Saturday, June 27, 2009

Giz Goes from Sex Comedy to Monster Cuties

I mentioned a while back that the immensely talented Gisele Lagace was surrendering art duties on the high school drama Penny and Aggie, to focus more on her own stories. But on top of her deliciously raunchy Ménage à 3, about a virginal post-adolescent comic book geek and his absurdly omnisexual friends, Lagace has just launched Eerie Cuties, a horror-cum-prep-school comedy.

Most people who catch a glimpse of Charybdis Heights get a shiver up their spines, even as they suppose it's nothing more than a freaky little school in an oddly remote part of the woods. But few have any idea just how freaky it is. The truth is, Charybdis is an elite prep school for vampires, demons, and werethings. As a young vamp, Nina should fit right in among her fellow students. But she's not too keen on the whole drinking human blood bit -- much to the chagrin of Layla, her poised and perfect bloodsucking sister -- preferring to play with her possessed dolly and be generally adorable. But while her penchant for all things cute might win her some admirers -- including Layla's sometimes boyfriend Kade -- it's hard to say how she'll fit in among her monstrous peers. After all, high school is already Hell, even if your classmates don't happen to be demons.

Tonally, Eerie Cuties strikes me as a PG companion to Lagace's zany, manga-inspired Ménage à 3 rather than a spiritual sibling to Tom Siddell's far more Gothic prep school fantasy Gunnerkrigg Court. But, while the first few installments have hit us upfront with some archetypes that are a bit too tried and true -- the reluctant young vampire, the prissy overachiever, the part-time boyfriend hoping for a full-time gig -- Lagace's writing has improved immensely over the last few months, and I'm excited to see her add another number to her repertoire.

[Eerie Cuties]

Monday, June 22, 2009

An Adorable Damnation

As delightful as it is to stumble across a comic I've never seen before that is perfectly polished and waiting for my utter adoration, it's sometimes just as satisfying to find a work that is chalk full of charm by hasn't yet hit its stride.

I met Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan, co-creators of Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, during the New England Webcomics Weekend pub crawl (the only NEWW event I was ultimately able to attend). They were a bubbly pair with a great, "we're mostly here to learn" attitude and a gorgeous business card depicting the sun rising over a Brooklyn populated by mythical creatures (Note to networking webcomics artists: get business cards. They're really not that expensive.). So I expected a happy, offbeat, and colorful comic.

And Darwin Carmichael delivers. It's a refreshingly uncynical work that manages to be smart even as it features My Little Pony-shaped unicorns and a boy band-obsessed manticore. In a world where gods and magical beings live among us, the island of Manhattan is largely overrun by bankers, socialites, and demons, leaving the lesser deities, angels, and mystical beasts to bust their humps with the hipsters out in Brooklyn. Angels still guide souls to the afterlife (though they tend to lose motivation after one too many bong hits), but demi-gods get stuck waiting tables and the beasts sometimes wind up as pets, sharing their ancient wisdom with their masters -- or demanding enough Care Bears and Totoro dolls to fill a Japanese toy store. It's a universe where balancing your checkbook is less important than balancing your karma.

Unfortunately, Darwin Carmichael's karma is out of whack, even for a mostly average 20-something. See, Darwin was party to an unfortunate incident that left the Dalai Lama retarded (I did say the comic was uncynical; I never said it was PC), leaving him with an enormous karmic debt, which, if left unpaid, will send our young hero straight to Hell. Aiding him on his journey to moral realignment is Skittles, the aforementioned manticore, and Ella Fitzgerald, a punk rocking bicycle messenger who happens to be the karmic equivalent of a trust fund baby. And adjacent to his quest are Patrick, his drunken satyr landlord, Matt, his pretentious artist roommate, and a group of perpetually stoned angels who have taken to squatting on his couch.

Perhaps this is proof of my own neuroticism, but if I was told I was going to go to Hell, I'd probably hightail it to an ashram or join the Peace Corp until all was well, and wrap myself in bubble wrap until the meantime. But blissfully little in Darwin Carmichael has followed Darwin's actual quest for redemption. He's a man who -- damned or not -- still has to live his life. He's got friends to see, parties to attend, and a 2000 year-old pet to care for. Darwin's (usually failed) attempts to make karmic deposits certainly make for great humor -- as when he faces the dilemma of saving a suicidal fellow's life vs. obeying the Word of God and harvesting his soul -- but it could easily prove tedious.

The downside is that the creators have not yet found the comic's storytelling center, but it's not much of a downside, since it's great fun to watch them experiment with their universe. We finally get to see the oft-speculated-on reverse mermaid (as well as her more conventional sister, who dances burlesque at The Slipper Room), and it turns out that the presense of gods in the physical world doesn't necessitate the absense of atheists (a hilarious riff on pop-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). And then there's a birthday party populated entirely by magical creatures who act like they're in junior high -- a surprisingly solid plot line that should have been by all rights horrendous. Eventually, Goldstein and Jordan will have to figure out precisely what Darwin Carmichael is about -- aside from amusing worldbuilding -- but in the meantime, this will do just fine.

As for the art, I was initially unsure of Goldstein's style, which is reminscient of someone playing with those skinny markers that come with art boxes. But once she resolved some initial clunkiness, I found the childish tone of the illustrations a neat match to the irreverrant subject matter (I mean, come on, there are purple unicorns roaming the streets). And by childish, I don't mean to imply that Goldstein's style is underdeveloped; she puts a great deal of effort into adding subtle dimension with light and shadow, and plays with patterns in a way surprisingly few comic artists do. Plus, it allows for some hilarious visual gags, such as when we learn what happens when those purple unicorns imbibe too much party punch.

Darwin Carmichael still has a few rounds of refining to go, but the creators have strong instincts and a wicked set of funny bones. Plus, I hate to be shallow, but they're nearly as adorable as their comic:

[Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell]

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Welcome to the Funhouse

So, tell me if you've heard this one before: there are three slacker best friends who are obsessed with science fiction, the 1980s, comic books, and video games. One's an overstimulated underachiever with an inability to grasp normal social rules. Another is a shrimpy ubergeek with an inch more sensitivity and a mile more success with the ladies. And the third is an unrepentant alcoholic who frequently wakes up in his own vomit can't let go of a joke. They sit around, watching cartoons, killing virtual zombies, and making geeky references until Character #1 (in this case, a giant rabbit named Lolo) receives a letter telling him that he's inherited his late uncle's haunted mansion. So they pack up and move into their strange but luxurious new digs, where they proceed to watch cartoons, kill virtual zombies, and make geeky references.

With me so far?

Zac Gorman's Montgrave certainly isn't the highest concept webcomic around, and I admit I initially found myself rolling my eyes, wondering if there weren't enough comics out to capture the Atari-nostalgic demographic. But Montgrave has one key attribute that too many similarly themed comics lack: it doesn't take itself too seriously. With a candy-colored palette and character designs that mix the anthropomorphic and the monstrous (Lolo, the aforementioned rabbit, is more Harvey than Frank; Dug is a cross between Peter Parker, a gopher, and Kenny from South Park; and Bixby's blue, trollish appearance and pronounced underbite make his overestimation of his booze tolerance more comical than disturbing), Gorman creates a world that's fast-paced, absurd, and stuffed with dark-tinged fun.

