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Webcomics I Read (2014 Edition)

Every year I think, “I didn’t really start reading a lot of webcomics this year”, and every year I’m surprised by how many I did start reading. This year is no exception, and includes one of the comics I’ve had the most fun catching up on from the beginning (The Bright Side), and one which I most look forward to reading new installments every day (Demon), and a whole bunch of others besides. I also recommend Alice Grove, The Specialists, and Sufficiently Remarkable.

As usual I’m just going to write a short piece for each one, and encourage you to check out the strips themselves if they sound interesting.

Entries for past years can be found here: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.

  • Alice and the Nightmare, by Michelle Krivanek: Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy about a woman named Alice living in a stratified society and not being comfortable with the callous attitude her peers display towards lower class citizens. Only one or two chapters have been published before it went on hiatus in August, and it’s not yet clear to me what the “nightmare” is. Might appeal to fans of Ava’s Demon or Blindsprings.
  • Alice Grove, by Jeph Jacques: Known for Questionable Content, one of the most popular webcomics around, Jeph Jacques launched Alice Grove this fall. It’s a long-form science fiction piece in which an alien falls to Earth in, well, a grove tended by a woman named Alice. Alice seems to be the protector of a local town, and recently took down a visitor sporting some serious nanotech. That’s all the know so far. The strip pushes Jacques’ art skills farther than QC generally does (which I bet is part of the reason he started it) and they’re taking a little while to catch up. On the bright side it features some of his whimsical humor. Overall I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes next year.
  • Bird Boy, by Annie Szabla: Fantasy story about a 10-year-old boy who strays from his tribe and gets caught up in the goings-on of powerful beings who do not have the best interest of humans at heart. The story follows our hero on his mostly-solitary adventures which sometimes threaten to overwhelm him not just physically but emotionally. Szabla knocks the art out of the park, though the story is not bowling me over so far. I’m still in wait-and-see mode with this one.
  • Boulet: Boulet is a french cartoonist, and he publishes here strips of greatly varying length. I discovered him because his strip “Kingdoms Lost” got spotlighted, and it’s a terrific story of a warrior and princess who get ousted from their universe and have different outlooks on going back. More cynically there’s “Jurassic Park: Realistic Version”. A new Boulet page usually requires a little time commitment to read, and not every strip grabs me, but it’s good stuff overall.
  • The Bright Side, by Amber Francis: I devoured the extensive archives of this strip in less than a week – it’s really, really good. Emily is a girl who saw the personification of Death when her mother died when she was young. She met him again as a high schooler, and they became friends. He’s immortal and can travel through time (he kinda has to in order to do his job of reaping everyone who dies), but he’s a nice guy despite his unique vantage point, even a bit naive since he hasn’t had the human life experience himself. The strip is mostly about them discussing the nature of life and existence, which might sound tedious but once the strip found its legs it actually stays quite interesting. Also thoughtful, touching, and funny.

    Time is slowly passing in the strip (maybe a year or two since it started?), so there is gradual progress. For example, Em recently learned the truth about her father, and has gone to visit him and his family. I don’t know whether Francis has an ultimate direction or goal for the strip (there have been a few hints that she does, but they’re ambiguous enough that it needn’t play out that way). I kind of hope she does, but it doesn’t need to come any time soon.

    The art starts out rough and gradually tightens up, though the style stays sketchy. It’s very expressive, though, which is necessary since there are a lot of subtle things that happen along the way, so the range of facial expressions is invaluable.

    Highly recommended. Honestly given its extensive archive I can’t believe I haven’t heard of it before this year.

