Wait, What? Ep. 123: Assault Monitors

 photo 056e8705-2df6-408f-a364-dbc9cee4a351_zps26378d3c.jpgFrom the amazing Kirby-written, Kirby-drawn finale to the first Super Powers miniseries.

See, everyone? I don't blow every deadline, just some of the deadlines.

Anyway, we're back (although SPOILER: we're off next week again) with not quite two hours of Kirby talk, Ewing talk, and...three year old niece talk?  Um, I'm afraid the answer to all of those is: YES.  Join us after the jump for show notes, why don't you?

0:00-2:35:  Hello again!  It has only been about two weeks but we are confoundingly rusty. 2:35-19:01:  And yet, within the first three minutes we are talking comics.  More specifically, we are talking the terrific Ethan Rilly's Pope Hats #3, which Graeme found on the cheap while we were at the comic store together up in Portland.  We talk about it, the work of Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian; the Paul books by Michel Rabagliati; how it feels to be in the elite cadre of CE newsletter writers; the difficulty of digging through long boxes as you get old; the food in Portland; Vegan Viking -- Portland food or Jack Kirby character?; the hero of World War II, Ken Dynamo: and more. 19:01-21:16: After some problems with his 2000 A.D. app, Jeff managed to get his subscription ironed out and was up to his neck in 2000 A.D.  And so in Part One of "this week in Al Ewing," we rant about the Zombo strip in 2000 A.D.'s Free Comic Book Day issue, or do until an unexpected tech snag sends us instead into…. 21:16-21:52:  INTERMISSION ONE! 21:52-24:19:  And we are back, with a story from Graeme about some hold music that is all about listening to music while on hold.  Meta.  And then about a company that has put the Star Trek logo onto an arrangement of atoms. Terrifying. 24:19-29:33:  But, yes. Back Al Ewing and Henry Flint's fantastic Zombo story for the 2000 A.D. Free Comic Book Day story.  Also, Graeme was in the store during Free Comic Book Day and saw some eye-opening things.  (I mean, apart from comics.) 29:33-34:54:  Hey, Whatnauts:  care to help a brother out?  Jeff is looking for ideal comic books for his three year old niece that are age appropriate and feature female action heroes.  This segment talks about the stuff he's looked at, the stuff he's looking for, and how you can help. 34:54-54:08: And somehow this leads into Justice League of America #3.  Graeme has read a bunch of recent DC titles and comes away with a good feeling about the variety in the New 52's line-up…or does he?  Included in the discussion:  the latest issue of Swamp Thing, Suicide Squad #20 by Ales Kot and Patrick Zircher; Ann Nocenti doing her thing on Katana; Jeff Lemire's Green ArrowBatman & Robin, and more.  By contrast, Jeff read The Movement #1 and Action Comics #20, and was maybe not so positive about it. 54:08-59:59:  Part Two of "this week in Al Ewing":  Graeme sells Jeff on Avengers Assemble #15AU, and Mr. Ewing's latest novel, The Fictional Man. 59:59-1:07:22:  Also under Graeme's magnifying lens, Gilbert Hernandez's Julio's Day and Paul Pope's The Death of Haggard West. 1:07:22-1:07:43: Intermission Two! 1:07:43-1:16:16: Can you withstand the onslaught of….The Graemebot! And Jeff has a story of frustration--dire funny book frustration.  Family are involved. 1:16:16-1:28:09: Jeff has seen Iron Man 3 and talks about that a bit.  What about Jeff's boycott?  He talks about that, too, as well as the weirdness that appears to the Avengers 2 negotiations and Marvel Studios. 1:28:09-1:32:46:  Which brings us to Graeme's tweet about Marvel and Jack Kirby that was retweeted 645 times. The figures in Graeme's tweet comes from the first issue of Comic Book Creator from Two Morrows Press, which we also talk about for a bit. 1:32:46-1:55:56: Speaking of Kirby, we discuss The Jack Kirby Omnibus Vol. 2, as well as the amazing "White Zero" issue of 2001: A Space Odyssey #5.  We discuss the first Super Powers miniseries, especially the last issue written and drawn by Kirby. 1:55:56-end: Closing comments.  Next week we have a skip week thing going on (again) but we make pledges! We make vows!  We take oaths! To try and give a good run of episodes for a bit.

As for the episode itself, well, hmm.  It probably hasn't hit iTunes yet (although that RSS feed does seem to synch up quite nicely to it these days) but, as always, you are more than welcome to listen to it here:

Wait, What? Ep. 123: Assault Monitors

As always, we hope you enjoy, and we thank you for listening!

Wait, What? Ep. 101: Little Shavers

2001_kirbyKirby. Kubrick. 2001.

2001 for Episode 101?  I don't think it's deliberate, but knowing Mr. McMillan, I wouldn't entirely rule it out either.

After the jump:  Welcome to a new age of... Show notes!

0:00-1:51: Testing, testing! (Okay, I admit it: the new age of show notes is pretty much exactly like the old age of show notes.)
1:51-6:39:  Graeme (and his new friend, a mystical crow) share an observation about Brian Bendis and his interviews on Word Balloon, which leads to a bit of discussion about our sound problems for Ep. 100.  And if anyone wants to do up a splash page for "Even Troopers Have Their Limits!" as described herein, we would figure out some way to thank you for it (probably in twitter shout-outs and old review copies, and if you've listened to enough episodes, you know exactly how the labor for those rewards is being divided).
6:39-10:13: Are you experienced in the art of... K-Box?  Graeme and Jeff begin developing their next money-making scheme before your very eyes--the oral history of infamous Internet commenters.
10:13-29:58: On to the comics! Graeme wraps up his New52 Zero Issue overview with an examination of the highly remarkable revisions to Tim Drake's history. And Jason Todd's history. And Guy Gardener's history.  And Damien Wayne's history. And Selina Kyle's history.  You may sense a trend here.  (Also there were a few parts where I could've edited out the musings of mystical crow in there, but I didn't.)
29:58-34:28: You know what's not an Issue Zero?  Prophet #29 by Brandon Graham and Farel Darymple.  It is probably Jeff's favorite issue since the reboot, if for no other reason than it nails Space Conan angle he finds so enjoyable.  Graeme is much more coolish on the reboot generally, and that is a thing we rap about at least long enough to provide...
34:28-49:25: The world's greatest segue to what Graeme has been reading:  Jack Kirby's 2001: A Space Odyssey!  In the first of this episode's two dramatic readings, Graeme performs Kirby's text page from the first issue to help make sure our minds are properly blown.
49:25-53:38: So properly blown are our minds, in fact, that Jeff has to get off the phone and call back due to worries about the tech quality of the call.  (Also, it should be noted:  Jeff is recording despite managing to once again strain his back, and so has taken a muscle relaxant to allow him to twist at the hips easily and sit comfortably and other fun stuff that feels more and more like dire necessities once they are taken away.  For extra Whatnaut points, can you determine precisely when the muscle relaxants kick in and make Jeff even more thickheaded and easily baffled?)  We get back, Graeme wraps up talking about Kirby and then moves on to Steve Englehart's '70s run on Dr. Strange.  Us talking admiringly about Englehart is pretty much the free space center spot in the middle of the Wait, What? bingo card, isn't it?
53:38-59:28: Jeff exhorts Graeme to check out Tom Scioli's amazing love letter to Marvel Comics, Final Frontier, a webcomic that starts with a quartet of Fantastic Four analogs giving a farewell concert on the roof of their impressively stacked building, and gets only stranger, wilder, and more hilarious from there.
59:28-1:17:34:  Here's a shocking surprise--Graeme had never heard of Mike Allred's movie, Astroesque!  Jeff saw it fourteen years or so ago, and can kinda remember it?  From there and a consideration of the Allred mystique, it's on to discuss the Cult of the Indy Creator, whether it hurts or helps the artist, and what it might mean for comics and/or Matt Wagner (about which, Jeff has bungled some of the points he's taken from the very keen piece on Wagner by Jason Michelitch over at Hooded Utilitarian ) and/or Gilbert Hernandez.
1:17:34-1:21:12: And from there, we get to Jeff confessing his trepidation about Brandon Graham's Multiple Warheads and Brian Lee O'Malley's upcoming Seconds and why or why not that should be the case.
1:21:12-1:21:58: Graeme has a tender moment alone with you, the listener. (Well, more like thirty-five seconds... but it is very, very tender, so there's that.)
1:21:58-1:30:54:  Then a moment of high drama:  Will Jeff and Graeme remember where they left off?  (They do.) Will they have more to say about the expectations of creators and readers, and their shared responsibility for a work? (Yep.) You must tune in to find out! (Except you don't, see, because I already told you...but that's not to say it isn't interesting listening.)
1:30:54-1:41:48: News time!  It's more than just a thing Jeff tries to get Graeme to talk about while he tries to find a reference. Kirkman! Millar! Ultimate Avengers hardcover! Sale prices at Comixology!
1:41:48-1:47:31: Time for our second dramatic reading--this time it's Jeff, covering that well-known cowboy's lament, Letter from Matt Fraction to Jaime Hernandez in Love & Rockets New Stories #5 (in the key of E).  And maybe we get our new podcast motto out of it?
1:47:31-end: Speed round! (By which I mean, the time of the podcast where we kind of act like we're on speed.)  Jeff likes The New Deadwardians.  He likes it a lot.  Graeme mentions Larime Taylor, an artist who draws comics with his mouth.  And then we spend some time wondering about Morrisoncon, which will be over by the time you ever hear us talk about it. (And once again, we prove which of us is the optimistic one and which the more pessimistic one.)  Also, the return of our special guest-star, information about our upcoming birthdays, and how you can prepare for at least one of us, should you so choose.
Chances are you can still find us on iTunes, sort of, but, hey, there's always, like, here?
As always, we hope you enjoy...and thanks for listening!

