Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Entry 76: Jasika Nicole

One of my favorite things, as you might imagine, is discovering new comics. Almost always, that involves one of two things: Discovering a new creator or team of creators whose work I was previously unfamiliar with, or reading something new from a creator whose other comic work I’ve already come to know and love. Today, however, I’ve come to tell you about a third case, so rare that it has, as of yet, only happened once: Stumbling upon comics created by someone whose work I had already come to know and love, but had no idea did anything comics-related. Imagine my delight, as a comics lover, when I discovered the comics work of already beloved and admired figure Jasika Nicole.

Normally I try not to discuss non-comics media on this blog, to keep the focus fairly narrow and therefore allow myself to cover relevant subjects without giving myself too large and impractical a task. That’s not really something I can plausibly do with this post, however. One reason is that I am such a fan of Jasika Nicole’s acting work that I won’t be able to restrain myself from gushing a little bit. The other reason, which is my excuse to give myself permission to indulge in the first one,  is that Nicole puts so much of herself into her comics work. Much of it is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, and even when she creates fiction it still has the feeling of raw, real representations of her life experiences, or extrapolations from them.

Writing about Jasika Nicole’s comics without telling you anything about how I became a fan of hers in the first place would feel pretty jarring, almost as much as if I tried to write about Wasted Talent without mentioning that Angela Melick is an engineer. So, let me tell you a little bit about Jasika Nicole and where I know her from.

No, I’m not a fan because of her performance in makeup commercials… but, like many actors, that’s a part of her history. That one comic, by the way, about her first audition, is one of the funniest things I have ever read. It’s one of those things I will occasionally think about and just start giggling to myself. I’m extremely grateful that Nicole was willing to share it with the world, and to do so with such aplomb.

I first saw Nicole as an actor on Fringe. She plays Astrid, a character of whom I am quite fond. Of course, taking a liking to a character on a TV show always has multiple factors. Writing and direction matter a lot. Acting, though, makes up a significant portion of what makes a character one of your favorites. Probably my second favorite episode of Fringe (because nothing can beat the singing corpses) is the one that focuses on the two Astrids from the two different universes, and how very different they are. I cry just thinking about it.

Fringe is no longer running, but Nicole’s streak of playing beloved characters has continued, as she provides the voice for Dana in Welcome to Night Vale. It’s through that role that I was able to see Nicole in a live performance, which was SO AWESOME YOU GUYS. Honestly it was amazing to be there in the audience. I was absolutely floored when she stepped out on stage, because she hadn’t been announced or advertised. The moment she showed up was one of the best surprises of that evening.

So when I discovered that this actor of whom I had become so fond made comics, I was eager to read them. And when I discovered just how powerful, and delightful, and meaningful her comics were, I was absolutely amazed.

Nicole’s comics tend to focus on very personal topics… family, personal history and self-discovery, relationships, that kind of thing. These are subjects that turn up repeatedly in the world of comics, as it’s pretty easy for most people to find something about themselves that they can put on the page, if they look into their insecurities or probe family history for shocking or amusing stories.

The comics that Nicole creates about her life stick with me, though, in a way that these kind of personal accounts very rarely do. I often find myself thinking about the way she presents aspects of her life or her family, experiences that I’m sure are not unique to her. This is one of those cases where, despite focusing so clearly on the creator’s own individual experience, the comics hit upon something that feels universal, that I expect almost anybody could relate to.

Even though these comics are almost always focused like a laser on a specific experience had by a specific person in a specific time and place, I’m someone who’s constantly looking for the bigger picture… and often, as I read one of Nicole’s comics, I find it illuminates some aspect of the culture we live in just by clearly showing one particular event or moment in a person’s life. This one, discussing nude drawings of her mother made by a preschool-aged Nicole, makes me think so many things about the way our culture handles nudity, as well as childhood education, body shame, and how we develop our understanding of things that “must” remain hidden.

My parents were hippies, and I was raised in an environment that never taught me there was anything wrong with nudity. Thankfully I never drew a naked picture at school and got in trouble for it. That honestly seems like an awfully traumatic event that makes me resent the teachers who thought that was the best response to the situation… but Nicole doesn’t present a comic out of anger. There’s no indication that she harbors any resentment toward those authority figures. Instead, she focuses on the drawing itself, on what it meant to her, and on the reactions of her classmates. It’s an extraordinary comic; if you only read one comic by Jasika Nicole, I’d recommend that one. Bear in mind that it is mildly nsfw, if your workplace has a policy against childish, cartoony drawings of naked women.

