Saturday, February 28, 2009

For a Beautiful Woman, a Beautiful Murder

Eliza Frye's debut comic The Lady's Murder is a brief gothic mystery surrounding the murder of Marie Madeleine, a beautiful and notorious young woman whose life and death slowly unfold over the course of 32 pages.

The reader takes on the role of the largely unseen detectives, listening to the testimony of the men who circled Marie Madeleine's life as they try to determine who killed her. And each man dangles a morsel of information before us, revealing a small detail about her. From the butcher, we learn that she was sensuous, partaking in pleasures that are quite literally carnal. From the waiter, we learn that she was a talented entertainer of men. Her suspiciously cool patron, smiling with false decorum, will not confirm the exact nature of their relationship, saying only, "She was not a dancer."

This method of storytelling, with all these men speaking for a woman who can no longer speak for herself, works beautifully on a couple of fronts. For one thing, we see Marie Madeleine only through their lenses, getting sparkling jewels of dialogue such as:

It's also an effective way to slowly pull back the current on the mystery of her death. Not every piece of information we get is pertinent to that mystery -- some merely flesh out the ghostly figure of a woman we never meet -- but by the time we reach her funeral, we have a sense of who killed her and why. But the final panel ends with a gentle twist that adds a fresh layer of understanding.

But the true genius of The Lady's Murder is in Frye's mastery of the visual language of storytelling. In brilliant watercolors she meditates on traditional gothic imagery -- ravens, hospital common rooms, absinthe, and turn of the century fashions -- in a way that is subtly but appealingly lurid, casting us as eager voyeurs. When we meet an actual voyeur, he invites us to peer through his window by simply showing us four panes bathed in glowing red. Marie Madeleine's frequently nude form is rendered exclusively as negative space, showing us only her hair, her eyes, and her inviting smile, and reminding us that we see only what we project onto the empty canvas of her body.

The Lady's Murder is a beautiful and quiet book that leaves us wondering more about Marie Madeleine's life even after the mystery of her death has been resolved. Frye has made 250 handmade and signed copies available for $25 (including shipping) on her website and the book will soon be available from Haven Distributors.

[The Lady's Murder]

Friday, February 27, 2009

25 Random Things About Webcomics

Hardly anyone has been spared the touch of the "25 Random Things" meme, in which our Facebook and LiveJournal friends tell us 25 generic, self-promoting, or utterly depressing things about themselves and then tap us to do the same. Even if you've escaped the inevitable "tagging," which has spread across the Internet with the ruthless efficiency of a zombie plague, you've probably read about the phenomenon in Slate, Salon, or any number of culture-parsing publications.

So it was only a matter of time before the webcomics folks got involved. Fortunately, they seem to know that "25 Random Things" is a far more interesting exercise if none of the things you write are true.

Behold, today's Wondermark:

After being tagged a staggering 22 times for the meme, CalamityJon at ComixTalk relents in comic form, starting out with the true but boring:

And then quickly opts for more colorful entries like "I am proof against vampires" and "I am indicated in decreasing mile markers."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Eros Inc." Isn't Love at First Sight, but Worth a Second Date

In Eros Inc., Mot Fleishman is romance cynic with a job to match. Each day, she listens to callers bitch about their less than perfect boyfriends and offers halfhearted advice on whether they should break it off. But one afternoon, as she rides her bike home, a strange man pounces on Mot, gropes her, and is promptly hit by a bus. But instead of getting squished, the fellow explodes into hundreds of hearts. As she recovers from her shock, Mot is quickly informed that she's been pressed into service by supernatural corporate body Eros Inc. In her new role as a Cupid, it's Mot's job to make matches among the unsuspecting lovelorn by rubbing small tokens against the potential lovers' bodies, opening their minds to love at first sight. At the same time, she's dealing with a fresh set of quirky coworkers who each have their own takes on life and love.

In other words, it's a less morbid Dead Like Me.

Unfortunately, Eros Inc. is greatly overwhelmed by its art. Creator Michael May illustrates his scenes with stark, super-thick lines, giving each line near-equal weight. The result is that the rough edges of the drawings take on a sloppy rather than rough-hewn look, and readers are forced to peer through the lines to decipher May's character designs. Oddly, this appears to be an issue of medium or time rather than talent; judging from the comics on May's blog, he's capable of both finer, cleaner lines and energetic pencil and ink illustrations. The latter style, though looser, strikes me as a much better fit for the comic's romantic and offbeat premise.

Once you get past the inking issues, Eros Inc. is a cute comic with remarkably strong characters. May's background is in filmmaking and television, and it shows. Each character has a distinct voice and a unique way of reacting to the world. Mot may begin a bit dour, but her role as Cupid pushes her out into the world and lets her open herself to love again. David, Mot's would-be paramour, is frighteningly needy, but, on occasion, pulls out a surprising bit of backbone. And Mot's cupidian boss Clue oscillates between groan-inducing puns and sailor-mouthed wisecracks, and imparts nuggests of wisdom even as he's hiding the ball. Sure, the characters are over the top, but they feel real within the context of this universe, and much of the dialogue is fantastically witty and fast-paced.