Does Abhay Rambling Incoherently about Webcomics Sound Fun? Oh. Oh well. Whoops.

It's 2010. I wanted to start the decade by talking about the future.

But, heck, I don't know anything about the future. This one is just about webcomics.

WARNING: this one is also particularly image intense. If that's a concern for your computer, you might want to skip this one.

If you google "overstimulated"-- the seventh link google finds, at the time of this essay, is for a webcomic.

The Webcomic List lists 15,075 comics at the time of this essay. That isn’t the total number of webcomics in existence; that’s just the number of webcomics that signed up for that particular website. So: more than 15,075. Maybe a little more, maybe significantly more-- either way, more.

Scott McCloud on March 20, 2009: "I expect webcomics to continue to grow in number and importance to the comics scene in coming years. [...] I was saying that I expected it to be a decade or two before webcomics 'slowed down' — i.e., stopped growing."

More and more and ever more.

How do you find the good one?

I wanted to write about the future. What does the future look like?

Like the goodly Mr. Hibbs, like maybe Erik Larsen, I was reading the Beat's Annual End of the Year survey-- the word tablet was used by the all-professional respondents 23 separate times. Tablets, tablets, tablets, tablets. The future is people reading comics on tablets.

Have these people noticed the numbers? It's never mentioned. But if you agree with their premise, if the future is even more demand for digital comics thanks to tablets that we'll all presumably be buying for... some reason(?), an increase in demand is likely to lead to an even further increase in supply. Which is to say: even more webcomics. More and more and more and more. What are people reading on those tablets?

When the number of comics available breaks six figures, which of the comics on the Webcomic List win? Do professional comic creators assume it'll be one of their comics? Why?

At the start of the last decade, there was a lot of talk about the “infinite canvas"-- the idea that webcomics would exploit the geographic freedoms of web-browsers in order to create an entirely new kind of comic. And I guess there are still experiments out there being done with how webcomics are presented-- this one, most famously. But I'm not aware of too many so either they're all getting by me (very possible) or they're in the minority. Infinite canvases didn’t turn out to be very good at selling ugly clothes, and ugly clothes seem to be the petrol that drive the whole webcomics engine. (Which-- comics relying on unfashionable people isn’t anything new, but I don’t know—do you ever feel like God is becoming less subtle with his metaphors?)

There’s Motion Comics, I guess…?

There are defense mechanisms slowly forming to that tidal wave of material. There are the "communities of cartoonists" sites like Act-i-vate, Transmission-X, Dumm Comics, cartoonist-curated sites featuring like-minded talent. Act-i-vate features about 71-ish comics, maybe; Transmission-X features about 13-ish, I think. If I get an urge to read a webcomic, I tend to stick to those sites. I try not to contemplate the 15,000 titles.

Why not, though, for a change of pace? Why not start the decade like that? Why not start by staring into the abyss?

At the moment, the “Most Visited” comic on the Webcomic List is COLLAR 6, “a comedy/quasi-drama with bondage and latex fetishism as the backdrop.

Once we get past our initial Puritan knee-jerk reactions, that sex is dirty and Hester Prynne is a slut and… maize is delicious, COLLAR 6? It basically conforms to my most base prejudices of what to expect from webcomics visually. It kinda-sorta-almost-not-quite-not-really-okay-not-at-all looks like manga. It crudely imitates the surface elements of manga, but none of manga’s underlying intensity of craft. That seems to be the norm for a vast swath of webcomics; it’s to be expected: after all, manga won the battle for youth culture, for various reasons. (One reason: it showed up to the battle for youth culture, at all, in any way whatsoever.)

(A QUICK PARANTHETICAL DIGRESSION ABOUT PURITANS: After typing Puritan in the last sentence, I typed “Pilgrim porn” into Google Image—everybody needs a hobby. Of the 20 results, 7 were images of SCOTT PILGRIM comics, and 1 was an image of Deena Pilgrim from POWERS. None of the images were of Pilgrims celebrating a “Thanksgiving feast.” Conclusion: comics ruin everything.)

So, I don't think I'm in touch with my bondage/latex-fetishism fantasies enough to evaluate the story of COLLAR 6 in a helpful way...? Or maybe I need to start with a webcomic about necking or dry humping, and work my way up to COLLAR 6. I didn't find myself wanting to be handcuffed while reading COLLAR 6. I wouldn't mind a turkey sandwich...? Are there handcuffs made out of turkey sandwich? I want to be restrained by deliciousness.

What else is there to look at?

There’s a webcomic portal named Drunk Duck. Famous more for being run by shitty people, it nevertheless presently claims to be the home for 14,934 webcomics. 14,934 webcomics by creators left alone and ignored by "polite" comics society-- mostly kids, I think: high schoolers, college students, that sort of thing. Here is an excerpt from "How to Make Webcomics" Episode 5: on the subject of "Texting"--

So, the milk tastes a little funny at Drunk Duck, but it's a convenient microcosm. Drunk Duck categorizes its comics visually as follows: Cartoon, American, Manga, Realism, Sprite, Sketch, Experimental, Photographic, and Stick Figure.

What strikes me about that list is there’s a category marked “Experimental” that ISN'T supposed to include comics made of stick figures, photographs, or “sprites.” Think on that for a second. Any of those things being featured in print comics, me personally, I think would qualify as an experiment. Hell, I’ve read comics my whole life-- I don’t even think I know what a “sprite comic” is, actually. Sprite?