Jasika Nicole is a woman of many talents. She doesn’t post new comics very frequently… after all, a comics artist is but one of several things that she is. If you’re a fan of something she’s been in as an actor, maybe you’d be interested in her comics as well. If you’ve never heard of her before today, well, there are some comics you can read that will tell you a little bit about her. I recommend them not just because I’m a fan of the creator for other reasons. I would never do that. They genuinely are great reading.

So head on over to her site, read some comics, and quickly devour all of them because it is impossible to slow down once you get started. Then you can join me in vaguely wishing that she could be a full-time webcartoonist, but understanding that we all have different paths to walk in life, and that Jasika Nicole is a woman who walks very many different paths indeed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Comparisons I Didn't Make

Okay, I need to give myself a little bit of a break so that I can catch up on my comics reading and also just on all that stuff in my life that keeps piling up and demanding my time and mental faculties. Instead of posting nothing at all this week, though, I’ve decided to post a look back at some previous Webcomics Worth Wreading entries and the things that I thought about saying at the time, but decided against for various reasons. So here you go: A list of comparisons I didn’t might have made, but didn’t.

1. I did not compare Michael DeForge to Franz Kafka

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

When people hear the name Franz Kafka, their first thought is of the tone that pervades all of Kafka’s work. If you call something Kafkaesque, people understand you to mean that it’s oppressive and arbitrary and absurd. A Kafka story will always feel like a Kafka story, regardless of what happens in it: There will be darkness and hopelessness, all couched in a bleak humor.

And that’s not at all what I wanted to say about Michael DeForge.

DeForge, though sometimes evoking darkness and hopelessness, and though often displaying bleak humor, does not maintain a consistent tone through all his work the way that Franz Kafka does. Different comics by Michael DeForge can feel very different from one another, with tones that range from bleak to profoundly optimistic. Neither creative style is necessarily superior to the other, but they are definitely different, with Kafka displaying consistency while DeForge displays variety.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Michael DeForge and Franz Kafka both create short works that are easy to read and, on the surface, easy to understand. They both construct self-contained, absurd universes in those brief works. The value in a DeForge comic or a Kafka story is usually in the re-reading, carefully examining all the little details, contemplating the way that they all fit together and searching for a comprehensive understanding of the work as a whole. If I were an English teacher, I’d have my students approach DeForge’s work in the same way I’d have them approach Kafka’s. They both invite the same type of analysis when I read them, in a way that few other creators do.

2. I did not compare Stand Still. Stay Silent to Shades of Grey

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

When I bring up the title Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde, people will immediately think of Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. Despite the fact that the author’s names are distinct, that Fforde’s title is shorter, and that his book came out first, the general public has been so subject to cultural osmosis about Fifty Shades of Grey that there is no means by which I could bring up Fforde’s book without people immediately thinking of that other one.

Fifty Shades of Grey probably has absolutely nothing in common with Stand Still. Stay Silent. I haven’t actually read Fifty Shades of Grey so I can’t say that with certainty. I didn’t want to make a comparison and then have to spend at least a paragraph explaining that I was talking about a different book than the one people were thinking of. At best I would be wasting space, and at worst I would actively confuse people.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Stand Still. Stay Silent and Shades of Grey have an awful lot in common, to the extent that I would enthusiastically recommend one to anyone who expressed enjoyment of the other. They’re both set in a post-apocalyptic world, focusing on characters who are utterly entrenched in whatever new societal structure has arisen in the remnants of humanity. They both handle grim and foreboding situations with aplomb and humor. Much of the humor itself comes from similar places, people in this future society misunderstanding aspects of the world that came before them or behaving in manners that make perfect sense to them but seem absurd to us.

Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey and Minna Sundberg’s Stand Still. Stay Silent appeal to similar sensibilities, and I love them both to bits. If there’s either of them that you haven’t read, I suggest you give it/them a try!

3. I did not compare Stand Still. Stay Silent to Scott Pilgrim

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

I realized that the only thing Scott Pilgrim has in common to Stand Still. Stay Silent is the fact that they both introduce characters with amusing captions.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Scott Pilgrim and Stand Still. Stay Silent both introduce characters with amusing captions.

