Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Entry 70: Sheldon

Today we’re talkin’ about good-natured humor centered on quirky-yet-relatable characters. There’s a fine line to walk in comedy between the novel and the familiar. Swing too far to the ‘novel’ side and you risk alienating your audience. Too far to the ‘familiar’ side and your comedy becomes dull. The obvious solution is to keep things close to that divider, never straying too far into either territory. However, today’s comic doesn’t go for obvious. Rather than carefully staying close to the line, this comic metaphorically spreads its arms wide, keeping part of itself firmly entrenched in familiarity even as it reaches into the most absurd depths of novelty. Get ready for the paradoxically bizarre yet eminently approachable antics of Sheldon.

Sheldon, the eponymous character of Sheldon, is in most respects a typical 10-year-old boy. He’s a regular kid, something of a geek, and a billionaire software magnate.

That last bit is the “gimmick” behind the comic. A one-sentence summary of Sheldon would run “It’s about a 10-year-old billionaire who lives with his grampa and a talking duck.” (We’ll get to the talking duck in a moment.) However, that summary really doesn’t give one an idea of what it feels like to read Sheldon. For all his wealth, Sheldon’s lifestyle is largely reminiscent of what it would have been if he hadn’t become rich. Gramps clearly does what he can to make sure Sheldon will grow up to be a well-adjusted adult, coming out of a happy and healthy childhood with as few changes to his home life and routine as possible.

Their family unit consists of Gramps, Sheldon, a duck named Arthur whom Sheldon gave the gift of speech with a software experiment way back at the beginning of the comic, a lizard named Flaco who is Arthur’s adopted son, and a pug named Oso.

You can learn how Arthur, Flaco, and Oso all joined the family if you go through and read the whole comic archive. That’s by no means a requirement to enjoy Sheldon, though. It’s a gag-a-day type comic and almost every installment can be enjoyed on its own without any prior knowledge of the characters or their relationships. I won’t trouble with spoiler warnings because for the most part Sheldon exists in a stable equilibrium. (Sheldon is 10 and he’s been 10 since I was 12.) Occasionally things change in one way or another, and there are occasional callbacks, a few brief storylines, but Sheldon is not about plot; it’s about character and comedy.

Feel free to jump into the archive at any point, to just start keeping up with it starting today, or to jump around a little using the “Random” or the “5 Years Ago Today” buttons. If you do choose to read through the extensive archive (14 years and thousands of installments!) you’ll be rewarded with greater knowledge of, familiarity with, and consequentially love for the characters, as well as the chance to find a multitude of brilliant comics scattered throughout.

One thing that I appreciate about Sheldon is the representation of so many kinds of family. Sheldon’s grampa is raising him on his own, which is a type of family situation that lots of people grow up in, but which isn’t often featured in fiction as such a matter-of-fact arrangement. The comic doesn’t focus on how Sheldon came to be living with Gramps or what happened to his parents; the fact is they have each other and live happy lives with the way things are.

Then there’s Arthur, the family friend who is so close as to actually become part of the family. He’s not exactly a pet, not a brother or a child, but he belongs with them and is entirely accepted. And finally we have Flaco, the lizard that Arthur hatched from an egg he’d found and didn’t even for a moment consider abandoning.

This all brings us back to that whole novelty-meets familiarity point from above: Though grandfather, grandson, talking duck, sentient-yet-speech-impaired lizard is hardly the picture that comes into most people’s head when they think the word “family,” they get along just as many families do. That is to say, they all love each other no matter how much anyone might get on anyone else’s nerves.

Only on a few occasions does Sheldon bring up Sheldon’s parents at all, but when it does I find it invariably heartwrenching. Though Sheldon is a happy kid, usually content with the family he has, there is tragedy in his background, and when that’s brought up the comic doesn’t shy away from it. The most touching example is the story that starts here, detailing the discovery of an old undeveloped roll of film and the memories it holds. That’s probably not an ideal story to start off with if you don’t know much about Sheldon, it’s characters, and their relationships, but once you’ve gained a little familiarity with the comic, I would definitely suggest you read that story, even if you don’t read much else in the archive at all. It is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the entire comic.

