Monthly Archives: November, 2007

Post #487, in which I review a webcomic.

By next week, I should be back in the groove of updating. NaNoWriMo shall have come to a close, and while I won’t be hitting the 50k mark, I’m relatively happy with what I did write, which seems a reasonable mark of success in my book. But anyway – next week, regular updates. For today, a review of Kukuburi.

I’ll be honest – I like Butternut Squash, I really do, but I’ve never really considered it in the top tier of webcomics… and if you had told me that one of the creators would suddenly start producing one of the most intensely imaginative webcomics around, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

But he did, and it is Kukuburi.

In the last year, I’ve noticed a substantial growth in the field of delightfully surreal fantasy comics – but this hasn’t diminished my enjoyment of them in the slightest. This strip, which begins with a lizard, seems eager to get to the moment where the magic begins to flow… but that doesn’t diminish the potency of the first ten pages.

I mean, I know Ramón Pérez is a fantastic artist – Butternut Squash made that plenty clear. But the writing in this piece holds up wonderfully, and the rising tension in those first ten pages really latches hold of the reader. The other most impressive factor is the attention to detail – or, more accurately, all the little touches that elevate this beyond just a simple fantasy romp.

The way obscenities are portrayed as small little skull icons within dialogue boxes, rendered not just harmless, but actively cute. The ability of characters and locations to be present for no more than one to two panels – likely to never be seen again – yet still remain interesting enough to catch the eye. The use of color to show us where this is going before we even get there. (The weight of the simplest of things – somewhat later on, I’m impressed by the appearance – and meaning – of a single flower.)

The fact that Pérez manages to follow our heroine’s life for those first ten pages without ever once truly showing us her face, until the moment she steps into the bizarre fantasy adventure awaiting her.

In some ways, I almost like that introduction more than what actually comes after it – but I suspect that is in part because the introduction is complete, while the story itself is only getting started.

Thus far, the plot is simple but potentially complex: Nadia lives a normal, everyday life, until today – wherein she steps into a fantastic world of color and flying whales and floating islands and many other wonders. We don’t yet know why she is here or the nature of the world, though it seems clear she is connected to it in some very important way.

It is a story, thus far, that we’ve seen before – in the works of Miyazaki and Neil Gaiman, in the classic of the Wizard of Oz.

The question is, for all the pretty artwork (and it is very, very pretty), can it stand on its own as something new and unique?

I have high hopes. Even aside from the art, there is a very strong sense of style amidst the absurdities, and that is important. But the real key, I think, lies in the star of the show – Nadia, the heroine of the tale. Because she really stands out as her own character – spunky, strong, and capable of coming out on top despite being in over her head. She’s not something we’ve seen before, and I think she is the key to the story being more than simply an exercise in beautifully illustrated imaginings.

For now, I’m willing to simply sit back and be amazed by the quality of the work and the somewhat frightening speed at which it has been released, considering it isn’t Pérez’s only webcomic.

I’m surprised it took me this long to discover it (especially considering I actually read his other comic), but I’ll attribute that to my usual inability to stay in the loop. I suspect, however, that this is a comic it won’t be so easy to hide from as word spreads – while it might be small now, it certainly has the potential to be one of webcomic’s rising stars.

It certainly qualifies, by my standards, as a damn good comic.

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There’s No Wrong Way to Eat a Reese’s

First, a brief mention that yesterday’s Multiplex was totally awesome, and I look forward to seeing where this is going.

Now, on to a potentially far more silly topic – the way I read my webcomics.

Despite my recent efforts to remove comics from my list that I read out of habit, rather than due to genuine interest, it remains the case that at any given moment some comics are much more appealing to me than others. This isn’t to say the others are bad comics, not at all – but there are many strips whose quality occilates up and down from one storyline to the next, and sometimes I’m interested and sometimed I’m… not.

Most days I avoid having to pick and choose simply by reading in alphabetical order – even easier to do these days, since Piperka has streamlined the process and removed my need to figure out what comics have actually updated that day. Even so, I have a few quirks that show up in the process.

First off, I try and read in equal divisions of the total comics available. To explain, I usually open a dozen or so comics in multiple tabs, read them one after the other, and then open the next set. When doing so, however, I try to space things out evenly. If there are sixty new comics that day, I’ll aim for six groups of ten comics at a time, or five groups of twelve, etc.

