Monthly Archives: March, 2007

Second Chances

I have something of a confession to make – when it first started, a bit over a year ago, I didn’t like Home on the Strange.

Or rather… I just didn’t get it. It didn’t click for me. I went there on day one, sent via Websnark, and was surprised to find that it just left me shrugging.

(Ironically, I went on to check out the words of the strip’s writer, the Ferret, and was impressed by them.)

But the strip itself… nothing. I kept up with it for a few weeks – after all, it would be downright foolish to judge it by a single strip. And it didn’t grab me, and I eventually just stopped reading.

A couple months later, I saw notice of it… somewhere… and decided to take another look, and quickly went through the archives. And was promptly blown out of my shoes.

I was trying to figure out what exactly had changed, and realized only one thing – the strip had had enough time to start actually developing. Character interaction, full-on plotlines, drama – all the good stuff.

Let us make one thing clear – Home on the Strange is a sterling example of an almost perfectly designed webcomic. Clean site design, die-hard update schedule, connects to all manner of audiences (albeit almost all of them geeky), and has a great mix of humor and plot.

The early humor? For me, it didn’t work. But once it had the plot rolling… bam! Snagged me without a chance of escape.

First glimpseIt isn’t because I only like story-heavy comics, because I enjoy plenty of strips that run on nothing more than humor. But with Home on the Strange, the humor alone wasn’t enough to pull me in – and one instance where I was sad that I had first come upon it while it was starting out, rather than later, once it had built up what it needed to draw me in.

Which goes to show that it doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets. Home on the Strange was very carefully constructed to appeal to a multitude of people. Not that there is anything wrong with that – it isn’t any less good for being planned out that way!

In any case, as time moved one, I became a devoted reader of the strip. The last few arcs have been especially compelling – they focus on the relationship of Izzy and Tanner, whose relationship has been one of the central developments through the strip’s run thus far. A relationship that, ever since it began, has teetered precariously on the edge of disaster.

When Izzy was confronted by an attempted seduction by Seth, local GM (as well as an incredibly wealthy womanizer), things didn’t look good. But instead, his attempt helped her take a closer look at her relationship with Tanner, and head home, intent on making their relationship a real thing.

When she got home, however, things didn’t look so good

…and the storyline was then followed up by a retelling of what was happening to Tanner while Izzy was away. This involved getting drunk, and inviting over his ex-girlfriend, which would have been a bad idea at the best of times.

Second ChancesBut in Monday’s strip, he seemed to have his own epiphany. And here is where I give credit to the artist Roni as well, because that strip floored me with its simple change of posture. I thought it was all going to work out, having somehow forgotten the horrible scene that had to somehow transpire by the end of the night.

The battle clearly isn’t over yet. I’m hoping – really hoping – that everything works out in the end, because these two arcs have really matured Izzy and Tanner an incredible amount… but the creators of the strip like to toy with us mere readers, and the ending could go any which way. Right now I find myself checking this strip first thing on every day it updates, and I’m confident that will stay the case until the arc is done.

And in the end, I’m just glad I had a second chance to discover it.

Recognition

I considered spending today giving my own thoughts on yet another bit of drama making the rounds, involving the comic book industry and the fallout from certain massive crossover events. But… others have already written about that, and I don’t think there is much more I can add to the discussion.

I did, however, notice that it is International Women’s Day. And being that my mind was on the topic of comics, that made me think of Girl-Wonder.org, a site with a very strong, and very important, message. The focused campaign of the site is to get recognition for Stephanie Brown, who took up the mantle of Robin, and then was brutally killed – at which point DC mostly forgot about her.

I originally agreed with the site’s goal, largely on the basis that this was a character I had grown up a fan of. One of, sadly, many that DC has done terrible things to in recent years. But it wasn’t really until I started to read Girls Read Comics! (And They’re Pissed), by Karen Healey, that I started to ‘get’ the message they were trying to get across. That I started to genuinely notice the sexism and misogny unfortunately all too present in modern comics.

That was really what struck me about the state of things. That until it was pointed out to me, I just had not noticed. I didn’t agree with women being demeaned in comics, nor could I defend it – but until I had my face shoved in it, it didn’t occur to me to question it.

I think highly of myself as a rather reasonable, open, and well-meaning individual. So being put face to face with my own… ignorance? Apathy? Unawareness? Well, whatever it was, it wasn’t exactly the best feeling.

Since then, I’ve continued to read Karen’s column, and to genuinely keep my eyes open when I’m reading comics. (Both in print and on the web.) I couldn’t claim to have accomplished anything more than become aware of when I am reading something that is slealthily offensive, but I’m glad to take that as a start.

Some time after this point, I was talking with a friend about All Star Batman and Robin. It’s by Frank Miller, and it is pretty damn terrible, in all manner of ways. Most people are aware of this by now.

