Webcomics I Read

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:

Gag-a-Day Strips

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: Über-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.

Humorous Adventure

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.

Serious Adventure

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?

This Week’s Haul

  • Booster Gold #22, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Green Lantern #43, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Deluxe Edition HC, by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, Dave Gibbons, Rick Veitch, George Pérez & Kurt Schaffenberger (DC)
  • The Unwritten #3, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Wednesday Comics #1, by various (DC)
  • B.P.R.D.: 1947 #1 of 5, by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart, Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon (Dark Horse)
  • Sinfest vol 1 TPB, by Tatsuya Ishida (Dark Horse)
  • Star Trek: Crew #5 of 6, by John Byrne (IDW)
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Deluxe Edition HC Alan Moore’s Superman stories from the 1980s get the spiffy hardcover collection treatment this week.

The titular story in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? was Moore’s coda to the pre-Crisis Superman, and is one of the best Superman stories ever, especially for people who grew up reading his 50s, 60s and 70s adventures as I did. All of Superman’s old enemies come back at once, disrupting his life and threatening the lives of his friends. Superman retreats to his Fortress of Solitude to await the end of his career and perhaps his life. While Moore brings a modern sensibility to what seemed like silly menaces of past decades, the themes are fundamentally those of classic Superman: Help others even at cost to yourself, and that Superman can never kill, no matter how dire the threat. Before Spider-Man codified the principle of great power conveying great responsibility, Superman was living by it, and Moore focuses on that as the central element of the character’s classic portrayal. with art by Curt Swan, George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger, it has a classic visual style too.

The other major work here is “For the Man Who Has Everything”, in which Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman visit the Fortress for Superman’s birthday, and find him incapacitated by an alien plant that induces a dream/trance state, and his enemy Mongol ready to take over the world with Superman out of the way. Aside from the battle in the real world (which ends with a terrific moment for Robin), Superman’s dream of life if Krypton hadn’t exploded is exactly as poignant and tragic as you might expect. Moore’s career in the 80s was full of melancholy stories despite the heroic deeds done in them, and this story fits right in with them. Dave Gibbons draws the story, in a style which seems like a transition from his earlier style in which everything looked slightly shiny, and his ultra-realistic Watchmen style.

The third story is a largely-forgettable Superman/Swamp Thing story from a team-up book illustrated by Rick Veitch, whose art I’ve never really warmed to. Not everything Moore wrote was a winner even in his heyday, so this one is for completists only. Nonetheless, this is a terrific package worth picking up if you haven’t read the big two stories before and you have any interest at all in the Man of Steel.

Wednesday Comics #1 A large slice of the comics blogosphere has gone all melty over Wednesday Comics (for instance, see here, here, or here). This is DC’s new weekly anthology series where each chapter of each story is 1 page long. On the other hand, it’s a big page, printed on newspaper-tabloid-sized paper, albeit on paper of lower quality than your typical modern comic book (but better than newsprint). The series is slated to run 12 issues, which means at the end we’ll have gotten 15 12-page stories for $3.99 per issue.

The format has the obvious drawback that the first issue barely gets anywhere in any of the stories because, well, they’re only a page long. So the best pages are the ones that go for broke on the artwork: Kyle Baker’s deeply textured Hawkman page, or Jose-Luis Garcia Lopez and Kevin Nowlan’s Metal Men page (JLGL’s layout style was made for this large format). Other strips look either pedestrian, or overdrawn. Ben Caldwell’s Wonder Woman is so intricate it’s practically unreadable, while Barbara Ciardo’s colors over Lee Bernejo’s Superman make the page look stiff.

You could call Wednesday Comics a “micro-anthology” book, and it evokes the feel of newspaper adventure strips with the tabloid format. For me it more directly recalls the Action Comics Weekly series of 1988-89, which I think illustrated how difficult anthology comics are to pull off in the modern era, especially with publishers’ priorities to market their trademarked properties above all else. Wednesday Comics has a leg up on ACW in that it contains the work of many A-list creators (Baker, Busiek, Gaiman, Pope, Kubert), but it remains to be seen whether they’ll have the latitude to produce noteworthy stories. It’s far too soon to tell if any stories here will be much good.

