Friday, January 30, 2009

1/30: Week in Review

Welcome back! It really is good to see you back here. It's been a fun week so far at TWIW, and it's also been a fun week out there in the internet. Let's have a look at some comics--and, as part of my ongoing endeavor to talk about comics with you rather than talk about comics to you, let's have a look at them together.

First of all, Shortpacked. This week, Ethan laments that Batman has died in comics yet again, while trying to keep his best face forward running the store. In today's strip, Shortpacked creator brings the heavy stuff, and with the Batman parallels here, Ethan's character, and the recent events in which Ethan and the staff helped save the store from a hostile takeover, the crazy thing is I think it works. Shortpacked readers--what do you think? Legitimate drama, or self-indulgent Willis-babble?

Next--and this is a quick one--those familiar with The Book of Biff know that it typically has "themed weeks," with a common thematic element running through each comic. For the life of me, I cannot figure out this week's theme. Here's Biff from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Can anyone discern what the theme is?

And with a couple of questions on the table, let's also address that central question that this blog endeavors to answer: What were darn good comics this week?
  • Penny Arcade wrapped up its epileptic fit of continuity, "Further Songs of Sorcelation," in which Gabe forces Tycho to watch a DVD based off a hideously-written fantasy novel series. A hilarious, well-drawn extended parody of crappy geek franchises: in my opinion, it's PA at the top of their game. "Further Songs of Sorcelation" begins here.

  • In Wednesday's comic, Hijinks Ensue levels the funny cannon at Microsoft's new product, Songsmith. The strip's clever dialogue satirizes a product that nobody needs, and while the art isn't daring or anything, it's expressive and it gets the job done. This is what I love best about Hijinks: the witty, acerbic geek-culture commentary.

  • In two of its installments this week, Nobody Scores delivers sardonic laughs on the topic of popular art vs. fine art. The latter comic in particular features a lavish illustration that drives home the joke.

Leastways, those were the comics I found to be outstanding this week. What rocked your socks off? Drop a comment and share the excellence.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Discoveries from the Internet: Sheldon Audio Tour, and More Dresden Codak

Did you know that Sheldon has an audio tour? You may already know--I discovered it just yesterday while browsing the net. If you click the above link (also accessible from Sheldon's "NEW HERE?" page), it will give you a guided audio tour of the Sheldon site. It makes a great introduction if you've never read Sheldon before, and even if you're already familiar with the comic, Dave Kellett gives a really funny audio tour. If you've got ten minutes to spare, I recommend it.

Does anyone else know of a webcomic with an audio tour? This thing is the first of its kind I've seen.

Anyway, another quick item of news is that Dresden Codak has finished the second half of the Advanced Dungeons and Discourse comic. The art continues to be spectacular (no surprise there), and one thing I particularly liked about the second half is that Kimiko doesn't take center stage. In the first D&Dis, she severely upstaged her companions, the beginning of a Mary-Sue complex that lasted largely throughout the Hob storyline. In the newest comic, however, everyone gets a chance to shine, and I think it works really well.

Bengo, over at The Floating Lightbulb, is particularly critical of webcomics that substitute pop culture references for genuine humor, and I've wondered more than once whether Dresden Codak's "Dungeons and Discourse" comics don't fall victim to this tendency, merely substituting esoteric philosophical references for pop culture. Sure, it's amusing the first time to see philosophies recontextualized as a tabletop RPG, but there's only so much riffing you can do on that theme before it ceases to be creative. However, I do think the latest D&Dis comic succeeds as a comic. All the references serve as an extended build-up for the final joke, which enhances its humor, and the joke is character-based. It's genuinely funny, and it's good art.

What's next for Dresden Codak? Only time will tell. I've got my fingers crossed for innovation.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: Luke Surl

Sometimes, when you blog about webcomics, guys who have webcomics ask you for reviews. This is a cool thing, because you like to read webcomics and say things about webcomics, and bam, here is another webcomic to read and say things about. I have been approached by a couple such cartoonists. Today's cartoonist is Luke Surl.

Luke Surl's comic doesn't exactly have a name, other than (which I initially thought stood for "Luke's URL"). It doesn't really have a consistent form, either; sometimes it's single-panel, sometimes multiple panels in simple configurations, whatever Luke Surl deems will best fit the joke. A common topic or theme also eluded me initially; it seems that these comics are about whatever strikes the cartoonist as making a comic about. Now, the comics do tend to hover around the subject of academic humor, the sorts of musings from a college student's studies that one might find funny, but at the end of the day, it seems to me that the unifying element here is Luke Surl.

Which is okay. Luke Surl is not the funniest guy in the world, but he has amusing ideas. He enjoys verbal twists and plays on words, so it should come as no surprise that he often bases jokes on familiar lines from Shakespeare. Sometimes he plays meta-games with the comic format. I particularly liked the joke in this single-paneler, where Surl puts a clever fourth-wallish twist on the despairing-economic-analyst-leaping-from-a-window gag. My two favorites, though, would have to be the comics where he puts Santa Claus and Waldo of "Where's Waldo" on the psychiatrist's couch. I laughed out loud at these, and I think he's got a good thing going with the "psychiatrist's couch" motif. More of these, please.

