Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday Webcomic Review 4: Shadowbinders

So a couple weeks ago I attended an online comics convention called WebReef. Not a big event or nothing, but it was a good chance to get some networking, socializing with other comic artists and enthusiasts. It was hosted by the creators of the comic Shadowbinders, (Kambrea and Kneon, unaware of real names) and alongside the other comics I found that weekend I figured I’d give theirs a readthrough as well. And since it’s been a few weeks since our last review was posted, I figured I’d write a review for it as well.

Unfortunately, I have to be honest: I didn’t like what I saw.

The comic starts off pretty good. An action sequence, some interesting-looking characters on a flying ship and a battle. The sequence is brought to an end by a man in red shooting fire from his hands – the man has piercing blue eyes. A mug shot of this man’s face was the host’s avatar at Webreef, and it was those eyes that got me interested in the first place, it was an excellent first impression on a character. There’s no text through the opening sequence of 8 pages, and it’s revealed to be a dream. We enter the life of a teenage girl.

The art is vibrant, full color, and I cant say anything bad about it. My socks weren’t blown off, but I can tell a good amount of effort goes into these pages, and I have respect for that. But it’s the writing that started to turn me off. We go into Mia’s world at school, her crush on the best-looking boy in school and his girlfriend being unbelievably cruel to her (honestly, I don’t think I ever met a bigger bitch in my own high school, and I was the school-wide target for 3 years). Typical high school girl. It’s not for a little while yet that we get back to the ship, which … is another dimension, or something. It’s not made clear, perhaps that’s part of the mystery. But I’m going to stop myself here from simply recapping the story, because that’s not what a review is supposed to do.

The real cast of Shadowbinders is in the extra-dimensional world. Mia’s friends in the real world seem to lack depth, making it difficult for me even able to remember their names. Unfortunately, the same thing happens in the extra-dimensional world. Of the 4 inhabitants of the flying ship that Mia finds herself stuck on, one is a back-talking rabbit-thing who only ever succeeded in slightly disturbing me, one was a woman whose name escapes me (the cast page tells me it's Elaina, and that's not ringing any bells for me) and who seems to serve absolutely no purpose on the ship at all. Tristan is an engineer of sorts who seems to be the right-hand man, and the ship’s Captain, Rhen, is the piercing blue-eyed man… whose first impression breaks down as soon as he opens his mouth.

Rhen is revealed to be a womanizing scoundrel of sorts. He is the most powerful mage in this world, which I suppose gives him some leeway for being overconfident, however he seems to be unable to keep both his eyebrows on the same level and consistently sports a wide, toothy grin. This is referred to as the “Smarm Brow” and my opinion on it was solidified once I’d seen a Lackadaisy page tackle it. Basically, I can’t take a character like this seriously. He lacks the charm that regularly comes with the womanizing scoundrel, as seen in memorable characters like James Bond and Han Solo. I just can’t like him, and that’s a shame, as he is one of the leading characters.

As for the events in the comic, the one thing about it that stood out to me is that everything seems to be just a little bit rushed. The amount of stuff that has happened in 150 pages (half-pages, actually, by the comic’s format) is a little offputting and nothing seems to organically move from one place to another. Logistically it works fine, but nothing had the time to really sink in, it was just off to the next location or story point. Things begin and end rather abruptly and none of the characters have reacted to something in a way that makes me identify with them. Rhen seemed to take an immediate interest and recognize the ring that Mia uses to travel between worlds, which got my attention, but focus was then taken off of that point and hasn’t been brought up again yet.

All in all, nothing about Shadowbinders stood out to me as original, unique, or risqué enough to become really memorable. I would love to see some moments of long-form introspection or one-on-one conversation between the characters that doesn’t revolve entirely around Mia or her dreams – stuff that lets us see into the characters’ inner lives, their personalities. Something to paint the rest of their actions with, and to identify with, because at the moment the only things I can bring to mind is that Rhen is overconfident and cocky, and Mia is … typical. The others haven’t even shown themselves to be that much. I feel like there’s too much focus on the events themselves, and not enough focus on how the characters react to and are affected by them. Like we’re being strung along through plot points and the people exist only as a vessel to carry us from place to place.

