Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 18: Unshelved

I’m using this digital new media platform to tell you right now that libraries are wonderful. Like many institutions, their role and utility has been changing as technology advances, but the remain delightful repositories of knowledge. Libraries are sometimes lambasted as irrelevant relics of a pre-Internet age, but typically the people who make those claims are people who don’t know much about either libraries or the Internet. For people who love libraries and the Internet, there is Unshelved.

Unshelved is a webcomic set in a library, written from personal experience as well as a strong grasp of character and humor. It’s a love letter to libraries, books, and the weirdos who frequent them. If you love libraries, or just reading in general (comics totally count!), or if you’ve ever had a customer service job, there’s going to be something in Unshelved for you to relate to.

The cast includes some eccentric, larger-than-life characters, such as Ned the nudist lawyer, and Buddy the Book Beaver, whose real name and appearance remain a mystery. The patrons and the library staff can both exhibit bizarre behavioral traits, which over time become less shocking through repeated exposure. The setting is quite ordinary, but some of the people are very strange, and while the others acknowledge their strangeness, eventually they become acclimated and move on. Besides, some of the normal characters can seem bizarre until you get used to them.

Unshelved is a gag-based comic, and while there is continuity, and even short storylines, for the most part each installment can be read in isolation. Reading through the extensive archive is not at all a requirement for enjoying the comic on a daily basis. Currently, old comics from the archive are running on the site every Saturday and Sunday, so if you visit every day you’ll get a dose of a “classic” Unshelved era.

If you do choose to read through the archive, you’ll find insight into the characters’ depths, understand the way their relationships with one another have developed and changed over time, and get a sense for their personal histories. While the surface appeal of Unshelved is definitely in the jokes, there’s an added layer to the humor when you bring an understanding of the people you’re reading about. I’d even go so far as to say that the heart of Unshelved really is the characterization. These wacky characters have begun to feel like real people to me over the years I’ve been reading about them, and I care about them as though they were actually my friends.

This one is much more effective if you know a bit about Tamara.
The focal point of the comic is Dewey, the Young Adult Librarian. He’s character who appears the most frequently and whose viewpoint we see the most often. He loves pop culture, particularly comics, so there’s an immediate resonance between the character and a reader who’s chosen to read a comic about a library. One of the least strange characters of the bunch, he still stands out with his dedication to slacking off and avoiding work whenever possible.

Appropriately, a love of books runs through Unshelved like a heartbeat. Characters read, re-read, talk to each other about books, provide recommendations and arguments, and sometimes even write. Once a week for the past several years (not going back to the very beginning of Unshelved, but going back pretty dang far), they’ve been running the Unshelved Book Club, which is exclusively reserved time for the Unshelved characters to provide book recommendations. (Or for characters from other works to give book recommendations in guest strips.) I haven’t read anything like all of the books that have been in the Unshelved Book Club, but I’ve sought out some of them, and I’ve never once been disappointed.

The Unshelved Book Club is the reason I read Ringworld and discovered Larry Niven, and I will always be grateful for that.

Reading Unshelved has not just reinforced my love of libraries, it’s actually taught me about services that libraries offer. While the Unshelved librarians have to deal with countless unreasonable requests, they also help people with loads of reasonable requests for things that I hadn’t realized the library was equipped to handle. When I needed to print something and I used a library printer, it’s because I saw people doing it in Unshelved. (If I’d bothered to think about it for a moment I probably would have realized that libraries are set up to print things, but sometimes I can be a little bit dense. Anyway, Unshelved was there to teach me.)

If you’re reading this, then I recommend Unshelved, because you probably have an interest in comics, reading, or both. If you’re reading this and you aren’t interested in comics or reading, then I’m a little confused but I appreciate your attention. And maybe if you don’t like comics or reading but you find my blog interesting enough to persevere anyway, Unshelved might have a similar effect on you? Just a thought.

Unshelved is written by Gene Ambaum and drawn by Bill Barnes, except for once a year on Bill’s birthday when he writes the comic and Gene draws it. New comics go up Monday through Friday. The Friday installment is where you’ll find the Unshelved Book Club. Reruns of old comics go up on Saturdays and Sundays. I think this is the most complicated schedule description I’ve yet written for this blog. I guess those guys have trouble keeping anything simple, bless them.

PS: A couple of weeks ago I took my schizophrenic aunt to a library because she wanted to get out of the house. She enjoyed the trip, and the librarians were very kind and helpful, though it was challenging for them because my aunt tends to mumble, and if you want someone to look something up for you it helps to speak clearly so they can understand what you’re saying. Anyway, at one point she was describing poetry that she was hoping to find in the library, and after a while I realized that she was talking about her own poetry that she had written. So, when I re-read this particular Unshelved bit, I sympathized.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Seventeen: Gronk

Families come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes a person’s true family is not the one they were born into. Some families are made of a cute little runaway monster, the human woman who adopted her, a dog and cat. This is the makeup of Gronk.

