Monthly Archives: February, 2008

The Smallest Detail

It always bothers me when a small, petty detail ends up distracting me from enjoying a comic.

Take today’s Dominic Deegan, wherein (spoilers!) we discover that the mysterious assassin who has been hunting oracles is not Dominic’s sister, as everyone feared, but instead Luna’s.

It was one of the better done plot twists I’ve seen in the strip – subtle enough to not be completely obvious, but also one that makes a reasonable amount of sense after the reveal.

I had difficulty noticing this, however, because the language of today’s concluding panels produced an irrational rage entirely disproportionate to the crime. Luna says, “The Oracle Hunter isn’t your sister, Dominic. She’s my sister.”

Those last three words bothered me. She could have simply said, “She’s mine.”It is not all that big a difference – the extra two syllables slow down the reveal and diminish the effect and the wording is somewhat redundant. But how big a deal is that, in the end? So Mookie could have used a more powerful line to finish today’s strip – is that worth raising a fuss about in any possible universe?

I suppose not. I’m not saying he should have done it better, or that it was a major flaw in the comic. And yet – it was enough to break me out of the moment. One minor mis-step, and nothing more.

Sometimes, that’s just how these things go.

Anyway! I haven’t posted much of late, for which I have… little to no excuse. Nonetheless, time is likely to remain at a premium for a bit, so despite the fact that there are plenty of interesting things to talk about, I am unlikely to do so until sometime next week.

Fear not, however – the Main Man of webcomics criticism has stepped back into the field and is currently running through a comprehensive series of posts on all the comics he reads. And the snark seems to be flowing in significant quantities, so it makes for a damn fine read. So for anyone desperately in need of some genuinely insightful webcomics criticism, go and enjoy the Websnark.

What Makes a Webcomic: In Which I Attempt to Overcomplicate an Oversimplification.

So, the other day I saw this strip over at Planet Karen. And it got me thinking about about what it said. And, interestingly enough, I find myself both in agreement… and in disagreement with the proposed statement.

To start with, this topic does drag us back to the time-honored debate over “What is a webcomic?” Is it something unique and exceptional? Or is it simply comics… on the web?

Eric Burns – after several years of being the greatest advocate of webcomics – finally set that aside, and threw down the gauntlet as he said the only difference is the “fucking means of distribution.

Is that true? If so, how come so many webcomics have a hard time being fit into the standard print comics categories? There are some webcomics that feel like newspaper strips, yes, and there are some that feel like comic books – but there are also plenty that are a mix of the two. Or something else entirely.

For that matter, is he also saying there is no difference between newspaper comics and comic books? Is the only difference between them a matter of distribution?

So let’s take a step back, and ask the question – what are short form and long form comics? Looking up “short form comics” on the internet, wikipedia for once has no easy answer. While many seem familiar with the term, the only definition I can find (in an admittedly brief search) comes from the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards, who define it as comics “comics with shorter formats with regular gags, or beats to it’s story to reflect each individual strip. Traditionally these comics fit (but not restricted to) ‘Comic Strip’ formats.”

That seems, certainly, the understood definition. The Eisner Awards do not define it – but then, they are focused on the other side of the field in general, the long-form comic, so perhaps they need no such delineations. It may simply be understood that short-form works are outside their field of interest. Oh, they had a category devoted to them in, say, ’92 and ’93, and specific creators are occasionally selected for the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame… but those are the very, very rare exceptions.

So, moving on to long-form comics, which the WCCA offers up as “comics with longer formats and extended, continuous storylines. Traditionally these comics fit (but not restricted to) ‘Comic Book’ formats.” Again, this seems the commonly understood meaning of the term. And, again, the Eisner Awards don’t directly define it – the only mention comes in during the “Digital Comics” category wherein they specify that the webcomics must be “long-form stories published online.”

(I apologize if I simply seem to be laying out obvious information – I am attempting, slowly but steadily, to work towards a point.)

So, the Eisner Awards seem to limit webcomics to only long-form works in the same fashion that they limit the rest of the rewards to comic books, or comic book related material. Fair enough.

But… wait just one second! In 2006, the Digital Comic award went to… PvP.

