Wednesday, September 29, 2010

American Elf - Celebrating The Little Moments in Life

I love American Elf. Today's strip is just a simple, childlike moment: standing inside an oil rainbow circle and feeling happy.

I don't read many diary strips. It's a big challenge to draw something about yourself every day, even if you never run out of material. Such strips may or may not be relatable to the reader. I'm not sure if I could pull it off; there are so many things to life that you can write about, but there's also a huge temptation to do "these are the things I did today and, in fact, nothing much happened, sorry it's so boring". James Kochalka is doing something very right, but what is it? Could it be that he only picks small moments of wonder/joy/love (or anger/sadness/regret), moments that are relatable? In other words, he doesn't feel responsible for giving us his schedule and every aspect of his life. Less is usually more in comics.

Or maybe it's his likeable personality, the childlikeness and joy of small things. He's honest to who he is, and he has a signature style. The strip is friendly, it doesn't mock people he finds annoying, or attempt to be faux-witty when he doesn't feel like it.

Sometimes I don't appreciate his honesty so much. Like when he makes a strip about how his crap looked in the toilet bowl, or how he has a pimple in his scrotum. Some stuff you don't want to know. But maybe this is part of his integrity. The gross stuff is his to share; maybe a part of his childlikeness.

A couple of moments that touched me lately:

Pizza rocket! I love basically everything around children in the strip, because Kochalka lets the children speak.

I've been following Oliver since Amy was pregnant, and it feels bittersweet to see him grow and speak and all that.

He still has a very endearing baby view on things though.

And I love when Kochalka just gets silly and plays with the kids. He looks like the funnest Dad ever.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Reasons for Hating Garfield

About once a year, I get the inspiration to write a blatant hate post on Garfield. It's not a very remarkable comic, and if it were a webcomic with a small readership, it would be easiest to just ignore and read something I like instead.

But Garfield is frakking everywhere. It's plush toys, T-shirts and mugs. It's still running in many newspapers worldwide - in fact, I think most Finnish newspapers have a Garfield slot too. (The Finnish name is Karvinen, which is a surname, like Garfield. I think they were just going for a similar-sounding name.) Every time I see a Garfield image somewhere, I remember how much I loathe this comic. It's hard to forget.

I know I can't change the environment I live in. Many comic characters live among us in merchandise. I mind it less when it's Peanuts and Snoopy, because Peanuts was an actually creative comic. It wasn't perfect; the later strips were mostly tired, and there were way too many about golf. Very few strips can thrive under "7 strips a week forever and ever", and this one was no exception. But the characters were great, and a lot of the humor and story was character based. It wasn't just setup setup pun, and I think it often expressed some real things about life. It was a philosophical strip. Unlike Garfield, Snoopy is a great character. He's not a human on four legs, and he's not just a typical dog. He's imaginative, a failed writer, a fighter pilot, the friend of a very small bird. He surprises you and makes you smile. This is why I don't loathe Snoopy or Charles Schultz. Snoopy is a fleshed-out character, and he's welcome in my life in the form of toys and greeting cards. There's a breath of life to him.

But Garfield? Even when I read the strip, I feel it's all about the merchandise. It's like Jim Davis took out a notepad and listed what people laugh at: fat people, dumb people, hillbillies, losers. Turning things upside down - a cat who HATES mice! A dog who's dumb! It seems calculated and uncreative, even from the start. Yes, I loved it as a child, because it was easy to get and I liked the art. I wanted a Garfield T-shirt and plush toy, and was upset that my parents couldn't afford them. (Or wouldn't waste money on a fad product; either way, I see the point now.)

I really consider Garfield a "what not to do" guide, if you want to have a comic with artistic value.

Some of my reasons for hating it. (This may not be my only post on the comic, but just to outline my (excessive?) hatred a little.)

Lazy art. 
The characters look cute and are well-drawn. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are a big nothing. Often it's just a wall of one color, with a shadow falling on it, and a straight line for the floor/table Garfield is on. In most strips, there is little to no action, and the images get very similar: talking heads with lots of text. Davis has talent for drawing, but he rarely uses it.