4. I did not compare Sheldon to Calvin and Hobbes

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

Calvin and Hobbes is a legend among newspaper comics. No other comic is as universally beloved and respected as Calvin and Hobbes. To say that Sheldon is akin to Calvin and Hobbes would inevitably set the reader up for disappointment, as if proclaiming “This comic is the epitome, the apotheosis, of the comic strip form.” At a guess, I’d say even Calvin and Hobbes would fare poorly if compared to the general image in the public mind about what Calvin and Hobbes is. That comic’s reputation has surpassed it. No real comic can live up to the version of Calvin and Hobbes that lives in the hearts and minds of comics lovers.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Sheldon feels a lot like Calvin and Hobbes in a lot of ways. Like with Stand Still. Stay Silent and Shades of Grey, the sensibilities are similar. It’s clear in Dave Kellett’s work that he absorbed a lot from Bill Watterson, and the styles and humor of both comics inspire a similar type of enjoyment when I read them. Both juxtapose young children with serious philosophical discourse. Both get at some of the true absurdities of childhood. They are both great comics and I love them.

5. I did not compare Wilde Life to The Sculptor

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

Wilde Life, at least so far, has not addressed the same thematic elements that The Sculptor does. The similarities that strike me between them are fairly superstitial.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Wilde Life has the potential to address some of the same thematic elements as The Sculptor. The protagonist is an artist with the same name as a much more famous artist who worked in the same medium. (So far, Wilde Life hasn’t really dealt with Oscar’s opinion on or relationship to his better-known namesake.) The supernatural themes of Wilde Life could, potentially, lend themselves to discussions of mortality and the meaning that an individual’s life has, to them and to the world.

Maybe one day I’ll look back and say “Hey! The Sculptor and Wilde Life totally have a lot of thematic similarities!”

But maybe I won’t.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this chance I gave myself to write some stuff I wanted to write before but thought the better of. If you didn’t enjoy this break from form, then rest assured that in two weeks I’ll be back with more in-depth descriptions of new and exciting, or old and familiar, webcomics to delight the soul and engage the mind.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Entry 75: Wilde Life

“I’m not comfortable debating my sister’s ostensible hotness with a teenaged werewolf.”
— Oscar Wilde

Before we start, I’ll mention that this is one of those comics that it’s difficult to discuss without providing mild spoilers. I’m not going to give away stuff that doesn’t strike me as an obvious part of the fundamental fabric that makes up this comic, but the whole beginning of the comic constitutes a gradual process of revealment, so if you’d like to experience it without any (well, with very few) preconceptions, you can go ahead and start with my wholehearted recommendation. For those of you who are already familiar with the story or who need a little bit more encouragement to get to reading it, let us proceed to discuss Wilde Life.

Wilde Life contains supernatural elements of all kinds, every one presented in a very down-to-earth, human, relatable way. Hauntings, magic, adventures, all these things happen to people who still feel every bit like regular people. Often, in stories that contain so much of the supernatural, characters seem inherently built for that setting, as if these people exist only in the context of a mystical world, and wouldn’t make any sense removed from that context. In contrast, the characters from Wilde Life could show up in line behind you at the grocery store, and not seem even slightly out of place.

As well as the relatable characters, Wilde Life’s style is largely defined by its pervasive sense of humor. Sometimes this takes the form of characters being witty, sometimes it’s physical comedy, sometimes it’s just an amusing turn of phrase or an awkward interaction that plays out in a funny way. The author has a keen sense for finding the humor in an otherwise tense and dramatic situation, and the humor doesn’t always *undercut* the tension, but sometimes serves to *enhance* it. There’s absolutely no reason that the reader can’t both be bouncing on the edge of their seat to learn how this plays out, and feeling reassured by the latest amusing detail.

Almost all of the names in Wilde Life have a clear meaning. This is usually very surface-level, some obvious parallel or common meaning inherent in the name chosen. The comic takes place in a town called Podunk, the very archetype of a small, middle-of-nowhere, inconsequential community. The protagonist is a writer named Oscar Wilde, albeit not that writer named Oscar Wilde. There are more examples, but I don’t want to give too much away.

