Category Archives: Webcomic Critiques

Several topics, each better than the last.

Chainmail Bikini has announced its trek to the land of the Eternal Hiatus. Chainmail Bikini was, in and of itself, nothing too special – another comic about D&D that makes all the usual jokes about all the usual subjects. It had quality art, but its true claim to fame was being written by Shamus, who had produced the absolutely brilliant DM of the Rings.

Sadly, Chainmail Bikini never quite lived up to its predecessor  – despite having a genuine artist on board, it didn’t bring anything new to the table, and while DM of the Rings had carved out a dynamic little niche on its own, Chainmail Bikini wasn’t saying anything Knights of the Dinner Table hadn’t already said a decade earlier. Sure, the art was nicer – the art was spectacular, in fact – but as a comic entirely driven by humor, the art was also largely irrelevant. The humor itself wasn’t bad – just nothing new, and nothing strong enough to really draw in an audience.

Thus, in many ways the end of the comic almost leaves me hopeful – with this out of the way, perhaps Shamus will find himself stumbling upon a concept for another webcomic as unique and addictive as his first. He has already been doing a number of short comics at his blog, all focused around video games and the inevitable stupidities that come with said video games. From what I can tell, they’ve been funny, though my lack of video game knowledge has rendered several of them mostly inaccessible to me. Still, it definitely provides some hope for whatever he comes up with next.

Until then, however, we’ve got Darths and Droids, which has now smoothly settled into the true void left by DM of the Rings – and, 100 strips in, is going strong. Taking the Star Wars movie as its set-up, and using a game system that seems an amalgamation of all sorts of game out there, it manages to hit all the elements DMotR did… and even add one more. The “art” (screenshots) are well-chosen for maximum effect, the jokes manage to riff on both the mentality of game players and the inherent silliness of the subject matter… and it also manages to present the gamers with increasingly distinct personalities. Oh, in DMotR you had that to some extent – Legolas was played by the power-gamer, Gimli by the role-player.

But Darths and Droids has that, and also manages to make some of the characters likeable – like Sally, the younger sister of one of the players, who seems to grok roleplaying in the way that only a child’s view of make-believer really can. (And who manages to make Jar-Jar Binks an enjoyable character, even as the power-gamer playing R2-D2 makes the droid seem like a colossal jerk. Seriously, that’s impressive.)

So, what could possibly be better than a comic about a game that uses movie screenshots to tell its story?

How about a game about a comic that tells its story through… fisticuffs!

I think it is safe to say I’m excited about On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, and rather amazed it is only a week away from launch. Even better, Penny Arcade is celebrating the occasion by producing their own prequel comic for the game. I continue to find myself amazed that they’ve captured an interesting and exciting backdrop (steampunk adventures in the 1920!) that still feels completely and fully Penny Arcadian. The same sense of whimsy, the same saucy humor.

I suspect May 21st will be a day to remember.

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Bypast

I can’t recall when I started reading Taking the Bi-Pass.

Now, to be fair, that is the case with the vast majority of comics I read – but usually, if I make the effort, I can track my path backwards and puzzle out what crossover led me there, or what other webcomic posted a link for me to follow. Or, occasionally, what random banner ad managed to actually succeed in snagging my attention and drawing me in.

If nothing else, I can usually recall the experience of reading through the archives, and then adding the comic to my daily list to be followed on a regular basis.

Yet with Taking the Bi-Pass… there is nothing. I know I must have encountered it in the same fashion as other comics. I know that I must have one day stumbled upon it, read through it, and added it to the list. But there is no memory of doing so. It simply became part of my routine, without my notice.

Which is why, perhaps, it has taken me this long to actually realize I don’t get anything out of reading it.

Now, in fairness, I certainly don’t have a wealth of terrible things to say about the comic. Indeed, if anything in it actively repelled me, I’m sure I would dropped it from the list long ago. But just as the comic isn’t actively bad in any real sense, it isn’t good, either. It is altogether harmless and plain… and so I read it for month after month almost without noticing it. It was one link among many, briefly clicked on and checked every few days, and the content behind the link vanished from my mind almost as soon as I looked upon it.