Too few characters.
The strip started out with Jon and Garfield, Odie and his owner Lyman. Lyman was quickly dropped and it was just Jon with the two pets, with no explanation. Mistake number one. This strip really needs more characters, more voices. How much can you do with two talking characters? Odie never speaks, and there's also the issue of whether or not Jon can hear Garfield. (This could be an interesting dilemma, but it's not really played out that way.) I don't think any other comic has had such a small gallery of personalities to draw from. It's definitely a problem if you have to fill 7 strips a week.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article mentions Davis' motivation for dropping Lyman:

The fourth character, Lyman, was Odie's original owner; he was written in to give Jon someone to talk with. Davis later realized that Garfield and Jon could "communicate nonverbally", and Lyman was written out. 

Right, but in the interest of having different voices, you can't just substitute one character for another. There needs to be some variation. Jon and Garfield's communication is rarely conversation per se. It may be scolding-defiance, or setup-pun, but there isn't a real exchange of ideas.

Stereotypical characters. 
The characters are really stereotypes more than rounded-out personalities. Garfield is fat, lazy, and selfish; Jon is a loser, cowardly and lonely; Odie is dumb and that's all. They are often treated as symbols. How cool would it be if, for instance, Garfield talked back when Jon scolds him for being fat? But as the symbol of laziness and gluttony, how can he talk back? He's a cautionary tale.

It's not funny anymore when you do it a hundred times. It seems like, in later years, the same themes are repeated at intervals: a week of Garfield-swats-a-talking-spider jokes, another of Garfield-and-the-talking-scale jokes, a third of Odie is dumb jokes. I don't think any of these ideas is very funny to begin with, and once you milk them for a few years, there's nothing left. Because really, the spider always ends up dying, and all the scales do is tell fat jokes, and Odie being dumb is really not news anymore.

Unlikeable characters. 
There are kind comics and then there are mean ones. Ones where everybody's flawed and a butt of jokes, but at the same time, they all act superior to each other. Jon acts superior because Garfield is so fat, and Garfield acts superior because he thinks he's smarter than Jon, and much smarter than Odie. Liz acts superior because Jon keeps trying to hit on her - until the day she finally agrees to go on a date with him. And everyone's superior at Jon's family, because they are from the countryside, I mean that's hilarious, right? Really, the only character I like is Odie, because he's just cute and oblivious and never mean to anyone. But he's also very...empty. He never speaks or does much.

There are sweet moments, of course - Jon bonding with his pets, Garfield and Odie having an actual friendship, Jon and Liz liking each other, and so forth. But then they go back to despising and mocking each other. To bring it back to Peanuts, one of the reasons I love it is probably the warmth. That comic has a heart, even if a lot of the jokes are on Charlie Brown. He's sad about it, and it breaks your heart to read that. You're supposed to sympathize with him. He isn't mean to anyone.

I think this all boils down to one thing: lack of creativity. The sad part is, Davis does seem to have some talent, and he had originally pitched a different idea, Gnorm Gnat. It was praised for originality, but no one would publish it because people wouldn't get it. So he decided to go very lowest common denominator with Garfield.

Maybe Gnorm Gnat would have just been dull too, who knows? But I do wish the syndicates had given it a chance. It could not be less creative than Garfield. I'm so glad I live in the era of the internet, when anyone can just publish their comics online. There are many poor strips, for sure, but creativity will be rewarded.

Beautiful Drawings, Questionable Content

Today's Questionable Content was good. The first panel is taller than usual, and Hannelore is seen in unusually pretty clothes. The latter panels are just Hannelore being awesome. I love this character and the jokes based on her personality.

I read this comic every day, and have for... how long now? Two years? It's strange, because I don't actually like it very much. The "slice of life" quality can be frustrating when nothing much happens. Or it could work if the comic were more philosophical in nature - pondering on being a human being in general. As it is, with the puns and the dating and drinking and sex jokes, it doesn't really go anywhere. This is a very popular comic, and one of the best-looking ones for sure. The drawing style and coloring has developed in leaps. Jeph Jacques clearly puts a lot of effort in the drawings. But, with the exception of Hannelore, I don't find any characters very interesting. They all seem like copies of each other, only Hannelore has a voice of her own.

