Webcomic Wednesday: Family Man

Family Man, webcomicTITLE: Family Man
INTERNET DEBUT: February 21, 2006

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

It can be incredibly gratifying to spend time combing through the through the internet, then stumble upon something worth reading or watching, created by an individual of incredible artistic talent. Likewise, it can also be incredibly frustrating to find something that is so remarkably well crafted, yet reeks of needlessly lewd content. Family Man is one of these..

Scott McCloud has written that comics have the potential to dip into a potpourri of different mediums. Not all comics have to be about people with masks and superpowers fighting crime. There are pulpy adventure comics like The Adventures of Tintin, or comics that take outlandish subjects and ground them in another conventional genre (or perhaps multiple genres), i.e. what Supernatural Law did as an outlandish humor-horror courtroom drama.

Family Man, image 2But some comics take a premise that doesn’t seem as interesting and eye-catching as those two, and then makes a genuinely compelling story out of them. In this case, Family Man does exactly that with the rather esoteric subject of 18th century German academia.

To cut a long story short, a half-Jewish theology student named Luther Levy winds up recruited as a lecturer at a university several months after being expelled from his own alma mater. He gets to know the rector, romances the librarian, and struggles with the inner turmoil of someone dealing with a crisis of faith and identity. There are also werewolves.

On paper, this is potentially one of the greatest webcomics I’ve ever read. It’s dramatic, beautifully drawn, and blessed with probably the most original plot I’ve ever come across in all of comics. Dylan Meconis (a lady, as it happens) is a spectacularly gifted storyteller. Her panel logic is both easy to read, pretty to look at, and smartly crafted.

Family Man, image 3However, that is where the other side of the coin comes in. Despite bearing witness to a Meconis’ strong talent, I cannot in good conscience overlook Family Man‘s explicit and graphic nudity and sex. I know the comic is designed for “mature” readers, and is definitely NSFW. But really, I must ask: Why?

There is nothing in this comic concerning plot, story, and character development which was furthered by the nudity. I have no doubt that someone as talented as Meconis could have gotten across that Luther and Ariana were having an affair without getting up-close and personal. Including scenes that only succeeded in unnecessarily shrinking her audience and alienating and disgusting people like me.

It’s such a shame, because Family Man is still a remarkably intelligent piece of work. Considering the creator has a background in literature, history, and philosophy, she obviously knows her stuff. The idea of centering the plot around a university campus in 18th century Germany, in addition to the werewolf subplot, is a stroke of genius.

First, take the drama of the lone heretic struggling against the religious establishment (in a way that’s halfway interesting, no less), not forgetting the hectic family politics back home. Next, add in a bit of supernatural horror. Season with vintage college frat boy antics, courtesy of Lucien the Frenchman, and add an entirely black-and-white color pallet to taste. The result? Family Man, a webcomic that is admittedly compelling if frustratingly obscene.

Images courtesy of lutherlevy.com.

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Webcomic Wednesday: Cleopatra in Space

Cleopatra in SpaceTITLE: Cleopatra in Space
INTERNET RUN: August 16, 2009 to October 8, 2012

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

Cleopatra in Space is technically no longer operational, but it isn’t because the author decided to call it quits. It’s because he’s gone beyond the internet and established himself in the comics business outside of a purely internet following. Ladies and gentlemen, Cleopatra in Space is the first webcomic we’ve looked at here which has actually hit the big time.

Cleopatra in Space started off as the hobby of Mike Maihack, a small-time comic artist who liked to draw cats and superheroes. He eventually turned it into more than just a hobby, getting a graphic novel deal with Scholastic. The webcomic serves as the prototype to the graphic novel series, depicting its general tone and containing more-or-less the same characters and plot. It is important as both the foundation of the graphic novels and as a pleasant diversion.

The webcomic’s title almost says it all. Our hero is the teenaged Cleopatra VII, who has been pulled from her native era of 52 BC to the very, very distant future. She is enrolled in a military school where she must learn to the fight off an evil alien race, fulfilling her destiny as the prophesied heroine. When she decides to play hooky, however, that’s where things get interesting. Her mentor, a talking cat named Khensu, is going to have his hands full keeping her out of trouble.

Cleopatra in Space, image 1Drawing inspiration from old B-movies of the space opera persuasion, Cleopatra in Space is a delightfully fun, thoroughly enjoyable read. It’s foremost virtue is the author’s willingness to combine the blatantly silly with the appropriately serious. The core concept of an ancient Egyptian princess fighting evil aliens in space is too charmingly ridiculous not to like!