This tendency to name places and characters after concepts or people that have some superficial (and usually some deeper) connection to them has the effect of tying the whole comic together, giving it a sense of coherence. Even when the characters are very different, they seem to belong in the same set, by virtue of the way they were named.

Oscar rents a house in Podunk from a woman named Barbara Yaga, someone who strikes me as a hillbilly, and someone who is also, with a name like that, clearly a witch. Now, “hillbilly witch” is not a phrase that seems readily sensible. Witches are, according to tradition, wise and powerful. Hillbillies are, according to stereotype, dumb and feckless. Those traits wouldn’t easily mix.

And yet, as mentioned above, this character feels just… real. Like an ordinary person living in the middle of nowhere going about her life. She’s probably neither as stupid and ill-equipped as she might seem at first glance, nor is she likely as wicked and conniving as witches often are in fairy tales and the like. She’s just a person, probably magical, definitely an inhabitant of a small town, but not composed entirely from the expectations one might have of a person in either role. So far we’ve only seen glimpses of her, but those glimpses are enough to infer that there’s a lot going on below her surface, and that she’s unlikely to make it easy for anyone to see just what that is.

Further, being shown this woman, about whom we could assume so many disparate things based on the information presented about her, the audience's base assumptions and prejudices are challenged. There's a lot more about Barbara that we don't know than that we do, and the thought that we could judge her in any way based on her name, or based on her appearance, or based on her home, is clearly flawed, because those things are not at all in agreement about what kind of person she ought to be.

The hillbilly witch, the humor in tense moments, the down-to-earth characters in unearthly situations, they’re all examples of the fundamental tenet of Wilde Life as a comic, which is, in my view, a profound sense of incongruity. Things are not what you expect them to be. Two or more things that seem mutually incompatible can inhabit the same space, even the same person. Combinations that one would think fundamentally unstable can, sometimes, exist for long periods of time. Wilde Life explores those areas of life when one cannot quite accept the world as it is, without admitting that the world as it is must be in some way absurd.

At least at the beginning, Wilde Life impressed me as the story of one man who is perpetually friendly to everything strange and/or monstrous that he comes across. Now, for some slightly more significant spoilers than I’ve given you so far, you may read my summaries of the first two chapters.

Chapter 1: Oh, you’re a ghost? I’ll be your friend!

Chapter 2: Oh, you’re a werewolf? I’ll be your friend!

(As much as I would love to read a comic about Oscar methodically meeting one of every kind of supernatural creature and befriending them all, this comic does not continue down that path and is almost certainly the better for it.)

Oscar’s attitude toward the supernatural is admirably level-headed, and his willingness to engage with things he doesn’t understand in a cheerful and friendly manner makes the comic as a whole feel friendly and welcoming. And as it turns out, sometimes supernatural beings are just as friendly and helpful as average-joe human protagonists.

Wilde Life is written and drawn by Pascalle Lepas. If you’re looking for something a little spooky to get you pumped for Halloween (4 more days!), especially if you’re a little bit squeamish and don’t want to go for something gory or truly frightening, I strongly suggest you give Wilde Life a chance. Even if you’re reading this well past Halloween and that motivation no longer applies to you, I suggest you give Wilde Life a try anyway! It’s funny, it’s sometimes heartbreaking, and overall it gives me exactly the kind of supernatural-dramedy-character-piece I never knew was missing from my life until I found it.

Keep an eye out for mouseover text… it first shows up here, though it’s not consistently present until later on. The quote at the top of the page is directly taken from mouseover text on one installment, though most of that is just quoting comic dialog directly. Still, in a comic that regularly makes me giggle, the mouseover text often makes me giggle more, so if you like the sense of humor that Lepas puts into her work (and who doesn’t?!) be sure not to cut yourself off from discovering every bit of it that’s possible to find.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Entry 74: Starbunny, Inc.

Today we’re talking about people finding their place in the world. Well, I say ‘people,’ but I mean ‘bunnies.’ And I say ‘the world,’ but this comic is set on multiple planets, so maybe ‘the universe’ would be better. And I say ‘we’re talking,’ but obviously I am writing, and posting to a blog, and by the time you read this I will of course be finished and not actively writing these words any longer. What I’m trying to say is that this post contains a lot of analogies because those are what stand out to me the most about Starbunny, Inc.