One problem is that the comic attempted to be character-based before it had developed any characters. The humble beginning was this, Marten and his little robot. (I'm definitely not one to carp on humble beginnings, by the way.) The first strips are really just a bunch of hipsters sitting around talking about music. Faye and Dora were introduced before they had backstories and personality, so the "Faye's father killed himself" story seemed to come from nowhere. Many of the side characters have disappeared - Sara, Raven, Amanda, Penelope, etc. - and/or replaced each other. You don't really notice, because they all have a similar voice and place in the strip (employee at Café of Doom, Marten's friend).

Another issue is the juvenile type of humor. I don't think being drunk is cool. Fun, but not cool to read about. I also don't think it's particularly cool to make crude sex jokes the whole time. It gets old very quickly.
Marten's Mom being a dominatrix? Also not cool. Weird and a bit disturbing, maybe. Not in a dropping-my-monocle kind of way, more like "Marten would be more frakked up than this".

A lot of the strips are just people bantering about indie music/sex/other stuff. The art quality would support nice action strips and interesting creatures*, so the talking heads feel dull. For instance, why did they have a discussion about starting a music review blog..?  I know Jacques started one, but this is the stuff you advertise in the sidebar, not put in the comic.

But there IS Hannelore, and other occasional glimpses of creativity - Hi Randy, for instance, and the sequel with Shelby the dog. And this is probably what still draws me to QC: it has promise. I feel like I'm watching someone's talent dawning. It's growing and trying at different styles. I'll be very curious to see Jacques' future work.

* = I seem to recall action strips about the "VespAvenger", as well as some fun tequila hallucinations. But I can't find them now because there are so many strips, and the titles are usually jokes. It's hard to find anything.
Edit: aha, my girlfriend, being more nerdier than am I, found some on google. VespAvenger, hallucination reading "Drunken Hallucinations Weekly". The VespAvenger storyline also found a way to use the often neglected robots. This is good stuff.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Educating the Children, Sixties vs. Eighties Style

Comics With Problems is a hilarious collection of (mostly) old-timey comics dealing with dangerous issues. Like drinking while pregnant. And smoking at all. And taking drugs. And being openly gay in the army, not that there's anything wrong with that, you just get fired.

Dennis the Menace Takes a Swipe at Poison is an especially interesting example, because it has two versions: one from the sixties and one from the eighties. It really shows how educational comics have changed.

Part one: the sixties starts off a bit disturbingly, with Dennis making jokes about what an awful kid he is, and how he's poison to his neighbor. Ehh. So on to the story: Dennis has decided to give the dog some medicine! Luckily his parents get to him before he does! I know kids can be stupid about stuff, but would they really say all this stuff about drugs looking cute, like candy? How convenient when you want to deliver the kids a lesson about how drugs are NOT candy!

This bit is actually pretty outdated: you need to shake the bottle well before using! But don't shake yourself ha ha! Then comes a chaos of various safety issues. From this, we go straight into how you should never eat spoiled food, and then they get a call that Dennis has been eating weird berries outside with Margaret, and then Dennis tries to kill a fly with Ruffy's flea powder and on and on.

This could have been divided into separate stories, which would make more sense. I don't think kids can focus on this many lessons all at once. It's also awfully wordy for children, especially when we get to the parts where it's all instructions with illustrations. Or even worse, all instructions without illustrations. It's asking a lot of young readers. To add insult to injury, all of this reads as pretty dull and forced. But the page to the parents is the worst of all - it's just a list of how many children die each year because of the hazards discussed herein. Ehh. Most parents are probably kinda sensitive to hear about children dying, right? I'm not even a parent and I felt this was ghastly. And I don't even want to think what a child would feel reading this. At least make it a separate pamphlet.

Then the eighties. You can tell right away that this is taking a completely different tack.

Firstly, there's a picture/text puzzle of the kind I used to love as a school kid. Fewer words, more fun, one simple rule.

Then the storyline. Now, I'm not going to give this an A+. It's still a bit forced and "let's teach 'em kids a lesson". But at least they've taken some lessons in how children learn. We have a familiar song with new lyrics, visual clues, and repetition. The song may have worked better in a video, but it's not a bad way to teach kids. 

