Monthly Archives: September, 2007

Blank Label Comics Appreciation Week: Schlock Mercenary

I owe a debt of gratitude to Howard Tayler for helping me remember the proper way to spell the word “mercenary.”

It is, perhaps, a shameful thing – this is not that difficult a word, and I am someone with a degree in writing, who takes at least some small amount of pride in my writing capabilities… and yet, inevitably, when I attempt to describe an individual who sells their combat skills to the highest bidder, it takes all my focus to avoid speaking of a mercanary – which is clearly something else entirely, some sort of dreaded aquatic monstrosity that is half bird, half fish.

I’m not sure how this problem developed. I know, even as I type the letters, that it is not the proper spelling. But my fingers inevitably follow their own twisted desires, and mercanaries flows out onto the page as naturally as can be. Oh, I make sure to correct it, each time – and after many discussions of Schlock Mercenary, I’ve finally started to train myself to use the proper spelling.

But interestingly enough, that discussion of Schlock Mercenary hasn’t been on here.

I’ve mentioned it in passing once or twice, and that is all. This is peculiar, for it is one of the earliest webcomics I read, and one I can always recall enjoying. I talk about it with my friends, certainly – many of them are science geeks, unlike myself, and able to especially appreciate the scientific mojo brought to the strip. This is also the only comic – web or otherwise – that has actually inspired an RPG character of mine. (Though one that, sadly, never saw the light of day.)

That clearly means the strip speaks to me on some level. That the ideas within it – the characters, the stories, the setting -have wormed their way into my mind and taken root.

And yet, I’ve never seen fit to actually discuss the comic.

I blame the consistency of the strip. It isn’t really a webcomic, after all – it is an inevitable facet of life. Every day, the sun will rise. Every day, there will be a new Schlock Mercenary. I suppose this comparison is horribly flawed, given that people can and will discuss the relative merit of a particularly breathtaking sunrise – but my point is that the strip functions on a level where it never calls attention to itself, but simply maintains a constant harmonious level of quality.

But, I suppose, you may not read the strip, so allow me to try and give a description of it, and explain why I have said the things I have said. (Save for the mercanary problem. I’m not going to try and figure out from what horrible depths my brain procured that strange difficulty.)

Schlock Mercenary is a strip set in the 31st century. It takes place in a science-fiction setting, if that wasn’t apparent from the time frame. It revolves around a band of mercenaries who, in return for appropriate sums of money, will render their usual services, such as “excessive amounts of violence,” or for a higher price, “just the right amount of violence.” It features a lovable cast of flawed characters, many are whom are aliens, and others that are simply scientists. It updates every day of the week. It always updates. Most strips are a standard 4-panel length, sundays are full pages. It has clean, pleasant art in full color. The website has a search feature for the archives, a handy storyline guide, regularly updated news blog, a variety of other useful information, and a short, somewhat outdated description of a sparse handful of the main characters, though not a full cast guide for the many, many diverse members of the crew.

The strip is somewhat hard to pin down in mood – it is light-hearted, generally fond of visual punchlines, and is largely driven by narrative and plot. Being a daily strip that has been running for over seven years, it has accumulated massive, sprawling archives. It has managed to progress the story through a sizable number of events, and does a remarkably successful job of incorporating significant events while still, on some level, maintaining the status quo – or at least the general dynamic of the strip.

And, in many ways, that is probably its greatest strength, and greatest weakness. Schlock Mercenary has established such a degree of consistency, it rarely defies expectations – I know it will be good, and it is, but never in a way that really calls attention to it. Even when it goes through big events, that is just part of the show.

It also has the downside that it takes place in a setting where just about anything is possible. Characters can be recovered from death, time can be turned back, mistakes can be undone. It doesn’t happen often, and there are plenty of permanent, long-lasting changes that take place – but it also means that any given death isn’t always taken at face value.

The most recent storyline seems like it should be a big one – it features the death (of which our erstwhile heroes are sadly not involved in) of one of the largest antagonists of the series. The only one, in many ways – most villains have been massive corporations, governments, or similar faceless entities, while this guy has been something of a singular archenemy.