Unfortunately, the art is a sticking point. Early comics especially suffer from pixel-grit, and while this condition improves, later comics still have problems with rough, jagged line quality and uneven line weights. Humans tend to look stiff and flat, with unnatural-looking limb positions. Surl often employs oblique projection with a lofted camera pointing downward at 45 degrees, and as Wikipedia notes, oblique drawings look very unconvincing to the eye. On occasion Surl makes the oblique projection work, as with these clever blueprints, and sometimes he finds workarounds for the perspective problems through judicious use of close-ups.

And sometimes, he even does pretty good art. Coloring is bright, perhaps a little over-saturated and unsubtle, but rarely hard on the eyes. This comic is well-drawn, shows a good use of perspective on a close-up, and contains an amusing reference to an also-amusing former comic. Another comic, featuring anthropomorphic numbers, is well-drawn, and a nice subtle touch is that each number's height is proportional to its numerical value. Other comics occasionally feature little jokes in the background--again, a nice touch.

Can I recommend Luke Surl? Not as wholeheartedly as I usually recommend comics, to be perfectly honest. His work is decent, sometimes funny, but one can see the influence of comics like The Far Side, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and XKCD, and these are all hard comics to stack up favorably against--Lord knows I couldn't. These guys are professional humorists, and it feels to me like Surl is still finding his voice.

But the thing is, he's finding it. The art, for its shortcomings, shows definite improvement in the long run, getting cleaner and sharper, and while the first ten comics or so in the archive fall flat joke-wise, the humor consistently improves. Looking at the dates in the archive, I can see that he keeps up with his update schedule (initially weekdaily, but scaled back to MWF after about three months), and his persistence shows that if you diligently apply yourself to cartooning, you will get better. If he keeps at it and seeks constructive feedback and criticism, he could have a really good comic on his hands down the road.

So, give Luke Surl a look. Decide for yourself if his humor is your style. I can't make any guarantees, but if you can look past the dodgy art and stick with him as he improves, you might just find something worth tuning in to. At the very least, he's fun for Shakespeare fans.

Luke Surl
Updates: MWF
Style: color, variable-length, generally 1-4 panels
Bottom Line: not too shabby

Friday, January 23, 2009

1/23: Week in Review (Is It Funny Today?)

By now you've probably seen Is It Funny Today, the reader-determined toplist of daily webcomic humor, and its subsite Is It Good Today for more story-based webcomics. IIFT users can track their favorite comics, quickly share comics via Digg or StumbleUpon or other content-sharing sites, and cast their vote on each comic in the form of a yes-or-no answer to the question "Is it funny today?" In a way, it gets to the heart of what we, as webcomic readers, are looking for--we want to read good comics.

But good comics can be hard to come by, even with the collective wisdom of the internet at your disposal, and poking through the day's Top 20 doesn't guarantee you the funny so much as give you a chance to compare your tastes with others'. If you only read a few webcomics or have only recently gotten into them, the IIFT rankings can a good way to find a new strip or two to follow, but if you're already knee-deep in webcomics like I am, you'll recognize the powerhouses of funny that already dominate the lists: Dinosaur Comics, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Cyanide and Happiness, Garfield Minus Garfield, and others. So here we are again, back where we started as readers: looking for good comics, sometimes satisfied, sometimes disappointed, but always coming back to the medium in the hopes that it will deliver what it promises.

That's the spirit in which I started this blog. I'm seeking to do qualitatively what Is It Funny Today does quantitatively: I want to share good comics with you, the internet. But I guess there's more to it than that.

There's this drive inside us to communicate. Some of us communicate with pictures, some do it with words, and some combine the two and communicate with comics. My brother and I used to talk about webcomics a lot because when they were done well, they said something to us, even if what they said was just really really funny. This blog has given me an opportunity to keep talking about webcomics, but it's never quite captured the way that my brother and I could talk about webcomics with each other. Maybe that's just the internet, you know? But I'm thinking about this blog, and I'm thinking about how to really talk about comics with you, and not just stand up in my pulpit every Friday and give you my webcomics sermon.

So, you know, I'll keep thinking about that. In the meantime, I want to know what you've enjoyed reading. What did you find to be really, really good in the world of webcomics this week? If you've got a moment, drop a comment, maybe drop a link. It'd be great to hear from you.

Here's what I liked this week.
  • Thinkin' Lincoln continues a storyline that's been going on since mid-December, in which Amelia Earhart gets lost in the Bermuda Triangle, and Darwin, Shackleton and Pythagoras set out to find her. Very amusing stuff, with some inspired sight gags. You can start reading the story arc here.

  • For those familiar with Jason and Kurt's custom of sitting at the manager's station and riffing on movie news, this installment from Multiplex is guaranteed funny. When Jason discusses movie news with Kurt's girlfriend Melissa, somehow it's just not the same for him. Great comic exaggeration in panel six there.

  • Gunnerkrigg Court's latest issue has been treating the dichotomy between science and magic with its usual wit and charm, as Kat fiddles with robots and Annie discovers more about her Blinker Stone. I went through a spell recently where I was kind of jaded with Gunnerkrigg Court, but I picked it up again a week or two ago, and it's good to be back. The GC art's generally okay, but every so often there's a moment where it really shines. For instance, last Wednesday.

  • And not to be One-Note Jones around here or anything, but Blank It, since I started reading it regularly two weeks ago, has continued to provide biweekly installments of inspired surreality. If you're looking for a reason to go check out Blank It, allow me to refer you to Monday's review.

