Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 30: Girl Genius

Enter a world where mad scientists run rampant, where monstrous abominations hold a great deal of political sway, where the difference between the possible and the unthinkable can be easily breached by a gifted and determined individual. This is the world of Girl Genius.

Girl Genius is an adventure serial. It throws the reader into a world of heightened stakes and intrigue, where there is more to almost everything than first meets the eye. The story is fun, exciting, and convoluted in that enjoyably overcomplex way that keeps people coming back because, for instance, we still don’t know exactly where Klaus was when he went missing all those years ago.

Note: Girl Genius is heavy on the continuity and really must be read in order from the beginning. I’ll hold back from discussing major plot revelations in this post, but an astute reader may be able to infer certain things from context. There is a lot of story here, and plot twists that were revealed hundreds of pages into the story are now old hat. Bear that in mind if you’re looking for a fresh experience as a new reader.

This comic is a member of the proud tradition of paying homage to old pulp novels, cheesy radio dramas and the like by creating a new story that follows their patterns, but goes along with modern sensibilities. It’s the formula that made the Indiana Jones movies work, to the extent that if you like Indiana Jones then Girl Genius is a comic for you. There’s danger at every turn, startling new revelations, returns of old characters, and the certainty that any moment could become a life-or-death struggle.

All this happens in a setting that is somewhat medieval, but altered by the presence of mad scientists inventing things that just shouldn’t work. These inventions certainly stand out against the technological level of the time period, but often they would even stand out against modern technology, being above and beyond or even just beside our understanding of scientist. A spark* laughs at the word “impossible,” and then builds a death ray and blows it away for good measure.

*Mad scientists are called “sparks” in Girl Genius. Now you know.

Biological engineering is one of the many areas covered by mad science.

Many of the robots, weapons and equipment in Girl Genius resemble a steampunk aesthetic, given the materials available to the characters and the technology level of the surrounding setting. The Girl Genius aesthetic developed naturally out of the setting and content, and is particular to the comic rather than an emulation of an artistic movement. Girl Genius predates and likely informed much of the recent steampunk movement, though I am not knowledgable enough about steampunk matters to provide an informed analysis. There’s nothing else out there that looks exactly like Girl Genius, and it doesn’t precisely conform to the definition of steampunk, but there’s an affable enough connection there that if you’re someone who likes steampunk, there’s going to be a lot of Girl Genius that you’ll love looking at for that reason alone.

The heightened drama and intense emotional atmosphere of the comic are undercut by the sense of humor that is present through the entire work. It’s a comic that mostly takes itself seriously, but it’s like it just can’t really keep a straight face and lets off steam by openly acknowledging the silliness of the situations contained therein. Again, this is a lot like the Indiana Jones movies, which are serious adventure stories but with a whole lot of fun jokes throughout. The more I write on this subject, the more I’m convinced that Girl Genius is just what Indiana Jones would be if instead of a movie series about an archaeologist it was a comic series about mad scientists.

Also in the proud tradition of old adventure serials and modern homages to old adventure serials is a certain level of bawdiness, not through the whole work or even most of it, but enough to be a noticeable element. there are plenty of instances of innuendo, characters caught in farcically compromising situations, or just walking around in their underwear for reasons that are definitely necessary to the plot and not at all just excuses to show off drawings of mostly-naked attractive characters.

Any time there’s a discussion about sexualized female characters versus objectified female characters, my go-to example for how to do sexy female characters the right way is Girl Genius. Agatha (the protagonist) and other women in the story are typically drawn to be busty and alluring, and they are all well-defined characters with important roles in the story. Characterization is the important thing, and every instance of a scantily-clad woman appearing in the story feels earned. It can be done. It’s been done here. Anyone who swears they can’t possibly write/draw sexy women without objectifying them is lying or just hasn’t read Girl Genius.

