Friday, September 26, 2008

The news this week is that Rice Boy was great.

That's actually not news, of course. Rice Boy has been finished for awhile now--like not just stopped or ended, but it actually reached the finale of its overarching narrative. A webcomic with a natural beginning, middle, and end, imagine that! A genuine story. And the "old news" that Rice Boy was great is not even new news to me--I finished reading it some three weeks ago. So why am I mentioning it? Because it was great and engaging and creative and I want to talk about it with you.

But that'll have to wait. For now, I've got a week-in-review writeup to write, and it's coming rather late in the day here. Thoughts on Rice Boy, maybe later next week. Right now, the writeup.

Let's start with today. Today's installment of Dr. McNinja simultaneously cracked me up and made me go "Wow," which it actually does fairly frequently. Honestly, it's been awhile since Dr. McNinja did that for me--it was starting to get all "Oh, the grocery chain owner with the big purple monster alternate form got stuck halfway into his transformation, and oh look, now his quadriplegic dad has turned into a giant purple monster that is still paralyzed, that's kind of unusual I guess." But today's comic ended with a total non-sequitur twist punchline that leaves you wondering, "How the crud did he know that?"

When you're piling on the weirdness, sometimes the best way to make things weirder is to throw in something comparatively normal. Go figure.

Next up, we've got Real Life continuing its storyline from last week with Alternate Tony and the plot hole. Tony's gunfight with his female counterpart gets interrupted for exposition in Tuesday's comic, and then in Wednesday's comic, Dave strolls in to deliver another interruption. Initially I was bummed--way to drag all the momentum out of your gunfight, Cartoonist Greg! But the gunfight didn't resume in Thursday's or today's strips, and instead we got another monkey wrench thrown into the equation. Female Tony ain't the only one out for blood, it seems. As it turns out, the whole storyline was well-paced, and my feeling on Wednesday just came from differing expectations.

Just goes to show, sometimes it pays to stick with a storyline and see it out to the end before passing judgment. Heck, that's half the reason I keep reading Sluggy Freelance! The other half is the puns.

Now, let's turn our attention to Starslip Crisis. In the most recent storyline, Vanderbeam has received his first exhibit job as curator aboard the Sai Kan: a collection of mask pieces. Interestingly, the artist himself has specified a detailed layout for the exhibit, ostensibly making Vanderbeam's job easier...but the artist has requested that the centerpiece of the exhibit be hung up across from the curator's bed. The centerpiece turns out to be a soul-harrowing monstrosity! And in Monday's strip, we witness Vanderbeam's first night sleeping across from the thing (I use the word "sleeping" loosely). Once again, a good storyline that gets better as you get into it. You can start reading it here.

And let's round things off with a clever setup and punchline from today's Dinosaur Comics. That's all I got, fellas. Tell me what you think of the storylines in Real Life and Starslip, or maybe drop me a comment and tell me what you enjoyed this week.

Me, I'm gonna go watch Iron Man on DVD with some friends now. Adios!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Weekly Wednesday Whatshisface - Review of "Untrue Tales"

Per request, I am reviewing Untrue Tales by Sam Little. I'm just gonna dive right in, maybe cannonball even, and tell you what's good and bad about this comic. But if you want a quickie overview: fantastic realistic art comic with a cinematic approach to telling highly amusing, realist Clerks-style stories of everyday life. Check it out.

The Good:

The art is fantastic. Sam Little can really draw people's faces in a nearly photorealistic way, something you don't see very often in comics, whether online or in dead tree format. The comic gets a lot of meaning across in facial expressions that are intuitively and instantly recognizable, even when they're not expressing your typical happy/sad/angry emotions. Each panel is full of background detail without being "busy". The background detail is for realism, and you don't even necessarily pay attention to it.

The comic's panel layouts have a real-world-paper-comics feel to them, like you're flipping through pages. Sam Little uses a lot of comics techniques that I personally attribute to the classic self-published comic Cerebus: tiny panels between the regular-sized panels that zoom in on facial expressions and other details, lots of narration, characters talking directly to the "camera". A very cinematic approach to comics, an approach that is also well-suited to the content.

That content? It's a realist comic about the "adventures" of Gabe Stein, a character right out of a 90s single men movie, like Clerks or Swingers. Especially Clerks. And like Clerks, a lot of the appeal is catching youth in its honesty and stupidity and, above-all, wisecracking. Unlike Clerks, though, this is a story that's heavy on the realistic dialogue. One of the stories, for instance, "Camel Tongue", is a monologue by a girl who briefly dated Gabe. In an affably conversational manner, she tells about how cute and funny he is, but also how awkward; he's a poor kisser (thus the title "Camel Tongue"), he drinks all the time, and he's completely obsessed with her breasts. And she tells this story with a believable accent and slightly off grammar that really sells her as an ESL foreigner without laying it on too thick.

