Thursday, May 27, 2010

Webcomics Weekend II is a Go!

Last year, Meredith Gran decided to hold the first ever New England Webcomics Weekend in Easthampton, Massachusetts. What was meant to be a gathering of webcomic creators turned into a full-blown convention, with established and aspiring webcomickers descending on the small town by the carload.

The NEWW website has updated for the first time in a while, confirming that, yes, we will get a second shot at Webcomics Weekend. On November 6-7, expect the Eastworks Building to flood with lovers of all things webcomic. They've even posted an initial guest list -- but where are Northamptonites Jeffrey Rowland and Jeph Jacques? Whither Meredith Gran? I would imagine their absences are merely an oversight.

If you're planning on attending this year's NEWW, start saving your sheckles. If you're not already in New England, Easthampton can be very troublesome and expensive to get to. I'd recommend looking for fellow attendees to carpool with. And if you want to exhibit at NEWW, you'll want to submit an application ASAP.

[New England Webcomics Weekend]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nobody Scores with Psychopathic Roommates, Mystical Cats, and the Apocalypse

Oh god, Metafilter. I am loving you so much right now.

I had totally forgotten about Nobody Scores!, the psychopathic, Dadaist comic from Brandon Bolt. And then you went and reminded me.

Like crazy people? Like watching them suffer? Do you like watching them die, or get sent to distant planets, or go on homicidal rampages, or get turned into cans of catfood, without any sort of canonical repercussions?

Jane Doe is the chief crazy of crazytown. Her eyes are perpetually wide, as if her uppers have just kicked in, and she refuses to be bound by the laws of human decency. It's no surprise, then that she has ludicrous adventures with her roommates: Sara P., a Dagny Taggert-wannabe constantly thwarted by the innate superiority of her officemate "Fucking Julie," and Beans, a pretentious artist who will stomp on the little people the moment he finds mainstream success. They harass each other, make the world safe for kindergarten teachers, write FBI/pedophile slashfic, witness the apocalypse (and its postgame),

There are lampoons of office culture, self-improvement, academics, politics, and the art world, but the true genius of Nobody Scores! is in its pacing. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but there's an appropriate insanity in the way many installments go on and on. Just when you think the story is about to end, they zig into a fresh bin of loony. There are also smaller (and sometimes sadder) entries to satisfy your need for amuse bouche (or amuse yeux, as the case may be).

Plus, it's the only comic where Albert Einstein fights Genghis Khan.

[Nobody Scores!]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Comics Break Down Airbender's Racism and the Autism Controversy

It's a good day for didactic comics. If you're not quite sure why fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender are making such a fuss over the whitewashing in the live-action movie, Gene Yang (author of American Born Chinese) is here to explain it. He'd also kind of rather you didn't pay to see it in the theaters. [The Blog of Gene Luen Yang via Meredith Gran]

Meanwhile, in a different universe of controversy, Darryl Cunningham, creator of the endlessly fascinating Psychiatric Tales, explains how the Autism-MMR controversy arose. This one steps beyond the usual reassurances that there's no proven link between vaccines and autism, also outlining the conflicts of interest involving Andrew Wakeman, the disgraced physician who tried to discredit the MMR vaccine -- and apparently lined his pockets while children caught the measles. [tallguywrites via Boing Boing]

Monday, May 24, 2010

Mini Comic Monday: Secret Weirdo and I'd Sure Like Some Fucking Pancakes

Lately I've been delinquent in reviewing the mini comics that folks send me. So I've decided to institute "Mini Comic Monday," where I will gradually review any and all minis I receive.

In her mini Secret Weirdo, Lauren Barnett complains that her biggest pet peeve is when someone calls her comics "cute." "I think 'cute' is a terrible way to describe someone's work," she grumbles. This leads me to two thoughts. 1) Someone should give Barnett a copy of James Kochalka's The Cute Manifesto so she realizes she needn't fear the cute. 2) If she doesn't want people to think of her work as cute, she should really stop anthropomorphizing fruit and birds. It's the road to adorable.

Barnett's drawings of people could, honestly, benefit from some added cute. I'd Sure Like Some Fucking Pancakes, the shorter -- and less cohesive -- comic, contains a story "When a Bird Loses Its Feathers." The eight panel piece features a naked chicken and reads like a demented children's book. The comics featuring humans are nowhere near as visually interesting.

