The Webcomicker

Who watches the watchmen?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's fun AND educational!

A still image of the fabulous Phil Kahn from the first I'm Just Drinking Podcast.

Phil Kahn is an amazing man. A good way to describe Gabe and Tycho is "Webcomics Gurus". A good way to describe Scott McCloud is "Webcomics Experimentalist". A good way to describe Eric Burns is "Webcomics Critic". A good way to describe R. Stevens is "Webcomics Golden Boy". Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

But when you try to describe Phil Kahn, pretty much the only way is call him what he is: the quintessential "Webcomics Enthusiast". He's not just a fan, definitely not a fanboy, and not exactly an illuminati. He's simply a guy who is very actively involved in just about every facet of the webcomics community. He's got a webcomics criticism blog (currently on hiatus/finished/change of focus), ran a webcomics collective, and has various webcomic projects, both retired and current. He's one of the voices behind Digital Strips, a video editor for Clickwheel, and his latest project is a nice little wiki for webcomics inspired alcoholic drinks named I'm Just Drinking.

Which brings us to the topic of this post: The all-new I'm Just Drinking Podcast. Not satisfied to just have a vast repository of mixed-drink recipes for webcomics, Kahn has actually started recording short videos in which he demonstrates to us exactly how to actually make said recipes, and then shares the drinks with his friends, who give their thoughts on the taste, texture, and general experience of each drink. You really ought to check it out by clicknig on the picture to go watch the first episode.

I must confess that I'm somewhat biased toward this particular podcast, as it feels a lot like a cooking show, and it's about mixed drinks. I love cooking shows. If you asked any of my friends they'd definitely tell you that Food Network is my favorite channel. Good food is just one of those rare things which is perfectly enjoyable, perfectly social, and perfectly wholesome, and watching people who enjoy food as much as I do and know how to make it much better than me is quite a pleasant experience. I also love alcohol (who doesn't?), and mixed drinks are my favorite form of imbibement. So really, I love this podcast. Heck, I even think it's a great idea for a Food Network show. If any producers are out there looking for a potential show to connect with the younger audience, you might want to consider sending Kahn checks for thousands of dollars, eh?

One of the best things about the show is how Kahn uses it to promote webcomics. In this first episode the crew tries some drinks inspired by Fragile Gravity, and Kahn takes the time to actually talk about Fragile Gravity a bit and even highlight their book. Add the fact that he's selling advertising space to webcomics within the podcast itself (this episode was Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal), and you've got a lot of promoing going on, and in my opinion promotion can never be a bad thing.

I look forward to seeing how this show progresses. With Phil Kahn at the helm I'm sure we'll see some special guests and "con editions" from time to time, and this show really has the potential to be quite a lot of fun and very good for the webcomics community, so keep it up, Kahn!

Now I think I've got to take this weekend and have a little party of my own with my friends, and create some drinks for Birdsworth.

Oh, and if I had one wish, it would be to see the crew try out some drinks from Girl Genius. Especially the Sparkbuzz.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

So true.

An oversized portion of humor, from PvP.

Ok, enough pseudo-intellectual comics art critiquery talk. Time to get back to what this blog was purposed for: commenting on webcomics.

The funniest thing about yesterday's PvP is how true to life it is. I imagine Kurtz himself got the idea for the strip while sitting in an Applebee's, perusing the menu and realizing how ridiculous it is to sell an item named the "Apple Chimicheesecake". One of my favorite humor writers of all time is Dave Barry, and he's won a Pulitzer Prize for doing exactly what Scott Kurtz did in this strip: poking fun at the little absurdities that surround our everyday lives. The things that if we didn't laugh at, we'd just have to cry, because the whole world is just so cheap and fake and stupid sometimes.

Funny people know how to say absurd things, do absurd things, and make a general mockery of life. But truly great comedians know how to find the absurd which already exists and highlight it just enough that their audiences gain and understanding of just how silly we all really are. Well done, Scott Kurtz, you really had me laughing at this one.

Oh, and by the way: "Honey I Fudged the Kids". CLASSIC.