But the world into which May has dropped these characters doesn't yet feel real. Mot feels like a fully realized human with a personality and a backstory, but aside from a neighbor, a landlord, and a crappy job, it's not clear what Mot's relationship is to her environment. What does she do for fun? Who are her friends? Where does she hang out? And how on Earth did she end up on a blind date?

The same goes for Eros Inc. itself. A little mystery is fine -- preferable even -- but I never feel quite immersed in the world where this love company exists. We get some of the mystical rules of Eros Inc., -- that Cupids don't force people to fall in love (only opening people to the possibility) and what happens if Cupids try to match people of the wrong sexual orientation -- but are missing a lot of the basics. Why should Mot bother to match people? What happens if she doesn't? And the scale of the company's supernatural elements is a bit out of whack. Initially, the company's magical elements are relatively understated, but in Chapter Three, the comic takes a turn for the drastically (and theologically uncomfortable) supernatural. And one character makes a nonchalant reentrance after making an extremely drastic exit. It doesn't make the comic any less entertaining, but the company fails to feel like any part of a cohesive world.

Eros Inc. is fairly rough around the edges. But, since each love match Mot makes is its own story arc, the comic has a very episodic feel, and at just over 100 strips, it has plenty of room to grow. It may not be the best looking comic in the room, but it makes great conversation -- and that's got to be worth a few dinner dates.

[Eros Inc.]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Canadian Zombies are no Match for the Power of Love

When the zombie apocalypse hits, there will be more movies, books, and comics about the walking undead than there will be survivors. Despite claims of zombie fatigue from the media-consuming masses, everyone is looking for the next big thing in Z-entertainment -- zombies as feminist critique, zombie interventions, zombies who mix martinis and sweep the stairs, and brain-chomping adaptations of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare.

So what makes Raising Hell, Andy Belanger's webcomic set at the start of the zombie apocalypse, so special? As much fun as it is to see zombie shoved into new and unusual settings, Raising Hell instead finds an apt home for their decaying forms: a classic pulp horror story.

It's Halloween and Kitty and Aries are throwing a fun-filled, booze-fueled bash for all of their friends. But, after dating for six years, all is not right between the couple. Some unnamed tragedy befell Kitty earlier in the year, and her life has started to unravel just as Aries' is coming together. Now they hardly have sex, constantly bicker, and rarely an hour passes when Kitty doesn't smack Aries across the face. But when the dead rise from the grave, it may be just the thing to save their relationship.

Raising Hell pays homage to pulp comics without bashing us over the head with how pulpy his world is. Rather than doing backflips to assure us that Raising Hell shares a spiritual kinship with books like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, Belanger lets the comic's style speak for itself and instead adds subtle touches to reinforce its retro feel. The zombie apocalypse may happen on Halloween, but there are no Joker nurses or Browncoats at Kitty and Aries' party. Instead, we get invisible men, barbarian warriors, sexy cops, and Kitty outfitted as a gunfighter in a polka dot bra. Although Aries' narration has a melodramatic edge to it, Belanger is actually fairly conservative in the level of pulp in his dialogue so that when he punches it up in heated moments (such as when one partygoer suddenly screams, "I don't want to die a virgin!") it's funny rather than wearisome.

Belanger also injects his own unique visual ideas into this traditional style, often adding a wonderfully gruesome humor. Sure to be one of the most memorable images from the comic is the fate of one of its first victims, a boy in a Robin costume whose spine is ripped from his body, transforming him from an eager trick-or-treater into a manic, snake-like creature who coils and pounces on his unsuspecting prey -- when he isn't spouting creepy speeches. And the inspired decision to zombify a French-speaking bartender dressed as Sweetums from the Muppets results in an action sequence that is all the more horrifying for being so visually absurd. And one of Belanger's choices has created a bit of mystery for those of us who like to tear apart literary symbolism. He always renders Kitty in a warm red hue, but Aries is always cold and blue, just like the zombies he battles. It's too early to tell what this means to larger story, but it's clear that Belanger has something very specific in mind for our heroes.

But the most important thing about Raising Hell is that it is exactly as advertised: a fun, slightly askew romp through undead armageddon that takes itself just seriously enough. Act I has closed and Act II updates Fridays.

[Raising Hell]

Monday, February 23, 2009

"Abominable" Charles Christopher is Anything But

Yetis are fast on track to become the next big thing in genre entertainment. After all, we had a magical yeti in the last Mummy film, yetis in Pokemon, Maple Story, and Twilight Princess, an abominable Sci Fi Channel popcorn flick, and oodles of snowman-themed toys.

DC artist Karl Kerschl may be ahead of the curve with his weekly webcomic The Abominable Charles Christopher. Kerschl takes a break from superheroes to venture deep into the forest, a world teeming with animal life. Birds, skunks, otters, and bears all go about the daily drama of their lives -- first flights, sports matches, marital discord, and finding a date for the big dance. But some of the forest denizens have begun to notice the encroachment of man. Steely bear traps and hunters' rifles go unnoticed by most, but slowly, more and more animals are falling to human excess.

