Monthly Archives: January, 2008

Where’s the laughs?

So, I was somewhat startled by a post over at MightyGodKing wherein he calls PvP to task for the hypocrisy of indulging in a drama-laden storyline after previously mocking other strips that do so.

Now, his previous commentary on PvP, which was a spot-on piece of criticism about the strip’s current lack of focus and reliance on desperate in-jokes and pop-culture references, was a very nice piece of work – and, in fact, helped fully delineate a lot of the elements that had been bothering me about the comic.

Which is why it is startling to see another post about the comic wherein I disagree entirely in pretty much every regard.

Now to be fair, there isn’t all that much to disagree with – the recent post isn’t very detailed, just a juxtaposition of two strips from the comic (one current, and one four years old), with the apparent goal of pointing out the hypocrisy of the current storyline. If that isn’t truly his intention, then I apologize in advance for assuming otherwise – see the usual disclaimer about it being hard to get a sense for what people are actually saying over the internet.

But, on the assumption that he is attempting to take Kurtz to task… well, I have to object with the examples he is using to do so.

Exhibit A, above, is where Kurtz is presumably putting down how some comics in the so-called funny pages wander into serious storylines, which can be grim and even downright depressing. But here’s the thing – while Kurtz has certainly not disguised his disdain for the majority of the newspaper comic strips, that disdain has usually fallen on the ones relying on tired, formulaic gags… comics that haven’t changed or evolved in decades. The above comic was posted back when For Better or For Worse was still considered one of the true comics of quality in the paper, when the Boondocks was one of the few to challenge the status quo.

Even beyond that, Cole puts forward in the strip the opinion that there can be a time and place for serious storylines. Not a surprising opinion, given that for all of PvP’s own reliance on gags, it has also often been driven by some significant stories built around drama and relationships – in fact, it becomes even more amusing considering that Brent (and his situation with Jade) has usually been the one at the heart of such storylines. Brent just sort of ignores the point, but it is still out there providing a voice of reason despite’s Brent’s ranting.

Is Kurtz seriously saying that comics should be nothing but simple jokes day in and day out? That the rest of the funny pages – the ones he rather universally loathes – are the ones to aspire towards?

Of course not – he’s poking some simple fun at the serious strips, sure, but doing so firmly tongue-in-cheek.

Exhibit B is the current storyline, wherein, as you can see, Cole’s marriage is falling apart. Even worse – it is happening right while Brent and Jade are in the midst of planning their own wedding. Sure, this is drama-heavy territory… but I also would contend it is the best Kurtz has been in months.

Despite the drama, the punchlines have actually been funny. I mean, sure, Brent finding out he has no legitimate reason to be pissed at Cole, and thus becoming all the more pissed, isn’t some powerful new form of humor than will redefine the genre – but it is rock solid in characterization and easily got a laugh out of me. And most of the strips in the storyline have been the same – competent and humorous strips that have also advanced the plot. As compared to just another round of pop-culture references, or trying to find yet another way to work in a panda attack, or a well-meaning but ultimately weak storyline about Shecky the troll.

Honestly? The time to take Kurtz to task for any supposed hypocrisy about “serious issues” was in 2005, when we had Jade suddenly worried she might be pregnant, and Brent trying to deal with the possibility of being a dad.

Which – guess what – despite only being two weeks long, was possibly the best storyline PvP has ever had.

On Unlikeable Characters

I find it curious that, when I ranted about Sluggy Freelance a couple months ago – or more specifically, about how unlikeable the characters had become – I heard quite a few others putting forward College Roomies From Hell as having a similar problem.

And since then, I have heard this again a few times over, and I can’t deny that it is true – but the interesting thing is that the two comics have ended up in similar situations for completely opposite reasons. For Sluggy, Pete seems to desperately want to retain a light-hearted tone with the characters. Character development threatens the classic formula of the strip, of a bunch of wacky kids – or rather, twenty-somethings that refuse to grow up – constantly getting into absurd hijinks and acting as dysfunctional as possible around each other.

