Friday, May 29, 2009

Good Comics That I Don't Have Time to Catch Up On

Sometimes I lament that I am but one man, with one man's time. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of webcomics. All across the web, there are scads of comics, and while not all of them will prove to be worth your time, many are good enough to take note of. There are, in fact, too many good comics to read regularly. Hence my lament.

And hence today's update. The comics featured today are all comics whose archives I have enjoyed, perhaps even comics that I was caught up with at one point. Many of them mix humor with storytelling, eschewing disposable "daily gags" in favor of Real Continuity™. One might well maintain that this actually makes them funnier. In my busy comic-reading schedule, I sadly do not have time to read these comics regularly--but perhaps you do.

Give them a look. They are good.

Gastrophobia: Set in ancient Greece, this comic follows a self-absorbed single-mother barbarian, Phobia, and her clever but childish son, Gastro. The art is brash, bold, and cartoony, with single-color tones and good use of black-and-white. The humor is silly and character-based, delivered in episodic storylines such as "The Hole Story" (in which Phobia tells Gastro a bedtime story about the time she fell down a giant hole) or "Boared to Death" (in which the two settle the karmic restaurant debt of Phobia's late, dine-and-dashing great-aunt Pneuma, and about a million things turn out to be not as they seem).

Dawn of Time: The adventures of a cavegirl--named, of course, "Dawn." A series of visual gags introduces the reader to Dawn's speech-sparse prehistoric life, which is interrupted by the arrival of Victorian-era time-travelers trying to settle a paleontological dispute. When one of them leaves the other behind to prevent his theories from gaining traction, Mr. Mantell must rely on Dawn to help him survive in this savage wasteland. Like Gastrophobia, Dawn of Time employs single-tone shading, but with a lighter touch on the pen and greater use of hatching for texture. Dawn's silly, wide-eyed expressions counterpoint her primitively-driven antics, and the comic also does a few clever-ish things with visually conveying verbal communication.

Good Ship Chronicles: What do you get when you cross Star Trek with The Office? A holodocumentary about the barely-competent, full-of-himself captain of the SS Gossamer and his bitter, underappreciated second-in-command. The art is a good balance of stylized and realistic, and things get especially funny when a transporter accident generates two of the captain. Also, the site design is mad sharp--one of the best comic sites I've seen. If you like Jump Leads, Good Ship Chronicles also comes highly recommended.

The Far Reaches: If Good Ship Chronicles is the comic version of The Office in space, The Far Reaches draws its influence from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Irresponsible Captain Tylor. Our protagonist is lazy, spineless socialite Gilrec Dauntless, who is hounded by his uncle to get up and do something with his life. As a result, he and his robot butler Bentley get in over their heads with such dangers as space pirates and hot secret agents. The art starts off a little flat, but even the earlier comics have their share of artistically strong moments (Exhibit A, Exhibit B). At present, the art has sharpened up considerably. If you like dry British humor in space, but Jump Leads was not surreal enough for you, you will definitely dig The Far Reaches.

Bankshot Comics: An entire comic company with a variety of titles for your reading enjoyment. At the suggestion of company head Brendan McGinley, I read through the first three chapters of their title Hannibal Goes to Rome. The goal of this particular comic is to make the history of Hannibal accessible. It enjoys a measure of success toward its ends--it renders Hannibal's story in entertaining contemporary language, and its wit and humor effectively convey the motives of humans and nations alike, but at points it gets bogged down in historical details. For example, a reader with only a passing interest in history may wonder why the political career of Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal is relevant to the story. The artwork is stylized yet detailed, w/ strong weighty lines and dynamic figures--artist Mauro Vargas clearly has chops, as you can see from the sample below.

Overall, Hannibal is professionally executed and a fairly engaging read. As noted before, Bankshot has a variety of comics available, from humor to superheroes. It's also worth noting that Hannibal Goes to Rome had some of the fastest loading times of any webcomic I've visited, a definite plus.

Among all those good comics, I expect that you personally can find something well worth reading. Enjoy the links, and I'll see you next week!

