Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry Six: Strong Female Protagonist

Alison Green wants to make the world a better place. She has certain natural gifts, but she realizes that those gifts alone are not enough to effect real change. Her challenge is to find a way to do real good without feeling that her efforts are futile.
Alison Green is a Strong Female Protagonist.

Note 1: Strong Female Protagonist is a story comic, and a lot of the reading experience involves the slow reveal of information. I promise I won’t give everything away, but this post will contain spoilers, so if you’d like to read the comic with a fresh perspective, you can start at the beginning.

Note 2: Strong Female Protagonist is not to be confused with Strong Female Characters.

A lot of superhero stories go for a “realistic” angle, deconstructing some aspect of the superhero concept to make the story stand out... despite the fact that superhero stories are inherently unrealistic. While there is no such thing as a realistic superhero story, closely examining the standard superhero conventions can lead to some worthwhile insights and well-considered plots. Strong Female Protagonist examines the concept and implications of superheroes in a sociopolitical context.

Different cultures react to superheroes differently. Their presence adds an element to international relations. Though superheroes have not, to our knowledge, been used in war, the threat of superpowered soldiers makes negotiations that much more tense.

Many superheroes fall into a role that culture has told them they fit, but ultimately, finding the optimal way to utilize each person’s skill is a tricky problem with no clear solution. Even the standard “superhero fights crime” narrative is questioned.

As Mega-Girl, Alison tried to make the world a better place one battle at a time. This was the obvious application for her powers, which amount to invulnerability and super-strength. (The technical term given is autonomic somadynism.) Eventually, though, she came to realize that none of the world’s real problems could be solved through her heroism. There is no way to punch cancer out of someone, or to beat poverty to a pulp. So Alison did what many young adults who are unsure how to improve the world do, and started attending college.

At school, Alison faces the challenges and questions that anyone faces at her stage of life: What kind of person is she? Who are the people she can relate to? What does she want to do with herself? And of course, How can she make the world a better place?

There are additional challenges, of course. Alison has trouble forming relationships with peers because in a sense, she has no peers. Though she’s reasonably even-tempered, when she does get angry it scares people. Though she wants to make friends and bond with people, certain activities are impossible for her to participate in.

In terms of academics, she’s dedicated and a hard worker. There are, however, some people in positions of power who let their prejudices control their response to her. Not everyone likes superheroes, or even believes they are capable of relating to the rest of us.

This guy is less unreasonable than he first appears.

Throughout all the difficulties she faces, Alison never loses sight of her goal to change the world. There is an optimism ringing throughout Strong Female Protagonist, that though the world is bleak in many ways, some people will always be trying to make it brighter.

...Of course, not everyone’s going to be on the same page about exactly how to do that.

The problems with the world are easy to see, and the questions to be asking are clear to anyone who bothers to take the time to ask them. But the solutions are trickier. No two characters are going to arrive at the same conclusions.

One of the nice things about Strong Female Protagonist is that, so far, no one viewpoint has been presented as correct. Alison is the focal character, so her opinions are the ones that are reinforced the most strongly, but she is in a crisis of morality, and genuinely doesn’t know what she thinks should be done. Even when people are in direct opposition to Alison, they are given enough backstory and motivation that the audience can empathize with them. This is a comic about asking the Big Questions, about looking at the world and wanting to improve it, without necessarily knowing even where to start.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a realistic superhero concept. But Strong Female Protagonist does feature some engaging discussion of the medical meanings and implications of superpowers. Alison has a doctor who, in addition to taking care of her, is getting data from her for medical research.

The mouseover text for this page (there’s mouseover text on every page, by the way, and it’s worth reading) states “Alison is an autonomic somadynamic, whereas Cleaver is a muscular, dermal and osteodynamic savant. Pintsize can shrink real small!” This provides a good example of the level of thought that goes into the superpowers you see in the comic. It also provides a good example of the type of humor you see in the mouseover text, which tends to be a little lighter than the comic, providing a bit of relief when things in the main comic become heavy.

Sometimes, the implications of a power, when followed to one end, are horrifying. Strength can be accompanied by a slew of problems, and not only is the medical community inexperienced with superpowers, sometimes a person’s power can prevent any sort of effective treatment whatsoever. It’s difficult to save someone when the very thing that’s killing them makes them immune to other forms of harm.