Reading minis is an interesting experience. Sometimes you come across a real gem of an artist, but more often you find someone who is still finding their voice, whose eye isn't fully trained in visual storytelling.  Barnett clearly has some talent -- at least when it comes to scripting -- but she hasn't quite grown into it. Secret Weirdo has the beginnings of a great theme comic. There are lots of odd little tales from Barnett's childhood and quasi-adulthood, and they're extremely well-chosen. She writes about running a lemonade stand, the end table she wanted as a pre-teen, the time she put an egg in the freezer just to see what would happen. The stories are great because they are personal, unusual, and extremely specific. They're understated stories, but they couldn't belong to just anyone. They're clearly the property of this one peculiar individual. Barnett needs to find that same peculiarity and specificity in her writing and art.

It's lurking in there somewhere, and every now and then it shines through. There's the delightful weirdness of "When a Bird Loses Its Feathers" and the simple dream logic of the unicorn story above. And the posters on her blog, which pair animal sketches with odd little taglines, tickle my funny bone (I find them -- gasp -- cute). I think Barnett has the right idea, trying to tap into her secret weirdo. She just needs to drag that weirdo farther into the limelight.

You can buy Lauren Barnett's mini comics on Etsy and check out her artwork at Me Likes You.

Want your mini comic reviewed? Shoot me an email.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Just a Paper Girl, Living in a Cardboard World

In case I haven't mentioned this enough, one of my favorite things about webcomics is the variety. On this site alone, I've mentioned comics featuring agnostic theologians, karmically-challenged Brooklynites, female professional wrestlers, blaxploitation heroes, a Jewish girl who fights trolls, and second-class zombie hunters. And every now and then, I come across someone who goes beyond the normal ink and paper. There's the Post-It humor of My Life in a Cube and the stitch-witchery of Stricken Pot Pie.

In My Cardboard Life, by Philippa Rice, the characters aren't simply rendered in paper and cardboard -- they are paper and cardboard creatures. If paper Pauline gets a bad haircut, she can simply tape her hair back on. Cardboard Colin can change his appearance by ripping and bending his body. Characters can send themselves by mail, be held together with paper clips, and crumpled after a particularly powerful hug. Granted, My Cardboard Life isn't as tightly scripted as some other gag-a-day strips, but it's great fun to watch Rice play with her chosen media.

[My Cardboard Life]

Monday, May 17, 2010

Max Overacts -- and It's Just Right

If given a choice between gag-a-day and narrative comics, I'll choose narrative comics almost every time. Narrative comics are my brain crack; I become invested in a series of characters, and I want to find out what they're going to do next. Gag-a-days are amusing diversions; they require constant innovation and a strong sense of comic time, but it's rare that I open my RSS reader itching to see what the writers have come up with this time.

There are exceptions, of course -- KC Green's Gunshow, Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant. And now it looks like I'll have to add Max Overacts, by Celadore creator Canaan Grall, to the list.

Grall formatted Max Overacts for Zuda, and each page reads like a traditional Sunday comic. And Max Overacts has a definite newspaper feel. Robot 6 described it as having "a touch of Calvin and Hobbes," but it never feels like Grall is trying to ape Bill Watterson. The titular Max is, like Calvin, a hyperactive, highly imaginative child who's not fully understood by the adults (or other children, for that matter) in his life. But he's a different breed of hyperactive kiddo. Max is an innate thespian, someone who finds the drama in every situation and milks it for everything it's worth. Missionaries at the door? Max pretends to be his father and scolds them for interrupting his busy day. Boring homework assignment? It's made more interesting (if less accurate) with the help of his dummy Curio. Ignored by a cute girl? He'll turn lunch in the cafeteria into a romantic encounter. And you don't want to make him the banker in Monopoly. This isn't a comic that depends on punchlines; each panel is stuffed with wonderful fun.

Really, Max is the kind of kid I wish I had been -- someone who makes life a lot more interesting. At least we get to spend a little time with him through the online funny pages.

