Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Quantum Vibe," "Escape from Terra," and the Future of Hats


For the past several months, I've been spotlighting speculative fiction webcomics over at io9. The genre limitation can be frustrating at times -- there are so many non-genre comics that I'd love to share to with io9's readers -- but it happily forces me to keep casting my webcomic net ever wider.

One of the comics I came across that I might not have read otherwise was Scott Bieser's Quantum Vibe, a far-future comic about a young woman who takes a job with a surly but brilliant scientist, a job that takes her out of the stagnant familiarity of her orbital city and into the larger solar system. I like Quantum Vibe because it just feels to me like a futuristic sci-fi should: filled with visual details that give us a sense of the denizens of the future without too much explanation; packed with ideas, but not overly in love with any of them; and aware that life in the future might be radically different, but people will be the same.

The commenters pointed out a couple of things about Quantum Vibe: 1) the publisher, Big Head Press, is a libertarian comics collective (which had some folks dismissing their comics as distant cousins of Atlas Shrugged) and 2) Big Head has another ongoing comic, which I must read, called Escape From Terra.

So I've finally been reading Escape From Terra. Quantum Vibe may well be an individualist comic (and interviews with Bieser about Big Head would point to yes), but where Vibe is a science fiction comic with a probable libertarian bent, Terra is a anarcho-capitalist cowboy polemic set in space.

Remember those old episodes of Star Trek, where the Enterprise would visit a planet that was completely populated by gangsters or Nazis or Roman gods? TV Tropes has a handy term for that, a "Planet of Hats." Well, Escape From Terra is a Future of Hats, a time when the solar system can be broken down into government fascists and benevolent frontier anarchists. It opens with two Terran agents of the United World Revenue Service, a corrupt arm of a corrupt Terran-based government. The UWRS sends Guy Caillard and Stellina Fiorella to Ceres, the dwarf planet of  the asteroid belt, to bring it under the UW's heel (and bring its considerable wealth into the UW's coffers). After being feed anti-capitalist propaganda all their lives, the agents find the Belters' adamant refusal of government and emphasis on capitalist work and self-reliance has left them productive and fulfilled. Ceres is a place of no poverty and little crime. It's not your Randian Objectivist worldview, mind you. Terra is pro-religion (in fact, only it's the government stooges who hate religion) and the Belters believe in charity and at least one genius entrepreneur wants to disrupt government power by -- *gasp* -- giving away his inventions for free. There is no Dagny Taggert here talking about the morality of milking your customers for every dime. But, when it comes down to it, the Belters are each Han Solo battling the Galactic Empire.


Now, there is plenty of great libertarian science fiction (my dear friend Alasdair Wilkins recently wrote a great round-up of such stories), but Terra is obsessed with patting itself on the back for its political philosophy. The anarchist characters are constantly speaking of the evils of government, and nearly every government agent is a pervert or a tax dodger. It's a shame, because this is such a missed opportunity. Terra is rollicking fun when it gets going -- as cowboy stories usually are. There are dramatic standoffs, mining disasters, space pirates who don't follow the rules of polite anarchist society. But Terra had the opportunity to contrast a vibrant anarchist society with a failing nanny state by showing the challenges and bumps in the road -- then having its intelligent, hard-working frontierspeople problem-solve their way to success. As it stands, Terra is an inversion of one of the most tedious qualities of Star Trek, where instead of being rescued by a suspiciously perfect Federation, humanity is rescued by a suspiciously perfect group of totally self-sufficient individuals.

The strike against Terra as a successful science fiction story? The characters constantly reference 20th Century pop culture, to the exclusion of any other media. I mean, if nostalgia is in vogue, fine, but why is it confined to a single era? Will future peoples concoct such dull stories that everyone in human space must constantly replay Star Wars to get their kicks?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Wondermark releases the nominally-essential guide to unnecessary crafts

As Wondermark embarks on its ninth year, David Malki! has launched "Wondermark's Nominally-Essential Tinkerers' Handbook," an eight-page goof on those popular magazines for people who like to unnecessarily use their hands to create substandard goods, with Wondermark's typical Victorian (Dare I say "steampunk"?) flavor.

Sure to be a favorite at Maker Faires for years to come.

Wondermark's Nominally-Essential Tinkerer's Handbook [Wondermark]

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ask Zach Weiner Anything

Despite my many issues with its community, I spend far more time on reddit than I should, especially the community interview "Ask Me Anything" section. At the moment, Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is answering questions -- apt since his new book is being released by the reddit co-founder's publishing company, Breadpig.

Ask Zach Weiner Anything [reddit]

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Bucko" tips its pen to Erika Moen's octopus art

If you haven't gotten a chance to check it out yet, Bucko is Erika Moen's collaboration with writer Jeff Parker, an offbeat, Portland-based murder mystery. As I've been reading it, I've been wondering to what extent Gypsy, the main character's partner in crime-solving, is based on Moen herself. Well, the latest installment offered a clue. A gal who sells octopus art on her Etsy store? Who does that sound like?

Apropos of nothing: What's the plural of "octopus?"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Cartoonist's Self-Portrait Timeline

So, I might be a little obsessed with cartoonists' self-portraits. It probably has something to do with my own lack of artistic competence. (Those who can't do, blog?) So when Jess Fink, Kate Beaton, and Carly Monardo posted their self-portrait timelines, it got my little heart pumping. It's fascinating to see how the artists' styles have been refined over time. I especially enjoy Fink's explanation of why her style changed and evolved based on jobs she had and what she was trying to accomplish.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Harry Potter and the Overzealous Middle American Book Banners

First Second has really been putting some lovely comics online. At the moment, they're serializing MK Reed and Jonathan Hill's Americus, which is due out in print this August. Neil Barton is an Oklahoma teenager making the transition from junior high to high school, but he has little to be excited about. His best friend has just been sent away and he'll be facing high school alone. His divorcee mother means well, but is overwhelmed by her new single parenthood. And perhaps worst of all, a Christian activist group is trying to ban his favorite book series, The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, The Huntress Wytch , a high fantasy stand-in for Harry Potter.

