It’s been a while, but I want to get one last webcomics post in for the year. True to my headline, this will be an unfocused roundup of topics.
Archive for the ‘ Comics ’ Category
I have (as always) been inconsistent lately about my monthly webcomics articles. Not a lot of new ones have grabbed my attention lately, though. Comic Chameleon, which I reviewed on Sunday, is about the only new notable event in the webcomics world that I know of. But I do have several items that seem worth mentioning, even if they aren’t strictly new. Here is a quick list of webcomics miscellany.
(And yes, I did time these articles so that this one could refer to the just-reviewed Comic Chameleon, but they would each count as a different month’s webcomic article. Not that anyone cares but me, I’m sure. You don’t write for an amateur blog in 2013 without being a little bit obsessive, though.)
Though Comic Chameleon isn’t the first iPhone app devoted to web comics, it bills itself as the first one made with the comics creators’ permission, and to share revenue with them instead of stealing their audience. That’s an admirable goal, and I was excited about this project. Unfortunately, so far it’s just not worthwhile. It’s telling that I put this review off for a while, always telling myself that I should use the app more before writing about it. I’ve finally accepted that I’m just not going to use it much more, because it doesn’t offer me a good comic reading experience.
Looking at individual comic pages isn’t a bad experience. I mean, the comic is there on the screen. You can read it just like you would in a web browser, and swipe to move through the archives. It does let you view alt text, which is something that is otherwise inconsistent on the Safari app. But if you want to read the news posts and comments that go along with the posts, see the jokey titles that each episode of Dinosaur Comics gets, or otherwise see more than the comic, this app will not match the web site experience.
The big innovation in Comic Chameleon is that it lets you browse panel by panel instead of scrolling and zooming manually. This is an impressive achievement, as I’m sure it took the creators a long time to mark each panel (sometimes with creative choices when the divisions aren’t clear). I use this feature sometimes, but usually prefer not to. The layout of a comic is important, and these comics were designed to be viewed one page at a time. You could make a comic designed to be viewed panel by panel, but these ones weren’t. If the page doesn’t fit on the iPhone screen, I prefer to zoom and scroll myself. At least that keeps my relationship with the page intact. The knowledge that I’m the one looking at a piece at a time allows me to appreciate the page as a single unit in the end. Yes, that usually requires one hand to hold the phone and another to pinch and zoom, so the app’s system is better if I’m holding something in one hand and want to scroll through comics with only one hand free. But that’s maybe too specific a niche for this app to target.
A webcomics app should do more than just let you browse through comics, though. As a way to keep up with your favorite works, Comic Chameleon fails. The main screen is a scrolling list of every comic supported by the app. There’s no way to make a list of favorites or hide the ones you don’t want to read. It also doesn’t track what you’ve read in each comic, so you have to open up a comic to find out if it’s been updated. If the comic tells a story, and you are more than one update behind, then too bad! You’ll start at the most recent one and have to scroll backwards through possible spoilers to manually find the right point. (Yes, you could also find the sub-screen that lists all comics by date, but do you really remember the exact date you last checked in on the comic?)
Comic Chameleon arguably works as a hub to check out comics you might not have heard of before, but honestly, I have no need for that. I don’t have enough time to check out all the recommendations I already get. What I want is a simple way to find out which comics I like have updates, and to see those updates in order. Right now, a basic RSS reader works a lot better than this dedicated app.
So far, the only comic that has been interesting to follow through this app is A Softer World. The comics are short enough to be readable on my phone in landscape mode, there is no plot so I don’t have to worry about reading backwards until I have caught up, and since the website only has new news posts every few weeks, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Also, it comes alphabetically at the start of the list, so it’s not a pain to get to. No other comic can replicate those benefits, though.
It feels churlish to complain about a free app, especially since the ads go towards people who deserve the money. But it makes comics harder to follow, not easier. I’m still hopeful about this concept in general. It’s always been difficult for webcomics to find revenue streams, and inexpensive apps sound like a perfect fit for them. In fact, I don’t even count Comic Chameleon out yet. It could easily add subscription features in the future. It seems that all the work for version 1.0 went into setting up the technical features, including the (significant) effort of a protocol to let it see full comic histories and panel breakdowns. Right now, though, it has the building blocks but no useful UI. I worry that as it is, the app just won’t bring in enough ad revenue to keep them working on it. If they do, I’ll definitely follow up with a new review. For the time being, though, keep reading your favorite webcomics on RSS and websites, and find other ways to support them.
