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From the desk of El Santo, a.k.a. Captain Nihilist:
If you chased me down, trapped me in an abandoned wine cellar, tripped me with wire to land me in a hollowed out pit, flipped open your John Locke Limited Edition Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, and demanded of me, “What is the most important thing in you look for in webcomics?”, I’d have to reply: “The characters. Please put the knife away, you psycho.”
More than anything, characters keep a webcomic grounded. The comic may go through shifts in art style. The story may evolve from a horror story or a gaming comic to a teen romance or an office humor strip. But it you keep your characters true and engaging, I’m usually happy every step of the way. It makes the webcomic memorable, even if I’m grasping to remember certain plotlines. Print comics have been sticking by this principle for decades. This is why I know that I like a decent guy like Superman because he’s a great character … but hell if I know what he’s be up to in the last ten years.
So I decided to take some time to look at characters. This is aimed at both critics and webcomic creators. I’m going to be posting excerpts from one essay in particular, so all accusations of me being myopic are probably true. Folks looking for reviews might also enjoy reading it, as it will deepen your understanding. If not, come around next week for my take on a highly popular romance comic.
“OK, Captain Nihilist,” you sneer. “What in the heck makes a good character?”
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Westerners can sure be po-faced sticklers when it comes to injecting humor in the fantasy genre. Oh, sure, National Lampoon has given us the parody Bored of the Rings, and Mary Gentle thrilled us with an orc-run fantasy world in Grunts. Fine anomalies, both … but they aren’t necessarily household names. For the most part, we like our fantasy heroes to be stoic warriors, our heroines to be cold humorless ice princesses, our fantasy villains to be ominous evil spirits from the very depths of hell, and our Kender folk kept at the bare minimum. Fun gets in the way of epic business. You know how many Lord of the Rings fans out there think that hobbits were completely unnecessary comedy foils? A whole damn lot, that’s what.
There seems to be less of a problem in Japan. My guess is because Japan’s version of fantasy is more or less based on the Final Fantasy series, which, at its core, is pretty goofy. I mean, moogles? Chocobos? Fat chocobos who blow spit bubbles when they sleep? Cait friggin’ Sith? That sort of silliness shows up in several of what I’ll call the humorous fantasy genre.
My favorite manga, which occupies a small yet embarrassing amount of real estate on my bookshelf, was Sorcerer Hunters. At face value, it’s about a team of agents deployed to take out rogue magicians. Underneath, though, was an undercurrent of silly sex jokes: the girls were secret dominatrices, a super-handsome guy looked like a woman, and the resident beefcake was often flexing for his own benefit but would end up pursuing anyone — male or female — who was prettier than him. Introduce these concepts to mainstream American fantasy, and I’m sure we’d be hearing the sounds of a thousand monocles dropping into a thousand teacups… and more agog at the spirit of fun than the implied S&M.
Fey Winds, a webcomic written and illustrated by Montreal native Nicole Chartrand, follows in the same tradition. (Disclaimer: despite title, comic is not really about Tina Fey. Nor do any of the characters look anything like Tina Fey. Sigh.) Manga readers may encounter several elements that feel familiar. Maybe even too familiar. More on that later.
My fellow Americans, our long national election is over. Now that we’re a week past Election Day, it’s time to spend some time reflecting on the past year and ask the hard questions. Such as: Why is the Washington Redskins game before the election (win: Republicans take office; lose: Democrats) the best political predictor ever, boasting a 94% success rate? Who are these people who still display “Kuninich for President” and “Ron Paul ’08” bumper stickers? And, most importantly, was there any point in the Obama and McCain campaigns where things would devolve to the point where the next present would be decided by three rounds in the steel Octagon?
