Webcomics Roundup: January

I’ve decided the best way for me to cover webcomics will be with a monthly article. In contrast to my normal posts, I won’t be assigning grades here. The new comics are generally too incomplete for a fair review, and of the established ones, I’ll only have read through their archives if I really liked them. Therefore, most of the ones I talk about will already be cherry-picked as an A or B comic. I’ll reserve letter grades for things like books and movies, which (1) I’m likely to complete even if I don’ t like them, and (2) usually cost money, so it’s more fair to point out the ones that I don’t like.

I was undecided at first about whether to categorize webcomics with print comics or to keep them separate. They’re obviously related mediums, if not the same, but in practice, they have very different audiences. I did eventually decide to categorize them together, though. (Use the “webcomics” tag to find just those posts.) This month’s subject matter is what made the decision for me: The three most notable new webcomics in January were all created by established names from the world of print comics. The boundary between the print and web worlds has definitely become more fluid.

Below, I’ll discuss Gingerbread Girl, Ratfist, and Bucko.

Gingerbread Girl is a new comic from fairly established sources: Writer Paul Tobin is a regular contributor to Marvel, most notably on their children’s line. Illustrator Colleen Coover also has a lot of Marvel and DC credits, though she’s best known for her independent work (especially Small Favors, which is at the top of most people’s lists of “erotica that women like”). It is being serialized online by Top Shelf, one of the most significant indie publishers in the comics field. Situated firmly between Fantagraphics’ “indier than thou” attitude and Oni Press’ pop focus, Top Shelf’s middle ground makes it possibly the bellwether for print comics’ changing attitude towards the web.

The story is still young, but it’s clearly character-driven. The center (at least for now) is 27-year-old Annah, who wants to live free, have fun, and feel nothing. (“Feeling nothing” is possibly part of a science fictional element, as Annah claims that her sensory feelings were removed and grown into a twin sister. Whether that turns out to be literally true or not, it’s already obvious that it should be taken as a metaphor for the way she tries to live.) The story opens on a date night, showing us both the carefree way she uses people and the fact that those people know better, but find Annah too fun to stay away from.

The characters have a habit of turning to the reader and talking directly to them, clearly stating their motivations with more self-awareness than real people generally have. There is a risk that this will make the characters more cartoony than the creators intend, but it helps the reader stay abreast of the story without much effort. Combined with Coover’s breezy linework and Tobin’s casual dialog, this is a fun, fast-flowing comic. I can’t say yet where this is going (fun romp? life-changing lesson?), but it’s clearly going to be a fun, high-quality comic.

I can’t discuss Gingerbread Girl without mentioning the website’s interface. Unfortunately, this is not up the the standards of the comic itself. Top Shelf’s webcomic presence (“Top Shelf 2.0”) is a marketing tool to stir up interest in the eventual print books, and so it’s unsurprising that it feels like an afterthought. Each two-to-three-page installment of Gingerbread Girl is posted separately, and the buttons that take you forward and back through the pages only work within that installment. If you followed my link to the start of the Gingerbread Girl story, chances are that you hit “Next” after page three, saw the pop-up window informing you that that was the last page, and assumed you were all caught up with the comic. Not true at all! I wonder how many people have had their interest piqued by the story’s opening but never figured out that it was still updating. To get to the other installments, you need to choose an episode from the “See Also…” drop-down menu, or from the list on the creator page. (Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed, but that lists every comic that Top Shelf 2.0 publishes even if you only care about this one!) That isn’t too awkward now, with only five installments to the story, but if it’s going to expand into a full-size novel, navigating the list of episodes will become more problematic. I’m not even sure if the “See Also…” list will keep the entire set of chapters, or if it’s restricted to a few “most relevant” ones.

Gingerbread Girl is a light-hearted, character-focused drama with excellent craft applied to both the writing and the art. It’s too bad that the production is a victim of the comics industry’s fumbling approach to web publishing.


 

 

 

Ratfist

 

Ratfist shows an established creator embracing the transition to webcomics. Written and drawn by Doug TenNapel (with colors by previously-unknown Katherine Garner), it alternates between the stories of a superhero named Ratfist and his alter ego Ricky. This one manages to fit a joke or surprise on each day’s new page in order to keep readers interested. So far, it seems like this could be a long-form story that still appeals to people who expect a gag-a-day format for their comics. TenNapel is also embracing the experimental, less commercial side of webcomics with his status updates excitedly telling the readers that he’s trying out a new style or different equipment.