Max Overacts [Occasional Comics via Robot 6]

Friday, May 14, 2010

Want to Start a Webcomic? Here's Your Checklist.

So it turns out that there's more to launching a webcomic than drive and talent. There's also the pesky matter of registering a domain name, securing hosting, and -- oh yeah -- having an idea. Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content has written a step-by-step guide to starting a webcomic, focusing largely on practical points like building a website, choosing an update schedule, and connecting with other creators. It's good to see him note, however, that luck still plays a huge role in whether a comic ultimately finds a sizable audience.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rene Engstrom Returns with a Long-Distance Diary

Some of my favorite diary comics are the ones that read like letters to friends. I adore travelogues like Lucy Knisley's French Milk that have that small narrative component, but also suss out those little details you really want to share with the people you love best.

And if you're a cartoonist whose most favorite person lives far away? If you're Rene Engstrom, of the recently completed Anders Loves Maria, you make a diary comic of the things you want him to see -- including the time you spent missing him. If you're Rasmus Gran, Swedish illustrator and comic artist, you do the same (just with different gender pronouns).

That's the idea behind So Far Away, Engstrom and Gran's weekly joint endeavor. Gran lives in Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden, which sits at the Southern tip of the country. Engstrom lives in Östersund, the "Winter City" far to the North. Each Tuesday, Gran and Engstrom each plan to post a diary comic. We'll get a peek at Gran's week and a peek at Engstrom's, with the comics sitting side-by-side.

The first comic is set on a day when Gran travels to visit Engstrom (highlighting the long journey to Östersund by train), and I assume next week's will focus their time together. But a project like this has the potential to become something profound, an Internet Age love letter where the rest of us are invited to watch.

[So Far Away]

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dracula Takes a Bite Out of Camelot

Dracula gets around.

He's journey to the Old West and battled Billy the Kid. He's terrorized both Gotham City and Sunnydale. He's had close encounters with Frankenstein's Monster, Blade, Solomon Kane, and Abbot and Costello. He has bedded Queen Victoria and been hunted by the Vatican. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that Dracula is the most promiscuous character in Western Literature.

Adam Beranek, Christian Beranek, and artist Chris Moreno have added one more notch to Dracula's literary bedpost with Dracula vs. King Arthur. Dracula vs. King Arthur was originally published in 2005 by Silent Devil, but now it's being released page-by-page online.

Why pit the Prince of Darkness against the Once and Future King? Well the latter is England's greatest legendary hero, the former one of its most fearsome villains. But it's not England that the brothers Beranek use to connect the fictional foes. It's God.

I'm a sucker for good pulp, so I was a little disappointed to see that Dracula vs. King Arthur is played pretty straight. But if they're going to play it straight, at least the Beraneks have cooked up a good story. They paint both King Arthur and Vlad Tepes as rulers trying to defend their kingdoms in the service of God. Arthur defends England through virtue and chivalry, while Tepes defends Wallachia through brutal violence. But after years of waging war against the Turks, Tepes is in crisis. His wife has killed herself and his brother has allied with the Turks to finally wrest Wallachia from Tepes' grasp. His only hope is for God to give him his ultimate reward.

But one night, a vaguely Lovecraftian Lucifer summons the Impaler and tells him that his service to God was all for naught. Vlad may get to chill out in Heaven, but his bride is doomed to spend eternity writhing in Hell. Lucifer makes Vlad an offer: get back at God by going back in time and spanking his golden boy Arthur. After all, God gave Arthur all that he didn't give Vlad: prosperity, loyal friends, and a happy wife. There's just one catch: in order to defeat Arthur, Tepes must become a monster, namely a vampire.

Since Dracula vs. King Arthur is set mainly in Camelot, most of the pages currently up focus on the legend of King Arthur -- the search for the Holy Grail, the tragic romance of Guinevere and Lancelot, Morgana's schemes for the throne. I just hope that the comic makes equally good use of Dracula as a character. Given that Camelot is already a fantasy setting, adding vampires isn't much of a hook. But a genuine mash-up of the stories of Arthur and Dracula, that could be interesting.

