Monday, 16 March 2015

Expeditions into Deviantart: Bomango & Serious Engineering

Having read webcomics for 15 years I'd forgotten how primitive the early ecosystem of original webcomics actually was. Strips like Penny arcade have at least 2 early years of strips that look unreadable and have no context for today's current readership. There were certainly wasn't an expectation of any viable ecosystem of payment or criticism.

 Likewise any of the surviving strips from that time have undergone a metamorphosis either resetting the script (Sam and Fuzzy, Bad Machinery) or stay in creative stasis (Sluggy Freelance and Megatokyo).

Compare the sketchy erratic start of these strips to the macabre shadows of Astral Aves and you see how things have changed. Readers are less forgiving of artists publicly learning on the job. The webcomic ecosystem is now much larger and Patreon and Gofundme has plugged the failed attempted gap of micro-payments that Campbell mentioned as a funding model.

One way to simultaneously gain a following and hone your skills as an artist is through Deviantart. I won't pretend it's a world I was familiar with but what I found was that its collaborative nature enables an artist to exist as part of an active community of creators.

There are two strips that leap out at me:


At times VanHeist's Bomango appears to still be a multimedia experiment: there are varying story lines, images from a animated storyboard and the protagonist has drastically changed physically. Gogo's actual properties still haven't been made fully apparent as yet so reading this is more of a mercurial and open-ended experience.

It's frustrating but Bomango has never pretended to have a concise narrative. It's more of a haze of intersecting moments now. It's aiming at a coherent story but there's a lot of retro-active re-sharpening going on. There narrative veers between happy-go-lucky vignettes and a deeper darker origin story.  

Visually it's gleaming to the point of possessing camera flare. Tracking the changes to now show an artist with a bright  and hyper-stylised aesthetic that just needs a clear story to wrap around.

Serious Engineering:

Serious Engineering is a strip by  Roman Jones that has used Deviantart far more thoroughly in an attempt to even out the bugs. There weren't many bugs to start with but Roman has been able to engage with other people for translation and shading. The only issue I'd have is maybe tightening up the speech bubbles.

The comic in its current state has a stylised sheen to it and the recent use of shadowing is very welcome. Coming from a Ligne Claire background my preference for crispness is certainly requited.

The backgrounds are minimalist and simple but the actual characterization of the characters here have changed from murky realism into a far more expressive and more pleasing sleekness.

Thematically it meshes well together. The story is about self-discovery in a world that doesn't have a place for misfits. You shouldn't reduce it to a mech webcomic because as it now stands Corelle's attempt to gain access to engineering culture is more a vehicle for gaining personal agency. Unlike Bomango there is a feeling of an underlying and coherent narrative guiding this roadtrip.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Reason for being: Modus Operandi

Modus Operandi is webcomic set in an alternate universe that slightly resembles our own. There's only 1 chapter as yet it feels like a prologue as the story hasn't evened out its kinks yet. A young man mans a hard decision that thrusts him into the adult world. The distance between the protagonist Bob's princely role and school endeavors seems too vast to cover. I can't as yet get a gauge on the character as there hasn't been enough information given about the outside world. It's slightly slipstream with a hard sci-fi background, but ultimately feels more like just another variation of this world.

The art style is an interesting stylised haze that suits the dreamlike stasis the strip seems to be stuck in. It feels like a mix of high school drama & realpolitik that hasn't meshed together properly. At the moment this is a well drawn but ultimately inconsequential work that needs more exposition.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Lost at sea:Derelict

Initially you'd not think this a genre comic but as a overwhelming sense of loneliness spreads out across  the ocean it becomes apparent that Derelict is a barnacled sea-sprayed attempt at a post-apocalyptic world. It also becomes apparent that humanity is not alone in this new decrepit seascape. There are others that are alien in visage and behaviour. The strip takes enough time to show the main character's standard solitude before injecting some unwanted chaos into her routines.

  We've been here before in Western culture but not very often. Waterworld was deemed a spectacular failure for some reason but at least it attempted something new underneath its high concept high dollar Hollywood bloat. Earthsea perhaps is the most apt response to a watery expanse that rewards nomadic piracy.

I really appreciate the use of silence here in the first forty odd pages as it sets the tone of this work. It's a brave creator that's willing to let the tone of desolation do the job but I find it sets in place the strangeness of this world. Things pick up a bit after that but that initial pacing puts that narrative into perspective. After that it becomes a pretty dense text with alternate viewpoints of this intermingling of human and otherness. It's the old question about how humans will interact with a sentient other.With these interactions the characters still feel like ciphers, no real flaws but no particular need to follow their adventures as they as yet appear to be disconnected.

