I love comic strips. The World Wide Web has ushered in a new golden age of comic strips. And not only do many of these strips have great artwork, but they’ve broken free of the bland mediocrity that plagues strips in the newspaper; webcomics have an adventurousness and irreverence that you won’t often find in the paper (well, maybe in Funky Winkerbean).
There are hundreds of Webcomics out there, and I couldn’t possibly read them all – nor would I want to, since many of them are not to my taste. But I read quite a few, and try new ones that look interesting as I discover them. Most strips I read have good otr even great artwork, although a few have such strong writing that it overcomes their artistic deficiencies.
Here are all the Webcomics I’m reading these days, grouped into inadequate yet hopefully-helpful cateories:
The emphasis in these strips is to provide a joke in each episode. Some of them may have an ongoing continuity, but that’s not (to my mind) their main point.
- Basic Instructions, by Scott Meyer: A very sarcastic strip featuring the artist as protagonist, with faux-realistic illustrations of the characters. The humor’s all in the dialogue, which parodies “how to” and “self help” books by twisting well-meaning advice into silly situations involving snarky people. It took a while for it to grow on me, but some of the strips are hilarious.
- Comic Critics, by Sean Whitmore & Brandon Harvey: A group of friends who produce a podcast critiquing comic books, it’s sort of a meta comic strip, in that it’s never clear whether their criticisms reflect the opinions of the creators (I’m assuming not), but which presents critiques of real comic books and creators (consequently, non-comics fans might not find it accessible). It has an ongoing continity, but a loose one..
- Courting Disaster, by Brad Guigar: Guigar is better known for his Evil Inc. daily (see below), but Courting Disaster is a weekly single-panel strip about love, sex and relationships. It’s sarcastic pillories both genders more-or-less equally, but it’s not very deep. On the other hand, how much depth do you expect from a single-panel weekly?
- Dork Tower, by John Kovalic: Long-running comic satirizing geeks, especially FRPG gaming geeks. It has some ongoing character threads, but for the most part it’s a gag-a-day strip, often with horrible puns. Kovalic’s art is pretty simple, but it’s his writing that makes the strip work.
- Garfield Minus Garfield, by Jim Davis & Dan Walsh: The minor media phenomenon, Walsh discovered that if he subtracted Garfield from his own strip, then it became a twisted strip about the foibles of Jon Arbuckle, who talks to himself and reacts to nothing. Walsh cheats a little in his doctoring of Jim Davis’ panels, but mostly it’s amusing and clever. Davis approved of the concept and a collection has been published.
- Inktank, by Barry T. Smith: Smith used to draw several strips, the best-known of which was Angst Technology, the chronicle of a small computer game company. He ended his other strips a few years ago, and eventually started Inktank, which is semi-autobiographical, but features the AT crew. His humor features a lot of sarcasm, which I appreciate, but his art can get a little repetitive at times.
- The Joy of Tech, by Nitrozac & Snaggy (Liza Schmalcel & Bruce Evans): Technology industry humor, drawn in a retro style, often with a focus on Apple. Very hit-or-miss, but worth following if you follow the tech industry.
- Last Call, by Megan Steckler: I stumbled across this one back when Steckler was updating it only occasionally, and it focused on the main character, Abby, drinking at the local bar and talking to her imaginary alter ego, Lily, a scantily-clad succubus only she can see. Since she started updating regularly, it often focuses on the relationship between Abby and her husband Beau, who are both geeks. It seems like Steckler intended to make this a bit of a gamer’s comic strip too, as Abby’s background involves working at a game store, but that aspect never really materialized.
Anyway, it’s quirky and cartoony and irreverent, which explains why I like it, although it’s got more of a ‘home brew’ feel than many of the other strips I read.
- Penny Arcade, by Jerry Holkins & Mike Krahulik: One of the most successful webcomics ever, Penny Arcade nominally comments on the computer gaming industry through the persons of its creators’ fictional avatars, although with regular forays into other pop culture arenas or into utter nonsense. It can be crude, bloody, and tasteless at times, and there’s rarely anything resembling an ongoing story. Some of the gags are hilarious, but it’s not one of my favorites.
- PvP, by Scott Kurtz: Arguably the other most successful webcomic ever, it chronicles the lives of employees at a computer gaming magazine company, one of whom is an imaginary troll. Kurtz probably has his finger on the pulse of pop culture as much as any other webcomics artist, with a particular love of 70s television and of comic books of any era. Ridiculous nonsense is frequently the order of the day, but it also has an ongoing storyline. The strip often blurs the line between reality and fantasy. I’m not sure anything sums up the series better than this episode of The Adventures of LOLbat (and you can read the follow-up storyline for more such silliness). Kurtz is also a very talented artist, whose style has developed from stiff and repetitive into one that’s imaginative and flexible (see, for instance, his satire of Watchmen, Ombudsmen). Not everything in PvP works for me, but when it does work, it’s excellent.