...am I close? Wikipedia says a sprite comic is a comic that uses computer sprites. Wikipedia defines a computer sprite as “a graphic image that can move within a larger graphic.” This raises a question: what time is Matlock on? Because I’m an old, old man, and I don’t understand any of you kids and your slang. A graphic image that -- ? Man, I just want to watch Andy Griffith solve crimes and/or have sex with the Mayflower. Something like Andy Griffith saying “I put the Magna in the Magna Carta, Aunt Bee.” Something like that. "Andy Griffith didn't penetrate Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock penetrated him!" Something with a story.

But imagine growing up taking that level of choice for granted. Imagine growing up and having equal access to COLLAR 6 and BOMBSHELL FIGHTS FOR AMERICA. BOMBSHELL jumped out at me the most of the "Featured" Drunk Duck comics-- it's paranoid science fiction, an alternate history thriller where upon killing herself, Marilyn Monroe is recruited across realities by a conspiracy run by Lyndon Johnson and Howard Hughes to battle a rival conspiracy lead by Richard Nixon.

All done with manipulated photographs of Nixon, Johnson, and Norma Jeane.

In print comics, colliding Phillip K. Dick and James Ellroy like that might generate some attention. If I heard someone at Vertigo had that in mind instead of ... instead of everything but SCALPED that they publish, I'd be pretty excited. But webcomics? It's one of tens of thousands.

It co-exists on the same site as PUTRID MEAT, another likable comic colored with what appear to be colored pencils(?). I don’t think I entirely understood the story—it appears to be about a garbage collector in a 2000AD-ish future, having what I think might be ultraviolent adventures. I didn't honestly comprehend what was going on exactly, but I liked it anyways-- I just like how the art looks like something I’d worry about finding in a locker, if I were a junior high school vice-principal.

Both on the same site as the apparently very popular (according to the Browse function of the site) I WAS KIDNAPPED BY LESBIAN PIRATES FROM OUTER SPACE-- that one with more traditional art taken and digitally "scratched up", chewed, manipulated to create the appearance of pages that had aged.

As the not-my-thing-at-all low-brow machinima comic CRU THE DWARF... As Hyperactive "manga"-style comics, funny animals in carefully shaded pencil, weird monster-looking stuff, etc. And that's just one site, one tiny corner of the internet I don't usually make it a point to visit. That's not counting Keenspot. That's not counting what happens when you go way off reservation.

Want to read German superhero photo-comics? Or would you prefer your superhero photo-comics to be by Americans? How many options do you WANT exactly? Want to read extremely Not-Safe-For-Work gag comics of Alan Moore ejaculating while having rough anal sex with his own doppelgänger? I don't either, but it's there if you want, need it, crave it.

It's there if you can find it.

And not just the sub-professional or the weird. Let's do a compare-contrast. Here is a page from BOXER HOCKEY.

And for comparison purposes, here is a page from COWBOY NINJA VIKING.

If you've never heard of either, can you tell me without looking which is available for free and which you have to pay for?

Answer: the previous page was free, on the internet; the latter page, Image Comics charged $3.50, for the pleasure.

How about art-comics? Here is a page of comic I strongly disliked recently, Danica Novgorodoff's SLOW STORM. That one costs about $18.00.

I googled "what is the strangest webcomic"-- what did I find? I found a bunch of photos of Myles Standish getting stuffed with cocks. What-?? How did--?? But eventually, I found my way to PERFECT STARS:

It wasn't my ideal comic experience, but whatever "odd and unique comic experience" itch I was hoping that SLOW STORM would scratch? It certainly did a better job of it.

Let alone the constant stream of classic material coming online everyday. Did you see those Winsor McCay drawings from Golden Age Comic Book Stories the other day? Holy shit.

In summary: have you guys heard that there's a lot of stuff on the internet? For serious-- stuff for days, guys! Maybe you hadn't heard.

If the future is digital comics, if the future is webcomics: how do people expect to cope with the deluge of material? How is anyone expected to find what they consider signal in that noise? Surfing through webcomics, past Achewood, past Kate Beaton, past "respectability," it's hard for me to stop and pay attention to any one comic. There's always some other comic to surf over to, you know? With that level of choice, how do you know when to stop and actually spend time on any one thing? How do you know there's not something just a little better a couple clicks away?

How do you find what you like? How do you find a needle in a haystack? How do you find a cliche to type into an essay? You ask me for one because you know how much I love them. You're welcome.

Webcomics, for me, are a prime example of the Paradox of Choice. The paradox of choice (which I think Jeff alluded to previously) describes how greater consumer choices invariably lead to greater consumer anxiety. Consumers with fewer choices buy more, are happier with their choices. But "consumer hyperchoice"? That usually leads to "frustration, fatigue and regret." I know a lot of people are waiting for an iTunes for comics, but frustration, fatigue and regret? Dude, that sounds like a stone bummer.

I probably shouldn't worry. There's a lot of free music out there, and that hasn't stopped iTunes. I'm not the guy to ask about that-- between youtube and mp3 blogs, not counting concerts, I haven't paid more than $10 in a year for music in more than a decade. But I guess somebody out there is...? The internet didn't stop Lady Gaga. Neither did ears. Go figure.

You can say: "Oh, there should be critics who guide you to the good stuff. 95% of everything is shit, so we need critics to find that 5%." Who can possibly wade through tens of thousands of comics in a meaningful way? With the number & range of webcomics both predicted only to increase, what will a "knowledgeable opinion" even look like?

If you believe that 95% of everything is shit, and only 5% is good-stuff, if you accept "Sturgeon's Law", at 15,000 comics? That means there should be about, oh, 750 great webcomics in existence. I would bet that I can name maybe ... twenty...? And I like less than I can name.

Comixtalk did a year-end roundtable in December 2009, in which they spoke to not less than eight people. Between the eight of them, roughly five billion webcomics are mentioned over the course of the round-table. So: be sure to check those out... I think the anxiety that the Paradox of Choice creates is... To find what you like, with that many choices available, boy, you probably need to have a very precise idea what it is that you like. Who has that? I sure don't. If hyperchoice creates an anxiety, isn't it ultimately an anxiety born of questions of self-knowledge?

What do you like? What are you looking for? Do you even know what you're looking for? What do you want OUT OF LIFE? WHO ARE YOU?


The other day, I watched a video by a 14-year old kid on youtube, this strangely affecting moment of him and his girlfriend in a convenience store set to music. It's going around the tumblr parts of the internet, I guess...?

The same day, I was looking for pictures of pretty girls on the internet—everybody needs a hobby—and I came across Look Book, a website of “fashion inspiration from real people”—regular ladies and gents, dressing up in their Sunday’s best, showing off looks they’d created, part-time models, pretty people celebrating looking fancy instead of, you know… consider the following example of the more official and “legitimate” industry of “Fashion”:

You guys know more about Batman than I do-- when did Joker decide to murder boners???

And then today, I started listening to this nerdcore mixtape, I AM JUST A RAPPER, by Donald Glover and DC Pierson of Derrick Comedy, Mystery Team and Community fame—you know, just comedy guys putting dopey, dorky rhymes over that Sleigh Bells song or Animal Collective songs.

Or, besides Jimmy Kimmel slaughtering Jay Leno on his own show, or that movie YOUTH IN REVOLT (which I thought was underrated), my favorite thing this week is Ask 60's Bob Dylan Anything. People send in questions, and “60’s Bob Dylan” answers them. It’s just started, but I don’t know—something about the idea of that website really makes me laugh…

The “democratization of media"-- I think that's the technical term for it all.

What I think unites the examples above, it isn’t just that the internet’s opened up an opportunity for more people to be in “show business”— it’s that it’s increased the total range of what’s "normal". These are all examples of things that really didn’t even exist when I was a kid, at least for all intents and purposes. Short films? Mixtapes? Man, I grew up in Cincinnati—we have good chili, but it’s not exactly the Sorbonne. Photos of pretty girls? A kid got in trouble for that sort of thing when I was growing up; well, he had a camera rig hidden in his closet, not 100% the same thing, maybe, but close.

