Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Columns from Either End of the Webcomics Career Spectrum

There's that great speech at the end of Ratatouille where the restaurant critic Anton Ego -- who's had his icy heart thawed by a well-executed mesh of eggplants, peppers, and herbes de Provence -- notes that while not everyone can cook, a great chef can be anyone and come from anywhere. That's more or less true about webcomics. The Internet allows unprecedented access to webcomic creators, meaning webcomickers can come from anywhere and webcomics can be about anything. But not just anyone is going to become a successful webcomic creator. Even accounting for different definitions of success, successful webcomicking takes resolve, hard work, luck, and maybe even a smidgen of talent.

Plenty of comickers have have offered blanket advice to aspiring comic creators that can't be dismissed: draw everyday, don't fear failure, connect with other creators. But that's very different from creators actually reflecting on their experiences.

Fortunately, the world wide web has gifted us with two multi-part columns on webcomics: Brad Guigar's "Ten Years of Webcomics" and Sam Costello's "On My Own in Independent Comics." It's worth checking out both as Guiger and Costello are in such different places in their webcomics lives. Guigar, who created Greystone Inn, Evil Inc., Phables, and Courting Disaster, is one of the more venerable forces in webcomics. He's seen the rise and fall of Keenspot, founded Blank Label Comics, written a book on making webcomics, and had his strips published in newspapers.

Costello, by contrast, is a relative newbie to the webcomics scene. Where Greystone Inn and Evil Inc. are both long-form, syndication-style strips, Costello's comic Split Lip is an anthology that's more comic book than comic strip. And, while Split Lip does have two print volumes to its name, Costello is still an amateur in the literal sense of the world. Split Lip doesn't make him any significant amount of money -- in fact, it costs him quite a bit to operate. Perhaps most significantly, unlike most webcomickers, Costello isn't a cartoonist. He scripts the individual stories and hires artists to illustrate them (incidentally, someone will have to explain to me why Argentina has more cartoonists-for-hire per capita than anyplace else).

Guigar's column is, appropriately, more of a reflection on his career in webcomics -- and by extension, the history of webcomics. He talks about working with different webcomics collectives, his decision to try different kinds of comics projects, podcasting, charitable work, and setting up Webcomics.com. Costello's column is geared more directly at his fellow neophyte cartoonists, outlining his personal victories and stumbles, discussing his writing regime, and revealing his bottom line (As I'm learning from personal experience, paying artists per page adds up. Oof.).

I also woke up this morning to see DJ Coffman (Hero By Night, Yirmumah) plugging his ebook Cash for Cartoonists, which promises to teach cartoonists the $ecret$ of making the big bucks. I suppose the fact that I'm familiar with Coffman largely because an acquaintance hired him to draw the pitch pages for her comic says something about his money making powers, but the book costs forty-seven freaking dollars (for an ebook no less!), and his pitch reminds me of all those "make money from home" listings I keep flagging on Craigslist. It's going to take more than a few testimonials to shovel off the pound of salt that comes with those claims.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Morning Reading: Tuesday Moon


A little bit of cuteness for a Tuesday morning: Todd Webb brings us "Tuesday Moon," a short story about a girl named Tuesday who, after a no-good day, has a brief nighttime adventure with the Man in the Moon.

It's a simple, sweet little story -- the perfect antidote to a rough day.

[via reddit]

Monday, August 23, 2010

"The Hunger Games" Fan Comic

I probably read more YA fiction than any person in her late twenties should, and I'm a total sucker for Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy. While my fingers are twitching in anticipation of the third and final volume, now I at least have something to tide me over.

Faith Erin Hicks (artist and author of Zombie Calling and artist for Brain Camp) drew a five-page fan comic of the opening of The Hunger Games. It's presented without text, although it looks like Hicks was working with a script that includes text. And, in just a few pages, she manages to capture the grim depression of the coal town where Katniss Everdeen lives. Folks on Twitter are already calling for Scholastic to hire Hicks for a full-length adaptation. As much as I'd love to see a Hunger Games graphic novel, I wonder if Scholastic would actually go for it. After all, the Hunger Games series centers around an annual Battle Royale-style murder game (minus the panty shots). It's one thing for kiddies to read about teenagers slaughtering one another, and quite another thing to actually watch it unfold. Then again, Lionsgate has already acquired the movie rights, so maybe all bets are off.

