Tales from the Pool: Torpedoed

You don’t have to have been going swimming long before you become a hardened cynic as regards the various recurring annoyances you typically encounter at your local pool.  These “pool nuisances” will surely be a feature of several of these Tales from the Pool strips in the future.  I’ve encountered this particular guy twice now.  If it happens a third time, I’m sorely tempted to just block his exit and hold him underwater.

REVIEW: Jakey the Jerk #1

With my extended sojourn into the world of Scottish comics in the wake of all the swag I got at Glasgow Comic Con, I’ve been ignoring my actual list of submissions people have kindly sent me.  Particularly shameful is that I have kept creator Chris Garrison waiting, after him going to the effort of sending me a print copy of his comic, Jakey the Jerk, via international mail.  Sorry to leave you hanging, Chris!

Jakey the Jerk #1 is actually a collection of strips from Garrison’s Zoo Laffs webcomic, as featured on the Dumm Comics website.  These particular strips tell the story of a misanthropic, womanising little mountain goat, the Jakey (and the jerk) of the title.  When I first started reading, I wasn’t overly impressed.  The formulaic, done-in-one formula that the early pages followed seemed to suggest that the whole book would just be a collection of Jakey making a sleazy come-on only to be rejected by a beautiful lady.  Amusing, but lacking in any real substance.

But then, something unusual happened.  A few skits in, I became aware that one particular tale, where Jakey pairs up with hippie girl Sassafras Vallee for a hiking trip, was lasting longer than the other ones.  Garrison was breaking from his formula, telling a story that was being given more room to breathe, and that by the end, quite to my surprise, was actually quite moving.  Things don’t necessarily go the way you’d expect, and after coming across as quite unlikeable and one-note in the earlier pages, Jakey grows into quite a sympathetic, nuanced character.  Not bad for an anthropomorphised talking goat.

The art, also by Garrison, is pretty rough, albeit with a nice anarchic tough that gives it a bit of a Ren & Stimpy/Spongebob Squarepants vibe.  But as with the writing, once we get into the book’s second half, it turns out there’s more at work than initially meets the eye, with Garrison skillfully handling facial expressions to both hammer home comedic beats and to tell us about the burgeoning character dynamics between Jakey and Sassafras.  I particularly love the design of Sassafras, she looks adorable with her wee hat!

This “comic of two halves” feeling is heightened by the fact that there actually is a split in the middle, where we get a couple of additional shorts unrelated to Jakey, presumably other entries from the Zoo Laffs category.  I liked these, as little short instant punchlines.  It struck a nice balance as Jakey began to grow into a more longform tale.  Sometimes it can seem like making a print comic out of an existing webcomic can be a bit of a redundant task, but Garrison makes a good job of creating a good showcase package for someone like me who had never read Zoo Laffs or visited Dumm Comics.

Overall, my reaction to Jakey the Jerk #1 was positive.  When I started it, I didn’t think I was going to like it.  But by the time I was finished, I was left wanting to check out the webcomic and find out what happens next.  That’s a sign that Chris Garrison is doing something right.  Consider me won over.

Jakey the Jerk #1 is available from IndyPlanet, or you can check it out online at Dumm Comics.

REVIEW: Armstrong

Upon reading Armstrong, the webcomic by cartoonist David Halvorson, the surprising parallel that sprang to mind for me was Rugrats.  Like that fondly-remembered kid’s cartoon, Armstrong is a story about kids playing make-believe, in this case a bunch of 4th grade kids out in the playground during school recess.  Over the course of three chapters (with more on the way), Halvorson creates a mini-mythology for these kids to act out, a fiction within a fiction, where superheroes, cowboys, pirates and zombies co-exist in a world that channels the boundless imagination of a schoolyard game.

This approach has its strengths and failings.  On the plus side, this works great as an all-ages comic.  It’s the kind of light-hearted, gentle fun that will appeal to kids (along with a young cast they can relate to), but also has enough wit and nostalgic nods to appeal to adults and their memory of their own schooldays.  With each passing chapter, the scope gets bigger, and the world these kids have created grows more dense and layered.  From the very beginning, there are nods to future chapters and hidden backstories waiting to be explored.  The cast of characters is well-rounded and likeable.  Lead protagonist Bryce, AKA the masked superhero Scrap, is by equal parts cool and ridiculous, with us encouraged to laugh at his expense almost as often as we are to root for him.  Yoshi is the most badass 10 year old you’re likely to meet, and often seems like a more capable hero than Scrap.  The duplicitous Juliet is by turns vulnerable and scheming, but engaging enough that there’s some uncertainty about who Bryce truly loves.  Yes, it’s a pre-teen love triangle.  One character that proved to be a scene-stealer was the enigmatic cowboy Clinton, who at the ripe old age of 11 seems to carry the world-weary gravitas of Unforgiven-era Clint Eastwood.