What makes this even more exciting is that I also try and read all of any given alphabetical section at a time! In other words, I’ll try and read all the A’s, B’s and C’s in one jump, then the D’s to G’s, then H’s to M’s… all while also trying to stay as close to my numerically even distribution as possible. Isn’t it fun to be mildly OCD?

On the other hand, this has had the surprising result of noticing where some of the best webcomics are clumped together. I have found the G section to be especially prime material, while the S’s (which also has some top comics) is the largest section of them all, sometimes taking multiple groupings to get through!

The final rule of the reading is to always end on a good note. The addition of Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic has made this a relatively easy task, but prior to then I tried to save a few good strips for the finish, on the belief that whatever strips I read last would be the ones most affecting my mood afterwards.

I will admit to violating this rule on occasion – if I’m in a rush, I might read the top ones first, choosing a few choice highlights and leaving the rest for later. But, by and large, I follow the above formula. Yes, it is strange, bizarre, and slightly ritualistic – but honing my daily webcomic reading down to under a half an hour is a more than a worthwhile accomplishment.

So – how do you read your webcomics?

We could all use a little change

One of the most interesting things about Penny and Aggie is the fact that the two title characters don’t necessarily turn out as who you think they will be.

Penny represents the popular crowd – she is charismatic, manipulative, apparently shallow. Aggie, on the other hand, is the type most webcomic readers would be more likely to connect with – she is the outcast, the poet, focused on creativity and remaining true to her ideals.

Yet somehow… Penny has become the more interesting figure. Perhaps it is because there is more room for personal growth and development (though the path to true maturity is laid out for Aggie as well.) Perhaps it is because the need to explore such a seemingly different personality has resulted in a much stronger presence. Perhaps it was simply an attempt to break stereotype – and encourage readers to be patient before making judgements, one way or the other.

Regardless of why, it has meant that Penny has had a bit more screentime (or it at least feels that way) – and somehow she’s ended up as the actual star of the show. She has matured, though she largely remains the popular girl, the queen bee – but she genuinely cares about her few true friends, and her social awareness also demonstrates a pretty powerful core understanding of how people work.

In the current storyline, her ex-boyfriend (who she still loves), has just emerged from being hospitalized after a stabbing. Upon recovering, he reunites with Penny in a remarkably effective scene. Shortly thereafter, announces his plans to ride off and “live the American Dream” – and he invites her along.

And that is when things get good.

We abruptly launch into the sort of high-concept scene that T is so fond of: A convention of Penny’s future selves, assembled to vote on which future she should head towards. Some of them are harder to visualize Penny ending up as, but none of them seem impossible – and all of them have a distinct voice and design. T and Gisèle clearly had fun with them – and with the challenge of defining them in the span of only a few moments.

They talk about the future, and about the pivotal decision of whether to follow Rich or not. Both paths clearly have good and bad potential outcomes, and any manner of possibilities along the way. But the chances of actually making a life with Rich seem low, and they vote, and decide to let Rick ride alone by a landslide…

And Penny – Penny as she is, not as she might be – shows up to have her say, and it is possibly the comic’s best moment yet.

“I am not a person-in-the-making, I am a person now.”

That’s a powerful line, and the speech that follows it is even more heartfelt. Penny is going to follow her heart, decide her fate based on the now, rather than the future, and leave with Rich, no matter how crazy it seems.

And here’s the thing – this is a terrible idea. I don’t think it will end will. I think that Rich is making a mistake by running off without a plan, and Penny is making a bigger mistake by pursuing him…

…but I’m rooting for them to succeed.

That’s the accomplishment here – that is the demonstration of the power of this scene. I know this will end poorly. I know this isn’t going to work out. But I can still tremendously admire Penny’s decision, and hope for it to turn out for the best. And in the end, even if things completely fall apart, it was her decision to make – and I suspect she will emerge the better for it, one way or another.

I am curious to see where it goes, certainly. I mean – title character, you know? Is the comic going to follow her new adventure? Let her fate go unknown into she rolls back into town a few months down the road, after things have gone south?

I’m really hoping the next page or two doesn’t pull some silliness to bring it all to a halt before it begins – stepping back from the decision to leave would not just be disappointing, but thoroughly undermine the power of the scene itself.