Cleo is a loveable protagonist, slightly reminiscent of the dorky yet unsinkable Stephanie Brown. She has an unbeatable gumption, the temperament of a not-so-typical teenage girl, and an adorable sense of bravado that is neither exaggerated nor played completely seriously. Cleo belongs to that old-fashioned class of hero, the sort of hero who can throw a punch, tell a joke, and kiss a girl (or guy, in her case). If anything, it’s as if she combines all of the best elements of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo of Star Wars into one hero while still having her own personality.

Also notable is her supporting cast, namely Khensu. I’ve never been particularly fond of cats, but a talking cat who is also a history teacher? Now you’re speaking my language! Khensu has this aura of quiet dignity about him which makes you forget that this is a talking feline in question. He’s the perfect straight-man to Cleo, highlighting the inherent silliness of her character with the even greater silliness of his own.

But for all the fun and silliness that this strip runs on, is still has the capacity for high drama. Khensu’s interview before a council of cat bureaucrats (Bureaucats?), where Cleo is eavesdropping, is a particularly notable scene. It gives exposition in a justified, engaging way, develops Khensu, and demonstrates Cleo’s range of emotion. I’m not sure if this faucet carries over to the graphic novels, but I’d love to find out.

Cleopatra in Space, image 2The first few strips, drawn in black and white, start off slow. But once things get into color, that’s the signal that the strip is about to become quality. The art itself is well-suited to the tone Maihack is communicating, with the soft lines, bright colors, and cartoony atmosphere. The fact that Maihack is able to use his art to set a diverse array of emotions is a mark of his understated talent.

All told, the webcomic version of Cleopatra in Space may be confined to the internet, but it is nevertheless worth reading. If nothing else, it is a wonderful preview for the graphic novel series. The official preview for the first book in the Cleopatra in Space graphic novel series, Target Practice, is available on Maihack’s official site. If you want to help get your kids interested in comics, or reading in general, this is exactly the sort of thing you should draw their attention to.

Images courtesy of cowshell.com

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Webcomic Wednesday: Black and Blue

Black and Blue pg 15-1TITLE: Black and Blue
ONLINE DEBUT: August 19, 2014

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

In the forward to Gotham Central, Vol. 2: Jokers and Madmen, Duane Swierczynski stated that noir essentially means “screwed.” That is to say, you can tell a story is noir if everyone is headed for a decidedly unpleasant ending, or at least not a happy one. By this definition, “screwed” described Gotham Central pretty well, and it describes Black and Blue even better.

Black and Blue is a fairly recent webcomic, and like many of the comics featured in this column, rather obscure. It depicts a sci-fi/noir world, where foul-mouthed gangsters walk alongside robot thugs. The inciting incident sees a woman try to escape from some kind of imprisoned labor by cutting off her own head and sending it somewhere. This spins into a sequence of events that slowly bring together a spiderweb of characters, from a pair of dirty cops, to a hapless bike messenger named Owen, to a local criminal gang.

The main draw of Black and Blue is its devotion noir style storytelling. Noir itself isn’t so much a genre as it is a visual style, but the elements of classic noir films are pervasive throughout the entire comic. The titular colors dominate this comic’s cover palette (with occasional bursts of red blood), giving it a very noir-like look. As a result, Black and Blue is one of the most creatively stylish webcomics I’ve ever read.

Black and Blue pg 41-1Black and Blue isn’t just beautiful to look at, but also has a quite compelling story. Mixing in a decidedly bizarre sci-fi concept is a clever way to make the story memorable, but the story doesn’t stand on that leg alone. Each of the large cast of characters has something that makes them stand out. For instance, Unger, a loanshark/butcher who Owen’s father owes money to, has a jovially sadistic feel to him. Virgil, one of the aforementioned robot thugs, is a total jackhat whose trigger-happy mentality and loud mouth nearly get him killed. Not your typical portrayal of a robot, eh?

Owen himself is a very morose, sympathetic character, stuck working for, in his words, “terrible people.” He really is a proper anti-hero. He’s not particularly brave or tough or clever or good-looking, but he has a gumption and sense of morality about him that keeps him going. He’s probably the only genuine good guy in the  story, which I believe is the point. He has my vote for the one guy in the noir story who gets the happy ending.