It’s not hard to find the reason: the strip is, at heart, a slice-of-life comic. Sure, it has plenty of gags about pop culture and geek lingo – especially in its early strips – but the driving force behind it is following “the lives and random adventures of a small group of friends.”

The thing is? Life is dull.

Some people might have crazy adventures 9 days out of 10 – but not most of us. Most people spend most days doing ordinary things and living ordinary lives. And even those times when life is good and fun and enjoying – it is largely because you are living in that moment. You are hanging out with friends and throwing around jokes and chatting about random things, and right then and there, it is a blast.

But go ahead, try and take a snapshot of that conversation, try and find a way to share those inside jokes and the hilarious banter with others… and it falls short. The jokes don’t work without the context of the moment and the atmosphere of the group.

The moment is lost.

Life is dull.

Life is also, admittedly, filled with vast excitements and moments of wonder, with incredible adventures around very corner, with a thousand shards of genius found in every second of the ordinary – but it takes a special talent to be able to notice and enjoy such things. And it takes an even greater skill to be able to share such sentiments with others – to paint a scene and realize the moment in all its raw glory. To convey why the evening with friends was filled with laughs, or why the drive to the airport was a nerve-wracking experience, or why a visit at the museum felt so genuinely enlightening.

Without that skill, you can still recount your experiences… but it ends up as a slideshow, a series of hollow moments and faded images, with the colors never quite as vibrant as they were in life. And you know, that’s fine – sharing your life with others, even the dull and boring parts of it, is a lot of what the internet is designed to do, and forming those connections is not a bad thing.

But it isn’t something I need to read a comic for.

HumilityThe art in Taking the Bi-Pass has come a long way from the beginning, but has never really pushed beyond its own limits. It is serviceable, and good at presenting a cartoony feel, but breaks down when it tries to depict an infant. Still, progress is progress, and “slow but steady” is a perfectly reasonable method of improvement.

The characters in the strip manage to fit the ‘everyman’ tone of it while still remaining relatively distinct. The storylines… less so, but they tend to be good while they are in motion. Seeing these characters slowly moving forward with their lives, going through marriage, having a child… there is a good feeling to it. There is no real sense of action or urgency as the strip essentially proceeds in real-time… but again, slowly but steadily, it moves forward much as life tends to do.

The website is reasonably well laid-out. It could use a cast page… but at the same time, the strip is often just as easy to read without having to know anything about who the characters are. That’s the benefit of being drawn from life – situations are easily identifiable and characters easy to empathize with. The layout of the site does a good job of balancing out the comic itself with the regular newsposts from the creator, and having that bit of personal connection to the author is likely more useful than anything else that could be presented to the reader.

It isn’t a bad comic. I read it faithfully, probably for years, without ever having a moment where it let me down, offended me, or drove me away. It has room for improvement, sure, but it doesn’t really try to go beyond what it is – there is no pretension to it, no posturing or arrogance. It’s just a strip by an ordinary guy about an ordinary life.

There just isn’t any reason for me to keep reading it. I like the characters… but don’t feel any need to see their story unfold. Indeed, I can visualize it on my own, with ease – I doubt there are any great surprises down the road. And I don’t need to see the little details or the small jokes as they play out, or see more of the same riffs on geek culture that I’ve seen a hundred times before.

There might be those around who do, and that’s all to the good. The comic is certainly no worse than the majority still found in the newspaper – it is the same sort of peaceful and plain material that many find a comfort in having as part of their routine.

But I’ve already got plenty of other comics to take that role. A few seconds each day might not cost me much, but I’ve still got plenty of other uses to which I can put the time.

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.

A Genuine Ultimatum, Part 2: Wicked Powered

Today continues my quest to ditch comics not worth reading – but since there are some other topics I want to also discuss, I’m going after an easy target: Wicked Powered.

Now, the reason this is an easy choice is because Wicked Powered sorta kinda somewhat came to an end just over two months ago. Or, more accurately… the main heroes of the show came up against the main villain, who hurled them into a time loop!

