Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 22: Girls with Slingshots

“Relationships” is the watchword of the day. Romantic and sexual relationships, certainly (with all the similar and distinct connotations of the two), but also abiding friendships, relationships with acquaintances and family members, and even relationships with pets and houseplants. The people we care about, whether we love them or loathe them, help to define us, and hopefully to make us better people. One can find all manner of strong relationships just by taking a glance at Girls with Slingshots.

Girls with Slingshots is a gag-based comic centered around the unlikely, but deep and unshakeable, friendship between two women who are as different as they could possibly be. They represent physical extremes as well as emotional extremes, Jamie providing the optimism and enthusiasm, Hazel providing the cynicism and reluctance. Just about the only things they share are a love of booze and talking about boys, which has proved to be enough for them to maintain their bond throughout the years.

Note: Girls with Slingshots is a gag-based comic, but it does have continuity and some significant long-running storylines. (The above strip is NOT a spoiler, so don’t worry about that.) I won’t discuss plot points in detail here, but certain developments, particularly those which occurred in the early years of the comic’s run, would be hard to disguise entirely. If you’d rather read the whole comic fresh, I suggest you start at the beginning right now. If you’re comfortable with knowing a few things in advance as you go into it, or if you need a little convincing before jumping in, then proceed at will. If you want to read the comic, I recommend going through the whole archive just to have a grasp of who the characters are and where they come from, but if you’re okay with being a little out of the loop, most of the jokes are still funny even if you don’t know the entire backstory.

Most of the characters seem to spend most of their time concerned with sex. If that subject makes you squeamish, I actually recommend reading Girls with Slingshots all the more, because it’s fun and silly and perhaps a good way to step outside your comfort zone. If the subject of sex does not make you squeamish, if you in fact enjoy reading dick jokes and/or sexual drama, then you will find a lot to love in this comic.

This example is actually pretty tame but SO FUNNY.

The characters represent a wide variety of viewpoints on sex, relationships, and each other. They come from different backgrounds, and have all sorts of preferences, both in regards to the sex of their partners and the types of relationships they have. Functional and dysfunctional relationships, long-lasting partnerships and casual flings, people who meet over the internet or by hanging out in bars or maybe by discovering shared taste in books at the library, there’s a wide range of human experience, and that range is reflected in the relationships you’ll see in Girls with Slingshots.

There's quite a diverse representation of relationships, showing us a wide variety of attitudes toward heterosexual relationships and lesbian relationships. The only thing that's missing is a selection of male homosexual relationships. There's one gay man who's a significant character, and is emphatically not representative of all gay men. Then again, no one person can or should represent their group as a whole, nor can a selection of people, however diverse, provide a full picture of the range of attitudes that belong to a particular group.

One thing that I really appreciate about Girls with Slingshots that I haven’t seen elsewhere is a fantastic portrayal of an asexual. Erin is friendly, enthusiastic, and an excellent role model for anyone who feels that they might fit in with an asexual identity. (Please note that the following strip does constitute a spoiler, so only read on if you’re willing to have certain outcomes taken as granted when you get to the Jamie-trying-to-find-love storyline stuff.)

Representations of asexuals are almost entirely absent from most media, so it’s really nice to see a character who identifies as asexual and who is still fun and relatable. She’s also just, like, super cute, and I want to turn off the fourth wall for a hug as much as she does.

Sometimes fictional people answer questions from real ones! It's pretty great.

You can assume that the world of Girls with Slingshots works like our own, unless noted. Most of the humor is based on regular human foibles and mishaps that could happen to anyone, and most of the drama is the kind that people go through in real life… Issues such as someone’s girlfriend and best friend really not getting along, or how to handle dating a deaf woman if you’re only just learning sign language (as seen above). There are a few fantastical elements, though. Most prevalently, cactuses (and other houseplants, sometimes) possess powers of speech and mobility. Nobody ever expects the cactus to talk, at first, but over time they all seem to get used to it, and McPedro the talking cactus develops into an important character.

Oh, and there are ghosts sometimes too.

And even if they’re not answering reader questions, the characters still express an awareness of their medium. This type of explicit acknowledgement that they are characters in a comic is used sparingly but effectively, allowing characters to more fully express themselves to the reader by utilizing all available tools. Playing with the format actually makes the world of the characters seem more, not less, real. These people know what they are and what kind of medium they inhabit and they’re not afraid to make use of it when it suits them.