But… we’ll see what happens. And if Penny vanishes from the comic for a time, to discover whatever lies in wait? That just might mean a chance for Aggie to take center stage, and for us to learn what she is made of.

52 Things That Bother Me

I recall, when DC’s 52 wrapped up, that one of the complaints T Campbell had about it was how they had gone through the entire messy business of restarting the multiverse, allowing them a massive realm of new and interesting possibilities to explore, and decided to fill up a large portion of their new worlds with various older stories and elseworlds and etc.

I understand his point, though this didn’t really bother me personally – I hadn’t read most of those stories, so they were largely as exciting and new as the handful of worlds DC left open for any new stories they decided to tell. All in all, it seemed like a clever idea: 51 new universes for DC to play around with. To tell the stories they can’t tell with their core continuity. To tell new stories to attract new readers. To do all sorts of nifty things.

Which is why I have been so incredibly disappointed with the use to which they have been put thus far. The latest weekly series from DC, Countdown, involves some heroes from Earth-1 wandering from one alternate Earth to the next, where we briefly glimpse what is going on (occasionally throwing it into disarray) before they hop onto the next world.

Even better, heroes and villains from those worlds are being recruited into some grand galactic army! They have instantly gone from having the potential to tell their own, new and interesting, stories… to being bit players in the current DC Mega-Event. I mean, how is this not simply an enormous waste of resources and possibilities?

They’ve even got an upcoming event, Countdown: Arena, wherein multiple versions from various realities will be forced to duke it out to see which will have the honor of joining the galactic army. And, hey – I can understand the raw appeal of it all. We’ve all seen fans get into debates over this sort of nonsense, whether their favorite superhero could beat up their buddy’s favorite, and this is simply that on a grand scale.

But man… it just seems so short-sighted.

In this week’s Countdown, Superguy Prime (currently one of DC’s top villains) wandered into Earth-15, killed the Justice League, and then destroyed the entire planet.

What is the point of coming up with these alternate worlds with potentially new and interesting characters – or variations on characters – and then immediately throwing them by the wayside? Isn’t this their chance to start laying the ground for the future, start finding a way out of the rut the company has been stuck in for years?

On the other hand, the one thing print comics don’t seem to have the luxury of is planning ahead. Titles get passed from one writer to the next, plots get subsumed into whatever mega-crossover/event is currently going on, and anything undesired that came before gets retconned into oblivion.

There are many folks much better qualified than myself to comment on the state of the print comics industry, as well as the various stories being told by DC and Marvel. But I feel that I am justified in saying this, if nothing else: I think it is a downright shame that DC can come up with such a cool idea as the new multiverse, and within half-a-year, already have begun laying waste to that accomplishment.

Things That Bother Me: Sluggy Freelance

Second on the list of today’s rants: Sluggy Freelance.

There are a lot of people that want Sluggy to go back to how it use to be – though, personally, I think that exact goal is a large part of the comic’s current failings.

There are also those who are frustrated with how far we’ve regressed from That Which Redeems, both in regards to the epic scope of events, as well as to the apparent maturation of the characters that has vanished like dust in the wind.

There are even those who think things need to head towards a conclusion, a tidying up of storylines and loose ends, and a culmination of all that has come before, rather than allowing things to die with but a gradually fading sigh.

Right now, I’m not too worried about that. Right now, my one true request of the strip – the one thing I really, genuinely desire…

Is for the strip to stop actively trying to convince me the main characters are the most unsympathetic beings in the universe.

Let’s dial back the clock a few weeks, and take a look at strips, and the punchlines thereof, one-by-one.

Oct 29: Gwynn is an idiot, and shallow.
Oct 30: Gwynn is an idiot, and shallow, and bitchy.
Oct 31: Gwynn is an idiot, and shallow, and bitchy.
Nov 1: Gwynn is… oh, you know, see previous.
Nov 2: Zombies are idiots. Hey! Score one for the good guys.
Nov 3: Random filler.
Nov 4: Random filler.
Nov 5: Gwynn and Zoe are shallow, and bitchy. Oh yes, and idiots.
Nov 6: See above.
Nov 7: Gwynn is really an idiot.
Nov 8: Changing the pace up by dragging back out a joke that wasn’t funny the first time it was made.
Nov 9: A bunch of exposition, followed by characters momentarily acting like decent human beings… followed by Riff and Torg acting like shallow idiots.
Nov 10: Random filler.
Nov 11: Random filler.
Nov 12: Characters briefly sharing a touching moment… followed by Torg being a shallow idiot.
Nov 13: Riff is a jerk. Aylee is a plot device.
Nov 14: Gwynn is jealous, and it is fun to laugh at blind people.

