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‘Thunderpaw’: Always keep moving

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Thunderpaw: In the Ashes of Fire Mountain is a comic that literally cannot stop moving. Jen, the comic’s creator, has constructed a series of panels made out of looping animated images. The entire comic, in fact, is a study on the various creative ways the often-dismissed animation technique can be used to enhance traditional sequential art.

I mean, just look at all the stuff that Jen throws us in the second page. We begin with the unsettling image of twitchy eyes, with pupils rolling and getting bigger and smaller. Then we have an image of a lightning storm. The sky lights up, and the mountain itself glows then the lightning strikes. Then we get a scene where a flock of birds dive across the sky. Although each image is replayed in a short loop, each panel elicits slightly different reactions: unease, awe, dread.

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‘Agents of the Realm’: She is the one named Sailor Norah

Screenshot 2014-08-17 19.23.26The Americanization of Japanese properties isn’t a new thing — in fact, it’s a time-honored tradition. Ever since Raymond Burr was inserted into the original Godzilla, there’s a history of cultural sharing on both sides of the Pacific.

Perhaps someone’s mixing the Japanese series Super Sentai to form a popular new show about teenagers with attitude on American shores. Or maybe there’s a North American company somewhere that used the familiar visuals of cyberpunk anime like Ghost in the Shell for its third-person action game. The style and high-octane action of anime and manga are alluring. However, few created in the Western world manage to gain any traction … although that never stops the passionate fans from trying to recapture the magic with their own works.

Mildred Louis’ Agents of the Realm doesn’t, at a glance, look like it was inspired by manga. Her style bears more similarity to the Hernandez brothers than to the dewy-eyed teens who populate most shoujo titles. The characters don’t look like elegant models, but rather like harried, exhausted college students. Also, none seems Caucasian. Our main character, Norah Tanner, is of African heritage, and a role call of the class reveals that most everyone, aside from some vaguely drawn background characters, is non-white. That’s not only a departure for the magical girl subgenre, but for comics in general.

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‘Alice and the Nightmare’: Follow the brown rabbit

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It seems like alternate versions of Alice in Wonderland will be created until the heat death of the universe. Ever since Lewis Carroll wrote the story of a little girl who follows a jittery white rabbit down a hole, it seems as if everybody wants to put their unique stamp on her sometimes-haunting adventures.

Director Tim Burton, for example, turned Wonderland — sorry, Underland — into an epic battlefield where rival queens commanded armies as vast as the ones found in The Lord of the Rings. The Jabberwocky, originally just a character in a nonsense poem (and imaginatively illustrated by John Tenniel), is upgraded to boss battle status that must be defeated with the legendary vorpal blade. Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars novels (which had spun off a comic called Hatter M) sees Alice — I’m sorry, Alyss — as a princess of Wonderland who’s a fierce warrior in combat. Alice has been upgraded from wide-eyed little girl to a vengeful Valkyrie.

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‘Tove’: Get ready for adventure

1401522593-tove_cp001_pg001This webcomic probably sold me on the giant dog. Severin Piehl’s Tove is a kid-friendly adventure story that looks like it should be airing on Nickelodeon. There are two bratty kids, an explorer father and, of course, a giant fluffy dog. The cover of Tove is already tantalizing enough, with the dog, named Cranberry, carrying a heavy load like a pack mule while the two kids, Tove and Dag, dance on his back. It’s super-charming.

This is shaping up to be Tove’s story (she’s the title character, after all), Both kids are active and ready for adventure, but Tove is the one with the super-strength, as she’s been carrying Cranberry since he was a pup. She’s also the more mature one. Her brother Dag isn’t quite as blessed when it comes to abilities. He is, however, highly competitive, and not at all happy when he has to play second fiddle to his more capable sister.

Their dad is sort of a Dr. Benton Quest type, a hands-on scientist who’s sometimes too wrapped up in his work to see what shenanigans his kids are engaged in. He brings them with him to a remote jungle to do some research on an exotic flower. The kids, however, discover something even cooler: After horsing around, Tove and Dag stumble across an alien spaceship. Among her other abilities, Tove is also something of a gearhead, so the discovery of a potentially working engine makes her excited. Dag, on the other hand, is immediately bored. He wants to see guns and gadgets, so he finds it all very thrilling when they come across the corpse of a saurian alien skeleton.

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In ‘VHS: London,’ terrible movies are against the law

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The entire raison d’etre of Joseph Cappellazzi’s VHS: London seems based on a pun. A fellow with long hair is walking through a dark alley and meeting a guy in a ball cap. “Candy,” says the sketchy character after accepting money for something called Spaceballs. The long-haired guy is after something a little more high grade, though. “Speed,” he says. The guy in the ball cap retrieves a wrapped package. The long-haired guy unwraps … and it’s a VHS tape of the movie Speed 2: Cruise Control! Oh, man, that’s some cutting-edge humor I haven’t seen since Weird Al Yankovic’s “White and Nerdy” video!

