Sunday, June 14, 2015

Webcomics I'm reading since 2013

One of the things that's interesting about GoComics is that they sign on new comic strips (and by extension new artists) 3 or 4 times a month. Over the last year there have been about 50 new strips. Most of them tend to fall into variations on the 4-panel, one-shot gag pattern (Jim Benton Cartoons), but there are a few one-panel gags (Daily Drawing), and longer story-style strips (Lay Lines). Many of the newer strips had been running on Comics Sherpa, the "sandbox" site for artists not yet good enough to make the leap to "talented cartoonist" (I've tried reading a lot of the Sherpa strips, and no, sorry, it's like having my teeth pulled out through my eye sockets). Along the way, established artists will get frustrated with the GoComics payment system and drop their contracts or start other work that takes them away from their syndicated strip (Kory Merritt's Lost Side of Suburbia, Grant Snyder's Incidental Comics, and numerous other examples). Eventually, those strips disappear from the GoComics archives (Ben Towle's Oyster Wars). The bottom line is that GoComics strips come and go, and just by random chance there'll be something new that I like about 5% of the time.

I last wrote about the GoComics strips I like on Sept. 17, 2013, so I'll do a bit of an update.

Ben Towle ran Oyster Wars for about a year. It was a fictional retelling of the war over who gets the oysters in a New England bay, featuring former members of the Confederate Navy. The artwork was really good, as was the pacing and layout. The story ended on a bit of a weak note, but the character designs were creative and interesting. Overall, I liked it, but it was just a standalone story and it has ended. It should be coming out in print in September.

Dixie Drive has turned into a once on Thursday single panel strip called Wide Open. Rich Powell sells some of his work to Mad magazine, so if you like Mad, you'll like Wide Open. (I commissioned him to draw a Windows wallpaper for me, and it's really good.

Lost Side of Suburbia has been on hold since July 19th last year, when Kory switched over to do the art on Poptropica with Pooch Cafe's Paul Gilligan. LSOS had amazing artwork and great stories; Poptropica - not so much. I follow Pop just to see what happens next, but it's not all that interesting. Kory has hinted, though, that he may try returning to LSOS at some point.

Human Cull, by Alex Hallatt, has been around in England for years, and started on GoComics a couple of months after my last webcomics write-up. It's a single panel strip (MWF) with simplistic art, but an interesting concept - Earth has become too crowded, and a little alien has beamed down to help alleviate things by dusting stupid, inconsiderate or malevolent people. Each gag focuses on one annoying type of behavior (telemarketers as a whole; people who leave yappy dogs in their backyards at night). Alex ran one of my ideas once, which was fun.

Michael Jantze had run The Norm for years, and then it went into reruns for a couple years. In February, he brought the main characters back in The Norm 4.0. Norm is older, married, and with 2 kids and a dog. The strip is just as good as ever, but it only comes out once a week on Mondays as a reflection on family life. Still lots of fun.

There are a number of "off the wall" gag strips that came out roughly all at the same time, including Jim Benton Cartoons, Winston (by Andrew Hart), WaynoVision (by Wayno), The Perry Bible Fellowship (by Nicholas Gurewitch) and The Daily Drawing (by Lorie Ransom). They all feature weird set-ups, strange premises, and "huh?" moments, while also being funny and having good art. Benton and TPBF tend to be darker, while Wayno is a little more lighthearted and Daily Drawing has the best art of the group (these are all generally single-panel gags). Winston stands apart for being something of a story-driven 4-panel strip with a family of continuing characters. Winston, the main one, is a young boy manufactured by his failed inventor father. It's very dark, but still lots of fun.

There are a couple cat-related strips: Frankie Comics (by Rachel Dukes) and Breaking Cat News (by Georgia Dunn). Frankie follows the adventures of a kitten that Rachel and her boyfriend rescued, while BCN sets up the premise that Georgia's three cats have their own news network and are reporting stories within the apartment from a cat's viewpoint. BCN has a huge "cute" factor, but still manages to be funny in spite of that. Frankie is much more playful, and "real-world", while still having a good, clean art style.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is the real oddball of the bunch. The artwork is crude, the jokes tortured and circuitous and always going over the heads of normal people. Zach Weinersmith has a PhD in physics and his strips focus on the quirks of science and university life in a way that seems more fitting coming from Tom Lehrer.