I mean, take a look a one of the most brutal elections of all time, the 1828 election pitting incumbent John Quincy Adams against war hero Andrew Jackson. You had the Jackson camp claim that Adams struck a corrupt deal in the first election, turned the White House into a casino, and was pimping out women to foreign dignitaries. The Adams camp shot back that Jackson was a brutal, bloodthirsty killer who went beyond his duties on the battlefield and portrayed Jackson’s wife as a bigamist. Given Jackson’s love for shooting and Adams’ love for skinny-dipping, it’s not too unreasonable to believe that if that election were to last just a wee bit longer, we would be reading in our history books about the first election decided by naked underwater dueling. (Which, incidentally, would make an awesome T-shirt for fratboys.)
Sad to say, when you look back at Election 2008, you might notice that Obama and McCain were highly cordial toward each other. Those dudes were all smiles and respect and preemptively shutting down unfair critics in public forums. Seriously, that episode where the two were Ocean’s 11-like thieves working together to steal the Hope Diamond? Not that implausible. Maybe it’s because the two senators are, in essence, coworkers. I’m guessing they work out a lot of their personal issues over a game of Parcheesi during lunch breaks at the Senate cafeteria.
But another big part of it is that both candidates seem to have outsourced all of the controversial negativity to the internet. Why spend millions of dollars and a strategy that could potentially backfire when you can just sit back and let an army of bloggers do the dirty work?
Since this site is about webcomics, though, protocol sorta demands that I tie this in somehow. Unfortunately, I can’t. There are several politically-themed webcomics online, but I can’t say that any of them are what you would call “influential.” No, not even you, Stephanie MacMillan. Which is sad, because political cartoons are far from being irrelevant. Remember the furor that broke out when the cartoon of Obama as a terrorist graced the cover of the New Yorker? Imagine the awesomeness if that controversy had broke online! Unfortunately, nastiness is par for the course on the internet, and a particularly scathing cartoon is just one among many.
The subject of today’s Webcomic Overlook, Sore Thumbs, is one such political webcomic. This is arguably the flagship title of the formidable Keenspot group. Sore Thumbs merges the political comic with two already familiar webcomic standards: the gaming comic and the roommate comic. Can this odd amalgam repair false comic divisions, like the incoming administration promises to heal the partisan agendas that are dividing our country? (Incidentally, if staring at the computer screen causes you uncomfortable neck strain, Sore Thumbs is also available in print … though only one volume seems to be available on Amazon at this time.)
Some time ago, Joe Chiappetta contacted me by e-mail asking me to review his webcomic, Silly Daddy. For various reasons, I haven’t been reviewing solicitations lately. As I mentioned in one of the comments, it’s much easier for me to write reviews for a comic that reflect my own interests rather than tackling something that may or may not stoke my curiosity in the first place. Take the Beachnuts review I wrote, for example. This strip was solicited by the comics’ creator. Although I tried to keep as open a mind as possible, I discovered that I had my limitations. The strip is targeted for a surfing audience. Since I’m not one myself, my observations we weakened by self-doubt about whether or not I, as a layman, could ever truly enjoy jokes about how being in the water for an extended period of time causes one to be gross. On the other hand, as a proud Nintendo Wii and PS2 owner (two of the greatest consoles of all time *strut* *strut*), I can at least understand parodies Mario and Master Chief in, say, Crazy Buffet.
Thus, solicitations are often met with a tentative, “Eh, mmmmmmmaybe.” There was, however, something about Mssr. Chiappetta’s e-mail that piqued my interest immediately. First, there was the absolutely charming way in which he introduced himself: “I am a former wrestler and chess champion, but that has little or nothing to do with the comic.” (Note to aspiring webcomic artists — and, indeed, any else for all walks of life: this is the sort of cheesy trivia that tends to get people’s attention. Put this stuff on your resume. Seriously.)
Second, I was hooked on the premise: an autobiographical account on what it meant to be a father. I’m not yet a father myself, so to me, this is still some sort of magical mystery land and not some horror show combination of stress, sleeplessness, diaper changing, and love. (Awwww!)