  • Cardboard Crack, by Magic Addict: Gag-a-day strips for people who play Magic: The Gathering, and probably of limited interest to anyone else. The art is very simplistic, somewhere south of xkcd quality, but the artist clearly understands Magic gamers and their foibles.
  • Demon, by Jason Shiga: Shiga is an independent comics artist who’s been around a while, but I discovered him through this strip (and then promptly bought most of his catalog at APE this fall). The protagonist, Jimmy, attempts suicide in a strip motel in the first chapter – and wakes up back in the same room. He repeats this several times before he learns what’s going on – and then things get really weird. The reveal at the end of the first chapter is awesome, and the story has had several twists and turns since then, and continues to get more involved and tense. Shiga also brings his trademark cool, analytical approach to explaining how things work in the story. Shiga’s art has a distinct, recognizable style, although his geometric-shape figures sometimes feel a little stiff, but they never really get in the way of telling the story. Demon pages go up 5 days a week and they’re usually one of my first reads each day.
  • Dicebox, by Jenn Manley Lee: A high-profile science fiction webcomic following the exploits of Molly and Griffen, friends and lovers travelling around known space and working various odd jobs. It’s strongly character-driven, mainly around Griffen’s idiosyncrasies and complicated back story. The art is complex and gorgeous, but I often feel like the story is not really for me: It feels like it’s a lot of running around and talking, but that the story is largely in the background and is progressing very slowly. I also feel that, despite all the talking, the characters are not very strong – Griffen is really the only one who seems distinct. There are some dryly entertaining moments, but it’s not one of my favorites.
  • Dorkly, by Andrew Bridgman and others: Geek humor, broadly told and hilariously illustrated. Dorkly is a geek clickbait site, but the comics are amusing.
  • Fowl Language Comics, by Brian Gordon: One- and two-panel observations of the world, full of sarcasm and smartassery. Be sure to read the bonus panel for each strip.
  • The Fox Sister, by Christina & Jayd Aït-Kaci: A modern urban fantasy story taking place in South Korea (well, actually it takes place in the 1960s, but that’s “modern” by fantasy standards). Yun Hee is a young woman whose older sister died years earlier. Alex, a visiting American, gets interested in her, and gets caught in a struggle involving an evil spirit and possession. Things moved right along for a while, but updates have been infrequent lately, making it harder to follow. It’s worth reading through the archives, though.
  • Happle Tea, by Scott Maynard: Gag-a-day strip focusing on making fun of (mainly) religion, though also pop culture and the supernatural. Oddly most of the jokes involve defunct religions (e.g., Greek or Norse mythology), which I think is less satisfying than skewering contemporary religion. It doesn’t really have an ongoing narrative so you can jump in anywhere. Good art, though the jokes are usually verbal rather than visual.
  • LeveL, by Nate Swinehart: This one baffles me a bit. Science fiction in a multi-sectored metropolis, in which a young man named Cael was involved in some sort of disaster, and lives under house arrest for three years thereafter. We also see what happens when a sector gets closed down. But it feels like this is all the very early stages of a much longer story, and it’s not at all clear where it’s going.
  • Lovecraft is Missing, by Larry Latham: A long-form horror strip which has been running for several years: In the 1920s, the writer H.P. Lovecraft disappears, and some friends and acquaintances investigate what happened, naturally finding that many things he wrote about are real. The story plods at times (much like Lovecraft’s own work), but it’s pretty good. The real downside is that writer/artist Latham was diagnosed with cancer, had to stop drawing, hired a new artist – and then passed away this fall. So it’s not clear whether the strip will get finished.
  • M.F.K., by Nilah: Abbie, a teen girl carrying her mother’s ashes, ends up in a desert village. She also reveals herself to be a telekinetic – unregistered – when a band other other such folks wanders in to terrorize the town. There’s some good stuff here – the art, for instance, and the showdown between Abbie and the others – though the story is on the slow side. No, I haven’t yet figured out what “M.F.K.” stands for.
  • Monster Soup, by Julie Devin: I can’t really summarize it better than the artist does on the site: “A zombie, witch, ghost, werewolf, and a vampire are sentenced to live in a castle. Unbeknownst to them, they all share the same incompetent lawyer and judge who seemed intent on sending them to the same castle.” The five convicts don’t always get along very well, and the castle has secrets which are dangerous even to them. Art is decent, seems influenced by a mix of manga and video games, neither of which has any special appeal to me. It’s been on hiatus since September.
  • Next Town Over, by Erin Mehlos: A fantasy western in which shadowy bounty hunter, Vane Black, chases an unscrupulous rogue, John Henry Hunter, through a variety of small towns, the pair wreaking havoc along the way. Neither of the characters is particularly admirable or relatable, and the stories are little more than a series of set-pieces or mayhem and escapades. The art is very good, but after 7 chapters it feels like there’s not really a lot to bite into here.
  • Opportunities, by ML Snook & Katie DeGelder: This is a comic I feel I should like a lot more than I do, inasmuch as it’s pretty serious SF stuff involving aliens and humans interacting in the present day in a single spaceport, where a murder occurs. The art is not very sophisticated, but it’s good enough, especially in rendering the backdrop of the grand hotel where events take place. But the cast is sizable, not especially developed, and the story seems to mainly just be characters running around with few notable developments. So I’ve found it hard to get invested in what’s going on, though of course it’s always possible that I haven’t paid close enough attention.
  • Scandinavia and the World, by Humon: Humorous strip featuring personifications of various nations (the Scandinavian ones, of course, and some others) and the way they view each others’ peculiarities. The art is on the adorable side, which is a funny contrast to some of the subject matter.
  • Sfeer Theory, by Alex Singer & Jayd Aït-Kaci: Fantasy-adventure in a world resembling, perhaps, 18th or early 19th century Europe in which those who master Sfeer Theory can control physical objects. Valentino is a young man with an unusual mastery of these skills, but who has low social status. Also, his kingdom of Warassa is wrapping up a war with a neighbor. Lots of interesting stuff here, but seems to update irregularly. Also, it doesn’t have an RSS feed, which makes it very difficult to keep up with.
  • The Specialists, by Al Fukalek & Shawn Gustafson: It’s World War II and the Nazis have developed superhumans. The Americans are trying to do the same, but it’s not going very well. The Specialists are the team of superhumans they have so far, and most of the government regards them as something of a joke. The premise is similar to Kieron Gillen’s comic book Über, but it’s less grim and desperate, with a little more humor. Fukalek’s art is a bit on the rough side, but it gets stronger as the story goes along. The story took a while to get going, but it’s paying off: The team is currently in the midst of their first battlefield test, which has brought several things to a head. Overall a strong strip.
  • Spindrift, by Elsa Kroese & Charlotte E. English: High fantasy with different species (some with wings, some with horns), class warfare, cross-species children, family responsibilities, and cultural burdens. Not exactly my sort of thing, and my interest has flagged since updates fell to once every three weeks. The art is attractive, though.
  • Stonebreaker, by Peter Wartman: I bought Wartman’s graphic novel Over the Wall some months ago (it’s also available online here), and Stonebreaker is billed as a sequel to it. A girl enters an ancient abandoned city searching for her brother and encounters the demons that live there. It’s still spinning up, it feels like. Nice black-and-white art, especially the details in the background.
  • Sufficiently Remarkable, by Maki Naro: Here’s a comic I enjoy more than I expected to: A couple of roommates, Riti and Meg, working through life in New York. Riti is a dreamer who’s constantly bogged down in the mundanity of every-day life, while Meg is a free spirit with little sense of responsibility. The writing could be tightened up a bit as sometimes the story feels a bit aimless, but some of the escapades are funny. The art reminds me a bit of that from Lilo and Stitch.
  • Supercakes, by Kat Layh: A series of vignettes about a pair of superhero girlfriends. Updates irregularly (last update was in August), but some fun character bits: A quiet morning, meeting family at the holidays, and a winter adventure against ice giants. Really strong artwork. Looking forward to more, when it arrives.
  • Trekker, by Ron Randall: Trekker was published as a series of comics back in the 80s, and a new chapter was printed recently in Dark Horse Presents. Ron Randall has all of that material available to read here, along with new chapters. Mercy St. Clair is a “Trekker”, essentially a bounty hunter working on future Earth to capture criminals the law can’t keep up with. Though she looks younger, there’s a developing thread of her being older and her body starting to break down on her, though she’s still one of the best in the business. More adventure than hard science fiction or noir, it’s a fun read for fans of that genre. Randall is also a terrific artist so the pages look great, and while Mercy is an attractive woman, there’s not a lot of cheesecake in the strip.
  • Unearth, by Mathew Van Dinter: Boy, I am not sure what to make of this strip. Steampunk fantasy in which – eventually – the characters will be burrowing into the Earth, I think, but so far it’s been an extensive set-up largely involving comedies of manners (especially poor manners). The artwork is very quirky, the poses having a weird mix of stiff and expressive. It seems like it has a lot of promise, but it’s taking a long time to get to it.
  • Utopia City, by Ron Gravelle: Aeons ago, space gods fought among themselves and eventually called a truce. Today, they empower proxies to fight their battles for them, but in Utopia City one man is working to defeat their minions and ultimately stop the gods themselves. A Kirby-esque pulp superhero yarn told in realistic black-and-white illustrations, it’s loud, hard-hitting, and not at all subtle, it frankly feels decidedly retro in the modern day. The art is good, if somewhat lacking in dynamism. The story hasn’t really grabbed me yet, as it’s light on characterization.
  • Witchy, by Ariel Ries: A fantasy ina kingdom of witches where the strength of your magic is determined by the length of your hair – but if it’s too long, you’re judged an enemy of the state are executed. Our heroine Nyneve had her father killed in that way when she was small, and now a teenager she hides the length of her hair to save herself from the same fate. But the day of being tested for entry into the Witch Guard is coming. The story is still in its prologue, building to its first major dramatic turning point, but it’s pretty good so far. The art is on the simple side – not many backgrounds, for instance – but it has some interesting character designs.