Here I am, making a lighthearted and endearing comic like Sheldon seem all heavy. I’m drawn to the deep, emotional stuff, but that’s not the heart of Sheldon. Sure, maybe I have shed some tears at a few particular spots in the archive, but not nearly so much as I’ve shed laughs. (Um, not that laughs are necessarily the kind of thing one sheds, per se.) Re-reading the archive to write this post, I came across plenty of comics that made me burst into laughter. Most often these are quiet moments between characters, sharing their distinct worldviews and finding conflict or common ground depending on the issue at hand. Sometimes they are quiet moments featuring just one character, expressing some universal experience as only that character could (as in the comic featured below, which is my very favorite Sheldon installment of all time.) Sometimes they are some other kind of thing entirely.

This is one of those comics that I would recommend to almost anyone. The jokes and experiences detailed therein bridge commonalities that we all share with strange thoughts and scenarios that create their own kind of logic. Though Sheldon possesses a pop-cultural sensibility and occasionally uses references and homages to mine for humor, the vast majority of the comic would make sense to anyone, regardless of whether they’d ever seen Star Wars or not. If people who’ve never seen Star Wars can enjoy it, then anybody can enjoy it, that’s what I say.

Sheldon is written and drawn by Dave Kellett, who is also responsible for Drive, a comic I’ve written about previously on this blog. Drive and Sheldon have similar sensibilities and humor styles, but they are very distinct comics. If you like one I recommend giving the other a shot. Out of the two, I think Sheldon is the more accessible and would probably appeal to a somewhat broader audience. If you yearn to grow to know and love a group of characters by witnessing their zany shenanigans over the years, give Sheldon a read!

Next Entry: something

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Entry 69: The Nib

Today’s post is pretty different than the kind of thing I usually do. Almost all Webcomics Worth Wreading entries fall into one of two categories:

  1. An entry about a specific, ongoing comic (most common)
  2. An entry about a specific cartoonist (very occasional)

Today I’m going to talk about neither of those things. Today I’m talking about the work of an editorial team, bringing together the skills of many individual cartoonists to create many individual comics, all collected together online to be perused at the reader’s leisure. Today is all about The Nib.

I first thought that The Nib would be something I might want to write about a while back. Shortly after I decided to put up a post about it, though, editor Matt Bors made an announcement that The Nib would be undergoing significant changes. A bunch of the people I’d come to know as regular contributors would no longer be, and I decided to wait and see what shape The Nib would settle into before writing about it.

And so now I’m writing about it, because I have a clear idea of how The Nib has settled into its new form and will continue major changes are happening and I have no idea how this is all going to turn out but I’m eager to spread the news about it right now.

It doesn’t make sense to discuss the current state of The Nib without providing some information on its origins and history, so here’s some background information:

The Nib began with Medium. Now, at present, I’m not at all certain that I know or understand what Medium is, but there was a time when I thought I understood it. At that time, I thought of Medium as a news website. I would occasionally read stories or op-eds on Medium regarding current events, like a newspaper, only online.

Above is an excerpt from Ronald Wimberly's "Lighten Up," a poignant microcosm of the erasure of non-white representation in media

That’s nothing new. There are tons of news websites out there. But one thing that set Medium apart was that it had its very own comics section, The Nib. Edited by Matt Bors, The Nib featured a variety of comics, some republished but many original. On the whole they tended toward the political, usually documenting or commenting on current events in some form, either through direct satire/observations, or discussion of a deeper and longer lasting social issue.

I started reading stuff on The Nib because cartoonists I already knew and liked were linking to their work there. If you poke around you’ll find there’s some definite overlap between people who’ve contributed to The Nib and people whose work I’ve featured on this blog. Outside of this post, I mean.

