Monday, March 30, 2009

The Two Sides of Overside's Trippy Coin


I've found myself desperately in need of some mental distraction this past week, so it was a godsend when Evan Dahm's Overside Tales popped up in my queue.

Dahm has set two stories in the Overside -- the top side of a disk-shaped planet (the planet also has an Underside, which is largely a mystery to Oversiders) -- the completed, full-color Rice Boy and the in-progress, black-and-white Order of Tales.

Rice Boy is a nigh 500-page surreal epic that paints Overland as a postmodern Wonderland, filled with strange creatures, small magicks, and dangerous lands. The tale opens on The One Electronic and his companion Calabash, a pair of hard-drinking errand boys working for an entity who might be God. T-O-E and Calabash operate under an unusual contract: their employer grants them immortality so long as they seek out the fulfiller of a mostly-forgotten prophesy. But they have grown weary of their immortality and disillusioned after their most recent pick for fulfiller, the frog prince Spatch, transformed his father's prosperous and inclusive kingdom into a xenophobic theocracy, ready to go to war with any who dare question the messianic nature of his genetic line. Spatch, like every other fulfiller they have chosen over 3000 years, proved a fake, but now that he has died, a new fulfiller must be chosen.

Abandoned by Calabash, T-O-E finds Rice Boy, an armless, legless creature who lives an uncomplicated rural existence, and asks him to be the fulfiller and learn more about the prophesy. Rice Boy initially refuses, doubting both the veracity of the prophesy and his ability to fulfill it, but eventually he takes up the quest in his own peculiar, understated way. From there, Rice Boy becomes a passive agent in his own story, batted from one leg of his journey to the next, less protagonist than catalyst. But along the way, we meet a host of colorful characters including a frog girl with a pair of magical talking cowboy boots, an assassin with a flying mechanical eye, a creature nailed to the earth who feeds off loneliness, a polite chap who resembles Jiminy Cricket crossed with a peapod and a traffic light, and a microscopic race that holds the key to the prophesy in their language.

Character design is a clear strength of Rice Boy. At first, the assemblage of wonderfully weird creatures sitting at the bar or walking the streets of the same city seems an indication that Dahm lacks impulse control, but later it's clear that this is meant to signal cosmopolitanism. When we venture deeper into the territory of Overside, we see how carefully Dahm matches his visual cues with the roles his characters play. Each critter, in addition to being fine eye candy, conveys a sense of reassurance, horror, unease, wisdom, or the alien, allowing us to recognize these bizarre creations as readily as if they were characters out of Grimm. That Rice Boy himself is the simplest of these characters -- lacking arms, legs, or even pupils -- is a stroke of genius, forcing readers to project emotions onto the blank slate of his body and forging a connection between reader and protagonist. And T-O-E (who, despite being a overcoat-wearing Machine-Man, is blissfully free of steampunk clunkiness) possesses a similar quality; his face is a black-and-white screen that televises his expressions as stills from movies and old cartoons. Although the relationship between these characters and the action of the comic is frequently clear -- a cartoon battle playing out over a real-life duel, a closeup of Frankenstein's monster when speaking of a deceased tyrant -- they also function as a bit of a Rorschach test, leaving us to interpret the expressions for ourselves.

Rice Boy is a largely impressionistic comic, less about storytelling than offering a feast for the eyes and warping the traditional medieval trappings of high fantasy into something truly innovative and weird. As such, Dahm doesn't always follow traditional storytelling conventions. We get a flashback to T-O-E's childhood that less addresses the main story than exacerbates the overall sense of tragedy and shows even the long-lived T-O-E is vulnerable to ignorance and irony. Granted, sometimes there are stumbles in this approach; the pacing is a bit off, and the chapters dealing with Rice Boy's adventures in the Linking City and Underside could have benefited from some slowing down and drawing out. And, with a series that focuses so much on the nature of fate and free will, it would be nice to meditate a bit on whether the numerous drive-by side characters are remotely in control of their own destinies (though we get hints of that with Gerund, a shy fellow on a reluctant quest for vengeance). But it's such a pleasure to watch Dahm shape the clay of his strange little world that any skips in the storytelling are utterly forgivable.

Order of Tales is, in many ways, Rice Boy's polar opposite. Where Rice Boy is rough, simple lines and technicolor, Order of Tales is finely detailed in black and white. Where Rice Boy is a roller coaster, Order of Tales is a slowly unfolding epic. Even the Overlanders who populate Order of Tales are a bit more subdued, gently anthropomorphized lizards, birds, and fish, who give Dahm's more unusual sentients space to breathe, lending them greater impact when they do appear.

Set a century before the events of Rice Boy, Order of Tales follows Koark, whose father is a member of a respected but dwindling order of story-collectors. Following a tragedy in his youth, Koark is charged with learning a long-forgotten story, the eventually knowledge of which will have profound consequences on Overside. One fateful night, Koark strikes up a conversation with none other than The One Electronic (his television face now blank), who sets Koark on an errand related to the story, assuring him that it will lead to greater stories. Naturally, said errand does not go as planned, and Koark finds that, beyond merely telling stories, he may have to become the hero of one.

Order of Tales is an interesting effort, perhaps more ambitious than Rice Boy even as it uses a more traditional structure. Whereas fate leads Rice Boy around by his nonexistent nose, Koark is adrift; he has to make decisions without the benefit of a mentor, a clear set of instructions, or a firm moral code. Although he isn't an emotional blank slate in the way Rice Boy is a physical one, Koark is still in many ways the petulant child we see in the first few pages of the comic. His sole interest is to see his quest completed, and he seems largely indifferent to the war and suffering that plague Overside. Even when T-O-E reveals that elements of the tale he seeks are true, Koark remains stubbornly interested in the story and the story alone. But as he is confronted with murderers and slavers and besieged nations, he finds he must become involved in their stories rather than merely collecting them, acting from instinct where his simplified archetypes of his stories fail. This is perhaps clearest when Koark rescues a metaphorical princess, believing she holds the key to the story, and finds her scared, confused, and uncertain whether being rescued is in her best interest. It's an honest reaction, and Koark must come up with an equally honest response to convince her to remain with him. The question is, of course, whether these actions and choices will add up to a heroic, or at least compelling, character.