But, that’s just my opinion. With 2,300 likes on facebook at 150 pages (Our World has 60 and our facbeook likes never went above 10, half of which are my own real-world friends who don’t even read comics) they must be doing something right. Kneon is also capable of writing some damn good articles, if his investigation of TopWebcomics rankings is any indication (which can, and should be, read here: but as for his comic itself, I can’t say it caught me.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Once Upon a Time on the Internet

I follow three websites. There are plenty of websites I read for one reason or another - webcomics, news, video, video games - but there are only three websites I actually follow in the sense that the website itself is such an immersive experience that it can't simply be dipped into, it must be explored.

The most recent addition is Cracked, which trades in pop culture, humor and forgotten obscurities, which I picked up on last year. The second is The Onion, the online arm of a national satirical newspaper, which I've read since 2006.

And that leaves the last one - the beautifully, ecstatically, ridiculously bewildering mess that is Something Awful, where "The Internet Makes You Stupid."

I was introduced to Something Awful in 2003. It defies description now as it defies description then, but the description being defied has changed over the years, sort of like the transformation, under heat and pressure, of coal to slightly more compact coal. This is what the site looked like in early 2003 (specifically March 26, 2003):

And here's what it looks like today, February 27, 2012 (without the ads engaged):

Since it showcases such a wide variety of material, the logical analogy for Something Awful is a television station, but I can't think of any kind of programming block that corresponds. It's sort of like a public-access channel run by middle schoolers inside the Twilight Zone, except the twist is that you've actually dreamed the whole thing and the dreams are coming from inside the house.

How do you classify, say, today's feature article, PC-COP!, in which "International strengthman Hyurgi Tigerwoods endorses his cousin's new PC accelerator and anti-virus software, PC-COP"? In the off-chance that the link doesn't work or you don't have the time to explore, the synopsis is that a Russian Internet huckster, who has previously sourced some of the finest Soviet castoffs for American buyers, is now pitching a poorly cloaked piece of spyware that costs $9.99 per week.

What the hell kind of category do you file THAT under? Going through the archives, it turns out I'm not the only one with this trouble:

From SA founder Rich "Lowtax" Kyanka: "Tee hee. Check out the description of Something Awful over at Backbeat Media (thanks to Kerplunk for notifying me of this):

Something Awful is a news, information, and entertainment site for the PC gaming community. The site features news, columns, reviews, chat rooms, and forums dealing with PC games and game related products. SA's often comic, satirical spin on the gaming industry has built an extremely loyal community of site enthusiasts that continues to grow by the day.

"Poor guys. I can just imagine the meeting when they were trying to come up with an accurate description of this site.

" Backbeat Person #1: Hmmm, so what are we going to write about Something Awful? I mean, our other sites like Firewire World and The Mac Observer are easy to explain; they're about Firewire and Macs. What's Something Awful about?
"Backbeat Person #2: I have no clue (pulling up Something Awful on their computer). He has some 1,000 word diatribe on the front page detailing how he thinks his ass stopped growing around junior high school and now he thinks it's getting larger again.
"Backbeat Person #1: Dear Lord. Oh well, click around the site a bit and see what else is on there.
"Backbeat Person #2: Some person named "Jeff K." is calling all his readers "fagots" and writing death threats to game designers.
"Backbeat Person #1: (kills himself)"

"Jeff K." doesn't update anymore, but he's far from the last fake character to speak through the site, as Hyurgi Tigerwoods (actually long-time writer Zack Parsons) can attest. Joining the ranks of the the active and forgotten are cantankerous bastard Cliff Yablonski, fake lawyer Leonard J. Crabs, a heavily fictionalized version of Levi Johnston, Roamin' Dad and more. I don't even like all of this stuff - some of it is bewildering and some of it is offensive - but I've been reading for nine years now and I still can't tell you what I'm looking at. And it takes talent to keep a person bewildered that long.