Okay, I've sidetracked away from content a bit into dialogue, but the dialogue in this comic is seriously great. It's very natural and real and flows well. I could read Untrue Tales' characters talk about But as to the content: funny (sometimes hilarious) tales of youthful attempts at a poor man's derring-do. Good stuff.

Oh, one last good thing: the comic is, as I said, very real-world-paper-comic. It feels like you're flipping through a comic that's been published online, as opposed to a webcomic. I know that's not that uncommon, but it's not what I usually read, so it was pretty refreshing.

The Bad:

The content is very funny and extremely human, but I do wish it was also more meaningful. Not that I don't enjoy a good funny story, but the art here is so fantastic and realistic that I wish the writing tackled tougher topics than the size of a man's package. Maybe that's just me, maybe you want nothing more content-wise than Sam Little is giving you. But with his feel for dialogue, I can't help but wonder what would happen if we got some stories with some drama in them, with some human misery and everyday triumphs. Something that showed us not just what youth is like in its lighter moments, but in all of its moments.

And like all stories that rely a lot on humor, especially sophomoric humor (as some of this certainly is), when it falls flat it really falls flat. Not every story here is a complete hit, and if you're making a joke and it doesn't work, it's not a little bit funny, or kind of funny, it's just a bad joke. Sometimes the story is a little Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back instead of Clerks. But, again, when it's on, it's on.

What's bad about the art? Well, it IS very derivative of Cerebus. The hyper-realistic character portraits, the realistic background art, and especially the panel layouts is straight from Cerebus. He does it well, and you could certainly call it an homage rather than a rip-off, but he doesn't stray from the artistic formula he's got. Granted, it's a really good formula that suits itself well to his content, so I really shouldn't complain, should I? And that's really all I could find negative about the art. Which is, overall, fantastic.

About the only other bad thing I could say about this comic is the flipside of it having that real-paper-comic feel to it. The web site is very well designed for flipping through a paper comic online, but is not very webby. The home page lists the stories (relatively stand-alone "issues" basically), but doesn't tell you which one was first, or provide an easy link to the beginning. You can't RSS the comic to find out when it's updating (which is once a week, another knock against it in the world of webcomics).

Final Thoughts And Overall Thinkingicityness:

Untrue Tales is a really impressive, professional comic with realistic art and dialogue. It's funny and has excellent (if not deep) characterization. Mostly I just wish there was more of it, as we only get a page a week. This comic really should get more attention then it does: if it did, maybe Sam Little could afford to devote more time to it. I recommend it, and my word is like gold in this town. So check it out.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Top Ten: Strong Bad Emails #1-199

It's not technically a webcomic, but Homestar Runner often gets mentioned in the same breath, likely owing to its style of humor, the DIY ethic of its creators, and its general presentation. It's also incredibly popular: hundreds of thousands tune in every week for the surreal adventures of a thick-headed, armless athlete...thing, and his equally strange peers. However, the real star of the show is would-be villain Strong Bad, with his more-or-less-weekly feature, Strong Bad Emails, in which he answers real emails from viewers just like you except with worse spelling and grammar.

The two-hundredth SBEmail, "email thunder," was released early this Tuesday, and to commemorate the momentous occasion, This Week in Webcomics will present a Strong Bad Emails retrospective. Two hundred episodes is a lot to sort through, and the casual Homestar Runner viewer will wonder, "Which emails are worth my time?" Thus, we (by which I mean "I") present the following top ten list: comprehensive, definitive, and entirely objective in its selection, and also with absolutely no sarcasm whatsoever. Zero! Seriously.

Before beginning, I would like to credit the Homestar Runner Wiki, a useful knowledge base for all Homestar fans and an invaluable resource in creating this list. And now, rife with spoilers, it's the Ten Best Episodes of Strong Bad Emails #1-200:

10. helium: SBEmail #38
I'll be honest--the main reason this one made the list at all is because I like Strong Bad's song about "the High-Voice Crew." Still, between Strong Mad's funny voice and an inflatable The Cheat, there's enough funny here to round it out.

9. virus: SBEmail #118
Classically, whenever Strong Bad gets a new computer, it's because horrible disaster befell his old one. In this email, Strong Bad finally gets a virus from a questionable email, resulting in bugs all across the Homestar Runner reality. After a surreal descent into madness, Bubs restores order by blasting the computer with a shotgun.

8. flashback: SBEmail #100
There's not really any coherent thread tying together the discrete bits of this email, but they're all so awesome, you won't care. From the wicked sweet email intro song, to the implementation of "widescreen," to the central flashback showing how Strong Bad met Homestar (in animated picture-book format!), there's plenty of humor here. Additionally, viewers patient enough to sit through Strong Bad saying the word "email" a hundred times will be treated to the mother lode of Easter Eggs.

