Category Archives: Webcomic Reviews

E is for Erfworld. Entertaining. Eccentric. Epic.

erfworld1It seems entirely sensible that Erfworld should be hosted on the same site that provides Order of the Stick, as they are both comics built on a blend of humor and plot set inside a world ruled by the mechanics of a game.

And yet… there are fundamental differences between the two. For all the humor in Order of the Stick, it took seriously the steps of laying the background for the plot and campaign. Laughs crop up even there, shortly, but it is trying to build a fundamentally sound world for the PCs to adventure in.

Erfworld, on the other hand, is a world populated by the absurd. It is populated by ridiculous little figures in a cartoon world, where the language is censored, the names are silly… and their lives are driven by constant and unending war.

The divide between the absurd and the dramatic is even wider than in many other similar comics. The silly cartoon people of Erfworld are indeed capable of complicated and emotional relationships… as well as feats of destruction on an enormous scale. Even as they are, at the same time, caricatures and parodies of pop culture, comic in appearance and built on a foundation of in jokes and obscure references. That juxtaposition is really the most impressive thing about Erfworld – than it can be filled with jokes like the Sofa King, presented as something as natural as breathing, even in the presence of mass warfare, struggle, and death.  

That element has never been more present in the strip than now, as our protagonist, Parson Gotti, takes the game to a new level, finding a way to use the rules of magic to unleash a weapon entirely beyond the understanding of his opponents. It is a powerful moment and an incredible feat for him and his few remaining allies, to the no-doubt rousing cheers of the readers rooting for him.

Which is strange, in a way – Parson and those he works for are the bad guys, after all. At least, by the conventional standards – they use necromancy, have a host of standard creepy and evil monsters, and so forth. They are opposed by a coalition of standard good guys, aided by various elves and other more natural creatures, led by proper princely heroes.

And… all of that largely seems meaningless. We haven’t really seen any facet of lie on Erfworld outside of the actual warfare itself. It might be there – there are hints in the presence of the Magic Kingdom, in the fact that characters even can have relationship despite no real need for it (since people pop into existence, fully grown…) But everything we’ve seen is driven by the battle, and both sides will do what is needed to win it. Thus, does it matter what they are fighting for?

Sure, Stanley is a colossal tool. But so is Ansem, hero of the alliance. We’ve seen very few truly sympathetic characters… and we’ve tended to see them in equal prominence on each side.

So we root for Parson, because he’s the key figure, the protagonist. Because he’s the underdog, certainly, someone thrown into a hopeless situation and expected to win it. Because that’s how the classic tale goes – a hero from another realm is summoned to battle to save the day. Parson is the hero, and is given a magic sword, armor, and various other gifts, and is clearly going to be the deciding factor in the battle, the war.

And yet… there’s a twist. All those gifts are handy, but not the real weapon – that is his mind. Tactics, skills, and more – understanding his foes, and how to play them. Not just mastering the system, but thinking beyond it. Doing the impossible, rather than simply winning because he is chosen to win. Sure, in the end it comes out as the same thing – the author is the one deciding how the system works, and how effective any of Parson’s tricks actually are. But it makes for a more exciting story, and makes Parson seem more engaging that a standard hero.

Even if we don’t really get to know him.

We see the motivations of pretty much every character in the setting, from the petty to the proud. From those that are simply commanded to serve to those that are glad to do so – on both sides. And in many ways, Parson is just like the rest of them – he has to fulfill his orders, so he fights for his side to the best of his ability. It is his only hope of survival, not to mention any possible chance to get out of here – he has to win. And, honestly, he wants to win, since games – and figuring them out – is his life.

And that is essentially all we’ve seen of him. Is that enough? To simply have him be devoted to strategy and tactics? In many ways, we’ve seen more development and background from the characters around him, from his opponents, his allies, his henchman…

erf2We have seen that he has grown close to the people on his side. Made friends, as much as the game really allows. He is fighting, by the end, for the chance for them to get out alive – even as he has to make decisions that will cost some of them their lives… or worse. Is this all we need to know of him? Is his life prior to this completely irrelevant, save for how bland it was? And, with the Battle for Gobwin Knob itself actually over, what will his path be to come?

