Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Entry 78: Junior Scientist Power Hour

If you have been devoutly following every recommendation I’ve ever made in this blog and reading every single comic I’ve ever written about… as is only fair and right, after all… then you are already a fan of Abby Howard’s The Last Halloween, because you jumped over and started reading it as soon as you read my post about it. If, however, you only ever follow my recommendations, and never click on links that you don’t find on this very blog, (because everyone besides me is untrustworthy and probably trying to lead you astray) then there is no possible way you would have known that Abby Howard creates another webcomic as well. Therefore, for the sake of all you people who read every comic I link you to and precisely nothing else, I will today do you the favor of telling you about Junior Scientist Power Hour.

I put this excerpt first because I cannot imagine anybody not relating to it.

Junior Scientist Power Hour is a little bit journal comic, a little bit gag-a-day humor, and a whole lot of fun stuff that comes from some unfathomable depths of the author’s mind. You can jump in anywhere in the archive, hit the Random button to jump around wherever it takes you, or dedicatedly read through every single installment if that’s the way you roll. (That is the way I roll. It is not necessarily any better or worse than other ways.) If you choose not to read the whole archive you may find yourself lacking in the full context for certain later installments, but not to the point that they become incomprehensible or inaccessible. This stuff can be absurd or slice-of-life-y by turns, and there’s no real pressure on the reader

For the most part, Junior Scientist Power Hour is lighthearted and silly, full of quick jokes or amusing concepts that make for a moment’s diversion before the reader moves on. This is true even when the subject matter is weighty.

When reading this type of comic, one gets a sense of what’s going on in the author’s mind, or at least, the part of her mind that she’s elected to share with us. Like keeping up with an old friend, I witness Howard’s triumphs and her challenges, her foibles, her strengths. I could almost interpret Junior Scientist Power Hour as a self-portrait, more accurate in some ways than external visions of her because Howard is no doubt more familiar with herself than anyone who is not her, less accurate in others because no one is more biased about a person than the person herself.

When reading something that way, getting a feel for the author and who she seems to be as a person, I of course find myself making comparisons, evaluating her as a person based mainly on how many things she seems to have in common with me.

Like me, Howard hates restarting her computer and loves cats. (This comic features kind of a lot of cats. This is generally speaking a good thing for any online piece of media, because the Internet also loves cats. However, what some people fail to realize is that the Internet loves cats because they are objectively the best animals and anybody who disagrees is flat-out wrong.) Unlike me, Howard also like cute butts, while I am a bizarre person who doesn’t even really understand what makes butts cute or the difference between a cute butt and an uncute one. I can’t even blame that one on my prosopagnosia, because even I can tell a face apart from a butt.


Though most of the comic consists of amusing anecdotes or funny ideas or nonsensical jokes or just drawing of cats because cats are the best, at times it does tackle more serious subject matter. It tends to do so in a manner consistent with the tone of the rest of the comic, juxtaposing real concerns and important insights with absurdity or comically exaggerated activities.

If you elect not to read through the whole Junior Scientist Power Hour archive (though you totally should because it’s what I would do and also it’s not too long you can totally get through it), I would still recommend you read this installment and its follow-up. Howard rightly puts some fat-shaming dudes in their place with completely sensible arguments and completely disproportionate physical violence. It’s pretty much the best.

Junior Scientist Power Hour is written and drawn by Abby Howard… as I mentioned in the first paragraph, but hey, maybe you have a problem with your short-term memory and need to be reminded. If you’re looking for a fun way to spend a couple of hours, or you just need a quick laugh, or want to feel a moment of empathy with someone who loves cats the way every right-thinking person should, I suggest you treat yourself and give it a read. Howard presents herself and her thoughts with a self-awareness and humility that makes me constantly want to be on her side, even when she does things that are genuinely super annoying and oh god just stop please now stop. In short, she has a rare gift, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Entry 77: Huérfanos (Orphans)

Today we’re taking a look at fantasy. Now fantasy storytelling has its roots in mythology and folklore… the kinds of tales that we once told because we had no other way of understanding and explaining our world to one another. Hundreds, thousands of years ago, the people telling those stories, and listening to them, would have understood them as fact. Legends and history intermingled, both of them part of the story of What Came Before. These days, though, people draw a pretty sharp line between reality and fiction, placing myths, fairy tales and so forth squarely in the “fiction” category. “Realistic” fantasy, therefore, inhabits a somewhat uneasy place. In the real world, mystical realms, otherworldly beings and so forth are commonly understood to be things that Do Not Exist. So if a fantasy story takes place ostensibly in our world, all of those elements must be conveyed in a manner that allows them to stay hidden from the general populace. Suspending one’s disbelief for the sake of the story therefore involves suspending disbelief in regards to those elements existing in reality, too… at least to an extent. It’s an uneasy balance that I’m really interested in exploring as I tell you about Huérfanos (Orphans).