Matt Bors had a budget to pay contributors, and he used it to get some great talent into The Nib. There were names I recognized, from both the print and digital worlds, and many more names that I would never have known otherwise. I learned a lot from The Nib, encountered many nuanced and varied opinions, and had a whole lot of different emotional reactions to different comics.

I would never have expected to care about the Stanley Cup but this comic by Molly Brooks about its history is fascinating

The Nib kept its finger on the pulse of public discourse, through individual comics and artists but especially through their combined efforts. Some of my favorite things to appear on The Nib were collections of comics all pertaining to a relevant theme. The Response features some amazing insights into the nature of racial tensions in the US.

Less heart-wrenching than The Response, but still part of an important dialog, Whatever We Please brought together a variety of perspectives on femininity and womanhood, published on International Women’s Day. One of my favorite comics to come out of that collection is “Girl Talk” by Sophie Goldstein, which incorporates audio into its panels and which introduced me to the concept of vocal fry.

With short individual comics, with extended visual essays incorporated into larger stories, with familiar names and new ones, The Nib delighted me for about a year and a half before Matt Bors let it be known that things would not continue as they had been. He and the others on his editorial team, Eleri Harris and Matt Lubchansky (I wrote about Lubchansky’s comic Please Listen To Me recently), did some great work putting together a respectable Internet version of a newspaper comics section.

More recently, news came that Matt Bors is leaving Medium entirely. The Nib, he asserts, will continue, with the same editorial team who kept it going in its heyday, and I for one am excited to see what happens with it next.

For the moment, those who particularly enjoy the comics on The Nib, or who think they probably would enjoy those comics if they were printed on paper and bound together instead of presented in the form of colored lights on a screen, can contribute to this Kickstarter campaign to print a Nib collection. They’re not at goal yet, but it certainly looks achievable. You can support the work done on The Nib and preorder a cool book at the same time!

If you don’t have money to spend on books right now, or if you do have money to spend but choose not to spend it on this particular book, I’d still recommend you keep an eye on this Bors-Harris-Lubchansky trio to see what they do with The Nib in days to come. Whatever they come up with, I expect it to be insightful and engaging.

No pressure, guys.

In the meantime, feel free to poke around The Nib and read some great comics. Unfortunately, the archive navigability isn’t great. Some of the things I linked in this post I accessed by Googling for them because I wasn’t sure how to find them directly through The Nib. One way to get to comics is through this About page and clicking through to individual cartoonists’ profiles. That page seems to be incomplete, however. I couldn’t find Jon Rosenberg listed there, for instance.

So there’s a lot of cool stuff to read, but quite a lot of digging is necessary to find it all. If you’d rather just buy the book off Kickstarter, that’s totally an option too.

One more note I leave you: Many of Matt Bors’ own comics are featured on The Nib, and for the most part they’re great and I love them. However, he plays into one pet peeve of mine, and I’m going to take a moment to complain about it.

Several Matt Bors comics deal with Millennials, the challenges that we of my generation face and the stereotypes we’ve been saddled with. In a couple of places, this includes the old “everybody gets a trophy for everything” cliche, and, like everyone, Matt Bors seems to misunderstand the meaning that these ubiquitous trophies have for me and others my age. (Okay, for me. I can’t really speak to anyone else, and Bors isn’t even that much older than me so for all I know he got tons of trophies as a kid too.) A trophy for participation doesn’t teach a child “You deserve trophies all the time for everything.” It teaches a child “Trophies are meaningless and hold no value.”

So in the comic below, Panel 2 would better represent my attitude towards trophies if, instead of accepting his trophy with wide-eyed awe, the Millennial threw it over his shoulder with disinterest to where it would land on a pile of other trophies accumulating in his living space like so much junk.

I have opinions about participation trophies.