And on that note, this is your friendly neighborhood webcomics enthusiast, Jackson Ferrell, signing off. Have a good weekend, everyone, and keep talking about good things.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ding Changes Gears

I don't play World of Warcraft, but I have a couple of friends who do. I know a little bit about the lingo from them--the tanks and shamans, the DPS, the drawing of aggro. Some of my friends even try to get me to play World of Warcraft. But then I look at what a huge presence it is in their lives, and I tell them: "Thanks, but no. I don't want to commit that much of my time to something that's going to dominate my life like WoW will. Now hold on a second, I've got to see if Dr. McNinja and Penny Arcade have updated today."

It's not exactly the newest of news, but Scott Kurtz's WoW-based comic, Ding, recently made a switch from chronicling the in-game exploits of the PVP cast to chronicling the in-game exploits Readers can email Kurtz their stories, which he will then render in comic form. Today I stopped by the Ding site, and it turns out that the first of these stories went up about a week ago.

And I actually chuckled out loud at it! It's kind of an amusing story, even if you've never played WoW yourself. You know what kind of comics you like--you can decide for yourself whether you'd like to check it out.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Review: Blank It

Are you familiar with the Theater of the Absurd movement of the 1950s and '60s? It was a new approach to drama that flew in the face of theatrical conventions and presented a world that was fundamentally confusing and ridiculous, defying rational explanation. Dialogue often degenerates into preposterous back-and-forth wordplay, setting and identity are ambiguous and fluid, and meaningless plots with bizarre notions of causality are the norm. In "Theater of the Absurd" productions, sets and props are often minimalist, and some plays have a cast of as few as three or four. Classic examples include Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which recontextualizes Shakespeare's Hamlet through the eyes of two minor characters, and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which two everymen wait listlessly for a man who never comes.

Now imagine, for a moment: what if the Theater of the Absurd ethos were applied to a webcomic?

Blank It, a comic co-created by writer Aric McKeown and artist Lem Pew, plunges absurdly right in with two unnamed protagonists standing around in an utterly blank space, with no explanation of where they came from or how they got there. With no one else around, what do they do? What else but strip down to their boxers. The two of them reflect on the opportunity to create new social norms for clothing in this new featureless environment--and when the goatee'd guy re-dresses himself, the guy with glasses is suddenly uncomfortable and must follow suit. The two of them set out to explore their surroundings, and as they begin to encounter other things in the blankness, things rapidly take a turn for the surreal.

It's a real testament to the strength of the writing that it's a full eighteen comics before the two protagonists encounter any object in the blankness other than themselves, yet the comic stays interesting and engaging. Quickly, distinct personalities emerge--the goatee'd guy with the hat is an impulsive optimist, while the guy in the jacket and glasses is a circumspect pessimist. The contrast of their personalities makes for clever, sarcastic, and ridiculous banter between them: particularly when Glasses Guy proposes to conduct an experiment employing Hat Guy's hat.
The strip often toys with the fourth wall without ever quite breaking it--such as, later on in the plot, when a distant mountain range is revealed to be a theater-style backdrop, which collapses when Hat Guy runs into it.

Is this play backdrop a subtle shout-out to the Theater of the Absurd movement? I don't know. All I know is, for all this critical contextualizing and intellectual analysis...I have honestly not laughed as hard in months as I did while reading this comic. You don't have to know a thing about Theater of the Absurd to recognize that this thing is hysterical.

Additionally, the art is solid. The minimalist approach, in both theater and comics, gives an advantage for budget and artwork, as sparse scenery reduces the effort needed for set design. Blank It could easily have had much simpler artwork or even been a stick-figure comic, but Lem Pew is clearly not half-assing it as an artist--and it pays off. The characters' facial expressions and body language are as much a part of the humor as their dialogue. The detailed, Ian-McConville-esque character designs lends detail and sharpness to what would otherwise be a nondescript visual environment. And when the characters' situation starts getting really, really bizarre, it really gives the artist a chance to shine.

For all of its similarities to absurdist theater, though, there is one key difference for Blank It: its tone. Absurdist theater, as a movement, has strong connections to existentialism, grappling with the despair that threatens man when he comes to believe that his world is meaningless and absurd. There's not a hint of despair with Blank It. It's lighthearted, playful, high-energy surreality and sarcasm, rather than darkly comic reflections on the human condition. It's not a tragicomedy--it's just straight-up comedy, and you get a strong sense that the creators are just making it up as they go along, and seeing where it leads.

Blank It is fun, experimental, and exceptionally clever. Plus, with nothing worse than a sporadic profanity or two, it's a good time for just about any comic reader. Instead of making a profound statement about what it means to be human, the sentiment of the comic and its creators seems to be: here's a ridiculous world, so let's have some fun with it. From this reviewer, Blank It comes highly recommended.

Friday, January 16, 2009

1/16: Week in Review

This past weekend, I was surfing around and came across a comic by the name of Blank It. It begins with two unidentified protagonists standing in a nondescript field of whiteness, exploring their surroundings. After a bit of walking around in the void and trying to figure out the nature of their situation, they begin to encounter...things. Like a shovel. And a...well, let's just say it gets even more surreal, very quickly. I don't want to spoil it for you.

Because you should read this comic. I will have more to say about it, but you need to read it. It's clever, the characters' back-and-forth banter is genuinely witty, and the art is good--like bordering on Ian McConville good. Go read the archives from the start (it won't take long, there's only about 60 comics!), then tune in next Monday and Thursday to follow along with it.

