic book characters were real, but still explicitly comic characters. Yes, Lightning Lady was a superpowered hot chick in a bustier, but it was clear she was actually a comic book supervillain, not... you know, an actual supervillain. Put her outside of her comic world, and she had to go and get a real job.
On the other hand, Evil Inc. is a full on superheroic world. Good vs. evil is so entrenched that it's become codified, and one of the greatest supervillains of all time decided that it made more sense to get rich selling gear to other villains instead. Had he gone with a "Lightning Lady gets a job on a new comic strip" direction, it would have fit the old Greystone Inn fine -- but he didn't, and in fact we've had significant crossover and references between the two strips. (The panel I selected above features Samantha Bruce -- former Public Relations director at Creative Contract studios, where Greystone Inn was produced, and now Public Relations director for Evil, Incorporated itself. Argus, the lead at Greystone Inn, has turned up as the celebrity figurehead for a charity, and so forth.)
This is not a complaint about discontinuities, mind. This is kudos -- because he made it work. I suspect a good number of readers never noticed the shift between core assumptions from one strip to the next. Guigar is deft and skilled. Which came across beautifully over the last couple of years, as he built up a storyline one four panel gag at a time, leading to an epic struggle of ethics versus morals, good versus evil, the right thing to do and the wrong thing -- with some confusion over what those might be -- intentional torts and office cosplay sex. He built it to a well paced climax, blew the roof off the joint (literally), and surged mightily into the next story arc, with some things back to normal, and others very much not. Good stuff, all around.
And, it's worth noting, very versatile. Which brings us to Guigar's other two strips. And both of which being very different than Evil Inc. Courting Disaster is a single panel gag strip (generally single panel, anyway), in color. It's meant as part of a sex advice website, where people write in with problems and readers submit advice. And, generally, Guigar does a strip sending up the situation being written about. Which is about one hundred and seventy two degrees away from Phables, Guigar's award winning (and Eisner nominated) strip about life in Philadelphia. Phables comes across somewhere between Carol Lay and James Kolchalka, and those aren't names I toss around willy nilly. The stories may be funny or may be poignant or may just make you smile, but they have a rhythm and a feel almost poetic -- like it was as inevitable as the Philadelphia Spectrum.
Which they're considering tearing down to build a hotel. So, maybe that's a bad example.
The thing that strikes me is... Phables isn't anything like Evil Inc or Courting Disaster (or Greystone Inn, for that matter). The art style is similar, of course, but the tone is very different -- which isn't an easy thing to do.
But then, Guigar's good at doing difficult things. When he does a topic he does it all the way. When his high concept was "behind the scenes at a comic strip," he sent up both entertainment and the comics (and his humor centered on things like the Rat Pack -- remade into actual rats from a 60's comic -- and Steve Martin, not to mention the time Mutt and freaking Jeff cameoed. Now that is oldschool). When doing comic book villainy, Guigar commits all the way. (And as someone who can appreciate comic book villainy, let me say that Guigar's understanding and appreciation of comic book tropes is second to none. And that doesn't even factor in that the day I met him in person, the man was wearing a blue tee shirt with an original Fantastic Four logo on it.) He's amiable, he's committed, and when he writes about something he knows his subject cold.
And that's just plain cool.
I mentioned before that he's the best at Halfpixel right now. That's a dangerous statement to make, but I think it's borne out. In a room full of creative, talented people, Guigar just quietly brings his A game, and that's a very, very cool thing.
On to the usuals.
Guigar's art style is evocative and distinctive, but clean. It shows off action really well. His writing style is well executed regardless of whether he's writing single panel, four panels or twenty panels, and adapts to his space rather than belaboring it. When writing Evil Inc., he manages to bring the (often convoluted) Story but always has the Funny worked in too -- he can do a long, involved overplot and still manage to be accessible to new readers.
And he draws hot chicks in spandex. And at least one of those hot chicks in spandex is held up as one of the paragons of Teh Sexxors while wearing a full body suit. (Actually, the superhero and villain costuming in Evil Inc is excellent, right down to Captain Heroic's little unitard with shorts.)
Evil Inc recently went full color, thanks to Ed Ryzowski of Geek Tragedy. Ryowski is a skilled colorist, but the style -- subdued tones and shading -- detracts from the old school comic aesthetic in my estimation. I'd rather see brighter tones -- anything from silver age up through 80's flexographic would jump out and reinforce the whole comic book thing.
Also, to love Brad Guigar's work is to read a lot of puns. I mean, a lot of puns. Yeah. Puns.
On the Whole
Guigar is in ascendence, and people should know it. He's in newspapers, he cowrote a book, he's got collections, and his three current strips are all cool. And that's pretty old awesome. Please, enjoy the man and his mad cartooning skills.
Right. Roll the dice and take a spin, and tomorrow....
Oh ho ho. Coolness.
February 28, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): John Allison
The Webcartoonist: John Allison
Current Webcomic: Scary Go Round
Enthusiasm: The Hoi Polloi
How Frequently Read: Occasionally Checked
Sometimes, life ain't all that easy to understand, you know? Take Scary Go Round. It's too good a webcomic and I like it far too much to be this apathetic about it, but there we are. I'll have to try to explain.
John Allison is one of the old school. He's been doing this since 1998 on the web, but he started playing with the characters who would ultimately become the Bobbins and Scary Go Round cast in 1994, when he was wee. He went through a period where he wrote and drew Cat Flap, a protostrip not on the web, but bits and pieces show the sensibilities (and cast) that would define the strip ahead. He took a side tour through a supernatural comic (with cameos and bits with some of his later Bobbins cast, prefiguring Scary Go Round), and then finally began his full on webcomic career with Bobbins, which was one of my favorite comics during its run.
When he ended it in 2002, and began the sequel Scary Go Round, he did something I thought was very smart at the time: he focused on a new cast, and to cement the deal, he killed off Shelley, his most popular Bobbins alumna, in the second chapter. It was a bold move, making it clear that Scary Go Round wasn't Bobbins -- it was a new strip, with new people and new happenings.
Only that's not where it went. Shelley was revived as a zombie, and then revived as a real living person, and became the protagonist. The two new leads, Rachel and Tessa, went bad and went on to suffer multiple bad ends. And many, many great stories followed, the ever evolving mythology of Tackleford growing with them.
Thus is the glory of Scary Go Round, and thus is its curse. Scary Go Round is a dense webcomic. Even if we discount the preweb years, these are characters, settings, and mythology with roots going back about ten years, each and every day, storyline after storyline after storyline. And if you read any one of those storylines, you'll find several things in common -- smart, snappy dialogue, good humor, a coherent plot that moves forward, a cast of engaging characters, and oddities that endear rather than put off. How many? Just counting Scary Go Round we're on chapter forty-two right now. (And as a side note, the Chapters page may be one of the nicest storyline selectors I've seen on a website.)
And after enough years, it all becomes a bit overwhelming. We launch into a new story with fire and vigor, but after a week or two our energy is dissipated, and like The Boy we revert to callow youth and poke at things with sticks.
Which is why I've found myself doing the "occasionally checked" shuffle with Scary Go Round these days. If I go a few weeks, there's a healthy chunk of British fire waiting and I can devour it like brisket, fighting off a vague sense of confusion though sheer gusto and an appreciation for pluck. With luck, by the end I feel the satisfaction of good reading and appreciation, without quite noticing that I'm not sure who some of the characters are because two of them were added new for the story and three others are callbacks to storylines from the late teens I can't remember at the moment. Part of the problem there is the former look like the latter, and I've been known to reread seven years of comic strips trying to find when a newly created character "first appeared." Honestly, the third or fourth time that happened you'd elect to be apathetic too.
Which is hardly Allison's fault, mind. He does his job and he does it damnably well. This is a stylish, fun comic full of good things that he puts together well. But, well, I'm old now, and I get tired, and sometimes I don't remember so well. I drink tea and I play with my magical E-Ink book reader designed to take the most sophisticated technology ever turned to the literary arts and make it as close to a $5.99 mass market paperback as the Sony Corporation can get it, rereading stories and occasionally writing a thing or three and wondering when my hair got this white and these students I work with got so young, and then boom it's time for medication and the old thump-chest and....
...I seem to have completely lost my train of thought. Sorry.
Anyway, I should probably move on to the usuals, before I start talking about when I was your age and Ithaca or Seattle or something.
Dialogue dialogue dialogue dialogue dialogue. While Allison can fall into the "all these characters sound the same" trap, the repartee he writes is spot on and downright crackling. I love reading friends and enemies alike chat and cut into each other with verbal jabs.
Which can be expanded to writing. Like I said, Allison's great at building storylines -- and the fact that officially this is a horror/humor comic means he's not constrained in them. He doesn't have to have things work out in the end. Sometimes, Shelley gets killed or her sister Erin gets dragged into Hell and everyone forgets her or, worse still, Tim is exiled to Wales forever. Allison can have terrible things happen to his characters, and he's not afraid to let those things change the story, possibly permanently.
Artistically, I've always been a fan, but when Allison went back to hand drawing instead of Illustrator tricks and the like, the art went up a level or three. His artistic vision is highly stylized and made out of concentrated awesome.
His site is great, his cast list is up to date and detailed, his navigational tools and archives are strong, he has good value ads, and he sells limited edition tea towels. What isn't to like? Huh? Huh?
As stated, the sheer, daunting depth of the developed backstory can make for confusion. Allison's strengths don't include contextual clues on cast members -- he throws you into the deep end, letting you get to know new characters as you go along (usually) and letting you remember old ones -- or not -- on your own. While the cast list helps keep them straight, it can still make for difficulty and confusion.
The ever present danger of a bad ending adds spice to each chapter, but there's a danger there too. Erin Winters is a case in point -- Shelley's younger sister had a crush, only to see him fall in with a mysterious and blossoming goth girl. She then drank an unstable formula, making her an amazon and giving her rages. Then she was hypnotized and enthralled by a demonic school principal, who she then married while under his spell. And then she was dragged to Hell in trying to save said Principal, whereupon her family and friends all forgot her entirely.
While it's possible -- nay, likely -- that Erin will return later on... if you get right down to it she didn't really deserve any of that. This is a story where bad things can happen to nice people, sometimes in chains, and lead to... well, lead to all of this. And if it happens often enough you learn to not empathize too much with these folks -- bad things can and will happen to them. And that's a distance that can be dangerous for a story.
On the Whole
Scary Go Round is a great comic that I often really enjoy when I'm reading it but which can just wear me out if I'm not careful. The man brings the story and the funny in good measure, but right now it's best served -- for my purposes and its purposes -- with the occasional catchup than checking in every day.