It’s also nice to see a comic featuring so many women, with so many different body types. There are the obvious extremes in Hazel and Jamie, who are beautiful in completely different ways, but just about every woman in this comic would be visually distinct from every other woman just by their silhouettes. Any time I worry about the portrayal of women in comics, when there are so many identical-looking women with huge hips and breasts and ridiculously thin waists, my go-to counterexample is Girls with Slingshots. It’s far from the only webcomic that features well-rendered examples of a variety of female figures, but I think it’s one of the clearest examples of how to draw women well.

In a comic that’s so concerned with sex, that most common source of tension, there’s a surprising lack of reliance on traditional sexual stereotypes. The characters are so well-developed and nuanced that even when they are being stereotypical (which happens less often as the comic goes on) they feel fresh and honest, true to some inner self. One advantage these people have is that they’re comfortable with themselves and with each other, so that they can just acknowledge their feelings rather than expressing concern over whatever they think they should feel.

The old “sensitive man, insensitive woman” turnabout has been done so often that it doesn’t actually count as subversive now. But the relationships in Girls with Slingshots are more complicated than that, more authentic, more varied. Men and women want different things, to be sure, but really, each man and each woman want different things, and sometimes they make assumptions and sometimes those assumptions get them in trouble and sometimes it’s embarrassing for everyone involved but sometimes it works out really well and everyone’s open and honest and they all get along super well.

I mean, not most of the time. Most of the time there’s misunderstanding and conflict and hurt feelings even though everybody’s doing the best they can. But sometimes… sometimes, it all seems to work out.

Central to the comic, among all these relationships and conflicts and desires, the heart of the story is still Hazel and Jamie’s friendship. They care about each other more than anything, and they usually express this care in unorthodox and inimitable ways. No one could consistently put up such a consistent act of devotion, with all the subtle touches involved, without holding the other person deep in their heart.

I realize I’ve been talking up the deeper thematic aspects of Girls with Slingshots, because those are what stick with me the most after years of reading. The initial appeal, though, is in the humor. Girls with Slingshots is funny as hell, with a whole lot of silliness and some very well-executed punchlines. That’s what first drew me in as I read it, and then as I became more familiar with these people and their world, I found myself falling in love with the characters and just wanting to spend time with them, and see how they’re doing and hope that they can take care of themselves. (These people are sometimes not that great at taking care of themselves.) There’s an excellent balance here between instant-gratification-sating laughs and deeper, long-term emotional fulfillment.

Girls with Slingshots is frank, funny, and pulls off that extraordinary combination of hopefulness and cynicism that I find so compelling.

So! Come for the crude jokes, stay for the complex emotional drama. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by either.

Girls with Slingshots is written and drawn by Danielle Corsetto and updates Mondays through Fridays. There’s mouseover text on strips from here on. I recommend it for people who like laughter and empathy.

Oh, and correct grammar.

Webcomics Worth Wreading Archive

This page will serve as an easy way to find any and all Webcomics Worth Wreading entries, if you'd rather not scroll through the whole blog to find one in particular.