What does normal even mean anymore?

With comics-- I grew up with “house styles”-- entire publishing companies, trying to recreate the styles of 2, maybe 3 artists. And I suppose if you asked me to picture a comic in my head, I’d picture something that existed in one of those house styles.

What would someone picture in their head after growing up with comics after this explosion of different styles and approaches?

What would it have been like to grow up with not just an explosion of comics, but amidst this entire cacophony of animated gifs, youtube videos, facebook status updates, blogs, twitters, texts, chaos? My attention span is swiss cheese-- I can't even do simple math anymore; that part of my brain is gone. And yet comics seem to have thrived in that environment, have thrived in that chaos, now even themselves reflect that chaos.

What does the future look like? Do you just picture one thing-- can you just picture a tablet? Or is it just a jumbled, writhing, shrieking mess? Did you know if you google "overstimulated"-- the seventh link google finds is for a webcomic?

Wait, wait-- did I say that already?

Diana Goes Digital #601: Capsule Edition

Back with more webcomics... * ERFWORLD recently wrapped up its first book, "The Battle of Gobwin Knob", and I have to admit that Rob Balder and Jamie Noguchi had me fooled. I'd pegged this series as a cute, light-hearted parody of D&D, mainly because that's what you see for the first thirty pages or so: you've got an Evil Overlord besieged by an Alliance of Noble Men and Elves, armies moving and fighting in "turns", all profanity being replaced with the word "boop" (it's much funnier than it sounds)... and there's no shortage of amusing moments scattered about. But once the titular battle actually gets underway, ERFWORLD turns into a tightly-plotted war story that reads like an exercise in strategic thinking: we get to see Parson's tactical plans both before and during the siege, and Balder and Noguchi have a great knack for setting up the dominoes and tilting them over at precisely the right moment. An EXCELLENT start to what I'm sure will be an epic series.

* Ursula Vernon's DIGGER used to be restricted to paying subscribers over at Graphic Smash, but it went "public" a while back and I figure I'd give it a try. The art's lovely, but I thought the story was a bit too formulaic: to wit, a wombat named Digger accidentally tunnels into a distant, magical landscape and has to find her way home. It's done competently enough, I suppose, but this sort of story tends to hinge on an attachment to the characters, and I never warmed up to Vernon's cast. OKAY.

* The opposite is true of BOBWHITE: Magnolia Porter's characters are instantly likeable, though admittedly they're based on some very familiar archetypes (Marlene's the eccentric film student, Ivy's the disinterested artist with no ambition, and Cleo... Cleo needs Ritalin. Lots of Ritalin). So why is this VERY GOOD where DIGGER isn't? I think part of it has to do with the genre: you have to work a lot harder to make the inhabitants of a fantastic/magical world accessible to readers (especially if they're non-human characters), but "slice of life" comics like BOBWHITE and OCTOPUS PIE derive their strength from verisimilitude. I've had conversations with my friends that were a lot like this one. And that's probably why I've enjoyed what Porter's been doing so far.

* DUBIOUS TALES has been over for almost two years now, but it's still worth flagging, because Andrew James does some pretty interesting things in the space of five "books" (one of which is a text-only piece). At first glance, DUBIOUS TALES is a soap opera about a bunch of quirky college students living together somewhere in England. Darren's got a Greek tragedy mask stuck to his face, Caitlin claims to be a demon hunter, Gwilym has some pretty unorthodox ideas about theatre... they're all unusual, and James develops the complicated web of relationships even as he keeps the plot moving at a fairly rapid pace. What I enjoyed most about this series was that you never quite knew what to expect: the gang could be dealing with a perverted landlord one second and fleeing two-dimensional tin-foil demons the next, followed by brainwashing hypnotists from the Soviet Union. And while I would've loved to see more, at least James ended the story on a high note. VERY GOOD.

* It says a lot that even after nearly 150 strips, THE NON-ADVENTURES OF WONDERELLA still makes me laugh on a weekly basis. Whether it's guest-starring Patrick Stewart or Morgan Freeman, or exploring the profound question of what makes mankind unique or showing us the many, MANY flaws of time-travel, Justin Pierce keeps the funny coming. EXCELLENT.

Diana Goes Digital #600: The Water's Rising But I Know The Course

Are you still trying to figure out how a man who once tried to sacrifice his nemesis to Magical Goblin People now seems to control the American government? Have you been stunned speechless at the sight of Bat-Signal Jazz Hands? Do you have the distinct impression that this is your daddy's Flash? If the answer to any of the above is "YES MY GOD MAKE THE HURTING STOP", then you probably understand my current near-total apathy towards mainstream comics. And that's really why I haven't been as active here as I should be: every week I take home a bunch of comics, and I read them, and I find myself with absolutely nothing to say. We've even passed the point where creative failures are interesting enough to merit discussion: I had a lot to say about CIVIL WAR #7 despite it being one of the worst comics Marvel published that year, but Wolverine's Sword of Otaku? What-ever.

And so we return to the Webcomic Review! I let this project lapse a while back on account of Too Much Damn Work To Do, but in the words of Mark Hammill: "I'm tanned, I'm rested and I'm ready to give this town a wedgie again!" Let's start with SKIN HORSE, the latest from webcomic mastermind Shaenon Garrity. Some of you may recall my high praise of Garrity's previous series, NARBONIC - one of the best webcomics I've had the pleasure of reading - and I'm glad to say that SKIN HORSE retains a lot of those strengths without feeling like a rehash.

As with NARBONIC, SKIN HORSE derives its humor from its delightfully madcap premise: the title refers to a government task force that deals with "nonhuman sapients", such as human/lion hybrids and opera-singing silverfish. The team consists of Sweetheart (a genetically-engineered canine), Unity (a zombie) and Tip (a crossdressing heterosexual therapist), and they constantly find themselves having to quell an uprising of Canadian werewolves or to placate a sentient attack helicopter addicted to "World of Warcraft".

It might take a while to warm up to the characters, because Garrity has avoided using the archetype of the "straight man" as a way of easing us into this world; even Tip, arguably the most grounded member of the cast, has his quirks and isn't at all phased by the rampant weirdness. But once you jump that hurdle, I defy you to not be amused by Sweetheart's penchant for goblin erotica or the misadventures at the Department of Irradiation.

The series has been running since January 2008, but every storyline so far has been self-contained (unlike the "Uber-Arc" that ran throughout NARBONIC). Obviously, this strategy has pros and cons: on the one hand, every arc is theoretically accessible on its own, so if you're pressed for time you could just start with the currently-in-progress Dead Dogs and fill in the backstory at your convenience. On the other hand, my #1 favorite moment of NARBONIC was that exact moment where all the pieces started fitting together, where Garrity's long-term plan was finally revealed. Now, it might be too early in the series' run to completely dismiss the possibility of a "bigger picture", but so far there haven't been many plot elements carried over from one storyline to the next.

Still, those are minor quibbles given the consistency of Garrity's artwork and her fourth-panel punchlines. A lot of craft goes into this comic - check the filenames of each strip and you'll find the Secret Origin of Tip Wilkins - and that's no small feat given its daily format (story strips are posted Monday through Saturday, with Sundays set aside for sketches and fan-art). An EXCELLENT series with plenty of potential to get even better over time.