[Dracula vs. King Arthur]

The Web Comics App Aftermath

Guys, this is a long post, and I'm seriously channeling my inner law student. If you don't care about the Web Comics app debacle or intellectual property law, just skip it. If you care to listen to me wax on about copyright and RSS feeds, hit the jump. [More]

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Don't Worry, the Web Comics App Isn't Worth Your $1.99 Anyway

There's a bit of noise on Twitter today about the Web Comics app that showed up on App Shopper yesterday. The app is basically a limited RSS reader that lets you view certain webcomics (plus Failblog, I Can Haz Cheezburger, et al.) on your mobile device. Mind you, you can't read the comics in their entirety -- you just get whatever the feed sends you.

So why are the tweeters up in arms? Well, the app costs $1.99, and the creator, one Dale Zak, didn't ask the creators for permission to include their comics.

Okay, putting my lawdork hat on for a second, I suspect that what Zak has done isn't actually illegal. After all, the application is essentially a stripped-down RSS reader, and there are plenty of paid RSS readers lurking around the iTunes store. But I get why some creators are angry: this app comes preloaded with a specific set of RSS feeds and it looks (to some eyes) suspiciously like he's charging for access to what the creators give away for free.

But here's the thing: the app just isn't any good. In the name of science and webcomics blogging, I actually shelled out for the app (yes, hurl your tomatoes this way). If Zak had bothered to work with the creators, he might have actually been able to make an especially useful webcomics app, but as is, it's just a crappy RSS reader. Good comics apps recognize that the iPod/iPhone screen is roughly the size of a panel, and use that to their advantage. The Web Comics app isn't smart enough to know what you're looking at or how big it is. You can zoom in and out (on a certain setting), but it's no better than any other RSS reader. On top of that, there's a problem with the pagination, the key that lets you flip from one comic to the next. You can flip through pages queued up for a single comic, but if you want to start reading another comic, you have to go back to the menu and select another comic rather than simply flipping to the next one in your queue.

What's especially baffling is that Zak included some comics (like Eerie Cuties) that don't include images in their RSS feed. So, when you try to open the comic, you see nothing except maybe the title and the date. He failed to include an in-application browser (the one spot where he could run into legal trouble), which is something other mobile RSS readers include. Sure, you can open the comic in Safari, but then what's the point of using a special app?

If you want to read webcomics on your iPod/iPhone/iPad/iWhatever, I'd recommend sticking with the free MobileRSS application. That way, you can load up whatever comics you want, and read them in the in-application browser far more quickly and efficiently than with the Web Comics app.

Note: During the composition of this post, Dale Zak decided to offer the app for free. It's still a pretty crummy app, but now it's probably no more ethically dubious than reading comics on your RSS reader.

Second Note: Due to a tidal wave of negative tweets, Zak has (very apologetically) removed the Web Comics app entirely. I do believe that the accusations of theft were a bit overblown, but I also suspect that a sophisticated webcomics app will be, by necessity, opt-in. I just hope this experience spurs some webcomics creators to work with developers to create applications rather than scaring them off the idea.

El Santo Takes on the Digital Eisners

Want to get caught up on this year's Digital Eisner nominees? El Santo over at The Webcomic Overlook (my go-to webcomic review site) has reviewed each of the nominees for Best Digital Comic, and has just posted his round-up. El Santo has not only reviewed the nominated comics, he's also weighed them on the Sugarshock-o-meter (named for Joss Whedon's Eisner Award-winning digital comic) to gauge how likely they are to win. [The Webcomic Overlook]

Monday, May 10, 2010

The (Small) Business of Webcomics

I'm not sure if there's anything new in this article from AOL's Small Business page, but I can never read enough about how creators make their money. The article features Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, Brad Guiger of Evil Inc., and Chris Onstad of Achewood.

A warning, though, to aspiring creators who see visions of dollar signs after reading Inman's portion of the interview:

"The first month, [The Oatmeal] got around 200,000 people, and from 200,000 people, I thought I could make a living," says Inman. However, after only 50 people bought his self-published book. "I decided I was either gonna go back to my old job, making websites for people, or I was gonna go crazy with The Oatmeal and produce more comics. I started churning out comics like mad. Traffic went up, and sales went way up."
The Oatmeal is one of the more nakedly commercial webcomics endeavors out there. There's nothing wrong with that, but folks looking to write narrative comics aren't going to see traffic numbers like that, at least not for a long while. For most comics, the comic comes first and the business comes second. The Oatmeal is primarily a business that happens to use comics to sell merch and win freelance gigs.