If there’s a common thread I notice when putting together these entries, it’s that long-form dramatic webcomics which don’t update regularly are hard to follow and hard to remember. This is compounded if the story doesn’t have memorable characters (either visually or in personality). Hell, it’s sometimes hard to remember what’s going on in Girl Genius, and it updates three times a week like clockwork. There are a lot of strips like that fighting to distinguish themselves from others, and it’s gotta be hard on the artist if they’ve been toiling away for a year or two and haven’t broken out.

Sometimes I wonder if some strips are too ambitious, so that a year or more of strips still feels like the story is in the prologue. Contrast with ongoing humor strips which often start with a small cast and build them out over time. I wonder whether dramatic strips might do better to take the same approach, especially if they update infrequently.

Still, it’s easy to say all that when you’re not doing your own strip, eh?

The Wicked + The Divine #1

The Wicked + The Divine #1, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie, Image Comics, June 2014

The Wicked + The Divine #1 Like most of the comics-reading world, I discovered Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie through their two Phonogram mini-series. I quite enjoyed the first one, although McKelvie’s art was still very raw (plus it was in black-and-white, and I prefer color). But I couldn’t get into the second one, The Singles Club, which was a set of short stories with thin characterization and minimal plot. McKelvie’s art had reached A-list quality by that time, so I’ve kept an eye on each of their work. That wasn’t hard to do, since the comics blogosphere loves them. Also, I’ve been quite enjoying Gillen’s run on Iron Man (though I bailed on his Avatar comic Über after about five issues).

Their new collaboration, The Wicked + The Divine came out a couple of weeks ago to rave reviews. I enjoyed it, but I think it’s far too early to get tremendously enthusiastic about it. Well, except for the art – the art is fantastic.

The premise is that there are a set of gods (at least 4, perhaps 12) who manifest in human form – apparently by taking over the bodies of actual humans – every 90 years, stick around for 2 years, and then die. We see their last incarnations’ final moments in the 1920s in the prologue, and then we jump forward to the present day where a girl named Laura is at a dance trying to become the host for the goddess Amaterasu. She’s not chosen, but afterwards she meets Luci, one of the other gods (bet you can’t guess which one). After an assassination attempt on the gods during an interview, Luci is put on trial, and everything goes to hell.

The story has its ups and downs. The big issue I had with Phonogram is that I can’t relate to Gillen’s perspective on pop culture, especially in music, so the scene where Laura goes to Amaterasu’s concert was, for me – just short of literally – sound and fury, signifying nothing. But what happens afterwards is quite interesting: Luci’s interest in Laura, and her friction with her fellow gods, and her seemingly erratic nature. Which characters are in play, and what games they’re playing. That’s the stuff I’m interested in, and what the gods plan to do with their brief time on Earth. (What would make someone apparently give up their life to be a host to a god is another interesting question, though after this issue it’s far less interesting than what led to the issue’s cliffhanger.)