I'd seen Dog Eat Doug (Brian Anderson) before, but it started out as a "cute" strip showing the interactions between a baby (Doug) and the family's new puppy (Sophie). The artwork was thin and sketchy, and the jokes, while including silly characters like a lonely lake monster, were on the Marmaduke and Rug Rats level. Then, about 2 years ago, there was a huge improvement in the character designs and background artwork, and the set-ups started using more current popular entertainment references (stuff from Spiderman, Firefly, Doctor Who, etc.) What hooked me was the strip where Sophie walks past a house that has a miniature set of a city in the yard, and two people fighting wearing giant robot suits. Sophie says "I don't know who the neighbors are, but they look interesting". I went back in the archives to when the two cats were added to the strip, and have been reading ever since.

Brian is also writing an illustrated novel series called The Conjurers. He started a short graphic novel of the same name about a year ago to act as a prequel and introduction to the books, but it's been backburnered because he's busy on the other projects. It's kind of a teenage fantasy series about a street corner magician that gets yanked into the world of "real magic". The artwork and character designs are fantastic, on a par with Lost Side of Suburbia, and I'm really hoping the series takes off.

I didn't like Dinosaur Comics when it was on Sherpa, but after it made the leap to GoComics the artwork improved, as did the writing. Well, "artwork" is a misnomer. Ryan North put pictures of dinosaurs in each of the panels and kind of stopped at that. Every strip has the exact same dinosaurs in the exact same poses. What sells it though is that T-Rex will make some kind of announcement in the first panel, the characters will discuss the statement, and then everything kind of falls apart in the last panel. It's a cerebral strip that doesn't appeal to everyone, but I consider it pretty funny.

There've also been several strips by women that aim largely at women's issues, and things like insecurity, depression and relationships. The artwork tends to the cartoony side, often very sketchy, but still relatively practiced. The writing is good, and the insights are worth reading for. Quite often, too, things get a bit dark and manic, as with Scribbles and Sarah's thoughts on sex education in public school. These titles include Sarah Andersen's Sarah's Scribbles, Connie Sun's Connie to the Wonnie and Melissa Lomax's Doodle Town. Melissa especially stands out in that she takes the time to reply individually to everyone that comments on each strip.

Carol Lay has been drawing alternative comics for years. In January, she started reprinting her short-story form strips on GoComics under the heading Lay Lines. She has since run "The Thing Under the Futon" and "Now, Endsville", and is close to wrapping up "Invisible City". These stories aren't laugh-outloud gag fests, but they usually do have their brighter moments. Carol started out with a "big mouth" style in reaction to the "big foot" style of drawing that had been prevalent in the 90's, which many modern readers have complained is distracting. Me, I like it. She has a very quirky character design approach that differentiates her from everyone else. Later, she drops the big mouths and switches styles.

Speaking of long-time artists who are finally appearing in GoComics, there's Ashleigh Brilliant, with Pot-Shots. Pot-Shots are short epigrams, no longer than 17 words, that are then illustrated. I'd seen a few of them in newspapers in California, and I had bought several of his books. The epigrams are often cynical and a little dark, but they are very clever and I find them funny. His most famous quote, which has been printed on hundreds of thousands of t-shirts is "I may not be perfect, but parts of me are excellent".

And this FINALLY brings me to what started all of this. The week of June 8, GoComics introduced a new strip that would be updating Mondays, titled Drive. The artwork is a bit crude and highly stylized, but it's an SF space story, reminiscent of Space Trawler, and I wanted to give it a chance. But, since it's weekly, I wanted to go to the main website and wade through the archives to get a better feel for the art and character designs as a whole. One day later, I'd fully caught up and became interested in Kellet's other title, the long-running Sheldon, which took another 4 days to get through. And this takes me to -