Amidst all these chattering animals, there is one silent being: a pacifer-twirling missing link by the name of Charles Christopher. The dim-witted yeti simply bumbles through the forest, attracting the curiosity and scorn of his fellow forest-dwellers. But Charles is unwittingly climbing towards his destiny; neither man nor beast, he is able to travel between both worlds and may be the only one who can save the woods.

Kerschl employs a fairly realistic drawing style. His birds have well-defined feathers, his porcupines carefully groomed quills, his insects serrated limbs, and his otters whiskers and coal black noses, all in proportion with the real animals on which they're modeled. Only Charles himself is wholly invented -- an oversized top, a bulging potbelly, and a set of whiskers that would make the Mythbusters jealous -- and even he is rendered in such careful detail that he seems anatomically plausible. I initially had my doubts about my ability to care for characters who seemed straight out of the wildlife pages of National Geographic, but Kerschl is so skillful at meshing anthropomorphic expressions with animal characteristics that his critters are as emotive and vivacious as any cartoon racoon from Over the Hedge. It also creates a wonderfully immersive experience; when it rains in Kerschl's forest, you can practically hear the pitter-patter.

The larger story arc of Charles Christopher follows the yeti as he travels through the forest, but through shorter vignettes and one-off strips, we get acquainted with the other animals, notably Vivol the bear, whose history with the humans is being slowly revealed. Although Charles Christopher is by no means a comedy (in fact, many aspects of the story are downright tearjerking), some of the strips employ a traditional four panel comic gag. But the humor is light and soft, contrasting the usually happy lives of the animals with the encroaching dark. Many pages are completely free of dialogue, letting the art and the tone of the comic speak for themselves. And there is the promise that the Kerschl will eventually lead us into the city of men, a journey that will hopefully prove as rich and restrained as our time in the forest.

There is also a deep mystical current that runs through Charles Christopher. Leaving aside the question of whether the yeti is himself supernatural, we encounter a bear made of moonlight, the ghosts of the dead, and a lion who sits atop a mountain cryptically demanding totems of fairytale power. But this all unfolds in the slow, understated manner of the rest of the comic, so that it feels like a natural part of this world rather than hokey or saccharine.

We still don't much about Charles Christopher or the obstacles he'll face. But it's a full and beautiful world that we'll get to see him stumble through.

[The Abominable Charles Christopher]

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Traffic Hell is Gorgeous, But Purgatory for Readers

Husband and wife team Dawna and Daniel Davis describe their webcomic Monster Commute as a "Traffic Novel." It's a clever play on words, but an inaccurate description of the largely gag-a-day comic about a demon and a skull ghost-powered robot on the literal commute from Hell.

The Davises own and operate Steam Crow, a company that primarily makes monster-themed art, t-shirts, and toys, on top of a few short-form books. Monster Commute uses Steam Crow's well-honed visual style, blending the retrofuturist aesthetic of 1960s advertising with a grimey, washed-out palette and overshadowed by towering steampunk fixtures. It provides a critique of the consumerist, 9 to 5 culture that creates these interminable traffic jams in a way that is amusing rather than soapboxing. Add to that the gleeful cynicism of the setting -- a bleak underworld ruled by apparent president-for-unlife Lincolnstein and littered with Clown Bites, a fast food franchise that's more Pennywise than Ronald McDonald -- and you have the potential for something truly dark and funny and weird.

When I first heard the setup for Monster Commute, that a pair of beasties are stuck in a purgatorial commute that never ends, I was admittedly charmed, thinking this would be the perfect afterlife road movie -- a sort of No Exit meets Kneller's Happy Campers mixed in with that one episode of Doctor Who. But Monster Commute fails to deliver on the promises of its intriguing pitch and lush art. Commuters Beastio Wand and Chadworth Machine stave off boredom with lame jokes (when told not to sing, Beastio laments "My heart is song!" and Chadworth, after a pause, retorts "My heart is a model 775 Brindlehurst.") and obvious observations on highway life (Beastio tries to order eggs on a stick from a drive-thru, but the cleark is unable to understand him). Occasional vignettes feature characters with gorgeous designs who perform depressingly mundane functions. A satanic radio DJ magically appears in the van, harrasses Beastio and Chadworth with his morning drive banter, then abruptly vanishes. In a later set of strips, a policebot catches Chadworth in a traffic violation, but merely accepts the robot's bribe and flies off. There are no probing conversations, no inane adventures, no insightful commentary to keep us company during the ride.

It's a shame as the Steam Crow team has such an obvious flair for design and the visual aspects of worldbuilding. As it stands, Monster Commute is a potentially wonderful webcomic in desperate need of a writer.

[Monster Commute]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Looking to the Future of Digital Comics

about DIGITAL COMICS by ~Balak01 on deviantART

Yves Bigerel's presentation on Digital Comics is making the webby rounds, and with good reason. Using a simple slideshow, he explores how computer-based comics could look when we intellectually free ourselves from the idea of comics as being on paper. It's an eye-opening look at how the lines between still images and animation could blur in future media and the unexplored potential of sequential art. But more than that, I never thought I'd describe something that's essentially a glorified powerpoint presentation as "riveting" and "action-packed."

