Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Entry 64: Stand Still. Stay Silent

It’s a zombie story, but unlike any zombie story you’ve ever before encountered.

You know how it starts. In the midst of a terrible storm, a few people turn up with a mysterious and highly infectious illness, which rapidly spreads throughout the population. More and more people succumb to this disease until eventually the human race, and a few other species, are reduced to a fraction of their previous numbers. The illness doesn’t just kill those it affects, though… it changes them, leaving monstrous creatures in their place.

This all happened 90 years ago, at the beginning of history.

The story picks up with a ragtag band of misfits venturing out into the Silent World, those places that have yet to be reclaimed by civilization, in the interests of discovering something useful or valuable. Genres are mixing a little here, but adventure and horror make easy bedfellows. The premise is familiar, comfortable. An experienced reader has an idea of the types of conflicts to expect, the challenges that the mission will present and the interpersonal strife that may arise. That experienced reader may even suspect that nothing about this comic could be surprising at all, but to think so would be to gravely underestimate the wondrous setting of Stand Still. Stay Silent.

Before we get into things, I want to note that Stand Still. Stay Silent is the kind of comic you really must read in order from the beginning. Furthermore, much of the drama comes from or is contributed to by the masterful pacing of the exposition, which makes it just about impossible to discuss anything in depth without a certain level of spoilers. Facts about the setting are hinted at, but strategically withheld, forcing the reader to speculate, to infer details before they’re stated outright. Even the description I gave above gives away certain information, but nothing that is not revealed early on, or that an astute reader would not realize straight away. I will of course refrain from describing the entire plot in detail, but if you’re as spoiler-phobic as I am, I’d advise you to consider reading the comic before reading the rest of this post. (It’s not the longest of reads as of yet, so the suggestion isn’t terribly impractical.) For those of you who don’t care about spoilers or who’ve already read the comic, press on!

Two things make Stand Still. Stay Silent stand out among zombie stories and the action/horror genre as a whole. Thing one is the tone, which is overwhelmingly lighthearted. Our cast of characters are each varying degrees of clueless and/or incompetent, a fact that they all treat with cheery disregard. They don’t behave like characters in an adventure/horror story. They act like characters in a heartwarming dramedy about a plucky band of unlikely heroes who save their school from foreclosure. There’s a refreshing lack of genre awareness on the part of  the characters, who meander through story events as if they were just people going about their own lives. Which of course, from their perspective, they are.

Humor suffuses this comic, from silly individual moments to amusing misunderstandings between characters to absurd administrative errors. Stand Still. Stay Silent doesn’t feel like a horror comic. Though horrific things happen, though the characters face nightmarish threats unknown to those of us in the real world, though at times I am terrified, on behalf of the characters or just in general at the events unfolding in these panels, Stand Still. Stay Silent just doesn’t feel like a horror comic. It’s too fun and too carefree to live in that horror genre place in my brain. It just doesn’t fit there. Rather, it demands an entire category of its own, one created just for Stand Still. Stay Silent and which may one day contain other works if I can ever find anything that feels like it fills that same unselfaware horror meets effortless comedy niche.

Oh, speaking of misunderstandings between characters, there are a lot of those. That’s a natural consequence of filling your cast with an international group of people, most of whom don’t share a language with more than one or two of other the main characters. All communications have to go through at least one translator in order for everyone to understand what was said, and not one of these people is actually trained in translation, leaving most of the job in the hands of one young and inexperienced scholar who can just about manage to get across what was said most of the time. And when you throw in sarcasm and other jokes that just don’t translate well, along with personal hubris and a general lack of awareness… most of the time, not one of the main characters has a clear idea of what all the others are doing.

The author helpfully includes flags in many of the speech bubbles to signify which language a character is speaking in at that moment. That way the reader can keep track of all the languages, with the help of a handy cheat sheet at the bottom of each page on the website.

Besides the tone, the second thing that makes Stand Still. Stay Silent different from other stories of its genre is the setting, including the particular nature of the zombie apocalypse that has befallen mankind. Humans and other animals who’ve fallen to the disease don’t resemble zombies in the traditional sense, and indeed are never referred to as zombies by the characters. No, they’re called things like beasts or trolls. And I don’t want to give it away here, but when we finally get to see one of these creatures in the story? It’s far more terrifying than any zombie I’ve ever seen. And by “terrifying” I mean “visually spectacular.” And also “terrifying.”