That, really, is what is really pulling me into Erfworld right now. Sure, it is fantastic that it takes a funny world made by Elvis-based titans and populated by absurd little figures, and can make the reader care about it. But right now, the glorious thing… is that I don’t know where it will go from here. The Battle for Gobwin Knob is over. Our main foe, Ansom, is croaked. His coalition bested and in disarray. Parson’s master, Stanley, might still be out there – but he might no longer be Parson’s master, with Gobwin Knob gone. Parson might be free to do his own thing, and enjoy some time in the Magic Kingdom learning more about the system or trying to find a way home.

Or not. Easy ways out aren’t so guaranteed. He now has the emnity of every nation in the world. He has perhaps killed more than any warlord before him, caused personal trauma for many, and dealt losses even Charlie can’t ignore. And all he has is a handful of allies, who may not even have all that much reason to stay faithful to him. His one truly loyal friend was sacrificed in the final gambit. The Magic Kingdom itself doesn’t necessarily know what to do with him.

No, I don’t think there are any easy paths standing before him. But it seems like there is still a great deal more to come, and a great many interesting places for the story to go.

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C is for Crisis, Cleverly Cropped

logo_starslip1I’ve long been impressed by Starslip Crisis.

It has always had exceptional production values – clean art, reliable updates, a strong focus and engaging characters. It started out as a strip about the Starship Fuseli, a museum (in space!), and the quirky group on board – a pretentious curator as captain, an ex-pirate as the pilot, and a strangely-innocent insectoid alien as the staff. Plenty of room for humor, and that was the core focus for quite some time – and the strip continues to deliver that to this day, with a punchline in (almost) every four-panel strip. Kris Straub’s previous work, Checkerboard Nightmare, certainly got solid attention in the webcomic community – but I think Starslip is really where he hit his full stride, and delivered a masterwork.

But while the initial comic was well-crafted and had a definite degree of charm, what really made it stand out was when it began to truly develop those characters… and the story itself began to take on more epic concerns. The name of the comic – Starslip Crisis – came to full meaning when it was revealed that the commonly used method of space transportation (‘starslipping’) had certain… problems. It turns out that tapping into parallel universes for your own personal convenience is never a good plan.

Events build from there. The humble crew of the Fuseli has to confront insane space tyrants, the greed-driven corporations that run the government, and an army of space-cops from the future. There was excitement, there was sorrow, there was conflict – all remarkably well-executed, all entertaining to watch.

starslip_dreadmask1

Sometimes, psychology can only get you so far.

But… over the last year or so, the focus started to drift. The cast was split between several locations, and the standard interplay between the characters – which, honestly, was really at the heart of the strip – was lost. There were plenty of good moments during this time – I consider the tale of the Dreadmask to be among the funniest moments in the strip. But while Straub’s humor continued to hit the mark, the strip’s current state left him with several challenges. The storyline had gotten more and more convulated – it remained remarkably straightforward for anything dealing with time-travel and parallel timelines, but that was still complex enough to present a hurdle for new readers.

The strip had started with a wonderfully simple premise: “A museum in space.” Now, how many words would it take to describe the comic? There was no longer a single focus, nor even a single location or cast the comic was built around. Even the plot itself presented a hurdle – the present had gone to war with the future, and reached a bitter stalemate. One side didn’t have the power to hurt the other; the other side didn’t dare risk using their power for fear of wrecking their own past. How do you resolve that? Finding an answer to that dilemma was challenge enough alone.

Memnon's grandiose speech is often played for laughs - but sometimes, that eloquence is the only thing suitable for the occasion.

Memnon's flair for the dramatic is often played for laughs - but sometimes, that eloquence is the only thing suitable for the occasion.