Another thing about this comic is that it is how incredibly intense it is. Just when you think things are slowing down, and you think you know what’s going on, something happens which turns everything on its head. You think you know how the story is going to unfold, and then you’re left in the dust. This is usually accomplished by introducing a new character, but that’s where my one criticism of Black and Blue comes in.

Black and Blue pg 90Black and Blue‘s large cast keeps getting larger. We’re introduced to a higher-up called Seagull, a back-alley doctor of some kind with a connection to the woman from the inciting incident, and a hired gun with a TV for a head. I have this feeling that eventually Jason Clarke might write himself into a corner, and when we finally get the big payoff, it will fall flat as Clarke rushes to pull everything together. However, I remain optimistic about his ability to tell this story well. The strands of the story are slowly coming together, and I believe that given time, it will weave itself into a beautiful tapestry.

Clarke himself is an obscure talent who deserves some spotlight. He’s actually putting up issues of Black and Blue for sale in a digital format. I don’t know how that will correspond to the webcomic itself, but I’m glad that he’s getting his work out in other ways. I sincerely believe that if his webcomic had a more solid marketing approach (i.e. Twitter, etc.) he could easily generate a more prominent following.

Black and Blue demonstrates the potential of one of what I am sure are many strong talents out there. It combines stylish art with engaging storytelling and memorable, believable characters that keep you interested. Any comic that reminds me of Gotham Central is worth a look-see. However, I will warn that it contains frequent strong language in addition to some graphic violence, including blood and gore. It may draw inspiration from classic noir, but in these respects, it is quite dissimilar.

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Webcomic Wednesday: Mare Internum

Mare IntervmTITLE: Mare Internum
ONLINE DEBUT: January 4, 2015

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

For a webcomic that’s only been up and running for seven months, Mare Internum manages to impress me even in its early stages. I came across this little gem on Twitter, another tell-tale sign of the great importance of social media in comics today. Der-shing Helmer, a freelance game artist by day, serves as the creator, writer, and artist of this webcomic, where she shows her creative mettle on all fronts. Mare Internum combines professional art, an inventive premise, and memorable characters to communicate a story worth reading.

The story starts off on a grim note, with our anti-hero hero, Michael, attempting to end his own life. Thankfully, he doesn’t go through with it. Michael is a member of a team of scientists on Mars, apparently working on some kind of pre-colonization effort. His melancholy and ambivalence toward his boss is interrupted by the arrival a new coworker, Dr. Rebekah “Bex” Egunsola. The story slowly unfolds, revealing more about the world of Mare Internum, and explaining why Michael is in such a bad spot.

Mare IntervmFollowing the road not taken, we have a protagonist who has already hit rock bottom at the beginning of the story. But instead of showing him shrugging his way through it, Helmer instead shows us the consequences and logical results of someone trying to get through personal tragedy all by themselves. The truth is, those who don’t value the company of their fellow man are bound to fall into despair and loneliness. The comic hasn’t gotten far enough into the story to draw out the full ramifications of Michael’s bond with an A.I. he created, but I wouldn’t be surprised if things went that way.

Aside from this particular innovation, Helmer writes her characters well, demonstrating that this isn’t just another science-fiction story insomuch as it is a character drama. Michael is melancholy and emotionally imbalanced. Bex is chipper and sardonic. Michael’s other coworkers each have their own personalities and quirks that make them unique and fun to watch. The cast of Mare Internum are all distinguishable from one another, each bringing something different to the table. Above all, the story puts the characters first, the mark of any truly great work of fiction. The natural, smooth dialogue only bolsters this element of the story.

I especially like how Helmer patterns her art to tell the story in sync with the words. Comics, being primarily a visual medium, require imagery which catches the eye’s interest. Helmer does this expertly by focusing on the beauty of the mundane, such as Michael scarfing down a box of blueberries, or an insect floating on its back in a pool of water. She’s really good with facial expressions too, finding a middle ground between the exaggerated facial expressions of Manga-style comics and the more realistic depictions found in western comics. That’s all without mentioning her lovely art featuring the Martian landscape.

Mare InternvmAs stated, Helmer is a freelance video game artist by day, but her background is in biology and education. According to her bio, this knowledge helps her with things like anatomy and physics. Following the philosophy of write-what-you-know, I would guess that an understanding of anatomy would help her when drawing characters, while an understanding of physics would help her in writing a sci-fi story like this webcomic.