The Hunger Games [Faith Erin Hicks via Raina Telgemeier]

Friday, August 20, 2010

Xander Harris Makes a Webcomic

If minor celebrities are jumping on the webcomics bandwagon, does that make webcomics trendy?

I only ask because of yesterday's news from Robot 6 that Nicholas Brendan -- best known for his role as Xander Harris on Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- plans to launch a webcomic called Very Bad Koalas this September. To the best of my knowledge, this makes Brendan the second Buffy alum to write a webcomic; Emma Caulfield, Brendan's on-screen girlfriend, is the wordsmith behind the thinly amusing Contropussy.

What's behind this, I wonder. Two people could hardly be considered a trend (even if they were on the same TV show), but so many celebs (including Tyrese and Rashida Jones) have attached their names to print comics with visions of producer credits dancing in their head. Contropussy and Very Bad Koalas don't seem destined for the big screen, but could these be test drives for animated cable series?

Buffy co-star Nicholas Brendan is launching a webcomic [Robot 6]

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Drinking at the Movies: The Fart Party (Almost) Grows Up

When I moved to San Francisco, several people informed me that I had to start reading The Fart Party. Like a lot of people, I was a bit put off by the title (and it didn't help matters that one of the first pages I read involved Julia Wertz decapitating a guy and then shitting down his neck hole), but I quickly fell in love with Wertz's no-nonsense art style and her foul-mouthed forthrightness. And it wasn't just me; amidst all the flashier comics on my shelves, The Fart Party is most frequently picked up and read by house guests.

There has always been a teasing quality to The Fart Party, however. The books have been, in many ways, a character study of Wertz herself (or at least a study of the person Wertz thinks she is). Although there are snatches of the narrative of her life -- her relationship with her boyfriend Oliver and their subsequent breakup, her drug-addicted her brother, the food service jobs she picks up and quits -- they never quite rose to the level of memoir.

All that changes with Drinking at the Movies, Wertz's full-length, fully reflective graphic memoir. As soon as it opens, we know this is going to be a more dramatic and more thoughtful book than the first two Fart Party volumes. Wertz comes to at 3am the morning after her birthday in a laundromat, wearing her pajamas, eating Cracker Jacks, and wondering if she doesn't have a wee drinking problem. From there, we flash back to several months earlier, when Wertz decides to leave familiar San Francisco for the wilds of Brooklyn.

The book chronicles Wertz's first year in Brooklyn, including coping with her brother's occasional overdoses, changing apartments as often as she changes jobs (which is to say, frequently), downing far too much whiskey, visiting family (and judging them), and being her usual charming self. With all that, Drinking at the Movies could have been a drearily serious work, but it's all done very much in the style of the previous Fart Party books, with the humor knife always pointed squarely at Wertz's own eye. She mocks her tendency to grumble about her brother's latest fall from the wagon while downing six-packs of beer. When she gets herself fired from one of her better jobs, you don't have to slap your palm against your face because she's already done it for you. She still jokes about her misanthropic tendencies and her favorite low-brow forms of entertainment.

But she also captures something magical about being a 20-something urbanite responsible for no one but herself. The title comes from one of Wertz's favorite Brooklyn pastimes; when her apartment gets a bit too crowded, she indulges in boozy late-night trips to the movies, where she revels in being young, foolish, and alone. It's not a lifestyle Wertz can (or should) keep up forever, but it's one that has it's own simple delights.

I've seen Drinking at the Movies described as a coming-of-age story, but Julia isn't quite an adult by the end. It ends at that moment before adulthood, when you start to sense that you need to make changes in your life, when you think you might someday soon become comfortable with yourself, when you find a place that's beginning to feel like home. It's still clear, though, that when Julia finally becomes a grown-up, her adulthood will still have plenty of poop jokes.

