Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Entry 56: Breaking Cat News

Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m a sucker for science fiction. Well, today I’m going to let you in on another weakness of mine: Anything told from the perspective of a cat.

We’ve encountered this phenomenon before in my delight with Hey Pais, the one and only journal comic by a cat, but there aren’t too many other comics out there that let cats tell their own stories in their own words. There are some, though, and today I’m going to ask you to look through a window and see how one group of cats reacts to events in Breaking Cat News.

Lupin, Elvis, and Puck report on all the significant goings-on in their home, from tragedies like the vacuum cleaner running loose to miracles like the humans filling the house with boxes. It’s not clear who they think is watching or why they’re so dedicated to their broadcast, but they definitely take their task seriously. They won’t even hesitate to interrup the humans in any task whatsoever to get the latest scoop.

I wouldn’t bother with spoiler warnings for Breaking Cat News, both because most installments are one-off and there’s typically no overarcing plot, and because the events depicted in the comic are typically based on events that occurred in real life, and as we all know, real-life spoiler warnings are absurd.

I want to avoid doing a full-on compare-and-contrast with Hey Pais, because there’s so much more interesting material to discuss, but there are a few striking similarities between the two comics that I want to mention. Both comics are created by cat owners who draw inspiration from the actual cats in their home, hitting upon universally observed truths regarding cat behavior while simultaneously illuminating the peculiarities of the specific cats in the comics. There’s even a parallel in the means by which the cats refer to their humans; where Hey Pais features “The Girl” and “The Guy,” Breaking Cat News has “The Woman” and “The Man.”

The primary source of humor in Breaking Cat News comes from the disconnect between what’s being reported and what’s “really” going on. Silly cats, pizzas are for eating, not for lying on top of the box!

We readers, as humans, can identify the true story while the cats are distracted with feline-relevant details. However, the comic itself doesn’t usually present the human side of the story. We’re in the cats’ world, seeing things from their perspective. Being so used to being outside that perspective, trying to live in it seems inherently absurd.

But stories like this, told from a perspective alien to our own, invite deeper questions. There’s no reason that the cats’ perspective should be any less valid than that of humans. Certainly, the cats are fallible and biased, but so is everyone. Cat owners make assumptions about cats’ wants and motivations, and the cats here do the same in regards to their human companions. Our assumptions regarding them may be no more accurate than their assumptions regarding us.

That sort of mental exercise, recognizing a cat’s viewpoint as valid and worthy of consideration, is useful when it comes to understanding people who come from different backgrounds and potentially incompatible worldviews. Though a given perspective might seem wholly unrelatable, being able to accept that everyone’s limited experiences shapes their ideology, and that no one’s perspective in particular is objective, can aid in understanding and compassion.

I’m the kind of person who likes to read deeper messages into silly cat shenanigans, so compassion and respect for all is my takeaway from Breaking Cat News. You don’t have to consciously expand your mind while reading, of course: Feel free to just giggle at the hijinks these boys get up to, and slowly it will make you a better person. Probably. Maybe.

I might not have any idea what I’m talking about.

There’s a lot in Breaking Cat News to delight cat lovers, from recognizable antics to insight into one family’s relationships with and between their cats. It’s fun and silly enough that I hope people who are indifferent to cats would enjoy it too, though frankly I can’t imagine what it must be like to be indifferent to cats so I’m not sure I can say anything about such people with authority.

Breaking Cat News is written and drawn by Georgia Dunn, and updates on Mondays and Thursdays. I recommend it to people who like cats (which is, like, everyone on the internet, right? Or are cats on the internet passé, yet?) and to people who like laughing at things. I assume most people reading this comic will break out laughing every other page like I do, so why don’t you head on over and put that assumption to the test?

Previous Entry: Camp Weedonwantcha
Webcomics Worth Wreading Archive

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Entry 55: Camp Weedonwantcha

The thing about children is that they are the most vulnerable members of the human race. The other thing about children is that not only have they not fully integrated societal norms into their worldview, they typically don’t have a fully developed sense of morals at all, or even necessarily an understanding that other people have their own thoughts and feelings and capacity to feel pain.