And then there’s the magic. After the illness ravaged humanity, those who survived put a lot of faith into superstition, as people in trying circumstances often do. Many attributed their continued existence to the protection of gods, and considered any stroke of good fortune to be a sign of blessing. Any given person may come to those conclusions based on nothing more than a tumultuous combination of fear and gratitude, but, in this particular circumstance, at least some of those beliefs are correct.

Mages can cast spells and perform other magical feats with verifiable effects, and often they do so through prayers or incantations to specific gods. Cats are considered blessed because they don’t fall to the illness and can be trained to help keep humans safe. Perhaps cats truly do possess magical properties, and perhaps gods really do intercede on behalf of mages. From a readers’ perspective, all we know is that cats are somehow unharmed and extremely useful, and regardless of how magic works, exactly, some people can clearly do it.

Human civilization in Stand Still. Stay Silent is all built atop the one that collapsed. The base level of technology seems roughly contemporary, but there’ve been changes in the 90 years that people have been living with this plague. Necessity, as always, breeds invention, so certain adaptations have been made to allow for travel and protection to settlements. Most of what we see is stuff that humans reasonably could build presently, but which we haven’t had cause to.

And on the other hand, a massive decline in the population means that there aren’t enough people to keep most of the old infrastructure running. Cell phone towers, the Internet, hell, even consistent sources of electricity just aren’t priorities in a crisis-ridden world. Luxuries of the past have been largely forgotten. Characters regard those who lived in the old world with a mixture of wonderment and arrogant disdain. It’s hardly the only type of arrogance on display; those who’ve lived beyond the plague (or, at this point, those whose ancestors lived beyond the plague) think themselves superior to those who succumbed. Early on (literally at the beginning of the new calendar) Iceland closed its borders to limit the spread of the illness and as a result is now the most in-tact nation in the known world. In-world documents show a clear Icelandic bias, indicating a pervading belief that Iceland is genuinely superior to other nations and that the gods look on Iceland with particular favor. All because, generations ago, someone made a decision that turned out to have unanticipatable importance.

In terms of attitudes toward the old world, though, well, every generation considers itself superior to the one that came before it, and that trend changes not at all when the previous generation is one that mostly died and/or turned into monsters. At the same time, many of the people in this future are sheltered, cut off from dangers and also from irrelevant or useless knowledge of old world culture and technology. As a result, many of the characters come off as adorably ignorant, which plays along just swimmingly with their general arrogance.

Stand Still. Stay Silent goes to some fantastic and unexpected places, but it doesn’t just toss the reader out there with no warning. It takes the reader by the hand, leading them along every step of the way, treading familiar ground until it slowly, gradually, transitions to a strange new path. Much of the comic utilizes classic horror tropes, and the reader can anticipate many story beats before they occur. Looking solely at that aspect, the comic is competently put together, and it delivers on its promises.

And that stability, those trusty ol’ plot patterns, are needed. This world is so peculiar, so much about it left hidden or merely unstated, that the reader is at risk of becoming lost entirely if there isn’t something known and reliable to grasp onto. Given a setting full of new and exciting and unusual things, it’s good to be able to spot a little piece of dramatic irony and know that, though you might not be able to predict exactly what will happen next, you can have a pretty good idea of the shape the next few pages are going to take.

Earlier I mentioned that Stand Still. Stay Silent doesn’t feel like a horror comic. Well, at this point I’ll admit that, while it doesn’t feel like a horror comic, it certainly looks like one. The author uses a limited color palette for each scene, deliberately controlling the visual tone from page to page. Though the colors scream “horror, terror, run for your lives!” while the dialog casually asserts “hey this stuff is pretty funny, doop dee doo,” I don’t really feel comfortable saying that they contrast. I’d be more tempted to say that the characters, and by extension the dialog and the plot, are perfectly at ease with their setting. This is where they belong. It’s where they evolved. They don’t act like they’re in a horror story because that’s how people from our world would act if placed in a horror setting. When horror setting natives find themselves in a horror story, they just act like ordinary people, because they’re right at home.