[~Balak01's Deviant Art via PvP]

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Anders Loves Maria," but has a Funny Way of Showing It

Anders Silfersked is a young photographer known more for his reclusive artist mother than his ability to point and shoot. One morning, he witnesses his girlfriend Maria being especially adorable and suggests they have a baby. It's a bit of momentary prescience as, unbeknownst to either of them, Maria is already knocked up.

But pregnancy doesn't magically transform a couple of quarterlifers into adults. Maria remains true to her inner teenager, still obsessed with video games and clinging to the scars of her childhood. Anders' fidelity waivers at the faintest whiff of insecurity, and his easy life has left him both uncertain of his manhood and unable to cope with any quantum of adversity. And both parties are fiercely impulsive, prone to acting out rather than talking over their feelings.

Rene Engstrom writes Anders Loves Maria for a Swedish publication, but posts the English version online so we can all share in the sweet fucked-upness of their relationship. For most of the pages, Engstrom employs vector illustration, using the computer to create images that are both highly detailed and incredibly clean. She also uses the exaggerated cartoon look of the comic to her full advantage. Each panel is alive with movement and Engstrom is unafraid to make any of her characters -- male or female -- look goofy at the right moments.

Occasionally, she'll play with other media and styles, such as eliminating the black lines in favor of blocks of color or painting scenes by hand. In some cases, this serves a narrative purpose, such as setting apart flashbacks, but in others, it's just to give herself a break from the computer. Some of these latter endevors work better than others, but she eventually returns to the vector art.

Anders Loves Maria is a bit of a melodrama, filled with infidelity, assault charges, paparazzi, and parental neglect. But it's fundamentally a belated coming of age story depicting the ambivalence we feel treading the road to adulthood and the stumbles we make along the way. No character is merely demonized (although Anders is a bit of a cad); instead, Engstrom gradually pulls back the curtain on her characters' histories, helping to explain their present day behavior. When Anders does something stupid (as happens frequently), we get the same sense of titillation as the paparazz who pursue him, but we also want to smack him over the head and teach him to be a better man. Maria's hatred of her Norrland hometown seems the ghost of trivial teen angst until we watch her childhood unfold. And Tina, a figure from Maria's past, appears at times grossly opportunistic, but it's tied to jealousy and desparate desire to be loved.

That's how Engstrom gets us to root for Anders and Maria, for their relationship, even through all the bad choices, missteps, and moments of casual cruelty. We know that the title is true, that Anders loves Maria, even if he has a funny way of showing it. But we also know that it's going to take more than love for them to be together at the end.

Anders Loves Maria features nudity of all sorts and non-graphic sex, so watch yourself at work.

[Anders Loves Maria]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Paul Taylor's "Wapsi Square"

Monica is a buxom young anthropologist who, one strange and fateful day, reanimates Tepoztecal, the Mayan god of drunkeness, from a clay figurine. Suddenly, Monica and her friend Shelly are caught up in a world of gods and demons that's filled with more questions than answers. Why are Egyptian markings appearing on Pre-Columbian artifacts at the museum where Monica works? What is the nature of the three immortal drunk chicks Tepoz conjured into her apartment? And what does this all have to do with the Mesoamerican predictions that creation will end on December 21, 2012?

Paul Taylor's Wapsi Square is a slightly venerable webcomic with an intimidating 7+ year strip archive. It's also a remarkable example of how writers and artists can improve with time in the online public eye. The first few dozen Waspi strips are little more than a dry run; those looking to dive into the epic would do best to begin with the "Aztec Curse" storyline, in which Monica first encounters Tepoztecal. And for a couple of years, Wapsi suffered a webcomic identity crisis. Was it a romantic comedy? A series of amusing anecdotes featuring a single group of friends? A tale of the supernatural?

In 2004, Wapsi underwent a stylistic reboot. Although the look, feel, and continuity remained the same, Taylor significantly tightened his art and consistently added backgrounds to his panels. And, in "The Golem Girls," he finally reigned in the overall plot, bringing Wapsi's supernatural elements to the foreground.

There's a lot to like about Wapsi Square. The similar facial designs of Taylor's female characters are at times confusing (I occasionally mistake Monica for golem girl Bud and Shelly for the serpentine Jin), but his art has become quite strong and energetic over the years. And he takes some laudable risks with Waspi's aesthetic, frequently blending his light and happy look with darker, Gaiman-inspired figures. His main cast is filled with strong, likable women, and some intriguing minor characters I'd like to spend more time with (lesbian folk singer Heather Mills and Jacqui's tattooed, Marcie-esque sidekick Luci). And more recent arcs have revealed that the Wapsi continuity exists as part of an eons-long time paradox, setting up possibilities down the road that could be both heartwrenching and deliciously sci-fi.

But the series hasn't yet lived up to its full potential. Part of my disapointment with Wapsi stems from what I perceive as missed opportunities that might have fallen by the wayside before Taylor had a clear vision for the series. Initially, Monica has every reason to believe that the otherworldly goings on in her life aren't real, and Taylor could have spent months or even years questioning her sanity and playing with his readers' perceptions. Instead, her friends too blithely confirm and accept what Monica sees.