Mind you, I was thirteen when I started reading this stuff, but I'm still amazed at least every other day by what they come up with. I was devestated when I figured out that Leonard Crabs wasn't a real attorney, but it's okay because he lives on in each of us. Also I probably shouldn't have been reading this stuff when I was 13, but there's nothing to do about it now.

Despite trading on humor, some of the site's best stuff is the really esoteric material Zack Parsons comes up with. He has a deft hand in comedy - as his participation in site projects Fashion SWAT and WTF, D&D!? shows - but his real strength comes in science fiction.

I first took notice of this in a bizarre serial called "That Insidious Beast," which attempts to shake the reader with each new installment by changing formats, narrators and subject matter at a blistering pace. The grainy picture that emerges, of "a world not quite our own," is one of the most beautifully disturbing things I've ever seen.

Parsons is now working on a book called Liminal States, which appears to be even more terrifyingly indescribable than "That Insidious Beast." The title itself is ominous because it doesn't say a damn thing; a "liminal state," as best I can tell, is a period of transition. A change.

I've already seen once that a man who can make something hilarious yet impossible to describe can also take away the "hilarious" part and leave the indescribable behind. Despite the immersiveness of the Internet, and the gregariousness of SA in general, all his science fiction stories make you feel like you're walking home on a rainy day and you've found something by the side of the road - something you're not sure you should touch...

As effuse as I've just been, I don't believe I've ever written about Something Awful before, though I tend to read the Hyurgi Tigerwoods installments out loud to my fiancee. The only thing stopping me from dropping the $10 and joining their forum is that they don't take kindly to furries. I don't actually consider myself a furry, but considering the webcomic I write for, it's a distinction that would be understandably hard to make.

And also I don't have $10 right now.

But when I do, I'm going to snap up a copy of Liminal States. No ebook for me, thanks; I'll take the paperback copy so I can shove it in between Earth Abides and Night Slaves.

I spend enough time around technology as it is. After all, the internet makes you stupid.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What's in a Name?

Here's an article I've been meaning to write for awhile: Where the characters in Our World got their names.

When I joined the project, the four main characters - Jillian Whitecross, Peter Whitecross, Alexis Wilder and Art Canfield - all had first names, and only Art lacked a last name. All the other characters were named by me, and so they all bear my markings on one way or another.

The last name Canfield actually came from a book I read, called Under a Green Sky, in which author Peter Ward describes an Earth violently different from our own. This Earth is far hotter than our own, and as presented in the narrative as both a kind of Ghost of Christmas Past and Ghost of Christmas Future - what may come to pass if the atmosphere continues to warm. One of the bizarre side effects of a warmer Earth in the past (and future?) is the depletion of oxygen in the world's oceans. Without oxygen, the aerated ocean we know and love gives way to a "Canfield ocean" populated by anaerobic bacteria. The hydrogen sulfide they produce would, according to the book, lead to the green sky mentioned in its title.

When I was reading this, in the spring or summer of 2010, I was still hammering out the details for the first plot arc in Our World, in which we meet Art's uncle Art, the realtor. And suddenly a very oblique joke clicked together in my head: Canfield Ocean Estates.

Don't worry; I never expected anybody to get that; the concept of the Canfield ocean isn't particularly well-known. In fact, it's so obscure that after "Canfield Ocean Estates" went up we actually began getting hits on it from Google. It is, at least for now, on the first page of Google results for the phrase "Canfield ocean." Go figure.

Hank was originally based on a very quiet guy I worked with in 2009 named Henry (hence the name relation; I had to keep stopping myself from calling Henry Hank). Henry, who also worked in the loading bay of a department store, didn't have that undertone of got-to-get-it-done grimness Hank does. I did have a later coworker at a different job who did, though. His name was... Frank. That, at least, is a coincidence. I think.

Lisa and Clyde, Jill's coworkers, were named separately, though I now realize there's a sort of "Bonnie and Clyde" vibe to them. Lisa was named because "Lisa" seemed like a good name, but Clyde was named "Clyde" because I was playing a lot of Pac Man around the time I needed a name for Jill's other coworker. Kuurion picked out last names for them when he did "Meet the Metallurgist," though.