When Wednesday Comics was announced, my reaction was, “Enh, anthology comic. I bet the stories will be entirely forgotten in a year or so.” I wasn’t even planning to buy it, but all the hype made me change my mind. I still think it will end up being largely forgettable, but there could be a couple of exceptions. We’ll see.

Sinfest vol 1 Tatsuya Ishida’s Sinfest is a terrific webcomic, dynamically drawn and utterly irreverent, yet charming and funny, it’s been around for nearly 10 years. There have been three collections via CafePress, and now Dark Horse has issued a new collection. I haven’t checked to see what the differences are between the collections – other than the cover and some of Ishida’s college material in the new one – but I decided to pick it up anyway.

Broadly, the premise involves the ongoing struggle between God and Satan for the soul of Slick, a young man (who resembles Calvin with sunglasses) who wants eternal hedonism. The main supporting character is Monique, the object of Slick’s desire, albeit one who’s completely her own person and isn’t going to let him just have his own way. The strip is PG-13 rated, with strong innuendoes (and language) but no nudity; it’s oddly clean, yet dirty.

Fundamentally, the strip’s humor is based in characters who have strong wants and drives which conflict with one another. This may be best exemplified in Percy and Pooch, the artist’s cat and dog (or fictional representations thereof) who play, argue, fight, and follow their drives while their owner is away. Their adventures are the favorite part of many of the strip’s fans, as he’s got the nature of and differences between cats and dogs perfectly nailed for comedic purposes.

I’ve been reading the strip for years and although it sometimes feels like its edge has been a bit blunted, these early strips feel as fresh as ever. While it might not be for everyone, it should appeal to anyone who enjoys irreverent humor, especially people who enjoyed the early Bloom County strips before Bill the Cat sent it into its downhill spiral.

(Looks like the second volume will be out in December.)

The End of For Better or For Worse

A year after “going hybrid”, Lynn Johnston’s long-running comic strip For Better or For Worse came to an end today with a mostly-text piece telling us how the lives of the Pattersons developed after the end of the strip, which concluded with the marriage of Elizabeth to Anthony.

Well, it’s sort of ending, but as the last panel of the strip as well as a letter to her readers says, Johnston is actually rebooting the strip, going back to the beginning and telling the story of John and Elly and their children from the beginning, with new art and new jokes, but still a return to the past.

I have two reactions to this:

First, for me this effectively marks the conclusion of For Better or For Worse. Much as when Marvel launched its Ultimate line of titles, I don’t really feel a need to read the same stuff done anew, even if it does differ here and there. If my newspaper carries it, I’ll read it, but I doubt I’ll pick up any collections of the rebooted material (I own copies of every collection published so far).

The quality of FBoFW has followed a bell curve: The early strips were fun but very rough, and without much continuity. The best stuff came in the middle, when the kids Michael and Lizzie were teenagers, and Elly was dealing with her parents entering old age. The later years were very well drawn, but the writing was weak and often maudlin and contrived: Elizabeth’s romantic entanglements in which she ended up with her high school sweetheart Anthony in a silly turn of events, Elly’s father’s ongoing health problems (including a nauseating decision to have him suffer another stroke on the eve of Elizabeth’s wedding), the house fire which led to Michael and his family buying their parents’ house. So going back to the beginning and having to wait 10 years until she revisits “the good stuff” isn’t very appealing.

Second, given the theme (and title!) of the strip, I wonder why she decided to end the continuity now. In her letter, she suggests that she was getting tired of dealing with the large cast and ever-more-complicated storylines, but there’s not any reason she had to keep those elements. Elly and John are heading towards retirement, and their youngest daughter April will be heading to college soon. It seems natural that as their kids move away their circle of friends and drama would shrink somewhat. There’s no reason Johnston would have to follow the lives of their children closely, she could instead focus on the transition to retirement her characters are going through, and focus on her main characters, having the other characters come visit naturally when they would in real life, on holidays and special events and the occasional vacation.

