Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 37: Axe Cop

Today’s entry is all about fun. It’s a particular kind of fun, too; the kind of fun that involves crazy weapons and ever more creative ways to kill your enemies. The kind of fun where the good guys always win, but there are always more bad guys to fight even though I could swear we’ve killed every bad guy in the world several times now.

It’s the kind of fun you’re in for when you start to read Axe Cop.

You may notice that Flute Cop is holding a recorder, not a flute. You may notice a lot of things. I encourage you to just roll with it.

Axe Cop is a story about a cop who has an axe. He uses his axe to kill bad guys.

It’s a simplistic premise, but things get wicked complicated. Axe Cop’s best friend and partner is Flute Cop, who sometimes turns into Dinosaur Soldier, or Avocado Soldier, or, as seen above, Ghost Cop. A whole host of other characters show up as good guys who ally with Axe Cop or as bad guys who fight him. The world operates according to its own surreal logic that bears little to no connection to reality. (Getting blood on you turns you into the kind of thing that the blood belonged to! I mean, obviously.)

I’ll note here that I’m not going to worry the slightest bit about spoilers for Axe Cop. The joy of reading Axe Cop is in the concepts, the big ideas and the little quirks that make this a piece of entertainment like no other. The plot itself is secondary, and is best enjoyed as it comes rather than dissected and anticipated. We’re not here for intricate plot twists. We’re here to see some good guys using their awesome weapons to fight bad guys.

Axe Cop has lobster antennae at this point in the story. Again, just roll with it.

The origin of Axe Cop in the real world is that a five-year-old kid describes what happens in the story, which is then drawn by his twenty-nine-year-old brother. Axe Cop has been running for a while now, and the kid who generates the ideas is now ten, but it still works the same way, and, importantly, it still has the same feel.

This is a child’s imagination game laid out on paper, and it is magnificent. (I guess it’s not so much laid out on paper as rendered on a screen, but that just doesn’t sound as impressive.) The stakes are high, the morality is black and white, the good guys always win, and this comic constantly surprises me. One thing that I’m constantly looking for in media is an idea that I would not have been able to come up with on my own. Axe Cop usually delivers several of them per page.

Sometimes the events in Axe Cop don’t feel like a story I’m reading so much as like a dream I’m having. There’s that free association of ideas that comes when you’re just listening to pure creativity without self-editing. Absurd things happen and then the justification comes later, or there’s no justification at all. It’s freeform storytelling of the kind that can only happen when no one is listening to the rules that usually keep stories in order. In Axe Cop, the rules are flexible. Unless you are a bad guy. If you are a bad guy, Axe Cop will show you no mercy.

As you may expect, with a story written by a child, there is very little artifice, no apparent agenda to the storytelling, and never a hint of a moral. Axe Cop is pure entertainment, unadulterated (such an appropriate word) by any sense of what stories or media should be telling the audience.

The reader gets a very clear sense of Axe Cop’s authorship. This comic is a little boy’s wonderland. There’s fighting and giant robots and zombies and the good guys just want to kill all the bad guys and I’m not really sure what most of the bad guys’ motivations are but that doesn’t really matter because they’re bad guys. Reading Axe Cop is a refreshingly pure experience, taking a step away from all the subtle commentary and allegory that can be found in almost all fiction.

While there’s no obvious intention for this comic to rise up and fight the status quo, we do get to see a child’s perception of the way the world does or should work, and that perception turns out to be slightly different from the cultural expectation. It’s fascinating, and potentially troubling, if you think through the full implications, but it’s definitely a different direction than the one we’ve come from. This is a snapshot of the cultural milieu through the filter of a child’s imagination and I don’t want to read too much into it but if I did want to, I absolutely could.

Figuring out where to begin can be a challenge. Well, I’m here to tell you that if you’ve never read Axe Cop before, the place to start is here. Read the first four pages, and then read this one. And then just keep going.

Of course, once you get into the story, things are further complicated because the main comic runs concurrently with a segment called Ask Axe Cop, which is in a different section of the archive. Stuff that’s established in Ask Axe Cop frequently shows up in the main comic, so it’s a good idea to try to read both of them at the same time, but it can be tricky figuring out when you should read each Ask Axe Cop with reference to where you are in the main archive. I recommend just reading the main story until you reach a footnote directing you to Ask Axe Cop, and then reading a bunch of Ask Axe Cop until you’ve read the one that the footnote was talking about.

