Monday, June 28, 2010

TGT Webcomics Interviews Snakehead Games

Hey, guys. I just wanted to cue you in to this interview between Kurt Sasso of TGT Webcomics and Colin Ferguson of Snakehead Games. Snakehead, which creates in-browser MMO games such as Star Pirates and Spy Battle, has previously run custom ad campaigns with Starslip, Real Life, and other high-profile webcomics. Additionally, Tauhid Bondia of Good Ship Chronicles put together some ten comics based on the Star Pirates game, which you can read here.

The podcast is a lively conversation about business, webcomics, and fun, and I thought you guys might like to listen to it.

(Incidentally, the "wonderful guy that [Kurt] met in Chicago" who told Colin about TGT Webcomics is me. :)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Internet Dating, Webcomics-style

Interesting. Looks like both Multiplex and Max vs. Max are making forays into the realm of digital dating disasters for their protagonists. Great minds think alike?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Review: The Adventures of Ace Hoyle

I have only played poker for money once in my life. This past winter, a friend invited me to a $10-buy-in poker night with a bunch of people I'd never met. It was good fun, and I ended up taking first place, through a mixture of luck, skill, and being a stranger to everyone so that nobody knew my tells. I've never watched more than a round of professional tournament poker, and all my knowledge of betting strategy comes from playing five-card stud with my cousin Chad for our grandmother's Life Savers.

When I think poker, I think Penny Arcade's "The Green Harvest," in which Tycho takes advantage of Gabe's ignorance of the game in order to take his money. When I think poker, I think kings hate threes.

So this is the sort of person who, this past week, found himself reading the tournament poker webcomic The Adventures of Ace Hoyle.

Unlike most of what we cover here, Ace Hoyle is not just a comic. It's also a dish made by thinly slicing fresh raw tuna a site dedicated to poker in general and online poker in particular. The site provides tutorials, tips and tricks, recommended and reputable online casinos, news, and...a webcomic. But you came here to hear about the comic, right? So let's talk about that.

At only 28 pages, Ace Hoyle currently has a small archive; you can get up to speed in five or ten minutes. The cast page and the comic itself are equally good introductions to Ace Hoyle and his co-stars, so it's generally accessible. It's also worth noting that the archive is browsable at two different sizes. If your monitor resolution supports it, I recommend the larger size for readability.

Also, the larger size better showcases the artwork. Artist Tomas Batha works in a high-contrast grayscale with spot color and a slight noir flavor. Early on, he adopts a hatched, pencil-shaded style that you don't often see in webcomics--I've only ever seen that kind of approach in Unwinder's Tall Comics and Megatokyo. Here in Ace Hoyle, it works reasonably well. As the comic progresses, later pages are tighter and cleaner, with more liberal use of spot color. There are a few surreal moments where an action scene plays out in slow-motion freeze-frames, and the overall effect halts the scene's momentum. Still, most action sequences keep it dynamic, as in this (potentially spoiler-laden!) example. The art generally improves, but a part of me likes the high-contrast tones of the early installments--good black-and-white art isn't easy.

On the whole, the art is strong, especially the pin-up pages. Characters have expressive faces and body language, along with distinctive designs. For better or for worse, I might even call them "funky." It's also worth noting that Tomas Batha both spends more time on environmental renderings and shows more proficiency at them than the average webcomic artist.

Like I said: pretty strong.

As detailed as the artwork is, I'll say it from the outset of the story: don't expect the plot to be anything deep. Everything you need to know about the character of Ace Hoyle (at least for this episode) you learn in the first page: he's slick, sharp, and ready to play some poker. He has roughly the character depth of James Bond--again, for better or for worse. In essence, Ace and his comic are here to entertain.

So--do they?

Well, the obvious answer is, "Depends how much you like poker."