Oh, and the art is fantastic, as I said. McKelvie still sports the clean line that’s characterized his art all along, but the 1920s sequence also shows a sense of form and shading reminiscent of John Cassaday – which isn’t necessarily better than McKelvie’s usual style, but shows a lot of flexibility.

So color me cautiously optimistic. So there’s a lot of promise here. But if the series ends up being built around Gillen & McKelvie’s musical interests, or being clever in its pop culture references, then I expect it will lose my interest. It’s the gods and the game they’re playing that I’m here for.

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers, by Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson, Dark Horse Comics, March 2014

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers Reviewers often talk about “the best comic you’re not reading”, but I would bet that the very best comic you’re not reading is Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden.

The reason you’re not reading it is that it’s published sporadically. The original mini-series has been collected in a handsome hardcover, but otherwise the team has appeared in three issues of Dark Horse Presents, and now this one-shot. Despite the relatively high-profile creators – Dorkin having come to prominence with Milk and Cheese, Thompson probably best known for her Scary Godmother books – this series has been flying under the radar.

The other reason you might not have been reading it is that it’s about a squad of animals who fight supernatural menaces, and you might not be interested in reading a comic about animals. But that’s underselling the premise, because what it’s really about is the culture of dogs and cats that Dorkin and Thompson have crafted, with a mix of characters from wise, almost shamanistic older dogs, to upstart, tough-talking younger pups, and the cat, Orphan, who hangs out with them. These animals live in suburban Burden Hill, and while we see several of them going him to their owners, and other pets who are domesticated and don’t get out much, the humans are part of the setting, not part of the story.

The story in this one-shot involves the pack of dogs luring out an invisible monster, which is par for the series, although there’s been some character development along the way, too. The story does a great job of portraying the characters, some of who are deeply scared by their mission, while others are, well, not quite fearless, but certainly bolder. The best parts of the book is the end, though, where the pack makes the rounds of their neighborhood after finishing their adventure, which really shows the attitudes of some of the different animals in contrast to each other. The last page is a little ominous, and may or may not be setting up a longer-term story.

Thompson’s art is brilliant, drawing realistic-looking animals who have expressions understandable by her human readers, without making them look cartoonish. The colors look like watercolors (see the cover to the left for a good example) and give the art additional depth and texture without overwhelming the layouts.

This one-shot may not be the best jumping-on point for the series, but it’s worth a look if you can’t find the earlier collection. It might not quite be all-ages fare, but it’s pretty close. Certainly it’d be great if sales could get a boost so Dorkin & Thompson could afford to produce more issues more regularly.

Five Weapons #7

Five Weapons #7, by Jimmie Robinson, Image Comics, February 2014

Five Weapons #7 Five Weapons is the latest project by writer/artist Jimmie Robinson, who’s best known for the superhero satire Bomb Queen (which wasn’t my thing), and earlier for his science fiction adventure Amanda and Gunn (which I love and highly recommend). Five Weapons falls somewhere between those two series in tone, being a cleverly-plotted cliffhanger-driven drama, but with a quirky setting and regular doses of humor (some of which deliberately clashes with the more serious material). There’s not much quite like it on the market today.

Five Weapons began life as a 5-issue limited series (collected), which I’ll now summarize – though since it ends with a plot twist, I’ll talk around that as best I can: Tyler Shainline is admitted to a private academy for aspiring assassins, on the strength of being the son of a famous assassin. The school focuses on skills with five different weapons, and the students are grouped into clubs around the weapons; Tyler is pressured into choosing to join a club. You’d expect that the series would show Tyler gaining mastery of all five weapons, but in fact he is a pacifist and refuses to fight with any weapon. The series’ formula is one of showdowns with the five club leaders, each issue ending on a cliffhanger where one wonders how Tyler is going to win this fight without actually fighting. Tyler is in fact at the school on a mission, which he completes at the end of the series, earning the respect of some of the other students. But, since he doesn’t actually plan to become an assassin, he leaves the school.

The ongoing series starts with issue #6, where our hero returns to the school, this time as a medic training under the school’s doctor. However, one of the other students has a grudge against him and sets out to destroy his reputation and get him expelled. The two issues since still end on a “how’s he going to get out of this one cliffhanger”, but we no longer have confidence that he’s going to overcome his enemy, who’s about as clever as he is. This issue has him working out of one fix, learning some surprising things about a few of the adults, and then getting into another jam on the last page.

While written in a straightforward, grounded manner, the setting of Five Weapons is bizarre, sometimes even surreal. There are several characters whom one might characterize as stereotypes, for example the teacher who heads the archery club, who is an American Indian (“Ms. Featherwind”). But for me, the weird thing – as you can see from the cover I’ve reproduced here, is that she has an arrow through her head, and a big target covering the left side of her head. It’s like something from a Batman or Avengers episode from the 60s, an affectation that doesn’t make much sense but sure looks weird. Characters in the series are full of this kind of thing, some of which are explained (the doctor is missing her nose and wears a bandage around her head to cover where it would be), some not.

Additionally, for a school for assassins there isn’t a whole lot of assassinating going on, and there are a lot of students attending. The story alludes to missions that some of the adults have run, but there’s a general feel of “don’t look too closely at how this place fits into the world at large”. You’d think it would take a special kind of sociopath (or psychopath) to become an aspiring assassin as a teenager, but these kids don’t really show it.

Indeed, I find the book enjoyable because the main character and his closer friends are all pretty easy to relate to. And because the cliffhangers in the story are enjoyable brain-teasers. Robinson’s artwork is also quite strong, especially in his characters’ distinctive faces and expressions; it’s a long way from superhero comics. Yet the colors are bright and cheerful, also cutting against what would seem to be grim subject matter.

