Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
I’m not going to mince words, the comedy that fuels Cyanide & Happiness is not for everyone. The webcomic which launched in 2004, is effectively characterized in the opening paragraph of Brigid Alverson’s recent Unbound review: “The Cyanide & Happiness formula is pretty simple: Stick men (and women) do shocking things to one another. There are four different artists, but the style and humor are fairly uniform; a situation is set up in the first panel and resolved, by stabbing, boob-grabbing, or shouting ‘You have cancer! LOL!’ in the last. My kids love this comic, because it’s what teenagers are all about: Working your way through every possible taboo, in public. So in C&H we have Seizure-Man falling down and frothing at the mouth, bungee-jumping childbirth, and lots and lots of stabbing.”
If that description gives you pause, I would advise you skip this interview. But if it doesn’t give you pause, jump on ahead. Last month, It Books released a collection that “highlights 150 of the best comics, including 30 brand-new strips, each packed with inappropriate jokes, irreverent characters, and deviant behavior, guaranteed to leave you laughing despite the gnawing guilt.” The strips are created by four different writers/illustrators who “live all over the world — Kris Wilson in Fort Bridger, Wyoming; Matt Melvin in San Diego, California; Rob DenBleyker in Dallas, Texas; and Dave McElfatrick in Belfast, Northern Ireland”. I was able to interview Dave, Kris and Matt via email. Before jumping in, though, I have to apologize to our female readership and the creators for my ignorant assumption (in one question) that the audience for this work was predominantly male.
Tim O’Shea: How do you develop a sense for when the shock value of the joke outweighs or obscures the comedy of the strip?
Dave: You don’t, really. You just kinda go with what you think is funny, and if that involves either something shocking or something incredibly tame, you go for it. We don’t focus on shock value, we just go with what makes us laugh.
Kris: The humor has to come first. It’s not as if we’re trying to offend people. More often than not, people just get offended at what’s funny.
Dirk Tiede’s Paradigm Shift lives up to its name: What starts as a buddy-cop story evolves, in the course of the first act, into a dark tale of werewolves and angst. What remains constant is the relationship between the main characters, Kate and Mike, who stay loyal to one another despite the many twists Tiede puts them through.
Tiede recently wrapped up the first act with volume 3 of the print edition, so it seemed like a good time to check in and ask some questions.
Brigid: What was your initial inspiration for Paradigm Shift?
Dirk: It wasn’t so much a single point of inspiration, but a rolling series of them ranging from superheroes, role-playing games, cop shows, ’80s action movies, horror novels, and eventually, anime and manga, too. The characters originally came from a tabletop superhero role-playing game I played at a time when I was reading X-Men and The New Mutants and watched way too much Law & Order. And while I was also a big fan of Stephen King’s earlier works like Carrie and Firestarter, I also ate up films like Robocop and Lethal Weapon. Later on I discovered works like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed, which played a big role in rekindling my interest in drawing comics. I was really into The X-Files when I finally started writing Paradigm Shift, but I also took more than a few cues from movies like Running Scared (the one from the ’80’s with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines) for the action/comedy elements.
Zahra’s Paradise, which debuted on the First Second website last month, tells a story that is at once universal and very particular: A mother searches for her missing son in the aftermath of the protests following the Iranian presidential election of 2009. The creators have chosen to remain anonymous for their own safety, and the comic pulls no punches in its depiction of the brutal treatment of protestors by the Iranian militia.
First Second Books is publishing the story as a webcomic in seven languages, including English, Persian, and Arabic, and will publish it as a print comic next year. With the help of First Second’s Gina Gagliano, I interviewed Amir, the writer, and Mark Siegel, First Second’s editorial director, via e-mail to find out a bit more about the background and the future of this remarkable graphic narrative.
Brigid: What were your inspirations for this story? Were there particular people or incidents that sparked it?
Amir: The inspirations for the story are many. There’s context and culture. I’m deeply touched by the dreams of Iranian youth, by the nobility of Iranian women, the courage of the Iranian people. In one way or another, their stories of trauma and triumph, joy and genius, are woven into the fabric of my being.
While webcomics have certainly come into their own as a medium unto themselves, most creators eventually produce a print volume, either on their own or through a major publisher. Print publishers may put up part of a volume as a preview, or they may post an entire volume (as Viz does on its SigIKKI website) and then pull it down when the print edition arrives. Webcomics creators, on the other hand, generally leave the entire comic up on the web, which begs the question: Why pay for the book when the comic is free?
I recently received review copies of print editions of two well known webcomics, Cyanide & Happiness and Copper (links are to the web versions). In both cases, I had read the comic from time to time but didn’t follow it regularly. And in both cases, I felt that the print edition did indeed present extra value over the webcomic. Read on to see why.
The internet abounds in gag comics. The three- or four-panel gag strip is by far the dominant form, and you find it all over the web, both generic comics and those catering to various niches. Of course, as with all things webcomic, finding the comcs is easy but finding the good comics is more of a challenge.
