Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Entry 58: Solo

Sometimes, authors like to do something clever, and title the last chapter of a book “The Beginning.” Or a character at the end of a movie or a play might declare something like “This is where our story starts.” It’s used to imply to the audience a continuing narrative. Most stories never really end, and a natural conclusion to the plot doesn’t imply that the author has told everything that there is to tell. However, we rarely get to see those stories continue. It’s easier to tell the story of what leads up to a conclusion, than the story of what follows a conclusion.

Not everyone shies away from that challenge, though. There’ve been enough stories that end with beginnings, so today we’ll take a look at a story that does the opposite, and begins with an ending. That story is Solo.

Before we get into this, I’ll note that Solo is definitely the kind of comic that you have to read in order from the beginning. Feel free to jump over to it right now if you’d rather read with as few preconceived notions about it as possible. I won’t describe the plot in detail, but it will be impossible to discuss Solo without giving anything away about the story setup. Also, a note on navigation: You can read through each chapter by clicking “Next” (or on the comic image) to move to the next page, but at the end of each chapter you have to go up to the “Select a Chapter” dropdown to proceed. Don’t get confused and think you’ve finished the comic just because there’s no “Next” button on the last page of Chapter One!

Solo opens with two endings, one of a marriage, and one of the musical act that formed out of that marriage. Our protagonist is Leah, who was part of both of those things. Now they’re gone. That story is over. And Leah clearly has no idea how to deal with that.

I don’t know the author well enough to have an idea how much of herself is represented in Leah, but goddamn does Solo feel biting and personal. I’m certain there’s been some catharsis involved in creating it, but I’m not going to focus on that aspect because I’d rather deal with the comic as it exists independently than delve into how it might reflect the author’s personal life. I just want to observe that the pain Leah’s going through feels like it’s drawn from experience, and that makes everything all the more poignant.

Leah is a highly nuanced character. It’s difficult to sum her up; she’s not a victim, though she’s been hurt; she’s not a hero, though she’s sympathetic; she’s not a villain, though she can be cruel. She’s full of pain and anger and uncertainty, and while

At one point reading Solo, I started to worry about Leah, because I thought her actions were on the irresponsible side. I told myself I was being unreasonable, and she probably had arrangements to take care of herself. The single strongest emotional reaction I’ve had to Solo was the realization, shortly thereafter, that she was being irresponsible and the kind of thing I’d been worrying about happened and Leah hadn’t been thinking ahead like I’d assumed she would.

Normally I’d expect myself not to foolishly assume that everything’s going to be fine and conflict-free, since any story without drama is bound to be dull and/or over very quickly, but Solo somehow lulled me into thinking things would go smoothly. Maybe Leah was just so gung-ho in her fake optimism and denial that I just couldn’t escape it.

Solo has a quiet, deliberate pacing that encourages the reader to slow down and pay attention. When I first started reading, I skimmed the first few pages. There’s not a lot of dialog there, and my first impression was that those pages were just establishing the setting and atmosphere. Reading through the comic again, knowing what comes later, I see that every detail in those first several pages is important. A wealth of information lies there, even if it’s not immediately obvious what all of it means.

Given that experience, I’ve become more careful in my reading of the comic. Characters and details that show up in the background or seem to serve a clear, minor purpose are all part of the tapestry of Solo. Any one of them could prove to be more significant than they first appear. Those details didn’t happen by chance, after all. The author made a choice to include them, and that choice was made for a reason. Subtle details may foreshadow future events, or even serve to illuminate the past.

Most of the backstory and the characters’ personal histories, the situation that led up to the point of the comic, is not explicitly laid out. It’s clearly communicated; I may not know the specifics, but I have a definite idea of how Leah’s relationship with her ex-husband progressed and how she got to be where she is now. The action never stops to get the reader up to speed. Rather, the events of the comic flow so directly from earlier events that there’s very little doubt as to what happened before.

The more I read of Solo, the stronger a shape it takes. I get the sense that there’s a larger design I just can’t see yet because there are so many pieces that have yet to be exposed to me. With every new development, the story becomes richer and more complex.