Wapsi's more enduring problem is the utter lack of tension between the major characters. In a series that features sexually abused immortals, the undead, and girls as interested in maintaining a love life as saving the world, you'd think we'd be in for some cataclysmic personality clashes. But most of the women have been granted generic insecurities in lieu of actual character flaws, and minor conflicts are averted with neatly wrapped conversations and a general sense that strong, intelligent gals should all just get along. Consequently, the main plot is typically advanced by Wapsi's more omniscient characters, who tug and nudge the rest of the cast into place.

But there's plenty of room for genuine conflict peeking over the horizon. Shy girl Katherine may finally force Monica to confront how her recent discoveries could destroy her anthropology career. The revelation of the time paradox means we may glimpse another version of the universe where everyone isn't so agreeable. And given how much human sacrifice plays into Wapsi's mythology, it's likely that someone, sometime has got to die. In the meantime, there are more than enough subplots -- both fantastical and mundane -- to keep the characters occupied until 2012.

[Wapsi Square]

Meredith Gran's "Octopus Pie"

If Scott Pilgrim were a page-a-day comic about a 20-something misanthrope and her zany stoner roommate, it might look a lot like Octopus Pie. Everest "Eve" Ning (yes, her parents are horrible people) comes home from another crappy day managing at overpriced food market Olly's Organix only to have her braindead boyfriend dump her (Over the phone. While sitting in her mother's living room.). This leaves Eve shy not just a love life but a roommate as well. Unfortunately for Eve, her meddling mother has taken it upon herself to offer the roommate position to Eve's preschool friend, Hanna Thompson.

Hanna, it turns out, is an inconsiderate pothead with no sense of boundaries and no visible job (although we quickly learn that she operates a small "baked" goods business -- hardee har har). She's constantly high, exercises her constitutional rights by running around topless, and is generally a pain in any civilized person's ass. But she also has an unerring ability to make her own fun and is exactly what the grouchy, uptight Eve needs.

Octopus Pie pokes at the happy part of my brain that has longed for an adult-ish update of the Nicktoons of my youth. It's about how, in the face of fiscal responsibility and impending adulthood, being in your twenties can still be full of raw and childish fun. Even when you've got a shitty day job, even when you kind of hate your friends and everyone else, even when your ex starts dating the ultimate poser -- there are always road trips to Renaissance fairs, wounded parrots to nurse back to health, and stoners vs. nerds laser tag. And it shares many of the surreal, self-aware qualities that made Scott Pilgrim such a success while maintaining a charm all its own. Like Scott, Eve is sometimes secretly a folk hero, and when a character gets all lovey dovey, everyone can see the floating hearts around them. And then there's the awesome bird-themed tribute to Pulp Fiction. I'm honestly shocked that no one has tried animating this puppy in Flash and airing it at three in the morning on Adult Swim.

Octopus Pie is currently at an utterly manageable 259 strips, so now is the perfect time to dive right into those archives.

[Octopus Pie]

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tyler Page's "Nothing Better"

Jane Fisher arrives at St. Urho College in the way so many freshman do; nervously excited, she has an indistinct notion of what college life will bring, but hopeful that it really will be the greatest experience of her young life. Jane's your classic nice Midwestern girl, with a nuclear family, church on Sundays, and a high school boyfriend behind her.

Lightly rebellious Katt Connor seems born for college life. To her, it's a time to have adventures, seek out the occasional comfort of a warm male body, and pursue her dual passions of art and biology. But she never expected that going to a Lutheran school would challenge her non-beliefs.

On the first night they meet, Katt tricks Jane into getting horrifically drunk. Jane wakes up the next morning with a hangover and late for course registration. It's a less than auspicious beginning to their new lives as college roommates.

It would be easy to see these girls as poster children for any number of false dichotomies -- the good girl and the bad girl, the virgin and the slut, the rich girl and the poor girl, the Christian and the atheist. But in Tyler Page's Nothing Better, they're simply girls, new roommates, anxious college students, and only superficially different from one another. And by letting his characters just be themselves, not saddling them with any preconceived expectations or wedging them into some artificial plotline, Page manages to capture some honest truths about the college experience -- the loneliness, the disappointment of those first few days, and how unnerving it can be to discover you're no longer sure just who you are and what you want from life.

But it's also about how college is like entering a strange parallel universe where everyone is your own age. How you're suddenly in a fresh place with fresh people who are full of stories and small secrets. How lifelong friendships can be forged over harmless adventures and a shared love of Labyrinth.

It's a welcome respite from teenage melodramas, blissfully free of morality plays on sex and booze and season-spanning will-they-or-won't-they tensions. Sure, there's socioeconomic talk, discussions on female sexual morality, hookups, broken hearts, and plenty of meditations on the nature of God, but it's all in the normal rhythm of college life. It also calls those hallowed college traditions like pulling all-nighters, tray sledding, and finding a guy who'll sell you pot.

Nothing Better is drawn in lovely, thick-inked lines that are at the same time loose and incredibly detailed. Page has manage to assemble a sizable cast of characters who are distinct both visually and in personality, and they flit and settle into Jane and Katt's lives in the way college acquaintances do. Even though we see these characters primarily through their relationships to the girls -- the geeky art boy who has a crush on Jane, the other girls on the hall -- they're fully realized people, many of whom have their own plotlines even when they're offscreen.

