Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 50: Athena Wheatley

Let me list some of my favorite things for you. Time travel. Speculation regarding future technological developments. Wacky humor. Aliens. Speculation regarding future socio-political developments. Space travel. An appreciation of diversity and social justice. Cheese. If a comic contains any one of those things then it’s likely to catch my attention. To find all of those things woven together into an elegant tapestry, look no further than Athena Wheatley.

Athena Wheatley, or, Warp & Weft, is an adventure that plays out across time and space. The eponymous Athena invents a working time machine, which really is just asking for a world of trouble. The time machine sends her on a dangerous and exciting journey to the far future, where she meets aliens and robots and pirates and life-theater artists. Basically, Athena Wheatley contains all of the Best Things.

Note: Athena Wheatley is a story-based comic and should be read in order from the beginning. I’ll steer away from major plot revelations, but this post will contain some minor spoilers, mostly regarding the setup.

The future portrayed in Athena Wheatley is marvellous. Every page brims with things to look at, be they different species of aliens, strange and wonderful future technology, or devastating environmental damage to the fabric of the universe (more on that last one later). This comic is fantastical and funny, full of larger-than-life characters and amusing, if concerning, social developments. The attention to detail fills out the setting, making it breathe. There’s a great deal of absurdity in this comic, but it’s delightfully presented, and even the most ridiculous circumstances demand that the reader takes them quite seriously.

I love how they're using the emergency eyewash station to clean dishes.
Sometime in the next 7,000-odd years, humans in Athena Wheatley become assimilated into galactic society. Being human means being a member of a minority culture, largely displaced from their homeland, marginalized, and subject to simplistic stereotypes. Aliens have taken over Earth in much the same way that white man took over the Americas, moving in and demonstrating to the savage natives what it means to be civilized. At the time in which Athena arrives, the colonization of Earth is ancient history, contributing to the current political climate but not anyone’s idea of a pressing conflict. Resentment still lingers in some portion of the human population, but the rest of the galaxy has moved on. Earth’s a pretty quaint, backwater planet anyway, so it’s not like anyone’s too concerned about keeping it up to date.

Out of all the fantastical analogues for racial issues I’ve ever seen, Athena Wheatley contains possibly the most acute, and definitely the most entertaining.

The main thing everyone in the galaxy knows about Earth history is that humans invented cheese. Earth is the cheese center of the universe, and humans are typically thought of as cheesemakers and little else. And I must say, turning cheese into the defining feature of human stereotypes is absolutely perfect. I mean, I’m a human, and I do love cheese, but it’s not like that’s my entire identity, you know?

And that’s the way racism works. Individuals lose their distinction in the wash of their entire culture/race, and the culture as a whole loses its distinction to the exaggeration of one or two key features. Taking the whole of human development, the cultural variety of our species and the vast array of our accomplishments, and reducing it all to a joke about cheese, is one of the best pieces of satire I’ve encountered.

That kind of searing insight can be found throughout Athena Wheatley. The scale of the plot, however, is less attuned to grand social movements and more to the adventures and difficulties of a few individuals. Athena, along with a handful of friends, cohorts and antagonists, tend to run around following their own motivations, largely unconcerned with the greater machinations of society. The way history seems to work in this comic, weighty developments happen mainly through a confluence of individual (often short-sighted) concerns.

A handful of characters display awareness of their place in social progression, but their focus remains personal. Even staunch political activists take time to worry about the well-being of loved ones. For all that this comic maintains a level of concern for magnitudinous social developments, the story is very human (inasmuch as the word is applicable to a cast largely composed of robots and aliens).

Athena Wheatley features two interwoven stories that progress simultaneously. While Athena the Victorian-era lady tromps about in future spacefaring times, a counterpart in the much farther future attempts to prevent universal catastrophe. A connection exists between the two, and one will fall asleep only to dream of the other, but it’s not clear exactly how they are linked. Events in one era may lay the foundation for events later on, or they may be occurring in parallel timelines (when time travel is involved shit like that can happen), or there may be some grander design at work.