The downside is that this world, for all the fun details and quirks contained within it, lacks definition.  I mentioned Rugrats earlier, but what worked so well in that show was that we flipped back and forth from the fantasy realm of their playtime to the real world, and the kids’ creativity became more endearing when compared against what they were actually working with.  There is no such balance here.  Instead, we’re in a kind of muddy in-between place where kids are beating each other up, getting caught in the drama of the weirdness surrounding them, and the occasional arm gets torn off.  But rather than just throw himself into this and say we’re in a crazy world run by kids where anything can happen, Halvorson will make mention of things like detention or having to end a fight because recess is almost over.  If this is the kids just playing make-believe, are they all friends during classtime?  During recess, are they method actors on par with DeNiro?  If Halvorson wants this to just be kids playing a game, doing a little more to show his hand that this is what’s happening could help ground the narrative.

His artwork, however, is pitch perfect.  The highly stylised characters put one in mind of JM Ken Niimura’s work on I Kill Giants, with a bit of the manic, manga-tinged energy of Scott Pilgrim thrown in for good measure.  It looks like a Saturday morning cartoon channeled into webcomic form, which is a good thing.  The character designs may be simple, but they prove to be surprisingly diverse in their range of expression, adding further nuance to the visuals and the “acting” of his ensemble cast.

There are some minor quibbles with the execution, but I still had a lot of fun reading Armstrong.  It’s currently available to view for free as a webcomic, but should David Halvorson decide to release this as a graphic novel once the story is complete, I’m sure there would be a sizeable market for it.

Armstrong is available to read online here.

REVIEW: 14 Nights

When I first heard about the romance webcomic 14 Nights, the concept immediately stood out to me.  It was pitched as “about a guy who is afraid of sex,” which just seemed like a really original angle to take that, even with every variation or gimmick under the sun seemingly being employed in the genre, I can’t recall seeing in any romantic comedy movie.  Guys always seem to be depicted as the go-getters, eager for sex no matter how unconventional the obstacles to it might be, so this approach seemed to suggest an unorthodox shift in dynamic.  It piqued my interest enough to immediately give the comic a quick look, even though it should have gone to the back of my review queue.  And what was supposed to be a quick look turned into me reading all 143 (at that point, it’s at 162 now) of the pages cartoonist Kristina Stipetic had accumulated in a single sitting.

If  I thought the initial concept was unorthodox, in execution it’s even more so.  This is a gay relationship, with one of our two main characters being an overweight Russian with a physical deformity (and, further playing against potential stereotypes, he’s the sexually forward one).  These are not the characters that stories are typically told about, especially not romantic stories.  But maybe they should be.  This is a deeply touching, human story, made all the more credible in that the love story feels like it’s between two real, ordinary people, rather than between standardised, manufactured creations.  The way the relationship between Nikita and Lucian develops is romantic while still being believable, with its ups and downs and both making their share of mistakes and miscommunications.

But about the sex part.  Sex, or lack thereof, is indeed a big part of this story.  As an aside, 14 Nights does contain a lot of gay sex and male nudity, so if you don’t think you can handle that, this might not be the story for you.  Lucian, for reasons thus far not explained, just hates sex.  He can’t make himself get aroused, and even masturbation is a chore.  He says it has nothing to do with any past trauma, but the implication seems to be it stems from low self-worth, and him finding the thought of himself naked or engaged in any kind of intimate act disgusting.  Much of the story is about being inside Lucian’s head as he tries to deal with this and overcome it, but this is Nikita’s story too.  That’s a pet peeve of many lesser romance stories: that it’s really only one of the two characters that gets to have an arc, and the other one is just there to assist or impede them in their individual development.  But here, while Nikita does take on the role of trying to bring Lucian out of his shell, we also get to experience his reaction to this problem of a boyfriend who doesn’t want to have sex with you.  He has doubts about whether it’s even worth trying.  He thinks at first that Lucian must be a freak.  He has questions about himself, whether or not it’s him that’s not worth loving, and if that’s the problem.  At times he’s understanding, but other times he’s frustrated.  Both characters are fleshed out with their own flaws and foibles, while ultimately remaining likeable.