Diana Goes Digital #5: You Spin Me Right Round

Sorry for the hold-up, but I've been locked in a cosmic battle between good and evil for the past few weeks (I'll let you guys decide which side I was on). No quarter was asked, none was given, and mark my words, I will get Vista off my computer. If I made it through Rob Liefeld's heyday without having my eyes poked out by Cable's pointy feet, I can beat my husband's fascination with transparent windows... Anyway, I thought we'd take a look at spin-offs today. It's hardly a foreign concept in the biz: every X-MEN eventually begets a NEW MUTANTS (though, like Pringles and Lolcats, it rarely stops with just one). When they're done properly, spin-offs are a welcome extension/continuation of a great story - of course, that concept is problematized in a mainstream where most stories never actually end (case in point: you have to wonder what would've happened if NEW MUTANTS had supplanted X-MEN rather than supplimented it).

But webcomics can be - and often are - finite, which leaves the door open for the question Peter Milligan put best in ENIGMA: "And then what?" Aeire's QUEEN OF WANDS was an early favorite of mine; I discovered it during its second crossover with SOMETHING POSITIVE in 2004. It was an easy jump to make; QUEEN OF WANDS had a similar tone in its heavily-cynical approach to geek culture, and if Aeire wasn't as vicious as R.K. Milholland, the guest appearances by Charles Darwin and the Grammar Nazi still amused. QUEEN OF WANDS also had a much smaller cast, allowing Aeire to create a consistent focus on her protagonist, Kestrel, and the people around her.

My memories of QUEEN OF WANDS are mostly GOOD: the art was eccentric, but enjoyable, with marked improvement over the years. And if Aeire had an occasional tendency to overdo the flashbacks within flashbacks and the melodrama, she balanced it out with plenty of light-hearted moments. But what I remember most about QUEEN OF WANDS is the way it ended - in a medium where stories can just stop cold when the writer loses interest, it was a real treat to see Kestrel's journey of maturation and self-discovery come to a kind of natural conclusion. And the day after QUEEN OF WANDS ended, Kestrel appeared in SOMETHING POSITIVE, where she became a recurring character in typical Milholland fashion. And that's a sort of spin-off there, because Kestrel's story goes on after the last panel of QUEEN OF WANDS, even if she's now in the hands of another writer.

Two years later (an eternity in net-time), Aeire teamed up with Chris Daily to produce PUNCH AN' PIE, a QUEEN OF WANDS spin-off featuring the hyperactive, childlike Angela in the lead role. It's a very different webcomic, not just artistically but also in terms of the story, and to be totally honest, it hasn't quite clicked for me. I realize that rehashing QUEEN OF WANDS would've been completely derivative, but at the same time, PUNCH AN' PIE takes a long, long time to start "moving" (as opposed to that oh-so-fitting first page of QUEEN OF WANDS, which pretty much sets the tone for the entire series), and six months in, I just wasn't feeling the same kind of energy that had made QUEEN OF WANDS so enjoyable. That's not to say it doesn't have its moments, but... well, part of the problem might be that I never really liked Angela to begin with, and that's crucial when it comes to spin-offs: it's the same reason why, despite my deep appreciation of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, its sister show ANGEL never held my interest for more than a few episodes at a time - I wasn't fond of Angel (to say the least), so the prospect of an Angel-centric series had me about as thrilled as a diabetic trapped in Willy Wonka's factory. And that's likely why PUNCH AN' PIE just didn't rate beyond OKAY for me.

Having sung the praises of Shaenon Garrity's NARBONIC, it should come as no surprise that I'm recommending LI'L MELL AND SERGIO, a spin-off featuring the irrepressible Mell Kelly in first grade, with brainy nerd Sergio replacing Dave Davenport in the "straight man" role. I don't know why it surprised me to see how perfectly Garrity captured the essence of Mell's character - she did create her, after all - but it's as funny and unpredictable as its parent series. Unlike the QUEEN OF WANDS/PUNCH AN' PIE schism, LI'L MELL AND SERGIO does feel like an extension of NARBONIC in some capacity, and it's especially fitting that Mell is the star, given how perfectly the story of Helen and Dave ended.

Let's move on to the works of K. Sandra Fuhr, an interesting case study in how the malleable nature of webcomics can work to one's advantage. Fuhr's first comic was UTOPIA, a sci-fi comedy which featured, among other characters, a trio of vampires: Mikhael, Harley and Tybalt. They were eventually spun off into their own series, THIS IS HOME, by all accounts the biggest maelstrom of teen angst, rape, murder and melodrama since Laurell K. Hamilton. And when that didn't work, Fuhr took her lead characters, stripped away the pseudo-Gothic trappings, and BOY MEETS BOY was born.

Then she deleted UTOPIA and THIS IS HOME. Poof, not a trace of it left anywhere online. And believe me, I've looked.

The reason I find this so interesting is because you don't have that kind of total dissolution in mainstream comics: even the most massive reboot I know of, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, was never able to completely excise everything that had come before it. That pre-history may not have been in continuity anymore, but it still existed, people still talked about it and - most importantly - they could still access pre-Crisis material on a regular basis. Eventually, DC had no choice but to acknowledge pre-Crisis history again. But with webcomics, you push a button, and as far as the average reader is concerned, the comic never existed. Fuhr was essentially able to retcon her own bibliography. And if traits belonging to earlier versions of the characters bled through... well, how would you know?

Getting back to the actual comics for a bit: BOY MEETS BOY is pretty much your textbook yaoi manga, with an added dose of pop culture that, unfortunately, has become a touch dated by now. The premise can pretty much be summed up in a single page. Still, it's cute enough that I appreciate it on its own terms: for example, you have the gag and its requisite counter-gag, various breakings of the fourth wall and so on. GOOD stuff, all the moreso for being unpredictable with its storylines: you may think you know where the story's headed, but there's usually a twist just around the corner.

A year into the series, Fuhr imported Fox and Collin, formerly of UTOPIA, into the story. Introduced as college misfits and nemeses to Harley and Mikhael, they ended up becoming rather dominant characters, to the point where entire storylines revolved around them. I don't think it came as any surprise to Fuhr's readers that when BOY MEETS BOY ended, Fox and Collin were spun off into their own series, FRIENDLY HOSTILITY, which kicked off with a storyline that fleshed out the wacky Maharassa clan.

I should note that both Fuhr's writing and her artwork undergo a massive evolution as time goes on: if BOY MEETS BOY has some awkward aspects and the art can generously be described as rough and inconsistent, FRIENDLY HOSTILITY hits the ground running with smoother artwork, stronger dialogue, and less of a reliance on the histrionics native to the yaoi genre. In fact, I'd argue that FRIENDLY HOSTILITY leaves yaoi and its conventions behind altogether: it's much more realistic (the occasional demonic cameo aside), more in the vein of a romantic comedy than the out-and-out chaos of its predecessor. It's only right that FRIENDLY HOSTILITY be graded VERY GOOD, in recognition of the author's vast improvement over a relatively short amount of time.

And finally, technical notes:

* QUEEN OF WANDS ran from July of 2002 to February of 2005, followed by a "rerun" of the series from March of 2005 to November of 2006 with commentary by Aeire. Full color. The series archive has a "Storyline" option but it only goes up to 2004; you're on your own after that.

* PUNCH AN' PIE is ongoing, in black and white. The series started at the end of February 2007, and updates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Unfortunately, the archives are woefully out-of-date, making navigation a real challenge.

* LI'L MELL AND SERGIO is ongoing, in black and white. Girlamatic used to charge subscription fees to read the series, but it's now free of charge. It updates on a weekly basis, featuring multiple artists.

* BOY MEETS BOY ran from September 2000 to January 2004, in black and white. The very last page featured Fox and Collin inviting the readers to check out FRIENDLY HOSTILITY...

* ... which is ongoing, in black and white; the "Problematic" storyline began concurrently with the end of BOY MEETS BOY, while the series proper started in August of 2004.