I suspect that Johnston was uncomfortable taking the characters that route given that she’s recently been divorced herself and so that’s not the route she’s taking. That I can understand. And presumably her syndicate was perfectly happy to keeping paying her to produce the strip as a reboot, possibly with less controversy than it’s seen in its later years, where they might be less willing to give he a try with a brand-new strip (though I don’t know whether she tried to pitch them a new strip). So it makes sense, in a way.

In conclusion, the characters we’ve been reading about for the last 30 years have reached the end of their story. It’s disappointing that the strip basically limped over the finish line, but it’s tough to keep anything going for that long, especially at a high level of quality, and ultimately we’ll always have the good stuff to go back to and enjoy. And that’s worth a lot, because at it’s peak the strip was very, very good.

Gunnerkrigg Court

I’m really digging the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell. Despite its dark mood, it’s got a great blend of warmth and humor along with some imaginative storylines.

It’s the story of Antimony Carver, a girl who starts school at Gunnerkrigg Court, and the adventures she has. It has robots, ghosts, gods, heroes, faeries, and schoolwork. Annie’s laid-back demeanor is an effective counterpoint to the fantastic things she witnesses. At first I was a little doubtful about Siddell’s artistic chops due to the prdominantly simplistic art style, but this sequence put those concerns to rest. Creepy!

It’s also going to be collected in hardcover, assuming the publisher’s financial problems don’t deep-six it.

A few of my favorite pages in the strip:

Anyway, fun stuff. Check it out.

New Prince Valiant Reprints Coming

Fantagraphics Books plans to reprint Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant series in hardcover starting in 2009:

Prince Valiant will be presented in an oversized color hardcover format, with two years per book, beginning in 2009. This presentation will be of higher quality than the 50 trade paperbacks Fantagraphics published, which collected all of the strips with art or story by creator Hal Foster. At two years per book, it will take 16-17 volumes just to reprint the full page strips with Foster art.

I’ve become a huge fan of Foster’s strip, and I own the 40 trade paperbacks they printed a decade ago (the other 10 feature the post-Foster work). The paperbacks were of middling quality; the black lines often were reduced to near-vanishing, and the coloring jobs were erratic (the earlier printings of the earlier volumes were pretty good, but they seemed to switch to a lower-quality coloring technology later on). Still, at about 2/3 original size (keep in mind that “original size” was a whole newspaper page) they were pretty good, much better than not having them at all.

If the new hardcovers are of similar size and they upgrade the print quality, then I’ll be happy to pick up the new volumes, too.

(Some company – I think in Germany – printed the first three years of the strip in full-size, black-and-white hardcovers some years ago. I decided to pass on them when I saw them mainly because they were quite pricy, not in color, and the first three years aren’t exactly the high point of the strip. Still, I’m sure someone appreciated them!)

For Better or For Worse Goes “Hybrid”

Last week, the comic strip For Better or For Worse started running some flashback strips, framed by Michael telling his daughter about how his parents met and his early childhood. Some of the strips were newly-drawn, but other were re-runs of the strip’s earliest days, from circa 1980.

Apparently this is because FBoFW was originally intended to end this month – creator Lynn Johnston had planned to retire once Michael’s children got to the same ages that Michael and his sister Lizzie were when the strip started. But plans changed, and instead FBoFW will continue as a flashback strip with occasional new material. Johnston said in an interview:

My initial plan was if I could not find someone else to continue the strip, I would not continue it at all and leave the space.

But they felt that because the strip had begun in only 150 papers that many papers had not seen that initial work and readers would probably enjoy it. So they talked to a number of their editors, and they were receptive.