At first, I was excited. I mean – this was a genuinely exciting scene, and for a comic that was filled with highs and lows, it was definitely one of the former. So we suddenly have our cast get rocketed back to the beginning of the strip, and I’m thinking it is pretty awesome. I’m carefully paying attention, keeping my eye out for any minor discrepancies or other hints of the characters realizing they are caught in a loop…

…and I find nothing. In fact, I realize, they are just flat-out rerunning the strip from the beginning without any changes. That’s cold.

This is confirmed, shortly thereafter, by a news-post explaining just that. The comic is no longer profitable, so they aren’t able to keep it going. Thus, they’ve set-up this clever form of reruns. And it is clever – it lets them keep the comic rolling without actually bringing it to a close, but leaves them able to step back in and start things up at any time, should they desire to do so. Not a bad setup.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest things the comic had in its favor was its momentum. It started with something of a mystery and kept the action going from there – and suddenly everything has come to a stop. Sure, the scenes are still rolling – but nothing that will keep a reader’s attention. Instead, it just helps make the comic’s weaknesses more obvious, and lets the reader come to understand that there wasn’t really a grand plan to find out – that the plot was just being played by ear from the beginning.

Let’s be honest now – this comic was never a great masterpiece. Like most of Crosby’s work, it tends to cater to the lowest common denominator – pretty much every punchline is a boob joke, a gay joke, or toilet humor. And, sure, there are people who are looking for that, and find that stuff hilarious… but I also suspect there are a handful like me, who were reading the comic because we were drawn to the spark of the story inside. Sure, it was a story filled with parody and zaniness and that didn’t take itself all that seriously – but that was part of the charm. And as long as that story was rolling, it was an interesting read – but the story is over, and dropped in such a way that it will be hard to start back up.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Crosby and Gieni are by any means obligated to keep providing me with free comic material. It was created to make money from a sponsor, and when the money dried up, the story got set aside. Fair enough.

But I think the real shame is that they launched into the reruns without warning the reader – they left the reader, at least initially, with a different expectation than they deserved. If they had announced when the time-loop commenced that this was the comics way of going on hiatus, I think that would have been fine. But instead, the reader was tricked into thinking it was part of the story, and became invested in what was going on – only to find out there was nothing going on, nothing at all.

What does that mean, when all is said and done? It means any chances of a genuine return just took a pretty hard blow to the head. Because now the reader isn’t going to be as easily able to get invested back in the comic – they’ve already done so and had their interest fizzle. And so if, sometime down the road, the comic looks worth resuming, and they start things back up again, all the better for them…

…but we’re not sticking around to see it.

A Genuine Ultimatum, Part 1: God Mode

I titled my last post “Ultimatum”, clearly some sort of poorly worded reference/pun on my discussion of Ultimate Chugworth. I did not, however, include any sort of actual ultimatum in the post, which a reader called me on – so now to fix that.

I tend to focus far more on speaking praise rather than sharing criticism. This has been true since I started this blog, and I’ve mentioned my reasons for it a number of times – I tend to reserve my criticism for when I feel it can actually do some good, or for when I have been so disappointed in something that I need to share my words.

But I also have a difficulty with not recognizing when I’ve lost interest in a strip. I’ll read a strip, checking in with every update… even though I find the comic dull, offensive, or outright painful to read. Yet, somehow, it stays on my list. It is easier to let myself continue to be carried by routine then to turn away from something I know I don’t enjoy. I have the same problem with books – it is among the most challenging things in the world for me to put aside a book unfinished, even one that has me grinding my teeth from one paragraph to the next.

So today I’m putting forth a genuine ultimatum, as I take a look at some of the terrible comics I need to stop reading. I’ll be posting every day for the next while as I get this out of my system. This is not an ultimatum to the creators of these fine (or not so fine) strips, however – they can improve or not at their own leisure.

Rather, I’m issuing an ultimatum to myself – if this strips are genuinely this unpleasant to read on a daily basis, here’s my chance to give one final glance at them and them drop them for good.

