Webcomics Capsule Reviews #2

It’s that time again: time for me to read a bunch of webcomics at random and tell you what I think of them. If you would like me to do this to your webcomic, email TCJ with a link and it may just happen. Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who’s sent in links so far. People, that’s a lot of webcomics, is all I can say.

The Institute of Marine Research

Stephen Goodall

Sometime before the opening of this slow-paced horror/mystery, a security guard goes missing from a marine research lab on an isolated British islet. His mild-faced, bushy-mustached replacement, Alexander Scott, gradually gets to know both the island itself, with its unique ecosystem and Aran Island-like history of desertion by the locals, and its small but deeply eccentric human population. So far mostly plotless, The Institute of Marine Research shuffles Alexander through one strange, faintly sinister encounter after another as the nature of the island is gradually revealed On the site, Goodall mentions H.P. Lovecraft as an influence, and it’s easy to sense that in the comic’s mood of vague, gathering horror.  Goodall also mentions that The Institute of Marine Research is a project he works on in his spare time “as a way of regularly writing and drawing comics so that I could improve my understanding of the craft,” and it’s easy to see that, too; it has the feeling of a casual exercise more than a story passionately told.

Goodall’s thick black-and-white brushwork is best on landscapes: stark hills and shorelines, almost woodcut-like drawings of waves and sky. The characters are less expertly rendered, and their awkward, doughy cartoonishness interferes with the intended mood of Lynchian dread. Hand lettering would work better with Goodall’s loose, rough line than the computer font he uses. The strength of the comic lies in the island itself, its stark beauty and its subtle creepiness.


Lee and Lisa Blauersouth

This ambitious fantasy epic is set in an undefined human prehistory, a world of hunters, shaman priests, and gods living close to the earth. An outcast young woman named Myna accidentally summons Sombath, a fertility goddess, to the village that’s adopted her, upsetting the balance of power among humans and gods. Myna and Sombath set out together to restore the goddess’s power and save the world from an epidemic of infertility. But this is old-time religion, in which the gods are as fickle, selfish, and silly as mortals, if not more so, and the goddess and her new priestess soon get entangled in power struggles both human and divine.

Running weekly and reliably since 2010, Godseeker is the work of married couple Lee and Lisa Blauersouth. Lisa’s fairy-tale story is a perfect match for Lee’s elegant black-and-white art, a pleasant blend of realism—the characters move through a detailed world of mud huts, pueblos, and mammoth-bone longhouses—and simple, engaging character designs. The figures and faces are nicely natural, if a little distractingly big-eyed, with a wide range of features and body types. (Why do so few cartoonists want to draw people in more than one shape?) Both the story and art show an impressive level of research into prehistoric cultures and mythologies.

On the downside, the various myths and back-stories of the Godseeker world sometimes get overly complicated, to the point that it’s not always clear what the characters, especially the gods, are trying to do. It would help if the motivations for Sombath’s and Myna’s journey, and the connections between the many characters helping or hindering them, were made simpler and clearer. But it’s been a lovely journey so far.

Oyster War

Ben Towle

Ben Towle, who draws historical fiction graphic novels for Hyperion and SLG, has been serializing this quirky adventure yarn, based on the real-life 19th-century “oyster wars” between Chesapeake fisherman and oyster pirates, online since 2010. If you’re not familiar with Towle’s work, this is a treat of an introduction. Rendered in sure lines with bright, bold colors, Towle’s art here is reminiscent of the work of Tony Millionaire or Drew Weing, with appealingly mismatched character designs that suggest a European influence.

In Blood’s Haven, center of the bustling oyster industry, fishermen and local politicians band together to stop the oyster pirates who are cutting into their profits. Around this loose plot, Towle conjures a magical world teeming with boxers, pirates, prostitutes, selkies, cursed squid-men, messenger seagulls, and submarines. He crowds the panels with gorgeously whimsical architecture, ships, and seascapes that look like something out of Robert Altman’s Popeye movie—which, let’s face it, had killer set design. The only problem with Oyster War is that it only updates occasionally, between Towle’s paying jobs as a cartoonist and art teacher. But the slow schedule gives new readers time to catch up before the comic’s planned end sometime this year.