And to this day I regret not having bought the first edition tea towel. But that's hardly anyone's fault but my own.
Tomorrow I'm off to Ottawa, but I'll try to have an essay waiting for you here and another on Monday while I'm driving back. Casting the bones we see...
Ooooo, Cool. That list needs some padding out. See you then!
February 27, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): James Grant and Mel Hynes
Current Webcomic: Two Lumps
Enthusiasm: Happily Reading
How Frequently Read: Sporadically Checked
James Grant is going to kick my ass if we ever meet. I have this as an article of faith.
Understand, I don't want him to kick my ass. Asskickings hurt, and I'm old and frail. And I don't think I've actually given him reason to kick my ass -- our dealings in the past have been cordial, helped I'm sure by the fact that I've liked pretty much anything he's been part of. And he's not an unreasonable person.
No, James Grant is going to kick my ass sheerly because he is that cool, and because my ass is there to be kicked. He'll apologize afterward, assuming I don't mewl.
Mel Hynes will not kick my ass unless I give her a reason. But if I give her a reason she will destroy me. She will reduce me to corpuscles. James Grant kicks asses because that's what he does. Mel Hynes is a force of nature.
They do a comic strip about cats.
Two Lumps is not FLEM Comics. It isn't horrifying the way a snake is. Two Lumps is not Timmy Kat, which is one of my favorite one-shot comics of all time. Two Lumps is not Pedestrian Wolves or On The Banks of Lethe, Grant's two books, at least one of which gave me disturbing dreams for weeks. Two Lumps is a comic strip about cats.
But man, it's sure as Hell not Garfield either.
On one level, Two Lumps is mostly family friendly. It's about a smart, evil cat and a stupid, loving cat. Also, there is vodka and occasionally sex. It's largely gag-a-day with some forays into continuity when they feel like it. Also, occasionally one farts on the other.
Which gives us, ultimately, some sense of where to put it on the cosm of media about animals. See, almost all stories, TV shows, movies, cartoons, comic books, comic strips, cave drawings or other representations actually about animals anthropomorphizes them to some degree. (Note we're not actually discussing anthropomorphic comics here -- from the Funny Animals through to Furry Comics et al. We're talking about actual animals, not animals with opposable thumbs.) And these representations follow a continuum -- anywhere from Clifford The Big Red Dog, who is after all very big and red, and while he is a dog his dog nature is subsumed by cute, through Garfield, who is an utterly unrealistic cat but not very big or red, all the way to Watership Down, where animals act like animals, are in no way cute, and sometimes rabbits set up repressive police states that must be overthrown while rabbit priests dream horrible dreams of blood and rivers.
Ebenezer and Snooch aren't Watership Down, but they're sure not Clifford. While their thought processes aren't realistic, the core behaviors and troubles they get into are. They're selfish (even Snooch), and while Eben might be brilliant, he doesn't really understand the world as we do and he doesn't care to. You get the feeling that for all their reverence for "Mom," they'd sell her in a New York second for a heap of food. They eat things they shouldn't. They get into liquor and candy that'll kill them. They freak the Hell out and go into blinding rages of pain and destruction when they go to the vet. They stare at birds "they would lick for hours and hours."
In short, rather than acting cute and cuddly and the way we'd like cats to act, they act like cats, and sometimes that's cute and sometimes that's horrid. And sometimes it involves smells that no decent being would admit to. I know this. I own a cat. And I love my cat. But my cat, for all my love and affection, has a brain the size of a walnut. She has no true cognitive skills. She doesn't understand my words. She understands things that make her feel good, things that make her feel bad, and things she wants to stalk and kill. She will gladly wolf down any cheese or turkey I have, even if it's too fast and it makes her vomit, then immediately walk back over and ask for more. This is not the act of an reasoning creature.
Garfield may love lasagna, but he's not at the core a dumbass cat. Eben and Snooch, no matter how smart they are in the strip, are grounded in being cats. And you can totally see Snooch eating to the point of throwing up just everywhere, horrifying all who see, then walking over and asking for more food. And if he doesn't get it he'll go and eat what he just vomited, because hey.
Disgusting? Yes. But very Cat.
This has been the hallmark of the Grant/Hynes partnership/marriage. Before Mel Hynes, Grant was a crazy fucker. FLEM Comics remains one of my personal high water marks of online comics reading, and it horrified me as much as it entertained me. Hynes hasn't reformed Grant and she hasn't tamed him, but she's channeled him. Two Lumps (and, for that matter, Timmy Kat) contain all the potential for horror as FLEM, but it's been redirected (and the actual horrific things take place just off panel) and given a veneer of respectability. And, as the masters know, showing gore makes for a visceral film, but implying it makes for a terrifying one.
Or, in this case, a really funny one.
As stated, Grant and Hynes are really great at comic strip execution. They can touch on (or wallow in) disgusting or pleasant subjects with either facility, without ever having the strip fade into "Not Safe For Work." Hynes is a solid writer and scripter who has a solid grasp of who and what cats are without romanticizing them. Which is a hard skill -- she clearly likes cats and likes having cats without needing to hide from their essential animal nature. And Grant's art really comes into its own on this strip -- his style fits the cat world perfectly, he's great at both the body language of a pissed off cat and a variety of cartoonish facial expression, and he goes into all the detail a given strip requires while keeping the balance in place.
I won't claim every strip is a winner. Though this is a strip I greatly enjoy, you'll note I have it under sporadically checked. As with FLEM before it (FLEM still lurches out new strips now and again, but they're rare), I think the best way to read Two Lumps is in two week chunks -- this way, strips that are more serviceable than brilliant are swept up in the tide. Further, reading it every day can make the strip seem repetitive, where taking it in two week chunks highlight the differing elements.
Also, when they move into longer storylines -- a rare occurance, mind -- they don't always work so well. This is a gag-a-day strip at heart, and it's where its strength is. We're in a longer storyline right now that's going pretty nicely, but there's always the danger it will begin to drag without a solid way of resolving.
On the Whole
Two Lumps knows its business. It does it well. And Grant -- always brilliant, in my estimation -- has been refined by Hynes, and that's to the good. Really, you can see it in his prose writing as well. On The Banks of Lethe is a better book than Pedestrian Wolves was -- more refined, better paced and executed, and while some of that is experience some of it's also Hynes's influence. My comic reading life is enhanced by their presence.
Which doesn't change the fact that James Grant will kick my ass if we ever meet. But then, nothing could.
So, as for tomorrow, the one armed bandit spins....
Hrm. Cherry... Pirate... and the white space between two bars and what looks like a fish. Mrph. Y'okay. We can do this one. We'll see you then.
February 26, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): R. Stevens
The Webcartoonist: R. Stevens
Enthusiasm: The Hoi Polloi
How Frequently Read: Regularly Checked
You know, when I sat down to write this essay, I figured it wouldn't be very hard. Richard Stevens Model 3 is a mainstay, after all, and his work is solid -- so solid he ultimately ended up on the physical newspaper page. I know. I've seen him there. In ink. At the time the deal was announced, it was groundbreaking. Stevens would retain ownership and the ability to do the web version of his comic, plus he would retain merchandising and print collection control. In other words, United Feature Syndicate had agreed to license his webcomic for paper inclusion, though Stevens agreed to create custom content for them.
Very 21st century. Very Web 2.0. And it seemed like it was the harbinger of a new age of newspaper comics -- an age where the newspapers recognized the evolving nature of the marketplace and sought out content without the contracts. A golden age, where the Von Trapp family wouldn't need to be put to death for singing on mountainsides.
As it turns out? Not so much. Since this deal, things have more or less chugged along as they had before. But hey, it worked out pretty well for Stevens, didn't it? And that's a cool thing.
So I figured this would be an easy essay to write. Of course, that's before I actually started to write it. Staring at the blank editing window, I realized this wasn't going to be so simple after all. Because the things Stevens does well, Stevens does very well. He nails it pretty much every time out of the gate.
And the things he doesn't do well? He doesn't do at all.
Diesel Sweeties is a Pixel Comic, which is a weird thing to say when you consider every comic on the web is made up entirely of pixels. In the case of Diesel Sweeties, it's designed to look like something eight bit from the mid-nineties. Which isn't to say it's easy. Stevens clearly has spent a lot of time and energy honing his craft, getting his figures to look exactly the way that he wants them to look. He has variations to reflect hair changes, beards, levels of inebriation -- what have you.
But with all the effort he's put into the comics, they still come down, almost entirely, to talking heads comics. A couple of characters face off, they lob banter back and forth. Sometimes someone gets angry. Sometimes a large red robot will be declaring someone's death is about to occur. Regardless, however, what we will see is the scene immediately before things happen, or the scene immediately after things happen.
Which, by the by, is one reason Diesel Sweeties works so well as a newspaper comic. Stevens doesn't need a huge amount or space to make distinctive looking characters who he dialogues well. This is one reason why the newspapers have tended towards talking heads as comic strip size has reduced.
As stated above, the things Stevens does he does exceptionally well. I mentioned the art design, which honestly is great (and that isn't necessarily easy when one is working in an eight bit form). I also mentioned the dialogue, which really comes down to the writing. Stevens is an excellent dialogue writer, and his sense of humor is excellent. Pretty much every strip is going to be a grin, and plenty of those strips will be chuckles and there's even laughs. And if that sounds like faint praise, I would remind you that it's rare that any comic strip will actually cause audible results on a regular basis. To actually produce regular laughter, you need an audience who's sitting together feeding one another triggers in response to the jokes, like a comedian or a Presidential debate.
So. It's well written. And the art design is good. And it makes me smile. Which begs the question of why its Hoi Polloi instead of one of the more enthusiastic ratings.
Well, one reason comes back to Stevens's very success. I read two Diesel Sweeties strips each and every day. The web one might be a little more visually interesting (and often it's a bit saltier, to use a term Cary Grant might have used), but the humor is very similar and the execution surprisingly so -- the extra panels in the web-only version might contain more jokes but it doesn't marginally restructure those jokes.
Further, for all the effort, skill and aesthetic intention Stevens puts into his pixelated creations, in the end he doesn't significantly use body or figure language along with the dialogue. (Though there are exceptions.) He's mostly constrained to facial expression and occasional tricks of color. On occasion that can be very effective, mind, and it's not like this has made Diesel Sweeties a bad comic strip. On the contrary, it's a very good, very solidly written strip. However, it does mean we see fewer tools and techniques employed, and that in turn leads to a certain sameness of strips. And that's the kind of thing that can have a well written strip become less anticipated -- or even taken for granted.
