Monthly Archives: May, 2007

I always seem to be precisely three months behind the times

Clearly my promise of a post yesterday was a damn dirty lie. I have no regrets.

Well… aside from not learning sooner that PS238 started updating as a webcomic.

I’ve always enjoyed the works of Aaron Williams – I’ve had a subscription to Dragon Magazine for over a decade, and truth be told, I only really get it for the comics, and Nodwick was right up there with Phil and Dixie as my favorite features. While I’m sad that the magazine is getting the axe (especially since these days it features exclusive strips from Order of the Stick), the blow was softened by how accessible most of those self-same comics are online.

I’ve strayed from the point of this post, however: PS238, one of my favorite print comics out there. Now being posted online! That is certifiably kick-ass news.

DC and Marvel’s superhero comics have come under a bit of criticism in recent years – much of it deserved. Their stories are generally punctuated with unnecessary death at every turn, and rather than being tales of triumph, are tales of defeat. They have some good titles among them, but many of their comics seem to have lost touch with what being a hero is all about.

PS238, on the other hand, gets it right. It is the story of Public School 238, a training facility for metapowered children. It manages to both indulge in cliché supervillains and supervillainry while also exploring dynamic and interesting story-arcs. The characters are all likeable, and unique even when clear parodies of existing heroes. The story is almost always lighthearded and fun, but that doesn’t stop it from having serious moments, thought-provoking storylines, and a great deal of underlying plot slowly building in the background.

And now you can start reading it for free. It doesn’t matter much to me directly – it is one of the few print comics I make sure to collect. But I like the fact it is now out there on the web to lure people in. It worked for Girl Genius, and I bet it will work for this.

So go ahead, check it out, and be assured that there is hope for superhero comics yet.

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A Few Quick Notes

I’ll be back in business with regular posts starting tomorrow, but for now, a few quick notes:

Sam and Fuzzy turns 5, and is going stronger than ever. A tip of the hat to Mr. Logan!

-I just discovered the return of Abby’s Agency, an enjoyable little strip about an ordinary girl who gets a job as a secretary with a secret government spy agency. It went on a mysterious hiatus some time ago, and I only just noticed it had returned this last month – so that’s a plus.

-I also was informed that Niego had returned, a crazy little strip that sprung up in recent years, burned brightly, and then went out with a bang. And then, apparently came back! Only maybe not –  I notice that it hasn’t updated in a month and a half, which bodes poorly. The latest news post mentions the artist going out of town for a bit – here’s hoping the strip’s downtime has been due to entirely mundane and boring life troubles, rather than, say, a zombie attack.

-In other news, Brian Daniel (of Surviving Mars) is looking at shifting gears with his comic – once the current arc wraps up, he’s looking at putting it into a temporary hiatus, and henceforth release it in one full story-arc at a time. Honestly, it isn’t a bad idea – one of his previous series, the Saga of the Ram, ended eruptly right while it was heating up, and I wouldn’t want to see Surviving Mars do the same. Moving from a standard update schedule to an issue-driven routine is a tricky one, but it’s been done before, and if it helps the artist enjoy making the comic, then I’m all for it.

-I’ve found Penny Arcade surprisingly sub-par the last few weeks – but I’ll assume that’s due to their attention being focused elsewhere. I mean, damn, have you seen the trailer for On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness? If not, go here, scroll down a bit. I am completely blown away by this.

I talked about this before – others have tried to branch out webcomics into new and exciting grounds, such as with the PvP and Ctrl+Alt+Del animated series… and sure, those weren’t bad. But you could feel that they were new, and they were experimenting with how to capture the feel of the strip in this new format, and were learning as they went. Even with both of those strips being big names in webcomics – even with them working with a studio intent on releasing kick-ass animation.

But Penny Arcade has the name and the resources and the flair to make their own experiment work. It feels professional. It doesn’t feel like little kids playing with some new toys – it feels like them taking their carefully crafted product and translating it into a new format, smoothly and successfully.

Of course, we won’t know for sure until the game itself comes out, but a trailer like that is an awfully promising sight.

A Notice, Because I Can’t Not Mention It

Issue 3 of Cheshire Crossing is out… and somehow, someway, Andy Weir has managed to top the first two.