Before we get into things, I’ll note that Huérfanos (Orphans) is a narrative-type comic that you definitely ought to read from the beginning. It’s also one of those comics that I can’t really discuss without spoiling some things. However, in this case I believe that the things I spoil will make for a better reading experience rather than a worse one, because going in with a certain idea of what’s coming can help the reader to appreciate some of what’s being set up early on.

If you’re very very spoilerphobic I can’t blame you for wanting to skip the blog post for now and go read the comic before I can give too much away. (Hey, I get it, I’m that way about a lot of things, too.) However, if you’d like to keep with this blog post and read what I have to say, rest assured that I won’t describe specific plot points in detail and that there are plenty of twists and developments in the comic that I won’t even hint at here.

Huérfanos (Orphans) tells the story of a ragtag bunch of misfits who are brought together under the instruction of a wizard who intends to hone their magical abilities. Basically, it’s exactly the kind of thing that I’ve spent much of my life wishing would happen to me.

Remember that whole spiel I made in that first paragraph about fantasy stories and the belief in the truth of them? Well, I’ve always been one of those people who secretly hopes that all my favorite fantasy stories are true. I was one of those kids who was sorely disappointed that I never got my invitation to Hogwarts, who was constantly keeping an eye out for the strange medallion, or hidden door, or secret message that would transport me to another place, one far more exciting and dangerous than the world I’ve always known.

Of course, I live in a world that doesn’t contain any of those things… at least, as far as I’m aware. But in so many fantasy stories, including this one, magical and mystical things are going on without the awareness of the public at large all the time. One of the best things about fantasy is getting to explore a reality very different than the one we live in. But one of the other best things about fantasy is getting to pretend that it’s real. A well-told fantasy story can convince the reader that everything in the story is true, that all the mystical beings and magic spells are hidden just out of sight.

The trouble with believing all that is that, if I genuinely spent my time working under the assumption that it’s all true, especially if I started searching for clues, stitching together coincidences into “evidence” that my fantasy world is real… that would be indicative of mental illness. In this rational world, a world in which the scientific method allows only falsifiable theories to be granted credence, a wishy-washy ad hoc justification for belief in fantasy is, if harmless, subject to ridicule. If harmful, it is subject to much worse.

However… Those people who are convinced of something going on beyond that which the rest of us can perceive? For all I know they could be right. They may very well speak to beings that seem to the rest of us to be air, or see things that the rest of us find invisible. If there were people who could see into magical realms, and there were also people who merely believed that they could see those things due to a mental illness… how would the rest of us be able to tell the difference?

That conundrum finds better representation in Huérfanos (Orphans) than I’ve seen almost anywhere else. Most of the characters appear in at least some way to be mentally ill… whether because they bother other characters with apparently erratic behavior, or whether they behave in ways that the reader can clearly identify as unhealthy.

I have a little bit of experience dealing with others’ mental illness, mostly with my late aunt, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. And when I read this comic, I can see her in it. That adds a layer of heartbreak to many of the scenes depicted therein. When a character describes being treated like their experiences are not real, that they themselves can’t be trusted because others believe them to be insane, I think of my aunt. I think of the way she lived her life, always knowing that no one else believed many of the things she said, that we all thought her experiences were invalid, false, even though they were real to her… and I can understand and sympathize with the characters who treat our protagonists the same way. Because it’s the only sensible thing to do, and there’s absolutely no way to prove that, in this case, it’s actually the wrong course of action.

On the same thematic bent, I’d like you to consider the nature of of magic, mysticism, and the people who engage in it. Many people are willing to sell their magical services, promising various outcomes in exchange for money. The vast majority of these people are charlatans.