Friday, May 22, 2009

5/22: Week in Review

Some webcomics--say, The Phoenix Requiem--are primarily story-driven, and each update follows consistent characters while developing an ongoing plot. On the other end of the spectrum, some comics--and here I am thinking of Chainsawsuit--deliver continuity-free updates of "disposable internet humor" and eschew even a recurring cast. In between, there's an entire continuum ranging from one-off strips to story-driven comics, and it's not too hard to find a webcomic that strikes your preferred balance.

Where am I going with this? Well, sometimes a one-off, humor-driven webcomic will establish a measure of continuity, not through a storyline, but through themes. Sheldon often does this: Dave Kellett will often do a series of strips on the topic of, say, houseguests, or what happens when one member of a hive-mind race gets a song stuck in its head. In strips like these, you have continuity of theme, but not necessarily narrative continuity, and it just so happens that a lot of comics are riffing on a theme this week.

Huh. That was a rather long introduction.

Anyway, The Book of Biff is already well-known for its "themed weeks." This week's theme takes the idea to its logical extreme: a single recurring panel with nothing changed but the caption, and Biff's shirt/pants colors, because it's a new day and ostensibly he would change his clothes. Stroke of genius, or simple laziness? You be the judge.

Real Life this week delivers a fresh take on one of its oldest recurring jokes. It begins when Liz finds Greg practicing his Japanese with the Rosetta Stone software. When Liz brings up Greg's flawless grasp of Japanese as the Shirt Ninja, Greg is quick to disavow all knowledge. "The What Ninja, now?" As Liz enlists the help of Tony and Dave, the attempt to expose the Shirt Ninja becomes increasingly ridiculous. I enjoy Real Life's humor most when there's some measure of connection between each day's joke, so this has been a good RL week for me.

Gill this week delivers a short storyline: when Gill beats his video game "King Mubo," he needs a new diversion. However, new video games run at least fifty dollars these days. So, he spends the week trying to convince his mom to purchase a new one. The story arc is of the sort often found in newspapers: largely present to deliver humor, and making no significant changes to the strip's status quo. But it's funny, and as a child of the 80s, weaned on the NES and the Sega Genesis, I could identify with Gill's plight.

Finally, I'd like to make a few quick notes unrelated to the topic of "themes"...
  • The Halfpixel Crew has a new contest for the musically inclined: create a dance mix prominently featuring the laugh(s) of Brad Guigar. The winner will receive one book from each of the members of Halfpixel. If you regularly listen to their Webcomics Weekly Podcast, you're already familiar with Guigar's ridiculous laugh. Check out the contest rules and the entrants so far.

  • Unwinder's Tall Comics has really been on fire lately. This comic spoofs popular literature of all sorts, from Twilight to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and culminates with Unwinder's truly inspired mash of classics with the horror genre. Also, the most recent comic delivers tall comics in a new medium: sidewalk chalk.

And that concludes this week's recap. What comics have you enjoyed this week? Share a link in the comments!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Jump Leads, Chapter Five

Welcome back to another Jump Leads chapter review! The Jump Leads creative team finished Chapter Five several weeks ago, and now that I've read through it, I'm here to give you the lowdown. If you're not up to speed on Jump Leads, I do recommend reading through from the very beginning--it's a good comic. Fortunately, Jump Leads chapters are fairly self-contained and semi-episodic in nature (at least so far!), so if you want to plunge right in with Chapter Five, it should be easy enough to get your bearings.

The chapter begins with a fresh change of scenery. Llew and Meaney land their jumpship in a tropical forest, which provides a nice visual change from the steely blues and metallic interiors of previous dimensions, at least for the first half of this issue. The jungle is detailed and lushly rendered--no surprise there, as Jump Leads has showcased strong artwork from day one. Run-ins with yellow-suited patrolmen quickly reveal that Llew and Meaney are not alone on this tropical island: far from it.