The areas where Stevens has combatted that -- the monumental shakeups (Clango's head comes off, Clango's memory is erased and Indy Rock Pete destroys his backup disk, Maura gets drunk and nails Electron
Pete Mike, anyone gets drunk and nails Indy Rock Pete) -- have always served to keep things interesting. Stevens doesn't rest upon a status quo. On the other hand, they're relatively few and far between, which makes them very, very interesting or even shocking when they happen, but it also means a few months of banter go by between them, and that can make the strip fade into the background.
Which leads us to the metrics. It's like rubrics, only you have more of a sense of what the word means, even if you're wrong.
As stated above, Stevens is a solid dialogue writer. His characters are both funny and witty, which aren't the same thing. His pacing between strips is well managed, his plot and character evolution is solid, and while he mostly eschews body language, he's great at constructing facial expressions within the pixel medium to convey mood. And the art style is very distinctive and well rendered -- even in the world of pixel art you can usually pick a Richard Stevens piece out at twenty yards.
Both comics update on a rock solid schedule (not that he would have a choice on the newspaper version, mind, but the newspaper comic hasn't been an excuse to let the web version slack, and that's very very cool.
Site design on Stevens's own site is solid. The newspaper version has the basic Comics.com site design, which isn't my favorite but it gets the job done.
If you look at the above essay, you'll find a huge amount of energy has gone to describing technique. The writing, the art, the visual language, the banter -- stuff like that. I don't go into the themes of the strip, the characters, the interactions, or the actual content of the strip. That derives from that sense of sameness I mention above. A sense which can cross over into the characters themselves, I would add. While the characters aren't precisely cookie-cutter, if you took out all the pictures and just saw the word balloons, it would be hard to distinguish who was talking. You might be able to ID Clango (and Red Robot is something of a gimme), but on any given day Maura, Li'l Sis, Pale Suzy, Indy Rock Pete, Charles, Metal Steve or the like might be making the same jokes said in the same voice with the same crushing sense of disinterested regret. How Stevens does what he does can therefore be more interesting than what Stevens does.
On the Whole
Both versions of this comic are good -- sometimes really good. The comic is distinctive in the marketplace, the humor is spot on, the characters are well developed (even if they all can share a voice), the narrative is shaken up enough to keep things from getting stale. Eight years into the Diesel Sweeties world things remain fresh and fun, and that's a very difficult thing to do. At the same time, the sheer consistency of the comic -- even though the quality of that consistency is high -- means it can settle into the background of the comic reading day; never bad, but rarely leaping out at you.
Of course, Indy Rock Pete would claim he liked it better before it sold out. But then, he's like that.
Wheel of morality, turn turn turn, what is the lesson we should learn... oh! Cool! Tomorrow's column should be fun to write. I like fun. It's fun.
February 25, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonists): Ryan Sohmer and Lar deSouza
The Webcartoonists: Ryan Sohmer and Lar deSouza
Once upon a time, I described Least I Could Do as Guy Humor. I stick with that definition, because... well, because that's what it is, but there's more to be said here than that. I think I've gotten my brain fully around just what Least I Could Do is, in a way that makes the most sense to me, and so I'll pass it along to you.
Least I Could Do is a sitcom named after its lead actor.
You know the ones I mean. The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Bob Newhart Show. Stuff like that, including one or two that weren't produced by MtM productions or involved Mary Tyler Moore in any way. (Though Seinfeld doesn't count for these purposes. I'll try to remember to touch on why later on.)
Now, some of you are staring at me like I'm nuts. Least I Could Do has a logo with a condom. Comparing that to Mary Tyler Moore, arguably one of the most nuanced and best written sitcoms in television history would seem disingenuous at best. But you're focusing on the wrong aspect of my statement. In the world of television, you have sitcoms that are very story driven, and some that are very humor driven, but in almost every case they're driven by the internal logic of the series. Family Ties might have made Michael J. Fox a star, but it put Alex P. Keaton at the center, along with his family. Cheers centered on Sam, Diane, Norm, Cliff, Carla, et al -- not Ted. Shelley, George, John and Rhea. (Which is one reason Ted Danson and Shelley Long, to take a couple of examples, have had trouble establishing their post-Cheers careers at the same level. People didn't bring their affection for Cheers to their new projects.)
However, when you have a show named after its star, you aren't centering that show around internal logic. Not first and foremost. You're centering it around the personality of its lead, and the expectations people bring to the table before they ever see the show. Bob Newhart was a well established comedian before he was on The Bob Newhart Show, and people who were familiar with his act figured they knew what to expect from his show. And they were right. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was groundbreaking television, but it was trading as much on Laura Petrie and what people expected of Mary Tyler Moore as anything else. And as deep and nuanced as that show became, it also didn't disappoint in that regard. Mary Richards was as sweet and nice and attractive as Laura Petrie would be had she dumped her husband and fed her son into a woodchipper, then moved to Minneapolis and thrown her hat despite the cold weather.
As a side note -- when the lead character shares a first name or a variation of their whole name with the lead actor portraying him? You're in the territory I'm discussing. The producers of the show want you to think of the actor and his personality, so they stick really close to his name so you don't have to deal with the change. "Mary Richards" or "Bob Hartley" are meant to stick close to "Mary Tyler Moore" or "Bob Newhart" for a reason. (As a side note, Bob Newhart did this successfully twice, with The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, and it's a testament to the vision of putting Bob Newhart front and center and letting his personality shine through -- despite his not being named Bob -- that on the last episode of Newhart they could credibly claim the whole series was a nightmare Bob Hartley had.)
Seinfeld doesn't really count, for the record, because while the core of the show does rest upon audience expectation, Jerry Seinfeld was playing a satirical version of himself for the show -- in effect subverting the trope. Which is possibly why it's the most successful sitcom of all time.
Anyway, getting back on track... if Least I Could Do were a television sitcom, by rights it should be called The Ryan Sohmer Show. It would star Ryan Sohmer as "Rayne Summers" (thus, we have the variation of the lead's name option), a young, funny guy who's obsessed with sex, as much a boy as a man. Various foils and straight men would surround him, from the unbelievably hot girl he doesn't have sex with to one of the two best friends he has in the strip to the brunt of his jokes. It would be mostly a surface show, and you would know exactly what you were getting into with it, because hey -- it's The Ryan Sohmer Show!
As further proof, I give you a youtube video -- the opening credits to the upcoming Least I Could Do animated series (Blind Ferret -- probably the most successful webcomics-to-web-animation studio on the web -- was cofounded by Sohmer. That both of Sohmer and deSouza's webcomics have had animation built around them is unsurprising to say the least).
Now, thanks to Wednesday, I have a massive love for Great Big Sea -- the band that plays "Consequence Free," which is used as the theme music here (and if they actually have permission to use it, I'm jealous). But the video is interesting, I think -- because while it's a travelogue of the characters, it's perfectly clear that Rayne is the centerpiece. When we say "least I can do," the 'I' is Summers, period. The rare strips that focus on other characters tend to do so through the filter of Rayne.
The opening credits also highlight one of the side issues with Least I Can Do, though. Midway through, they run one of the running jokes of the series past us -- a prostitute (who, if her caricatured face is any indicator, is perhaps not so bright or potentially even developmentally disabled) who charges inexpensive prices for oral gratification. She is affectionately known as the "Suck for a Buck" chick. And that's sometimes the issue with Least I Can Do as a whole -- let me 'splain.
See, I really enjoy Least I Can Do. It's a sex romp, but it's fun and almost always perfectly harmless. But every so often we edge close to uncomfortable areas. And sometimes, edging into the uncomfortable is exactly the job that a comedian is supposed to do -- the jester is the one who can tell the Emperor he has no clothes. But it's a fine line sometimes and sometimes they move over it. Having the Suck for a Buck chick in the animation makes me feel a little dirty linking it, like I'm not sure that it's right or appropriate that I'm pointing people to the video.
Which is a strange thing for what is, after all, a centerpiece video not only for Least I Could Do but the whole animation studio itself.
Now, the last I talked about Least I Could Do at any length, I had actual fans of the strip complain that I spent way too long thinking about it -- which makes some sense. It's a surface strip. They're not going for depth, they're going for fast gag-a-day gag. But in the last block of time they've challenged that a little bit. There was an extended sequence where Rayne, having had a Red Bull induced heart attack, does the whole Christmas Carol thing. Hand in hand with that, there was a strip last year where they officially declared the cast members would age, which was followed by one of the finest For Better or For Worse parodies I've seen. Things have been a little less madcap on the edges since then, but still. Pretty well gag o'the day.
I understand why the cast had to stop being eternally 24, by the by. I just recently hit forty. Now, a lot of my stories used to deal with 25-30 year old protagonists. These days, they seem to be at least 33 and sometimes as old as 45. When you actually get older, the appeal of 24 in your wish fulfillment lessens.
Before we get on to the metrics, I should make mention of their other webcomic, Looking for Group. It's a different sort of project for Sohmer and deSouza (of whom I have said tragically little, so far) -- a webcomic made in echo of games like World of Warcraft, though it's not set in any truly existing universe. It's a fantasy webcomic that brings the story more than, say, Least I Could Do, and it's... well, way more PG-13. (I can't think of any sex jokes up until now, though there have been a few fabulous babes).
Looking For Group is well done, though it doesn't have the same consistency of voice or tone as their other work. It's a high fantasy, but it isn't quite sure if it's a light but essentially straight high fantasy or if it's a satirical and comedic high fantasy with serious overtones. Certainly, the early days were entirely more devoted to humor, which may have been the pair finding their voice. In more recent times the innocence of the strip (and the lead) have passed, leading to drama and sometimes even horror or tragedy. On the other hand, so long as Richard is a member of the cast, it won't be entirely serious.
(That's not why it gets ranked lower than Least I Could Do, for the record. Looking for Group is a good strip, but it hasn't 100% found its voice, and it lacks the sheer force of character that some strips like that use to hook you. When it settles a bit more, it will likely draw more closely.)
Right. On to the metrics. It's just a little more than a quart, people:
Sohmer has a sense of humor, and deSouza's very good at rendering it. Least I Could Do manages to (mostly) stay true to its sitcom roots, which in this case is a good thing. The art is very clean and visually appealing. Looking For Group also shows that while Sohmer and deSouza don't have the same polish over there yet, they are capable of doing longform story and PG (or, well, PG-13 in places) humor, which gets better all the time.
Their sites are well laid out and chock full of value-adds, including desktops, full on animation (they've taken to doing music videos), a good archive system, a solidly up to date calendar and storyline archive, and a robust community which sometimes posts photographs of attractive women in its boards. So, you know. Win-win.
I also want to highlight some of the character evolution we've seen. The introduction of Rayne's half-sister and (most particularly) his niece Ashley were welcome moments, and some of the best strips have involved Unca and his niece. While it has stayed close to its original form throughout, there are nuances that keep the strip from getting stale.