Drinking at the Movies will be available August 31st, and you can pre-order it on Amazon.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Art Shows for Sad Children

"We are Sex Bob-Omb and we are here to make you think about death and make you sad and stuff!"

Oh wait, wrong comic.

John Campbell, creator of the consistently depressing (though strangely compelling) Pictures for Sad Children, had an art show. It's not entirely clear where the show was, but you can see the photos on his tumblr.

It'll make you think about art and make you sad and stuff.

low self-esteem makes you worthless [Boo Hoo Hoo via MeFi]

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dinosaur Guest Comics: Wedding Edition

Okay, so I tend to think that guest webcomics are pretty much the best thing since sliced webcomics. But there's something extra special about last week's crop of Dinosaur Comics guest comics. Creator Ryan North got himself married over the weekend, and there were plenty of love-themed guest comics throughout the week.

Some of the guest comickers use their own characters and styles, but other reinterpret North's own brand of clip art haiku. If you don't already read Dinosaur Comics, check out the fabulous guest strips from John Allison (Bad Machinery), David Malki! (Wondermark), Anthony Clark (Nedroid), Joel Watson (HijiNKS Ensue), Jeph Jacques (Questionable Content), Wes & Tony (Amazing Superpowers), Sam Logan (Sam and Fuzzy), Zach Weiner (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal), Jeff Rowland (Overcompensating), and Michael Firman (Moe).

Friday, August 13, 2010

Webcomics to Print: Shi Long Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk

I have a lot of respect for people who write historical fiction.

I have even more respect for people who so thoroughly internalize their research that they're able to make their books funny. And let's face it, a history lesson goes down better with a scoop of honeyed humor.

Shi Long Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk (shortened in print form to Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk) is set in 1675 China, a time when the newly established Qing Dynasty was battling revolts in its provinces and the famed Shaolin Monastery may have been destroyed. It's an era of political and social upheaval, one that Western audiences aren't intimately familiar with, and yet Ben Costa manages to make his book fun.

Shi Long Pang is, as the title says, a Shaolin monk who has escaped the violent destruction of his temple. He has wandered into a walled city -- with little understanding of current events -- in hopes of finding his fellow Shaolin brothers. After being taken in by a kindly innkeeper, Pang befriends the man's lovely daughter and, like Aeneas in Carthage, relates the tragedy that brought him to this point.


I've always heard that Shi Long Pang was supposed to be a great comic, but the handful of times I've attempted to read it online, I've never gotten very far. Reading the print volume, I finally understood why. The first 50 pages are dense, packed with information on the Three Feudatories War and Wu Sangui, the former Qing general who will later try to crown himself emperor of China. It certainly reads well on the page, but it just isn't suited to my often ADD webcomic reading.

But it's that attention to historical detail that makes Pang such a rich read. The early infodump is a bit overwhelming, but it's clear those bits of historical knowledge will be important down the line. And Pang, who's spent his life cloistered in the monastery, needs to understand the war that's going on just as he needs to feel that first stirring in his loins at the sight of the innkeeper's niece. And once we've gotten a handle on the larger political situation in China, Costa settles into a much more balanced blend of the historical and the fictional, tempered by his witty use of comic captions and some bona fide jokes, which manage to be funny even when they require footnotes.

Of course, if it's action you're after, Pang has that payoff in spades:

The bumbling protagonist is a very difficult character to pull off. Is he selectively competent? Lucky? Does his heart of gold trump any adversity he faces? Costa has solved this by making Pang a devout and competent monk, but a not-entirely-on-the-ball human being. Yes, Pang is sometimes guided more firmly by his stomach than his brain; he's naive and inexperienced in the ways of the world; he fails to understand how standing up for truth, justice, and the Shaolin Way can result in harm to innocent people. But he's steadfast and trustworthy (if not always reliable), and his wushu is a pretty powerful life skill. Pang isn't a bumbler so much as he is an incomplete person, a relative child waiting to be formed by his experiences in the world. Perhaps that's why Costa renders him so simply; unlike the rest of the characters, Pang has no nose, no ears, and no chin to speak of. He has just enough facial features to register his emotions.