So none of the characters bat an eyelid at the dismal lighting or muted colors that aren’t really visible to them anyway because they act primarily as visual cues for the reader. No, it’s left up to the audience to sit back and appreciate the sinister implications of the pitch-black ocean and whatever dreadful tidings it must carry. The visuals, like the adherence to classic horror story structure, let the reader know what kind of story this is even as the gory details are withheld until the moment of maximum possible emotional impact.

Stand Still. Stay Silent is written and drawn by Minna Sundberg, and it updates on weekdays. I find that, as the story takes its time to develop over many pages, it works best as a binge read, but I still read the new pages as soon as they come out because I can’t wait to see what happens next. I also find that re-reading is a valuable experience with this comic. Lots of details gain new significance when I go back with knowledge gained from later pages, and there’s so much going on that I almost always miss something the first time, unless I’m reading very, very carefully right from the start.

At this point, it’s clear that there’s lots of story in Stand Still. Stay Silent yet to come. I suggest jumping in now, while the archive is pretty easy to wade through and there’s just enough information available to give you an idea of what kind of story this is going to be, though not enough to definitively say exactly what shape it’s going to take. I’m excited to see where this thing goes, and I hope you will be, too.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Emergency Break for Family Loss

As I was planning this week, I made sure I would have time to finish a Webcomics Worth Wreading entry this morning, despite traveling internationally over the weekend for TCAF and despite the three final projects I have to turn in next week to complete the accounting certificate I'm working on.

Plans don't always work out, though.

My grandmother passed away this morning, and I need to go be with family as we all process her death. I won't have time to put up a regular entry for you here. Nor, I expect, will it be reasonable for me to finish it over the next few days, as there will be practical issues around her death to resolve and I still have those final projects to complete.

I'm going to give myself the next two weeks to take care of stuff in the real world, and then I'll be back here with tons to say about comics on May 26th. Thanks to everyone for your patience.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

I would very much like to read this book

It's an off week, so there's no regular Webcomics Worth Wreading entry today, but I wanted to post something that may be of interest to a few of you. Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes, the creators of Unshelved, have written a children's book. The Best Book about children who read books and how those children should be able to choose whichever books they want to read. Though it's been written, it has not yet been fully illustrated, so they're running a Kickstarter campaign to get the book all drawn and then printed and then sent out to people who buy copies through Kickstarter.

Oh, and the person doing the illustrations? Is William Tallman, one of my favorite cartoonists and the creator of Reptilis Rex, the very first comic I ever wrote about here. This is a powerful group of people banding together to create something with an important message. I'm sure it'll be a blast to read, as well... these guys wouldn't make a book without having tons of fun with it, which translates into fun for the audience when they get to read it.

There's just one problem: The campaign has just over a week left, and is just over a quarter funded. That means there's a very real risk that The Best Book will never be completed, which means that I may never get to read it.

If you're interested in children, literature, and the future of our civilization, maybe consider popping over and tossing some money their way? Future generations of children literary geniuses should thank you.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Entry 63: Templar, Arizona

Think about the elements that make up a story. Characters, definitely. Plot, almost certainly. Maybe dialog, hopefully conflict, frequently some sort of lesson or moral. And, often taken for granted, almost unnoticed, but absolutely always present, is the setting. Characters need a location to inhabit. Events require a context in which to unfold. The setting is the fabric that holds all the other elements of a story together.

Today we’re looking at a comic with a lurid and intriguing setting, that of a city filled with vibrant groups and eccentric people. Though the story focuses on just a handful of characters, their exploits give the reader a sense of a larger community, the multitudes that shape the world around them. And through this small lens, a picture of the setting as a whole develops, guiding the reader through the streets of Templar, Arizona.

(Somehow in being posted here the comic images have come out grainy. You can always click on the images here to see the original page, with better coloration, on the comic website.)

