Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Entry 82: Monsterkind

Much of human politics and racial relations stems from othering those who are different. Some group bands together as an “us” and defines themselves in distinction from some other group, “them.” The language that “we” use to describe “them” tends to reinforce the distinction between the groups, either dismissing them as weak or inferior, or, in some cases, raising them to dangerous, inhuman degrees, describing them as positively monstrous. Turning the other group into monsters is an easy way to continue dreading them. When the other group are literal monsters, though, we could wind up with a situation rather like the one presented in Monsterkind.

Wallace Foster, a human social worker, has never encountered monsters in his cozy homestead in District A, where monsters rarely if ever show up. Therefore, when he is transferred to monster-heavy District C, where monsters are in the majority by far, he is completely unprepared to not only face his own fears and prejudices, but the general mistrust that the monsters have for him.

After all:

  1. Bigotry can cut both ways. Some monsters harbor irrational dislikes for humans.
  2. Being treated as second-class citizens engenders certain natural resentments of the dominant class

Here I’ll note that Monsterkind is a comic you definitely want to read in order from the beginning. There’s an intricate story here, one that hinges upon details that are easy to miss. I notice something new every time I read it again.

While Wallace is focused on assisting those monsters he’s been sent to help, there’s something else going on with many of them. A larger story is unfolding, mostly unbeknownst to the people being affected by it. Subtle hints and minor cues, references to past events or the visible consequences that still linger from them all indicate that there’s more at play here than is understood by any one of the main actors.

Wallace himself is trying his hardest to do the one job he can do, but everything from the list of clients he’s meant to help to the recommendations he’s receiving from his boss to the providence of his transfer in the first place is, in a word, suspect.

The sinister plot tying many of these characters together unfolds in the background, while the more immediate and accessible story portrays a deceptively simple parable about tolerance and institutional racism. Creating a fantastical world to handle parallels to real-world issues is a time-honored storytelling technique, one that is employed here to discuss complex problems in terms of their impacts on sympathetic, relatable characters. It’s easy to understand that monsters are systematically mistreated by humans, even if we don’t have access to the detailed history of monster-human relations. It’s easy to understand how monsters and humans have been largely kept separate from each other, fostering misunderstanding. And it’s easy to see how people who initially regard each other with mistrust can find common ground, ultimately work together, and in some cases even grow to be friends.

Besides providing a handy tool to handle real-world issues, populating a fictional world with monsters opens up a variety of design and story possibilities that just wouldn’t exist otherwise. The character design is wonderfully varied, with monster appearances ranging from only vaguely humanoid to almost completely human.

And, being in an already fantastical reality, other little surprises about the world and what could possibly happen in it don’t seem forced or stretch suspension of disbelief. Though the world of Monsterkind seems mostly similar to our own in terms of technological development and physical laws, there are monsters and some of them do seem to be what one might call ‘magical.’ So, basically… you can’t afford to make assumptions about what’s realistic and what’s not.

There’s room for surprises, and, honestly, that’s probably the most exciting thing to me about this comic, because it is so rare and wonderful to find a work of fiction that fosters unpredictability. I’m genuinely excited to see where this story is going, because I honestly don’t yet know where that will be.

Monsterkind is written and drawn by Taylor C. and updates on Tuesdays and Fridays. If you like monsters, conceptually or by design, or if you’re interested in intersectionality, or if you just like a story that contains some sort of mystery element, I’d encourage you to give it a try. My one caveat is that, especially in early pages, the text can be small enough that it’s difficult to read at times. If that gives you trouble, try viewing the comic image on its own so that you can zoom in.
I hope you enjoy discovering this strange, wonderful, and oddly familiar world as much as I did.

By the way, Taylor C. is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the second printed Monsterkind volume. If you enjoy Monsterkind, maybe consider checking out the campaign and possibly buying a book or two!