If the linework for individual characters can be a bit smudgy at times then the backgrounds are a solid good admixture of shades and tones from the get-go. It approaches an almost liquid viscousness at times. At the moment it doesn't look like a spectacularly stand-out strip but more like a solid attempt to tell a long-format story. I don't fully mesh with the main characters as yet but  the background of a failed world provided is an interesting counterpoint to the standard nuclear bomb shelter scenario that typically gets played out.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Nifty for life: Sluggy Freelance

I'm currently reading the entirety of Sluggy Freelance and I don't quite know if I'm strong enough. It is one of the originator strips, 1997 feels an age ago. It's strangely disappeared from the view of the webcomic critical consensus but it has quite a large and established fanbase. I believe a possible reason for this is the size of the archives and the lack of a common, easy meme-worthy image to latch on to. Having not read the strip for seven years I've found it has become its own ecosystem, a black hole of an endless story.

Not to say its longevity is unworthy. As a strip it has done, and hit most of the landmarks, what few webcomics can claim to do. It is self-sustaining where a plethora of webcomics have fallen by the wayside. Niego didn't even pass 200 strips. There's no real equivalent to the monumental depth of the sluggy archives and its been managed without the revamps and reiterations that other webcomic creators have been forced to rely upon.

For example: Sam and Fuzzy effectively directs the reader to a certain point in the archive where the strip really starts as a narrative. John Allison has worked through variants of his fantastical liminal space via Bobbins, Scarygoround and Bad Machinery and likewise David Willis has used his first strips as training wheels. Megatokyo has slowly devolved into an erratic moe derangement with intermittent updates. As for Penny Arcade it is able to rely on the quick stream of video game detritus to stay current if not somewhat glib.      

Sluggy Freelance has done none of these things. It has slogged on in cheerful nonchalance and it utterly ignores the current webcomic ecosystem in favour of its own reality. There are a multitude of intertwined story-lines cascading into a top-heavy over-narrative occasionally alleviated by gags. This mass of interlocking narratives are reinvented with a new skin every few months. It doesn't care that it jerks back between emo and gag of the week goofery because as readers will attest that's par for the course with this strip.

Abrams isn't afraid to be simultaneously dorky and ambitious and as a result the art can quickly move from basic to a hyperactive stylised action scene. The fantasy elements, to be unkind, can appear to be the worst Conanesque high fantasy schlock content to stay in the shallow waters of parody. I don't know whether I should believe in the central narrative. Going over the archives what I do notice is that the central scenarios that plague the gang reiterate the seemingly eternal evils of Hereti-corp & the vowelless. It's been close to twenty years, no matter the accumulations of details or scenarios that pile up I can't quite take the sudden changes in tone in my stride. It feels like re-polishing and re-purposing glass. I've seen this before and the extra layers, while well-made, never stop my desire for a final endgame. I need some kind of closure. 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

New mythologies: happle tea

Happle tea is a mix between a journal comic and an extended analysis of mythological systems and pantheons that works with a cute and coy light touch. It's not ranting like a fedora-wearing atheist but subtly poking at the inconsistencies that all faith systems have underneath the hood. The child narrator adds levity to the proceedings and occasionally this means the strip devolves into some sly kind of whimsy.

What is interesting here is the sheer breadth the creator is willing to get into. I'm reasonably well-read in this field (The Folio society helps with that) but there was a pleasant obscurity that is always explained playfully into the notes underneath the comic. Some of the jokes are shaggy dog groaners that are forced onto the subject matter in a spirit of blithe 'cleverness'. You'll accept it after a while as a crisp style shows you glib generalizations about religion & mythology.

Just the improvement in the varying degrees of bright crisp colour from the start of the strip shows an artist eager to improve. Compare this to the unchanged slough of despond that is Megatokyo and I'm glad to read this strip at least once a month. It doesn't update that often and certainly isn't essential reading but its cute niche is well worth an investigation. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

You're as cold as ice, willing to sacrifice our love: Shiver Bureau

If cyberpunk's curse is feckless thievery conflated with freedom of expression then steampunk's typical crime is to ignore the societal constraints of industrialization meshed with all the clockwork gears. It can easily become derailed into merely an aesthetic and as much as I appreciate the potential of Shiver Bureau it feels like it relies too much on a surface aesthetic.The unnatural hair and poses reminds of something that's just a bit too cool for school. The Noir/Pulp voice over with its world-weary tang adds authority but is also a familiar device.