Jesus Christ, I know it's wish fulfillment, but tone it down, okay? Yes, Rayne is amazingly handsome, does ridiculous and actionable things all day long and not only doesn't get fired eight times a week but actually makes his company money. Yes, he can expose himself to his secretary and get oral sex from his boss and no one lodges a lawsuit. But honestly, just how ridiculously eternally successful are you going to make this guy?
Put another way? Conflict is a good thing. Conflict is your friend. And while we can grin and high-five when Rayne succeeds, we're much more likely to laugh when he fails. And that's a side of Rayne we don't see very often these days, and that's a sad thing. (In part, because it's really funny to see Rayne underneath his blanket, whimpering to his mother.)
There's lots of little plot points that got intro'd a while back and never paid off. Issa's almost a nonentity these days because the core tension points -- will they have sex? Is she really into Rayne even though she claims otherwise? Why are her boyfriends so close to Rayne in appearance? -- just sort of went away. Now that we've brought John back into the strip, it might be nice to reform Issa at the same time.
deSouza's art is great, but I have to admit, even all this time later I miss Chad Wm. Porter. Porter's art conveyed action better, where deSouza's art looks more like posed set pieces. Also, Porter was more of a cartoonist and less given to caricature. However, I have to admit the classic deSouza shot of Rayne looking into the camera with that shit-eating grin captures the character perfectly. (And thanks to the above piece of animation, whenever I see it I hear Great Big Sea sing "nah nah nah nahnanayah nah nah", so it can't possibly be really bad.)
Finally, while they haven't gone overboard with the serious moments -- we're in no danger of a Cerebus attempt or a First and Ten here -- they can be disruptive to the rhythm, and should be very carefully managed.
Oh, and as a postscript after the "finally," the Suck for a Buck chick? Yeah, either retire her or make her look less like she's got some kind of cognitive disability. Because, you know, kinda creepy.
On the Whole
The Ryan Sohmer Show probably wouldn't win any Emmys. At the same time, they'd almost certainly have the lead actor present an award and write his own material for it. In the end, Sohmer and deSouza hit the mark they're aiming for almost every time, and the strip's a lot of fun as a result. And sometimes "a lot of fun" is more than enough for a comic.
I honestly do hit the random number generator at the end of these essays, so it's always interesting to see what comes up next. That roll comes... now!
I don't know if this is going to be trouble or not. So let's assume not! Yay! Easter is saved!
February 22, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonists): Elanor Cooper and J.J. Nääs
The Webcartoonists: Elanor Cooper and J.J. Nääs
Current Webcomics: The Broken Mirror
Enthusiasm: Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again?
How Frequently Read: When I Remember To Check
Well, here we are, you and I, and we're checking off the last two 'lists' I have on this here magic carpet ride. And sadly, they're the two lists lowest at the chain. Under enthusiasm, we have "why do I read this webcomic again?" which implies I'm still here out of either hope or inertia... and under frequency we have "when I remember to check," which means one better hope I'm still here out of hope, because inertia doesn't seem to have a strong hold on me.
And it's weird, you know? Because yeah, 'hope' is as good a reason for why I'm still reading The Broken Mirror as anything else. Because...
Well, here's the thing. Cooper and Nääs do so much that's right, that it's almost heartbreaking to decide to drop the comic. And therein lies a tale.
Elanor Cooper, the writer of The Broken Mirror, describes the project as "her futuristic, dystopian romance novel," and so far that makes as much sense as anything I've heard. Is it a romance novel? Not so far but the night is young. Is it futuristic and dystopia? Absolutely. We're clearly a few years in the future -- there are cyberpunk trappings only there isn't really much in the way of 'punk.' Further, unlike a lot of Cyberpunkish stuff I've read over the years, the immersive VR system postulated makes sense to me. It's not the future of the net, it's not where cybernauts run the edges and manipulate computers with their brains to unlock black ice and stick it to the man.
It's a game.
It's an escape.
And if there ever is truly immersive Virtual Reality, that will be why. IBM and Microsoft won't pioneer the Virtual World. EA Games will. Or they'll buy Linden Lab, which is their version of 'pioneering.'
It is a world that very much needs escaping from. Not because it's oppressive -- there are hints that there's something of a police state going on, but for the most part people just live their lives. But those lives are... well, essentially hopeless. Shit rains down from the heavens on our characters, and joy is rather systemically crushed out of their lives. Eventually, Domino -- the virtual world, the game, the escape -- becomes a whole new option.
It's a good setting for a novel, graphic or otherwise. And Cooper and Nääs are both good at their jobs. Cooper's dialogue is spot-on, with most characters having distinctive voices. Nääs is a more than capable artist, and the pages are beautiful -- beautifully drawn, beautifully composed, beautifully laid out. By any reasonable definition every component for an absolutely top notch webcomic or even print graphic novel is in place.
Sadly, they haven't come together into a top notch webcomic, and the reason for that is pacing.
Pacing, when I use the term here on the Websnark, refers to the evolution of the narrative, from one day to the next. (This differentiates it from execution, which is how a specific strip executes from the first panel to the last). A strongly story-based comic like The Broken Mirror is paced more as a graphic novel then a comic strip, so it might take several pages to accomplish a goal that, say, Shortpacked would do in two or three strips. And you have to make certain allowances for the form in those cases. You don't expect Digger to have a last panel payoff each and every day (though Ursula Vernon's got serious game in this regard), and it's not fair to compare it to a strip like Starslip Crisis, where the basic unit is a four panel strip.
However, there's only so many allowances you can give. And to be blunt (I know, too late), The Broken Mirror takes forever to get where it's going. And it's because they don't have a strong editor over them.
I know, it's webcomics. Editors are bad and repressive. Get over it -- this is an object lesson in why editors are a positive thing in the universe. Let's take as our example Galen Gray, one of the leads.
Galen Gray has had a terrible life, suffering abuse both horrible and physical, tragedy of pretty much every kind, the grinding down of his hopes and dreams, the loss of all the relationships that mean anything to him -- in short, he has nothing left to lose. And so he turns to Domino, both because he has no reason not to and because he has nothing left to hold him to the real world.
The problem is, we've seen all of the above. In great, heaping gobs of detail. We saw Galen as a child, suffering under the anger of his parents. We saw Galen get shafted and used by a loved one. We saw Galen's professional life go to shit. We saw Galen get harassed in his everyday life. We saw...
Well, the point is we saw all of it. In detail. And it was well drawn and well written detail, and the sum total of all of it was to get us to "Galen Gray has had a terrible life, suffering abuse both horrible and physical, tragedy of pretty much every kind, the grinding down of his hopes and dreams, the loss of all the relationships that mean anything to him -- in short, he has nothing left to lose. And so he turns to Domino, both because he has no reason not to and because he has nothing left to hold him to the real world."
An editor would look at the outline, say "this is great stuff, but it's backstory. You don't need sixty pages for this. Do it in four." And that editor would be right.
I mentioned that Aeire and Chris Daily were doing a novel, over in Punch an' Pie. And I also mentioned that the essence of the novel, in many if not most cases, is "establish the norm at the open. The novel begins when there is a change from the norm." It's a rule of thumb but a good one. Well, The Broken Mirror is now moving into Chapter Eight, and we are just hitting the change from the norm. Establishment should have been done in the first chapter, and the move into Domino should have closed the chapter. Then, all the lush details that Cooper and Nääs have worked out for their characters could be brought into the light over the course of the actual story, as required by the plot.
It's an easy mistake to make -- science fiction authors often make that mistake when it comes to worldbuilding. They come up with lovingly detailed systems of economics, science, engineering and governance, and they want to show it off. Well, the worldbuilding is amazingly useful in creating a consistent universe, but not one detail in ten actually needs to make it into the book at the end, and not one detail in the book out of twenty needs to be explained. What's less well known is the character-developed side of all this. Cooper and Nääs have created deep, rich backstories for their characters, and they can see tremendous significance in those backstories, and so they want to establish them "on camera." They want us to know Galen, Xara, Aidi and the rest as well as they do. To really understand why they make the choices they make.
But we don't want to know this stuff. We don't need to know this stuff. They're spending so much time developing the characters they're forgetting to actually tell the story, and this is a story-driven comic.
And so it begs the question: why am I reading this webcomic, again?
Well, they do so much so well, I keep hoping... I keep believing we'll get to the point where events take center stage, where they'll start doing, and that it will all gel and become a story. But it's possible that the only way to get there is to wait for the second draft, when they go through, excise a huge amount of stuff, reorder others (flashbacks here and there for when things become relevant) -- in other words, when they're ready to make it into a strong story instead of just a pretty one.
So far, I'm still here, though. And there's hope, still. So we'll see. We'll just see.
Now on Marketplace, let's do the numbers.
As stated above, the art, words and layout are all beautiful. Cooper and Nääs can write and draw, respectively, and any given page is going to have something going for it. Their website is also well laid out, with solid navigation, a good cast page, and good value adds. I haven't mentioned color, but color's beautiful in this work, and acts nicely as a counterpoint.
Beyond the editing and story issues above, there's a telling omission on the site -- there's an "about the story" submenu under "about." But unlike Creators or Characters, it just says "This section will be updated gradually as the story progresses." I'm pretty sure the reason it hasn't been updated yet is because nothing's actually happened yet, and when you're in Chapter Eight, that's kind of unfortunate.
The other thing is... in part because of the setup issues above, the comic has been unremittingly depressing up until now. It's hard to read, sometimes, because they write the characters well enough that you do have empathy for them as their lives continually get ground down into the dirt and made hopeless and bleak, and after a while you decide to do something more positive and uplifting. Like listening to Morrissey albums. Or heroin.
Finally, you'll remember the webcomic is tagged "when I remember to check it?" That's because... well, look. I don't personally believe anyone owes us webcomic updates on any kind of schedule. I really don't. But the more erratic the schedule, the less likely I'm going to check a site with regularity, and (probably wisely, given how detailed the artwork is) this comic doesn't have any consistency in updates. So, sometimes I'll go back after a few weeks and it'll be the same page it was the last time I was there, and sometimes three quarters of a chapter will have posted. And that makes it hard to hold an audience.
I'm not one to read these things via RSS, as I mentioned back in the Gurewitch essay, but this wouldn't be an option here either, as as near as I can tell they don't have an RSS option, and with this irregular a posting schedule they really should.
On the Whole
Man, this is a pretty webcomic. Man, these are well considered characters. Man, I don't know how much longer I can hold on.
But I am. One more day, and maybe it'll all come together. They're actually in Domino now. Maybe now....