He seems to have even become aware of it, in recent strips, but still unable to resist having them all act like idiots – the last few months have been filled with moments where the characters say, “Wait, why are we acting like this?” … seconds before they engage in even more juvenile behavior. Caught in this perpetual realm of immaturity, it becomes harder and harder to remotely care about their eventual fate – a death knell for a strip based on long, elaborate plotlines.

With CRFH, on the other hand, the characters have become unlikeable as an intentional part of the plot, as the early humor of the strip has given way to darker storylines and heavy bouts of angst. The characters have been driven apart from each other, and even become enemies after a fashion.

Opposite direction, same problem.

For myself, CRFH hasn’t lost me yet – while I have a hard time sympathizing with the characters, there is an overall plot to follow, and one that seems to be heading for the endgame. Even beyond that, for all that I’m not entirely sure of how I feel about the plot, it has resulted in some pretty fantastic individual scenes.

It’s a really bizarre situation. Character wise, I certainly much preferred the entire crew when they were (mostly) friends, and the petty relationship drama seemed to actually lead towards some sort of resolution. But… the path the strip has gone down was not an entirely sudden one. It might not have been obvious early on, but the elements were being set in place for the strip’s eventual focus on the fight against Satan, and the fact that such a fight wasn’t going to involve the characters remaining bright and cheerful and silly throughout.

I mean… it is right there in the name of the comic itself.

So I have to respect that. But even so, that isn’t what is keeping me reading the strip – while it may have been inevitable, the direction of the plot does somewhat rub me the wrong way at times, and it is rough seeing everyone act so… ugly, towards each other.

But the little moments make it worth staying around. There have been some very nice, very concise moments of drama, accompanied by some of the most gorgeous imagery seen in the comic – and interestingly enough, regardless of my feelings on the characters and the plot, those moments alone are strong enough to keep my attention.

There are few comics that can pull that off. I even seem to recall that this was my introduction to the comic itself – a pretty powerful newsbox led me into a certain scene in the “Gone With the Storm” arc, and that moment was enough to engage my interest. I’ll point out that it is extremely rare for me to remember exactly when or how I started reading a given webcomic – which stands as even more of a testament as to how well CRFH can make certain moments resonate in a reader’s mind.

Something Unpredictable

Something Positive is in a strange place, and I’m not entirely sure what to think of it. Which, in many ways, is a good thing.

From what I can tell, PeeJee has proposed to Davan that they commit to each other as platonic life mates. It is not an entirely illogical progression from their current state – they are close, as close as friends can get, and both have a long string of relationships that have tended to end poorly.

Is there more to it than that? I suspect so… though I’m not entirely positive as to what it may be. PeeJee may see Davan as more than a friend – she has definitely shown a certain level of infatuation regarding him in the strip of late… though that may simply have been recognition of how deep their friendship truly is.

She may simply be using this as an excuse, an easy way out, a retreat into that which is comfortable and non-threatening… but there hasn’t been any specific event that I could have seen to directly trigger such an action.

What I am certain of is this – if Milholland can demonstrate one thing, it is that he isn’t willing to settle for simple relationships (or simple characters) within his comics.

I was amused, the other day, when I saw someone ranting about how S*P was turning into Friends – or more specifically, how the comic was set-up so that everyone was forced to end up with their childhood friends, and that it was shown as evil and bizarre to pursue relationships outside of that original social circle.

Now, there is a lot of nonsense being thrown around in that rant there, but what truly made me laugh was that what had triggered this rant was the recent Old Familiar Faces showcasing Branwen. Branwen, who is one of those very outsiders – she did not start out as part of the underlying social group. She started out as Davan’s girlfriend. And, remarkably, their relationship ended well – the break-up wasn’t fun (break-ups usually aren’t), but it wasn’t nearly as ugly as most relationships in the strip. They stayed friends. She remained a distinctly likeable character.

Her latest relationship didn’t end poorly because of some hidden propaganda to sell the idea that characters will only be happy ending up with their childhood friends – it ended the way it did (and the same way others have throughout the strip) because the comic is filled with an incredibly pessimistic view of humanity and their capacity for disappointment.