If you're a complete poker virgin, this comic obviously isn't for you. It assumes a baseline familiarity with terminology and conventions. That said, it's still fairly accessible,and although I encountered some unfamiliar poker expressions, I could follow the action through context and pacing cues. Honestly, I had more trouble following the side-storyline about Ace's lady friend Dolly Finegold, though I suspect that's partly because we're in mid-storyline, with not everything revealed. As long as you have some interest and experience in poker, you can come first for the comic rather than the card games and still enjoy the action.

The comic is more plot-driven than character-driven: motivations are obvious, and character types are easy to read. Like a James Bond flick, it brings just the bare minimum of substance to hang the style on. Writer Phill Provance has some tongue-in-cheek fun with the archetypes he employs; Dick Spadely is a comically obvious jerk of a villain (plus a sore loser), and hard-drinking twins Boris and Vladimir Pultsin parody the stereotypical Russian of cold-war era fiction. As I noted before, none of it's especially deep, but the dialogue packs sharp banter and witty exchanges--dare I say it?--in spades. Obvious pun aside, the clever back-and-forth wordplay is one of the strong points, and it adds a lot of appeal.

However, the title character is carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders: if entertainment is the goal, he has to bring enough style to hook us, and in this department, Ace can't quite match step with Bond. His last-second entrance at the tournament table plays the trope straight where it really needed a twist to make it fresh. Still, he's smooth and savvy at the card table, and he's not too proud to fold when he's dealt a bad hand. Like Bond, Ace Hoyle toes the Mary-Sue line pretty closely, but he's good enough at what he does to keep things interesting, he's affable, and he's a good sport.

And like Bond, he displays a measure of consequences-be-damned recklessness when he punches out a competitor whose bad behavior steps over the line. Hopefully he'll actually have to deal with the fallout from this decision; it keeps things both interesting and believable. This early in the comic, there's plenty of space in which to develop Ace and flesh him out. In order to make the readers care whether he wins, he'll eventually need some more substance--even if, like James Bond, his style is his substance.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed the first episode so far, though perhaps because I had the patience to read through the archives a second time. Obviously, Ace Hoyle will appeal most to the person who thought Casino Royale had too much spy games and not enough poker, but if you can follow the action at the table and don't demand more of the comic than it promises to deliver, it may be worth your while to check out.

And if you're not up to speed on your poker but curious about the comic? Well, Miss Finegold can help you out.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review: Exploded View

Let's talk about science fiction comics.

No, we're not going to talk about Starslip. And much as I love to talk about Jump Leads, no, we're not going to talk about that either. We're not talking about Marooned (we've already done that) or Moon Town (though perhaps we should).

No, today we're going to talk about Cloudscape Comics' latest comic anthology, Exploded View.

Cloudscape is a collective of Vancouver area artists, and Expanded View is a sci-fi-themed anthology of short comic stories. Their fourth collection to date, it includes contributions from notable webcartoonists Angela "Jam" Melick of Wasted Talent and Kevin Forbes of Simulated Comic Product. A host of other artists contributed as well, ranging from actors to animators to elementary school teachers.

In some ways the collected stories vary greatly; in others they're highly similar. Exploded View showcases a wide variety of art styles, for starters: all of the artists take a different approach to the challenge of working in grayscale. You'll see high-contrast black-and-white; finely graduated shading; precise and tightly-rendered drawings; loose, freeform, quick-and-dirty sketches; and varying degrees of freehand vs. computer-assisted artwork. Generally speaking, it's decent artwork, and a few stories (John Christmas' "Aquanaut Zero," Megan Furesz's "Ctrl Z," and Melick's "Mechanics") really knock it out of the park. "Aquanaut Zero," a tale of undersea exploration, captures the claustrophobia of the ocean's depths with its absolutely oppressive use of negative space. It harrowed me in the best way.