If a group of children have no adult caretakers, they won’t be capable of taking care of themselves because they don’t know how. As for taking care of each other, not only do they lack the skill and the reasoning ability, they may not even realize that other people have needs at all, let alone what those needs are and how to meet them. Today we’ll take a look at just about the most lighthearted take one could have on a group of children left to fend for themselves without the support of adults or the outside world, Camp Weedonwantcha.

The premise of Camp Weedonwantcha is that children whose families want to get rid of them drop them off at the eponymous camp, never to return. The reader only gets glimpses into characters’ backstory that hint at how they arrive and provide grounds for speculation as to how the parents discovered Camp Weedonwantcha’s existence or how it came to be at all. The circumstances that may have compelled particular families and society at large to allow a place like that to form are left to the imagination, and the comic concerns itself entirely with what happens once the kids are already there.

Camp Weedonwantcha is a funny comic, but it’s necessarily a dark humor. These kids deal with injuries, food shortages, and quite literal abandonment issues in a hostile and uncaring environment. There’s no proper medical care around, so kids have to make do with what they already know or what they can figure out on their own (or just make up) when they get hurt. And given that people get injured fairly often when spending time outdoors, and that even adults rely on professional medical care for many of their injuries, the population of Camp Weedonwantcha on a whole is slowly deteriorating as none of their serious infections, injuries or diseases receive proper treatment.

It’s easy to make Camp Weedonwantcha sound much darker and more disturbing than it is. While the harshness of the setting is acknowledged, the comic’s tone is far lighter and more fun than might be expected. I bring my own perspective to the comic reading it as an adult, but the perspectives in the comic are all those of the children at the camp. Attitudes differ from child to child, and some embrace their circumstances more readily than others, but none of them have enough life experience to picture exactly how wrong things are for them.

So lots of the kids just make the best of a bad situation. Even the ones who are depressed, or who refuse to just accept their circumstances, tend to focus on minor details. There’s no “I’m going to slowly starve to death” or “one day this building will collapse and I don’t have any way to fix it;” there’s “I left my favorite toy where I can’t get to it anymore” and “I don’t have a comfortable and private place to poop.”

Granted, I imagine most adults in that kind of situation would focus on specific annoyances, too. Big issues can be difficult to process, and sometimes fully feeling an emotional response to one’s circumstances would be too much to handle, so a person will compartmentalize. Individual characters find their own ways of coping, through denial or distraction. They don’t allow themselves to feel the full weight of their losses, because they can’t. They wouldn’t be able to go on.

That denial and distraction is what makes Camp Weedonwantcha, the comic, bearable for readers, just as much as it makes the camp bearable for those living there. The kids play games, get involved in schoolyard drama, and seem to hold onto their humanity despite their inhumane environment.

The focal character is Malachi, a relatively new arrival in Camp Weedonwantcha, who is still unfamiliar with most of the details that other characters have already grown to accept and take for granted. That lets the reader learn things as they are explained to Malachi. Notably, we don’t see Malachi when he first gets to the camp, so though the newcomer-as-justification-for-exposition device is used, the reader is still left in the dark as to exactly what happened, how he transitioned from being a kid with a family to one of the abandoned campers.

In a way, there is no outside world. From a reader’s viewpoint, Camp Weedonwantcha contains only this abandoned campground and these abandoned kids. Backstories and supply drops don’t change the fact that our direct observations are limited to a small and isolated environment. Camp Weedonwantcha and its inhabitants might as well be all that exist.

Since I’m someone who likes speculation about my comics, I keep asking myself questions about Camp Weedonwantcha’s provenance. Clearly at some point it was a regular summer camp, judging by the buildings and so forth that are still there. Said buildings are now falling into disrepair, as no adults are around to maintain them or bring in materials to rebuild when something is damaged. I have to wonder if any organization is actually “running” Camp Weedonwantcha, if it’s just a drop-off spot that parents share with others who are looking to abandon their children, or even if the abandoned children were never intended to arrive in that place specifically, or just all happened to be dropped off close enough to camp that they found their way.

Occasional supply drops fall in from the sky, which would support the idea that someone knows these kids are there and is taking steps to look after them, but the nature of the “supplies” is variable at best. I get the impression that the crates dropped onto the campground may be less intended to provide for the children, and more to find a dumping ground for unwanted goods. Every supply drop that’s been directly shown in the comic is either harmful or, at best, neutral. It’s implied that some supply drops do contain food, because there’s no other clear way for the kids to have obtained what food stores they have, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the food is expired or otherwise deemed unfit for consumption.

