Webcartoonists, more so than others in the comic industry, have to be jacks of all trades. At a major comic company, a project typically employs a sizable team--a writer, penciler/inker, colorist, letterer, project director, marketer, and more--and a staff member rarely has to fill more than two of these roles. Even the syndicated cartoonist has his editors, helping him polish his strip and weed out unfeasible jokes. Ostensibly, anyway. The webcartoonist, in comparison, has to wear a lot of hats. For this reason, it helps to be completely and utterly off his rocker. Even if a webcartoonist is not crazy, he may soon become crazy, simply because he has so many hats to wear.
Today we're looking at mad hatter Tom Dell’Aringa and his comic Marooned. Marooned, billed as "a space opera in the wrong key," might also be described as a comedy of errors. On an expedition to Mars, Captain John and his robot companion Asimov find their shuttle broken down, and as they enlist the help of the local Martians to find a way off the planet, one thing after another goes wrong. Earth is unable to send help, hostile forces threaten their mission, and Captain John even acquires a serious illness.
The Story Hat
The comic initially takes the tone of a gag-a-day strip, but as cartoonist Dell'Aringa finds his footing, it becomes clear that he's much more interested in telling a story. And as a story, Marooned particularly succeeds in its pacing and overall scope. The plotline contains one twist after another to keep the reader engaged (most often in the form of something else going wrong), but the twists are never a gimmick to grab attention. Each revelation builds on the existing story naturally and fits into a larger plot structure, even hinting at parts of the structure that have yet to be revealed. At the first major twist--the introduction of a second, hostile robot that wants to take over the Mars mission--I found myself reading because I was genuinely interested in the storyline.
Its lead duo, John and Asimov, differs from your usual pair of protagonists in that both of them are thoroughgoing cynics. John is an egotistical space captain with an inflated view of his own abilities and a low view of his AI companion, while Asimov has low expectations for the fallible human astronaut. Much of the humor early on revolves around their back-and-forth insults, which are (truth be told) about as memorable as the typical banter that you exchange with your friends and colleagues. Pacing and plotting are strong points, but at points the script is lacking (as in this uninspired joke). At one point, an artifact of great power is revealed to be a glorified Rubik's Cube, and I'm still not sure what to make of it. Is it a successful joke that turns the whole drama on its head, or does it detract from the gravity of the situation to the comic's detriment? I don't know.
Also worth noting is the "humanity" of the Martians. Its Martian leads, Ugo and Ril, and the rest of the extraterrestrial cast are every bit as quirky, petulant, or grave as any human being. There is no language barrier, and with a few eccentricities, Martian culture is not terribly different from that of earth. Contrast that with Starslip, whose current storyline features twenty-story tall aliens with twenty-three distinct meter-long radial tongues. Now, I'm partial to science fiction that conveys the sheer alien-ness of its aliens, but Maroon's cyclopean Martians have their own charm, and their relatability as human-like characters actually enhances the story.
The Art Hat
Marooned is a color strip, making good use of dusty Martian reds and steely blue-grays in its palette. Additionally, despite its cartoonish and stylized characters, it occasionally employs digital lighting effects, spot hatching, and additional detail work to good effect. The art isn't sophisticated, but it's solid, functional, and willing to go the extra mile at times. The results can be striking.
I came across one serious hiccup, though. When a second human is introduced to the comic (warning: strip contains spoilers), Dell’Aringa opts to draw her in a realistically-proportioned style. Unfortunately, this choice reveals an artistic weakness in rendering realistic human figures. Additionally, the style clashes with John's cartoonish face and padded-spacesuit body, and with the appearance of the rest of the cast. I'd give Tom Dell'Aringa the same advice as Luke Surl: continue to practice real-life figure drawing, and make use of such resources as Posemaniacs.com.
But I don't want to harp on this hiccup, because the art is decidedly, decidedly above-average for a webcomic, especially with regard to lettering and word-bubbles. Even though Dell'Aringa experiments and develops his art as the strip progresses, trying out new shading and detailing techniques, it shows notable consistency. One week's comics, "Marooned Classics," revisits and improves upon previous strips. It's fun to see the results, and one revision employs some sharp digital effects.
The Bottom Line
It's quite a balancing act for a webcomic creator to wear so many hats on his head, and it's harder still to look good doing it. Dell'Aringa tackles that balancing act well overall--in some areas more so than others--but the real strength of his comic lies in how he wears each hat in the service of telling his story. As a webcomic, Marooned shows marked cohesivity, and its down-to-earth sci-fi story makes it a good recommendation for webcomic enthusiasts and the average reader alike. I might not have checked it out if it hadn't been recommended to me for review (thanks, you guys!), but I'm glad I did, and Marooned may well prove an enjoyable read for you too.