Friday, August 29, 2008

Welcome back to This Week in Webcomics! Today I, Ari Collins, will be your guest host. I'm just gonna go through what particularly interesting things happened this week in the comics I read. Numbered-list-style, baby. Enough intro - there are comics to be weekified!

1. Order of Tales, for those who don't know, is a comic by the guy who did Rice Boy, a 439-page epic that nonetheless almost felt too short to me. Well, writer/artist Evan Dahm must feel my pain, because Order of Tales is set in the same strange (and I mean strange) fantasy world, but in an earlier time, and so far it seems more plot-oriented than the original.

This week, another five or so pages were added (it's updated like that, in spurts once a week or so), and the big surprise (that I won't spoil) is that a character from Rice Boy shows up! This old/new character and our main character, Koark, sit down to swap tales, and Koark is immediately told he won't be able to tell a tale the new/old character doesn't know. What tales will Koark try? Will he re-tell his tale from the first 40 pages or so, or is the mysterious Order of Tales to which Koark belongs more than just a name? Writer/artist Evan Dahm has made reference to next week's update being tedious to draw because of "calligraphy", and that sounds more than worth waiting another week for.

2. Not Included updated just in time for this post, and it's quite a doozy. The final, epic frame of this latest installment of Tyrus Peace's whimsical and beautiful comic is so goofy and awesome-looking and BIG that Tyrus offered it as a wallpaper, and I gleefully accepted. Content-wise, NI's newest update gives a big and unexpected and suspenseful twist to the Time Cop storyline. Check it out.

3. That old standby, Dinosaur Comics, had a goofy and entertaining two-part comic this week that starts here. The plot is like so: T-Rex writes a story called "The Woman Who Woke Up As A Man, which begins, "Once upon a time there was a woman who woke up as a man! That's her. Pretty tough, right? Frig!" In true T-Rex style, it sounds like it was written on the spot. Utahraptor (rightly) points out what's wrong with the story, and T-Rex's response is basically to ignore his advice. But wait, there's more! In the very next comic, Utahraptor rewrites the story, now entitled "Tina's Curse". The great thing is, while it has none of the problems of T-Rex's story, it's also smarmy and unoriginal, with lines like, "being a man was like being a woman, she figured, only with more prostate exams." T-Rex then complains and rewrites the story again, as ""TINA, THE DUDE WHO PUNCHED THE FUTURE". This one I will not spoil in the least for you, as it needs to be read to be believed. While the story is pretty terrible in its re-rewrite, it's also wildly entertaining.

As an aside, here's one thing I love about Dinosaur Comics. Not only do you get additional content in the alt-text (the text you see when you put your cursor over the comic's image), but if you subscribe to it in RSS, you get another sentence or three in the form of the RSS update title! More Ryan North is better Ryan North, I always say. Or did just now anyway.

4. I recently checked back in with The Boids, which I had enjoyed greatly in its early incarnations (when it was a small comic, like Jackson's been talking about). But when I went to the newest comic - whoa! Boid is fighting space aliens? Really?

For those who don't know, The Boids is a comic about a robot bird who escapes from the lab and helps some non-robot birds escape from trouble. Most of what I liked about the comic is the look of the robot birds, who have a lot of personality in their geometry (not aerodynamic, but whatchagonnado), and also the Autumn color palette, which stands out from the usual webcomic crowd. (Trust me, I don't usually talk about a webcomic's color palette, but this one stands out.) Well, the geometric robot birds are the same, but the artist is now doing bright colors for the alien "Glurr" who are attacking Earth. And that's the major difference now - instead of friendly idiot birds that Boid has to protect, he's now in a video-game like space battle.

Good changes? Bad changes? At first I said "Nay!" to this new look and storyline, but the more I read, the more I enjoyed it. The friendly-idiot-birds storyline was getting a bit stale, as you can only make jokes about how stupid a couple characters are so many times (something the "funny papers" never seem to learn). I applaud Steve and Larry for going out on a limb (no pun intended, Jackson). Even if I miss that Autumn color palette. Sniff.