It’s hard to tell whether Robinson has a long-term plan for the series, as the initial arc – presumably intended to stand on its own – felt complete in itself. Some notional 50-issue storyline would also seem out of place for this series, but we’ll see. Its internal artistic conflicts are part of what appeals to me about it; it’s got such a strong identity, yet that identity seems almost self-consciously fragile. Probably I’m overanalyzing it, as the overall feel is one of narrow escapes from danger in the most fun, adventuresque ways.

Rat Queens #4

Rat Queens #4, by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch, Image Comics, January 2014

Rat Queens #4 Rat Queens is one of a smattering of (seemingly) Dungeons & Dragons inspired comics I’ve read recently. It bears some similarity to Guilded Age in that both of them focus on what happens when a band of adventurers who make their living off of fighting and plundering tries to integrate into civilized society.

In this story, the four women who make up the Rat Queens are one of several groups who draw the ire of the town’s leaders due to their drinking, carousing, and property damage. After being thrown in jail the groups are assigned “community service” in the form of being sent to clear out some nasty folks in the vicinity. But the groups find they’ve been set up to fail (and die); some groups don’t make it, but the Queens do and set out to find out who’s behind it.

The story’s told with a modern sensibility, including modern language and cursing, and a lot of it is also told with tongue firmly in cheek. But it’s still a lot of fun, and often laugh-out-loud funny, so it hooked me from the start. This issue features Betty the Hobbit thief (did I mention it’s D&D inspired?) finding out who set them up, leading to a showdown, and then another showdown as the ramifications of their adventures come home to roost. It’s a lot of fighting, much of it pretty bloody, but if you can deal with that stuff it’s also entertaining and humorous.

Writer Kurtis J. Wiebe is probably best known for Peter Panzerfaust, a World War II era tale that takes its cues from Peter Pan, but so far I think Rat Queens is the better book of the two, with more humor, better-defined characters, and more structure to its story. I also prefer the art of Roc Upchurch here to that of Tyler Jenkins on Panzerfaust; Upchurch’s style reminds me a lot of that of Fiona Staples (currently getting rave reviews for Saga), but I like Upchurch’s art better than hers, too, although both of them suffer from a paucity of backgrounds. I think Upchurch also does the colors, and I think his lines would be better served by brighter colors.

So the series has gotten off to a strong start, but I’m hoping Wiebe and Upchurch have plans to develop it beyond the humor and fighting. For example, we don’t have a strong sense of the main characters beyond Betty, and a series of escapades is going to get repetitive quickly. There’s a lot of potential in the characters and the set-up here, and I hope they’ll develop it, because that will be the difference between being an enduring series and being just an amusing diversion.

Webcomics I Read (2013 Edition)

It felt like this was going to be a skimpy entry this year, until I actually sat down and drew up the list of webcomics I started reading since last year, and there are quite a few of them! Some of them are brand new and I still don’t have a feel for them, while others already feel like I’ve been reading them forever. Lots of variety in the webcomicsphere these days!

You can find my past entries here: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

For the tl;dr folk, the strips I would recommend from this batch are Connie to the Wonnie, My So-Called Secret Identity, Namesake, Nimona and Ultrasylvania. Some brand-new strips that I’m looking forward to are AHTspace, Maralinga and Rock and Tin.

