Monthly Archives: March, 2007

Split Vision

Today’s Freefall was a shock, and through one simple thing – the coloring of the comic.

Freefall is a science fiction comic, and a good one. It sticks to genuinely plausible science, and explores a futuristic world that feels both feasible and natural. The main characters – Florence, a genetically engineered humanoid wolf; Helix, a fun-loving and innocent robot; and Sam Starfall, an alien swindler – are among the most original characters around. Freefall, for all its fun, is a strip that is good at helping the reader learn – learn about science, learn about society, learn about personal interactions.

But I’m not here today to talk about the story of the strip – though it is a good one – or discuss how capable Mark Stanley is at balancing casual humor and plot. Instead, I wanted to talk about the strip’s art.

Freefall is drawn in black and white. It is a good look for it, and the characters have a simple, cartoony look that fits in perfectly with the light and upbeat tone of the comic. His strips in the archives, however, are fan colored. The current fan handling that task, one George Peterson, does a good job with this, and his colors mesh perfectly with that same cartoony feel.

Today has a different guest colorist, known only as Patch. I’m not sure who this individual is – but their take on the comic transformed the strip into something else entirely:

Suddenly, we have a completely different world in front of us. Instead of a light sci-fi strip, I could see this as center stage for an intense space drama. The context of the strip, the plot thus far – all of it moves through a subtle shift in my perception, and everything suddenly seems much more solid, much more real, much more alive.

Which isn’t to say that one vision of the strip is better than the other – they are different, and that is the key. It reminds me of Arbuckle, a retelling of Garfield classics through another view entirely. That goes a step farther – removing Garfield’s text, and redrawing the strip in a different fashion.

In this case, it is the coloring alone that is a change, but man – what a change!I wasn’t expecting it when I clicked the link on my favorites – and being hit by such a scene when the page loaded was almost a physical shock.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about perception lately, and the way different people might observe the same object in different ways – and maybe that is why I was so struck by today’s Freefall. It didn’t leave me feeling that this strip will be lessened without this new style in future strips, nor believing that this style ruins the strip for me through a single appearance. It really has nothing to do with Freefall at all – instead, this was more of a lesson on the nature of the media in general. What it did was make me realize that there are many different factors in every comic that help guide my understanding of it – and that changing even a single element can transform the whole into something else entirely.

As usual, Freefall is busy teaching me lessons – and this time it did so before I even got to the content of the strip itself.

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Down to Earth

Am I the only one that thinks Real Life has been… completely and totally on fire of late?

This strip has been around for over seven years, and was a pretty big name for a time – but I haven’t heard much discussion of it in recent years. Oh, it never went away – it has been steadily moving along and doing its thing, and doing it well enough to get by. School and life reduced the consistency of updates (though in an ideal world, three to four strips a week should still be enough to keep anyone happy). For a while, it felt like it was just going through the motions, and not much more.

Basic EconomicsBut recently… recently, things seem to have changed. I felt like there was a spark flaring back to life. I couldn’t pinpoint a single strip where it happened… but I noticed that it had migrated from the bottom of my reading list up towards the top. Real Life had gotten its groove back, and was moving along a cut above the rest.

From a personal perspective, I’d say what has helped is getting back to telling tales of… well, of real life. As of today we’re embarking on recollections of Greg’s adventures in I.T. – I can already see it is going to be a goldmine of humor. Before that we saw Greg’s experiences at culinary school, his cooking externship, him and Liz traveling around and just plain old living life. Lots of fun, lots of funny, and all close enough to home that the reader could connect to the jokes. Storylines and strips clearly based on the very real experiences of Greg Dean (the creator), which could then be easily applied to the life of Greg Dead (the main character).

I first discovered Real Life because it had won a WCCA for Best Reality Comic. I can’t remember what other comics it beat out, only that I felt they deserved. So I went in to take a look at this strip called Real Life… and was furious. Time travel, supervillains, artificially intelligent consoles – there wasn’t anything Real about at all!