Entry 1: Reptilis Rex (http://www.reptilisrex.com/)
Entry 2: Spacetrawler (http://spacetrawler.com/)
Entry 3: Subnormality (http://www.viruscomix.com/subnormality.html)
Entry 4: Cucumber Quest (http://cucumber.gigidigi.com/)
Entry 5: Lackadaisy (http://lackadaisycats.com/)
Entry 6: Strong Female Protagonist (http://strongfemaleprotagonist.com/)
Entry 7: Family Man (http://lutherlevy.com/)
Entry 8: Dresden Codak (http://dresdencodak.com/)
Entry 9: Gunnerkrigg Court (http://gunnerkrigg.com/)
Entry 10: Scenes From A Multiverse (http://amultiverse.com/)
Entry 11: Power Nap (http://www.powernapcomic.com/)
Entry 12: Wasted Talent (http://www.wastedtalent.ca/)
Entry 13: A Softer World (http://asofterworld.com/)
Entry 14: Broodhollow (http://broodhollow.chainsawsuit.com/)
Entry 15: Bad machinery (http://scarygoround.com/)
Entry 16: Hark! A Vagrant (http://harkavagrant.com/)
Entry 17: Gronk (http://www.gronkcomic.com/)
Entry 18: Unshelved (http://www.unshelved.com/)
Entry 19: Dr. McNinja (http://drmcninja.com/)
Entry 20: Cat and Girl (http://catandgirl.com/)
Entry 21: Wondermark (http://wondermark.com/)
Entry 22: Girls With Slingshots (http://www.girlswithslingshots.com/)
Entry 23: Diesel Sweeties (http://www.dieselsweeties.com/)
Entry 24: Oglaf (http://oglaf.com/) Warning: NSFW!
Entry 25: Bob the Angry Flower (http://angryflower.com/)
Entry 26: I Do Not Have an Eating Disorder (The Comic is Here, on Tumblr)
Entry 27: Questionable Content (http://questionablecontent.net/)
Entry 28: Dinosaur Comics (http://qwantz.com/)
Entry 29: Anything by Jeffrey Rowland (http://jjrowland.com/)
Entry 30: Girl Genius (http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/)
Entry 31: xkcd (http://xkcd.com/)
Entry 32: Nedroid (http://nedroid.com/)
Entry 33: Not Invented Here (http://notinventedhe.re/)
Entry 34: Weregeek (http://www.weregeek.com/)
Entry 35: PVP (http://pvponline.com/comic/)
Entry 36: Nimona (http://gingerhaze.com/nimona)
Entry 37: Axe Cop (http://axecop.com/)
Entry 38: Hey Pais (http://www.heypais.com/)
Entry 39: Chainsawsuit (http://chainsawsuit.com/)
Entry 40: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (http://www.smbc-comics.com/)
Entry 41: Drive (http://www.drivecomic.com/)
Enrty 42: Monster Pulse (http://www.monster-pulse.com/)
Entry 43: Wizard School (http://www.wizardschoolcomic.com/)
Entry 44: The Bright Side (http://www.thebrightsidecomic.com/)
Entry 45: Vattu (http://www.rice-boy.com/vattu/)
Entry 46: Quantum Vibe (http://quantumvibe.com/)
Entry 47: Hijinks Ensue (http://hijinksensue.com/)
Entry 48: Chester 5000 XYV (http://jessfink.com/Chester5000XYV/) (Warning: NSFW!)
Entry 49: One Way (http://baldwinpage.com/)
Entry 50: Athena Wheatley (http://www.athenawheatley.com/)
Entry 51: Emily Carroll (http://www.emcarroll.com/)
Entry 52: The Last Halloween (http://www.last-halloween.com/)
Entry 53: Paranatural (http://www.paranatural.net/)
Entry 54: Space Corps (http://spacecorpscomic.com/)
Entry 55: Camp Weedonwantcha (http://campcomic.com/)
Entry 56: Breaking Cat News (http://breakingcatnews.com/)
Entry 57: Shadowbinders (http://shadowbinders.com/)
Entry 58: Solo (http://solocomic.net/)
Entry 59: The Perry Bible Fellowship (http://www.pbfcomics.com/)
Entry 60: My So-Called Secret Identity (http://www.mysocalledsecretidentity.com/)
Entry 61: Michael DeForge (http://www.michael-deforge.com/)
Entry 62: The Young Protectors (http://webcomics.yaoi911.com/archive/ete_title_page/)
Entry 63: Templar, Arizona (http://templaraz.com/)
Entry 64: Stand Still. Stay Silent (http://www.sssscomic.com/comic.php)
Entry 65: Robot Hugs (http://www.robot-hugs.com/)
Entry 66: Please Listen to Me (http://www.listen-tome.com/)
Entry 67: The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo (http://www.drewweing.com/)
Entry 68: The Fox Sister (http://thefoxsister.com/)
Entry 69: The Nib (https://thenib.com/)
Entry 70: Sheldon (http://sheldoncomics.com/)
Entry 71: Sufficiently Remarkable (http://sufficientlyremarkable.com/)
Entry 72: Oh Joy, Sex Toy (http://www.ohjoysextoy.com/)
Entry 73: Alice Grove (http://www.alicegrove.com/)
Entry 74: Starbunny, Inc. (http://starbunny.net/)
Entry 75: Wilde Life (http://www.wildelifecomic.com/)
Entry 76: Jasika Nicole (http://jasikanicole.com/comics/)
Entry 77: HuĂ©rfanos (Orphans) (http://huerfanos.webcomic.ws/)
Entry 78: Junior Scientist Power Hour (http://www.jspowerhour.com/)
Entry 79: The White Snake (http://jenwang.net/whitesnake/archive.html)
Entry 80: Molebashed (http://www.molebashed.com/)
Entry 81: Bobbins (http://bobbins.horse/)
Entry 82: Monsterkind (http://monsterkind.enenkay.com/)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 21: Wondermark