There are mysteries here to resolve, and I’m guessing that figuring out precisely how the two stories are connected will dovetail with figuring out how to save the universe and where the damage came from in the first place. This is one of those fascinating situations where the characters know more than the reader about some things, while the reader knows more than the characters about others, so the audience gets to try to solve puzzles at the same time the characters do. The audience just happens to be working on different puzzles.

There is one plot aspect with a wider scope than individual actions and motivations, and its influence is present throughout Athena Wheatley. Sentient activities, whether alien, human, or a combination thereof, have caused catastrophic damage to the universe. In one era the damage is an annoyance, only posing a real threat in a few isolated areas. In the other era, however, that damage has placed all life in imminent danger of destruction.

While that sounds like a heavy-handed allegory for current environmental concerns, there’s no preachy message about what we should be doing to save the world/the universe/ourselves. The people in the comic have a problem that they’re trying to solve, and even if it is analogous to problems we in the real world are trying to solve, Athena Wheatley never devolves into a heavy-handed moral about sustainable fuel. Rather, it seems an example of the way that things may change, but the challenges we face are just new versions of the same ones that have been with us all along. New and exciting technology will always risk unexpected consequences, and there will always be a new catastrophe to survive.

Though the characters in Athena Wheatley live very different lives from ours, there’s still much about their circumstances that makes it easy to relate.

Like many stories, Athena Wheatley contains mysteries that I want to see resolved. The journey is so enjoyable, though, that I’m in no hurry to skip ahead and have my questions answered. Presenting a mystery as compelling without making it frustrating is a difficult and commendable accomplishment.

So many things come together in a fine and delicate balance to make this comic what it is. Sweeping events and individual actions, humor and gravity, respect and irreverance. There’s a lot going on, and I’m always eager to find out what comes next.

Athena Wheatley is written and drawn by Sylvan Migdal, and updates on Wednesdays. I recommend it to readers who like to make fun of the future just as much as future people probably enjoy making fun of us.

You may notice a warning on the website that says “Sometimes NSFW.” That’s a caveat that I would never have considered applying to Athena Wheatley, though I can understand why Migdal would want to play it safe by including it. Athena Wheatley is a comic where sometimes people are naked, and body parts are rendered in no particular detail, usually unaccompanied by sexual suggestivity. I doubt the occasional nudity would offend the sensitivities of anyone who is unaffected by any of the rest of the content, but I will leave that judgement up to the individual reader.

Previous Entry: One Way

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 49: One Way

A while back, I discussed Christopher Baldwin’s Spacetrawler. That comic has since concluded, but Baldwin has launched a new project, which I’d like to tell you about now. Like Spacetrawler, it’s a comedic science fiction tale populated with fascinating, well-rounded characters. Unlike Spacetrawler, it’s less a daring adventure unfolding on a galactic stage and more an intimate examination of interpersonal relationships. Allow me to present the quiet introspection and seethingly repressed emotional landscape of One Way.

One Way is the story of a group of humans traveling on a journey to meet alien life for the first time in history. Their ship’s technology is still experimental, they have no guarantee as to how the aliens will receive them, they’re traveling far from where any other humans are or have ever been, and the comic’s title implies that they’re unlikely to come home afterward.

Unusually, the story isn’t about first contact or exploring the unknown or coming to grips with humanity’s place in the universe. It’s all about what this handful of people choose to do when they are on their own with no external accountability.

These characters are not the best and brightest that humanity has to offer; they are capable and qualified crew members whom, for one reason or another, nobody would mind losing to the cosmos. They lack motivation, or personal skills, or life goals. Some have none of those things. For a job like as dangerous and far afield as this, you send people who can get it done, but you don’t dare send anyone important.

I’ll note here that One Way is definitely best read in order from the beginning. I’ll try not to spoil too much here, but an astute reader could probably pick things up from my writing that give away plot points, so tread carefully.

One Way puts me in mind of a Bottle Episode. It features a small cast of characters, confined to one location, and deals primarily with conversations between those characters. While there is some spectacular science fiction action, it’s confined to the background. The focus is on the people and their interactions, not on the challenges facing them or the philosophical and political ramifications to those challenges. Things may be happening on a large scale, but the drama unfolds on a small scale, based on individual decisions, friendships and other relationships that develop among these crew members.

