Thursday, January 28, 2010

High Fantasy Slashes Its Way Into the Modern World

I've mentioned this before, but I'm not big into high fantasy. It probably stems from reading an overload of DragonLance books as a child (I still have the cracking, falling-apart copies of the books I "borrowed" from my babysitter), but tales of heroic swordsmen and gray-robed mages and demons from another dimension just don't do it for me. There are a few exceptions (Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy springs to mind), but on the whole, it's a genre that doesn't exactly get my loins stirring.

Fortunately, Lars Brown's North World isn't precisely high fantasy. Yes, it's a universe filled with wizards, guilds, giant vermin, enterprising blacksmiths, and warriors wielding oversized weapons. But all these high fantasy tropes have found their way into a version of the modern world. North World has cars, modern houses, and Chinese food, but it has no computers, telephones, or TV sets. It's a place where high fantasy mets urban fantasy, and where all of a writer's least favorite technologies have an excuse not to exist.

The Epic of Conrad, a two-volume North World tale published by Oni, is a happy introduction to Brown's oddball universe. Conrad is a slayer of especially large animals -- child-chomping eagles, magical talking bears (but not raccoons; they're pretty chill) -- living a simple but relatively exciting existence. He gets his orders from his guild, wreaks a little mammalian monster mayhem, pays a bard to spread the tale, and spends his down time drinking ale and bedding warrior groupies. After a strange run-in with the ursine King of the Forrest, Conrad gets his most exciting mission yet: rid a far off town of a pesky demon summoner before said summoner can raise a demon. There's just one catch: the summoner is hanging out in Coeur du Lac, Conrad's home town. Conrad hightailed it out of Coeur du Lac seven years ago, after a horrific tragedy, and hasn't been back since. To make matters worse, he's learned that his ex-girlfriend is set to get married in Coeur du Lac in just a month. Still, a promotion is a promotion, and Conrad is determined to get his demon summoner.

Brown knows that his universe is just a tad wacky, and The Epic of Conrad manages to be offbeat without descending into unapologetic silliness. There's a plot point involving a demonic ham radio, a character who goes off on long rants about the absence of telephones in the world, a character forced to battle giant fish because he happens to be able to breathe underwater, and lots of Scott Pilgrim-esque declarations of one's own awesomeness. But all the book's lighthearted crazy is tempered by its underlying themes. At its heart, The Epic of Conrad is about growing up, about trading adolescent impulses for adult decision-making, figuring out where your home is -- be it with in your hometown with your family or out on the open road -- and deciding what you want to do with your life. Will Conrad remain in Coeur du Lac? Will he continue to heed the call of adventure, or will he become an accountant like his father? Will the town toughs continue to spend their days brawling and shoplifting whisky, or will they find a more constructive outlet for their energy?

It's a shame, then, that the plot itself falls short. The first volume is the stronger of the pair, setting up the world, introducing us to its lively inhabitants, and giving us a peek into the secrets of Coeur du Lac. But Brown spends too much time winking at the audience, letting us in on some of the key mysteries long before Conrad and the other characters catch on. Too much of the second volume feels like an obligatory wrapping-up: explaining the secrets and revealing the (none too surprising) big bad. However, the plot feels secondary precisely because it is -- secondary to the characters and their non-demonic problems. Even with a weak plot, I'd happily cozy up and spend more time in Brown's world.

And it looks like I'll get the chance. I actually purchased both volumes of North World, only to realize after polishing off the second volume that Brown has put the entire thing online. And, as a bonus, he has posted nearly a dozen other stories set in the same universe. There goes the rest of my week.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Need a Valentine's Day Gift? Webcomics to the Rescue

On the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, young men would slaughter dogs and goats, cut small thongs from the animals' flesh, and run naked through the city, whipping young women to ensure their fertility. These days, Valentine's Day is less about physical pain (unless you count high heels) and more about emotional anguish. And instead of leather thongs, we generally pelt the unsuspecting objects of our affection with paper cards and novelty gifts. Need to do some pre-Valentine's shopping?

Or, you could always clothe the one you love in a makeouts-themed Topatoco t-shirt. Plus, Marc Ellerby says he has a few open spots in his schedule for Valentine's Day commissions. The gift of adorable art? Yes, please.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Odds and Ends: Teen Lit, Haiti, and 69 Love Songs

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Small Victories in a Wicked World

I swear, Warren Ellis finds the best stuff.

This week, the whiskey-soaked madman of Whitechapel shared Small Victories, a new photo webcomic by Sarah Sharp. A little bit A Softer World, a dash of Pictures for Sad Children, and a wicked sense of humor -- and it's just a few days old. Plus, I'm always a sucker for a good zombie joke.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Webcomics Reimagined as Crappy Syndicated Comics

So here's the main difference between me and Jeph Jacques.