It takes a while to get used to Templar. The city has its own unique culture, and dozens of disparate yet interrelated subcultures. Presidential statues line one of the nicer streets, while in another part of town decrepit brothels are repurposed as low-cost housing. One might get the impression that Templar is a particularly strange place, but I think it’s actually one of the most honest representations I’ve ever seen of the actual diversity (of people, of ideas, of architecture) that you can find in big cities in the real world. Cities with their own identities, with names that evoke particular reactions from people thousands of miles away who’ve never even been there, are shaped by their millions of inhabitants, working together in some ways and at cross-purposes in others. Think of San Francisco, or of Rome. I’m sure you have some concept of what those cities are like. And I’m equally sure that that concept doesn’t even begin to cover the whole picture of how that city works and how the people in it live their lives.

Templar feels particularly strange because it exists in a world that, though mundane, doesn’t quite match up to our own. It’s mostly similar; people speak English in the US; technology seems to be about on part with what we’ve got currently. People will, however, mention political developments in other parts of the world that don’t exactly match up to real-life events. And while technological innovation seems to run at about the same pace as the real world, it’s definitely taken a different direction in a few places. We’re moving more and more to a content-on-demand culture, but in Templar, Arizona broadcast TV is already treated as an ancient relic.

Centering the comic around a fictional town in a fictionalized world allows for a more realistic feeling than would be possible otherwise. If Templar were replaced by a real city, then readers would constantly be comparing the comic’s depiction with their own impressions, looking for confirmation of their own views or nitpicking inaccuracies. Since everyone’s experience of a city is going to be different, the comic would never be able to satisfy all readers. Even if dozens of viewpoints were represented, the author would never be able to convey every aspect of life in a real city in a manner that rings true both to those who live in that culture and to those who observe from the outside.

Because the author has the freedom to determine the entire histories and outlooks of every group and every character, a high level of detail and consistency is possible without relying on conjecture or public perception. The author clearly understands the perspectives of all these disparate people, their motivations for partaking in various movements and the way that individuals have shaped and been shaped by their subcultures.

With this understanding comes a lack of judgement. Though some of the subcultures in Templar, Arizona can be read as having real-world political counterparts, the comic doesn’t push any of their agendas or come across as promoting a particular message. At different times I find myself agreeing with different groups to one extent or another, but with all the conflicts and polemics flying around, no one is clearly shown to be in the right. Everyone has their reasons for believing what they believe or going along with whatever groups they’re associated with, and the reader can sympathize to whatever extent seems appropriate for each case.

In addition to the vibrant subcultures, there’s the culture and sense of belonging of Templar’s population as a whole. Templar has its own sense of identity, formed by its history and the intersections of the movements and subcultures that inhabit it presently — again, this is like any big city. Certain words and place names take on connotations that they don’t have elsewhere, giving Templar residents a shared vocabulary and cementing their cultural sense of belonging. Saying “The Sorrows” or “Churchyard” to someone will bring up a very particular meaning, one that most of the people involved in the conversation will assume is obvious.

Local trends develop based on local culture and history. Most young women on King Street wouldn’t be caught dead without a prostitution license. I’m not actually sure whether “prostitution license” is the correct term to use; on King Street they call it an “escort license,” while in the Oarlock they’d call it a “whoring license.” Whether either of those is the official name on the document I can’t say. I don’t want to impose my own concept of correct language onto those who are more familiar with the subject than I’ll ever be, but I’m not personally comfortable with a euphemism like “escort” or with the negative connotations of “whore.” Even though it’s used as a self-descriptor, that doesn’t mean I can just assume it’s acceptable to use that word when I’m not a member of the group it’s describing. And the fact that I worry about marginalizing or appropriating the language of a group of people who doesn’t even exist just shows how intricate and convincing the world of Templar really is.

Probably my favorite cultural phenomenon in Templar is the proliferation of copy books, written by independent authors and published by means of photocopiers. Zines would be the real-world analogue, but I love the way copy book culture is shown to have developed into its own minor industry. At least one store exists solely to sell copy books, meaning that there’s an infrastructure in place to facilitate people as they write and distribute their own independent publications, and I just think that is so cool and I want to move to Templar and spend all my free time reading copy books and writing my own.