Of course, I have no doubt that Dahm has plenty of exciting and mindwarping adventures up his sleeve, and we're getting a much richer picture of some the species spotted throughout Rice Boy. But Order of Tales will live or die on the strength of its central characters and Dahm's ability to make us care about them. If he succeeds, Order of Tales could prove even more powerful than Rice Boy. If he fails, at least it will be interesting to watch.

[Overside Tales]

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Quick Note Regarding Webcomics Weekend

Hello All,

As some of you know, I was in Northampton Friday night to cover Webcomics Weekend for a comics news outlet. Unfortunately, a personal situation arose and I had to leave Northampton before the festivities at Eastworks began. I should be back posting comics reviews in the next few days or so.

I would like to say to all of you whom I met at the pub crawl Friday night, that it was really wonderful to meet all of you, and I'm sure the event was a huge success. In addition to some of the NEWW organizers (including Meredith Gran, Rich Stevens, and Jeph Jacques), I got a chance to meet some really cool folks:

I apologize to those I left out, and I'm very sad I didn't get a chance to spend the weekend with you all.

-LD

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Brief History of Wil Wheaton in Webcomics


Short post today since I have to jump off and head to Northampton for Webcomics Weekend.

Geek idol Wil Wheaton may have enjoyed more cameos in webcomics than any other human being (although I suppose it's possible that he's been edged out by the likes of Gary Gygax or Steve Jobs). He serves as a handy geek touchstone, a focal point for our Star Trek fandom, our loving mockery of that fandom, and our somewhat tongue-in-cheek dreams of swashbuckling bloggers who save the world with their keyboards. Here is a by no means comprehensive list of Wheaton's two-dimensional travels:

  • Jefbot explains why he hates Wil Wheaton -- and it has nothing to do with Wesley Crusher or Wheaton being an awesome blogger.
  • When Wil Wheaton made Twitter friends with Heroes actor Greg Grunberg, HijiNKS Ensue revealed what went through Grunberg's head and which world leader got a little thrill watching their burgeoning Twiendship.
  • Arcane Times so captured Wheaton's con experience that he asked to have this strip put on a mug.
  • Diesel Sweeties not only renders Wil Wheaton as an 8-bit sprite, but also puts him in the notorious clown sweater.
  • As Wesley Crusher, Wheaton saved the Enterprise on many an occasion. In Goats, he saves us all from the endless name-dropping of the world's greatest porno acting bot, the Pork-O-Tron.
  • Wheaton is just one of many Next Generation actors cast in Joy of Tech's much-anticipated Firefly sequel. But this time, we're less interested in his intellect than in his...physical talents.
  • Overcompensating puts Wheaton's awesome blogger skills to the test, and gets bonus points for dressing him in the Diesel Sweeties electric sheep t-shirt.
  • A Softer World casts Wheaton as an unlikely werewolf, but naturally he's still a writer.
  • Home on the Strange imagines an all-out Internet grudge match between the followers of Penny Arcade, Wil Wheaton, Drew Curtis, and Neil Gaiman.
  • After naming one character's baby after the one-time convention punching bag (much to the father's chagrin), Something Positive pits a heavily muscled Wil Wheaton against an army of rabid, maneating catgirls.
And then there are the comics that namecheck Wheaton:
  • Real Life Comics reacts to Wheaton's presense at the Dumbrella table at Comic Con.
  • Who cares if you're blogging at work if Wil Wheaton's linking to your site? Not Unshelved.
  • Questionable Content may find the idea of Wheaton being menaced by a military combat droid amusing, but it's nothing compared to what he's endured from Star Trek fans.
  • Queen of Wands reveals the secret shame those of us who mooned over Wesley Crusher in junior high share.

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]

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Red String" Makes Even a Cynic Believe in Romance Comics


Motherfrakker.

Did I really just voluntarily read 31 chapters of Gina Biggs' manga-influenced romance comic Red String? If I had any shred of hip kid cred (which I don't), this would definitively snuff it out.

In my defense, though, Red String is immensely engrossing and surprisingly rich.

Miharu Ogawa is high school student with a fierce independent streak and a strong sense of justice that tends to land her in trouble. Her life is a fairly unremarkable one, spent hanging out with her best friends Reika and Fuuko, dodging her rival Morita, and sparring with the cynical Hayashihara. But one day, Miharu comes home to learn that her parents long ago arranged her marriage to the son of her mother's childhood friend. At first, Miharu is horrified, both at the prospect of marrying someone she does not love and that her parents are forcing her to submit to such an outdated tradition. But her nascent love life takes a sudden and surprising turn when she realizes her fiance might just be her soulmate.

It sounds cheesey, but rest assured Red String is more than just your typical high school soap opera. In addition to following the primary relationship between Miharu and Kazuo, it also focuses on a rich cast of characters. Reika lives under the specter of an ugly rumor and pines after a playboy classmate, but finds friends willing to help build her underdeveloped sense of self. Fuuko realizes she has feelings for a female upperclassman, a relationship that could cause enormous social fallout. Miharu's cousing Karen also finds herself the victim of an arranged marriage, and is willing to go to extremes to change her fate. Hayashihara masks his soft heart and parents' crumbling marriage by acting judgmentally aloof. We aren't just looking at a thread that connects two lovers, but the entire tapestry that surrounds them.