And with that recommendation--it's now time for the news.

In the wake of last Friday's reality-shattering cliffhanger, Starslip Crisis hits the "reset" button and escapes changed but intact. The crew of the Fuseli have escaped to a new universe, the comic has a new website design, and it's taken on a new moniker! It's now simply known as "Starslip." Kris Straub has even updated the art, which now sports a dash of grayscale spot-shading and a clean, angular style. I think the new art is an improvement--each frame looks more fresh and varied, more crafted than produced. Catch up on the plot and the brand-new universe starting with Monday's strip. Refer to the New Readers Guide if necessary.

As Starslip sets out for a New Beginning in Space, the Space-Adventures over at Ctrl-Alt-Del are drawing to a close. That's right--the latest choose-your-own-adventure installment of Ethan McManus, Space Archaeologist is over. After being dragged through one harmful choice after another by the idiocy of internet readers, Ethan finally crash-lands on an uncharted planet barely alive and intact, with a cliffhanger promise of a third EMSA at some point in the future. Show's over for now, folks! I will now return to my custom of reading CAD like once a month.

Hopefully I won't miss the next EMSA installment. If only there were a mailing list for these dang things!

At Multiplex this week, Jason Atwood's video-store doppelganger Jay has quit his job at Flickhead video and signed on as theater staff. Is he a good fit for the theater job? Jason certainly seems to think so. However, Jay's addition to the staff has catalyzed a measure of friction between Multiplex power couple Kurt and Melissa. We'll see what the drama holds for Kurt and Melissa--'cause you know that with Multiplex, There Will Be Drama.

In terms of simply delivering daily doses of funny, Sheldon has really been on fire this week. No deep and involved storylines of drama and pathos, no profound gravity of character, just well-crafted laughs. And we need some well-crafted laughs sometimes! We've got an unexpected interruption courtesy of Arthur Duck's impulsive side, and a few reflections from Granddad on the value of PJs. And other funny comics besides! I've certainly enjoyed 'em.

Finally: Nobody Scores has its own brand of breaking the space-time continuum when Jane finds a mysterious portal in the couch leading back to 1989--the prime breeding ground of the Nameless Wack MC. Additionally, inside sources tell me that NS is gearing up for its 300th-comic celebration soon, so be sure and check it over the weekend, lest you miss the festivities! It would be a shame to miss the festivities.

That's what I found to be awesome this week. As always, I encourage you to share your own discoveries of awesomeness from the past week in comics all across the internet. Drop a comment and spread the love!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Quick Recommendation: Hijinks Ensue

You may have heard of this comic before. Hijinks Ensue has been running about a year and a half now, updating three times a week on a MWF schedule. It is a good comic, with solid art and well-developed jokes. The art takes a page from Penny Arcade's stylebook, but cartoonist-entrepreneur Joel Watson brings enough of his own artistic style to keep it visually interesting. Honestly, this comic may not be as big as Penny Arcade (no comic is as big as Penny Arcade!), but Hijinks Ensue is doing for geek-culture at large what PA does for gaming: it approaches its task with clever wit and takes critical jabs at media and entertainment where they come up short. From NBC's Heroes to digital music copy-protection, it goes beyond pop-culture references into actual industry commentary. And it's good.

Of particular interest to comic creators will be Joel Watson's accounts of The Experiment--the things he's doing to make a full-time living with his comic and support himself and his family. While working an unengaging job in sales, he started doing his comic and connecting with new fans through it. When he was let go from his job, he decided to no longer be "a closet artist wearing a business man disguise" and to go full-time with the comic. He's not yet making a full-time income off the comic, but he's taking steps to get there, and he remains optimistic. The "Experiment" portion of his website is equal parts inspiration and practical tips for making a creative living with the aid of the internet, and if you're a webcomic creator as well as a reader, it's worth checking out.

So, there's your quick-and-dirty recommendation for this Wednesday. If you're a geek that likes to see the world of geekery cleverly mocked, or if you just want to see a professional nerd humorist in action, go take a look at Hijinks Ensue. Joel Watson, in my estimation, is a webcartoonist worth supporting.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Interview: Tony Piro (Calamities of Nature), 2/2

Continued from the first half of the interview

JF: How do you view the relationship between art and writing in your comic? Do you think your approach to cartooning favors one or the other? Do you view one or the other as the "backbone" of a strip?

TP: I don't know. I find both to be a constant struggle. When I look back at my old stuff, I absolutely hate it on both levels. But I do see improvement over time. I guess that's what happens if you're in this game long enough. I would be interested in hearing what my readers have to say about this. As far as first impressions go, what attracted them to the strip initially, the art or the writing?

Ideally, I would hope that the art and writing work hand in hand in any given comic. Take either away, and the gag doesn't work the same. This seems like a reasonable goal, otherwise why choose comics as the medium of presentation? Nevertheless, many of my strips probably rely a little heavily of the dialogue to tell the gag. I'll have two characters discussing something as they walk through the forest. In a sense, they could be doing a lot of different things and still get the gag across. I have a visual medium at my disposal, I should sometimes try to "show" instead of "tell." I would say this a shortcoming of my strip right now. It's something I need to work on.