Before we begin, I want to let you know that Starbunny, Inc. is a narrative comic that is best read in order from the beginning, and that this post will contain certain spoilers. The setting takes a little bit of establishment, so discussing the comic would be difficult without giving away certain important details. If you care about such things, feel free to start reading and then tab back on over here to see what I have to say. It’s a quick and easy read, so don’t worry about getting all bogged down and taking a lot of time and effort to see if it’s something you can get into.

Starbunny, Inc. tells the story of Blue Hoppowitz, a bunny with a big problem. He’s lactose intolerant… which means he doesn’t drink milkshakes. And bunnies are all about milkshakes. Everyone knows that all bunnies love making and drinking milkshakes above all else. The Hoppowitz family, in particular, has built a fortune, an industrial empire, even, based upon milkshakes.

Blue could take charge of his family’s legacy. He’s the eldest, the heir to the role of Hoppowitz Shakes CEO, but he’s not suitable for that job. Not just because of his lactose intolerance, but because he doesn’t fight for it. He doesn’t particularly want to run the company, doesn’t have a drive to keep himself in charge. It’s clear that, overall, his heart wouldn’t be in it. He’s not a bunny of industry, or cutthroat business practices. It’s clear that he is very strongly at odds with the basic principles of the setting in which he finds himself.

So he takes off, in search of a place where he can belong. As it happens, he’s far from the first bunny to do so… Grandma Hoppowitz herself led the Great Bunny Migration generations earlier, leading bunnies to the Milky Way where the majority now consider themselves quite at home.

In leaving his home because he doesn’t fit in among the other bunnies, Blue is in fact following in something of a bunny tradition, reenacting on an individual level the journey that his grandmother started long ago.

Starbunny, Inc. is a very child-friendly comic. It tackles issues of identity and sense of belonging in a simple and easy-to-understand style. And, of course, it’s about talking bunnies whose entire culture is centered around milkshakes and who travel through space by holding stars in nets.

Like all the best children’s stories, it combines lessons and introspection with the fantasy. As simple and unassuming as Starbunny, Inc. can seem, there’s true depth to it. Sometimes it surprises me in very clever ways, and sometimes its cleverness shines through without surprising me at all, because the whole universe of the story feels so coherent that I can’t imagine things going any other way.

Blue’s speech there encapsulates what, to me, is the entirety of Starbunny, Inc. A complete picture of the comic, its message, and its appeal, are summarized in that one panel.

On one level, Blue’s concern is silly, simple, and funny. His whole sense of self is thrown off because he can’t digest milk! What a foolish bunny, there are far more important just as silly, but different reasons in my life to doubt my sense of identity and how I fit into my community.

But of course, that kind of concern rises in many people, for many reasons. People doubt themselves because of who they’re attracted to, or physical disabilities, or religious disagreements with their families. None of those things make a personal fundamentally inhuman, or disqualify them from belonging to whatever group they came out of… but the concern is still there. One of the most fundamental and painful parts of the human condition, perfectly illustrated in the form of a bunny who can’t drink milkshakes.

What I love about Starbunny, Inc. is its ability to raise these concerns, deal with these profoundly painful personal experiences, while still being fun-for-all-ages, lighthearted entertainment. The comic never loses its distinctive tone, one in which ridiculous things are commonplace and treated as perfectly serious and matter-of-fact by the characters, while the audience gets to sit back and follow everything with a level of detachment that is elegantly aided by the sheer absurdity of this setting.

The space storm, the rivers of milk, the use of milkshakes as a culturally defining feature, even the choke berries seen below, they’re all elements that make Starbunny, Inc. seem especially fantastical and wondrous. I love the choke berries especially, because they indicate that all the wondrous elements of this universe are not necessarily benign or even neutral. Just like the real world, some things are beneficial, others harmful. Starbunny, Inc. makes it clear that the harmful things exist in the very same realm of simplistic absurdity as everything else in this setting.

Starbunny, Inc. is written and drawn by Dave Roman, and updates on Wednesdays. We’re definitely still toward the beginning of this story, and I’m as excited as you should all be to find out where it will take us. Read it to your kids, if you have kids. Read it to yourself, if you have none. The quest to find one’s place is an important one, and I don’t think it ever really ends. If you’re ever feeling a little bit like you don’t know exactly who you are or where you belong, then I’d say it’s a good time to sit down and read or reread Starbunny, Inc. and see what lessons you might find there.