We, as humans, respond to novelty. We seek new and unusual experiences, in our entertainment, in our vacations, in our food, and, more rarely, in our daily lives. Many people find a comfortable equilibrium that provides structure and stability to their lives while allowing room for novelty and excitement. However, there is a particular mindset that seeks out novelty in every experience, no matter how small. This is the mindset of a person who will not allow details to go overlooked and unremarked, who feels compelled to question even the most ubiquitous of social and cultural norms, who will never stop searching for ways to improve or at least invigorate the most mundane activities. This is the mindset you will find in Wondermark.

Full disclosure: I served as an intern to David Malki !, the creator of Wondermark, for about two years, so you could say that I have a personal emotional investment in this comic and may not be an unbiased source of information as to its merits.

Wondermark is a gag-based comic which usually has no continuity whatsoever. While certain characters may occasionally reappear, and there are a few recurring elements (such as the Piranhamoose) that indicate, for the most part, that every installment is set in roughly the same world, usually each installment will introduce us to completely new characters, with no connection to previous installments. Reading through the entire archive is certainly not a requirement to understand the setup for the current joke.

The humor leans heavily on absurdity, by which I mean it probably told absurdity that it would only need a couch to stay on for a couple of weeks but it’s been there a few years now and absurdity is too polite to ever tell the humor that maybe it’s time to leave. So, y’know, it’s metaphorical leaning.

Often, not just in comics but in all sorts of media, humor comes from shared experiences between the creators and the audience, sentiments that may be commonly felt but rarely voiced. This is the origin of the old “What’s the deal with airplane food?” staple… You can be fairly sure that a good number of people in your audience have flown on an airplane and been disappointed with the food, so it’s an easy way to get a laugh by referencing a familiar hardship.

In Wondermark, when calls are made to shared experiences, they are more particular. These are experiences that happen to possibly only a small subset of people. To those who have not done these things, they are funny on the surface… you can laugh at the fictional people who act this way. However, when these kinds of jokes build up over the years, it has the result of cultivating an audience containing a large number of people who resonate with the jokes because of familiarity. The people in the comic act the way we act, and it’s a type of behavior that is rarely represented in media because the people who act this way aren’t really relatable to the average human. Or, at least, we’ve all been conditioned to believe so.

I mean, I frequently find myself acting exactly like this frog, though usually in the form of mutters rather than clear declarations to the world.

Frequently, the characters in the comic will be larger-than-life in some true-to-life way. These are people who aren’t content to be ordinary, who continually try to take what life gives them and twist it in some manner so that it is more unique to them, or at the very least, more confusing to outsiders. Sometimes these people are entirely self-aware, deliberately crafting novelty in their lives, but sometimes they seem to be entirely unaware of their own strangeness, and one can never be certain whether that’s just because they are extremely committed to the act they’re putting on, or whether they actually are just that out of touch with the rest of humanity.

The very medium choice is unusual, consisting as it does of repurposed Victorian woodcut art (though generalizing all of these woodcuts as being Victorian is strictly speaking inaccurate, as I believe some of them are Edwardian but then as I’ve said before I’m not very good with history). Aesthetically, seeing all of these people who look like they just popped out of a history book discuss things like wifi passwords is equal parts disconcerting and engaging. One point of appeal is in seeing how parts of century-old imaged can be reassembled to form current pieces of technology, or even entirely new and unforeseen inventions.

A clear driving force behind Wondermark is the desire to make one’s mark on the world, often by taking things that already exist and using them to make something new. In the real world, clever inventions often consist of mere combinations of already existing items. Put two magnifying glasses in a tube and you have a telescope, stuff like that. The art for the comic is made out of previously created art, but it is changed into something recognizably original. One may speculate as to what other simple but unexpected combinations or alterations could come along and enhance our world.

One may even speculate that the next big innovation will be so unexpected that none will recognize its genius when they first encounter it.

