Category Archives: dramatic webcomic

Of Cars and Contrivance

So last week I talked about how a strong villain can add to a story. This week, I have to go the other way and talk about a weak villain and some other flaws. The twelfth volume of the webcomic Misfile is generally considered one of the worst by the fans in the forums. There are others with weaker writing, more enraging moments and poorer art, but as a whole book, it’s easy to see what issues people can have.


Let’s start with a recap for the folks who don’t read Misfile. The comic is a low-fantasy transgender story about a teenage boy who becomes a girl, with the difference being that while it is sometimes played for comedy, the gender swap is usually deconstructed, showing the harsh reality that would occur. Also, it features car racing as Ash, our protagonist, is an amateur race car driver with two personally modified cars. He and many other kids from the nearby schools race each other on the weekends at a place called the Old Road, an abandoned strip on a mountain side. This means no cops to keep them from doing something illegal and dangerous. In the first volume, Ash won the title of ‘King of the Mountain’ given to the best driver in the school district.

In volume twelve, the boys who race on the Old Road are being challenged by a new driver with a bet that if they lose, they can no longer drive on the road again. Many boys lose and eventually this driver decides to stop them from racing all together. Ash is called in because as King, he has a duty to defend the track, even though he never agreed to such and the other boys admit they hate him. Ash beats the racer, only to discover the racer has a superior named Sheldon, who challenges Ash by proxy. Sheldon turns out to be wormy and bribes Ash to throw the race, but our hero doesn’t and learns about responsibility when he trounces Sheldon.

Now a few of you may be asking what is so bad about that. Well, note that I didn’t explain why Sheldon wants the track for himself. And that’s because no reason is given. We do get told that he’s recruiting but that doesn’t explain why he wants to take over the Old Road

And that’s the biggest problem with this arc. Nearly every storytelling issue in it can be boiled down to one simple word: “Why?”

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Crabcake Confidential: Insufferable

“Lifetime pass” is one of those terms that I have, over the years, grown to hate. It’s overused, and it’s usually attributed to people who hardly have done anything artistically to deserve it. (Seriously, I’ve heard it applied to Zack Snyder. Really, people? Really?)

However, if I were the sort of person to give anyone a lifetime pass, it would be Mark Waid.

The guy just loves superhero comics. He loves the history, the symbolism, and the potential. But he does more than just worship at the Altar of Superman. Mark Waid also writes great stories.

Take his most famous work, Kingdom Come. He’s paired with Alex Ross, a guy whose painterly style emphasizes the power and mythical grandeur of his superhero subjects. That alone made it a can’t-miss proposition. Waid, though, brought things down to a personal level. Our heroes weren’t approachable demigods but regular folks with fears and anxieties. Superman is haunted by a world that seems to find him obselete. Bruce Wayne has become a (strangely happy) creepy recluse. Oliver Queen is paranoid, but with strong connections to his family. (He is also responsible for one of my favorite comic book lines of all time after he shoots an arrow in a crowded bar filled with superheroes who’ve just been enlisted by Superman: “So you heard Big Blue’s pitch … now for the democratic response.”) These guys come across as real characters that aren’t at odds with the icons we already know them as.

Then there’s all the homages that Waid squeezes into the comic. He reaches into the forgotten histories of the DC Universe — one that they often like to bury as being too corny or too unhip — and brushes it off for a new audience… all before guys like Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns would make it a regular thing. If you look in the rafters, you can spot all heroes named The Red Tornado, including a fun update to Ma Hunkel. Look in a crowded bar scene, and you may be able to see Marvin from the Superfriends show curiously dressed like Lobo.

Even more impressive — to me at least — was Waid’s run on Impulse. There was the respect for comics history with the inclusion of forgotten characters like Max Mercury. There was also a great sense of fun, something that was a precious commodity in the 90’s where grim and gritty was a corporate-mandated requirement for all superhero comics. The fun, though, radiated not from silly situations and silly villains but from the personalities and the interactions. (Seriously, I would recommend tracking down old issues of Impulse even if you’re not a superhero fan. Especially if you’re not a superhero fan.)

However, that doesn’t mean that Mark Waid only writes kids’ stuff. He’s gone to some disturbing places with his recent material at Boom Comics. There, he imagined a superhero universe where the Superman-archetype goes insane and becomes the world’s greatest villain (Irredeemable). They’re alternate takes of the superhero mythos that feel natural, not transgressive … like, say, much of Mark Millar’s works. Waid’s stuff may go to dark places, but storytelling and character — not shock value and the cool factor — comes first.