Before I leave you to explore Solo on your own, I want to share my appreciation for the visual language of the comic. While the setting is mundane and the art typically shows a literal representation of events, certain moments are presented in a more symbolic and metaphorical manner. Sometimes objects in the background even seem to comment on or reflect what’s happening in the story. Look carefully at everything you see in this comic, because not a detail is wasted.

Solo is written and drawn by Hope Larson. In some ways it’s a difficult comic to read, because if you’re an empathetic person you can’t help but feel the main character’s pain. I don’t think this is a comic about dwelling on pain, though. It’s a comic about moving through pain.

At some point before the beginning of Solo was another story, one which didn’t have a happy ending, though it may have been played as bittersweet. Because of the way that hypothetical story ended, Solo necessarily starts with an unhappy beginning. But stories are all about change. Though Solo is still in progress and it may be too early to draw conclusions about it as a whole, I strongly suspect that it will be a far more life-affirming story than it would have been if everything had been happy right from the start.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Not a Webcomic, but Definitely Worth Wreading: The Sculptor

I don’t normally write about print comics here, but this one deserves an exception. It’s not just that Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor is good, though it is. It’s that it feels close to me. I’m privileged enough to have Scott as a friend. In fact, if you enjoy this blog, you can thank Scott for its existence! No other person has had such an influence on the comics I read and the way that I read them, not because he pushed his ideas onto me, but because his enthusiasm for the medium is infectious.

This post will be atypical, in several ways. Obviously I’m discussing a print comic rather than a webcomic. I’m writing about a finished work in its entirety, while I usually favor ongoing works in this blog. I don’t have access to a copy of The Sculptor at the moment, so I’ll be writing this post from memory… and I also won’t be able to include as many excerpts as I usually do. (Even if I did have a copy available, I’d have to go through the trouble of scanning it, unless I’d bought an ebook, though I expect the ebook reader might not allow me to copy images. I suppose I could ask Scott to send me the panels I’d want, but I’d rather not bug him when he’s busy going to New York to do book signings and stuff.) And, perhaps most significantly, I’m going to write just as much, if not more, about my relationship to the comic as I’m going to write about the comic itself.

Over the past several years, I’ve witnessed the creation of The Sculptor. I’ve listened to Scott describe the progress he was making on layouts, the deadlines he was working towards, the deadline extensions he’d received. He would redo entire sections that weren’t working the way he wanted them to, add a page or thirty here and there, take reference photos of friends and family members and buildings.

For most of that time, I didn’t have any real idea of what the book was about. I knew it was about a sculptor named David Smith, but not the famous sculptor David Smith, another David Smith.

I did not know, until I heard Scott talking about his book, that there was a famous sculptor named David Smith. I am so unfamiliar with the art world that I don’t even know how embarrassed I should be about that fact. Most of the art references in The Sculptor pass me by, to be honest. I’m sure there are nuances that would be apparent to those more familiar with art and sculpture than I, but if, like me, you’re not very educated about artistic matters, don’t worry. The Sculptor never feels insular or inaccessible, even to troglodytes like us who wouldn’t know a Brâncuși from a barbell.

I would learn new tidbits about the book here and there, about David playing chess with his uncle or the character who is based on Scott’s wife, Ivy. Most of the time, I didn’t know how secret these tidbits were, which things were kept closely guarded, which things might change before the book was finished. Certain things were relatively public knowledge… After all, a buttload of people stood around in a circle for Scott to get reference photos for this part of the book, even if none of us really knew the context for what we were doing.

I remember this day! I was one of those people way in the back of the crowd. Scott's daughter Winter was standing where David is because Matt wasn't around. (Matthew Mercer served as the reference model for David. You may have heard his voice if you saw the new Thundercats, as well as a bunch of other stuff.) Afterwards everybody got gelato.

About a year ago, Scott finished the book. I think he actually finished the book about ten times. He would finish the book, except for some parts that he wanted to redraw. He would finish the book, except that he had to rework the first 20 pages. He would finish the book, except the font had to be painstakingly changed in every single word balloon on hundreds of pages.