A central theme ties together all these concurrent storylines: love. It's not just romantic love, although that certainly plays a role. Red String is also about the love of family and friends and about finding your passions in life. One character feels no greater bliss when she's on the volleyball court, but is unsure how to process her own romantic feelings. Another wants nothing more than for her crush to notice her, but eventually finds a hobby that's more rewarding than the reality of dating him. Biggs knows that there's a big, wide world for her characters beyond high school and first dates, and realizes that they're all the richer when they have a chance to explore it.

Of course, pursuing our bliss is not always easy. Rumors of a same sex relationship scandalize not only the students at Miharu's school, but some of the teachers as well. Kazuo submits to his father's rigid life plan -- studying pharmacology and taking over the family business -- even as he dreams of working in a restaurant. And Miharu must resolve her affection for Kazuo with her belief that arranged marriages are wrong.

Although the manga influence is apparent in Biggs' art and the Japanese setting, Red String is not a manga and, as Biggs herself notes, employs a much more American comics style of storytelling. Characters evolve and grow. Best friends move away. Couples get together and they break up. And, though we are asked to suspend our disbelief regarding certain unlikely coincidences, her characters are, though deliberately exaggerated, believable, their actions understandable as their motives are gradually revealed. As a protagonist, Miharu herself is a delight to watch. Tough and yet vulnerable in all the right places, she is rebellious, but not gratuitously so. Her temper is portrayed as both a a handicap and a righteous fire, and she suffers very real consequences from her actions. Ultimately, she manages to be interesting despite having few interests of her own, and proves a handy foil to straight-laced, obedient Kazuo, whom she has a great deal to teach about finding happiness.

This mix of fluffy manga base and richly plotted topping makes Red String a tastier treat than most romance-themed fare, and Biggs' talents have not gone unnoticed. The first three volumes of Red String were published in print by Dark Horse, and she is currently taking preorders for a self-published fourth volume. Red String updates online Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

[Red String]
[Buy Red String Volume 1]

Sunday, March 15, 2009

China's Green Lantern Fails to Take Flight

I'm not sure precisely why I picked up Steve Bialik's Minister Jade. It fell into my possession during the total 45 minutes I spent on the floor during New York Comic Con. Maybe I was intrigued by the art, which plays with traditional Chinese woodblocks and watercolors. Maybe I was charmed by the name of the publisher, Cellar Door -- a nice nod to Tolkien. Maybe it was that it won a Young Adult Library Services Association award as one of 2009's "Great Graphic Novels for Teens" and I was itching for some good YA lit.

There are a lot of reasons why Minister Jade could have been a pretty kick-ass book. After all, it contains the following:

  • A superhero story set in 13th Century China
  • A villain who turns people into gold
  • Man-eating zombie concubines
  • A lionfish demon
  • The roguish King of Lepers, who isn't a leper at all
  • A people living under the thumb of Kublai Khan
But Minister Jade is not kick-ass, not kick-ass at all. At its best, the book is disappointing, a mere artistic failure. At its worst, it's profoundly offensive.

The story follows Wenxiu, once a government clerk in an influential Chinese family, who lost his status after the Mongol conquest of China. With his family reduced to performing on the streets and selling tea, Wenxiu dreams of regaining his former wealth and glory and of being worthy of his lady love, the brothel song girl Yuniang. After a series of misadventures, Wenxiu finds himself on the Island of Living Jade, whose resident entity gives him a mystical belt that transforms him into a Green Lantern-esque superhero. With his new-found abilities, Wenxiu finds himself in the path of the nefarious apothecary Wanyao Wang and his death cult, who seek to eradicate the scourge of humanity through biomystical warfare.

But Wenxiu has a fatal character flaw. Whereas his family is concerned with honor, familial loyalty, and overthrowing their oppressors, and Yuniang seeks only his love, Wenxiu understands his worth only in terms of his status, and will seek any means to attain it, even if it means allying himself with the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan.

Minister Jade's primary sins are artistic, mainly in its egregious breeches of storytelling's "Show, Don't Tell" rule. When our protagonist and our antagonist first appear, each disgorges his entire backstory before the audience in a way that calls to mind the wearying Japanese Noh plays I read in college, except that Noh makes no pretense to being anything other than a series of flashbacks and revelations. At the same time, characters plainly state their emotions and their motivations for acting the way they do (to quote Futurama's Robot Devil, "You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry"), and details of the story are revealed through clunkily expositional dialogue. This leaves the characters without a shred of mystery or texture, essential to lending a third dimension to a book with deliberately two dimensional art. In the end, the storyline feels akin to a porno plot, less an end in itself than a setup for the much richer action sequences.

Even Wenxiu and Wanyao fail to hit their proper emotional marks. Wenxiu's arc is a pretty simple one: he is lowly and craves power, he receives power but uses is dishonorably, and then he learns to use his power honorably. But before his redemption, we are given little to like about the fallen scholar. He is so fixated on wrong notions of value and worth, and anything positive that happens to him early on in the story comes not as a result of his own ingenuity or virtue, but from the largely unwarranted kindness of others. Consequently, I couldn't invest much concern in whether he eventually changes his status-whore ways; I was too busy thinking that the minor characters would have found more noble -- and interesting -- uses for the belt of living jade. And Wanyao Wang should have been utterly creepifying -- over a century and half old, with eyes sewn shut, an unflappable politeness, and that gas turning folks to gold. But Bialik blows Wanyao's entire wad of evil in the first few pages, so we never get the impression that the villain has any terrible surprises up his sleeve. He also fails to meditate sufficiently on the horrors of the golden plague; the action sequences focus so completely on monsters and magic that they overwhelm what should be the most unnerving aspect of the entire book.

If these were Minister Jade's sole problems, I would simply place it my mental "rough draft" file, for books that have certain promising qualities, but probably needed another pass or two before they went to press. But, upon finishing the book, I found that I was more than disappointed. I was outraged.