Barely-relevant tangent aside, The Nib did some great work and I hope to see more in the future. I’m not sure whether that thenib.com url will still be the best place to keep track of The Nib’s goings-on as things keep evolving, but you can always follow The Nib’s Twitter account if that’s a thing you do. Far too many people have contributed to The Nib for me to list them all, but the names to keep track of are still Matt Lubchansky, Eleri Harris, and Matt Bors. I don’t know what they’re up to, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Webcomics Worth Wreading Archive

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Entry 68: The Fox Sister

I’m not very familiar with Korean mythology. Some of you may be surprised to learn this, having assumed me an expert in all things. Though it pains me to shatter your illusion by admitting to my ignorance, there are many spheres of human knowledge that, though fascinating and appealing, I have yet to explore. One reason I regret not knowing more about Korean mythology and folklore is that I feel a greater familiarity with those subjects would increase my appreciation of The Fox Sister.

I suppose there is a risk that learning more about the mythology and cultural background that gave rise to The Fox Sister could ruin it, if I start realizing that there are all sorts of inconsistencies and gross overuses of artistic license. I don’t think so, though. The influences in The Fox Sister feel like they’ve been driven by an appreciation for Korean traditions. I suspect that the anything inconsistent with the source mythology would come across as an expansion or an exploration rather than a crass divergence.

Oh, but here I am debating the merits of this comic’s adherence or divergence from established myth, and I haven’t even begun to describe the comic for you! Silly me. Ahem.

(Now is the time for the extremely spoiler-phobic to just go read the comic, though I’m not going to give away anything beyond what’s clear based on the title and the first few pages.)

The Fox Sister tells the story of a woman, Cho Yun-Hee, whose family was killed by a kumiho, a nine-tailed fox who feeds on human flesh and disguises itself as a woman. The specific woman as whom this kumiho has described itself is Yun’s late sister, Sun. Years later, Yun keeps searching for the kumiho who replaced her sister, dedicated to the purpose of ridding the world of that evil presence.

If you like fantasy stories, I don’t have to tell you anything more. That’s a compelling premise, the type of framework on which great things are laid. It offers a chance to explore a mythical element, either to begin learning about it at all if you’re like me, or to discover a new story about a familiar type of character, if you know a thing or two about kumiho to begin with.

Beyond that, there’s the personal drama, the story of a woman overcoming her grief and mourning her lost family. The inner turmoil of being confronted with the visage of a lost loved one, a monster turning that comfortable and familiar form into something evil.

When she’s not being the hero in an epic fantasy tale of the struggle between good and evil, Yun gets caught up in a romantic comedy. Those genres seem like they’d be pretty incongruous, but they fit together seamlessly. The comic’s tone stays consistent whether Yun is preparing to do battle with the kumiho that stole her sister’s appearance, or getting to know Alex, an American missionary who connects with her because he’s kind to her dog.

I think the key is curiosity and exploration. Yun’s response to the unfamiliar or unexpected is always a cautious approach to seek understanding and mastery. She doesn’t change her attitude depending on the particular challenge at hand, but remains resolutely true to herself whether faced with a clueless stranger or a dark mystery.

The two plots, that of the epic fantasy and the romantic comedy story, each progress according to well-trod structures, but they each feel fresh and engaging, because the characters involved feel so true to themselves. The standard belligerence-eventually-gives-way-to-affection narrative isn’t forced, but is a natural progression as each character becomes more familiar with the other. At the same time, the reader gets to know the characters as well, making the reader, in a sense, the third party to the romance.

One thing I like about The Fox Sister is that, though the comic is written in English, Korea is treated as the native location and Alex is treated as a cultural outsider. If you’re like me, you enjoy exploring unfamiliar cultures and abandoning the assumption that your own culture (in my case that of the good ol’ US of A) is necessarily the default, just because it’s what you’re used to. So works that originate from a different culture or that assume a different “default” worldview. On the other hand, approaching a work from a different culture can be challenging… there are often language barriers (translation being a wonderful but imperfect art) and certain cultural notions are difficult to understand if you’re not used to them. So finding a comic like The Fox Sister, that inhabits another culture while definitely created for consumption in this one, is a rare treat.