Yes, there are geeky jokes aplenty, but don't expect diatribes about George Lucas or the Watchmen movie. Instead, the references here are much more affectionate. Bixby opens a model fridge to discover it contains the demonic universe of the gatekeeper Zuul. Lolo and the crew discover an army of Fraggles living beneath the mansion who've gone Communist, cut ties with their Doozer pals, and started manufacturing their own Doozer sticks (not that Lolo et al. comprehend any of this). And when Dug's father arrives on the scene, he goes by "Dig" and strongly resembles the underground warrior from a certain 1980s arcade game. On top of that, Gorman is an unpretentious pop culture omnivore, name checking Friends and The Hills amidst mentions of Terminator and Dune.

Admittedly, the approach is a bit hit-and-miss. When it works, the results can truly inspired. When it doesn't, it feels slightly obnoxious (The next person who makes a "Come with me if you want to live" joke in a storyline not about killer machines gets it in the groin. Seriously.). And occasionally, I get the sense that Gorman is telling the wrong joke -- as in the incredibly promising story arc that casts Ikea as a classic fantasy labyrinth, but is truncated by a still funny (but not quite as funny) owlbear chase.

Even when Montgrave doesn't quite reach it's potential, it's still goofy and satisfying fun. Gorman has an awesome sense of timing and knows when he's pushing the envelope -- and when to push it even further (it's heavily implied that the cartoonish behavior Montgrave characters engage in -- binge drinking, Fraggle hunting, stabby stabbing -- can actually harm them). And with each arc, he gets a better sense as to where he can prod his characters and their universe (the latest arc finds one of our heroes in a coma, which plays out in his mind like a perverse high fantasy epic). In the end, Montgrave comes off as a somewhat Simpsons-eque pleasure; smart but accessibly so, attractive but vulgar, shocking but not horrifying, progressive but free to take shots at whomever it chooses.

Plus, whenever it turns up in my reader, I smile, which is my personal litmus test for any comic. Let fun reign.


Friday, June 5, 2009

The Honest Diarist

So, I'm quasi-returned, following a cross-country move with few stops and even less Internet access. I'll resume reviews in the next couple of days with a comic I've been sitting on for some time, but I wanted to bring your attention to the latest installment of Marc Ellerby's Ellerbisms (previously reviewed here).

Diary comics are harder than they look, precisely because they require a degree of honesty that most of us are simply not able to offer up; either because we hesitate to stare our true selves in the face or out of respect for our lovely but flawed loved ones. James Kolchalka's American Elf, which I often hold up as the template for successful diary comicking, is often astounding in its honesty. Forget the idle speculation on what it would be like to pet his cat with his penis, it's far more shocking when he chronicles his wife's miscarriage or his now-renowned temper.

There has long been a ghost of a narrative running through Ellerbisms, a story beneath Anna and Marc's relationship. Though we've never gotten a clear picture of what that story is, there have been hints that Marc and Anna have a genuine romance -- which is to say messy and plagued by depression and the occasional existential crisis, but anchored to an unclouded affection. But with this latest installment, Ellerby has led us deeper into their relationship with an incident that is shocking, sad, and strangely intimate when Marc comes home to find that Anna has harmed herself.

It's a difficult scene for a number of reasons. One -- and this speaks to Ellerby's talents as a storyteller -- it could have easily been exploitative. But there is no fetishization here; Ellerby does not show the injury (in fact, he shows us as little as possible to explain what's occurred) and when we see Anna's face, her pain is not larger than life; it is pure, ordinary sadness, the kind that contains confusion and regret, and we understand that anyone could have done what's she's done. Instead, the metaphorical camera is -- as it should be in an autobiographical work -- on Marc, on the rush of blood into the ears on discovering that someone you love has done something terrible, the way our visual information gets chopped up as our brains try not to see what's happened, and that the only actions that make sense are the smallest ones, a hand clasped over a knife and holding someone until the sobbing subsides.

Two, it's remarkable that Ellerby has shared this at all. Presumably Anna signed off on this, and it's bold that she did, not for the sake of art (though I certainly consider Ellerbisms, and the other comics I review, art) and not because it might help someone in a similar situation (though it might), but because what Ellerby is attempting is an exercise in honesty, and though honesty doesn't require a throwing open of all our secrets, including something like this makes it more honest. Because it's not shameful; it's not something that titillates our more voyeuristic nerves; it's just one of those things that happens, and it happened to them.

It will be interesting to see how Ellerbisms handles the fallout of all this, but I'm not expecting any sort of exposition. Marc and Anna will continue on with their lives, and this incident will just be one part of that.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sad, Sordid, and Sympathetic Tales

I have to give the Xeric Foundation credit; they certainly know how to pick a comic. Each year, Xeric provides grants so comics creators can self-publish their work, and I have yet to come across a Xeric winner I haven't liked (Xeric winners reviewed here include Tyler Page's Nothing Better and Box Brown's Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing).

JT Yost's Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales is no exception to my Xeric love. This brief anthology consists of five stories that have little in common, save that they all show off Yost's remarkable talents as a visual storyteller. He is one of those rare creators who understands how much information can go into a single, deceptively uncomplicated panel and at the same time knows firmly what his stories are about. Take the titular tale "Old Man Winter." It chronicles the days and encounters of an elderly widower, but it's really about the small indignities that the old may suffer at the loneliest time in their lives -- at the hands of strangers, aquaintances, even their own family. It certainly asks us to rethink our own encounters, but Yost's hand is sympathetic rather than judgmental, rendering his aged protagonist with gentle affection, and demonstrating his quiet embarassment with understated expressions. Even the people who inflict these humiliations upon him are shown to suffer less from cruelty than a failure of empathy. It's a low-concept, high-execution endeavour that is surprisingly humanizing without ever feeling like its trying too hard.

There's a similar vein running through the other stories in this collection. Three of the remaining four deal with animal cruelty. One, "All Is Forgiven," peripherally references the contraversial rhesus monkey experiments of Harry Harlow. Another, "Roadtrip," has been used by vegan outreach groups. But even if this isn't your particular political bent (and, carnivore that I am, I can't say it's mine), they're still well worth the read, marvelously juxtaposing human pains (in the former) and pleasures (in the latter) with the suffering inflicted on animals by humans. "All Is Forgiven" is stronger as a classic short story, but "Roadtrip" is the more visually engaging of the pair. What's refreshing about "Roadtrip" is that it gets its point about the horrors of factory farming across without resorting to PETA's brand of grisly pornography, recognizing that anticipation and aftermath are often more powerful than action. The third of these stories, the not quite correctly titled "Running Away To the Circus/Running Away From the Circus," takes a similar tack, comparing the abuses that force young people and elephants to work the big top in a pair of parallel but opposite pages.