Minister Jade is set during the Yuan Dynasty and makes some effort toward explaining the history and culture of the era. But given that this is a fantasy story and that Bialik is writing for teens, you would think he'd give more thought to how he portrays women. I will say that he does offer us one token action chick, a no-nonesense junk owner who at first merely harumphs at Wenxiu and later reappears as a demon-slaying deus ex machina. But her character almost seems a half-hearted apology for the way Bialik treats the other women in his book. The only other prominent female character is Yuniang. Initially, she seems like an ideal Wenxiu needs to aspire to, something he can earn if he learns to accept himself. But once Wenxiu becomes the superpowered Minister Jade, he whisks Yuniang off to a palace to become his bride. As she accepts him without question -- caring not about his earlier abandonment of her or his sudden betrayal of their Chinese kinsmen -- her character becomes vestigial and Bialik occpies her with the task of decorating their home in a reportedly tacky style.

This in itself would not be so terrible -- after all, some female characters are bound to be simple -- were it not for the character Vantu. Vantu is one of Wenxiu's key allies; although he is not a warrior, he proves valuable in the defeat of Wanyao Wang. He's also a pimp. There are contexts in which casting a heroic pimp would be appropriate, but this is not one of them. Everything in this book is so simplistic and hurried that Vantu's profession is largely skated over and isn't shown critically except to suggest that it's low-class. And this problem is exponentially compounded by the pair of interchangable beauties frequently traveling with Vantu. As a reader, I might expect these women to defer to Vantu, and to feign affection for a potential client, but in an early scene they jump eagerly and earnestly upon their master, apparently delighted to find he is unharmed after a fight. Then, in the very next moment Vantu offers their services to Wenxiu as a gift, a mere trifle. I do not demand that these women be anachronistically heroic or independent, and I do realize that some characters are bound to be compliant prostitutes and happy wives, but when nearly all the female characters serve at the pleasure of men and have no visible internal lives, something has gone awry.

I've enjoyed some of the other books on the YALSA list, including Mariko and Jillian Takami's Skim and the first volume of Atomic Robo, so I'm willing to chalk the inclusion of Minister Jade up to a fluke. But I suspect the librarians on the committee were so blinded by its historical setting and culturally-inspired art that they failed to notice that it's not only sexist, but also not a particularly good book.

The Craftiest Comic You'll See Today

There are some people in this world who are so industrious that they make me feel unaccomplished just by going about their daily lives. Kristen Shirts is one such person. A ukelele player with a degree in costume design, Shirts not only has had the enviable task of backing the illustrious Jonathan Coulton with her bitty four-stringed instrument, she also makes Stricken Pot Pie, the handcrafted tale of a bird named Marjorie and a bear named Emory.

Whereas many comic creators are using increasingly digital processes, making comics that exist exclusively inside computers and servers, Shirts has taken the opposite approach. Each panel of Stricken Pot Pie is an embroidered piece of muslin, right down to the stitched-in letters. The panels are then photographed, preserving their sculpture-like nature, and arranged as full strips. That each panel is made from scratch -- Shirts never rips the characters or backgrounds from one panel to form the next -- is both a testament to her badassery (each comic takes no fewer than five hours to assemble) and reinforces the idea of the strips as keepsakes, something you might want to frame and hang on your wall.

This would all be interesting enough as a gimmick, but Shirts really owns her medium. In the few strips she has posted, we can already see how she delights in playing with textures and visual language, sewing twists into a tree trunk to suggest gnarled bark, embroidering the sky with streams of light and curls of wind, and drawing humor from the notion that traditional comic book visuals like "Pow" starbursts and bad mood storm clouds are something that the characters can actually see. The results are visually complex scenes that keep me returning to the strips for a fourth or fifth look and make me more than a little sad that I can't simply reach through the screen and touch them.

[Stricken Pot Pie via mental_floss]

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Workplace Webcomic for Clock Watchers and Window Gazers

Back when I had a normal office park job, I'd spend morning meetings doodling in the margins of whatever I had at hand, filling the white space with Sharpie-inked sketches of my coworkers and killer robots. But nothing I drew could come close to rivaling the sheer artistry of Shane Johnson's My Life In A Cube.

Johnson draws daily comics chronicling the lives of cubicle dwellers. This isn't Dilbert; we aren't mocking managerial ineptitude or catch-22 health plans or outsourcing to fourth-world nations. Instead, Johnson highlights the oddities of cubicle culture, the way normal social rules break down when coworkers are separated by shoulder-high carpeted walls, how easily we accept the rituals of forced small talk and office parties, the private sins of long lunches, desk dozing, and Twitter.

Even though the events it depicts are (allegedly) fictional, My Life In A Cube has a diary comic feel. Although it's formatted as a gag-a-day, its humor isn't really jokey. It more echoes the unspoken one-liners we all have rattling around our heads, even as we are outwardly complicit in all this office weirdness, and those moments we think no one else knows about -- unfurling all your paperclips, zoning out during phone calls, and contemplating your getaway -- but are far more common than our managers would care to acknowledge.

The genius is compounded by Johnson's choice of canvas. Like any good doodle done on company time, My Life In A Cube is done on office supplies: Post-It Notes, discarded envelopes, bubble wrap, napkins, and notebook paper are all reborn as colorful critiques on office culture. It elevates each installment to found art, the sort of unexpected treasure we might be lucky to discover peeking out of the recycling bin. Even guest strips take on a special quality, with each artist gleefully chiming in with their own briefly told tale of occupational woe and reminding us that most people aren't all that keen on their 9 to 5s. And for those of us living cube-free lives (as Johnson does these days), it provides a lighthearted reminder of why we keep ourselves far away from the office park.

[My Life In A Cube]

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Ugly Hill" Takes Its Final Bow

It's a bittersweet day for monsters everywhere. Today marks the final strip of Paul Southworth's Ugly Hill after four years of abusive coworkers, poor hygiene, anti-cyclops prejudice, and familial murder attempts. With a cast populated by octopus women, slug dudes, and all manner of absurdly shaped beasties, Ugly Hill has always been an eels-and-candy-flavored feast for the eyes, but Southworth announced last month that the creative well for the series has run dry. While it's always sad to see a quality strip close and he could probably use some well-deserved rest/baby bonding, I'm psyched to see what wacky character designs Southworth will come up with for his next endevour (and, apparently, there's a collaborative project in the wings). He's headed to Webcomics Weekend next weekend, so maybe we'll hear more from him there.