There is definite continuity to Camp Weedonwantcha, and one installment pretty reliably follows the previous one, but for the most part there’s no overarching narrative. Plenty of installments stand on their own, and when there are longer stories, they typically last for a few pages before the comic moves on. So feel free to read from the beginning, or jump in wherever you like.

The comic’s depth increases as time goes by, and the setting and characters become established enough that there’s room to explore individuals without losing sight of the whole. Camp Weedonwantcha is an ensemble piece, but it’s hard to get emotionally invested in a collective story. A connection with an individual character makes that easier, and when Camp Weedonwantcha starts focusing, for a moment at a time, on individuals, it becomes more moving. My favorite story so far begins here.

We even start to see the way that kids are forming families-by-choice, after their birth families abandoned them. That kind of dynamic, the friends who are so close as to become family, shows up stories, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to PVP. As often as it’s used, it never feels any less powerful or less capable of bringing a tear to my eye.

Camp Weedonwantcha is written and drawn by Katie Rice, and the longer it goes the better it gets. I recommend it to people with a dark sense of humor. There are laughs, there’s pathos, there are mysteries if you want to look for them. It’s fun and heartbreaking at the same time, which is one of those balances that very few works of fiction ever manage to achieve, but I love it every time someone manages to pull it off.

Previous Entry: Space Corps
Webcomics Worth Wreading Archive
Next Entry: Breaking Cat News

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Entry 54: Space Corps

Today I’m going to talk about a comic that I didn’t expect to like. It’s science fiction, which is right up my alley, but it’s also about a military organization, which is about as far from my alley as you can reasonably get without crossing the border. Like many people, I try to be open-minded and explore new things even if I typically regard the subject matter with distaste. However, also like many people, I usually wind up sticking with the types of stories that I already know I enjoy. So I was delighted when, upon warily beginning to read a new and untested comic, I found myself utterly charmed by Space Corps.

The most striking thing about Space Corps, for me, is the sheer diversity of aliens that we get to see. The eponymous organization contains members from a vast number of species, to the extent that you’d be hard-pressed to find any corpsmen who share a species for most of the comic. (With the exception of humans, which I’ll discuss in a bit.)

Very often, in fiction, supposedly interspecies organizations are mostly populated by humans. For television and film, it’s logistically easier to keep most actors out of heavy prosthetics, but the tendency extends to other media as well. Humans write about humans a little more naturally than they write about lifeforms that are not human.

Alternatively, many works feature a handful of alien species, meant to represent a vast and diverse cultural mix but with a small enough number of cultures that it’s easy for the readers (and the creators!) to keep track of them. Space Corps takes things a step further, demonstrating with every page just how many species inhabit this setting. I can’t keep track of all these aliens, and that’s a good thing, because it makes everything feel so much fuller and more complex than it would be if I could get a good grasp of the cultural interplays after only a few minutes of reading.

Above is Lt Adelina, and I’m going to use her as an illustration of the character work that I love in Space Corps. First, she’s a lizard woman, which is just cool. But look at her body shape; somehow, the artist has refrained from drawing the female character with significant cleavage, or even any hint of breasts at all.

Of course, it wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever for Lt Adelina to have a significant bust. One, she’s a lizard, and two, she’s wearing armor. I feel bad even pointing this out, because it’s not so much a good choice as it is the lack of a bad choice, but I’ve seen so many inexplicable drawings of sexy lizard women that just seeing one case of an artist doing the sensible thing instead reaffirms my hope for humanity. Cpl Simmons may be sexualizing Lt Adelina, but the artist does not sink to the level of his characters, and draws her looking just like the soldier that she is.

Like many stories, Space Corps has a gender balance that skews more masculine, but Adelina actually provides an elegant workaround for the issue of gender diversity. Visually, there’s no way to tell that she’s female; the reader only knows because of dialogue. Meanwhile, the vast majority of characters in Space Corps are neither human nor given significant on-page character development. I find it completely plausible that there are a good number of women on these pages, but that their genders are typically irrelevant to the story and unremarked-upon.

That’s just speculation on the part of a reader, but I like the idea, because it gives some weight to the true array of alien beings in this comic. It’s not always possible to tell gender at a glance, especially not with unfamiliar species, and that extra level of unknowns adds to the fun for me.