Scott spent a very long time working on The Sculptor. He made a lot of minuscule changes, and some much larger ones, when most reasonable people would have raised their hands and declared “good enough.” No matter how much effort it required, no matter how much time it took, if it made the book better, Scott would do it.

When I’m in a teasing mood, I might suggest that Scott acted that way because he’s a control freak who can’t leave well enough alone, and that no one would have ever noticed most of the “problems” that stood out to him. (I would be particularly tempted to say this about the proof he received in which the printed pages had come out “too blue.”) None of those things really reflect the dedication he showed throughout the process of creating this book, though, nor do they reflect the respect I have for that dedication.

The Sculptor is a labor of love. The attention that Scott McCloud has given to every little detail is obvious. I’ve seen it in action, but you don’t need to spend any time with Scott to tell how much care he put into this book. All you have to do is pick it up, and you’ll know.

Eventually, I was allowed to read it. And after all that anticipation, all the buildup and the hints and random details I’d picked up on, The Sculptor was totally worth it. It is a heartrending comic, one of those stories that felt life-affirming even as it made me cry. I immediately wanted to share it with everyone.

Of course, I still couldn’t talk freely about The Sculptor with everybody. Though much of the secrecy around the book had faded as it approached completion and the publication date loomed ever nearer, it had yet to be released to the wild. And even at that time, when Scott had finished the book, oh, maybe twice, he was still working on it. I still couldn’t be certain exactly what the final version would look like.

To be honest, I still haven’t seen the very final version of The Sculptor, so I’m writing this post with incomplete knowledge. I look forward to picking up a copy, in all of its hardbound, carefully crafted glory, when I get the chance.

Within the past couple of months, review copies have gone out, and people have started reviewing The Sculptor online. The experience of seeing public articles about this subject, freely giving away details that have been secret information for so long, was surreal. I was shocked at first… I kept thinking, “Wait, we’re allowed to talk about it now?!”

I guess, clearly, we were allowed to talk about it. But it was hard to break that long-kept silence, hard to convince myself that it was okay. But The Sculptor is officially available for sale to the public as of today. Now anybody can read it (and everybody should) so there is no reason whatsoever for me not to talk about it!

Nonetheless, I’m not going to tell you The Sculptor’s premise. (If you really want to know that before you read the comic, feel free to read any of numerous reviews that are scattered around this here Internet.) I think it’s the type of book that’s more enjoyable the less you know about it when you first start reading. I will tell you that it’s a book about mortality, and about art, and about the relationship between the two. It’s got a contemporary setting with one major fantastical element, and it makes a compelling, easy read, though an awful lot of the story is emotionally difficult.

The characters in The Sculptor all feel incredibly real, complex and human. Some come off better than others, but none of them are perfect… everyone in this comic, just like everyone in real life, is flawed and layered. My favorite character, Ollie, makes at least one decision of which I strongly disapprove, but that doesn’t actually make me like him any less. He’s not a bad person. He just isn’t perfect. No one is.

Meg, the character based on Ivy, feels entirely as complex as her real-world counterpart. I actually had to look up the name of the character, because I’ve been calling her “Ivy” in my head all these months. And even she doesn’t come off as perfect… she can sometimes be reckless, sometimes flighty, and can sometimes go past the “endearingly quirky” line into more unsettling behavior. Yet throughout the book, every bit of her is represented with complete love. Meg is the kind of character you can only create by understanding and accepting another person so completely that a totally honest representation of them shows nothing but affection.

One of my absolute favorite things in The Sculptor is seeing all the works that David creates over the course of the book. These are truly impressive works of art, at least to my uneducated perspective. What makes them more impressive, in my opinion, is that they are works of one medium represented through another — three-dimensional sculpture portrayed as two-dimensional drawings, but that still feel like sculptures.

The Sculptor is a beautiful comic, full of life and feeling and desire. It’s a magical tale, but very grounded, created with an unflinching awareness of life’s certainties. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy. As of today you can buy it on Amazon, or from any number of other online retailers, or probably at your local comic shop or bookstore. It will not disappoint you.