[Ugly Hill]

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Looking for (Funny) Life on Mars

I suspect that NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft was one of science fiction's greatest heartbreakers. Before the flier found the red planet devoid of life, sci-fi fans could imagine Mars as a lush world teeming with possibly intelligent beings, the ready backdrop for Edgar Rice Burroughs' rowsing pulp epics, C.S. Lewis' theological explorations, and Ray Bradbury's first contact vignettes. Modern Mars fiction tends to paint our planetary neighbor as less Heart of Darkness than Wild, Wild West: vast, desolate, and inhabitable by only the hardiest and most innovative settlers.

Sometimes, though, we need to take a retrofuturistic vacation to that era of little green men and once again dream of life on Mars. And that's where Tom Dell'Aringa takes us twice a week with Marooned. Captain John is a Captain Kirk send-up, a sort of family-friendly Zapp Brannigan who has crashed on Mars, damaging his radio and finding he has insufficient fuel for the trip home. His sole crewman is Asimov, a long-suffering robot who, despite the name, thinks the Second Law of Robotics doesn't obligate him to obey his moronic commander. Fortunately, the pair are quickly discovered by Ugo, a friendly Martian native (who uncannily resembles Mike from Monsters, Inc.), and soon befriend an orphaned Martian girl named Ril. Together, they battle science fictional threats and try to find a way to get Captain John and Asimov back to Earth.

Dell'Aringa employs a simple, retro that fits neatly with his pre-Mariner premise, occasional slapstick humor, and G-rated content. It has a children's book charm that hits a warm, happy place in my id, but combined with overly familiar character and background designs, it threatens to turn antiseptic. The strip greatly benefits from Dell'Aringa's experiments with the art further down the line: playing with full-page framing, attempts to make the color scheme a bit grittier, adding dimension to the characters, and more risks with his visual language. Still, these experiments could use a firm shove into weirder territory. We're on imaginary Mars, after all, where the sky doesn't even approach the limit.

Marooned's lack of an anchor isn't merely aesthetic. I can relate the overall plot, but even with a full arc concluded, I couldn't tell you precisely what the comic is about, what the creative vision is behind it. The tropes of the egotistical incompetent and the wisecracking AI sidekick are familiar ones, and Dell'Aringa has done little thus far to distinguish Captain John and Asimov from the similarly mismatched protagonists currently cruising through the cosmos. The comic oozes earnestness, but the jokes are too safe, the plotline too linear, and the characters a bit two-dimensional. There are, however, flashes of meaty brilliance, such as when an adversary pulls out his weapon of ultimate destruction, which, it turns out, not only resembles a Rubik's Cube, but also is named for one of the Internet's greatest nutjob websites. Dell'Aringa either needs to root Marooned to some overarching theme -- an homage to Golden Age science fiction, a humorous examination of modern science fiction through a retrofuturistic lens (or vice versa), a space opera whose traditional conventions are repeatedly twisted and subverted -- or simply let his freak flag fly higher.

Don't get me wrong; there is a lot of talent and enthusiasm behind Marooned. It's just that all that talent and enthusiasm haven't yet lent the comic a clear, cohesive shape. Putting the comic through the wringer is almost unfair as Dell'Aringa is new to comics and learning on the job, in public, and we're all watching him find his footing. I just hope he isn't afraid to stumble along the way.

[Marooned]

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More Watchmen Webcomics Than You Can Drop a Giant Squid On

Even if you weren't all that thrilled with the Watchmen movie, there are still plenty of loving tributes to Alan Moore's classic graphic novel scattered throughout the webcomics universe. Perhaps none are as inspired as Scott Kurtz's "Ombudsmen" (mentioned previously), but here they are for your perusal:

Short Ends: Comics Archetypes and Sexy Troubles



Comics Archetype Times Table:
Jacob Borshard creates the ultimate table of blended comics archetypes that has me wondering when we'll finally see a comic about zombie T-Rex astronaut Lincoln. [Creebobby via Wondermark]



Is DAR Too Hot for Print?: Erika Moen tweeted this week that the printer she contracted to print her collection of strips from her diary comic DAR refused to print her book because her comics contain too much darned sexiness (and after they accepted her deposit). Naturally, the incident made its way into a diary comic, but not one of Moen's. Instead, Lucy Knisley chronicles the moments when Moen gets the bad news and her thoughts on the matter. [Lucy Knisley's ArtJournal via Erika Moen's Twitter]

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Cold Fish Grows in Brooklyn

Ah, your early twenties. That time in your life when you're at sea in the world -- no clear career path, no built-in network of friends, no longer sucking at the emotional and financial teat of family. And if your private melancholy weren't enough, there's that nagging sense that the world isn't quite what you were told it would be. It's not that people are merely selfish or cruel; it's that they're illogical and opaque and can't be trusted to abide by the rules of sane society.

That's the reality Shayna Marchese drops us into with Voids, her limited series webcomic. Sara is a young woman adrift in New York, with a dead end job, no visible passions, no projects to occupy her mind. In one of those unfair confluences of minor misfortune, her roommate suddenly bails on their lease just before Sara's boyfriend unceremoniously dumps her. To make it a trifecta, she quits her job and seeks out a new apartment. She ends up renting a crappy studio from Nika, a single mother, and going back to her old job as a bookstore clerk.