So, let’s get on with the show, shall we?

Some have said that the whole of webcomicdom consists of poor man’s rip-offs of Penny Arcade. This is not true. There are many quality strips out there which feature original concepts and vibrant characters. There are even more than a few gaming comics that stand on their own, either demonstrating equal humor to Penny Arcade or their own brand of uniqueness.

Unfortunately, God Mode is not one of them.

I’m not entirely sure how this strip originated. It was apparently thought up by Chris Crosby, though he never actually produced the comic – that was one Ryan Kerns, and then later Raven Perez. I always found this something of a strange situation – while passing along a title is regular practice in print comics, it is a rare thing on the web. In this case, I attribute this to God Mode being entirely formulaic – it was invented to try and grab the gamer crowd, and will continue to be milked as long as possible.

I’ll start out by saying some good things about it, however, because that’s just the way I roll. So – the art (both the original and the recent stuff) has a certain cartoony style that works well for the comic’s slapstick comedy. I find many of the character concepts original, even if they quickly become entirely cliché. I was especially a fan of Broderick, whose description reads: “He is afraid of everything that exists in the world, with the possible exception of bees. (He is, however, afraid of why he’s not afraid of bees.)” Maybe I just like the description of the character – hard to say, as he is woefully underused.

Now, the bad part of the strip? It really does read as a bad imitation of Penny Arcade. Being a gaming comic it constantly deals with gaming references and current events – but they are thrown out haphazardly, and without any newsposts to help ground the reader and help them understand the context of the strip. When the earlier jokes start to wear thin, it devolves into the same mindless violence that Penny Arcade has been criticized for – but without the ingenuity or distinction that really made it work. Even worse, it doesn’t treat it as something to be used sparingly – instead, strip after strip trades brutality for a punchline, and expects the reader to laugh.

It isn’t that it becomes offensive. No, its even worse – it becomes boring.

The hyperaggressive violence and convulated inside jokes results in the worst fate that a comedic strip can face – it just isn’t funny. Even worse, you can see the elements of humor there, underneath it all – but they just don’t manage to deliver. One of the recurring jokes is that Sony is the Borg. Another is that gamers are fat and like chocolate. These aren’t especially funny to begin with – but they are used over, and over, and over again, and grow even less humorous with each repetition.

For the characters, we have Marceline, who runs God Mode (a gaming review website that somehow has netted her millions.) She is sadistic and a smoker – that is pretty much the extent of her character.

Then we have two of her reviewers, Kraig and Barret, who are essentially indistinguishable, aside from Barrett’s lack of hair. I don’t think they are meant to be so – the cast page indicates that Kraig is the idiot and Barrett the pushover, but the comic itself doesn’t really do a good job of supporting this. They pretty much just exist to be abused by Marceline.

Tory is the sales manager, who makes tons of money through using her sex appeal to sell games and systems. Broderick is the fearful reporter. Alex is the corporate overlord who is a massive, frightening man with a heart of gold – another character who could use more screentime. Moru is Marceline’s son, a seven year old genius who generally makes the adults look like idiots.

The comic revolves around the entire concept that everyone is an idiot and bad things constantly happen to them. Ok, I won’t deny that there is a market for that sort of idea – but violence for its own sake isn’t funny. We don’t feel bad for the characters being abused, but we can’t laugh at them, either – we’re not even that invested in them. When Penny Arcade features random and senseless brutality, it usually goes hand in hand with a punchline or some element of irony – God Mode instead simply indulges itself, and expects that to do the trick.

And, unfortunately, it doesn’t.

The tragedy of God Mode is that, if it was willing to go its own way, it has the potential to be a decent comic. There are clever ideas buried underneath it all – but as long as the strip is wedded to the formula of what it thinks a gaming comic should be, it will never truly establish itself.

I’m not sure what actually got me reading the comic in the first place. There must have been something there, though I can’t really say what. But I can’t deny that I’ve been reading the comic now out of momentum alone. The updates don’t bring laughter nor, even, interest – it has become a daily task. I open the link to the comic, read the latest strip, and then close the page. All out of habit alone. Five minutes later, I don’t even remember what the strip is about.