Mare Internum is still young, but I think it has the potential to grow a large following. Helmer also works on another, more long-running webcomic called The Meek, which I might take a look at some time in the future. As it is, Mare Internum has an abundance of good qualities, namely professional-looking art, innovating writing, and strong characters and emotion. A word to the wise, however: This webcomic may not be visually graphic, but it contains instances of incredibly strong language. Parents, be warned.

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Webcomic Wednesday: True Villains

True Villains, image 1TITLE: True Villains
CREATORS: Joshua Kurtz and Madison Hughes
WRITERS: Kurtz and Hughes
ARTIST: Max Karpsten
ONLINE DEBUT: August 8, 2007

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

Word of mouth can be a powerful tool. It was through the recommendation of a friend that I was introduced to the webcomic True Villains, an adventure-fantasy webcomic that appears to have stayed largely under the radar. Its website is understated, it has less than 30 Twitter followers, and I hadn’t heard of it from any other source until now. But it definitely deserves more of a spotlight because of its clever writing and unique premise.

True Villains features the adventures and exploits of Sebastian Jalek, a former adventurer of the lawful  and good persuasion who gleefully jumps on board the chaotic  and evil bandwagon. He enters the service of Xaneth, a demon who runs a dungeon with Elia, a necromancer. Along the way, he picks up other colleagues and companions: Mia, magically attuned child, and Bayn, an aged sorcerer who is stuck in the body of a child.

The main draw of True Villains is how it seeks to take standard adventure-fantasy RPG tropes and turn them on their heads. The main cast is made up self-professed bad guys, a whole team of villain protagonists. The entire story, however, centers around them trying to accomplish fairly pragmatic objectives through flagrantly gruesome and ruthless means.

True Villains, image 2Sebastian’s entire arc focuses on him trying to define his own ethical code. It comes to the point where he makes a self-justifying speech before his former adventuring pals about his newly acquired Blue and Orange morality. Oddly, most of the “good guys” are at best self-righteous jerks and at worst stupid and vicious bullies. Nevertheless, the fact that True Villains even dared to go down the road not taken and examine in depth the whys and wherefores of morality in such a world is a mark of true brilliance.

Aside from unconventional takes on the concepts of good and evil, most of which I have very strong opinions on, True Villains benefits from smart writing and proficient art. The tone of the strip is generally lighthearted, though its subject matter frequently ventures into the realm of dark comedy. One early gag involves Sebastian being assigned by Xaneth to blow up an innocent, unsuspecting small town where everyone is happy and content. It’s played for both drama and laughs, which, while fairly innovative, still bothers me.

Strong characters are an essential element of any good story. From Bayn to Claire the soldier to Sebastian himself, each of the characters has a strong, understandable motivation, personality, and flaws. Sebastian wants to do his own thing and help his friends, darn the consequences. Elia is loyal to Xaneth, wants to keep people she cares about out of harm’s way, and kind of likes Sebastian. Mia is loyal to Sebastian and has all the silly innocence a six-year-old girl with magical powers could have. What all of these characters have in common is that they change and grow as the story continues.

True Villains, image 3Particularly notable in this webcomic is its natural and flowing approach to world building. We don’t get stilted expository dialogue or long walls of text. When something about the world needs to be explained, the need is justified, often for humor, and the exposition is done in a clean, simple, engaging way. The result is a rich, detailed world that feels perfectly understandable and immersive. Other writers would do well to learn from True Villains in this regard.

The art of True Villains has evolved and changed since the early strips. It began more stripped down and less sophisticated than it is now. Over time, however, it became more organic, no doubt the sign of an amateur artist steadily improving his craft. Most of the comic’s archive strips are black and white, though it’s always in color these days. The point here is that the art may be drawn by an amateur, but the quality of the work is that of a seasoned professional.

The primary writer on this series, Joshua Kurtz, is a talented and ambitious (if obscure) creative mind. He is heavily involved in theater productions, to the point of having written and produced a musical based on True Villains. The talents of he and his colleagues definitely deserve the spotlight. With a more intentional buildup of their fan-base, a slicker website, and a more savvy approach to social media and internet marketing, they could probably make it really big. They have plenty of good content, now they just need to focus on their delivery and packaging.