But all is not right in Brooklyn. The apartment's previous tenant, Kara, spots Sara and perceives her as a doppelganger and a rival and begins to stalk her. Nika and her other tenant, Andrew explain Kara's appearance in their lives, but their stories don't quite add up. Suddenly, Sara's small and uncertain life has taken on a subtly surreal flavor, filled with late night trips to the graveyard, a mysterious Japanese paper, and a man who collects cans from the trash, but is seemingly omnipresent.

The art in Voids is a bit of a mixed bag. Once she breaks out of the oddly rigid structures of Part One, Marchese displays a keen talent for building beautiful, loosely drawn scenery. The comic is primarily drawn in black and white, but each issue features a different color in a soft tone: blues, browns, and greys that highlight features as they pop from the background. But rare calls for action prove not to be her forte; one character takes a nasty punch to the cheek, but it's not obvious what happens until a page later. As for the characters, they register few emotions, mostly on the negative end of the spectrum (annoyance and frustration are prominent feelings amongst the supporting cast). And Sara herself is the worst offender; caught in a state of perpetual malaise, her eyes and mouth hardly budge from their apathetic median. At its best, Marchese's art evokes the reserved loveliness of Adrian Tomine's illustrations, but it also helps keep us from ever getting close enough to her characters to care what's happening to them.

Marchese has mentioned in interviews that many of the decisions she has made in Voids was to convey the sense of melancholy that so frequently accompanies young adulthood. But it works too well here. Sara keeps everyone in her world at arms length (and who could blame her? She is grossly mismatched with her premature divorcee of a best friend, and all of her neighbors are crazy people.), but Marchese ensures that the reader stays there, too. Sara's sole quirk is a propensity for picking pennies up off the sidewalk. She thinks they look lonely because she a dropped, lonely penny, too. But we never see Sara in her vulnerable moments, never see any cracks in that armor of expressionlessness, and so this behavior comes off as compulsive rather than poignant or sad. Twenty-something myself with a vestigial grad degree and recently laid off from a job, I felt that I should identify with Sara, that I should want to hold her or empathize with her -- or at least buy her a stiff drink. Instead, I feel like she's given me the cold shoulder and, while I'm curious about the mysteries of her life, I don't really care whether she hooks up with Andrew or ditches frenemy Frances or is further menaced by Kara.

Voids is currently on its eighth of nine 24-page issues. It's an interesting read, mostly on the strength of its gentle and believable surrealism. But it's not nearly as strong Marchese's non-fiction work -- a travel journal she kept during a trip to Japan and Gramercy Park, a graphic essay about her stint in an unusual New York dorm.

[Voids]

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Diary of an Accidental Love Story

I can't help myself when it comes to diary comics. They depress the hell out of me; as with Twitter, they provide a window into someone else's life, and I find myself coming down with some serious career/talent/overall life envy. But as with mint Oreo ice cream and tortilla chips, sometimes I just have to indulge.

I was a ways into Marc Ellerby's diary comic Ellerbisms before I realized that Ellerby was the illustrator on Oni's romance comic Love the Way You Love. I'd thought his art was familiar, especially the way he draws women with thick eyelashes beneath their eyes, suggesting heavy use of eyeliner and mascara, but I actually greatly prefer his art here. His deceptively simple style comes to life, tracing each moment of frustration, hopefulness, heartbreak, and delight across his figures' faces. And he draws complex scenes full of crowds and detailed backgrounds with such mastery that it appears effortless. Certainly some of the drawings are less polished, probably due to a time crunch or Ellerby's repetitive stress injury, but each page is full of warmth, like a brief visit with friends.

Different diarists take different approaches to the diary comic. James Kochalka invites us into his life for five minutes of every day, while Erika Moen relates brief essays and anecdotes in graphic form. Ellerby generally takes the former approach, although is style is more narrative than Kochalka's. But it's clear from the early strips that Ellerby was initially uncertain what his comic was about, what he wanted to share with the world. Consequently, those first entries zig and zag a bit, full of amusing little moments -- conversations with friends, ventures to rock shows, private embarrassments -- but not quite settled into a rhythm.

But then something happens. Ellerby starts telling a love story.

Ellerby dragged his feet a bit in incorporating his girlfriend Anna into the comic, but as she appears more and more, Ellerbisms moves swiftly from a random collection of moments to an impressionistic story about a young cartoonist and the girl he loves. We get Anna and Marc's smaller, daily moments, but also follow them on their trip to Anna's native Sweden and the emotional letdown of their return to England. Ellerby is also admirably unafraid to share the low points of their relationship, a screaming (and largely one-sided) fight and some gorgeously meloncholy moments of uncertainty. He doesn't share the details of the events leading up to these moments, which is for the best; we get to experience them without being asked to make judgments, and Anna and Marc get to remain real people rather than being reduced to characters in a less authentic story. Their relationship doesn't feature in every page, but it doesn't need to; it simply serves to anchor the comic to something consistent and real.

Ellerbisms has really hit its stride and it seems that, regardless of what happens with Marc and Anna, Ellerby has developed a flexible, honest approach to the diary comic that could well make it one of the web's enduring diaries. Ellerbisms updates Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

[Ellerbisms]

Friday, March 6, 2009

"Marry Me" Takes Us on a Honeymoon to Forget

I confess that I am susceptible to advertising. It's probably why I'm so fascinated by Mad Men (which I'm rewatching for the third or fourth time) and it's how I ended up reading Marry Me.

Thanks to one of those Keenspot ad boxes, I discovered a free issue of Marry Me on iTunes. Curious about how well webcomics translate to mobile devices, I read the first issue on my Touch and then finished it off back at Keenspot.

I almost didn't bother reading Marry Me. It's written by Bobby Crosby, who's better known for Last Blood, a comic so stunning in its mediocrity that every time I remember it has a movie deal, I die a little bit inside. But, I was intrigued enough by the pitch and liked what I was seeing in Remy Mokhtar's art, so I pressed on.

