Thought-dump this week, covering some recent (and upcoming) happenings in the comics/webcomics sphere. Next week, my thoughts on the (currently fantastic) webcomic that is Erfworld!
The End of Ugly Hill
I was first introduced to Ugly Hill when the Blank Label Comics collective started up. I was already familiar with the works of several of the creators (David Willis, and Kris Straub), and since their own works were very high on my list of comics, I felt any others they were joining up with were well worth checking out. And this was true – the majority of other comics in the collective were quickly added to my reading list, and Evil Inc, Ugly Hill, and Wapsi Square have remained on my list to this day.
But of them, Ugly Hill is the one that has most surprised me in its development. Evil Inc is a fun comic, but bogged down by a deceitful premise and a reliance on bad puns that always leaves me groaning. Wapsi Square started out brilliantly, and remains entertaining, but an ever-greater focus on the mythological has distracted from the core of relationships that is the strongest part of the strip.
But Ugly Hill… Ugly Hill took a cast of unsympathetic characters in a strange, terrifying little world (much like our own)… and made the reader care about them. Drew the reader in to even the most mundane of their stories, connected the reader to their most deranged goals… and left the reader rooting for them to come out on top, in spite of all the triumphs life (and their own failings) set in their way.
Ugly Hill is a comic about monsters, whose greatest failings – and greatest strengths – are that they are all too human.
And now the comic has come to an end.
It has been building for some time, and Paul Southworth, the creator, certainly gave fair warning. And the comic came to a satisfying end, with what seemed a logical conclusion for the characters. Not because their stories were over, really… but they had overcome the obstacles in their way. The comic was about the brothers Kilgore finding their proper place in life. About Hastings, an uncaring workaholic, finding something to care about. About Eli, an ambitionless loser, finally growing up.
Once we’ve seen where that tale leads, there really is no need to see what comes next. So while I’m sad to see Ugly Hill go… I’m glad to see a good webcomic come to a satisfying end, rather than abruptly being abandoned by the wayside, or languishing on well after its story has been properly told.
Paul Southworth shows us how to do it right, and that’s a damn good thing to see.
The New Digs of Digger
But to balance out that loss, a very nice gift has been given – Digger is free at last!
Digger has long been held behind the subscription wall at Graphic Smash. The subscription model for Graphic Smash (and the entire Modern Tales collective) was something that worked well… for a time. It was built around providing a lot of good comics, with the latest updates free but the archives requiring a subscription. The price was low enough that, given the quantity and quality of the comics, it was a reasonably good deal.
But eventually, burdened by poor site design and an ever-dwindling number of updating comics, the model seemed to be abandoned. Most of the comics hosted there switched to full access. Except… for Digger.
Which was an incredible shame. Both because it was a lot harder to justify that subscription for one single comic when it was original intended for a dozen or more. And, perhaps even more important, because of all the comics on those sites, Digger was the one I most wanted to see more people reading. I wanted to share it with my friends, to see people talking about it, chattering about the Shadowchild and vampire squash and all the other lovely bits of brilliance that make up Ursula Vernon’s delightfully smart comic. But… that’s hard to do, with a subscription wall.
So I’m very pleased to see the comic being given its own site, with the archives waiting for countless new readers to dig in! So if you haven’t already checked this comic out – now is the perfect time to do so.
New England Webcomics Weekend
This weekend is the NEWW, which I’m ever more convinced is the work of mad scientists. Think about it – concentrating that many deranged webcomickers in one space, at one time… I’m predicting a singularity of creative madness spontaneously forming, and wiping out the entire eastern coast.
If that doesn’t happen, though, I’m instead predicting a lot of ridiculously entertaining stories emerging from this gathering. I’m looking forward to hearing tales of this event echoing through the interwebs for weeks. While just a bit too far afield for me to venture there myself, I’m expecting the aftershocks alone to provide plenty of inspiration to the artists in attendance, and plenty of fun for readers in the days to come.
So yeah, there was this movie, based on this comic book, you know? It was pretty good, I thought.
I mean, it wasn’t perfect. Plenty of little flaws, plenty of room for improvement. A couple stylistic choices that undercut core themes of the work. A few powerful moments conspiciously absent or altered. But the most basic ideas were still there, still intact, and still came across on the screen. The characters were well done, and their stories were well told. Visually impressive, and structurally sound – given how low my expectations were going in, that was more than enough for me to leave feeling well entertained.
But the movie itself aside, I found myself quite interested in seeing the movie’s presence ripple through the blogosphere, leaving a variety of parodies, commentaries and other amusements in its wake. The two that most caught my eye:
Ombudsmen, in which Scott Kurtz sets the core cast of PvP aside for a week to re-cast Watchmen as a referential work on newspaper comics, rather than comic books. Brilliant concept with excellent execution. The second strip, in which the eternally frozen nature of decades-long newspaper characters is connected with Dr. Manhattan’s cross-time viewpoint and his nature as an immortal yet static being… is simply flawless. It works on every level – as a respectful parody of Watchmen, as a commentary of the medium, as an engaging moment in its own right. This is some of Kurtz’s best work, and leaves me hoping for more self-contained (for certain values of self-contained) strips in this vein.