But… death isn’t always the end, and there are any number of ways he could come back. So it produces an interesting storyline and results in a variety of unintended consequences for the strip to follow, but it never has the shock value that a different comic in a similar situation would undeniably have.

This isn’t a bad thing – but it means it is much easier for the strip to stay off the radar.

On the other hand, the consistency can be a good thing – with it having been running for so long, and gone through so much, it feels as though the strip has been in its current state forever. But… this isn’t true. When the strip began, the art could easily have been produced by a child using MSPaint. It was readable, all things considered, but it is almost impossible to describe the different levels of quality in what it was and what it became.

It changed, of course, because that tends to be a result from producing art every single day for years on end. Oh, it requires the will to improve and the aptitude to do so, which Taylor clearly had – but it is largely due to all that practice, all that practical learning.

And now, it seems amazing to look back on those strips and see the difference. I’m curious as to how his most recent book will turn out, as it is a collection of the earliest strips. (A collection he initially avoided, as a matter of fact, and instead focused on later storylines whose quality could speak for itself.)

Nonetheless, the strip stands out as an example of how far determination and persistence can get you. Even beyond that, for all the humble beginnings of the comic, it is an icon of how to do a webcomic professionally. Reliable updates, slowly refined skills, accessible website (even if it needs a better cast page.) Howard Tayler is no longer the only man known for using a buffer, but I’d say he is the poster child for doing so. He’s shown what you can produce when you take producing the comic seriously.

Schlock Mercenary is a good comic. In this review, I haven’t actually touched on the characters, or the story, or the setting – I’ll instead leave them to speak for themselves. Suffice to say they are good characters the fill a variety of roles, and have their fair share of stereotypes and original concepts, and that the strip does a remarkable job of focusing on this small and merry band even as it gives the reader a grand sense of the wider universe.

The strip is filled with a sense of exploration and discovery – both for the characters and for us – and that’s a damn fine thing for a comic to be about.

Blank Label Comics Appreciation Week: Real Life

Hey, you know how I said, way back in the distant past of Monday, that this week I wasn’t going to mention Real Life?

Total lie.

I blame Greg Dean, however, because today’s comic demands I discuss it. I have no choice in the matter, because Greg has managed to capture a moment so true to life as to be utterly undeniable and inescapable.

The strip is about obsession, and that is something that has defined my life for as long as I can remember.

It has largely manifested in my gaming habits – I will find a game, and attach myself it to a year, or two, or three. I’ll spend probably more money than I should on the game’s behalf. I will hone my skills, play as often as I can, become a force to contend with. It happened with Magic, with Warhammer, with Warcraft, with Anachronism, and with Warcraft once more. D&D has been a contender pretty much non-stop for the last decade.

It certainly manifests when I’m reading, in the same fashion as demonstrated in today’s Real Life. I find a fantasy series, and devour it in a handful of days. I’ll bring books to work, reading throughout lunch, during breaks. I read while I have breakfast in the morning, and just before getting ready to sleep. When I was younger, I would read – nonstop – on car rides, or when on the school bus. Nowadays, I have to drive myself places, and don’t have that luxury, and I keenly feel that loss when on the road.

The Dresden Files are certainly a guilty culprit – and it isn’t just books, either. Comics, certainly. Webcomics, most definitely – my ability to find a comic and devour its archives is one of the reasons I’ve ended up with so many on my list. My enthusiasm over them is a very large part in why I keep this blog!

My obsessive nature isn’t something inherently bad, of course. I’ve never let my gaming habits overtake my life, or cut me off from my friends. Indeed, with several friends who with the same traits, the same addictive personalities, we often end up focusing on the same games and are able to enjoy them collectively. It isn’t any different than fans of any variety, whether sports or movies or television. It is simply an aspect of how I’m wired – when I get into a hobby, I give it my all.

It helps that I’m aware of it, of course – it certainly has the potential to be bad, as all addictions do. But there are far worse ones out there, and I’m able to keep mine in line.