  • AHTSpace, by Paige Halsey Warren: “Rampaige” was the creator of Busty Girl Comics (which ended its run a year ago), and this year she launched AHTspace, about an assortment of twenty something artists sharing studio space. Drama! Crushes! Humor! The first loose arc of the strip is just about done, in which the characters get gathered and we learn a little about them, but where it goes from here anyone knows. The art is more polished than in BGC (to be fair, I think Warren always felt the earlier strip was just sketches, not finished work), and it’s a promising start.
  • Anything About Nothing, by Kelly Angel: Gag-a-day humor, sometime off-color, art is decent, no continuity. If you enjoy strips like Internet Webcomic (see below) and Savage Chickens then you’ll probably like this. For me, it hasn’t yet distinguished itself from the competition, and it revels a little too much in its irreverence. (I have the same problem with Cyanide and Happiness.)
  • Ava’s Demon, by Michelle Czajkowski: In the future, a girl named Ava is haunted by a malicious apparition only she can see, but which sometimes forces her to do wicked things. No, it’s not split personality, there’s something really going on here. Digitally illustrated in panels of the same size (you only view on at a time), this is a long-form science fantasy yarn which is already pretty far in, but clearly still has a long way to go. The art style is not quite to my taste (sort of like Dresden Codak with more manga influence and less polish), but it’s growing on me.
  • Blindsprings, by Kadi Fedoruk: A fantasy yarn about a girl who lives in the forest and refuses to go when a boy tries to take her away. It’s just starting up and there are ominous rumblings about why exactly the girl lives there. The art seems to have influences of manga, Disney, and celtic stylings – perhaps a little too cartoony for my tastes in a serious strip. Otherwise, I’m sticking with it to see how it develops.
  • Cat and Girl, by Dorothy Gambrell: A friend of mine introduced me to this strip by asking me about the strip “The Unreliable Narrator”, which I found very clever. Unfortunately I haven’t really been able to connect to the strip otherwise; it’s very metatextual, and not particularly funny. Maybe I’m just not interested in spending that much think-time per strip to enjoy each one of them, but I have tried and it generally hasn’t been my thing.
  • Completely Serious Comics, by Jesse: Simply-drawn gag-a-day strip, sometimes leaning towards being profound or shocking rather than funny. I think “Ghosts” was the first strip I read, and it’s one of the better ones. Otherwise I’m lukewarm towards the strip as a whole.
  • Connie to the Wonnie, by Connie Sun: Another one for the slice-of-life/gag-a-day bucket, but this (semi?-)autobiographical strip about its Asian-American creator is charming and one of my favorite finds of the year. Mainly, because it’s got heart.
  • The Firelight Isle, by Paul Duffield: Duffield illustrated FreakAngels from Warren Ellis’ scripts, and he’s a superb artist. This new strip is all his own work; it’s just begun and appears to update only every few weeks. I believe it’s going to be a YA coming-of-age story in a fantasy world without any actual fantastical elements, and honestly I have a hard time warming to such settings (it’s why I’ve basically stopped reading the Game of Thrones series after the second volume – not enough fantastical content). So I’m reading it solely on the strength of Duffield’s past work, but so far without much enthusiasm. If I drop it, I think it’ll be just because it’s not my cup of tea, because it looks beautiful.
  • Hinges, by Meredith McClaren: An ambitious strip about a young woman named Orio who wakes up in a city named Cobble, in which everyone appears to be artificial. She bonds with an “odd” (apparently an imp or animal attached to a person) named Bauble, which leads to some degree of trouble. The strip was immediately intriguing on first reading, but I feel like the story is both a bit slow and a bit too intricate for its own good, as I often scratch my head trying to figure out what the emotional hook is – Olio is quite a cipher so it’s hard to relate to her, but she’s unequivocally the center of the story. The art is simple but very good, but I wish it would move along a little more. I think it’s similar to Jason Brubaker’s Remind in many respects.
  • Internet Webcomic, by Mary H. Tanner: A cat-oriented gag-a-day strip with an erratic update schedule, and loosely based on its creator’s day-to-day life. I like it a little better than Anything About Nothing (above), but I’m not bowled over. Seems to update erratically.
  • Love Me Nice, by Amanda Lafrenais: Soap opera strip about humans and cartoon animals living in the same world, not unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with stronger themes of relationships and sexual undertones. Very well drawn (and gets better as it goes along), but the story is a bit meandering. Updates irregularly, as it’s a labor of love and the artist has other work that pays the bills.
  • Maralinga, by Jen Breach & Douglas Holgate: I think this strip is going to be the winner for strips I discover this year that drive me crazy, because I suspect it’s going to update very infrequently (“We’ll be updating Maralinga with one 10 page chapter every three months”). But the first chapter, which is all that’s up right now, is killer: A girl in the year 2256 is living in the ruins of Melbourne in the ruins of civilization. The artwork looks gorgeous, and I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories anyway (c.f. Derelict, which is one of my favorites). The update schedule is gonna hurt, though; one page a week would be preferable.
  • My So-Called Secret Identity, by Will Brooker, Suze Shore & Sarah Zaidan: A superhero comic about an ordinary woman, Cat Daniels, who decides to become a superhero. The daughter of a cop, Cat is smart and sees how things fit together, and she smells something not right among the (with-real-powers) superheroes of her city, and becomes a hero herself to try to figure out what it is. The art is in a realistic style emphasizing the real world (background! clothing!), though not too different from a superhero comic style – in a sense, it looks like a golden age DC comic if those artists had more solid fundamentals. Unfortunately it updates erratically, which can make it hard to get into after a hiatus.
  • Namesake, by Isabelle Melançon & Megan Lavey-Heaton: An epic strip about “namesakes”, people who learn they can travel to fantasy worlds, in particular a young woman named Emma who ends up in Oz as “the newest Dorothy”, but her strong sense of self throws things off a bit since she refuses to fill a specific role. The story is somewhat meandering (there are intrigues in Oz involving some of the principals and their children, digressions into other lands – notably Wonderland – and some larger machinations involving the namesakes and people who want to control or use them), but at times it’s quite good (the sequence where Emma visits a shrine to previous Dorothies is chilling). The art is good, although I find many of the characters’ faces look very similar which can make it hard to follow. I think the strip would be better served with more structure and working through its subplots as a series of stories that come to a close, since keeping everything moving on simultaneously makes it even harder to follow what’s going on.
  • Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson: Possibly the best strip I discovered this year, it’s about Ballister Blackheart, a “super villain” (in a world of high fantasy, albeit with some high tech mixed in) trying to demonstrate that the establishment is actually the corrupt side of his conflict. He’s tilting at windmills until a girl named Nimona hooks up with him; as a shapeshifter she can accomplish a lot, and she has ideas and motivation which Blackheart seems to have run out of. But of course it’s not all as easy as it seems. Snappy and wry writing, and an interesting style. Nimona is I believe nearing the end of its run, so this is a good time to check it out.
  • Perils on Planet X, by Christopher Mills & Gene Gonzales: An adventure strip with a strong Flash Gordon feel, right down to the hero ending up on an alien planet and hooking up with a beautiful space-babe. Honestly it could just be Flash Gordon updated for modern audiences, which makes it enjoyable enough, but it doesn’t go much beyond that, which makes me wonder: Why bother? Gorgeous art, though.
  • Plume, by K. Lynn Smith: Western frontier adventure featuring a young woman being protected by a ghost as she seeks her fortune and to avenge her father. The line work is simple but conveys a lot though the characters’ expressions; not as strong on the backgrounds. The story is intriguing but something about it feels slightly off, perhaps because the characters don’t quite feel real to me. It feels like the story is still just getting underway, though, and if so then there’s plenty of time for it to grow.
  • Rock and Tin, by Tom Dell’Aringa: Known for the long-form strip Marooned (which recently completed and the collection of which I’m reading, as I missed it during its serialization), this is his new strip. It’s really just getting going, and it so far involves a robot and a bird wandering across a landscape until they come across… something. Dell’aringa has a simple but attractive art style, and a whimsical writing approach (which reminds me just a bit of Wesslingsaung). So far so good, and hopefully to only get better.
  • Ultrasylvania, by Jeremy Saliba, Brian Schirmer & a cast of artists: Illustrated by a variety of artists from the Academy of Art University, this concerns an alternate history of Europe in which Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy emerge in the 19th century and become major world leaders. The first volume completed a while back and sets the stage among the three principals, while the second volume is in progress and is taking place in the present day – and some dramatic differences there are after 150 years of influence by immortal supernatural beings. The art ranges from good to iffy, though one could just as easily say the iffy work is just not to my taste. But overall it’s an entertaining and enjoyable story. I’m not sure how long it’s going to run, but it could go for quite a while.
  • You’re All Just Jealous of my Jetpack, by Tom Gauld: Gauld does strips for the Guardian newspaper, and they’re simple line drawings with nonsensical stylings reminiscent of Edward Gorey. I happen to like that sort of thing, but it might not be for everyone.
  • Zen Pencils, by Gavin Aung Than: Cartoons illustrating inspirational quotes, often trying them into a story told through the art and illuminated by the quote. Than has a clean, simply style, but more expressive than (say) Tom Gauld. The quality can be erratic, depending on whether you can connect to the quote, or you feel the story matches the quote. For my money, his best strip is this Roger Ebert one.