5. This week saw another long-awaited two-page update of Goblins. Goblins started as a parody of Dungeons and Dragons, seen through the eyes of Goblins in a village raided by heroes. It pretty quickly turned into a heart-wrenching and ambitious tale of violence and loss and prejudice, and the art has improved dramatically since the early goofy black-and-white days.

So what happened this week? Well, the impending duel between Captain Goblinslayer and Thaco the Goblin (again, don't judge the story by that ridiculous D&D in-joke) seems about to commence, but first we're treated to a bit of humor at Goblinslayer's expense and a little violence involving Kin, Goblinslayer's magical prisoner. We've been waiting and waiting for Kin to do something, and... well, I won't spoil it for you, but it promises to be a fun update next time. Damn you, Mr. Only Updates Once a Week or Two!

6. Last but certainly not least (maybe even best), Legorobot finally finished its latest storyline today. This storyline, a hideous tale of a man taken underground and mutated by bizarre giant mosquito creatures, came as a complete surprise to me when it debuted, since Legorobot is usually a cross between xkcd and Bob the Angry Flower. In other words, usually it's silly violent humor crudely drawn, and with little worry about continuity or storyline. Then, alluva sudden, bam! You've got a serious and disturbing sci-fi tale with gruesomely detailed drawings. Came as quite a surprise. Anyway, this week's update, which took at least three weeks to come (I don't even remember at this point, and they're not date-stamped), was a great ending to the story, bringing it full circle with a surprising twist. One of the best things I read this month. I heartily recommend.

I hope that you've been entertained and perhaps even elucidated. Tune in next week when Jackson probably re-takes the reins. Maybe I'll do some reviews now and then. Seriously, how does he do this every week? It's exhausting.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Here at TWIW, the big news this week is small comics. On Wednesday, I posted a feature spotlighting some lesser-known comics that you may enjoy, so if you'd like to see some hidden talents, they're only a click away.

Today, though, I largely want to talk about Multiplex.

Multiplex focuses on the staff of its titular theater, so one might reasonably offer the critique that too much of its cast comprises the solipsistic-young-adult category. However, recent events at the Multiplex have seen a need for increased security, so the theater has hired a new security guard. His name is James Harris; he's well into his sixties, if not older. He's a retired police officer, and when he was younger, he worked at a theater too.

I find Mr. Harris to be a welcome presence at the theater for two reasons. First, he has wisdom, a trait rather lacking in many of the Multiplex employees. Plenty of them are sharp, but age brings perspective, and I really think that Mr. Harris will provide a grounding presence amidst all the workplace drama. As Jason is showing him around the theater complex, the two of them run across Lizzie Stoner and Whitey lighting up in the back lot. Harris handles the situation very prudently--he's understanding but firm, and he lets them know that while there will be second chances, there won't be a third. I also get the sense that he genuinely cares about the kids.

Secondly, Mr. Harris broadens the strip thematically. Turns out he didn't work at just any theater, either--he worked at the Regal Theater back in the 1950s. Before it was torn down in 1973, the Regal was a major cultural fixture of Chicago's Bronzeville, and in a flashback, cartoonist Gordon McAlpin showcases its ornate architecture through some sepia-toned, hand-drawn artwork. These history-of-theater elements do a lot for the background and substance of Multiplex, and it's all brought in very naturally through the "new" hire. This stuff is a part of who James Harris is and where he's been.

When it comes down to it, Multiplex is a comic about how movies are a part of our lives. A lot of that is strictly on the humor level, sure, and movies are a bigger part of some of our lives than others (coughJasoncough), but there's this other level to it. As humans, we crave stories. And when we go to catch a story on the big screen, we want a good story, one that innovates in the medium, one that doesn't just entertain but says something substantial and resonant to us. And in its own way, with a cast of characters that you really get to know as you keep tuning in, Multiplex embodies those same values that it's looking for in a good movie.

Wait. How did this soapbox get here, and what am I doing standing on it?

Anyway, it's just about time for me to go do productive stuff, but before I do, let's have a...

Quick Rundown of Stuff I Liked This Week

Good times, good times. See ya next week.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Feature: Small Comics

Welcome to a special feature on small comics. Today, we begin with a Venn Diagram.