Right now, I’m between obsessions, for the most part. I’ve recently managed to kick my MMO habit. This freed up a lot of energy and time, which I’ve managed to redirect into my writing, and other forms of productivity – but none of them ones that have taken hold of me. I’m simply moving along, waiting for the next craze to come along and draw me in, because I know it will inevitably happen. It is just part of my nature, part of who I am.

And, given that it is a key part of who I am, I feel a very strong connection when I see it so very aptly demonstrated. Sure, my obsessive personality is just a part of life – but it always resonates to see parts of me reflected back in a story, a movie, a comic. Real Life isn’t the first comic that has connected with me, and it isn’t even the first to make this joke – fans are fanatics, after all, and it is something many stories have touched upon.

But just because the joke has been made once doesn’t mean it can’t be made again, and Greg has captured it here as well as I’ve seen it done. That’s the heart of the strip, in the end. I said it a while back, and it holds true – throw out the space junk, the time travel, the mad scientists. Real Life is at its best when living up to its name. Capturing the little quirks of everyday life, of people, of gamers, of nerds, of fans. Forging a connection between the strip and the reader.

Letting us laugh at ourselves, letting us recognize the little truths of who we are.

That’s what makes Real Life such a damn good comic.

Blank Label Comics Appreciation Week: Evil Inc.

I always feel bad when I consider Evil Inc., because I can never quite like it as much as I want to. For one thing, I hate puns. I can tolerate them when they occasionally emerge in Something Positive, and can survive – for the most part – their presence in Dominic Deegan… but with Evil Inc., they are everywhere. It’s the strips formula – when not running through an intense storyline, crank out strip after strip of silly puns.

In the words of a better man than I: “I can’t stand it!”

But… I can’t really find fault with Guigar for this. He likes puns – I don’t. I can’t blame him for that – different tastes are just that, and sometimes, we’re just not the audience a comic – or an aspect of it – is aimed at. So when the puns show up, as they inevitably do, I skim on by and wait for more story.

Unfortunately, there is an element to the comic that I’m less than satisfied with. Don’t worry – as may be obvious, I clearly read the strip, and I’ll get to why in good time. But the one biggest thing that constantly gives me pause when reading it… is that it is built around what appears to be a horrifically flawed premise.

The main concept behind the comic is that Evil Atom, a supervillain who started to feel his age, decided to create a company for supervillainry, with the idea that you could get away with more evil if you did it legally.

Ok. Not a bad thought. A new take on the superhero genre, and one that gives the opportunity to turn a lot of standard elements on their head – which Evil Inc. gleefully does all the time.

But it also, unfortunately, never manages to actually convince me that it is true. The company is constantly involved in all sorts of standard supervillainry… without ever explaining how they get away with it legally, aside from the fact that Guigar says so.

What the strip is actually about is taking a normal supervillain set-up and placing a corporate structure over it, and that’s fine. But the basic premise of the strip – that they are doing all this by the books – is never really justified. (Never mind the fact that many strips indicate they sell useless or misleading products to the majority of their customer base – which, hey, sure, that’s evil, that’s funny… but they aren’t able to convince us how that is good business.)

I know, I know – sometimes, you need to take some things for granted. I mean – this strip is about a world filled with dudes in spandex who defy physics with their every breath, so who am I to argue about realism?

But I’m not arguing that the strip violates the rules of actual reality, because it’s true – it doesn’t have to. But it should be consistent with the internal rules of its own universe, and that is where I see it failing – and it bugs me, because every other strip I find my suspension of disbelief shattered by the fact the strip’s premise is intact through editorial proclamation alone.

So wait – why am I reading this, if I have such an issue with the premise, or the delivery thereof?

It’s because of Captain Heroic. And Miss Match. And Evil Atom. And Iron Dragon. And Oscar. And all the other characters that manage to be entertaining and unique, even while representing the various stereotypes of the superhero genre.

His characters stand out. His storylines about the characters stand out. The dynamic of Captain Heroic and Miss Match was what got me to read the strip in the first place. Evil Atom was never really interesting to me until I saw a bit more of his own personality, his interaction with his family, his background with his old partner – until he congealed as a character, not just a device for the story.