...maybe now, at a hundred and thirty pages in, the story is actually about to start.
Right! One week down! Our next essay's on the docket for Monday -- I figure five of these a week, for as long as I can sustain the output, should be sufficient for anyone's needs. And we roll the dice and--
Oh. Huh. Well, that should be a fun one to write. Cool! If something non-State-Of comes up, I'll post it, but otherwise we'll see you in the new week!
February 21, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): David Morgan-Mar
The Webcartoonist: David Morgan-Mar
Enthusiasm: The Hoi Polloi
How Frequently Read: Sporadically Checked
When I tagged Perry Bible Fellowship as 'Hoi Polloi,' I was highlighting one kind of strip from the commons -- a strip that was occasionally brilliant but often missed the mark. Well, we're back to Hoi Polloi, but oddly enough my feelings towards David Morgan-Mar are quite different. It's not that there isn't occasional brilliance or occasional lameness in Irregular Webcomic. However, what seemed almost defensive in the Gurewitch essay is far more... just plain solid here.
And that, to me, is Irregular Webcomic in a nutshell. It's solid. A solid performer. I don't usually get up with an anxious twitch in my leg, desperate to check it, but it's pretty much always a smile or a pleasant stopover for me.
This is also the first of these to be tagged as "Sporadically Checked." (Which applies, all told, to Darths and Droids too, which I'll also get into below.) Sporadically checked, in this case, means "checked on a regular basis, but not anywhere near as regularly as, say, Morgan-Mar updates." Which is true. I tend to read Irregular Webcomic on Saturdays or Sundays, depending on the weekend, and I'll catch up with the week's updates at that time. I read Darths and Droids at the same time. This differentiates from "Occasional checking," which is haphazard but somewhat often, or "when I think of it" checking, which is... well, just what it sounds like. All clear? Aces.
David Morgan-Mar must have an interesting reaction to xkcd.
Seriously. He was around years before. He has what on the surface seems like an easy means of producing a webcomic -- lego figures or miniatures (and more about why this 'easy' method isn't easy below) which show a sense of whimsy, a significant amount of geek love, and a tendency towards physics, math and science in great, heaping gobs. Like Randall Munroe, Morgan-Mar has a degree in Physics -- only unlike Munroe Morgan-Mar's degree is a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, and he's worked in his degree in many different ways for many different years, including teaching at the University of Sydney. He enjoys scientific and mathematical puns.
Which isn't to equate Irregular Webcomic with xkcd. They're very different animals. But you have to wonder if sometimes Doctor Morgan-Mar sits back in his Australian Observatory of Doom, steeple his fingers, and ponder the stick figure comic.
Morgan-Mar is also something of an interesting case for me to write about, because my connections to him predate webcomics by a good many years. He and I are both in the fraternity of RPG writers, specifically those writers who've been paid by Steve Jackson. As we've both got some GURPS credits (mine by the back door, thanks to GURPS In Nomine stats being mandated in my last couple of In Nomine pieces) we're connected that way too, and we crossed paths here or there on Pyramid, both as contributors and as forum hacks. But that was years ago and alas the wench is dead. Certainly, Morgan-Mar has been more successful toiling in Warehouse 23's subbasements than I have.
And that's really where Irregular Webcomic came from, and that highlights one of the areas where it really is brilliant: its navigational engine.
Back in the day, I would be asked about innovations in webcomics, new and exciting techniques in webcomics -- all kinds of stuff about things. And what the interviewer inevitably meant was "what new and exciting kinds of comics will we see now that we're... on the web?" And there would be expectations that the discussion would be on Flash or the Tarquin Engine or Infinite Canvas or animated gifs or something. And the first few times I was interviewed I didn't have good answers, but later on I got better, because I knew what the real revolutions were about. Distribution. The mere fact that a comic didn't need a middleman was huge. The drop in storage and bandwidth was huge too. These days, for Websnark alone, not counting other projects I coordinate, we do about sixty gigabytes of bandwidth a month -- a drop from the glory days, but still a nice hefty chunk. In 1999 or 2000, a sixty gig a month bandwidth bill would have been hundreds of dollars a month, and I'd be struggling to stay online. These days, my bandwidth allocation is expressed in terabytes and my monthly bill doesn't even crack double digits. And that doesn't even count the reams of crap I've stored online, the e-mail stuff, Banter Latte, the corpse of Gossamer Commons, and all the rest. If you're producing a webcomic, you need to be doing really massive numbers before bandwidth becomes a dealbreaker. And if you're doing really massive numbers, you're already ahead of the game in so many ways.
That's the revolution. And hand in hand with distribution is site usability and navigation. I think one of the true seminal innovations in webcomics -- one of the things that really pushed Webcomics forward -- was the development and release of Gav Bleuel's Autokeen Lite. Here was a system, moderately easy to set up and configure, by which you could automate the release of a backlog of comic strips, the archiving of those strips, and the navigation from strip to strip in a convenient and intuitive way. While there's a lot of other ways to do that kind of thing today (the Comicpress addons for Wordpress seem to be some of the most popular) as well as sites like Webcomicsnation or Comic Genesis that'll do it for you, that doesn't detract from the sheer significance of that early content management system for webcomics.
Well, Morgan-Mar's got an engine and a half on his website. You see, Irregular Webcomic actually has seventeen different themes (counting the "Me" theme) around the very, very loose idea that Morgan-Mar is running a series of role playing games and we're seeing the in-character perspective of them. Many, like the Cliffhangers, Espionage, Imperial Rome or Supers themes very clearly are based on GURPS (with lots of cheerful pop culture references thrown in -- Espionage may be based on GURPS, but the whole of the theme has been a parody of the James Bond movie Doctor No, starring James Stud. (Well, the last two strips were the very start of From Russia With Love, but still) And, in researching this essay, I could easily read just the Espionage themed strips, or read them five at a time if I prefer. Or I could read the strips that came out in the order they came out, regardless of theme. Underneath every strip are the usual "first, previous, next, last" navigational elements, along with "first five, previous five, next five, last five," but to them they add these same breakdowns for that day's theme. And on days when two themes cross over, you have navigational elements for both themes.
If that sounds confusing, let me put it this way -- Irregular Webcomic will let you either read the webcomic, straight up, reading each strip as it comes out regardless of what story it's set in, or any of seventeen separate stories without any distraction, from start to finish, all with the navigation tools that are sitting right there.
Engine wise, it's brilliant. It allows for story branching and interweaving and yet lets all the bits you don't want right now just get out of your way.
Now, Morgan-Mar could do a lot of work to set that up manually, but one look at one of his URLs shows that no, he's built the specific database engine that lets him do this. Looking at the Shakespeare theme for a moment (the Shakespeare theme not being GURPS based, but instead assuming that William Shakespeare is alive today and working as a technical writer who writes Harry Potter self-insert fan-fiction in his spare time, which may be the most fun I've ever had describing a high concept in my life), I went to the most current strip in the Shakespeare theme, and then clicked "previous five in the Shakespeare theme." Obviously, I got a top-down list of the five strips, but let's look at the actual URL that the engine returned:
Doing a little sentence diagramming (yes, Virginia, the Internet has a Grammar. Now shut up. Daddy's talking.) we see that the comic.php script has a variable setting the current comic (1837, the most current Shakespeare themed comic). We then wanted the previous five strips specifically in theme 14 (Shakespeare) to be delivered. So, however Morgan-Mar uploads his comic strips, he just has to tag it with what theme the strip is in and the engine does all the other work.
The engine, by the by, also lets you decide if you want annotations or not. If you do, you get Morgan-Mar's notes on each strip -- convenient for the strips that are obscure math puns or if you enjoy reading Morgan-Mar's observations, which I for one do. If not, they're gone and you just get the strips. However, the engine renders it pretty much transparently depending on what you have set.
You're very likely sitting there thinking "yeah? So what?" Unless, of course, you're a database programmer, a website designer, a PHP jockey or the like, in which case you're staring at the screen saying "that's brilliant. That's fucking brilliant." And then you sit back and start figuring out how you'd do the same thing with the database of your choice. And probably coming up with a good answer -- the hard part having been conceptualizing it in the first place.
Right there? That's innovation in webcomics. Randy Milholland might want to steal something like this for his own site, given the plethora of strips he's working in. I can think of whole storytelling techniques that can come out of this infrastructure. (I came up with one, once, and actually got some artists interested and excited to be a part of it, including my old collaborator, the brilliant Greg Holkan, and the downright visionary Neal Von Flue. I then completely flaked on them. There are things in this world I regret, and that's one of them.)
As for how he produces Irregular Webcomic? For the most part, that's deceptively simple. He sets up either miniatures or (more often_ LEGO figures on sets he constructs, photographs them, photoshops the digital pictures, adds dialogue and updates. (The exception is Supers, where he has other people actually draw the strip. Supers is one of the least common themes, it's worth noting.) Now, on one level that sounds really easy. Much like "I'm going to write a novel" sounds really easy, if you've never done it, really. Only Morgan-Mar's hardcore. He builds sets (and takes notes so he can reconstruct them later as needed). He photoshops heavily, adding in background elements (everything from putting actual computer screens on some of the LEGO computers to taking a grey Lego stand and extending it to the horizon to make 'an infinite plain of grey.' Heck, look at the picture at the top of the screen. That's Morgan-Mar himself, having been murdered in his own comic, sitting in a chair on the infinite plain of grey, arguing with the Head Death (a LEGO figure). And damn it, that's pretty good Photoshop work, any way you look at it.
On the other side, he also produces (apparently with help) Darths and Droids, which is a conscious emulation of the rabidly popular, now ended DM of the Rings. Morgan-Mar et al have elected to go with the Star Wars movies starting with the first, and while it is, indeed, trodding ground DM did, Morgan-Mar is unafraid to take it in a different direction. Where DM of the Rings detailed the ultimate railroading DM who loved his background so much that he forced his players to follow his plot come Hell or high water, the Darths and Droids gamemaster just wants his players to be happy -- including the little kid sister of one of the players, who to keep quiet they let make up a character, who turned out to be Jar Jar Binks, and the entire campaign is a wild digression run entirely by the seat of the gamemaster's pants when his players refuse to do anything that he has preplanned. In recent events, they've had a side trip to some desert world because the players want to buy lots of cool weapons and armor for their ship, and despite his out and out demanding that they ignore the punk kid in the office, they're convinced he's important and have the NPC Padme chick flirting with him even though he's like nine years old.
Honestly? It's a heap of fun. And the idea that the whole Gungan race exists because a six year old girl asserted it and they didn't want her to cry because that would end the game real fast just feels good.
She also asserted that the Naboo queen is wise, kind and fourteen years old. And was elected. Admit it, it makes sense for the first time.