The early chapters of Americus have a clear villain in Nancy Burns, the Bible-thumping mother of Neil's best friend Danny. But the comic is stronger when it focuses on Neil -- his burgeoning awareness of punk rock, his silent observations of his fellow high school students -- even if the town hall meetings to discuss banning Apathea Ravenchilde are great fun, especially when the revelation of a half-dragon character in the books prompts charges of bestiality.

[Americus]

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Egypt gets its revolutionary webcomic

After the 2009 election protests in Iran, First Second launched Zahra's Paradise, which offered us an inside view of modern Iran and the corruption and abuses that led up to the protests. When the Egyptian people ousted President Mubarak, I couldn't help but wonder when Egypt would get a revolutionary webcomic of its own. Now on ACT-I-VATE, we have The Revolution Will Be Televised, by Dov Torvin and Asher Berman. Revolution offers a very different perspective than Zahra's Paradise, however. Zahra (now Eisner-nominated) tells Tehran's story from the perspective of a young Iranian man whose brother mysteriously vanished in the protests, while Revolution takes a distinctly outsider perspective. Torvin and Berman are American cartoonists who happened to be in Cairo at the time, and theirs is a first-person account. When they stumble upon the Tahrir Square demonstrations and start posting pictures of themselves against the crowd to Facebook, it's clear we're in for a very different story.

[The Revolution Will Be Televised via The Beat]

James Kochalka calls out Beyonce


Sometimes, I wish I could crawl up inside James Kochalka's brain and live there. [via Box Brown]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How to Understand Iraqi Refugees in 20 Pages or Less

Sarah Glidden, author of How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, is once again explaining the complexities of the world with a 20-page comic at Cartoon Movement about the lives of Iraqi refugees in Damascus. What's great about Glidden's comics is, even though everything is filtered through her particular visuals, they have a documentary feel to them, something both enriching and authentic. Glidden partnered with the Common Language Project for this comic, the group she shadowed for her upcoming book -- a bit of journalism about journalists. Color me excited.

The Waiting Room [Cartoon Movement]
About "The Waiting Room" [Graphic Journos]

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Preorder This: Listen At Home with Octopus Pie

So here's the story. Last year, a bunch of cartoonists were picked up by mainstream book publishers (many of them imprints of Random House) because comics are so terribly hot right now. They must have literally expected the books to sell themselves, because I'm not aware of much of a marketing push (a lot of my non-comic reading friends have greedily devoured my Julia Wertz books and then demanded to know why they had never heard of her before). When word-of-mouth wasn't enough to send the books flying off the shelves, the publishers abruptly dropped their cartoonists, apparently convinced that while comics are "hot," they don't necessarily "sell."

Among the cartoonists who rode this publishing rollercoaster is Octopus Pie's Meredith Gran. In fact, after Random House delivered the bad news, Gran briefly flirted with the idea of returning to studio animation (which she studied at the School for Visual Arts). But, thankfully, she's joined up with the Pizza Island studio (How I'd love to be a fly on that wall!) and is keeping on with Octopus Pie. This means, however, that she's back on the self-publishing bandwagon and needs reader support. Gran plans to release Listen At Home With Octopus Pie in May, and rather than head over to Kickstarter, she's relying on preorders to foot the printers bill. It's not just about getting a pretty hard copy (although that cover is pretty) -- it's also about supporting Gran's work so she can continue working with these characters.

[Preorder Listen At Home With Octopus Pie]

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Song of Blackbird EP is now an actual EP!

This week, I got an exciting gift: a digital download of The Song of Blackbird EP, the musical companion to Quail: The Song of Blackbird EP, Michael Jonathan (of Eros Inc.)'s minicomic. I'll admit to not being the most musically inclined person (Have I mentioned I used to be a radio DJ?), and I didn't expect to like Quail half as I did. I could almost imagine the music Quail plays in her epic bardic battle.

As it turns out, though, I don't have to. Jonathan has released a 5-track musical EP companion to Quail. It's a lovely set of folk-inspired songs ("Rope" is especially haunting), but also just a cool multimedia experience. I've always appreciated how other media creep into Jonathan's comic work (Eros Inc. has a clear television feel to it), and it's nice to see him pull in different media so explicitly with a single work.

You can download the EP for $5, grab Quail and the EP for $10, or a full package of Quail comics, songs, sketches, and a print for $17. It's well worth checking out.

[The Song of Blackbird EP]

Friday, April 1, 2011

Come see me at WonderCon!

If you're attending WonderCon in San Francisco this weekend, come and keep me company at the Skoda Man Press table (D18), where I'll be hawking copies of my San Francisco-based anthology The Comic Book Guide to the Mission. I'll also be having signings with several of the books contributors, and complaining loudly about not getting to attend any panels. Le sigh.

Even if you have no interest in the Mission District, or comics anthologies (shame on you!), please swing by if you want to talk webcomics. Tell me all about the best webcomics I'm not reading -- including that awesome webcomic that you've been diligently posting that I have yet to discover.

Seriously. Stop by. I'll have candy.