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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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‘Charles Christopher’ is anything but ‘Abominable’

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There’s been some criticism that the Eisner Award for Digital Comics tends to favor established creators from the print industry over those who made their names online. Or, in the case of Sugarshock … c’mon. Did you really think Joss Whedon wasn’t winning an award? You’d probably be struck down by lightning or something. (Incidentally, I tried to see whehter that comic was still online. I’d forgotten that it was on MySpace. Oh, man … the nostalgia.)

However, I think that, by and large, the winners have all been very good.

Karl Kerschl’s The Abominable Charles Christopher was one of the webcomics that made a splash among readers before it attracted award attention (a Joe Shuster Award in 2010, an Eisner Award nomination in 2010, and a very deserved Eisner win in 2011). What made The Abominable Charles Christopher stand out from the pack?

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‘The Last Mechanical Monster’: No country for old villains

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 12.59.20 AMVirtually every year, there’s a high-concept Eisner nominee that utterly baffles me. In 2009, it was Speak No Evil, the undocumented-immigrant parable where a guy has a hole for a mouth, and last year, it was the weird Ant Comic. This year, it’s probably going to be Brian Fies’ The Last Mechanical Monster.

It’s based on Fleischer Studios’ 1941 animated Superman short “The Mechanical Monsters,” probably best known as the first time, in any medium, Clark Kent stepped into a phone booth to change clothes. The first few pages of Fies’ comic look like screen shots of the original cartoon. After that intro, the the story picks up 60-plus years later. We’re already in some strange territory: a fan fiction is now in Eisner Award consideration. Only … this isn’t fan fiction about Superman or Lois Lane; it’s about the villain.

We’re also informed that “The Mechanical Monsters” is in the public domain (a factoid that took me back to when I first watched the cartoon, on a VHS purchased for cheap at Woolworths that stopped functioning after two viewings). That gives the comic an added layer of trickiness, but maybe this is as legit an adaptation as, say, CBS’s Elementary.

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‘Creep’: I don’t belong here

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Before you ask: Yes, Kayla Miller’s Creep does throw in a Radiohead reference. Our superhero, named Creep, gives his own version of the song when he’s confronted by reporters. In a way, Creep is a pretty good song for a superhero. There are lyrics about wanting a perfect body, having control and pining for someone who doesn’t notice you. Shoot, that’s, like, Marvel in the 1960s. Put that jam in the Spider-Man movies, Mark Webb!

Creep, though is less of a Spider-Man and more of a Hulk. Or a Stephan Urquel, or The Mask. His origins mix a dash of Silver Age craziness with modern indie-comic cartooniness. Riley Russell is a mild-mannered modern teen who’s a bit of shrinking violet. He prefers to never come into contact with his parents, and he’s too chicken to even approach Holly, the girl of his dreams. He is the keyboardist in a band that no one goes to see, however, so there’s probably some opportunity for him to venture out of his shell.

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‘The Intrepid Girlbot’: raccoon hoarding of the future

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Diana Nock’s The Intrepid Girlbot is set in a world without dialogue. There are no word balloons, and thus no interaction with other characters in a traditional sense. There are some sound effects: Robots ping and clang, animals snarl and growl. But there is no talking. It’s the webcomic version of a silent movie, with a vaguely sepia-toned color palette to match.

There’s hardly any emotional cues as well. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin could, at least, convey the enormity of their shenanigans through a double take or a shocked expression, completed with bugged eyes. The Girlbot, on the other hand, has a permanent look affixed on her face: the blank “o_o” emoticon. She is, after all, a mechanical person. She’s not the only one either. Other robots have faces that smile and are more pleasant. And yet, these robots are creepier than the Girlbot, mainly because their expressions refuse to change as well. They go about their daze with a smile on their face, even when there’s danger. Deep down, their emotions are a mystery behind a painted facade, like the creepy, unblinking doll head that we glimpse from time to time.

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Two guys hang out with Guy (and tinker with tropes)

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Stop me if you’ve heard of this webcomic about a slacker dude with rage issues. He hangs out with another guy, who’s more heavyset, reasonable and soft-spoken, and a tomboy, who’s a little aggressive and teases the heck out of the slacker dude. They hang around their apartment, a lot.

“Hey,” you say, “that sounds like all the webcomics ever created. Ever.” A legitimate observation, my friends! The setup for Rickard Jonasson’s Two Guys and Guy is reminiscent of a lot of webcomics where guys just lounge around on the couch, or roommate dramas that take their cues from Friends. If you have them playing video games and talking about them constantly, you’re on even surer footing.