Characters in Templar, Arizona exist on either extreme of a spectrum, with overexuberant excitability on one end and unflappable calm on the other. Conflicts run the gamut from minor issues like incorrect food orders to full-on violent assault, but the characters’ reactions to these issues depend far more on the person’s temperament than on the problem at hand. The more volatile characters will respond to any given situation by shouting and doing whatever they can to impose their will on those around them. The more easygoing characters will go along with whatever is happening, doing their best not to irritate those around them (which in and of itself often irritates those on the other end of the excitability spectrum).

The more relaxed characters aren’t necessarily dispassionate — they just tend to react to outrageous or shocking events by staying back and evaluating the situation, rather than jumping to conclusions or taking drastic and immediate action. For the most part it's clear that they feel anger and surprise and jubilance, and all of them hold certain issues or people very dear. It is possible to get a normally unflappable character to scream at you, but you have to push one of them very far in a very specific direction before that will happen. More often, an excitable character will scream at one or more of the unflappable ones, who doesn’t even budge in the direction of a breakdown.

Though Templar, Arizona doesn’t focus too much on any one person or group, the closest thing to a main character is Ben, a newcomer to Templar. Particularly in early parts of the comic, Ben is the focal point through which the audience comes to know Templar and the other characters. Since he’s unfamiliar with Templar geography and culture, the reader has someone to relate to, who will ask questions and express bewilderment in order to get explanations from characters who know what Templar is like, but who would normally have no reason to expostulate on the subject. This is another advantage to setting the comic in a fictional city — the author can control the rate at which a reader encounters information, and control the picture of Templar that forms in the reader’s mind, without having to work around whatever preconceived notions any given audience member might have.

I also like Ben because he’s short, naive, inexperienced, and constantly looking for validation that he is or at least can be a competent adult. That is to say, he’s just like me! I relate to Ben so strongly that I keep thinking of what good friends we’d be if he were, y’know, a real person and not just some lines and shapes on my computer screen.

It can take a while to get into Templar, Arizona, because there’s a lot to adjust to while getting to know this city and the people who inhabit it. But if you’re willing to put in the effort and stick with the comic until the world starts to make sense to you, it’s a highly rewarding experience. These people, these subcultures, and this city, could each provide enough material for a lifetime of study. The glimpses we get to see in this comic hint at an intricate and extensive whole, in parts appealing and repulsive, but always a fascinating subject of examination. Jump in as the story begins and familiarize yourself with Templar, its culture, and its inhabitants.

Templar, Arizona is written and drawn by Spike. If you’re interested in cultural movements, if you’re part of one or more subcultures yourself, or if you think of yourself as firmly in the mainstream and enjoy reading about groups of freaks, consider checking it out. (I admit the odds that anyone reading my blog considers themselves mainstream, but I like to be as inclusive as possible.) It’s like an anthropological lesson about ourselves, only with the details altered enough that we can get the big picture instead of focusing on the tiny stuff that we’ve already decided to care about.

Once you’ve read the main archive, you can also check out the bonus comics. They’re not necessary to keep track of the story, but they offer a few fun tidbits and flesh out the world a little bit more.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Entry 62: The Young Protectors

I usually don’t like romance as a genre very much. Sure, I can enjoy romance, if it’s handled well, but the usual will they/won’t they or who will he/she choose?-type plots tend to bore me to pieces. For me to embrace any kind of romance story there’s got to be something else going on, either a depth of storytelling that I can get into, or some non-romance elements that can provide balance and make the story fun. A little bit of both those qualities are what drew me into The Young Protectors.

Technically this comic has a subtitle and is properly known as The Young Protectors: Engaging the Enemy, but that’s a bit long and cumbersome. As of this writing there aren’t any other comics under The Young Protectors title that I need to distinguish from the one I’m writing about, so rather than insisting on writing the full title every time, I’m just going to go with the title that I use in my head, so The Young Protectors it is. (Even though Engaging the Enemy might possibly be more accurate, if I take the time to sort through a bunch of pedantic rules that I don’t actually care about.)