I liked Casey and Andy. It was a really good comic – and I hope to see it complete one day.

But Cheshire Crossing is just filled with so much unbridled awesomeness that it easily takes the cake. If this is where Meir wants to focus his efforts, he’ll get no complaints from me. The release schedule – a new issue every 6 or so months – is an unusual one, but I’ve found that rather than leaving me frustrated with anticipation for the next comic, every new issue instead comes as a wonderful sort of surprise.

I’d ramble on about my favorite parts of the issue, but I’d rather have everyone go and experience them directly. So go! Check it out, spread the news, and enjoy.

A Very Good Question

“Who are you?”

That… is a very good question indeed.

Other good ones: Why are you here? And what in the hell is going on?

The scene is Dungeon and Dorks, a fantasy webcomic parody of a certain famous roleplaying game. For a long while, I considered DnDorks to be among the top such comics, to have nailed its rendition of gamer humor as well as the best of them.

Then it lost me. Not in the sense that I no longer enjoyed the strip – no, it lost me in that all understanding of plot went right out the window.

The figures to our left are Venger, an apparently recurring villain, and Mac’thulu, who is as he says he is.

I’m not entirely sure where either of them came from. I’m not sure why the story is focusing on them, nor what has happened to the main characters, or the side characters, or the NPCs, or any of it. I suspect a full read through the archives would clear some things up, if not all… but this is also a comic I started reading within the last two years. The archives aren’t really all that far from memory.

Let’s begin with a basic description of the strip. DnDorks is about a bunch of gamers, and at the same time, it is about the characters in the game they play. These stories are told essentially hand in hand, often to good effect. Over the first four or five years of the strip, it combined clever jokes about these few iconic gamers, while also developing them as interesting individuals with lives of their own.

A little over a year ago is when the confusion started to arise. The main cast of gamers was set aside for DnDorks – the Next Generation! This featured younger siblings of the main crew trying their own hand at DnD for the very first time – which, on its own, is a perfectly cool idea. A chance for adding some new blood to the strip, walking down some similar paths and some new ones, and setting things up for an all around good story arc.

It was a little confusing for me, mainly due to the transition – the new characters basically showed up, with little explanation of who they were. I gather, looking at the cast page, they may have shown up previously as filler – but for me, they were all new and out of the blue.

But hey – that alone wasn’t too big a deal. The new cast was well-rounded and enjoyable to see in action. Once the initial shock of the shift was over, it made for a good read.

Then they decided to start remaking the earliest strips in the archives, updating them with art consistent with the new format. Not a problem in and of itself – in fact, a damn good idea. Except… they posted the new old strips like regular updates. If you knew what was going on, it was possible to keep the stories separate – but it also meant you had to actively be paying attention to do so. Each update, you had to mentally file the page in a different place.

It wasn’t much – but it muddied the waters enough that when the real confusion hit, it made things oh so much worse.

The latest storyarc has involved, as far as I can tell, a blurring of the lines between the gamers themselves and the characters they play. Through strange machinations, the “next generation” has been brought into their game world by this villain, Venger – and in order to stop whatever evil scheme this is a part of, the original cast was brought into the game world by this other fellow, Mac’thulu.

So – hey, I can describe the general story that is going on, so that means the comic hasn’t descended into complete gibberish. The problem is that the general understanding is as far as it goes – I haven’t been able to follow any given strip, or precisely how all this has come to pass, or the motivations behind anyone or anything.

The core of the problem is that we have a crossover between both the new generation of gamers and the old generation of gamers and the characters both teams play – while in the background, classic strips from the archives are running in-between. With new and important villains coming out of left field. With dramatic reveals at every turn. With an art style that is very nice to look at, but also includes a layout that tends to jump past important bits of the action – usually relying upon narrative to fill us in on the blanks, which works a whole lot better when the reader remembers where the characters are and what they are doing.

Therein lies the problem – any single one of those elements wouldn’t be enough to leave the reader bewildered. But all of them together…

And it’s a shame, because I like all these characters. I like the idea of having characters sucked into their game world, I like seeing the new dynamic of the younger crew matched against the familiar stasis of the old, I like the fact we have a miniature Old One named Mac’thulu. It’s all clever and fun, but I realized the other day that I had spent the last year reading the strip without being able to even name most of the characters anymore.