Brad Guigar writes good characters. And if the background of the strip bugs me… well, I’m not reading the strip for that. I’m reading it for the people whose stories happen to take place within that setting – and as long as their stories are good ones, I’m a dedicated fan.

Blank Label Comics Appreciation Week: Ugly Hill

It is to my profound disappointment that I rarely find the opportunity to quote the linguistic stylings of Hastings Kilgore.

The latest storyline in Ugly Hill has served as evidence of how well-executed the comic really is – as demonstrated by the fact that it is one of the few comics I can read through a series of strips time and time again, and still find them funny on each go around.

Snug narrowly avoiding a grimly demise? Hot pink promotional tabs of ecstasy? Seeing Hastings out to fulfill his citizen’s arrest quota? These things will never not be funny, as horrible as they are.

Ugly Hill is one of those strips that has few to zero redeemable characters. The two main characters, the brothers Kilgore, are shallow and petty beings. Eli is selfish and unmotivated to do anything in life other than mooch off his family. Hastings is a workaholic filled with disdain and wrath for all other life. Their parents are ten times worse.

And yet, they make for entertaining and exciting protagonists. The readers are invested enough in them to follow the strip, but able to have enough distance to laugh at the horrible, horrible things that they are subjected to, usually through their own doing, as well as celebrate when things manage to actually work out in the end.

Ironically enough, despite the fact that misery and mayhem is Ugly Hill’s stock-in-trade, it always has an upbeat, cheerful atmosphere. The bright colors and cartoony figures are certainly part of it – and despite all the troubles, the characters always seem to bounce back from their failings.

I’ve been rambling a bit here on the nature of the strip, in part because I find it hard to pin down a single element that makes Ugly Hill great – it is the composite of all the things it does well that really make it stand out. It is true that I have been enjoying some of the more quotable lines, of late – Hastings especially has been in rare form, but all the characters have had dialogue that resonates. (And I don’t mean in the emotional sense, but rather in that the lines work their way into my mind and sit there, echoing back and forth, all day long.)

I don’t think I’ll ever sit down with friends and engage in an Ugly Hill quote-fest, as has been the case with Penny Arcade – but it certainly comes the closest of any other comic out there, especially for one that actually follows a narrative.

So maybe that is the great success of the strip – hitting those moments of zanity and hilarity while still being constrained by an overarching story. And doing so, all the while, with a grand sense of style.

Paul Southworth is a gifted cartoonist, no doubt about it. Also, it looks like he’ll be a father in the next few days – so why not head over to his site to give him some congrats and best wishes, and lets hope the joy of caring for a child only further enhances his ability to inflict hilarious cruelty upon his beloved characters.

Blank Label Comics Appreciation Week: Wapsi Square

Lately, the gentlemen at Blank Label Comics have been excelling on several levels, and I have had trouble deciding which one to discuss next. This week, I came to the realization I didn’t have to decide, and that now was a good time for some general appreciation for what they do!

So, I’ll be spending the remainder of the week discussing several of their strips that have really been on my mind. I won’t be focusing on every last one of them – I’m still guilty of not reading Sheldon, and I don’t really have anything to say about Real Life that I didn’t say last time. But most of the others have had my attention for one reason or another, so it seems proper to give some recognition to how well the collective has been collectively rocking out.

For today, Wapsi Square.

This may seem odd, since I last spoke about the strip very recently indeed. But at the time, I was commenting primarily on one character – Katherine – who I felt Paul Taylor was doing an excellent job of portraying. The last few weeks have served to remind me that there are other characters in the strip – and that he was doing a surprisingly successful job with their development, as well.

I say surprising, because the characters in question are the Golem Girls – who have been at the heart of the strip’s transition from dealing with ordinary lives to dealing with strange mythological mysteries. It is a change that had, for a very long while, turned me away from the strip – the plot became surreal and complicated, and quite frankly, a bit difficult to follow. I had enjoyed, previously, Paul’s ability to write real and exciting characters, and his exploration of their lives and their personal growth. Switching gears didn’t make his strip a worse one – it just made it something other than what I was interested in.

