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Unbound: See you in the funny papers

DonutsIt’s the holiday crunch time and we could all use a bit of humor, so today, for your reading pleasure, I’m reviewing two very different webcomics that both made me laugh out loud.

The first is The Princess Planet. I saw people recommending it here and there, but I resisted for a long time because anything involving princesses reeks of kid stuff. Having survived my daughters’ princess phase, I was more than happy to pack it in.

As it turns out, though The Princess Planet channeled what I was muttering all those years and turned it into funny. The star of the show is Princess Christi, who gets bored on the very second page and turns herself into a superhero, leaving her attendants behind to draw moustaches on the skinny girls in her magazines. That sort of deliberate anachronism, drawing bits of modern life into the faux-medieval world of fairy tales, is the straw that Brian McLachlan has been spinning into gold for the past four years. The jokes mostly turn on the characters’ self-awareness that they are fairy-tale clichés, and running gags include one-upmanship among the princesses and the king and queen’s quest to find a new heraldic symbol for their kingdom to replace the current one, a pile of grass eating a sandwich.

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Unbound: Ben Powis on the iPhone

Where Grows the Bitter Herb

Where Grows the Bitter Herb

Here’s a post-Thanksgiving special that won’t cost you a dime: Robot Comics is offering the iPhone/iPod Touch version of British artist Ben Powis’s Where Grows the Bitter Herb for free until December 8. Another Powis comic, Turtle Guitar, is always free. (Both comics are also available for Android at the standard price of 99 cents.)

Both stories are little folkloric tales brought to life with lovely art. Powis uses simple shapes with heavy outlines, textured backgrounds, and varied hatching to create comics panels that look like drawings from a picture book. The watercolor-like textures show up nicely on the backlit screen of the iPhone, and the panels also appear to be cropped differently than they were in the print edition of the book, providing a different type of reading experience.

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Unbound: Thanksgiving buffet

Thanksgiving is around the corner; by the time you read this, I will be baking pies and getting out the good china. But first, I want to sit back and take stock of all the things I’m thankful for this year. Webcomics-wise, that is. Think of this as a buffet of my favorite dishes, and perhaps, when the table is cleared, the game is over, and the kids have spun down and fallen asleep on the floor, you’ll have time to sample them and find something new to like.

CuckooBreakfast of the Gods: Snap, Crackle, and Pop have been kidnapped (and tortured!), the Honey Bee turns up dead, Count Chocula paces the ramparts in his castle—and Boo Berry shows up to needle him. In Breakfast of the Gods, Brendan Douglas Jones shows the darker side of the cereal mascots of the 1960s and 70s in a fantasy adventure that’s part Lord of the Rings, part nutritious breakfast.

Unshelved: Bill Barnes’s art is simple to the point of being rudimentary, but he still manages to endow each of the characters in this library-themed comic with a unique and believable personality. Even better, he and co-writer Gene Ambaum really nail the feeling of working in a place where you have to deal with the varied whims of the public as well as your own wacky co-workers.

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Unbound: Josh Way on the end of Chronicle

I discovered Chronicle shortly after Josh Way started posting it online, and I liked it immediately. It’s the story of a brash big-city newspaper editor sent out to run a two-bit paper in a modern-day Green Acres, a small town with more than its share of colorful characters. I really enjoyed Way’s sense of humor and his varied cast, so I was disappointed when he brought the comic to an end this spring.

The end of Chronicle

The end of Chronicle

Since I spoke to Joe Infurnari last week about the abrupt end of the Process, I thought it would be nice to talk to a creator who brought his work to a more deliberate end. For Way, Chronicle was a testing ground where he developed both his cartooning skills and the discipline to draw a daily comic. And now he is applying those lessons elsewhere: as it happens, Way is launching a new comic, Strewth!, on November 30 (but click now for the preview art).

Brigid Alverson: Why did you decide to end Chronicle?