Webcomics Worth Wreading Archive

Friday, March 18, 2016

Entry 81: Bobbins

Today, I am engaging in shameless self-indulgence. There are a few guidelines I bear in mind when deciding which comics to write about, and I’m bending a few of them because I really really want to. I’m writing about a comic that I’ve touched on before, and one that kind of doesn’t have enough installments to form a coherent picture of what the comic looks like as a whole. (I say kind of because it does if you include something that I’m deliberately excluding from this discussion.) Essentially, I am letting nostalgia write this post for me. To put it another way, 16-year-old me is jumping up and down inside my mind and threatening to strangle me if I don’t bend my own blogging guidelines just enough to let me do a post all about Bobbins.

Long ago, I did a post about Bad Machinery, another comic by the same creator as Bobbins. Of course, I’ve done multiple posts about different comics by the same creators before, so on the surface that wouldn’t disqualify Bobbins from earning its own entry on this blog. The comics set in Tackleford get a little tricky, though, because they share so many characters and even though they can certainly feel very distinct, there’s also a sense that they belong together, part of a set.

I feel a little bit like a restaurant critic, who normally writes only about restaurants I’ve never written about before, even though some of them may have been started by the same chef. Suddenly I feel this burning need to revisit a restaurant I’ve written about thoroughly before, because they brought back their brunch special and I just can’t resist telling everyone about it.

So what I’m saying is, it’s difficult to talk about why I would recommend Bobbins specifically without also talking about why I would recommend most of John Allison’s comics in general.

Another difficulty would be in talking about Bobbins without getting bogged down in webcomics history. Not just the history of Bobbins itself, or John Allison’s history as a creator, but also my own personal history as a webcomics reader.

You see, the current Bobbins run is a reboot of sorts. The original Bobbins ran years ago, and had already ended by the time I first came across it as a bright-eyed, impressionable youngster. Still, I absolutely devoured it, and I count Bobbins as among my first webcomic obsessions.

John Allison’s body of work is large and prodigious, and it all starts with Bobbins. In fact, though he’s done many comics with various titles, some of which feel extremely self-contained, for the most part they all share a canon. They tend to be set in the village of Tackleford, and often characters originate in one comic before migrating to a different one.

Many of the characters from Bobbins later populated Scary Go Round. Several characters from Scary Go Round, including some of those who’d been around since the days of Bobbins, wound up in Bad Machinery. And then there are all the other comics John Allison has made in the intervening years, brief stories that would go up on the website between Bad Machinery chapters, and the traditionally-published Giant Days, all of which manage to inhabit the same universe.

As someone who’s been reading John Allison’s comics for years, I’m delighted to keep getting to explore his characters in greater depth, to follow them on all sorts of journeys and watch the world he’s constructed grow ever more intricate.

However, as a person who has, admittedly, a limited store of mental resources to keeping all the details of these characters and their histories straight, I understand that it can all feel a little unwieldy.

I’m left in a situation where I know how wonderful these comics are, but when I recommend them to people I often just don’t know where to tell a new reader to start. For a while, Bad Machinery was the obvious choice, as it was fairly new and there wasn’t much in the way of a big, scary archive to wade through. However, at this point, Bad Machinery has been running for a good while, and it can’t really be described as a quick read. Someone looking to catch up has quite a long way to go.

And, if someone is to go back to the beginning of Bad Machinery… why not go back even further? There are characters in Bad Machinery whose stories stretch back to the days of Scary Go Round, or even further, to the first Bobbins run. Personally, I like to find the earliest point I can when I start reading something unfamiliar. But then you’re adding additional years’ worth of comics, enough to daunt almost anybody.

Now, I could point new readers to Mordawwa, Allison’s most recent endeavor. It’s pretty fast and not too intimidating. The tone and style are markedly different than much of his other work, though. Not different in a bad way, just in a way that means it’s not necessarily representative of his comics overall. I wouldn’t hold up Mordawwa as a fitting example of John Allison’s work in the same way that I wouldn’t hold up “Once More, With Feeling” as a fitting example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I love it dearly, but it gives one a very poor idea of what to expect from the rest of the oeuvre.

Plus, Mordawwa itself arises from a markedly complicated continuity. A reader needn’t be aware of any of that to enjoy Mordawwa, of course. It’s just hardly a clean start. Clean starts are extraordinarily hard to find in these comics.