7. personal favorites: SBEmail #69
No run-down of the best Strong Bad emails would be complete without the email in which Strong Bad gives his own run-down of the best Strong Bad emails. However, Strong Bad is notorious for pulling stuff out of his you-know-what, and the emails he lists are no exception. Every single one of Strong Bad's favorites, except for the first two, are actually too awesome to exist; they're just SB makin' stuff up. Add in one of the funniest Easter Eggs ever, and you've got a winner.

6. anything: SBEmail #78
A sure-fire way to keep the Strong Bad Email format fresh: have Homestar Runner host the cartoon. Have him significantly damage Strong Bad's computer in the process. Throw in a Neverending Story reference as an Easter Egg.

5. trevor the vampire: #10
This email is proof that you don't have to create a masterpiece of animation to make a solid cartoon. It's basically just Strong Bad sitting at his computer and responding to Trevor's message, but the writing is tight and the humor cracks me up even on repeat viewings. Also, it's worth noting that this is one of the weirder emails Strong Bad has received.

4. long pants: SBEmail #127
Strong Bad edits an email inquiring about Homestar's lack of pants. Homestar goes insane. Comedic gold.

3. highschool: SBEmail #140
One of my favorite "parody" emails, this one satirizes the conventions of Hanna-Barbera's countless "Scooby-Doo clone" cartoons. It loses a little momentum toward the end, but the way it riffs on "teen mystery" and "all the characters as babies" cartoons is spot-on.

2. dragon: SBEmail #58
It still amazes me that two of the indisputably best Strong Bad emails, "Dragon" and "Japanese Cartoon," came out back-to-back. Each of them spawned countless new material, from the world of 20X6 to Trogdor's theme song and graphic adventure game, and each is a solid cartoon in its own right. I chose to include "Dragon" rather than "Japanese Cartoon" on the list because Trogdor is slightly more iconic than Stinkoman, and also because of Strong Mad carving the word "DAGRON" into a table, but honestly, you can't go wrong with either cartoon.

1. death metal: SBEmail #141
As the Homestar Runner universe's resident Bad Guy, Strong Bad is heavily into metal music. This email tackles it head-on, poking not-so-subtle fun at the stereotypes and conventions of the genre. High points include a Teen Girl Squad cameo, Strong Mad's flat head and invisible mystical orbs of power, a creeping rusty meat video on the Half Hour Death Metal Dungeon Hour, and a scene in which Larry Palaroncini from Limozeen illustrates the difference between hair metal and death metal. It's hard to pick a definitive SBEmail, but if I had to pick, I would choose this one. And I would be right.

Determining the top ten Strong Bad emails was by no means an easy task. We (I) employed a rigorous and scientific process to eliminate all but the best and place them in sequential order; as a result, numerous otherwise good emails had to be excluded by virtue of being merely good. If a SBEmail that you have enjoyed didn't make the list, feel free to mention it in the comments, perhaps even providing a link so that others may enjoy it. You may even dispute this list, if you enjoy being wrong! I am never ever facetious and always completely serious. No, really.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Welcome back, folks. For those who haven't been back since last Friday, we slipped in a couple special feature things while you weren't looking: an interview with Multiplex creator Gordon McAlpin, and a review of the unique "wordless" webcomic Pear Pear. Check it out! If you haven't already, I mean. Or you could check it out again, that's cool too.

But that's old news, and it's time for new news. First of all, Real Life continues the storyline it began last week, with alternate-genderswapped-universe Greg and Tony trying to find the source of the Plot Hole in their dimension. While riding the elevator up to Real Tony's space station, a surprise comes to light: Liz's male dimensional counterpart has been dead for over a year. Sort of a sobering moment, but at the same time, the revelation sets up two extremely funny jokes. And then today's comic delivers a plot twist that has got me, for one, awaiting the next installment with bated breath. It's a weekend cliffhanger, no less! Man.

Also this past week, Sinfest wrapped up a series of strips in which Squigley signs up to be Slick's running "Sarah Piglin." Political parody ensues, building to a head with the appearance of Senator Obama as a guitar-slinging Barackstar. Pretty funny series if you're not a diehard blood-red Republican, but even I, broadminded as I am, found Squigley's political cross-dressing kind of weird and disturbing.

Shortpacked! (LOOK OUT, SPOILERS AHEAD) has been building toward the appearance of a special guest at the toy store all week, and in today's comic, it is revealed to be David Willis himself, proposing to his longtime girlfriend Maggie Weidner. Aww! And Maggie bounces right back with her own cartoonified acceptance. Congratulations, guys! Okay! END SPOILERS!