Now, you can say whatever you wish about PvP, but one thing that is undeniable is that it follows the standard conventions of newspaper comic strips. Four-panel layout, daily updates, color sundays, gag-a-day punchlines, etc, etc, etc. Oh, it tells a growing story, certainly – characters change and grow, new characters are introduced while older ones fade away.

But there are plenty of regular newspaper comic strips that do the same. For Better or For Worse was the poster child for this, but there remain others for which this is true. Hell – take a look at all of the soap opera style strips! Suddenly you have nothing but story. 

What does this mean? Are they not short-form comics? Are they not newspaper comics? That is clearly their publishing format, yet they seem to defy other expectations of the genre. If PvP can be honored in the Eisner Awards, why can’t they?

Or is there something different about being online that allows PvP, despite its nature, to qualify as a long-form work? The presence of an archive could be the reason – it allows one to read the entire story in one sitting. On the other hand… that option is open for comic strips, too – it isn’t as immediately accessible, or as free, but it is there.

Or perhaps all of these categories are inherently flawed, and webcomics simply serve to make those flaws more apparent.

There are, after all, webcomics that are both about short-term laughs and long-term storytelling. There are webcomics styled like comic strips and ones styled like comic books. There are ones that use elements of both… and others that resembled neither.

Of course, the same might be said of some alternative comics, or various self-published works. I’m by no means an expert in such fields, but I’m sure there have been comics put forward before that defied easy definition or categorization.

What is a webcomic?

That is the question brought up earlier, isn’t it? If you asked me what I thought of when webcomics come to mind, I would list the following elements: Accessibility, lack of any direct fees for reading the comic, freedom from editorial control, open and comprehensive archives, supplementary material such as cast pages and story guides, and internal communities in which the reader and the audience could engage in communication. And yet – these are elements found in the majority of webcomics out there, and they are certainly a good guideline as to the quality of a webcomic… but they don’t define them. An online comic that lacks one, or two, or even all of these elements is still a comic on the web. Is there a difference between this and this and this?

Let me put forth a hypothetical situation. Currently there are many newspaper comics being updated online at the same time they are updated in the paper. The comic book companies are now, ever so slowly, beginning to place their own material online. Let’s fast forward a bit, and say that all such comics were now available online.

What defines a webcomic then?

I mean, clearly there will still be differences, right? Such as the elements I listed above – even when all the newspaper comics are posted online, they will still be under the control of the syndicates, still lack supplementary material, still lack internal communities.

Or will they?

For Better or For Worse. Classic print comic. And right there it has every classic webcomic element I listed. It is online, it is free, it has over five years of archives available, it is a comic that has shown itself willing to delve into territory normal avoided in the papers, it has a ton of supplementary material, and while I couldn’t hunt down a forum, it does have open lines of communication.

On the other hand, Mary Worth doesn’t, nor does Luann. Does that mean FBoFW has transitioned from a newspaper comic to a webcomic? Or is it both?

Clearly there are differences between most webcomics and printed material. Differences in style and format, but also in content and in context.  But there are also equal differences between various webcomics.

Karen says “the problem is defining webcomics in terms of print comics, which they aren’t. They’re webcomics.” But right now, webcomics is simply used as this catch-all category for which everything is undefined. Despite – or perhaps because – of how incredibly diverse they are.

Karen is right – you can’t define webcomics in terms of print comics. But simply calling them webcomics is missing the big picture – eventually they will all be webcomics. The differences will still be there, though – will the old-fashioned terminology we’ve been using still suffice?

No. No it won’t.

We need new categories.

I, personally, don’t know what those categories will be. And I don’t know who is suited to decide. I don’t even know for sure if clear divisions can be drawn. But you have things like Narbonic, which tell a complete long-form story despite resembling a short-form comic on the surface. You have webcomics that pull style from one type of comic and format from another. Are they too diverse to be categorized? Maybe, maybe not.

Right now, the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards are the closest any have come to doing so. And, let’s be honest now – they haven’t met with any spectacular success. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy them every year, I like what they are trying to do, and I respect all of those involved for their willingness to try and get this right. But they also tend to make a variety of poor decisions, and even when they do things right, they still don’t represent the whole field of online comic creators out there.