Future Queen of Hell wishes she was still a little baby

The current Bobbins run is about as close to a clean start as it gets.

None of the previously established Tackleford continuity applies here. Certain events in the new Bobbins contradict things that happened in other comics, even some in the original Bobbins. Basically, this Bobbins is a sort of alternate universe, where the same characters are in the same setting, but everything is happening just a little bit differently.

For an old reader like me, that means I get to see all sorts of lovely new stories about my favorite characters in a familiar setting that I remember fondly. It means exploring character dynamics more deeply, taking a fresh look into the ways that all of these people connect and clash. In fewer than 30 installments, the new Bobbins has already significantly changed the way I view some of the most definitive relationships between Tackleford characters.

But then, I’m not really writing this post for the benefit of old readers. I’m writing it because I want to reach out to those of you who may not have given Allison’s work a try before. Or those who may have seen a little of his comics, gotten lost, and given up. For those readers, Bobbins presents an opportunity to bypass the challenges of getting into a comic with years of continuity behind it. You don’t have to worry about anything that happened before. All you have to do is start reading.

The original Bobbins will forever hold an exalted place in my heart, but I admit that it doesn’t represent the best of John Allison’s work. Like creators do, Allison has grown as a writer and artist over the years he’s spent making comics. Reading Bobbins now is a little bit like reading the debut novel of a beloved author. The book isn’t at all likely to be bad, but if you’ve read any of the later works, then that first one is unlikely to live up to them.

If you do fall in love with the new Bobbins, you are of course welcome to read the original run as well, in all of its low-res glory. At one point you’ll reach a crossover with Goats, which is the reason I originally read Bobbins at all. However, at this point in time the Goats installments that correspond to the crossover are no longer archived online. You can buy eBooks of them… but I’m getting off topic. Suffice to say, when you explore parts of the Internet from more than a few years ago, there are some things that just aren’t going to work like they did when they first went up.

And that’s one reason why the world needs brand-new Bobbins.

Bobbins doesn’t have a regular update schedule at present. New installments have been going up on weekends, but according to the text post at the bottom of the newest page, the next new Bobbins is going to go up on March 28th. Of course, if you’re reading this sometime after March of 2016, that information is no longer relevant to you.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s some frustrated 16-year-old out there who will find Bobbins and fall in love like I once did. Or maybe that’s asking too much, but hey, I can dream. For now, I’ll just point anyone reading this in a particular direction, and let you know just how important these comics are to me. I’m not saying it’s necessarily going to happen, but there’s always a chance they could become important to some of you as well.

The Tattered Remains of What Once Was a Schedule

Don’t worry, there’s a real Webcomics Worth Wreading entry going up right after this! I just wanted to say some things first.

February turned out to be a wash. I recovered from my allergy troubles, but then I just… had a lot of trouble getting myself to work on this blog. For nearly three years I’ve been pretty good about keeping up with it. In the past couple of months, though… well, you can see for yourself how many posts have gone up since January.

I love writing about webcomics, and I love putting that writing up here to share great comics with the rest of the world. I don’t want to stop putting up new entries. But I just don’t know if I can keep up with the same regularity that I once managed.

So what I’m going to do is be looser with myself about my post schedule. I’ll finish entries as I’m able, and put them up when I feel they’re ready. I very much want to keep this blog active. I just need to give myself some more flexibility about how to do that.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Blame These Yellow Flowers

Last week I missed a post. By the schedule I try to follow in getting new Webcomics Worth Wreading entries up on this blog, last Tuesday (not yesterday but the one before that) should have had one. But it didn't, and what's more, I remained silent about it here.

I did say something on Twitter, but I don't think I've ever actually linked to my Twitter account from this blog before... which is foolish, as I always post a link on Twitter whenever there's a new post. So here's my Twitter account, for any who are interested (and who didn't find this blog through seeing something on Twitter in the first place). That link is also now featured on the blog's sidebar, right under the link to the archive page. Progress!

I'll warn you, though, that I also tweet about numerous things that are not webcomics recommendations, and I make no guarantee that following me on Twitter will be either entertaining or informative.