All in all, the problems weren’t large enough for me to really feel them impeding the flow of the strip – yet. The story remained potent, especially to someone who had been reading long enough to forge connections with the characters and the plot. But when Straub decided the best thing to do would be to reboot the strip, solving all his problems in one fell swoop – while also giving him an easy excuse to update the visual style of the comic – it seemed not just a reasonable decision, but an inevitable one.

Straub wrote an enlightening article on exactly what was going through his head as he took stock of his comic, why he decided a soft reset was needed for the strip, and where he wanted to go from here. The reboot itself was carried out masterfully, worked smoothly into the plot in a fashion that felt like an excellent culmination of all the recent events in the strip … even as it undid them.

The in-story justification of the reboot is that the characters escaped a dying universe by slipping into a parallel timeline – the only one they could find that avoided the pitfalls that destroyed their own timeline. More specifically – shifting them into that timeline, two years back. There are already differences, and they only grow larger as history begins to repeat itself – and just as quickly is derailed, as the crew puts their ‘future’ knowledge to use.

In doing so, they don’t just stop the plans of an insane time-traveling tyrant… but they also stop the series of events that had led to the comic growing so convoluted. No war with the future, no divided cast, no diminishing of the core concept. Indeed, it soon looked like everything would return to the status quo, and the comic could be described just as succinctly as when the strip began. And it should be noted – it would be easy to see this as rendering the events of the lost timeline meaningless, but Straub manages to keep them relevant – through the characters themselves. Because whatever timeline they are in, the growth and experiences of the characters remained intact, and could still be seen through greater competence, deeper concerns and, in many ways, a stronger awareness of their own natures.

Some guys, you just can't feel sorry for.

Some guys, you just can't feel sorry for.

But even with a reboot, the strip can’t stop in stasis forever. Even as Straub brings things back to the original dynamic of the strip, he did something I wasn’t expecting – and ditched the Fuseli. The space museum is retired to orbit Earth, while the crew moves on to a fancy new ship with a fancy new mission, as diplomats (in space!) It might not be the original pitch, but it remains an equally concise one. Less unique, certainly – but the comic has already established itself, and is able to stand out on already proven merits alone, rather than the need to fill an otherwise unoccupied niche. As I said at the start of this post: the strip has clean art, reliable updates, a strong focus and engaging characters – and has now shown its capacity for a well-woven and compelling plot.

So what is the point of this post? In short – taking risks can be well worth it, something I know I’ve commented on before… but nonetheless remains true. Whether evolving as an artist or being willing to change the dynamic of your strip, you shouldn’t be afraid of pushing yourself and your work into new territory. It doesn’t always pan out – a new plot might fall flat, a new style might alienate readers. But you can respond to that, and take what works and what doesn’t, and end up with something greater than it was before. If you don’t change, if you prefer to let the work sit in stasis… well, it won’t kill the comic. If it is good to start with, or even simply decent, then it is likely to remain just as decent for years to come.

And eventually, perhaps, that leads down the route of so many newspaper comics – with the strip ending up as a nice simple formula that churns out work that is entirely acceptable, but never truly exceptional.

Starslip dares to be exceptional.

B is for Belkar, Belligerently Badass

ootssquare1I never liked Belkar.

It wasn’t because Belkar was a one-dimensional character – as, in Order of the Stick, that was essentially true for all the characters in the beginning. No, it was simply due to what Belkar’s one dimension was – a homicidal jerk. A character whom the rest of the party only tolerated because… well, largely because that is what actually happens in gaming. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the group wouldn’t actually adventure with the maniac someone else decided to play – you are supposed to be a group, and find a reason for the characters to work together. So it goes.

And so Belkar got to be a bloodthirsty bastard who cared for no one but himself, and provided very little to the rest of the group (other than his natural skill at violence), and who was only really with them in order to indulge in that self-same talent. I’m sure he had his fans, but I didn’t really like the character, and looked forward to seeing him get his inevitable comeuppance.