Nitpick about the final comic page.
Father: "That sounds like Three Blind Mice!"
Mother: "Right - sung by two smart boys!"
How would the mother know what the song is about? Dennis is just coming home from school. Also, the story about how Dennis ate too many vitamins because he thought they were candy - is kind of forced. But miles better than "xxxx children die each year of..."

As an adult reader, I'm already sick of the song, but it might be efficient for a child.
We get a list of safety tips, which is probably best for adults. But it's not super wordy this time, and seems way more focused than the sixties one. Also: no ghastly death statistics! Just a brief countdown of how "many poisonings" happening. Nothing about dying. It doesn't read like scare tactics, and I wouldn't worry about a child reading this page by mistake.

I wonder how this would be done in 2010?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Snap Judgements.

I've been checking the Webcomic List a lot lately. They automatically update every two hours, with a list of all webcomics updated that day (from the 16,652 comics tracked). It's a nice service for someone who wants to get to know webcomics more widely.

I thought it'd be interesting to make a little rundown of what I've seen here and how I react to them. Since there are so many comics in this list, I will limit myself to only some. This is just conveyor-belt reading, so I might feel very differently if I were to give each comic individual time and effort. But it might give some idea of how a reader (with my preferences) experiences the comics.

This post is brought to you by the letter A, because I probably won't get much further down than that.

1.00 FTE - A corporate comic. The art uses an illustration style you might expect from bathroom doors and other corporate places. This was a fun touch, but also feels dehumanizing, which might alienate me in the long run (no faces). The content reads a bit too much like Dilbert to truly pique my interest.

2300. I did not get this at all. Maybe it's the kind of comic where you have to read from the beginning to get it. We're given three different time frames - "9:45", "12:30", and "15 years ago". This is very confusing. I'm not sure if these are all happening in the same day and the person is traveling in time, or if this is someone's dream (as we're shown sleeping people). Looking back a few strips doesn't really help me. The art is solid but I tend to be unimpressed by too computerized-looking (if that makes sense) strips.

2pRestart! This seems to be an action/pun strip, which works well on a quick reading like this. The fun thing about the art is distance - the two characters (Pikachu and the boy from Pokémon?) are seen in silhuette only, as if we're watching them from a little way back. I'm not sure if I get the joke, probably because I haven't played the game, but I enjoyed the visuals here.

A Bit Sketchy. I totally didn't get this. *does some research* A teamster is apparently a truck driver. So... this is a truck driver who gets wings, becomes a fairy, and starts to beat people while they sleep? O.o It sounds like it could be awesome, if it were taken a bit further perhaps. And if so many strips didn't end with "I'm a teamsta!" I'm not a fan of the color choices here, and I wouldn't use jpeg for drawings. Well, I did at first, until my girlfriend told me the jpeg compression is burning her eyes, and I should definitely use PNG instead. I must admit she was right.

The Academy. This time it's GIF, but the strip is still burning my eyes. It may be compression, or the choice of color and font - this comic is not pleasant to look at, and it's a shame because the content might be interesting for me. As it is, I can't read it.

Agent-X Comics. The visuals and one line of text make this look oddly like an old-fashioned newspaper strip, something like Ziggy perhaps. It's a strange combination with the nerd jokes. Unless that's the intended effect, and this is trying to parody ye olde newspaper format. I'm really not sure. But the content seems like it could be... *flips back a few pages* Oh, I love this strip! Here we have three long-clawed gentlemen from films, voicing their discontent with the new touch screens. That's an original concept. I think I'll follow this comic.

A Terrible Mind. Pleasant to look at. I like the look of the characters, and the shades of grey used for color here. The style is nice and solid. But the content is, well, a cat poo joke. Seems like it could be very on and off. I might read it again, but on a first glance, it doesn't seem like my thing.

Allan. OK, I'm in love. Naivistic style, childlike life observations. This guy puts his personality into the comic, and I love that. My only complaint is that the text is a tad hard to read on some of them. I prefer the color ones to the black and white ones, nice color choices. And cute animated guy on the front page. Um, I guess I have nothing negative to say about this one.

