Monthly Archives: April, 2006

Two Clicks Forward, One Click Back

Lots of elements go into whether a webcomic is good or not – and not all of them pertain to the comic itself. Presentation and accessibility are also important elements – one reason why a decent comic with an excellent webcomic design can do as well, if not better, than an excellent webcomic with a poor design.

The insightful Wednesday White gave an excellent description of the importance of the “fold” in the webcomic’s medium. It is an essay I wholeheartedly agree with – make it easy for me to read your comic! Especially if I like the comic, I want reading the latest strips or browsing the archives to be a smooth experience – not an exercise in frustration.

I wanted to talk about an even more specific element – the navigation buttons. You know the ones I speak of – the four big buttons that every webcomic has: First, Previous, Next, Current. Sometimes different names are used, sometimes the list changes – but those four are really the key ones.

I’ve seen them all over the place in different comics. Above the comic, beneath it, on the left, on the right – on all four locations at once! I imagine a lot of comic artists don’t even think about their placement – as long as the links are on the page somewhere, a reader can use them, right?

I disagree.

Paul Gadzikowski does it right. He keeps the buttons just below the comic – the logical place for someone moving through the archives to find them, of course. Most webcomics put them there.

However, he also makes sure, whenever he has an oversized comic, to include the browsing buttons at the top as well.

This means that the archive isn’t just easy to browse for someone perusing it normally – but also for someone reading it from back to front.

Why would someone do so, you may ask? Well, it comes up plenty often for myself. Maybe I’ll miss one or two strips (a not uncommon occurence over a weekend.) Maybe I won’t notice when they return from hiatus. Maybe I’m trying to refresh myself on a minor event in the strip that occured a week ago.

Quickly clicking the ‘previous’ button until I find the last comic I read – or the comic I am seeking out – is the easy solution during these occurences. Unfortunately, when a comic strip is large enough to force me to scroll down the page several times to reach the browsing links, it can be a bit tedious to move backwards through the archives.

Especially if I am also trying to avoid reading the strip in case of spoiling the story for myself.

And when I’ve found the point I want, and am ready to read through in normal fashion? If I should try to hit my built-in browser’s back button to easily reverse my order, I find myself at the bottom of the page, in need of scrolling back up in order to reach the top.

With A:KoTaS, I can easily move back and forth. It didn’t take much on his behalf – a browsing panel at the bottom of every strip, and an extra one at the top on the overly large strips. What Happens Next is another strip that does the same, though in that case all the strips are large enough to merit the dual navigation links. Plenty of others do the same.

But for every comic I found that has this nice, easy little addition, there are half a dozen that don’t. Sure, there are plenty of comics that don’t need it – the entire comic is small enough to sit above the fold, leaving the navigation buttons in easy view regardless.

But there are plenty of others that could make good use of it, and don’t. I don’t believe a single comic on Keenspot has this little convenience, and more than enough of them could use it. Sluggy doesn’t have it. The list could go on.

Does something like this make or break a comic? No, probably not.

But it is just one example of how the design of a webcomic matters. There are many little elements that can make browsing the comic more or less convenient for the reader. Nothing says you have to make reading your comic an easy experience – but the less accessible you make the comic, the less readers you’re going to have.

"Loop, what loop? I don’t see any loop."

The Flint Family of Five As usual, I seem to be a bit behind the times – apparently Troutman has returned, and brought Basil Flint back with him.

His new update schedule appears to be somewhat haphazard – tossing up bunches of comics at a time whenever they’ve been finished. But thus far it appears to be working well, and I’m eager to see if it holds out – the comic itself seems up to Troutman’s usual level of quality (ie, wickedly good stuff.)

I also noticed that he has introduced the Troutcave!

It is a collection of his former works, and I’m personally quite the fan of them being all gathered together. I know that when I first started reading his comics, and couldn’t track down some of his older works, it made for the occasional frustration in trying to understand background and character history and the like.

While the earlier works aren’t necessarily required reading for the later strips – especially given that the quality has changed quite a bit from one series to another – having them on hand for those that want to check them out is definitely a good thing.