One tempered, admittedly, by an equally strong optimism of their potential for hope.

S*P has always been a strange mix of ups and downs. It has gone to some very dark places, and the majority of characters are deeply flawed on many levels – but they are also capable of greatness. And happiness. And caring for each other, and overcoming those very same flaws.

Which, yeah, is what people have been saying about S*P for years – and I have, I’m sure, already done so on multiple occasions… but it still impresses me at how well the characters can resonate, and at how willing Milholland is to take the strip in any direction it needs to go.

Many, many, many strips have trouble with the idea of growth. Once they find a nice, simple formula that works, they stick with it. Change is bad, change risks alienating readers. It is the classic reason people mock newspaper strips. Numerous webcomics show the same problem.

But S*P is constantly changing. Characters move away, characters die off, characters grow into different personalities. Life continues on, the focus shifts from one group to another… and, in the end, nothing remains predictable.

Maybe this is the beginning of Davan and PeeJee having a happy life together. Maybe this is the beginning of Davan and PeeJee having an absolutely terrible life together. Maybe this is when Branwen re-enters the picture, or another new girl shows up.

I can see the strip pursuing any one of these possibilities, and countless more besides. Milholland has never pulled his punches before, and I doubt he plans to start doing so now.

Just one of the things that makes Something Positive a damn good comic.

Tying Up Loose Ends

The biggest moment in webcomics this week, at least among the ones I read, came as something of a surprise – not in the least because it occured in Funny Farm.

Now, one thing to understand is that not so many years ago – perhaps half a dozen years back – Funny Farm was actually a pretty big name in the webcomic crowd. This was back in the day when Keenspot stood tall and proud, the only real webcomics hub around. Other collectives were small and unnoticed, or entirely nonexistent. A handful of solitary comics stood on their own, such as Penny Arcade or PvP – but most of the other contenders were found at Keenspot. And as one of Keenspot’s top dogs, Funny Farm had a certain measure of prominence.

But… times change, and the webcomic world grew, and grew, and grew. Ryan Smith’s somewhat zany comic remained a solid strip with consistent quality… but it was now simply one of many such strips. It had it’s share of regular readers, but rarely rose to the public eye. It rarely did anything truly momentous that really stood out from all the other webcomics around.

Until now.

The strip is coming to an end. I mentioned this a few months back – but really, it deserves another mention now. Because ending a comic is a challenging task – not just taking the step and doing so, but managing to actually pull it off well.

The last time I mentioned Funny Farm revolved around the resolution of a relationship between two characters that had been building up throughout the course of the strip. Today’s post is no different. Gulius, loveable dirtbag, had long found only one character who he seemed to form a real connection with – the quiet, cold, efficient Miss Reese.

Who eventually said good-bye.

Then another character was introduced, Janice Morrow, who seemed the very opposite of Miss Reese – she was charming, lively, and constantly smiling. And somehow she also ended up getting close to Gulius.

Which makes sense, as we discover she and Miss Reese are one and the same.

I like it because it is one of the more believable disguises I’ve seen in comics – a different hair color, slightly shorter hair style, contacts instead of glasses… and a different demeanor, which is what really did the job.

More than that, though, I like how well everything seems to be coming together. As I mentioned, this revelation, at its heart, deals with the relationship between these two… but it is something happening within the development of the larger plot, the endgame of the strip.

The thing to realize about many of these webcomics which have been running for close to a decade is that they have ended up with countless plots, countless characters, countless little developments that tend to hover in the background without resolution.

And yet, somehow, Funny Farm seems to be drawing all of its loose ends together. The end is in sight, but the build-up feels smooth and natural in its progression.

For a comic with this much backstory, that is damn impressive. And it gives me the feeling that the conclusion to this comic is going to feature its greatest moments yet.

This bandwagon, it was made for jumping.

So, Spiderman is a big topic around the internet these days. And approximately seventy-three million bloggers have already detailed the reasons why the recent events in the series have been so terrible, and about twice that number have simply ranted and raved and proclaimed the inevitable doom that would come from all this. And so it may well seem like there is little more to be said on the matter… but somehow, I can’t resist throwing out a few thoughts of my own.