Scott Kurtz, I owe you a beer.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

He's Baaaaaaack!

The cover from Scott McCloud's latest work, Making Comics.

Ladies and gentleman, Scott McCloud has returned. The cover of Making Comics proudly declares "From the Author of Understanding Comics". Notice it does not say "From the Author of Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics". And rightly so. Scott McCloud the comics-deconstructionist has returned. Scott McCloud the comics-theorist has moved to the background for this book. In a perfect book, this would have been the second book McCloud wrote, and Reinventing Comics would have been the completion of the trilogy, if it were written at all.

So let's forget about Reinventing Comics for the moment. Forget the bitter arguments about micropayments and infinite canvas and remember Understanding Comics, the one who made people realize the incredible complexity of comics and what an amazing storytelling device they are. The one that has become required reading for any serious art student and every comics enthusiast. That's the vein Making Comics is in.

Making Comics is an incredible deconstruction of the process of making comics. As McCloud himself says in the book: "There are no rules, and here they are." It takes you every step of the way, from creating characters (both in personality and in look) to writing stories to deciding how to break up the story and dialogue into panels. He even covers different art supplies for doing the actual drawing and the different effects they will give. I've never seen a book this complete on the process, start-to-finish, on any topic, much less comics.

Of special note are the first chapter and the special topics in the back. The first chapter talks about "Choice of Frame", meaning exactly what you want to put in each frame. In my opinion, this is ultimately the most difficult part of the comic making process, and the one which deep-sixes the most comics. You can have the greatest story in the world, but if choice of frame makes it hard for people to follow what's going on, they're not going to enjoy it. You may have well thought out, well developed characters, but if your choice of frame never highlights the unique aspects and quirks of your characters, your readers won't connect with them. It's a matter of choosing the camera angle, the exact moments of time, and the intensity level for every panel, and Scott McCloud covers the options for each choice in great detail.

As for the special sections in the back, they are the most likely to generate controversy and are the least useful for the actual process of Making Comics, but are still an interesting read. McCloud devotes one section to talking about manga and its influence on American comics. We are already seeing a lot of blending of manga with traditional American and European comics (especially in webcomics), and manga itself has become such a major industry outside of Japan that it simply cannot be ignored any more. McCloud also spends a section talking about different types of comics creators (perhaps you remember the preview of this section over at The Webcomics Examiner) in which he divides everybody up into four categories: Classicist, Animist, Formalist, and Iconoclast. Frankly, these divisions are probably too sharp, and McCloud himself admits it in the book, but it does give those of us who always thought R. Crumb was a nut some common ground for appreciation, which is always nice.

As for actual drawing tips, the book spends a great deal of time talking about making believable characters, good facial expressions, and what tools you might want to use, but doesn't really try to teach you how to draw. After all, there are already hundreds of books out there on that topic, and besides, it's the sort of thing you only learn with practice anyways.

Perhaps the best thing about the book are the extensive notes and exercises at the end of every chapter. After all, this book wasn't meant just to be a heady theoretical experience, it's supposed to actually help you make comics. Anyone looking to improve their skills would do well to practice all the exercises at the end of each chapter.

All in all, I'd recommend this book to anyone. It makes you think long and hard about how you make comics, and inspires you to make better comics. I for one was inspired to hit the sketchbook and really try to develop my drawing skills. Others might be inspired to go back through their work and think about how they could have framed it better, or to really rethink their storylines and enrich their characters. There's something for everyone to learn here.

And of course, Scott McCloud being who he is, he plugs quite a few webcomics in the book (even Templar, Arizona!). This book is going to lend a look of respectability to webcomics, and I'm all about that.

So why don't you go out and buy it?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A firm grounding in the basics.

So, I took a little break from webcomics. Not from reading my daily trawl, of course. The daily trawl is to me the equivalent of picking up the newspaper and reading the headlines, it's just something I do every day. But I took a break from reading new stuff and from writing commentary, because I felt I was lacking some necessary grounding.