Given that this is a comic set in a world full of mad scientists and their inventions, it’s a visual feast for people who like robots and monsters and lightning striking castles and stuff like that. The wide variety of creatures who inhabit this world provides fodder for a lot of beautiful and fascinating character designs. The art is used to convey story information in some ways that aren’t immediately obvious, so read closely! And pay attention to the colors early in the story, because what they do with that is really cool.

Lots of fascinating characters with equally fascinating and interwoven backstories, an intriguing setting full of potential and mysteries, and a fun and fantastical sense of humor make Girl Genius engaging and page-turning. Or, um, page-clicking, I guess. If you’re like me, then once you start reading it you’re not going to want to stop, and then you’ll get to the end and feel a sharp pang of sadness at having to wait a day or two or even three to see the next installment.

Girl Genius is written by Phil and Kaja Foglio, drawn by Phil Foglio, and colored by Cheyenne Wright. It updates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I recommend it to people who like adventure!

Previous Entry: Anything By Jeffrey Rowland
Webcomics Worth Wreading Archive

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 29: Anything By Jeffrey Rowland

This entry is a little different, because instead of talking about a specific comic, I’m going to tell you about the various works of one creator. His name is Jeffrey Rowland, and his comics share a particular charm and humor that you won’t find anywhere else.

Jeffrey Rowland, in addition to being an excellent cartoonist, is the CEO of TopatoCo, which handles merchandise for just about every other webcomic in existence. Sadly, running a company is something that evidently takes up a lot of time, so Rowland doesn’t get to make as many comics as he and his fans would like him to. A comic update from Jeffrey Rowland these days is a rare treat, something to be savored. But, if you have never heard of Jeffrey Rowland before, fear not: There are literally thousands of comics for you to read through before you catch up and sit around waiting for the next Overcompensating with the rest of us.

I’d recommend Wigu as a starting place. It’s an adventure story about a little boy named Wigu Tinkle and his family. Fantastical elements show up, alternate universes interact with the “real” world, and the characters get in and out of a variety of bizarre scrapes. Wigu is currently concluded, but it’s concluded and picked back up before, so I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Mr. Rowland treated us to a new Wigu story at some point in the future.

Reading Wigu will give you insight into why TopatoCo is named that, as well as treating you to an off-the-walls adventure and possibly making you laugh like crazy every once in a while. My favorite character is Darrell, the elementary school janitor. He seems super sketchy, but everything he says here, including the stuff about ponies and waterslides, is 100% true.

Wigu has been updated in an irregular fashion over the years, with some stories being posted out of chronological order with other stories. The least confusing way to read it is just to start here, with the very first Wigu installment, and just keep clicking through to the next comic until you reach a point where it won’t let you do that anymore. At that point you will be mostly done with Wigu. If you want to read more, just click on “Wigu Havin’ Fun” in the side panel, start with “RIP Fuzzy” and keep going. Then you can click on “Magical Adventures in Space” just under “Wigu Havin’ Fun,” and read some comics taking place in the Butter Dimension 360, which appears in Wigu but is not the main location for most Wigu comics. And then you can click on “Other Comics” and, starting with “American Platypus,” read some comics that are TV shows Wigu and his family sometimes watch. I swear, that sounds more complicated than it is.

I also swear that it’s worth it.

Please note that Wigu, while being about a child’s exploits, is not really an appropriate comic for children. It’s kind of like South Park in that way, although that’s really the only comparison that I would make between Wigu and South Park because overall, Wigu is nothing like South Park. Just bear in mind, before setting out to read Wigu to a child in your life, that it occasionally features death and violence and other things that are not child friendly. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about: The very first story features a musical about cockfighting.

Jeffrey Rowland’s current comic is Overcompensating, ostensibly a journal comic, but one which more uses real life as a jumping-off point than one which documents and describes life as it occurs. Overcompensating can get every bit as weird and fantastical as Wigu, but instead of being about a family’s adventures in a bizarre universe, it’s all metaphors and allegories and whatnot about Jeffrey Rowland’s experience of the real world.