That is true in any world, whether magic is real or not. What changes are the nature of the charlatans. In the truest sense of the word, a charlatan is someone who sells something even though they themselves know it doesn’t work. In a broader sense, one might consider a charlatan to be anyone who sells something that hasn’t been proven to work, even if they themselves believe it does. The real world contains plenty of people in both those categories.

However, a fantasy world can easily incorporate a third category of magical salespeople, ones who aren’t necessarily charlatans at all. If magic is indeed real, a wizard could go into business selling spells, potions and the like, all of which work exactly as intended. Or, a wizard could use magic to appear to sell effective remedies and so forth, in order to more effectively scam people out of their money.

The trouble, again, is telling which is which. This applies across the whole category of supernatural and occult practitioners. Some are legitimate, some are misguided, and some are outright untrustworthy. But when myths and legends are so unreliable, when so much of this type of knowledge is kept hidden or known only to a few… telling apart the different categories, picking apart the misleading from the malicious from the accurate, is an inhumanly difficult task.

Huérfanos (Orphans) is written by Enric Pujadas and drawn by M. A. Garcías. Dive in and explore a world similar to our own but with the clear-cut certainty that magic is real and ghosts (as well as other beings) go about among us. Get to know a group of distinct characters, each with their own special abilities… think Midnight’s Children if you’re highbrow or Heroes if you’re more pop-culture, but on a much smaller scale. In particular, get excited to meet Hipólita. I adore her.. she’s an artist who is able to depict the creatures she sees by drawing them, and even better, she’s a legit otherworldly princess. People do what she says and everything because, hey, she’s a princess, and that kind of authority commands respect and deference, even from people who should have no idea who the hell she is.

Obviously, these characters have to team up to fight some great evil, and possibly even save the world. I, for one, can’t wait to learn more about what threat they’re going to face and how they’ll overcome it. Along the way, maybe they’ll even discover that they’ve become a kind of unorthodox family. I’m looking forward to seeing how all of that develops.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Entry 76: Jasika Nicole

One of my favorite things, as you might imagine, is discovering new comics. Almost always, that involves one of two things: Discovering a new creator or team of creators whose work I was previously unfamiliar with, or reading something new from a creator whose other comic work I’ve already come to know and love. Today, however, I’ve come to tell you about a third case, so rare that it has, as of yet, only happened once: Stumbling upon comics created by someone whose work I had already come to know and love, but had no idea did anything comics-related. Imagine my delight, as a comics lover, when I discovered the comics work of already beloved and admired figure Jasika Nicole.

Normally I try not to discuss non-comics media on this blog, to keep the focus fairly narrow and therefore allow myself to cover relevant subjects without giving myself too large and impractical a task. That’s not really something I can plausibly do with this post, however. One reason is that I am such a fan of Jasika Nicole’s acting work that I won’t be able to restrain myself from gushing a little bit. The other reason, which is my excuse to give myself permission to indulge in the first one,  is that Nicole puts so much of herself into her comics work. Much of it is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, and even when she creates fiction it still has the feeling of raw, real representations of her life experiences, or extrapolations from them.

Writing about Jasika Nicole’s comics without telling you anything about how I became a fan of hers in the first place would feel pretty jarring, almost as much as if I tried to write about Wasted Talent without mentioning that Angela Melick is an engineer. So, let me tell you a little bit about Jasika Nicole and where I know her from.

No, I’m not a fan because of her performance in makeup commercials… but, like many actors, that’s a part of her history. That one comic, by the way, about her first audition, is one of the funniest things I have ever read. It’s one of those things I will occasionally think about and just start giggling to myself. I’m extremely grateful that Nicole was willing to share it with the world, and to do so with such aplomb.

I first saw Nicole as an actor on Fringe. She plays Astrid, a character of whom I am quite fond. Of course, taking a liking to a character on a TV show always has multiple factors. Writing and direction matter a lot. Acting, though, makes up a significant portion of what makes a character one of your favorites. Probably my second favorite episode of Fringe (because nothing can beat the singing corpses) is the one that focuses on the two Astrids from the two different universes, and how very different they are. I cry just thinking about it.