(It should be noted that I felt similar frustration at Questionable Content winning outstanding Slice-of-Life comic this year. It isn’t that these comics aren’t great comics – but I’ve always felt they’ve sleazed their way into these categories and taken the prize away from comics are that genuinely down to earth in a very real way.)

(Which might just be an argument for adding a Magical Realism category to the show. But that, really, is a rant for another time.)

Anyway.

Eventually, I realized that the comic itself was good stuff, even if I felt the title something of a misnomer. And I’ll be honest – it was fun to watch Tony act out the criminal mastermind, and see the cast and crew get into antics that clearly didn’t happen in the real world.

Fourth wall? What fourth wall?!But lately there has been more of a focus on the autobiographical, on the genuine stuff itself… and it works. Man, but it does work.

The strip has also come a long way from where it began, and I hadn’t realized how much until I took a glance back through the archives. It isn’t a surprise, really – almost any strip that has been running for that many years (especially with a consistent update schedule) has a tendency to improve. But while the basics are the same, we’ve gone from simple talking heads to… bright and dynamic talking heads in a world of detailed backgrounds and vibrant colors! Sure, I imagine it’s all just a collection of sets he created for continual re-use, but that doesn’t make it look any less good.

So… yeah, this post is pretty much just to show a little love for Real Life. I’ve definitely been enjoying the solid fun of the strips, and it has been getting a grin from me with surprising constency of late. We haven’t had any big stories of late, no epic tales or crazy adventures – and I’m perfectly fine with that. Just solid humor, day after day, and a look into something that really is, these days, genuinely down-to-earth.

That’s the mark of a damn good comic in my book.

The Best of Comic Genesis: Weregeek

The DorkeningWeregeek has a very cool logo. This makes me happy.

This is hardly the most important thing for a comic – but it shouldn’t be underestimated. The only reason I’m writing this review is because of that logo. The only reason I even took a look at that comic is because the logo caught my eye.

There are other ways to attract attention, of course – word of mouth, crossovers, guest art, etc.

But being able to catch someone’s attention with a shiny little picture is important. I was browsing the Comic Genesis site last week, simply taking a look around – and of all the different strips whose logos where emblazened at the top of the page, Weregeek had the only one to catch my eye.

So, take note: Having an engaging logo? That’s a good thing.

Of course, once you’ve gotten a reader’s attention, you need to make sure they stay a reader. And that requires more than a single striking image – that requires a combination of any number of skills.

Fortunately, Alina Pete, creator of the strip, seems to have that end of things well under control. Weregeeks is a good comic, and off to a hell of a good start.

The archives make for a quick read – it has only been running for just about four months. Fortunately, there is enough in there to sink your teeth into – it has updates solidly running thrice weekly, which is just about the right pace to keep the story moving.

And move it does. The tale centers around our ‘hero’, Mark, an ordinary guy that is being drawn into the world of dorkdom. Unfortunately, on his own… well, he’s a pretty boring fellow to start with. We don’t see him before he felt the pull of the geek, nor what it is that actually drew him into these hobbies, aside from the so-called “gaming moon” that the tale unfolds beneath. For the first few pages we simply watch him run around, fleeing a mysterious hunter, while he comes to terms with him emerging geekiness.

It isn’t bad, but it is clear that the story hasn’t quite found its center yet, and we haven’t yet gotten any real attachment to Mark himself. We’ve got some amusing mysteries to ponder (the idea of a Weregeek itself, the mysterious hunter), and enough punchlines (including some real winners) to keep us going… which is good, because it doesn’t take long for it to get to the good stuff.

I’ve got to give credit where credit is due – the comic made me feel like an idiot, and that’s what made me a fan. If that doesn’t make sense, let me rephrase – it managed to pull a complete bait and switch on me, as Mark stumbles into a lair of vampires, and is faced with horror at being brought into their undying ranks… and I managed to get just as suckered into it as him, despite the obvious silliness of it all, and was just as relieved to discover it was just a bunch of kids playing a game.