Strong Female Protagonist provides a lot to think about, without telling you what to think. Though none of us have superpowers, the questions of how to make a difference in the world are still important for all of us to consider. Alison’s journey explores the very issues that everyone confronts inside themselves. There are problems, and we can make a difference. The difficulty is in figuring out how to do that, precisely.

Strong Female Protagonist is written by Brennan Lee Mulligan and drawn by Molly Ostertag. It updates on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Oh, and today’s installment features a character laughing like crazy over Looney Tunes, and it’s wonderful.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Five: Lackadaisy

Some of the most glamorous and idolized periods of history were built on the darkest and most violent undercurrents. A gleaming example of this dichotomy can be found in the speakeasies that arose during prohibition: The night life, with dancers and music and fancy clothes, contrasts sharply with the world of gangsters and rumrunners supporting it.

In Lackadaisy, this contrast is reflected in the juxtaposition of the gritty, unpleasant tasks the characters undertake to keep their speakeasy afloat, and the cavalier attitude with which they perform those tasks.

Also, everyone is an anthropomorphized cat. This never becomes relevant outside of defining the characters’ appearances and expressions.

The story is everything in Lackadaisy, and the comic really must be read in order from the beginning. I’ll be careful with plot information in this post. If you’re very clever you may be able to infer plot details from my description, but I won’t give away important things outright.

Lackadaisy is a really fun comic in which characters frequently dismember, murder, or set fire to other characters (or themselves). I once tried describing it to my mom, and when I mentioned one character who is dead and that another character may or may not have killed the first character, my mom commented, “That sounds dark.” I tried to insist that it wasn’t really, that those underpinnings were relatively minor parts of the story... but reading through it all again, I had to admit that the story is dark. More than that, it’s intensely violent at times. (Note: This is crime-thriller violent, not gory-horror-film violent.)

Somehow, though, when I think of Lackadaisy, it’s significantly cheerier in my head. What I remember the most strongly are the parts that are whimsical, showing the characters at their funniest and most carefree.

Much of the fun in Lackadaisy comes from Rocky, who is often the focal character. Rocky displays a cheery disconnect from reality at the best of times, and a dangerous disregard for consequences at the worst of times. He’s the kind of person it’s fun to read about, but who would be terrifying to know in real life.

This type of disconnect is present in other characters, but nowhere is it as visible as in Rocky. In a way, he’s the key to understanding every other character. They’ve all become involved in a seedy underbelly, but every one of them has some sort of coping mechanism that involves acting as though their lives and careers are perfectly shiny. Characters differ in their levels of zaniness and the degree of their involvement in criminal activity, but that dichotomy manifests itself across the board.

This is a period piece where the creator has clearly done her homework. I am clueless about history, and I’ve learned a lot from reading Lackadaisy. For instance, photo booths have been around for longer than I’d realized. Then again, I’d never really considered life before photo booths existed. But there was a time when they were new and exciting, and that time is when Lackadaisy takes place!

Set aside the violence, the humor, and the history lessons (and really, what more could you want?) and what you have driving Lackadaisy is a compelling story about a business struggling to stay afloat. Characters rest their hopes and dreams upon small chances of success. Everyone wants something slightly different, and the interplay between characters’ desires and their manipulations of one another creates captivating drama.

A lot of backstory details and plot points are only hinted at, leaving room for the reader to infer things that are left unsaid, and ensuring that anyone re-reading is likely to notice things they haven't before. The world of the story feels rich and full, with more secrets to divulge the closer one looks. Some plot points involve rumors and intrigue, and often the readers are kept as much in the dark as the characters.

Drama comes from conflict, and Lackadaisy is full of conflict. There's not just the conflict between competing speakeasies, or between suppliers and buyers, but perhaps most importantly the conflict between people who are on the same side. Just because everyone works together and wants to keep their jobs doesn't mean they always see eye-to-eye. There are some major disagreements regarding the future and what should be done with the speakeasy, and a lot of minor disagreements about everything from mistakes people have made to clashes of personality.

In addition to the main story, there are numerous sketches, Q&As and other tidbits on the website. Reading those is in no way necessary to understand and enjoy Lackadaisy, but if you find that you do enjoy Lackadaisy, you might want to check out the other stuff as well. There are some comics there that give backstory that doesn’t fit in tonally or thematically with the main comic, as well as some non-canonical stuff that is nonetheless a lot of fun. I recommend in particular the St. Patrick’s Day comic, which contains probably the best description of St. Patrick’s Day that I’ve ever read.