As for the "backbone" of the strip, I'm going go on a limb and say maybe color is the one constant that has been with Calamities since the beginning. When I changed formats I experimented with the idea of going black and white and updating 5 days a week. When I showed a few example strips to my friends they basically told me that my art wouldn't fly without color. I'd need to rethink my whole use of blacks. The use of color actually helps the reader process the information in the strip faster, so that the joke comes across clearer and is (hopefully) more funny.

JF: Your characters' personalities are pretty archetypal. What are the advantages and disadvantages of relying on character tropes? How do you put a fresh spin on them?

TP: If you look at comics in general, these character types show up all the time. Especially when you consider the classic group of three: the nice guy, the funny guy, and the angry guy. You see this everywhere, from Disney (Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck) to Bone (Fone, Smiley, and Phoney). There's a reason why this works. If you have a limited cast of characters and you want to get a wide range of interactions, these are sort of the natural character types you want to cover your bases. In that sense, over time I've felt like my characters have morphed into these archetypes, even when I didn't initially intend this to happen. For example, when I first started both Aaron and Harold were kind of the "nice guys." But as I wrote more and more gags, I would often find myself not needing them both (that's why Harold didn't appear in a lot of the early strips). At the same time, I kept finding I needed a character who was a little more angry and cynical to make some jokes work. So Aaron evolved into this role. So in that the sense, these archetypes are around for a very clear reason--it allows a lot of flexibility when telling gags.

The main disadvantage of having these archetypes is that it can feel pretty stale if you don't add enough depth to the characters. This is something I need to work on. Trying to tell a gag and make some sort of point in the space constraints of a comic strip, I sometimes feel I have little room for character development. What would help is if each of my characters had more of a back story, like a job, specific interests, and so on. I did this by making Alp an inventor, but I need to do this for the other characters. One of my goals for 2009 is to try to naturally work some of this into the comic. Hopefully this will make the characters that much more engaging.

JF: I'm curious--is Aaron listening to his headphones pretty much 24/7? Does he wear those things to bed? What's he listening to all the time, anyway?

TP: Hmmm...see this is one of those logical things you don't ever think of when you're working on a strip, but when someone confronts you with the question you ask, "what *was* I thinking?"

The history of the headphones was that the very first strip I drew with Aaron and Ferd was when I was 10 years old. It was at the time of the Bay Bridge World Series, and Aaron and Ferd were fighting over who would win. Ferd was for the Giants (giving him the Giants hat he still has to this day), and Aaron the A's (thus the green shirt). To portray him as a sports nut, I added the headphones, which I kept ever since without too much rhyme or reason other than I liked the way they looked (and the red helped to further distinguish Aaron from the other characters and the background elements). I actually still have this original comic, but I'm saving sharing it with the world until the time is right.

So what does he listen to? NPR? I'm not sure. I suspect a lot of the time, the headphones aren't even on, but Aaron uses them as a device to selectively interact with the world on his own terms (as I suggested in the strip you linked to). I guess you'll just have to ask Aaron yourself.

JF: Heh--I suppose so. Is there anything else you'd like to say before we wrap this interview up--maybe a parting tip for aspiring cartoonists, or a webcomic or two that you'd particularly recommend?

TP: I think the most important message for cartoonists is to remember what a unique opportunity it is to speak directly to an audience with a singular, unedited voice. So many other forms of media require a team of people to create something. It's just not practical for one person to do it all alone. Comics (and webcomics in particular) allow an artist to basically be the writer, director, actors, publicist, and everything else, all at the same time. This is special chance to share real ideas and feelings with other people, and this shouldn't be taken lightly. I've heard complaints from people who have told me that my work is too derivative, that the punch lines too obvious, and so on. But I hope at the end of the day, my readers appreciate that I'm sincerely trying to share real things with them, and I urge other cartoonists to do the same.

Concerning webcomics I'd recommend, that's a tough question because there's quite a few I read regularly. But here are a couple that often just make me want to throw my hands in the air and give up: Bellen!, Circle Versus Square, We the Robots, Savage Chickens, Octopus Pie, Wondermark, and One Swoop Fell. Oops, sorry, I guess that's more than one or two!

JF: Thanks for your time, Tony. It's been a pleasure interviewing you.

TP: Hey, thanks for offering! Keep up the great work on this site.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Interview: Tony Piro (Calamities of Nature), 1/2

Calamities of Nature began its life as a web presence about a year and a half ago, but in a way it's been in the making for much longer than that. Before there was even an internet to put comics on, Tony Piro was drawing the adventures of his central cast of four. The talking-animal characters have grown with him over the years, and in their current incarnation, they alternately have bizarre escapades and deliver thoughtful social criticism--sometimes both at once. The comic is updated Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

In a series of emails, Tony Piro and I had an extended conversation about the art and craft of his comic and the experience of sharing his creation on the web. What follows is the first part of that conversation; the second will be posted tomorrow.

JF: First off, you recently switched formats for Calamities of Nature, from long-form pages to shorter strips. How’s the change working out for you?

TP: I'm really enjoying it. Being able to communicate with my readers on a more regular basis has been invigorating. I did get a few complaints via e-mail and there were a couple of discouraging blog posts I've seen. But since the change, both my traffic levels and the interaction with my readers have increased so markedly that it's pretty clear it was the right thing to do.