Today the strip is taken off my list.

One down – many more to go.

Wolverined

I’ve realized in recent days that there is a certain character archetype that bothers me – the Wolverine.

Now, I’m sure lots of people are aware that there are elements of Wolverine that are a joke, from his ability to guest-star in 90% of all Marvel comics, to his myriad convulated and complicated origins. But for a long time, I was blissfully ignorant.

You see, when I was but a wee kid, I was quite the fan of the X-Men. Not from comics, mind you, but from saturday morning cartoons, the true source of my fandoms in those days. And I watched X-Men, and enjoyed it, as did my friends.

I would, in fact, get together with my cousins and my sister, and we formed a little club where we pretended to be part of that illustrious team, each claiming one of the cast members as our identity. And I remember being delighted that I got first choice, and was able to choose Wolverine. He was my favorite, after all!

And so, remembering this fact in the present day, it was with some startlement that I realized I had come to loathe the character – or at least certain representations of him. The third X-Men movie was really what made me aware of this – while I had thoroughly enjoyed the first two, this one felt atrocious, and Wolverine’s role in it was the worst part. The movie was no longer about the team, but about him and him alone.

Shortpacked illustrates it well – every aspect of the movie seems to be focused on sidelining other characters and pushing him forward. I noticed that even Storm, who also had larger screen-time in the movie, took a back seat – despite being the supposed team leader, she’s the one following Wolverine’s orders and tactics in the midst of battle. Even the central plot point of the movie, Jean Grey and her growing instability, culminates in a scene about Wolverine as he has to make the choice to kill her for the good of all.

And I realized that, while he may be a good character at heart, he loses something when he is written so that he can do no wrong. It isn’t – quite – the Mary Sue phenomenom. Rather, it is a result being so in love with the character – or the idea of the character – that they make them into the idealized bad-ass. A character who is hardcore enough to win every fight, but also smarter and more sensitive than everyone else around.

Once I became aware of this, I started noticing similar characters elsewhere, and a lot fell into place with why certain comics were losing my interest. Fables is one of my favorite series… but I find the earlier stories significantly better than the more recent work, and realized this was why. Bigby – the big bad wolf – started out as the Sheriff of Fabletown, just one of a large cast of interesting and well-balanced characters.

And then he became a Wolverine. Other character have lost their identities and exist to show how awesome he is. He is the protector, the guardian, that everyone else has to rely upon. And so it has slowly become that whenever he shows up to save the day, I lose a little more interest in the title, and hope the action will quickly center on someone – anyone – else.

In webcomics, Johnny Saturn is the largest example of this problem that I’ve seen. I’ve been thinking about the comic a lot, lately, because it has recently pushed a little too far for my tastes.

See, I’ve enjoyed the comic for some time now. It was a true, old-school action comic, and really seemed to represent what Graphic Smash was all about. But… well, Johnny Saturn himself was so very 90’s – a grim and gritty hero who was supposed to be more heroic than all the brightly-colored capes flying around overhead.

I like many of the secondary characters in the comic, I like the setting and the background storyarcs – and let’s be fair, in the beginning, the entire comic starts off well. The opening scene is of the Utopian (who appears an equivalent of Superman) giving a speech at Johnny’s grave, talking about how easy it is for the cosmic heroes to forget what the street heroes accomplish.

It is a very good speech.

I regret that, unfortunately, we’ll continue to have its message drilled home with every panel of every page of the comic. The comic goes on to show how Johnny, despite an ordinary man with no superpowers, was able to beat the crap out of the Utopian in a one-on-one fight. Later, he was able to do the same to the Squadron Premiere, the Utopian’s superpowered allies, before going on to handle the problems they couldn’t solve.

When he then heroically gives his own life to stop a villain (as one knows will occur from the opening scene), we got a step further – he rises from the grave through sheer force of will alone! A fortunate thing, as his archenemy has done the same, returning from Hell with a demon’s power, and is singlehandedly killing dozens of superheroes at a time. A good thing Johnny, an ordinary fellow, is around to step in and imprison him in a magic circle!