First off, just for those who have managed to avoid being confronted with the entire ordeal, here is a summary of the situation: The Editor-In-Chief of Marvel comics, on Joe Quesada, dislikes the idea of a married Spiderman. He believes it makes Peter Parker too old for the role, and unrelatable to readers. He wishes to return Spiderman back to the character he was some twenty-odd years back – a swinging bachelor with plenty of hip new stories to tell.

To bring this about, the recent storyline in Spiderman went as follows: A year or so ago, during a recent Big Event, Spiderman revealed his identity to the public as Peter Parker. (With many promises from Mr. Quesada that this was a Genuine Permanent Change.) Not long thereafter, a hitman comes after him – and while Peter is fine, Aunt May is shot. The hospital is keeping her alive, but her health is failing rapidly, and none of Peter’s superpowered friends can do anything to save her – not the greatest scientists, nor the magics of Dr. Strange.

Desperate, and consumed with guilt, he and Mary Jane (his wife) are approached by Mephisto – the Marvel equivalent to the devil. Mephisto offers them a deal – he will save Aunt May in return for… their marriage, a love so pure and true that its loss will be a great triumph for him against the big guy upstairs. Peter and Mary Jane agree, and Mephisto does some hocus pocus that erases everyone’s memory of the marriage – and as a bonus, makes people forget that Spiderman revealed his identity. (At least one person is also brought back from the dead, and a variety of other minor changes in memories seem to be made as well.)

So – that is the long and short of the situation. And, well, there are certainly numerous problems with it, from the very concept to the relatively flawed execution… but such problems have been discussed by others at length. (And if there is one highlight to the entire situation, it lies in some of the completely brilliant commentary it has inspired – such as the usual comedic stylings of David Willis, or a genius Watchmen parody from one chipzdarsky.)

What I find really interesting about the entire matter is the resolution itself – or more specifically, the lack thereof.

See, Marvel doesn’t actually like retcons. That has always been one of the elements that has stood between them in DC – every few years DC tries to tidy up continuity, fix up the past, and in the process wipe the slate clean of various stories that have come before. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But Marvel likes to stay true to its pre-existing stories. Which leaves Joe Q in a bit of a bind – he wants to render Spidey’s marriage null and void, but without actually arbitrarily changing the past continuity. This was, in fact, a subject of some debate between him and the writer on the series, J. Michael Straczynski.

JMS wanted to have Mephisto perform one simple act – render it so that the marriage had never occured. From there, various fall-out would occur, the usual inevitable ripples that come from a single change in the course of history. I am sure there would have been various problems with this plan as well, and the fall-out from the fans would have been the same – but it would have also resulted in a very different story than the one Joe Q insisted upon.

See, making it so the marriage didn’t happen was exactly the sort of retcon Marvel tries and avoid. So Joe Q devised a way to come up with the same essential result without actually changing the past – he’ll just have Mephisto change everyone’s memories of the past.

Now, this results in a number of key differences. For one, it is actually more disruptive than JMS’s plan – Mephisto has to alter the memories of an entire world, fiddle with physical evidence, etc. And even doing as perfect a job as he can, there are going to be discrepancies – events will have occured that seem illogical and unexplainable, and someone is inevitably bound to notice.

It also, in many ways, ramps Mephisto up to a rather more substantial amount of power – changing the past is pretty potent, certainly, but also a very precise act. (And one that is much more easily bound in ritual, requiring the consent of the two individuals involved in that past occasion being changed.) Altering the memories of an entire universe – well, one would think there would be someone out there immune to such direct manipulation, especially given how far-reaching some of the memory alterations were. With all the cosmic entities out there, the ability to freely rewrite their minds seems a far larger event than simply triggering a ripple through time.

Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that it renders the change much easier to fix. Just one person regaining their memory or finding out the truth could be enough to start setting things right.