Costa has just printed the first volume of Pang with the aid of a Xeric Grant, and it's a wonderfully complete opening volume. In addition to the historical state of the union and Pang's backstory, our hero manages to have a complete story of his own in what is clearly just the beginning of a larger epic.

[Shi Long Pang]
Order Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk, Volume 1

Disclosure: I've asked Ben Costa if he would contribute to a project I'm working on, and he has agreed to consider it. I have tried not to allow that to influence my review.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Jess Fink is a Five-Year-Old

Jess Fink, she of the fabulously NSFW Chester 5000 XYV (Robots and corsets and foursomes, oh my!) and the Picard-loving Star Trek: TNG review comics, has launched a brand spanking new webcomic. There's only one entry up over at Kid With Experience, but it looks like an autobiographical comic, probably with an emphasis on Fink's little kid nature.

There's not much to say about it so far, but this one gets an automatic add into the RSS reader. I heart Jess Fink, and I'm always a sucker for a good autobio comic.

Kid With Experience [Jess Fink]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ctrl+Alt+Del: The Liveblog Review

So I have a confession to make: I've never read Ctrl+Alt+Del. It probably makes me a bad webcomic fan, but there are a good chunk of venerable old webcomics I've never dived into, and I don't read a lot of gamer comics. I'm aware that the comic doesn't have a great reputation and that it's particularly loathed for its miscarriage plotline, but I never know if that's genuine criticism or just compulsory Internet hate.

Fortunately, El Santo at The Webcomic Overlook isn't one for bashing on comics without cause. This week, he decided to take on Ctrl+Alt+Del and find out if it's as bad as so many people claim. He liveblogged his impressions of his CAD archive binge with pretty hilarious results -- although he's fair enough to examine why the comic remains so popular. Part one reviews CAD before its Big Dramatic Moment, and part two reviews the strips that come later.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lucy Knisley and Erika Moen's In-Comic Conversation


Once upon a time, a pair of queer, female autobiographical cartoonists decided to have a conversation -- not a chat on the phone, not passing messages over email, but a conversation tucked neatly into the four walls of a comic panel. Erika Moen and Lucy Knisley decided to attempt a collaborative comic with a simple premise: the two take turns drawing and writing an intimate conversation about comics, sex, and identity politics. One artist would draw half a panel, then pass it on to the other, who would finish the panel and then start the next. The result is Drawn to You, a rambling, unscripted dialogue that sets Moen's thick, energetic lines against Knisley's careful, fine ones.

If you're like me, and you already love Moen and Knisley and you enjoy getting a little inside baseball on the comic-making process, Drawn to You is a delightful way to spend an hour. The pair talk about their anxieties around making comics (Is cartooning an innately selfish career? Why does representing one member of a particular group always seem to infuriate other members of the same group?), their sexual identities (both were, at the time, in long-term relationships with men but have dated women in the past), and the artistic perils of being a girl cartoonist (Moen worries that her fart humor, stripper-ogling comics garner so much acclaim because she's female; Knisley flinches at the stigma of being called "cute"). For those not already familiar with their work, Drawn to You might not be the best place to start, although it would be an interesting teaser (although it might send people running for Erika's mini comics or Lucy's art school anthology).

My one complaint about Drawn to You: I'd like it to be about ten times longer and organized by topic. As it stands, Drawn to You feels like the graphic version of a podcast, with two creators interviewing each other and shooting the shit. If Moen and Knisley were to continue it as a series (either with each other cartoonists), this book would stand as a stronger single entry.

Drawn to You [Erika Moen's Totally Awesome Goods]

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Webcomics to Print: Split Lip, Vol. 2

So there's that old yarn about the babysitter. You know the one. She's just put the kids to bed when she starts receiving unnerving phone calls -- heavy breathing, maybe a scratchy voice on the other end, maybe he tells her to check the children. The babysitter hangs up and tries to ignore the calls, but the caller becomes more and more persistent until fed up, she calls the operator to find out who keeps calling.