At the risk of sounding monotonous by repeatedly bringing things back to Strong Female Protagonist, I’m going to draw a parallel between that comic and The Young Protectors. Both comics take place in a world that had comic book superheroes before there were real ones, and I would say that both comics try to provide a “realistic” depiction of what a world full of superpowered individuals might look like. However, while Strong Female Protagonist deals with the sociopolitical ramifications of superpowers, The Young Protectors gets more personal, getting into superpowers’ emotional and interpersonal ramifications.

In order to talk about The Young Protectors I’m going to have away some parts of the story. As usual I’ll do my best to avoid describing specific plot points, but if you want to go into the comic with as few preconceived notions as possible, it might be a good idea to just go read it right now. The archive’s not too cumbersome, and this pos will still be here waiting for you when you get back. If you need a little more convincing, then proceed here at your own risk.

Our main character is Kyle, a young gay superhero who has multiple reasons to feel ashamed of and hide his sexuality. The comic introduces him as he begins a relationship with Duncan, a charming older supervillain known as the Annihilator. Here’s where I get into the realm of spoilers, though if you’re an insightful reader I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t suspect from the get-go: When a suave villain seeks out a naive, inexperienced and emotionally vulnerable hero, it’s foolish not to think that the villain has some sort of ulterior motive.

It’s clear that Duncan is manipulating Kyle throughout their time together, though his purpose is kept obscure for quite a while. Thus, the reader is placed in a similar position to Kyle, unsure to what extent Duncan can be taken at his word, how far he’s stretching the truth, and whether he cares about Kyle at all or is merely putting on a convincing act.

Though the comic focuses on Kyle, Duncan is the more interesting character. As is true in many superhero stories, the villain is the one who drives the plot, the one who receives the most complex development and who has the greatest potential for change and personal growth. Wondering just what is going on in Duncan’s head is probably my favorite part of reading The Young Protectors, and I feel that some of the comic’s best moments are those when it’s clear Duncan is trying to figure himself out just as much as we are.

The Young Protectors inhabits a realm of moral ambiguity. Villainous actions may have noble motivations, but they’re mixed with selfish ones. No one is pure; most of the characters, whether heroes or villains, are in some ways altruistic and in some ways self-serving. Which side a character falls on seems to depend as much on how they want to present themselves and be seen by others as it depends on their actions or purposes.

In the context of a grand conflict between good and evil, wherein the characters possess supernatural qualities that lift them beyond the realm of ordinary humans, what The Young Protectors does best is bring that heightened conflict, those huge issues, down to an individual level. This comic really explores the impact that superpowers, and all that they imply, would have on people’s personal lives. The isolation that comes from being different, the shame and self-hatred that arise when powers are misused, whether deliberately or unintentionally, and the camaraderie that forms when hurt and isolated people find and support one another, all make themselves clear.

Though the relationship between Kyle and Duncan is what drives the story, for me the heart of The Young Protectors is really Kyle’s friendship with his other teammates. For much of the beginning, it’s easy to assume they all connect on a fairly shallow level… the conversations and interactions we see tend toward the banal, which doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of a deeper connection, but neither does it indicate that there necessarily is one. It’s not until Kyle truly needs their support that the strength of his connection with them becomes clear. When it does, though, it’s in a series of reassurances that are so sincere I actually teared up while reading. The unconditional love and acceptance depicted among these kids is first-rate.

One thing I appreciate in The Young Protectors is the diversity of superheroes represented. Fully have of the team Kyle belongs to consists of people of color. Now, The Young Protectors isn’t perfect in this regard. The main characters are two white dudes, and the cast is overwhelmingly male, but then I’m one of those people who will not be satisfied until non-white, non-male protagonists have become utterly commonplace. So I won’t let The Young Protectors slide just because it’s more diverse than it could be, but I will acknowledge that it’s significantly more inclusive than most of your run-of-the-mill comics. If you went to see a superhero movie and only half of the main cast was white, that would be pretty remarkable.

In this respect, The Young Protectors is representative of its time period. Though many cultural forces are driving for more inclusive representation, white and male is still the “default setting” in much of media. I don’t mean to vilify The Young Protectors for not being diverse enough for my ideals (an action which would be especially silly since I probably wouldn’t even mention it if the comic made less effort at diversity). I simply want to acknowledge the gap between the way things are now and the way I hope things will become.

