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]