Which brings us to the realization I had about the storyline, and what seems the largest flaw in how it was carried out. Joe Q’s desire was to reset the Spiderman mythos and create a new status quo in which for him to operate. But Joe wasn’t actually willing to go the distance required to do so. He couldn’t create a clean break – it would have been a challenge to do so no matter what, given the weight of the history between the characters, but he had a particularly sloppy attempt to do so, with some very interesting results.

Mephisto’s goal in all of this – at least as far as we have seen – was to destroy this spark of happiness in Spiderman’s life. It seems a bit silly to have expended such colossal power on such a simple task, but there is at least some small bit of logic in it. But you know what would render it completely ludicrous? If it utterly failed to do so. If Spiderman manages to move on with his life and find any degree of happiness in his Brand New Day, the new status quo… well, doesn’t that defeat the entire point of Mephisto’s plan?

The very nature of Mephisto’s plot means that Spiderman can’t move forward in his life without directly invalidating the event that led to it. If Spiderman finds a new love and new happiness, if he isn’t held back by the spectre of his missing life with Mary Jane, then Mephisto’s plan was meaningless. Which means the only way for Peter Parker to move on in life is to find a way to undo what has been done.

Taking that a step forward – the entire universe being currently under the effect of a mind-altering spell is not, can not, be part of any status quo. It is not a conclusion or a resolution – it is an obstacle to be overcome.

That is what is so very bizarre about the method Joe Q chose to use to end this marriage. He didn’t do so with a plot device that was actually complete, but instead essentially chose a story that stopped in the middle. A deal with the devil was made, and Spiderman is now stuck under the devil’s spell, incomplete and unable to move forward. At some point that needs to be resolved. That isn’t an event that can simply be left open-ended or swept under the rug – it is a challenge being set up for him to overcome.

I’m almost tempted to assume Joe Q intended this – but from what I’ve seen of his attitude about the entire project, I’m not exactly inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

All in all, I’m amused by the fact that not only is this a poorly conceived idea, badly executed and presented to the fans in an almost insulting manner… but it is also a story whose own narrative results in it being self-defeating. And perhaps that is why that it seemed almost inevitable that the entire incident will be wiped away not far down the road, and as such my reaction to the story isn’t anger, or frustration, or despair… but simply a sad sort of amusement, and a vague sense that this is so inherently meaningless that it isn’t even worth becoming upset about.

What Makes a Webcomic

One of the things I like about webcomics – that is to say, comics on the web – is that they are simply there.

The discussion of what really goes into the term webcomics is one that has been going on for years now, without any real resolution. The debate over whether it is simply a medium or if it has managed to capture something more than that – a community, a culture – is an argument where both sides are, in many ways, right.

But regardless of the intricacies of it all, one thing is true – comics on the internet are accessible, and that’s a very cool thing indeed.

Recently I stumbled across a comic called The Unity of Rings.” It was not an ongoing work – it was a single self-contained issue, only twenty-seven pages in total. It may have been published elsewhere before finding its way onto the web – I could find no such indication, but it would not surprise me given the style of the comic. And it is not something out in the open – placed on the web four years ago and then forgotten, it was only through sheer chance that I discovered it.

What it is, however, is a genius little comic that captures the essence of Planescape, a setting for Dungeons and Dragons that focuses on exploring the various wonders – and possibilities – (and inevitabilities) of the myriad planes of existence.

In twenty-seven pages, this comic manages to capture that idea – no small feat. It is a great comic, prime inspiration for an upcoming campaign I am working – and simply one of the countless surprises floating around the internet, waiting to be found.

What makes a webcomic? Should this count? It reads more like a print comic, in layout and length and purpose. It isn’t tied into any of the networks of webcomic communities. It is formed in the standard print comic design, with an entire crew dedicated to writing and drawing and polishing it into existence, rather than being the work of a single soul, or even the rare duo working together to put something on the web.

And yet… here it is. It may not exist anywhere else. Available for anyone able to find it, a small little treasure there for the taking. No fees attached, no subscription required.

Is it a webcomic?

And – here’s the real question – does it matter if it is or not?

