SPIDER-MANDATE: The Lowe-down on "Secret Wars," Tie-Ins and Stacey Lee
“Thank you all for coming this far with me!” the cartoonist wrote on her website. “It’s been amazing journey. You’ve all been truly spectacular. I couldn’t have asked for better readers.”
Long, long ago there was a little movie called Star Wars, and it and its two sequels became the highest-grossing movies of all time. Yet, there was a time the interstellar saga wasn’t quite as mighty a pop culture juggernaut as it is today. Some time between President Reagan’s “Star Wars” SDI initiative and Lucas’ CG retooling of his cinematic babies, Star Wars existed primarily in the books, comics and video games that made up the Expanded Universe. Star Wars was a nerdier pursuit, when the true fans followed the adventures of Mara Jade and Admiral Thrawn.
Since the prequel trilogy, Star Wars has barreled back into the mainstream like a hungry Rancor. Merchandise depicting Darth Vader, Yoda and newcomers named Asajj Ventress and Savage Oppress peek from the shelves of every Toys R Us, Walmart and FYE.
If there’s something Star Wars fans love to do, however, it’s laugh at themselves: For example, Jeffrey Brown has released three books that play around with the idea of Darth Vader as a doting father. Darths & Droids, meanwhile, has turned screenshots of the Star Wars saga into a long role-playing game.
It seems as if most webcomics are designed to run more or less forever. That’s par for the course with comics in general, really: It’s not like we really expect Action Comics or Garfield to reach a logical terminus any time soon. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any great completed narratives in webcomics, however.
Evan Dahm never left his world of Overside. He’s chronicled its history with Order of Tales, and he’s now continuing the story with Vattu. The latter was recently honored at Small Press Expo with the Ignatz Award for Best Online Comic. The first of the Overside stories may still be the best, though.
Rice Boy, like the follow-up stories, follows the outline of a hero’s journey, with the title characgter called away from his mundane life by a wise man (here named The One Electric) to follow a life of adventure. Rice Boy journeys through various strange lands and meets a colorful cast of characters on his way toward an epic battle.
After four years and an Eisner nomination, Ben Towles’ Oyster War is coming to an end. The webomic is based on an obscure chapter in American history, in which oyster pirates and legal fishermen fought over the rights to the harvest in Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. (Apparently, oysters used to be much larger and way cheaper before overfishing devastated the entire industry.) Don’t expect a straight history lesson, however: Towles’ version is visually more cartoon; he also embellishes his story with some fantastical elements, like a witch who turns into a seal, and a sea monster.
The old-school aesthetic of Oyster War recalls a style popular during the early 20th century, and the seaside town of Blood’s Haven, with its narrow corridors and piers that stretch past the shore, resembles Thimble Theatre‘s Sweethaven. While backgrounds are simple and minimalistic, close-ups are lovingly textured. The characters are simple cartoony designs: bulbous noses, brush-like mustaches, block-shaped heads and stocky bodies.
The influence behind Sean Lindsay’s Spinnerette should be pretty obvious — after all, the webcomic is about a young superhero with spider-based superpowers. Another dead giveaway is her original costume, which looks like something nicked from Julia Carpenter’s wardrobe. (In story, it’s because she bought some Venom costumes.) Lindsay has a bit of a laugh about that, as he includes a sequence in which Spinnerette receives a cease-and-desist letter from Marvel.
An accident with an experimental laser gives Heather Brown incredible muscle tone, two extra sets of arms and web-shooting abilities. Inconveniently, the latter is anatomically correct and webbing comes right out of her butt. The extra arms are a bit of a problem, too, as they certainly prove problematic to her secret identity. To hide her arms, she must wear a fat suit.
Superhero webcomics have generally been tongue-in-cheek, following less in the footsteps of Jack Kirby and more in the superhero-parody vein of Ben Edlund. Spinnerette is no exception; it’s unapologetically up to its ears in cheesecake. If male gaze is a sticking point for you, then you’ll probably find a lot to complain about. However, it almost becomes a joke in itself. There is, for example, one supervillain whose main characteristic is being ridiculously stacked (and given that this is Spinnerette we’re talking about, that’s saying something).