But it's the least flashy tale in the whole lot that gets me the most excited to read Yost's future work. "Logging Sanjay," which is sandwiched in the middle of the book, is an apparently autobiographical story about a childhood prank played on a friend's family. It's a straightforward, unpretentious anecdote that doesn't have the emotional power of "Old Man Winter," but offers hints of what a longer form piece from Yost would look like -- engaging, honest, and filled with mostly good-natured fun. That, combined with his more advanced visual prowess, is what's going to have me keeping an eye on Yost for what I expect will be many, many projects to come.

Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales will be available in August. In the meantime, you can check out the online preview or order it from Birdcage Bottom Books.

[JT Yost]

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Karaoke Comic Still Searching for Its Voice

Reviewing a single-issue comic is a bit of an odd endeavor. It's like contemplating how someone would be in a relationship after sharing appetizers. And, in the cast of a six page DIY, it's a super quick nosh -- more mozzarella sticks than the pu pu platter. But Russ Kazmierczak Jr was kind enough to send me the first issue of his Karaoke Comics, so I am happy to review it.

The premise of Karaoke Comics is fairly self-explanatory. Kazmierczak chronicles his adventures (and misadventures) in karaoke. You see, Kazmierczak is a self-described karaoke fanboy (in the amusing introduction he explains his possible origins: "Rocketed to Earth from the doomed Planted K'raoke! Acquired karaoke powers when bitten by a radioactive Michael Bolton CD!"). He's the guy who doesn't need a liter of tequila to bust out a Whitney Houston tune, the guy who will sing along when someone has a really awesome solo going. Hell, he's the guy if you ask what he wants to do tonight, he'll say, without a moment's hesitation, "I know this great karaoke place."

It's a nice anchor for a comic, precisely because most of us don't share Kazmierczak's enthusiasm for crooning. I'm personally a bit mystified by people who step off the stage only to race back to the song menu, and I'd like to know what mystical force keeps them coming back to the mic. Plus, it lends itself to a rotating cast characters: fellow karaoke bar hoppers, the friends who tag along for the booze, regulars at certain hot spots. And after reading Side B, I'm intrigued by projects that explore music in the necessarily silent medium of comics.

But while Kazmierczak may have a decent idea (and one that aptly matches his passions), he's not quite sure what to do with it. This first issue, entitled "A Gay Old Time!" (much to my disappointment; a cheesier portion of my brain hoped the comics would all be named for grand karaoke standards), consists of two three-page anecdotes in which Kazmierczak (who is straight) goes to karaoke bars and is subsequently hit on by other men. The first, "Sideburned," is far too slight, even for a tale told to friends over beers, while the second, "Daydream Disbelief," is genuinely weird, while containing undertones of sympathetic sadness. The problem, though, is less in the choice of stories than the execution; they told in a way that is almost ludicrously straightforward, without any concern for texture or pacing.

Case in point: the latter (and stronger) of the two stories ought to be seat-squirmingly uncomfortable. As much as we should feel bad for the agent of our discomfort, we should (male or female, gay or straight) also pray that we never have the displeasure of meeting this fellow in the restroom. But where I expect Kazmierczak to linger -- and even luxuriate -- over the man's loneliness and his rather egregious breech of urinal etiquette, he wedges the entire experience into a single panel and then immediately skips back to his comfy table. Similarly, a sense of character and place are strangely absent from the telling. The stories are set in two separate karaoke bars: Orange County's Angels and Lamplighter in San Diego, but we get no idea as to what distinguishes one from the other. And there is maybe one line of dialogue that doesn't contribute deliberately to the central anecdote, revealing virtually nothing about the characters. Sure, we get a clear sense of what transpired in these particular narratives, but not what could be in store for us in future episodes, a circumstance that leads me to strongly suspect that slice-of-life, not comedic anecdotes, would be a stronger genre for this particular comic.

The artwork presents a similar issue. To my mind, karaoke by its nature has an exagerated quality to it; some people are being silly, others are forgetting how the song goes, still others are belting out pop tunes like it's a Broadway audition. But Kazmierczak's art, while highly functional, is bizarrely conservative, showing off not one color of his personal freak flag. It also fails to fill in the blanks left by the text -- characters' age, attractiveness, and sense of style remain a mystery. And seriously, how gross was that thing in the bathroom? Inquiring eyes want to know.

The pair of graphic anecdotes are broken up by two pages of text, a venue review for San Francisco song spot The Mint. The review shares the rest of the issue's theme (namely, that Kazmierczak is a tad obsessed with the sexual orientations of his fellow songsters), but it gives Karaoke Comics a nice bump from simple comic to zine, and I could see fellow karaoke fans submitting reviews of their own.

A good karaoke performance is about more than reciting the correct lyrics to the proper tune; it's about interpreting the song in your own way, even if you aren't the world's greatest singer. The same goes for comics; a unique personality and a strong sense of flair and fun beat an amusing anecdote any day of the week. I'm sure that Russ Kazmierczak has a great voice when he gets up on stage. Next time, I'd like to see it on paper.

[Russ Kazmierczak's Blog]
[Karaoke Comics Preview]

Saturday, May 16, 2009

No Pride, but Prejudice and Zombies

I don't fully comprehend zombie fatigue. To my mind, zombies fill a subgenre like any other -- swords and sorcery, atomic destruction, alien invasion, and the like. Adding zombies to an otherwise dull story doesn't make it any better (although it's certainly made Jane Austen more palatable for a lot of people), nor do the bajillion zombie apocalypses that came before make the latest zombie entrant any worse. The key is whether the still-living folks in the story are remotely interesting.

The Zombie Hunters
by Jenny Romanchuk is an interesting addition to the canon of undead apocalypses, a comic that shares a kinship with some of the stronger deadhead tales and adds a few twists all its own. It takes place in a post-post-apocalyptic universe, one where the zombies still reign over most of the world, but humanity's survivors have begun to slowly rebuild civilization. At the tightly guarded Argus Research Campus, humans once again have houses, schools, scientific labs, and even bars, scratching out an existence while scientists seek out a cure for the zombie plague.

George Romero's zombie movies are frequently stuffed with political subtext, commenting on consumerism, race, and social classism, and The Zombie Hunters has its own set of second class citizens. In Romanchuk's mythology, live humans can become infected with the zombie virus through contact with undead blood. Although the infected are still alive, they'll turn zombie when they die and can pass the infection to uninfected humans through bodily fluids. Consequently, the infected are relagated to special barracks on the campus and live under special curfews and surveillance enforced by Red Halo, A.R.C.'s military complex. Infected persons are greatly encouraged to join the Zombie Hunters, salvage teams that venture into the zombie-filled wastelands to recover food, clothing, and any other remnants of former civilization. It's a potentially deadly job, but offers the infected a freedom they can't experience on campus.

Jenny (yes, one of the characters is named after the author -- more on that later) leads a team of young zombie hunters whose prolonged time in the wastelands has left them jaded to the zombie threat. They've long chafed under (and bent) the rules imposed by Red Halo, and after the loss of a teammate, they've grown increasingly reckless, endangering themselves and their position as Red Halo agents. Meanwhile, in its search for a cure, Argus has created a creature that is neither human nor zombie.

