Monthly Archives: July, 2006

One of the Rules of the Game

A first glance... Today I discovered that Saturnalia had recently returned from an extended hiatus. (And by recently, I mean… many months ago.)

I sometimes wonder how many great comics I am still in mourning for that are now merrily updating away without my notice.

In any case, I happened to check up on this one and was well rewarded for doing so.

Saturnalia is one of those comics that may not blow me out of my shows, but is still fun to follow. It has manga style art, which can sometimes be a little chaotic to follow, but often with some exceptionally good scenes. The story is set in the future with your usual hot-headed protaganist and a whole set of quirky ‘friends’.

The plot, as of yet, has a lot of mysteries, and if some things seem to be done a little too neatly… well, that may be explained in time.

However, I discovered one thing that was done exceptionally well during the months I had missed.

Chapter Nine of the story focuses on an announcement made by the King of the planet. Up till then we’ve only heard strange rumors about the King, and implications that something horrible and shady may be going on behind the scenes.

The King himself is over three hundred years old, and despite the machines that keep him alive, his body is failing.

At this point you are expecting someone diabolical. This man controls the entire world – an ancient genius plotting who knows what. Your first view of him is the visage up above – a shadowy figure, isolated and alone.

...and a second. What I was not expecting was a figure who looked nothing so much as a boy playing dress-up, in an outfit a few sizes too big.

Looking close, the facade of youth is clearly that, from a physical standpoint – King Hal the first appears far from healthy.

But he still acts like a kid. He suffers from a fear of public speaking. He dwells on the achievements he made in high school – in grade school, despite it being three hundred years later. Several of the silly names of cities, communities, and the kingdom itself make much more sense, if you imagine a man like this as the founder.

One does not expect him to cut such a jovial figure, but he manages it well – despite his extra pair of arms.

Now, is this all there is to him? Doubtful.

It could well be that he is a diabolical genius planning something sinister. But whether a villain or not, he is an interesting character.

The creator, Space Coyote, has done something very well – they have subverted expectations. They took what could have been something easily cliche – and mindless, and dull – and done something completely unexpected with it. And that makes it all the more fascinating.

Does this mean every artist should throw absurd characters into the story without reason or explanation? Well no – one of the reasons the character of King Hal works is that the very flaws in the character make him believable. And he clearly has a place in the story – he isn’t thrown in recklessly.

Having that sort of originality is vital for a storyteller. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy Saturnalia, but it has rarely wowed me. Adding something new and exciting, though – that makes me remember it. That gets my attention.

I’m not saying to try and constantly one-up the reader. Don’t ruin the integrity of the story because you are afraid readers might see the plot twist coming, and don’t create wacky characters or events solely to try and shock and dazzle the reader. It isn’t about beating the reader in some obscure way – but it is about doing something to win them over and get them coming back.

But if you can carefully, subtely lead their thought process one way, and then successfully subvert that expectation with something fascinating and clever?

Then the game is already halfway won.

The end of the world as we know it?

My, but there have been quite a few webcomics running guest strips this week – though I suppose more than one cartoonist was exhausted by last week’s Comic-Con.

I missed the con myself, primarily due to living some three thousand miles away. Nevertheless, the many and sundry reports of the con made it seem as though I was actually there, only surrounded by words and pictures instead of, you know, people.

But yeah, the panels sounded like they were crazy awesome, and I’m sad I missed it – though glad that people were kind enough to take notes, as it were, and share the lecture with those of us who missed class.

Anyway, I’ve got a dirty secret. The comic that has, this last week, had me on the edge of my seat, religiously checking the updates every day, and gleefully anticipating the next installment… is Garfield.

I attempt to disbelieve.

Whoa, what? Could this be the end of the strip?

Back when I was a young lad, I was quite the Garfield aficionado. I watched the cartoon, I bought the collections. It wasn’t until I was educated by wiser minds on the internet that I realized the daily Garfield in the paper was… well, bad. It hadn’t always been – once, the jokes had been genuinely interesting, the characters had storylines and weren’t simply stuck in an eternal punchline about mondays and lasagna.

But clearly things had changed, and I went with the flow in mocking Garfield (along with 95% of the other strips in the daily papers), and somewhere along the way I forgot that once upon a time, I actually enjoyed the strip.

So it was quite the surprise to see something of an ongoing storyline in recent weeks. A blog about Garfield brought the matter to my attention – and what can I say? I was riveted. Actually having something happen is a ballsy move in any syndicated strip – especially one as glued to ‘the formula’ as Garfield.