Welcome back, spoiler-avoiding people. Let's have a few quick Update Boxers and News Briefs, and then call it an entry.

Update Boxers and News Briefs:

Man, I love Cat and Girl so much you guys. Have a good weekend, and I'll see you all next week.

EDIT: Somehow it slipped my mind to mention that last Wednesday was a Ryan Estrada Guest Comic Day! Ryan Estrada did guest strips for 70 different webcomics, and if you like webcomics a lot (which you do), chances are you ran into at least one of them. You can get the complete lowdown over at Ryan's personal site,

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ari's Weekly Wednesday Webcomic Whatchamabob: Pear-Pear

Pear-Pear is a webcomic that you should all "read". I put that in quotes because there are no words in the comic. Yet, it still has dialogue. How does it manage this? By having pictures within word bubbles. So when a character speaks, you're seeing a pictorial representation of what they're saying. Intrigued? Read on!

Click here for a simple example of the picture-dialogue Pear-Pear uses. But don't forget to come back afterwards. Are you back? Good. You can see that the main characters, Pear-Pear and Mug-Mug (or so I've named him, though he likely has an official name somewhere), are staring angrily at a carton of milk, who is spoiling. (There are flies buzzing above him.) There's a speech bubble above Pear-Pear and Mug-Mug, with a picture of a fridge in it. Clearly, they are saying, "Get back in the fridge!" Isn't that neat-o? Dialogue without words! What will they think of next!

(Note: I know for a fact that Pear-Pear isn't the first comic to do this. I saw a comic use the exact same picture-dialogue thing, and with equal complexity. It was the comic Cerebus, and I think it was an early one, from I'm guessing the 80s. And maybe others have done so as well. But unirregardless, it's pretty cool. Even if Pear-Pear's not the first, right now it's as far as I know the only.)

Lemme show you a more complicated one. Don't forget to come back here after clicking here for the example comic. This one has a familiar scenario. You know when your mom says, "Where have you been? I've been looking all over for you! I thought you might have been kidnapped!"? Well, that's what Pear-Pear says to Mug-Mug here. Mug-Mug explains that he was in the sink the whole time. But! The neat thing here that gets me all nerd-excited is that:

A) There's more than one "sentence" in Pear-Pear's dialogue, which is why there's more than one picture, displayed left-to-right in the manner of comic paneling. First Pear-Pear says, "I was looking for you!" Then he says something akin to, "I kept walking around saying, 'Where are you, Mug Mug?'" Finally, he says, "I thought you had been carried away by a bald eagle!" (Granted, this is where it differs a little from what your mom might say in a similar circumstance.) Pear-Pear here is describing a series of actions, all in pictures.

B) What's MORE, Pear-Pear tells Mug-Mug about what he said and thought earlier. This requires a further level of speech bubble. While text speech might have just said, "I was walking around yelling 'Mug-Mug!'", in picture-speech Pear-Pear "says" a picture of himself "saying" "Mug-Mug!" Basically, you have speech about speech, so there's a picture-speech about a picture-speech. Neat, huh?

This particular strip is actually one of my favorites, because it has these complex speech-bubbles, but the dialogue is about such an intuitive scenario that it makes the speech-bubbles very easy to figure out. (Such that you probably didn't need me explaining it. But I did anyway!)

But Pear-Pear isn't all about nerdy comic theory. It's a story about a surprisingly believable friendship between a pear and a coffee mug. There are ups and downs they go through, and there are both one-off "episodes" and longer story arcs, and sometimes they fight and sometimes they band together to argue with other kitchen-table items. There are longer storylines, and one storyline goes on in the background in a really clever way (I won't spoil it). It's a comic that would be worth it even without the speech-picture-thingies.

And yeah, I don't even get all the speech-pictures. I think Pear-Pear is somewhere between a regular comic and, say, a really labyrinthine James Joyce novel. You might need the help of a couple of friends to figure out a few of the more challenging strips (some of my friends "got" some strips I didn't and vicie versey), but there's a great feeling when that light goes off. I guess some people might prefer that light go off right away when they read a comic, and hey, I got no problem with that. But if you want an out-of-the-ordinary comic to read, check this one out for a bit.

I should warn you though: he hasn't drawn one since a month ago today. Bastard.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Interview: Gordon McAlpin from Multiplex

Multiplex is a digitally-illustrated webcomic about the employees of the Multiplex 10 Cinemas. It updates at least twice a week--often more--and much like its ensemble cast, it brings a little of everything to the table, with equal doses of movie commentary, workplace humor, and teen drama. And truthfully, what really sells me on Multiplex is the characters. You can stop in every so often and get your movie humor fix, but if you keep visiting this theater for long enough, you'll really get to know the employees. There's Jason, the perennially-grumpy movie snob; Kurt, the sharp-witted prankster with just enough responsibility to keep things together; bookworm Becky, who is a loyal friend once you get past her shyness; and a host of others. Seriously, I could go on--but the purpose of this entry isn't to reduplicate the cast page.