Admittedly, it took me a few tries to get into The Zombie Hunters. My understanding is that the comic wasn't initially written for public consumption, but as a goof for Romanchuk and her friends. And the earlier pages certainly have a goofier quality to them. Romanchuk's art is generally gorgeous -- filled with a colorful range of characters (many physically based on her friends), but grisley enough to match the morbid subject matter. But early on, she slips in and out of manga conventions, occasionally giving her characters minimalist features to denote displeasure, sheepishness, or panic. I'm a big fan of manga conventions where they're appropriate, but here it comes off as jarringly cutesy. It's better when Romanchuk trusts the expressiveness of her normal artistic style, which she does more as the series progresses. By the time we return to the Argus Research Campus, she's polished up the physical design of her characters and relies less on exaggerated manga expressions.

Similarly, the writing and characterization are slightly over the top in those first few pages. In the initial arc, our zombie hunters have gone for a bit of off-mission looting, an error in judgment compounded by some rather ill-advised antics when the legions of undead show up. It's essential to the overall storyline, but a less successful demonstration of the team's aloofness than later flashbacks that show them treating zombie hunting as a game.

The Zombie Hunters picks up significantly at the start of Chapter Four, where Romanchuk lets us in on the universe's backstory via an educational film strip. Yes, it's the same device used in the 1950s-themed zombie comedy Fido, but if Romanchuk is biting on Fido, it doesn't show. Her visual style is similarly silly, but distinct, and rather than act as a PSA for the local corporate zombie-containing complex, it provides a somewhat uncomfortable assurance that infected persons should be treated with just as much respect as anyone else (methinks the salvaged TV set doth protest too much).

From there, we get a much sharper picture of the reality of The Zombie Hunters. The uninfected march on in an isolated facsimile of earlier civilization and are nurtured with a vague paranoia regarding the infected. Meanwhile, the infected are relegated to their ghetto. And though our zombie hunters are named for Romanchuk and her friends, there isn't a Mary Sue in the bunch. They're reasonably competent, but by no means superhuman when it comes to zombie killing, and their time in the wastelands has dehumanized them a bit; death has become sufficiently routine that they lay bets on the survival of new teammates. And, though they'll break a rule here and there (mostly nicking stuff from quarantine), they fear losing their zombie hunter privileges too much to challenge the status of the infected. But that doesn't mean class warfare isn't off in the distant story future; unscrupulous Red Halo officers can extract favors from the infected, and with A.R.C. experimenting on zombies, experiments on the infected can't be far behind.

Another innovation from Romanchuk is the zombie class system. Anyone who's played a few rounds of Left 4 Dead is familiar with hunter zombies, witch zombies, smoker zombies, boomer zombies, and tank zombies. The Zombie Hunters has hunter zombies too, as well as spitters, berserkers, basilisks, howlers, mercies, and the typical slow-moving crawlers. The Zombie Hunters' class system predates Left 4 Dead's, but it has the same effect of adding drama while making your average zombie fairly easy to kill. And Romanchuk has the good sense not to make too much of the undead aspects of her story, keeping the focus on the folks who are still alive.

So check your zombie fatigue at the door. The Zombie Hunters is a brilliantly illustrated work, and Romanchuk has laid the groundwork for a story that's far less horror movie than classic social science fiction drama. But if you just like watching cute girls get chased around by rotting bodies, there's plenty of that, too.

[The Zombie Hunters]

Monday, May 11, 2009

Spandex Without Superheroes

Rival Angels has been calling to me over Project Wonderful. Everywhere I go online, it seems I am followed by pictures of pretty girl wrestlers staring out from their ad boxes, saying, Oh, come on Lauren, just click us.

So I did.

The comic snob in me rather expected to dislike Alan Evans' comic. The art didn't initially appeal to me, the narration and dialogue are a bit clunky (especially towards the beginning), and it's an utterly unironic soap opera about, well, professional wrestling. But I managed to come down off my high horse long enough to realize that, while it's about as deep as a puddle of sweat in the middle of the ring, Rival Angels also has the same simple, straightforward appeal as an evening spent watching the WWE.

Rival Angels operates on a very simple premise: What if professional wrestling were real? What if matches weren't choreographed? What if winners and losers were not predetermined? What if hitting people with chairs (while technically illegal) was still acceptable and really fucking hurt? What if all those backstage melodramas and onstage rivalries were real and unscripted? Oh, and what if all the wrestlers were (mostly gorgeous) women?

That is the world of the Rival Angels wrestling league and "Ultragirl" Sabrina Mancini. Sabrina longs to be a professional wrestler, and after a mere ten weeks in the Rival Angels developmental league, it looks like her dream is coming true. She's been called up to Chicago to be a full-fledged member of the Rival Angels family, wrestling each week to a packed stadium and on national television. But she's about to find out that getting the dream job is just the start of her worries.

Now that she's in the big league, Sabrina has to prove herself in ways that go way beyond her athletic ability. She has to deal with her fellow rookies and roommates, some of whom resent Sabrina's possibly premature success, the Hell's Belles, a trio of sadistic rulebreakers, and Rival Angels Commissioner Gabrielle Reni, who loves to keep her wrestlers on their toes almost as much as she loves increasing tshirt sales. Now, Sabrina has to navigate personalities, manage her offstage life, win her matches, and not get killed in the process.

From an aesthetic standpoint, professional wrestlers have a lot in common with superheroes. They're muscular, they wear colorful outfits, and they get involved in action-packed, multidirectional battles. Fortunately, Evans recognizes this and illustrates Rival Angels in a stripped-down superhero style. Outside the ring, it's not his strong suit; expressions are a bit off, bodies are overly posed, and backgrounds too spartan. But inside the ring, he really shines. To be honest, I thought I'd probably end up skimming over the wrestling panels, but to my surprise, they proved the most exciting and engaging parts of the whole comic. Either Evans obsessively studies wrestlers, or he has some extremely game life models, because the actions are clean and energetic, and when paired with the cheesy color commentary, easy for even this non-wrestling fan to understand. And though it still has a ways to go, the rest of the art is slowly but gradually improving as well.

Rival Angels is, at its heart, a melodrama, and it uses a more than healthy dose of soap opera conventions. Sabrina is our typical heroine with a heart of gold -- innately talented and hardworking, fiercely loyal, woefully naive, and possibly virginal. Sabrina meets her opposite and main rival in roommate Brooke Lennox. Where Sabrina is driven by athleticism and a love of the sport, Brooke seeks only fame and adulation, and she will happily connive and sleep her way to the top. Thus far, much of the action of Rival Angels has involved Brooke's attempts to undermine Sabrina and her cringe-inducing attempts to promote herself (think absurdly skimpy outfits).

The main plotline of Sabrina vs. Brooke (or Sabrina vs. any of her morally unworthy rivals) is actually the weakest point of Rival Angels. Although Sabrina's occasional temper and the sense that she's as capable of losing a match as anyone else leaves her shy of playing the Mary Sue, Brooke is too transparently villainous, and not a match for Sabrina in any department, save guile. There's no cat-and-mouse here, just a bitchy chick and the superior, undeserving victim of her wrath. And when Brooke starts up an affair with one of the Rival Angels higher ups to advance her career, it feels far too obvious and far too familiar. Plus, the Madonna/whore thing is plain tired; it would be peachy to see some nice girls who are sexually empowered or bad girls who are demure.