Given the way these character’s relate to each other, it’s clear why none of them were in high demand among humanity. They don’t get along easily, some being acerbic while others are friendly but socially incompetent. Of note is that, of the sexual relationships that have been established among these characters so far, none are romantic in nature or anything more than convenient trysts that are amenable to the parties involved. These people can get along when necessary, but they don’t show any interest/ability in forming close personal bonds.

Conversations are awkward, full of missteps wherein misunderstandings are brutally corrected or carelessly allowed to slide. Witty banter serves dual purposes, both providing punchlines for the reader’s entertainment and creating barriers so that the characters can avoid genuine emotional connections. Often, characters speak without making eye contact; they communicate the necessary information to the reader and to one another, but they avoid transcending the professional aspect of communication and allowing it to bolster their personal relationships.

A defining factor of One Way is the characters’ lack of agency. They’ve been put into this situation by those in power, and now there’s little any of them can do to change their circumstances. There are one or two big decisions for the crew to make as a whole, and probably someone could do their job incorrectly and wind up catastrophically damaging the ship and killing the remaining crew members, but for the most part they are literally traveling on a set course.

A story like this, wherein the characters cannot control the outcome, is all about their inner journeys. None of the individual characters can control where the ship will land or when it will get there. They can’t affect the outcome that awaits them. The only thing they have any ability to change is themselves. The story becomes introspective, focusing on the characters’ growth and development under challenging circumstances.

As I read One Way, I realize how very many assumptions I’ve been making about this crew, their origins and history that may or may not be correct. I won’t get any more specific right here, to preserve the thrill of discovery, but I’ve been reading carefully for mentions of particular details that seem never to show up. Possibly those details are left vague in order to avoid locking the comic into one particular vision of humanity’s future development, but I find myself wondering whether there are any surprises in store regarding things that the characters consider common knowledge that the reader has yet to learn. There’s enough going on in this story that a careful reading is recommended anyway, so I’m taking that care and using it to prepare myself for one or two shocking revelations that could potentially come to pass.

One Way almost feels like a play I’m watching. The scope of the action is limited to a particular set, with only hints and allusions letting me know that there’s a larger setting outside the confines of the main characters’ location. The characters themselves are complex and flawed, and the fun is less in the things they do and more in their reasons for doing those things. This first time, I have no idea what’s going to happen or how any of these characters will turn out, but even once the story concludes and I know how it ends for all of them, I can imagine going back and spending hours dissecting these characters and their motivations, staring at particular panels and trying to reconstruct the thoughts going through their minds at that moment.

Any one of these characters feels deep enough to be a meaty and compelling role for a great actor, the type of character whose inner life is the subject of debate and contradictory interpretations between performers for generations. I guess what I’m trying to say is that One Way strikes me as the Hamlet of comics. No matter how many essays English students may write about it, there will always be more to consider.

If you didn’t scoff and assume I was going overboard with that Hamlet comparison, then I probably don’t need to do any more convincing to get you to start reading One Way right now. It’s full of complex, well-rounded characters, contains a few compelling mysteries (which I haven’t even mentioned previously, because they’re most fun when they sneak up on you), and everything happens in the context of a far-reaching science fiction story that presumably has drastic consequences for humanity as a whole. This comic is made out of many of my favorite things, and it mixes them up in a way that feels new and unexpected. There’s a lot to unravel here, and I always look forward to watching the next piece of action unfold.

One Way is written and drawn by Christopher Baldwin and updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I recommend it for people who think Twelve Angry Men would be a whole lot better if the eponymous men were on a spaceship the entire time.

Previous Entry: Chester 5000 XYV (Warning: NSFW!)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 48: Chester 5000 XYV

Today’s entry contains adult content, so I’m putting it behind a cut. If you’re comfortable viewing explicit drawings of sexual acts and are legally able to do so, then go ahead and click through! Otherwise, you have my apologies and I promise that I’ll be back soon with content that is safe for your eyes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 47: Hijinks Ensue

I’d like to thank you for reading my words right now. Through the same device that you’re using to view this blog, you could be watching hit TV shows or listening to the hottest new tunes or grinding for xp or even reading stories about all your favorite characters from Harry Potter kissing each other. We are awash in pop culture, and with so much media so readily available, I do appreciate any time that a consumer finds fit to spend on my own writing.