The Wondermark mindset is one that seeks novelty in every situation. Ideas are followed to their extreme conclusions, wild speculation is treated as entirely serious. The types of conversations that you will find in Wondermark may feel familiar if you are the type of person who engages in such wild speculation when you have conversations yourself: Someone idly mentions an absurd premise, and another party follows along and expands upon that premise as if that premise is now to be assumed as fact. It’s a kind of improv game without formal rules, played between friends when the have a bit of extra time.

Due to the nature of the comic, sometimes it is hard to tell whether the characters are merely speculating (which they often do) or whether their world really is that strange (which it often is). Sometimes the ambiguity is better than the payoff of an answer could ever be.

Sometimes, rather than two people engaged in an escalating exercise in absurdity, the comic will feature only one person attempting to do this, with another acting as the straight man. Notably, while the sympathetic party is often the person with the crazy idea, which would be expected when the creator and the typical audience member often identify as crazy-idea-havers, there are times when the one talking crazy is the one who is clearly unreasonable, irrational, or just insensitive. This goes to show a level of self-awareness, that while seeking novelty is worthwhile and compelling, there are limits and there are other concerns.

Finding the limits for oneself, spending just enough time trying to shake things up and live life to the strangest, rejecting enough baseless cultural norms while still being a functioning member of society and enjoying the benefits that affords… it’s a careful balance, one that we walk in our daily lives and one that these characters struggle with on a fairly regular basis.

Some characters do better than others.

There’s a level of overthinking that is inherent to Wondermark. The characters won’t let ideas rest, will examine them from every angle, trying to find a new facet or an inadequately explored possibility. Simple things are only simple if one doesn’t spend an adequate amount of time considering all of the ways that they could be more complicated.

A reader of Wondermark, or a character therein, cannot take anything for granted. The smallest assumption is fit to be questioned. Idle speculation takes on a whole new, gravely serious weight. Be prepared to commit to the things that occur to you when your brain is just running with its basic input. If you start to wonder about something, you should expect to do some research or experiments to try to answer your question. Be careful, though. If your question is along the lines of “What’s the worst that could happen?”... the answer is could be fairly severe.

In addition to curiosity and speculation, an important element of Wondermark is enthusiasm. This is a comic for and about people who don’t just have wild and crazy ideas, it’s for people who commit to those wild and crazy ideas… for as long as the initial rush lasts, at least.

Enthusiasm in Wondermark is effusive, affecting not just those who love novelty or its trappings, but also those who love just about anything, whether it be conceptual or immaterial. Wondermark is for and about people who feel things strongly, who get really caught up in whatever their interest is today. Sometimes enthusiasm lasts a lifetime, sometimes it lasts an hour, but it is everywhere in Wondermark. Many of these people are determined to do or have one thing above anything else, and, as this is overall a fairly optimistic work, they sometimes get what they want.

Whether or not they are happy with it once they’ve got it is another matter, of course. But, you know, some people are.

The people who inhabit the world of Wondermark are often strange or just the types who seek excitement in unusual places, but the world they live in sometimes proves itself to be stranger than they are. Most of the time you can assume that Wondermark takes place in a world much like our own, albeit one where everything looks pretty old-fashioned. Sometimes, though… sometimes, the world of Wondermark proves itself to be strange and wonderful in ways that our own world will never match, as much as we might try to force it. Keeping our own behavior on the strange and novel side will, sadly, never effect a complete transformation into a world where things like this happen.

So, if you ever find yourself constructing elaborate hypothetical explanations for everyday phenomena, if you sometimes feel like maybe you’re the only person in the world who’s come up with a particular solution for a common problem, or if you just plain love new and unusual things for the sake of their being new and unusual, Wondermark is for you.

Everyone else: Wondermark is for you to gather round and laugh at the absurdity that the people above come up with. Seriously, this stuff can get crazy.

Oh, and you know that whole thing about common experiences and questioning assumptions? People compare things to the size of football fields an awful lot. When I was a kid, I didn’t know how big a football field was, but people always used it as a comparison to emphasize how huge something was, so I wound up thinking that football fields were way bigger than they really are when apparently, they’re just a little bigger than an acre. Thanks for clearing that up for me, Wondermark!

Wondermark is written and assembled by David Malki ! and updates on Tuesdays and Fridays.

I recommend it for people who overthink things. If you’re spending several minutes trying to figure out if that’s you… it’s you.

In addition to mouseover text, there’s also the perpetually-changing line that ends in WONDERMARK.COM, which you can see in the images here, and each installment has a title which you can see when you view them on the website.

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Next Entry: Girls With Slingshots