The peripheral characters are far more fascinating. Sun Wong, a third roommate, is pure kick-ass -- essentially friendly, but tough and not above bending the rules to win. Krystin Moline rounds out the rookie cast as a dedicated athlete with an aptitude for enforcement and a keen vulnerability to people in power. And the veteran wrestlers aren't all buxom beauties; there's a potbellied Samoan, a horror movie luchadore, and a gal known only as "Zombie Luna." Best of all is Commissioner Gabrielle, whose deceptively upfront motive of cold, hard capitalism may be leading to some unexpected places.

As with the art, the strongest characters and storylines are the ones found in and around the ring, but Evans' recent sidetrips into Sun and Krystin's pasts have shown him flexing a wider range of creative muscles. And if he keeps pushing his storytelling chops and fleshes out the burgeoning supporting cast, Rival Angels could prove a fun and fluffy soap opera that borrows from pro wrestling mythology even as it enriches it. Rival Angels isn't great yet and it may never be as admittedly hip as most of the comics populating my RSS reader, but it's fast-paced fun -- and who knows, it might even convince me to give televised wrestling another look.

[Rival Angels]

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Fractured Greek Myths

I have what could be described as a...mild affinity for cartoons. I'm kind of bitter that Saturday morning cartoons are no longer the institution they once were, and I still tune in for the occasional marathon of Recess or Danny Phantom. So I'm a pretty happy puppy when I come across a comic that reads like a smarter entry from Adult Swim or the Disney Afternoon.

That's what makes David McGuire's GastroPhobia such a welcome surprise. The titular characters are Gastro, a cheeky seven year-old aspiring bard (who employs a horn in lieu of a lyre), and Phobia, an exiled Amazon warrior and Gastro's single mother -- who just might be the lesser known sister of the famed Greek hero Heracles. Together, they wander about ancient Greece and have the sort of adventures Ancient Greeks do: facing down vengeful animals, monstrous fiends, and the ghosts of obnoxious relatives.

McGuire employs the representational minimalism of manga-style art, but wisely adds thick lines to match the comic's irreverent tone. The artwork is silly, affectionate, and full of head-chopping, monster-slaying, child-scolding action. And he's got a way with anthropomorphized animals, creating a host of malevolent mockingbirds and dastardly deer. McGuire also keeps the color palette relatively simple, giving each story arc it's own fairly narrow color scheme, a thin range of oranges, greens, reds, purples, and blues. It's a device we've seen before, but here it creates a nice sense of warmth and sets the main storylines apart from the black-and-white interim comics.

But the real treasure in GastroPhobia is McGuire's storytelling, which is at the same time straightforward and highly referential. Main storylines borrow from Greek myths and Disney (I swear, I'll never be able look at an adorable fawn again without thinking, "Bambikles!"), but also reference a wide range of other media, from "The Jabberwocky" to To Kill a Mockingbird. And McGuire has gags that are all his own. There's a running joke about how everyone knows the riddle of the Sphinx, and everyone who isn't named for a mythological figure (Alcides, Jason, Helen) gets a punny Greek name (a ghost named Pneuma, a thieving slave named Klepto, a fluffy pooch Mania). And, if you're wondering why you never read about Gastro and Phobia in your Edith Hamilton or your D'Aulaire's, the kingdom where they live is aptly called Inconsequentia. It all adds a happy layer of smart that puts GastroPhobia a minotaur's head and shoulders above similarly themed fare like Dave the Barbarian.

GastroPhobia works well as a light and goofy webcomic, but I say bring on the 15 minute animated episodes. It's got that perfect blend of silly stories and clever humor that would translate well to television. Now it just needs a kickass voice cast.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

Free Comic Book Day!

At long last, it's Free Comic Book Day, that one Saturday a year when comic book publishers promote their wares by offering up promotional books -- like Oni's Resurrection #0 and Red 5's Atomic Robo and Friends -- free of charge. So get thee to thy local participating comic book store and get yourself something for free (and while you're there, it couldn't hurt to pick up something a bit less free as well).

[Free Comic Book Day]

Friday, May 1, 2009

Comics Artists Share a Silent Mixtape

I was never particularly good at putting together mix tapes. Although I lugged my CD/cassette player all through boarding school, I only compiled a meager handful of mix tapes and they were all on the fairly awful side -- strange mixtures of Pearl Jam, show tunes, Alanis, The Beatles, and far too much They Might Be Giants.

I didn't know then what I know now -- in an era where hand-labeled cassettes have been replaced with Muxtape and A mixtape is more than a random assemblage of songs we may have liked at some point in time; it's something to be shared, something we can use to teach others (or later versions of ourselves) about who we are, what appeals to us, and how music informs our view of the world.

Side B, the latest comics anthology from Poseur Ink (publishers of the similarly themed Side A as well as I Saw You... Comics Inspired by Real-Life Missed Connections), is a different brand of mixtape. Instead of an audio recording of favorite songs, we get to see how writers and artists interpret and share their musical experiences through the silent medium of comics. It's a rare opportunity not only to learn about new musical artists but visual artists as well -- and to experience various musical genres through a wide array of narrative and visual styles.

The best mix tapes include a few familiar artists even as they introduce you to a host of new favorites, and Side B offers a nice assortment of independent creators. Ryan Kelly, illustrator for Vertigo's Lucifer series and Oni Press's Local, lends his considerable artistic talents to a punk rock vignette authored by his partner Kat Vapid. Jeffrey Brown of Clumsy and Bighead fame has a love connection with Cat Power. Lucy Knisley, whose travelogue French Milk was published this past fall (and the film rights have already been optioned), draws the instrumental cover and describes the emotional fallout of losing her entire digital music collection. And Bellen! creator Box Brown shares an excerpt from his upcoming book Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing. But there are plenty of artists who I'm seeing for the first time and whose other work I'm raring to hunt down.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest works from Side B are the most specific, where the artist uses music to explore some other aspect of their lives. In "Out of Step," John Isaacson reminisces on love of Minor Threat and experiences with the straightedge subculture. In "Pursue It," Cordus Holdemauer questions visual artists' celebration of minimalist and conceptual art in the face of music's relative rigor and conformation to certain standards. And, in "Redemption Day" -- one of my favorite entries -- Cristy C. Road explains how punk rock -- and Green Day in particular -- fueled her self-acceptance as a self-loathing, bisexual adolescent.

But some contributors just want to share their formative musical experiences as best they can. Jim Mahfood writes a tribute to Gary Wilson that has admittedly piqued my curiosity about the cult figure's music. Colleen Frakes takes us inside one of Portland performance artist Jason Webley's annual Halloween "death" shows, which create a sense of magical and ritual. Dave Crosland sets his visually striking non-relationship story against the backdrop of a Modest Mouse concert, using music as the frame rather than the centerpiece.