This, really, is where the strip lost me. The strip goes on to show how, despite the demon being imprisoned, one of the superheroes is still dumb enough to get himself killed by it. Fortunately, Johnny demonstrates he alone has the tactical knowledge to show how the demon can be killed – by having the supers focus their energy attacks on his head and chest.

And, with that sage advice, the evil is vanquished, thanks to Johnny Saturn.

Now, this is a comic about the guy – it is allowed to portray him as a hero. He is allowed to be the focus. But there really needs to be a limit, or it stops being about a competent hero, and more about the writer specifically setting things up to cast the character in the best possible light.

There needs to be a sense of balance. I’m not simply talking power-level – but when a character is stronger, smarter and tougher than everyone else, when there is no action they can take that will not result in triumph over their enemies… well, what’s the point?

Without even the possibility of a challenge, without the outcome ever being in doubt… why am I even reading?

My Favorite Comics Where I Don’t Actually Know What’s Going On: The Templar, Arizona Edition!

I laughed at Ben's pain and confusion, and for this, I have been punished.I really, really like Templar, Arizona. Of this, I am pretty sure.

It’s hard to be certain, though. The art is wonderfully dynamic, I don’t think anyone can deny that. The setting seems wild and alive and full of surprises. The story… well, I’m not sure if we’ve really gotten to one yet, but hey – walking around, seeing characters interact, that’s all well and good!

I just wish I knew who these people were.

Ok. This might be a bit of an exaggeration. Of the characters in the current scene, I certainly recognize Ben, the main protagonist of the strip. Reagan and Scipio – we’ve seen them a bunch, so hey, no problem.

We’ve got the members of Borndown, a band. I know this, cause they told me, for which I am grateful. One of them, Gene, we met early on – I remember that much, at least. And then we’ve got someone named Curio, and her friend, who does Freeform Naturalist Eurythmy, and who I guess we are supposed to recognize from earlier?

And I think there were some people playing ice hockey, or something, only now they are gone and everyone is just hanging around and talking and why is there a dog in that man’s armpit???

So I’m lost. Which is pretty much par for the course with this strip – it is basically all about this slightly skewed vision of a world similar, but not quite like ours, and the people that live in it. And that’s cool, and I like it, and the characters are really awesome and individual and unique… only I’m getting sensory overload.

I mean, this comic has, hands-down, some of the most absolutely brilliant character design out there. Every single person looks distinct visually – and the art and writing is able to convey a similarly distinct personality in a handful of pages. I like Ben, who we’ve gotten a chance to know, and I like these crazy members of Gene’s band, who we’ve only just had thrown at us.

But it feels like it is spiraling out of control. I know some comics suffer from the artist forgetting that the audience doesn’t have access to all the knowledge they have, but I suspect that isn’t the reason here. My guess is that it is intentional – much like Ben himself, we’ve been thrown into this strange place with these strange people and we have to make sense of it on the go. Which, at heart, can work, confusion can be good and fun – up to a limit. It just feels like it’s going overboard, when there is barely room in a panel for half the characters present, when characters pop from one location to the next without any sign or reason, when the scene is simply descending from agreeable chaos into raw white noise, and…

Well. You know. It’s a shame.

I’m not going to say the comic needs to change, because it may well be my own flaws that are leaving me bewildered. I suspect if I went back and read through the archives at least one in three of my questions would find an answer. But I really wish the discord was turned back just a notch, just the tiniest sliver… because I shoudn’t have to do research to understand every update. I shouldn’t need to make a diagram just to track what’s going on.

And I could just stop reading, sure – but I don’t want to. Because this is a fantastic comic with fantastic characters, and I’d really hate to be unable to interpret it as nothing more than random pictures and sound.

A Very Good Question

“Who are you?”

That… is a very good question indeed.

Other good ones: Why are you here? And what in the hell is going on?

