Thursday, February 10, 2011

Girls With Slingshots! and the Elusive Subject


I've only ever attended two comic conventions in my life, both in the last year, both times to meet webcartoonists whose work I was particularly interested in:  Phoenix Comicon, because it was right up the street and Randall Milholland was there, and then I treated myself to a trip to North Carolina for HeroesCon, where the "indie island" had a huge group of amazing webcartoonists:  Kate Beaton, Meredith Gran, Brad Guigar, Chris Hastings, David Maliki, Erika Moen, R. Stevens, and Danielle Corsetto, to name just a few that I'd read.  There were, of course, many more talented artists I'd never heard of, and in trying to look at every one of their tables I learned a lot about the typical "con interaction," which as the convention progressed became (for me) increasingly fraught with social and psychological baggage.

Most of this is possibly worth going into detail about later, and generally involved my irrational tendency to feel pressured to buy as much as possible from as many people as possible, nay, to go irreparably into debt if it would just allow these great people to keep drawing these funny pictures, but for the most part, when I approached a table bearing the work of an unfamiliar comic, I would simply ask the person manning the desk:  "So, what's your comic about?"  A simple, easy-to-answer question, one that my Brad Guigar-signed copy of How to Make Webcomics said every con-going artist should have an immediate and interesting answer for, something I knew I could listen to with pleasure before I realized that I had nothing more to say besides "oh, cool," and oh my god I can't register the prices for all this merchandise that's out on the table but the artist is already checking my face to gauge my interests and if I ask for a price he'll try to sell me on it and if I say no thanks he might press me or think I'm wasting his time and isn't there anything I can ask him about his comic and oh my god what is it about? I completely forgot and now I've been sitting here silent way too long so now i need to buy something maybe a poster where are the posters but wait i was planning on getting some shot glasses from the octopus pie table and maliki had some cool bumper stickers i was going to look at later and i don't know if i can afford RUN HE'S DISTRACTED RUN.

Basically, I didn't make too many lifelong friends at HeroesCon, and the whole thing poked some sore spots about the way my consciousness relates to the idea of commerce and economics- I spent one panel asking a group of webcartoonists how they managed business and friendship, incredulous that they could hang out with each other without thinking about how they were all competing for the finite amount of consumer dollars that were going to pass by their tables, and how well they did at getting as many of those dollars as possible basically determined their comic's financial viability.  Fun fact:  I was working as a banker at the time.  I definitely needed that vacation.

Still, it was a fun trip, and looking back, my biggest regret (other than spending an entire escalator ride standing directly behind Kate Beaton and pretending I didn't know her) (oh and hovering around the webcomic tables for so long each day that I probably came off as a creepy stalker type)(okay, really just anything that involved trying to talk to people) was that I hadn't asked the webcartoonists I knew what their comic was "about."  While it may have thrown off the mechanics of the conversation a bit, it would have been really interesting to see how each webcartoonist chose to define their comic, especially in relationship to the ones around them (Gran, Moen, Stevens, and Corsetto were all next to each other, and I don't think they could have all gotten away with "a comic about post-college 20-somethings").  I'd come to see each one of their comics in a particular way, and seeing how their views of their comic matched up with my own would have been interesting.

Plus, I would have learned what Danielle Corsetto thought Girls With Slingshots! was about, because I honestly have no idea.  Granted, this isn't as big a deal as some people think.  A comic can be well-drawn, well-executed, just all around satisfying, and still lack a central idea.  And besides, there was originally a premise to Girls With Slingshots! (I will type you out, hateful little exclamation mark, yea even unto the end of time, when you are cast into the lake of fire with Shorpacked! and other horrible webcomic titles.  Yes, this applies to webcomic creators- Maliki!, this is your chance to repent).  Sorry.  Where was I?  Oh yes- Girls With Slingshots! was about two broke 20-something women who lacked intimate companionship and were perpetually underpaid, and took comfort in the small things in life.  Namely, alcoholic drinks and sex toys.  Well, the reasonably-sized yet fairly cheap things in life, at any rate.  Jaime was more cheerful and well-adjusted, but had intimacy problems; Hazel had no problems with one-night stands, but it masked a deep need for love and a tendency to idealize impossible situations.  They were a classic yin-and-yang couple, complementing each others' strengths and compensating for each others' weaknesses and obsessions.  The best part was how believable it all was, talking cacti nonwithstanding- we've all known friends like this before, perhaps been part of such a friendship, if we were lucky- and the small-town monotony of the strip's early days had a sketchy but lived-in mythology that was charming:  the nights boozing in shithole bars with nothing better to do, the brief euphoria of an escape to the city before realizing how damn expensive the city was, the thousand petty inconveniences of absentee roommates, boring dates, and rent troubles that B.A. graduates are heir to, it all felt authentic, even though it was a comic strip.

