Wednesday, 7 October 2015

More ways than darkness: Broodhollow

I'll admit I was never particularly interested in Kris Straub's Starslip. I thought the strip was facile and throwaway. Perhaps that shows my own shortcomings because his most recent strip Broodhollow is a long-format webcomic horror that's slow and delicate. 

Admittedly there are cliches: protagonist sad-sack Wadsworth Zane is slowly sucked into a recursive universe in the town of Broodhollow. Consider him to be a variant of Willy Loman mixed with Walter Mitty injected into Twin Peaks. If this cultural milieu is self-evident then it is the underlying structure of the world created around Broodhollow belies any qualms about originality. 

The reader gradually sees a series of patterns underlying the story as it starts to show that it possesses a somewhat unreliable narrator. This creates a twee piquancy about the patterns present. Perhaps you'd call it a oulipo inflection or a formalist approach to narrative.  The realm shown here is constrained and seduced by ritual and the reader's task is to unweave what's been created.

There are times where the strip veers into 'comic logic' but this doesn't make for any real paucity. This is a newspaper strip comic with a horror inflection. There is typically a humorous 'beat' at the end of each strip. This means the use of ritual as a means to understand limits and liminal spaces is not a despairing note.

The use of colour veers between expressionist smudge and clear-cut borders smoothed with a paint effect. What's interesting is the difference between the sheen of every day encounters and the uneasy haze created by horrific scenes. The transfer from twee meanderings into chilling darkness is a nice and solid build-up and shows this is a work of an experienced creator. 

The underlying strangeness of Broodhollow is a subtle mix. This isn't an expansive world and it sets its borders within the town and submerges it into a Lovecraftian undercurrent. This is a good accentuation of Straub's earlier work as it is more contained, measured & visually expressive. While I was never particularly enamored of Straub's facile take on sci-fi cliches this is a mature work that is created with a certain and sleek liquidity

Monday, 6 July 2015

Private eyes are watching you: Doomsday, my dear

A dystopia is easily made comedic and clunky by partisan blinkers and dated references. It's hard to pull it off artistically as well as create a polemic answer to tyranny.

Not that we don't have precedents: the most obvious being the slow disintegration of the Wiemar republic and South Africa as a case study of a democracy devolving into discrimination. Targeting despised out-groups was the sport of much of the 20th century. The mass delusion of malleable crowds is the central underpinning  of Doomsday, my Dear.

  The strip shows an outbreak primarily from the perspective of passive carriers of a 'blood plague'. They are identifiable by their eye colour. Unlike the plethora of zombie and post-apocalyptic narratives this isn't about about the extreme breakdown of societal norms. This is a strip that shows a consensus driven road to authoritarianism that's filled with good intentions.

The introductory chapter feels like the creator is trying to work out the tone and direction of the strip. It allows enough context to understand this world. Thankfully, the strip soon uplifts into an adult narrative about the travails of surviving a state-authorized pogrom.

With just under 400 strips this webcomic didn't waste time meandering either as a narrative or artistically. While there's some slight use of shadow for contrast overall this strip has changed from a painterly lo-fi approach into a crisp and clean read and frankly it looks all the better for it.

 This is a complex story that belies easy categorization and it weaves between multiple viewpoints. It is quite willing to display needless mendacity and unnecessary cruelty but  this adult world is also luckily undercut by some needed levity among the darkness.

The villains portrayed here in the security forces are not altogether monsters and the time spent showing their foibles is worthwhile character building. While the trope of the banality of evil can become ambiguous this strip  shows how good people do bad things. In the process it creates a fulsome collection of characters and viewpoints that allows a varied and entertaining collage to appear.

Musical accompaniment: David Bowie's Station to station. Good occult darkness if you know where to look. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Quite a handfull: Prague race

I'm easily led by whimsy, noble failures and sweet-nothings. One of my favourite paper comics that never truly worked-out was Christy Lijewski's Next exit series because it had a dreamy inchoate undercurrent. It didn't really matter that there wasn't an over-arching Tolkieneseque approach to world-building because situations and characters just popped up.

If her more recent webcomic Samurai Host Club hasn't quite lived up to that initial hype then Prague Race is also able to tap into that well of slipstream wonderment that shows a world that initially looks like ours but slowly and slyly shows itself to be a darker and richer version of our humdrum lives.

The artwork certainly is a consistently seductive approach that emphasizes cross-hatches and shades of grey. It allows more contrast than one would expect: this almost malignant sleekness used to portray Gabrielle is effectively why I write about webcomics.

This innate blackness almost glistens like liquid on the screen in a way that would otherwise look fuzzy on paper. In later strips the background use of grey is astounding and it resembles the way that Lackadaisy uses a reduced palette to create a visual richness.

Overall it was the initial dollop of aimless fun that drew me into this strip but the narrative also tightens up as it goes along. The set-up is charming but also somewhat twee.

 If Between failures is one of the few slice of life strips that exists on my daily list it's because of its mixture of goopy heart and unnerving brains. I like twee, I like the Decemberists and Stefan Zweig,  so one should take that into account.      

Leona and her gang of restless twenty-somethings are just setting out at adulthood, not yet worn down by the compromises that neo-liberalism inevitably lashes you with. I appreciate the coy sweetness that this strip sets off with, it's certainly not the pissant forced zaniness that some webcomics trade in.

There's around a hundred pages of meandering scenes before it moves into more mature territory. I think that's about right. So if at the start the strip can appear to be needlessly jokily prolix there's still a purpose here. The gnomic strangeness behind everything asserts itself and leads the reader into what is a hidden and enjoyable darkness.

 That's a good mix for what looks like a long form narrative here aided with enough comic subtlety to break the ice. The slow build up allows a delicate pacing, even on the individual page there are silent pauses and subtlety that belies the craziness this strip eventually enters towards.

Musical accompaniment: Gerard Way, Hesitant Alien.. Emo grows up into Bowie-inflected attempt at glam. 

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Preview: Otaku dad

Welp, the creator of Whomp! has created a second comic that breaks the fourth wall to the point my head hurts. It's about Reggie's favourite topic: Anime. I don't know if this is going to work long-term but then again I'm heavily biased against modern anime series. I do know that Gasaraki was always a better mech series better than Evangelion and that Oshii's slow languid take on Patlabor 2 is some of the best Goddamn anime ever made.

I like Whomp! as a feel-good comic but the artwork here is slightly more realistic than that and it may even be an attempt to deconstruct the vagaries of otaku culture that seem to have him enthralled Ronnie into mental slavery. There's not much to read as yet and I doubt it's going to reach the depraved and depressing depths of Flowers of Evil but at least its getting the guy out of the self-deprecating fluff that Whomp! can sometimes descend into.

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-stylized 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 road-trip.

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.

The narrative focuses on a young man who has to face 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 as yet.

I can't quite get a gauge on the character as there hasn't been enough information given about the outside world. It's slightly slipstream inflected with a hard sci-fi background. Ultimately this feels more like just another stranger variation of our current existence.

The style of art shown here is an interesting stylized haze that suits the dreamlike stasis the strip seems to be stuck in. It feels like a mix of high school drama  and realpolitik that hasn't meshed together properly. At the moment this is a well drawn but ultimately inconsequential work that needs more exposition. However,  given time I expect this to be a quite consequential and nuanced webcomic.

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 and the vowelless. It's been close to twenty years but 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 for this strip. I need this to end well.

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 and 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 and 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 and white palette this strip dropped off primarily due to the creator's personal situation.

Hellbound is far more idiotic and slapstick as 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 and 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 story-lines can be somewhat erratic and fey, but the underlying sense of wonderment 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.