True Villains is a unique, inventive webcomic that defies the storytelling limits of the fantasy genre. It makes you laugh out loud, creates complex and memorable characters, and contemplates weighty concepts in a competent manner. I won’t pretend to be a fan of the strip’s trivialization of occult practices, nor am I completely satisfied with its advocacy of what is essentially moral nihilism, but I will admit one thing: It is a fine example of great comics and great storytelling, and therefore deserves attention.

Images from truevillains.com.

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Webcomic Wednesday: Space Corps

Space Corps, image 1TITLE: Space Corps
CREATORS: Gannon Beck, Bryan Richmond, Joey Groah.
WRITERS: Beck, Richmond.
ONLINE DEBUT: July 10, 2012

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

Not every webcomic makes you want to keep reading. Most start out good, but eventually descend into mediocrity, at best. Fortunately, all is not lost. Out of the dozens upon dozens of webcomics out there, there are a select few which I would like to highlight in this new weekly column: Webcomic Wednesday!

Space Corps, by Gannon Beck and Bryan Richmond, is a small operation, but it produces original, quality content that keeps fans waiting patiently while things get sorted out on the other end of the internet. Described as space opera, Space Corps follows the story of how humans and aliens band together in the titular military organization to fight off the malicious Winnowers. We’re introduced to the rookie soldier Deven Taylor, along with Corporal Hive, an alien NCO made up of bees, and Captain Brockett, the rock-eating commanding officer.

I first stumbled on this comic while perusing ComicsExperience.com, a haven for independent comic book writers struggling to hone their craft and hit the big time. Beck is part of that community. Beck and Richmond may not have hit the big time quite yet, but they and their compatriots have most definitely honed their craft. The art alone is incredibly professional, matching the tone and feel of the story perfectly. Specifically, it’s cartoonish enough to fit the fantastic premise of the story but realistic enough to be appropriate to the highly sophisticated writing.

B2-aVfVCEAALKdpAs is frequently made obvious in even the best mainstream comics, no amount of lavish art will save a poorly written story. Fortunately, Space Corps is lucky enough to be blessed with both good art and excellent writing. The sheer human, or rather alien drama that we see in Space Corps #0 is amazing to read. Captain Brockett’s story remains my personal favorite, just because it’s so movingly tragic and harsh. It’s not every day that I read something, least of all on the internet, that actually makes me genuinely sad.

The rest of the stories we see here are nothing short of splendid. Hive’s story is a classic bait-and-switch, with a pleasant surprise that makes it truly memorable. Hive is probably my second-favorite alien character behind Brockett. When we get into Taylor’s origin story in Space Corps #1-2, things get particularly interesting for him. Taylor’s is a coming-of-age story at heart, with the space opera and military fiction elements making the whole thing even more interesting. It shows that he has a personal stake in the fight, which makes him one of many great characters.

Space Corps, image 3I’m sure that Beck’s military family background gives him a lot of material to work with. He and Richmond navigate the standard tropes and conventions of military fiction with an easy realism that demonstrates that they plainly have a strong knowledge of military life. They never resort to clichés, and everything feels smooth and natural. We see what goes on in boot camp with great details that bring the reader into the story. The despair of family lost to war is communicated in a piercingly emotional way. The ethos of not fighting alone, trusting your team, and being self-disciplined and self-sacrificial is a primary theme. Sometimes it feels like I’m reading Lone Survivor by Marcus Lutrell all over again.

For all this talk of the horror and devastation of war, Space Corps is actually a rather upbeat comic. The humor is usually of the gallows variety. This is, after all, a comic about war. However, the comic itself is a very fun read. It makes you want to keep reading more of it. It’s not on the level of wacky, zany antics of, say, Brenden Fletcher’s Batgirl, but it can still be comedic when it needs to be comedic and dramatic when it needs to be dramatic. The result is a brilliant cocktail of great comics.

Gannon Beck and Bryan Richmond have said that they and their co-creators were originally thinking of pitching Space Corps to Image Comica. Then they decided to say, “Heck with it, we want to make comics so let’s make this now.” The result is a spectacular piece of work that I wouldn’t want made any other way. If Beck and Richmond and the rest of the team behind Space Corps do get their comic made into a magazine format that they can make money off of, I gladly salute them. If it came to that, I personally wouldn’t mind paying money for something this good. But for now, I’m glad to enjoy it all free of charge.

Images 1 and 2 from twitter.com/gannonb. Image 3 from spacecorpscomics.com.

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