Always look for the silver lining! In your, uh, black clouds of pure, undiluted evil.

Always look for the silver lining! In your, uh, clouds of pure evil darkness.

But in the beginning, it didn’t really matter that he wasn’t a very likeable character – he was there to help serve certain punchlines, and did the job well. I didn’t need to like the character to laugh at the strip or appreciate the jokes. He filled his role well… right up until the tone of the strip shifted. As the first major arc of the strip began to draw to a close, the focus began to change from the daily punchline to the goal of an ongoing story. Humor was certainly still present… but many other goals came to the fore.

And Belkar was still just Belkar. And a character that worked well in a purely humor-driven strip was suddenly much less fitting in a comic dealing with continuity, coherency… and character development. It was, in short, a classic Bun-Bun Dilemma.

Bun-Bun is a character from Sluggy Freelance, one of the longest ongoing webcomics around – and one that has long struggled with the division between humor and story, with Bun-Bun a classic example of the potential difficulty in resolving that conflict. Bun-Bun is essentially the iconic cute by vicious little fellow – a rabbit that appears cute and fuzzy, but is all about violence and greed and self-interest, and is badass enough to actually follow through on its vicious nature. You might notice this description (aside from the ‘fuzzy rabbit’ part) almost perfectly matches Belkar – and plenty of other similar characters in other comics, cartoons and the like.

The key is, having a character with such an inherent contradiction tends to be, well… funny. The jokes practically write themselves, and such a character is a fantastic source of ongoing and reliable humor.

But once humor becomes secondary to the strip… what else is left for that character? In Sluggy Freelance, for Bun-Bun, the answer was… nothing, really. The strip has wrestled for years with what to do with the character, and found some success in casting him as an antagonist – and eventually even built up a fairly intense storyline culminating in the character being hurled out of the strip itself.

Perhaps the best possible end for the character – but, like a bad habit, Bun-Bun eventually came back… even though there really was no good place for him. He couldn’t be given any character development – it would have gone against his very concept. The only role left to him? To randomly show up, utter his usual threats and insults, recall the same tired jokes that he was created for… and then step offstage again.

And this was the future facing Belkar.

Don’t get me wrong – these characters have plenty of fans. Bun-Bun’s legions of followers will endure long after the rest of Sluggy Freelance is forgotten, I imagine. The concept is more succinct, more marketable, more independant than the story the character was placed in – and that’s why the evil little ball of fur will keep showing up long after the comic has actually had a use for it. Similarly, many have been fans of Belkar despite his self-serving and homicidal tendencies. I imagine many have been fans of him because of it.

Which is where the dilemma comes in. How do you keep the character in the strip when having their development keep pace with the rest of the story would destroy the very essence of the character – the very elements that all their fans care about?

The approach in Sluggy Freelance was to make Bun-Bun an adversary, and Belkar could easily have fallen into that role – except that part of the character’s core was being one of the PCs. So a solution needed to be found that would let him remain a member of the party, despite the fact that no sane group would truly keep him around longer than they had to.

Fortunately, it is a comic in a fantasy world, which means “A Wizard Did It” is a perfectly acceptable means of finding a solution to a problem. Belkar gets tagged with a magical curse to reign in his murderous capabilities, and keep him working with the party – still free to spout insults and be his usual charming self, while allowing him to legitimately function as part of the group.

It's ok to be evil - as long as you stay useful.

It's ok to be evil - as long as you stay useful.

An elegant solution… but not a permanent one. The rest of the group was continuing to develop and fit into the story, while he was just being dragged along, more of a plot hook than an actual character. Which is when the comic’s esteemed author, Rich Burlew, began the real challenge – finding a way to redeem the character. Finding a way to make him truly part of the group, a character who both had reason to work with the rest of the group, and was someone whose presence they would welcome in their midst.