When I want to stab someone in the eye, I have long, complicated, and generally vicious fantasies about it; I imagine the implements I would use and the exquisite pain they would feel as their aqueous humor oozes from its casing. But when Jeph Jacques wants to stab someone in the eye, he makes fun of them in a terrifyingly apt and productive way.

Given that he's a successful cartoonist and I'm some chick blogging about webcomics, I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere.

Anyhoos, Mr. Jacques stumbled across this gem, a comic that will, in the coming months, be syndicated in the printed funny pages. So, rather than simply plotting the deaths of those who run the syndicates, Jacques threw out this challenge to comic artists across the world wide web: reimagine your own comic as a crappy syndicated comic. For good measure, he sketched up a syndicated version of his own webcomic Questionable Content.

You can check out the entries as the roll in at the Twitter topic #ifitweresyndicated, but here are a few of the early highlights:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Questionable Content: The Book

It's about freaking time.

After much hounding by fans and bemused interviewers, Jeph Jacques is finally, at long last, planning to release a print version of Questionable Content. The plan is to release the first 300 full-color strips (which is less than 20% of QC's full run) sometime in the next few months.

One small hurdle seems to be dealing with the strips themselves. Jacques explains that he's missing the original, hi-res artwork for 15-20 of the strips. However, he's turned what could be a real problem into a lovely opportunity by deciding to redraw the strips. The book will include the redrawn strips alongside low-resolution versions of the originals.

It's a particularly neat way for Jacques to solve his problem as one of the oft-cited features of QC is Jacques' evolving artistic style. In fact, Jacques has said time and again that he's a bit embarrassed by those early efforts, and though he won't replace the original strips in the archive, he'd really like to. But when he posted the redrawn strip #1 alongside the original, I was surprised how much I preferred the original drawing style. Normally, I view improved art as just that -- an improvement -- but there's something about the tone of those early strips that more nearly matches Jacques' initial style, rough as it was. That art reflects who Jacques was at the time -- just a guy with a job he hated imagining a slightly more exciting life for himself (Marten's life still sucked, but at least it had robots and psychotic Southern gal in it). The more polished art comes from a guy who's living the dream, who can remember what it was like to be that guy, but just isn't him any more.

Still, I'll never complain about more QC or more of Jacques' artwork.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What the Hell, Zuda?

I'll be the first to admit that I don't really get Zuda.

Zuda, for those not in the know, is DC Comics' webcomicky answer to American Idol. Each month, the powers that be select eight ten comics to compete head-to-head in what is purported to be the ultimate comics cage match. Readers get to see an eight-page pitch from each comic and can then score the comics and vote for their favorites. The winner gets a year-long contract with Zuda and (potentially) fame and glory.

It's a decent idea in theory, provided the non-winners can take their hard work elsewhere. But I've never fully warmed to it. Maybe it's because if a comic I like doesn't win, chances are I'll never see it again. Perhaps I'd have warmer and fuzzier feelings toward Zuda if it did more to promote the losers post-mortem.

But one thing I will say for Zuda is that, most months, it does seem to be a meritocracy. While my favorite comic doesn't always win, the winner is usually one of the month's two or three higher quality comics, and anything truly terrible quickly sinks to the bottom. Most months, I (and I suspect many readers) can more or less predict where the final rankings will fall.

This month is not most months. Don't get me wrong, the comics occupying slots one and three are great looking little comics. The Thunderchickens is a self-aware superhero comic with lively dialogue and solid character design. And I'd probably choose Phantom Sword as this month's winner, despite my slight aversion to high fantasy. But when Zuda released this week's rankings I was shocked -- shocked -- to see a comic called NewBot nestled in the number two spot.

I generally hate to just swoop in and trash people's hard work, but DC is one of the largest comic publishers, and this competition is their most significant foothold in the webcomics world. And NewBot simply isn't up to snuff. The artwork is clunky, the character design derivative, and the entire eight-page pitch is essentially a rehash of the first scene of Edward Scissorhands. Still, there it sits, above the charming War of the Woods, above the beautifully rendered Pavlov's Dream, and above the satisfying noir of Candy from Strangers.

I doubt this is an issue of deliberate gaming. As of this writing, NewBot has only 111 "favorite" votes; at that number, its ranking is more likely the result of overzealous self-promotion. Still, something seems amiss in Zuda's voting system if one comic can shoot up the rankings with so little merit. Perhaps it's a sign that Zuda needs to limit the number of fighters in its comics cage match, or perhaps it needs to give greater weight to voters who have voted in the previous months.

Hopefully, this is just an anomaly, but Zuda may need to take stock of its system. If they insist on being so intractably winner-take-all, they better make sure that their winners are the best comics of the lot, not just the comics with the best marketing machines.