Space Corps is organized into “issues,” as if it were a serial comic in print. You could probably follow each issue without having read the previous ones, but it’s easiest to read and follow the story by just going in order from the beginning. Starting with Issue #1, Space Corps primarily follows the story of a human named Deven Taylor. The comic doesn’t begin with Issue #1, though. There’s an Issue #0, which contains a few short stories, each focusing on different characters.

So far, the most prevalent perspective in the comic is a human one, but in Issue #0, humans are hardly present. I cannot emphasize enough the impact of beginning from an alien perspective. It builds a setting that feels deep and complete, full of people and conflicts outside a limited human viewpoint. To be sure, a complete and expansive story could be told just from a human perspective, and indeed, many stories have. However, the impression I get with Space Corps is that an equally complete and expansive story could be told from the perspective of any one of the aliens we see.

The idea that one’s own perspective is not definitive that other beings, with entirely dissimilar backgrounds, have equally deep and complex stories to offer is a powerful one. In a story like this, it makes the aliens and their lives seem that much more real and compelling. In real life, it opens up the possibility of understanding and compassion for people whose life experiences differ strongly from our own. To me, Space Corps reinforces the idea that, whether dealing with alien species or just humans with different genetic histories, there’s room to hear and empathize with their stories.

My favorite things about Space Corps are the parts that fill me with curiosity, much of which will likely never be sated. Some questions, such as who the Winnowers are and why they rampage through space leaving a swath of destruction in their wake, may well be addressed as the story progresses. But many small character details may never be resolved, leaving only implications and the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.

Take Cpl Hive, who is literally a bunch of bees in a suit. It’s a pretty fun concept, and Hive is presented as a sort of microcosm of the Space Corps as a whole… individuals banding together to protect and help one another, forming a greater force in unity than they could manage as individuals. But I have to wonder… are there other people out there who are bees in a suit? Do the bees reproduce, creating more bees so that Cpl Hive will live as long as the population sustains itself? Did the bees invent the technology that lets them control the suit, or did someone else provide it for them?

Though I love to consider these questions, and I’d definitely get a thrill from answers appearing in the pages of Space Corps, I am completely content with the idea that answers will never come. I actually prefer open questions to concrete explanations, as I enjoy the mystery and the intellectual exercise of forcing myself to accept uncertainty. There’s a reason that “The Quiz Broadcast” series of sketches from That Mitchell and Webb Look forms one of my very favorite science fiction works. Implication can be so much more powerful than exposition, and Space Corps implies far more than could ever be stated outright.

If, upon reading the title Space Corps, you think “Oh man I wanna read that!” then you will not be disappointed; this comic absolutely delivers the kind of sci-fi battles you’re looking for. If, like me, you’re more skeptical, I encourage you to give it a chance. There’s depth here if you look for it, and there’s a sincerity and charm that’s almost seductive. I can almost see the creators pulling my emotional strings, getting me to cheer for developments that I’d normally regard warily. Space Corps makes me sympathize with viewpoints that I normally disagree with, and you know what, I think that’s a good thing. Because I should be able to empathize with people who have different life experiences than my own.

Space Corps is written by Gannon Beck and Bryan Richmond, and drawn by Gannon Beck. Issue #0 also has Joey Groah on the writing team, and colors by Kyle Tobin. Speaking of Issue #0, there’s a Kickstarter campaign to get that in print. Today is its last day, so you still have a few hours to get on that if Space Corps appeals to you.

Have a pleasant day, and remember, for your safety, always be aware of the location of your nearest exit.

I guess in this case the nearest exit is wherever you want it to be.

Previous Entry: Paranatural

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Entry 53: Paranatural

Let me introduce you to the quaint little town of Mayview. This seemingly normal, quiet community… well, really, as soon as I described it as a “quaint little town,” you knew it would be harboring some bizarre and dangerous secret, right? Happy and unassuming settings exist for the express purpose of containing something incongruous. No one wants to read a story about a family who owns a little store in a little town and nothing unusual ever happens to them. And to be honest, you should have a pretty good idea what kind of secrets we’re dealing with as soon as you learn that the comic’s title is Paranatural.