Perhaps this is one area where the corporations and syndicates have an advantage – they are organized and largely unified. They have the resources to define their fields. Webcomics are a group of myriad individuals, often ones working hard simply trying to make a living from their work – they rarely have the time to try and form any sort of unified committee. And when they do, it ends up as the WCCA – a good attempt, but not enough to truly redefine the field.

I don’t know where one should go from here. I know that I disagree, strongly, with Mr. Burns and the idea that webcomics are identical to print comics save for the means of distribution. I know that I agree with Karen Ellis that online comics shouldn’t be defined by print comics – but I don’t know if simply labelling them as open-ended ‘webcomics’ is enough.

So, some 1,500 words later, I still haven’t arrived at a proper definition for webcomics. But then… I’m not sure I’m qualified to truly do so. I’m part of the audience – an observer and a commentator, but not much more. I’m not the one creating the comics – or relying on them for a living.

Nonetheless, I do think this is a question that needs to be answered – especially with the print comics digital initiative finally on the horizon. Because the terminology they use now is only barely adequate to the task, and will fall apart completely as they move their comics online and find differences in distribution becoming meaningless.

Sure, they are all just comics in the end.

But isn’t there just a little bit more to it than that?

Anything But This

One of the downsides to relying on Piperka for most of my comic updates is that it is awfully easy to fall behind on comics it doesn’t track. Strangely enough, however… is that sometimes this can be for the best. For one thing, when I notice, it means there is suddenly a nice big bulk of strips I’ll have a chance to read through at once. Something to look forward to – that’s a good thing, no doubt about it.

But sometimes, when I notice, I realize that I’m not looking forward to reading them… which means I need to start figuring out why.

Anywhere But Here has been the latest such challenge – and a challenge it is, given that there is nothing wrong with the strip on the surface. In its previous iteration it fell into some pretty ugly territory, with winding plots drawn out over years and melodrama that spiraled deeper and deeper into unreadability.

But, in a rare event, Jason Siebels – the creator – recognized the troubles he was having, and after a few attempts to salvage the current strip, decided to just wipe the slate clean and start back from the beginning. And he did a hell of a job doing so, cranking his artwork up several levels right off the bat – and it soon became clear that the writing was quick to follow.

Since then, the strip has remained far more focused than the previous version. The plot is coherent, the characters are well-developed and the interactions are all effectively done. The humor is able to drag a genuine laugh out of me at least once every few weeks – no easy task. The art has fallen ever-so-slightly; I understand the reasons for no longer using color, but it is sorely missed. Of course, given how much the color brings the strip to life – and given that’s the opposite of the message it is trying to convey – removing it makes perfect sense.

And – ding! – there we have the hidden problem with it. The one thing that has kept me from really enjoying it, no matter how well it is written, no matter how gorgeously it is drawn:

I absolutely loathe the premise.

I hate it. It simply fails, for me, on every single level. And not because it is a bad premise or somehow offensive – but it is simply not a story that interests me.

Because, in the end, it is all about watching the Dude – the main hero of the story – get screwed over by life again, and again, and again. It is about watching his parents completely ruin his college plans for no reason. It is about watching his classmates and teachers conspire against him, about seeing him friendless and miserable and played for laughs… and, in the end, to see him simply accepting all this. For all his complaints and frustration, he doesn’t actually bother to fight it – primarily because doing so would invalidate the scenario the plot has envisioned for him.

I have complained about this sort of situation before – it happened in Abstract Gender, where the main character hated the hand life had dealt her, but was constantly portrayed as simply going along with even the most outrageous things, simply because the plot demanded it. It bugged me then, and it bugs me now.

And I say this knowing that this isn’t how Anywhere But Here will end – knowing what I know of the previous iteration, I am fully aware that we will see the Dude overcoming his hatred for his situation and learning to make the best of it, and maybe – just maybe – finding some measure of happiness.

But… not for a while, yet. For now, it is about life grinding the Dude into the dust at every single opportunity.

And the author has a hell of a good reason for this – he talks about the origin of the strip here, but I’ll quote the key part:

“Anywhere but Here is about life taking a left turn…no, a series of left turns. Anywhere but Here is about life continiously trying to run you into a cliff no matter how hard you try and jerk the wheel away.