This chapter introduces a villain to the comic. General Donald Gray is a one-time conqueror of the world who returned political rule to its original holders when he grew bored of his newfound power. Now, like a martial artist who lives for the thrill of the fight, he develops elaborate schemes while giving himself deliberate handicaps, and foiling his plans has become a training exercise for field agents. Gray is a truly bizarre villain. Time after time, his character pokes fun at sci-fi concepts and conventions by parodying and subverting them:

General Gray, with his cliche-laden plans straight out of a James Bond film, appears rather eccentric and harmless. Right?

Until he gets his hands on jumpship technology, that is. With the realization that there is an entire multiverse out there waiting to be conquered, Gray decides to get back in the game. Cue the obligatory ominous music: dun dun dunn!

Jump Leads is as much a comedy as an adventure series, and even with the threat of a new villain, this chapter maintains a humorous tone. Llew gets his turn with the shoulder-angels, and while the "manifested crisis of conscience" trope is a bit played-out, here it's executed with enough wit to keep it entertaining. The script delivers several clever lines, such as Meaney's parting threat in the last four panels of this page, and the absurd contrivances by which our protagonists escape capture had me busting a gut more than once. General Gray is a truly ludicrous villain, but by the end of the chapter, we're ready to take him at least as seriously as we take Meaney and Llewellyn.

This chapter is one of the strongest so far, in terms of the potential it opens up for the comic series: in my estimation, rivaled only by Chapter Three. The Jump Leads creative team is already bringing out Chapter Six, so I'm eager to see where they take things from here. At this point, I don't think you need to be told--I'm sold.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Interview: Brandon Bolt (Nobody Scores!)

Brandon Bolt draws things. He draws things as a professional illustrator, which makes him money, and he also draws the webcomic Nobody Scores, which makes him stay up all night drawing. Updated roughly 2.37 times a week, Nobody Scores delivers long-form tales of spectacular failure, where continuity is optional and pain is mandatory. Its four main characters--arch-capitalist marketing exec Sara, calamity-prone crazy chick Jane, starving artist Beans, and beleaguered intellectual Raoul--suffer each other's company as they share living space, enduring such disasters as time travel, nanorobots, and the typical workday. It's an anarchic, cynical celebration of everything that could possibly go wrong, and it brings the fun.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Brandon Bolt at a computer some 2,000 miles from Brandon Bolt and interviewing him over email. What follows is the uncensored entirety of our conversation. The insights contained therein will shake the very foundations of your world.

JF: So, "Brandon Bolt" is a pretty awesome name. You really lucked out.

BB: I always thought it was pretty weird myself. I blame it for my alienation from humanity.

JF: (awkward silence)

So I guess we should probably talk about the comic now!

Nobody Scores is a skillfully-executed comic, but the concept is a hard sell--its humor is dark, cynical, and almost aggressively cringe-inducing. How do you find a balance between making a comic that will pay you back monetarily for what you put into it and doing what you want to do as an artist?

BB: I hear if you tape layers of newspaper between pieces of cardboard they're warmer when it gets below freezing.

Yeah--don't ask me. I try to draw stuff that doesn't bore me. Difficulty level: I am super bored. There isn't any other consideration. I am not at any level trying to market it to target audiences or anything like that. I don't even know what target audiences look like. There is no balance. If I get money, that is nice.

Because focusing on exploring the art is the only real point... If you're just going to stitch together another Snuffy Smith to plague the world for another 75 years, what's the point? Better to make it with something that's worthwhile--your chances aren't very good anyway. That's my attitude.

JF: But you do have systems in place that allow for monetary support. You sell adspace and posters; you have a discreetly-placed Paypal donation button in your sidebar.

BB: Well that is currently pizza money. Sadly! But pizzas are delicious.

JF: Since this past summer, you've abandoned straight-up infinite canvas for fixed page divisions in your comic. So you're at least making some formalistic concessions in order to facilitate a print collection. By the way, how's the fixed-page-size thing going for you?

BB: I haven't totally abandoned infinite canvas, but there is behind-the-scenes work on books and I thought I'd make it marginally easier on myself.

I am cursed however. All formats are a headache. I still have an easier time making infinite-canvas comics "work", I think, but then I give myself an infinite amount of drawing rope with which to hang myself. I've developed a theory that every person is allotted a set number of allnighters in their lifetimes. I think I may have three left. Really, I had a startling number of allnighters in me, it turned out.