Diana Goes Digital #4: Natural Twenties

One of the most widespread genres in webcomics is fantasy, specifically that swords-and-sorcery sub-genre usually associated with RPGs (ie: DUNGEONS & DRAGONS). Interestingly enough, many of those webcomics (including all the series we'll be looking at today) have a decidedly subversive tone to them: they poke fun at conventions, they turn basic tropes on their heads, they break the fourth wall with a wink and a nudge. It's probably a reaction to the prominence of fantasy in the mainstream, particularly "serious" fantasy like LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER (you have to wonder what Mel Brooks would've done had he picked Tolkien's trilogy to parody rather than STAR WARS or ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES) - but that reaction leads to a whole multitude of stories that work with, and against, the formula.

LOOKING FOR GROUP by Ryan Sohmer and Lar Desouza is a basic "inversion" scenario - Cale'anon, the only good member of a wholly evil race, falls in with a trio of amoral killers on some sort of ill-defined quest. Despite his heroic intentions, Cale keeps stumbling into situations where he does more harm than good. It's comedy, of course, playing on the protagonist's continual mortification at the slaughter and mayhem, whereas his allies are decidedly less troubled. It starts out rather well, though Sohmer and Desouza lost me mid-second issue, when the story takes a more serious turn at depicting an internal Elvish conflict. The quips keep on coming, but the transition didn't really work for me.

Tarol Hunt's GOBLINS takes a different approach. Rather than deal with alignments (good, evil, lawful, chaotic, etc.), what's inverted here is the racial subtext built into the generic RPG world. Our protagonists are, as the title suggests, goblins - typically cast as the cannon fodder of the fantasy realm. Ironically, this doesn't change just because the story is about goblins: they're totally out of their league, clearly outmatched by "proper" adventurers. And I think that's a big part of why they're so sympathetic: they're the underdogs fighting the good fight, and despite their "monstrosity", their heroism is never questioned. The series does have one rather major flaw: unlike LOOKING FOR GROUP, which made a (hasty) shift from humor to serious adventuring, GOBLINS vacillates erratically between the two. One moment, we're all having a good laugh at stupid barbarians, the next we have to watch as a childlike protagonist is tortured horribly. It can be difficult to reconcile these extremes, all the moreso because there's no real transition between sequences: you're just snapped back and forth. The end result is somewhat paradoxical, because the world Hunt constructs is full of wonder (especially since you're viewing it through goblin eyes), but it's also a world where very bad things can happen to weak and defenseless people, without any mitigating effect.

If you're looking for consistency, I highly recommend Rich Burlew's ORDER OF THE STICK, one of the best examples of fantasy subversion - but beyond that, it's also an excellent webcomic in itself. Because there's more to this series than the jokes and the play on RPG rules and "mystical artifacts" - ORDER OF THE STICK is a true epic, offering a wide array of story elements such as romance, action, humor even during heroic confrontations, and a war worthy of Peter Jackson. Burlew should also be commended for his tight story structure: each phase of the Order's adventures reads like a novel in a series of novels, and elements from an earlier "book" (ie: the Linear Guild) recur in later stages to have real impact on the storyline. And while some might find the stick-figure-esque artwork simplistic, I actually think it's all the more effective given the story Burlew's telling - and, of course, there can be intricacy even in simplicity, which is precisely what I find here. ORDER OF THE STICK is one of my favorite webcomics, and with good reason.

I only recently discovered YET ANOTHER FANTASY GAMER COMIC by Rich Morris, and despite the title, this strip has some unique qualities when lined up with the other webcomics featured here. For example, in contrast to the other series, YET ANOTHER FANTASY GAMER COMIC has no central character(s): it's an ensemble piece styled on an Arabian Nights pattern where every storyline leads to the next tale, which may be set in a different place with a completely different protagonist. So what starts out as the romance of Bob and Gren smoothly transitions to Arachne and Drow politics, then we get Mrs. Bloodhand's story segueing directly into her son's tale. The overall narrative is always in motion, maneuvering very deftly between these "character clusters". As with ORDER OF THE STICK, I should make a note of the artwork - YET ANOTHER FANTASY GAMER COMIC relies primarily on pencil-based art, so if you're put off by that sort of thing, you might want to skip it over... though you'd be missing out on a great series.

From its very first page, Rob Balder's and Jamie Noguchi's ERFWORLD stood out as something... different. I can honestly say I've never seen a creation myth attributed to a trio of giant Elvii before, or a Tome of AOL. It's an adorable series, reductive in that it infantilizes RPG conventions - necromancy is referred to as Croakamancy, the local warlord calls himself Stanley the Tool after the divine hammer he wields (which just happens to look like a child's toy), dragons are referred to as Dwagons, and the artwork reminds me of chibi (well, minus the enormous eyes). Aside from being so damned cute, ERFWORLD has more than a touch of the surreal to it, which is actually unusual in that most fantasy webcomics I've seen take a very realistic approach to the worlds they create. So this is a fun, refreshing deviation from the norm.

Tom Siddell's GUNNERKRIGG COURT uses surreality much along the same lines, both in the artwork and the story: the titular Court is a boarding school that, in terms of visual design, serves as the anti-Hogwarts (which may explain, in part, my affinity for it) - it's dark, it's huge, there are subtly threatening mysteries around every corner. But the surreal feeling derives from the fact that no one, not even newcomer Antimony Carver, seems bothered by things like minotaurs, demons and robots. Also atypical is the setting: where other fantasy writers would put a great deal of effort into constructing an entire world to accomodate their protagonists, GUNNERKRIGG COURT is very centralized - the various chapters all take place either on the grounds or in the immediate vicinity (though, as it turns out, there's no shortage of nooks and crannies to explore within the Court itself. I also appreciated the subdued tone here, as opposed to the pomp and noise surrounding the world of HARRY POTTER - it feels more genuine, somehow, in the absence of people shrieking about Quidditch and magic beans.

And finally, technical notes:

* LOOKING FOR GROUP is ongoing, in color, currently at 125 pages. It updates every Monday and Thursday and its archive is organized by issues, each of which numbers around 30 pages.

* GOBLINS is ongoing, starting in black and white for two months before moving to full color. The series began in June of 2005 and updates erratically. Its archive divides the series into three books (so far), with additional divisions highlighting various "chapters" in the story.

* ORDER OF THE STICK is ongoing, in color, currently at 533 pages. The archive contains only a list of strips without any specific division, but the printed editions separate the series thus far into three books: strips 1-121, 122-300 and 301-484. It updates three times a week, more or less at random.

* YET ANOTHER FANTASY GAMER COMIC is ongoing, in black and white (with the occasional color strip). The series began in May 2006 and updates on a daily basis. The earliest strips in the archive are organized according to the featured characters, but this eventually gives way to individual titles per strip.

* ERFWORLD is ongoing, in color, currently at 96 pages. It updates Tuesdays and Saturdays. Like ORDER OF THE STICK, the archive doesn't divide the strips by story, though in this case it's probably because Balder and Noguchi are still on their first "book".

* GUNNERKRIGG COURT is ongoing, in color, currently at 17 chapters. It updates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The archive features chapter and page division; additionally, each chapter ends with a bonus page or two featuring less-discussed aspects of the Court's world.

Diana Goes Digital #3: Why Don't People Understand My Intentions

The Mad Scientist is a common staple of the superhero genre: you've got Victor von Doom, Tivo spokesperson Arnim Zola, pre-Crisis Lex Luthor and many more. More often than not, these characters skew towards a very specific personality archetype: the megalomaniacal whackjob with Simon Cowell's ego and Tyra Banks' love of monologuing. Of course, since most mad scientists serve as foils to the heroes, these are good qualities to have, because they ensure that we'll want to see the crazy person get taken down. Conversely, this is also the reason there are many stories with mad scientists and few stories about mad scientists, because would you really want to read a six-issue story arc where Doom goes on and on about his brilliance and his heritage and his family tree and then he grows goat legs and uses magical cellphone powers to summon robot insects that... hmm. Right. Moving on... Anyway, that brings us to today's double-feature: NARBONIC by Shaenon Garrity and A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE by Jon Kilgannon and Mark Sachs. These webcomics are noteworthy not just for the fact that they directly feature mad science and mad scientists, but also for their very different interpretations of that character type.