Though pop culture surrounds us, many people treat it with little awareness, hardly giving a thought to the works that they watch and hear and buy. Of those who do pay careful attention, many decry media and attempt to avoid it inasmuch as they are able. But then there are those who recognize the value in pop culture, who appreciate and love the stories that make up our modern mythology, to the extent that they will discuss, analyze, and deconstruct media during the course of a typical conversation. Out of that love and dedication to pop culture, and out of respect for its impact of our lives, come comics like Hijinks Ensue.

This comic will seem so dated in four years. Also, do you remember the rally to restore sanity? Oh dear, maybe this comic is already dated.

Hijinks Ensue is a gag-based comic wherein geeks pontificate about the media that makes them who they are. At least, that’s what you’ll find for the majority of the archive: Praise of pop culture, complaints about pop culture, amusing combinations of two disparate pop culture elements, and so forth. Closer to the current time frame, the style of the comic noticeably changes. Characters converse about things not directly related to pop culture or current events, such as their own actions and relationships to one another. Events develop continuity that carries over between installments, some of which carry real emotional weight. For the most part each installment of Hijinks Ensue stands on its own, funny or touching or pleasantly bewildering regardless of whether you’ve read what comes before. But after a certain point in the archive, those individual installments follow upon one another, and the dedicated reader will gain a greater appreciation and understanding of each event for having seen the ones that preceded it.

There is such a noticeable shift in the way Hijinks Ensue reads that it feels like two different comics… and, in fact, there basically are two different comics called Hijinks Ensue. If you click on the “First” button from the Hijinks Ensue homepage, it doesn’t take you to the very first comic that was uploaded to the website; it takes you to the first installment in the current, continuity-embracing version of Hijinks Ensue. To get to the first first comic, you need to get to the Hijinks Ensue Classic archive.

Reading every single Hijinks Ensue installment is by no means necessary to enjoy the comic. Feel free to ignore the Classic archive, or to ignore the fact that archives exist at all and only read the current comic, or two just hit the “Random” button a few times and see what you get. What continuity there is rarely interferes with a newcomer’s ability to understand what’s going on, and if you do get confused, going back a few pages usually clears things up.

Don’t worry about spoilers; Hijinks Ensue is not big on plot arcs or unexpected revelations, and much of it is loosely based either on the author’s own life or on current events. Actually, some installments might be confusing if you don’t remember the particular news story or media event being lampooned, but there are usually helpful blog posts accompanying the comic that provide context. Hijinks Ensue has basically fulfilled the role of a news service for me at times, because I learned about all sorts of news stories through this comic that I probably never would have found otherwise.

While the news of the day doesn’t always make great reading for the future, I still really enjoy many of those old Hijinks Ensue installments about whatever was going on at the time. I don’t even have to remember the event in question in order to love the comics it inspired.

I'm sure this is a spoof of a specific commercial that I've totally forgotten seeing but that doesn't make "This Facebook is teeth" any less funny.

One cool thing about reading through the whole archive is that you get to see the author grow, not just in terms of artistic ability but in terms of crafting jokes and developing characters. Early installments in the Hijinks Ensue Classic archive often lean on shock value. There are casual mentions of things like sexual violence and suicide that can come off as pretty tasteless. (While those jokes bother me now, I remember having no problem with them when I first started reading Hijinks Ensue, which I guess indicates that I’ve grown and changed as well.)

The reliance on shock value has faded along with the reliance on pop culture references. Neither one is inherently detrimental to a comic, but both require tact and substance to make them work, and both are best used in service of a well-planned and executed joke, rather than in place of a well-planned and executed joke. Pop culture references have not disappeared from Hijinks Ensue, but these days the jokes in the comic don’t often require the reader to have any familiarity with specific outside sources, which I feel is overall to its benefit.

I may be coming down pretty hard on pop culture references here, but I’d be misleading you if I didn’t mention that those are what drew me to Hijinks Ensue in the first place. So I’ll share with you probably my favorite pop-culture based Hijinks Ensue installment ever, to demonstrate that something can be focused entirely on a preexisting external work and still carry power and weight and originality. That kind of thing is difficult to pull off, but when someone manages it I definitely think it’s worth my attention.