So, I don't really like fixed page sizes--although I've been able to keep using many of the infinite-canvas techniques I was using before, and also, I'd kind of run out of infinite-canvas tricks to try--but limits on the amount of drawing help keep me from dying and that's real nice.

JF: On the topic of marketability...what do you think of the webcomics business model, in terms of cartoonists giving away their art for free? Do you think that it's more viable or less for career cartoonists than going a more traditional route?

BB: It is currently the least stupid of a variety of terribly stupid options, if you want to get exposure. Newspapers keep shrinking; the alt-comics press is in its usual state of woe, but keeps plugging along. Graphic novels do have the occasional breakout hit, so there's that. Webcomics are... well, they aren't actually much less static than other types of comics--the internet generates inertia--but it is possible to build an audience if you first build a comic. The competition is still not as stiff in webcomics, if you're talking raw quality. The obstacles are mainly social. You need to have high-traffic friends slash appreciators to send people your way. As for business models, I don't really have one. Nobody Scores! is a dick to merchandise because it's in such an unorthodox format. I am working on books but I don't know how exactly that will go at this point. The subsidiary t-shirts-and-tchochkes approach seems to work for some people. I am sort of interested in how Assetbar turns out, but my regular comic takes enough time as it is, and if I have to do premium content too, my shit will explode. That is, it will explode everywhere it exists and the Portland sewer management peoples are in for a fun night and I will be a big ol' mess as well.

JF:'re an art guy. You have a fine arts degree, and you have a career as a cartoon illustrator. I guess these things kind of come together in things like "Nobody Scores vs. Fine Art." How do you think your background has prepared you for Nobody Scores?

BB: Doing Nobody Scores! is a betrayal of everything my education stood for and I live in fear of the day someone from college stumbles upon my cartoon and puts two and two together.

I went to a liberal arts college, and the culturally omnivorous nature of Nobody Scores! is a manifestation of my liberal-arts-geek nature, and you are this far away from me telling everybody my SAT score and nobody wants that.

It is pretty nice to be able to draw different things intelligibly and that is due to my background, I guess. Also everything you need to learn about color you learn in the first semester of art class; it just may be a while before you actually pay attention to it.

JF: SAT scores are best left back in high school. I had better change the subject quick here.

Let's talk about your characters. They're deeply flawed human beings, but it strikes me that their flaws are just strengths taken to excess. Sara's ambitious and driven, Jane approaches life with reckless enthusiasm, Beans actually cares about things, and Raoul is too smart for his own good. Am I just looking at these people too optimistically, or do they really have some redeeming qualities to them?

BB: No, sure, they do. Basically, every engaging comedic character does things we all want to do, somewhere inside our psyches: we want to get top scores on all the globally recognized indicators of success (Sara), crush those who would stand in our way (Sara), do whatever we want whenever we want (Jane), care a lot (Beans), pursue our dreams no matter how abstruse (Beans), be the smartest guy in the room (Raoul) and scorn everybody else (Raoul). At least I imagine we do. This is where unsympathetic characters can insert their hooks into you, if you let them.

So, good sides in a nutshell: Sara is productive and responsible (at least at basic day-to-day tasks), Jane is fun to be around, Beans won't betray you (unless you've really goaded him into it), and Raoul is knowledgeable, even expert in a variety of academic spheres.

The primary flaw of all of them, really, is self-centeredness and callousness, which manifests itself in different ways, depending on the character.

JF: It's interesting how often the characters' selfishness actively contributes to a given comic's catastrophe. Their own selfishness ironically undermines the pursuit of their own aims and ambitions.

BB: The tragic flaw! Sometimes I do that. But fate is a fickle beast in Nobody Scores! and its misfortunes do not hew strictly to dramatic conventions. Sometimes, ridiculous shit just happens despite the characters' best-laid plans.

JF: In another interview, you noted that you try not to let any one character's perspective become too privileged. Is there any of the cast that you struggle to maintain that balance with?