Fringe is no longer running, but Nicole’s streak of playing beloved characters has continued, as she provides the voice for Dana in Welcome to Night Vale. It’s through that role that I was able to see Nicole in a live performance, which was SO AWESOME YOU GUYS. Honestly it was amazing to be there in the audience. I was absolutely floored when she stepped out on stage, because she hadn’t been announced or advertised. The moment she showed up was one of the best surprises of that evening.

So when I discovered that this actor of whom I had become so fond made comics, I was eager to read them. And when I discovered just how powerful, and delightful, and meaningful her comics were, I was absolutely amazed.

Nicole’s comics tend to focus on very personal topics… family, personal history and self-discovery, relationships, that kind of thing. These are subjects that turn up repeatedly in the world of comics, as it’s pretty easy for most people to find something about themselves that they can put on the page, if they look into their insecurities or probe family history for shocking or amusing stories.

The comics that Nicole creates about her life stick with me, though, in a way that these kind of personal accounts very rarely do. I often find myself thinking about the way she presents aspects of her life or her family, experiences that I’m sure are not unique to her. This is one of those cases where, despite focusing so clearly on the creator’s own individual experience, the comics hit upon something that feels universal, that I expect almost anybody could relate to.

Even though these comics are almost always focused like a laser on a specific experience had by a specific person in a specific time and place, I’m someone who’s constantly looking for the bigger picture… and often, as I read one of Nicole’s comics, I find it illuminates some aspect of the culture we live in just by clearly showing one particular event or moment in a person’s life. This one, discussing nude drawings of her mother made by a preschool-aged Nicole, makes me think so many things about the way our culture handles nudity, as well as childhood education, body shame, and how we develop our understanding of things that “must” remain hidden.

My parents were hippies, and I was raised in an environment that never taught me there was anything wrong with nudity. Thankfully I never drew a naked picture at school and got in trouble for it. That honestly seems like an awfully traumatic event that makes me resent the teachers who thought that was the best response to the situation… but Nicole doesn’t present a comic out of anger. There’s no indication that she harbors any resentment toward those authority figures. Instead, she focuses on the drawing itself, on what it meant to her, and on the reactions of her classmates. It’s an extraordinary comic; if you only read one comic by Jasika Nicole, I’d recommend that one. Bear in mind that it is mildly nsfw, if your workplace has a policy against childish, cartoony drawings of naked women.

Jasika Nicole is a woman of many talents. She doesn’t post new comics very frequently… after all, a comics artist is but one of several things that she is. If you’re a fan of something she’s been in as an actor, maybe you’d be interested in her comics as well. If you’ve never heard of her before today, well, there are some comics you can read that will tell you a little bit about her. I recommend them not just because I’m a fan of the creator for other reasons. I would never do that. They genuinely are great reading.

So head on over to her site, read some comics, and quickly devour all of them because it is impossible to slow down once you get started. Then you can join me in vaguely wishing that she could be a full-time webcartoonist, but understanding that we all have different paths to walk in life, and that Jasika Nicole is a woman who walks very many different paths indeed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Comparisons I Didn't Make

Okay, I need to give myself a little bit of a break so that I can catch up on my comics reading and also just on all that stuff in my life that keeps piling up and demanding my time and mental faculties. Instead of posting nothing at all this week, though, I’ve decided to post a look back at some previous Webcomics Worth Wreading entries and the things that I thought about saying at the time, but decided against for various reasons. So here you go: A list of comparisons I didn’t might have made, but didn’t.

1. I did not compare Michael DeForge to Franz Kafka

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

When people hear the name Franz Kafka, their first thought is of the tone that pervades all of Kafka’s work. If you call something Kafkaesque, people understand you to mean that it’s oppressive and arbitrary and absurd. A Kafka story will always feel like a Kafka story, regardless of what happens in it: There will be darkness and hopelessness, all couched in a bleak humor.

And that’s not at all what I wanted to say about Michael DeForge.

DeForge, though sometimes evoking darkness and hopelessness, and though often displaying bleak humor, does not maintain a consistent tone through all his work the way that Franz Kafka does. Different comics by Michael DeForge can feel very different from one another, with tones that range from bleak to profoundly optimistic. Neither creative style is necessarily superior to the other, but they are definitely different, with Kafka displaying consistency while DeForge displays variety.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Michael DeForge and Franz Kafka both create short works that are easy to read and, on the surface, easy to understand. They both construct self-contained, absurd universes in those brief works. The value in a DeForge comic or a Kafka story is usually in the re-reading, carefully examining all the little details, contemplating the way that they all fit together and searching for a comprehensive understanding of the work as a whole. If I were an English teacher, I’d have my students approach DeForge’s work in the same way I’d have them approach Kafka’s. They both invite the same type of analysis when I read them, in a way that few other creators do.