There are, admittedly, some nitpicky problems. On rare occasions, Page's loose style gets away from him, although it happens less in later books and is so minor when it does happen that it's barely worth noting. There are also some small spelling errors that have hopefully been resolved in the print editions. Most distracting, though, is that the paneling in some of the early books is reversed, so readers are sometimes forced to read from right to left. But he employs a stricter paneling structure as the series goes on.

Unlike most webcomics, Nothing Better is formatted as a traditional comic book, in sets of 22 page books. Each book is loaded on a single page, which is nice in that it recreates the experience of reading a comic book, but gives my browser a stroke every time I load the next book. Appropriately, Page has collected the first seven volumes in a trade paperback, and plans to release a second trade this year.

Jane and Katt are the sorts of girls I would have wanted to be friends with in college, and even though they're fictional, they're fun to spend a few afternoons with. For better or worse, they'll remind you of the joys and stumbles of those first days away from home.

Nothing Better updates Wednesdays.

[Nothing Better]

Sunday, February 15, 2009

New England Webcomics Weekend

If you've ever wondered how the frak webcartoonists spend their days and longed to get an up-close look at the cartooning process, then it's time to book your tickets to sunny Easthampton, Massachusetts. Western Mass has attracted an impressive glut of talented webcomics creators, including Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content, Jeffrey Rowland of Wigu and Overcompensating, and Meredith Gran of Octopus Pie. It's also the headquarters for webcomics collective and hosting company Dumbrella and webcomics merch shop TopatoCo.

So it's apt that Easthampton will play host to March's Webcomics Weekend, a free convention for creators and readers of webcomics. On March 20-22, participants will get a first-hand look at the webcomics businesses housed in the Eastworks building, have an opportunity to buy books and merchandise, and schmooze with some of the biggest names in online comics.

What's especially exciting about this particular event isn't just that the guests include some of webcomics' heaviest hitters; many of these folks make their living from their cartooning endeavors. They're pioneers in micropayments and merchandising their work and helping legitimize the medium as a viable industry for those with the patience and the talent make the most of it.

Those looking to attend the Webcomics Weekend can do the (non-binding) RSVP thing on Facebook.

[Webcomics Weekend, March 20-22]

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Webcomics Valentine's Day

Webcomics writers are a bunch of cynics, but Valentine's Day is the holiday that melts even the hardest heart, right? Eh...not so much.

  • Randy Milholland at Something Positive proves that Valentine's Day awkwardness can strike in the most inappropriate of places. He's also got a lovely Darwin Day ecard.

  • At Zach Weiner's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a couple's competition to convince each other to break off the relationship takes an unexpected turn.

  • Partrick Alexander's Hilarity Comics notes that anatomical differences can make romance a bit squicky in Marioland.

  • If you want to share your anti-Valentine's sentiments with the offline world, Brian McFadden at Big Fat Whale has a series of clippable V-Day cards sure to leave your significant other in tears.

  • But it's not all tearing down the romantic notions of others. Box Brown's ode to couple love Bellen! is as full of strangely sweet sappiness as ever.

  • Instead of a fractured Valentine, Randall Munroe's xkcd goes for fractal Valentine, tranforming a Sierpinski Triangle into a sea of hearts.

  • Danielle Corsetto held a contest for readers of Girls with Slingshots to go on a date with bubbly second banana Jamie. And Hazel gets a V-Day subplot with her current beau. Corsetto also has printed Valentine's cards for those looking to get a jump on next year.

  • Meredith Gran has octopus pie-themed cards as well, so you can convey that perfect romantic sentiment be it "I'd Even Love You Sober" or "I'll Tell You Whatever You Want to Hear."

  • Valentines are sold out at Diesel Sweeties, but it's still worth heading over to see R Steven's unique, bacon-flavored take on the holiday. Plus, he probably has the only Valentine specifically aimed at Nihilists.

  • David Malki at Wondermark has an appropriately WTF ecard, and plugs, which offers a bounty of illustrated cards perfect for that person you're looking to alienate via email.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Gisèle Lagacé's "Ménage à 3"

Somewhere in my queue, there are safe for work webcomics. I swear.

Gisèle Lagacé has been kicking around the webcomics world for years now, first as creator of Cool Cat Studio and later as the co-creator and artist for Penny and Aggie, both collaborations with T Campbell. Lagacé goes T-free for her latest endeavor, the Quebecois sex romp Ménage à 3.

Underachieving, undersocialized comic book geek Gary comes home one day to find his two male roommates going at it in the living room. Once he's recovered from the shock of learning his roomies are an item, they break the bad news: they're moving into a new apartment and leaving him behind. Fortunately, Gary's apartment seems to be prime Montreal real estate, because he quickly finds a fresh pair of co-tenants: punky omnisexual Zii and cartoonishly buxom francophone DiDi. The girls move in immediately, transforming Gary's formerly dull life into a very naked subversion of Three's Company.

