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.

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