The Young Protectors can get a bit melodramatic at times, with dialog that’s just a little too direct and unselfaware for my tastes, but it comes from a place of sincerity. The occasional cringe-inducing exchange is the price you pay for a comic that so embraces the artless emotional honesty of its young protagonist. I’m too cynical to read strictly for the sake of enjoying the romance, but I also find it a little too easy to get caught up in the romance for me to maintain emotional distance from the characters. Part of me really wants the villain to redeem himself, but another part of me would much rather see him suffer consequences for his cruel and manipulative actions.

The tone of this comic is such that I’m anticipating an eventual happy ending, albeit with some sacrifices and major character development along the way. My hope is that the journey to get there will convince me that a happy ending is a good idea. Being surprised by a story is one of my absolute favorite things, so if something shows up in The Young Protectors that I’m not already anticipating, I’ll be delighted to let it change my opinion of the direction the comic could take.

For the meantime, I’m just going to keep reading and keep enjoying what I already know I like: heroes being friends and looking out for each other, and villains playing mind games of obscure purpose and uncertain moral rationale.

The Young Protectors is written by Alex Woolfson, with art by Adam DeKraker (pencils) and Veronica Gandini (color). Navigating the website can be a tad bit annoying if you’re already caught up, since there’s no home page that shows the latest installment. What I do is get to the beginning of the comic and then click “last” to see the page that’s been posted most recently. Scratch that. This is a link you can use to get to the most recent installment. You can also subscribe by RSS or some other means, thus bypassing the need to navigate through the archive altogether.

I know that, upon hearing “gay superhero romance,” some people will immediately want to check it out and others will want to avoid it at all costs. This post, though, is for everyone else, the people who wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to a gay superhero romance comic, but might read one if it’s good enough or has other elements that they might enjoy. I know I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me personally, The Young Protectors offers enough excitement on a variety of levels that I’ll always be glad I gave myself a chance to try it out.

Previous Entry: Michael DeForge

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Entry 61: Michael DeForge

Today is one of those days when, rather than focusing on one particular comic, I’m going to focus on one particular cartoonist. Michael DeForge can build whole worlds in just a handful of panels, inviting readers to explore, to discover, and to try to understand. His comics are dark and whimsical, full of imagination and full of life.

One thing that I value, in comics and other art, is exposure to ideas and expressions that would never have occurred to me on my own. It’s one thing to show me an image I couldn’t have drawn, or a series of events that I couldn’t have written, but it’s far more impressive to make me think thoughts I could never have thought without an outside influence. With surprising consistency, Michael DeForge becomes that outside influence, taking my brain and inserting concepts there that I would never have been able to consider otherwise.

Lots of his comics are pretty short, and many are (at least on the surface) fairly simple. It might take no more than a minute or two to read, but I have never stopped at reading a DeForge comic just once. These comics demand lingering attention. After I finish my first impulse is to go back and read it again, to keep engaging with the comic, dwelling on individual panels or actions until I’ve reached some sort of conclusion, for the moment, about what it means to me.

I reread hoping for greater understanding, for insight. Though I may occasionally miss a detail or two in my first reading, that’s not usually what defines my understanding of the comic. I don’t go back and read everything over in an effort to grasp complexity, but in an effort to make sense of the bizarreness. Truly engaging with DeForge’s work on an emotional level requires me to twist my mind in just the right way, to find the perspective from which all the details slot into place.

My relationship to these comics winds up being so personal, so entwined with who I am at a particular point in time, that if I come back to them months or even just days later I may get something entirely different out of them. I don’t think any two people will get quite the same thing out of a DeForge comic, even if those two people are just me at different points in my life.

The first place I ever read a Michael DeForge comic was over at What Things Do, where you can access a selection of his work. For the meantime, that’s the best place I can direct you to access his online comics. His Patreon page contains a purported link to a comprehensive list of his free online work, but the last time I checked the link was broken. (I’ll update here if that changes.)