Webcomic Artists Making a Living with Their Creativity [AOL Small Business via Evil Inc.]

Webcomics Are a Real Mother

Wonderella definitely wins the prize for best Mother's Day comic this year, although the competition wasn't exactly stiff. Maybe it's because this was TCAF weekend, but I expected that some of the gag-a-day comics would chime in with some mom-themed content. Come on, guys -- don't you care enough about your moms to mock them?

This got me thinking, naturally, about mothers in webcomics. I love characters like Mrs. Ning in Octopus Pie, Anja Donlan from Gunnerkrigg Court, the elder Dr. Helen Narbon in Narbonic, and, of course, Wonderella I from The Non-Adventures of Wonderella. In Evil Inc., it's key that the supervillain Miss Match is a mother; after all, it makes her secret marriage to the heroic Captain Heroic all the more dangerous. In Something Positive, Davan MacIntyre's mom Faye figured into one of the most heart-wrenching moments in webcomics. And there are moms aplenty in the diary comics. Shazzbaa lives with her mom, who seems like a wonderfully bubbly and supportive person, and these days, most of American Elf focuses on James Kochalka's family life, including his ever-patient wife Amy.

But I've been racking my brain, and so far I can only think of two webcomics whose central character are mothers: Gastrophobia (mentioned earlier) and Zahra's Paradise (also mentioned earlier). The former, a screwy Greek fantasy, follows Phobia, an exiled Amazon warrior, and her precocious son Gastro. Phobia is, granted, a flawed character -- she has a nasty temper and isn't quite as awesome as she claims to be -- but she's defined largely by her motherhood and her warrior nature. In fact, in the most recent arc, David McGuire reveals that becoming Gastro's mother is, for lack of a better term, Phobia's origin story.

Although Zahra's Paradise is narrated by one of the title character's sons, Zahra is really the star. The Iranian woman launches a desperate search for her other son, who has disappeared following the protests in Tehran. It's a comic about Iran, its political climate, the dangers of running afoul of its government, but it's also about a mother's anguish and determination.

There are other webcomics that are peripheral to motherhood -- one half of the Anders Loves Maria duo is pregnant, and Velia, Dear (newly launched by Six Chix artist Rina Piccolo) involves a woman moving home to care for her ailing mother -- but these aren't comics about the experience of motherhood. I suppose I'm a bit surprised to come to this realization, if only because webcomics tend to cover such a wide variety of subjects. I'm far more surprised that, given the rise of mommy blogging, that we haven't seen a similar spike in diary comics chronicling motherhood.

Any other good webcomics out there starring moms? Or is this one of those topics dominated by syndicated comics?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Further Proof of the Transmission X Conspiracy

This weekend is the Toronto Comic Art Festival, so much of the webcomics world is taking a mid-season hiatus. But for the Transmission X webcomics collective, TCAF is simply the next step in their master plan to take over the world -- or at least take your money.

When Karl Kerschl started taking preorders for his gorgeous The Abominable Charles Christopher book, I first began to suspect the Transmission X conspiracy. Now I'm convinced.

Cameron Stewart, comic artist extraordinaire and creator of the Eisner-nominated Sin Titulo, is debuting a new sketchbook at TCAF. The book "Too Cartoony" will be available to the rest of us comic-consuming masses after the weekend for $15 ($25 with a sketch) at the Transmission X store.

Damn you, Transmission X and your wallet-emptying talent.

Too Cartoony - Sketchbook 2010 []

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lessons from Goats

"I've Made a Huge Mistake."

That's the title of Jonathan Rosenberg's latest blog post. Rosenberg is the creator of Goats, one of the most venerable of the venerable old webcomics. Goats launched in 1997, a time when I when I was using the Internet primarily to play video games on AOL. In 2006, Rosenberg was able to start living off of Goats and became a full-time cartoonist. Now, after 13 years of multiversal misadventures, Rosenberg is lamenting his wasted time.