So, you're saying -- he's innovative and solid. Fine and dandy. Why then is he in "the Hoi Polloi" instead of "Rabidly Followed" or "Happily Reading?"
Well... the thing is... Morgan-Mar's defining characteristic is clever.
His engine? Clever. His site design? Clever. His techniques? Clever. His puns? Clever.
And there's nothing wrong with clever.
But it is actually pretty rare that 'clever' and 'fall down funny' cross paths. It's not impossible, but it's rare. Really, Darths and Droids has more of a chance to hit consistently fall down funny than Irregular Webcomic does, but it's probably always going to be overshadowed by DM of the Rings, sheerly by virtue of DM having come out first. Even if Darths and Droids ends up being funnier (which is certainly possible) that's a hard stigma to heal up and wash off.
So, you know. I'm always glad to see it, but it's not something I anticipate. I know it'll be a smile, and that's more than enough.
So, let's break this puppy down and head for home:
The aforementioned engine is a big one. Morgan-Mar is also good at making every four panels of Irregular Webcomic hold together -- even if you don't know what's going on you're likely to smile at any given strip. The storytelling possibilities are awesome, and Morgan-Mar is a craftsman and his dedication shows.
He also has a really, really big LEGO collection, and he's not afraid to mess around with it for an effect.
And... you know. He's clever. That's not a bad thing.
And his update schedule is rock solid, and that's a very good thing.
As much potential as I see in his engine, his UI and site design could use some work. It's very minimalist right now -- which might describe Morgan-Mar to a T -- but that means that the innovative navigational markers are in the middle of a block of text. And it's lack of fall down funny means it's not often copied and shown around on Livejournal or Facebook or the like, which makes it harder for it to grow. (Though it has a dedicated fanbase of its own, as does Morgan-Mar himself. Actually, I recruited Morgan-Mar for Modern Tales during my brief time there, in part because of how solid and dependable the comic is, and in part because I wanted to try to lure that very not Modern Tales audience over to some of our other offerings. I haven't discussed any of this with Morgan-Mar or Shaenon Garrity since I left, but I note that the last Modern Tales Irregular Webcomic was 1545 back in April of 2007, while as of this writing he's up to 1849 on his own site. Ah well, blame it on me.
On the Whole
Morgan-Mar is part of the foundation of modern webcomics. Not a lot of people think of him or his comics first, but when they read them they enjoy them, and if some of the things he does both in his comics (some of those photoshoppings are brilliant) and as part of his engine were to get some wider use and implementation, we could see some real leaps forward in storytelling online in those ways that the web is capable of and paper is not. And that's always a good thing, in my big ass book.
Next up, I roll the dice (the Custom Random Number Generator is my... er... custom random number generator of choice) and see where we end up....
Well, that should tick off the last two Ma.gnolia lists all right.
February 20, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): Danielle Corsetto
The Webcartoonist: Danielle Corsetto
Current Webcomics: Girls with Slingshots
Enthusiasm: Rabidly Following
How Frequently Read: Regularly Checked
Thanks to the healing power of random numbers, Danielle Corsetto's next up on the list. And that's cool with me, because Girls with Slingshots is one of my favorite webcomics currently being produced. It's the first of the "Rabidly Following" strips, reserved for those strips I can't wait to see the next installment.
As I've had someone ask, I should go a little more into depth on the whole 'random numbers' thing before we begin. They're not sure why I would let the power of the dice (or in this case a computerized random number generator) decide what essay I would write when, instead of picking and choosing from the list.
Simply put, the answer is 'favoritism.'
Consider if you will what we once called "the webcomics community." This is a group of affiliated (sometimes loosely affiliated, mind) fandoms that have grown around some of the most exciting, most creative web sites on this web we call world wide. Each fandom is made up between (roughly) one and seven point five million individuals who think that their given favorite webcomic is pretty damn spiffy, and other people should agree with them.
And if there's one thing we should all know about the internet, it's that every individual believes his or her opinion is privileged over everyone else.
Oh, not everyone acts like that. "We all have our own tastes," some people say. "Some people like strawberry, others like chocolate, others like strawberry and even some like Neapolitan." But in their heart, when they see what they know is an undeserving website or unenlightened opinion hit a given blog, their first reaction tends to be "idiot. That's not how I would have done it."
I have my favorite strips. Perhaps because I'm not terribly bright, I'm actually telling you the reading public just what those favorite strips are. Girls With Slingshots is actually on that list -- I love this strip seven ways from Sunday. And people are (generally) going to be cool with what strips I have as favorites, versus what ones I really like, versus what ones I like just fine, versus what ones I'm pretty sure I don't like but I haven't worked up the will to drop yet. I might be an idiot and stupid, but I'll show my work and at least try to be honest, right?
But the order I post these things? That's an unconscious value judgement. That's making a statement about relative worth that has absolutely nothing to do with any of my fine justifications in the essays proper. And that right there is trouble. Trust me on this. I've been burned before.
So. I'm doing the only thing I can in that situation. I'm taking the order completely out of my own hands. Penny Arcade will come up when Penny Arcade comes up. Skin Horse will come when Skin Horse comes up.
Today, the magic number came up Girls With Slingshots, so let's get to it, shall we?
Corsetto is one of the rarities -- she started Girls with Slingshots up in 2004, having done precursor strips through school and college, and then proceeded to live up to her potential. Who knew?
Well, The Comic Reader for one. This was a magazine -- later an online magazine -- on the fine art of the four panel comic, back at the turn of the century. They weren't devoted to online comics, though Scott McCloud was a contributor at the time he was most talking up the "comics on the web" thing. And at the time, they actually paid Corsetto to put her strip on the web. That was Hazelnuts, for the record, a precursor strip to Girls with Slingshots. A strip she began in High School. To put this in perspective for folks around here, imagine Ian Jones-Quartey graduating from college and launching an all new RPG World sequel which he turned into his daily living.
(And if that sounds really cool and exciting and you're thinking about e-mailing Jones-Quartey and begging... get over it. The man works as an animation director on Venture Bros. for Christ's sake. But I digress.)
At the time, Corsetto was just coming off having another strip in local newspapers. She was doing the small press rounds. In fact, she used her leads as cute sketchbook art at cons -- a couple of winged girls with slingshots -- and started the strip mostly because people kept asking when she was going to start a comic strip starting them.
Simply put, Corsetto had the goods, and people knew it, all the way back in 2004. And the only reason it's remarkable that she's making a living cartooning in 2008 with that comic strip (and, admittedly, the coolest gig in paid comics helping) is because a lot of proteges and wonder kids and "watch out for this one -- she's goin' places" type people tend to vanish inside of a year.
But Corsetto didn't vanish, and Girls With Slingshots is going strong.
Girls With Slingshots is probably my favorite purely character driven comic right now. (At least, until I write the next essay about a favorite character driven comic.) Even more than Something Positive or Questionable Content, which are strongly character driven as well, this is a strip that started off putting the characters into a core situation and then letting them naturally evolve over the course of the next four years. There is a sense of awkwardness in the strip, and a sense of expectancy in the lives of the characters. The leads are a writer (who's a lush), a florist (who's less of a lush but still a lush and also, y'know, breasts), a taxi driver, a barista, a Porn Store clerk, a blogger--
In other words, it's a group of people in the transitional world of the 20's. The sort of people I was back when I lived in Seattle or Ithaca. They're adults, but they haven't fully shifted from the world of childhood up through college into the real world yet. They're growing careers (in Hazel's case, accidentally or drunkenly or both), still caught between "just trying to get by" and "taking over the world." In the meantime they hook up, have fun, party, and meet anthropomorphic cacti.
One of the coolest things about character driven strips -- especially ensembleish strips like this one -- is the fact that things change. It's not situation comedy where things have to remain more or less static. Characters can and do make choices, both good and bad, have good and bad days, succeed and falter, climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every byway 'till they find their--
I seem to have lost my rhetorical focus. My apologies.
The point is, character driven strips can be gold because they're not locked in. You don't need to keep relationships on a certain level to ensure you have jokes next week. You don't have to keep everyone working at the coffee shop lest you lose your focus and audience. You can just let them do whatever it is they're going to do. If that happens to be Strip Scrabble, so be it. You get engaged with these folks and their lives, and you find yourself sticking with because you can't bear to not know what happens next.
So, let's move onto the normals, just to make all this official:
I suppose it's cheating to say "the writing, the art, the site design and the update schedule," but it's hard to know how better to pin it down. Corsetto, for all intents and purposes, doesn't do anything wrong. She updates rock-steadily (she has a rolling donations system going -- if she gets X amount of money in donations in a given month, the following month has a five day a week update schedule. Otherwise, she drops down to three updates a week -- a nice carrot, but not a bludgeon). Her artwork shows the polish and professionalism you'd expect from someone who's been doing this since the 90's, studying it, and making it her life as much as she can -- which is to say she's awesome. Her characters are distinctive (excepting Maureen and Clarice, whose similarity in appearance ultimately led to a Corsetto self-mocking Halloween storyline, and Corsetto fixed the problem by changing Clarice's glasses so they didn't look so much like Maureen's. It's the little things, folks.)
It comes down to this: Corsetto does just about everything right. Heck, it's not hard for new people to jump right in, even. You don't (usually) need a lot of backstory to get up to speed, and Corsetto's good at providing in-strip context without making it sound like she's providing in-strip context.
Man, Hazel sure do drink, don' she? And man, she don' have a man, do she?
There's a danger in resolving tension points, but one hits a stage where it can be repetitive. Hazel's the primary lead (I'm not sure Jamie could be called supporting instead of a co-protagonist, but most of the plotlines are Hazel's, or so it seems), and while we're not yet at the point where the things she yearns for but does not have constitute a character rut? We can see its house from here.
Though the current plotline gives me some hope in that regard -- it's entirely possible we're about to see either a really good choice on Hazel's part, which will make for a nice resolution and set up new potentials for trouble, or we're about to see a really bad choice on Hazel's part, and that's comedy gold, kids.
And, for the record, it's a good thing Corsetto changed Clarice's glasses. For the first two years of the strip, I honestly thought the Blog-Girl also worked at the Porn Store.
On the Whole
What more can I say. I really love this strip, for all the best reasons. It's just good.
Right! So far we've got a ma.gnolia lists for Rabidly Following, Happily Reading, and the Hoi Polloi, and we've got Regularly Checked and Occasionally Checked. So, we just need Sporadically Checked, When I Remember, and Why Do I Read This Webcomic, Again, and we'll have at least one strip in each and every category. So, let's roll the dice for tomorrow's strip....
Hrm. Well, I'll check one new list off at least.