Multiplex creator Gordon McAlpin agreed to have an email interview with me, so I shot him a few questions and he fired some answers right back. Gordon's a fun guy, and he's also very professional about his comic, so I was eager to hear his thoughts on Multiplex, the webcomic universe, and everything.

JF: First, as much for my own curiosity as anything: it’s no secret that you originally envisioned Multiplex in animated-short format. Any chance we’ll be seeing Multiplex-related animation in the future, not-too-distant or otherwise?

GM: I hope so. But since no animation studios are coming up to me with offers, I’ll have to do it myself (or mostly myself), and I barely have the time to keep up with the updates, let alone teach myself Flash. Long-time readers know I’m about six months behind on the ebooks (and counting), which affects the print collection, too, and that should really be my priority.

JF: Your other major comic undertaking, Stripped Books, was hand-drawn—and recently we’ve seen hand-drawn Multiplex bonus sketches and even some hand-drawn strips. What motivated your initial decision to draw Multiplex digitally rather than by hand? Do you have a preference for either approach?

GM: I did Multiplex digitally because I wanted to build up a library of vector shapes for an animated version of Multiplex. I can basically take what I’ve drawn for the strip and paste it into Flash now, and I just need to animate it and add sound and all that — which is still a lot more complicated than it might sound.

I liked the idea that Multiplex, being about movies, is more visually evocative of animation than comics; I lay things out more or less like frames of a movie and do the panel breakdowns pretty rigidly, to emphasize this, too.

But I also just really like well-done 2D vector illustration and had fun doing it for the second Stripped Book (on Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith). I don’t understand why everybody in comics is so locked into the traditional pencils-and-ink cartooning technique. Comics are stories told in pictures, not just drawings: you can make comics with photos, CG imagery à la Dreamland Chronicles, whatever…

So, no, I don’t have a preference for either. I just like to change up my drawing style a lot, and I’d settled on a vector style for Multiplex, and… well, it got popular, so that’s the style I’m best known for.

JF: What are some of your favorite parts of the comic? Do you have any favorite story arcs, favorite characters to write/draw, a favorite facet of what Multiplex lets you do as a cartoonist?

GM: Well, I’m really excited about the addition of James Harris, not just because I get to finally do some hand-drawn bits in the strip (which I’d actually intended to do for a long, long time), and because it adds a new dimension to the strip: movie theater history.

Multiplex is a comic strip about movies, but it’s not just about the new releases of the week. It’s really a lot deeper than that, despite all the bathroom humor. Or at least, I’m trying to make it deeper than that, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. It’s about criticism and whether or not anybody really does have a more valid opinion about movies than someone else. It’s about movie theater industry, which a lot of people say is dying, but I call “bullshit” on that.

The addition of James is — in the long term — going to raise a lot of parallels between now and what was going on in the 1950s, when the film industry (and the movie theaters that played them) were taking a massive beating from, primarily, television.

Basically, Multiplex lets me talk about my love of movies in a way that is, I hope, very entertaining to the readers. That’s my favorite part of the strip.

My favorite character would be Jason, though. It’s no shock to my readers (especially ones who know what I look like) that he’s an exaggerated version of myself. He often knocks movies I enjoy, so he’s really not just spewing my own opinions, despite what some readers assume. But I like his asshole side, and his dry sarcasm, which kind of runs through the strip as a whole, I suppose.

JF: Some of my favorite parts of the strip come from the relationships between characters—Kurt and Jason’s repartee, obviously, but also Melissa’s tough-love friendship with Jason, or how Neil relates to his workers. Do you have a character dynamic you particularly enjoy writing or drawing?

GM: Kurt and Jason are my favorite, but I enjoy it any time Jason gets a dressing-down, either from Neil, Melissa, Angie… whoever. I mean, a lot of the time, he is a little asshole. But that’s the point, and that’s why we love him. He’ll grow up, eventually. A little bit.

JF: Kurt and Jason…ha, I really should’ve guessed that one.

Anyway. In a recent interview, you remarked that you’ve got Multiplex on your mind almost constantly. What do you do when you need some space from your creation? What other activities do you find help your creative process?

GM: I like to drink heavily when I need some down-time. Or, honestly, watch movies that have absolutely nothing to do with the strip, or with the Triple Feature.

But that’s the thing about Multiplex: because it’s really about a love of movies, I don’t often feel like I need a total break from it — and, in fact, when I’m back in my parents’ hometown, away from any computer that I can work on Multiplex with, I’m often pretty anxious to get back to the strip.