So here is a sampling of gag comics that I have been reading lately. Some are thigh-slappers, while others are more likely to elicit a smile, but there’s a good deal of variation in style and topic, which hopefully means there’s a comic in here for every funnybone. And if you were to subscribe to the RSS feed of each of these, your news reader would have its own funny page every morning. Sort of like your local newspaper—only funnier.
Bug is a minimalist comic that is all about the joke. The characters are one step up from stick-men, and they are completely anonymous—there is no consistent character from one strip to another. The art is simple, but it does the job, which is to showcase creator Adam Huber’s deadpan humor. Every strip is a witty twist on some aspect of modern life, from what hang gliders are thinking to why canes are cooler than walkers, and every one so far has been dead on.
For instance, you can pick up a 200-page graphic novel and read it in pretty much one sitting, and usually that’s a pleasurable thing to do. Reading 200 pages worth of webcomic archives? Not so much. No matter how interesting a comic may be, a screenful of links to past episodes is a daunting sight to the new reader, and clicking, waiting for each page to load, and scrolling can become tedious pretty quickly.
So, for those who don’t have time to wade through pages of old comics, here are five promising startups, all new comics that have launched since the beginning of 2010. There’s a variety of styles and genres here, but all are so new that you can be up to speed in a few minutes. And all look like they will be worthy additions to any RSS feed.
Phil Foglio is best known as the co-creator, with his wife Kaja, of the insanely popular webcomic Girl Genius, and for a pioneering of a business model that a lot of people thought was simply insane: Posting a comic for free online and relying on people to buy the book anyway.
The model worked for the Foglios, who have won numerous awards for Girl Genius, including the first-ever Hugo award for graphic fiction, and Phil Foglio has been posting his earlier comics work online as well, including Buck Godot and What’s New with Phil and Dixie. When Buck Godot wrapped up, a few weeks ago, he replaced it with the his first comic series, Myth Adventures, based on the humorous fantasy novels of Robert Asprin.
I thought this would be an interesting opportunity to talk to Foglio about why he is resurrecting a 20-year-old series, how he has managed to turn a profit with the free-comics model—and what’s up with his one subscription comic, the adult series XXXenophile. Read on for all the answers.
Josh Alves’s all-ages comic Araknid Kid, started out on Zuda, built a following, and then, when it didn’t win, moved over to Sugary Serials, to complete the story. Araknid Kid is a cheery little comic about a superhero with spider-like powers—he walks on the ceiling and shoots webs out of guns—but it is set in the Old West and bears absolutely no resemblance to that other comic about a guy with spider powers. Araknid Kid is definitely a kids’ comic (the main character speaks in rebuses and someone gets punched out by a boxing glove on a spring), but the goofy humor and splashes of wit make it a good read for adults as well.
After wrapping up Araknid Kid, Alves launched a new comic, Heropotamus, last Christmas. When I saw that go up, I decided it would be interesting to talk to Alves about his work and the challenges of all-ages webcomics in general.
As you might expect, the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting is a fairly staid event, compared to, say, New York Comic-Con. The average age is older, the decibel level is lower, and there are no booth babes. The only high-profile guest was Al Gore, who as far as I know has never made a comic, and a lot of the exhibits on the floor are for things like new bookcase systems or databases of scholarly articles.
On the plus side, there was free coffee and pastries, free internet and… comics! Graphic novels, actually, because that’s what librarians like (the traditional 32-page comic book doesn’t hold up too well under the stress of repeated readings). Librarians have long been enthusiastic supporters of the ninth art, and this year they gave it a boost by giving two of their traditional book awards to graphic novels: David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir won an Alex Award (for adult books with strong teen appeal) and the Toon book Benny and Penny in The Big No-No won the Geisel Award (named after Dr. Seuss) for “the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year.” The good times will continue later this month when the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) presents their Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.
Given that a big-city librarian may buy hundreds of copies of a single title—in hardback—it’s not hard to see why publishers felt it was worth their while to make the trek to Boston for the midwinter meeting. Only two of the large independent publishers, Boom! Studios and Viz, came to this show, but this is actually a smaller event than the ALA Annual Conference, which takes place in June. But a number of other major publishers were there—Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins—and they all publish or distribute graphic novels, so there was lots to see if you knew how to look.
Dan Hipp‘s graphic novel Gyakushu! debuted in 2007 as one of Tokyopop’s original global manga titles. Like many of the books in that line, Gyakushu! could only loosely be described as manga, as Hipp has a drawing and storytelling style all his own, and judging from the favorable reviews it garnered online, the series seems to have been popular with fans of American comics as well as manga. Although the third (and final) volume has been complete for some time, it has yet to be published, due to structural changes at Tokyopop, although the plan is to eventually publish it online.