The scene is Dungeon and Dorks, a fantasy webcomic parody of a certain famous roleplaying game. For a long while, I considered DnDorks to be among the top such comics, to have nailed its rendition of gamer humor as well as the best of them.

Then it lost me. Not in the sense that I no longer enjoyed the strip – no, it lost me in that all understanding of plot went right out the window.

The figures to our left are Venger, an apparently recurring villain, and Mac’thulu, who is as he says he is.

I’m not entirely sure where either of them came from. I’m not sure why the story is focusing on them, nor what has happened to the main characters, or the side characters, or the NPCs, or any of it. I suspect a full read through the archives would clear some things up, if not all… but this is also a comic I started reading within the last two years. The archives aren’t really all that far from memory.

Let’s begin with a basic description of the strip. DnDorks is about a bunch of gamers, and at the same time, it is about the characters in the game they play. These stories are told essentially hand in hand, often to good effect. Over the first four or five years of the strip, it combined clever jokes about these few iconic gamers, while also developing them as interesting individuals with lives of their own.

A little over a year ago is when the confusion started to arise. The main cast of gamers was set aside for DnDorks – the Next Generation! This featured younger siblings of the main crew trying their own hand at DnD for the very first time – which, on its own, is a perfectly cool idea. A chance for adding some new blood to the strip, walking down some similar paths and some new ones, and setting things up for an all around good story arc.

It was a little confusing for me, mainly due to the transition – the new characters basically showed up, with little explanation of who they were. I gather, looking at the cast page, they may have shown up previously as filler – but for me, they were all new and out of the blue.

But hey – that alone wasn’t too big a deal. The new cast was well-rounded and enjoyable to see in action. Once the initial shock of the shift was over, it made for a good read.

Then they decided to start remaking the earliest strips in the archives, updating them with art consistent with the new format. Not a problem in and of itself – in fact, a damn good idea. Except… they posted the new old strips like regular updates. If you knew what was going on, it was possible to keep the stories separate – but it also meant you had to actively be paying attention to do so. Each update, you had to mentally file the page in a different place.

It wasn’t much – but it muddied the waters enough that when the real confusion hit, it made things oh so much worse.

The latest storyarc has involved, as far as I can tell, a blurring of the lines between the gamers themselves and the characters they play. Through strange machinations, the “next generation” has been brought into their game world by this villain, Venger – and in order to stop whatever evil scheme this is a part of, the original cast was brought into the game world by this other fellow, Mac’thulu.

So – hey, I can describe the general story that is going on, so that means the comic hasn’t descended into complete gibberish. The problem is that the general understanding is as far as it goes – I haven’t been able to follow any given strip, or precisely how all this has come to pass, or the motivations behind anyone or anything.

The core of the problem is that we have a crossover between both the new generation of gamers and the old generation of gamers and the characters both teams play – while in the background, classic strips from the archives are running in-between. With new and important villains coming out of left field. With dramatic reveals at every turn. With an art style that is very nice to look at, but also includes a layout that tends to jump past important bits of the action – usually relying upon narrative to fill us in on the blanks, which works a whole lot better when the reader remembers where the characters are and what they are doing.

Therein lies the problem – any single one of those elements wouldn’t be enough to leave the reader bewildered. But all of them together…

And it’s a shame, because I like all these characters. I like the idea of having characters sucked into their game world, I like seeing the new dynamic of the younger crew matched against the familiar stasis of the old, I like the fact we have a miniature Old One named Mac’thulu. It’s all clever and fun, but I realized the other day that I had spent the last year reading the strip without being able to even name most of the characters anymore.

That’s not good, people. The more confused I got, the more frustrating the story was, because I didn’t have the time each week to go digging through the archives to try and set each new thread straight – especially with the classic strips still popping up out of order, even in the archives. I wasn’t losing the strip because of the characters or the story or the jokes, but because of simple poor organization.

It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading the comic, unless it continues to pile layers of convolution on at every turn. Right now, it looks like the current story is getting close to the big ending – which I am desperate for. Because until then, every update just means I glance at the page, shake my head, and wait for things to make sense again.