The premise is promising enough. Anastasia ("Ana" to her rare friends) is a pop star in the vein of Britney Spears who sings under the stage name Stasia. Aside from the requisite loneliness, Ana's actually pretty stable as far as pop stars go; she's well-liked, grounded, and apparently drug-free. But she's had a string of bad relationships with famous but shallow men. She craves male companionship, but has grown weary of dating. On the Tulsa leg of her world tour, she spots a guy (a high school guidance counselor aptly named "Guy") in the crowd holding a "Marry Me" sign and, in a moment of inspired impulsiveness, calls him onto the stage and marries him on the spot. Guy and Ana now have to deal with the fallout from their decision, including a media feeding frenzy, Ana's controlling father, Guy's Stasia-obsessed, lesbian best friend (and actual owner of the "Marry Me" sign) Parker, and the question of whether they're legally wed.

But as with Last Blood, Crosby's execution fails to live up to his concept. He had the opportunity to tell a genuinely interesting story about a pair of well-meaning, but perhaps ill-matched, people trying to make their strange and sudden marriage work. Instead, Ana, Guy, and crew hightail it Ana's charity headquarters in Nairobi and embark on a series of relentlessly feel-good adventures. All of the characters -- floppy haired do-gooder Guy, zany fangirl Parker, Ana's brunette pregnant lieutenant of a sister Janny, even Ana and Janny's supervillain-styled papa -- come straight out of manga-inspired central casting and never play against type. It makes for a Tic Tac of a story, not unpleasant, but forgotten the moment it's gone.

Crosby makes a few attempts at originality, injecting the comic with a few moments of abject absurdity (such as when we learn why Guy knows how to deliver a baby). In the hands of a more skilled writer, this might have been charming or contributed to the overall picture of a character's personality. But here it merely reinforces the thinly developed and contrived nature of the world these folks inhabit and makes Crosby's already milquetoast, too-drearily-nice-to-be-true characters even less relatable.

Although Marry Me is sufficiently readable, I found I kept clicking the "Next" button less out of concern for the characters than in the desperate hope that the next page would reveal some glimmer of conflict, character flaws, or even the barest possibility of an unhappy outcome. But alas, the first act simply rattled to its easy and predictable end, and the second, rather than exploring the depths of Guy and Ana's foolhardy relationship, is a side story about how Guy first hooked up with his BFF Parker.

Crosby's apparent goal is to spin Marry Me into an eventual film deal, as he's done with Last Blood. It would probably make for a rather middling romantic comedy, less Two Weeks Notice than What Happens in Vegas. I might catch it on cable on some dull and rainy day, but I'm not going to shell out nine bucks to watch it in on the big screen.

[Marry Me]

Thursday, March 5, 2009

12 Webcomics Most Likely to Show Up on "Best Webcomics" Lists

The big news in the webcomics world this week comes from social media blog Mashable, which threw in its two cents as to which 20 webcomics were among "the best." Now, nothing against Mashable's list; it's a solid list if you leave aside their attempt to pass off Homestar Runner as a webcomic (yes, I know Flash toons and webcomics have a lot in common, but if we're going to pick a medium, can we all agree to just stick with it?). But I couldn't shake the feeling that many of the entries were somehow...familiar. Like I've seen them before. On other "best of" lists. A lot of other lists.

Trying decide if this was mere paranoia (or simple jealousy that it was written by someone with many powers of ten times my readership), I did a very small, totally unscientific survey of "best of" lists written over the last couple of years. These are just the sort of lists you'll find at online news outlets or on blogs if you Google things like "best webcomics" or "favorite webcomics." And I found 20 lists, ranging from Cracked's "Funniest Webcomics" and O'Reilly's "Best Webcomics You're Not Reading" to lists of favorites on personal blogs written from 2007 on.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover 186 different webcomics listed on these 20 lists (which ranged from 5 entries to 57). But 12 comics definitely showed up more than their online brethren:

1. xkcd by Randall Munroe (11 Times)

2. Penny Arcade by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (10 Times)

3. PvP by Scott Kurtz (7 Times)


4. Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques (7 Times)

5. Sinfest by Tatsuya Ishida (7 Times)


6. The Adventures of Dr. McNinja by Chris Hastings (6 Times)

7. The Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch (5 Times)

8. Ctrl+Alt+Del by Tim Buckley (5 Times)

9. Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North (5 Times)


10. Cyanide & Happiness by Kris Wilson, Rob DenBleyker, Matt Melvin, Dave McElfatrick (5 Times)

11. Achewood by Chris Onstad (4 Times)

12. Diesel Sweeties by R. Stevens (4 Times)


A couple of thoughts:

Entrenchment: There are very good reasons these comics appear on so many lists; they're all inspired and consistently well-done, and many of the creators are tops when it comes to community development (I mean, the Penny Arcade folks hold an annual gaming festival). But sometimes it's a little ridiculous -- xkcd showed up on the list of "Webcomics You're Not Reading" and Sinfest on a list of "Unsung Webcomics." Part of the reason they show up so frequently is that "best webcomics" lists are typically compiled by tech outlets and likeminded individuals, and many of these comics have found favor with the techie/geekie/gamer crowd (even though some have much wider appeal), and it's become nigh-impossible for any self-respecting geek to leave xkcd off their list.

But other comics deserve some horn-tooting as well. Personally, I was shocked to see only one list that featured James Kolchalka's long-running diary comic American Elf and that only Mashable's included Bill Holbrook's darkly funny, predator-marries-prey series Kevin and Kell. Maybe we need more lists of great comics that are great, but don't generally appear on "best of" lists, or maybe we just need a wider range of media outlets sharing in the webcomics love.

Sausage Fest: Every single comic on that list is written and drawn by men. The only comic that came close from the XX side of the aisle is Danielle Corsetto's Girls with Slingshots (incidently, probably the only comic without an RSS feed that I read every day), which appeared on three lists, two of which claimed to feature underated webcomics. The ladies have not been as adept at self-promotion, but that may be changing. Scott Kurtz mentioned the other day that right now all of his favorite webcomics are being written by women (a sentiment I second).