Milo Dedicoat, an apparent prisoner of whatever organization once had custody of Jill, is actually named after a character of the same name in a screenplay I wrote in 2005 called High Panache. (I tried to have my fellow college students make it into a movie that same year, after writing the entire thing during the summer. It almost happened.) His odd last name has its own origin story: My father had found a page in some company report containing a list of ranking company officers, all of whom had really weird last names. Knowing I was a writer, he gave me the page to use for characters. Several of the odd names worked their way into the script at one point or another, but the only one that ended up staying was "Dedicoat" as the last name of the protagonist.

And, speaking of Milo, we conclude with the nigh-unpleasable Trilby Dobler, whom he is shown delivering orders to at the beginning of chapter 2. Her name is what happens when you pencil in a name as a placeholder and become attached to it without knowing. Her name comes from an awesomely bad and spectacularly obscure movie called Lords of the Deep, which is set on the ocean floor in the dystopian future. It features, among other terrible caricatures, Commander Dobler and a control computer called Trilby. I had settled on "Trilby" before "Dobler," but after saying them together long enough it stuck.

That's not all of the names, but those are the ones that have backstories. And there you have it! Get off my lawn.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Always on the Eve of Destruction

According to Wikipedia, the Iraq War lasted from March 20, 2003 until December 18, 2011. On March 20, 2003, I was a student in middle school. On December 18, 2011, I was a college graduate employed in my field and engaged to be married.

I have not known an America without war since my childhood. Even if America is done in Iraq, there is always the question of Afghanistan, a conflict that continues to rumble in the background. But that's for me, as an American; things are far more wretched from the other end of the telescope. Afghanistan has been at war since 1978, against the Soviet Union (1979-1989), the US (2001 - present), and itself throughout. You can read the details here, but basically what we think of as the War in Afghanistan is actually the third act in a very long and bloody play. It somehow gets worse when you find out that the average life expectancy there is about 44 years and you suddenly realize that there aren't going to be that many people who can clearly remember a time before there was war.

If that previous sentence didn't bum you out, you're welcome to look at Wikipedia's list of modern conflicts in the Middle East, which runs from 1918 to the present. War is more common than the lack of war.

And so, at last, we arrive at the present and find that the United States and Israel are engaged in an increasingly tense standoff with Iran over the latter's nuclear ambitions. If you ask the Iranians what they're doing in underground laboratories with uranium, they'll tell you that they're working on a nuclear reactor for the generation of electricity. The other two openly suspect that the Iranians might be building an atom bomb. The politics of it all get so much more complicated after that that nobody really knows what will happen next. And that's bad.

I hope this doesn't sound too detached, but how much more war can this part of the world take? And how much more can the United States take? The 1990s were tremendously dull for me when they happened, but now I can't help but think how nice it would be to live in a country that's not at war somewhere. We have too many problems here at home to afford another war, and yet there is a point beyond which not fighting is worse than fighting. The problem with that is that no two people can ever agree on where that point is - and, in this case, the stakes are exceptionally high.

EDIT: I've just learned that Anonymous is reporting (but not taking credit for) the disabling of the CIA's website, which explains why I couldn't use it to check Afghanistan's life expectancy rate a few minutes ago (I ended up using Wikipedia). In the spirit of looking at what a fantastic and frightening place the world is, take a few minutes to read this article about the rise of the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of rebellion. It may be coming soon to a street near you.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Back to Myeh

On Wednesday, the nice people at DeviantArt let me have my account back. After being locked out since 2009, I finally gave up trying to remember which password and email I had and managed to prove to them that I was me.

In addition to some photographs and bad fan art (I cannot, and never could, draw), I produced what is arguably my finest visual creation: A fantasy novel-style map of the Kingdom of Myeh. Behold!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wednesday Webcomic Review 3: Nerf This

I was a fool to think I could escape my own work ethic, even for a weekend. I’m currently in the car on a road trip up the mountains for New Year’s, where 10 people are going to sleep in an area fit for 4 at most. Awesome times – but that damn nagging in the back of my head won’t let me ignore my homework. I blame you for this, mother!