And third, Silly Daddy actually won an award in 1998, back in the days before it was even a webcomic. During its print run (which began waaaay back in 1991), Silly Daddy received the Xeric, an award established by Peter Laird (yes, THE Peter Laird, one half of the creative duo responsible for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) for self-published comic creators. My dear reader, you know how I love to chat up award winning comics. Okay, so most of the time, it’s to question the legitimacy of the award, but no such though crossed my mind here.
I shot him back an e-mail saying that I’d be honored to check it out.
One of the questions I get asked often is: “El Santo, how come you never cover webcomic fanfiction?”
OK, I so I never actually get asked the question. Ever. Heck, you’re probably kicking yourself because now you know that webcomic fanfiction exists, and you can do nothing to scrub that terrible thought from your brain. “Out, damn spot!” as the Lady MacBeth would say.
As a side note, video game comments are almost alway except from such discussions. Kate Tiedrich of Awkward Zombie writes stories using Super Smash Brothers as a background. And just recently I did a review of Scott Kurtz and his comic about the World of Warcraft. The practice is so prevalent in videogame webcomics that fanfiction never crosses the minds of most readers.
I’m talking about the hard stuff. Such as a dramatic (and surprisingly well drawn) Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers fanfiction. Once upon a time, I had considered reviewing this fine work (which, if I can be serious for a moment here, actually does contain some decent art), but I ran into a major stumbling block. Mainly, that I would actually have to sit down and read a Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers fanfiction. And you know how most of those go, right? Hint: most writers have an unhealthy obsession with Gadget. And then there’s Stink Child Comics. Its premise? The author’s self-insert is hopelessly in love with Kim Possible. Yeah, at this point there’s nothing the comic can do to earn more than one star. To go any further would be awfully mean spirited.
So instead I focus my energies on a comic that has been on hiatus since 2006, but which I have good reason to believe may, at any point, be suddenly resurrected to once again prey on our unguarded minds. It’s a comic that, in 2007, was one of the most searched topics on Comixpedia. And, somehow, this comic has won two Web Cartoonists Choice Awards. And not for some totally mde-up category like Best Fanfiction Comic or Doujinshi Superstar something. No, it won for legitimate-sounding awards like “Oustanding Superhero Comic” and “Outstanding Character.” Ah, yes, this is why the WCCA’s get so much respect among the media and webcomic professionals.
Today, The Webcomic Overlook reviews a little something called Powerpuff Girls Doujinshi.
It’s harder to think of a more controversial figure in animation than John Kricfalusi. Oh, sure, you can make a case that Ralph Bakshi guy. Yet the guy is more or less universally respected in animation circles for forwarding the cause of adult-themed cartoons. Those who don’t care for such things hardly even know he exists. There isn’t a huge anti-Bakshi backlash, unless you, for some godforsaken reason, decide to argue that his Lord of the Rings movie was pretty good.
Kricfalusi (who I shall now refer to as “John K.” simply because “Kricfalusi” is too much of a pain to type over and over again) will forever be known as the man behind the “Ren & Stimpy” cartoons. Thus, the man has already secured his place in animation history. However, the man is also one of the most, how shall we say, strongly opinionated men out there. His personality alone is what drives people into pro-John K. and the anti-John K. crowds, the North and South Korea of animation theory, scorching the land in between for anyone unfortunate enough to straddle the middle ground. I mean, the man even managed to drive away Billy West, the former voice of Stimpy, the current voice of Philip J. Fry, and a man who strikes me as fairly amicable from his interviews.
While I admire his openness, I admit that I am one of those prudes who’s often taken aback when the man opens his big old yap. Take his interview with the Onion AV Club, for instance:
I know in kids programming you’re not really allowed to draw sexy girls. I managed to get a couple into Ren & Stimpy. In the Powdered Toast Man episode, Lovely Assistant is really hot. She’s only in a few scenes, but, boy, I got lots of letters saying, “Give us more of that!” We’d try to, and then the executives would tell us, “Well, that objectifies women,” and “it’s offensive,” and all this stuff. [Moans.] You don’t even see it in prime-time cartoons. There are no sexy girls in The Simpsons. Would you ever take your pants down and watch The Simpsons? Those cartoons are designed to be so primitively drawn that you wouldn’t be able to do a sexy girl because you have to draw well. Drawing a funny animal, you don’t need a lot of detail to make it work. But to draw a sexy girl, there’s certain things you can’t leave out.
