Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Entry 73: Alice Grove

Today we’re talking about a comic that merges the fantastical with the quaint. That in and of itself is nothing unusual… many works of fantasy take place in an approximation of a historical period, placing fantastical elements in a setting of pastoral bliss. Indeed, many of our commonly used fantasy tropes, the creatures and monsters with which we populate our stories, have been gestating in our collective minds for hundreds or thousands of years, and seem more appropriate in old-timey villages than modern cities.

In this case, though, the fantastical doesn’t have that classic feeling, that sense of tradition. It takes its strangeness more from the realm of science fiction than fantasy. Many characters seem right out of a history book, but things exist in their world that would rightfully come from the distant future. This odd juxtaposition gives us the initial point of intrigue to Alice Grove.

The titular Alice is called a witch by the people who know her. She’s not a witch in the traditional sense, but the title suits her. She’s wise, strong, and possesses abilities and powers beyond those that might be readily apparent. Indeed, given that I was raised Wiccan, surrounded by people who describe themselves as witches, Alice suits my personal vision of a witch better than just about any other fictional witch I’ve ever seen.

Alice Grove is the kind of story that throws the reader right into an unfamiliar setting without any preparation or upfront exposition. I love those kinds of stories. Discovering the background of the setting and the characters’ histories becomes a part of the plot, as the reader spends time coming to understand what normal means to the characters.

These kinds of stories are also very fragile in terms of spoilers, as even facts about the setting can give away major reveals. I’ll be careful not to give very much away, but if you’re very sensitive to spoilers, tread lightly. And if you decide to dive in, you definitely want to start at the very beginning.

One aspect of this comic that keeps buzzing around in my mind is the nature of Alice’s relationship to the villagers who make up most of the comic’s population. She lives apart from them, in a literal sense as her home is not part of the village proper, and a metaphorical sense as she interacts with them as a clear outsider, albeit one afforded great respect and even authority.

Alice appears assuredly benevolent, and I can definitely sympathize with her, but sometimes the way she treats the villagers seems unreasonably authoritarian. I keep going back and forth on this, because it’s clear that Alice has well-reasoned justification for behaving the way she does, and also that her actions have overwhelmingly positive impact. But it’s also clear that Alice does not readily tolerate disagreement. As a red-blooded American, I place high value upon the right to speak against, question, or outright defy the wishes of others, even those who serve as protectors and advisers to the entire population. And from that angle, some of the things Alice does really bother me.

Alice interacting with villagers provides a setting and context for the plot, but the meat of the story has to do with Ardent and Gavia, siblings who’ve arrived in the village to… well, to meet girls, in Ardent’s case, and to track down her brother, in Gavia’s.

Strange as it seems, those two characters are the closest thing the audience has to a point of identification. They are outsiders, new to the village, unfamiliar with Alice, and we discover the setting through their eyes. It’s very common for a story to begin with a stranger arriving in town, giving the audience an ‘in’ to get to know the other characters and what their deal is. What’s uncommon about this story is that the stranger is not a generic everyman meant to be easily relatable to everyone, but a pair of futuristic, heavily modified humans whose own home is at least as strange to us as the setting we’re actually getting to observe.

Much of the time, Ardent displays an enthusiasm that I find easy to get caught up in. To be sure, he’s artless and treats the locals somewhat rudely, viewing their culture and lifestyle as little but a source of entertainment. But… if I were in his situation I’d be acting much the same way. That quaint little town is just so charming, and so different to everything I’m used to, that I might have a hard time containing myself were I to travel there and meet its inhabitants.

However, I as a reader have the privilege of engaging with this setting at a distance. Therefore, I don’t have to fear for my safety when I encounter the marvelous and sometimes frightening things that can be found at night in the woods outside the village. We only get to see hints of the wider world that Alice Grove inhabits, but those hints are enough to let us know that there is a wider world out there, and that it possesses a logic and coherence all its own.

