Monday, June 16, 2008

"Futuristic Tales" Puts Doctorow in Pictures

I was psyched when I learned that six of Cory Doctorow's stories had been adapted for the graphic novella. I've long been a fan of Doctorow's short fiction, which he frequently podcasts at, and I've been known to enjoy the occasional picture book.

As soon as I downloaded my copy of "Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now" (one of the great things about Doctorow's work is that he always makes it available, in one form or another, for free), I immediately scanned the three stories I had already listened to on his podcast: "Anda's Game," "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth," and "I, Robot." Unfortunately, all these stories suffer greatly from what I can only assume was publisher-mandated slicing and dicing, and much of their message gets lost in truncation.

"Anda's Game" retains its core story of the pudgy girl gamer who learns of the in-game exploitation of fellow females in the Third World, but this version of Anda fails to connect their exploitation to her own, trivializing the subplot of her excess weight. "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" lurches awkwardly from climax to denouement without explaining what happens in between. And "I, Robot," a spiritual precursor to Doctorow's much-acclaimed "Little Brother," fails to capture the complex circles of surveillance and avoidance he so expertly builds. The result is indeed a taste of Doctorow, but one that drains his work of any depth.

Each of the six stories showcases a different artist, with a style clearly distinct from the other five. Spanish artist Esteve Polls gives "Anda's Game" a classic adventure comics turn, which fits well with the high-fantasy MMORPG its heroine plays (though I doubt any artist could approach the charm of Alice Taylor's audio rendition). "Sysadmins" is appropriately and simply bleak in the hands of Daniel Warner, though I found the text displayed on the titular characters' computer screens -- an essential element of the plot -- disappointingly sparse and hard to read. But it is Erich Owen's work on "I, Robot" that truly falls short. After a promising opening page, his characters flatten into cartoon characters, their expressions failing to capture the moral complexity of their situation, and he seems to rely too much on grain to convey the grim stagnation of his setting. His website suggests that he is capable of much better.

As for the remaining three tales, I think I will go back and snag the text or audio versions from craphound before reading them here. As much as I enjoy sequential art, I'd much prefer my first experience with these stories to be as Doctorow wrote them.

Friday, June 6, 2008

"Three" Unshrouds the Fans! Love Triangle

Warning: Spoilers ahead. The Fans! archives take an eon to go through, but you should do it anyway. Just saying.

I must say, I'm loving the latest story arc from Fans! I was delighted when T. Campbell decided to restart the series, letting us rejoin our heroes several years (and in some cases, several children) after the events of "What Dreams May Come." But "Three" lands us back in the past, pulling the curtain back on the polyamorous relationship lead characters Rikk, Rumy, and Alisin (now Ally) agreed to enter into at the end of the series' original run.

Although Fans! is ostensibly an action-adventure comic, Campbell is at his best when he's poking and prodding at his characters' angst. But "Three" is oddly sweet, the satisfying resolution to volumes of heartache. Ally and Rumy have always been the hearts of the series, as well as each other's perfect dark mirror, paradoxically making them both perfect matches for the fans' leader Rikk Oberf. Pious Rikk and self-destructive Alisin entered a common law marriage early in the series, and the naive, ever-romaintic Rumy stepped back, preferring to pine for Rikk than risk his hard-won happiness with Ally. But as the series progressed, and Ally and Rumy forged a warm friendship, it became clear that none of the characters would be happy unless they all were. So, much the surprise of Fans' fans, Campbell left our heroes as a threesome.

Now we get to see the tentative first steps of that relationship and how the trio navigate Rumy's sexual inexperience, Ally's demons, and the challenge to Rikk's traditional notions of marriage. It's a tantalizing peek into the gap between Fans! and Fans! 2.0, and makes me excited to rejoin these characters in the future to see how far they've come.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Bellen! Appeals to the Romantic Malcontent in Us All

In the taxonomy of webcomics, there are your dinosaur/video game/ninja comics, your character-driven serials, your diary comics. But Bellen!, Box Brown's comic about a couple (the eponymous Ben and Ellen), defies simple classification. More than a genre, Bellen! captures a mood, those strange spaces where two people are alone with each other and start to go a little crazy.

Ben is an artist (I strongly suspect he resembles his creator) who makes frequent note of the promise and absurdity of life, often in a shouty bold font. It is up to his better half Ellen to endure his pontifications, counter with some wisdom of her own, or defuse his bad moods with a kiss and a pat on the head. Sometimes Bellen! is wonderfully zany, like peering inside a brain drowning in 80s pop culture and comic book panels, but many of the installments take place in the secret world of couples, that place where frustration meets adoration and where the saddest, most obnoxious things about people are the things we love the most.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Where Do Your Donation Dollars Go?