Where other representations of steam-punk overdo the lush gilded embroidery this strip overall is represented by sharp crisp line work juxtaposed over a hazy soup of melancholy  greens.Admittedly the artwork is gorgeous within its limited palette constraints but sometimes veers into unrealistic stylised sharp corners.

 The plotting is decent enough and gets going quickly but challenged by some bravado nonsense and the over-clever smarminess that the genre typically carries with it. The strip is adequate but I've seen enough nonchalant adventurers in this vein before. I'm sensing that there's lots of poise and cool here and it's not quite enough.

 The horror elements, mainly the idea of the Inspectres of the Shiver Bureau policing the restless dead likewise seems a bit too glib. I just can't suspend disbelief here. It sounds good, a little too good.

All my petty hairsplitting realistically shows this is a strip, with all its delusions of grandeur, that only could have existed since 2010. Unlike the tortured births of the mainstream slice of life establishment webcomics (Something Positive, Sam & Fuzzy,  Bad Machinery and Questionable Content) Walter Ostlie's strip comes fully formed with its own internal logic and a narrative arc realized from the first strip. I'd consider it a vote of confidence in the webcomic format's ability to deliver a cohesive voice. This is a decent rollicking adventure and the fact I've moaned about its slight issues shows how spoiled for choice I am compared to the strips I used to write about in 2006. 

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Space prison blues: The Lydian option

This webcomic is a heady mix of space opera sci-fi and the hard realism of inter-species bickering.The Tha'latta have captured a 'motley crew' of humans and they are stored in a massive multi-species prison, it's a contained prism of villainy and despair. I think maybe it jumps the gun in getting to the main point of the story, the prologue is a bit too brief.

 The art style is sharp and angular, a mixture of bright colours meshing together in what can be perhaps too much  haze in the background adding a fluorescent ambiance to the grit of the prison shown here.

The Lydian option refers to the possibility of the guard species voiding the airlocks. Characterisation is minimal before the escape starts but you get the gist of various basic character molds: brash, stealthy, arrogant. We'll call this survival science fiction or a blast of violence in a genre known for specious star trek hippy lovey-dovey morality.

The various species on display here are fascinating in their differences, there's no star trek milksop 'we are the world' pissant analogies here, it's pretty much brutal warfare and intrigue. It is admittedly a 1 trick pony with a tense but simple endgame of escape. Basic but worth your time. 

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Kicking it old school: Niego & Hellbound

Part of the difficulty of assessing webcomics is the ephemeral nature of the medium itself. It's easy to forget the endless array of webcomics that have just tapered off. Success is unusual and the ability to actually survive monetarily alone from your webcomic is exceedingly infinitesimal. Lots of worthy strips fall by the wayside and I want to show you some from Comic Rocket's handy archive from the mid noughties you might have originally missed.

Neigo  At a certain point this strip was part of the guest strip love-ins that popular strips like Sam &; Fuzzy and Questionable Content used to engage in. Like those strips it's a slightly surreal take on 'slice of life'. It's a gloriously stupid glaze of nebbish slackerdom spread over everyday life. It wasn't self-consciously hipster or nerdish; just dumb kids living in suburbia. The inclusion of Sigala's original notes is tops as well. Certainly willing to indulge in stylised splashes in a black & white palette this strip dropped off primarily due to the creator's personal situation.

Hellbound is far more idiotic and slapstick a strip but it powers on through its wretched jokes  by sheer verve alone . It's willing to press a stupid point to death through a colourful wonderland of lowbrow humour. The narrative is asinine and the characters are all cads and reprobates but it doesn't stop this from being a hyperactive carnival ride. Sadly it's a fruity effervescence that just popped one day & never came back.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Letting off some steam: Widdershins

Prolapse is presumably involved here...somehow

Steampunk is a fairly nebulous sub-genre at the moment; you'd be forgiven if you thought it was solely based on surface aesthetics of cosplayers inserting clocks & bolts into florid Victoriania but originally it was a counterpoint to cyberpunk vivid anger. The difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was a key text looking at technology-led power structures and how to devolve them from the inside. It wasn't the sad sexualized fetish we see today.

Kate Ashwin's Widdershins is a steampunk webcomic but it certainly doesn't delve into the societal anomalys caused by technological change; it exchanges it for a series of vaguely connected picaresques and fanciful misadventures from a fairly hefty wellspring of ideas. I like the feeling of confidence here with an array of coy little in-jokes and remarks. The linework is likewise charmingly sinuous, colouful enough to denote the magical undercurrents that emerge from the cobblestones. It's cartoony in just the right way like a warmth spreading over your irises.