Over the last fifty or so strips, Belkar’s tale has unwound, as he is taken as low as he can possibly go – crippled by the curse upon him, the others finally realizing the want nothing more to do with him, and… oh yeah, a rather dire fate awaiting him.

Now, with most characters, this would be the perfect opportunity for redemption. For the character to realize that they only got this far through the help of their companions, and that living a life based on selfishness and impulse has only left them cursed, friendless and alone. And the character would rise up, having learned The Meaning of Friendship, and put their conflicted past behind them!

But… Belkar has no conflicted past. He has never wrestled with any moral dilemmas. Immoral ones, sure – but there has never been the slightest bit of selfessness in his character. Having him become a decent fellow would be a complete contradiction with the very core of the character!

Yet Rich figured a way out. You don’t have to be Good in order to perform Good acts – you just need a good enough reason to do so. Belkar learned that lesson before, when he saved a paladin from an assassin in the hopes of getting his curse removed. 

Rich might not be able to change Belkar’s self-interest, his greed, his lust for violence… but he could change his

Knowing the rules doesn't limit your options - it expands them.

Knowing the rules doesn't limit your options - it expands them.

impulsive nature and his antisocial tendencies. Belkar, crippled by his curse, barely hanging on to consciousness, reaches an epiphany – he doesn’t have to actually follow the same moral code as his companions, he just needs to fake it. He calls it “faking character development” – but the development is there, just not what was expected.

It’s a realization that he can get farther in the world if he has people who can – and will – watch his back. All he has to do is give them reason to keep him around – which he can already do, due to his skill with a blade – while not giving them reason to kick him out. Which does mean he needs to refrain from murdering anyone who momentarily pisses him off, and cutting back on being completely abrasive to the rest of the group – but in the long run, he realizes, it is worth it. And given the life of an adventurer, he knows he will have plenty of foes whom he will not just be allowed to butcher to his heart’s content – but even rewarded, even celebrated, for doing so.

He has successfully known character growth. Not from a villain into a hero (or even an anti-hero), but from a wild, erratic murderer driven by little more than impulse… into something resembling a magnificent bastard. As long as he acts with style and stays a team player… well, it has already paid off so far, in spades.

And it makes him interesting. And it lets him keep his spot in the party, and keep his role in the story. And it makes him, despite his nature, someone the good guys can cheer for. I may have hated him throughout his career – but when he hopped to his feet and started eviscerating rogues, demonstrating his sheer level of badassitude, on behalf of a righteous cause… well, I was rooting for him all the way.

We’ll see whether he can carry this out indefinitely – violence might solve most problems in an adventurer’s life, but not all. I’m sure there will be times when putting up with the moral outlook of the party might be a challenge – but then, conflict is the core of a good character. And – in many ways now more than ever – conflict is what Belkar is all about.

A is for Aki, Asocially Adrift

acoverI was shocked to discover not only had Aki Alliance returned from it’s nearly two-year hiatus – but that this return happened over six months ago, and I had somehow missed it completely.

The upside of this is that I had half-a-year’s worth of new strips awaiting me – and I discovered that certain facts are a lot more apparent when reading through complete storylines in one sitting, rather than as a continual series of independant updates.

The fact I realized was this: The strip’s protagonist was kinda, sorta, essentially… a jerk.

Style isn't everything - but it certainly helps

Presentation isn't everything - but it certainly helps.

Let’s start at the beginning – Aki Alliance is the story of Aki, a fifth grade student at Nakagawa’s Girls School. Here is the premise, in convenient haiku format – though the true plot begins several pages in, when Aki – who has alienated every other student in her class – vows to gain their friendship, one way or another! Wacky hijinks will inevitably ensue.

Now, the thing is – all of the other girls in her class actually have very good reasons for not wanting to be friends with Aki. She has hopped from one extracurricular activity to another, inevitably abandoning her former teammates as soon as a new whim strikes her.