The left circle represents excellence in cartooning: comics within this circle are well-written, visually appealing, and generally awesome. The left circle represents prominence: these are the comics that everyone and his grandmother has heard of. Thus, we have excellent and prominent comics, prominent but not excellent comics, and excellent but not prominent comics. It is comics in this latter category that we celebrate today.

With the advent of Ryan North's ad auction system Project Wonderful, it suddenly becomes possible to know, roughly, the daily readership of most webcomics you encounter, simply by checking the comic's PW stats. Project Wonderful is crazy popular with webcartoonists. All of the comics featured today have an average daily readership of less than a thousand, but they're still worth a look. Check 'em out.

The Robot is Sad
Updates: MWF
Style: b&w newspaper-strip
The Robot is Sad does not have as many robots as you would expect. Certainly there is a robot, and he feels emotions, but there are also other things. The strip doesn't have a continuity so much as it has themes: inept dinosaurs, friend archetypes, medieval warfare, and Kurt Vonnegut-flavored video games. It tends toward visual rather than verbal humor, a couple of times using the visual gag to break the fourth wall, but it also has a little observational humor to mix it up. Sometimes it is crass, but it's generally amusing. Check it out.

Unwinder's Tall Comics
Updates: Saturdays
Style: long-form, color, penciled linework
Unwinder's Tall Comics is about a kid named Unwinder who looks like one of those Roswell aliens and has bad ideas that he pursues relentlessly. He fabricates and propagages his own internet meme, writes his own commercials to sell to Taco Bell, reads ponderous science fiction novels, and thinks up about a million different ways to turn a rock concert into a practical joke. For example, imagine if the band takes the stage and tunes their instruments...only to turn out to be an acappella group, so that the musicians just stand around looking bored. As a person with a penchant for bad decisions and thoroughly unmarketable creative ideas, I can sympathize with the character of Unwinder.
The art style of Unwinder's Tall Comics is weird. The linework is done in pencil and is very sketchy, which contrasts with the bold and polished color scheme. What's really weird is that it sort of works. From time to time it delves into other art styles--Unwinder sometimes reviews fictional photocomics, and for the science-fiction-novel comic, comic creator Eli Parker collaborated with a friend to create the covers for the fictional sci-fi series Khron's Wager. There's a weird sort of seven-comic interlude where Parker diverts into the realm of Victorian-style steampunk, which truthfully I didn't find too interesting. Also, as you might imagine, tall comics are often meta.
Anyway: Unwinder's Tall Comics, worth checking out. Next up:

Calamities of Nature
Updates: Mondays & Thursdays
Style: full-page, color
Calamities of Nature is a testament to the power of consistency. It updates dependably, has a solid and polished art style, and can be counted on to deliver clever, amusing comics. The woodland-creature cast is a pretty standard-fare ensemble of personalities--Aaron the deadpan snarker, Alp the gadgeteer-genius weirdo, Ferd the overenthusiastic wacky guy, and Harold the Nice Guy Who Finishes Last--but they hold their own fairly well as a means to the humor. For example, when Aaron and Ferd create miniature copies of themselves and fail to dispose of them in a timely fashion, the mini-duplicates run amok in an amusing montage of miscreancy. Things escalate as the crew tracks down the mini-dupes. Another good series of comics is the Wal-Mart exposé, in which Ferd and Aaron take a close look at that iconic institution of American consumerism. A theme of Calamities is social commentary, which gives it just enough bite to keep you coming back.
The art is particularly solid. It's nothing complex, but it's always polished, employs a pleasing color palette, and uses a combination of hatching and cel-shading to add a little depth to the art. Backgrounds strike a good balance on the level of detail. If anything, Calamities shows that you don't have to be a Dresden Codak in order to have effective and high-quality artwork.
In short, Calamities of Nature is nothing too ambitious, but it's got clever jokes and good execution all around. Give it a look.