Don't feel any pressure to read everything at once, though. There's plenty to digest in the main story, so start with that. If you finish it up to the current point and crave more, just know there is more.

To sum up: Characterization-heavy historical crime drama populated by cats, with beautiful art and engaging dialog. Interspersed with memorable bouts of silliness.

Lackadaisy is written and drawn by Tracy J. Butler and updates irregularly. Typically a few pages will go up at once, every few months or so. They're worth the wait.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Four: Cucumber Quest

Journey with me to a land of wonder and adventure. A land populated with rabbit people. A land where your name must match the theme of whichever country you're from. A land where a person's life plans can be thrown completely askew at the drop of a hat.

Welcome to Dreamside, the setting of the fantasy adventure known as Cucumber Quest.

Note: Though Cucumber Quest is a story-driven comic, and thus best read in order from the beginning, I don’t think any individual page or plot point is going to contain an enjoyment-dampening spoiler. I won’t describe detailed events here, but I’m going to play it a bit fast and loose in terms of providing story information.

The premise is simple enough: Great evil threatens Dreamside, so a legendary hero must rise up to defeat it. According to heredity and tradition, that legendary hero is a boy named Cucumber.

What separates Cucumber Quest from other fantasy stories are the idiosyncrasies in setting and humor. Dreamside operates by a set of rules all its own, featuring a mish-mash of magic and technology, and a very particular brand of silliness.

The plot itself, though familiar, still changes things up a bit. Cucumber doesn’t want to be a legendary hero; he’d rather be studying magic than going on adventures. One of his companions, Sir Carrot, is a knight who’s not particularly brave or strong or adept at fighting. This might just be because their kingdom doesn't usually have the sorts of problems that require well-trained knights to solve.

The only person accompanying Cucumber who at all fits in with this type of good-vs-evil quest is his little sister, Almond. In fact, if it weren’t for her youth and inexperience (both of which also apply to Cucumber), Almond would make a perfect legendary hero. She’s brave, she’s had some training in swordfighting, and furthermore, she’s the only one who actually wants to go on a quest to defeat evil.

Both Cucumber and Almond realize that the most sensible option would be for Almond to take on the task of being a legendary hero and allow Cucumber to peacefully continue his magic studies, but no one else agrees. Every authoritative information source they have informs them that the little sister cannot be a legendary hero, though none of them can give a good reason.

On the surface, the action-oriented little sister looks like just another element of the story. We’ve seen this particular role change-up before, but even if it’s not groundbreaking it’s at least handled well. The true thematic significance of Almond’s suitability to adventure, though, is much deeper.

Cucumber Quest differs from similar fantasy tales not only in the obvious, surface ways (that is, the setting and the style of humor) but also in the theme at the heart of the story. With every step of his quest, Cucumber tries to find the simplest, most effective way of dealing with the problem, and every time, those around him insist that they follow tradition instead. This adherence to tradition cripples them, but they continue to not only follow it themselves, but they do everything they can to force Cucumber to follow it as well.

This idea is shot down.

Tradition oppresses everyone in Cucumber Quest, whether by their own choices or the choices of others around them. Compared to the restrictions on them now, one wonders if life under the Nightmare Knight’s rule would actually be so bad.

None of this is obvious, and none of it has been dealt with in-depth, at least not yet. But the hints that things in Dreamside, or at least parts of it, are not typically happy and healthy, are clear. Cucumber and Almond have an emotionally distant and manipulative father, many of the villains have motivations entirely disconnected from the Nightmare Knight, and even the Dream Oracle seems distinctly dishonest.

When Cucumber learns more about the nature of his quest, and realizes that, by following tradition, he will never defeat evil, merely set it back to maintain an ancient holding pattern, he becomes even more soured to the idea of following everyone's instructions and becoming a legendary hero. If evil traditionally wins temporary victories on a regular basis, then perhaps a non-traditional approach could actually improve things, rather than keeping them as they've always been. Then again, a non-traditional approach also runs the risk of making things worse, and at this point Cucumber has no idea what alternative actions he could take anyway.

Don’t let yourself get bogged down in concerns about tradition and the morality of those we assume to be villains, though. That substance is there if you want to look for it, but the experience of Cucumber Quest is a stylistic mad romp. Fantasy story, silly jokes, questions about the moral underpinning of a society... feel free to enjoy Cucumber Quest on whatever level you wish to.