So I suppose I shouldn't be disappointed with Corsetto realizing it's a comic strip, and crazy shit can happen.  And for the most part, I'm not.  The talking cactus came in fairly early, after all- this isn't Ghost World, and I wouldn't like it as much if it was.  It probably shares the most genetic material with Something Positive.  This isn't surprising considering Corsetto and Milholland's friendship, which is one of the most delightful reasons to subscribe to both artists' twitter feeds.  S*P started out with a similarly limited premise- in that case, it basically boiled down to "God hates Davan, Davan hates the universe"- and managed to generate huge laughs out of angry people and miserable situations, before deepening its characters and expanding its range until it dealt with general weirdness as much as, if not more than, the pitch-black misanthropy that had been the comic's cold beating heart.  As the characters became more well-rounded and developed, the universe's world opened up, but some of the initial intensity of those first strips are gone, and the comic tends to meander down storylines that seem somewhat self-indulgent.  I don't think, for example, that I ever needed to get to know the individuals behind the Teddy Bear Liberation Front as anything more than an occasional moment of craziness- especially when their dynamic seems to be the same "love-struck girl, clueless guy" dynamic of every bad high-school movie ever- but now I'm getting away from Corsetto's comic again.

Basically, Corsetto is driving hard for Milholland territory- what was a strip about two girls trying to make rent, find love, and get drunk as often as possible (geez, written that way it sounds kind of like a realistic Apartment 3-G), and, talking cactus aside, it succeeded in generating humor and pathos in disproportionate measure to its scanty working materials.  Even the cactus thing seemed realistic in depicting the way that a young single person living alone can become emotionally attached to his inanimate objects.  But recently, the comic seems to be embracing weirdness for weirdness's sake, or pairing off all the characters like a sitcom in its last few seasons.  Conflicts seem minor and muted, Corsetto seems unwilling to have any of her characters be in the wrong for long (I could call this the Jeph Jacques syndrome, but I'm not getting dragged into another comic analogy).  And again, this isn't always a problem- remember how I basically went to Phoenix to tell Randy Milholland he was awesome?  Most strips expand their cast and range as they go along; Dilbert is the only example I can think of where a comic becomes more focused over time.

Of course, before he began expanding Something Positive, Milholland made sure he had a complex and sympathetic cast.  The problem with Girls With Slingshots! in this regard is that Hazel remains the only character I can give much of a crap about.  Zach probably sleeps in a cardboard box full of packing foam with "PERFECT BOYFRIEND- 2007 MODEL stamped on the side, Claire remains the virtual nonentity that she started the strip as, Chris and Melody are simply biding time before they find twue wuv, Jameson and Maureen already have, and Jaime's few remaining flaws were buffed away when she wandered out of the closet (is there a major current webcomic with a seriously flawed gay character?).  While I can appreciate this as part of the yin/yang dynamic with Hazel- life shits on Hazel and sprouts flowers for Jaime (probably because, if it weren't already obvious, life is a huge fan of boobs)- it doesn't make me feel any more invested in her hopes and dreams, if only because I feel like they're well-provided-for.  Thea's been a bit of a breakout character, and remains one of the few that still manage to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders every once in a while.  Of course, now she's got a job handling weiners (which is funny 'cause she's a lesbian, get it?  HA!) at a roller-derby rink (again, lesbian- HA!), so it's safe to say that the strip's wackiness has all but engulfed the character.

Since I came up with the controlling idea in this essay, I should mention that Girls With Slingshots! appears to be getting back to the things that made the comic interesting to read in the first place.  Hazel is moving in with her mom, and while I usually try to pick a leading graphic that has something to do with my thesis, I picked the above panel simply because I liked it so darn much.  And really, even if Hazel wins the lottery or trips over the corpse of a dead millionaire and finds his checkbook within a few strips, Girls With Slingshots is still a worthy read.  Corsetto is one of the best pure cartoonists on the web, and, if nothing else, her strip will always be a valuable mine of dildo jokes.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Hark! A Vagrant and the Game Changer



As big as the world of webcomics has become since its genesis in the late 1990s, occasionally we get a reminder of how much room there is to grow.

It's easy to get tunnel vision on the internet, because the sheer number of destinations, people, and potential activities is mind-boggling enough to create mental gridlock if you actually stop to think about it.  We've had the internet for so long that it's hard to remember where we began, and how we initially came to read and participate in the various websites and discussion groups that now secure a significant proportion of our daily time.  The level of participation is largely unconscious and changes slowly.  When we think about the internet, we're more likely to think about our regular thoughts than the vast howling madness that constitutes the whole thing.

That is, after all what most of the internet is, a great Miltonic chaos, mostly full of negative conceptual space: the people we'll never meet, ideas we'll never consider, content we'll never discover.  The only way to navigate it and retain our sanity (and perspective, which is really the same thing at a lower level) is to focus on the stuff we do know, jumping from familiarity to familiarity like protruding rocks in an infinite pond.  To grow and cultivate a community on the internet is equivalent to Satan in Paradise Lost bridging the gap between Heaven and Hell, albeit with a slightly more constructive goal in mind.  But the motive is still generally selfish, the builder is still driven by pride (because who, other than an utter egomaniac, would believe that they could write something on an infinite canvas and get a significant number of people to read it?) and the primary tool is still temptation.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of getting to the main point, which is that in late 2007 the webcomics scene seemed all grown up.  Gone were the days where comics like Penny Arcade and Pvp could gain huge audiences simply by posting a bunch of GIFs to a webpage.  Any new webcomic creator had dozens of other quality strips to compete with for a limited number of merchandising dollars, and success had become less about inspired opportunism than steady update schedules, dynamic writing, and continuous artistic development.  Site design had to be up to a certain standard, archives had to be easy to navigate, and artists had to be ready to create a bunch of guest strips to give to other, more popular sites.  Growing a community became as important a talent as figure drawing.