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‘Vibe’: That voodoo that you do

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Pop culture typically depicts voodoo as a dark-and-dingy practice in which bones are scattered and animals are sacrificed. Its most popular figures are a man in a top hat with a skull painted on his face and the dreadlocked lady from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie who lived like a hermit in a cabin deep within the swamps. (Interestingly, both tangled with James Bond.  Weird.)

It’s a bit of a shocker, then, when the voodoo practitioners of Dan Ciurczak’s Vibe look like rad dudes straight out of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s so … in-your-face and hella rad. Full disclosure: I have no idea whether the aggressively neon look of Vibe is closer to the faith. Heck, I have no idea whether it’s blasphemous. It’s certainly a different, take though; a direct contrast to the dour, gloomy reputation of voodoo. The colors are garish and bold — neon and pastel colors clashing together in a forbidden sherbet spectrum. It’s bright, jazzy and wild.

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Steve Rolston plots noir-ish webcomic, with the aid of Patreon

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Steve Rolston, known for his work on such titles as Queen & Country, The Escapists and Ghost Projekt, is looking to return to telling his own stories — well, one story in particular, involving a bear, a raccoon and a writer.

They star in a new webcomic Rolston is developing called Trapezius Pepper, which he describes as “noir-ish tale of a washed-up writer pushing his luck in a city of crime.” Its’ the product of years of Rolston’s doodling and thinking while working on other projects. He’s beginning Trapezius Pepper with a series of one-page comics to develop the story and his approach, before jumping into long-form storytelling.

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‘Skadi’: barbarians at the table

2014-01-23-ChimeraLast year pretty good year for Katie Rice, who won Penny Arcade’s Strip Search reality show competition. Her all-ages webcomic Camp Weedonwantcha, which follows a bunch of big-headed scamps as they try to survive the perils of camp living, appears in a prominent location on the Penny Arcade website, next to the highly trafficked main comics. Rice was one of the most experienced members in the contestant pool, having worked in animation doing design and storyboards, and her well-honed artistic skills definitely show.

In addition, she already had some experience in creating a webcomic. I first came across Skadi many years back. Developed with the aid of fellow artist Luke Cormican, it was (and still is) hosted at webcomic collective site Dumm Comics. Along with 1930 Nightmare Theatre and Big Pants Mouse, Skadi had given the site a strong old-school stylistic presence … namely through John Kricfalusi-style visual cues.

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Music, sound and comics

a4171370003_2Soundtracks have become an integral component of movies, television shows and video games. How important is a great soundtrack? There’s a video online that removes John Williams’ from E.T., leaving the triumphant moment at the end feeling lonely and empty. Swells and the rhythm of the full orchestra pull you in emotionally.

Can music be added to a comic? Years ago, that would have been a silly question, conjuring images of opening the book and hearing a tinny tune playing like something out of a greeting card. But now that comics are online, in a digital realm where greater integration between different kinds of media? It not as ridiculous a prospect as it sounds. Besides, it’s already being done.

Music and sounds are more prevalent in Flash-style webomics. Stuart Campbell’s Nawlz uses a futuristic electronic soundtrack to create a palpable sense of unease. It’s almost as if there’s something buzzing at all times to subconsciously frazzle your nerves. As you search the page to figure out what to click on next, you feel on guard. Will this next click bring the music to a halt? Is this comic setting me up to be frightened by a loud noise? It’s weird how much a soundtrack can ratchet up the anxiety. The effect is not unlike watching a horror movie, where more than half of the frights are due to sounds and music.

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‘Cucumber Quest’: Destiny is fickle

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Gigi D.G.’s Cucumber Quest is one phenomenally goofy webcomic. All the characters are bunny people adorably rendered like plushies. Seriously, their heads are so round and fuzzy I wannna squeeze them until they pop. As if they weren’t cute enough, a lot of the characters are also dressed up like foods. Princess Parfait is covered in strawberries, Sir Carrot sprouts orange roots and Sir Bacon has wavy brown hair that looks like savory foodstuffs. Later, they encounter characters who are festooned with seashells or have mouths as wide as cymbals.

The bright, candy-colored look makes it easy to dismiss Cucumber Quest as baby stuff. The comic is all-ages, true, but it’s also brimming with the sort appeal that made Adventure Time and The Powerpuff Girls such a hit with adults. The comedy tickles in its cheerfulness and its lack of cynicism.

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