Once upon a time, during the imaginatively fertile period known as the Monday Night Wars, my sister described pro wrestling to me as superheroes … except in real life! Truly, she knew where my passions lay.
Yet, I was skeptical. What was the appeal of a sport that everyone already knew was (SPOILER ALERT!) totally fake. I decided to take her up on her ostentatious claim and caught an episode of WCW Thunder. While I can’t say she was 100 percent correct, she got me hooked on wrestling for life. There was a lot of elements that did cross over: the colorful costumes, the larger-than-life gimmicks, and the bombastic hero and villain speeches. Comics may have gravitated away from the era in which every speech bubble ended in an exclamation point, but wrestling never grew up.
Historically, the backstage realities (called “shoots”) and the scripted stories (called “kayfabe”) have been kept separate, with the former only made known through sketchy publications nicknamed “dirtsheets.” You’d think that, with the rise of the Internet and the availability of information, wrestling would become a relic of the past. Instead, it remains popular. It may actually be a better fit in this decade, as almost all of reality television now treads the same blurry line between “fact” and fiction. When Lina approaches the Rana King on NBC’s The Quest, for example, is it a shoot or a kayfabe? Even more insidiously, wrestling has found a way to fake viewer participation, aka the kayfabe of the digital age.
Not too long ago, I became aware of something called “seapunk.” After steampunk and deiselpunk, I had initially thought this was another strange technology-based trend based on the legitimate “cyberpunk” where geeks were far more interested in the aesthetic qualities rather than anything making sense. As it turns out, “seapunk” is far less serious.
Unlike the other variations, seapunk leans far more heavily on the “punk” part. There’s a ton of bright colors — teals, purples and greens — plus mermaids, dolphins and other aquatic life.
There’s also the inherent silliness, which includes ’90s nostalgia. Search “seapunk” on Tumblr (the alleged breeding ground for this microculture) and you run into the sorts of jerky animated GIFs and visual callbacks to Windows 95. While it may not necessarily be aesthetically pleasing, its off-putting, incongruous visuals are part of the charm.
There’s a theory that the American obsession with the apocalypse stems from Manifest Destiny: As settlers pushed west, they encountered things that would strain the threads tying them to civilization. Storms rolling across the flat plains could be seen from man miles away, and they posed a considerable threat to the livelihoods of entire communities. During the pitch-black night, there would be ominous noises — frightening howls, thunderclaps, maybe even the unexpected sound of a human voice.
There would be precious few things you can do in a world where law is stretched thin, except keep a well-stocked cellar and a loaded shotgun.
That may explain why a lot of North American post-apocalyptic fiction tends to look like the Wild West. While we may think we’re too cool for cowboys and Indians, it may have just morphed to satisfy the primal survival instincts of modern thrill-seekers. After all, aren’t armored, nomadic warlords just bandits and desperadoes with a shiny new coat of paint? It’s probably no accident that The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes dressed a lot like a frontier sheriff, or why the women in Katniss Everdeen’s district look as if they stepped out of a little house on the prairie.
After years of working on anthologies and as a concept artist, Nicholas Kole is looking to make a name for himself … with jelly.
The Rhode Island artist recently launched Jellybots, a webcomic about a boy named Sam who’s enrolled by his family in a prestigious school called the Frontier Academy. Not much else is known about the series, given that it’s just six pages into its run, but the concept material and pin-up art show Sam interacting with supernatural, whimsical and fluid jellyfish.
(This post contains spoilers for Opplopolis Proceed at your own caution.)
This week, Kit Roebuck’s Opplopolis starts Issue 14 as the entire saga slowly but surely approaching its planned conclusion with Issue 20. It’s been a strange journey thus far, full of odd little left turns. There’s a moment, for example, that seems to be a visual homage to The Shining. Agnes, an artist, is invited to a high-class celebrity party where she’s already a bit out of place; she even needs her clothes ripped to shreds just so she can fit in. Thinking it a public service to the fashion-impaired, manufactured pop celebrity Vesper takes a pair of scissors to the artist’s dowdy outfit to create a new dress that shows a bit more skin.
Agnes decides to cut loose a little on the dance floor, but her way to the bathroom she encounters a slightly disturbing sight: When she peeks in an open door, she sees two men wearing animal masks while playing a card game. Eventually, a third person wearing an upside-down cat mask shuts the door in Agnes’ face (revealing a word that forms the comic’s central mystery).