Josh Way: I knew from the start that Chronicle would have an ending, though I was flexible about how and when that would happen. There was always a sense that Chronicle was a prelude to something else. Not that it was a throwaway or a false start, but it was as much about developing discipline as a cartoonist as it was about the story. For lack of a less dumb analogy, I suppose it was a kind of cartoonist boot camp I devised for myself.

The decision to actually end the strip came when I felt I had established some discipline in the daily work, and when the story was moving naturally into a kind of “third act.” I started wishing I could apply the things I’d learned to something new, and the web platform gave me the freedom to move in that direction.

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Unbound: Joe Infurnari on the Process

14Last week, I wrote about the way webcomics end—sometimes with a bang, sometimes with a whimper. Unlike print comics and graphic novels, which almost always have a predetermined structure and pace, webcomics often flicker and die before their time. The reasons for this point up some of the structural and creative differences between webcomics and other media, so I thought it would be interesting to discuss the phenomenon with some creators.

The Process is not officially dead, but Joe Infurnari stopped updating it in mid-2008, right around the time it was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic. The Process is thoughtful, well executed, and embedded in a stunningly beautiful website. So what happened? I went straight to the source and asked Infurnari, who was good enough to speak frankly about the creative and economic pressures of the webcomics creator’s lifestyle.

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Unbound: Death stalks the internet

Interviews with comics creators usually include a lot of questions about the origins of the comic—what was the inspiration, how did you find a working partner, how did you find a publisher, that sort of thing.

One topic that hardly ever comes up is how the comic ends. It’s not the sort of thing one thinks of with regard to print comics, because the vast majority are either one-shot graphic novels or endless series that have been running since FDR was president.

Webcomics are a different matter. “Over 15,000 webcomics now exist online,” Wikipedia tells us, but probably 14,000 of those stopped updating after six episodes. This is the dark side of The Promise of Webcomics: It is true that anyone can start a webcomic, and that without the usual barriers to publication, such as editors and budgets, the web has become a seething cauldron of creativity. However, things like slush piles and contracts and editors are there for a reason: Not just to keep the crap out, but also to make sure the creator finishes the damn comic. The internet imposes no such restrictions. Consequently, many webcomics start with a burst of enthusiasm and fizzle when the creator runs out of ideas or has to study for finals.

Killer Komics, last updated January 2008, with a promise to update more frequently soon.

Killer Komics, last updated January 2008, with a promise to update more frequently soon.

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Unbound: Webcomics that send chills up your brain

elevatorWhen it comes to horror, I’m not really a fan of zombies, vampires, or exploding eyeballs. I prefer the more subtle type of horror, the kind that walks a line between everyday life and something much darker. The kind where everything seems normal until… suddenly it isn’t. Like this moment in Pete Stathis’s Evenfall: Phoebe, the heroine, keeps slipping from everyday life into an alternate reality, and this is a signal that it’s happening again: She steps into the elevator and all the buttons have changed to down arrows.

Now that’s creepy.

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Unbound: Talking Red Plains with Caryn A. Tate

redplains_v10_ch1_02Caryn A. Tate’s Red Plains, now playing at the Top Shelf 2.0 anthology site, uses the classic Western setting to frame stories that have a bit more depth to them than the standard shoot-em-up. In a series of interconnected episodes, she explores the conflict between ranchers and farmers, the life of a black cowboy, a murder mystery with a twist, and, most recently, a complicated tale of civic life, gun control, and armed revolution.

What makes Tate’s comic tick is her characters, who stretch the Western archetypes with their quirks and flaws: Sheriff Doles, a former handyman whose intellectual curiosity and laid-back style rub the town fathers the wrong way; Jackson Stevens, the trigger-happy, over-privileged son of a wealthy rancher; Bob Schwartz, a seemingly upstanding lawyer with a hidden dark side; Mayor Wells, who suffers from a mysterious illness, and his wife, who seems to be running the show. The four episodes that are up so far are interconnected but can be read on their own as well; together they paint a fascinating picture of life in the Old West. I interviewed Tate by e-mail to find out how she comes up with her stories and puts everything together to make a sum that is greater than any of its parts.