Gronk is wholeheartedly sweet and optimistic. The characters enjoy life and are genuinely grateful for what they have. They get along well with one another, all trying to share the good things in life.

There’s a sharp edge to the sweetness, though. This unorthodox family may get along swimmingly with one another, but one can never forget the dangers of the real world. No one here is facing life-or-death situations on a regular basis, but they do have plenty of opportunities to get themselves into trouble.

Gronk herself resembles a walking chaos machine. She combines childlike innocence with no sense of propriety whatsoever, managing to achieve that devastating state of being simultaneously extremely cute and extremely destructive.

Some of Gronk’s idiosyncrasies come from being raised outside of human society. She genuinely doesn’t know how much of the human world works, because she hasn’t been exposed to it all her life. Certain cultural and technological constants that we all take for granted turn out to be entirely unfamiliar and require some level of explanation.

There is continuity to Gronk, but you can understand most installments without having read the whole story up to that point. I’d recommend reading from the beginning if you want to understand how Gronk came to be living with Dale, but if you’d rather just read it piecemeal, that’s okay too!

The backbone of the comic is definitely the growth of the connection between Gronk and Dale (the human), and by extension Gronk’s personal growth as she starts to assimilate to human culture. Jokes like the one above occur early on in the comic. As time passes, Gronk gets more and more used to human things and makes those kind of mistakes less frequently. Instead she makes other, more human, mistakes.

Gronk even learns to take things that had been used against her and turns them around onto Dale. For instance, early on she becomes familiar with a particular kind of discipline…

...which she then uses on Dale when she determines it is necessary.

What I love about this comic is the way it never loses sight of the important, wonderful things in life, while maintaining a feeling of honesty in regards to the things in life that cause pain. Fitting Gronk in to the human world can be hard. Dealing with pets can be hard. Trying to maintain traditions and do everything the way you feel you should can be hard. But those hardships, at the very least, are always sources of humor, and at their best, they reveal what is good about family, connections, and traditions, that keeps us coming back to them and makes them valuable.

I always find Gronk uplifting. It’s funny and endearing and one of the most adorable and heartwarming things I’ve ever seen. I recommend reading it if you have children in your life, and I recommend sharing it with them. My five-year-old nephew loves it, and so do I.

Also, it contains the correct instructions for how to play Monopoly.

Gronk is written and drawn by Katie Cook and updates on Fridays. It’s a pretty quick read, so I think I’d also recommend it to people who like comics but don’t have a lot of time to spend on them. Time’s a-waistin’, you busy comics lovers! Hop to it!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Brief Notice

I'm sorry I wasn't able to finish a proper Webcomics Worth Wreading entry for you to read today. Yesterday, last night, and this morning were all spent caring for ailing relatives in their computerless, internetless home. I'm going to skip this week and I'll have a next full entry up next Tuesday.

In the meantime, I figured I'd point you to some Kickstarter campaigns for webcomics. Three of the comics I've discussed here are currently raising money on Kickstarter!

1. Spacetrawler: Funding to print the third and final Spacetrawler volume is underway! I'm excited about the stretch goals because they mean that we get to see more Spacetrawler and that's always a good thing.

2. A Softer World: This is the fourth printed volume of A Softer World. I don't think there's a foreseeable end to A Softer World, but maybe you should jump on the bandwagon now just in case? Also, print editions are a great way to introduce the comic to people who don't read comics online very often. (These people exist! I've met them.) Their current stretch goal involves a column where bad advice is given, and I'd like that to be a thing I can read.

3. Broodhollow: I mentioned this when I initially posted about Broodhollow, and it is now MERE HOURS from ending. Just a gentle reminder that it's still out there. For now.

There's also currently a Kickstarter campaign for Not Invented Here. I haven't yet covered Not Invented Here on this blog, but it's a great comic, and they're printing their second volume. I heartily recommend taking a look! Early on in the comic, the art style may feel suspiciously familiar. This campaign is also pretty close to finish time, so if you're gonna jump in, do it now.

That's all for the meantime. I'll be back and in better shape next week!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Sixteen: Hark! A Vagrant

Sometimes silliness and absurdity are fun for their own sake. Sometimes it’s nice to pursue an academic interest and expand one’s horizons. And sometimes, the combination of those two things is absolutely perfect. Taking a serious academic subject and treating it in the silliest way possible is a tendency that runs strongly in Hark! A Vagrant.

The subject matter of Hark! A Vagrant varies wildly. It is frequently historical, though there are often takes on established media franchises and occasional depictions of the author’s life experiences. While there is little consistency in subject, the tone is consistently congenial and absurd. I never know what to expect next in the comic, but I’m certain it will be fun, engaging, and above all, very very silly.