If you’re on the fence about diving into All The Michael DeForge Comics, I encourage you to at least check out “Rescue Pet.” It might just be my favorite short-form comic of all time. I mean, not to overhype it or anything, but it’s definitely one of the greatest comics ever created and will completely change your life forever.

Writing this post about Michael DeForge brings up some questions to me about his relationship to webcomics, and the definition of webcomics overall. I don’t think I’d call DeForge a webcartoonist, because though some of his work is available online, the bulk of it is exclusively (or at least originally) intended for print. But of course, most artists engage in some sort of hybrid, printing some comics and distributing others online, or distributing much of their work in both digital and analog formats.

Indeed, many cartoonists reject the “webcomics” label entirely, finding that the separation of online comics into their own category is unnecessary and fractures the world of comics. Obviously I continue to use the term “webcomics,” since it’s part of the title of this blog and everything, so it must mean something to me. There must be a line I draw, however arbitrary, between webcomics and other comics. When most newspaper comics are available to read online on the same day of their publication, and when many of what I call “webcomics” have some sort of concurrent or parallel print distribution, I still apply some sort of criteria that tells me that Girl Genius is a webcomic, while Garfield (despite its comprehensive online archive!) is not.

Generically, I’d define webcomics as “comics that are primarily or initially distributed online.” What it boils down to, for me, is often my own primary or initial way of interacting with the comic. Reading a comic in an online archive is a fundamentally different experience than reading it in a book or a newspaper. And personally, I prefer the experience of reading comics online. It tends to be more comfortable for me.

I first came to know Michael DeForge’s work through his comics that have been posted online, and no matter how many print comics of his I read or how long a period of time elapses without any more of his comics being put up on the Internet, I will always associate his work with webcomics. That’s just the impression that I got early on, and it’s going to stick with me.

Lately, DeForge has been distributing comics digitally through Patreon for $3 a month. Technically that fits under my definition of webcomics, but it’s outside the scope of this blog, because I avoid writing about comics that you can only read if you can afford to pay for them. I would never argue that comics are not worth money or that artists don’t deserve to be paid for their work. However, I’ve spent enough of my life being unable to pay for things that I really appreciate finding works that anyone can engage with for free. When I write about webcomics, I limit my pool to those that a potential reader can experience without any commitment to spend money that they may or may not have.

That said, I love “Mars Is My Last Hope,” one of the Patreon comics, so much that it could almost displace “Rescue Pet” as my favorite Michael DeForge comic. So even though it’s not free to read at the moment, I think it’s worth mentioning for those who might be saying to themselves “Sure, I can afford to spend that money, but would anything I might get out of the exchange be worth it?” For me, the answer is surely yes.

Though What Things Do is the primary place I’d recommend to find free online Michael DeForge comics, it’s certainly not the only place you can do so. His work pops up in all sorts of places, often places where I wouldn’t have expected to find comics of any kind.

For instance, the band Speedy Ortiz got him to draw a comic announcing their upcoming album, Foil Deer. Now, I am not at all in touch with the world of music. I rarely listen to songs that I haven’t heard already. I haven’t bought an album in like two years. But I really want to buy Foil Deer, because Michael DeForge made a comic for it. I am at least 1000% more likely to buy that album than I would be if I had never seen that comic. (The math works out. Trust me. I took AP Statistics in High School.)

The message here is that if you’re in a band, or if you do publicity for a band, and you’re puzzled about how to get me to buy the music you’re selling, you should hire Michael DeForge to make some comics for you. End of story.

Michael DeForge makes comics that nobody else could. There’s a particular emotional quality to his work that I’ve never found elsewhere. Though his comics are almost always sad, they don’t leave me feeling down or exacerbate my depression. In fact, many of them elevate my mood. The melancholy aspects feel honest, and so do the optimistic aspects. Through surreal and outlandish scenarios, he manages to highlight a deep truth about living in an imperfect world and how to be okay with it.

At least, that’s what I’m taking out of the Michael DeForge comics I’ve read at the moment. Tomorrow I may feel that they give me something totally different. A year from now I’ll probably think something about his work that I’m not even capable of formulating at the moment. But in the meantime I’m going to keep reading, and rereading, all the Michael DeForge comics I can find, and see what comes to me.

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