See, I read webcomics. In fact, I read a lot of webcomics. Not as many as some people, but still, a lot. I've been reading webcomics for three or four years now, and I've gotten to know the community fairly well in that time, even feel like I might be on first name basis with a few creators. But here's the thing: I've never read print comics.


As a kid I was actually pretty much banned from reading comics (a result of a very conservative upbringing), except the comic strips in the newspapers. And I was a big fan of those. I had over 100 Peanuts books. I had every collection of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. At the library, I checked out all the Far Side books, and also stuff like Hi and Lois, Dagwood, Fox Trot, Dilbert, and Close to Home. But as for comic books, alternative comics and graphic novels, no sirree.

Then came college, and all those comic strips got left at home. I didn't get a newspaper anymore so I couldn't keep up with them. And there was no way I was going to get "into" comic books at this late of an age. My new obsession was the internet, and the vast possibilities that the college broadband connection had opened to me. I wasted all my time playing online games, talking in chat rooms and posting in forums.

One semester I took an art class to fill some hours in my schedule. The class was actually on bookmaking, which was pretty fun. And one day in class my teacher mentioned that some guy named Scott McCloud was coming to visit campus and give a lecture on comics on the internet. Being the internet junkie that I was, I thought this sounded interesting. So I went to his lecture, was intrigued by what he had to say, and checked out some of the websites he had mentioned (including Penny Arcade).

And it was all downhill from there.

But the important thing to glean from this entire story is that I came to webcomics basically from nowhere. Sure I had my knowledge of newspaper strips, but really, who doesn't? And that didn't give me a very broad background at all - I'd only seen one very specific type of comic, and a really narrow subset of that type even. When I started The Webcomicker it was because I felt I had something to say about webcomics. I'd read quite a few (although the list has grown substantially since I started this site), and even made some haphazard attempts at creating my own. I thought I had some idea of what webcomics were good, and even what made them good, and in any case I had an opinion and some writing skill and that's all that really matters, right?

Well, I found that I always felt like I lacked some of the necessary perspective to be a proper critic. I read essays by Eric Burns and Gary Tyrrell and realized that they knew a lot more about comics than I did. I know a lot about webcomics, and I read most of what are widely considered the best, but webcomics are still considered somewhat of a fringe, or at least a subset of comicdom. I'd never read what general society considers to be the greatest comics of our time. The comics which won Pulitzers, Hugos, and Eisners. The comics which were considered groundbreaking and influential. The comics which had great respect even amongst the greater artistic community. And I felt that as a result I was seriously lacking in perspective.

So I decided to change that. I decided that it was time to build myself a firm grounding in the basics. And so I took a break from webcomics and read a bunch of graphic novels. I borrowed them all from a couple of friends and voraciously tore through them, consuming them in a way I usually consume webcomic archives. Some of the novels on the list I read in a single sitting, sometimes a sitting of upwards of eight hours.

Here's the list. I don't consider it to be the "end all list of every great comic ever printed" but I do consider it to be a strong representative sample:
-Ghost World
-Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth
-To the Heart of the Storm (by Will Eisner)

And then I read Making Comics (I already read Understanding Comics, after Scott McCloud's lecture). More on that in another post.

I really enjoyed reading these books, and I could definitely see when reading them what makes people think they are so great. I was also very happy to see all of the books referenced repeatedly in Making Comics, which validated the choices in my mind. I know there's about a hundred more books that I could read to expand my vision even more, but I'm happy with these for now.

And so I return to you a more informed critic with a wider perspective. Will it make me any better of a critic? We'll have to wait and see. Am I happy I did it? HECK YEAH.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Sweet Mother of Mercy.

It's baaaaaaaack! From Elf Only Inn.

I've taken a bit of a break from webcomics recently in order to give myself a more firm grounding in the classics (more on that later), but I just had to mention this.

Elf Only Inn is back. After a two year hiatus, one of the classics in webcomics, and perhaps one of webcomics' most underrated strips, has returned.

The promotional image that Josh Sortelli put up seems to imply that the gang is going to be moving from it's original location on a chatroom to the realm of MMORPGs. Which makes sense, really. MMORPGs have become today what chatrooms were five years ago: a place to hang out, make friends, and pretend that you are cool. What better place for the motley crew of Elf Only Inn to be?

