Diana Goes Digital #0: Secret Origins

With Jog doing his bit for manga, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to add even more diversity to our humble site by introducing a new regular feature: webcomic reviews! I'll be focusing on free series, starting with webcomics that have run their course and concluded - like graphic novels, they represent a complete, self-contained reading experience. After that we'll move on to ongoing series, alternating between some old favorites of mine and webcomics I've recently discovered. But before we get to the good stuff, I thought I'd start this prestigious #0 issue (now with exclusive Brian Hibbs triple-fold hologram variant cover - scratch it and it procreates!) with a discussion about webcomics as a whole: why they matter to me, why I get such a kick out of them, and what they have to offer those mainstream readers who may have gotten a bit tired of the current output.

I first discovered webcomics a few years ago, via my dear friend Jacob (who, some months later, put up his own short-lived but brilliant webcomic called NAUSEA, now sadly offline). I'd come back to comics after a long hiatus, and we were discussing genre: even then, when I was still very enthusiastic about the mainstream, I had to admit that the superheroes wore a bit thin at times. It was always such a treat to discover something like Kyle Baker's WHY I HATE SATURN or Judd Winick's ADVENTURES OF BARRY WEEN, proving that the medium could be used for more than just fights-in-tights.

At some point in the conversation, I brought up WHY I HATE SATURN and asked why we couldn't have something like that on a regular basis: no grandiose cosmic spectacles, no superpowers, no suspension of disbelief necessary - just ordinary people hashing out their ordinary lives, with all the drama and fun and sadness and joy that comes with it. Jacob directed me to R.K. Milholland's SOMETHING POSITIVE. I was hesitant at first, for the same reason I'm picky with fan fiction - in a domain without any real quality control, you're taking a leap of faith that the next story you read won't be a reincarnation of THE EYE OF ARGON. Also, there's so many of them, owing to the fact that just about anyone can write and upload their creations online - who has the energy to sort through ten thousand wank fantasies for the good stuff? SOMETHING POSITIVE was, at the time, nearing the end of its fourth year: there was a lot of reading to be done. Jacob assured me it'd be worth the effort.

And damn him, he was right.

Looking back, I can identify several factors that made SOMETHING POSITIVE such a perfect gateway into webcomics for me. First, Milholland's tone resonated with the irreverent atmosphere of the Jemas administration, but with Marvel I always had the feeling that they were holding back: it was okay to make fun of the '90s, but I R SIRIUS KOMIC NAO. Milholland rarely, if ever, restrains himself, and when he goes for shock or provocation, he always seems motivated more by self-amusement than by the desire to target a specific demographic (see: Fred MacIntire versus the Idiot Christians). It somehow felt more authentic, a more direct channeling of the author's voice than anything you'd find in the mainstream. We've all seen good stories (or, at least, good intentions) gone off the rails due to editorial interference and licensing concerns (just look at the current state of Spider-Man, or ask yourself why, as Graeme noted, the "magic reboot" gets used so often lately), and that's something Milholland never really has to deal with. When you're dependent on your readers, you have to keep them happy, and if that had been the case with S*P, this probably wouldn't have happened. Nor this, for that matter. It's a kind of creative freedom you just don't see with the big companies.

Another aspect of SOMETHING POSITIVE that intrigued me was... well, precisely that "alternative genre" I'd been looking for. Here was a dark comedy bordering on satire, with a bunch of friends - abnormal in normal ways, if that makes sense - getting together to bitch about things that annoyed them. Not something you'd easily locate at my LCS, that's for sure. And that was just the tip of the iceberg: I've read sci-fi webcomics, gaming parody webcomics, fantasy webcomics, action webcomics... I never felt boxed in as I do with the direct market, where only a very specific type of story can survive for any significant amount of time (see: every unfortunate cancellation in the history of comics from DEADENDERS to SENTINEL to SMALL GODS). In fact, based on what I've seen, I'd guess that the superhero genre is actually among the least popular in the medium: if it does pop up, it's usually some tongue-in-cheek take on the subject matter (ie: Brad Guigar's EVIL INC.) or downright subversive (Justin Pierce's THE NEW ADVENTURES OF WONDERELLA). I believe that, like fanfic, webcomics partially exist to address a lack - the extremely narrow focus on superheroes by established companies left pretty much every other field up for grabs, just as fanfic seems predominantly occupied with taking the story to places the canon can't (or won't) go.

Now, I'll admit this isn't a flawless medium - the downside to having no higher authority is that writers can (and often do) simply abandon their stories mid-way through, having simply tired of the effort. It happens more frequently than you'd think - Sean Howard's A MODEST DESTINY stopped so many times, and ended so poorly, that I'm sorry I ever read past the first book. The closest analogy would be something like the Grant Morrison/Gene Ha AUTHORITY run, aborted mid-story with little hope of resolution. Another downside is the lack of permanence - just because a work is available one day doesn't mean it'll be available the next. After discovering K. Sandra Fuhr, I was quite interested in her earlier works, UTOPIA and THIS IS HOME... except she'd deleted them. That's a whole block of an author's bibliography that you'll never find in a bargain bin.

The issue of price (or lack thereof) can also be a bit of a sticking point in webcomics. The argument tends to go thusly: on the one hand, most webcomics are free, which means you can start, stop and resume whenever you like, with absolutely no limitations. You get what may be an incredible tale at no cost at all. On the other hand, if things go sour, and you don't like where the story's going, the counter is that since you're not paying for it anyway, you don't really have the "right" to make demands. It's an iffy debate that I'm not getting into now - hell, I've always thought that even paying customers don't complain enough (though when they do, it's bloody brilliant), but it does raise the question of how you'd rate the importance of an editor: Tom Brevoort didn't do much to make AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED readable, but leaving all the creative decisions in the hands of the writer can lead to some unfortunate storytelling decisions - FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE being the most egregarious example, though DOMINIC DEEGAN: ORACLE FOR HIRE has made a few wrong turns as well.

Getting back to the whole price thing: the reason free webcomics are so important, especially these days with the digital piracy issue on the table, is because you have a ready-made alternative to amorphous, institutionalized popularity contests (Zuda) and clunky, uncomfortable efforts to lure you into paying anyway (Marvel's online initiative). And for those who prefer paper comics just because they like the feel, or because they're attached to those familiar icons such as Batman and Spider-Man, ask yourself this: how much are you willing to spend, and for how long, on comics that are decidedly inferior to, say, Rich Burlew's THE ORDER OF THE STICK or Shaenon Garrity's NARBONIC? I understand the attachment - hell, I'm still reading print comics, aren't I? - but at the same time, I could drop Marvel, DC and the rest of them tonight without feeling a very great loss. I haven't done so mainly because there's a handful of writers out there who still interest me, but if they were out of the picture? I would be too.

It's been almost three years since I discovered SOMETHING POSITIVE. I'm still reading it, along with nearly twenty other webcomics from a wide array of genres. I've stumbled onto completed webcomics that ran on a daily basis for five to seven years, huge and sprawling series I could read at my leisure, years compressed to days or weeks. I've read EXCELLENT stories.

And I'll be sharing them with you.