Grade (version 1.0): C-
I went for several years reading almost no IDW comics. They were expensive, and as the company drifted towards more and more licensed properties, I lost interest. But after a decade of holding their prices steady, IDW’s comics are now no more expensive than most DC and Marvel ones. Even more importantly, over the past year they’ve been bringing in more writers and artists who I really like. I tend to follow talent more than I follow specific characters, so this was enough to get me checking out series that I never would have expected to buy. I’ve already talked about the modern Popeye series, and here are reviews of the others I’ve been reading over the past year.
(This is a review of issues 13-25 of the Image comic Morning Glories. My first review is here.)
Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma’s Morning Glories completed its first “season” with issue #25, and it has definitely stayed interesting. There are some implications that it may collapsing under its own weight: The past six months have featured the first real delays so far, and there are now enough characters that Eisma’s art doesn’t manage to keep them all visually distinct. On the other hand, the story itself has held together. Given how rare it is for mysterious, twist-driven stories to work out, I’m amazed by how well this is doing. Sadly, when I look back through my comic reviews, I see that series almost never improve with time, and I’m almost always disappointed when I decide to stick with a mediocre one that shows “potential”. In this case, though, Morning Glories has definitely gotten better with time.
This is mainly due to the way Spencer handles his twist-driven storytelling. Every issue reveals more, though there are still plenty of questions, and you wouldn’t take me seriously if I tried to explain the number of secret pasts and hidden motivations in this comic. However, almost every new change is fair and consistent with previous hints. Most stories like this just feel like 100 random things that all happened to a small group of people. Here, all those events can be traced back to just a few common causes, and that makes a huge difference. As things have come to a climax, the cliché of “sorry, there’s no time to explain!” has appeared more often than I’d like. Admittedly, though, everyone who says that really is in a hurry. I am a little worried about the number of things thrown into the mix in those last few issues, but not as worried as I was about the few issues right before my last review. That time, there turned out to be reasons for everything.
Also, Spencer really can write memorable, compelling stories. I’ve been reading comics sporadically in the past several months, but it was never a problem to return to this complicated series after taking a long break. In fact, at this point the characters have broken into so many different groups that someone who is reading the issues as soon as they come out will still need to keep track of plot threads last seen a few months ago.
The overall plot moves slowly now that it’s jumping between so many people, but even that isn’t a problem. Every issue has a satisfying amount of events and new information, so it always feels like a good deal.
Morning Glories isn’t perfect, of course. Part of the reason it’s easy to remember characters is that most of them have exaggerated personalities. Also, with a series like this, how you feel about it depends largely on how excited it can make you about future issues. It definitely has me hooked now, but if it goes downhill, it will retroactively drag these issues down with it. Even so, I’ve spent much of the past few years expecting Morning Glories to jump the shark, and it’s consistently proved me wrong. This first season has been a perfect example of how to make a story full of mysteries work out. I’m ready to have faith in it.
Continuing from Wednesday’s article, here are the other two Image miniseries I finished recently.
There is no doubt that Image’s output has improved a lot in recent years, but there is a certain sameness to a lot of its comics now. Of the four stories I’m looking at this week, Multiple Warheads is the only one that didn’t feel like it was a movie pitch at some level. Maybe it wasn’t intentional in all the others; Once that approach has become the norm, you can find yourself following it even if you do just want to tell a good story. And it’s difficult to know how much to criticize this change, because the quality really is better now. It’s still a tradeoff, though, because the big comics now are slick and more predictable. We have lost something as we left behind the chaos of comics’ less commercial days.
I still liked both of the comics from last Wednesday, even if neither one thrilled me. These next two were less interesting. (Because this article is a little wordier than the previous one, I’m putting the reviews below the fold.)
It’s time for another quick catch-up on recently completed miniseries from Image Comics. I plan to cover two today, two more in a few days, and catch up on the ongoing Morning Glories soon afterwards.
After years on an exclusive contract, the hyper-inventive Grant Morrison seemed to become a little set in his ways. For this reason, Happy!, his first non-DC work in a long time, carried a lot of expectations with it. The results are inconclusive. It’s a fun, competently-told story, but there’s no hint of deeper meaning or a long-suppressed muse bursting free.
Happy! is an especially twisted take on Morrison’s obsession with reality and fantasy crossing over. It opens with tough-talking gangsters preparing for a hit, straight out a Garth Ennis comic. It even features excellent art from Darick Robertson, who excels at this sort of gritty but amusing hyper-violence. By the end of the first issue, though, it’s taken a surprising twist. The crime story is never left behind – this is a Christmas comic reminiscent of Bad Santa in the uncomfortable way it plays with redemption – but it would be more accurate to compare it to Bad Santa Meets The Smurfs.