More importantly, all the big-ticket niches had already been filled.  New videogame comics had to face a murderer's row of veteran talent, most of whom had fanbases that considered the existence of another videogame webcomic to be an insult to their personal favorites (to this day, I don't think there's a split in webcomics as bitter as the divide between fans of Penny Arcade and Ctrl+Alt+Del).  Comics about directionless post-college 20somethings had to compete with Questionable Content and Scary Go Round.  Comics about Linux had to compete with xkcd and User Friendly.  Comics about grad school had to compete with PhD Comics.  Comics about '80s nostalgia and internet memes had to compete with Dr. McNinja and Shortpacked.  Fantasy comics had to compete with Order of the Stick.  Sci-Fi Comics had to compete with Starslip Crisis and Schlock Mercenary.  Comics that ripped off high-rated CBS sitcoms had to compete with Least I Could Do.  Sure, each of these comics had a fanbase that was generally eager to discover more comics in the same niche, and could thus be considered an asset, but almost every one was also a runaway success, the likes of which were not likely to be seen again.

Then Kate Beaton reminded us that, silly us, we'd forgotten about history comics.

When Beaton began posting comics from her LiveJournal to a bare-bones website with the singularly unmemorable name katebeaton.com in 2007, it was a bona fide late-90s-style sensation.  Her initial run of history comics was sloppy, crude, and hilarious, and the site kept crashing each time another webcartoonist discovered her and posted the URL.  Within a year Beaton had launched Hark! A Vagrant, come out with a book and several T-shirts that sold successfully, and had enough regular traffic to crash other websites herself.  And what made this even stranger is that Beaton hadn't deliberately set out to make the Next Big Thing in webcomics.  She posted some amateurishly-drawn jpegs to a website and asked for requests, and the audience found her.  The early website sucked, the update schedule remains sketchy, and while her art has hugely improved, she still tends to post rough, basic stuff.  True, even her rough art has an undeniable energy to it, but it's unusual to see such unpolished work see widespread success.  Clearly there was still room in webcomics to grow, and grow fast.

Like all runaway successes, this was simultaneously inspired beyond belief and head-slappingly obvious.  I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it when I found the site.  I have every volume of Larry Gonick's "Cartoon History of the Universe" series, and as many different "Horrible Histories" books as I could get my hands on.  The high school U.S. history curriculum is still sufficiently standardized that almost anyone you talk to will know that, say, Marbury v. Madison established judicial review, and the juciest bits of history tend to get remembered and re-recorded, so there's a huge potential audience and endless subject matter.  Beaton blended the historical content with comic recreations of famous literature, creating a sort of Masterpiece Theatre that was smart and sarcastic and silly, and rewarded fans for knowing the material.  As wonderful as it is to learn something from her webcomic (ha!  I knew these hundreds of man-hours would amount to something!), it's much more effective when discussing topics that you learned about independently:  the strip feels less like a humor delivery device than talking about a well-loved subject with a friend, and seems to give a personal connection that other strips lack- with the notable exception of Penny Arcade, whose authors also choose to make comics that rewards knowledge of the source material.

To me, this sense of personal connection with the author seems to be as big a reason for Hark! A Vagrant's success as its filling of the History Webcomics niche (seriously, how did everyone miss that one for nine years?).  From the beginning, the strip was as much a journal comic as a history/literature comic, with a significant percentage of the strips being autobiographical, often in the form of Beaton's conversations with her younger self, exchanges that often seem disarmingly intimate and personal.  The hacked-together look of her first site (hell, the fact that the site was initially made for her friends) helped emphasize the personal connection, and to this day the Hark! A Vagrant site is made entirely of hand-drawn images that make it look like a grad student's doodling notebook.  Niches grow on a sense of personal connection- hey, you liked this, and I like it too!- but Beaton has always moved beyond that, creating a distinctive artistic sensibility that persists even as her subjects change from comic to comic, and fostering the idea of personal connection through bonus journal comics that she puts in her twitter feed.

At the same time it's about more than networking.  Every webcartoonist is a veritable font of self-promotion, always letting you know about their latest update or merchandise or commission piece through every social networking device possible.  Many of the least interesting comics on the web are devoted to sharing every detail of the cartoonist's tedious, stupid, uninteresting life with readers, most of them copying the form of James Kolchaka's horrible, inexplicably successful American Elf.  It's a delicate balance between maintaining a sense of personal connection with your readers and being perceived as whoring out, and Beaton's success at walking this line comes as much from her insistence on putting up boundaries between her and her fans- boundaries that are all the more necessary because she is an intelligent, attractive woman whose audience, being on the internet, consists of thousands of lonely, introverted, and emotionally stunted men (and many more well-adjusted people, to be sure).  There are plenty of other intelligent, attractive women in webcomics, but none of them felt the need to post to twitter that "I want to have your babies" is not an acceptable way to express admiration of her work.  That Beaton has to deal with this kind of shit while Gabe and Tycho have had, at most, half a stalker between them is a disparity that, while seemingly an inherent result of current internet society, should be remarked upon as something particularly shameful.