Nothing's forced here; that's the rub. There's no specious social justice anachronisms inserted here, our droll narky hero, Harriet Barber, isn't forced into petty gendered binaries, there are no attempts to redress current problems. It looks like fluff at first but by the third chapter there's an emerging mythology present. It's not yet an essential webcomic in the league of Unsounded as some storylines can be somewhat erratic and fey, but the underlying sense of wonderment and vervedriving it makes it an enjoyable read.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The sound of kickass: Unsounded

Genre typically works because of its constrictions, what I like about Unsounded is its ability to take the typical fantasy tropes of magic, empire and violence and mash them about. This isn't a Dragonlance pissant high fantasy nor a Gene Wolfe moralistic mess of broken dreams. This is a deep work, not a 'monster of the week' type strip. You will need to ingest a fair bit of information in order to read this strip on update.

Now, if you were particularly supercilious  You could call it steam-punk but this comic doesn't have that genre's artificial ostentation and glib self-awareness. It's a fluent and subtle work that deserves your attention; there's a hybrid vigor set in place here that isn't at all self-conscious. After a while the genre doesn't matter and you're dragged into reading this by the intrigue and the dense narrative. Trying to work out what's happening as different storyline streams interconnect is the best part of this strip, the complexity is implied not avoided.

The artwork is simultaneously lush and precise, one of an increasing band of webcomics created by professionals veering into webcomic territory, the webcomic being an entrance into dead wood publishing with previous failed attempts by webcomicers to monetize easily swept away by the critical mass of kickstarter.

The first few chapters seem like the author establishing themselves, trying to get a grip on characters, they're simplistic at first but gradually reveal layers of nuance, the easy choice you'd think a web-cartoonist would choose for a serial strip instead gets dragged into a an amoral world.

The main character, troublemaker Sette, isn't Pepper from Lackadiasy, who is against my will,  my favourite character in webcomics this year, she is however a vivacious bundle of scurvy gibbering chaos. Her chaperone Duane is a cipher, if their characters seems throwaway in the first 30 pages they slowly establish an emotional attachment out of sheer adversity,

If China Mieville is a source of love/hate reaction in my life then this strip is better for me, a way to show how to intelligently establish steampunk without the ostensible proto-socialist attitude. The initial nervousness of the creator melts away as the scope of this vast world becomes more apparent, more valid a choice. It's not high fantasy dreck, more an engaging political excursion, a fun romp through genre fiction as viable narrative device.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Denial circuits: Paranatural

Paranatural is a strip that manages to be simultaneously wry and innocent, it's a evanescent heady playfulness that bites the reader hard. I like the way the strip overall captures the feeling of being on the cusp of adolescence. The strip details the travails of Max, a newcomer to a middle-sized town called Mayview and his discovery of supernatural elements that the majority of people cannot see.

This incursion of the unreal adds to a tumultuous introduction to middle school life with its cliques, bullies and oddball teachers. He's connected to the this new world of spectres via the middle school's paranatural activity club in the first chapter and the ground rules are set with his psionic powers more a curse than a blessing.

I guess my purview covers this strip due to its supernatural emphasis but regardless this webcomic is a joy to read. I'd class this more as a magical realist webcomic than a horror emphasis , the humour is ever-present and deflates the macabre nasties on display. Because of this ability to deflate things there's an underlying sense of nostalgia when I read this. I certainly felt like the world was boundless when I was 12. Fairy tales and the supernatural allow an escape from the constrictions but in this case the supernatural is a chaotic intrusion into the life of the smart alec protagonist.

'Fluid' is a particularly overused word of mine but I think I'd prefer to say this strip uses strong grandstanding linework; it's certainly in your face. There's the barest of anime influences when facial expressions morph into extreme emphasis but I'd put it down to an overall playfulness. The colourful palette veers towards an understated pastel, it's certainly not gaudy. The design of the spirits in particular are where the artwork shines, they ooze and gloom out onto the page, sometimes with comedic malice.

The adept light touch used here means this strip evades any particular constrictions or expectations set by genre fiction. There are still rules regarding the supernatural existing as an undercurrent beneath the chaos but once they're established the storyline is ready to head into some self-aware and self-contained nuggets of reckless abandonment. The updates are always slow but what you get is a something invested in the goofy magical state at the cusp of self-awareness and freedom.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Take the wheel and Drive

Looks can be deceiving, it's an obvious cliche but in the case of Drive,  I initially thought this was a goofy cartoony space comedy from the creator of Sheldon.  I gradually realised this was a rich and fertile world. What could look like a motley collection of goofy aliens becomes a decent storyline with a clear internal logic. Human history has been transformed by the application of an alien technology and the chaos surrounding the main character is an incursion into this narrative.