So what happened? Well, Rosenberg has reached a point where Goats can no longer support his family in the manner to which they've become accustomed (which is to say, providing his children with such luxuries as food, shelter, and medical care), which he suspects has something to do with the strip's epic format:

Goats is thirteen years old. Since 2003, I've been working on a single epic storyline meant to culminate at the end of 2012, at which point Goats would toddle off into the sunset and I would start my next comic. Easy, right?

It is becoming apparent that this approach isn't viable. While I'm happy with what I've done creatively, the webcomics medium rewards quick, easy updates with traffic. Long, continuity-filled stories like Goats that take a long time between updates tend to stagnate, although there are certainly folks more talented than I who can pull off this difficult feat.
The Internet is still, in many ways, the Wild West for content creators, and Rosenberg was one of the first cartoonists to plant his stake. In 1997, creators were trying to share their comics with the world, and maybe build a following. They probably weren't thinking about what their business models would look like in 2010. And they probably wouldn't have anticipated the reddit and Digg culture that drives eyeballs toward gag-a-day strips like Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and xkcd over long-form comics. Some folks, like Scott Kurtz of PvP, have been able to innovate through the Internet's environmental changes, but it's a lot harder if you're looking to tell a single story over the course of 15 years.

And then there's the question of whether webcomicking is a young (or at least childless) person's game. Rosenberg notes that if he were unattached, he'd "would hunker down, buy some ramen and just tough it out."

But this is also also a sobering reminder that readers need to actively participate in the webcomics ecosystem. With a few exceptions, donating to creators and buying merch are optional. Creators are putting out their work for free, and if you can't afford to give something back monetarily, that's totally fine. But do wear your webcomics heart on your sleeve. Tell other people what comics you enjoy. If you use Twitter or Facebook, don't forget to share your favorite pages and story arcs. And when you're doing your gift shopping or making out wishlists, don't forget to check out your favorite creators' shops. Plenty of folks put out awesome t-shirts that can be appreciated by webcomics readers and non-readers alike.

If reading Rosenberg's missive inspires you to spend your dollars on Goats merchandise, that's great. Check out his TopatoCo store, consider buying his books, grabbing a Squid vs. Wienermobile t-shirt, or picking up some Republicans for Voldemort bumper stickers. But don't forget to support the other creators who have kept you entertained for free.

Incidentally, for the "hunker down and eat ramen" set, Templar, Arizona's Spike is working on Poorcraft, a starving artist's guide to the frugal like in comic book form.

I've Made a Huge Mistake [Goats via Fleen]

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What Is Your Diary Comic About?

A few weeks ago, I finally got myself a good old fashioned library card and got to work abusing the interlibrary loan system. It's been a great opportunity to catch up on my print comics (an area where I'm woefully underdeveloped), and how Ariel Schrag has walked into my reading life.

Ariel Schrag is a famous (and I suppose, if you went to high school with her, infamous) writer of autobiographical comics. Following each year of high school, Schrag made a comic detailing her experiences: Awkward and Definition detail freshman and sophomore years, Potential junior year, and Likewise senior year. What's remarkable about the books isn't just their much-touted frankness about sex and drugs, but how cohesive each volume feels. These could have easily been a series of random adventures, but they're not. They feature arcs on Schrag's evolving sexual identity, her romantic and platonic relationships, her parents' crumbling marriage, her personal academic quests, and how the comic comes to dominate her thoughts and interactions. Sure, it sometimes goes in frustrating directions (a great deal of Ariel's high school life revolves around Sally, her obviously straight sometimes-girlfriend), but there's always the sense that you're skimming the cream off the top of someone's high school experience, drinking in the most emotionally potent moments of those years.

I've found myself reading a lot of autobiographical and diary comics lately. I am now an official devotee of Julia Wertz's The Fart Party, and finally read Jeffrey Brown's Clumsy, Lucy Knisley's French Milk, and Craig Thompson's Carnet de Voyage (I'm told I'm a little behind the times). In addition to my daily diet of American Elf and Ellerbisms, I've added Adam Cadwell's The Everyday (soon to be ended) and Shazzbaa Bennett's Today Nothing Happened. And, of course there's Jeffrey Rowland's Overcompensating, if you consider that autobiography and not unrestrained lunacy based on some distant fact. I still get a little choked up when I remember DAR! stopped running.