Mostly, though, it lets us see some friggin’ cool and borderline disturbing living things. I’m a sucker for these kinds of weird and wonderful visuals.

There’s a lot going on in Alice Grove. The setup for how the world came to be the way it is and why the characters are where they are and who they are all vie for the coveted position as ‘central intrigue’ of the story. Meanwhile, the plot progresses, tying backstory and overall motivation into the current moment in story time. I won’t give away the plot, but it’s at turns fun, tragic, humorous, and meaningful. We’re still in early days, and with every new installment I’m excited to learn what happens next.

Alice Grove is written and drawn by Jeph Jacques, known also for Questionable Content, which I wrote about here. If you like Questionable Content, then chances are you’ll enjoy the humor and style of Alice Grove. However, it has a different feel overall, and if Questionable Content isn’t your thing, but you like science fiction and prefer a more plot-oriented story than the slice-of-life kind of thing you get with Questionable Content, then maybe you should consider giving Alice Grove a try. Right now it’s pretty easy to read through everything and get caught up to the latest installment, so there’ll never be an easier time to discover what Alice Grove is all about.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Entry 72: Oh Joy, Sex Toy

Today we’re talking about Oh Joy, Sex Toy, which you can probably guess is Not Safe For Work. I’m putting the body of this post below a cut. If you’re interested in learning more about an awesome comic that has so many things to teach us about sex, click through and read on! If you’re a minor or a prude (or a prudish minor) then feel free to come back in two weeks, when I’ll have a post up about a comic that’s safe for everywhere.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Entry 71: Sufficiently Remarkable

One thing that people look for in fiction is the presence of characters they can identify with. Relatable characters in situations that people can recognize from their own lives. Writing specifically to keep characters as relatable as possible can, if done competently but without real vision, lead to a work with “lowest common denominator” appeal: It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or provide new insights into the human condition, but most audiences can see themselves in the work at least a little bit.

Another way to tackle characters and situations, one that requires far more skill and insight, is to construct characters that are extremely specific, whose backgrounds and current dreams and current challenges are all clearly defined and which make them unique among the billions of people on this planet… and to represent their struggles and challenges so well that readers can still find some universal constant of the human condition represented therein, some reflection of themselves that arrives out of clear definition rather than vague generalities. That kind of characterization is what I love most about Sufficiently Remarkable.

The main character in Sufficiently Remarkable is Riti Mirabilay (however you think that name is pronounced you probably got it wrong), an artist working a dead-end retail job and living with her slovenly best friend, Meg Ramsey. There’s a lot of tension between Riti and Meg, and as the comic tends to be focalized through Riti and show us her perspective on things, it’s easy to think of Riti as the sensible, relatable one and Meg as the one who’s got it all wrong. That does a disservice to each character though, because each one has her flaws and her virtues, and their conflict clearly arises at least as much from poor communication and being too exhausted from their own problems to practice compassion for whatever the other one might be going through.

Meg and Riti are two extremely different people, and neither one of them has a life story that matches mine. However, I can see myself in both of them.

I can see just as much of myself in Riti’s lack of patience for crowds and her steadfast reliability as I can in Meg’s laissez-faire attitude and disregard for social norms. (Why, yes I did just call myself both laissez-faire and reliable. That wouldn’t seem as much of a contradiction if you could compare the way I organize things at work to the winding path through the junk piles in my bedroom.) I am not Riti, nor am I Meg, but in a way I am both of them. This is one of those examples of my conviction that most people have at least some experiences in common and can relate to one another given enough insight. There are people who seem as if they could not be more different, but deep within, there’s almost always something that they share.

Without a lot of deep, introspective communication, though, it can be extremely difficult to find.

Communication is one aspect to maintaining a healthy friendship. Another is trust. When you don’t communicate, trust suffers, and when one doesn’t trust someone, one tends not to be open to honest communication. So if either trust or communication go out the window, the other tends to follow and bring the friendship along with it. The primary friendship in Sufficiently Remarkable is on the brink of falling apart, because Riti and Meg aren’t giving each other the benefit of communication or of trust.