…look, I don’t ask for much. And I know that, in the end, the characters being idiots has been a time-honored tradition of Sluggy Freelance. I know that having characters with genuine human flaws goes a long way towards connecting with the audience, and has been one of the factors that has allowed the strip to go through some of its more powerful arcs.

But there needs to be something to sympathize with, too. And having day after day of being shown how wretched these people are… how much they fail as friends, as workers, as human beings… all it really does is push me away.

And, yes, it does sting worse because Torg has been through That Which Redeems, Zoe has been through Fire and Rain, Gwynn has been through The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot, Riff has had Dangerous Days – and I don’t think it is a coincedence that these are easily among the best Sluggy storylines, and also the ones that have featured genuine character growth.

Character growth that, unfortunately, gets thrown out the window as soon as it becomes convenient to do so.

I understand why. I mean, Pete Abrams makes a living off this strip. He was among the earliest webcomics to do so (if not the first), and the strip is a vital means of supporting his family. And the strip has, for ten years, been about a bunch of idiots who get involved in crazy adventures. And regardless of all the baggage they’ve accumulated, all the growth that they have undergone… he needs to preserve the strip the way it has been, all this time. Stick to the formula, to what he knows works, and it will continue to do what he needs it to do.

He got burned, heavily, with Oceans Unmoving… and I think he learned the wrong lesson from it. Don’t deviate, is what he heard, don’t experiment. But what people really wanted was to continue the story with the characters they liked before diving into something new and unknown.

I don’t think Sluggy Freelance needs to end. For a time, I did – but comics, just like characters, can grow without needed to come to an end. I think there are plenty more years of life left in the strip. I’d like to see some things resolved, yes, and I’d like to see characters that actually reflect the struggles they have been through…

…but right now, all I’m asking for is to be tossed a bone. I’m not even going to ask for Pete to make me like the characters again – just don’t make me dislike them! The punchline for every strip shouldn’t be how much they fail at being worthwhile human beings! That’s all I’m asking for – I don’t expect you to make them into geniuses or have them suddenly outgrow all their character flaws.

Just don’t rub my face in those flaws day after day, strip after strip, to the exclusion of all else. Temper the flaws with some understanding, balance the humor more evenly, overcome the need to break the characters down into one-note jokes.

I’ve always said that Sluggy, among all the comics out there, is the one I will always have faith in. This is a strip that has gone through dull stretches and come back strong. So I’m willing to keep reading, and keep waiting, and see where the strip is going to go… as long as you don’t make me hate the characters.

Because once I’ve lost all faith in them, and all the investment that has been built up with them after all these years… well, then there’s no more reason for me to keep reading, whether the story improves or not.

Things That Bother Me: PvP

I’m returning from my week off with a bunch of ranting on a few things that have been bothering me. Tomorrow, I’ll get back to posting some of the highlights I’ve recently been impressed by in webcomics, but for today, whining is the word of the day.

First off: PvP. The latest story-arc dealt with video games. I don’t have any real problems with this, and while the storyline itself didn’t really blow me away, it wasn’t terrible, either. What bothered me was the fact that the strip can’t do anything involving video games without mentioning how it’s no longer about video games.

The problem is this: pulling out the same tired jokes you’ve made a dozen times before? Not funny. Look, I understand, I really do – coming up with new, interesting and entertaining jokes day after day for ten years is, strangely enough, a difficult task. But you need to resist the temptation to just phone it in, and lately, Scott Kurtz seems to be doing just that.

There are only so many times you can use a joke before it gets old. The funny thing is, this is a lesson he seemed to have learned some time ago, with the Giant Panda. The joke went as follows – Brent is tricked into saying the word Panda in some fashion, and a Giant Panda appears from nowhere to maul him. A decent gag the first few times, then it grew tired – so Kurtz switched things up. He kept the Panda around, but produced him in clever new situations, changing the rules of the game as needed to keep it interesting.

Unfortunately, now he seems to be dipping into his bag of tricks at every turn – and often this ‘meta-humor’ commentary on the strip itself – and it really just falls flat.