So that being said, let’s launch into my second webcomic review: Nerf This.

First off, this is not a gaming comic. I was a tad confused for the first dozen or so pages when no video game references came up, because to a former hardcore online game player (mostly World of Warcraft) “Nerf” means to weaken through a patch. Nerfing something is making it less potent.

But the comic brought it up in a scene about nerf bats. Good, I was glad to have that cleared up so I could actually read it for what it WAS, not what I was expecting it to be.

And what Nerf This is, is pretty funny. It’s one of those gag-a-day-while-still-having-a-story comics. (I don’t know if actually updates every day, I read comics by the archives) Scott Ferguson is pretty good at injecting a joke into almost any situation, even the tense and dramatic ones where humor doesn’t belong. It definitely breaks the tenseness of the moment, but in a good way that doesn’t feel awkward so much as just the right amount of silly, and in that sense it’s good to see that Nerf This is very self-aware. It’s a joke strip, and he does whatever the hell he wants within it but always gets that laugh nonetheless, on par at least with Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content in that regard. (one of my favourites that I’ll get to one day).

It wasn’t always like that though, there were a few times during the earlier archives when my “I’m not laughing” face came out and had to push forward through the page, trusting that the next one would make it up. This might be because it was relying on the 'safe' bet of over-the-top crazy humor, which (and this is a personal preference) I've seen far too many times. That being said, there were still laughs to be had (particularly with the Koalas – they're on his cast page.) I don’t fault Scott for the choice, start with what works until you can find your niche, I’m just stating it for what it is. The first few pages themselves are interesting, setting the tone as a silly gag strip (by means of a senior’s UFC league) and creates a curiosity for the 4 or 5 pages it goes on, and I'm glad to say that the more recent comics about the main cast seem to be more grounded in realism (or at least the sense of realism that comes with the story.) Soon after the UFC League is the introduction of Monty, who may or may not be the main character, I’m not sure. It’s his mug shot on the logo, and he has the first entry on the cast page, but he’s also a 6-inch tall monster that can only say “SKEEEE”. It doesn’t really matter, because he’s still awesome, and I’m a bit surprised at just how many different things “SKEEEEE!” can mean in context.

Mostly any eye-rolling induced was due to the other contender for main character, Chase Connors. He’s a typical social misfit, typically taken up to the point of being unable to realistically function in society. It’s shocking that he maintains any friends at all, who seem indifferent to his shenanigans at best if not outright repulsed by them, which gives me a sense of inconsistency (a pet peeve). His kind of over-the-top humor usually fails to tickle my funny bone, because it’s not even clever, it’s just weird for weird’s sake (and relies too much on penis and sex jokes, which might work for a younger audience; I’m 22 and gamed online, that stuff is beyond stale to me). Chase works works well as the setup for a joke, and in that he’s valuable, but he doesn’t handle punch lines well. He’s also Monty’s owner, so blegh. Can’t have one without the other. As with the rest of the comic, it does seem to be getting better, but mostly because comics as of late have been dealing with a large story problem and he’s always around other people.

Back to some good stuff. Chase has a girlfriend, and she has a dad. That dad is awesome. Mr. Mills is, if I recall correctly, a lumberjack, (Correction: Upon making it home and editing this with internet access, he's a simple adventurer-for-hire) whose beard is capable of sparkling. Also, he wrestles bears. He seems like the only one who actually outright detests Chase, which leads to plenty of awkward <sigh> moments; a bad sigh for him, but funny for us, because it’s only funny if someone suffers, right? Scott has a penchant for “gentlemanly” humor to boot, and there’s very little that can’t be improved with a top hat and old English mannerisms. And about half the time, it’s done by animals.