As a story, it is an entertaining one to watch unfold, as Aki embarks on one attempt after another to make friends with every girl in her class – a task that ranges from being whimsically easy, to requiring absurdly complex schemes to pull off.

What I find thoroughly fantastic about this is that the episodic nature of the comic is one that is rarely seen in webcomics. There are plenty of gag-strips out there, and plenty with intricate ongoing storylines – but comics with a more delineated progression are few and far between. The certainly exist, but they are an exception rather than the rule – perhaps because it can be hard to pull off such a format, and find a pacing that will satisfy readers looking for an ongoing story without driving away those who enjoy digesting shorter tales.

Fortunately, the comic is produced by one Ryan Estrada, who you might remember from such features as The Cantankerous Welton Colbert, A Goat Named Frank, and hundreds of guest comics around the world wide web – and many more. With all the comics output he has done, it should be obvious that Estrada knows his craft – and, honestly, knows several of them.

It might be a risk to play around with new art styles - but talent doesn't develop in stasis.

It might be a risk to play around with new art styles - but talent doesn't develop in stasis.

The comic’s core art-style is a very active, almost cartoony style – almost like old school afterschool cartoon shows, with characters that are vibrant and expressive, but still confined within the boundaries of the comic itself, still well-situated enough on the page that you never feel like they don’t belong in the setting. Other comic elements are added in as Estrada plays with a sketchbook style framework and various visual tricks – but his little experiments only serve to enhance the final work, and rarely distract from it.

So, we have a good concept, with a good story, good execution – and a character who is a big fat jerk.

Aki is a great character, of course – the strip wouldn’t even be functional if that wasn’t the case. She is smart, but not so smart that she automatically overcomes all intellectual challenges. Clever would be a more accurate descriptor; she is a quick thinker, adept at putting together elaborate schemes and plans, and she is very, very skilled.

After all, the very premise is that she alienated most of the school by shifting from one activity to another – but you get the sense it isn’t because she failed at any of those activities, but because she quickly mastered them and moved on. And now that she is turning her skills towards acquiring friendships, and actually seems focused on this one task, it seems unsurprising she begins to meet with success – but does she deserve it?

Are her friendships actually earned, or just the result of one scheme after another? She approaches each friendship as a commodity more than a relationship – if she can deliver x to one of the girls, they agree to be her friend, where x involves her helping them win a boxing match, or figuring out a phrase, or helping one side emerge victorious in a gang war…

She clearly wants real friendship. She just doesn’t seem to be very good at it – especially with a tendency to look down upon others, and have insults pop out before she realizes what she’s saying. And sometimes, it doesn’t even seem to bother her: “What? I don’t have to be nice to you, if I win the bet, you have to be my friend no matter what!”

She might understand people profoundly well, as that same strip clearly shows – but she doesn’t seem to really understand how to connect with them. I know that the insightful yet antisocial genius is a popular figure in modern culture, but it seems an odd starting part for a comic about fifth-grade schoolgirls.

And yet… it works.

It's one thing to deliver a righteous smack-down. It's a whole new level of awesome to do so over a game of scrabble...

It's one thing to deliver a righteous smack-down. It's a whole new level of awesome to do so over a game of scrabble...

I mean, it seems inevitable that, in the end, Aki will eventually understand what friendship is all about – each chapter already has its own little moral to be learned, and ‘the meaning of friendship’ seems pre-ordained to be the ultimate one of them all.

The strip is an afterschool special, from setting to premise to presentation – it hits every bit of formula designed for such shows, with kids in school learning valuable life lessons in an episodic nature, filled with all sorts of educational material, even as it shows kids playing video games in an effort to keep it real.

Yet just looking at those elements in isolation misses the big picture – this isn’t a strip being written to formula, this is exactly the sort of story that the formula was written to replicate. Estrada doesn’t need to go by the book here, because he is already succeeding at what those formula shows try to do – try to produce a work that is both serious and silly, smart and spastic, all at the same time. The comic is whatever is needed to deliver, and the intelligence and ‘life lessons’ that shine through don’t detract from the jokes and humor – they only serve to reinforce it.