Come back in another couple of weeks for a return to webcomics. Not too surprisingly, my old computer is beyond repair, and creating a Frankenstein hybrid using parts of it and parts of another laptop proved unrealistic because none of the hardware was in great shape anyway. But now I have a shiny new computer, and as of just a few days ago it’s even running the operating system of my choice, because I am stubborn as an ox. Thank you all for bearing with me.

In Memoriam
Lester Ratafia

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Technical Difficulties

Apologies. I won't be able to bring you a new entry for Webcomics Worth Wreading today. I do the vast majority of the work for this blog on the laptop pictured below.

 I think it's pretty clear why I'm not able to do work on that laptop currently.

It still functions, as you can see, but there's definitely a limit to the amount of time I'll be able to spend using it before it falls apart entirely, and I don't want to push my luck. Thankfully, I was able to back everything up to an external hard drive, so I don't have to worry about losing anything. I just have to worry about finding a new laptop. (Or possibly repairing this one, but I'm doubtful about the viability of that option.)

That wallpaper, if you're curious, is by Pascalle Lepas. Check out Wilde Life; I've been enjoying it and may well write about it on this blog at a later date.

Hopefully I'll get my computer situation sorted out soon and will be back with lots to say about webcomics in another couple of weeks. See you then.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Entry 57: Shadowbinders

For pretty much as long as I’ve been able to read, I’ve been using fantasy stories as an escape. Real life can be painful, but stories provide temporary respite from that pain. Sometimes, when I felt powerless or at a loss, I’d find lessons in the fantasy worlds I escaped to, messages that gave me hope or reminded me of my strength.

The journey that I took in my imagination was often paralleled by the literal journey of the protagonist, some young person with hardships to face who found a place far away from their ordinary life, and learned a powerful lesson in the process. I’ve read many, many of these stories in my life, and I will read many, many more before I am dead. I love them; they’ve always been there for me; I will always need to escape sometimes to a faraway land where my problems seem small and irrelevant.

Today’s comic tells one of those fantasy stories of the kind that have enriched my life for so long. I present to you, Shadowbinders.

Please note that Shadowbinders is a narrative comic that must be read in order from the beginning. In order to discuss the comic, this post will necessarily contain a few spoilers about the setting. However, I will not mention specific plot points, nor will I give away revelations from late in the story. The first few chapters contain some “mysteries,” things that the characters are unaware or unsure of, and which therefore aren’t explicitly established for the reader from the beginning. A reader who is familiar with the genre, though, will suspect the answers to many of those mysteries almost as soon as the story begins. Therefore, I’ll proceed with the assumption that the reader is clever enough to figure out some of these things on their own, and treat them as given.

Shadowbinders follows Mia White, a typical teenage girl. Her ordinary life hits all of the expected notes, from her annoying family members to her impossible crush on a boy at school (who of course has the requisite mean, popular girlfriend).

And then she finds a magic ring, which transports her to the magical world of Belatyr. There, she meets Crimson Rhen, a powerful mage and captain of the True North, a flying ship. As one would expect, grave happenings are afoot in Belatyr, and Mia finds herself a reluctant participant as Rhen’s crew discover dangers to their homeland and do what they can to help.

With a story like this, that follows such well-established patterns, the fun is in the details. The specific mechanics of this fantasy world, the characterization of this particular hero, the dynamics between this protagonist and the people she meets. I particularly like the little visual gags and extras, things that the artist went to the trouble of including because they make the world seem fuller and more real, even when the scene could have progressed without their presence.

This sign outside an apothecary might be my favorite thing in the whole comic.

Rhen possesses that particular kind of arrogance that one can only get away with by being every bit as capable as one asserts. That doesn’t spare him the eye-rolls and disdain that others have for such arrogance, but it does prevent him from making a fool of himself. He can’t actually be said to be overconfident, because he lives up to the expectations he sets for himself. And while he either hasn’t found, or has no interest in finding, that balance whereby he can be confident without rubbing other people the wrong way, being a little bit obnoxious clearly suits him better than being a little bit obsequious. Clearly, having utter confidence in his ability to pull off extraordinary feats is a large part of what enables him to pull off those extraordinary feats at all.