On that front, a lot of his comics as of late have been of the non-sequitor type. One side-story tells some of the events around the villain’s origins, using clipped greyscale photos of old Englishmen with eyepatches. The other two are straight-up off the wall, one of which is jokes involving the maker himself and his cadre of gentlemanly animals (and a chicken whore), and lastly a series involving the forces within Chase’s head, appropriately labeled such things as “Emotion” “Logic” and “Repressed Rage”. The fact that base emotions like that can take on characteristics all to themselves (as simple as they may be) is clever and ridiculously obvious once someone else has thought of it. Doubtless caused a dozen or so hands to flail upwards with a “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

Anyways, where was I going with that? Right, these comics have been more common than the story comics lately. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that it lined up with the resolution of the big villain story arc; maybe he’s got nowhere to go from here and is posting silly fillers until he can find a direction? I’ll still keep checking, because it’s still funny as hell, but I hope whatever writer’s block he has gets figured out soon. I miss Monty.

Lastly, since I’m an artist, I can’t let a comic go without a word on the art. Art can legitimately make or break a comic for me; good art will catch my attention and get me started on reading, and bad art can defile my eyes with every page to the point that I cannot go on, regardless of the quality of writing. Nerf This starts out very simple and cartoony (complete with Stretch Armstrong rubber limbs), but it was just talent unrefined. As time has gone on, Scott's style has evolved drastically, but don’t let the beginning art turn you off. It’s pushed forward to something wonderful, with lots of heavy shading and an overall more earthy tone, further grounding the feel in “reality”. The same style is used in another of his comics, Scout Crossing, and perhaps lends itself much more to that environment, where the gritty tones and dark shadows can flourish with full pages as opposed to the physical confines of a joke strip. I am very excited for Scout Crossing and will follow it with high expectations – once there’s a bit more to the archives, I’ll add it to my review list.

Summing it up, Nerf This is definitely worth checking out – it doesn’t fall into any one category or niche, and can be enjoyed by anyone with a sense of humor younger than the 70’s. It’s funny, it’s very clever, and is guaranteed to get you giggling once it gets going. (ooh, alliteration. That wasn’t even intentional!) Check it out here:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Felix Baumgartner, Master of the Stratosphere

I'd just like to take a moment of your day to remind you that the human race has never stopped pushing the boundaries of what will kill it. If you haven't bare-knuckle boxed another species today, it's your loss.

Felix Baumgartner will soon be attempting what he hopes to be the longest fall anybody ever survived. The Austrian, who has a history of base jumping and sky diving, will be jumping out of a balloon at 120,000 feet at some point in the near but unspecified future. This according to the BBC. Baumgartner's Wikipedia page has a remarkable number of "citation needed" marks for its short length, probably indicating... something cool, I guess.

I'd never heard of the man before today, and so I'm leery of simply heaping praise upon him, but he's looking to break the sound barrier on the way down, and that is just sweet. If successful, the BBC says, he'll be the first human to do that without the aid of a machine. Here, look at this graph they made:

That old record? Made by a man named Joseph Kittinger, a member of the United States Air Force who set his record as part of Project Excelsior. His Wikipedia page also apparently requires citations. He was a POW in the Vietnam War - and is part of Baumgartner's team. I like to imagine that whenever the two men are in a room at the same time a voice in the distance yells "XTREME!"

Look at that graph again. 120,000 feet is 36.5 kilometers (thanks, BBC). The atmosphere is divided into layers, and we and almost everything else live in the troposphere, the lowermost layer, which has breathable oxygen and weather. Baumgartner will be almost three-quarters of the way through his trip by the time he punches through the tropopause and reenters what we typically think of as the atmosphere. He'll have a pressurized suit and a parachute, but Kittinger says he'll still be saying a prayer. In a slightly earlier draft of the plan, it was expected that Baumgartner would be falling for 35 seconds before breaking the sound barrier, something the human body was never intended to do.

Baumgartner (left) and Kittinger.

The only living things that exist at 120,000 feet are microbes, and it's thought they might just be in stasis. No living thing wants a piece of the stratosphere. Nobody but the humans, and very few of them.

So thanks, stratosphere skydivers. You'll make us look that much cooler when the aliens arrive and we need to present our accomplishments.