One of my other hobbies is photography. I’m not terribly good at it, but I enjoy wandering around and taking pictures of old buildings. That interest is where my interest in old movie theaters came from, actually.

And, of course, I read comics. I love comics every bit as much as I love movies. I really just love visual storytelling.

JF: Unlike many webcomics, Multiplex has a racially diverse cast—but when it comes to race, it’s anything but politically correct. Was it a conscious decision on your part to expand your cast beyond the typical “white and nerdy” ensemble?

GM: Absolutely, and not just about race.

I’m keenly aware that there are people out there who are absolutely incapable of reading any characters that aren’t white, straight, and male as anything other than statements, which is why so many cartoonists are reluctant to break out from that.

An early strip set up that Becky doesn’t like action movies, so that must mean that I was saying all women hate action movies. I read a review of Multiplex that leaped to exactly that moronic conclusion. Guess what? There are women out there who don’t like action movies. They exist by the thousands.

But that’s really what most white, straight, male cartoonists are afraid of: “If I have a black/gay/woman character and they do ANYTHING, people are going to assume I’m trying to Say Something and somebody’s going to get offended.” Oh no!

It’s just cowardice, and it just perpetuates the lily-white state of comics. I don’t think having token minority characters or cool-chick characters (hot girls who are just one of the geeks!) cuts it, either.

JF: Your characters often have a surprise twist to their “first glance” identities—the resident goth turns out to be a serious Christian, the “dumb guy” has been playing dumb to con the theater, the skeezy pervert discovers that he’s gay. Given your fondness for pitching change-ups like that, is it ever tough to keep it from getting gimmicky?

GM: Angie being a Christian was not a twist! I put a cross on her in her very first appearance specifically because I wanted her to be a Christian, even though I never had any plans to use her beyond that first appearance (in #40). And making it an important part of her life was to counter the fact that the only other vocal Christian in the cast was Sunny – the dumb blonde girl.

I say "vocal," because America is something like 60 or 70% Christian, so to me it just stands to reason that about that many people on the staff are Christian as well. Just because none of the other characters in the strip have talked about it doesn't mean they aren't religious.

Anyway — back to the point — as for the other two examples you mentioned, those were really jokes not twists — albeit complicated jokes that were set up and played out over the course of several months. As long as I think they're funny, I don't worry about things like that seeming like a gimmick.

Generally speaking, the characters are not fundamentally different before and after their big reveal: Chase was and is the guy who tries too hard. Brian is still stupid, but differently stupid.

JF: Yeah, I guess by “twist” I just meant “surprise.” Not very precise of me! Still, I was plenty surprised by Angie’s disclosure. You really couldn’t expect people to infer that her cross is more than your standard Goth accoutrement. ;)

GM: You’re right — but I don’t see why people should assume that it’s only your standard Goth accoutrement, either.

JF: Fair enough. Your comic also stands out because in a world of talking dinosaurs, improbable antics, and magic robots, it’s essentially 100% realistic—the sort of thing that might actually happen to you if you worked at a movie theater. What role do you think the impossible has in fiction?

GM: I do think that there is some absurdity in Multiplex; it’s maybe more 90% realistic than 100% realistic. But the reason for the amount of realism in the strip is that I’m talking about real movies and a real industry. Any serious commentary on that stuff is meaningless if I have a talking robot in the strip.

But I love random, impossible, absurd things. I’m just… well, honestly, my writing interests have always leaned towards the real. When stories have almost nothing to connect itself to reality, they’ve got to be beautifully rendered, or I tune out really quickly.

As for the impossible, I think it’s obviously used as escapism a lot, but in the right hands, the impossible can be used as sort of a fun-house mirror to look back at ourselves. It may be showing us a distorted image, but it’s still real; it’s still truth. There has to be some element of reality in a story or it cannot have any real meaning.

Not that stories need to “mean” something; action movies often have absolutely no purpose other than to entertain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, you know, too much junk food rots your teeth. Too much junk storytelling rots your brain.

JF: Amen to that. Why don’t you leave us with a recommendation? A webcomic that’s both fantastic and says something substantial. Or, barring that, I’m sure we’d appreciate anything that’s just good storytelling… ::grin::

GM: Well, it’s not running anymore, but I think Minus managed to turn out a few soul-wrenching strips in-between its tales of an omnipotent little girl. The three-parter beginning here — — has really stuck with me.

I can’t just recommend one webcomic, though! I love Octopus Pie. That seems to be everybody and their mother’s favorite recent webcomic. I also love Diesel Sweeties, Girls With Slingshots, VoidsTheater Hopper and Joe Loves Crappy Movies, of course. I miss Perry Bible Fellowship and Beaver & Steve (which is on hiatus). Ummm… I dunno.