It IS Schadenfreude, make no doubt about that, but it’s schadenfreude with a purpose. It was my way of exploring how to deal with life when it keeps trying to grind you down. Do you shut down? Do you fight? Do you wrest the wheel away from the fickle finger of fate, or do you just crash into the cliff and hope you survive the impact?

That’s ABH in a nutshell I guess. Do you deal, or do you not deal, or do you deal with not dealing.”

Now, that’s a powerful statement. It is one that comes from the heart, and yes… it is one that makes for a good story, and good storytelling.

It just isn’t my kind of story.

Seriously – you know all those hi-larious movies out there, usually featuring Adam Sandler, that involve around the main character being constantly embarassed throughout the movie? Where you see them put through the most ridiculous situations again, and again, and again? I hate them. I loathe them beyond imagining.

And this story, right here – yes, its more than one of those stupid movies. Yes, it is building towards a much bigger picture, and one day it will answer the question it asks, and move on from there.

But right here, right now, it just isn’t meant for me. It is simply too much concentrated schadenfreude – something I might be able to handle in small doses, but not when it infests every single element of the strip.

It took me a while to realize this – each individual update is so well-designed, and each tends to work for me in isolation. But put them all together, and it had started to get to the point where I was physically cringing every time the Dude got screwed over, and it wasn’t until I finally sat down and examined things closely that I realized this was a recurring habit.

Does this mean I’m swearing off the strip for good? Probably not. If Siegels takes this story where he wants to, if he builds it up into the sort of work I suspect he’s aiming for, and that it definitely has the potential to be… well, that’s when I’ll come wandering back. When I can sit down and read through the entire story at once – or when it is published in print format, nice and whole and complete – that’s when I suspect it will work. When I can enjoy the transition beyond the undiluted cruelty being handed to the Dude… I will find all well with the world.

But until then, it gets set aside.

Which isn’t necessarily entirely bad. After all, no doubt about it – having something to look forward to is, in the end, a good thing.

Four Small Thoughts and One Big One.

Favorite webcomic quote of the day: “Our children are the future! Not those guys from the actual future.

Current storyline that has me most interested in how things will play out: Bad Haze.

Strangest task I accomplished today: Teaching myself how to make origami cranes – for the specific purpose of enhancing my D&D gaming.

Best joke that remains good despite being used by Tatsuya Ishida many, many times before: I Can’t Quit You.

Most provocative post that completely misses the point: Between the cocoon and the Comics Code Authority.

…and I should probably expand at least a little bit on that last point.

Dirk Deppey has never really pretended to be impressed with fangirl activism in the comics community, and this is hardly the first time he has attempted to take them to task for waging whatever wars they choose to wage. And, to be fair, there are things he says that are reasonable, and there have been times when his disdain may have been justified – fans are fans, whether boy or girl, and it is a very, very, very fine line between legitimate outrage and fannish entitlement.

But the thing that bugs me in Dirk’s latest post is that he seems to be saying that the fine folks over at Girl Wonder shouldn’t be wasting their time complaining about the problems of sexism and misogyny that they see in the industry; they shouldn’t be trying to make the industry more friendly towards female fans. Instead, they should be focusing on convincing Marvel and DC to revitalize their lines in full. They should be convincing them to wipe out continuity entirely, to return to the use of the Comics Code Authority, and to write comics entirely focused at children.

Which, ok, I can see the argument – but are you seriously saying that there isn’t a place for mature, well-written comics that adults of both genders can equally enjoy? Look – I don’t like the current DC environment and the bizarre fetish it has with death and despair. But that isn’t because I don’t believe in serious stories – it is because all the petty drama going around is just that – shallow and mindless.

I don’t want a return to silver age comics. Sorry – that wouldn’t interest me. I want stories with character development and progression. I want stories where the heroes usually triumph, sure – but also ones that involve them overcoming challenging adversaries. I want stories where they are pushed to the limit – and then overcome it. I want stories that are fun and enjoyable while also keeping me engaged in the plot.

They are certainly out there – Blue Beetle from DC, the Immortal Iron Fist with Marvel. Ultimate Spiderman has been succeeding at it for years, and Invincible seems to have a good handle on the concept.