Oh, it wasn’t the most subtle of plot twists. It might not even deserve the name at all – the signs are pretty clear from the start as to what is going on, especially to anyone who has actually sat around at a LARP itself. But I fell for it hook, line, and sinker, which tells me that the story is being woven tightly enough to keep me from questioning it.

So note number two: Sometimes, if you can pull off making the reader feel like an idiot without actually making the trick burn, you just might have impressed a new fan.

From there, the story really hits its stride, as the rest of the cast and crew is firmly in the picture, and suddenly having half a dozen characters makes for a lot more dynamics and a lot more fun. The character interactions and personalities reminds me of one of my favorite old school webcomics, Fans! – and, rest assured, that is a damn fine thing.  

So, good art, good story, consistent updates and solid characterization – and the strip is only just getting off the ground. I’d say the strip is only going to get better from here, and I certainly plan to be along for the ride.

And that, my friends, is why I’m glad that Weregeek happens to have a very cool – and very noticeable – logo.

Hand in Hand

There will be a review up later today, but I wanted to make a quick note to point out PennyPacker, a fan-designed extension for FireFox designed to help browse the archives of Penny Arcade. In the process it is creating a very effective database of tags for the strips themselves, allowing one to search the PA archives with ease regardless of whether they actually use the extension or not.

This is good, because the Penny Arcade archive search is the work of the devil.

On one of the more professional webcomic sites out there, with an eight person staff on hand working to keep the comic running smoothly, the complete ineffectiveness of that feature has always seemed a glaring hole in an otherwise solid production. It isn’t a necessity, persay, for a webcomic to have – but it seemed somehow wrong for a site so polished to be lax in that one area.

Given Tycho’s comments in his post,  it seems the gentlemen there are aware of this as well. I can’t fault them for not having invested them time in developing a better feature, especially given the strain a search engine might be under given the size of their archives and their audience… but I imagine they were even more pleased than I to discover that fans had already come up with an answer.

Which brings us to the point of this post – there are a lot of nice features for webcomics to have that go above and beyond the essentials. Searchable archives, detailed cast and story pages, plot overviews. And more often than not, webcomic creators don’t have the time or capacity to go ahead and create all of those themselves – but that doesn’t mean they have to go without. I’ve mentioned this before, regarding Comixpedia – even if an artist isn’t able to write up their own introduction to the comic, it’s worth checking to see if a fan has already done so at Comixpedia.org… and making sure to link to that page!

I imagine more than a few fans would be happy to make similar contributions to their favorite comics. Will it always be something as robust as PennyPacker? Most likely not. But even a simple story summary could be a big help for a new reader, and something a lot of fans could help with.

I’m not trying to say that fans should be treated a plunderable resource and used for free labor – but I’m sure every comic has those devoted enough to it they’d be glad to lend a hand for the simple purpose of improving the comic.

And in a lot of cases, I imagine all it would take would be putting the option out there.

Breakdown

I noticed, the other day, a rather cool fan-made video that Penny Arcade posted on their site. Specifically, it was the Armadeaddon storyline being put to music – which turned out pretty well for being a collection of still frame images.

The storyline itself is perhaps Penny Arcade’s greatest foray into continuity – being not only a whopping nine strips long (which is an entire epoch as they classify such things), but also containing all manner of references to characters and events from their past.

It also happens to be the storyline that The Panel That Wasn'tcontained the one single panel that I simply couldn’t read.

It wasn’t that it was too gruesome or violent or offensive in any way.

No, I simply couldn’t parse what it was trying to show me. The exhibit is to your right – a simple image of Tycho reaching into his pants (no, not like that) to withdraw a d20 with which to combat his foe.

I spent five full minutes staring at the panel, when first it appeared, without understanding what I was seeing.

Eventually the color scheme of his shirt and the context of the surrounding panels tipped me off. But until then, my mind simply couldn’t figure it out – was it a fist reaching out of the ground from below? A gaping maw grinning wickedly?

For whatever reason, I couldn’t make sense of it – and this was from Gabe, one of the top artists in webcomics.