Outside of webcomics, I’ve recently gotten into The Wire, and although I’ve only seen the first season so far, it’s absolutely brilliant. Some of the tightest, best writing I’ve ever seen. Mad Men is also pretty amazing.

JF: Good comics, all of those. Though I certainly don’t keep up with Octopus Pie like I should. Thanks for the interview, Gordon!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pseudo-Special Feature: Comics for a Change

Lately I've been running across comics online that, for lack of a better way to put it, aren't just comics. These are comics in the service of something else, some message or information to communicate, or in support of a story told in some other media. Comics are showing up in places you might not expect comics to be, about things you might not expect comics to be about. So, today's post begins with Comics for a Change.

First of all, in his newsblog over at Calamities of Nature, Tony Piro pointed us over to a comic explaining Google's new browser, "Google Chrome"--drawn by Scott McCloud himself. It's cool to see comics used to convey information, something a bit more "practical" than your usual gag strip. The comic can get a bit dull and technical in parts, but still, that's to be expected when its main purpose is to educate rather than entertain. Basically, if you want to learn about the ideas behind Google Chrome, reading a comic about it is not a bad way to go about it.

Next up, socially-conscious alternative hip-hop group The Flobots have got their own comic: "Rise of the Flobots." But the comic isn't about the Flobots. It's about people like you. It's about people who are bettering their communities and improving the world around them. So far there's one story about an ordinary suburban guy fighting for freedom of expression through roadside signs, and another in progress about a soldier stationed in Iraq. It's pretty cool. Start reading here.

Finally, Joss Whedon's low-budget superhero-deconstruction internet musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog, has its own short comic. Brought to you by Dark Horse Comics, it takes the form of a public service announcement from the super-self-absorbed Captain Hammer, urging you to do your part in the fight against crime and be like Captain Hammer. The humor is cynical yet playful, just as you'd expect from a Dr. Horrible comic. Check it out here--it's in the back-issues bar just below the comic viewer, so you may have to look for it a little.

It's cool to see the medium of comics put to unique use: information, social change, and indie superhero parody. If you've come across a comic using the medium in a new way for creative purposes, drop a comment and share it with us! But now, it's time for your usual webcomics rundown.

The Princess Planet, part of the Transmission-X webcomics collective, brought us this gem this past Sunday. A recurring setup is that Princess Christi, its protagonist, poses as a "treasure inspector" to confiscate "defective" treasure. The most recent comic piles one twist on top of another and escalates the treasure-confiscating scam to new heights of ridiculousness. If you haven't checked out The Princess Planet, I highly recommend it: it's colorful, imaginative, adventurous, and above all else extremely silly.

Real Life started up a new storyline this week that I'm pretty excited about. To be honest, when Real Life actually concerns itself with Greg's real life, I don't find it terribly interesting. I started reading because of the metacomic gags and the sci-fi humor; the mundane down-to-earth stuff, I can get that in my everyday life! So in Monday's comic, when an ordinary scene of Greg and Liz watching TV is interrupted by a wormhole spitting out female-Greg and female-Tony from an alternate universe where everyone's gender is reversed, my heart leaped for joy. Except that "my heart leaped for joy" sounds kind of fruity. Still, it looks like things are going somewhere cool, so I'm definitely pumped.

Joe Dunn is probably best known for his movie-review strip, but this week saw a funny installment of Matriculated, Joe's younger stepcomic about college life. In between extended storylines, Matriculated often does a couple of one-off gags, with this past Wednesday's being about the popped-collar fad. Sure, it's familiar territory, but Phil Chan's writing for the comic is clever and injects a little freshness into the topic. It was good for a chuckle.

Our last item for this week: over at Dresden Codak, the Hob storyline has concluded, with humanity evolving ambiguously into...I'm not even sure what they evolved into. Everybody disintegrated, including the Hob. I'm hoping that wherever Aaron Diaz decides to go from here, it's someplace less convoluted.

And that wraps that up. Check ya next week, webcomic enthusiasts.

Friday, September 5, 2008

As promised, I'm beginning this week's entry by rewinding to last week. In a flahsback that shows us a formative moment from Aggie's childhood, Penny and Aggie broaches the question of theodicy--how a just God can allow suffering. As I noted on Monday, serious religious questions are not exactly a common topic for webcomics. That's one thing I like about P&A, though: it doesn't ignore religion or act like it's a non-issue. Among its cast are people whose faith is a big part of their life; some of these characters are better examples of faith than others, and even Katy-Ann, the strip's "good face" of Christianity, grapples with doing the right thing and sometimes makes mistakes. P&A generally gives a balanced treatment, which is one reason I enjoy reading it.