It should be no surprise that his recent foray into digital comics, the Thrillbent site, is mainly about guys in colorful tights who punch things. It’s also a logical extension of his recent trend in telling stories of truly morally compromised superheroes. Irredeemable was about a hero who becomes a villain. Incorruptible was about a villain who becomes good. And his latest entry into the genre with artist Peter Krause, the phonetically similar Insufferable, is about the kind of heroes who just cannot stand each other, framed in the context of fathers and sons.

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The Webcomic Overlook #198: The Secret Knots

Did you know that April is National Poetry Month? Unless you’re an English teacher, my guess is your answer would’ve been, “What’s poetry?” I, frankly, wouldn’t have known either if one of my co-workers didn’t sorta make it a thing over here by posting verses on a nearby board.

The site tells me that “National Poetry Month is now held every April, when publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.” There’s a Poem In Your Pocket Day coming up April 26, where you’re supposed to recite verses that you happen to have stored in your shirt pocket. (Good think I checked; I’ve got a week or so to raid my library of dirty limericks.) The site also suggests reading interviews and literary criticism. Now, this is the “Webcomic Overlook,” unfortunately, not the “Poetry Overlook,” so I don’t be tossing out my scathing opinions on Sylvia Plath.

And webcomics can’t be poetry … or … can they? After all, webcomics are visual, and, as poetry critic Jan Schrieber says, poetry is partly defined by sound: “To make that formula a little more explicit, we can say that a poem, being a creature of language, has meanings that are conveyed through linguistic means, and being also a creature of sound (which is not incidental as in prose but structural), has the potential to affect the hearer’s sensibility through auditory stimulus, including rhythmic patterning, the repetition or modulation of phones (speech sounds), and the strategic deployment of silence.”

If I were to dabble in the realm of evoking imagery through aesthetic language, then perhaps one place to start would be with Chilean comic creator Juan Santapau and his webcomic The Secret Knots.

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The Webcomic Overlook #179: The Society of Unordinary Young Ladies

Ever since Alan Moore decided to expand his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen universe beyond the era of Victorian England, fans have been speculation what other pop culture characters would work well in a crazy mash-up. Some speculation have been serious, but much has been tongue in cheek.

One of the best was an April Fool’s gag at Comics Alliance in 2010, where the writers imagined a 1980’s superteam. This League included Doc Brown, B.A. Baracus, Jack Burton, Lisa from Weird Science, and the GODDAMN MacGyver. You’d have to work hard to come up with anything more idea than that, which was a weirdly more compelling premise than, say, The Black Dossier.

But did you know that this isn’t the first time someone attempted to do an LXG pastiche in the Me Decade? I didn’t either. It wasn’t until Comixtalk linked to this piece on Newsarama that I learned of the existence of Wahab Algarmi’s The Society of Unordinary Young Ladies.

Like LXG fills its roster with public domain characters you were forced to read about in elementary school, The Society fleshes out its roster with young female characters from 1980’s sitcoms: Punky Brewster, Evie from Out Of This World, Vicki from Small Wonder, and Wednesday Addams.

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The Webcomic Overlook #175: Sluggy Freelance (Part 1)

If there is one comic that I’ve always been dying to write a review for on this site, it’s Pete Abrams’ Sluggy Freelance. This webcomic is virtually a first ballot Hall of Famer. Sluggy and me: we go way back… despite never having read the comic until relatively recently in its run. (And by “relatively recently” I mean four years ago.) I used to frequent a science fiction/fantasy message board with an incredibly passionate Sluggy Freelance fanbase. I think some even had online handles of “Zoë” and “Muffin the Vampire Baker.”

At the same time, Sluggy Freelance has its share of detractors. Sluggy, in fact, was one of the comics reviewed on the “Your Webcomic Is Bad (And You Should Feel Bad)” blog. (I don’t remember any of the main complaints about Sluggy, though, beyond the disappointment over the comic not being about a hard-boiled detective slug.) So, 4 years ago when I started this site, Sluggy made it on my short list of comics I had to review.

I read three or four months in the archives when I came to the startling realization that, despite having read 150 strips, I had read less than 3% of the entire comic.

So that was that. Two years later, I got in touch with a fine paragon of a fellow from New Zealand who used to post fairly prominently on that old message board. He found out that I did webcomic reviews. He was like, “Hey, cool! Mind if I make a request? I’m sure you’ve never heard of this comic, but … how about doing a review of Sluggy Freelance?”

I said OK. I promised myself that this time … THIS TIME … I’d push myself to the limit. I tied a necktie to my forehead like those dudes studying for the final exam in those anime. I would brave all the slings and arrows of Sluggy Freelance. I’d withstand the overuse of the word “nifty,” stomach all the super-precious moments with Kiki the poinging weasel thing, stare down all the dated pop culture references (remember when Dr. Laura Schlessinger was a thing), and prevent my eyes from rolling when I’m reading a comic where there are characters named “Slappyhoho.”