(In a tangentially related anecdote, one of the strangest things to ever happen to me involved two discussions of Hark! A Vagrant.  While studying abroad in England, I struck up a conversation with a man who not only loved Beaton's work and "wanted to marry her" (see?), but had sent her a guest comic as a token of his admiration.  I was intrigued, because I hadn't known this man to draw comics, and after some polite pressing he admitted that the comic basically consisted of Henry II saying "fuck" a lot.  Two years later, I was at HeroesCon listening to several webcartoonists, including Beaton, speak at a panel, and she mentioned that she occasionally gets weird, off-putting stuff from her fans, including "some comic where Henry II says 'fuck' a lot."  I experienced a weird sense of closure when I heard it, like I had been granted a set of knowledge that everyone else in the world only had half of at most.)

All of this talk about niches and personal connection, interesting though I may find it, tends to overpower any discussion of Beaton's writing talents, which are impressive.  Beaton rarely subscribes to the standard setup-punchline format suggested in How to Make Webcomics (to the detriment of that work- I'll probably review it later, but for now let's say it's got some great technical advice and some okay working tips).  With the possible exception of KC Green, no one has been more prominent in bringing the smash cut into the general comics vocabulary- check out her George IV strip, which has three in six panels (if you count "a SEXY revolution!" as a smash cut, which, given the jarring leap of logic involved, I certainly do).  In Beaton's six-panel strips, this especially works well.  Other cartoonists will generally use all six panels to build up to a joke (sort of like a truncated Sunday strip), so to see a punchline in the first or second panel that advances the story and gets a big laugh right off the bat is an welcome change in rhythm. She also uses a lot of incidental dialogue, which may have been an early technique to crowd out blank space, but continues to give her strips the comedic back-and-forth of a modern Shakespeare production, or a Howard Hawks film in miniature- check out this early comic about Elizabeth I, which has a dialogue exchange (and joke) in every panel- the exchange in panel 5 would be an entire strip for many cartoonists.

It's worth noting that recently Beaton has been shortening her strips, boiling them down to their humorous essence in three panels.  This actually seems to be her natural style- the smash-cutting of her early strips were often used to yoke several disparate jokes together, and now she's letting each one occupy its own space.  I personally like the longer strips more, if only because it requires a bit more ingenuity to make three barely-related jokes occupy a single coherent comment, and the extra effort exerted often makes them even funnier, plus I'm just a fan of sprawling, Achewood-style dialogue.  That said, after a semester of teaching Freshman English at a university, nothing made me laugh harder than her three-panel take on "The Yellow Wallpaper" (fifth strip down).  I've already discussed the art, which started to improve the moment Beaton decided to get serious about her webcomic, but this seems to me to matter the least:  her most famous peers in history comics, Martin Brown and Larry Gonick, both tend to favor a similarly cartoony style, and it fits well within that tradition.  The comic's one weakness as a webcomic is the random update schedule, but it's often enough that it's rarely a problem.  And like Order of the Stick or Achewood (until recently), the random updates make me visit the website more than I would if  I knew when it was going to update.

What sets Hark! A Vagrant apart from other webcomics is its sudden success, achieved simply because a talented amateur cartoonist found something that few people were writing about, and kept putting out quality work that the right people promoted.  Beaton's comic, along with other overnight successes like Axe Cop, testify to a basic truth that a lot of people in the world of webcomics seemed to have forgotten- anyone with the right skills and ideas can make it to the big leagues.  There are virtually no barriers to entry in this market, and this simple economic fact makes it one of the most exciting art forms around.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dresden Codak and the Soft Bigotry of Slow Updatations






On the surface of things, the worst criticism Aaron Diaz could reasonably receive is that he's going to put out some amazing books someday.  In addition to an art blog that reveals more knowledge about the visual aspect of comics than I ever suspected existed, his webcomic Dresden Codak is one of the most beautifully drawn webcomics around, on one of the best-designed web pages I have seen for a webcomic.  Each strip is a masterpiece of art design, with innovative panel layouts, a drawing style that can switch from hyper-realism to stick-figure simplicity in a few panels without ever losing the sense of consistency in the world, and a tendency to pack jokes and references into each panel until the comic as a whole is bursting (am I crazy in thinking that the ninth panel in this comic is a reference to the old HBO show Dead Like Me?  What's that?  I am?  Okay).  Whenever Diaz manages to accumulate enough  material to make a good-sized color collection, I will be happy to shell out whatever he asks in order to acquire it.

The price will be no problem not only because Diaz's art is beautiful, but because at the rate he updates, I'll have approximately eight years to save up for it.

Of all the decisions Diaz has made in regards to his comic strip, the strangest one is the most recent:  he decided to run a "guest week"of comic strips that appeared on his site... at the rate of one per day.  I'm confused by this.  Does he really expect to update his comic five times a week?  You can't rush the artistic process, and you certainly can't expect pages like this to come up even three times a week.  But guest comics are generally used to fill gaps in a regular update schedule.  So why cram them all in like this?  It doesn't make sense, especially since you can bet that the week after the guest strips finish will be update-free.  Maybe there will be another blog post.