I was telling a friend how bad it was, and he asked me exactly what made it so bad. My response: “The gratuitous amounts of fanservice, the exceedingly lame dialogue, and the thoroughly incompetent pacing of time.”

His response: “Well, only two of those are really reasons not to read the comic.”

Now, this individual is one of my most intelligent friends, and a person I have a considerable amount of respect for. So seeing him just as stuck in that mindset, not even seeing anything wrong with it… well, that was another shock.

I don’t know how to stop the problem. But I think talking about it, getting it out in the open, is definitely an important part of the process. Making people aware of it is important. Because it really is far too easy for someone not directly affected by it to just not notice. And that says plenty of bad things in its own rights, but also means that the more people that can be made aware, the more progress can be made.

I’m sure there is plenty more I can do to contribute. For now, though, I’ll point people towards Girl-Wonder.org, and recommend they take a good long look. They’ve said it better than I ever could, and are saying things that damn well need to be said. And, honestly, it shouldn’t take it being some special day of the year for me to mention them – but the topic has been in the back of my mind for a while, and I’m glad I had something prompt it to the front.

And hopefully, in the future, I won’t need even that.

Shifting Focus

Let’s talk about Wikipedia.

Wait, wait, wait! Don’t run away! At least not yet!

I know that the subject has already been beaten into the ground. Repeatedly. I know that the majority of people are either tired of the entire debate, or only growing more upset the more they hear about it. And, honestly, I’m halfway in both camps – equally frustrated by the situation itself, as well as all the drama (often meaningless) it’s creating.

So why, then, am I writing about it?

That’s a very good question.

Quick summary for those who somehow missed the rest of the drama: Wikipedia has had a tendency to delete non-notable webcomics listings from their site. Their definition of non-notable clashes significantly with that of the webcomic community itself. Thus, conflict.

One thing I’ve noticed, recently, is that many people seem to have a hard time pinning down the purpose of webcomic listings on Wikipedia. They aren’t there to lead people to the comic – if you are listed on Wikipedia, it isn’t going to get you any noticable new traffic. It is a nice mark of accomplishment – but a webcartoonist who has thousands of readers should feel that regardless of whether Wikipedia recognizes them as notable or not.

The primary use of those Wikipedia entries, in my mind, is to provide information. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It is a catalogue and compilation of information. With the majority of its topics, that information isn’t something easily found elsewhere on the web. If I am trying to learn about a specific novel, and I don’t have that novel on hand, Wikipedia just might have an entry with some valuable information.

I don’t go to Wikipedia to find new books to read – I go there to find information about books I already know about.

When I go there looking for webcomic information, it is usually to dig up random facts about the webcomic itself. When it began, names of characters, etc.

All information, by and large, that I would much rather have on the webcomic’s site itself. After all, webcomics are on the web. If I can get to Wikipedia, I can get to the webcomic’s homepage. In a perfect world, everything I need to know about a strip would be right there next to the archives.

Unfortunately, many webcomics don’t have much more than the bare bones around. They’ve got archives, and usually a forum or place for comments. If we’re lucky, a cast page (which, more often than not, isn’t up to date).

If I get more than that, I count it as a genuine accomplishment. Having a storyline guide, detailed character pages, searchable archives – those are amazing things. But generally, the webcartoonists are too busy with, say, actually producing new material (entirely for free), and simply don’t have the time, energy, or know-how to put those features in. I can’t complain about it – that’s just the way it is.

It would be nice if every webcomic had all the info we needed right there on the page, but it just isn’t going to happen.

Hence why I go hunting through Wikipedia. Or, with Wikipedia yanking out entries left and right, to Comixpedia.org. Gilead Pellaeon, over at the Webcomicker, gives his own response to the matter – he plans to work hard at fleshing out Comixpedia.org and the information there. Which is an idea I can certainly get behind, and I plan to do my own fair share of work on the database there.

There have been those who have… well, let’s not say criticized, but rather, been dubious of the use of Comixpedia.org. The arguments have often been that it isn’t going to do what Wikipedia does, and that only people already in the webcomic community will even know about the page.

But that’s ok. The purpose of Comixpedia.org is to be a collection of information on webcomics. Not a guide to introduce us to the outside world, not a guide to lure newcomers into the fold. Which isn’t to say we don’t need more along those lines – but being posted on Wikipedia certainly didn’t do that. It collects knowledge in a place we know where to find it.

The more people working on it, the better a tool it is. Gilead’s got the right idea. If you want to worry about notability at Wikipedia… well, go for it. I do agree that their current standards are fundamentally flawed, regardless of whether the concept itself is or not. But I think Wikipedia is a lot less important to us than we think – and while it is easy to feel it is a personal attack, the amount of energy wasted on the matter could be put to far better use.

Like fleshing out the websites of the comics themselves. Or working on Comixpedia.org. Or finding new and innovative ways to draw people into webcomics.