BB: The machine of the comic has three nodes; the fourth character, Raoul, sort of operates in orbit. Of the three central nodes, I have found that Sara and Jane are by far the stronger personalities and Beans tends to get overwhelmed. This is partially because Beans is softer overall, and partially because his sphere--artistic expression--doesn't generate as many plots as the others do. So I have to tell myself to push Beans out there more every now and then.

JF: I usually close out these interviews by asking the cartoonist to share a few of their favorite webcomics, but it occurs to me--if I do that, I am basically asking you to reduplicate your links page. You follow print comics fairly assiduously, so what are a few of your favorite print comics? What's a title or two that's worth shelling out money for?

BB: Well, I don't know that I've been following them assiduously these days, but...Lio is my favorite newspaper comic and there's a book. Two books! Also, in entirely different veins from Nobody Scores!, there is the work of Jason Lutes--I greatly recommend the two Berlin books that are out; Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze books, a cartoon retelling of the Iliad; and if I had to pick a print cartoonist I want all web cartoonists to read it's Kyle Baker.

JF: Thanks for all your responses, Brandon.

BB: I am always glad to respond to things! Well sometimes I prefer to stand inert but this is not one of those times.

Friday, May 8, 2009

5/8: This Week in Comic Form!

And that concludes our show for this week. Tune in next Friday, when I will almost certainly be doing something less crazy and time-consuming.

Co-written by Jackson Ferrell and Eli Parker; illustrated by Jackson Ferrell
Angie Kurokami appears courtesy of Multiplex
Unwinder appears courtesy of Unwinder's Tall Comics

Crowbar Benson, Snowflakes

This week's post will go up later this evening or early Saturday, but in the meantime, why not check out at least one of these comics I've come across?

Crowbar Benson: a hockey-fanatic dad with a disregard for personal safety raises his two hyperactive sons. Juvenile humor and slapstick. Content-wise, pretty much what you'd see in the newspapers, but with the occasional F-bomb. Experiments with B&W and color.

Snowflakes: set at an orphanage in the Andes, where every kid dreams of getting adopted and competition is heated. Clever writing, colorful art, and a funny picture of cliques and children's social dynamics. All-ages appropriate.

Visit the sites, scope 'em out, enjoy. The week-in-review will be up soon, so be sure to check back.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Superfogeys, Chapter 2

(previously reviewed: Superfogeys Chapter 1)

Greetings once again, webcomics enthusiasts. For today's review, I've read through Chapter Two of Superfogeys and am prepared to give you the lowdown.

Chapter Two's plot, in a nutshell, is that the super-retirement home Valhalla hosts a bingo night, and the night's prize is a free healing courtesy of the super-healer known as "The Healer." The art remains simple but effective, essentially linework with coloring--but it does take a step up in complexity from Chapter One, and even goes the extra mile in spots. The writing is similarly efficient. The chapter had a decent handful of funny moments for me: I laughed out loud at an early strip's genuinely unexpected punchline, Dr. Rocket's general sociopathy, and super-sidekick Jerry's extended brain fart upon meeting The Healer. I'll admit to being a sucker for bad puns, but a joke involving the superhero Bingo Knight drags on perhaps a little too long. Space-pig urine is still an ongoing joke, still sophomoric. More successful is the ongoing joke of Captain Spectacular's pants.

There's more here than mere humor, however. Probably the most interesting element of the chapter is The Healer himself: a smart-mouthed kid with little respect for his elders. He's a bit of a jerk, too--his healing ability could ostensibly put an end to many of the Superfogeys' health problems, yet he holds his powers out as a prize for some randomly-selected retired hero. Interestingly, The Healer seems to have a measure of respect for Captain Spectacular, despite the "lame" story behind the Captain's paralyzed legs.

In Chapter One, Superfogeys creator Brock Heasley appeared to be getting his footing, and by the end of Chapter Two, he seems to have found it. The characters are established, the reader has been introduced to retirement-home director Dr. Klein, and a secret meeting between the Healer and an unseen figure hints at future developments. Events are beginning to unfold, and you get the sense that your investment in the comic is starting to pay off.