One of my favorite new entries in the autobio comics ring is Stop Paying Attention, a series of graphic essays by Lucy Knisley. If you missed French Milk, you might know Knisley from the Doctor Octopus story she did for Marvel's Girl Comics. Knisley has a remarkable talent for visual language, and Stop Paying Attention is a wonderful showcase (I especially love the piece on her imminent breakup).

I rather hope that Knisley takes some time to experiment with her content. Essay-writing can easily lend itself to gross abstraction and navel-gazing, and it's nice to see that Knisley's last few comics have been so grounded.

But so many autobiographical demand some sort of a narrative, or else they risk become a mere exercise, something that may be of great value to the artist, but won't really connect with a readership. Although I've long subscribed to The Everyday, it's more what I would consider a "portfolio comic." Adam Cadwell is obviously a gifted artist -- his drawings are precise, expressive, and awesomely detailed. But there's no story to it, no evolution of its protagonist/author. We don't even get much of a sense of Adam himself. Cadwell recently announced that he'll be ending The Everyday at strip #200 to work on longer form stories. I can't say I'm unhappy to see it go if we finally get to see Cadwell's pretty pictures in context.

But what gives a diary comic that sense of structure? Are writers obligated to find the plot in their own lives? The Everyday's companion comic (brother comic? best friend who buys you chocolate biscuits comic?) is Ellerbisms, a comic I've written about a couple of times. Ellerbisms began in more of a portfolio comic mode, but became more rooted as a relationship blossomed between creator Marc Ellerby and his girlfriend Anna. Not every comic is about Anna and Ellerby has never spelled out the progression of their relationship, but it gave the comic a sense of identity that it previously lacked.

On the other hand, an underlying theme isn't essential. James Kochalka has said that his quest in making American Elf is to capture the rhythm of life, something he attempts in the span of a single square each day. Remarkably, it works; through that series of colorful squares, we get a watercolory sense of Kochalka's daily life. We see his temper tantrums, his intimate moments. We're watching his kids grow up and his bursts of strange creative energy. Yes, we get flashes of big deal life stuff -- his wife's miscarriage, concern over a friend's drinking -- but they never form the backbone of the comic. Instead, reading American Elf, one gets the sense that they are being wrapped up in Kochalka's magical view of his own life.

The comic that got me thinking about this -- about whether diary comics need to be about something in particular -- is Shazzbaa Bennett's Today Nothing Happened. I read an ArtPatient review of TNH a while back, and it's been in my reader ever since. Shazzbaa is one of those infuriating people who makes energetic cartooning look effortless, an TNH has a lot to recommend it: a consistent aesthetic, a strong cast of characters, a solid sense of timing, and a set of recurring themes.

Shazzbaa was a sequential art major at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and she started TNH as a class assignment. It follows that much of TNH chronicles the events in the life of a SCAD student. Shazzbaa takes a game design class. She fights with the 3D rendering software. She pulls all-nighters to finish her thumbnailing assignment. To someone who never attended art school, it's pretty fascinating stuff. Of course, art school doesn't dominate every strip; there are plenty of D&D sessions and meals with friends. But "the adventures of a SCAD sequential art student" provided a nice anchor for the comic.

Then Shazzbaa graduated. TNH continued to be a very well-done comic of amusing individual pages. Shazzbaa learning how to drive. Shazzbaa going shopping with her mom. Shazzbaa visiting friends. Shazzbaa still playing the D&D. But for a while, I couldn't help but feel that something was missing. Here Shazzbaa had been this rocking art student -- so what happens next? Where does her career go from here? I was relieved to at long last see the latest TNH development: Shazzbaa looks for a day job. I just hope we'll get more peeks into her artistic job stuff as well. It may seem crass to reduce someone's life to plot arcs and narrative threads, but for a young cartoonist living at home in a down economy, day jobs and the career path ahead are a big part of life. It seems odd not to see them on the page.