Anyway, on to the reason that I missed a post: Allergy season. Specifically, the season when the acacias start blooming. Everywhere I go, I'm surrounded by these things:

That's an image of an acacia that I found on Wikimedia Commons, taken by Fir0002/Flagstaffos, and used in accordance with a Creative Commons license.

Now, there's a good chance the species of acacias that are surrounding me are not identical to the one pictured, but when they bloom all you can see are big trees covered in yellow flowers, and I can't get close to one without feeling as though my airways are shutting down. (It's not that they actually shut down... to the best of my knowledge, my acacia allergy is not dangerous. It just feels like I'm dying.)

I've heard it said that most people who think they're allergic to acacias are actually allergic to a pine tree that blooms at the same time acacias do, but looks less striking while doing so. However, I definitely feel a reaction to being near acacias specifically, as I learned walking home from school when I would pass by my neighbor's house who had a bunch of acacia trees in the yard. So I'm pretty sure it is those yellow flowers that get to me, and not something more insidious but less noticeable.

The upshot is that for several days in a row, I would think "I should work on my blog... but I'm too tired (from lack of sleep due to allergies) and headachey (from clogged sinuses due to allergies) to do it now. I'll do it tomorrow."

But then it kept being tomorrow, and I still felt the same way.

I feel a lot better now than I did last week. The dusty feeling of breathing in acacia-tainted air is still present, but I'm not sneezing every couple of minutes, I got my voice back, and I (mostly) slept through the night last night.

So I'm penciling in next Tuesday for a new Webcomics Worth Wreading entry like I feel I owe you for last week, and apologizing for leaving you in the dark for now. I'm not gone, and I still have a lot to say to you about the webcomics that I like.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Entry 80: Molebashed

One of my favorite things about comics is the opportunity they provide for creators and readers to share and compare personal experiences. Granted, this is true of most media, but we’re focusing on comics here. Comics, along with other forms of artistic expression, allow people to articulate common experiences that others can relate to. They can also allow people to express their unique life experiences to people who don’t share them, allowing the reader to gain greater understanding of an author from a different background or worldview. Today I’m talking about a comic that I find does both those things for me: Molebashed.

I’ll note here that, though there is some continuity to Molebashed and some comics do follow others in forming storylines, this is not a narrative-driven comic and you don’t have to worry about spoilers or following it all from the very beginning in order to understand what’s going on. Feel free to jump in anywhere and read as much from different parts of the archive as you like.

Molebashed is an autobio, gag-a-day comic that shows us little scenes from the life of its author, Wes Molebash. The focus, particularly, is on his place in his family, as a father to his son, Parker, and a husband to his wife, Kari. Fatherhood especially takes center place in Molebashed, as the comic opens with Kari going into labor and, though not every installment deals directly with parenthood, that subject takes up the overwhelming majority of the run so far.

The way the author portrays his family sometimes feels quaint, in a way, like a relic from a less cynical time period. Very few families in contemporary popular media are as well-adjusted as the Molebashes appear from this representation. There are lots of reasons for that trend, but one can be attributed to lazy writing. As we all know, conflict drives stories, and in a dysfunctional family, conflict is all over the place, obvious and easy to insert into any given situation. Some people might even assume that a happy family full of people who love each other will contain no conflict at all. Those people, however, are not looking hard enough. Humans do not live lives free of conflict, regardless of how many things they do ‘right’ or what kind of cultural scripts they follow.

Often, Molebashed hits upon those little life experiences that tend to pass unnoticed and unremarked-upon, such that every individual who experiences it neglects to realize that there are other people experiencing the exact same thing. So far, many of those experiences that make it into this comic have to do with caring for babies, which is sensible given the subject matter. I’m not a parent, myself, but now that my siblings all have kids and I’ve spent time with my niece and my nephews as they grow up, I find that I relate to many of the jokes and stories that people tell about babies and young children. Before my first nephew was born, I could read those kinds of anecdotes and appreciate them. Now, I appreciate them in a slightly different way. It’s the difference between laughing at something that is amusing in an absurd way, and laughing at something because it’s amusingly familiar.

