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!

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