Because I’ve been driving to work, I recently started listening to NPR. This morning, I noticed the hosts were a unit of acceleration above their normal breezy and casual pace. They began talking dollars, and it took me a minute to realize they weren’t talking about the Dow Jones. Gradually, it dawned on me: this was a fundraising drive. I’ve been listening to WBUR for less than a month, and they want to know am I willing to donate sixty, two hundred, maybe a thousand dollars?

To be honest, I’ve never really understood having donations be a major part of one’s financial operations. Except for things like emergency relief, caring for children, or for gifts like grants, endowments, and scholarships, if a large portion of your operating budget comes from donations, methinks you should be rethinking your business strategy. But, hey, it’s kept PBS alive all these years, so what do I know? Needless to say, I didn’t pick up the phone.

Unfortunately for my conscience, many of my favorite sites are, to some extent, donation driven. Tales of MU, Penny and Aggie, Girls with Slingshots, and Something Positive all feature that handy little donation button, all warm and ready to synch up with your PayPal account.

Do I have $20 to spare for some poor, starving writer/artist who has provided me endless hours of entertainment? Probably, but when you start tallying the number of sites I read (okay, I may have a slight illness; where are all those articles on Internet addiction?), we’re talking a hefty penalty. And when my moral debt starts creeping into the two, three hundreds, I start feeling stingy.

Sure, I’m a bad person. I’m no better than all those other people who have ragged on artists for years, talking about how they should be creating art for art’s sake and not for money. But I suspect, in our information-wants-to-be-free society, that I’m not alone. So, aside from advertising, how do online artists monetize?

Alexandra Erin at Tales of MU uses an incentivized donation scheme. Erin’s serial is character-driven, but there are many hidden delights in her careful world-building. And every time her donation box hits $250, she posts a bonus story in addition to her obsessive updates. These often provide a backstory for one or more characters, and reveal a little something about how the MUniverse operates. Given that she’s got twenty-two bonus stories up already, it seems to be working out.

I met Cristi, business manager at Questionable Content (and fiancee of the artist, Jeph Jacques), about a year ago. She told me that she and Jacques make their living off of QC merchandise. I thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever heard and immediately bought a t-shirt.

Since then, I’ve bought a second shirt from the QC merch store, as a gift for someone who doesn’t even read the comic. That's what I love about the QC t-shirts (and the same goes for the items at Diesel Sweeties); they are great on their own, not just as fanwear. In a way, it’s not so much that the shirts are a way to monetize his webcomic than that the webcomic creates a demand for his t-shirt business. It’s probably the reason I see so many of his bearmonster shirts around Harvard Square:

Penny and Aggie started a donation drive in the fall based on a collaborative incentive system – as in, the more money T Campbell and Gisele Lagace receive, the greater the reward for donors and Campbell’s larger audience. Bizarrely, though, the incentives at the lower levels focus more on Campbell’s other projects – Cool Cat Studio and Fans! – than on P&A. The pair also maintain a small store, although the offerings are slim: two P&A paperbacks, which makes sense, and a t-shirt aimed at die-hard fans. The sole print is a somewhat pornographic piece from Cool Cat Studio. I’m sure that it’s a lovely piece behind the blur (P&A’s a family show, folks), but not exactly something I’m going to purchase and hang on my wall. Why not, I wonder, sell P&A art to P&A fans?

The truth is, I’m saving my money for when Campbell comes out with a print Fans! anthology (Pretty please, Mr. Campbell?). But ever web-savvy, Campbell has found a way for his audience to support him without spending a dime. Campell and Lagace paired with Wowio, a distributor of free sponsored ebooks. The more downloads of P&A books, the more money the writer and artist receive. I may be too cheap to donate money for the vague possibility that maybe, someday, Penny and Aggie will be updated five days a week, but I’m not so lazy that I wouldn’t lend my support by clicking a few links.

Perhaps my favorite recent fundraising effort came from Randy Milholland at Something Positive. For several months, Milholland has been running an original art grabbag. For $15 flat (no shipping) he’ll send readers a piece used in the making of his comic. You don’t get to choose the item; you pay, he sends, end of story. It’s a nice win-win. Milholland has the pieces already made and lying around, and fans get to own a physical piece of the comic. I PayPaled my $15 and came away wholly satisfied. I received a preliminary sketch of two of the series’ main characters, and I did, in fact, hang it on my wall.

Meanwhile, the NPR goblins are whispering in my ear, trying to guilt and goad me into picking up the phone. Somehow, all their talk of the value of their programming can’t trump my sense that someone else will fund public radio for another year, and I’m not yet prepared to shell out for their pricey merch. Maybe I’m too cheap, but maybe they need to start selling better t-shirts.