Is it something that can be kept up for decade after decade with the same title and one writer after another? No idea. But clearly quality comics are possible, and I think this is the drive behind Girl Wonder and similar groups – they might focus on little details, because that is really the only way to make progress in this sort of battle. And is it really fair to say it is a ridiculous fight to try and make comics more palatable for 10% of the readership? 10% might not be the whole crowd, but that is not an insignificant amount of people.

And, yes, I think there are others out there that could be and would be reading print comics if they overcame the flaws they are currently afflicted by. I don’t know the actual numbers with, say, webcomics – but this does seem to clearly be a field with a phenomenal number of female creators and readers. And webcomics, let me tell you, are hardly written solely for the benefit of children.

Look, finding a way to save the industry is certainly a good thing. I’m all for it. But saying that you can’t complain about any of the industry’s flaws without dedicating yourself to bringing about that salvation in every way possible… well, it’s a damn silly argument. There are clearly things that need fixing, and even if there are times when elements are blown out of proportion, that doesn’t invalidate the entire movement.

And I think there are goals that can be worked towards that don’t involve dumbing comics down into nothing more than childish fancies. I think there is a place for quality comics with a solid mix of humor and serious issues – and that manages to tell a story without degenerating into softcore porn.

Is that really so outrageous a goal?

Tune In Next Time!

Do you know what rocks? Seeing this posted on the Penny Arcade website:

“A reader wrote in today to tell me that he was doing the New York Sun crossword puzzle for January 30th and noticed this clue for 12 down:  “Tycho’s pal in the webcomic ‘Penny Arcade’ (4 letters).” That’s totally awesome.”

Seriously, you can check it out yourself. Man, they keep this up, and maybe all the useless gaming/comic trivia in my head will allow me to actually solve one of these so-called crossword things.

Meanwhile, Girl Genius is wrapping up the latest bit of filler and returning us to the main story; as eager as I am for more plot advancement and other similar goodness, I won’t deny that I’m always a little sad to see these brief installments wrap up.

I have quite a few friends who hate them with an undying passion, and I can certainly understand their concern – the main story of Girl Genius is so relentlessly good that delaying its continuation must seem something of a crime. I can only imagine how much agony it would have been to read the series before its entry onto the web, when weeks would go by awaiting each new issue! The standard modus operandi of the webcomic world, on the other hand, allows readers to get a fix on a much more regular basis, and so it is inevitable that any disruption to the supply would thus trigger rage, paranoia and despair.

But for myself, I find these cheery little “Radio Theater Breaks” to be the perfect counterbalance to the slightly more drama-laden main plot. I would make some comparison here to a gourmet meal, and the requirement for different tastes to provide contrast and the occasional respite between more powerful flavors – but I don’t actually know how all that culinary philosophy works, so why don’t we both presume I said something enlightening and simply move on from there.

It is useful to have these more comedic bits of fluff, but it is also more than that – I find myself quite genuinely enjoying them. The fact is, they have some of the cleanest, tightest characterization in the series – if only because each character needs to be truly broken down to their most basic elements in order to convey who they are in such a short sketch. Agatha Heterodyne is all about science!, Krosp is the inevitable comic relief, Zeetha is simply a badass, and Othar is really, really messed up. Hell, even Ferretina has become a fully realized character over the course of the two installments thus far.

Let’s be honest now – when a creator wants to take a break from their regular storytelling, and does so by presenting another entirely awesome story in the downtime, that is fantastic. I mean, I don’t begrudge folks their… shirt guy tom days, and dead piro days and… you know. I appreciate that they are making some effort (usually), and I recognize that when you are producing a comic like this, on a regular schedule every single week of the year… taking the occasional break becomes something of a necessity.

When that break simply manifests as a more light-hearted outpouring of your creative talent, you really should win some sort of prize.

I should also add that the framework of the Radio Theater Breaks is one of the most incredibly brilliant devices for presenting a story that I’ve ever seen.

There are a lot of top-notch webcomics out there that are good inspirations for aspiring cartoonists, and that provide good examples of what to do and what not to do. But Girl Genius is easily one of a very small handful of strips I can point to and say: This, right here, is a comic done right.

Emulate every facet of it, internalize its wisdom, and one day you will understand how to make an audience irrevocably yours.