2. I did not compare Stand Still. Stay Silent to Shades of Grey

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

When I bring up the title Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde, people will immediately think of Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. Despite the fact that the author’s names are distinct, that Fforde’s title is shorter, and that his book came out first, the general public has been so subject to cultural osmosis about Fifty Shades of Grey that there is no means by which I could bring up Fforde’s book without people immediately thinking of that other one.

Fifty Shades of Grey probably has absolutely nothing in common with Stand Still. Stay Silent. I haven’t actually read Fifty Shades of Grey so I can’t say that with certainty. I didn’t want to make a comparison and then have to spend at least a paragraph explaining that I was talking about a different book than the one people were thinking of. At best I would be wasting space, and at worst I would actively confuse people.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Stand Still. Stay Silent and Shades of Grey have an awful lot in common, to the extent that I would enthusiastically recommend one to anyone who expressed enjoyment of the other. They’re both set in a post-apocalyptic world, focusing on characters who are utterly entrenched in whatever new societal structure has arisen in the remnants of humanity. They both handle grim and foreboding situations with aplomb and humor. Much of the humor itself comes from similar places, people in this future society misunderstanding aspects of the world that came before them or behaving in manners that make perfect sense to them but seem absurd to us.

Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey and Minna Sundberg’s Stand Still. Stay Silent appeal to similar sensibilities, and I love them both to bits. If there’s either of them that you haven’t read, I suggest you give it/them a try!

3. I did not compare Stand Still. Stay Silent to Scott Pilgrim

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

I realized that the only thing Scott Pilgrim has in common to Stand Still. Stay Silent is the fact that they both introduce characters with amusing captions.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Scott Pilgrim and Stand Still. Stay Silent both introduce characters with amusing captions.

4. I did not compare Sheldon to Calvin and Hobbes

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

Calvin and Hobbes is a legend among newspaper comics. No other comic is as universally beloved and respected as Calvin and Hobbes. To say that Sheldon is akin to Calvin and Hobbes would inevitably set the reader up for disappointment, as if proclaiming “This comic is the epitome, the apotheosis, of the comic strip form.” At a guess, I’d say even Calvin and Hobbes would fare poorly if compared to the general image in the public mind about what Calvin and Hobbes is. That comic’s reputation has surpassed it. No real comic can live up to the version of Calvin and Hobbes that lives in the hearts and minds of comics lovers.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Sheldon feels a lot like Calvin and Hobbes in a lot of ways. Like with Stand Still. Stay Silent and Shades of Grey, the sensibilities are similar. It’s clear in Dave Kellett’s work that he absorbed a lot from Bill Watterson, and the styles and humor of both comics inspire a similar type of enjoyment when I read them. Both juxtapose young children with serious philosophical discourse. Both get at some of the true absurdities of childhood. They are both great comics and I love them.

5. I did not compare Wilde Life to The Sculptor

Why I didn’t make this comparison:

Wilde Life, at least so far, has not addressed the same thematic elements that The Sculptor does. The similarities that strike me between them are fairly superstitial.

Why I wanted to make this comparison:

Wilde Life has the potential to address some of the same thematic elements as The Sculptor. The protagonist is an artist with the same name as a much more famous artist who worked in the same medium. (So far, Wilde Life hasn’t really dealt with Oscar’s opinion on or relationship to his better-known namesake.) The supernatural themes of Wilde Life could, potentially, lend themselves to discussions of mortality and the meaning that an individual’s life has, to them and to the world.

Maybe one day I’ll look back and say “Hey! The Sculptor and Wilde Life totally have a lot of thematic similarities!”

But maybe I won’t.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this chance I gave myself to write some stuff I wanted to write before but thought the better of. If you didn’t enjoy this break from form, then rest assured that in two weeks I’ll be back with more in-depth descriptions of new and exciting, or old and familiar, webcomics to delight the soul and engage the mind.