Alex and Yun’s divergent cultural backgrounds add an extra element to their romantic comedy routine, as they each get to know not only each other, but gain understanding of the other’s point of view. It adds to the comedic misunderstandings, and also occasionally highlights some of the comic’s deeper themes.

I’ll warn you that the comic gets a little violent in parts… the kumiho is a vicious creature, and certain segments are pretty gruesome. I wouldn’t call any of it gratuitous, as it all serves to further the story and enhance the setting, and it all fits in with the comic’s general tone. If you’re particularly sensitive to blood and gore you’ll want to tread cautiously. Otherwise, jump right on in… everything in The Fox Sister exists to meet the demands of the story, and it’s a great story.

Ignore that “Updates on Tuesdays” banner at the top of the website… The Fox Sister has been on hiatus for a while now. I like to check in every so often and see if there’s anything new though, because we’ve been told that the story is nearing its end and with any luck we’ll get to see those last several pages any day now.

For me, what separates this comic from others really is the emphasis on Yun as a character. She drives the entire story, her dedication and commitment to her task giving rise to everything that happens. Yun is an example of how to make a character “mysterious” and have it work… she’s not withholding information about herself to be deliberately innocuous, but is simply the kind of person who mostly keeps to herself. It’s clear that she has a rich inner life (and a rich outer life) and that she doesn’t share it easily. Most importantly, I want to know more about her. My curiosity about Yun keeps me curious about the story, and keeps me reading as I’m constantly yearning to learn more.

The Fox Sister is written and colored by Christina Strain and drawn by Jayd Aït-Kaci. I want to describe it as fun, but it’s so heavy and dramatic that using the word “fun” seems inappropriate. It is fun though, especially if you like mythology and fantasy stories. Which I do! Therefore I can’t imagine that there is anyone in this world who does not. Therefore everyone in the world should love this comic. Case closed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Entry 67: The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo

Let’s suppose you want to delve into a story of intercultural conflict, highlighting the dangers of stereotyping and the misunderstandings that arise when groups of people who regard one another with mutual hostility come into contact. Let’s say you also want this story to be fun and light-hearted, full of small jokes and engaging characters. Let’s say that you mostly just want to see some kids go head-to-head with some monsters. Well, friend, all as luck would have it you can find all of those things in The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo.

Please note that this post will contain mild spoilers for the setting of The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo (hereafter referred to as Margo Maloo because c’mon, man). I won’t give away much that’s not obvious in the comic fairly quickly after starting, but if you’re looking for a completely fresh and untainted first experience of this comic world, why don’t you go ahead and start at the beginning. It’s a fairly quick read, so go ahead.

For those of you who are beyond such petty concerns as mild world-building spoilers, I’ll proceed with my summary. Margo Maloo takes place in something of a fantasy version of our world. Most things are mundane… there’s stuff like cities and cars and the Internet… but, living alongside humans, there’s an entire community of monsters. They mostly keep to themselves, not wanting humans involved in their affairs, but every so often, with such different populations living alongside one another, conflicts arise. That’s where the titular Margo comes in. She’s a monster mediator.

The key word is “mediator.” Usually kids call Margo because they’re having monster trouble and expect her to solve the problem, but most of the time she acts as a facilitator, getting the involved parties to talk and work things out amongst themselves.

Margo Maloo presents monsters as the ultimate cultural extreme. It’s hard enough to get humans of significantly different backgrounds to accept each other. Plenty of real-world people do things that I, who consider myself pretty open-minded, would consider irredeemably barbaric. So how much more difficult would it be, if I were living alongside people who weren’t just outside my culture of origin, but outside my entire species? It would be pretty difficult to accept a worldview as equally valid to my own if the source of that worldview is a group of beings that literally inspired my people’s definition of evil. The level of cultural tolerance demanded in Margo Maloo is beyond anything you’d find in the real world, where you can count on your neighbors not to eat you because it’s wrong, not just because eating people causes any number of practical difficulties.