There’s a third set of comics, called Axe Cop Presents, which can be read whenever you want because it doesn’t affect the Axe Cop continuity. Axe Cop doesn’t appear in those comics, but they definitely have the same feel to them, so if you enjoy Axe Cop, you should definitely check them out.

There are two
Axe Cop stories that have only appeared in print, “Bad Guy Earth” and “President of the World.” Events from those stories are mentioned in the online comic, but remember how I said I wasn’t going to worry about spoilers? The same principle applies here. Feel free to read everything that’s online and any time something comes up that was introduced in a print comic, just roll with it. Accept the new information and move on. Then, someday, when you get a chance to read the print comics, I recommend you do so because they’re great. Just don’t let them hold you back from reading what’s immediately available. Don’t let some minor confusion or even a handful of continuity errors ruin your fun. The way to enjoy Axe Cop is to accept things as they come.

Axe Cop is dressed as a cat here. Roll with it.

I find that Axe Cop is a great comic to read with children, because it’s fascinating and imaginative and probably about as edgy as I would want children’s entertainment to get. Being written by a kid indicates that the content is probably going to be safe for most kids to handle, though that does depend somewhat on parental rules regarding exposure to violent content. That’s a judgement call that each family makes differently, and while I wouldn’t think that the type of violence in Axe Cop would be harmful to a developing psyche, I understand that others may have different attitudes. When I was in preschool I thought Power Rangers was the greatest thing ever created, and one of my friends wasn’t allowed to watch it, and I thought her parents were just insane or horribly cruel, but now I can kind of see where they were coming from, you know?

If you’re an adult, Axe Cop is tremendously fun. If you’re a kid, bug your parents to let you read Axe Cop, which shouldn’t be too hard because if you’re a kid and you’re reading my blog I’m guessing your parents let you read a lot of stuff. If you’re an adult who has kids in your life, introducing them to Axe Cop is a move that I would wholly endorse. This comic is a peculiar kind of wonderful, and everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy it.

Axe Cop is written by Malachai Nicolle and drawn by Ethan Nicolle. Color, in the recent stories, is provided by Kailey Frizzell. The currently-running main story is a guest arc written by Charlotte and Amelia O’Brien and drawn by Tom Martin. Watch for mouseover text starting about here for the main comic and here for Ask Axe Cop.

I recommend Axe Cop to anyone who has ever enjoyed an action movie, or to anyone who think that maybe they would enjoy action movies if they weren’t all so darn serious. If you have any sense of fun at all, you really should give Axe Cop a try. It’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever encountered on the Internet, and there isn’t anything else quite like it. Go forth, and read about Earth-shattering events never encountered anywhere before or since.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 36: Nimona

Friendship can be a fragile thing. Like all relationships, friendship requires trust. The problem with trust is that it can take a long time to build it up, but it can be destroyed much more quickly. Once trust is lost, it may never be gained again. Because trust isn’t something that everyone gets to have by default. It doesn’t just naturally build up over time. Trust has to be earned, and sometimes the task of earning it is so difficult as to seem impossible.

To witness some people struggle with the difficulties of trusting and being trusted, trying their hardest to work through friendships, look no farther than Nimona.

Nimona is a science fiction/fantasy hybrid wherein great plots and terrible villainy are the means by which a handful of people work out their feelings about each other. There’s some concern about the greater good, too, but their deep motivations tend to run more personal than that.

Note: Nimona is a narrative-based comic and must be read in order from the beginning. I’ll avoid major spoilers in this post but it will be impossible to discuss the comic without giving some things away. If you like going into a reading experience with a completely fresh perspective, I’d advise you to proceed with caution.

Lord Blackheart and Sir Goldenloin are former friends, current nemeses. There are implications that they were closer even than friends, but the precise nature of their past relationship will likely remain one that must be speculated upon. What’s clear is that Goldenloin still cares very deeply for Blackheart, and Blackheart is unlikely to ever again feel that Goldenloin is worthy of his trust. They’ve settled into a comfortable animosity, which is only interrupted by the introduction of a third element: Nimona.

Nimona, the eponymous character, is a shapeshifter who becomes Blackheart’s sidekick in villainy. She doesn’t respect the status quo that Blackheart and Goldenloin have established, and she wastes no time in changing everything. Blackheart’s moral code, and the equilibrium that has been established for years, go out the window. Everything is new and different, and for those who were comfortable with the way things were before, this change is decidedly unsettling.