The book's art isn't without its missteps. In Jeffrey Ellis' "Breakdowns," a girl's violent outburst has unforeseen consequences, and in a key moment, she's struck with guilt and grief as she realizes what she's done. Unfortunately, the thematically ambitious plot has written a check that the artwork can't cash, and in that pivotal frame, the cartoonish style makes the moment feel stiff and awkward. Still, "Breakdowns" has good artwork overall, and there are only a few moments in the collection where I thought to myself, "This is not good cartooning." On the whole, the anthology shows craftsmanship and attention to detail.

The collection is thematically strong as well. Science fiction is a genre of many faces, and you'll find many of them represented here: cyberspace and virtual reality, cybernetics, space travel, rapidly-changing technology, and robots. Lots and lots of robots (and I loves me some robots).
These elements are all used to good thematic effect, exploring interpersonal pathos, heights of emotion, complex moral decisions, and technology's effect on what it means to be human. Make no mistake, there's comedy here too: "Ctrl Z" is laugh-out-loud funny, as its snarky down-on-its-luck robot protagonist makes an unlikely ally and strikes back at its equally-robotic oppressors. I was disappointed that the book's one treatment of religion, Colin Upton's "It Came From the Heavens," is not only ham-handed, but implausible--its portrait of Christianity would really only make sense if mankind began to colonize space during the Crusades.

Another way in which these stories are similar: just about each tale brings a twist of some sort, a surprise reveal or a subversion of expectations. Of course, a twist in itself is no story without strong characters and a well-crafted plot, and on the whole these stories flesh out their twists. Paul Soeiro's "Faulty Wiring" takes man vs. machine and turns it on its head, questioning our innate inclinations to sympathize with its human main character. Melick's entirely alien cast in "Mechanics" are still eminently recognizable as people, and the reader can relate to (perhaps even identify with) her protagonist's motivations.

At the end of the day, though, the question is: is it worth your twenty bucks? Make no mistake, it's a good collection with a few truly outstanding stories, but your answer to that question depends on who you are. Not just any sci-fi fan is going to get something out of this anthology. Think of a geologist taking core samples: drilling out a narrow cross-section of the earth, but probing deep to obtain a sample rich with information. You won't be spending too much time with any of these characters, but the best stories here dig into what it means to be human and come up with something solid. It also helps if you like a broad range of art styles and an appreciation for black-and-white art. Basically: if you enjoy tightly-crafted comic stories, sci-fi with substance, and robots--lots and lots of robots--don't hesitate to grab a copy. It's good stuff.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Triumphant Return of Nobody Scores

So, you've been reading this blog for awhile. You know I've got my comics that I particularly like to rave about: comics like Blank It, Max vs. Max, and to a lesser extent, Z'Nuff Dr. McNinja. You know that high on my list of "ravers" is Brandon Bolt's little comic that suffers, Nobody Scores.

Or...maybe you don't. That's cool too. Nobody Scores--for the non-knowers among you--is a comic in which anything that can go wrong, does. Even the things that can't go wrong go wrong. I love it because it's top-notch well-crafted cartooning, it's relentlessly cynical, it's over-the-top with raw crazy energy, and its comics are huge. It's the kind of thing you need hyphens to describe.

And it's back!

Around five months ago, cartoonist Brandon Bolt went on hiatus, citing increased job stuff and cartooning burnout (and if I were turning out twice-weekly comics as tall as his for over two years, I'd have been citing burnout even earlier). For five months I have languished, forced to read webcomics in which sometimes people score, deprived of long-form tales of imminent calamity.

But now Nobody Scores is back and Nobody-Scoresier than ever. The site has been streamlined with an improved design, and also Jane has bangs. The NS cast stars in three brand-new comics as of like last Friday or so:
  • Fantastic Voyage, in which Sara scores a free exploratory trip into space and is thwarted by Einstein,
  • Every Donation Counts, a cautionary tale about the hazards of helping the homeless, and
  • Reenactment Fever, which is exactly what it says on the tin: the historical/cultural reenactment craze, as applied to things it really shouldn't be applied to.

Needless to say, I am very excited, and you should be too.