February 19, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): Nicholas Gurewitch
The Webcartoonist: Nicholas Gurewitch
Current Webcomics: The Perry Bible Fellowship
Enthusiasm: The Hoi Polloi
How Frequently Read: Occasionally Checked
There's no real rhyme nor reason to how I do these things. I decided I didn't want to just launch into the rabid favorites and then work my way down to "why on Earth do I still read this thing," but at the same time I didn't want to start with "why on Earth" and work up to "God I Love This Strip." So, like all good veterans of the Tabletop Roleplaying wars, I randomly rolled and got my next topic.
Which might be problematic, because right here on the second summation we're going against conventional wisdom. Well, you know, it's been some months since I got hate mail, and that seems all wrong to me somehow.
Anyway, today's topic is Nicholas Gurewitch, the webcartoonist behind The Perry Bible Fellowship.
Before I go on, I should indulge in definition. I know, I know. I'm nothing if not a definer, but this is a little different. See, a lot of people have only heard "the Hoi Polloi" contextually. It's fallen out of common use, and while I'm all for making people hit dictionary.com, it also deserves to be talked about.
The Hoi Polloi, for the record, refers to the Common Masses. Just Plain Folks. Everybody Else. As I tag lists, I have the stuff I'm really excited about, the stuff that makes me just plain old happy, the journeymen strips -- good enough to keep me going, but not really mind blowing, and the stuff I'm at best on the fence about. The Hoi Polloi are the journeymen. They're perfectly good webcomics. They're fine.
But they don't set a bomb off under my chair. Oh, there's the occasional brilliant strip, and the occasional dud, but for the most part they're just there. An entertaining diversion on the way to the grave, as Achewood says.
And that's where we are with The Perry Bible Fellowship.
It's worth noting I came to the Fellowship pretty late, and for the worst possible reasons. Back in the heydey of Websnark, I would get recommendations. I still do, now and again, generally from people who haven't figured out the heydey of Websnark is somewhere behind us, not in front.
Well, this one guy recommended Perry Bible Fellowship.
Several times a week.
Sometimes several times a day.
Seriously. A new strip would come out and there would be three e-mails. "Dude! I know you don't read PBF but just look at today's! It's awesome! You should totally snark about it because it's fantastic! I know I write a lot but I don't understand how you can avoid being a part of such an incredibly good thing! It's awesome!"
And so on. Repeat until blue in face.
Needless to say, I decided it would be a cold day in Hell before I would read the Perry Bible Fellowship.
Eventually, the correspondent dropped off. Note this was a good few months after I sent him a note or three saying "dude, stop it." Which is one reason I don't feel badly about writing this now. And quite some time after that, I finally began to read the Perry Bible Fellowship.
And, like everyone else, I thought it was brilliant. Creative, well designed, beautifully drawn and with a great sensibility. It was, in all ways, a David Lynchian sense of wonder brought to the page, and that is not a bad thing.
Well, it's been some time since then, and let's see where we are.
Perry Bible Fellowship is a comic that works in subversion humor. Note, this isn't subversive humor. Not always, anyway. This is the humor of building expectations in panels 1-3 and skewing them in panel 4. And Gurewitch is a master at it. Take one of the better ones, in my estimation: Billy the Bunny.
Everyone check the link? And you're back now with me? Excellent.
We have three different styles going here. The style of the actual picture book, the style of the woman and her son hating on Mean Old Farmer Ben, and the very realistic style of the last panel. And there's nothing funny in any of these four panels. The first two set up an unhappy picturebook situation, the third shows a mother and her child, well to do and affluent, reacting the way the book's author intended. Certainly there's no mirth there, though one expects that Mean old Farmer Ben will have his comeuppance one day. And of course, the fourth panel is stark, the sign of the family in starvation, the home falling apart, the man -- the provider -- having failed. And even his wife, clearly comforting him, has no joy in her bearing. It is a brutal fourth panel. There is nothing funny here.
Take all four together, and I laughed my ass off. Fucking Billy. The subversion of intention made the innocent into the horrible, and it made the whole thing funny even though no part of it was funny.
Like I said, this is Gurewitch's bread and butter, and there's no one better at it.
The problem is, this is a well that's way too easy to drain dry. Twenty or thirty times, you'll get a horrified laugh. Then, people will expect it. Finally, it will have no impact. It's just what Perry Bible Fellowship does. It's like watching the parody of M. Night Shyamalan on Robot Chicken shouting "WHAT A TWIST!" When you're expecting the twist, the twist has to be awesome. And every time, it has to be more awesome than the last. Otherwise, it just becomes mundane. O. Henry wrote 400 short stories, but we don't bother reading most of them today -- the 390th twist ending just reduces the impact that The Gift of the Magi or The Ransom of Red Chief have on us.
As an interesting side note, the Perry Bible Fellowship strips that don't have a twist, gruesome or otherwise, end up being some of my favorites. For example, there's a quiet little strip called Christmas Surgery that I really like. No twist, but somehow it just works.
Anyway, none of this should be taken to mean Perry Bible Fellowship is bad. It's not. Not at all. It's just... you know. There.
Thus, the Hoi Polloi.
Right. On to the usuals:
Gruewitch has a great imagination and an ability to see connections that others might miss. In playing to his strengths, he reinforces just how good at them he is. Added to that is his artistic style, which is really great and highlights his skill base. And when he's on his A game, it's hard to think of anyone who's better in webcomics -- particularly in four panel gag-a-day.
Further, Gruewitch might lack a certain thematic variety, but his variety in detail is astounding. He's great at creating an unexpected view of a subject. And there really isn't anything else like The Perry Bible Fellowship on the giant mass of internetworked nodes, and that's very much to Gruewitch's credit.
I mentioned it above, but let me throw in again -- this has some absolutely beautiful art. It really does. There are people in this world who halfass the art in their comics, but Gruewitch is their antonym.
Beyond the one-note nature of a lot of his strips, as mentioned above, we have to point out Perry Bible Fellowship's site design. I suspect there are some folks who like a design like this one, but for my money it's user hostile at best. It's unintuitive -- you keep thinking there should be a way to bring the 'most current strip' up, but there really isn't. The graphical elements in his masthead don't actually do anything, so they can actually confuse a new reader for some time. Even the center column of actual strips has "Random" above the most current strip, so it doesn't even draw the eye.
This, by the by, is one reason I list this as "Occasionally Checked." Sporadically Checked means there's some pattern to my checking, but lacking a page to just hit the most current strip means that I'm I only actually check Perry Bible Fellowship, while surfing the Safari Tabs, when I happen to notice that I don't recognize the top strip's title.
This is made more difficult, in its own way, by its update schedule, which is sporadic at best. Which is entirely Gurewitch's right -- he's gone on the record as saying it's infrequent because of the effort he takes on each strip, which shows in the gorgeous art -- but which makes it harder to actually keep track of when a new strip has come out. It's entirely possible that the only good way to follow Perry Bible Fellowship is by subscribing to its RSS feed. RSS -- it's the friend of the occasional webcomic.
However, I don't happen to like using RSS for my webcomics trawling, so there we are.
On the Whole
Gurewitch is one of the most celebrated of those webcartoonists currently stripping, and it's easy to see why. He swept through the WCCAs for a couple of years, he's hit mainstream awards hither and yon, and recently he took an Ignatz. And it's all deservedly so. At the same time, I have to wonder if each new crop of awards reflects a new crop of readers coming upon his work, in a new venue, while the people who have been reading for some time let his strip slip lower in their consciousness. It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, and that is an unfortunate thing. But, when one's stock in trade is the skew, sooner or later there seems little to be done for it.
February 18, 2008
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): Aeire
From Punch an' Pie.
The Webcartoonist: Aeire
Current Webcomics: Punch an' Pie
You May Remember Her From Such Webcomics As: Queen of Wands
Enthusiasm: Happily Reading
How Frequently Read: Regularly Checked
So. Last October Aerie launched Punch an' Pie, a sequel webcomic to her popular Queen of Wands webcomic, featuring art (and no doubt storywork -- I don't mean to minimize) by the talented Chris Daly of Striptease. It starred Angela, a supporting character from Queen of Wands, who finds herself being forced by time, circumstance and inevitability to start the long road to growing up.
So, we wait a long moment for it....
Right. For a lot of you, that paragraph seems odd. After all, Punch An' Pie didn't start in November of 2007, It started in February, almost a full year ago. There were dozens of comics predating the October 19 strip I linked to before -- one of the very few comics in full color in this particular webcomic.
Yeah, those don't count. But I'm reminded of a literature course I once took from my father.
My father, for those who came in late, is a (now retired) professor of English, and I've taken several courses from him over the years. He's a remarkable teacher, dressed up in his professorial sweater (for Dad, it was always a sweater -- I'm not sure why, but to this day when he happens to wear a sweater I have an urge to take notes and pretend to be listening to what he says) and sipping tea in the front of the class. He guides discussion deftly, leads commentary adroitly, and has a remarkable facility to remember what others have written about a book essentially verbatim. And when you think you have him cornered and you're closing in for the kill -- rhetorically speaking -- he has this annoying habit of smiling, looking a bit proud, and saying "you know, there's probably a paper in that." And then you have to write it.
One of the courses I took from the Good Doctor was the English Novel, and I believe that was when he told me a rule of thumb I've held close ever since (though it may have been English Comp or any number of other courses): a novel typically opens by establishing the norm. "This is what life is like." But it begins by breaking the norm. Something new happens. Someone comes to town. Someone gets fired. Birds start killing people for no reason. A letter shows up for Harry. Something scares all the buffalo so the army is called in. What have you.
Well, Aerie writes in the novel form, and from February through September, she very carefully established the norm. Angela, from Queen of Wands, has a very settled life. She works at a toy store under the direction of Dawna, the cool manager we remember from that opus. She works alongside some rather odd folks. She has a live-in girlfriend who really loves her and a warped sense of the world.
And, if this were a gag-a-day comic, that would be sufficient. She would have a relationship, a workplace, hobbies, and plenty of room for hijinks to ensue.
But this isn't gag-a-day. It's a novel, and everything Changed for Angela.
First, her toy store was closed by corporate, forcing Angela to step out into the real world. She had a chance to go along with Dawna and join her new staff, but Heather (the live-in girlfriend) put her foot down, forcing Angela to go out and get a real job, working for someone she doesn't like. (Heather also was pushed into a new job by Angela, it is worth noting.) And then, tired of Angela's possessiveness and insecurity (hallmarks of Angela's Queen of Wands era experiences with Brad, Seamus and yes, indeed, Kestrel), Heather put it on the line: she didn't think they should still see each other.