Right up front, a note about spoilers: Paranatural is the type of story that has a lot of mysteries. As a new reader, even the premise is something of a mystery for a good chunk of time. I’ll avoid mentioning plot details from later in the story, but in order to discuss the comic in any depth I’m going to have to mention a little bit about the setting and how things work. If you’d rather not have that given away, go ahead and dive in at the beginning to experience the reveals as they were meant to be read.

If you still need convincing, or you don’t mind being spoiled on some things, then feel free to press on, and I’ll tell you about a group of probably well-meaning kids and their magical abilities, and the probably well-meaning forces that guide them.

We got rid of the spoiler-phobes, right? Okay, so the deal with Mayview is that it’s full of spirits. Some of them are ghosts, but some are other things. Some are malevolent, but many just float around doin’ their thing. Possibly the rest of the world is equally full of spirits; I haven’t gathered whether Mayview contains particularly many of them or if it’s just where the protagonist happens to be when he sees them for the first time.

Said protagonist is a boy named Max. His mom is dead, his dad is a goofball, and he just moved to a new town and discovered that he’s a special kind of person who can see and interact with spectral energy. Max serves as the reader’s viewpoint character; for the most part, we see what he sees and we usually only know as much as he knows. He’s the kind of kid many of us were, or wanted to be: somewhat snarky, sure of himself, and usually kind to others. Most of his interactions seem to take place with good faith on his part, as if he continually trusts that other people mean well, even when they say or do things that are patently ridiculous.

Minor ridiculousness is met with an appropriate level of snark.

And these people do a lot of ridiculous things! Paranatural is populated with larger-than-life characters, people who act out of accordance with all sense. Some of them are spectrals, but many are just people in Max’s life who have no connection with spirits (such as his aforementioned goofball dad).

I don’t think this is a case where “normal” means something different in the comic’s setting. Most of the minor characters seem to be various degrees of ordinary, not in a bland way but in a way where they’d probably fit into any given middle school environment without raising eyebrows. Those characters who are bombastic or otherwise off-kilter are met with skepticism and befuddlement on behalf of those around them. I get the impression that most people in the world of Paranatural have regular old lives just like people in the real world. Our story focuses on the unusual folks, because that’s a more interesting story to tell, and they do have a tendency to stand out from the crowd.

These people are weird, and everyone knows that they’re weird, but lots of them are also pretty loveable so it works out.

When I was a kid, I read a lot of fantasy stories, and the moral dilemmas were usually pretty simple. “Can I be sure this is a good person, or am I inadvertently helping the villain?” “Is it okay to help a villain in order to stop a worse villain?” “How can I be sure this good thing I’m doing isn’t going to cause more bad things to happen later on?” The issues were usually black and white, with only minor shades of grey thrown in.

Sometime in the past decade or so, I think the standard in fantasy has adjusted. It’s not so easy to tell who the “good guys” are anymore, and the hero usually has to think carefully about what information they give to whom and how to avoid being manipulated to an unjust end.

Part of me resents that change… mostly, I’ll admit, because I’m full of nostalgia for the stories that I breezed through as a kid, that never challenged my worldview or dared me to think from other moral angles, but which showed me wondrous and inviting worlds nonetheless. But there’s also the trouble that, when handled poorly, stories about moral codes and shifting loyalties are boring. A lot of the time I’m not interested in pledges of service or fealty or whatever, I just want to get to the part with the monsters.

Paranatural takes that sort of ethical hemming and hawing that can so often lose my interest and turns it into something compelling. The default assumption in this comic seems to be that people try to do good. Conflicts arise not because some people want to do evil, but because different people have different ideas about what doing good entails. As a result, characters often fall to distrust as a default state. A lot of the mysteries in the story are mostly the result of individuals carefully controlling information in an attempt to protect themselves or their goals. As a result, the reader, and many characters, are kept in the dark and have to rely on guesswork and patience to determine just what might be going on.

Paranatural is a comic that really uses being a comic to tell its story more effectively. Most of the time this is invisible… an effective panel or a well-composed page might not grab the reader’s attention while it communicates important information, heightens tension, or enforces the intended tone. But there are instances of using comics tools in novel ways, communicating information in a manner that wouldn’t be possible in another medium, or making jokes about the medium that these fictional characters inhabit.

One thing I want to be sure to mention is humor. Paranatural cracks me up on a regular basis, and the comedy really sells the story to me. Sure, the fantasy and intrigue are compelling on their own, but I wouldn’t come back to the story as eagerly as I do if it wasn’t so funny.

