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.