Cucumber Quest is written and drawn by Gigi D.G. and updates on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Oh, and this is Cosmo! He's my favorite character in the whole thing.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Three: Subnormality

Some comics you read and then forget. Some comics stay with you longer. Today I'm going to talk about a comic that I always spend some time turning over in my head once I've read it.

Subnormality (I assure you that though the word “virus” appears in the URL, this website is quite safe) is a comic with a huge amount of variability.

Some installments contain almost no words:

While others contain daunting amounts of text:

Some are extraordinarily uplifting:

And some are deeply sombre.

This one always reminds me of the Franz Kafka short story "Before the Law."

There are two points that I think one should bear in mind with regard to Subnormality.

1. Understand that this comic involves a LOT of reading. An individual page may take several minutes. In my experience the time investment is typically worth it; I just want you to know what you’re getting into. (See: My favorite comic on the site, which I can’t do justice to with an excerpt or a description because it takes time to build to its point, and it wouldn’t have the impact it does if it were shortened.)

2. Almost every Subnormality installment can be read on its own, out of context, with little to nothing lost. Many take place entirely separately from the rest, with no connection to characters or events that have already been established. There are, however, some recurring characters, such as the Sphinx and the sometimes pink-haired woman who befriends her, Ethel the horror fiction writer, and Rick and Bernard, two gentlemen who start all manner of unusual businesses together.

If this were a plot-driven comic, I’d never give away that the Sphinx and that woman become friends, but given the nature of Subnormality I have no qualms about letting that one out of the bag.

While it is by no means necessary to read the entire Subnormality archive, there are some advantages to doing so. There are running jokes and recurring characters that become familiar, and if the only ones you read are the highlights selected by others (like, say, me) then you're almost definitely going to miss out on a few gems. (Besides, some of the ones I consider skippable are probably among other peoples’ favorites.) So feel free to skip around, only read a few if you like, or dedicatedly read all of them if you prefer.

If you do read through the whole archive, you’ll find that the comics increase in complexity as you progress. The early comics typically serve one idea, expressed succinctly.

The later comics are typically bigger and more ambitious (see many of the ones I've already excerpted).

Subnormality breaks a lot of “rules” of comics creation. There are entirely too many words, the images are entirely too big, so that you can only see a little piece at a time on your screen, the panels are irregular and placed in such a way that it can occasionally be hard to decide what to look at next... but this is all to the credit of the work, not to its detriment. Scrolling around to see everything in a particular comic contributes to the experience of reading it, exploring bit by bit until you have a grasp of the whole. The excessive verbiage all serves a purpose, and if any of it was shorter the tone of the piece would undoubtedly suffer.

At its most uplifting, Subnormality does what Reptilis Rex does in reassuring me that, deep inside, almost anyone is capable of finding common ground with almost anyone else. Sometimes people manage to connect despite sharing no outward traits, such as in this installment where the characters’ appearances change according to their self-perceptions at any given moment.

Sometimes, though, people can’t see their similarities clearly, and foster conflict.

I would be remiss in recommending Subnormality if I didn’t mention the two pieces that started me reading it in the first place. They are both anomalous and reassuring stand-alones.

First, a meditation on people and their strange quirks:

And second, a visual metaphor for maturity.

If you only read two Subnormality comics, make it these. They’re brief enough that the time investment is minimal, and they’re worth it.

Subnormality has a lot to offer, far more than can be summed up in a description such as this. I’ll have to content myself with providing a glimpse into the sweet madness therein. The one word I can think of to describe Subnormality as a whole would be “contemplative.” I can never predict how it will make me feel, but I can always be confident that it will make me think.

Subnormality is written and drawn by Winston Rowntree and updates irregularly, with a new comic every month or so.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Response So Far

I want to thank everyone so who's read this blog, commented here or on Twitter, or shared it with others. Everything I've heard has been very encouraging!

Last week this blog was mentioned on Fleen, which made me ridiculously happy, and now the Spacetrawler post is linked from the Spacetrawler website. Both of the creators I've discussed so far have responded positively to what I had to say about their work, which is gratifying and also a relief because I had this terrible fear that I would somehow step on someone's toes by doing this.

So thanks for reading, and I'll be back next week with another Webcomic Worth Wreading!