But lately… well, lately the strip seems to be focusing a bit more on people again. And in this case, the people in question are Bud, Brandi and Jin, whose background I don’t really pretend to understand. What I do know is this – despite being strange and unimaginably powerful supernatural entities… they are trying to fit back into society, and live a real life.

And their attempts to do so makes for a very powerful story indeed.

The moment that most emotionally resonated with me involved Bud being told she can actually go and decorate her apartment. Here is her chance to act more human, and to do so, she goes shopping at a massive furniture store…

And she returns home with a single lamp, which she assembles herself, and that’s enough to make her happy. Now, the next strip is a solid one, and helps get into her head even a little bit more… but this was the one that really made me stop and think.

This is a strip that works on several levels. Visually it is well-delivered, demonstrating how to tell a story without needing any words. The art is efficient in what it does – and the expression on Bud’s face in the last panel manages to convey a lot of emotion despite it’s simplicity.

There is a feeling of accomplishment in a job well done, even as small a job as assembling a lamp. There is the sense of appreciation in having something to call her own, as well as a place in which to keep it. A recognition of how little it takes to make a place home… as well as exactly how much having that home means.

And there is a sense of independance and individuality. If Bud was simply concerned about emulating humanity, she could have purchased all sorts of furniture. Instead, she bought one simple little lamp. That’s all she wanted, all she needed.

In making that decision, she also demonstrated exactly how little she needs to pretend to be human.

Taylor has done a good job with all his characterization lately, but the Golem Girls stand out. I’ve enjoyed seeing Bud and Brandi interact and debate what it takes to fit into society. I was intrigued seeing the interplay between Jin and Shelly.

But overall, I’m impressed by the fact that Taylor has made me care about the three characters I had, not long ago, viewed as the low point of the strip… and now am looking forward to their every appearance.

That strikes me as the mark of a damn good comic.

Picks of the Day

Every so often I like to point out the strips that have most impressed me that day. Today brings forward two contenders – both standing out for being a break from the normal mood the strips in question tend to revolve around.

First up is Funny Farm. Now, this is one of the comics I have been reading the longest. It has stayed on my list all that time, but has never really stood out. It has been a consistent strip, and one I’m confortable with – I know the characters, I’m familiar with the villains. And every day I checked the strip, and chuckled at the jokes or noted the developments – but very rarely did it stop me in my tracks and make me pay attention.

Lately, however, has been a different story altogether. I notice – just now – that the strip is ending in 2008, which helps explain some of it – characters and the relationship between characters are changing in distinct and permanent ways. People are quitting jobs they have held since the start of the strip. They are settling into new directions that they have, in many ways, been inexorably headings towards since the very beginning. And unresolved romances are finally being… resolved.

I should note that it is these things that have gotten my notices – not villanous plots or diabolical schemes. The action has always served as a good backdrop for Funny Farm, but it has truly been the characters – and their interactions and relationships – that has been its greatest strength.

Today featured a kiss between Boe and Mileena, two characters whose romantic tension has been a plot point since their first introduction. It isn’t a relationship I was ever really concerned about, nor are they among the characters I have most followed in the strip – but today’s strip still caught my notice.

It is a cute moment, perfectly executed, with just the right mix of humor and happiness. And it certainly leaves me with high hopes for Funny Farm’s final year.

The other big winner for the day is Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic – which, as a matter of fact, is a strip I’ve pointed out in a similar fashion on a past occasion, not all that many weeks back. That time, however, I was impressed by a scene of perfect comedy, that capitalized on the format to produce one of the funniest moments I had seen in ages, as a character finds herself with a genie, makes some free wishes, and watches as things almost instaneously go from bad to mega-catastrophic. All within the space of four simple panels.

Today’s strip, on the other hand, is a different sort of beast entirely. It is not a moment of comedy, though the last handful of pages have been filled with the usual slapstick of the strip. It is not a quick, compact moment, but instead a double-sized post filled with a character’s speech.

It is, instead, merely a perfect demonstration of the strip doing what is does best – showing the profound humanity of the characters, monsters though they may be.