The female heroes of Kate Ashwin’s Widdershins share a lot of personality traits. Harriet “Harry” Barber, for example, is a cool, collected bounty hunter of the pre-Victorian era who’s often shown pondering a mystery while puffing smoke from her pipe. She’s also a bit of a loner; her face is frequently twisted in a tired scowl, and there’s a slight bags under her eyes. There’s a little bit of Rorschach in her, too, as interesting clues are greeted with a “hrm.” She’s definitely the smartest person in the room, but she’s also proud. Her reluctance to accept any help is driven, partially, by her need to prove that she and she alone solved the case.
I didn’t know who Boulet was until this week. I imagine this statement is going to hang over my head, more damning with the passing of each year, like being a big fan of comics, yet having no idea who Hergé is. You’d be all, “Get out of here, you uncultured swine.” Fortunately, we live in an age in which Wikipedia exists. After a few searches it’s easy to catch up and go, “Yeah … I’m totally into Boulet.” A nervous giggle may or may not follow.
Who is Boulet? It turns out it’s the pen name of Gilles Roussel, one of France’s earliest and most famous webcomic creators. Bouletcorp has been running since 2004, and its strips have been collected in seven printed volumes.
His talents are also on display in other French print works, such as the sword-and-sorcery parody comic Donjon Zénith. Stateside, Boulet has illustrated Augie & The Green Knight, a children’s book written by fellow webcomic creator Zachary Wiener that managed to raise an amazing $384,000 through Kickstarter, totally smashing its humble $30,000 goal. (What’s being done with all that extra cash? It’s going to fund the printing of 800 copies of the book, which will be donated to libraries.)
Kit Roebuck’s work first came to my attention with Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life, a webcomic that took advantage of the online format and used creative layouts to heighten the sense of loneliness and isolation.
The saga followed two robots traveling around the solar system, having existential crises and zen-like moments as they savored the different cultures of each planet. The ending, however, provided little in the way of resolution beyond the quest for answers. That isn’t criticism: By the time the two robots end up on Pluto, you start to feel as if it couldn’t have ended any other way. Much like life, it’s the journey that matters.
I get a similar feeling when reading Roebuck’s latest work, Opplopolis. While the comic has been available online, with an option to download a copy onto Kindle, Roebuck has recently collected the first 10 issues of his webcomic in a print edition that can be purchased on Amazon. From Roebuck’s press release: “Released online in two-page installments since late 2012, Opplopolis has grown to thirteen chapters of a planned twenty, the first ten of which have now been collected into a single, 278-page printed volume.”
One of the oldest and most highly acclaimed funny animal webcomics is Tracy J. Butler’s Lackadaisy. With origins dating as far back as 1994, when Butler created characters Rocky and Mitzi while still in high school, Lackadaisy took to the Internet in 2006, and has gone on to win several awards, including the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards and the Ursa Major awards. It was also nominated in 2011 for an Eisner for Best Digital Comic.
Lackadaisy also has one of the slowest update schedules. As with many creators, the webcomic is not the artist’s primary occupation. She’s a digital artist who works on video games, and she updates as often as she can. How often? Well, the last page was updated in April, and the current rate seems to be three to four pages a year.
I admit, I’m something of a lapsed reader when it comes to John Allison’s Scary Go Round, which was one of my favorite webcomics for the longest time. There was Allison’s cheeky and very British humor that treated mystical horrors with a heaping dollop of cartoonishness, and the thrill of following his evolving art style.
Scary Go Round started at Joey Manley’s Modern Tales site, when it featured a simpler and gentler computer-generated style created with Adobe Illustrator. In 2005, Allison switched to hand-drawn art that was more angular, boldly whimsical and thickly inked.
Both styles were very appealing, although they affected the humor in different ways. The earlier art was more low key: when eventual main character Shelley Winters becomes a zombie, part of the humor stems from how it’s brushed off as a minor nuisance. Later, Allison is more willing to embrace the maniacal ridiculousness. Basically, it went from being Friends to something out of Edgar Wright’s Three Flavour Cornetto Trilogy.