This is a minor quibble, sure, but for me it represents a more pressing issue with Diaz's work:  For all its technical excellence, visual brilliance, and willingness to make science fiction stories that aren't merely cautionary tales, there's a fundamental imbalance in the time he puts into each strip, and the amount of space he gives us to interpret it.  Yes, interpret it, because you don't "read"a Dresden Codak strip so much as you constantly play catch-up with the densely-packed dialogue and non-intuitive (though interesting) panel layouts.  Diaz has certain visual lost causes that he keeps going back to- you can try to make your panels proceed from the upper-right to the lower-left of the page all you want, and it will never be intuitive- and these tend to clutter the page, and the various narrative, humorous, and referential claims made on each page make it hard to figure out what the hell is going on.  Content that could be easily figured out if spread out over a few more strips is made incomprehensible by trying to pack it onto a singll page (I have been trying to figure out what's going on in this comic for two years), while other information is inserted in small bits and pieces across multiple pages, so that by the time it's come up, we forget how the future time traveler regained his eyesight, and have to go back through the archive to remember why it's important.  A successful webcomic narrative should do the heavy lifting for readers, not have them running back and forth over the archive like they're trying to decipher hieroglyphs.  Diaz's comics advocate human progress, but they too often resemble the most archaic sort of visual storytelling known to man.  Or, to put it another way (and belabor the point even further, I know), reading one of Diaz's strips is like reading one of Kim Ross's excited dialogue balloons and trying to figure out exactly what she's saying.


And really, it may have been worth it, after all, if the story or characters were sufficiently interesting.  But as with most science fiction, it's the ideas that are the real stars, and once you've got those on the page, there's not much of a reason to continue reading.  Kim Ross is perhaps the most blatant example of a Mary Sue character to make it into a critically acclaimed comic, and the single long-form story that Diaz has managed to complete in the five and a half years since he started the site pretends to examine her ideas about the singularity and the rise of cyborg-humans, but instead blithely accepts them.  Kim is heroic, tragic, and forthright, and anyone who stays in the way of the inevitable rise of humans to cyber-immortality is cowardly, superstitious, and cruel.  Even the one weakness of hers they exploit is an admirable one- you see, she can't bear for somebody to be operating under false assumptions, and her mind forces her to continue explaining until everyone understands.  She just hates scientific inaccuracy so much!  Or maybe that's just the hologram version of herself.  Anyway, the central point of "Hob" seems to be that if we'd all just listen to Kimiko, her driving need to make her mother's death mean something would allow humans to reach their true potential.  Which is a pretty simple point to bushwhack through for 27 pages.  At the end, nothing's really changed except for Kim's prosthetic limbs, and no characters have reached any sort of new understanding- Kim is still Kim (it doesn't even seem like she gets closure over her mother's death, which is pretty much obligatory in this sort of story), Dmitri and Alina are too slight of characters to register much at all(are they supposed to be superheroes or what?), the time colonists have been apotheosized, and the future is still unknowable.  In trying to avoid the "cautionary tale" sci-fi cliches, Diaz has stepped into another one- the reversion to the status quo.  As a story, "Hob" is unsatisfying.

None of these problems rear their heads in the one-shots that actually represent the majority of Diaz's output.  Well, Kim's too-adorable social deficiencies sometimes raise their head (Kim, in the great tradition of female protagonists written by lonely males, is extremely attractive and has no social skills, a combination of traits that nature abhors  nearly as much as a vacuum), but for the most part they're immensely well-drawn and clearly laid out (though Diaz's tendency to go from right to left in panel construction remains a sticking point), with detail that rewards re-reading rather than demanding it.  Also, his next story, "Dark Science," seems like it could be fun, but pages have been appearing at the rate of one per month, which is too slow to keep me interested in it until it's done.  Also, I'm afraid that Kim's friendliness towards the robots that run Nephilopolis is going to come back in them saving her at some crucial point later in the storyline, but if Diaz manages to subvert that cliche I will be all the happier.

I  hate to repeat myself, or keep going back to the same webcomics again and again, but it's instructive to  compare Dresden Codak to Octopus Pie, the previous comic I've covered on this blog.  Meredith Gran and Aaron Diaz shared the same Portland studio for much of the last year, and both webcartoonists are making two of the most critically acclaimed and popular webcomics out there.  Both pack their narratives with incidental detail that shows a great deal of thought behind their worlds, and encourage re-reading.  But Gran's storylines always work on a fundamental level that Diaz's seem to lack- the characters are three-dimensional, the storylines are easy to follow, the ideas are complex without being convoluted.  Hopefully Diaz was taking notes, even on the things that didn't work out for Octopus Pie:  Gran's experiment with releasing fully-formed stories whenever they were done didn't suit her strip, but they would suit Dresden Codak quite well.  If Diaz were updating stories in 25-page blocks rather than one page at a time, it would allow him to stretch out his stories, work on pacing, and maybe not end so many pages in a silent landscape panel.