I deal with severe depression, and yesterday was a bad day for me. To the extent that it was hard to make myself get up and start re-reading Paranatural so that I’d be able to write this post. But once I started reading, I found myself laughing, and laughing, and by the time I’d read the whole thing I was actually in a really good mood. So apparently Paranatural is a pretty good treatment for depression, at least on a short-term basis. Use that information wisely.

Some things in Paranatural are humorous when I’m not even certain they’re intended to be. The spectral teacher is named Mr. Spender, and I don’t know whether that’s intended to be a silly name, but it really is a very silly name. It sounds like a user handle on a forum for shopaholics, not a real name that a person actually has. At one point he’s called Mr. Splendid as a joke, but to be terribly honest Splendid is not any less plausible a name than Spender. They’re both absurd!

Mostly, though, the funny things are clearly intended as jokes. Like the uniforms that some spectrals wear. They’re pajamas made to look like suits! Or suits shaped like pajamas, possibly. I’m not really sure where to draw that line.

so incongruous

There’s a lot of heavy plot and mystery here, but as a reader you don’t need to worry about following the minutia or figuring out what happens next. (Of course, you are welcome to do so if that’s something you enjoy!) On a page-to-page basis, the story is pretty easy to follow, though it does reward careful reading and re-reading. I absolutely notice new things when I go back and read the comic with an understanding of the setting and various character motivations. I expect that it will all seem that much richer as the story grows and I learn more about what’s going on with everyone. I clearly still know much less than what I don’t know.

The longer Paranatural goes on, the more complex and rewarding it feels. Whether you’re looking for a quick fun read, or want something you can ponder in depth, it’s got some fantastical good times in store for you.

Paranatural is written and drawn by Zack Morrison. Watch for mouseover text starting at this point, and wavering for a while before it becomes a more permanent fixture. On the chapter title pages (even for Chapter One) the mouseover text tells you what’s going to happen in that chapter! You know, how like old books would have chapter titles like “In which Max and his father order pizza and meet a burglar.” I’ll leave discovering whether that chapter description actually occurs in Paranatural as an exercise for the reader.

I can't stop giggling every time I look at this.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Entry 52: The Last Halloween

As I write this, Halloween is mere days away. Just a short period of time remains before we shall have to pack away our ghosts and goblins and push all thoughts of terror from our minds. This enchanted month will draw to a close, and lingering questions of mortality and the limited scope of human knowledge will have to wait until next year. So, whether you’ve been immersed in seasonally appropriate spookiness and are always on the lookout for more, or have been frightfully deprived and desperate for something to chill your bones before it is too late, I present for your consideration The Last Halloween.

What we have here is a fantasy horror story, complete with monsters and undead creatures of every kind imaginable. The world is ending, society is in chaos, and a 10-year-old girl is sent on a hero’s journey against her wishes. The Last Halloween takes this well-worn adventure framework and hangs upon it the author’s peculiar sensibilities. Thus we wind up with a story in which matters are deadly serious, but those involved refuse to take them seriously. Instead, they do things like make jokes about how the situation is literally deadly, get it?

This is dark comedy at its best; serious conflicts in a weighty story coupled with a wild and irreverent sense of humor. Rather than providing relief from the horror, the comedy serves to emphasize it. Inappropriate japes contrast so strongly to the grave atmosphere that the effect is remarkably unsettling. I often find myself reacting with exaggerated horror and outrage simply because the characters just aren’t bothered enough and I feel like I have to make up the difference.

The art in this comic perfectly reflects and enhances the atmosphere. Scenes are beautifully rendered in a way that is clear and appealing yet undeniably creepy. To be sure, there are monsters and mayhem everywhere, but one need only look at a forest, or the night sky, to tell exactly what the tone of the comic is. Every object communicates unease.

I can’t help recalling Stephen Gammel’s illustrations from Scary Stories to tell in the Dark. If you’ve read those books in the past, you know what I’m talking about. If not, you can get an idea with a simple Google Image search. Though distinct in style, those drawings also communicated a macabre and spooky tone with every brushstroke. However, while Gammel’s artwork emphasized horror, the art in The Last Halloween often mitigates horror.