Boxer Hockey
Updates: Monday/Wednesday evenings
Style: full-page, color, early comics b&w
With a name like Boxer Hockey, you're probably expecting a sexy-antics comic in the vein of Anders Loves Maria or Least I Could Do. Bzzzt, wrong.
Boxer Hockey, as the prefatory strip explains, is a fictional sport, essentially a cross between soccer, hockey, and a brutal gang beating. Points are scored by delivering a live frog into the opposing team's goal; the three runners are allowed to carry one "stick" each, which can be any sort of blunt object, and the goalie is allowed gloves. There is a five-point penalty for killing the frog. There is no such penalty for violence against other players. Have fun.
The inspired, violent madness that ensues is dynamically illustrated, with huge manga-esque action scenes and bold colors. Seriously, this stuff is good. And BH is nothing if not gratuitous. There's plenty of manic action: leaping, charging, passing, crunching, bludgeoning, and parodies of "dramatic" visual cues like close-ups and hyper-dynamic camera angles. The time between matches is spent with slapstick nonsense, timing gags, and gross-out humor. Think BASEketball: the Anime, and you're getting the vibe here.
All of this craziness is propelled by the five personalities of Team Mekpen, hailing from Alabama, USA in the International Boxer Hockey League. The main character, Rittz Tibbits, is one of those guys who sees the world through a lens of crazy, as if his brain had faulty wiring or had simply received too many bludgeonings. He's also kind of naive. Then there's Skip, the team captain and straight man--because with Rittz around, you need a straight man just to keep the kid from killing himself. Add in the team's goalie "Gay Chuck," who isn't gay, but everyone calls him that because it gets under his skin, bulky stoical power-player Billy, and an irresponsible Tom Selleck look-alike for a coach, and you've got the team. Storylines involve major matches with such teams as Japan and Australia, travels between games, and the occasional airplane crash spurred by Rittz's hyperactive irresponsibility. Sometimes there are out-of-continuity tangents, like when Rittz kills Santa Claus, or when Santa Claus kills Rittz.
Boxer Hockey. Fun times. Check it out.

And now it's your turn. What obscure comics do you like? Have you stumbled across any hidden gems? Maybe you know of a webcomic by a talented friend or grandmother. Share your favorite small comics with us.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Welcome back for another week-in-review installment of TWIW.

This morning, as I got up and began making the webcomic-reading rounds, my visit to Sinfest was met with this ominous portent. Does this mean the end of Sinfest? I gotta say, I hope not. I suppose we'll all find out tomorrow, but in the meantime, if you've got any insights, please do share them. I'm perplexed here.

(UPDATE: It's Saturday now, and Sinfest continues as usual. I'm relieved, but I also feel kind of silly. Oh well.)

More big news: Dr. McNinja is now in...well, I won't give away the big surprise. Suffice it to say that the awesome adventures of the good doctor will henceforth be even more awesome. Just ask yourself what could possibly make the presentation of this comic even more awesome, and you may even guess what the big change is. Did I mention that it's awesome? It's awesome.

Also awesome is Penny Arcade's latest project. I greatly enjoyed the first two installments in the Fallout computer game series, a tactical RPG series taking place in a retro-styled post-apocalyptic future, so it's a nice treat when webcomics make reference to them. Obviously, then, I was delighted to learn that Penny Arcade is collaborating with Bethesda Software to bring us illustrated Fallout ridiculousness! They've taken the concept of Fallout's Vaults as sociological experiments, put a hilarious spin on it, and now they are delivering on their premise. In fact, they are delivering it every Wednesday. I can't believe I have to wait 'til Wednesday for the next one!

On a related note, Monday's Penny Arcade was one of the funniest I've read in a long time.

And as long as we're flashing back, this is not the most recent Rob and Elliot comic, but I found it exceptionally funny. It features a freshly-squeezed spin on the classic "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" gag, plus a subtle and implied parody of the Kool-Aid Man. Furthermore, it includes an appearance by the second-funniest land mammal. No, it's not a bear! Bears are the third-funniest land mammal. Get with the program.

For our final exhibit, the most recent Joe Loves Crappy Movies strip demonstrates the power of economy of language in a comic strip. Brevity truly is the soul of wit! And on that note, it's time to cut this entry short.

I bid you adieu, dear readers. Until next week!

