Thursday, February 07, 2008

Why I Love Webcomics.

OK, this is going to be a completely wasted post for anyone who is not particularly into comics, comic books, or the idea of sequential visual storytelling. But I'm thinking about it a lot lately--"it" being, what makes a good comic good, at least for me? I've been working on a project involving comics at work for the last 6 months As part of that project I've had a couple of really entertaining and fruitful chats with Scott McCloud, whose books Understanding Comics and Making Comics have comprised a huge portion of the background research for the project. One of the things that keeps coming up in these conversations is the place of the webcomic in the world of "Comics" with a capital C. I love traditional superhero comics and the graphic novels they've spawned in the last 20 years; but as Scott has pointed out, some of the most inovative, crazy, and wonderful stuff out there in the first part of this new century has sprung not from pen and ink, but from stylus and Wacom. (Yes, I know many webcomic artists do still use pen and then scan it in. Shut up.)

In the last couple weeks, I've become aware of a blog called "PvP Makes Me Sad," which is a panel by panel critical deconstruction of one of the most popular webcomics out there. I started reading it regularly, not because I am a meanspirited brute who hates Scott Kurtz, but because--like the blog's author--I used to be a big fan of PvP, and now I hardly ever read it anymore. It's not just the material--which is admittedly often same-joke-different-day--but the fact that it's basically a 3-4 panel standard comic with predictable punch lines and somewhat repetative art. (I think of this as KoDT syndrome--Knights of the Dinner Table was damn funny for about the first year I read it. And then it was the same characters, doing the same things, in essentially the same drawings--I think they were often actual photocopies of earlier panels--and I started to think, WTF? Where's the fun in that? And I stopped reading regularly. So it's been with PvP, though admittedly Kurtz is a far far better artist than Jolly Washburn.) I've been enjoying "PvP Makes Me Sad," partly because its author has managed to put a finger on why PvP doesn't work for me anymore. The timing is often off. There are places where just a tiny adjustment of phrasing or attention to a detail of line would turn an OK comic into a pretty funny one, and it's not happening. This kind of analysis is always interesting to me, again in light of McCloud's books--a well-crafted comic requires those kind of fine-tuning adjustments to go from good to great. Some webcomics are brilliant because of this... and instead of spending a blog post trashing on a webcomic I find disappointing, I'm going to spend a couple looking at webcomics I think are amazing, and trying to sort out why.

The first one I'm looking at is a comic that only updates about once a week these days, if that. I bring this up because I don't have it on RSS; I just pop on the site and check it every few days. And even when it's not a new comic, I will always scroll down and re-read the present post, because Beaver and Steve always makes me laugh. Even when I've read the same panels 5 times before, I'll read it again and snicker, because James Turner is a freakin' genius. Beaver and Steve tends to be a bit surreal in its plotting, which is one of the things I like about it--all you really need to know is that Beaver is sensible and practical, and Steve is a creative thinker. In the present storyline, he has started a sweatshop factory to make Steve Brand tennis shoes in the arctic, using the local workforce (seals) as cheap labor. Here's this week's offering (click to view big):

First of all, I like how the panels are laid out, with the tall one in the center; the artist gets to really create a swirl of chaos around Miss Jones, with seals flying every which way, mixed in and around with Turner's trademark onomotopoeia sound effects. It's a great panel. The seals look so shocked. And the spilled coffee creates a sense for us of what happened outside Steve's door between panels 1 & 2--Miss Jones GOT the requested coffee. She was on her way to his office, when suddenly nature got the better of her and GRAAAARRRRR ark ark ark!! Monty Pythonesque in its hilariousness. And then her expression in Panel 4: embarrassed, apologetic--"I don't know how this happened, I'm soooo sorry Mr. Steve," and the little detail of the nervous gesture of her tapping fingertips/claws. And best of all, the seal in panel 5 has, not stars, but little tiny fishes swirling over his head. Almost unnoticeable, it's like an easter egg within the drawing. And so Steve learns that it's so hard to find good help these days... Anyway, Beaver and Steve is one of my very favorite webcomics for just this reason--it's always visually rich, yet subtle in its humor. If you're inclined to go through the archives, you'll see this is just the tip of the iceberg--Turner pushes all kinds of limits in his plotting, sequencing, and drawing style, in ways that I've never seen in print comics.

Next time: I blather on about some other comic I like. Maybe.