(~Thread title, meanwhile, stolen from Real Life Comics, which has been solidly entertaining of late~)

"You can make an awful lot of lions fly with that much faerie dust."

It’s not yet Monday, yet here I am, delayed from sleep by increasingly more agonizing allergies and increasingly jumbled thoughts rolling around in my head.

The solution, as always, is to write. As I said back when I started, if you don’t write when you have the words there, you risk losing them entirely. Or, to quote some words of wisdom: “There’s nothing to it but to do it!

So. I’ve been spending much of the weekend enjoying the sites and sounds of a local gaming convention. One of the few I’ve been to in the last year, and one of the only two I make sure to attend on a regular basis. One is the world famous DragonCon, filled with more types of entertainment than any one man can hope to partake of in a single weekend.

The other, the con in question at the moment, is a small and humble affair by the name of JohnCon. The con of my alma mater, and one I had lent my aid to for many years.

But time comes and goes, and this year I had no part in the running of the show. I was there to enjoy myself and nothing more – and pray that, in the absence of myself and my fellows, the con was not an abysmal failure.

Hmm. That may, perhaps, sound a trifle conceited. I’ll explain a bit, shall I?

My days at the good old Johnny Hopkins, and the SciFi Club thereof, were a time of great success for the club. Attendance soared, events were kick-ass… and most of all, the members of the club (we called ourselves ‘fen’) were supremely cool people. There was all variety of gamers and nerds and dorks – but by and large the majority happened to also be socially well-adjusted individuals. It was, if not a golden age, a silver age of sorts.

Elder fen from years past were a common sight, lending experience and wisdom to all. Younger fen were excited and eager for new things. It was a grand age for gaming and anime – as well as boozing and clubbing and other brands of excitement.

Good times, it was agreed, were had by all.

There was, of course, the usuall drama and emotional chaos that comes about with any group of close-knit people… but that’s all part of the show. Part of being, in the end, a family.

Fast forward several years. Most of the current fen are now elder fen. Most of the elder fen are no longer a presence at the club – many have left the area entire. Last year graduated the last remnant of the old guard from my days, and the club was filled with almost entirely new blood.

And I have stopped by hither and thither to see what I may see of the state of things… and been left wondering.

The club remained intact. Events were held, games were run. And yet… some certain spark seemed gone. The club seemed entirely too fannish, and not enough about fans. (Aha! A comic reference! It’s, um, sealed behind the double-secret doors of Graphic Smash. Ah well.) The point at hand – they had the fervor and obsession with games, but without any degree of moderation. That is not a mark against them entirely – I, of all people, can give little criticism for that. But it was a difference, and a clear one.

I could not entirely be sure how much things had changed. Did I just see my days among the fen as better because I was there and part of it? Was it perspective more than truth? Good questions, and ones always worth asking… and yet, from all I saw, all I could tell, that spark was not there.

And so, with trepidition, I come to this year’s convention. No obligations, no duties – I was there as myself, in search of fun and nothing more. I was not sure what I would find.

I was, in fact, in luck. The con itself was intact, with all the normal trappings in place – a dealer’s room, video games, anime, bad scifi movies, board games, card games, tabletop games – and so forth.

Most important of all – other elder fen were there, in the same state and concern as myself.

And they had their own games to play, and there own games to run. And so after spending the obligatory time dilly-dallying about the con, I sat down with them to play their game – and thus enjoyed the best con experience I had in years.

Elder fen for the motherfucking win!

The game in question is the real reason behind this little monologue. It was a roleplaying game, making use of the new World of Darkness rules system. (Like the old system, only with the life drained out of it. Ironic, that, no?)

Several names were given for the game: Happily Never After. The Wonderful World of Darkness. The final choice: Magic Kingdom Come.

The premise: 10 years have passed since happily ever after, and we return to our beloved characters from the disney tales. The allied nations of Wonderland and Neverland are under seige by a mysterious plot that has its sources back in the Magic Kingdom, and the throne of Prince Charming himself.

Now that, my friends, is a goddamn plot.