Lagacé is an enormously talented (and I would assume meticulous) artist whose style has gone from impressive in the early days of Cool Cat Studio to simply eye-popping. She employs a slightly more cartoonish style here than in Penny and Aggie, which is fitting, as Ménage à 3 is less dramedy than sitcom. Lagacé's characters emote with their entire bodies, but she carefully maintains physical consistency even in the most slapsticky moments (Just who, I wonder, is her model for DiDi?). The strip's inherent zaniness also makes Lagacé's frequent visual sidetrips into manga territory feel more at home here than in P&A, though, to be honest, I could do with less of Zii's recurring cat mouth. She's also a pro at moving the camera around, giving Ménage a more cinematic feel than most webcomics.

Lagacé has a great sense of timing and knows how to use each of her four panels for maximum impact. And the characters she's developed are charmingly obnoxious; they're the sorts of people who are fun enough to watch on television, but you'd probably pop them one in the real world. She does however, rely a bit much on archetypes. After all, the comic book geek is a socially awkward virgin; the worldly girl is also a tattooed, unemployed musician; and the slightly dopey (there's a language barrier) sexpot is both boobtastic and blonde. It's not necessarily a bad place to start, but I'd like to see her characters get some depth outside their stereotypes. Zii is, thus far, the most compelling character precisely because she is the least predictable, and she's far more interesting when she's being unexpectedly sweet than when she's horny or scheming.

Ménage also suffers in a big way from the webcomics time problem, wherein time passes much more slowly for the characters than for the readers. The series launched over the summer, but I believe only a few days have transpired since Gary caught his roommates in flagrante. A more introspective comic might get away with tracking its characters that closely, but Ménage is a sitcom and requires discrete, sitcommy storylines. On top of that, very little has occurred during those few days: the roommates have moved in, gone to the park, gone to work, and watched Night of the Living Dead. And the bulk of the action has consisted of Gary and Zii drooling over DiDi, and Zii doing her best to see everyone naked. Sure, sex and nudity are Ménage's primary beat, but as Zii herself points out, the best pornos are the ones that have plotlines.

Ménage à 3 updates Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and is, for obvious reasons, NSFW.

[Ménage à 3]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Spike's "Templar, Arizona"

Reviewing Templar, Arizona feels like a bit of a cheat, since every time I mention to a comics person (as opposed to a webcomics person) that I read webcomics, their eyes light up and they ask, "Do you read Templar, Arizona?" Seriously.

And to answer your next question: yes, it is that good.

Templar launched in 2005, but Charlie "Spike" Troutman claims she's been developing the series since she was ten years old, and it shows. Placed in a slightly askew alternate universe (think more Salman Rushdie than Harry Turtledove), Templar is set in the eponymous fictional town, known for its rich and outlandish subcultures, including Pastimes, who act and dress like rejects from a Jane Austen movie, Sincerists, militant subscribers to honesty in all things, and Nile Revivalists, ethnic Egyptians who have reclaimed the religion and culture of their pre-Ptolmic ancestors. It's also a universe fit for those seeking truly sybaritic pleasures. Xenophage, a controversial Templar restaurant, serves only the most endagered and adorable animals. Pornography and small arms can be purchased behind the same storefront. And a popular show features a local socialite op-edding au naturale.

Our guide through the city is Ben Kowalski, a shy and secretive young writer who has just escaped a restrictive existence in Yakima, Washington, for the thrills of this strange city. And Ben's guides through the city are his boarding house neighbors: Reagan, a lewd and physically imposing shop clerk who's less woman than force of nature; Scipio, a kind-hearted bodyguard who dreams of a life beyond bouncing rowdy fanboys; and Gene, a dopey rocker with sticky fingers and a willful daughter.

Not a plot-driven comic, Templar instead features a series of slice-of-life vignettes, usually featuring Ben or one of his neighbors. Fortunately, life in Templar is never dull, and Ben is always getting dragged halfway across town at Reagan's whim, inadvertantly abetting an archist's post-riot escape, or landing face-to-face with psychotic neighbors and survival cultists. And, when the camera isn't on Ben, we get a more intimate look at other aspects of Templar culture, such as what happens when you try to get cute on a Sincerist, how high-born girls compete to show they're down with the underclasses, and how disappointed Nilists are in their less observant offspring.

Spike knows her world intimately, and each of her subcultures has its own rules, aesthetic, and language. And, unlike some writers who feel the need to prove to you how detailed their worlds are through exposition, Spike simple throws us in and lets Templar watch over us. Like Ben, we are simply along for the ride, tourists in a foreign land where we don't have a guidebook and don't quite speak the language. And the characters speak fluently with one another without concern for their unseen audience. This might be intimidating and frustrating to new readers, but it makes the experience that much richer for those who decide to stick around. There's also a wicked sense of humor running through the pages, in the form of sight gags, social critiques, and subtle, multilayered jokes. For example, it's not enough that the guy called "Sunny" is the most dour character in the book; he also has to be named for Ra, the Egyptian sun god.