This has, of course, been a key element of the comic from the beginning – the very first strip gives personality to a goblin and a beholder, two beings normally seen in the genre as simply obstacles for heroes to overcome. It has been a prominent aspect throughout the strip, and likely one of the biggest elements that has made it stand out so thoroughly from the rest of the crowd.

Today, Turg, a minotaur, waxes eloquent on the driving force of mankind. (And minotaurkind. And orckind. And goblinkind.)

We’ve only really gotten to know Turg in this last arc. YAFGC is adept at featuring a variety of characters, and moving the focus from one to another without disruption – and maybe that is why it is hard to notice how central Turg has been to this storyline. He has been the leader of the current expedition (a quest to go find some treasure in some temple – the usual deal.) And along the way, he’s steadily been established as feeling alone. His companions have friends, lovers and family… he does not, not as they do.

Today’s strip is a culmination of the path he has been walking – and a startling, and powerful, demonstration of the comic’s ability to bring these characters to life. And a reminder of why, despite having been around for less than a year and a half, this strip has the potential be one of the best damn comics around.

Yo Ho Ho

I think PvP has the best take on Talk Like a Pirate Day that I’ve seen to date. 

Meanwhile, Tycho’s ability to wax eloquent on the fundamentals of extraterrestrial erotica is downright frightening – and I’m referring more to the man’s command of the English language than the subject matter at hand.

But enough of random linkage to the kings of the field, however noteworthy their performances today. Let’s talk about Modern Tales, and the recent changes to the line-up; specifically, the addition of some very promising rising stars, and a farewell to a comic I am very sad to see go.

First up, the additions.

Little Dee is a comic about which I have heard a great deal. Friends have pestered me into reading it. Reviews have celebrated it. Fans have sung its praises. And yet, it isn’t actually on my reading list, largely due to circumstance more than anything else. The premise sounds remarkably Calvin and Hobbes-esque – which, when pulled off right, is generally a recipe for success. This is what newspaper comics should be, and even if it has parted ways from syndication, their loss seems to be our game – and it’s addition to Modern Tales seems to mean my turn to step up and join the readers cheering it on.

Planet Saturday Comics… well, I’ve mentioned them before, and my feelings on the comic remain the same – it is an elegant and gorgeously illustrated remembrance (and celebration) of childhood and family. Modern Tales is very lucky to add them to the collective – and hopefully this will help share their work with an even larger crowd, to the mutual benefit of everyone involved.

Gothbunnies I already reviewed last week, and was suitably impressed with.

No Stereotypes is one I’ve long been a fan of. It has also been a comic I’ve seen go through more changes and transitions than most, and while returning to Modern Tales only seems to be continuing that trend, it will hopefully only make the comic more accessible, rather than less so. No Stereotypes is one of those comics that manages to be both fully epic and yet staggeringly personal, and that is among the least of the great things it has going for it.

Finally, All Knowledge is Strange – a comic I haven’t heard of, by an artist I’m not familiar with, who has written other comics I haven’t read. Which, to be fair, isn’t a bad thing in any way – new material can be refreshing, and given my familiarity with most of the other comics added to the site, having a wild card is entirely welcome.

So, all in all, some fine new additions to the line-up. Unfortunately, their addition comes with sad news – the end of Where Am I Now?

Where Am I Now? has been on hiatus for a long while now, so it had already fallen off my radar in some respects. And yet, reading back through the archives (a relatively easy task, with under 70 strips available), I am reminded of why I so enjoyed it the first time I stumbled upon it. It is both beautiful and sad, joyous and melancholy, and I’m a sucker for any story that can blend those so effectively.

This comic is about a world where humanity has died off. The survivors? A handful of robots, artificial intelligences left alone in a world and unsure what to do other than pass the time from day to day. We don’t know specifically what brought about the end of the world – just that it happened, and it seems nearly complete.

It is a dark idea, but the comic is filled with bright moments and its fair share of humor. And it delves into some powerful and thoughtful philosophy. But it does have plenty of bittersweet scenes, almost heartbreaking in their subtlety. (“Real children, or robot-” “Real, robot children.” Now that is a well-put together moment.)