Taxonomy: Writing best webcomics lists is growing increasingly absurd. Granted, webcomics, like everything else, are subject to Sturgeon's Law, but the number of not merely readable but truly wonderful webcomics is always growing. Certainly there are lists of the best movies of all time, the most influential television shows, but endlessly remaking those lists is not the best way to match potential viewers with the content that will most interest them. Aside from *ahem* reviews, it would by handy if we could come up with some way to classify comics in the way we classify other media -- summer blockbusters, spaghetti westerns, period dramas -- and make our lists from there. Of course, a reflection of the richness of webcomics is how difficult they are to classify. How does one go about putting a label on Dinosaur Comics?

And last but not least: Homestar Runner isn't a frakking webcomic. Stop putting it on your lists.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Dark Horse Presents: Wondermark, Achewood, and Kate Beaton

Most of my contact with the Myspace Dark Horse Presents anthology of online comics have been with its Whedonverse entries (including Joss's Sugarshock, the Captain Hammer and Moist comics, and an episode of Buffy courtesy of Jane Espenson). But the March issue is nicely webcomicky with three of the four comics culled from Internets. First, we have "The Catch!" an extended entry from David Malki's Wondermark, wherein we learn that even the most marvelous free offers come with a catch. Then, in "The Garage Sale," characters from Chris Onstad's Achewood sell off their crap and deal with garage sale regulars. And last, but certainly not least, Kate Beaton, known far and wide for her hilarious historical comics, treats us to how things could have gone down with Darwin in "Origin of Man."

Dark Horse has, as far as large publishers go, long been on the forefront of webcomics promotion, having already published volumes of Wondermark and Achewood, as well as AppleGeeks, Penny Arcade, and The Perry Bible Fellowship, plus a volume of Sinfest on the way. I can't help but wonder whether they really intend Myspace Dark Horse presents to be the next step in media distribution and are latching onto web darlings like Beaton to promote their service among the webcomics crowd, or whether they're using it to test drive authors with an unusual voice for eventual print volumes.

[Myspace Dark Horse Presents #20]

Who Ombuds the Ombudsmen?

I'm dying over PvP's latest interlude, "Ombudsmen," which references the confluence of newspapers laying off syndicated cartoonists and the opening of the Watchmen movie to create a brilliant mash-up. Casting Popeye as Rorschach, Jon Arbuckle as the second Nite Owl, Dagwood Bumstead as Dr. Manhattan (the man who can never die), and Charlie Brown as the deceased Comedian, Scott Kurtz has, in just two installments, developed a funny and strangely poignant commentary on syndicated cartoons. I'm just waiting for Dogbert or Jason Fox to step in as Ozymandias, drop a giant squid on the offices of the Universal Press Syndicate, and make way for a new era of independent comics creators.

[Ombudsmen]

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"Sin Titulo" is Noir for the "Lost" Crowd


With shows like The Prisoner and Lost, the mysterious island is practically its own subgenre. Usually, a group of people end up on said island under unclear circumstances and are prevented from leaving by shadowy and possibly malevolent forces.

Cameron Stewart, co-creator of the awesome post-apocalyptic girl rock comedy The Apocalipstix, tries a different tack with the island mystery. In Sin Titulo (which has a dark ring to English-speaking ears but is Spanish for simply "Untitled"), Alex Mackay has a recurring dream about walking along a beach whose most defining feature is a dead tree under which an unseen figure sits. Instinctively, he walks toward the figure, but always wakes before he reaches it.

Alex doesn't give the dream much thought until he visits his grandfather's nursing home only to discover that the old man's been dead for a month. As he goes through his grandfather's effects, Alex discovers a recent photo of his grandfather with a beautiful young woman straight out film noir -- blonde hair, dark glasses, and an enigmatic smile. And, after seeing one of the nursing home's orderlies driving the same woman from his grandfather's grave, Alex becomes obsessed with learning her identity and understanding how his grandfather spent his final days. The pursuit draws Alex into a surreal and dangerous underworld, which seems somehow connected to a disturbing and unexplained event from his childhood. As he is pulled deeper and deeper into the mystery, two things become apparent: Alex isn't the only one who dreams about the beach, and the beach may not be a dream at all.

With The Apocalipstix, Stewart proved he is capable of conceptualizing high-energy illustrations to match over-the-top situations, but for Sin Titulo he's chosen a far more understated style. Not only does it prove a nice pairing for the comic's neo-noir tone, it also gives the more surreal elements -- the dream logic of the beach, Alex's flashes of childhood nightmares -- equal weight with the more mundane. Thus, images like a spiny crab placed on a dinner plate are forced to stand on their own rather than overwhelming the comic, and it makes them far more intriguing and mysterious.

Stewart's excellent sense of pacing also goes a long way toward keeping the intrigue pumping. Each page of the story is told in rigid sets of eight panels, and though the story never slows down -- Alex is always getting drugged and dumped in the middle of nowhere or invited on trips through spacetime or interrogated by the police -- nor are we given any big reveals. We simply have to sit back, watch Alex suffer, and let the story unfold.

Some of the richest scenes are the flashbacks to Alex's childhood, which, in addition to letting us know that this isn't Alex's first contact with weirdness, reveal that both Alex and his grandfather have been victims of violence at the hands of Alex's father. They're not only the most quietly disturbing scenes in a comic filled with quietly disturbing images, they add a fresh layer of questions as to what binds Alex to his grandfather and whether Alex's father will ever make an appearance in the present.

In its brief run, Sin Titulo has offered few answers, but yielded spiraling mysteries. For once, we're running headlong toward the "island" (in this case, the beach) rather than scheming ways to escape it, but the getting there and the what's behind it all is no less a mystery. Fortunately, Stewart is more than competent to lead us through all the twists and turns.

Sin Titulo updates Sundays.

[Sin Titulo]