Monday, March 26, 2012

Webcomic primer

At the risk of looking like a websnark-impersonator, i do want to comment on individual comics now and then. I've read a couple dozen of them, skimmed and avoided many others, so i have a decent idea of what i'm looking at. I make no pretense of objectivity, as always, but i do know from experience how slow it can be digging through this particular haystack for shiny needles, as i remarked in an earlier post.

I suppose the foremost observation is that not all webcartoonists seem to have majored in anything resembling art. This does not wholly invalidate their work. It's true that bad drawing has frequently put me off comics from their start, but there are some cases in which:
a) the work is redeemed by clever writing
b) the artist vastly improves as the comic progresses
Case (a) is less surprising to me than (b) though i expect more visually-dependent readers would experience the opposite.

In any case, there's almost no trick to sorting them out. Trial and error is unfortunately the best method. Still, there seem to be some general categories.

The most popular type of webcomics are anime and game-inspired. Anime-inspired comics tend to be started by american teenagers who've watched either too much Dragonball-Z or... err, whatever the shoujo equivalent might be. They are thankfully fairly predictable in terms of quality, being based too much on imitation. If the first dozen pages or so are bad, it's a safe bet the rest will be the same. There are some striking exceptions to this rule, like Flipside or Falcon Twin, which manage to pick up on japanese comics' and animation's knack for quickly creating gut-wrenching scenes (sometimes literally, gentle-minded readers beware).

Gamer comics can be a much more interesting case. They tend to stem from excitement and flavor of the month games. The most frequent start is the one artistically minded member of a little college clique making a comic about playing the games the clique is currently playing. Other times it's a only an offshoot of twenty-somethings' general lifestyle and interests. It should be obvious that most often, there is nowhere for these to go. The initial batch of in-crowd jokes wears out and all that's left is recurring strained attempts to recapture the magic. One of the most popular comics on the web, penny-arcade, dove headlong down this path a long time ago. It is now a game review site with a largely meaningless token comic appended somewhere in the back. However, another of the most popular comics online, PvP, made a relatively successful shift over the years from Ultima Online in-jokes to geek humor to general social comedy and drama.

Another major category seems to be college-themed strips. They are predictably enough created by college students who start out with slapstick gags and anecdotes about dormitory life. Just as with games, the starting material is predictably limited, and the preferred route to escape cafeteria food jokes seems to be getting the cast involved in ... well, anything. The internet is filled with high-school and college students fighting aliens, devils and vampires or traveling to alternate dimensions for no apparent reason. Here i was going to give College Roomies from Hell as an example, but to my surprise, the author seems to intend to do a reboot of the comic. This is another standard practice when artists are unhappy with their early art or when they realize they've written themselves into a corner. CRFH is also one of my favorite examples of a comic's improvement over time, both visually and in terms of coherence, so i hope she'll be keeping the old archives up.

Furry comics tend to be a fairly consistent niche as well. I suspect it's because many cartoonists find anthropomorphized animals easier to draw than humans, avoiding their readers' keener criticism of human facial features. Ignoring the more licentious, there are quite a few decent ones out there. Many, i would not characterize as 'furry' in any case. The animal characters serve as vehicles for animal jokes and don't really stem from the same motivation that drives junior-high girls to put cat ears on their heads. Freefall is one of them, a consistently well-written, low-key piece of work that's been running steadily at its own pace seemingly in defiance of the rest of the world's trends for... good merciful Lucifer, a decade and a half now.

There is also a surprisingly large market  for 'slice of life' comics about nothing in particular. Even more surprisingly, some of them really are good, and some of my perennial favorites have been primarily human interest. For these, it tends to be all in the writing. The overall story is uninteresting, so the day-to-day or page-to-page content really has to either comedically 'snap' or tug at the heartstrings. Take Bruno, for instance, seemingly created by and for the self-doubting navel-gazer, or Nowhere Girl, a beautifully depressive piece of whining for those of us who tend to be alone in crowds, or the less inward-focused Queen of Wands and Something Positive.

Most of the good comics, however, fall somewhere between or marginal to these broad categories. The best authors are the ones who go into things with an actual idea, and creativity consistently defies categories by its nature. Many are just 'funnies' in the original sense, a gag to start your day off with a smile. Others are brooding, paranoid fantasies or flights of fancy on existing themes, or conscious attempts to create something complex in comic format. The example i'd like to give here is Unicorn Jelly, whose own author gives it the delightfully pompous description "a vast philosophical science fiction manga strip which tells a metaphoric and purposeful story with a definitive beginning and ending". Come on, you just can't get that in your sunday paper.

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