The problem could be me.  Most of my complaints about Dresden Codak have something to do with how hard it is to follow, and it could be I'm just not smart enough to be reading it.  I didn't do that well in high school biology.  Diaz is clearly an artist and a storyteller on a different level than most human beings, and he is making one of the defining webcomics for the new wave of webcartoonists.  I just can't shake the feeling that he should be doing a much better job.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Octopus Pie and the New(w) Wave of Webcartoonists


My previous entry made the assertion that a primary source of drama among the webcomics "old guard" was over a proper business model:  do you sell your strips, or give them away as a way of attracting merchandise sales?  But the struggle was often framed in terms of art vs. commerce, and not the way you'd necessarily expect:  People who identified as "artists" were often the ones to sell their strips, whereas the "commerce" crowd gave their strips away for free. 

The roots of this seeming contradiction can be found in Bill Watterson's longstanding battle to prevent Calvin and Hobbes from being merchandised, a battle he made public in the introductory essays to the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, and laid out the case against licensing his characters:  Licensing diluted the original product, it was contrary to the spirit of his strip, it constituted putting his artistic principles up for sale.  And the people in webcomics who charged money to view their strips generally agreed with this perspective:  comics were art, and merchandising art compromises its integrity.  For proof they gestured toward webcomics like Penny Arcade, PvP, and Ctrl-Alt-Del, webcomics that were financially successful but tended to traffic in excess profanity, violence, videogame references, and sophomoric humor (curiously, all these comics remain fairly prudish when depicting sex to this day).  These webcomics' commercial incentives, went the argument, caused their creators to pander to an immature, mouth-breathing demographic, and lose any potential for art in the process.  For their part, the "videogame cartoonists" were equally suspicious of the "artists," who to them seemed to pride obscurity and pretentiousness over any attempt to connect with readers or tell compelling stories.  The videogamers wanted webcomics to become Peanuts, the artsy-fartsies wanted them to become Krazy Kat.

The great innovation of the artists that have succeeded the old guard- an innovation, I would argue, that rose directly from this debate over commercialization- has been their ability to fuse art and commerce, to write strips that are deeply personal and highly allusive and unquestionably artistic, while managing to appeal to a wide audience and sell it a ton of great merchandise.  The quintessential example of this new wave of webcartoonists is Meredith Gran, whose Octopus Pie is perhaps the best example of a comic that fulfills artistic and commercial prerogatives.

Of course, Gran is not new to the webcomics scene- she's produced two other webcomics that Comixpedia knows of, both done when she was a teenager.  But Octopus Pie is obviously the result of a lot of thought and planning on Gran's part- she was hardworking enough to learn many of the secrets and pitfalls of webcomics her first time around, and came out firing on all cylinders.  Right from the beginning she had a clean and polished visual style, and writing that could deliver multiple punchlines per comic, some of which take several read-throughs to find, some of which only made sense once the storyline was completed.  Most importantly for a new webcomic, the update schedule was rock-solid.

It took a little while for me to get into Octopus Pie, mostly because every time I heard it praised by another webcartoonist, they would inevitably talk about the art.  And the early art style is good, easily the best thing I've ever seen produced with the help of Manga Studio, and more impressively, original- I've heard people say it looks like anything from Tex Avery to Bryan Lee O' Malley, but it is much more its own style than any possible influences.  But "good art" in the mouths of webcartoonists often means "underdeveloped/bad writing," and the first storyline doesn't go out of its way to prove otherwise.  Like most of the writing in Octopus Pie, for better or worse, it improves upon repeat viewing. 

Sure, now I can see how deadly consistent the characters were from the outset, which makes the smaller details in this strip, for example Eve's comment about her mother and her lack of punctuation when she says "where are you," much funnier on repeat viewing.  But the first time through, the storyline felt... I dunno.  Weirdly passive-aggressive, I guess.  It just didn't hit.  None of these characters seemed like much fun, and the juxtaposition between the cartoony style and the miserablist storyline was more off-putting than genuinely funny.  I decided not to add it to my regular reading list.  Of course, if I'd known that in eight more strips Eve Ning would be electrocuting a sweet old lady in a storyline that commented on prohibitive DRM laws, post-9/11 security paranoia, and the familiar feeling of helplessness that comes when someone takes your shit, I'd have stayed on.  Heck, "Bring the Stiiiiick!" would've been enough to hook me.  So the lesson here is maybe more applicable to my reading habits than Gran's decision to introduce her comic's world in a misanthropic, negative light.

And in looking up these strips so I can link to them, I just noticed another small joke in "Bring the Stiiiick!" that I'd never noticed before- the way the phone's ring, which gets cut off at "RIIIII," is completed when Ollie yells "Ning?!" into the phone.  Like I said, this stuff improves over time.

That aside actually provides a decent segue to my main point, which is that Octopus Pie is criminally undervalued in the writing department.  Yes, Gran draws the greatest facial expressions of anyone in comics, web or otherwise.  Her art has not only survived three changes in medium, but improved noticeably with each change, and her talents for composition and tone balance are professional quality.  But the art stands out so much that most people seem not to realize how much time she must put into scripts to get each one so densely layered.  Take the bike story again:  Eve's remark that she's "welding freedom" comes back with the last comic in the storyline, and both work within the contexts of the individual comics in which they appear, as well.  Practically every storyline in the archives has this level of depth, from two conversations about jealousy that end up outlining the whole storyline, to some Medieval allusions that sneak up on you and provoke a huge laugh when you figure them out.  The characters are consistent enough to change realistically, and to refuse to change just as realistically:  The current storyline suggests that Hannah still has a tendency to control her friends, something that was suggested by the last panel of another storyline where that trait came up. 