But wait! There’s more! The Hijinks Ensue archive has far more categories than just regular Hijinks Ensue and Hijinks Ensue Classic. Sometimes when the author gets home from a convention or other event he assembles photographs into comics depicting events that presumably are slightly more true to reality than the comics that are made out of drawings. Those can be found in the archive category “Fancy Photo Comics.” (I’m not usually so fond of the photo comics, partly because my brain has trouble telling human faces apart.) (Geez, I sound like an alien trying to integrate into human society. And I’m fine with that.)

Another thing the author does at conventions is draw sketches for paying customers. You can see some of these sketches by heading to the “Fancy Convention Sketches” section of the archive. These consist mostly of pop culture mashups and references and the like. By their nature, the sketches are simplistic, drawn quickly and later put into a sort of collage with other sketches so that they may be enjoyed by an Internet audience as well as by whomever was at the convention. I find them to be pretty quick and fun to read through.

The “Faneurysm” archive category is where most of the current pop culture centered stuff on Hijinks Ensue can be found. It’s visually distinct from the other comics and it’s the place for jokes that make more or less sense depending on how familiar the reader is with external works of fiction. The sensibility is pretty similar to that of the convention sketches, but Faneurysm pages are a little more thought out and developed.

The one remaining archive category (not counting guest comics, which are outside the purview of this blog) is “Lo-Fijinks,” wherein the dialog is akin to what one might find in the regular Hijinks Ensue archive, but the art style is simplified to allow quicker and easier comic production under constrained circumstances.

This is how I felt about The Office.

If that all sounds complicated and like a lot of fuss, don’t sweat it. You can read as much or as little of the Hijinks Ensue archive as you like and still enjoy the comic. In fact, if you’re looking for a good place to jump in, I’d recommend here. You’ll be introduced to the characters and their circumstances in fairly short order, and it’s around that time that I feel Hijinks Ensue cemented into its current form.

The author’s daughter has been included in Hijinks Ensue only as a fairly recent development, but one that I think is significantly to the comic’s advantage. I don’t know if it’s because the real-life kid is just disarmingly witty and precocious or if it’s an effect of the way her father sees her and represents her, but I adore her character. The more focus she gets, the better I see Hijinks Ensue becoming.

Obligatory reminder that correlation does not imply causation and Hijinks Ensue could be getting better just coincidentally at the same time Gracie starts appearing more, but let’s not get bogged down by facts, okay? That kid is awesome.

If you love media so much that you want to be a part of it, if you self-identify as a geek, if you think of yourself as having sophisticated tastes but you can’t resist a dick joke now and then, Hijinks Ensue should have something for you. There’s humor and there’s heart and there’s a deep love for the consumption and creation of fiction.

I look forward to seeing Hijinks Ensue continue to change and evolve. I’ve enjoyed it in pretty much every form it’s taken, but I’ve definitely seen it coalesce into something deeper and more coherent in the last couple of years. The cast of characters have begun to feel like fleshed-out individuals with rich inner lives, and though the day-to-day humor is still there, it’s complemented by the continuous story that ties every day together.

Self-mockery like you find in the comic below (featuring a conversation between the Hijinks Ensue other and fellow webcartoonist David Willis), therefore, seems only partially apropos. I think that the qualities being sought are already present in Hijinks Ensue. They’ve been emerging for a while now. And I’m pretty sure things are only going to get better from here on in.

Hijinks Ensue is written and drawn by Joel Watson. Watch out for mouseover text starting roundabout here.

If you choose to read through the Hijinks Ensue archive, you may get slightly mixed up when you reach this page. Clicking “Next” brings you to this page, which is in the Fanuerysm category. A few more clicks brings you to the last Faneurysm page, and there’s no easy way to get from there back to the main Hijinks Ensue archive to pick up where you left off. Never you fear, though, intrepid reader, for this is the page you seek, following directly from whence the conversation broke off. EDIT: This has been fixed! Now off with ye, and may fortune favor you on your reading voyages!

Previous Entry: Quantum Vibe
Next Entry: Chester 5000 XYV (Warning: NSFW!)