To call NARBONIC a comedy is at once oversimplifying things and oddly appropriate: it is, after all, a very humorous and funny story with a fair share of whimsy, and even at its most dramatic points, it never lets the reader take things too seriously. And yet Garrity planned her plotlines so carefully, so methodically, foreshadowing events that would take years to unfold, that the term "comedy" just doesn't seem apt enough.

The story concerns Dave, a Computer Science graduate hired by mad scientist Helen Narbon and her gun-happy henchwoman Mell Kelly. The first thing you'll notice about Helen is that she's unlike any mad scientist, male or female, that you've ever seen: she's obsessed with gerbils, charming even when she lapses into her "mwah-ha-ha" mode, and talks about killing people with a cheerful grin straight out of a Disney movie. All of Garrity's characters are endearingly quirky, and they keep on surprising you as the series progresses.

One of the aspects I most enjoyed was the way Garrity never stuck to a specific situation or formula for very long. The status quo got shaken up so often I'm not even sure there ever WAS a status quo. And there was a tremendous amount of variety in terms of output: for example, every new year would start with an eerily prophetic homage to LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. Sundays were occasionally devoted to our heroes' Victorian-era counterparts, or to chapters of an epic fanfic concerning evil yogurt (is there any other kind?), or to guest strips amusingly framed as the cast's desperate search for a new artist. And that was just the peripheral stuff - there was no lack of unpredictable fun in the series proper, ranging from a visit to Hell to a Mad Science Convention to a James Bond-esque adventure story.

But what left me most in awe of Garrity was that, from November 2002 to the very end of the comic, she used the filenames of the strips themselves to tell a prose story about a defining moment in Helen's life. That just blew me away, because I'd never seen anything like it - for printed comics, it would be like using the lines between panels to tell a parallel story to the one playing out on the page. That was an ingenious technique, and very demonstrative of the wit and cleverness Garrity used on a daily basis for over six years. If a rank higher than EXCELLENT existed, I'd award it here.

Kilgannon and Sachs' A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE takes mad science in a decidedly different direction: these are the bombastic, domination-oriented nuts we've seen before, but what's emphasized here is something that's (surprisingly) rarely touched upon in this sort of fiction: the fact that mad scientists are, in fact, mad. In this webcomic, mad science is a form of mental illness, a "meme" that cmpels its victims to follow a precise behavioral pattern that, ironically enough, is the quintessential formula for the mad scientist archetype: first they come up with a ludicrous scheme, then they build a giant robot, loudly announce their plans, get chased by the authorities, and finally surrender on the condition that their research is kept intact. This is intriguing notion because it turns what has traditionally been seen as a character archetype into something different.

What appeals to me with regards to A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE is its particular mix of genres and styles: artistically, there's a strong manga influence (big eyes, odd hairstyles/colors, etc.), but it reads like a Warren Ellis story (well, at least Ellis prior to his Year of Whoredom and the resulting creative STDs) - a hard-boiled detective with a dark secret in his past is paired with an avatar of a living planet, chasing down leads on an impending crime across the solar system. It's an adequately-executed premise that doesn't get bogged down by technospeak, as can sometimes happen with sci-fi. GOOD, because the story is fun and functional but it doesn't reinvent the wheel.

Technical notes: NARBONIC ran from August 2000 to December 2006. There's a link on the main page leading to the "Director's Cut" of the series, with added commentary by the strip's creator, Shaenon Garrity. It's primarily in black and white, with the occasional color strip. Additionally, Garrity toyed with panel length and size during the series' run, so keep an eye out for scroll bars on your browser. The Table of Contents is indexed by storyline, and every link leads to a week's worth of strips.

A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE ran from 2000 to 2007, black-and-white for the first chapter and switching over to color for the rest of the story. Unlike NARBONIC, Kilgannon and Sachs have provided a distinct chapter division for A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE; it's a much shorter read, around 400 pages to NARBONIC's 2000+ strips.

Diana Goes Digital #2: Our Princess Is In Another Castle

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.

Diana Goes Digital #1: Baby Remember My Name

What better way to kick off this series than by featuring a webcomic about webcomics? Kristofer Straub's CHECKERBOARD NIGHTMARE lays it all out in the very first strip (which doubles as a cast page): Chex is a cartoon character obsessed with webcomics. He wants to go all the way to the top without investing any long-term effort or talent. Since this shake-and-bake strategy brought about the Great Boy Band Epidemic of the early '00s, it's hard to argue with his logic. Unfortunately for Chex, all he's got going for him is a short attention span and a knack for plagarism. Fortunately for us, that translates into a brilliant comedy that follows our hero's hilarious schemes.

CHECKERBOARD NIGHTMARE has a lot going for it: it's based on a simple four-panel formula where the first three panels set up the punchline and the fourth panel delivers, and this runs on a daily basis for five years, but even Straub's most repetitive gags (ie: Vaporware's choking fetish) never cross that line where they stop being funny. His style of humor is sophisticated without being exclusive, and that's important to me as a reader because I don't see the funny in fart/poop jokes, but the other end of the spectrum can come off as horribly pretentious.

I think the key to Straub's success, the reason why CHECKERBOARD NIGHTMARE is so entertaining, is his understanding of the principles of balance: just when you think you're getting tired of the done-in-one jokes, a whole storyline pops up about Chex's #1 Fan (there is no #2 Fan), or a send-up of cop-based action series, or a glimpse of Dot's ill-fated singing career. And not to spoil the ending, but let's just say Straub makes an astonishing use of continuity during the series' climax.

This strip is also unique in that, while it heaps satire on specific webcomics as well as the conventions of the medium itself, it's also a fairly educational tool. It's part of the strip's duality, a rather clever trick Straub is playing: every strategy or gimmick Chex fails to appropriate has succeeded elsewhere, whether it's using insult humor (SOMETHING POSITIVE), joining a popular webcomic group (Keenspot, Graphic Smash, etc.) or using a "safe format" to attract wider demographics (GARFIELD). These tactics don't work for Chex, largely because he misunderstands why they're supposed to work (and that, in turn, goes to the core of the character's comedic tendencies), but they're the foundations of many other popular series.

So in reading this EXCELLENT series, not only do you come away with a smile, you might actually learn a few things about webcomics too.

A few technical notes to wrap things up: the main CHECKERBOARD NIGHTMARE series ran from November 10, 2000 to November 11, 2005. Though Straub released a few sporadic strips after the big wrap-up, they were mostly topical done-in-one gags. According to the FAQ, the series has no regular update schedule - prior to its most recent August 31 update, the series was last updated September 1, 2006. Straub has since moved on to STARSLIP CRISIS, another EXCELLENT webcomic I'll probably be reviewing at a later date. The archive is conveniently ordered both chronologically and by storyline, making for easy navigation. The strip is primarily in black-and-white, though Straub switched to color during its final year.

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.

Abhay Wrote a Boring Piece about Webcomics, Zuda, etc.