And Shine Heaven Now. Love the title. Hmmm, this seems like a story arc comic, and the author is helpfully linking to earlier strips, but I don't have the energy for them now though. I'm liking the one I linked to, because the wings go beyond panel boundaries, and that's a sign that the author has given the visuals some thought. You don't actually need panels on a webcomic, and it can make the strip look cramped, but in that one it works. It looks like a promising strip, I might want to check it later.

Anti-Bishie. I can't read this one. Too much black and white = instant anxiety. The art looks like it might be good, but it also seems like a battle/dystopia strip, and I can't handle those. To each her own.

Antiportrait. I'd comment on this one but I can't stop reading these strips. It's fun, original and well drawn - loving it! Anything negative? I guess the text, again, can be hard to read. I'd say cramming too many drawings into a small space can get clustered, so maybe even it out a bit by doing several images instead of a tight panel construct. But the content - awesomesauce.

Anything But Real Life. The latest one doesn't really interest me, but I flipped back a few and found this (see link) - a leopard changing its spots while smoking. I'm thinking this strip might be better off doing this kind of one-image stuff with surrealist ideas, instead of - what the others strips seem like - puns among roommates.

Apple Valley. Instant reaction: way too much text, won't read. But I did look at it and I enjoyed "Dr Hubris" and "Drop your font by two or three sizes, I'm hung over". It looks promising yet hard to get into without context. Will check it again. I like the drawing style, which is kind of rounded as opposed to sharp. I enjoy rounded drawings the most for some reason.

Armageddon is apparently an online graphic novel. That's a little too ambitious for a snap judgement, but I'll link to it anyway.

Arthur, King of Time and Space. This looks like a fun comic, and I might get into it. BUT the comic looks... well, disturbing. The colors are too much, and it looks low quality. Minimalistic style is good, big screaming pixels are bad. Also: the color of the page is in stark contrast with the cute old-timey "first" and "previous" buttons. Major style clash.

Ask Chris. Looks like a lot of fun - especially the comic I linked to, which isn't the last one but the one I found funniest. It had me looking back a few strips, which is always a good sign. The comic is apparently based on a little guy answering random questions sent via email. (Or are the emails made up by the author? You never know with this stuff.) Seems like they're playing around with the format, which I love. Will check this out again.

Avatar Unlocked. It's a strip about gaming and..well, I don't game, so it's not really for me. The art looks solid but not overly original. Probably won't look at this one again.

Blogger's complaining about the list of labels being too long, and I'm at the end of A. I'm not sure if this type of post works, but it's all trial and error here, and it was fun.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What's This Blog About?

This is my new blog about comics. I used to have one, simply entitled "A Blog About Comics", back in 2008 and so. I recently re-read it and deleted all but one entry, which I will probably repost here sometime.

I decided that blog didn't have enough of my own voice. Also, it was kind of pointless, mostly carping about the most popular webcomics. I want to do something different this time. You could say I'm on a quest to find out what makes a webcomic good. This may be because I'm trying to launch my own - it's here, as it is right now, yes in a blog with this same template, and it's very simple images so far. As you can tell, I have a lot to learn.

The links in the side are not necessarily recommendations. I'll say this now, because I will probably complain about some of these in the future. They are webcomics I've read, for one reason or another, more than once. In other words, they've caught my interest, and I assume they'd be interesting for other people too. I'll be adding new links as I find new comics that pique my interest.

I'm not 100 % sure what I will do here. If a webcomic really disappoints me, I might write a rant. If I really like one, I might write a rave review. But I'm more likely to discuss and analyze certain aspects of the comics, while criticizing some other aspects. I did some "eee I love this comic" gushing, as well as some "ugh, this comic sucks" hating, in the previous blog, and I don't really think that's very interesting to read in retrospect. I mean, I loved or hated it, but so what?

Brief rundown of my taste: I enjoy comics with random everyday life observations; well-written characters and character-based humor; deep thought and analysis; and/or beautiful visuals. I do not enjoy comics that are primarily about gaming, because I don't game. Comics about drinking/dating/sex tend to bore me. Many webcomics are about the web and nerd stuff, which is very on and off for me as I'm more of a semi-nerd. (My girlfriend's a total nerd, so she's managed to convert me somewhat.) I very much enjoy black humor.