The Sandman: Overture #1

The Sandman: Overture #1 of 6, by Neil Gaiman & J.H. Williams III, DC Comics, December 2013

The Sandman: Overture #1 There’s surely no comic less in need of my recommendation than this new installment (“Back After Fifteen Years!”) of Neil Gaiman’s keynote fantasy series. But The Sandman: Overture #1 was the standout comic this week.

I was generally a big fan of the original series (I only say “generally” because I actually dropped it about six issues in, after the death-in-the-diner issue, and picked it up again with “Dream of a Thousand Cats”; also, I felt that “The Kindly Ones” was hecka padded. But it had many truly excellent stories, and worked superbly as a grand arc), so I was a bit skeptical of Overture being a prequel to the series, explaining what led to Dream being captured in the first issue of the original series. Indeed, we see many elements in this first issue which were revealed only over time in the original series (and, thus, Overture is a poor starting point for people who haven’t read the original), some of which are portents of plot threads which would be resolved in the original (a lengthy sequence with The Corinthian, for example).

But there’s also an undercurrent of mystery, as Dream senses something wrong in the universe, and then in the final scene Gaiman throws a curve, showing that Overture isn’t just going to walk through territory we’ve been through before, but that there are new things to discover – big things – back here in The Sandman‘s past. It was exactly where this story needed to go, as trying to extend a “complete unto itself” magnum opus is a tough feat. (And recall that the few Sandman stories published since the series’ conclusion have been asides, pieces filling out the universe as it were, and not ones that tackled the main character’s story head-on.)

Joining Gaiman is artist J.H. Williams III, who is certainly one of the best renderers in comics today. Where his work often falls down, for me, is in layouts and storytelling, which I often find hard to follow. (His Batwoman had this problem in spades.) While I’m a fan of innovative layouts, they should never compromise telling a coherent story. Fortunately, he adopts a much more straightforward approach here (possibly prompted by Gaiman’s script, I don’t know), and consequently we can happily enjoy the pretty pictures. Williams also supplies the lovely primary cover (an alternate cover is by original series regular cover artist Dave McKean, whose work I’ve never warmed to).

Overall it’s a winning combination, and looks to be an excellent series. So if you had some of the same reservations about it that I did, I would say that you should put them aside and check it out.

Velvet #1

Velvet #6, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting, Image Comics, October 2013

Velvet @1

I can’t remember the last comic book I’ve been looking forward to as much as the first issue of Velvet.

Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting worked together on the terrific Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the source material for next year’s Cap movie), where they successfully resurrected the long-untouchable dead character Bucky Barnes. Brubaker writes a lot of nourish comics, but Cap was more in the style of espionage thrillers, much like my hitherto-favorite work of his, Sleeper. Epting, meanwhile, has grown from an artist doing work that felt a little out-of-place following George Perez’ run on The Avengers to an outstanding artist who mixed in with Butch Guice and Michael Lark on Cap.

So the creative team is great, and I was completely sold on the premise of Velvet as soon as a read a preview: Velvet Templeton is the secretary to the director of ARC-7, a top-secret British intelligence agency. But it’s not giving much away to say that she’s much more than what she appears, since we learn in the first page of the issue that she’s romanced several of the agency’s top agents without any of them knowing she was playing the field. When one of their agents is killed, she ends up in the middle of the investigation, and we see that she’s really not what she appears to be.

It’s a wonderful set-up issue. It takes place in 1973, perhaps coincidentally the year that Roger Moore took over as James Bond in the film series, and a few years after The Prisoner. But I suspect Brubaker is mainly going for the period atmosphere and is working from a wider assortment of source material. (The afterword by Jess Nevins cover the history of spy fiction, almost none of which I’ve read, so I can happily enjoy the series without worrying about most hidden references that have been dropped in.) The time period is also one in which there were very few woman agents (the ones from The Avengers and…?), which could lead to some exploration of gender issues, if Brubaker decides to play it that way.