I’m only passingly familiar with TenNapel’s most famous works (Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood, both of which should be familiar to computer gamers as well as comics fans), I have read a couple of his other comics, though, and I was disappointed. They seem a little too eager to show off weird and zany concepts for the first two thirds, and then switch to a heavy-handed Christian lesson for the conclusion. I don’t begrudge his beliefs or his politics, but when anyone writes a story predominantly to make a certain point, the story is probably going to suffer. As TenNapel well knows, a man cannot serve two masters, and that is why it is usually obvious when the story is a secondary consideration to someone.

Ratfist doesn’t have any preaching yet, but I’m expecting a lesson about the sanctity of marriage and the importance of honesty in a relationship. I agree with that message, but the fact that the comic opens with Ricky proclaiming himself to be a straw man in need of a comeuppance, I’m dreading the way that this comic will handle it. (No, seriously: “Marriage is just an antiquated institution, serving no purpose but to temper a man, provide emotional security for a woman… But marrying Gina will provide perfect cover for my alternate identity.”)

Ricky’s world and superpowers seem poorly defined. That isn’t necessarily a problem at this early stage, but I worry that the comic will stay “weird” rather than ever making sense of them. Despite some acrobatics, Ricky seems more self-deluded than powerful, with his “Ratfist” identity played for laughs. In civilian garb, he uncontrollably eats entire plates of cheese and drinks from a pet’s water bottle. His fiancée is confused by these things (she doesn’t know Ricky’s secret, hence the lack of communication), but ignores them in a way that is meant to be amusing but instead just breaks the suspension of disbelief.

As I said at the beginning, TenNapel has adapted to the webcomic methodology very well. That doesn’t guarantee a good comic, though. I plan to give this one a chance for a while, but it’s the weakest of these three comics.


The third webcomic, Bucko (warning: some NSFW images on the page), is harder to talk about now. It launched at the very end of January, and only has four pages to date. So far, it appears to be a buddy/odd couple comedy, with Rich (“Bucko”) as the straight-laced magnet for embarrassing situations, and Gyspy (maybe – we’ve only seen her name partially obscured) as the happy-go-lucky girl. The website promises a murder mystery, though, so this comedic duo will probably be doing more than just getting to know each other.

Like the other comics in this article, everyone behaves slightly cartoonishly. Rich just met the girl the night before, and she started calling him “Bucko” over his objections, but by page four he is accidentally using that name himself. It makes sense to us, the readers, because he was called Bucko for all three of the minutes we spent reading about him. But if he is a living, breathing person who has had the name Rich for twenty-some years, you’d expect him to hold on to his identity better.

This comic promises to work, though. I can see these personalities playing off each other strongly in a murder mystery, where getting to know each other will be an added spice rather than the focus. The author, Jeff Parker, has arguably the most impressive credentials of creators covered here. As the driving force behind Marvel’s Agents of Atlas and Thunderbolts, he has established a strong cult following. He has yet to become one of Marvel’s breakout stars, but he is now one of Marvel’s go-to people for supporting comics. The artist, Erika Moen, has had very little printed work, but has been a standout in the webcomic field for eight years now (most notably for her diary comic DAR!) I’m very curious to see how these creators, with their apparently different backgrounds, will work together. So far, it’s a great mix: Parker is adapting the dialog- and narration-heavy style reminiscent of many amateurish webcomics, but without a single clunky line. Moen not only provides strong art, but comes up with layouts and word balloon placements that avoid getting weighed down by all the text. Lettering is an underappreciated skill in comics, but Moen deserves congratulations for making this work so deftly.


This three-comic sample doesn’t necessarily prove anything in general about print comic creators working in the web. It is interesting to note that both writers who generally work on superheroes are doing a cutesy, more realistic story about twenty-something characters. Whether it’s a calculated triangulation for the web audience, or just a sign that they want to do something different, I don’t know. TenNapel, on the other hand, is creating something nominally in the superhero genre. (However, it will appeal much more to his normal fanbase than to superhero readers.) All three are working with the same long-form story structure that they are used to, rather than adapting to the daily gag format that is more popular online. Also, I can’t help but notice that only the writers have strong superhero credentials. The artists are established in independent or web fields. Is this a sign that superhero artists are less flexible than their writing counterparts? Comparing the varied body language in these webcomics to the stiff poses in most DC and Marvel work does make a case for that. On the other hand, it could just be that artists have a more demanding schedule, with a single monthly book requiring full-time effort, while the writers are already used to juggling multiple projects. (Or even more likely, I could be reading way too much into a small sample of comics. There are good webcomics out there created by superhero artists.)

What do you think?

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  1. February 8th, 2011
    Trackback from : Bucko – Bucko Page 5
  2. August 24th, 2011

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