That’s not good, people. The more confused I got, the more frustrating the story was, because I didn’t have the time each week to go digging through the archives to try and set each new thread straight – especially with the classic strips still popping up out of order, even in the archives. I wasn’t losing the strip because of the characters or the story or the jokes, but because of simple poor organization.

It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading the comic, unless it continues to pile layers of convolution on at every turn. Right now, it looks like the current story is getting close to the big ending – which I am desperate for. Because until then, every update just means I glance at the page, shake my head, and wait for things to make sense again.

And if that is the response that a storyline that could be wildly entertaining is having on your readers, it’s time to ask yourself why it is happening – and what you can do to fix it.

Remembrance

As a child, I read and reread The Chronicles of Pyrdain a countless times over.

This five-volume series is by Lloyd Alexander, who passed away last week at the age of 83. It was not surprising that I enjoyed the tales of a young boy who went from a simple kid to a hero and a king – not in the least because it wasn’t just a story of wish-fulfillment, but one of genuine growth and heroism.

I read them many times as a child – and even now, these stories are among the few that I still return to time and time again. Perhaps that is one of the defining marks of a truly good story – being able to inspire one to return, once again, to well-worn pages for yet another telling of the tale. That in spite of knowing what is coming – of knowing every little twist and reveal – every page is as enjoyable as the time before.

There are some stories out there that I’ve read several times more from necessity than desire, and these are not bad stories – the Wheel of Time is a good example of a story so overwhelmingly plot-filled that it requires a week playing catch-up every time a new volume comes out. There are more than a handful of webcomics that are similar in nature – that every so often require another trip through the archives just to know what is going on.

But there are also those precious few that present a story so solid, so enjoyable, so timeless, that I return to them again of my own volition, compelled by nothing more than memory.

The Chronicles of Prydain were among the first such stories to have stayed with me throughout the years. They will stay with me forever.

Rest in peace, Lloyd Alexander. You will be remembered.

Step One

I’m of the opinion that webcomic donations drive can be a crutch when too heavily relied upon – but also a valuable tool to kickstart a real career in comics.

I’m generally of the mind-set that I want most comics to succeed. Note in the least because webcomics – and the people that make them – seem a lot more personal than most forms of media, but also because more success means I can enjoy them better too.

From what I’ve seen it takes a bit more than just letting the money come to you – it takes planning out an effective strategy that lets you make money off of what is, essentially, a free product. Tycho’s manifesto said that if you trust in your readers, they will take care of you – and this is true, so long as you are able to find the right means for them to do so.

But finding those means requires careful thought and preparations, and it is hard to do that while also producing several pages a week, plus working an actual job to stay alive in the meantime. And cutting back the comics themselves in order to find them time to figure out how to make them profitable is an iffy proposition – you just might lose your readership while in the midst of figuring out your master plan.

Hence – the donation drive. It isn’t something to rely on for a lifetime of survival, but it can give you that boost to start things off. Come into it with reasonable expectations, and take whatever success it gives you as victory – and the seeds to truly start something larger.

I mention this because of one such drive that has just started, by T Campbell and Gisèle Lagacé, the minds behind Penny and Aggie.

Neither of these folks are new to the webcomic world. They’ve been doing comics as long as most of the success stories, and have put out some of the most impressive works on the net. Penny and Aggie has held my attention since its appearance, and I suspect will do so for quite some time.

More than that, they are offering some impressive incentives with their drive – gift cards, artwork, songs, along with a conclusion to Gisèle’s former work, Cool Cat Studio, and a new Fans story – and all of that is for not even reaching their primary goal, which would allow Gisèle to quit and work on the comic full-time.

So… if you feel like donating to webcomics, this is a damn good cause. If you especially like Penny and Aggie, or the creators behind it, this is a great opportunity to reward them for their efforts.

And even if you aren’t able to drop a dollar for them – and no one holds it against you if you can’t – it doesn’t cost anything just to post a mention of the drive, and spread the news far and wide.

Here’s the link: Dear readers…

The Best of Comic Genesis: The Prime of Ambition

The Prime of Ambition is a fantasy comic, which is usually a sign that a strip will be walking down a well-worn path that many have trod before, telling the same stories that have been told countless times before. This would not be a bad thing, for those stories are still good stories after all these years – but that is not what Ambition is about.