But there are misses amongst this hit parade. The playful art in Brian Butler's "Where Do Shows Come From?" is overwhelmed by its flat text, and the poorly translated script in Uriel Duran's already thin "Life is a Mixtape" is left, for reasons I can't fathom, untouched by editorial hands. And a few of the tracks are wholly unmemorable -- attempting to key into the mystical aspects of music, or the isolation of donning headphones, or the appeal of a really good breakup song without adding anything personal or unique to the mix.

And even with a largely solid track listing, Side B doesn't quite come together as a mix tape. Too many contributors take too similar an approach to the challenge, offering monologues on their personal musical histories. The book is so packed with these and adjacent brands of narration (such as apostrophes and musing dialogues) that the occasional outliers (a ghost tale told in off-meter rhyme, a wordless prehistoric love story, a road trip turned hallucinatory) feel like interlopers from some other kind of anthology -- like a tape of alt rock songs inexplicably punctuated with show tunes and strands of acid jazz. It's a shame, because perhaps the most successful piece in the whole lot is Jon Sperry's magnificent and surprising "Litterboxx," a text-free work that reads as a hyperactive music video and shows just how far the idea of comics and music can be pushed. A quick flip through Side B reveals a rich assortment of visual styles, and ideally the storytelling would be just as diverse.

Poseur Ink editors Rachel Dukes and Mike Lopez have attracted some immensely talented creators, and -- even among the misses -- watching them flex their artistic muscles is well worth the price of admission. You may not come out of it with a keener understanding of what's possible at the intersection of music and comics, but chances are you'll find plenty of new artists to love with thick back catalogues to explore. And really, when we get a new mixtape, isn't that what we always hope for?

Side B is available June 3rd.

[Side B]

Monday, April 27, 2009

Hipster Owls and Pretty Kitties

Sometimes, I really want to love a comic. The initial pass doesn't quite impress me, but there's a spark of something that keeps me following the comic in the hopes that it'll eventually gel. But after a while, it hits me that I'm putting off reviews simply because I don't like a comic as much as I think I should.

Case in point: Tiny Kitten Teeth by Becky Dreistadt and Frank Gibson, a comic I discovered through their awesome guest strip on Octopus Pie. It stars Mewsli, a nervous and impoverished young everycat who has just moved to Owltown with his pet kitten. No sooner has he stepped off the bus than he is greated by the dubious, apparenlty self-appointed welcoming committee: Hootenanny Owl and Regal Begal. Before Mewsli even makes it to his new home, the hip kids of Owltown have bought him clothes, dragged him to a party, gotten him wasted, and coerced him into a strange and slightly larcenous night on the town. These and subsequent adventures serve the dizzying dual purpose of showing Mewsli the time of his life and hazing him into an early grave.

So why am I so eager fall for Tiny Kitten Teeth? Just look at it. I'm a sucker for great art, and Tiny Kitten Teeth has it in spades -- or, more accurately, fleurs de lis. Dreistadt handpaints the comic with gouache then inks the images, creating a brilliant color palette, which, combined with the kitschy, 1960s aesthetic, gives the impression that Tiny Kitten Teeth is set in a très fabulous tiki party held inside Mary Blair's brain. And she doesn't sacrifice cartooning for this look, either. Her anthropomorphic characters are spot on, sort of hipster meets Hannah-Barbera, and each expresses panic or disdain or mischief or delight or self-satisfaction with a manic humor that makes each panel a sheer delight. Even if the writing were utterly without charm, Tiny Kitten Teeth would earn a slot in my reader on art alone.

And much of the writing is, in fact, quite charming. There's a great running visual gag in which characters down bottles of liquor filled with tiny ships -- making the worm a tiny, segmented sea monster -- a moment where a character wakes to find a horse head in his bed -- with the live body still attached -- and plenty of snappy, self-important dialogue. Plus, the characters have over-the-top personalities so neatly matched to their crazed -- but strangely refined -- cartoon bodies that you can practically hear the cool and withering voice actors in your head. Just about any individual page of the comic is bursting with fun, with a tight sense of voice and flair.

The trouble is in how all these individual pages fit together. Much of the plot of Tiny Kitten Teeth involves major overreactor Mewsli being jerked around by the other residents of Owltown (mostly Hootenanny). Mewsli is constantly being thrust into social situations where he doesn't understand the rules, committing faux-pas after foot-in-the-mouth, and falling for sundry pranks, only to be rescued or relieved by one of his new acquaintances before he has a complete meltdown. These incidents -- showing up for a party in the wrong attire, waking up next to an obnoxious stranger, not knowing his roommates' names, neglecting his kitty, and thinking he'll have to pay for an expensive brunch -- are too faint to hold up to the rest of the comic, and they're so easily resolved that we get the impression there's nothing at stake. The episodes either need to be punchier and more self-contained, or build on one another, getting progressively more intense and frustrating until Mewsli reaches his breaking point, stands up to the junior residents of Owltown, and make way for a whole new series of plots.

Let's face it, Tiny Kitten Teeth can get by on its good looks and personality. But if its stories can live up to the promises of its dialogue, humor, and art, it can easily step from a likable charmer to a comic to truly love.

[Tiny Kitten Teeth]

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mini Morsels of Magical Realism

When I was in college, there was a store near where I lived that sold Brian Andreas' StoryPeople prints. I used to spend far too much time flipping through the bins, absorbing the bits of text and color like too many petit fours.

I get the same feeling of bite-sized fulfillment reading Juan Santapau's erratically updated comic The Secret Knots. But instead of dwelling on quirky memories or imagined conversations with alien princesses, Santapau chases down the fleeting thoughts that flit through the backs of our brains -- childish notions, invented superstitions, and half-remembered games -- and bolsters them with his wry illustrations. The results are curiously diverse: Lewis Carroll's nightmare, a fable explaining the universal hatred of mimes, a vision of spam taking over the physical world, and a woman who longs to be the next JK Rowling, but whose stories are stubbornly set in reality. Some of these comics are funny -- swift, incisive jokes; others are more poignant, tinged with shades of hopefulness or regret; still others capture the small made-up magics of daily life. The thread that connects most, though not quite all, these entries is the sense that they come from a particularly cobwebby corner of the human mind.
Two longer stories accompany the one-off comics. "The Truth Fairy," a tale of childhood friends who reconnect as adults, and "Unspeakable," a coming-of-age story inspired by an HP Lovecraft prompt, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of The Secret Knots. Santapau's artwork is lovely, but inexpressive, taking on the sheen of distant memories. It's well-suited to the persistant reflection of "Unspeakable" and the first page of "The Truth Fairy," but it also makes the later pages of the latter feel redundant. Similarly, Santapau is strongest as a writer when exploring the magical rather than the mundane. His comics about starting and ending relationships, of people sitting in bars, are fine, but they don't approach the level of originality and insight found in his meditations on imaginary friends and monsters in the closet.

Unfortunately, The Secret Knots updates irregularly and infrequently, meaning it's a comic best enjoyed in one's RSS reader. But if that's how you take your comics, it's certainly worth the subscribe.