Hark! A Vagrant will often take some fascinating academic premise, and twist it in the silliest way possible. Comics about historical events feature anachronisms and complete insanity. Comics about fiction will introduce elements from entirely inappropriate genres. People will behave in absurd ways and encounter impossible things, while somehow remaining more true to the spirit of reality than most commonly-heard accounts. Much as The Daily Show is a satire that is often more informative than straight news shows, Hark! A Vagrant is sometimes a satire that is often more informative than a straight history text.

While there is no set format or subject, there are a few types of comics and particular characters that will recur.

For instance, you’ll encounter the Mystery Solving Teens, who are markedly different from, say, the mystery solving teens I told you about last week, because they don’t actually give a crap about solving mysteries, or anything else for that matter.

These sorts of recurring characters represent the only continuity you need to worry about in Hark! A Vagrant. For the most part, each comic stands completely on its own. Not only does the joke not rely on you having read previous comics in the archive, the setting and characters are likely to only show up in that one comic. Even when characters do show up multiple times, the jokes are still clear and easy to understand without having seen the previous appearances of those characters.

Lately, one common type of comic involves extrapolating the contents of books based on their covers. I honestly don’t know whether these are better or worse if you’re actually familiar with the books in question. I haven’t read most of them, so I can’t actually offer an educated opinion, but I can tell you that, not knowing anything about most of these books, the little hypothetical views into their contents are delightfully absurd.

The archetypical Hark! A Vagrant comic involves a very silly joke about an obscure historical event. I’ve mentioned in my discussions of Lackadaisy and Family Man that I don’t know very much about history, and that I enjoy learning pieces of it from comics. Hark! A Vagrant has introduced me to historical events, concepts, and people that I’d previously had no idea even existed.

I mean, have you ever heard of Dr. Sara Josephine Baker? She was amazing! And I would still be completely unaware of her if it hadn’t been for Hark! A Vagrant.

In addition to teaching me about aspects of history of which I’d been completely unaware, this comic makes me see other aspects of history in a new light. For instance, I’d never considered the possible influence of Edgar Allan Poe on Jules Verne, though Poe is one of my all-time favorite authors. (I’m not as familiar with Verne’s work, so maybe that explains it.) But forever more I will picture Verne as a total Poe fan boy and imagine them being best buds and that image is so much better than whatever happened to them in real life. (I only really know about what happened to Poe, and it wasn’t pretty.)

There aren’t just lots of silly jokes about famous real people. There are also find lots of silly jokes about famous made-up people. The comic plays with perceptions and assumptions about various fictional characters. You’ve seen the play on Spider-Man up above. There are also takes on classical characters. Possibly my favorite thing from Hark! A Vagrant is the following comic about Holmes and Watson.

Also check out the follow-up. I like it possibly even more than the first one. I think I could read these comics about all the different versions of Watson hanging out indefinitely and never get bored. I’m going to move on to a different subject now, lest this become a blog less about comics than about how much I love Sherlock Holmes.

I’ve shown you historical figures, and established characters, and now it’s time to introduce you to new characters, whom you won’t see in history texts or classic literature. Please awkwardly try to figure out where your eyes should focus in appreciation of the Strong Female Characters.

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

The Strong Female Characters are an expert skewering of women’s representation in media. They may be tough, they may be powerful, they may kick ass, but they are actually extremely weak characters. Like Sherlock Holmes, female characterization is something I could go on about for longer than would be appropriate here. It’s an issue I think about a lot, and I’m glad to see it receiving this kind of treatment. Both because these comics are absolutely hilarious, and because it’s possible someone will read them and rethink their treatment of female characters. I like it when satire feels like it could actually effect some good in the world.

One more thing I should touch on is that this comic is Canadian. I mention this because it’s very important. A lot of the obscure historical jokes involve Canadian political developments that are probably much more familiar to my friends north of the border. (Some of the non-Canadian history jokes are pretty damn obscure too though so I don’t know.) Canadian history, current Canadian events, Canadian stereotypes, these are all common subject matter for Hark! A Vagrant, and they are all marvelous, regardless of whether you know anything at all about Canada. (They are probably funnier if you are more familiar with the subject matter. This is just a guess.)

Read this comic and you’ll get ridiculous takes on a variety of subject matter, from history to literature to pop culture to childhood reminiscence. It’s all rendered with a gently laughing tone, as if the whole world is just sitting there begging to be gently mocked. (Or harshly mocked, in some circumstances.) You’ll also enjoy the occasional appearance of St. Francis of Assisi, who I previously hadn’t realized is totally awesome.

Hark! A Vagrant is written and drawn by Kate Beaton and updates irregularly. I typically check in every month or so to see if there’s anything new.

Before we’re done, check out just how very badass Queen Elizabeth I truly was.

oh yeah