So Hipp decided to take matters into his own hands and use the web to build an audience. This week, with Tokyopop’s permission, he put the first two volumes online in their entirety, along with a preview of the third volume. We were curious about this and e-mailed Hipp to find out what he is up to. In addition to Gyakushu!, Hipp is the artist for The Amazing Joy Buzzards and Ben 10 Alien Force: Doom Dimension, which was scripted by Peter David and is due out in February from Del Rey. He is also the creator of Bonehead.
It sounds like a paradox: Webcomics.com is a how-to site explaining how you can make money as the creator of a free webcomic.
But you will have to pay to see it.
The standard model for creator-owned webcomics is to put the comic up for free and make money via ads and the sale of books, T-shirts, and other merchandise. And one of the most influential guides to that model is How to Make Webcomics, authored by the four members of the Halfpixel collective: Brad Guigar (Evil, Inc.), Dave Kellett (Sheldon), Scott Kurtz (PvP), and Kris Straub (Starslip).
In late 2008, Halfpixel took over the domain webcomics.com (previously owned by T Campbell) and reconfigured it as a how-to site for webcomics creators, providing advice on everything from how to draw word balloons to how to build an audience. Guigar is the editor-in-chief and writes most of the articles, with Kurtz and occasionally the others also providing content.
On January 3, literally overnight, Guigar put all the content behind a pay wall and announced that henceforth, readers must pay a $30 annual subscription fee to access it. The internets swelled with outrage, but Guigar pointed out that the site is a professional tool, not a webcomic, and thus of monetary value to creators.
I interviewed Guigar via e-mail about his reasons for the change and his reaction to the criticism that followed.
At the outset, 2009 didn’t look like a promising year for manga. Tokyopop had split in two, laid off a third of its staff, and seemed to be tottering toward its grave; Broccoli had just given up the ghost; Vertical let its marketing manager go; and ADV couldn’t bring itself to publish Yotsuba&!, despite the fact that fans were climbing the walls for it. The economy had tanked, and the general feeling was that 2009 was going to be a bleak year.
And yet, here I am at the end of December, surrounded by so much good manga that I don’t know where to start.
Tokypop rallied nicely and, despite losing some licenses, is bringing back series that everyone was convinced were heading to limbo. Yen Press rescued Yotsuba&! and republished the earlier volumes as well. Del Rey tested the waters with a variety of global titles (with more to come next year) and kept cranking out solid shoujo and shonen series from Japan. CMX kept up a steady stream of tween- and teen-friendly titles as well as the more mature suspense series Fire Investigator Nanase and Astral Project. Vertical was the darling of New York Anime Fest with their announcement that they had licensed the cute cat manga Chi’s Sweet Home and Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo; they kept fans busy in the meantime with a steady stream of new volumes of Black Jack.
And Viz! Viz outdid them all, launching series after series to enthusiastic response: Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto and 20th Century Boys; the foodie manga Oishinbo; the beautifully drawn Children of the Sea; the new Rumiko Takahashi series Rin-ne (released online simultaneously with the Japanese releases); Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers. You could go broke trying to keep up with Viz’s output, but if you did, you could console yourself with the free manga on their SigIKKI and Shonen Sunday websites.
While the rest of the world went to hell in a handbasket, webcomics did pretty well in 2009, in part because the medium provided alternatives to structures that were cracking because of the poor economy. One of the most important events of the year had nothing to do with webcomics directly but probably had a huge effect on the medium as a whole: In January, Diamond Comics Distributors raised its minimums, that is, the number of units a comic would have to sell in order for them to carry it. As Diamond has a near-monopoly on distribution to comics stores, the result is that many comics will be squeezed out of the market—and webcomics became a more attractive alternative, especially for creators who are just building a following or are marketing to a particular niche. It’s hard to know how many creators turned to the web because of that—how do you measure a negative?—but James Turner’s Warlord of Io has been mentioned specifically as a comic that did not make Diamond’s minimums and wound up on comiXology’s iPhone app.
Elan’ Trinidad’s latest comic, God™ (that’s the shorter version of the name) is a bit of a challenge for strictly linear thinkers.
Trinidad was nominated for an Eisner Award for his haunting comic Speak No Evil: Melancholy of a Space Mexican, in which he illustrated the voicelessness of illegal aliens by creating a society that literally removed their mouths. He handled that heavy metaphor with great delicacy, creating a surrealistic world where such things are almost plausible.
While Speak No Evil was compact and self-contained, God™, is a sprawling and ambitious satire that takes on both commercialism and religiosity. It’s also wickedly funny. The basic idea is that a large multinational corporation has bought up all the intellectual property rights to God and the whole cast of characters of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The comic intersperses slices of broad satire about commerce and religion with slices of a day in the life of accountant-priest Joeb Kim, who is having a tough day to say the least. I checked in with Elan’ via e-mail to see what he is up to and where he is going with God™.