[The Secret Knots]

Friday, April 17, 2009

Penny and Aggie Gets the Fans! Treatment

Bittersweet news from Penny and Aggie this week as T Campbell announced that artist Gisele Lagace is taking permanent leave from the comic, apparently to focus on other artistic endeavors (such as her wonderful sex comedy Ménage à 3). Meanwhile, Jason Waltrip, artist for Fans! (the other source of my T Campbell obsession), will take over drawing duties.

While it's always sad to an artist leave behind the characters she helped create, I find I can't be too terribly upset about this change. Ménage à 3, a comic I've previously accused of being slow-moving and thin on plot, has picked up immensely in the last few weeks, and I greatly suspect that it's because Lagace's been giving it her fuller attention. And Waltrip has not only shown himself to be a talented artist with Fans!, he's become so adept at aping Lagace's clean style that I frequently fail to notice when he's guesting on P&A.

Some fans on the forum have welcomed Waltrip in with the hope that he'll find his own style -- as he did a bit in "Fan Glam #21" -- rather than imitating Lagace's. Normally, I'd agree, but P&A has such an enormous cast (seriously, you actually need a scorecard to keep track of them all) that a significant stylistic change would likely be distracting and confusing. And with the comic coming off the rollercoaster high of its recent string of incredibly satisfying story arcs (payoff after torturous years of buildup), I just want Campbell & Co to keep the momentum going.

[The Tea Room]

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Everyone's Connected -- Whether They Like it or Not

Dash Shaw's BodyWorld came to my attention just last week when it earned one of the coveted nominations for the Digital Comic Eisner. But Shaw has been making a splash in the world of offline comics for a while now. In 2002, a 19-year-old Shaw was named one of the Small Press Expo's ten artists to watch, and his preliminary pages on his family disintegration drama Bottomless Belly Button so impressed Fantagraphics editor Gary Groth that he published the 720-page tome last June.

BodyWorld is a science fiction drama about isolation, connection, and fulfillment. After an unnamed civil war, Boney Borough is set up as a sort of eco-friendly Levittown, with couples and soldiers' widows hoping to raise their children in a wholesome post-war suburb, filled with high school sweethearts, big sporting events, and long walks through Boney Borough's expansive forests. Depressive botany professor Paul Panther takes one look at the K-12 school at the center of this apparently idyllic borough and says, with longing, "I wish I went to this school."

Paul has come to Boney Borough from New York, where he is updating a text book on hallucinogenic plants. It's precisely the only job Paul is qualified to hold, since the miserable, balding botanist is himself addicted to drugs. Paul can't seem to maintain human connection, but he's desperate for it; he meets his only friend by responding, in earnest, to spam email messages. He fills the hole in his life with various forms of self-abuse and has convinced himself that he longs to die.

A bizarre new plant has appeared in the Boney woods, and Paul has been sent to investigate its possible hallucinogenic properties. But this plant does far more than force the smoker to see pretty swirling colors. Instead, it creates a profound connection between the smoker and the people closest to him, letting him experience the other person's thoughts, memories, and even physical sensations. Soon, teacher Jem Jewel and students Pearl Peach and Billy Borg become unwitting lab rats as Paul attempts to forge a connection with them.

Of course, Boney Borough doesn't need Paul or the plant to be a science experiment. With its rigid zoning codes, fashions from some fictional corner of the 1950s, and absence of roads or cars, the whole town seems a sort of social ant farm. And, while Boney may seem, on the surface, the picture of sitcom perfection, beneath the school jerseys and argyle sweaters lurk sexual secrets, sports-related substance abuse, and an absurd level of surveillance. Ultimately, the denizens of Boney are no less vulnerable to loneliness than Paul Panther is, though most don't share his stubborn, almost self-destructive individualism. And when Boney Borough threatens to transform into the superorganism it seems to want to become, Paul has to either flee for his sense of self or let the town swallow him whole.

The characters in BodyWorld are archetypes we've seen before: the drug-addled loser who grasps at his last shreds of optimism, the sexy teacher who never really left high school, the naive girl who feels she's outgrown small-town life, the prom king jock who secretly knows he peaked long before graduation. But Shaw uses them to explore the subversive notion that we may be happiest when we surrender our individuality, our personal will to something larger than ourselves; that, left to our own devices, we will only make ourselves miserable. It's a smart and surprisingly accessible work that, despite its retro, alterna-comics look, has underpinnings of superhero comics, romance comics, and even The Twilight Zone.

It's the way Shaw blends artistic ideas that is most powerful here, poking and prodding at the language of comics to achieve his ends. Sometimes he plays it straight, using arrows and dotted lines to denote action in a way that is at once archaic and reassuringly familiar. Dead critters even get little Xs over their eyes. At other times, he radically busts the rules of traditional comicking, breaking out of his normally rigid panelling structure to allow scenes and people to overlap, and sometimes he abandons black lines entirely, filling the panels with blocks of unrestricted color. These choices make BodyWorld an interesting visual experience, but they're narrative rather than merely aesthetic.

My one issue with BodyWorld is that Shaw seems almost single-minded in the pursuit of these notions of individuality, community, microcosms, mirror neuron theory, and superorganisms. Although there are moments of texture, primarily (and appropriately) fleshing out our march-to-his-own-miserable-drummer botanist, the social science fiction lover in me longed for more details about this offbeat American future. And it's not merely a genre preference; I want some kind of anchor to this world. I want to feel chills (or at least ambivalence) at the prospect of a somewhat familiar civilization turning into something alien. But Boney Borough is a symbol pulled from a too-distant piece of Americana, making it difficult to connect to on any emotional level. This ultimately makes BodyWorld successful as an art piece, but falls short of that Twilight Zone-esque potential for being a truly chilling morality play.

Still, BodyWorld is worth at least two reads, best in quick succession -- one to take in the plot and the glorious weirdness of it all, and a second (or third) to examine how Shaw's themes play out. For print lovers, Pantheon is publishing a dead tree version in 2010 and there are rumblings of a possible film adaptation.

So, I give. I like BodyWorld and I see why it was nominated for an Eisner. But I still think comparing a self-contained work (albeit an extremely successful and intelligent one) to long-term web serials is a bit of apples and oranges.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Desperately Seeking Lovecraft

It's rather frustrating when a character doesn't know he's stuck inside a piece of Lovecraftian fiction. You would think that the gloomy New England setting, disturbing art, indistinct chanting, and general prevalence of fish people would tip people off. And if anyone should suspect that they're in a Lovecraftian story, it should be acquaintances of the man himself, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Especially if ol' HP has recently vanished into thin air.

Orwin Battler knows a thing or two about horror. He's enjoyed some success writing stories for Weird Tales (he insists that he writes westerns, too, but they never sell) and has formed a mutual admiration society with Howard Lovecraft. Orwin leaves his native Oklahoma to visit Lovecraft in Providence (stopping in Chicago to look in on actual Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright), but upon his arrival, learns that the famed author disappeared just hours before, practically in front of his aunt's very eyes. Orwin also crosses paths with Nan Mercy, a beautiful Brown University librarian who purchases unusual and startling works for the school's special collection (which, incidentally, actually exists; trips to Brown's John Hay Library are frequently puncuated with a viewing of one of three books bound in human flesh). Miss Mercy is also interested in Lovecraft's whereabouts, suspecting that Lovecraft tore several plates out of a book recently acquired by the university. This naturally puts them both on the path to discovering deformed children, hidden cults, and immortal monsters.