I’m more interested in how Velvet managed to end up in her position given her obvious qualifications for other lines of work, and presumably that will be at least the subject of the first arc, if not of the whole series. But this being a Brubaker series, there are surely plenty of other characters who have interesting dirty laundry to be aired.

It looks great. I can’t wait.

Nowhere Men #6

Nowhere Men #6, by Eric Stephenson & Nate Bellegarde, Image Comics, October 2013

Nowhere Men #6 Nowhere Men is an interesting science fiction title from Image. It seems both the writer and artist have both been working for Image for a while (I’ve probably seen Bellegarde’s work in some of the Invincible titles, but I don’t remember it clearly), but Nowhere Men is different from anything they’ve worked on before.

The core of the book is a quartet of scientists who formed a global corporation, World Corp, back in the 60s. The scenes from that era evokes imagery of the Beatles (the book’s title presumably comes from John Lennon’s similarly-named song), without there being an explicit match of the scientists to the original Fab Four. But most of the book takes place in the present day, where there’s an ongoing theme of the optimism and wonder of the founding of World Corp having rotted through: Emerson Strange, once a dashing man with long hair, is now old, bald, and seems crushed by the weight of running World Corp. Dade Ellis has spent years in a coma. Simon Grimshaw seems not to have aged, and has split from the other two with plenty of hard feelings. And Thomas Walker apparently succumbed to drug addiction and dropped out of society, not having been seen for years.

Worse, experiments on a space station which Strange was overseeing have gone badly wrong, and the crew of the station barely managed to escape, while all being mutated in various ways (some of them grotesque).

This issue features a confrontation among the station crew, Strange, Ellis and Grimshaw, in which all hell breaks loose. The World Corp founders clearly aren’t used to being challenged by people they regard as inferiors (both Strange and Grimshaw have huge egos, though Strange at least has some basic empathy), and whatever plans they’ve had in motion are clearly falling apart in the face of developing events. (There is at least one, perhaps two, loose cannons around, as well.) And what exactly happened to Thomas Walker is an ongoing question.

Nowhere Men contains several text pages in each issue, providing background on World Corp and their accomplishments over the years, often in the form of magazine articles and interviews. It’s surprisingly effective; I recommend reading the one-page piece at the start of this issue from start to finish, as it has a nifty kicker in the final paragraph.

The book sometimes feels a little distant, like the founding members of World Corp are gods (the presumed irony is that Thomas Walker is perceived as having disconnected from the world but that he’s probably closer to it than the other three), and the hapless mutates from the space station are normal(ish) people caught in a situation beyond their control. That the story is largely concerned with the ongoing machinations of the principals, as opposed to smaller escapades of individuals, reinforces that feeling. Overall it works, but it is something of a sprawling epic which keeps barreling forward, rather than a careful character-driven narrative. It feels like the series is about half-done now, but the premise is so far-reaching I could imagine them doing more with it after this story is over.

It helps a lot that Bellegarde’s art is outstanding, capable of both drawing ordinary people (with a diversity of faces and ethnicities!) and fantastic entities and effects. His clean linework and the effective colors by Jordie Bellaire make this one of the sharpest-looking books on the market.

This particular issue isn’t easily read on its own, given the backstory, but the first six issues will soon be collected, with the appropriate title “Fates Worth Than Death”. I recommend it when it comes out.

(Coincidentally, the blog Second Printing also just reported on this issue.)

Rocket Girl #1

Rocket Girl #1, by Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder, Image Comics, October 2013

Rocket Girl #1 I’ve been doing a poor job on my plan to review a comic book per week, but I’ll try to make up for it, starting with the fun comic book Rocket Girl.

Rocket Girl was the subject of a successful Kickstarter over the summer, and is illustrated by Amy Reeder, perhaps best known for the Vertigo series Madame Xanadu, of which I enjoyed the art but felt it was let down by the story. (You can read a few of my comments on that series here.) I’m not familiar with writer Brandon Montclare, however.

The premise of this ongoing series is that Dayoung Johansson (age 15) is a member of the New York Teen Police Department in the near future, and persuades her boss that Quintum Mechanics has managed to change the past so it becomes the dominant corporation. Dayoung – the title character – arrives just as Quintum is kicking off their first big experiment – and promptly passes out. Taken in by a few of the scientists, she has to maintain her equipment with ancient technology, and then responds to an emergency elsewhere in New York City where she captures a criminal, and then escapes the local cops.

The kicker is that Dayoung comes from the year 2013, and has travelled back to the year 1986. And you may have noticed that there’s no Quintum Mechanics, New York Teen Police Department or Rocket Girl in our 2013.

I like the premise, and the first issue is a lot of fun, driven mainly by Dayoung’s enthusiasm (and nifty costume). Reeder’s artwork is excellent – oh how I love when an artist can draw dynamic panels that have backgrounds!

The story is a little shaky; I immediately wondered how Dayoung could show up and threaten to arrest the Quintum scientists, pass out, and not have them do something nefarious to her – like turn her over to the cops – never mind that she actually ends up staying with one of them in her apartment. It looks like the series is setting up a “hero and her team of supporting scientists” scenario, which feels cliche – especially since none of the supporting characters have much personality at this point – but could work out. And to balance out the plotting issues, the dialogue is solid and often witty.

So it’s a bit of a mixed start, but I’m optimistic that the early bumps can be overcome, while still being a fun, energetic series.