For those who are not parents and do not have any young children in your life, there are actually some installments of Molebashed that hit on common experiences that you don’t need to be around kids in order to relate to. For instance, take the following example of a comic distributed through the Internet, complaining about how these days media is distributed through the Internet.

Seriously though I feel this one pretty strongly.

The parts of Molebashed that I appreciate the most, though, are the ones I don’t directly relate to. At present I don’t have kids, and I may never have kids. I’m not married, and may never be. I’m not a religious or spiritually-oriented person. In other words, I’m a pretty different person from Wes Molebash, whose wife, son, and Christian faith are all clearly important to how he defines himself. And what makes him a notable cartoonist, to my mind, is the way he can articulate those aspects of himself in a manner that makes sense to me, someone with a pretty different personal history and identity than his.

Almost anyone can appeal to other people from their own and similar communities, can create artwork that sets those who come from your same world nodding their heads. It takes a great deal of insight, and a tremendous amount of skill in the act of communication, to reach out to someone from a totally disparate worldview and make them nod in agreement. And this is what Molebashed does to me… it shows me scenes and thoughts from a life I’ve never even considered to myself, and makes them seem perfectly sensible and accessible.

Now, I don’t like to describe comics in terms of negatives, because I find it far more useful and interesting to describe the traits a comic possesses than the ones it doesn’t possess. However, if someone described Molebashed to me there are a few assumptions I might make about it that would discourage me from checking it out, so I’ll list a couple of qualities that one might expect this sweet slice-of-life comic about a man and his family to have that it, thankfully, does not.

Molebashed doesn’t feel preachy or self-righteous. Though the author represents himself as the kind of person who genuinely tries to be a good person to the best of his ability, he doesn’t come off as if that makes him better than anybody else. There’s no arrogance, or any assumption that people who live their lives in different ways are doing something wrong.

Neither does Molebashed never get cloying or overly sappy. It’s sweet and optimistic, but not in a way that feels false or exaggerated. Rather, the whole comic rings of sincerity… this feels like an accurate representation of the author’s worldview, and that worldview is that life is pretty great, family is awesome, and being around loved ones is a fantastic way to spend one’s time.

Perhaps the reason Molebashed is great at presenting unfamiliar experiences to me in a way I can accept is that the author himself displays an open-minded willingness to accept unfamiliar experiences that might be presented to him. This goes along with that ‘life is pretty great’ viewpoint that I read in his work… there are a lot of diverse interests and experiences in life, and every one of them is deeply important to somebody.

A note on navigation: You have to click the buttons below the comic to move to earlier or later installments. Clicking the comic image itself just takes you to a page that displays the comic image, and only the comic image, with no navigation available aside from your browser’s Back button.

I love this comic not just because it’s sincere and optimistic and sweet, but because it brings a sense of self-awareness to those qualities. Molebashed represents life as a wonderful thing, and family as rewarding and fulfilling, but there’s an understanding of the negatives that come with life, as well. What’s more, there’s an understanding of the negative qualities present in the author himself. In fact, part of what stops Molebashed from feeling preachy is the way that it will lightheartedly poke fun at the author for getting into a preachy mode sometimes. The people represented in the comic feel humbler and more relatable because of the times they are represented as feeling self-righteous and better than those around them. Those are extremely human qualities… almost everyone has moments like that, and pointing them out and acknowledging them makes them seem far less significant, and certainly less harmful, than they would if they went unrecognized.

This isn’t just a comic that represents some of the best parts of being alive…. it’s a comic that does so while acknowledging and examining its own biases, and is all the better for it.

Molebashed is written and drawn by Wes Molebash, and it updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Parents will likely find a lot to love about it, but I think people like me who are not parents, including that subset of us who are dead set against ever becoming parents, will find a lot to love in it as well. This is really a comic about what it’s like to be a human… and since there is no one general human story that encompasses all our many stories and backgrounds and opinions, the way to reach that general story is through many smaller, specific stories. Molebashed happens to be the story of one man in particular, and he happens to be a father… and for that reason, Molebashed is about what it’s like to be a father. If you’re at all interested in people, consider giving it a read.