In fact, Hannah's need to control her friends was one of the driving forces of her early relationship with Eve, and as Eve's gotten her life together, it's been harder for Hannah to exert that control, and the current storyline seems to be showing that Hannah can't deal with her friends growing out of the need for that control.  Or that she thinks she's doing the right thing by not letting them... but never mind.  The fact that these connections can be drawn, and these characters' motivations debated to this level, is evidence enough of her storytelling abilities.  And lest I make this too egghead-y, I should mention that each of her individual storylines works on a one-level basis, as well- you can miss the references and recurrent tropes and in-jokes, and the comic is still worth your while.

Curiously, Gran seems to have let the general critical ignorance of her writing abilities cause her to reevaluate their importance, at least for a little while.  Her decision at the beginning of 2010 to forgo regular updates for a schedule where the storyline is posted when it's complete was a disaster, and not just because she updated much less frequently.  Octopus Pie works well in long form, but each individual comic is dense enough to merit at least 2 days of re-reading, and the when-it's-done update schedule led to large chunks of strips being posted that readers would fly through, and near the end of the experiment her stories began to reflect that- "Couch Sitter," in particular, is an insubstantial affair.  After the gaps between updates continued to widen, Gran went back to a regular update schedule, and the comics gained back their original density, but there are more hiccups than before.  Sure, she makes up for it with 1.5-page comics, but I'd rather have the comic on time.  Also, how are those 1.5-page pieces going to fit into a book?

This may seem like nitpicking, but it's an important question.  Octopus Pie has stood out commercially as well as artistically, and the shared detail between the two is Gran's commitment to quality control.  Before her Random House-published collection There Are No Stars In Brooklyn set the bar for quality of printed webcomic collections, her self-published books were nearly as impressive.  She hasn't been afraid to innovate, selling branded glassware and stickers along with the more conventional T-shirts and books, and again the quality of these products is unimpeachable.  I don't see that changing with the T-shirts (Topatoco is a famously reliable service), but the future of her books raises questions.  Random House just dropped Gran after There Are No Stars In Brooklyn didn't meet sales expectations, which likely means a move to a small press, and it'll be interesting to see whether or not they can meet Random House's levels of professionalism.

Despite this temporary setback, I'm confident Gran will remain in the top echelon of webcartoonists for a long time to come.  She got in on the ground floor as a teenager, and rather than plant herself there, she took notes on what could be improved, then moved upstairs.  Today her comic exemplifies everything that the new wave of artists- the ones who were inspired by reading Penny Arcade, Pvp, and Goats- got right.  And as the driving force behind New England Webcomics Weekend, the first comics convention based solely around webcomics, she's taking an active role in shaping the next generation of webcartoonists, the ones that were inspired by reading her and her peers.  But when that next generation comes to prominence, don't think that she'll stay behind.

Monday, December 20, 2010

An Introduction

Before I begin this first of what will hopefully become many posts, allow me the luxury of a basic introduction.  I started this blog because examples of in-depth webcomics criticism have recently become few and far between:  Websnark is for all practical purposes dead, the Webcomic Examiner appears to have disappeared from the internets after its 2006 re-launch, and Fleen is really more of a news site these days than a criticism site, and only Gary Tyrell is keeping that part alive.

Part of this thinning of niche webcomics criticism is due to the larger mainstream acceptance of webcomics, as many artists move into the mainstream, and print collections of their works begin to appear on more mainstream pop culture sites.  Webcomics have grown beyond the borders of the relatively insular online community that reached its apex of relevance around the years 2004-2006, and have become professional in a way that even the true professionals of that period didn't seem to anticipate.  Back then, having an RSS feed, a website design you could figure out in ten minutes or less, and three T-shirts for sale was a declaration of serious professional intent.  Today, most serious webcomic entrepreneurs have a dedicated store with everything from t-shirts to posters to plushies available, regularly print out books with additional content not found on their site, and have at least a general strategy for making their work available on iPads and smart phones in the near future.  Today, anyone who is generally considered a serious webcomic entrepreneur has at least the same amount of work put into their site, merchandise, and marketing that Scott Kurtz had put into PvP back in 2003, when it was the second-biggest comic on the internet.  Back in 2003, Kurtz was a massive outlier on the box graph of webcomic professionalism.  Today, he's the mean.

This explosion of professionalism has led to a corresponding explosion in the size and variety of the participants in the webcomic community, which was originally one of the things that supposedly made webcomics such a Big Fucking Deal- anyone could do them!  Anyone could read them!  The possibilities were limitless!  And the possibilities were limitless. The reality, on the other hand, tended to be a group of people with a large variation of artistic talent with Keenspot pages and LiveJournal accounts, many of them producing subpar work that everyone was too friendly to justly criticize.  Looking back, it's amusing to see how much the dialogue around webcomics as a democratizing medium took place among an insular group of friends with little to no connection to the greater internet, and how hostile their reactions could be to giants like Penny Arcade that brought genuinely new readers to the medium.