The first issue is the best. Morrison turns out to be good at darkly humorous crime scenes, and those early scenes with no reader expectations are thrilling. Once it settles on its protagonist and main conflict, it becomes a little more by-the-numbers. This is the sort of story where a character finds a way to look at other people’s hands in Poker, but the only way the writer knows to show him winning is to give him high hands every time. On the other hand, in a flashback to the anti-hero’s backstory, Morrison shows that clichés can be effective.
Happy! is a fun, fast read, if you’re looking for something grotesque and slightly surreal. There’s no real hook to keep you interested afterwards, though. Despite the craft it was made with, it will fade as quickly as you can read it.
Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity
Brandon Graham’s Multiple Warheads has a convoluted history: Starting out as a indie porn about an organ smuggler who steals a werewolf dick for her boyfriend, it led to an Oni Press series that never went past the introductory issue, and is now a series-of-series from Image. Despite all that, it’s not really necessary to understand any of the title’s past. This is like Graham’s classic King City, a cute story jam-packed with ideas in a science fictional setting that allows for anything Graham wants to happen. Tossed-off ideas and puns fill in all the margins, with an attitude somewhat like Groucho Marx as a sci-fi-loving graffiti artist.
In many ways, Graham’s work is a celebration of indie comics in their purest form. An uncommercial labor of love that costs less than most superhero comics but takes three times as long to read, these can be pure joy. But at this point, I’m starting to wish for some actual plot and consistency to tie it all together. In these four issues, the main couple (Sexica and Nikoli) go on a road trip past a bunch of fatal threats that never feel dangerous, and another organ smuggler named Nura (who has no connection to the others as far as I know) heads out on a mission. I wasn’t always sure what was going on other than that, but these ended right when the story seemed to start up. There may be dangerous secrets at the hotel Sexica and Nikoli are staying at, and there are some interesting side characters serving them there. But after building that up, the final issue was entirely about Nura getting in a fight that ended inconclusively. It was misleading to call this a mini-series.
Multiple Warheads is fun, but aimless. I’m really glad that Graham has started to try out other storytelling styles, such as the slightly more focused Prophet. Still, as long as he keeps comics like these as an occasional side project, I’m likely to keep up with them.
When I last looked at DC’s current Swamp Thing and Animal Man series, I found them to be fascinating character reboots, with a shared battle against “The Rot” making them even more compelling. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. didn’t impress me as much, but it had potential. It since joined these other two titles for the “Rotworld” event, under the theory that the unliving Frankenstein is one of the few creatures immune to the death and decay wielded by the enemy.
All series continued, if not improved upon, the high level of talent shown in the first few months, but “Rotworld” itself was disappointing. After a lot of fun character-building and horrific moments, the heroes suddenly found themselves in a future where The Rot had already won. It quickly fell into the pattern of alternate universe stories that are all too common in superhero comics: In a world that doesn’t have to last, lots of major characters can be killed off, minor ones can rise to prominence, villains can switch sides, and so on. These stories are fun the first few times you see them, but it doesn’t take long before they feel repetitive, and there’s never any question that everything will be undone by the end. The theme of plant- and animal-themed powers fighting against death did allow for more cool ideas than these events usually have, but on the other hand, the powers of The Rot meant that it was mainly just pictures of grotesque, corrupted heroes killing each other. After a year of exciting build-up, “Rotworld” went on for a couple months too long to stay interesting.
It’s a shame, because Animal Man had been getting much better up to that point. The main problem with the first several issues was Travel Foreman’s art, which kept pulling me out of the story. The excellent Steve Pugh stepped in, though, and he improved it immensely: Deeper colors, less drastic differences in shading, and slightly more dynamic framing managed to make the art great without ever feeling like a break in continuity from Foreman’s style. Jeff Lemire’s writing stayed consistent throughout, but it sure seemed a lot better once the art wasn’t distracting me. Before Rotworld began, I’d reached a point where I was enjoying Animal Man a lot more than Swamp Thing every month.
Swamp Thing stayed good, too, but was less surprising than Animal Man once the new status quo was explained. As I noted in my second look at Batman, Scott Snyder’s writing skills lie in making formulaic stories interesting, rather than cutting new ground. So the middle act, about darkness rising, felt a little more like a straightforward than Animal Man’s family drama, though it never stopped being enjoyable. And my only real complaint is that Yanick Paquette remained unable to keep up with a monthly schedule.