When I first started the comic I had no idea that there was a webcomic community out there. I had recently found out about print-on-demand and Ka-Blam, and I wanted to do a comic book. This is what prompted the full-page format. In the meantime, I figured I would just post the comics online to see if I could get any feedback. My site was basically a static html page with a list of jpegs. Although Calamities of Nature has been up for well over a year, during the first 6 months I didn't even have my own url--I just posted on my work server. Around January 2008 I realized that I could share my work with more people by cultivating an online audience (than via print), and I started converting my site to be more reader friendly (if you're a history buff, you can see my first attempt at a reader friendly site here:

Over time, I read more webcomics and I became aware of what I was enjoying (or not) about the various comics and their sites. Things like the importance of not scrolling to read the full comic, or of having a satisfying end to each update (some of the pages from my early story lines didn't even have a gag at the end). At the same time, I was getting increasingly frustrated with the format I had chosen. It was great when I had a longer joke to tell (like the Michael Jackson comic), but for every one of those, I'd have two or three comics that could basically fit as a newspaper strip. It just wasn't an efficient use of time to spend 3-4 nights working on a comic that would be read in 10 second.

By last summer I had reached the tipping point. I was tired of doing these huge pages, and I knew I could update more often with less time with the new format. Plus I had a huge backlog of material written, which I didn't have time to draw. So I made the change in September and haven't looked back. Now that I've worked up a little bit of a buffer, I'm excited to do a few larger Sunday-style comics when I have an appropriate gag.

JF: How have your ventures into webcartooning suprised you? What's been the most surprising thing about the whole experience?

TP: Webcartooning has surprised me on all sorts of different levels. Maybe the first thing that surprised (and intimidated) me was how much good stuff there is. I used to draw at home in my own little insular world, and never realized all the great artists that exist. I guess all these people going to art school must be doing something, huh? Friends and family tell you how great your work is, and you tend to believe them because you haven't been exposed to the broader selection of work out there. Once I started becoming more integrated into the webcomic community I was overwhelmed by the breadth of artistic styles and writing voices. There's also some crappy webcomics (like anything else), but a lot of it just makes me want to give up.

The other thing that has impressed me is the kindness of (most) everyone in the community. When I have a legitimate question about something (like the tools people are using, or ad service providers, or whatever) I've e-mailed all sorts of people, from the biggest to the smallest names. And almost everyone is forthcoming and helpful. What other community can boast that?

JF: Sort of the bedrock of your comic's humor is the juxtaposition of funny animals and social commentary. You've been drawing these characters for awhile...did the social-commentary angle emerge for you, or has it been there pretty much since you came up with these guys?

TP: When I was growing up, three of my favorite comic creators were Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, and Dave Sim. Now those are three guys with very strong personalities and opinions, and they made no apologies when that commentary guided their work. So when I was ten, I was already trying to include these sorts of social themes. It just wasn't as sophisticated as what I do now (things like comparing George Bush's name to shrubbery or making fun of Dan Quayle's foibles--see how far I've come, now I make fun of Sarah Palin instead).

The funny animal thing has always been natural for me as well. You throw in the above creators with Jeff Smith's Bone, and most of the stuff I was reading was funny animals in human worlds. If I'm going to be creating 3 of these comics each week, I need to be excited every time I'm at the drawing table. Having characters that I'm familiar with and enjoy drawing really helps to keep me going.

In addition, I've always felt that Scott McCloud's discussion of how a reader can relate better to a simpler face (see Understanding Comics) had a lot of truth to it. I hope this helps the readers connect better with the characters and their situations. Some people have e-mailed me to say they look forward to reading Calamities because they're curious what the characters will be doing or talking about. So this is working at least a little.

JF: In a Comic Fencing review from a couple months ago, one reviewer remarked on the “anti-Christian sentiment“ in your comic. However, I’m pretty sure you yourself wouldn’t consider strips like the "Mike Huckabee" or "Christian Rock" comics to be malicious or mean-spirited. What's the motive behind the commentary on religion in your comic?

TP: Jeez, you want to open this can of worms, huh? Where to start? The crux of my commentary on religion stems from my frustration with faith. That people make decisions because of belief instead of reasoning. And I realize that to expect people to be completely logical is a fallacy in itself. On the philosophical side, we know logic has its shortcomings (Godel's incompleteness theorem and all that). On a practical side, we don't always have enough information to make a completely informed decision. This is especially true in this day and age where everyone is a specialist in some field. More and more we have to trust the advice of experts, and in a sense this is a form of faith.

But what I find unforgivable is when people continually deny logical facts, even when faced with a mountain of clear evidence. The obvious example is evolution. Evolution is a basic fact about biology. You can argue the details of how it occurs, but it *does* happen. We see that gravity exists. We see that the earth goes around the sun. We see that the earth is round. We see that evolution occurs. Why would someone deny the last point? It's just not logical. People go to the doctor and take the medications that are prescribed to them. Some of those medications are developed expressly using the fact that evolution occurs, and that it is altering the biology of the disease-causing organisms. These medications often fight diseases that are passed genetically, and guess what, evolution affects how those genes are passed down. So to benefit from these advances in medicine, but deny one of the basic tenets that create these benefits, is illogical.

Now I know I'm fighting an uphill battle in some sense. If someone willingly chooses to be illogical, how to do you argue with them? Through logic? Clearly you cannot, because they don't subscribe to this. If someone maintains that the world is 6,000 years old and that any evidence otherwise is just a trick by God to make us think the world is older, how do I argue against this? They've already nullified the axioms of any argument I could make.