There is one thing that worries me, though. For those of you that have been fans of Elf Only Inn for awhile, do you notice anyone conspicuously absent from that picture?

Woot! Where is Lord Wootsayediditagyn?! I can only hope that this is just a tease by Sortelli, because an Elf Only Inn without Woot would be a sad thing indeed. In any case, I look forward to seeing where this goes.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Because art can be cool too.

A line from a "color sonnet", from Graphic Poems.

In any medium, there will always be artists who want to play. Whether it be Christo and his obsession with wrapping stuff, or the crazy sidewalk chalk art of Julian Beever, if there's a medium, there's an artist who will try to push the limits.

And webcomics are no exception. In fact, webcomics are really more of the rule. Since their inception, webcomics have been a medium where artists can come and play, and push the boundaries of what it means to be a "comic". Scott McCloud has been the impetus of some of this work, what with Reinventing Comics, and he's definitely helped spread inventions and ideas by linking to them from his site and constantly talking them up at his conventions and university talks. Heck, as I've said before Scott McCloud is the person who first introduced me to the concept of webcomics, and I owe him incredibly just for that.

So it's always fun to find people who are pushing the envelope, trying new and different things, not so much "alternative comickers" who are encorporating radical art and storytelling styles into comics, but people who are really testing the boundaries of comics and inventing new concepts.

So I'm really fascinated by the work of Derik Badman and Grant Thomas. Now, before people start yelling foul, yes, Grant Thomas is the artist behind Birdsworth and yes, he and I are actually very good friends in real life. But I think he's got some interesting stuff going on here beyond my potential vested interest due to friendship.

Both of these guys run more "traditional" webcomics as addition to their deviations. Badman did a comic called Maroon which in my opinion did an excellent job of capturing the essence of loneliness and is currently working on what appears to be a relationship drama called Things Change. Thomas is working on a quasi-biographical story very similar in feel to Blankets but different in tone called My Life in Records. But it's the experimental stuff they've produced which I want to discuss today.

Basically, what these guys have been trying to do is transform literary forms into comic forms. Badman got things started by first experimenting with comic hiakus. Basically the idea was to convey the feel of a hiaku, which as Badman describes it is "Three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. A season is mentioned as is nature, and some emotion is conveyed indirectly," in comics form. And by using varied panel widths, I think he's done a really good job.

Well, Thomas latched on to this and wondered if it would be possible to transform other literary forms. The results thus far have been the color sonnets, the art show, and NOW (pivotgrams).

The color sonnets, like Badman's hiakus, are an attempt to transform the literary form of the sonnet into comics form, and Thomas has created the purest form of it, using only gradients of color in his panels to convey meaning. I didn't really "get it" at first when looking at the pretty squares, but eventually I realized that each page is actually only a single line in the poem, and then it becomes clear as you see the flow and "rhyming" from line to line. I especially like the twist in line 13, which is typical of English sonnets, and so it's the image I thumbnailed in this post. I'd really like to see either Thomas or someone else develop this form further by using iconic artwork or even full illustrations, but at it stands it's a great proof of concept.

I think in order to understand "the art show", you've got to read NOW first. This will give you an understanding of what a pivotgram is. I'm a big fan of pivotgrams and slip poetry myself (in fact, I once wrote a biography of my life in slip poetry), so I had a hand in inspiring NOW, but I like the direction that Thomas has taken it. After reading NOW, go take a look at the art show. do you see the pivoting? Sometimes it's literal (as in from panel 1 to panel 2) and sometimes it's more iconic (as in from page 1 to page 2), but you can feel the comic pivoting from one point to another. Now, I think this is a technique that has been used by comics before, but creating a comic which enforces a pivot in every panel and still tries to tell a story is pretty neat in my book.

So check them out, and try some experiments of your own! I'd love to see interpretations of how other literary forms such as anagrams, acrostics, and palindromes can be converted into comics. There's a huge world out there to explore.