In the end, images are just a collection of lines and shapes that are designed to evoke some specific image in our thoughts. And, sometimes, it doesn’t quite work. We see it with kids all the time: “My, what a pretty horsie!” “…it’s supposed to be a fighter jet, mom.”

And, occasionally, it happens to me in some webcomic or another. One image gets parsed as another, and even once I figure out what it is supposed to be, it is a challenge to get my mind to stop reading it as whatever form it originally decided the image represented.

And sometimes, even with the best of commics, it can’t parse the image at all, and can’t read it as anything more than a collection of shapes and colors.

Nothing more, and nothing less.

The Ultimate Showdown

One hare, against all odds...I’ve talked before about reader-driven webcomics, and recently discovered a new one: Turtle vs. Bunny, drawn by the infamous Joe Dunn.

As before, the best bet for running one of these things successfully seems to be in leaving the general direction in the hands of the readers, but the specifics of the strip firmly under the control of the creators of the comic. (You know, the ones who actually know what they’re doing.)

Turtle vs. Bunny itself is rather brilliant. The premise is simple – Turtle and Bunny are in a race to the finish. Each week, readers determine which of them comes out ahead, and presumably which one will be the final victor. Also: Guns, cannons, axes, jetpacks.

Points are tallied up both by normal voting, as well as by purchasing merchandise for one side or the other, advertising for one side or the other, etc. I like that it isn’t just a straight up money tally, and that everyone can basically have a hand in the score.

The racers are hitting the halfway mark to the finish line, so there’s only a month or two more of the series to go. It’s not the most uproariously laugh-out-loud strip, nor one filled with any sort of ground-breaking plot – it’s simply clever and fun, and I’d like to think that’s really all it needs to be.

The Best of Comic Genesis: Cat Legend

Comic Genesis LogoOver a year and a half ago KeenSpace, the little brother of the much more noted KeenSpot, had a slick little overhaul, re-emerging as Comic Genesis, with a fancy new site to go along with its spiffy new name.

And… since then, not much. I’ve barely heard Comic Genesis mentioned at all – which, if you think about it, is both good and bad.

Keenspace has never had the best rep of the online communities. Despite being a free hosting site where basically anyone could get a start hosting thier webcomic, people tended to look down upon it. The service they offered helped kickstart any number of now well-known strips, but it also meant they had literally thousands of… less than spectacular strips.

(Which is to say, you couldn’t pay people to read them.) It was a grand new revolution, and everyone and their dog was posting their brand new sprite comic / catgirl manga / superhero comic doodled in their notes during homeroom. There was a lot of trash on there, and people got the idea that every strip on the site was just as bad. Countless crashes and technical difficulties didn’t help the reputation, nor the fact that any comic that made a name for itself tended to immediately get ‘promoted’ to the big boys – KeenSpot.

But… that was then, and this is now. Changing the name to Comic Genesis accomplished one of their goals – it dropped some of the stigma attached to the previous name. Of course, with no one talking about how bad the place was… that also meant no one was really talking about the place at all, and I think that is something of a shame.

These days, Comic Genesis is quite a bit nicer. Their new site makes for easier navigation, though the sheer number of comics can still be daunting. They’ve got their free comic book days to help show off some of their top talent. Site downtime? I haven’t noticed any problems in at least a year, if not several. Other sites have had their share of troubles, but Comic Genesis has been stable as a rock.

So it struck me that now would be a good time to take note of some of their best comics. Because they certainly have more than a few that deserve a closer look, and the site itself deserves recognition for hosting them. So here is what we’re gonna see – the Best of Comic Genesis. Expect it to be a recurring feature, every Monday, unless something else grabs my attention and demands a post instead.

Not even the most unusual character...And let’s begin with… Cat Legend.

What is Cat Legend? Aside from one of my favorite strips, that is?

It’s visually exciting, for one. I mean, just take a look – full color pages with detailed backgrounds, dynamic layouts and simply gorgeous character designs. “Pretty” doesn’t do this comic justice – it is outright enjoyable to simply look at the pictures, and there are precious few comics for which that is true.