But that doesn't mean the fight isn't worth the battle. It's all well and fine if people want to have these illogical beliefs, but if it starts affecting the human condition negatively (and this is where people are going to get angry, because my feeling is that it has done more harm than good over the last 2000 or so years), then you have to push back. And this is my other big criticism of religion, which is the institutionalization of all these ideas. This is when it gets dangerous because you have an institution whose very existence relies on providing the currency of "certainty" to get people mobilized. Such an institution can build a lot of momentum, and it can be hard to steer back on course when its headed in the wrong direction. (And just so you don't think I'm just picking on religion, universities and governments have many of the same problems. People just become a little more fervent with religion.) This was one of the points I was trying to make with the Agnostic comic. Institutionalizing "certainty" is so much more powerful than uncertainty. This is the uphill fight that we're faced with. Scientific history is full of wrong theories, and uncertainty, and changing view points. That's just how scientific progress works. But who's going to want to pray to the altar of "I don't know"?

All that said, those couple comics that your mentioned are actually some of my least favorite ones. Instead of presenting these ideas in a well thought out manner, they make gags that are basically no more subtle than a pie in the face. And what does that really accomplish? Readers who subscribe to these opinions will feel validated. Readers who don't agree will feel marginalized. And in neither case have I actually made someone do any thinking. This is a disservice to both my readers and myself. After all the hours I spend on this comic every week, I'd like to think I'm providing entertainment with a little more value than political talk radio. Hopefully, my writing chops are to the point now where I can accomplish this a little better (like with the recent Agnostic strip).

So the short answer is, no, I wasn't trying to be anti-Christian. But the fact that it was construed as such by the comic fencing guys (and many other people I've gotten feedback from) indicates that I'm clearly not doing my job well enough.

JF: Well, I sympathize with your difficulties. Comics often rely on an economy of language, and it can be incredibly hard to give a balanced treatment of such a complex issue in so few words. I actually think the Agnostic strip was well-crafted in this regard.

I may not agree with you on every last point, but this interview is to learn more about you and your views, not a vehicle for me to express mine! I still do think you make some good points, and I don't think any institution should be exempt from critical analysis from without and within. And I can appreciate that you're critical of yourself as well.

It reminds me of what Chris Hallbeck's parting advice from my interview with him: "If you look back on what you did every 6 months and you hate it then you are going in the right direction." How do you maintain a healthy level of self-criticism and growth without getting too hard on yourself?

TP: That's a tough question. I'm constantly distraught and depressed over my work. When I start with an idea, it seems so fresh and exciting. But by the time I've drawn the strip to completion I almost always hate it. This usually isn't too bad of a thing as long as I finish the comic. Lately though, I'm building up a small archive of finished strips that I can't even get myself to post on the website. At least this will give me some bonus strips to help sell the next book.

Something that's helped keep me from becoming completely paralyzed by this self-loathing is that I read the Charles Schulz biography, "Schulz and Peanuts" by David Michaelis. A key point I took away was how Schulz channeled these insecurities to inspire his work. At least this way you get something constructive out of all this internal turmoil. This may also explain why Harold keeps showing up more and more as a central character.

Another thing that helps is to actively try to keep getting better. I'm always trying new tools and new tricks to keep things from falling into a rut. Sometimes the thing you try doesn't quite work. That's okay, it's just a comic or two. Other times it will allow you to make huge strides quickly, and that's really exiting. For example, for my January 9th comic I'm starting to use a brush to ink. This is completely changing my use of blacks and the backgrounds. For January 12th, I'm trying a more complex panel composition. Anything to keep me on my toes.

(Continue to the second half of the interview)

Friday, January 9, 2009

1/9: Week in Review

For the past week, the world of Starslip Crisis has been in crisis. The reality-policing organization Deep Time has planted a bomb at the core of Jupiter that will erase the main characters' entire universe from reality: past, present, and future. All week long, as the bomb ticks down, Vanderbeam and crew have been scrambling to save as much of the universe as they can, whether by defusing the bomb or simply by escaping via starslip drive. Yesterday's comic featured the final ten seconds of last-minute panic. And today's comic breaks all of reality with its genius. I seriously thought something was wrong with the site until I figured out what was going on.

Real Life this week has featured some good laughs. After a recent storyline, techie geek Dave found himself carrying around the supercomputer PAL in his brain, and this past week has seen Dave trying to get PAL out. But Dave must first acquire hardware to download PAL's systems into: a task which Dave undertakes with gusto.

Two items of very-long-comics news this week:

Nobody Scores breaks in the new year with considered reflections on aging, then follows up with Sara's latest business scheme: "Fear Itself(tm)." What is "Fear Itself?" Apparently, a consultation service in which agents expose you to a series of truly terrifying things so that your own problems seem much less intimidating by comparison. But accidents happen, and in typical Nobody Scores fashion, Sara's scheme is thwarted by a lack of competent help. And her own flaring temper.

The postscripts are great.

Very-long-comics news #2: Unwinder's Tall Comics has an update for us this week! In this installment, Unwinder's friend Howard develops the ability to read minds. As he reads the minds of his friends, hilarity ensues, although it is hilarity dependent on the personalities of his friends. If you have never read Unwinder's Tall Comics before, this is probably not the best one to start in on. A better introduction would probably be this comic.

