Thursday, March 28, 2013

Early Webcomics

Over the past few Thursdays, I've been posting old scripts from a aborted webcomic project a year or so back. Truth be told, I revised the first set heavily and have subsequently thrown out the old ones in favor of straight-up writing new material.

Even then, I wasn't satisfied with the result. I'll get back to it next Thursday, but I thought that I'd take a second to look over some popular webcomics and talk about what they did and how they did it in the beginning.
Sluggy Freelance-Riff and Torg, who don't have names until the second comic, are two guys just fucking with technology. The first week features demon summoning via internet, Windows 95 jokes, and knocks on Alanis Morissette. Still though, it quickly tells you that Torg is kind of a geek and wears unmoving plaid, Riff solves problems and wears sunglasses, they drink, they play on computers, and they live in a world where you can summon demons on the internet as a gag.

Something Positive-I don't know if any comic hits the ground running like Something Positive; you know by the end of the first week that Davan and crew are blisteringly inappropriate. You know they are maligned and indifferent charicatures in a world of charicatures that are quick to malign and not nearly as deserving of regard as they think.

The comic shifts over time from young adults making noise and pissing off a rotten world that shits on them into one where they find the places they can relax, thrive, and roll some of that shit further downhill.

Schlock Mercenary-It oozes might-makes-right punchlines and military-culture-seen-from-the-bleaches humor right out of the gate, but the first week of Schlock Mercenary gives us a bit more than those. We see anthropomorphic snakes as lawyers, the juxtaposition of military versus legal power, some sexism jibes, and an impromptu etymology lesson.

While things like teraports, annihilation plants, and unfettered AIs become central to the story, Howard Taylor does a great job with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink future setting. He casts such a wide net that almost any story--drama, comedy, action, awkward romance--can fit within the "feel" of the setting. It works because it's executed cleverly and plays by its own rules.

Penny Arcade-Gabe and Tycho talk about video games. I'm not sure when you even learn their names and their personalities aren't too terribly distinct in the early comics. One of them is having a computer problem while the other one jokes. Next week, they swap. Gabe is slightly more impulsive. Tycho is a bit more intellectual, but it's so close I could be imagining that.

Penny Arcade was a bad choice for this, in retrospect. Not because of any qualities it does or doesn't have, but because it's a very free-form, gag-a-day comic that doesn't worry about narrative, story, or crafting a consistent universe.

Sinfest-Fuck.Sinfest deals with God, The Devil, Buddha, and a handful of far more interesting mortals. The first comic introduces Slick and The Devil and establishes a pretty carefree tone. The only words spoke are "What the hell." That's pretty light. The first week of Sinfest says, "here are some characters, but occasionally I'm going to do whatever the hell I want. Deal with it."

It's certainly something I can deal with. Sinfest manages to populate its cast entirely with archetypes without losing their humanity. It currently features the only everyman character in comics that I've ever not wanted to punch.

Fans!-...except Rikk Oberf. Fans! is my favorite webcomic (yes even over Warren Ellis' Freakangels), but those qualities aren't apparent here. Fans! is about nerds and sex. It's no Oglaf. We instantly get the extremes of the characters involved. We understand that this universe has its ersatz versions of Star Trek and that there's some grating realism underneath the adoring fandom that motivates our protagonists.

Fans! was about kids punching out of their weight class because they believed in an idealism even their mentors didn't. It was about the lie of fiction made true by belief. Before I gush any more I want to say this was a perfect first strip to illustrate that.

Roomies!-Talk about protagonists I want to punch in the face. So we know who Danny is, we know he's starting college and we know his (unpictured) roommate Joe is inappropriately into women. In the first week, we can see that Danny is studious, Joe is a slacker, and their RA is a Star Trek fan. It's about two odd couple best friend college students and their wacky carefree adventures (mostly). It doesn't seem particularly illuminating, but it's a solid start.

Starslip Crisis-Every other entry in this list is of new writers starting comics for the first time (Jason Waltrip was a seasoned artist when he started drawing Fans! for T. Campbell).  Kris Straub had done Checkerboard Nightmare before starting Starslip Crisis. You quickly understand that Starslip Crisis takes place on a museum ship in the distant future with a foppish man and his alien manservant. More stuff is going on here, but it's an effective introduction.

Ctl+Alt+Del-It starts out self-aware. In fact, the first week is highly self-aware. Honestly, it does a lot more to define the differences between its leads than Penny Arcade does in the beginning, what with one character being an insane cartoon and the other one being a straight man. We understand the premise and characters pretty quickly.

XKCD-What. The. Hell.

The first strips of XKCD were nothing but random ideas and sketches. There's no character or setting established. And yet, XKCD is one of the most successful webcomics on the internet.

Or maybe it's not.

But it should be.

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