- Sinfest, by Tatsuya Ishida: The third-most-successful webcomics strip? Hard to say, since the author seems to keep his cards close to his chest; maybe the others just get more publicity. Nonetheless, Ishida is a fantastic artist with a twisted sense of humor, which he brings to bear in an ongoing character drama with a dose of current events satire. Strongly reminiscent of the best of Bloom Country (before Bill the Cat showed up), it’s been running for years and is worth reading from the beginning. Start with the collection.
- XKCD, by Randall Munroe: Ãœber-geeky strip which comments on math, computers, and romance, drawn with stick figures. The James Bond strip or the Mac sudo strip are good examples. Or maybe the regular expressions one. I’m particular partial to the one on getting some perspective. But I think my favorite has to be duty calls.
Anyway, be sure to mouse over the image to see the tooltip for an extra punchline.
Ongoing adventure strips with a strong humor component.
- Evil Inc, by Brad Guigar: Guigar’s main strip, about supervillains running a corporation to, well, support supervillains. With a large cast, often-complex story arcs, it’s one of the more ambitious comics out there. Guigar’s got a cartoony style that translates very well to superheroics. The humor is frequently broad, with sight gags, character-based humor, and puns. Worth reading from the beginning – it’ll take you a while! Alternately, you can buy the collections (four published to date), which tell the story reformatted for a full-page format. (The original strips are better, though.)
- Girl Genius, by Phil & Kaja Foglio: To be over-the-top about it, Girl Genius is the sine qua non of webcomics. To come clean I’ve been a huge fan of Phil Foglio’s writing and art for 30 years now, and I own nearly everything he’s published that I can get my hands on (most of it in hardcover). His work has been hilariously funny, devilishly inventive, utterly irreverent, and creatively and maniacally drawn.
Girl Genius adds into this mix a complicated backstory (mad scientists co-opt the industrial revolution, and our heroine is the lost daughter of two of the greatest mad scientist heroes of the recent war), a huge cast, politics, romance, and period attire. While some of the manic energy doesn’t make the transition to this long-form story, and there are sequences that drag at times, it’s still an hugely satisfying ongoing adventure story, with laughs and drama and excitement. Updated 3 times a week, no one else does webcomics better.
- Rocket Road Trip, by Shawn Boyles & Isaac Stewart: I just discovered this strip this week; it’s the charming story of a semi-competent monster hunter, his disfunctional family, and the monsters he hunts. It’s sort of like PVP crossed with an especially demented Calvin & Hobbes. A relatively new strip, it’s pretty funny.
- Sidekick Girl, by Laura Cascos & Erika Wagner: I stumbled on this a few months ago and laughed my ass off. Sidekick Girl is Val, a woman who was rejected as a superhero (despite some pretty potent abilities) because she, uh, couldn’t pass the physical. She was assigned as a sidekick to Illumina, who could pass the physical, but whose lights aren’t turned up all the way in her attic. Val doesn’t wear a costume and carries a baseball bat. It’s a fine satire of superhero comics, and a must-read for any fan of the genre. Unfortunately the current story involves virtual reality D&D, but hopefully it’ll get back to its roots soon.
- Wapsi Square, by Paul Taylor: Wapsi Square has been two rather different comic strips since it launched in 2001. The first few years it was a slice-of-life strip centered around Monica, a young anthropologist, and her eccentric gang of friends. But a few years ago it changed into a light adventure strip in which Monica learns that she and her friends need to figure out how to stop the world from ending in 2012 at the end of the current Mayan calendar. The strip has several supernatural elements (spirits, a minor deity, a sphinx, teleportation, prophecy) and the character interplay has decreased significantly.
Overall I enjoyed the sillier, more character-driven strips of the earlier days – I think my favorite sequence is when Monica buys a new bicycle – which is surprising considering how plot-oriented I tend to be. But the more recent strips are not as funny, and I have a hard time following (or, really, caring to follow) the ins and outs of the plan to keep the world from ending. It’s a more sophisticated strip, but I don’t think it’s as much fun.
Taylor’s artwork has also changed a lot over the years. The earliest strips are much less polished, but the most recent strips feel almost too polished, and something about the way he draws faces changed so that the characters today look a bit too artificial. Compare, for instance, this early strip (which is still quite well-drawn – look at the backgrounds), to this strip from a few years later, to this recent strip. I think the middle one is the best of the three, and I tend to prefer the more organic style of the earlier strip over the precise look of the later strip, in which the characters look a little creepy.
So although I was very enthusastic about Wapsi Square when I first discovered it and started reading the archives from the beginning, the more recent strips just don’t excite me as much. I’d like Taylor to find a happy medium between the complex ongoing plot and the more freewheeling style of the earlier strips.