It takes time and a lot of effort and compromises for Nimona to start to earn Blackheart’s trust, and it’s clear that Nimona doesn’t really trust Blackheart, either. Their friendship is tenuous; they worry about each other and develop a clear affection, but Nimona seems to have trouble trusting anyone, and she probably has good reason. Her interactions with the world take the form of teasing and sarcasm, presumably as a defensive mechanism. She’s definitely been hurt in the past, and caring about people is likely to get her hurt again.

Still, she seeks Blackheart out and deliberately forms a bond with him. A friendship is there, even if it has to be hidden beneath jokes and affectations of disinterest.

While Nimona really is all about the character relationships, one of my favorite aspects of this comic is the setting. It’s a medieval fantasy where technology is far more advanced than our current level. There are floaty computer screens and ray guns and there are dragons and some of the dragons are genetically engineered and people dress in suits of armor and stuff. It’s a bizarre mix of historical and futuristic visual themes, and it’s beautiful. I’ve never seen another world quite like the one in Nimona, and I find that the setting is compelling on its own, without the aid of character drama. These people live in a weird place, and I love learning more about how their world works.

One compelling aspect of this world is the coexistence of magic and science. The ray guns I mentioned? Those aren’t techno-magical weapons; they’re pure technology. For the most part, science exists on its own and has advanced independently from magical knowledge. This seems to be less because scientists are not interested in studying magic (because clearly at least some of them are) than because it’s very difficult to find magical phenomenon and subject them to study. Take, for instance, Nimona’s reaction when Blackheart suggests they run some tests on her shapeshifting abilities.

Did I mention that Blackheart has a bionic arm? Blackheart totally has a bionic arm and I love it.

That above panel probably also has to do with Nimona’s general lack of trust in other people.

Above all, this comic is all about what it means to be a friend, to earn someone’s trust, and to lose their trust. The character dynamics here are strained; clearly people are trying the best they can, but they come from difficult circumstances and the right choices aren’t always clear. In a way, this is the ultimate example of what happens when people who should by all rights trust and care for one another dearly simply can’t afford to.

Sometimes I read this comic and it’s just heartbreaking.

But, you know, in a fun way.

Nimona is written and drawn by Noelle Stevenson, and updates on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The story looks to be nearing its conclusion, so read it now before it’s too late!

(Just kidding! I imagine you will still be able to read the story after the whole thing’s been posted. But seriously, you should go check it out now just because it’s there and you can.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 35: PVP

If you ask me to describe PVP, I’ll say that it’s a workplace sitcom, that the characters are self-aware regarding their fictional nature and their roles within the comic, and that the heart of the comic is the bond of friendship, love and dependence among the core cast.

However, I don’t actually have to say any of that… because PVP can tell you what’s up without me needing to even get involved.

These characters aren’t just self-aware, they are trying to do my job for me.

But there is more to be said! Because this isn’t any ordinary sitcom; it takes place in a mundane-fantastical setting where any event, no matter how momentous, is typically shrugged off. Mythical creatures don’t raise an eyebrow, which actually makes sense given the elevated tone that characters engender with their antics. This comic approaches heightened drama, but with a silly and lackadaisical manner. Most things in PVP are best not taken too seriously.

You wind up reading a troll’s conversation with his maniacal talking cat, and it’s completely congruous with everything that’s come before.

Really, though, it is difficult to do any original critical analysis because PVP beats me to the punch on so many things. Not only are the characters ludicrously self-aware, but there are occasional installments that detail real-world discussions of the comic. Nearly everything that can be said about PVP has already been said in PVP.

I can’t even make some snarky-yet-kind remark about the occasional spelling error because the 
author’s father has actually shown up in the comic to make that point for me.

Yet I press on, hoping that my perspective will yield something of value.

If you’re unfamiliar with PVP, the archive can be intimidating; there is an awful lot of PVP to read. However, a full grounding in the history of the comic is unnecessary to enjoying it. There is continuity, but in the vein of many sitcoms, the characters tend toward equilibrium. Wacky adventures occur, people deal with whatever crisis is at hand, and then they move on to the next wacky adventure.

There are important pieces of backstory, plot lines, and origin stories that I had honestly completely forgotten about until I was rereading PVP in order to write this post. (Example: It had totally slipped my mind that Cole has kids.) Not remembering those details in no way prevented me from enjoying the comic.