The pilot finds himself beset by various foolish games and various fuckeries and it's a rollicking ADHD sort of strip with a low key non-edgy humour mixed in with some realpolitik. There are  intersections between the past and the present storylines scattered throughout the strip, not enough to take your from the main storyline but enough to gradually immerse the reader in a tragic story behind the comedy set in place. The idea of an English / Spanish language mixture for the future is certainly different, the continual implementation of fact sheets from the 'enciclopedia Xenobiologia'  within the comic gives the reader a good background briefing of a 'space opera' styled world.

At first I thought the title of the strip was reductive but as I continued to read the strip I saw that the 'drive', or the ship's engine becomes an underlying emphasis of human civilisation and its subsequent war with the 'makers'. The way this underlying tradegy is portayed can be a middle ground, the artwork is cartoony but bold, the creator of Sheldon clearly has the experience to pull this off and the imaginative prowess to get stuck into creating a large universe with a plethora of diverse lifeforms. It doesn't look serious but there's a pitch here for an underlying mythos that is worth the time of any science fiction fan. Robert Heinlein it ain't but it's clearly a webcomic with some teeth.

I guess if you're looking for analogies then the 'zaniness' of 'the Hitch-hiker's guide to the galaxy' might be a good reference point. Sometimes the humour doesn't quite hit it, a little too 'zany' for my tastes and the visuals are a little too fluidl and cartoony to absorb sometimes, for all that's it's a strip making an attempt to create an intelligent space opera. The appeal of this strip is its resolute attempt to tell a story and while the safe 'dad' jokes wear thin occasionally  I kept with this strip primarily because of the underlying vision behnd it.  

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Catching up on nachitos : The Walky series

I'm just getting into the Walky mythos, reading the archives from Roomies, It's Walky to Joyce & Walky, I'd been infected with  David Willis's oeuvre initially by Shortpacked and then the mythos remix comic, Dumbing of age. I knew it was a keystone classic webcomic series but the size of the archives scared me off, as well as the fact it spanned 3 comics. I'm glad I did, there's an emotional integrity here that's been rarely matched in my 10 years of reading webcomics. It crept up on me, but even the initial emotional deepening with the Ruth scenario was a very swift right-turn into adulthood and its discontents.  These series veer very sharply between goofy antics and human consequences. I should have done this way sooner.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Do over?: Sore thumbs

Just wondering if this is going to lead to the zinger that shows us what the Sore Thumbs reset is really about, that is, was it just a way to get out of an increasingly garish storyline or just a new spin on Sore Thumbs characters in a bizarro universe? There's certainly not much emphasis on video games anymore, it's transformed into a magical realist morality tale on the foibles of western society with Fairbanks as the screaming cheerleader in a clown suit.

You couldn't really call this a gamer comic, if it ever really was one before straying into bug-out mind jack territory. Now it's a cheerful  antic sci-fi strip and this discovery of 'evil Jimmy' looks like it might explain how the reset of the Sore Thumbs universe works, I'm still not sure as to whether it's a glib & knowing deus ex machina deal or just boredom on the part of Crosby. Just want to see if I can get some resolution here.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Nine time's the charm: The Fox sister

I'm more used to imagining the nine-tailed fox manifestation as typically Japanese but it has roots across most of East Asia, it's a trickster form, imagine Renard the fox mixed in with slavering bloodlust. If my most recent experience with Korean themes resulted in me bugging out then this strip, The Fox sister, is hopefully a decent antidote to that. Having been scared into whimpering submission by Japanese films such as the grudge and the ring series this was welcome respite

Already the pacing is measured between humour and horror, the horrific prologue doesn't make any sense as yet,. in the main storyline we're injected into a typical Korean city, we don't know much about anything as yet and I'm guessing this is going to veer into an initially uncomfortable 'odd couple' set up with our female protagonist and the tall blonde doofus westerner with the dog as the loyal companion / goofball. All we've really got for now is the artwork, the story will make itself known as it gets along, this is more of an introduction to a webcomic that's getting going more than an established strip with an established character.

That said, the artwork here is lustrous and sheeny, just the right side of cartoony without devolving into too much cuteness, this scene with the character's face in reflection in the sword is masterful and this willingness to devote a whole page to set the mood is admirable, it shows is a mature handle on narrative pacing, presumably aiming at a long haul of a story. Maybe best to check up on it in a few months though when it's more established.