Generally speaking, Overcompensating is understandable without having read through the whole archive. However, there are running gags, character introductions, and certain visual shorthands that are easier to understand if you’ve read the parts where they first showed up.

If you read lots of other webcomics, Overcompensating is often a rewarding read simply for the other comics creators showing up as characters every once in a while. Jeffrey Rowland has a lot of interactions with these people in real life, and that works its way into the comic. He pretty much never uses their real names, though, instead giving them a series of unusual, sometimes even impenetrable, epithets. Sometimes they’ll show up in comics about being at conventions, where presumably we’re seeing a representation of some real interaction. Other times, though, it’s not entirely clear whether the events we’re seeing ever took place in any form outside of Jeffrey Rowland’s head. For instance, I have no idea whether any version of this conversation between John Allison and Jeffrey Rowland ever transpired.

There was a time when explanatory text below all of the Overcompensating comics helped provide context to the comics or elaborated on what was said or contained extra jokes about whatever was going on in the world at that time. Unfortunately, earlier this year all of that text disappeared in some sort of website reorganization. I don’t know if it’s gone for good or if it will be restored at some point, but I’d say it’s likely gone for good.

Even earlier in the Overcompensating archive, there are comics that still have text below them, but the text is weirdly disjointed because occasional words are missing. That text has been like that for as long as I can remember, so I’d say it’s just something we’re all gonna have to deal with. Maintaining Internet archives for an extended period of time can get pretty complicated, apparently.

If an Overcompensating installment confuses you because there’s no contextual information and it’s about something that happened a long time ago, don’t worry about it. Just shrug and move on and it’ll all turn out fine. Most of them are pretty easy to understand.

One long-running gag in Overcompensating is Jeffrey Rowland’s idea to have a political career using the name Kerry Edwards because there are already so many Kerry Edwards bumper stickers out there. It’s pretty rare to see one of those bumper stickers nowadays, but I’ll still run across one occasionally. Every time I do, my first thought isn’t “Hey a holdover from the 2004 election” but rather, “Hey look it’s a Jeffrey Rowland fan!” Then I take a moment to realize that I’ve got my “reference vs. referenced” framework mixed up again.

If you read all of Wigu and all of Overcompensating and you still want more of those Jeffrey Rowland comics, you should definitely take a look at When I Grow Up. It’s the earliest of his comics, and like many early works the artwork and writing is comparatively crude, but there’s a lot of good stuff in it. The characters from When I Grow Up will occasionally appear in Wigu, as they take place in the same setting, but an understanding of When I Grow Up is by no means necessary to understand Wigu when you’re reading it. Astute readers may notice that Wigu is an acronym of When I Grow Up. This is not a coincidence.

When I Grow Up is not necessarily the best introduction to Jeffrey Rowland’s comics, but there are a lot of great moments, and if you enjoy other stuff by him, I recommend it.

So that’s my overview of Jeffrey Rowland’s work and its merits. I can’t guarantee that Overcompensating will update anytime soon, but I expect that there will be new comics at some point. If Jeffrey Rowland stopped making comics forever, I would be sad and I believe so would he. It’s likely that Overcompensating will be where the new comics go, but I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Rowland to do a new Wigu story or even something entirely disconnected from what he’s done before. Whatever he creates next, I am looking forward to seeing it.

Hopefully you found some of the examples here funny or just bizarrely compelling, and are interested in seeing more. If you’ve read all of this and you’re not interested in Jeffrey Rowland’s comics, that’s okay. Feel free to tell me about it.

There is an extra joke in small text under most of Jeffrey Rowland’s comics that were made after a certain date. You can see such text in some of the examples I've included here. It serves the same role as mouseover text in many comics. A lot of those comics also have mouseover text… or at least, they did. When the explanatory blog-like text beneath the comics disappeared, the mouseover text mostly disappeared too. It’s on the comics that were made since the website changed, but it’s not on most of the ones from before then. That’s sad, but the comics are still funny without it.

Go forth, ignore the problems caused by doing a variety of different comics over several years, and enjoy!