In connection with this week's featured webcomic, Dan Miller's KID RADD, I want to talk about cross-genre appeal. It seems to me that this particular creative strategy never works out well for the mainstream companies: I'm sure we all recall such catastrophic experiments as I HEART MARVEL and DC's line of ill-fated horror film adaptations. The failure was two-fold there - not only did the core readership stay away, but fans of those other genres such as romance and horror weren't interested either. That raises an interesting question: can comics accurately capture the cross-genre effect at all? Does MARVEL ZOMBIES scare you? Does it have the same effect as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD? Or, to make the comparison fairer, did MARVEL ZOMBIES/ARMY OF DARKNESS appeal to EVIL DEAD fans, or fans of horror films in general? I don't think so.
It might be an issue of compatibility: horror, after all, relies on scaring the audience, on audio cues (the soundtrack), on boogeymen leaping out of the shadows. That's not really something a comic can replicate. Then again, romance actually gains something when you have imagery to go along with the words (well, unless you're a fan of the whole overwrought "he thrust his purple-headed warrior into her quivering mound of love pudding" style), and yet: Mark Millar's TROUBLE. Go figure.
The reason this is relevant to KID RADD is because, aside from telling a great adventure story, Dan Miller designs a fictional world that appeals to me as a fan of video games, especially games from the late '80s and early '90s. A lot of KID RADD's humor is derived from conventions you'd probably be familiar with if you ever played a SUPER MARIO BROS. game, and it's precisely that mix of mediums and genres that makes a good webcomic even better.
Radd, our titular hero, is the protagonist of a platform video game where he blasts mindless drones in a quest to save his girlfriend Sheena. The comic begins with an introduction to Radd, his world, the game, and his relationship with the unseen player that controls him. Together, Radd and his player eventually beat the game, repeating the cycle over and over until they master it completely. And then one day, Radd's player doesn't come back.
That's where the story really starts.
Don't let the quasi-simplistic pixel art fool you - Miller actually raises some pretty complicated issues in KID RADD, particularly when it comes to philosophies like nihilism, fatalism and determinism. These concepts aren't explored to any great length, but they add some depth to what could've been a straightforward boomfest. Miller also makes good use of the telescoping plot structure: as the series progresses, the stakes get higher and higher, the tale becomes more and more epic, and Radd evolves and grows.
KID RADD is also noteworthy for the ways it uses its "canvas": combining pixel art, animation and MIDI music, Miller creates a true multimedia experience. Additionally, the entire webcomic is available for download via a self-extracting EXE file: it's about 30MB, over 3,000 files, and like the magic sword in Jeph Loeb's WOLVERINE, I don't know how it works - only that it clearly does. As I understand it, the panels aren't single images but bits and pieces combined with background, foreground and so on to create the complete panel.
For story, art and characterization, I give this webcomic a VERY GOOD, but its technical construction is so impressive that I'm bumping it up to EXCELLENT.
Technical notes: this pixel-based comic ran from February 2002 to September 2004, for a total of 601 comics split into 29 chapters. It's in color and uses a HTML/GIF-based viewer. Though the main page warns against viewing it through Internet Explorer 6, I've been using that for a while now and never noticed any problems (though some MIDI files lag when you stream them online). There's a selection of amusing "extras" available both at the site and in the EXE file - worth checking out after you've finished the story.