But apparently another factor is that Johnston’s getting divorced, and so the motivation to retire to spend her retirement with her husband is no longer there.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. For a long time, FBoFW was an excellent comic strip, and Johnston was one of the best artists in the business. I think she’s disappointed a lot of her readers in recent years (as I’ve commented on before). Apparently the current-day strip is going to be “frozen in time”, so the story won’t move much further ahead. This is disappointing because it means there won’t be much closure to the strip, something which Johnston had a rare opportunity to provide in a comic strip: Certainly the strip was going to end with some dangling stories, but it could have gone out on a high note: Perhaps a wedding anniversary for John an Elly, or retirement (which they’ve discussed in some strips). Instead it’s going to go into “zombie mode”, with extensive reprints and occasional new strips. But even if the new stuff is enjoyable, it feels like it will be a strip dying a slow and uncomfortable death.

It’s hard to begrudge anyone from wanting to continue their career – as with sports athletes, I don’t believe stories of retirement until the person actually retires. But I hope she’ll either go back to doing all-new material, or just give the strip a big send-off and end it, because this approach seems like a sad fate for a once-great comic strip.

(Thanks to my Dad for pointing me at the links about the strip, both of which are worth reading.)

Get Fuzzy: Scrum Bums

Darby Conley’s strip Get Fuzzy is fun for reasons other than that its fictional head-of-household Rob Wilco is a fanatic Red Sox fan, though that helps. Rob is an advertising geek with two anthropomorphic pets: Satchel Pooch is a kindly and responsible dog, but his memory isn’t so good and he frequently misunderstands what others are saying. Bucky Katt is a nasty-tempered siamese cat with a long, deadly fang. He’d greedy and self-centered, and often tries to run scams past Rob and Satchel, but he’s pretty naive about how the world really works.

This, as they say, is their story.

The episodes mostly revolve around Rob and Satchel trying to deal with Bucky’s shenanigans: Trying to con or extort money out of Satchel (or, less often, Rob), his ongoing feud with the ferret next door, or just being generally offended at things around him. Better yet, it often comes with clever wordplay, sometimes feeling like some twisted version of a Marx Brothers film. For instance:

(Click to view the strip)

The latest collection (which came out at the beginning of the year) is Get Fuzzy: Scrum Bums. Though the strip doesn’t change a whole lot over time (Rob stopped wearing glasses a while ago, and the Red Sox haven’t won the World Series for a few years now), it’s still quite funny. I think I enjoy when Rob gives Bucky his comeuppance the most, especially when Bucky doesn’t quite realize that he just pulled a fast one on himself.

Despite his clean linework, Conley’s art reminds me more of some of the odd styles from the early days of MAD Magazine: His characters are distinctive and usually kind of funny-looking, with a wide variety of facial expressions. He also makes extensive use of forced perspective, which puts the animals on equal footing – at first glance, anyway – with Rob. Conley’s style is not the sort that I’m usually into, but he’s certainly capable enough, and his writing and characters more than make up for the strip’s sometimes-repetitive panel style. And his art style is certainly distinctive on today’s comics page.

He manages to mix moments of pathos in with the silliness, too. For instance, Satchel learns that he’s actually Canadian, and Rob takes the pair on a trip to meet Satchel’s parents and see where he came from. The trio shares a quiet moment once they’re there:


That’s about as quiet as Bucky gets. Really.

Get Fuzzy has accreted a huge supporting cast over time, many of whom are hilarious. A recent strip sequence featured many of them gradually moving in with Rob and company, until Rob finally put his foot down. Since many of the animals tend to be on the dim side, they all had bizarrely ineffective ways of dealing with each other. My favorite relatively-recent addition is Mac Manc McManx and his impenetrable British accent; although I wonder whether he might offend the occasional British reader, he also demonstrates how the spirit of Chico Marx continues to influence our culture. (Kidding! I’m kidding! Sorta.) I think he embodies the strip’s fundamental zaniness and tendency for its stories to veer out of control in bizarre ways.

Overall, Get Fuzzy keeps me coming back to see what ridiculous plan Bucky’s cooked up this week, and how it goes wrong and throws everyone out-of-sorts until things settle back to normal. Silliness unleashed is how I like my comic strips, and hardly anyone wears a leash in Get Fuzzy.