Oh, it doesn’t start out quite so polished – but that is one of the glorious things about webcomics. Seeing the evolution of a strip, seeing someone learning from the experience, seeing something new and amateur become skilled and professional.

It isn’t any surprise that after over three years of updates the artist, Katrina Santoro, has really come into her own.

Cat Legend - An Epic ComicWhat else is Cat Legend? Complex, and that is both the story’s biggest strength and it’s greatest weakness.

It advertises itself as an epic comic, and this is true. Less than a month into the archives, a reader already comes face to face with the political motivations that are driving the most powerful beings in a world on the brink of disaster.

Quite the premise, eh? But despite the momentous events going on in the world, the focus of the story is centered primarily on our young band of heroes, and it is their story that proves most interesting. The protagonists are all children in their own way – even the ones a century old. They all have secrets, often ones even they don’t know the truth of. Seeing them develop has been the central theme of the story thus far, and I can’t complain – each character seems to have a story of their own, and one worth hearing.

The complications that arise in the story aren’t based in the epic nature of the tale itself, which takes place largely offscreen (though not always.) Nor is it due to the sizable cast of characters – these days, each character has their own personal font, which is a useful tool once one gets used to it.

The problem is when Act II begins… and jumps 500 years into the future. Then, in the guise of a recounting of the past, we return to the original story where we began… and the shifting back and forth can prove a slightly disorienting experience. Add in the guest sidestory following one character who had a different path to travel than the rest of the gang… and keeping track of all the different threads can prove a touch difficult.

9 year olds can be rather traumatizing, can't they?Of course, there are worse problems for a comic to have than having too many stories to tell.

Cat Legend is an epic tale about faeries embroiled in civil war, imprisonment and subjugation, and the potential demise of magic in its entirety. It is also a story about family and friendship, memories and truth, stories and dreams. The epic story may shape the tale, but it is the personal touches that bring it to life, and that leave the reader wanting to see the trials and adventures of this somewhat misfit band of heroes.

For all that the comic has been running for quite a few years, it certainly doesn’t seem close to finishing. There seems to be any number of plot turns and twists yet down the road, along with unfinished stories of both the past and present.

But again – that’s not a bad thing. Sure, the story leaves me wanting more at every turn – but as long as the ride is pleasant, I’m more than happy to enjoy the trip. I’m eager to see how the tale turns out – both the epic events going on around them, as well as the developments of the characters themselves – but I’m just as eager to enjoy every strip as it comes.

And that’s just part of what makes Cat Legend a damn good comic.

A New Beginning

Welcome to the new site!

If you’re wondering why the move, the answer is simple – I wanted to focus the blog into something slightly more functional. Hence a simpler layout that is easier on the eyes, and gives my posts some welcome room to breathe. Hence an update schedule I’ll be aiming to maintain. Hence a proper mission statement of what I’m about.

What can you expect to see on the new site? Much the same as the old site – discussion of new webcomics, commentary on existing comics, discussion of news and events in the webcomics community. My primary goal with the site is going to be to shine some notice on quality underappreciated webcomics – but I’m likely to still have my share of discussion of the rest of the comics I read, both the big ones and the little ones.

Overall, though, the focus is going to be on good webcomics. Damn good webcomics, even. I read comics I like, and similarly, those are the ones I’ll be talking about.

So, there you have it. No great changes, just a bit of streamlining. I’ll be updating here on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I’ll be posting at my relaunched short fiction site, so feel free to check that out as well.

And of course, if you have any ideas for webcomics you think I should review, or if you simply want to tell me how much I suck, feel free to drop me a line.

Shattered View

I talked about Home on the Strange just last week, yet already I find myself needing to discuss it again.

As mentioned back then, hefty stuff has been happening, and we knew we were going to be coming upon a scene of significant disaster.

I just didn’t think it would involve the brutal mauling of an almost-naked woman.