I’ll note here that The Last Halloween is definitely best read in order from the beginning, and that while I’ll do my best to avoid spoiling anything, clever readers may be able to infer some details regarding the plot. I’ll also note that this comic contains some pretty horrific images, albeit rendered in a stylized fashion that robs them of their visceral punch. This is one way that The Last Halloween takes advantage of the comics medium. If the maulings and eviscerations in this comic were reproduced in film, or given detailed description in text, I’d find the content too off-putting to engage with it. The Last Halloween’s artwork takes events from which I would normally avert my eyes and presents them in such a manner that I can’t look away.

Speaking of taking advantage of the comics medium, let’s talk about monsters. (The term “monster,” when used in The Last Halloween, actually refers to only a specific type of creature, but I’m going to go ahead and use it in a broader sense for the purposes of this post.) Way back when I wrote about Spacetrawler, I discussed the diversity of alien designs used in that comic. The same principle applies to the monsters in The Last Halloween. There’s a tremendous amount of creativity in the way the shapes and movement of these monsters.

The stunning array of monster designs, combined with the delightfully expressive and compelling art style, make this a comic that I could stare at for hours. Like a particularly well-shot film, The Last Halloween is not so much a story expressed through art and more a story told in parallel to art, with many panels worthy of admiration even were they to be presented isolated from all context.

In terms of story, at the most basic level The Last Halloween follows well-trod ground (at least so far). What makes this version of the hero’s journey so appealing are the details. Characters express awareness of genre conventions, but tend to outright reject them. Everyone has a role to play, and they participate in the story not out of your typical good-guy desire to save humanity, but as a means to serve whatever immediate goal they’re trying to fulfil. The plot is almost incidental, something that just kind of happens while the characters run around in pursuit of their own petty desires.

The aimless antics stay fun, rather than tedious, in part thanks to the fun and quirky dialogue. This dialogue here is idiosyncratic and humorous in a way that reminds me of John Allison’s particular skill with words. Nobody in real life talks quite like the characters in The Last Halloween, and the real world is poorer for that fact.

The world of the story is well-developed, giving a definite impression that there’s more to the setting than just what we readers have been exposed to. Mona, the protagonist, comes from a clearly strange and messed-up family. We only see her dad for one page, but that page is enough to imply a history of outlandish and upsetting behavior. What’s not clear is how far this microcosm deviates from “normal” in The Last Halloween. The story begins with the development of a great catastrophe, so it’s difficult to establish a sense of baseline, but I get the impression that the setting as a whole was somewhat outlandish to begin with.

Of particular note is a character of a type that I’ve really never seen before, because she’s based on a stereotype that’s only been around for a few years: Shirley, the slacktivist. Fantasy has a long and storied history of use as metaphor for real-world social and political issues. While that’s not the focus of The Last Halloween, it’s definitely present, and Shirley is the reader’s gateway to social commentary.

There are tons of valid social justice concerns facing the supernatural community in The Last Halloween, and I find that sort of speculation fascinating. The concept of cultural appropriation as it applies to one’s identity as a ghoul is the sort of thing about which I would gladly read pseudo-academic essays. The Last Halloween crafts a world in which these are real issues, and Shirley tells us about some of them… but she doesn’t actually do anything to fix them. Though aware of social issues, and possessed of educated positions, she shows no inclination toward effecting change. Rather, she holds her political awareness smugly over those who haven’t done the same kind of research and arrived at the same conclusions that she has. Shirley serves as an excellent negative example for those who would like to do good in the world.

Where Shirley offers advice, maybe consider offering assistance?

I recommend reading The Last Halloween if you’re looking for something fun and spooky to wrap up your October. There’s depth there, too, if that’s appealing, but you don’t have to engage with this comic on anything other than the surface level to enjoy it. Monsters and mayhem are quite entertaining enough, though if you’d like to go further and think about symbolism and cultural trends you are quite welcome. The mere incongruity in many of the significant images could keep an analyst going for some time.

The Last Halloween is written and drawn by Abby Howard. It’s an engaging and frightening read, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this whole thing goes. (I’m guessing the ragtag bunch of misfits are going to save the world. I mean, I don’t know, maybe everything’s going to go down in flames, but I’ve read a lot of stories about people trying to stop the apocalypse, and they succeed at least, like, 90% of the time.)

By genre convention, the less qualified characters seem at first, the stronger they eventually become. So we're in pretty good shape!
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