Larry Latham's Lovecraft is Missing is a fond homage to Lovecraft's works. References to stories like Pickman's Model, The Horror at Red Hook, and, of course, The Call of Cthulhu abound (making the very Lovecraftian suggestion that Lovecraft was writing not from imagination but from life), and by the close of Chapter Two we've seen our first octopus-faced statuary. But Latham recognizes that you can tell a Lovecraftian tale, complete with dread, and not take yourself unbearably seriously. Instead of saddling LIM with dreary tones and florid prose, he takes a slightly cartoonish approach, using mildly absurd humor where shock might fall flat, and permitting some of his characters -- whether fighters or worshipers of evil gods -- strands of irreverent dialogue. There's still plenty of gore, unnerving pagan rituals in the midst of small towns, old men in chains, unstoppable cosmic foes, and implications of madness for Lovecraft fans, but Lovecraft's neuroses, misotheism, and racism are replaced with an understanding that many of those unspeakable horrors look a bit askew to modern audiences. Handily, this also makes Lovecraft is Missing great fun even to readers who were never particular fans of Lovecraft's work or those who couldn't tell Cthulhu from Yog-Sothoth.

Admittedly, part of my affection for Lovecraft is Missing stems from my four years in Providence, but the way Latham captures the sloped city is but a small taste of his artistic talents. His rich palette and, as I've mentioned, faintly cartoony look (a happily rough-edged pulp) may seem out of place in a Lovecraft story, but they are gorgeously easy on the eyes (and that's before we get to his wonderful shadow work) and make the monsters, madmen, and cultists feel genuinely and appropriately jarring against the rest of the deceptively wholesome world.

Lovecraft is Missing has just completed its second chapter (sadly, the third doesn't launch until May 27th), and has set up plenty of mysteries regarding the fate of Miss Mercy's parents, the nature of Orwin's seemingly all-American town, and the mystical menaces who watch their progress. And, though Latham is leading us through familiar territory, he manages to own the material in a way that adds fun to the chills. I imagine that, at some point in the story, Lovecraft will be found, but hopefully he won't prove too much of a killjoy.

[Lovecraft is Missing]

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Who's Reading the Eisner Digital Nominees?

Today, the Eisner Awards panel trotted out this year's nominations for their "Oscars for comics," including five noms in the Digital Comics category:

As for the rest of the Eisner noms, the only webcomicker names that popped out at me are David Malki, who earned a Best Humor Publication nod for his book Wondermark: Beards of Our Forefathers (published by Dark Horse), and Steve Hamaker, who was nominated for his coloring work on Bone.

Honestly, my reaction to the Digital Comic nominees was a big fat "Buh?" With the exception of The Lady's Murder (reviewed here), none of these comics have so much as pinged my radar. And I'm not alone. This blog has a higher traffic rating than the Eisner-nominated webcomics do (which isn't saying much). I can't even get proper metrics on the hosting sites because, with the exception of Smith Magazine (which hosts Vs.), none of them see enough visitors for Quantcast to measure the traffic.

I'll grant that popular doesn't necessarily equal good, nor does obscurity indicate lack of worth; the Internet has never been a meritocracy. But given how many amazing strips there are out there that folks actually read, it seems odd that this year's Eisner nominations have gone exclusively to those with a seven-figure Alexa ranking. After all, the panel traditionally hasn't been averse to eating at the cool kids' table. In previous years, winners have included Scott Kurtz's PvP, Sam & Max: The Big Sleep (which honestly strikes me as a bit of a cheat), and Joss Whedon and Fabio Moon's Sugarshock! (which debuted in Myspace Dark Horse Presents), and previous nominees have included Girl Genius and The Abominable Charles Christopher. I'm not saying I won't give the nominees a fair chance; I'm just saying they have impressive peers to surpass.

Another issue springs to mind when looking over the nominees. If the Eisners insist on stranding webcomics in their own awards ghetto, it might be time to add a category to distinguish between long form and limited series comics. After all, pitting a continuing series against a one shot comic like The Lady's Murder is like comparing a season of television to a nine minute short; there are simply different criteria for success. In the meantime, I'm off to see if the Eisner panel's picks are really all that special.

[2009 Eisner Nominees]

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Jewish Girl's Guide to Fighting Trolls

Stereotypically, webcomics are chock full of talking animals, uncharacteristically friendly demons, and drunken twenty-somethings. While there's certainly nothing wrong with any of that (in fact, many of my favorite webcomics fall into one or all those categories), I'm continually impressed by the wide array of stories online that step far outside the typical webcomicky box. In just the last few weeks, we've seen Evan Dahm's surreal, multicolored meditation on destiny and free will, Dylan Meconis' hairy academic drama, and now Barry Deutsch's charming and morally complex fairy tale, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword.

Mirka is a young girl living in the Orthodox Jewish community Aherville, a small Yiddish village of indeterminate geographic and temporal location. Far more interested in slaying monsters than learning the domestic arts, Mirka constantly shirks her knitting lessons by luring her stepmother into lengthy debates on the nature of the world. But when Mirka rescues a bona fide witch from a pair of local toughs, she's set on the path to an adventure that will require all the brands of wisdom her stepmother has to offer.

How Mirka Got Her Sword reads as a particularly smart children's book. It is laced with traditional fairytale conventions: a protagonist whose mother is deceased, a witch, a quest, a troll, a challenge, and the triumph of ingeuinity over a physically superior enemy. But there is more to it than that. Mirka takes us inside an Orthodox household in a matter-of-fact manner, peppering his dialogue with Yiddish and setting part of his story during Shabbat. Mirka's world is portrayed neither as alien, nor with the condescending appeal that we're all the same; it's just a place with its own culture and traditions.

The story also manages to be feminist without false pretensions of girl power -- and not only when it comes to our plucky protagonist. It's Mirka's stepmother Fruma who gives Mirka the tools to become a hero simply in the way she operates her daily life. She may not dream of fighting dragons, but Fruma is a fiercely intelligent domestic goddess, stern but loving, well-read, and intent on teaching her children to use their brains, to figure things out for themselves, and to reflect on the morality of their actions. Mirka may find knitting and housekeeping frightfully dull, but it's crystal clear that she could do a lot worse than grow up to be just like Fruma.

And then there's the fascinating moral dimension. We are to understand that Mirka is basically a good person, just, brave, and interested in pleasing God. But on her path to the sword, Mirka makes some morally questionable decisions -- sneaking out at night, physically threatening her brother not to alert their parents to her plans, and putting herself in harm's way. Although the story ends without resolving these issues, Deutsch doesn't simply ignore them. He acknowledges that Mirka may have triumphed over a monster, but she'll still have to pay a price for her actions. It's probably best read by kids and adults together (the book is available in dead tree format) and discussed afterward.

Deutsch promises a full Hereville graphic novel next year, including pages from Mirka and fresh material. Personally, I'd like to see a long-form Hereville series if they could all capture the simple fairytale charm of How Mirka Got Her Sword.