The best interface for reading comics online is plainly CBZ files, but I guess because of the pejorative connotations that CBZ files have (i.e. it’s the format of choice for your better comic pirates), it’s still underutilized by webcomic creators. Zuda Comics’s interface is a pretty appealing alternative for a simple reason: it resembles Youtube. Everyone on the internet’s been on Youtube; a viewer that works under similar principles makes sense. There are kinks. I can’t guess if the horrendous lettering on all of the Zuda strips is because of the interface, a problem on my end, or if it’s just straight-up bad lettering. Also, someone decided that the load times should be spent having a vaguely-Asian face scowling at the viewer, as if frowning upon them for wanting to see more of the bad comics—I find that a very strange mixed-message, personally.

But all the web-comic portals have had severe kinks starting out—I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were trying to do with Transmission-X when it first started, but once those kinks worked themselves out, I think it’s become a home for some reasonably fun material, most notable of which probably being either Ramon Perez’s Kukuburi, a thin fantasy with pleasant Shigeru-Miyamoto-ish character designs, or Cameron Stewart’s Sin Titulo, a fun comic in the vein of David Lynch.

(Tangent review: Sin Titulo doesn’t have a strong central character and the motivations are a bit more slight than they could be: Stewart gets the dread from Lynch right, which is fun, but he hasn’t quite figured out the sex or sex-horror—so it’s not working on a deeper level yet like it feels like it could be. Still, Stewart’s internalized enough from his work on Catwoman, The Other Side, and Seaguy that there are enough ooooh-comics! moments to easily recommend the strip for those (and of course for his art!), at minimum. )

So: attacking Zuda for its interface this early, when it’s this easy to use, and gets as much right as it does so far, seems like an unnecessary pile-on to me. Though … typical? I guess I only read about the webcomic world when, you know, some guy who makes a comic strip about videogames is mad he isn’t getting the credit he deserves for having been the first cartoonist to “stick it to that Metroid bitch” or whatever. That’s sort of my impression of the webcomic world, that it’s filled with angry over-complainers in megalomaniacal love with their meager accomplishments (who in theory should be my people), but maybe I only read about webcomics when something ridiculously funny-sad is happening.

Anyways: Youtube was successful not because it curated videos, but because it empowered users. Zuda’s strategy makes whatever benefits their interface gives them negligible—it’s a walled-off site that lives and dies by the merits of the particular creators selected.

So mostly, they’re screwed.

Jeremy Love’s Bayou has a potential to become interesting once there’s enough of it to judge, though mixing Southern gothic and Disney-fied art seems a touch doomed from the get-go. And Corey Lewis has another of his patented character-less, story-less style-farts up—if you enjoy his work, which I at least on one occasion have, here’s more to take a whiff of.

The rest is just brutally uninspired: superhero parody, yet more superhero parody, incomprehensible nonsense, unfunny comedic fantasies, naked-superwoman hooey, and something about… I don’t really know, but apparently the creators read some manga once. At least there isn’t a strip about video games or video game culture, but it’s hard to tell if that’s mercy or an oversight.

There’s a comic about Medusa wanting to get laid. I’m not sure what to say about that.

The low point is something called This American Strife, a Perry Bible Fellowship rip-off only without any jokes. 8 strips are featured; not one has what I could conceivably describe as “a joke” in it:

1) An autobiographical comic about the creator not realizing that a nerd girl was using the television show Firefly as a sex-invite until it was too late; the joke being…. what? “Haha, he missed an opportunity to have sex while the sound of Joss Whedon characters babbling in Chinese muffled his partner’s moans of disappointment.” That’s not a joke so much as a little tiny window into tragedy.

2) A comic that posits that the dinosaurs were nice people who didn’t deserve extinction; the joke being …? Also, I can’t tell because the drawings are lousy if daughter-dinosaur is engaged in gratuitous underage sex, or what exactly is going on in her panel, but it’s not funny to look at so much as deeply creepy. Is her dad dino-molesting her? Jesus, I hope not!

3) A comic about a guy hanging out with Jesus, and complimenting God. Personally, I think there is no God, our lives are vapor, souls are an illusion, and we live in a cruel, meaningless universe that somehow still manages to root against us… all of which is somehow still much funnier than anything in this comic.

4) A comic about how the guy from comic #3 doesn’t want Jesus to be around when he jerks off in the shower or has bad sex with his bored-looking girlfriend. You know who else doesn’t want to be around for that? Readers.

5) A comic where a skeleton advocates emotional sterility and suicide. I have no idea what the joke is, or if there’s supposed to be a joke. Suicide is apparently the answer. Hee-hee...?

6) A single panel of a badly dressed couple talking about a bad drawing of logs or … something…? For some reason, neither discusses their deformed flipper-hands.

7) A single panel of an ugly dog talking to a guy. I have no fucking clue what the joke is supposed to be.

And 8) a single panel “gag” about a couple walking by a traffic disaster, a scene of mass death and carnage, when one wisecracks “Still enjoying New York?” Hopefully future installments will pursue this line of comedy further; for example, the couple can walk by Ground Zero and the guy can say “Bad hair day.” Or they can walk through an infirmary filled with crack babies and the guy can say “This whore-ridden city is obliterating my soul.” Haha: tragedy.

Right now the front-runner in the competition appears to be High Moon, a mix of cowboys and werewolves and who-gives-a-shit. Other people have done the cowboy-plus-fantasy mix before. Many, many, many other people. The art’s okay at least by Zuda standards, but it doesn’t really make up for the tired premise; the execution on the premise so far isn't of any note yet. Maybe with some more pages, this could be something. That something being a z-grade Image comic we’d all typically ignore.

These all feel like ideas for comics, instead of stories told through comics.

As you might have read, the first wave of Zuda creators are all people of Comics. Of the industry. And stained by it, apparently. With the sole exception of Bayou, these are mostly ideas you’ve already seen, in styles you’ve already seen; just not good enough to be printed or sold to a paying audience. Did the creators get potty-trained by the industry to think, you know, “monkeys = funny, superhero parody = funny, war = peace, love = hate”? One strip makes the novel comedic observation that female superhero characters … get this… they dress slutty! Oh, snap! You did not go there! Cutting edge humor like that should stay in the mind of Mencia; don’t even go there!

Better webcomics tend to be weird: no one would print Dr. McNinja. Who would have paid to print Scary Go Round at the outset, and give John Allison time to develop, change styles, etc.? How often does DC see pitches that resemble Dylan Meconis’s Family Man? But weird is irreconcilable with a contest, I guess. Or… did wanting a career in comics make these people boring because they trained themselves to be boring in order to fit in? Or are they boring AND they want a career in comics?

But my preference would be for webcomics to turn into the new penny dreadfuls, the new giallo. My thinking has always been that it seems odd to expect the writing and art on a free webcomic to match that of print comic; that seems almost unreasonable, so why not become the disreputable place you go where you want to see something horrible that regular comics are too scared to give you? So maybe I resent Zuda as a big step away from that, towards pfffffffh "respectability." I'm encouraged to the extent it might persuade Youtube to offer an online-comic feature, which I think would be an interesting development; but that's about it.

For the moment, I think your time is better spent with my favorite webcomic Stevie Might be a Bear Maybe (which I’ve mentioned before and will mention again) or, if you require a further alternative, a webcomic for little kids entitled Zip and Lil’ Bit, now on it’s second story Zip and Lil’ Bit in the Sky Kayak after having concluded its first story Zip and Lil’ Bit in the Upside Down Me. Even if the interface is not quite so polished, the art is far superior, and the writing is far wittier than anything Zuda has so far assembled. It works as a comic not by throwing out monkeys and werewolves and familiar comic book elements and hoping for the best, but by reflecting a child’s logic. The strip relies upon the author’s visual imagination, not his ability to process pre-processed genre leavings—it’s inspired by classic comics, not beholden to them. It’s a bit saccharine—it lacks a certain sadness I think the truly great comics share.

But I think Zip & Lil' Bit is at least more deserving of the attention that Zuda’s thus far received.