Character Development Found in the Most Unlikely of Places

The holidays are over, the new year is here, and the various comics that went on break over the last few weeks have returned – and so it stands to reason that commentary should as well. My own hiatus was probably the longest thus taken from this blog, but it was somewhat nice to have the time off and simply enjoy the holidays with friends and family – of course, it also leaves me with a lot to discuss.

So for today, I’ll simply run through some of the webcomic highlights in the last few weeks:

-The latest storyarc in Ctrl+Alt+Del has intrigued me. Not due to the primary focus of the arc, which has been about Ethan’s continuing inability to grow as a human being – and which has, in fact, managed to be despicably vile on a previously unreached level.

But it has left me interested in… Zeke, a largely one-note character. Zeke is a robot built from an X-Box, and has the typical personality one would expect of such a character – the “eventually I’ll kill off all the annoying fleshbags, but until then, I’ll just play my arrogance and spite for laughs” type of character. Fine, fine, nothing special to see there – until he steps into a video game where he gets to play as one of the fleshbags.

Which results in him being afraid, and paranoid of pain and danger, and doing anything he can to protect his frail new form.

I find it works as a joke, and even more, works as insight into the character. And until we stumbled into the trainwreck the rest of the storyline has been, I had been planning to say some very nice things about CAD – but as it is, I suppose it is enough to point out this one moment of intriguing characterization in the midst of every other character failing on every possible level.

-Continuing that same topic, even as Least I Could Do seems to be working to actively cast aside any character development or complexity it has gained in recent years, Looking for Group is growing in depth by leaps and bounds.

LFG’s latest storylines as a whole have been growing ever more ambitious, but I’ve been really amazed by the dynamic between the two core characters – Cale’anon, the naive hero who has lost his innocence, step by step, and Richard, the self-serving and sadistic warlock who is entirely driven by impulse and the desire to cause chaos and death for its own sake.

Cale’anon’s development has been a key point throughout the strip, but the idea of Richard becoming anything more than a punchline has been a ludicrous concept – until now. Recently, in what cleverly masqueraded as a joke, Richard was afflicted by a curse that sapped his powers and gave him an adorable child-like body. Not only was he physically and magically weakened, but he also became an object not of terror, but of amusement – possibly the worst punishment that could be delivered to so arrogant a character.

He managed to break the curse by saving a child in an act of selflessness. We have not yet been offered a true explanation for why he did so – did he know it would break the curse? Did he have a moment of ‘weakness’ and compassion that would seem entirely counter to his typical attitude? Was it in gratitude for the respect the child offered him? Was it as a final chance to prove his power?

We’ve seen a little insight into why, but only enough to make guesses, and not draw a final conclusion. And maybe that is for the best – this is a character who benefits less from the spectre of redemption, and more from the shroud of mystery. The myriad possibilities of what could have been his reasoning seems far more effective than to actually define him down one of those paths… at least, for now.

-I wasn’t the biggest fan of the path Goats has gone down in the last few years – but I was floored by at least one aspect of how it has wrapped up the last chapter of its plot. Various characters may or may not have died – I’m not too concerned there, really. The end of the universe may still be on the way – not too big a deal.

What has drawn me in is Jon’s slow but steady slide into evil.

Because it has been carried out with an incredibly slick sense of inevitability. The actual final step – Jon ending up as, essentially, the man in charge of Hell – seems to come suddenly… but when you take a step back, it has been built up moment by moment, week by week, until it fits perfectly.

He has slowly been losing his connection to his friends and family. His interests have focused more and more on self-preservation… and self-interest. He made a deal with the devil himself – and then, in the end, kicked the devil aside.

The best part is that, at the end, having been fully seduced by the possibilities and amenities now available to him… One Death tries to talk him out of it. And you can tell that One Death thinks Jon is having regrets over what he has done – whereas the truth is entirely the opposite. This right here was the devil’s major mistake, and its a doozy.

…and I still need to mention some of the awesomeness that has been going on in Starslip Crisis, and Sinfest, and elsewhere, but I’m just about out of time for now. So I’ll hold those in reserve for next week, when I might actually start getting fully caught up with all the comics reemerging from their shells.