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Unbound: The webcomics that changed the world

The title is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me.

The folks behind the manga site ComiPress have just unveiled Inside Scanlation, an impressive website that chronicles the history of scanlation, that is, bootleg fan translations of Japanese manga (and later, Korean manhwa as well). It’s an amazingly detailed and textured history, complete with interviews with scanlators and industry figures, a glossary, and a timeline.

One of the things it chronicles is the way scanlation groups helped create and maintain the market for translated manga in this country. Licensed manga is just a bit behind the bootlegs—scanlation sites were doing a brisk business by 1998, while the bookstore boom in manga took off around 2000. Coincidence? I think not. Here’s Del Rey editor Dallas Middaugh reminiscing about his early days at Viz in an interview with Dirk Deppey of The Comics Journal:

To be honest, when I was at Viz back in 2001, 2002, we were following scanlations as a way of discovering new titles. [Deppey laughs.] Hey, I don’t read Japanese, and the people making scanlations were finding good manga.

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Unbound Reviews: Paradigm Shift

Kate and MikeParadigm Shift
By Dirk Tiede

Paradigm Shift starts out like any other buddy-cop story, with donuts, wisecracks, and corpses turning up in the bushes, but halfway through, it lives up to its name and crosses over into darker territory.

In the beginning, the detectives in question, Kate McAllister and Mike Stuart, are as smooth as they come. They have their differences—Kate’s a bit tougher, Mike’s a bit cooler—but their relationship runs on easy patter and unspoken coordination. Tiede is subtle, introducing Kate’s demons a little at a time—a sudden flash of dizziness, a wound that heals too quickly—but as the story goes on, we see her unravel more and more until it’s hard to say what is nightmare and what is real. Mike, on the other hand, starts out as an understated character, but his quietness conceals his strength. Again, there is a slow build; his offhand mentions of martial arts and Zen Buddhism foreshadow his full development as a character later in the story.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

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Unbound: NYAF Highlights

I’m going a little off topic this week because I spent the weekend at New York Anime Fest—which, despite the name, included a fair amount of comics action. Yes, they had Gundam director Yoshiyuki Tomino as their keynote speaker, and Viz drew cheers with the announcement that they would be showing the last season of the InuYasha anime online, for free, at almost the same time it will be broadcast in Japan. But there was plenty to love for those of us who don’t like their pictures moving. Here’s a sampling of the highlights:

PeepoChoo_Cover_01Peepo Choo: Vertical, which has mostly published classic manga up to now, caused a stir with their announcement that they had licensed this Japanese manga by American creator Felipe Smith. Smith was one of Tokyopop’s early global manga creators, and his first manga, MBQ, showed a lot of promise. A year ago, the editors of Kodansha’s Morning 2 magazine decided they wanted to add an American to their lineup, and Smith was their choice. Peepo Choo is an adventure/comedy about an otaku in Japan, and much of the humor turns on his bad Japanese, which will make translating a challenge despite the fact that Smith partially wrote it in English. However, Vertical is uniquely suited to publish this book as its marketing director, Ed Chavez, helped edit it during a stint at Kodansha. (Here is the author showing off a sample at his MySpace page.)

Del Rey’s kids’ lineup: Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be all that excited about another round of Ben 10 manga; I read the first one and was pretty unimpressed. But Del Rey is taking a new tack: They are setting real comics creators loose on these properties and letting them use their own styles. So the next Ben 10 manga will be written by Peter David and illustrated by Dan Hipp. Are you wondering what a Hulk writer and the creator of Gyakushu! are going to do with Ben 10? Because I sure am. Along the same lines, the next Bakugan Battle Brawlers will be written by the veteran team of Nunzio DeFillippis and Christina Weir and illustrated by Kriss Sison, and the team working on their manga prequel and novelization of the movie The Last Airbender will include X-Men: Misfits writer (and veteran Nickelodeon magazine editor) Dave Roman and Yokaiden artist Nina Matsumoto. In other words, Del Rey is throwing a lot of talent at these books.