It is time to face your reckoning, Sluggy Freelance!

By the time I reached the three year anniversary strip, it dawned on me: despite buckling down and setting a goal to finish this comic, I’d spent TWO WHOLE MONTHS TO GET TO THIS POINT! That was two whole months I could’ve spent reading other webcomics. Or rambling about my opinions about the state of digital comics. Or feeding the poor. Or joining an underground band of resistance fighters in North Korea. Or (and this is the most likely scenario) watching my MST3K DVD’s for the fifteenth time. I’ve gotta give Pete Abrams credit: it isn’t easy doing a comic that updates every single day. He is a prolific little bugger.

After fourteen years of daily updates, Sluggy Freelance has accumulated over 5,000 strips. Typically when a webcomic gets this long, I can justify skipping around a little. Sluggy Freelance is the sort of webcomic, though, that makes you feel like you’d be missing out if you skipped anything. Storylines and characters accumulate at rapid speed. New characters are added every three months. Important plot elements are introduced every week. Even having read every single story up to 2005, I can’t help but feel a little lost.

Anyway, after failing for the second time, I learned something about myself. Sluggy Freelance was just too long and too dense. It was destined to be one of those webcomics I would never, ever review.

Until now.

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One Punch Reviews #49: Birth of Venus

If you’ve only followed superheroes through the big screen movies, you may be surprised to find that their comic counterparts have had pretty brutal storylines. We are long past the “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” to “Don’t set foot in a comic shop without your parent’s permission.” Particularly heinous are comics where Sue Dibny (Elongated Man’s wife) gets raped by supervillain Dr. Light and Jeph Loeb’s Ultimatum, which included heartwarming scenes like The Thing crushing Dr. Doom’s head and The Wasp getting eaten by a cannabilistic Blob.

And I haven’t even gotten to the far more gruesome stories written by Garth Ennis and Mark Millar. (In fact, in one of the stories, a supervillain gets revenge on the hero by impregnating his daughter with his gay son’s DNA … and if anyone tried to abort the fetus, the girl’s womb would collapse. Ungh.)

Long story short, it seems that the modern superhero comic market seems to be targeted exclusively toward juggalos. In comparison, Birth of Venus, where the superheroine gets her powers as a side effect to rape, is pretty damn sunny.

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The Webcomic Overlook #163: Zahra’s Paradise

Iran is a terribly tricky country to talk about. On the one hand, we all know that it’s a potentially frightening country from a political standpoint. There’s concerns about government corruption and their nuclear capabilities. We know about the official stance of Antisemitism and the Green Revolution protests. That’s serious stuff.

On the other hand, a lot of news that comes out of that country is completely ridiculous. Not too long ago the Iranian government threatens to threats to boycott the 2012 London Olympics because they claim that the logo spells “Zion”. And remember Boobquake? Remember when Hojatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi claimed that immodestly dressed women were the cause of earthquakes? This somehow spurred the really silly “Boobquake,” a viral tongue-in-cheek internet movement set to discredit Seddiqi by proving that naked boobs do not cause earthquakes. (I’m a little frightened, by the way, to see if Seddiqi has been using the recent worldwide tragedies in Japan and New Zealand to somehow prove that Boobquake was, indeed, to blame.)

So Iran is both a known threat and a punchline. Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen … we can understand. Iran remains a country most people just can’t figure out.

Amir and Khalil attempt to convey the problems in Iran with Zahra’s Paradise. The comic deals with one man’s attempt to find clues as to the whereabouts of his missing brother, Medhi. The story and characters are fictional. Several real life events, however, make their way into Zahra’s Paradise to give the reader a full picture of the oppression that people in Iran face every day.

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The Webcomic Overlook #143: Party Bear

Most webcomics are written by nerds for nerds. It’s a fact of life. People who draw webcomics have a certain passion for comics and an acuity in computers. That spells N-E-R-D-S.

As a strange result, webcomic settings are not only the same, they’re typically squeaky clean. Take your typical slice-of-life webcomic. They’re usually either set in college, or at high school, or in the comforting embraces of suburbia. The closest you get are stories about jobless post-college slackers who sit on their couch and complain about having no money. But how poor can they possibly be if, in every other scene, we usually see them tapping way at their XBox controllers?

Thus, it’s rather unique when I encounter a webcomic set in the more unconventional world of the inner city. It’s the world popularized, mythologized, exaggerated, and romanticized by gangsta rappers and filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton. It’s where the windows of crumbling brick buildings are barricaded by black iron grates. Where drug dealers are a fact of life. And where you’re always under the thumb of The Man.

But, hey, it’s life, and you get by. Especially if you’re protected by a bear. A Party Bear.

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