So, it should be no surprise to us that when Aggie's mom offers an answer to the theodicy question, she posits it tentatively. "I won't say I know the answer," she says, "but...I'll tell you what I think." This strikes me as a brave way to approach it, especially with a child looking up to you who will likely take to heart whatever you say. I'm no agnostic, I don't believe for a second that religious questions are fundamentally unanswerable, but real solid answers are notoriously hard to come by. What little I know about God, man, and the universe is vastly outweighed by what I don't. So, kudos to Aggie's mom for her honesty.

Her answer itself is an interesting one, and the notion of a "learning God" has some appeal, but I was a little disappointed. As common a notion as the "Old Testament God of wrath vs. New Testament God of love" idea is, it's a false dichotomy. Don't get me wrong: it's not as if God in the OT doesn't open up a can of wrath on more than one occasion, and it's not as if the central event of the NT isn't the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to save all mankind. But it's not the case that we have two Gods going on here, or that God "mellowed out" between testaments. God shows more than his share of mercy and love in the OT (for instance, love motivates God to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt, and in the book of Jonah, he gives a second chance to both the people of Ninevah and his own reluctant prophet); furthermore, God in the NT is no marshmallow, and even Jesus, known for his compassion, ransacks the merchants' booths at the temple out of rage at their religious hypocrisy. Which returns us to the theodicy question: why does God bother with the wrath at all? How can God's love and God's wrath coexist?

That's a question to which there are no easy answers, and Aggie's mom knows it. In any event, Aggie takes home the lesson: we may not have all the answers, we may still be learning, but we need to make a concentrated effort to overcome hatred through love. And though I may not agree with every fine point of Mrs. d'Amour's theology, I'm good for the bigger lesson here. We need to keep asking big questions, and we need to strive to do well with what we've learned.

I dunno what P&A writer T Campbell's religious convictions are, but he's writing a comic that deals seriously with religion and stays true to its characters, and I give a thumbs-up to that. Good comics get people talking about important things, and as long as we talk respectfully, without any of that acerbic vitriol that's all too common to the internet, that can only be a good thing. In any event, today's P&A comic reveals that Duane, the civic-minded word nerd with a thing for Penny, has been grappling internally and trying to figure out his own faith, Islam. I expect future story arcs in P&A will continue to give us plenty to talk about when it comes to religious matters.

So, we have Serious Business in ample measure, but those of you who came for a rundown of the funny are probably starving. Not to worry, folks: these being webcomics that we talk about here, there's also plenty of humor-news to share.

First off, Calamities of Nature has undergone a format change: Tony Piro has remodeled the site (not terribly different, but a nice and slightly more inviting design), and he's swapped out doing full-page comics for horizontally-oriented newspaper-style strips. This week he's delivered a comic every weekday, and subsequently it will update three times a week, in color. And dang if today's comic doesn't bring up Catholicism! There is no escape, my friends.

Well, maybe there is at Shortpacked. This marks the second week that Shortpacked has gone from being an at-least-MWF comic to being a full-time five-days-a-week comic. Frankly, even if cartoonistry is David Willis' full-time job, I'm impressed! It's no small feat to bring out five page-long color comics a week, and for some strips Willis even gives the artwork a little extra. Check out Robin's new house in the first panel here. A suitably awe-inspiring shot! Man that's a sweet house.

Finally, the current theme at The Book of Biff is "Magic Week." The resulting comics have been hilariously weird. Thus, I leave you with an exhortation to go check out Biff's antics! They're good stuff.

This is Jackson P. Ferrell, signing off.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Happy Labor Day, one and all. I would like to extend a special thanks to Ari Collins, who provided a guest update last week and gave us a refreshing selection of comics that are neither Nobody Scores nor Cat and Girl. I, Jackson Ferrell, am beginning this week with a special bonus update because I cannot shut up about webcomics.

Kris Straub's F Chords has been going for a couple of weeks now, but until last week, I remained unconvinced that it was anything more than a good second-string comic. Then along came this strip: the strip that sold it for me. Our musician friends come up with a sweet hook, but can't think of lyrics to go with it to save their lives. "I know you like how I do the thing" is not even the most hilariously pathetic of their attempts. Then, as the week progresses, we see Wade accidentally play the hook while recording music for a radio commercial. Aw snap!

Suffice it to say, with a hilarious intro strip that segues into a cool storyline, I'm--pardon the pun--hooked. (Audience groans.) But you should go read F Chords, because the Straub is a much funnier man than I. Just listen to Ash describing his work: "This is my magnum opus. My .357 magnum opus. This song will put a hole in a man the size of a grapefruit."

Last week, Penny and Aggie dared to ask questions on the topic that few webcomics dare to touch: God and religion. Kudos to the creators of P&A for daring to broach the big questions. I will probably return to that business for this Friday's update, but for now, let us note that Penny Arcade has also been tackling the tough theological questions: namely, what God smells like.