To be fair to Cappellazzi, this isn’t the first time a sci-fi story has stretched out a single pun longer than you’d expect. Think back to your high school days: Chances are you read Fahrenheit 451, which asked the reader to consider a world where, instead of putting out fires, firemen were actually setting things alight. Did Ray Bradbury just blow your mind? Unsurprisingly, VHS: London also contains shades of that sci-fi classic.

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Costa’s new direction for ‘Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo’

RS1_0181Ben Costa’s work first caught my attention with the Xeric Award-winning webcomic Shi Long Pang, about a heavy-set, wandering Shaolin monk named Pang. The artwork had a simple elegance, with Pang’s face drawn as a round dumpling-like thing with beady eyes and a mouth. The linework imitates the wispy brushstrokes you’d find in old Chinese prints. At times, the world looks serene and dreamy; other times, it’s engulfed in unbridled chaos.

My favorite moment in Shi Long Pang — perhaps one of my favorite moments in all of webcomics — is when Pang’s ladyfriend Yang Yang is struck by a rock. Up until that moment, Pang has been nice and meek, preferring to avoid trouble when he can. This one action, however, unleashes the fury within. Pang’s muscles tighten as he becomes a flurry of fists. Costa’s art depicts the action clearly; you can follow the motions of every movement, which gives you a better sense of Pang’s speed and skill as well as the shock and unpreparedness of his assailants. To me, this is action done right. Too often, comic action comes down to characters striking a pose. In comparison, Shi Long Pang feels alive.

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In honor of International Clown Week, a look at clown comics

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Did you know that Aug. 1-7 was International Clown Week? On Aug. 2, 1971, President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation to honor those who “go into orphanages and children’s hospitals, homes for the elderly and for the retarded, and give a part of themselves.” It also states that clowns are “as vital to the maintenance of our humanity as the builders and the growers and the governors.” And thus International Clown Week was established.

Perhaps you knew nothing of this strange little proclamation, nor of this week’s significance. Or perhaps you did know, and you’ve been hiding under your sheets all week to stave off imaginary Pennywises and Captain Spauldings.

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In ‘Blindsprings,’ a princess has become unstuck in time

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I wonder whether the Harry Potter formula has supplanted the Tolkien formula as the most relatable template for Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.”

Consider this: At the time of The Lord of the Rings, most of the world’s population lived in rural areas. That’s not the case today. Who’s going to be a more relatable character for young readers? The hayseed pig farmer, or the school kid trying to find his place in the world? Tolkien’s stories are defined, in part, by long-distance journeys over remote landscapes. While still thrilling, perhaps much of its mystery has been stripped when the same countrysides in real life can be crossed easily by highway. The real thrills are poking at the small spaces in the world you know. Perhaps there are centaurs in the nearby woods or a three-headed dog living in the basement.

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Anthony Clark and KC Green got ‘Back’

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 9.28.36 PMI have a long list of webcomic creators that I wish were household names, and Anthony Clark and KC Green are right at the top. Their comics never fail to make me laugh through their general air of affable goofiness.

Clark first won me over with his 200 bad comics, a challenge to create a series of hastily drawn strips. The liberating freedom from making anything “good” turned out to be a successful improv exercise. Clark generated a series of hilarious non sequiturs through uncomplicated gags and simple, cheery drawings. His regularly updating webcomic Nedroid is also filled with cute characters; there’s a bear that’s an oval with stick arms and legs, and a similarly crudely drawn bird. The designs look like they were mocked up by a child, but the layouts have the surefooted mark of an experienced artist.

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‘Brawl in the Family’ to brawl no more

imageVideo-game webcomics tend to gravitate toward the same crew of characters in general. Most everyone is going to do a comic about Mario, which also means that most everyone will eventually do that comic where Mario is a delusional plumber on mushrooms who gets stuck in a pipe.

Beyond that, however, it’s usually a roster of other visually recognizable characters: Pokemon, Kratos from God of War, Master Chief from Halo, Big Daddy from Bioshock, whoever is in Assassin’s Creed this year. These are the characters that populate the tribal knowledge of gamer culture. In a way, it’s not unlike superheroes. There are hundreds of pieces of fan art, video tributes and articles focusing on Batman, but who;s going to devote much time to, say, Silver Sable?

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Revisiting ‘Sin Titulo,’ the ‘Lost’ of webcomics

2007-06-17(SPOILER ALERT for Sin Titulo, Lost, The X-Files and probably iCarly.)