The Prime of Ambition is about telling a new story.

The Prime of Ambition is about defying expectations.

Our story begins with four young heroes on the brink of battle. They have come upon a dastardly sight – several soldiers of a corrupt nation are sacrificing an innocent maiden to a dragon. They know it will not be an easy fight, but they cannot simply stand and watch. With faith in the righteousness of their cause and their god, they charge into battle.

In a single panel they are slaughtered by a half-dozen unnamed soldiers.

They are not the heroes of the story. The two of them that survive are taken captive, and they serve one purpose – as a vehicle to open the story, and begin a tale that I expect will have many unexpected twists along the way.

Ambition, despite having its own story to tell, manages to stay strong on one of the greatest assets of the fantasy story – the setting. Not just its nature, but the fact that one has an entire world to play in and develop, a world of different races and cultures and societies, different lands and different rules. Ambition is set in the world of Oris, and one is able to get a sense for the detail of the setting from every distinct individual and place. The site also includes a guide to the world as well, so one can see it fleshed out outside of the story itself – which is a good thing, as attention to detail carries with it one fatal flaw, the deadly beast known as exposition.

The story is narrated by an elf named Audriel Sillendrey, a figure whose world-view has clearly been changed by the story he is about to tell us. First person narration isn’t a bad format, and is able to give us some insight into his character while leaving the mystery of other characters open. Unfortunately it also means he spends a lot of time – especially early on – explaining and introducing.

It is a necessary evil, in the end, and one made more tolerable by the art that accompanies it – each page is full color and filled with detail, bringing the world to life with every panel. In some ways it is a shame when such gorgeous artwork is cluttered up with text – but like I said, necessary evil. You can’t tell a story without setting the scene, and if the artwork is engaging when in the midst of exposition, it promises to be mind-blowing once the action gets going.

There are less than 60 pages in the archives, and the strip updates once a week, so perhaps its greatest downside is a tendency towards a slower pace – especially given the early part of the story is focused on character development over action. Whether that is good or bad, of course, depends on the characters, and – fortunately for us – that is where Ambition really shines.

As mentioned earlier, the story is told by Audriel, a sun elf – but he is not the star of the show. There are a couple other characters of note, but the main focus of the story is a drow named Thanatos. And Than… well, Than is somewhat complicated to explain.

The narrator, Audriel, hates him – hates all drow passionately due to his own personal tragedy, in fact. So we have to balance his view – that all drow are evil – with Than’s own actions, which tend to present him as a tragic figure trying to make amends for his people.

Now, if that was it, then this would be just another story told many times before. He wouldn’t be just another Drizzt, sure – no dual scimitars, no magic cat figurine, and the people he comes from are an entirely different type of drow; but it would still be falling into the stereotype of the outcast who has to prove himself against a society that distrusts him. Which wouldn’t make it a bad story, but it also wouldn’t be anything new, just the same tension seen – and overcome – countless times in the past.

But as far as I can tell, Ambition takes it a step further – because I get the sense that Than’s kind nature and behavior is all just an act.

I could be wrong. I suspect there is a lot more to it than any simple explanation might give – but there have been enough subtle clues that this apparently kind drow is fully manipulating those around him. That he has an agenda and motives well beyond what has been revealed thus far, and that learning more about that – and about him – is when the story will really start to get moving. He may not be evil, but the way he seems to act and move and speak strike me as those of a character who may well be amoral – who acts according to their own views, not through limits set upon them by society. And that makes for an interesting character indeed.

Of course… this is just my interpretation of the story and the character. Ambition is only in the second chapter, and it could easily have been an overly hasty judgement. As I said – I could be wrong. Who knows where the story could go from here?

But having those questions, and finding out the answers, is the mark of a good comic. Engaging that interest and curiosity is the sign of a good story. And as to whether my theories turn out right or wrong in the end… wouldn’t it be best to go and find out for yourself?

Full Comprehension is Overrated

With nothing too exciting happening in my normal strips – other than the usual awesome comics continuing to be awesome – today seemed a good occasion to take a look at a comic I was recently sent to review that managed to leave me confused, taken aback, and most importantly… fascinated.