Let’s take time out for a little tangent. We’re going to talk about Something Positive! And here you thought this talk wasn’t going to have anything to do with webcomics, didn’t you?

Click for full-sized Poultrimancy!
S*P has had comics about gaming. And yet, when we have been priviledged to have some scenes from their games captured for us, it isn’t always quite the usual fare.

We have had sodomizing treant hillbillies and Overlord Barbie. We have been offered stat blocks for infernal tax collectors, and similar such creations.

Kyle describes the games as nothing more than “monsters that are puns and spells whose name are plays on words.”

Look, I know Kyle is both an idiot and a terrible human being. I’m aware he is one of the few cast members who are pretty darn close to irredeamable.

Despite this, I found myself almost… agreeing with him.

You see, I just didn’t get it. It was, sure, funny in the comic – but I couldn’t see it as a game. The games I played were about slaying dragons or besting ancient gods of darkness! Sure, I played sessions that that had in-jokes here and there, modules with inappropriate pop-culture references, games with their share of humor and puns and jokes.

But they were all just tossed in here and there – the games themselves, invariably, had a solid story I could get behind. Epic adventures, serious struggles, dangerous foes. Those were the games I played… and ran.

(It should be mentioned I even ran a game – populated entirely by male players – whose characters were, essentially, a magical girl squadron – but even that was only a small tie-on to a larger, epic game. A joke that grew rather stale, rather quick, and ended up being used more as a medium for conveying plot for the bigger story.)

So when I saw the terrifying visages of Regular and Extra-Crispy, I just. sorta. shrugged. It wasn’t for me. In my view of game and gaming, I couldn’t see the appeal of that sort of… nonsense. Gimmickry and childishness, it seemed… and nothing more.

And yet, I found myself playing Magic Kingdom Come.

It was, suffice to say, a view-altering experience.

My own character was Dumbo, a burnt-out but still feisty ex-child star of the Big Top. The other players were Rambi, the gun-toting psycho deer; Pinochio, who went all emo once he became a real boy, and the three ex-wives of the dashing but callous Prince Charming: Cinderalla (now head of the Neverland pirates since Hook had been ‘taken out’); Snow-White, an ice-queen professional businesswoman with no patience for lesser folks; and Sleeping Beauty, lesbian mistress to Alice, Queen of Wonderland (who happened to be in a marriage of convenience with Peter Pan, King of Neverland.)

…I can feel the fanboy in me bubbling to the surface. I can feel the desire to regale my captive audience with the stellar tales of battle, from the consultation with the Cheshire Cat to the vanquishing of Simba, or the final showdown with Prince Charming himself! I resist, for the most part, that treacherous urge.

But it may be said in no uncertain terms that I enjoyed myself. I enjoyed the frivolity, the goddamn puerility of it all! There was something soothing in letting go of all my premade conceptions of what made a good game – and instead I took something fun, and sat down with my friends, and played the goddamn game.

I get it, now, and can’t help but feel remorse for having ever sided, however momentarily, with the villainous Kyle Cheng. It might be safe to say I learned a valuable lesson today, even if it might have been learned through the mangling of my childhood stories.

Because sometimes it can be more than enough fun to trounce through the tales of our youth, freely butchering the memories of our favorite heroes and villains as we go. Sometimes it can be fun to let loose and ignore the serious, the rules, the regulations of dragon slaying and monster vanquishing. Making our own rules, playing our own games – isn’t that what it’s all about?

In the end, the goal of gaming is to have fun. To enjoy yourself. Not to kill a dragon – though if that is what you enjoy, then by all means partake of it! But the true fun is sitting down with friends and having a damn good time.

There are many ways to do that – and all of them are the correct one. Hang out. Have fun. Make the game fun, however you want to do so!

I mentioned, long ago at the start of this little talk, that I had been worried as to the success of the con. The attendance seemed sparser than normal, the events a bit less substantial.

But I had fun. I found what I wanted to do there, and had fun… old school style, with friends I only see once or twice a year.

And as I walked the halls of the con, I know now quite well what it was I saw – happy congoers. People that were playing games or watching anime, mocking bad movies or laying down the smackdown on a video game. People that were, in the end, having fun.

With that, I can’t call the con anything less than a resounding success.

I’ll be back for the last day of it tomorrow, to poke around a bit more and see what other old friends might show their faces.

And I know that I’ll enjoy it through and through.

My allergies seem to be remitting a bit, and sleep has been heavily calling for the last half-hour. But the words, as always, have their own demands.

It is rare I have been up this late in recent days, and I know not what sleep I’ll find before I rise, nor what dreams may come. I may dream of a fallen fairyland, or I may, nostalgic, dream of cons in days of yore.

But I go to bed a happy man.

And that, in truth, is all that I can ask for.

Friday Reflections

Another week comes to a close, and I am sitting around eagerly awaiting some tasty latkes my friends are currently concocting. While I do enjoy reflecting on the things to be thankful for, and the stories of the various holidays currently upon us, I must also confess to enjoying all the fine food produced for these events. Especially when they aren’t produced by me, and don’t involve setting things on fire.

(I am aware that all these attempts at Latke creation aren’t occuring during the holidays with which Latkes are normally associated, and I do assure you that I am partaking in the appropriate foods, such as my personal favorite: Matzoh Ball soup. That said, there’s never a time that isn’t right for latkes!)

There seems to be quite a few folks taking a holiday from webcomics as well, as a sudden rash of guest strips has broken out across the interweb. I suppose, however, that this is counterbalanced by the return of Gossamer Commons, after only a brief hiatus… and the renewal of Framed, returned to us from the long dark!

I’ve talked before about how much more mobile webcomics are than many other industries – it is easy to accept them when they fall behind their schedules, or cease output entirely, and also perfectly unsurprising when they return after long and lengthy delays. It might be on account of how easy it is to jump to the next comic on our list when one is currently absent – and how easy it is to wait for word of mouth to herald the return of missing comics. Whatever the reasons, I’m glad to see these two comics back. (Even if it means I’ll have to dig back through Framed to try and have any clue as to what in the world is going on!)

In other news, David Willis is being a gentleman’s gentleman, and providing some hefty fan service for the ladies. Meanwhile, over in Wapsi Square we get to see a just punishment to fit the crime. (Personally, I enjoy all the scenes with Katherine, and the latest little story is proving as good as any.)

Suburban Tribe has wrapped up its latest storyarc, and continues to raise my opinion of it by leaps and bounds with every strip. Having a conclusion to the story arc that keeps all the fanboys happy doesn’t hurt, either. I think Lee has done a damn fine job of keeping the story moving along, and maintaining the tension between the lead characters – without actually resolving it. Generally it’s hard to keep that pace up without it feeling like stagnation, but he’s doing a damn fine job.

I expect to be doing similar posts most Fridays – giving general thoughts on the latest in webcomics. So expect another rambling post like this in a week!

I’ll be back on Monday with the usual stuff – ’til then, enjoy the holidays!

No Need for Filler

Click for full-sized Taoist proverb match! No Need for Bushido is a comic that succeeds in many ways.

Each strip is extensive, with clean, colored art that is pleasing to the eye. The characters are a combination of cliche and unexpected, with excellent interplay between them and plenty of humorous quirks. There are tons of fleshed out and entertaining side characters. There is an overarching storyline, as well as plenty of minor plots. All the good things a comic needs to succeed.

But what impresses me, what really stands out to me when I visit the site, isn’t the comic itself – it is the amount of content available.

The update schedule for NNFB is not as extensive as many other comics. It updates the main comic once, twice a week.

However, I have rarely felt the lack of comics. Perhaps it is due to the Alternate Script pages – former strips with the text replaced with surreally absurd dialogue. The first ones were a bit weak, but some of the more recent ones have been absolute winners.

The vote incentives provided for the top webcomics list aren’t just casual sketches, as with many other comics. Instead, they are generally elaborate drawings. Good deal.

Glancing around the front page, what else is there? Tutorials on the comic’s cell shading, exclusive content available for purchase, links to past bonus art projects (flash animations, past April’s Fools jokes). They don’t even have a cast page proper – instead, they link straight to the webcomic’s wiki. And the latest feature is the inclusion of a blog written by one of the villains of the series.

I like having that much material at hand when I visit the site. I like having filler at hand that I can actually enjoy, rather than filler that is simply an effort to provide content, rather than provide humor or any sort of, you know, actual enjoyment. I like having a site that throws material at the reader, rather than make them hunt down for the merest scrap of information. When I can’t even find an archive page, I generally know I’ve got a struggle in store for me. When, on the other hand, the archive is the least of the material offered, it makes for a good experience.

Part of being professional about a comic isn’t just about the comic itself. There are obviously plenty of those elements involved – good art, writing, consistency, and so forth. But it also helps to have a good site. That helps make the reader feel like a part of something – and establishing that reader community can be a very good thing.

So here’s a shout-out to No Need for Bushido, for providing a good comic when it updates – and a whole hell of a lot of other good stuff the rest of the time.

The Song That Ends the Earth

I Hope You Like Text(Click the image on the right for full sized Text, Text, and some more Text.)

(And for full-sized crying Gabe and manical Tycho.)

As you can see on the right, Monday’s Penny Arcade contains quite a bit of text.

A veritable onslaught, one might say. Which is perfectly fine – the words themselves, as most ones chosen by Sir Tycho, are carefully and lovingly crafted to maximum effect.

His writing, as always, pleases.

That said, the writing was not what caught my eye in this strip.

Even here, in a strip that is overflowing with words, it was the art that caught my eye. Despite currently being the artist of the most popular webcomic in existence, and despite having come a long, long way from where the comic began, Gabe often talks abouthis desire to expand his skill as an artist. That’s commendable. Even more – he does so.

Gabe and Tycho don’t have a very wide variety of facial expressions. They are often wearing expressions of disdain, indifference, occasional disgust… and often simply rage. A good variety, but we see it all the time – one reason why I have always liked it when a character gets a bit of a maniacal gleam in their eye. When Gabe gets a chance to draw a bit beyond his usual repertoire.

Today is a good day. Tycho is stark raving mad and Gabe is confronted by horrors beyond mortal imagination. Now that’s a comic I can really get behind!

Written Speech

The Great Outdoor Fight has come and gone. As I suspected, my interest in Achewood faded with it, and I’ve closed the book on that particular tale.

For all that Achewood, as a whole, doesn’t really work for me – I have to give credit to Onstad for bringing at least one stylistic element to my attention – the use of different text for different characters.

I’d seen it done before, of course. But this was the first time that I noticed it so keenly, and it worked so well.

A writer has control of the words his characters speaks, and the language that they use. He can, to a large extent, help to form the speech the reader ‘hears’ when they read the strip – but that control isn’t absolute. Everyone might have a different voice they’ve invented for each character, and it can vary wildly from one reader to the next.

And I’ve seen writers use little tricks to distinguish the speech from different characters – different colorations, different fonts. Cat Legend is a good example – almost every character has their own, unique, speech. Which sometimes works very well – it can make it easy to follow dialogue, and sometimes the chosen fonts and colors are very appropriate indeed.

And for a strip like that, it works especially well – the main characters are faeries and elves and similar sorts. It feels fine to have that sort of gimmick. Unfortunately, it does simply end up as a gimmick, since it applies to every character. It becomes part of the setting, rather than something special – which is fine. It just means that it doesn’t truly help the author establish the character’s voice any more than normal text would.

Achewood, though… Achewood was different. Roast Beef speaks softly. All the other characters that I saw spoke the same, and, as usual, my mind found a voice for them. But Roast Beef, regardless of how I heard him, I knew was speaking differently.

The contrast is palpable when talking with others – especially Ray. Roast Beef’s text is smaller. That’s it, nothing more. It is a simple change – but everytime he speaks, you can feel it. He is a soft-spoken man. Yet his own soft speech makes the other language – even though it is the norm – seem too loud, too bold, too heavy.

I was impressed. That small alteration changed every scene he was in, and very powerfully determined the way I saw – and heard – his character.

I began paying a lot more attention to comics, and noticed more than a few used this device without me having noticed it before. Home on the Strange broke it out, to easily show off the sound of constant nattering and babbling. I’ve seen a dozen more that slipped by mind. It’s a nice device, easy to use, and gives the writer a bit more control over the character.

But in the end, Achewood really did it best. I go back now and glance through the archives – and, as usual, I find it difficult to get engaged. But I take another jaunt through the Great Outdoor Fight, and the scenes between Roast Beef and Ray resonate strongly – in no small part thanks to the contrast between them, one that is powerfully aided by the voice of Roast Beef.

It isn’t it alone – the language he uses is very well chosen, and often somewhat poetic, and it works very well.

It speaks very well of Achewood that even with limited exposure, for someone who wasn’t drawn in being the Great Outdoor Fight, it has shown itself so favorably, and has left its mark on me.

I might not be staying around in Achewood anymore, but kudos to Chris Onstad nonetheless!

Video Game Jubilations

Spooky fella, ain't he?After many months of the only video game I invested time into being the nefarious World of Warcraft, I have recently managed to find another diversion – the latest Prince of Persia game.

As usual, my game playing is a bit behind the times – I only played Prince of Persia: Sands of Time about a year ago. I played it because a friend had it, and all accounts I’d heard of the game gave it rave reviews. It lived up to them – a game more based around overcoming environmental challenges than actual foes was a new experience for me, and a welcome one.

But the things I heard about the sequel, Warrior Within, were less than complimentary. So I paid little attention to the franchise, and only just recently took interest in the latest release.

Since I was still in withdrawal for a new RPG (despite Kingdom Hearts being just upon the horizon), I decided to give Prince of Persia 2 and 3 a go. The second one, as reports stated, could have been better. Yet I knew coming into it that it made some poor choices, so I was able to laugh at the changes rather than get aggresively fanboyish over them. (It should be noted that the only reason I got it was for story completeness sake, as that is, in the end, what drives almost any game playing experience I have.)

Fortunately, having managed to laugh my way through Warrior Within, the third one has completely blown me away. It not only returns to the excellence of the original – but it takes the best elements in both games and transforms them into something incredible. I’m moving through the game as best I can (in order to start in on the aforementioned Kingdom Hearts), but am enjoying every second of it.

As I said, I realize I’m a bit behind the times with this realization. The game has been out for a few months now, and no doubt handily defeated by many. Nonetheless, it has been a while since I’ve been so captivated by a game – by the puzzles, the story, the combat, the music, the art. As such, I felt the need to give a little hurrah for the experience. So, ah… Hurrah!

There we go.

April Fools

Another April Fools has come and gone, and I wanted to give a shout-out to the best jokes I saw from the occasion.

I didn’t especially partake in the festivities myself, aside from helping to ‘celebrate’ the birthday of my sister, who had the ill-fortune to be born just alongside this day of mischief.

So, here are a few of the keeper’s that I got a kick out of:

A Brainwarping Twist from CRFH: Good because Maritza is evil enough that it was hard to predict if this was the joke, or if the joke was that this actually happened.

Brains! from Inverloch: Winner of the “Unexpected Undead Award!” (I just made that reward up.) Definitely clever and funny.

Old and Alone from Shortpacked: Last year I didn’t notice the Dinosaur Comics nature of his April 1st strip, and despite not reading the works of Ryan North, I must acknowledge Willis’s mastery of this medium as being totally wicked. It wasn’t quite as innately funny as last year’s strip, but I think the laugh this time was more due to the style rather than the substance.

Switch Up from Ctrl-Alt-Del: I may have ragged on CAD in the past for some of its riffs being a bit formulaic, but I have to say I really liked his April 1st joke. Subtle enough to take a moment to sink in, without the strip even bothering to slow down to acknowledge it. Just a clever nod to the event, and nothing more. That’s good stuff.

Anyway, those were the ones I most noticed and enjoyed. It ain’t easy to pull off a good April Fools joke, since people either expect it to be coming, or are tired of dealing with it already. So even though everyone is back to the normal swing of things, I wanted to recognize a few jokers that pulled it off!