And… now it is come to an end. Not even a proper end, but a bittersweet one – a sudden stop, the story only partially told, the characters now left to linger in limbo forevermore. It isn’t as harsh as it could be – the greater story was never the focus of the comic, and regardless of the handful of hints of larger plot, it was a comic about people, and society, and ideas, and not about any specific tale I will suffer without knowing the ending.

But it is a sad goodbye, and in some ways, a grim reflection of the comic itself. Modern Tales may be gaining some bright new strips, but webcomics as a whole are losing a comic that could have been one of the greats.

On Promotion

So, my post last Friday mentioned Ryan Estrada joining onto Life’s a Bluff – but this was apparently just the tip of the iceberg. The Cartoon Commune was launched, assurances were given concerning the return of Aki Alliance (among other new comics), and finally, an attempt was made to blanket the internet in guest strips – Fleen and T Campbell have done most of the round-up for those who didn’t realize the scope of it all. There is a confirmed count of at least thirty-seven, and I’m confident the actual number is at least in the forties. For the full list, Ryan will be running the strips on his own site, one every five hours, with commentary, so that’s the place to be for any who want the complete experience.

It’s a pretty impressive feat, to come up with that many comics emulating and celebrating so many different styles – all the more so because many of the guest strips were amazingly well done. But while most were inclined to tip the hat to Estrada on a job well done, I noted a number of others who were upset by his attempt to become the “ultimate attention whore” – and it is that crowd I feel the need to address.

Now, I can understand their point. Having a product thrown in your face too many times will often turn it sour, regardless of the product itself. I can think of several different webcomics that I found myself dissuaded from reading specifically because of overaggressive self-promotional advertising. So for someone not a fan of Estrada’s style – or those simply looking for actual content from the comics they read, and running into guest strip after guest strip – I can see how the Estradaganza could be aggravating. And yes, it is certainly true that Ryan is going out of his way to attract attention with this – it is clearly a stunt being done with the goal of promoting his new site and career.

But that said – seriously, I can think of few worthier causes for this sort of stunt than celebrating someone’s chance to go full-time with the webcomics gig. Sure, he’s not going to be the first one to do so – but the crowd of those who make a living from webcomics is still only a few dozen at most. Each person who adds to those ranks is another bit of reassurance for those working towards such a goal, and an accomplishment worth recognizing.

Secondly, this isn’t just him asking for a shameless plug on his friend’s sites. This is him producing dozens of strips, each of them carefully crafted for the subject. This is him giving dozens of webcartoonists the chance to sit down for a day and rest, or try and get caught up, or work on building up their buffer. They aren’t posting the guest strips because he forced them to do so – they are posting them because they appreciate what he did, and because they think it is worth sharing with their readers!

Is it self-promotion? Yes, of course it is. But it is self-promotion done well, in service of a worthy cause and with the glad participation of all those involved in the matter. This isn’t something for people to be repulsed by – this is something for people to aspire towards.

Some Friday News, in brief

A recent JLA issue featured an exceptionally Shortpacked moment, as seen on right.

Anyway, the big news floating around at the moment is the webcomic exhibit at the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art, in New York. Fleen has a full rundown on the exhibit, and it certainly sounds like good stuff. It features some of the best work out there – including some amazing things I had never heard of before.

I kinda like the fact that, even though odds are low that I’ll actually have the chance to see the exhibit, it still managed to put me in touch with at least one awesome comic I had never seen before.

So, apparently Ryan Estrada is the new artist over at Life’s a Bluff. Which is certainly awesome news, though I’d be even more overjoyed if there was any sign of Aki Alliance returning from its long hiatus. That said, Estrada has definitely shown he can produce some quality work when dealing with other people’s comics, as is clearly demonstrated by the greatest PvP guest strip ever.

Speaking of PvP, apparently Scott Kurtz has started taking the drugs. Seriously, though, the recent anime storyline hasn’t been bad, but it has certainly taken the strip’s surreality meter and thrown it right out the window.

Stunning upset of the day: It isn’t unheard of for two popular gaming strips to happen to make near identical jokes on the same day. What was a shock, however, was the realization that on this day, Ctrl+Alt+Del managed to thoroughly out-humor Penny Arcade.