But the best thing about the comics that work is how much they don't feel like performance art. For all of Shazzbaa's wonderful energy, you never get the sense that she's putting on a show. In The Fart Party, Julia Wertz creates a character around herself, but she isn't afraid to reveal her vulnerabilities and her dorkier private moments. And the love story we see in Ellerbisms seems to stem from nothing more than Ellerby's affection for Anna and his desire to share that portion of his life. Diary and autobio comics entertain and offer insight into the creators' lives, but it would be depressing if they depicted the adventures of a series of dancing monkeys.

Overcompensating, of course, gets a pass on that front.

Monday, May 3, 2010

My Favorite Free Comic Book Day Acquisition

So, I think this is kind of awesome.

This was my first Free Comic Book Day in San Francisco, so I was especially excited to partake over at Isotope, my current comic shop of choice. As it turned out, Isotope didn't just have free comics; it also had Basie.

Basie is a nine-year-old comic book creator who sells his photocopied comics Masked Mutant at Isotope (and perhaps at other shops as well). Every Free Comic Book Day, owner James Sime invites Basie to set up in Isotope and draw sketches for the free comic-seeking masses -- a very cool way to encourage a young aspiring creator.

Basie was kind enough to do a sketch of Atomic Robo for me, right down to his cargo pants. I'm saving this one for the day that you're famous, kiddo.

[Masked Mutant]

Octobriana: From Russia, With Love

In 1971, Petr Sadecky published the book Octobriana and the Russian Underground. The book claimed to detail the actions of a group of dissident artists called Progressive Political Pornography operating in the Soviet Union. According to Sadecky, the PPP created a series of comics featuring the heroic Octobriana, a sort of Russian Barbarella, who would fight for the Russian people (and "true communist values") against an oppressive Stalinist government. She oozed Western sexuality with her Brigitte Bardot figure and her mane of blond hair, apparently in direct conflict to Soviet sexual mores. And she rocked the world's tiniest bandeau as she battled such foes as the giant radioactive walrus.

It's a cool story. Unfortunately, it's probably a load of horse hooey. Signs point toward Sadecky as the true creator of Octobriana. He allegedly contracted a pair of Czech artists to create comics around a character named "Amazonia," then absconded to the UK with their artwork. He added a red star to Amazonia's forehead, rewrote the text, and thus Octobriana was born.

But as a character, Octobriana proved more powerful than Sadecky's hoax. Sadecky claimed that the PPP created Octobriana to be a character who belonged to no one, and therefore to everyone, and she turned out to be just that. She was never copyrighted, and a host of other artists have used her both in comics and in film as a savage socialist superheroine.

Now Poseur Ink is putting out a fresh Octobriana story, this one with a more mystical spin. Writer Steve Orlando has created a new back story for the Russian beauty. In this version, Octobriana is a newborn goddess of passion, cursed by her first lover to walk the mortal world until she earns her godhood through seven labors. Each labor must prove that she understands humanity. She still has her trademark blond hair, her voluptuous figure, and that leopard's tail tied in her hair, but this Octobriana's very being is in direct opposition to the version of Russia where she finds herself. Where the regime desires sex for procreation, she encourages the passion of lovers. Where the regime is atheistic, she is divine. Where the regime seeks scientific weapons, she counters with mysticism. All this comes into play when Liuba -- a captive telepath based on a supposed "real life" Soviet telepath -- unleashes a powerful plague on Russia, one that causes the orgasmic to try and kill their lovers.

Poseur Ink was kind enough to give me a peak at the first issue of Octobriana: The Case of the Contagious Brain, and I'll admit that I'm intrigued. Government-held superbeings and secret sex parties are a nice way to start off a story, and the interior cover, showing Octobriana's friend and lover Misha gripping the legs of a battle-ready Octobriana, suggests an inversion of certain pulp tropes. And it will interesting to see how Octobriana, who by her nature has an immense capacity for love, goes about kicking butt. Orlando also claims that we'll see some lesser-known aspects of Soviet life throughout the book.

Plus, there's lots of sexy art from Chaz Truog (of Grant Morrison's Animal Man run). Oh, and this is a strictly NSFW book.

If you'd like to help Octobriana get off the ground and into print, Poseur Ink has set up a Kickstarter page to raise funds for the trade paperback. In the meantime, check out The Webcomic Beacon's podcast interview with Orlando and the Octobriana site for a preview of the first issue.

Octobriana [Poseur Ink]