Even if Templar's lack of an instruction manual gives you a headache, the art alone is worth the price of admission. Spike renders all the wonderful weirdness of the city in beautiful gray tones (and later sepias) and distinstinctive, ultra-clean lines, and her art is constantly improving. She's also an utter master of character design. Reagan oozes sexuality despite (or perhaps because of) her impressive girth. Ben's classic nice guy looks and neatly indeterminate age let us believe the way he flies under everyone's radar. And the respective personalities of King Street's rich girls, trying-too-hard Curio and preternaturally hip Tuesday, are captured in their hairstyles, choice of attire, and the way they carry themselves. It's just one more way Spike immerses us in her universe.

Templar is an absolute must-visit. You may not want to live there, but don't be surprised if you find yourself wishing that the real world contained clay bars, Chimera sodas, copy books, and takeout lunches from the Sassy Cavy.

Templar, Arizona updates Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and is available in print, both online and in many a comic book store. Just be warned, it's very much rated NSFW for mild nudity, less mild language, and references to all manner of Rule 34-enforcing fetishes.

[Templar, Arizona]

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Obsession" by William Rees and Jeff Clemens

One night in small-town America, sixteen year old Clarissa Case sneaks out of her crumbling Victorian house to join her classmates at a lakeside kegger. On the way, she's nearly run over by George Simmons, a gruff, middle-aged man she's never met before. So begins Obsession, William Rees' bizarre, parodying blend of noir mysteries and romantic melodramas. As the title suggests, Clarissa is instantly smitten with the grizzled stranger, and thoughts of him come to dominate her inner life. But Clarissa soon learns that her chance encounter with George Simmons may not have been so random after all. George soon reappears on her mother's doorstep, with news that Clarissa's father died in Mexico and a briefcase containing $50,000 in cash. Nevertheless, Clarissa insists that George stay in the apartment above the garage so that she might continue her not wholly unrequited obsession.

These scenes are interspersed with scenes from a romance comic, starring a 26 year-old Clarissa Case as a small-town nurse. Whereas the earlier Clarissa is a slender, childish Lolita who constantly bemoans her fate as her ailing mother's nursemaid and dreams of escape, Nurse Case is quite the opposite: shapely and diligent, she derives great satisfaction from caring for the sick and dying. But this Clarissa Case has a George Simmons of her own, a brilliant, Harvard-educated surgeon who abadoned a life of luxury to practice medicine. In true hospital romance fashion, they admire one another from afar -- she, his intellect and manner, and he, her compassion -- and gradually fall in love. At first, it appears that Clarissa is daydreaming these scenes as she writes in her diary, but it soon becomes clear that there's something more going on, something Clarissa has been alluding to all along.

I got my copy of Obsession at New York Comic Con, where Rees claimed David Lynch as an influence. Once I had forked over my cash, he also apologetically described the book as "kind of a joke," as if he had somehow tricked me into buying the book and suddenly regretted taking my money. I assume that by joke, he meant more "The Aristocrats" and less "sad and pathetic." It's true that Obsession has a bit of a punchline (one that's tragic rather than comedic), but its central purpose seems to be to explore the concepts and imagery of the noir and romance genres, and to find a way to resolve the two within the same story.

Clarissa's mother is straight out of American Gothic central casting. Hawk-nosed, wheelchair-bound, and vehemently Catholic, she boasts of her daughter's purity and creamy complexion in wickedly icy tone (rendered in deliberately over-the-top jagged speech balloons). Despite her debilitating bone condition, Mommy Dearest scratches out a living painting Madonna statuettes. The choice of Mother's profession is inspired; she paints only Madonnas, panicking at the thought of coloring Saint Peters or Pietas, and models their skin tone on her supposedly virginal daughter's, highlighting Mama's own obsession. It also gives artist Jeff Clemens a reason to fill the unadorned house with easily breakable religious icons.

George Simmons, when not in doctor mode, looks and speaks like a noir anti-hero and is free from the sensibilities of modern action heroes, who might be skeeved by the attentions of such a young girl (or at least make the pretense of being torn about the whole thing). Clarissa is as filled with longing as any Lichtenstein painting, but there are worse things in world than cheating boyfriends and men who don't call. Clarissa is resistant to her role in an increasingly dark crime drama; at sixteen, she's not prepared to be a dame with a past or a femme fatale. So, she tries to cast herself as a romantic heroine, replacing the typical noir monologue with the florid script of a girl writing in her diary. It's when things turn inescapably violent that she is unable to reconcile the two genres and her world comes crashing down -- if it ever existed in the first place.

But Rees' crack that Obsession is a bit of a joke rings true. He sets up all of this imagery, these notions of dualing realities, but gives them nothing to do. The noir plotline settles into its predictable ending, while the romance comic simply dissolves as reality punches through. Aside from the image of endless Madonnas, there is little strike or shock or cling to a reader too long after it's all over. It ultimately feels more like a draft or a study for a more detailed book. And Clemens' art is sadly inconsistent, especially during the action scenes, which is really a shame, since Clemens can do some truly beautiful drawings, as evidenced by this sketch his did in the back of my copy:

All in all, Obsession is a fun way to spend a couple genre-crunching hours (and it certainly warrants a second read), but not much more. It did encourage me to finally get around to watching Blue Velvet all the way through.

[Heavy Proton]
[Jeff Clemens]