I suspect if we could spend half the time being productive as we do ranting, we’d see a world of difference.

"Everything is connected… no one thing can change by itself."

Longevity can be a dangerous thing.

The majority of webcomics are still in their youth, these days, but we have started to get more and more passing the decade mark. Which isn’t a sign of old age, persay – but it does occasionally make me worry. How long until we have gag comics that go the way of Garfield, reduced to a formula and devoid of all real humor? How long can a story run before wandering over its own tail in complex plot after plot, needing to hit the reset button over and over again in the fashion of so many comic-book superheroes?

There are a lot of comics I have faith in to avoid such fates – but the more solid the world of webcomics becomes, the longer it survives and evolves, the more likely that many of my favorite strips see similar dilemmas to those that plague the newspaper strip and comic book industries.

Which is why it is often a relief to see a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and enters into the game fully aware of this fact.

Empty Words is one such strip.

LifeEmpty Words is a beautifully illustrated story that deals with some very heart-wrenching issues, and more importantly, some very realistic people dealing with those issues. And as of last week, the story has come to an end.

There aren’t many characters in the story. There aren’t many locations. The plot itself is driven almost entirely, intensely, by the people in the story and their interactions with each other.

Which seems perfectly appropriate, given the topics the comic is about. Loneliness. Family. Relationships.

The art is striking, and despite the almost hollow eyes of the characters, they convey a very real – very powerful – sense of life. The story adds that realism as well, with people and moments that connect the characters to a larger life, outside of what we see. They have a past, and seeing bits of those details helps ground the story in a much larger world than what we are shown.

DeathSome pages have many words, and some have nearly none at all. Both have their place in telling the tale of Audrey, a young woman who works in a caretaking home for the elderly, and Greg, a journalist in search of a story.

As I said above, it is a very powerful story. At it’s heart, it deals with the connections between people, both those they yearn for and those they try to run away from. Along the way it touches on motivations, infallibility… Life. Death.

Serious stuff, but it manages to deal with it without ever feeling forced, without ever feeling fake.

It took three and a half years for Ben Rivers to tell this story.

I’d say it was worth every minute of it.

The Return

My apologies for the absence last week, as life was exceptionally hectic. Given that I would have likely spent most of the week whining about the latest Sluggy storyline being lame, it is probably for the best everyone was spared that.

I’d like to start things off on a good note this week, however, so let’s talk about Penny and Angie.

Last week, it is altogether likely I would have spoken poorly of the current storyline. The premise: Aggie’s dad Nick is introducing her to his girlfriend Charisma, and her son Marshall, whom she has a major crush on despite him currently dating Karen, an enemy of both Aggie and her rival, Penny, who happens to be stalking the lot of them.

Yeah.

I mean, even from the start it seemed clear it would be one of those stories about a bunch of people embroiled in an atmosphere of extreme awkwardness, with all sides embarrassing themselves and various hijinks ensuing.

Which is fine, but is simply a brand of humor that has never really worked for me. Watching a trainwreck in action, knowing that there is going to be misunderstandings and silliness and so forth… just leaves me feeling frustrated, not amused. Which is my own personal taste, and no real fault of the humor in question. Still, it is a good comic, so I knew I would keep reading through the storyline despite it not being for me.

My suspicions about the direction of the storyline were confirmed when I saw the interactions between Aggie and Marshall. The parents own little run-in left me mostly confused.

And then I got to today’s strip, and realized I was starting to enjoy the entire fiasco. I’d say this is in part because the dialogue is finally starting to ring true, whereas the Aggie/Marshall interaction felt a bit too idealized. But honestly, it is also just due to the set-up itself finally growing on me.

I found myself looking forward to whatever was coming next, and the fall-out thereof. I found myself actively enjoying a brand of humor that normally leaves me numb.

I’d say that is a damn fine testament to the skill of T Campbell and Gisele Lagace, the minds behind the mayhem.

Penny and Angie has been running strong for two and a half years now, and has definitely come into it’s own. Perhaps the defining moment occured in this strip, right near the start of the storyline.

Didn’t notice anything too special? Penny trying to chastise Aggie, and Aggie blowing it off – doesn’t seem all that important, does it?

But if you dial way, way back, to the very first storyline, and to a moment when Penny learned that Aggie had lost her mom, and filed it away as future ammunition, imagining it was knowledge that would cripple her rival if she brought it to the fore.

Except… she couldn’t bring herself to do so. It came up, time and time again, but for over 400 strips it faded into the background.

And finally, humiliated, she breaks it out – and it is shrugged off. And that – that hits Penny hard. That’s what truly drives all the frustration and hate to the surface. That is what brings her into the entire catastrophe we have unfolding before us.

I can’t deny that sort of connection. So I really shouldn’t have been surprised that even the storyline I was dreading has won me over, and left me coming back for more.