Related Links:

Calvin & Hobbes’ Last Strip

Bill Watterson’s great comic strip Calvin and Hobbes ended in 1995 (wow, that long ago?), but it’s still the subject of comment and satire. For instance, I recently received this (uncredited) strip in my mailbox:


I remember back when the strip was ending, there was a lot of conjecture that the last strip would somehow “cut the cord” of Calvin’s childhood by having him realize that Hobbes wasn’t a real tiger. (My own conjecture involved Calvin coming home from college and finding Hobbes in the back of his closet.) Of course, the real final strip was upbeat and optimistic, which was much more appropriate for the strip.

Apparently people still wonder whether Watterson had planned some other end for the strip, but such conjectures appear to be unfounded:

It was conceived in an article in the Washington Post on November 19, 1995 written by Frank Ahrens called “So Long, Kid: An Obituary For a Boy, His Tiger and Our Innocence”, after Bill Watterson had announced that the final Calvin and Hobbes cartoon would be printed on December 31st. In it, he speculated about the final strip.

I’ve always admired Watterson’s integrity with respect to his strip. Really, the only thing I regret is that he hasn’t come back to give us more of his wonderful work since. On the other hand, considering what a disaster Berke Breathed’s strips have been since Bloom County ended, maybe I should be glad he’s kept to himself.

(Note: Some of the comments to this post seem to think I’m presenting the strip above as a real Watterson C&H strip. That wasn’t my intention; I know the strip above was created by someone else, almost certainly as satire, and is not a real Calvin & Hobbes Strip. I think it’s amusing anyway.)

(Update March 2011: If you’re looking for something more in the spirit of the real Calvin & Hobbes, take a look at this later entry.)

The Complete Pogo

Fantagraphics Books to publish the complete Pogo comic strips in hardcover starting in October 2007.

Fantagraphics published 11 softcover volumes reprinting the early Pogo strips during the 90s. They were pretty entertaining. I’m not a huge Pogo fan (this announcement doesn’t excite me nearly as much as the complete Peanuts series announcement did), but I’ll be on board for the first few volumes, no doubt.

(via Comics Worth Reading.)

Pickles: Let’s Get Pickled!

Pickles is a rare comic strip in that it can make me laugh out loud. It’s the story of a retired married couple, Earl and Opal, and their extended family (their daughter Sylvia, her son Nelson, their cat and dog, and various other friends and relatives). I guess I would describe Earl and Opal as being tolerably married: Earl is a wise guy with too much time on his hands and not a whole lot of energy, while Opal is cheerful and motivated but won’t put up with Earl’s guff. (I’m reminded of the joke: “Retirement: Twice as much husband, half as much money.”)

The new collection came out last year: Let’s Get Pickled! It’s more of the same, but that’s not a bad thing. Creator Brian Crane has a clean line and a straightforward, Peanuts-like approach to panel layout. Most of the humor is in the characters rather than the pictures. This strip sums up Earl and Opal’s relationship pretty well:

(Click to view the strip)

The strip has lots of jokes about Earl and Opal’s sketchy memory and generally being elderly. I suppose whether all this is funny will depend on your point of view, but I usually find the humor to be tasteful:


Roscoe and Muffin are pretty hilarious at times, by the way. To some extent they’re similar to Percy and Pooch in Sinfest, although Roscoe is more befuddled than he is hyperactive, while Muffin can be downright mean to anyone but Opal. Sylvia I think mostly doesn’t know what to do with her parents, while Nelson loves his grandparents but frequently gets taken in by Earl trying to play tricks on him.

Earl is really the heart and soul of Pickles, which means it’s a very smart-alecky strip, which is probably why I like it:


Pickles reminds me a bit of Fox Trot in its cast of characters trying to one-up one another (or retaliate against those who already have), but I think Crane is a better artist, and his repertoire of humor is broader. It’s also not nearly as well known, which seems a shame. If you haven’t already, I suggest checking it out.

Earlier Pickles collections: