Webcomics Roundup: Trends for 2014

DemonFor me, the most exciting new webcomic in recent months is Jason Shiga’s Demon. As the author of Fleep and Meanwhile, any new project from him is worth a note. He describes this as his most ambitious project to date, though. It’s going to be the story of a man who tries to figure out a supernatural event (he keeps committing suicide but waking up unscathed), which leads to him using math and logic to commit ever-bigger atrocities.

It’s not structured like a typical webcomic. Shiga has already written the 720-page story, and the plot moves slowly, letting the story breathe as if the reader has the whole work in front of them instead of just a daily update. But also, he’s selling subscriptions to receive the comic (as paper or PDF) monthly, with the catch that the subscription will let you read through the story slightly faster than it shows up online. Whether or not that “look into the future” is important, I am intrigued by the idea of supporting a webcomic by buying issues as it comes out instead of maybe buying a book after the fact. You can sign up with monthly Patreon payments or in one lump payment on his site, and you have until the end of April to join in time for the first issue.


Other than Demon, my main focus on this article is looking at current trends in webcomics. Demon introduces one of them very nicely, though: Patreon is becoming a real success, with more and more webcomics signing up. These are almost universally established ones, so I don’t expect it to provide an income for anyone who is new to the scene. Still, it’s wonderful to think that the creators in this popular but low-paying medium might start to earn a reliable income.

Also, I am pretty proud to say that I recognized Patreon’s potential months before any big-name webcomics were signed up. As just another random hobbyist, I don’t usually get to identify trends until they’re already known. This time, though, I can claim credit for a great prediction.


Super-EnigmatixAs an example of a less insightful article of mine, I talked about the blurring lines between print and web comics back in 2011. That was still noteworthy back then, though certainly not a new idea. Three years later, we see this cross-over all the time. If anything, what surprises me now is that the barriers between the two still exist at all. At this point, it’s only the established patterns of their different fan-bases that keep the two apart at all. Creators are moving between these two sides more than ever.

LumberjanesIf you want a couple recent examples, cult artist Richard Sala is publishing his new work as a webcomic. Super-Enigmatix has his usual hallmarks, with horror elements and a visual style like an expressionistic children’s book. The introduction leans heavily on cliché, but it’s building some intriguing elements already. And if you want to see a webcomic creator moving into print, check out Lumberjanes #1, which is out from BOOM! Studios today. This is co-written by Noelle Stevenson, whose Nimona was last year’s best debut on the web.


What does the future hold? I don’t have anything definite to point to yet, but I’m starting to wonder whether we’ll see a move towards syndication or work commissioned by other sites. I first noted this last year regarding all the established talent who was making comics based on NAMCO video games for Shiftylook. But since then, The Nib has opened on the online magazine Medium, serving basically as their comics page. It features everyone from Tom Tomorrow to Zach Weinersmith and Rich Stevens. Stevens has also started making a regular comic for Macworld.

This all seems to be more than just a coincidence, but it’s too early for me to tell if this is really a trend. As far as I know, no one has talked publicly about what work like this pays, and how it compares to running a comic on your own site. I’m very curious about how it impacts the audience, as well. Presumably, these creators are directing their loyal audience to these other sites, and in turn people who frequent Medium and Macworld are learning about comics like Diesel Sweeties. Maybe the key to success will be to maintain this mix to cultivate your dedicated audience while also getting the general public’s attention. Whatever the reason, though, there’s a certain irony to the idea that as traditional newspaper comics die out, their replacements may be finding their way back to a syndication model.

I’ll keep checking in with all these trends as they come up. Meanwhile, if you have any leads on the pros and cons of these new options for syndication, I’d love to hear them.

So Much for January

At the start of January, I decided to take a few days off from this blog to collect my thoughts and keep the rest of my life in balance. Instead, I went the entire month without writing anything. I shouldn’t be surprised, as this seems to happen every time I stop writing for a little bit. I either hold myself to a schedule or the blog goes entirely untouched. The worst part is that it doesn’t seem to give me any more time for anything else.

I think I’m ready to start again. Let’s just agree to pretend January never happened, ok? Pretty much everyone hated this month anyway. There are certain topics that I was going to write about monthly, and so if I end up doing those eleven times each, I’ll succeed. Someday, we’ll look back at 2014 as that strange year that only had eleven months, but no one will act very concerned about it. This way is better for everyone.

John le Carré – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Book Review)

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold  cover

John le Carré – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The setting of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is pure Cold War, focused mainly on the conflict between British intelligence agents and East Germany. But the book’s worldview is still relevant fifty years later. Author John le Carré portrays the spies on each side as amoral people who ignore their nations’ stated ideals in order to win the battles. The psychological toll on agents is high and the chance to “come in from the cold” (regain their humanity) is perpetually out of reach. This point of view isn’t nearly as surprising today as it was in 1963, but the novel’s depiction of it is powerful. Le Carré’s history as a member of British intelligence gives it an additional authority.

The book follows Alec Leamas, a competent British agent who nonetheless has a history of failure against the East Germans. His superiors send Leamas on one last mission that takes advantage of his reputation. Leamas, pretending to be fired and disgraced, sells his knowledge to Communist agents. This includes misinformation calculated to convince them that one of their highest officers is a traitor. The goal is to get the East Germans to eliminate their own man, since Leamas had failed to do it the traditional way. But as the plot unfolds, the danger to Leamas grows and new wrinkles about the mission are discovered. It all ties in to the idea that the “good guys” may be doing bad things out of pragmatism.

The story, especially the ending, is clever and will stick with the reader. The writing is simple and workmanlike, but that’s not a flaw in a story that’s supposed to evoke a spy’s practical mindset. There is one very frustrating aspect, though, and that’s the woman who falls in love with Leamas. It seems that she does this for no reason other than the fact that that happens in spy stories, as Leamas never does anything to earn her attention. She is supposed to be the sort of moral person who is at odds with cynical spies, so the book definitely would have been stronger if she’d been developed well enough for the reader to care about her.

Despite that, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is worth reading. It’s an interesting spy story in addition to making a statement. It’s quick, fun, and a little disturbing. I think it’s lost some of its power now that people are less idealistic about spy stories, but it still works even from that perspective.

Grade: B

 

2013 Stats

This blog’s third year was its most productive yet. My plan to post every other day wasn’t perfect: I threw in a few too many filler articles at times, and when I finally couldn’t keep up in August, I went a couple weeks without writing at all. But after that, I managed to keep the habit with just the occasional skipped article. That’s a pattern I hope to keep up this year. My current schedule is enough to keep me motivated, but it’s good to know I won’t force myself to post when it won’t be worthwhile.

I ended up with 165 posts for 2013, containing a total of 216 letter grades. That’s a record for me, and I doubt I’ll be able to surpass it this year. I’m learning that babies need more attention as they grow, not less, and I’m happy to make my blog a second priority to that.

Anyway, here is the grade breakdown for the past year:

2013Grades

My bell curve is a little messier than the other years. Maybe I need to be more willing to go above B+ and below C, but in general I like my approach.

For the few people who may be curious, I have further grade breakdowns and thoughts below the fold.

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Best Albums of 2013

In 2013, I reviewed 57 albums, 34 of which were released this year. Here are my picks for albums of the year, with the usual caveats: I know my experience was far from complete, but I think I do a good job of picking out the things I’ll be interested in. If the list seems weird, it probably has more to do with my taste than with the number of albums I bought. I pick my top 5, with confidence that even if I heard all the popular releases this year, these ones would still likely fit in my top 10. And if I discover the ones I missed later, I’ll include them in my list of the best “old discoveries” of the year.

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The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (Movie Review)

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

The Desolation of Smaug is the second movie in the Hobbit trilogy. I found it to be fun and very polished, though a little disappointing. In short, Peter Jackson succeeded at making the light fantasy action movie that he wanted, but it felt like there was a lot of wasted potential.

For the most part, the movie was most enjoyable when it added scenes to Tolkien’s original. Gandalf’s investigations into the evil of Dol Guldur feel like generic fantasy, but they tie in to the Lord of the Rings movies very well. A new subplot about elves hunting orcs is as slick and emotionless as a video game, but Peter Jackson excels at these bubblegum action scenes. And even the flashback where Gandalf first meets Thorin is a nice way to round out the plot.

But the scenes that were originally in he book are flattened out, since the humor, characters and subtleties were apparently getting in the way of extra orc battles. Bilbo’s taunting and outwitting of the giant spiders? Replaced with a huge fight, even though actor Martin Freeman could have made that very fun. Stumbling on an Elven feast? Nah, it’s more efficient just to have the Elves appear out of nowhere and capture everyone. Conversations with Beorn, or developing his interesting character? Gone completely. In fact, Beorn is the most confusing change, since he offered a lot of opportunity for visual effects and badass fights. Instead, his appearance is so brief and irrelevant that people who have read the book will feel cheated and people who haven’t will wonder what the point was of including him at all.

But the most disappointing changes were to Smaug. The dragon looks incredible, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s CGI performance feels suitably inhuman. Expect some well-deserved Oscar victories for this creation. But in the story, it’s less impressive. For the first few minutes, the dragon feels enormous, unpredictable, and scary. But he gets what feels like an hour of screentime with a series of new chase scenes. No characters ever get caught by him, and by the end his apparent threat level has dropped from “could beat up Godzilla” to “the Looney Tunes coyote”.

As I said in last year’s Hobbit review, Peter Jackson needed to make changes to the book. I’m comfortable with the thematic tie-ins to Lord of the Rings and even to the dumb-but-fun orc attacks that keep happening. (One battle, fought as the Dwarves float downriver on barrels, is laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly creative.) But I wish it hadn’t also dumbed down the source material. It’s fun, and funny, in ways beyond shooting orcs with arrows. Desolation of Smaug brings us breathtaking sets and special effects, frenetic action, and Manly Fantasy Brooding™. That’s not enough to sustain it, especially since the movie runs for almost three hours and it sometimes compares poorly to the kids’ book it’s based on. It is sufficient, but just barely, to make this worth watching, though I don’t feel as forgiving as I did a year ago.

Grade: B-

 

Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones – Foreverly (Music Review)

Foreverly cover

Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones – Foreverly

I’ve seen some other reviews of Foreverly, and it seems that they all follow the same pattern. First of all, they point out the unlikeliness of the concept. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong is joined by Norah Jones to make a faithful track-by-track adaptation of an obscure Everly Brothers album. Then the review says that surprisingly, they do a good job of it: The unlikely duo harmonizes nicely, and the songs are good.

I think that this is maybe letting the performers off easily. These are wildly successful music stars, and “they don’t sound bad” is pretty faint praise. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us was itself a collection of traditional country songs, and not necessarily an inspired list of choices. They beat you over the head with the emotional manipulation that was a country cliché a few generations back: There’s the song about a little boy’s dying wishes, the song about the little boy traveling to visit his dying mother, the song about the dying mother hoping to find her son before she goes, and so on. If The Everly Brothers had recorded this album thirty years later, it would’ve been all “my woman left me and my dog died” songs, and today it would be truckin’ and country checklists. We’re looking back at this album a half century later, so it’s a little more palatable than the modern clichés, but it’s still too much.

They’re good songs. Not one is wrong for a mix like this, but including them all is a little much. I would have much rather seen Armstrong and Jones put together their own collection of country standards, including just a few of these. Their performance is heartfelt and pleasant, and it does do justice to the sensibilities of past generations. It also strikes a nice balance between the washed-out production of 1958 and the loud production of 2013. I’d be happy to see what else they could do in this vein, but the only justification for this particular choice of songs is reverence for an album that wasn’t even notable at the time.

I know I’m probably being a little harsh on Foreverly, maybe in response to the uncritical praise. It’s an improvement on Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, it successfully brings two music stars into a new genre, and it will introduce a new audience to some deserving songs. But compared to the many versions of these songs already available, there is nothing outstanding here, and it doesn’t make a good case for why this genre still deserves attention. It’s pleasant, I listened to it several times, and I like the way this team works together. I hope they make something more inspired in the future.

Grade: C+

 
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