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Unbound | Unwrapping the apps

I thought that I might be writing about reading comics on Apple’s revolutionary new tablet, a much-rumored expanded version of the iPod, by now, but their September meeting came and went with no news on that front. So I’m still reading on my iPod Touch, which has the virtues of clarity and portability and the vice of tininess.

iVerse's comics store

iVerse's comics store

Even with the small screen, though, my iPod is evolving. Back in the Stone Age (six months ago), each comic or section of a comic was a single app, which led to a lot of little icons cluttering up the screen. Now a reader can use a single app such as comiXology’s Comics app, iVerse, or Panelfly, to buy, download, and organize comics, which is a more elegant solution. ComiXology has just released a free version of its app, which allows readers access to all the free comics in its app store, and it also has a Lite version that is 12+, as opposed to 17+, presumably for younger readers.

I assume the hidden hand of Apple has something to do with the fact that these apps have similar design and functionality: You pick your function from a navigation strip across the bottom, with icons for the store, featured items, etc., and you move from a list of comics to catalog listings by tapping and swiping, just as with other apps.

These apps solve a glaring problem, which is that there is no obvious way to find comics in the iTunes store. Continue Reading »

Unbound: Twisted History

Making fun of history has been a good gig for quite a while. I grew up reading Richard Armour’s fractured retellings of history-book standards, such as It All Started with Columbus, and of course Mad Magazine was a reliable source of misinformation. (The Marx/Marx Brothers and Lenin/Lennon confusion lingered for an embarrassingly long time, thanks to them.) And then there is Blackadder, a show whose humor content scales directly with the viewer’s knowledge of British history.

Mock history has proven to be a fertile vein on the web as well. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t love Kate Beaton’s Hark, A Vagrant. Reading her irreverent takes on historical topics is sort of like sitting in the back of class drawing moustaches on the Founding Fathers.


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Unbound Reviews: Skin Horse

skinhorse1_bigSkin Horse, print edition
By Shaenon K. Garrity and Jeffrey C. Wells
Couscous Collective, $14.00

Skin Horse is laugh-out-loud funny, in the way that the Marx Brothers were funny: It starts with something that is just barely plausible and then piles up incongruities into a massive, complicated structure built entirely of crazy.

This print edition covers the first year or so of the webcomic, collecting the daily strips in an attractive square format that makes for easy reading. Skin Horse is one of those webcomics that tries to do two things at once—deliver a gag every day and also build up a larger storyline. It succeeds admirably at both, but the collected edition allows the reader to focus more on the longer story and less on individual punchlines.

Skin Horse is a government agency whose job is to provide social services to non-human sapients—animals, zombies, killer robots, and the like that have been endowed, usually in sinister ways, with human intelligence.

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Unbound: Design matters

Today’s topic is not webcomics themselves but the spaces around them.

A webcomic, by definition, exists on a website, and that website can be a valuable tool to set the tone of a comic, add context, and provide a smooth, pleasant reading experience.

Or not.

I am constantly amazed at the number of creators who work hard to make a good comic and then put it on a generic, poorly designed website that screams “amateur,” or worse, drives the reader away with clumsy navigation.

Design affects readers on an unconscious level. A tightly designed website has an aura of its own that can rub off on the comic and make it seem better than it really is—and a poorly designed site has the same effect in reverse.

It’s a tough world out there, and you want to stack the deck in your favor as much as possible. That means everything on a webcomics site should work to enhance the comic, and anything that doesn’t should be ruthlessly eliminated.

Herewith, then, is a short list of webcomics dos and don’ts.

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