Saturday Morning Watchmen, on the other hand, is simply hilarious. A short animation that asks what it might look like if they had made Watchmen into a kid’s cartoon, the answer is in many ways terrifying – and yet, I’m sure I would have watched it in a heartbeat.
When Watchmen originally came out, it helped alter the comics industry in fundamental ways, giving rise to years of grim comics that tried (and often failed) to look at what a world with superheroes might really be like. I’m glad to see the emergence of the movie instead having (at least initially) more of a legacy of entertainment and humor, instead.
So there’s this comic called Dr. McNinja. When first I encountered this strip, I could describe it as little more than a comic about a doctor, who is also a ninja; or in short, a comic about being awesome.
Since then, the description has proven even more accurate than I could have imagined, since this truly is what the comic is all about – the Rule of Cool. The principle, largely, is that you take a bunch of elements that tend to stand in their own genre – such as ninjas, or robots, or wizards, or whatever – and then you throw them together, producing something that is, in theory, profoundly awesome. Imagine: a time-traveling wizard cowboy, trained by monks in the arts of karate and meditation! And so forth and so on – these characters and scenes are driven more by the sheer concept of them than any actual merit of their use. And this is entirely ok – there is nothing wrong with simply sitting back and appreciating the sheer brilliance, say, of tyrannosaurs in F-14s.
Now, what I find makes me really, truly appreciate Dr. McNinja is that it manages to take these concepts and actually make them work within the story. It has been pointed out that more than a few fans will tend to defend a work by pointing at the bits of “awesomeness” within – but that it takes quite a bit more to make such concepts actually work within the story, rather than exist as a single moment of fun entertainment. Which Dr. McNinja succeeds at – indeed, by this point, the vaguely surreal setting of the comic has become so fundamental that the continual appearance of ghost wizards and robot bears seems not just acceptable, but downright natural.
And there are actually long, elaborate plots built around these concepts – the main characters themselves are all equally absurd, but nonetheless have managed to become well-realized characters with that the reader can be fully invested in. So this is why Dr. McNinja rocks. Also valuable: knowing exactly how far would be too far.
Now, the comic continually seeks to offer new moments of awesome – a challenge that grows ever more daunting, given the various scenes and characters it has already gone through. Among the most recent highlights in the strip was one moment that outshone all others – in which, when Dr. McNinja goes hunting for Dracula, we learn that Dracula has a moonbase, and is able to eliminate vampire hunters via his moon laser.
So, given that this was a moment of crowning awesome in a comic fundamentally built upon such principles, it was with quite a bit of shock when I discovered that self-same scene, last month… in the pages of Marvel comics.
One comic in particular: “Captain Britain and MI13”, Issue number 10, written by Paul Cornell. In a time when I’ve found very little to be excited about in the world of print comics, this series has been one of the few that have stood out as entertaining and worthwhile. This opinion was only further reinforced when this most recent issue opened with a chat between Dracula and Dr. Doom – on the moon. And even more so, when Dracula then returns to his private moonbase, from which he fires not a moon laser, but instead magical cannons that launch exploding vampires at his enemies on the Earth below!
Now, I don’t know if this was done as a reference to Dr. McNinja, or simply the product of two great minds thinking alike. It really isn’t important either way.
What I do find important is this: When the topic of comics comes up, amongst my friends and I, there is quite a lot of talk about webcomics. Discussion over current plots, new webcomics people have discovered, or even simple appreciation for the comics that are always reliably good. There is almost no discussion at all of print comics – and when the topic does turn to such things, it is almost entirely negative.
Pretty much every single one of my friends reads webcomics, and enjoys them. Almost none still read anything by Marvel or DC – and even when there is both good and bad works being produced by both companies, it is only the news of the worst of it that filters down to our topics of discussion. And while I try to talk about some of the worthwhile comics of recent years – Blue Beetle, Iron Fist, etc – it is hard to do so. They are familiar with the big names, and so they can get frustrated at hearing about poorly-written stories dealing with Batman or Spiderman. It is much harder to get interested in hearing about well-written stories about characters they have never heard of.
But when I can point to a comic, and say, “This comic features Dracula and his moonbase, just like in Dr. McNinja!”? That, they get. That, they can understand. And that has a bigger chance of getting any of them back into comics than any big event, or crossover, or crisis. In all honesty, the vast majority of those have only served to drive them away.
I’m not saying print comics need to directly imitate webcomics in order to succeed. Honestly, just writing decent stories is a pretty basic step one – though one that a lot of comics seem to have quite a bit of trouble with. But tapping into the same level of innovation and creativity as what can currently be found online certainly helps get my attention, and seems like a pretty good step in the right direction.