Though there’s suspicion all round at first… Mia doesn’t know where she is or who these strange people on the True North are, and they don’t know who Mia is or how she got onto their ship… after some time, Mia and the crew members warm up to each other. She gets along well with most of them. When it comes to Rhen, though, the two of them bicker like Leia and Han. Though Rhen is famous in his world, Mia has no prior knowledge of him, and finds his presumptions unsettling. Rhen, for his own part, is used to people already being familiar with his reputation, and he doesn’t really know how to win someone over if they have no idea who he is.

One expects the two of them to continue getting one each others’ nerves until one day they realize just how close a bond they’ve formed during all of those spats. We’ll see how they react when that moment comes.


Often Shadowbinders is pretty silly in tone. The high fantasy setting and serious dramatic tension contrast with a few farcical characterizations and some fairly ridiculous events. Sometimes I’m not totally sure how seriously the comic is taking itself… there are a few moments when the dialog gets a little hokey and I’m not certain if it’s just exposition that got a little clunky or if it’s self-aware exposition drawing attention to itself.

Overall, what matters is less the intention behind the tone and more the effect the tone has on the reader, and for me, Shadowbinders is consistently loads of fun. The plot is well laid-out, with seeds planted early on that clearly indicate a larger picture that will become clear as the story grows. The villains’ machinations are straightforward enough that a reader can follow them, even with the twists and secrets and lies to keep track of. And there are a few mysteries that I’m still trying to figure out. Keeping an eye out for clues and finding answers before the characters do can be a great way to make oneself feel clever.

If you’re like me, then the possibility of losing yourself in a magical realm for a few hours is reason enough to dive into Shadowbinders. This fantasy world is full of things that couldn’t exist in our own, which for the longest time I always thought was the whole point of writing stories. There are entire civilizations here with an entirely different technological history than our own, where fanciful creatures face off against daring heroes in aerial battles.
Just looking at the artwork, taking in everything that the visuals have to tell you about Belatyr and the people who live there, is a huge part of Shadowbinders’ appeal. The images are what drew me into the world. The rest of it, story and character and atmosphere, are what made me want to stay there.

Shadowbinders is written by Kambrea Pratt and drawn by Thom Pratt. In later installments, the comic is colored by Brittany Peer. I encourage you to check it out and make use of the fantasy escapism if you ever need to get away from real life. As Mia leaves her world behind, so, dear reader, can you.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Entry 56: Breaking Cat News

Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m a sucker for science fiction. Well, today I’m going to let you in on another weakness of mine: Anything told from the perspective of a cat.

We’ve encountered this phenomenon before in my delight with Hey Pais, the one and only journal comic by a cat, but there aren’t too many other comics out there that let cats tell their own stories in their own words. There are some, though, and today I’m going to ask you to look through a window and see how one group of cats reacts to events in Breaking Cat News.

Lupin, Elvis, and Puck report on all the significant goings-on in their home, from tragedies like the vacuum cleaner running loose to miracles like the humans filling the house with boxes. It’s not clear who they think is watching or why they’re so dedicated to their broadcast, but they definitely take their task seriously. They won’t even hesitate to interrup the humans in any task whatsoever to get the latest scoop.

I wouldn’t bother with spoiler warnings for Breaking Cat News, both because most installments are one-off and there’s typically no overarcing plot, and because the events depicted in the comic are typically based on events that occurred in real life, and as we all know, real-life spoiler warnings are absurd.

I want to avoid doing a full-on compare-and-contrast with Hey Pais, because there’s so much more interesting material to discuss, but there are a few striking similarities between the two comics that I want to mention. Both comics are created by cat owners who draw inspiration from the actual cats in their home, hitting upon universally observed truths regarding cat behavior while simultaneously illuminating the peculiarities of the specific cats in the comics. There’s even a parallel in the means by which the cats refer to their humans; where Hey Pais features “The Girl” and “The Guy,” Breaking Cat News has “The Woman” and “The Man.”

The primary source of humor in Breaking Cat News comes from the disconnect between what’s being reported and what’s “really” going on. Silly cats, pizzas are for eating, not for lying on top of the box!