However, Swamp Thing ended strongly. Issue #18 had been planned as the conclusion to Snyder and Paquette’s run, and while I’m sad to see them go, they did tell a good story. It’s rare to see in comics, but the conclusion felt like the logical outcome of everything that had happened so far. This is especially good to see after an alternate-world event, since usually those just result in one or two arbitrary changes, usually tragedies to make the event feel “serious”. Animal Man fell into that trap, but Swamp Thing came out feeling like a classic. Issue #18 is beautiful, satisfying, and makes me feel invested in the new status quo even though I had previously been unsure about following the new creators.
Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. was an unexpected addition to the event. The early issues didn’t have anything to do with the battle against The Rot, but Jeff Lemire was writing both this and Animal Man. However, this crossed over with his big storyline after he handed writing duties over to Matt Kindt! Kindt was a great choice for this, though. I had been disappointed by Lemire’s story, and thought that it was trying too hard to be a weird Hellboy-type title without any actual spark. Just as Pugh was able to make Animal Man reach its potential with subtle changes, though, Kindt worked magic here. In his hand, the weird world felt like more of a backdrop, and the focus shifted to Frankenstein’s own longing for peace and purpose. The series never sold well, and it ended with issue #16. Over the course of a few months, I went from getting bored with this title to being sad to see it end.
I seem to have written mainly negative comic reviews so far this year, so I’m happy to say that all of these inter-related titles are worth reading. (And, with only a couple exceptions, they managed to keep themselves understandable even if you only weren’t reading them all.) The half-year spent in “Rotworld” definitely drags them down, and I can’t recommend them as highly as I would have at their peak. But Swamp Thing created a new classic story for the character. Animal Man fared much more poorly in the crossover, but it’s difficult to compare a still-ongoing series to a complete one. It did show that the team of Lemire and Pugh can do great things, and I’m actually more excited about its potential than I was in the early days. Finally, Frankenstein may have been cancelled, but it turned itself into something to mourn just in time.
Swamp Thing (based on issues #7-18, 0, and an Annual): B+
Animal Man (based on issues #7-18, 0, and an Annual): B-
Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (based on issues #6-16 and 0): B-
I’m becoming a little wary of writing about how the webcomics industry is changing, because every time I look back on those articles six months later, they seem so obvious that I’m a little embarrassed to have written them. But I want to respond to a blog post from Monday written by John Allison (of the excellent Bad Machinery).
Titled “Post webcomics“, Allison explains his worry that we’re leaving the era in which webcomics like his could succeed. His take is that online comics of the past decade used a dedicated website to create an identity and maintain loyal readers. Now that most people experience the internet through social media services instead of individual websites, that relationship between artist and audience is lost. Instead, sites like Tumblr let many more people distribute comics, but everything goes into a single messy feed that doesn’t promote loyalty. Allison’s concern is that it’s becoming easier to get people to click a Thumbs Up button, but harder to find anyone who will stick around to give you money.
I want artists to get paid for their work, and I sympathize with Allison’s concerns. However, I don’t think it’s really getting harder to succeed. It’s not like the webcomics industry has ever been a safe, static one, and I’m sure Allison (who has moved confidently between three major comics now) understands this. Yes, the trend towards social media sites is a challenge, but the movement towards social media itself is an opportunity. By definition, social media gives you the chance to create the fanbase and identity that Allison wants his website to provide. The recent explosion of webcomics Kickstarter projects is evidence that fanbases are still willing to support creators. In fact, Kickstarter is a brand new way for webcomics creators to make money. We also seem to be getting closer to iPhone apps that provide a small, regular revenue stream for creators. And as sites like ShiftyLook show, webcomics have become so popular that companies are willing to fund them for their own marketing purposes.
That last point is my key takeaway. Not because I think that corporate sponsorship is the wave of the future, but because webcomics have become that popular. I remember in the heyday of John Allison’s alleged “webcomics era”, when Joey Manley posted his predictions for the year 2007. Chief among them, that popular comics would become ever more entrenched and that no new ones would challenge their popularity. That seemed self-evident at the time… but 2007 turned out to be the year of XKCD. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of Homestuck, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Axe Cop, and many others. (Not to mention juggernauts like Dresden Codak, which existed before then but hadn’t yet become popular.) Name your ten favorite webcomics, and I’ll bet you that Manley’s prediction predated half of them. The webcomics world is a much more diverse, vibrant place now than it was at the end of 2006, and a lot more money seems to be changing hands as well.
If I were going to summarize the difference between making webcomics now and making them in the last decade, it wouldn’t be in terms of websites vs. Tumblr streams. Instead, I think the difference is that webcomics readers used to be a small, dedicated scene, and now they’re basically the world. In 2006, your webcomic could only be successful if virtually everyone in the community was aware of you. Today, there is no “community”, because “people who browse the web for entertainment” describes pretty much the whole developed world. You could be virtually unknown in the wider world and still have thousands of true fans willing to support you. That requires a different way of approaching things, but it’s not necessarily bad.
Yes, Allison is right that 99% of the audience is just going to glance at comics as they stream by. But if the audience itself has increased one thousand-fold, then the 1% who are active represent a huge increase overall. It’s always been true that most webcomics will fail to find an audience, and that most people at comic conventions won’t appreciate Bad Machinery. Allison has seen that before, and I think his current worries come just from seeing a different angle on it. It seems to me that the webcomics industry is healthier now than it’s ever been.
The “Marvel NOW!” initiative has been running for a few months now, with soft relaunches intended to satisfy both old and new readers. I’ve been reading several of new series, and after my recent cynicism about Marvel’s direction, I went into this honestly unsure of what to expect. There are a lot of good signs here, but it turns out that the negatives far outweigh anything else. This is the time when I should write about my “first looks” at the new titles, but there’s only one that I feel compelled to discuss:
(Based on issues #1-4.)
It’s fairly common for DC and Marvel to jump on popular trends, and sometimes they find a way to make it work. But their continuity just isn’t set up to support a Hunger Games-like story about teens forced to kill each other. Superhero comics are unrealistic in many ways, but they work because of an established set of assumptions. For example, the heroes always have an alternative to killing, and a single accident is much more likely to injure or surprise someone than to actually kill them. Avengers Arena feels awkward from the start, as it tries to establish all its “because I said so” rules: The heroes have no way to escape, and no one can find them. Magic won’t work. The villain is satisfied just to mess around with these kids, even though his ability to create this status quo and hide the victims from the rest of the world’s heroes actually makes him incredibly powerful. And the camaraderie that should always make the heroes learn to work together disappears as soon as the villain tells them it should.
I’m not opposed to tragic hero deaths in principle, as long as they serve the story. I was one of the (apparently few) people who appreciated the recent ending to Amazing Spider-Man, because I felt that its events had been properly set up and was true to the characters. In fact, Runaways and Avengers Academy (which both contribute characters to this new title) were two of my favorite modern Marvel series. Both of those were known for stories in which characters changed or died frequently, but those changes were tied to the excellent character work. Avengers Arena author Dennis Hopeless writes these characters awkwardly, and so their out-of-character actions just feel like an insult to the fans. In fact, the first issue makes a point of picking up where Avengers Academy ended just to undo one of its happy moments. It’s manipulative, and it cheapens the work of the skilled creators who paved the way for this cash-in.
The art is better than the writing, but art isn’t the issue here. This is a cynical title focused on the shock value of good characters being hunted and killed by other “good” characters, and it’s too focused on that goal to let things like unfinished character arcs or established personalities get in its way. This is a serious problem, especially because its ramifications go beyond this single series. The point of ongoing superhero comics is that they are ongoing: The connection to the big picture makes each issue better, and I justify the price of individual issues by saying that I get more than just the pages of the current story. Obviously there will be unpleasant surprises from time to time, but the overall feeling needs to be that the stories are building on each other. Avengers Arena is an outright betrayal of some excellent past comics, and is obviously designed to take advantage of readers for having liked those. This can’t just be written off as Dennis Hopeless’ fault, because a heavily marketed slaughter-fest like this must have had heavy involvement from the editorial staff.
It’s possible that there are plans to explain or undo this further along. However, the four issues I’ve read have been clearly intended to accept at face value, and I can’t keep buying them. I can only conclude that the people steering Marvel have no respect for the value of their unfolding stories or the characters that drive them. There’s no reason for me to continue putting time and money into stories that are being guided by people willing to break the fundamental contract between publisher and reader. I’ve decided to stop buying Marvel superhero comics.
That’s how bad Avengers Arena is: It’s not just a bad idea and poorly-written, but it’s enough to kill all my interest in Marvel, period. I hope to someday see changes in their editorial direction that will let me trust the company again. In the meantime, though, I won’t regret ignoring them.
I could talk further about the other new series I tried, because on their own I had a generally positive opinion of them. But if I’m not willing to buy any Marvel titles because I no longer have faith that these ones will turn out well, there doesn’t seem to be any point in recommending them.
For now, I am continuing to follow only one Marvel series: Daredevil. I’ve never cared about this character or his supporting cast before, so I don’t have to be worried about what happens to them in the future. I’m just buying them because of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s excellent craft, and I don’t have to worry about building any sort of attachment that Marvel could take advantage of. It’s sad that I can only read one of their comics after making a calculated decision about my own lack of buy-in to it.