Kickstand Comics

Rick Smith and Brian Griggs

One thing I love about webcomics is that there’s a comic for virtually every audience imaginable. Kickstand Comics, which started in 2008 and ended just recently, is a daily strip for cycling enthusiasts. And we’re talking serious enthusiasts, the kind of people who care about the ideological battles between classic bikes and road bikes, urban biking and “race and rec,” who hold strong opinions about bike lanes, and who, above all, despise cars. The central character, beardy bike shop worker Yehuda Moon (the strip also sometimes runs under the title Yehuda Moon), describes his job as “deploying ground troops in an unpopular war.”

Moon runs the Kickstand Cyclery with Joe, a racing-bike enthusiast, and Thistle, an engineer and biking mom. Other regulars include Sister Sprocket, a cranky pipe-smoking Shaker and the strip’s best character, and the ghost of Fred Banks, the store’s founder, who was killed in a hit-and-run. One-off gags are interspersed with storylines sometimes running for weeks, running the gamut of cycling woes: bikers vs. drivers, tricked-out racers in Spandex, Sunday cyclists, yuppies, “bike ninjas,” and a steady flow of in-group terminology sometimes explained in notes. The plots mix mundane details of bike culture, like bike sharing programs, with crime, accidents, super-alloys, and corporate espionage.

As a dedicated pedestrian, I harbor a deep suspicion toward all vehicles, from the SUV cutting me off in the grocery-store parking lot to the fixie running me down on the sidewalk. And Kickstand Comics can get awfully preachy in its bike advocacy, especially through the mouthpiece of cycling firebrand Yehuda. The kind of comic that introduces a helmet-law proponent named Nanny State is not exactly subtle in its social commentary. But the simple, bright, syndication-friendly art helps it go down relatively smooth. As a personal note, the references to Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Shakers, and the Plain Dealer indicate that the Kickstand is located right around where I grew up. My hometown needed bike lanes, to be honest.

Mister V

Matt is a “transporter,” pushing wheelchairs and gurneys at an ER. The job mostly entails holding down angry, confused, severely ill people and trying to avoid the shit, piss, and vomit that fly everywhere. Most of the patients are alcoholic, addicted to drugs (which they try to wheedle out of the staff by faking symptoms) and/or senile; even the less far-gone specimens belong to the strata of humanity that thinks pee-wee motocross is a good idea and postpones going to the ER to watch a Broncos game. Matt’s coworkers, mostly women, are varying degrees of angry, burned out, crazy, and desperate to get away. “Graveyard shift hospital employees are a bizarre, socially retarded lot,” Matt observes, but at its best the staff finds dark humor in the horribleness of it all.

The autobio comic DNR, easily the best thing on Mister V’s site, is a chronicle of bizarre, disgusting, funny, depressing things the cartoonist saw while working at an ER. Most of the installments were drawn between 2009 and 2010, but he still posts new ER stories on his blog. As unpleasant as the job was, it provided an amazing supply of stories to draw: Matt getting propositioned by a washed-up lady wrestler, a criminal escaping through the ER bathroom, the woman who revenge-ate a python, a girl dying of an infected nipple piercing. And yes, there are health-care-industry horror stories of poor patients using the ER as a doctor’s office and people dying because they can’t afford medical treatment. After working there for a while, Matt comments, “You’ll never catch me in an ER unless I’m dead or working.”

The black-and-white pencil art is extremely rough, with cramped panels crammed with surly bug-eyed characters. (Amateur cartoonists tend to draw characters with giant Garfield eyes. I think it has something to do with Garfield being the comic that influenced most of us as kids, as much as we like to pretend it was something classy like Calvin and HobbesGarfield was the one published in a size you could hide in your desk at school. But I digress.) The storytelling is wobbly, too. But the material is so interesting, and such a unique look at the health-care industry as seen from ground level, that DNR is an absorbing read. The guy just has a lot of good stories. I’d love to see this polished and redrawn, maybe with a different artist, and released as a graphic novel.