It was a relatively standard, if passive-aggressive, move on Heather's part. Make an ultimatum phrased as a regret, to inspire a heartfelt conversation that might crack through Angela's Issues and get them to a better space. Instead, Angela said 'whatever,' grabbed a few things, and left to sleep at Dawna's for a while, and we had ourselves a webcomic. Because nothing says comedy gold like two people feeling miserable and cut off.
On the first of February, Angela moved into her new apartment, as Dawna -- her last real connection to her old life (and Queen of Wands) moved away, and the real story began. I find it interesting, however, that the next series of strips touched on Heather -- showing that she's having hijinks of her own, and that she's nowhere near over the blond chick who's in the masthead. Heather has her own supporting cast and her own path to walk.
Which brings us back to Aeire.
Aerie's real strength is writing about character evolution. Queen of Wands was a coming of age story starring Kestrel, who had some good times and some crappy times but as the people around her changed, Kestrel discovered she had to change with them. This is why Queen of Wands had to end with Kestrel in a moving van heading East to a new life -- she was, in effect, leaving the nest. (Didn't notice the bird thing before now, did you? Clever, that Aeire.
Which is why, in another sense, Punch An' Pie didn't really start until we actually had Angela moving into a place, and starting a new life of her own. Because Angela's story isn't Kestrel's. Kestrel had the comfort of a supportive environment that would wait for her to -- oh Christ, I can't believe I'm about to type these words -- spread her wings. Angela's been pushed out of the nest and the nest has been blown up with C4. She's on her own.
And in her own way, so's Heather.
So. Let's get on to the nitty and the gritty. (Gritty extra.)
Aeire writes pathos well, without having it fall into needless angst. Her sense of tone and character has always been strong, and it's clear she knows where she's going. Chris Daly's impact on her writing has been only to the good -- Punch An' Pie is a tighter, more mature strip than Queen of Wands was at this point in its history.
And let us not forget Chris Daly's art. While this is a "state of" Aeire, Daly is a huge part of the new strip, and it shows. The characters in Punch An' Pie are more cartoony than in Striptease (which, believe it or not, is a compliment), and he is very good at distinguishing between characters in both body and face. And while Aeire was a solid cartoonist in her own right, Daly has a better handle on visual language -- his characters are more expressive and fluid with their bodies, reinforcing the words with actions. Aeire could do that, but a lot of her strips ended up being talking heads (and word balloons in between them).
Also, I have a soft spot for black and white line art, and they use it well.
The strip's pacing is good, and its emotional impacts, when the bombs are dropped, are effective. And the strip's update schedule has been rock steady.
It's a little bit hard to like these people.
Oh, Heather seems legitimately nice and sweet, and Dawna was nice and sweet, but when you're telling a story of a person growing up, it's hard not to make that person into a brat. Angela is heaps of fun when she's 'on,' but when she's not, or in an uncomfortable situation, she can be a real snot. That's not a bad thing, but we have some trouble building a sympathetic vibe to her which we're going to need if this things' going to work. And the zoo folks and bookstore folks all tend towards the negative, at least for the moment, which means that most of the characters we run into in the course of the strip are, well, on the cynical side at best.
We also have had some evidence of the extended pastward look, as embodied by the "life flashing before her eyes" Angela went through when Heather dropped the bomb on her. While it made dramatic sense, it could probably have been done better in half the strips even if the strips were thereby twice as long.
I mentioned my enjoyment of the art, and that's true. However, when they do heavy greyscaling or halftoning, it ends up being way too muddled for my tastes. I don't usually critique art, but it's worth the note.
Possibly the biggest weakness, however, is in depth of backstory. If someone's read all of Queen of Wands and all of Punch An' Pie, it's easy as... er... cake to jump in and get involved. But most people haven't read the many years of webcomics the above entails. Some user guides might help out a lot, for new readers. (Assuming they want new readers, which isn't a given.)
There is a cast list, but it's already out of date. (Dawna and Justin, while still in the comic, are likely to become bit players instead of regular cast members -- assuming Aeire doesn't pull a surprise and do a Something Positivesque shift between casts to keep us appraised of what's going on with the two, in effect giving us four leads.) Having a scorecard for the zoo and the bookstore would be helpful.
On the Whole
If I seem like I'm belaboring the 'Punch an' Pie just started' thing? It's because I really wasn't all that into Punch An' Pie before the shit started going down. Once fires start being set and people run to keep from being burnt, things get really interesting. Before that, it was very 'establish establish establish,' and sometimes it felt like it didn't have much point. So, when Point slapped us in the face, it was very effective.
I'm liking Punch An' Pie, and I'm looking forward to where it goes next. Even if we are, indeed, going to miss the old ways.
It's a good beginning. Here's to the journey.
EDIT: Chris Daily. I swear, I checked that like twice and I still got it wrong. Sure, Aeire I manage to keep straight, but not Daily. Yeesh, Burns.
Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): Preamble
A few notes of preamble: things have been quiet on the Burns front.
But you don't need me to tell you that.
Suffice it to say, it entered my brain to do... well, an overview of the webcomics that I'm still doggedly following, giving a sense of overview and a sense of how I feel about them and stuff like that. Why? Because I haven't said much about webcomics for a while, and I'd kind of like to say a thing or six, and this seems like a good enough format for it.
So, why "State of the Webcartoonist?"
Well, this isn't so much a true 'state' of anyone -- I'm not going to talk about peoples' personal lives or their torrid affairs or what lawsuits they're currently settling or just what they did with that chinchilla and how they convinced Bob Barker not to kill them. Instead, I'm going to talk about... well, their webcomics. What I think they're doing, base analysis stuff -- things like that.
So why "State of the Webcartoonist" instead of "State of the Webcomic?" That's actually a pretty simple answer. More and more, webcomics come and webcomics go, but webcartoonists plug away. Back when I started this whole shebang, the webcomic was what brought me to the table. Like a good New Critic, I would read that comic and draw my analysis from it. The webcartoonist was an unknowable figure behind it all, and it paled in comparison to story and art -- the stuff you could actually analyze.
Today, though... it's the writers and artists I follow, more than anything. When Randy Milholland starts one of his new projects, I'm usually right there for it. When Shaenon Garrity or J. Grant turn their attention to new fields of endeavor, I'm usually sitting in a pickup watching creepily through binoculars (and I may be the first person to A) put those two in the same sentence and B) imply they're hanging out in a pasture together, so, you know, yay me). In short, I'm less following webcomics, for the most part, and more following webcartoonists -- the body of work, not the individual strip.
It is, in the end, part of the evolution of the critic. God damn it, Historicism is a seductive beast.
So consider these things a primer. To webcomics or webcartoonists? Maybe. And then maybe not -- different tastes, interpretations and opinions bear just as much weight as mine, after all. Instead, consider this a primer to Eric A. Burns, sometimes critic. A look into my habits, tastes, opinions, views, and brain.
These will follow a consistent format. I'll list the webcartoonist (or cartoonists), I'll list the webcomics they're currently involved in, if applicable I might include a "you might remember me from" for their former webcomics, and the current lists they occupy in my reading.
That last bit is important -- I'm going away from the old concept of "morning, afternoon, evening, and other" lists for Websnark, and moving towards more functional lists. reviving the concept from back when first started whereby I organized my reading based on how much I actually enjoy the webcomics. And rather than try to keep the sidebar updated (which honestly never happened) I'm going to harness the power of Web 2.0 and use
del.icio.us Ma.gnolia for this stuff. There are two different categories I'm going to add things to:
1) Enthusiasm. I keep up with a given webcomic for a long time -- sometimes with great passion, and sometimes out of sheer inertia. One of my longtime mantras is "if I don't actually like a webcomic, I won't keep reading a webcomic," but the reality behind a dogmatic statement like that is we do keep reading webcomics we don't like. We do it out of loyalty, out of lethargy, or even out of a sense of denial. (This doesn't factor in people who actively read webcomics they hate -- generally, those folks are going for the trainwreck appeal, which I can understand but it's not my usual thing.) There are four different del.icio.us lists I'm going to use to track enthusiasm: Rabidly Following, Happily Reading, The Hoi Polloi, and the infamous (for some value of infamy that equals 'people might remember this from 2004') Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again?
It is worth repeating, since these categories imply value judgements, that we're not measuring their relative worth. I've never given "eighteen stars out of twenty three and a half" or other such ratings. A comic I adore and franticly refresh my browser until it updates, then immediately start refreshing it again 'just in case' might be a comic you find tired and lame. Likewise, a comic I've tagged as "why do I read this webcomic again?" might your very favorite webcomic. That's fine, and good, and proves conclusively that we are individual people with different opinions and perspectives. Calm down. Have a cruller.
For the record, as of this writing there are sixty-five webcomics tagged in those four lists (which aren't up yet. I'm going to tag each strip at the same time I post my essay, so right now they're all empty). This is down from the 450 webcomics I was regularly following at one point, because... well, I got a life. They also aren't the only comics I read, so the lists may fluctuate as I go through this project. But for right now, there are sixty-five of them.
For the record? Eleven of those sixty-five webcomics are on the "why do I read this webcomic, again?" list. And I'm thinking strongly that after the end of this rather extensive project, it will be time to reactivate another list I'm somewhat known for: They Had Me, And They Lost Me.
But that is for later. For now, let us discuss the second category I'm going to organize these strips into:
2) How Often I Read The Strip: as I've said before, some webcomics I read every day they post. Others, I read once a week or thereabouts. Still others I read 'when I remember to.' These aren't indicators of the strips' quality -- some of the strips on my "Why Do I Read This Webcomic, Again?" list are strips I read every day, and some of my "Happily Reading" list are strips I only check every six weeks or so. The reason for this is simple enough -- some comics benefit by being read in packs, whereas other strips stand alone on a strip by strip basis. In fact, there are some comics I'm firmly convinced shouldn't update at all until they have a few weeks worth to put up.
These lists are, respectively, Regularly, Sporadically, Occasionally, and When I Remember.
Beyond these lists, I'll try to both discuss the work the webcartoonist is doing and the kind of impact it's having on me. The true role of the critic is not to say "this is what the artist is doing wrong," but "this is what the artist is doing," but when one doing a summation, one really has to speak in terms of strengths and weaknesses -- things attempted, things succeeded, and things failed.
At the end of this project, we'll have a solid foundation of my current viewpoint. From there, maybe we can launch into business as usual. Or maybe we'll lapse back into six weeks of no posts. We'll see.
In the meantime? Hello. My name is Eric.
Here's what I think.
EDIT: After consulting with Wednesday, and batting around social bookmarking a bit, I'm going with her recommendation and using Ma.gnolia for the lists. Not a major difference, mind, but the interface is nicer and it'll do proper comma delimited tabs.