We readers, as humans, can identify the true story while the cats are distracted with feline-relevant details. However, the comic itself doesn’t usually present the human side of the story. We’re in the cats’ world, seeing things from their perspective. Being so used to being outside that perspective, trying to live in it seems inherently absurd.

But stories like this, told from a perspective alien to our own, invite deeper questions. There’s no reason that the cats’ perspective should be any less valid than that of humans. Certainly, the cats are fallible and biased, but so is everyone. Cat owners make assumptions about cats’ wants and motivations, and the cats here do the same in regards to their human companions. Our assumptions regarding them may be no more accurate than their assumptions regarding us.

That sort of mental exercise, recognizing a cat’s viewpoint as valid and worthy of consideration, is useful when it comes to understanding people who come from different backgrounds and potentially incompatible worldviews. Though a given perspective might seem wholly unrelatable, being able to accept that everyone’s limited experiences shapes their ideology, and that no one’s perspective in particular is objective, can aid in understanding and compassion.

I’m the kind of person who likes to read deeper messages into silly cat shenanigans, so compassion and respect for all is my takeaway from Breaking Cat News. You don’t have to consciously expand your mind while reading, of course: Feel free to just giggle at the hijinks these boys get up to, and slowly it will make you a better person. Probably. Maybe.

I might not have any idea what I’m talking about.

There’s a lot in Breaking Cat News to delight cat lovers, from recognizable antics to insight into one family’s relationships with and between their cats. It’s fun and silly enough that I hope people who are indifferent to cats would enjoy it too, though frankly I can’t imagine what it must be like to be indifferent to cats so I’m not sure I can say anything about such people with authority.

Breaking Cat News is written and drawn by Georgia Dunn, and updates on Mondays and Thursdays. I recommend it to people who like cats (which is, like, everyone on the internet, right? Or are cats on the internet passé, yet?) and to people who like laughing at things. I assume most people reading this comic will break out laughing every other page like I do, so why don’t you head on over and put that assumption to the test?

Previous Entry: Camp Weedonwantcha
Webcomics Worth Wreading Archive

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Entry 55: Camp Weedonwantcha

The thing about children is that they are the most vulnerable members of the human race. The other thing about children is that not only have they not fully integrated societal norms into their worldview, they typically don’t have a fully developed sense of morals at all, or even necessarily an understanding that other people have their own thoughts and feelings and capacity to feel pain.

If a group of children have no adult caretakers, they won’t be capable of taking care of themselves because they don’t know how. As for taking care of each other, not only do they lack the skill and the reasoning ability, they may not even realize that other people have needs at all, let alone what those needs are and how to meet them. Today we’ll take a look at just about the most lighthearted take one could have on a group of children left to fend for themselves without the support of adults or the outside world, Camp Weedonwantcha.

The premise of Camp Weedonwantcha is that children whose families want to get rid of them drop them off at the eponymous camp, never to return. The reader only gets glimpses into characters’ backstory that hint at how they arrive and provide grounds for speculation as to how the parents discovered Camp Weedonwantcha’s existence or how it came to be at all. The circumstances that may have compelled particular families and society at large to allow a place like that to form are left to the imagination, and the comic concerns itself entirely with what happens once the kids are already there.

Camp Weedonwantcha is a funny comic, but it’s necessarily a dark humor. These kids deal with injuries, food shortages, and quite literal abandonment issues in a hostile and uncaring environment. There’s no proper medical care around, so kids have to make do with what they already know or what they can figure out on their own (or just make up) when they get hurt. And given that people get injured fairly often when spending time outdoors, and that even adults rely on professional medical care for many of their injuries, the population of Camp Weedonwantcha on a whole is slowly deteriorating as none of their serious infections, injuries or diseases receive proper treatment.

It’s easy to make Camp Weedonwantcha sound much darker and more disturbing than it is. While the harshness of the setting is acknowledged, the comic’s tone is far lighter and more fun than might be expected. I bring my own perspective to the comic reading it as an adult, but the perspectives in the comic are all those of the children at the camp. Attitudes differ from child to child, and some embrace their circumstances more readily than others, but none of them have enough life experience to picture exactly how wrong things are for them.