And that is a lesson many comics could stand to learn – the form of the strip, the genre, doesn’t define it or its audience. The fact that it is a cartoony comic about fifth-grade schoolgirls might lead you to expect a very specific audience for it – but the fact is, almost anyone can enjoy the entertainment and cleverness found in every strip of Aki Alliance.

Thus, it was quite a nice surprise to find the comic had returned, even as that return also brings the comic one step closer towards completion – the goal itself (to befriend every girl in her class) is one with a definitive end point. Still, enjoying the journey is half the fun, and the comic’s humor and inventiveness remain top-notch… even as it begins to set-up deeper blocks of story, with the ramifications of one storyline setting up challenges for future ones. What comes next for Aki might not be the toughest question in the world… but it is still one I’m eager to see play out.

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.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

You\'ll Have That RobotWhen I was browsing through my backlog of comics, one of the ones I had fallen behind on – and was expecting to shortly put aside – was You’ll Have That. For pretty much all the same reasons as I mentioned on Monday regarding Taking the Bi-Pass.

YHT is another slice-of-life strip without much in the way of an agenda – more polished artwork and presentation, to be sure, but how much more does it have to offer? Isn’t it just another collection of the same sort of casual jokes and storylines seen in so many other places?

So I was wondering – and then I actually bothered reading through the missing month or so of comics, and found myself hurtling through the archive to get caught up, eager – even desperate – to see how the current storyline was going to end, and what the fallout from it would be.

The storyline in question (SPOILERS!) involves Steve (best friend of Andy, the strip’s main character) discovering that his girlfriend once briefly starred in a “Girls Gone Wild” style video – at which point he breaks up with her. And… it’s a reasonable sort of thing to have happen, which isn’t to say his response is itself reasonable but that it is typical – it seems true to life, and exactly the sort of dumb situation that makes for the usual ridiculous drama.

This, really, is YHT’s strong point – it manages to wander along through the normal elements of life, and it does have its share of boring (which is to say ordinary) events wander in along the way… but it also brings in an appropriate amount of excitement, without ever making it seem forced or out of place. When relationships form or break apart, when new characters enter or vanish or suddenly start punching people in the face… it all feels natural.

Which is why it can be easy to think that nothing much happens in the comic, right up until things get shaken up. And YHT seems to be doing just that, while also not letting its current moment of drama overwhelm the entire focus of the strip. That kind of balancing act can be hard to pull off – but clearly it seems to be working, as I find myself eagerly awaiting each update, when not so long ago I was planning on ditching the strip entirely.

This week, we saw yet another moment of change as Steve decides to shave his head. I’m reminded of a similar recent storyline from Girls With Slingshots – but while that one spent what seemed like ages building up to the moment of eradication, YHT dove right on in. For the better, I think… the longer the build-up, the more likely that the culmination of the storyline won’t live up to expectations. GWS – which is otherwise about as excellent a strip as can be found – does seem to have its one weakness in overindulging in redundant jokes rather than actually cutting to the point.

You’ll Have That, on the other hand, simply does its thing and then moves right along. And given that’s usually how life actually works, that can be awfully compelling indeed.

A Home is found and a Name is sound.

Well, it has been a few weeks since my last post – let’s assume I give you the usual excuses about being sick with the flu (which I was) and how work has been especially busy (which it has). With that out of the way, how about I get right back into game – and how better to do so than deal with endings and beginnings, and the sadness of each?

When Home on the Strange mentioned, last November, that it was ending, I found myself saddened by the news. This shouldn’t be a surprise – it is the natural response to such an announcement – but more surprising might be that my reasons for sadness where entirely tangential to the comic itself. Oh, it was a good comic, and one that provided more than its share of amusement… but as much as I liked the cast and crew, I wasn’t really going to miss them. They had their run, and it was a good one. Nearly two years of solid, constant updates is certainly a triumph in its own right.