And if that is the response that a storyline that could be wildly entertaining is having on your readers, it’s time to ask yourself why it is happening – and what you can do to fix it.

Abstract Characterization

It is always a shame to see a comic starting to go downhill.

If a comic is flat-out bad… well, that’s a different story. There are a lot of webcomics out there that are trash, sure – and usually it’s because the creator is new at this, still learning how to draw, how to tell a story, how to make a joke. Ok, no problem – I’m not going to criticize them for still being in the middle of learning the process. Especially not when given how many strips started out weak but developed into something fantastic over time.

But on the other hand, when a strip has it, and is doing great, and then goes downhill… man, that sucks.

And it sadly looks like Abstract Gender is falling into that category.

It would be easy to blame the new artist. Switching artists is always a tricky business, and while in some cases it works out brilliantly, all too often it is a sign of the comic’s imminent demise. I had high hopes in this case – Abstract Gender had switched artists before. Several times early on, in fact – but the third artist, Kiey, held the title for most of the strip’s run. Replacing someone seven strips in is tricky, but not world-ending. Replacing the artist that help define the strip? That’s a different game altogether.

But it isn’t just that change alone. It’s part of it, sure – the new artist, Asuka, started off with a rocky run and a slowdown in updates, and even now still hasn’t quite clicked for me. Backgrounds are often ignored, resulting in characters that seem to perpetually float through space. The characters are well designed and expressive, but also sometimes overdone. The art isn’t bad – it’s actually quite nice – but I still haven’t gotten used to it after six months of work, and that doesn’t bode well.

But it has been the story and the writing that has been causing vast amounts of frustration.

Our latest storyline involves our main character, Rachel, unwillingly getting naked for a massage she doesn’t want, while on a ‘relaxing’ outing she didn’t want to go on, taken there by friends she doesn’t want, from a team she didn’t really want to join.

Now, to be fair – the theme of not being in control is the central theme of the strip. Rachel Hawke was previously Ryan Hawke, and the core of the strip involves him and his best friend Brian investigating a haunted mansion – and finding themselves mysteriously turned into girls.

Of course, his friend Brian seems to also have the ability to change back. Rachel does not, and is far from happy with the situation, but competely unable to do anything about it. Done right, that is a great premise for a series, and seeing Rachel’s helplessness and frustration – and how she acts because of it – has been key to driving the story along.

In that core premise – being turned into a girl – she doesn’t have control. Her frustration over it works. In all those other situations since, however, it just doesn’t make sense. She is in a situation she actively doesn’t want to have happen, and yet she goes along with it. I can buy her friends bullying her into joining them on a trip – sure, okay, that’s what friends do. Letting them persuade her into have a strange man disrobe her? When she is already very uncomfortable with her form, being it isn’t technically her own?

I don’t buy it. It is being played for laughs and for fanservice. It is letting the strip slide into sitcom silliness – look, this character has managed to get into a stupid and embarrassing situation they don’t want to be! Hah!

That’s my issue with where this strip has gone. I hate seeing that sort of mindlessness here, because Abstract Gender has a lot of promise. Dealing with the mystery as to how it all actually occured, dealing with the different characters react to their new situation, seeing the friendships broken over it – that is genuinely interesting stuff, with a bit of mystery and school drama and personal reflection combined.

We’ve even had a lot of that good stuff recently, with Rachel actively investigating who is behind her transformation. That is the sort of behavior that fits, having her pushing the action forward as she tries to control at least one aspect of her life. But the constant lapses into passive obedience – usually to bring about some silly situation for us to laugh at – just don’t work.

I’m not saying the comic can’t be funny – it has been a humor strip from the beginning. But it was also a strip that seemed to have a story to tell, and early on, had no problem balancing the jokes with the plot. And it has kept the plot moving, I’ll give it that – but it also seems willing to toss it aside for the sake of a few cheap laughs. To sacrifice characterization for crass comedy.

If it works… well, more power to ’em. There have been quite a few successes out there – in all forms of media – built off of nothing more than fanservice.

It’s just a shame to see it from a comic that had the potential to be a whole lot more.