After a minute, the operator tells her to get out of the house as fast as she can. The calls are coming from inside the house.

Now, sure, there are versions of the story that extend beyond that. There are versions where the babysitter successfully fends off the stranger in the house. There are versions where it's just the children or their father playing a prank. There are versions where the stranger slaughters everyone in the house. But in my memory, the story ends right there, when the babysitter learns the disturbing truth about her evening.

Those are the sorts of stories that dominate the second volume of Sam Costello's horror anthology Split Lip -- stories that end at the moment of the terrible revelation. A knife flashes, a monster is pulled from the shadows, and the story ends. These are atmospheric tales rather than narrative ones, stories made to unsettle and chill.

For those unfamiliar with Split Lip, Costello writes all of the stories, then has a different cartoonist illustrate each one. This allows him to match different scripts with radically different art styles. The Lovecraft-inspired "On the Plateau" looks like a pulp, while tenement terror "The Harvestmen" is appropriately sketchy and grim. Costello has a real knack for matching artists with his tales, and in Volume Two, they're especially up to the task.

Although the art here is strong, the stories don't quite hold up to Split Lip, Volume One. Volume One had the brilliant look left, throw right "Straw Men," the chillingly lovely "Mujer," the simple but effective "Headin' South." There are a couple of gems in Volume Two, notably "Face Blind" -- perhaps Costello's most visually striking piece -- and "Bad Radio," whose scary-because-it-could-be-true plot finds its perfect mate in Nelson Evergreen's realistic watercolors. But the longer, more narrative pieces, like Paris-based mystical mystery "Se Perdre" and Rapture-themed "Ashes to Ashes," are short on texture, and ultimately forgettable against the shorter stories. But overall, it's pure Split Lip spirit: a neat mix of horror subgenres that borrows from the classics while coming up with plenty of ideas of its own.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that there's a blurb written by me on the back cover. It's from a piece on horror webcomics I wrote a while back, and it's a mostly descriptive line. For the record, Costello never asked me to endorse Split Lip (I'm told courtesy is to ask permission to include use a blurb, but I can't say I minded), he only requested my (impartial) review.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How to End a Webcomic

So, webcomics are just dropping like flies lately. DAR bowed out back in December. The Everyday and Ellerbisms are jointly closing up shop. And now Box Brown has announced that he will be ending Bellen! in favor of his latest comic project Everything Dies.

I say good riddance.

Don't get me wrong. These are all comics I very much enjoy. But I think the fact that creators of relatively successful webcomics are comfortable with the idea of completing their comics and moving on to the next project is a very positive thing in the evolution of webcomics. As great as it is when soapy comfort food like Questionable Content can celebrate its seventh anniversary, it's even more exciting to see what my favorite artists will come up with next. Plus, if creators find they have more stories to tell from their shuttered comics, they can always pick up the thread again (as T Campbell did a while back with Fans!). It's webcomics emulating print comics in a happy way.

Of course, once a creator has decided to sign off, there's the business of actually ending their comic. A comic with distinct plot arcs and character developments can tie up some loose ends or Six Feet Under its way into the future. With DAR, Erika Moen gave a sort of recap of her life while making DAR and touched on her sexual and occupational identity. But what about a comic like Bellen!, which isn't precisely a diary comic, and is much closer to a gag-a-day than a narrative comic?

Box Brown has decided to do something very interesting. He has turned the last few pages of into something of an autobiographical comic, but one that specifically explains Bellen!'s origin story. Delight as insomniac Brown conceives of his webcomic! Thrill as he posts the first panels on his LiveJournal!

No, seriously, go read it. The line between reality and fiction has always been a bit fuzzy in Bellen! and it's a treat to see Brown pull back the curtain before taking his final Bellen! bow.

Bringing It All Back Home [BoxBrown.com]