Non-GoComics webcomic strips

Drive and Sheldon by Dave Kellett. Let me start out by saying that Kellett is a great artist, and a very funny man that does lots of cool things. If you're at all interested in newspaper strips, then you may have encountered the movie he made with interviews of various artists, including Calvin and Hobbes' hyper-reclusive Bill Watterson - Stripped. Drive starts with the premise that a down-on-his-luck Spaniard happens across a crashed spaceship, re-engineers it and goes on to become the emperor of a new intergalactic Spanish mega-empire. The problem is that the original owners of the ship want their technology back and are going to wage a war against humanity until humans stop using it, or are completely wiped out. The character designs are similar to that in Sheldon, and are clean and distinctive. The ships are cool, and the characters are funny. There's some similarity to Space Trawler, Starslip, and Tripping the Rift.

I'd seen Sheldon before, and had originally just considered it a silly cute idea about a super-smart kid and his pet duck. But, after going through almost 20 years' worth of archives, I have concluded that it is a REALLY silly idea about a super-smart kid and his pet duck (and a lizard and an old man). At age 10, at the height of the internet tech boom in the 90's, Sheldon writes a software application that he turns into a billion-dollar corporation called SheldonSoft. He then downloads an encyclopedia and speech synthesizer into a duck to create Arthur. Between them, Sheldon's widower grandfather, and their friend and artist Dante, they have adventures, save the universe, and expose us to the awesome sauceness that is Arther's rump. Lots of jokes about technology, manga, Bill Gates, the old Superman movies ("Kneel before Zod!!!") and Nikola Tesla. Great stuff that reminds me in a way of the more recent Dog Eat Doug strips and very slightly of Calvin and Hobbes and Pogo.

Zuzel and the Fox (plus Rudek and the Bear) by Peter Donahue. A few weeks ago, SF artist Ken Fletcher mentioned Zuzel on Facebook, and I had to check it out. It's an anthropomorphic tale about a group of guards in Poland at a border post near Belarus, in 1929. Each of the characters is rendered as an animal (foxes, bears, badgers, etc.) and there's a (figurative) cat-and-mouse interaction between the border guards and the refugees and smugglers they're trying to keep on the other side of the fence. There's a strong Tintin sense in the rendering of character expressions, making the strip feel very retro. The artwork is great, the stories are entertaining and funny, and I love the character designs. Highly recommended.

I mentioned Kris Straub's Starslip above, and I had discussed his later Broodhollow  strip in the 2013 blog entry. The thing is, Broodhollow had gone on hiatus when Kris' wife had their first baby last Fall. FINALLY, Broodhollow started up the next chapter in June. The artwork is just as cool, silly and spooky as before. But, with only 5-6 pages into the chapter so far, the next story hasn't had much time to develop yet.

In reading the artist comments on Sheldon, I learned a few things. First, Kellet is friends with several other artists, including Dinosaur Comics' Ryan North and Broodhollow's Kris Straub. Second, he recommends a number of other artists that he likes, which is going to lead me into another digression:

Cartoonists and webcomic artists are not like normal people. They don't read other strips for the same reasons as we do. Often, artists will say they don't read anyone else at all because they don't want to be accused of stealing someone else's ideas. But, other artists do read other strips, which they will go on to recommend to new readers. In some cases, it's more of a link exchange thing that is just used as a tit-for-tat (I need more readers, so I'll advertise your strip on my site if you do the same for me), and the choice is purely pragmatic. But, if an artist does like another artist's work, it may be on a professional level, admiring the level of line control, the nature of the storytelling, or the ability to switch perspectives. So, when I go through the "Recommended Links" lists on a particular webcomic site, I generally find myself faced with strips that I personally just don't like. I mean, I love Hubris, Scary-Go-Round, and Sam and Fuzzy, but the other people that those artists say they like are ones that just leave me saying "Meh". (Girls with Slingshots is a good example. I just can't get interested in the characters.)

What I'm getting at is that when I find a new webcomic I DO like, I'll go through the artist's recommended links list and not find anything new that they like that I'd want to read. Rarely, I'll encounter something like Dead Winter or Boxer Hockey, but it doesn't happen that often. On the other hand, as mentioned above, Ken Fletch brought Zazel to my attention, and I like that.