What I knew I would miss would be the commentary on the strip.

The loquacious fellow known as Ferrett is the writer of the strip – or primary writer, rather, as it is was clear that the entire process of producing each strip was a collaborative process with the artist, Roni. In any case, Ferrett had a specific set of ideas in mind when they went about creating a webcomic – indeed, the entire thing seemed to be approached in a very formulaic fashion. A pinch of regular updates, a dash of nerd culture references, an appropriate blend of cliffhangers and punchlines, and a whole kitchen filled with other tools and techniques designed to produce a perfectly balanced webcomic that will attract new readers, while keeping old readers coming back for more.

I’ve heard the occasional denouncement of this form of manufactured comic, but I never put much stock in it – if it produces a quality comic day after day, isn’t that the bottomline of success? If he simply draws upon what he knows readers want – such as reliable updates and an easily navigated website – why in the world should anyone complain?

But even aside from the convenience of it, I enjoyed the chance to really observe the inner workings of a comic. To see how it was put together, and why. To see analysis of what worked and what didn’t.

And Ferrett did not disappoint, with several posts discussing theories of comic writing, and a whole series of posts reviewing other webcomics – often with specific insights drawing on his experience producing Home on the Strange. And, of course, often detailed notes and comments posted alongside the comic itself with every update, laying out the author’s thought-process right there for the audience to see. Thus it was sad to know that with no more Home on the Strange, there would be no more discussions of random spikes in the strip’s readership, or the challenges of specific story arcs, or confessions of how surprising it was to discover the popularity of certain secondary characters.

Speaking of which – today, they have posted the comic’s final strip. The strip largely wrapped up several months back, but they promised one last conclusion if reader’s made a final donation drive. (Which they did.) The final strip was there to address the fate of a character who was never intended to be the star of the show, but somehow resonated with a surprising portion of the audience – Branch, the annoying chatterer with poor social graces who goes on and on and on about all those little minutiae that no one else actually cares about.

Yet despite being designed as a pest and a nuisance, Branch gained a following. Like Mike in Something Positive, it turned out that readers are all too willing to root for a bumbling social misfit to overcome their own weaknesses and become something… more. Perhaps because many of us recognize that character from our own social circles – the one that everyone finds somewhat creepy and discomforting, but also feels sorry for. And perhaps because we also recognize many of those same elements within ourselves – maybe only in bits and pieces, maybe to a much smaller degree, but still there nonetheless.

Whatever the reason, Branch’s first real storyline was when the comic really seemed to take off – and when the comic came to a close, the one burning element people needed for closure was an answer to “What happened to Branch?”

Especially given that, in her last appearance previously, we saw that for all the progress she had made, she still couldn’t connect to people in person – and it looked like, maybe, she never would. And the only mention after that wasn’t altogether promising, either.

So what was her final fate? Well, I suppose you can go and see for yourselves. And the answer… well, you can judge that on your own, I suppose. There’s a preview to the right, but all in all, I think the answer… is that it ended well.

I don’t think anyone can deny that the artwork for the final strip was absolutely gorgeous. And the final fate of Branch itself… seems fitting, and as happy an ending as could have been for the path she had walked down.

And now Home on the Strange has truly come to an end.

Ferrett is producing a new webcomic, co-written by himself and Catherynne M. Valente, and drawn by Avery A. Liell-Kok. My Name is Might Have Been,” the comic is called. It currently has five strips to its name. The artwork is stunning and the writing is superb.

I am reasonably sure it will be gone from my reading list within a week or two. Not due to any true fault of its own – but it just isn’t for me.

It is a comic about rock band, and guitar hero, and all the little details and understandings those games entail. And I’m confident those familiar with such things will find it sheer genius… but it just doesn’t resonate for me, unfortunately.

So that too is sad… but I’ll get over it.

After all, I read enough webcomics already as it is.

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.

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.

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?