That comic is A Fine Example.

This comic is not one that lends itself to easy description. There are characters, yes. There is a story, or at least a series of loosely connected events. There is humor, certainly, though it is less in the form of punchlines and more in the form of surreal absurdity.

I could try to describe it by saying that the main character is John Stiles, an incredibly wealthy pirate with two peg legs and a fake eyepatch, and that he is just as likely to be confronted by a difficulty in emotionally connecting to his son as to find himself fighting off hordes of zombies that have manifested on his front lawn.

I could say that, and it would convey that the strip involves strange characters and bizarre circumstances, but it really wouldn’t capture the true experience of it all.

And that is a good thing, in many ways – to be indescribable. To be that extraordinary.

A Fine Example is the sort of comic that is a fun read, if also one that requires a slight stretching of one’s mind to wrap your head around it. It works, largely, through the art – the style itself varies, with different characters being drawn in completely different fashions, creating what proves to be a rather brilliant internal dichotomy.

And, of course, the story itself wanders all over, from the rather silly, such as his pet… (mutant? robot? I’ve honestly got no idea what the thing is) – anyway, it might be about his pet being pulled over for speeding, causing an unfortunate run-in with the police… or the strip might show his son weaving a careful war of psychological sabotage against Stiles’ girlfriend. (The mother died on a space shuttle a year ago.)

It is unpredictable, and I’d use the term zany if that wouldn’t be a disservice to the dark humor underlying every strip.

It’s A Fine Example. Of what, I’m still not quite sure, but I’m certainly planning on sticking around until I find out.

Abstract Characterization

It is always a shame to see a comic starting to go downhill.

If a comic is flat-out bad… well, that’s a different story. There are a lot of webcomics out there that are trash, sure – and usually it’s because the creator is new at this, still learning how to draw, how to tell a story, how to make a joke. Ok, no problem – I’m not going to criticize them for still being in the middle of learning the process. Especially not when given how many strips started out weak but developed into something fantastic over time.

But on the other hand, when a strip has it, and is doing great, and then goes downhill… man, that sucks.

And it sadly looks like Abstract Gender is falling into that category.

It would be easy to blame the new artist. Switching artists is always a tricky business, and while in some cases it works out brilliantly, all too often it is a sign of the comic’s imminent demise. I had high hopes in this case – Abstract Gender had switched artists before. Several times early on, in fact – but the third artist, Kiey, held the title for most of the strip’s run. Replacing someone seven strips in is tricky, but not world-ending. Replacing the artist that help define the strip? That’s a different game altogether.

But it isn’t just that change alone. It’s part of it, sure – the new artist, Asuka, started off with a rocky run and a slowdown in updates, and even now still hasn’t quite clicked for me. Backgrounds are often ignored, resulting in characters that seem to perpetually float through space. The characters are well designed and expressive, but also sometimes overdone. The art isn’t bad – it’s actually quite nice – but I still haven’t gotten used to it after six months of work, and that doesn’t bode well.

But it has been the story and the writing that has been causing vast amounts of frustration.

Our latest storyline involves our main character, Rachel, unwillingly getting naked for a massage she doesn’t want, while on a ‘relaxing’ outing she didn’t want to go on, taken there by friends she doesn’t want, from a team she didn’t really want to join.

Now, to be fair – the theme of not being in control is the central theme of the strip. Rachel Hawke was previously Ryan Hawke, and the core of the strip involves him and his best friend Brian investigating a haunted mansion – and finding themselves mysteriously turned into girls.

Of course, his friend Brian seems to also have the ability to change back. Rachel does not, and is far from happy with the situation, but competely unable to do anything about it. Done right, that is a great premise for a series, and seeing Rachel’s helplessness and frustration – and how she acts because of it – has been key to driving the story along.

In that core premise – being turned into a girl – she doesn’t have control. Her frustration over it works. In all those other situations since, however, it just doesn’t make sense. She is in a situation she actively doesn’t want to have happen, and yet she goes along with it. I can buy her friends bullying her into joining them on a trip – sure, okay, that’s what friends do. Letting them persuade her into have a strange man disrobe her? When she is already very uncomfortable with her form, being it isn’t technically her own?