So lots of the kids just make the best of a bad situation. Even the ones who are depressed, or who refuse to just accept their circumstances, tend to focus on minor details. There’s no “I’m going to slowly starve to death” or “one day this building will collapse and I don’t have any way to fix it;” there’s “I left my favorite toy where I can’t get to it anymore” and “I don’t have a comfortable and private place to poop.”

Granted, I imagine most adults in that kind of situation would focus on specific annoyances, too. Big issues can be difficult to process, and sometimes fully feeling an emotional response to one’s circumstances would be too much to handle, so a person will compartmentalize. Individual characters find their own ways of coping, through denial or distraction. They don’t allow themselves to feel the full weight of their losses, because they can’t. They wouldn’t be able to go on.

That denial and distraction is what makes Camp Weedonwantcha, the comic, bearable for readers, just as much as it makes the camp bearable for those living there. The kids play games, get involved in schoolyard drama, and seem to hold onto their humanity despite their inhumane environment.

The focal character is Malachi, a relatively new arrival in Camp Weedonwantcha, who is still unfamiliar with most of the details that other characters have already grown to accept and take for granted. That lets the reader learn things as they are explained to Malachi. Notably, we don’t see Malachi when he first gets to the camp, so though the newcomer-as-justification-for-exposition device is used, the reader is still left in the dark as to exactly what happened, how he transitioned from being a kid with a family to one of the abandoned campers.

In a way, there is no outside world. From a reader’s viewpoint, Camp Weedonwantcha contains only this abandoned campground and these abandoned kids. Backstories and supply drops don’t change the fact that our direct observations are limited to a small and isolated environment. Camp Weedonwantcha and its inhabitants might as well be all that exist.

Since I’m someone who likes speculation about my comics, I keep asking myself questions about Camp Weedonwantcha’s provenance. Clearly at some point it was a regular summer camp, judging by the buildings and so forth that are still there. Said buildings are now falling into disrepair, as no adults are around to maintain them or bring in materials to rebuild when something is damaged. I have to wonder if any organization is actually “running” Camp Weedonwantcha, if it’s just a drop-off spot that parents share with others who are looking to abandon their children, or even if the abandoned children were never intended to arrive in that place specifically, or just all happened to be dropped off close enough to camp that they found their way.

Occasional supply drops fall in from the sky, which would support the idea that someone knows these kids are there and is taking steps to look after them, but the nature of the “supplies” is variable at best. I get the impression that the crates dropped onto the campground may be less intended to provide for the children, and more to find a dumping ground for unwanted goods. Every supply drop that’s been directly shown in the comic is either harmful or, at best, neutral. It’s implied that some supply drops do contain food, because there’s no other clear way for the kids to have obtained what food stores they have, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the food is expired or otherwise deemed unfit for consumption.

There is definite continuity to Camp Weedonwantcha, and one installment pretty reliably follows the previous one, but for the most part there’s no overarching narrative. Plenty of installments stand on their own, and when there are longer stories, they typically last for a few pages before the comic moves on. So feel free to read from the beginning, or jump in wherever you like.

The comic’s depth increases as time goes by, and the setting and characters become established enough that there’s room to explore individuals without losing sight of the whole. Camp Weedonwantcha is an ensemble piece, but it’s hard to get emotionally invested in a collective story. A connection with an individual character makes that easier, and when Camp Weedonwantcha starts focusing, for a moment at a time, on individuals, it becomes more moving. My favorite story so far begins here.

We even start to see the way that kids are forming families-by-choice, after their birth families abandoned them. That kind of dynamic, the friends who are so close as to become family, shows up stories, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to PVP. As often as it’s used, it never feels any less powerful or less capable of bringing a tear to my eye.

Camp Weedonwantcha is written and drawn by Katie Rice, and the longer it goes the better it gets. I recommend it to people with a dark sense of humor. There are laughs, there’s pathos, there are mysteries if you want to look for them. It’s fun and heartbreaking at the same time, which is one of those balances that very few works of fiction ever manage to achieve, but I love it every time someone manages to pull it off.

Previous Entry: Space Corps
Webcomics Worth Wreading Archive
Next Entry: Breaking Cat News