And now we seem to have… well, not just change, but possibly a conclusion. I’m sure we’ll know in a day or two if Garfield has actually wound its way to a happy ending, or if it will return to the standard fare.

One thing I do have to recognize, regardless of where Garfield goes from here – the fat cat has genuinely embraced the web. The website is a bit overloaded – but contains an archive with every single strip of the comic. That is a hell of a lot more than most newspaper strips do, and I must give props for that.

What may the future bring?

Wonder of wonders, Blogger is finally letting me post images again!
So, as I’m sure that everyone has heard by now that Narbonic is free again. For those who may have been hiding at the bottom of the ocean, or on the moon perchance – go, check it out, yadda yadda.

In any case, in celebration of it being free, I’ve been perusing the archives here and there. Not the entire thing, being that, these days, I am frightfully busy – but various key segments, especially in light of the grand finale the strip is heading for.

The main arc that I took a browse through was the time travel arc, for somewhat obvious reasons. I had remembered little hints of the things to come, of course – what I hadn’t remembered was the sheer quantity of them, nor how direct some of them were.

I really, really, really like foreshadowing like this. The idea that a story is already thought out years in advance, and that the bones of what is to come are already laid in place, is greatly appealing to me. But it can’t be easy to do – I can’t imagine the thin line an author has to walk between leaving hints versus directly giving away the story.

And how does an author handle it when someone does see what is coming, and accurately predicts the ending? Most seem to stay silent on all counts – you know, smile the mysterious little smile, and let people wait and see. I’ve noticed some take a more active approach – Rich Burlew, creator of the Order of the Stick, prohibits any predictions about the strip that aren’t given the spoiler tag, so he can avoid seeing what guesses are being made, and thus resist the urge to change things and ensure an unexpected plot twist.

On the one hand, I can see the value of wanting the readers to be surprised – but I generally value the integrity of a story more.

In any case, I was pleased to see how well the stage was set in Narbonic – and again, because I haven’t said it enough, go read it if you don’t already.

Dominic Deegan and the Return of the Damned

The latest Dominic Deegan storyline has stirred up a measure of controversy, as the plot was taken in a direction that some readers were dissatisfied with.

For myself, I was overall rather indifferent to the War in Hell. I wasn’t aghast at the plot developments as some readers were, but the arc itself didn’t really leave an impact on me. It is a shame, because I was really excited about the story arc when it first got started, but it ended up focusing on some different characters then the ones I was expecting, and that was some of the let-down.

That said, Mookie has easily grabbed my attention back to the strip with recent developments.

Now, I should note that one of the complaints people have raised about this storyarc was regarding the death of a character whom many still felt had a great potential for development.

I should also note that I held similar concerns over the seemingly pointless death of a character during the last epic storyarc.

Which is why his recent return has convinced me that it is very, very unwise to leap to conclusions in matters concerning Dominic Deegan. Mookie plays his cards well, and I suspect that there may be similarly interesting developments for other characters we’ve written off somewhere down the road.

Now, all that said, I do still feel that if yet another world-shattering epic catastrophe that only Dominic can solve should happen to break out anytime in the near future, I’ll not be all that happy.

But I think it is safe to say that the strip continues to hold the capacity to pleasantly surprise me, and that as long as there is as many good plot developments as bad, I’ll be sticking around to see what’s next.

The Weekend, oh thank god, the Weekend

While others are off carousing at the San Diego Comic Con, I am planning to be quite merrily collapsing at home in exhaustion.

For now, though, some quick thoughts on developments from my weekly webcomic perusal:

I am flat out 100% digging Sinfest since its most recent return. Ishida has been in top form. His latest strip hardly touched on a new concept, but the execution is so perfect as to hit the nail on the head regardless.

Oh yeah! Spamamusement is back and in business, and he’s still got it!

I’ve talked about My Nemesis before, but today’s installment is really nice. Specifically, the use of shadow in the first two panels to make Rob look like a bad-ass instead of, well, like Rob. (Also, the cast page has been updated. Have I mentioned I really like interesting cast pages? Well… I do. So there.)

And finally, CRFH, as always, has me smiling with dreadful anticipation of what might be coming next.

WCCAs 2006 – Take 2

This year’s Webcartoonist’s Choice Awards are just now winding down (winners announced, ceremony on its way.)

Scandal and controversy has been abounding (which is to say, there have been some minor hiccups in the works this year.)

In spite of this, I’ve generally been pleased with the event and found the results perfectly acceptable (despite only about half of the comics I was rooting for taking home the gold.)

All in all, despite the delays and confusions abounding the ceremony this year, I like the fact that we have the WCCAs. It is one of those nice little corners of the webcomics world, and for an event that, like most online cartooning itself, is volunteer driven, it is a lot of fun for a lot of people.

Would I like it to be a bit more organized? Sure. Would I like to have the ceremony right off the bat, rather than simply a list of winners? Certainly.

But I don’t think the experience is ruined by it. Given that there wasn’t even a ceremony two years back, I’m happy just to have one on the way.

So maybe I’m just an optimist. But one way or the other, I see a lot of good comics getting some solid attention and recognition, and that’s a good thing any day of the week.

A Roll of the Dice

Over at Commissioned, they announced the advent of a new comics collective, Gamers Pair of Dice. As someone who recognizes that webcomic collectives are generally a good thing, and being a gamer myself, I dutifully went browsing through several of the strips.

I was… well, I did find myself grinning at some of them. But I’m sad to say that the majority of them left me underwhelmed.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call them Penny Arcade rip-offs. They are simply exploring the same field and making jokes on much the same subject matter, and that is perfectly fine.

But even if I don’t make the accusation, the comparison is inevitable. Penny Arcade mastered that genre of strips before most of them began, and as such, it is hard for them to stand out. The mere presence of the webcomics juggernaut, in some ways, stifles those trying to follow in its footsteps.

On another note entirely, one of the strips – a guest strip, even – left its mark on me. More specifically, it set Gato’s little song running through my head over and over again! I spoke yesterday about my poor memory, and I haven’t played the game for years, but I’ll be damned if simply seeing a virtual screenshot didn’t send the song rampaging through my mind on repeat!

Matters of the Mind

I have a very bad memory.

I don’t mean that I forget my keys all the time, or miss following up on phone calls or ordinary chores like that. I can keep track of important dates and events. My life may not always be perfectly in order, but I am typically on top of things.

But I have trouble remembering. My high school years are nearly gone from my mind. College, only a year or two behind me now, already starts to fade away.

For quite some time I kept a studious, dedicated, and most of all boring journal of my day to day life. It wasn’t a study in philosophy or sophistication – it was merely a catalogue to help me recall those events that I knew would grow… dim.

My poor memory is, perhaps, the biggest change I would make about myself. That loss of memory, that gaping abyss of thought, is perhaps my greatest fear.

Hmm. This seems to be an awfully dismal post. I may have wandered a bit from my track, but I thought it best to set the stage.

You see, I’ve recently discovered an upside to the leaking sieve that is my mind. Well… not so much discovered, as recognized.

I am a reader. My first great love was fiction. Books, stories, and all they entailed – throughout my youth I partook of them, and read far, far more than was healthy for a boy my age.

I have a tendency, when no new material has caught my attention, to revisit previous works. And I have realized one of the reasons I am able to do so, able to actually enjoy a work for the second, third, or fourth time… is my poor memory.

It isn’t that I forget every last element of a story. Little hints may remain at the outskirts of my mind, vague patterns I may see developing in the tale.

But after a few years – and several hundred more stories crammed into my noggin – I find that I can still experience the same thrill of surprise, excitement, and entertainment as on my first read-through.

I’ve been discovering this while reading back through Tad William’s Otherland, one of my favorite works. It is one of those epic tales that actually convinced me that sci-fi fiction could be, well… serious writing, and not just hokey space-drama.

I was almost afraid to read back through it, since I had recently fallen out of sorts with a lot of writers I had been a fan of when I was younger – Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Ed Greenwood. I had recently realized that much of what I had read when I was younger was… absolute trash.

Fortunately, Tad Williams is the man, and his series remained good writing in more than distant memories. And, as this slowly meandering post is meant to tell you, I discovered that not recalling the details of the plot let me experience the work anew, which was a thrilling discovery all on its own.

Of course, the downside of faulty memory reared its ugly head as well, when I discovered I had lost my copy of the fourth volume, and had no idea whatsover what I had done with it.

But always look on the bright side, as my dear old mom used to say!

…I think.

Choose Your Own Crap

I bet that last line is a lie. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is one of those horrifyingly funny gag comics that you can easily snicker about with your friends. It is great for providing one-liner inside jokes that will puzzle those who haven’t read the comic, but cause your friends to keel over with laughter. (I can make puppies appear anywhere!)

So I was beating myself up when I noticed that the author did several other web-comics as well.

Then I made the mistake of reading them. Oh, I can tolerate Chason, and I have a tendency to avoid journal comics as a whole, so that wasn’t really his fault.

The real problem was with the third strip, Zach Your Own Adventure. Wherein I realized that there seemed to be a trend for ‘choose your own adventure’ style comics to often be absymally bad.

I recall a similar sequence at Punks and Nerds, that seemed to go much the same way.

There, like here, the entire sequence was a bunch of stupid random crap. There wasn’t any real jokes other than, well, the shocking chaos of what was happening. The highlight was the choice itself – the fact that the strip was chosen by the audience.

Which, well, its a cool idea. But if it doesn’t produce material actually worth looking at, what’s the point?

The problem is, the audience is composed of a bunch of random blokes who don’t know – or don’t agree on – how to tell a good joke, or a good story. You can’t just throw a bunch of topics at them and expect for it to result in anything interesting. They may be engaged in the process of making the choose, and enthused if their choice wins out – but the content itself becomes meaningless.

The other issue with these strips? Because the main point of it is to let the reader choose, the author doesn’t have to put any thought into the options at hand. It doesn’t matter if they are funny or not, it doesn’t matter if they would use them on their own if they were writing the strip. All the user cares about is the choice, so as long as they present choices, the quality of those options is irrelevant.

I have no clue what is happening, and that's ok.Now, it can be done well.

[Insert Title Here], which sadly appears to be on hiatus, is a fully fan-written strip that actually has promise.

The key is that they don’t let the entire audience choose a random topic for the author to interpret. Nah. They actually have people submit scripts for each page, and choose the best one to go with.

Clever, still interactive, and producing actually decent material. I like it.

Another comic that has pulled it off well is Goblins. It has a rather extensive feature about a goblin named Tempts Fate, and the bad situations he seems to wind up in. The reader’s donations (and occasional poll) determines whether he lives or dies, how well he does, and occasional other information.

But that doesn’t mean the man behind the comic slacks about it. He puts together pretty damn sizable pages with genuinely interesting results having been influenced by the readers. The final product is actually readable.

Again, I like that.

The lesson here is that if you are going to have these sort of drives or randomly reader-driven strips… don’t settle for that being the whole of them. Sure, even if you don’t put any effort into it, it will still stir up some excitement while its running. But once the moment of the gimmick is over, it’s useless – it is some random crap sitting on the site for people to read. That doesn’t impress anyone.

I like the idea of reader input. I think the way the web works allows for interesting events like this, for an interactivity between the creator and the audience.

Which makes it all the more depressing to see the potential in those sort of interactions thoroughly wasted.

Tales of a Wandering Blogger

I have of late been enthralled in quite a lot of reading that takes place – gasp – outside of the internet.

Foremost among these has been the Rurouni Kenshin manga.

First I should explain my history with Kenshin – I started watching the anime series some four years ago, in the midst of college. I got my friends into the series, and we made the mistake of getting too many people interested in watching it.

We got through the second season – the Kyoto arc, the real highlight of the series – in a reasonable amount of time. But the rest of the series… well, we had heard it wasn’t as great as what had come before. And it’s true, most certainly – it isn’t that it was bad, but that it was simply not great.

But we wanted to watch it anyway. To finish the series. We knew going into it that it was nothing more than fun little filler, but as long as we knew that, we wouldn’t be let down.

Unfortunately, we had some friends graduating. Others growing busy with various jobs, schoolwork, and other concerns. The long and short of it?

It took two and a half years to finish watching the series – to finish that one final season.

But we did it. A couple months ago we gathered back together, arranging a break from our jobs and our lives, and watched the final episodes, and it was a good feeling to complete that experience in the company of friends.

But for myself, that wasn’t quite the end of the Kenshin saga. The manga, you see, was being released in English.

While watching the Kenshin series had been a communal thing, reading the manga was, predictably, a bit more solitary. I was impressed by how closely the series mirrored the comic (at least for the first two seasons). I was more impressed by the fact that, unlike a lot of manga I had read before, I was able to easily follow the artwork, the story, and pretty much everything going on.

And, damn, but it was a good story – and when it diverged from the series, and continued its own plot, it only got better.

But like all things, it came to an end. The last volumes were released, purchased and read. It was a powerful conclusion to an excellent series.

And, like any time that a work of fiction I was embroiled in came to an end, the end was bittersweet. As fitting as the conclusion might be, as necessary as the ending might be, it is still hard to let go of well-loved characters.

So this is my shout-out to Kenshin. An awesome anime, an awesome manga, an awesome story. It might be old news to folks in the community, but that doesn’t make it any less great.