I mean, what the hell is this?

Some folks apparently complained about Kurtz drawing himself as skinnier than he used to be, but I’ve got no problem with that – keeping his avatar’s appearance dynamic and updated is all to the good.

But in what universe, rather than actually writing the strip, is a remotely acceptable alternative to call someone up and jot down the ensuing conversation? That’s bogus. Even if the first and last panels were remotely funny – which, really, they aren’t – take a look at panels two and three.

It’s simply small talk. Not small talk being used in an interesting fashion, or to reveal something about the characters, or anything else – no, he just wrote down some chatter with his dad, and felt it was a reasonable replacement for a strip.

(And I suppose there is the possibility this isn’t a transcript of a phone call at all, but instead was deliberately written by Kurtz. Which, frankly, would be in many ways worse.)

I mean, I get the feeling Kurtz himself thinks it must be hilarious, so I’m willing to let it slide when he throws up his latest anecdote about something his father said. But when he actively goes in search of some artificially funny humor – and pads it with what might as well be a discussion of the weather, then I feel he’s letting his readers down.

In the end, I’m tempted to say the problem with PvP is that it updates every day of the week. I know Kurtz can be funny – I wouldn’t be reading the strip if that wasn’t true. But I get the sense he’s burnt out with the pace of the strip, and has no excuse but to resort to the same tired old laughs day in and day out – whether they are his own running gags or a reliance on inserting movie references.

And I know that trimming the strip down to three updates a week isn’t remotely an option – he’s built up an expectation for a certain level of output, and it is hard to step back from that. The momentum itself gives the strip strength. Penny Arcade once said, regarding another webcomic I have never actually read, that “people will pass up steak once a week for crap every day.” And they are right – even the most brilliant weekly comic has trouble finding an audience, compared to those that can produce a regular update every day.

I respect Kurtz’s work, and I like his strip, but I think he really needs to find something original, something that can revitalize what he’s doing, or he’s going to go straight down the same route of all the strips in the funny paper he has so often disdained.

Quite a Few Things Positive

Man – stop posting for a week and suddenly everything happens in the webcomic world. It would be a bit of a drag to rehash them all – and most of the news can be found in this post by Howard Tayler, wherein he says pretty much everything I would have said.

As far as other webcomic developments this last weel, I must say I appreciated some of the dorkoriffic halloween costumes;  I enjoyed the wrapping up of the latest story arc in No Need for Bushido, which managed to treat characters seriously without losing their personalities; I was impressed the surprisingly convincing flirtation going on in Nukees these days; and I liked the fact that the scariest image on Halloween was the future version of Penny that looks just like Aggie.

This is probably a low blow, especially to a man having his wisdom teeth removed today, but for the first three panels, I thought this was one of the most touching autobiographical webcomic strips out there.

All the little things aside, however, what I’d really like to discuss is Something Positive 1937.

Now, this is undeniably a cool little comic. It offers a more bite-size version of the classic S*P humor, which is nice. It is interesting to see the family connections and similarities – and differences – between the past and present generations. And the characters themselves are intriguing in their own rights, with their own stories to tell and lives to live.

But what really wows me about the entire thing… is how it seems to have come into being. Milholland had some extra advertising space on his website that was going unused for a short bit. Now, while most webcomickers would have used this opportunity to leave it blank or try and draw in more ads, he decided to create an entirely new comic that would fit in the spot.

Think about that – he added this little gem to his daily workload simply because he could. Because he had an inspiration and an opportunity to tell a story, and he decided to do so. I mean, that’s what most webcomics are in the first place, sure – but this was on top of all the other stuff he did. And now we’re over fifty strips into S*P 1937 and it appears to be a permanent fixture, and along the way he’s come up with a pretty awesome new advertising method along the way.

That’s just awesome. Not just because it means more free comics for his readers, but because it serves as a reminder of exactly how interested he is in the stories he is telling.

We see this in S*P 1937. We see this in bonus pages and world backgrounds and video miniseries. We see this in posting triple-size updates just for the sake of doing so. All of it evidence that these guys aren’t just trying to get an audience, it isn’t just about money or internet fame or any of that – it’s about telling a story, and they are just as eager as the fans to see where the story goes. It’s something easy to lose site of, and I’m always glad to be reminded of it.