Monday, August 11, 2008

UPDATE-STYLE ADDENDUM TO LAST FRIDAY'S POST: So, no sooner do I express awe at the sheer volume of weekly comic strips that Kris Straub produces, than he decides to create even more comic per week. Chainsawsuit, the indie comic that parodies indie comics, will now be updating five times a week instead of three. This means that Kris Straub draws, on average, 2.4 comic strips every weekday. Dang.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Here's the big news for this week: in addition to his current projects Starslip Crisis and Chainsawsuit, Kris Straub has launched a new strip, F Chords. That's three strips. Seriously, the dude is a cartooning juggernaut. F Chords is about Ash and Wade, two studio musicians who have traded in their dreams of rock-and-roll stardom for the more accessible aspiration of playing music for radio commercials. It updates on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and there are already a couple strips in the archives, so hop on over and check it out.

So while Straub is upping his cartooning output, R. Stevens of Diesel Sweeties is cutting back. He will no longer be running a print edition of Diesel Sweeties, focusing his attention on the main site instead. The last day of Sweeties will be this Sunday, August 10th. After that, I guess we will all have to get by on just one Diesel Sweeties comic each weekday.

Over at Dr. McNinja, Chris and Kent aren't doing any comics this week--but that doesn't mean that other people aren't! It's the second-ever Dr. McGueststravaganza! My spell-checker tells me that isn't a real word in like five different ways. But anyway, Dr. McNinja has had a bunch of guest comics going up all this week, by such illustrious cartoonists as Kate Beaton and the Nedroid guy. Pretty sweet stuff--and a new Dr. McNinja story begins on Monday. I'm pumped.

Here's some more news about comebacks: Nobody Scores! returns! After taking a month off to retool his comic and general become more embettered (which is like being embittered but for quality), Brandon Bolt brings us the first installment of an extended story about arch-capitalist Sara Peterson's latest purchase. In general, the new Nobody Scores! will have slightly longer "episodes" overall, delivered in installments of slightly shorter shorter individual comics. The details of the new presentation format can be found in this here newspost.

That's all the news about cartoonists this week. Now let's have a quick look at a couple of strips I liked.

Tuesday's Cat and Girl delived a "sites of historical and cultural interest" take on the classic Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine. I thought it was a clever little tribute.

Also, as Ebert and Roeper end their run as co-hosts of "At the Movies", Joe Dunn has got a new pair of critics lined up. Who are they? They are awesome.

And that's the news for this week! Tune in next week for your regularly-scheduled Friday webcomics lowdown, plus a special feature on small comics.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Review: Dresden Codak

So: it's Dresden Codak review time, as promised.

You probably already know about Dresden Codak. It's the subject of much buzz in the webcomic world, some of it positive hype, some of it scathing criticism. Nonetheless, for those few of you who haven't come across it before, Dresden Codak is essentially a weird free-wheeling exploration of philosophical esoterica. With huge, experimental, lavishly-illustrated comic canvasses, DC creator Aaron Diaz takes concepts from science and philosophy, and takes them on bizarre creative journeys like something out of your strangest dreams. It's very much a comic for nerds.

Dresden Codak has gone through several stages in its creative development. Early comics have an experimental style and no consistent cast, although there are a few recurring characters (such as the geriatric superhero Oldman-Man and Victorian intellectuals Rupert and Hubert). However, by comic #22 or so, a cast has begun to emerge: science geek Kimiko Ross, her "possibly nuclear-powered" (?) friends Dmitri and Alina Tokamak, and Tiny Carl Jung, who is exactly what his name suggests: a foot-tall version of one of modern psychology's founding fathers. The comic follows this cast fairly consistently (with a few diversions) on freewheeling, self-contained adventures that descend into weirdness and folly. Then, with the 32nd comic, DC changes format again: as of February '07, it's been following an ongoing storyline titled "Hob" about a robot from the future and transhumanism and stuff. The art settles into a consistent look (which is a wise stylistic choice when you're entering the realms of continuity), the tone gets a bit more serious, and there is, on the whole, more comic-book-style action. At present, the storyline has not yet concluded.