- Plan B, by Mitz: I discovered this recently when looking at Chris Sim’s Woman of A.C.T.I.O.N., and loved it immediately. The main character is a supervillain, Veronica (her name and her code-name) who learned she was married to a super-hero, and who turned to a life of crime when their marriage broke up. The details are still being revealed. Veronica is twisted but very self-aware, and also pretty grumpy and nasty, so we see the usual superhero fights and schemes from the villain’s side, although she’s not your usual villain. Despite being a comical deconstruction of the superhero genre, there’s a heavy dose of violence and innuendo in the strip, giving it a sharp edge. It’s sort of the evil version of Sidekick Girl, and really just as good.
The hard stuff: Funny occasionally, but these are strips with serious ongoing stories.
- Afterstrife, by Ali Graham: Megan and Stitch are two young people who pass away and find themselves in a purgatory-like afterlife. Their souls are linked somehow, and so they’re stuck with each other even though they don’t really like each other, but they have to work off their karmic debts in order to move on, and some of the rulers of this afterlife don’t want them to get away. It’s pretty serious and often tense and suspenseful, and Graham does a good job keeping my interest. Graham’s art is inventive but his figures and faces aren’t as dynamic or expressive as some other artists. It seems to be nearing a climax lately.
- Danielle Dark, by Jay Bradley: A full-page weekly, the heroine is a vampire who was turned in the 19th century, and who moves from place to place since she doesn’t age. Despite this, it’s sort of a “young adult sitcom” with vaguely threatening overtones, with Danielle recently falling for one of her victims – who also happens to be in the witness protection program. Bradley has a nice clean style, although his facial expressions get very exaggerated at times. Early in the strip he endowed Danielle with big boobs, because they attract more prey that way, you see (and readers too, presumably).
- FreakAngels, by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield: Comics writer Ellis is the brains behind this weekly post-apocalyptic strip in which a group of telepaths accidentally cause the end of the world, and then set out (well, most of them) to rebuild a pocket of civilization in Whitechapel, London. They don’t really all like each other, but mostly work together towards a common cause. Naturally, the world (what remains of it) is both hostile towards and jealous of them and what they’ve built, so there are threats from every corner, including from within. The first two chapters (try the trade paperbacks) take place over just two days, so this strip could go on for quite a while. Who knows?
Duffield has a distinctive, clean, style, with a strong sense of place and architecture, and the art is lovingly colored. He really brings the future Whitechapel to life. How he hasn’t gotten a high-profile gig at a major comics publisher, I have no idea.
- Gunnerkrigg Court, by Tom Siddell: I’ve written before about this excellent comic, chronicling the adventures of the young Antimony Carver at the otherworldly school of Gunnerkrigg Court. It’s one of the very best out there, just a smidge below Girl Genius. Not to be missed. You can also buy the collection.
Soap Opera/Slice of Life
A little bit of everything: Humor, drama, ongoing stories, but mainly tracking the stories of their characters and their relationships.
- Girls With Slingshots, by Danielle Corsetto: The daily adventuresof two quirky women, and their friendships and relationships. Often rather explicit in its content, it’s also silly and sarcastic. Corsetto has an attractive cartoony style with characters who look very different from one another. Probably my second-favorite strip in this category, behind…
- Questionable Content, by Jeph Jacques: My first close encounter with soap opera webcomics, and it’s probably the best of them. It follows the lives of a group of friends living in western Massachusetts (near “Smif” college), and despite running for years, the in-strip continuity has lasted less than a year so far. The main characters are the shy Marten and the overbearing Faye, who become roommates early on. Significant characters include Marten’s girlfriend and Faye’s boss, Dora; Marten’s anthropomorphic PC Pintsize; and Hannelore, who has extreme OCD. The strips vary between charming and sarcastic, but are often frickin’ hilarious. Jacques isn’t the best artist on the Web, but he’s good enough for his subject matter, and most importantly does a fine job with expressions and body language, which is what the strip demands.
- Least I Could Do, by Ryan Sohmer & Lar deSouza: I just started reading this one, but it’s been running for a while. It seems to be the daily adventures of self-centered and promiscuous Rayne and his cast of characters. Its earnestness takes some of the edge off its slightly distasteful protagonist, but it hasn’t won me over yet.
- Sweet Fat Life, by Lauren & Genny: I came across this recently and other than being somewhat focused on its two protagonists being large women, it feels a lot like a slightly wonkier Girls With Slingshots. Updating has been erratic since I started reading it, and the archives are something of a grab-bag, but if it can get on a regular schedule and establish an ongoing continuity, it could develop into a good one.
I don’t have any particular approach to discovering new webcomics. Going through Comixpedia systematically seems like a way to spend a lot of time while only finding a couple of strips I want to read. I actually check out some of the strips that advertise through Project Wonderful which appears on the front pages of Wapsi Square and Girls With Slingshots, although few of them have seemed like my cup of tea. But it’s not like I have a shortage of strips to read.
What’s good out there that I ought to be reading?