Ugh.Clearly we’re intended to be cheering for the possum. I mean, Ann is a bitch. She treated Tanner horribly and was in the process of trying to sabotage his current relationship.

(Of course, he bears no small blame for both how she treated him and her current presence in his apartment, but nonetheless – she’s not a nice person.)

Ferrett says, regarding the strip, that hopefully this is everything the readers wanted to see.

And maybe, for most of them, it is. As I mentioned, Ann isn’t a figured designed to deserve sympathy.

Still, given the flaws and actions of the other characters, she has been established – at least in my eyes – as such a villain as to deserve this level of brutalization.

This isn’t to say it kills the story. It is, in many ways, an interesting development. But I just don’t think it is the development the writer intended it to be. He wants us to feel triumph from this, not disgust. He wants us to be laughing, not staring at the screen in horror.

Reading the script he wrote for the strip, it says the following: “The possum is violent against Ann, clawing at her in a cartoon frenzy of animation (funny, not realistic) as she flails about, knocking all sorts of shit over and smearing blood around the room.”

I’m not quite sure what went wrong. Somewhere in there, the ‘cartoon’ and ‘funny’ parts didn’t get through – and if they had, I probably would have been able to accept it. As it is, though, the woman fled the room completely drenched in blood. We saw the possom tearing into her face, possibly disfiguring her for life. And we’re supposed to find it funny.

Well, like I said, maybe other readers do. I suspect I won’t be the only one a little put off by the brutality of it. I wonder whether this will result in any change in what plot they have planned ahead. There certainly seems a difference between the way the script reads and the way the art itself plays out, and that could certainly play havoc with whatever they intend to come next.

Of course, it is to the credit of the strip that, as much as the scene pushes me away, I still find myself left with curiousity. Where will the plot go from here – will future strips be written with what this scene was intended to be, or what it actually ended up as?

Anything But

I mentioned Home on the Strange last week (which is already moving in directions that I, at least, certainly didn’t see coming), and I mentioned The Ferrett, the writer of the strip.

In addition to scripting out each installment of the feature, he has a rather entertaining blog of his own – which happens to feature weekly webcomic reviews. His goal, primarily, is to focus on some of the strips that aren’t directly in the spotlight, and which deserve some solid attention. Unsurprisingly, that’s a goal I can easily agree with.

The right ammo for the jobEspecially as this introduced me to Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic, which really is anything but.

The Ferrett’s review does a good job of covering what makes the strip stand out – the vibrancy of the art, the unrepentant fun that manifests throughout, the skill with which a world full of characters and plot is interwoven without ever leaving readers lost or confused.

But that isn’t really why I wanted to talk about the comic today.

It is, hands-down, definitely a good strip, for all the reasons mentioned above and probably a few more. But what really impressed me was the resolution to the latest little round of plot. (Spoilers ahead, so now would be a good time to go and read through from the beginning.)

The comic began following the tale of Bob the Beholder and Gren Razortooth, a beholder and a goblin who happened to fall in life. Antics ensued, and the strip went from there, developing an immense and fascinating cast. Some characters have popped in and out, and some have had more focus given to them then others… and then along came Glon, just over a hundred strips down the road.

And from that point on, Glon became the star of the show. Oh, the other characters were there, but he was the central figure. He had his quest, even though it wasn’t what he thought it was. He lost family and he gained family, and it was his actions, however indirectly, that led to the massive fight that took center-stage these past few weeks, with nearly the entirety of the cast involved in a epic battle. Other characters had their time in the spotlight, sure, but it was almost all revolving around him.

And then he died. After being the primary character for more than half of the strip’s run, his show is over. Characters grieved… and moved on.

We’re back with Bob and Gren in their underground home sweet home. The strip has come full circle. We have had, essentially, the entire story of this one character’s life, and how that life changed those close to him, and affected countless others far and wide.

And Rich Morris, the strip’s creator, is somehow able to have the intensity and impact of all that sit side by side with the same silly humor, day after day, and somehow make it all work perfectly.

That’s why Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic is such a damn good comic.