I’ll mention here that I’m not overly concerned with spoilers for PVP. Technically, even the first excerpt seen above could be taken to contain spoilers, but I really don’t think knowing about certain plot developments without having read the whole history behind them will damage the reading experience.

The best analogy I can make is to The Simpsons. Certain things have happened in The Simpsons over the years that were shocking or that changed the show. However, to a new viewer those events aren’t shocking; they’re just backstory. Watching The Simpsons is easier if you just jump in with a good episode, rather than going back and getting used to the show so that you can be properly surprised when Maude Flanders dies.

(If you are upset with me for giving away that bit of information, then let me tell you: I don’t say this very often but you are watching The Simpsons wrong.)

Reading through all of PVP from the beginning is definitely a rewarding experience, but if you’d rather not get bogged down, you can just start from the present moment, or take a gander at the New Reader page, which links to loads of past storylines that can give you an idea of the characters and their history, as well as just let you get a general feel for the comic.

I honestly don’t think there’s a bad place to start. There are wonderful little bits throughout the whole thing.

One thing I love about PVP is that it just keeps getting better. The very early comics are cruder than the current ones in nearly every way. (The sense of humor has remained approximately as crude as it ever was.) The art, the dialog and the characterizations have all evolved over the years. Moments that make me laugh become more frequent and resonate more strongly as the comic progresses, and moments start showing up that make me cry.

Even the awareness of the comic as a cultural force increases. An effort is made not only to present a diverse and well-rounded cast, but to present that cast in an authentic light, creating a meaningful ensemble dynamic.

I don’t think PVP always does a perfect job being a force for positive cultural change, but I can tell that there’s thought and effort going in that direction.

Early on, the female characters serve mostly as counterpoints to the male characters, foils that illuminate the primarily straight white male cast. This definitely changes as time goes on. Not only do the existing female characters gain more definition, new female characters join the cast and bring some much-appreciated gender balance with them.

Where PVP has particularly impressed me is the evolution of the way the comic handles homophobia. The main cast of PVP works for a gaming magazine, also called PVP. Gaming culture is notoriously hostile to both women and homosexuals, and early on, PVP reflects that hostility. One character frequently uses “Gaaaaay” as a punchline, and while the comic itself doesn’t present any condemnation or dislike of gay people, the characters’ attitudes don’t seem to challenge the cultural milieu in which homosexuality is at best a joke.

Gaming culture is also notoriously hostile to change.

Now comes the part of this post where I actually do spoil some things, but this is a part of PVP that I think really sells the comic, and again, I don’t think these revelations will actually damage anyone’s enjoyment of the story. If you do want to read the background to what I’m about to discuss yourself, most of it is here and here.

Max Powers, a long-standing character, is gay. He was in the comic for years before there were hints at his orientation, and further years before there was a confirmation.

One trick to changing cultural attitudes: Do it slowly, and do it insidiously. Get people used to the idea gradually, trick people into a dilemma where something they’ve always considered bad is tacked onto someone they’ve always considered good.

I like that, even with the general atmosphere of the comic, where nothing, no opinion or issue or tragedy, is taken seriously, moments like the one above can still happen. There are serious issues in this setting. They don’t show up often, but when they do they are treated with exactly the level of decorum necessary.

That level of decorum, by the way, is fairly low. These characters are not a decorous bunch. And when faced with unexpected news that changes their perspective, they respond in precisely the way they respond to any other extraordinary and unexpected event: With pure baffled hilarity.

PVP is fun, engaging, and emotionally fulfilling. It has developed over the years from a simple and ephemeral series of jokes into a complex, living work of art that resonates with me emotionally and socially. I’ve enjoyed watching PVP evolve into what it is today, and I look forward to seeing what becomes of it in the future. I’m grateful for all the times it’s made me laugh, and, yes, for the rare occasion when it’s brought a tear to my eye.

I’m also grateful that somebody has given me a reference I can use to explain just how intimidating I find ordering drinks at Starbucks.

I mean, seriously, how can I keep up with these guys?

PVP is written and drawn by Scott Kurtz. It updates on weekdays. I recommend it to people who think workplace sitcoms would be 100x better if they’d just break away from the real world a little bit every once in a while.

If you choose to read through the whole archive, be warned that I did encounter trouble when I got to this comic. Trouble in the form of the next comic not loading at all. Don’t fret, just proceed to this comic and all will be well.

Now, go on and get way too emotionally involved in the ridiculous developments of these characters’ personal lives. I dare ya.

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