Cameron Stewart has a clean, distinguishable artistic style, with a hint of a manga influence, but with panel-to-panel transitions that are more delicate and subdued. His art has become quite popular, with his redesign of Batgirls costume creating something of an Internet sensation. While his artwork lends itself easily to all-ages comics, he’s frequently collaborated with Grant Morrison on such titles as Seaguy, Seven Soldiers and Batman & Robin.

However, his art has also appeared in strange psychological thrillers. In 2010, his webcomic Sin Titulo won the Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic, after it had already won the 2009 Shuster Award in the same category.

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‘As the Crow Flies’: loneliness in the great outdoors

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 7.00.57 AMMountains seem to have been big theme among Eisner nominees this year. In High Crimes, the ever-looming presence of Mount Everest reminds the readers of the upcoming dangers posed by nature.

A similar thing happens in Melanie Gillman’s Eisner-nominated webcomic As the Crow Flies, although not to quite as perilous an extent. There’s no immediate danger here; the mountain is an expanse of wilderness that stretches as far as the eye can see. Long, wordless passages pause to explore the borders, which seem to stretch beyond the page to show that there is no visible end. No tiny towns dotting the landscape, no tiny outposts of civilization beyond a small camp. Just rocks and trees. While there might be a wild animal in that tangle of leaves and branches, that never poses an immediate threat.

No, the biggest danger in these woods is loneliness.

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‘Failing Sky’: the infinite canvas, the maze in your mind

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I’ve a confession to make: I have no idea what’s going on in Dax Tran-Caffee’s Eisner-nominated webcomic, Failing Sky. Now, I admit =this could all be my problem; the webcomic, after all, has its fans. The “About” page, for example, has positive notices from two comic legends, Scott McCloud and Neil Gaiman. Maybe this is a Ulysses situation — you know, in the sense that literary critics find it to be the greatest book in the world, but I can’t force myself through the first 50 pages. The mysterious wandering Jackie character just may be the webcomics version of Leopold Bloom.

But then again, maybe my brain just can’t wrap around the avant garde techniques used in the comic. For example, take a look at the “Chapters” page. Failing Sky is intentionally created out of chronological order. While most of Vol. 1 (out of four) has been published, the rest of the volumes only contain two chapters at most out of several. Most are marked “(not yet funded — ETA unknown),” which I assume means the chapters won’t be written until enough money comes through Patreon.

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‘The Oatmeal’: an Eisner surprise

imageI’m not sure why I was so surprised that Matt Inman’s The Oatmeal received an Eisner Award nomination this year, but judging from some other online reactions, I wasn’t the only one.

It’s not like it doesn’t deserve it. The Oatmeal easily has a larger following than the other nominees. How many copies does a print copy have to move these days before it’s considered a success, 100,000?

The Oatmeal has hundreds of times more than that — 5 million unique readers according to a 2010 Seattle Weekly article. It’s even hugely profitable. That same article mentions Inman’s take-home pay in 2010 was a half-million dollars. A huge part of it is Inman’s expertise at SEO, which just means he played the same game that made BuzzFeed the household name it is today.

The Oatmeal covers a variety of subjects. Some of the entries have intentionally inflammatory subjects, such as ‘“How to suck at your religion” and “What it means when you say ‘literally.’” Inman tackles these subjects with the burning righteousness of an angry political pundit, depicting the wrong as googly-eyed fools and leaning heavily on the bold and italicized font settings. I thought for sure those would be the most popular strips on his site.

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Webcomics, the awards and you

eisner sealsThe Eisner Awards, arguably the most prestigious in the comics industry, will be presented July 25 during Comic-Con International. Among the assortment of awards given to artists, writers and colorists, there’s an odd little thing that’s a relative newcomer: the Best Digital Comic Award. Here’s the criteria: “The best digital comic category is open to any new, professionally produced long-form original comics work posted online in 2012.” They have to have a unique domain name, and they have to be “online-exclusive for a significant period” before being available in print.

Rather odd, considering that many of this year’s nominees barely qualify under those parameters. A “long-form comic” suggests an extended, dramatic story. The Oatmeal doesn’t really qualify (unless you consider the bid for a Tesla museum to be a real-life epic). High Crimes technically has a domain name, but it directs you to comiXology for digital download. It’s all part of the challenge in determining what, exactly, a “digital comic” is.  Looking at previous nominees, there are several that don’t fit neatly within the rules.

Comic book awards. You can’t live with them, you can’t live without them. On the one hand, there are several challenges to clear. Who’s worthy of nomination? If it’s “Best Digital Comic,” what are you awarding it for — the way it takes advantage of its online environment, or the content? Generally, it’s the content, but if that’s the case, shouldn’t it be competing in the existing comic categories rather than be banished to the sidelines? (Several webcomics, including The Adventures of Superhero Girl, have been in contention in other categories … but only after their digital content has been converted in the traditional currency of ink and pressed wood pulp, as God intended.)

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