In video-game news, Joe Dunn and Phil Chan of Matriculated fame have teamed up to debut a brand new comic strip: Another Videogame Webcomic. What sets it apart from other gaming comics is that it's also a workplace comic; the main characters, Player One and Player Two, actually work inside the games, donning Street Fighter costumes or full-body Pong Paddle suits as the job requires. Think Ctrl-Alt-Del's "Players," but with less graphic violence and more funny, by which I mean any kind of funny at all. Another Videogame Webcomic already has nine comics up for you to peruse, and it promises to do for video games what Joe Loves Crappy Movies has done for movies, so check it out.

Speaking of CAD, if you tune into CAD for one storyline this year, let it be the current choose-your-own-adventure storyline, featuring Ethan McManus: Space Archaeologist. At present, our protagonist is in dire straits, pursued by mercenaries and with one broken arm as he tries to track down the ancient Mesocron of Knowledge. His fate is in your hands! And the hands of a hundred thousand nitwits across the internet.

UPDATE: The first installment of post-Hob Dresden Codak marks a return to form, with the first of two parts of a second Dungeons and Discourse adventure. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, I suppose. Diaz is employing a slightly different art style--a more subtle color palette and thin/no outlines--but largely it's the same lavishly-illustrated abstruse philosophy-of-science jokes you've come to know and feel strongly about. I would just like to note that "Kierkeguardian" is the best class name ever.

So, that wraps up this week-in-review. Have a good weekend, and be sure to come back on Monday and Tuesday. Tony Piro from Calamities of Nature will share his his thoughts with us on the comic form, social commentary, archetypal characters, and (of course) religion. With too much insight into cartooning for a single installment, it's a two-part interview that you won't want to miss!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Holy Crud, Boxer Hockey Has Updated

Boxer Hockey would probably be one of my favorite comics if it updated regularly. I mean, I do have sympathy for the creator, Tyson Hesse, who is going through an intensive college art program, and who wisely gives his studies priority over his comic. And when Boxer Hockey does update, it's polished and high-quality, and it has a manic slapstick energy to it that I've only really seen matched by Nobody Scores. But it updates sporadically. So I check it sporadically.

Today I checked it, and found that it had updated three times since I had last checked it. All of the new installments are pretty great, so I just wanted to take a moment to share them with you right now.

Here we have:

So! Boxer Hockey. Good times. I'll see you guys Friday.

EDIT: The more I read this post, the more passive-aggressive it sounds. Ugh. So Just let me go on record as saying that Boxer Hockey is genuinely awesome, and its creator is a stand-up guy, no foolin'. Read his comic.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Well, between the tail end of the hectic holidays, my usual freelance undertakings, and the aforementioned computer troubles, I haven't had as much time for webcomics as usual. Still, I've managed to get in a measure of webcomic reading, and it's funny: sometimes the best webcomics only update one day a week. And sometimes, that day is Wednesday.

I'm referring to Nothing Better and Matriculated, both of which are college strips that are actually about college. They go beyond the one-dimensional stereotypes and drinking jokes of your typical college comic. Their characters are unique people with a measure of depth to them, dealing with college life as it really is.

Nothing Better often deals with the heavier questions of religion (the current chapter opened up with atheist Kat having a nightmare that God sentenced her to eternal damnation), but this week's installment is just your average day at college. Jane is running (literally) late to her first class of the semester, and it turns out that she shares a class with Darby, her friend she met on the first day of school. I like Darby, although I can't help but feel sorry for him about his crush on Jane (who has a boyfriend, as regular NB readers will know). Anyway, NB is intriguing to follow as always, and I'm looking forward to seeing more into Darby's inner world and his relationship with Jane.

Matriculated this week is wrapping up a storyline in which Rebecca does a charity see-saw marathon for her sorority. (storyline starts here). All throughout her marathon see-sawing session, just about every other character from the regular cast has dropped by, ostensibly to keep her company. But it turns out that Dan wants her help figuring out if he's going out with a girl or not, and Steve's also been having girl trouble, and even Janette has the ulterior motive of procrastinating a paper.
So when good-natured guy Jeremy stops by the see-saw and wants to hang out, what could it possibly be a cover for?

So, good installments of good comics that update weekly on Wednesdays. And are about college.

Other news, in brief:

  • On Friday, Thinkin' Lincoln finished up its Silly Drawings Week, which I enjoyed, because as funny as Thinkin' Lincoln is, that disembodied-head thing is still...well, you know about me and the disembodied-head thing. At any rate, for a little hand-drawn ridiculousness from Miles Grover, just click the link above.

  • CAD continues its current "Ethan McManus: Space Archaeologist" choose-your-own-adventure storyline, with horrific disaster continuing to befall Ethan's right arm. My guess is that he comes out of this mess with bionics. If he gets out alive at all. If you're not following along with this storyline and getting in on the voting, you really should: it is five hundred times more fun than regular CAD. Get caught up with the current storyline starting here.

  • Calamities of Nature also posted the results of its guest comic contest this past week. There are some pretty good comics up, so go check 'em out.

  • And finally, this past Sunday's Sheldon reminds us that as fun as nerd stuff like video games and webcomics are, nothing trumps spending time with the people you love. Of course, if the people you love are also into nerd stuff like video games and webcomics, so much the better. But the point still stands. And on that note--go get off the internet and spend time with the people you love! You've had enough webcomics for one day. Seriously.

I'll be back on Friday, and we shall talk further about recent awesome developments in webcomics. See you then.