So the old community has vanished, dissipated, or ascended to new levels of prominence, and the arguments around that community have changed as well.  Although I wish he was still writing the type of long-form, in-depth criticism that was at once serious, entertaining, and funny as hell, even Eric Burns-White seems to recognize that Websnark doesn't have the relevance it did previously.  The last few posts of Websnark that have had anything to do with webcomics (and it's worth pointing out that Websnark was never just about webcomics) were all decidedly old-guard.  Least I Could Do, Real Life Comics, xkcd, Fans!- all of them were still good, and most were still relevant, but it was from the same basic grouping of webcomics that Eric's been covering since the site's inception in 2004.  The most recent Websnark posting, as of this writing, is a think-piece on Flattr as a possible way for webcartoonists to fund their art.  Which really shows how far the discussion has shifted.  Webcartoonists have already found ways to fund their art.  Jeph Jacques put a down payment for a house down purely on his ability to fund his art.  Flattr has fulfilled Burns-White's prediction that "it will all but die out except for hardcore users," and webcartoonists are none the poorer for it.

What's missing from Websnark is any mention of strips that someone with two years' interest in webcomics would recognize.  Kate Beaton is never mentioned.  Neither is Aaron Diaz, Chris Hastings, Erika Moen, or KC Green.  Danielle Corsetto is maybe mentioned twice.  Meredith Gran is only mentioned once, in conjunction with a Checkerboard Nightmare parody of a strip of hers that is no longer available on the internet.  PvP, Questionable Content, Achewood, and Penny Arcade are all mentioned, but only in their unrecognizable adolescences.  It's strange to look at old Websnark posts and remember that PvP was in black and white for well over ten years.  An entire generation of webcartoonists have risen to prominence without a mention in the most popular stop for webcomics criticism on the internet.  And this is because they have largely solved the questions that Eric and Wednesday Burns-White made it their business to answer.

Back in Websnark's heyday, the essays that would truly rattle the walls of the webcomics community could largely (and somewhat inaccurately) be boiled down to monetizing strategies.  You had Scott Kurtz, Kris Straub, Brad Guigar, really most of the current Webcomics.com crew back when they were called Blank Label or Halfpixel or whatever other collectives they've rebranded themselves as over the years, all advocating for free access to, and widespread merchandising of, webcomics.  On the other hand you had Joey Manley and Shaenon Garrity and the Modern Tales folks advocating for a more Wattersonian approach, where cartoonists made comics, and charged for access to them- no heavy merchandising, no compromise of artistic principles, just money for comics, either through micropayments or paywalls.  Kurtz's side explained that readers wouldn't put down money for online comics when so many were already available for free, while Manley's side argued that a creator who could spend less time trying to work T-shirt slogans into his strip would prosper artistically, and justify the cost of accessing the comics.  Each side was convinced that their method was the best possible way to make money off of webcomics, and each became enraged by the other side's continued existence.

(there's another argument to be made here that the two sides here were talking about much more than merchandising, and that the true conflict between the sides is more about whether webcomics should identify more with the alternative comics scene, or be the next natural medium for a new wave of mainstream, Garfield-esque strips, but that's not an argument I'm intellectually equipped to outline)

Today, the argument is more or less settled; virtually no webcomics exist with subscriptions or micropayments as a primary monetary source, and most sell merchandise.  But many webcomics do regularly place "Premium Content" behind a paywall, or put additional strips into books, strips that never make it onto their websites.  And while PvP has never gone behind a paywall, Webcomics.com has, in a move that prompted what I consider the last true Websnark post, the last one that hashes all those old arguments up again, and lets you see Kurtz get angry at Eric, and Eric placate Kurtz, just like the good old days.  But for the most part, the debates that used to be central to Websnark, because they were central to the early and crazy genesis of webcomics as an industry, have been resolved.

Which is not to say that most issues have been resolved.  The long-term viability of the most popular current financial model for webcomics has yet to be proven, and new models may spring up in the future.  More interestingly, we don't know what new projects will spring up in the next few years, what new developments will occur in the webcomics we already know and love, and how webcomics will develop aesthetically and artistically as well as financially.  I don't doubt that Eric and Wednesday would be more than equal to the task of providing insightful, funny, entertaining critical essays on the issues that face this new generation of online artists, and for all I know they will publish some in the future.  Maybe the various webcomic blogs that used to spring up all over the internet, most of which are now defunct, will stage a comeback, and maybe Scott Kurtz will even continue to read a few of them.  Maybe the critical discourse on webcomics that has stagnated and been abandoned in recent years (with the exception of Fleen, which I visit regularly but mostly use as a news/gossip site) will re-emerge.

But personally, I'm tired of waiting.

I've been discussing comics in individual forums for the last four years under a variety of screennames, and occasionally contributed my opinion to criticism blogs.  But I feel that something is happening in webcomics that goes beyond individual sites, goes beyond my interest in one or two creators, and I want to have some place to talk about it.  And, yes, ideally, people interested enough to listen and talk back.  With luck, I won't end up sending these words into a void.  Regardless of whether I find an audience or not, I will write.

My name is Doug Wykstra.  It's nice to meet you.  Shall we begin?