You kiss your mother with that mouth, John K.? He does have a point, though. I’ve got, like, Seasons 3-6 of The Simpsons on DVD, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t take my pants off once.
Even more controversial, though, is John K.’s self-elevation as the standard-bearer for classic animation. His disdain for the primitive nature of the The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park are somewhat understandable … though not totally correct, since the main crux of those shows is the writing. What’s more baffling is John K.’s acrimony towards pretty much every Disney and Pixar feature film created.
However, I can, to a certain extent, appreciate what John K. is trying to do. He’s really very much a historical preservationist, trying to create new productions following the design philosophy of an art form that most people had abandoned or forgotten. He wants to pick up from the days when Mickey Mouse was a bouncing rubber ball and when wolves had jaws that would literally drop to the floor at the sight of a red-head lady in tight evening wear. Is there much difference between John K. and, say, George Lucas and his love for 1940’s serial cinema or Grant Morrison and his love for Silver Age Superman stories? We’re all just a part of the Village Green Presevation Society.
But, seriously, what does all this have to do with webcomics? Usually, nothing… until you get to Dumm Comics, which went online earlier this year. If you browse through the archives, you’d swear that these were all drawn by the madman behind Ripping Friends. And, believe it or not, you’d be partially correct. The creators behind Dumm Comics are professional animators. Many had jobs in John K.’s animation studio, Spümcø International, while others are veterans of Disney and Nickelodeon. These artists all seem committed to translating John K.’s design aesthetic to the static screen.
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So who is this Chris Sanders guy? What are his vital stats? A/S/L, if you will? First off, the man looks a little like Anthony Bourdain. Second, the man’s got great taste in the ladies. His cheesecake art gravitates toward a healthier, tanned, and more rounded (yet not overweight) feminine form. I imagine him looking at those beanpole dames in the magazines and going, “You ain’t it, Ms. Thing!”
Let’s, what else? Oh, yeah, he was also the director of Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, taking an active part in all aspects, not the least of which was the artistic direction. That achievement is wack. Heck, Chris Sanders represents the sort of guy I wanted to be when I grew up (save the Anthony Bourdain resemblance). Things haven’t been going so well between him and Disney lately, what with them hijacking his project American Dog (now called Bolt and starring, ugh, John Travolta and Miley Cyrus). But Sanders’ unique approach to cartoons lives on, most prominently on his own webcomic called Kiskaloo.
The comic named The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo, by Thomas Boatwright and Dwight Macpherson, has been bookmarked on my “To Read” list for a long, long time. I had every intention to read it. I’ve never heard anything but good things about this webcomic, supported very recently by its 2008 nominations for the Harvey and Eagle Awards (both of which are leagues more impressive than the garden-variety WCCA).
Yet, I didn’t bother reading the comic for over a year. You can guess why. It’s the name. That goddamn name. When someone mentions the title, it’s usually followed by the phrase “a good comic with a terrible name” or a variant thereof. And why not? No one should utter the words “Edgar Allan Poo” in polite conversation. Imagine this hypothetical scenario playing out at your typical high-brow comic book shop.
Comic shop owner: “If you ask me, Ross Campbell’s Water Baby starts off strong, yet its road trip denouement lacks that je ne sais quois. But enough about me. Pray tell, what comics have you perused lately?”
Me: “Well, I’ve been reading a lot of online stuff. FreakAngels, Octopus Pie, and … er … Edgar Allan Poo.”
Comic shop owner: “I … see. I had no idea! You might find this interesting then. I was just surfing online, and I ran across this delightful video entitled ‘Two girls, one…'”
Comic shop owner: “But….”
Me: “Just STOP.”