Though Margo’s name is in the title and the comic focuses on her exploits, she is not our protagonist. That would be Charles, newly moved to Echo City from a small town with few dangers and no monster population to speak of. Charles is an aspiring journalist, and his investigations into the monster community provide an ideal focal point for the audience. As Charles learns about monsters, what they’re like and how to get along living in the same city with them, so do we.

Margo already knows too much about monsters for the reader to be there in the moment with her. We need a newcomer to all this in order to fill that role, to learn another exciting snippet along with us at every turn. And though Charles is far from a generic stand-in for the audience (in fact, he often espouses opinions or desires that I’m not sympathetic to at all) he gets to ask the questions that are on the reader’s mind, to serve as a recipient of exposition so that we know what’s going on, and he perfectly represents the bold curiosity that spurs a reader onward to discover more of this world, to uncover the next development in the story.

The story begins with Charles’ family moving to Echo City, and even before finding evidence of monsters, Charles is convinced that the dangers of living in a big city must certainly outweigh the benefits. What Margo Maloo does is take the idea of someone struggling to adjust to city life and push it to its extreme conclusion. Charles has to get used to this new place, to being in proximity with a much more diverse variety of people than he’s ever encountered before. He has to learn to be comfortable in a place that, yes, does include dangerous elements that his hometown does not, but which also contains a variety of exciting and mind-expanding things to find and experience that he couldn’t have encountered before.

Take out the monster element, and Margo Maloo is a story about finding one’s place in a new community, overcoming fears and prejudices in order to open one’s mind to the good things that a large and diverse environment has to offer.

As would only be right in a quality story that teaches tolerance, the monsters are as suspicious of humans as the humans are of them, and they have just as much reason to feel that way. Whether out of fear, ignorance, or malice, humans can do just as many terrible things to monsters as monsters have to humans. The assumption of barbarism goes both ways: While monsters don’t follow any of the rules that keep human society functional, humans don’t follow any of the rules that make monster society functional. Just as we find them to be unpredictable and dangerous because they live outside our social constraints, they have precisely those same concerns about us.

Almost all characters are pretty firmly entrenched in their own side, viewing either monsters or humans as rogue elements beyond the capability of reason. The only one who’s any different is Margo. She approaches all conflicts from a balanced, unbiased viewpoint, open to hearing both sides and finding a way to make things right, whether the aggrieved party is human or monster.

While I’ve been harping on regarding the heavy and consequential themes of Margo Maloo, the comic doesn’t get bogged down in explicit diatribes regarding ethics/morality/tolerance. Most of the content takes the form of an adventure story, as our heroes try to protect the innocent and right wrongs. The characters all have their amusing and endearing quirks, and the dialog and situations lean far more toward the silly than the melodramatic. There’s real danger and real drama, but it’s all in the course of a good old-fashioned story about kids investigating monsters.

Overall, Margo Maloo is precisely the kind of fun and substantial tale that I like to lose myself in, and I’d love for a whole host of other people to discover and get lost in it as well.

The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo is written and drawn by Drew Weing, and updates on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It features monsters and some scary situations, but not to an extent that I’d actually call it a scary comic, so I’d gladly recommend it to people looking for stuff to share with their kids. Very young or sensitive children may find it frightening, but that’s something I’d leave to the discretion of the parent. (My attitude toward giving stuff to kids used to be a more cavalier, they-can-handle-more-than-you-might-think kind of approach, but then I learned what it’s like having a nephew who sometimes requires a lot of emotional reassurance while watching Wonder Pets, so now I’m more sympathetic to those who are particularly careful about what media they allow into their children’s lives.)

So whether you’re in need of a good age-appropriate monster story for your kids, or just looking for a worthwhile distraction on a tedious day, give Margo Maloo a try. I only hope you’ll find it half as engaging as I have.