I don’t buy it. It is being played for laughs and for fanservice. It is letting the strip slide into sitcom silliness – look, this character has managed to get into a stupid and embarrassing situation they don’t want to be! Hah!

That’s my issue with where this strip has gone. I hate seeing that sort of mindlessness here, because Abstract Gender has a lot of promise. Dealing with the mystery as to how it all actually occured, dealing with the different characters react to their new situation, seeing the friendships broken over it – that is genuinely interesting stuff, with a bit of mystery and school drama and personal reflection combined.

We’ve even had a lot of that good stuff recently, with Rachel actively investigating who is behind her transformation. That is the sort of behavior that fits, having her pushing the action forward as she tries to control at least one aspect of her life. But the constant lapses into passive obedience – usually to bring about some silly situation for us to laugh at – just don’t work.

I’m not saying the comic can’t be funny – it has been a humor strip from the beginning. But it was also a strip that seemed to have a story to tell, and early on, had no problem balancing the jokes with the plot. And it has kept the plot moving, I’ll give it that – but it also seems willing to toss it aside for the sake of a few cheap laughs. To sacrifice characterization for crass comedy.

If it works… well, more power to ’em. There have been quite a few successes out there – in all forms of media – built off of nothing more than fanservice.

It’s just a shame to see it from a comic that had the potential to be a whole lot more.

Crossovers, Cameos and Inspiration

No Comic Genesis review this week – instead, I feel the need to talk about Arthur, King of Time and Space, and the author note today on the issue of crossovers, cameos and inspiration.

In it, Paul Gadzikowski discusses how he had previously planned to avoid ever crossing over AKOTAS with the cast of any other webcomic, largely because the premise of AKOTAS involves Arthur and co. bouncing from one version of reality to the next – and while some of these arcs might be based on other works, Arthur and crew end up taking the place of the stars of the show. He might drop his cast into a version of another webcomic, but the nature of AKOTAS made it difficult to borrow characters from other strips, and he was resigned to avoid doing so.

Until Narbonic came along.

Now, I can’t fault the man for being tempted by Narbonic, being as it was one of the most well-developed strips on the web. But it strikes me that Paul’s final decision on how to incorporate elements from the Narbonic cast into AKOTAS was a fine of example of the uniqueness of his strip and the throught process behind it.

See, AKOTAS is a pretty unique concept, and one rendered with painstaking detail. But more than that, it is a strip that really does operate equally fluidly on several different levels at once.

In this case, we’ve got Elaine of Carbonek, this rather quirky lady infatuated with Lancelot. For those who know nothing about the tale of Arthur – or merely little beyond the general story – she appears to be a character that, in a handful of strips, is made both likeable and interesting.

For those familiar with the lore the strip draws on, her situation takes on a new dimension – as nice as she might seem to be, she’s out to seduce Lancelot, which will have inevitable consequences for Lancelot, and Arthur, and the whole shebang.

To find out that this incarnation of her character is also developed as a variation on Helen Narbon makes it all even more surreal. I wouldn’t have pieced together the connection if it wasn’t pointed out, but when Paul explains the steps his mind took to make it work, I can see it all falling into place.

Elaine of Carbonek = Helen Narbonic… yeah, it works, undeniably. Subtly, sure, but it is definitely there.

And that’s the really impressive thing about AKOTAS in general – it works equally well on every given levels. It works as an independent story in its own right. It works as a retelling of the Arthurian legend. It works as an homage to the many different stories and movies and webcomics it touches upon.

It is a fine line to tread – AKOTAS is hands down the most complex comic I know of, and keeping track of the differing storylines can sometimes be a challenging task. But more often than not, the strip manages to make this a strength, rather than a weakness. It would be very easy for this latest storyline to be completely incomprehensible unless you were both a devotee of the Arthurian legend, and a die-hard fan of Narbonic.

Instead, you can be neither, and still appreciate the story – while those who do have the extra knowledge can sit back and take in all thhe different connections. That’s hard to do even once, but this strip has managed to consistently pull it off with almost every single storyline, which must require a staggering amount of skill.

Credit where credit is due – the man writes a damn fine strip, and plans to keep doing so for many, many years to come. That deserves praise in my book, any day of the week.