I’ve written about the importance of trust, and the difficulty and earning it and keeping it, in regards to two other comics: Nimona and Monster Pulse. Sufficiently Remarkable deals with many of the same issues, though it approaches them with an entirely distinct sensibility. Whereas those other two comics are fantastical and deal with themes of family and coming of age, Sufficiently Remarkable is resolutely grounded in the reality of adulthood. Trust is just as difficult to give, to earn, and to keep, but the consequences for losing that trust are not death and destruction… this comic doesn’t operate on that high-stakes level of drama. Rather, the consequences for betraying a friend are to lose that friend’s trust in you, to face uncomfortable social situations, and to wind up in difficult and upsetting conversations.

Riti’s relationship with Meg is the driving force of the comic, but her relationship with her father is almost as important to the narrative. He doesn’t show up in her life (or at least, he hasn’t yet over the course of the story), but Sufficiently Remarkable explores their relationship through her memories and dreams. It’s clear that much of Riti’s personal development can be traced back to discussions she had with her father as she grew up. He made a point to teach her certain things about the way the world works, and it’s evident that she took those lessons to heart.

A significant portion of the comic takes place in Riti’s dream space, giving us insight into her fears, resentments, and hopes. She’s not the kind of person who expresses those innermost feelings in ways that are clear to observers, so those dreamscapes are necessary to let the reader know what’s bouncing around inside her head.

I stated above that Sufficiently Remarkable is resolutely grounded in reality. Beyond that, it is resolutely grounded in rational, scientific reasoning. Even the title implies an absolutely empirical approach to life’s circumstances, however extraordinary they may be. I don’t think I’ve ever read a slice-of-life comic like this that was so concerned with scientific accuracy. Often, emotions and logic are presented as opposite qualities, with any given work of fiction typically favoring one over the other. Sufficiently Remarkable marries the two, giving us a work that feels as sensible as it does sensitive.

Emotional depth and objective reason don’t have to live in opposition. Take the central source of conflict in this comic: A lack of communication. The suggestion given? “Try talking to her.” That is the very same advice that a person of logic would provide, or that an emotionally well-adjusted person would provide.

Science uses evidence and experimentation to draw conclusions. When applied to our personal lives, science doesn’t prevent us from finding emotional fulfillment; it enables us to find emotional fulfillment.

Or to resent our lots in life all the more effectively.

Before I leave you, I’ll point out that Sufficiently Remarkable does progress along a narrative arc and is best read in order from the beginning. I haven’t been too fussy about spoilers so far because it’s one of those comics in which the events portrayed therein feel less significant than the things we learn about the characters along the way, and those kinds of developments are much harder to effectively spoil than plot twists and other simple surprises. You have to get to know the characters, and that happens gradually rather than in big chunks of backstory or sudden, dramatic events.

I find that the comic reads best in large sequences. I caught a bunch of things when re-reading it for this post that I never caught before, because reading a page whenever there’s an update doesn’t keep relevant details in my mind as much as reading through a whole lot of the story in one go. What’s up so far is pretty quick to get through, so I encourage frequent re-reads to keep abreast of the more subtle and long-term story developments.

Sufficiently Remarkable is written and drawn by Maki Naro. I recommend it to people who are curious by nature, and/or people whose lives have been hampered by the practicalities of living. There’s humor, there’s pathos, there’s connection and betrayal and reconciliation. Get involved in these characters’ lives, start to care about them, and then feel that characteristic pang when they get themselves into trouble. That’s what we all read stories for, right? To feel things. Go ahead and let Sufficiently Remarkable exercise your empathy muscles for a little while.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Entry 70: Sheldon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Entry: Sufficiently Remarkable

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Entry 69: The Nib

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No pressure, guys.

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

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

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

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

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

I have opinions about participation trophies.

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

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