The Webcomicker

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

It's not just a comic, it's a genre. A review of Banished.

Ah, Timbo. Poor, naive Timbo. From Banished.

Let's see if I can get this trainwreck moving again. I've got a lot of writing in the queue, so let's get on it.

With the rise of internet comics, we've seen a lot of crazy strips come into being that probably wouldn't have been successful if they had begun their journey in any other medium (Goats and Dinosaur Comics come to mind). These strips show a high level of innovation in terms of content and storytelling style.

But even more interesting to me than the cleverness of a few extremely talented individuals is the rise of new genres of comics through the webcomic world. Some of these genres were wholly non-existent before the web (like the ubiquitous gaming comic and the infamous sprite comic), and some of them existed in some small form but have been greatly expanded by the web (such as the journal comic) and one of these genres is the realm of the science fiction comedy.

Science fiction comedy is, obviously, a science fiction story told in the comedic style, or alternately a comedy set in the realm of science fiction. This is a genre which has existed for quite some time. Most of the efforts in this realm have been simple parodies of well-known sci-fi works (such as Spaceballs, or Mars Attacks!), but some of them have been legitimate bodies of work in their own right (such as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Futurama, although the latter is really a post-webcomics invention). However, I honestly can't think of an example of a sci-fi comedy strip in traditional comics. While the genre did exist in film, TV, and books, I'm not sure it ever crossed the gap to comics.

Boy, did the internet change that. Now we have a number of very good strips that not only fit the genre of science fiction comedy, they basically define it. Among the strips I read there's Freefall, Starslip Crisis, Schlock Mercenary, and Melonpool (and possibly Zap, although that one I'd tend to file more under "general"). And I don't read some of the major ones, like Sluggy Freelance, It's Walky, College Roomies from Hell, or Narbonic. Honestly, there's so many quality strips in that list that these guys really should get together, form a collective, and release anthologies every year. That would be awesome.

Which brings us around to the point of this post: a review of Banished, which is yet another strip in the genre of science fiction comedy. In my opinion, it says a lot about the strength of a genre when so many people can produce work in it and not be tripping over each other's toes. I mean, everybody loves a good gaming comic, but it's really hard to read more than three or four of them, because they're all treading on the same ground. But with the science fiction comedy strips, while they all fit in the genre, they cover a wide variety of styles and storylines, with many different takes on the future. There's art museum spaceships, mercenaries, alien invasions, mad scientists, and just a huge amount of potential which continues to be tapped for more quality works. It's pretty exciting.

But I digress. The point is, Banished is a science fiction comedy strip which does a good job being science fiction and comedy without feeling like it's stealing jokes from other strips. It's being written by Ryan Smith of Funny Farm fame (who actually has a book coming out... Maybe I should secure a copy. I am a sucker for a good book.) and drawn by Jamie Anderson, who may or may not be the man behind Jamie and Nick and The Destructive Tendencies of Us. *shrug* The story thus far takes place on Strix 13, a desolate planet of deserts, monsters, and mammazons. The main character, Rak, has been banished to this planet for generally making a nuisance of himself. He's the type of alien who only really cares about what's in his best interests, and what's in his best interests right now. This makes him not only an arrogant, self-absorbed jerk, but also a very poor planner. Not a good combination for staying out of trouble. On the planet he meets Timbo, a robot explorer whose desire to meet new people is equally matched with a complete naivete about how those people are going treat him.

At the moment, the series doesn't really have a cohesive plot. It's been hinted that the series is headed toward a major event which will set into motion a much more directed plot, but for the moment we've just got Rak and Timbo reacting to situations as they arise. I think some of this is Smith and Anderson still "discovering" their characters and the world they live in. The best way to learn something about your characters is to throw them in panic situations and see how they react. And the best way to flesh out your world is to think about how you're going to create interesting and consistent panic situations. It's not such a bad thing to have a long introductory period, which allows readers to become familiar with the characters and begin to develop a sense of attachment to them, so that when the plot starts heating up you've got a vested interest to stay involved.

Right now the story has a lot of energy. Rak acts very impulsively, and while he doesn't plan well, he does adapt well, which is why he and Timbo are living inside the carcass of a giant worm monster that had an unfortunate allergic reaction to eating Rak. Timbo has a bouyancy and an inquizzative mind which drives him to find new and exciting experiences. The plots are typically kept short and consist mostly of action of the "running away" variety. The humor is sharp and to the point, and in general the whole strip just feels well put-together. I've been enjoying the various random twists and turns the strip has taken as everything's being set up.

The breaking point for Banished will be in the transition from its current shortform storylines to the planned long plot, which based on my reading looks like it will be more than just an major storyline but actually the overarching plot and therefore a part of the premise of the strip itself. the question is whether Smith and Anderson will be able to keep the energy level high and not get bogged down in the minutae of storyline development. This is a very difficult thing to do. With only four panels to work with and a thrice-weekly schedule, setting up a plot can result in quite a few "wasted strips", strips that are heavy on dialogue and background without much in the way of action or a joke. And that can take the wind right out of your comic's sails. So that's something to watch out for.

Banished as a strip is almost a microcosm of the science fiction comedy genre as a whole. Its fresh, its new, its funny, and its got a huge amount of potential to be tapped. It's been set up well, and it's ready to move on to the next stage of development: full, and broad-spectrum deployment.

So good luck, Ryan Smith and Jamie Anderson. And good luck, science fiction comedy comics. I wish you all the best.


At 3:36 PM, Blogger Kneefers said...

*Jaw Drops*
Okay... missing Narbonic can be understood, since it's subscription.
Missing It's Walky can be passed off, because it's... just a pretty good comic.
But dude, there is *no* *Freakin* *Excuse* to not be reading Sluggy Freelance or even CRfH.
Put them in your queue. When you get time, read. It's just that simple.

At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Alma Mater said...

However, I honestly can't think of an example of a sci-fi comedy strip in traditional comics. While the genre did exist in film, TV, and books, I'm not sure it ever crossed the gap to comics.

Well, there is Brewster Rockit: Space Guy!, but the sci-fi webcomics are vastly superior in my opinion.

At 9:06 PM, Blogger grant said...

there's always spaceman spiff which was more of a vehicle for watterson to pay homage to krazy kat

At 2:27 AM, Blogger tedzsee said...

RE: [[But dude, there is *no* *Freakin* *Excuse* to not be reading Sluggy Freelance or even CRfH.

Yes there is. He may not *like* those strips.

I don't.

And there's no reason to *have* to like a comic, even if it has a million fans.

At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Sili said...

Between the Tangenting(tm) of Funnyfarm and now this it's as though Christmas has come early.

I think it's about bloody time people discovered just how good a writer Smith is. Yes, it's difficult to set up overarching plots in only four panels with a punchline. But that's what he's been doing seven days a week for the past seven years.

Full disclosure: I do not read Sluggy. I've tried a few times, but it has consistently failed to draw me in. I'm a sucker for CRfH!!!, though.

-the Siliconopolitan: Ryan Smith fanboy par excellence

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Gilead Pellaeon said...

In all honesty, all of those comics I listed which I don't read are on the list because they have really long archives, and I find I don't have time to read through really long archives anymore.

Perhaps I'll pick them up at some point, though.

At 7:53 PM, Anonymous Ryan said...

I'm still glad you get a kick out of Banished. :)
I am used to a 7 day-a-week update, so this has been a pretty new experience to me. I know how a big storyline can bog things down, so you can rest easy that I'll try my best to keep things organized, without losing the funny. ;)


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