Thursday, March 19, 2009

Of Bears and Men

As a platform, webcomics offer an amazing degree of versatility. We have Scott McCloud's concept of the "infinite canvas," allowing webcomics creators to suggest size, depth, and movement using a web browser's scroll bar. And digital photography lets us the see the dimensions of an artist's canvas and materials, as with Kristen Shirts' embroidered comics and Shane Johnson's office supplies. Some artists and writers turn to the Internet to find an audience for content publishers have deemed inappropriate for print.

But many creators have their eye on something more traditional, attempting to create high-quality facsimiles of the strips rapidly disappearing from our newspapers. Which brings us to Mark Ricketts' Moose Mountain.

We're introduced to Moose Mountain when a family of mobster New Jersey squirrels, under threat of a whacking from the vermin mafia, are relocated to Bar Harbor, Maine, by the Wildlife Protection Program. It's a while before we learn how the Squirrellis are adjusting to their wilderness home, but we quickly meet the other denizens of Moose Mountain National Park: Ranger Todd, an aw-shucks of a fellow whose single-minded devotion to his animal charges led to the disintegration of his marriage, Dizzy, an updated Yogi bear less interested in hibernation and catching salmon than in packaged foods and electronics, and Orson, a beaver who forsakes the dam to take a shot at life among humans. Effectively, it's somewhere between Over the Hedge and Liberty Meadows.

Ricketts employs a pretty classic anthropomorphic style in his cartooning. Dizzy has a marshmallow quality and simple facial features that belie his devious tendencies, and Orson's squat beaver body makes it all the more absurd that he's smoking pipes and applying for jobs in fast food service. But the real gems are the moose, who grow more detailed and visually capable of hilarious melodrama with each appearance, no more evident than in a recent scene in which a grieving moose mare, standing upright in full funereal black, weeps over Ranger Todd, then flirts with him in the same breath. His human characters, on the other hand, are a wee bit archetypal. I can forgive Ranger Todd his Jimmy Olsen looks, because he's obviously come to Bar Harbor straight out of Mayberry. But it's too much that his superior park ranger is generically paternal with grandpa glasses and snow-white moustache and hair. Even the recently introduced Ranger Candy, who's sure to be object of Ranger Todd's unspoken affection, is indistinctly attractive, doe-eyed and wasp-waisted.

Ricketts has a very clear grip on the scripting and plotting of traditional syndicated comics. He uses the four panel style to his full advantage, sometimes to advance the plot, sometimes to tell jokes, sometimes just to convey a mood. He also occasionally intersperses the regular storylines with "Ranger Todd's Log," a series of one-off jokes featuring characters not in the normal cast. These diversions are cute, and an understandable throwback to the comic's newspapery roots, but they're not as strong as the main story.

As for the individual story arcs, they can be a bit hit and miss. Dizzy is the obvious star of the strip, and while the mischievious bear trope is nothing new, Ricketts imbues it with fresh fun, making him not only savvier than Ranger Todd, but also better integrated into the human world. Dizzy even takes on an unlikely Boo Boo, a human who finds himself crashing in the park, a nice antithesis to Dizzy and Orson's human-seeking ways. Orson and the human world's unsuccessful attempts to understand one another are similarly inspired. But a plotline that starts on the wonderfully dark note of a moose who suffers brain damage while rutting grows tiresome over time, as do Ranger Todd's interactions with zoophobic Ranger Bright. Even the Squirrellis, who offer nice potential for fish-out-of-water humor, land a disappointingly thin first story arc. Fortunately, Ricketts has a solid instinct for when stories just aren't working and knows when it's time to send a character off to the sanitarium or just outright kill them. Exchanging Ranger Bright for the sassy Ranger Candy opens the door to the much-needed possibility of romance and will be an opportunity to draw Ranger Todd out of his animal-loving shell.

Moose Mountain still has a lot of rough edges and doesn't push the envelop as much as other webcomics tend to. But I can think of at least half a dozen syndicated strips I'd happily put out to pasture to see this one in the paper. Moose Mountain updates Tuesdays and Thursdays.

[Moose Mountain]


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