So, what's to like about DC? The most obvious thing is the artwork: Diaz clearly has chops. I could talk at length about how great his artwork is, but a picture is worth a thousand words, so go check out his gallery. The man has outrageously creative concepts and the skill to illustrate them beautifully. My only real complaint about the artwork is that he tends to use bold colors, which can look overly cartoonish. Also, while the gratuitous chest shots of its protagonist may draw in more readers, they really don't add much to the work. But those are minor complaints. His backdrops are particularly imaginative: towering edifices and floating things and funky Mayan-esque robot tanks.

DC's writing, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. I'll be honest: while I've enjoyed the Hob storyline, I really do think pre-Hob DC is some much stronger work. It's fueled by a solid premise--the exploration of an esoteric concept through cartooning--which gives Diaz an opportunity to play with science and mythology and get creative in his illustrations, and the length of each comic gives him ample opportunity to take each comic to some crazy conclusions. For example, Rupert and Hubert begin with a preposterous armchair-science discussion of how to exceed the speed of light, and end up, through a series of surreal turns, end up elaborating on Victorian table manners. Another of my favorites, "Dungeons and Discourse", cleverly combines philosophy and tabletop role-playing. The illustration is top-notch, particularly in the subtlety of the shading and texturing, and the application of philosophical concepts to a fantasy RPG gives ample opportunity for wit. For example, a horde of skeletal dire postmodernists who are immune to causality and attack with arrows of deconstruction.

In addition, the older DC comics are bound together by a more subtle theme: a motif of folly. Kimiko pursues a goal yet consistently finds her efforts not so much thwarted as made trivial. She finds employment in her subconscious, only to discover that working in your dreams violates federal labor laws. She faces down shadow-creatures to acquire a vial of absolute truth, which she drinks, only to find out it's supposed to be applied topically. Her ideas get stolen by a bear. Her failures, which often stem from her overly analytical nature, make her more accessible and human. But, like I said, this is subtle. It's in the background of the comic-fun-with-esoteric-ideas premise.

This approach, I think, better suits Diaz's strengths as a cartoonist, particularly as a writer. However, in the Hob storyline, he's...well, decided to tackle actually having a storyline. The results, in my opinion, have been rather uneven. There are some promising moments, such as an intriguing show-rather-than-tell beginning, and some funny lines, mostly coming from the time travelers' clueless grasp of past culture. Additionally, this action sequence captured what I liked best about old DC: getting creative with science through sharp illustration. The notion of science superheroics is both awesome and funny! However, the story has also been rife with misfires: several episodes of Wall-o'-Text Exposition Theater and a confusing narrative jump, for starters. Additionally, some comics feel like contrived, heavy-handed attempts at character development that exist solely to manipulate the reader into sympathy for Kimiko. "I come in peas?" Come on, Diaz. That kind of "endearing" malapropism is generally reserved for The Family Circus. Fact is that Kimiko, in her nerdiness, is not a very charismatic spokesperson for transhumanism, and when she actually succeeds at things, she runs the risk of becoming a Mary-Sue. This is a risk which Diaz has not entirely been able to mitigate.

But for all its flaws, Dresden Codak is a pretty good comic. However, no discussion of it would be complete without addressing the panel layout and update schedule. Some people complain that DC's panel layout is unorthodox to the point of incomprehensibility, but I've rarely had trouble following it. Maybe it’s just me. Additionally, DC updates quite irregularly, sometimes taking upwards of two months between new comics. It’s up to you if it’s worth the wait to stay tuned in. As for me, I’ll happily pass the time between updates with Dr. McNinja and Nobody Scores.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Today we're gonna try something different, webcomic enthusiasts.

Today it's your turn. I want you to tell me what webcomic strip you liked from this week. Think back over the past week, and remember a comic that was funny or awesome or had great artwork or writing or was otherwise memorably great. Drop a comment and tell us about it! I'll start things off with my share: Real Life this week has followed the nightmarish ordeal that Greg Dean endured to retrieve an important package while at the San Diego Comic-Con. It's been an ongoing saga worthy of Nobody Scores, the king of disaster comics.

The review of Dresden Codak that I promised is still in the pipes. I'll definitely have it for you by Sunday evening.