I… I’m sorry, but I think I need to go lie down for a moment.

Floppy Ears and Woodland Fears

Modern Tales continues to add quality comics to its roster – which is certainly not a bad strategy, as these things go. While recent days have been seeing all manner of discussion on Zudacomics, and ComicMix, and all manner of other BigName webcomic sites planning on launching, Modern Tales has continued to quietly chug along, and has resumed developing its steadily growing collection of enjoyable comics. I suspect it would take something big to really get attention (such as replacing their terrible archiving system and website layout), but it is nice to have a site that serves as such a reliable resource for first-class webcomics.

The latest addition to the site is Gothbunnies, which I stumbled upon today. It is a recent addition – so recent, in fact, it doesn’t even seem to have been officially announced! (Which, I’ll note, isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed a newcomer to Modern Tales before its official launch on the site.)

Gothbunnies clocks in at 85 comics, which I consider a nice and juicy number to encounter in a new strip – not so many that the archives are overwhelming, but just enough to give you a real sense of characters and story. It updates once a week – a bit slow for my tastes – but with full-sized pages, and what seems to be a good ability to move the action along at a steady pace. (Though I won’t really be able to judge that until after I’ve been reading for a while. For good or bad, reading a comic’s archives is a vastly different experience than reading it week to week.)

The art faintly reminds me of the works of Sylvan Migdal – which, rest assured, is a compliment, as I consider Migdal to be one of webcomics’ greats. The first page is amazingly gorgeous, with similarly striking moments ocassionally appearing throughout. Even when it is just portraying characters walking about, or conversing, the art is both clean and expressive – both of which I rate highly in the comics I read.

I have some small complaints about the character design – namely that, especially with some of the recent additions to the cast, some characters can be slightly difficult to tell apart. Similarly, it was almost fifty pages into the story before I realized that Larch, one of three main characters, was male rather than female. Of course, it didn’t actually change my view of the story in any real way, and I won’t deny that I fundamentally like the character designs – but a bit more distinction might not hurt.

As for the story itself, it is currently a solid blend of mischief and mystery, and is just beginning to hint at something more serious. The story begins with our three protagonists (who are, indeed, anthropomorphic rabbits that are also goths, as one might infer from the strip’s title) moving into a new house (warren.) Unfortunately, the house has a garden filled with plant monsters, a predisposition for unnatural weather, and is next door to mages, cemeteries, and all manner of assorted spookiness. Two of the roommates find the situation exciting, the other one is wary but resigned, and adventures, inevitably, ensue.

The characters have very distinct personalities right from the beginning, and the creator, one J. Wojtysiak, does a remarkably good job with the usual hurdle of expositing a character’s background. However, at least thus far, this doesn’t really appear to be their story – like many good adventure tales, the three of them (along with the reader) are plunged into a mystery in progress, and all they really need to do is survive it (and possibly learn what is truly going on along the way.)

Tied into the odd happenings in the neighborhood is Vetiver, a stranger in the woods and owner of a tome of magic, whom they find tied to a tree in the forest. (By plant monsters.) While Vetiver joins forces with them, after a fashion, to help get to safety, it seems clear he knows more than he is telling – and given all the other mysterious figures around who seem to wish him ill, there is clearly a lot more to him than there initially appears to be.

More than that… well, we don’t really know yet. We’re only just starting to stumble into deeper plot, and the story has a lot of directions it could go in from here. I am certainly eager to learn more – I find myself curious even about characters that have shown up only in the last handful of strips, but who already seem to have backstory that promises to be interesting.

And for all the discussion of story and plot above, this is a fundamentally light-hearted strip. Humor is present throughout, with occasional trips into raw silliness. I particularly like the sword-fight with a shovel-wielding bush. The jokes aren’t too over-the-top, and they don’t try to force their way into every scene, but they do set a cheerful tone that infuses the strip’s atmosphere. That is, in my opinion, just the right balance to aim for.

So, all in all? Brisk art, personable characters, engaging mysteries and an enjoyable mood all adds up to a damn good comic – and a good addition to Modern Tales, and a happy discovery for myself.