So, I'm now at the works of Dylan Meconis, who had been recommended by Kellet. Dylan's early art is sketchy, cartoony, and somewhat inconsistent (her characters' faces change from panel to panel), but her stories are really good, funny (sometimes) and imaginative. I'll start with Bite Me, a 140+ page one-shot about vampires caught up in the middle of the French Revolution. Reading the artist comments helped make this story even more fun. Outfoxed is a short story about a woman that helps a fox escape hunters, only to find that the fox's choice of wishes backfire on her. This is more of a melancholy tale, with a sad ending.  Her magnum opus is Family Man. This is taking a really long time to unfold (370 pages, at one page a week; this has been going on for maybe 6 years, and is only just now getting to the good parts). The artwork is good, the backgrounds are great, and the characters are very distinctive. The story is very hard to predict, but if you like 60's-70's women's viewpoint realist fantasies, you'll like Family Man. 1768. Luther Levy is a Jew that has been raised Christian in Germanic Europe. He's a scholar living at the home of his clock repairman father, when a wandering scholar invites him to become a lecturer on Theology at a small university on the Bohemian border. The university and its surrounding town is built on the land that once belonged to a group of shape-changers that had been built over by the Romans before being turned into a Church town, then the university. Luther slowly learns the secrets from the school's rector, which will lead him to discovering exactly what his lover, the rector's daughter, is. I highly recommend Family Man, but you have to be extremely patient with this one.

Banana Triangle, by Beutel, James, was one recommended by Greg Cravens (Hubris). I tried reading it when it first appeared on GoComics, but the lack of a consistent narrative threw me. Then, I went back through the webcomic archives and tried again, and it turns out that the lack of a narrative is actually a key part of the plot. Really, what we have are three people stranded on a remote island for unknown reasons, and they hate each other. What's important to understand in appreciating BT is that it's really a very blatant, cutting commentary on how petty and spiteful Americans have become. If you remember that, and don't try to read anything else into the cartoon physics of the series, it's actually quite funny in a Monty Python "Meaning of Life" way. The crude artwork and simplistic designs work in its favor in this case.

Other updates:
Space Trawler ended. Christopher Baldwin tried replacing it with One Way, but the black ending cost him a lot of readers. He's since then tried running Vampire Bicycle, Yontengu and Anna Galactic. Vampire went nowhere. Yontengu has someone else doing the art and they're not very good. Anna has better art, but the initial lead character, Foxglove, is overly sarcastic and unlikeable. I keep thinking about dropping all of Baldwin's works, but I'm still reading them in the hope they'll get back to the level of Trawler.

Sam and Fuzzy - still loving it.

Boxer Hockey - Discontinued. Tyson got other work and he's too busy to spend time on BH.

The Abominable Charles Christopher - Another victim of the "no money" monster. Karl Kerschl is an AMAZING artist, but webcomics just don't pay the bills. He's taken on a professional gig on Gotham Academy and that hasn't left time to do anything on ACC. But, that may change eventually.

Dead Winter - This zombie hunter series had promise, but the artist, Allison Shabet, got wrapped up in personal issues and there hasn't been an update in over a month. No idea if it will ever return to a regular schedule.

A Girl and Her Fed - May be time to drop this one. There was a change in artists (I think), and the current one draws hobbit feet on his female characters. The story is bogging down, too.

Genocide Man had such promise at the beginning, but multiple changes in the artists, characters gaining powers that they haven't actually earned, and a shift in the storyline are all working together to turn GM into a trainwreck. Giri, the empath (a supporting character that is taking on more of a leading role in the current chapter), in particular, is no longer even remotely believable. Sigh.

Romantically Apocalyptic - The weekly updates are turning into monthly updates. There hasn't been a text story to accompany the pictures in a long time. I still like the artwork and characters so I'm sticking with RA for the long run. It's just that it seems to be getting longer...

Honorable mentions: 
Still loving Order of the Stick, Scary-Go-Round (although John Allison is going to be going into all new directions soon), Kliban and Kliban's Cats, Doc Rat, Girl Genius, Hubris and Skin Horse.

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