If there are any problems with the writing, they are minimal.  One point I had been going to make was that there were quite a few grammar slips in Nikita’s dialogue.  When another character mentions Nikita’s thick accent, it occurred to me that English was not his first language, and that the dialogue is an attempt to portray that broken English.  In that case, it’s fine, but maybe it’s a note to watch out for such an ambiguity, and dunces like me misconstruing a deliberate mistake for a genuine one.

I mentioned that I soared through my reading of 14 Nights.  But this could be a problem of sorts.  As a single read (not yet complete, the story is ongoing), this was immersive and engaging.  But as a webcomic, updated thrice-weekly, is there enough meat on the bone to bring people back?  While the cumulative effect is very powerful, on a page-by-page basis the plot is a slow boil, with meandering conversations often taking several pages to get to the point.  That was fine for me, I read them in a few minutes.  But for someone following as it was released, that would have been a commitment of several weeks.  And now that I’m caught up, I don’t know if I’ll be hooked to keep following at this pace.  More likely, I’ll wait a while until  another backlog of pages has built up, and read them all at once.  And that makes me think that 14 Nights will have more success when it’s all collected in a single graphic novel.

On the plus side, one of the joys of seeing the narrative unfold on this page-by-page basis is, as an experiment, it’s remarkable how Kristina Stipetic’s art has evolved.  I didn’t really notice it at first while reading.  As you go through it all in a single sitting, it all just blends into one.  But after catching up to page 162, then going back to page 1, it’s amazing to see how different the early stuff looks.  It’s rougher, less detailed, more cartoonish.  And while that cartoonish quality has been maintained throughout, the detail on the more recent stuff is much more advanced, with the backgrounds and settings becoming more like real places, and the layouts becoming more adventurous and dramatic.  What we’re seeing here is an emerging voice in the comics world mastering their craft over the course of a single longform narrative.

This might not be the genre of comic you’d usually read, and you might think this won’t be your cup of tea.  But I’m not the biggest sucker for romance stories, and 14 Nights has really drawn me in, and made me invested in its characters and their relationship.  Give it a try.  You might surprise yourself.

You can read the 14 Nights webcomic here.

REVIEW – Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly

In the “Page Process” backmatter of Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly, the first volume collecting in print the Valkyrie Squadron webcomic, creator Jules Rivera goes over the various stages of bringing a page to life.  It’s a reminder that she is one of these obnoxiously talented people that has mastered every aspect of the creative process, and so Valkyrie Squadron stands as an unfiltered showcase of her authorial voice.

We’ll start by taking a look at Jules Rivera the writer.  This collected edition gives us a brief prologue that helps to set the scene and give this world context.  Here, Rivera effectively creates a portrait of a war in the distant future, waged in space, with humans battling robotic drones, that still manages to draw parallels with the wars going on in the world today, complete with questions  about beurocracy and the soldiers’ belief in the war they’re fighting.  Even the desert-like setting further puts us in mind of battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This opening sequence, with its slower pace and focus on character dynamics, is very much welcome, as the first chapter of the story proper begins in media res, launching us right into the action.  Rivera wisely avoids the mistake of opening with some hefty exposition about the history of the war (we get a sense that will come later), instead beginning with a bang, with an action-packed rescue mission that tightens the scope to one particular squadron engaged in this massive war.  It’s a set-up that puts me in mind of the Gears of War series, but with the blokey-blokey macho overload those games can sometimes veer into neutralised by the Valkyrie Squadron being made up entirely of women.

In a time when there is a lot of talk in the comics world about a lack of female characters in prominent roles, this predominantly female ensemble has the potential to create a diverse cast of female leads.  However, aside from some likeably nuanced work done with optimistic team leader Priscilla Vega and foul-tempered Casey Anders, the team feel a bit underdeveloped.  Hopefully future instalments will go further into the personalities of Jocelyn Gomez and Adia Ukpo, giving them traits that make them distinct.  Both shady authority figure Commander Duri and rescued survivor of a drone attack Eve have limited panel-time here, but are given some intriguing foreshadowing that suggests they’ll become a lot more compelling as the story continues.  Ironically enough for a female-led book, the male characters fare better, with uber-jock Leon Zantha providing a few laughs and Trey Zantha proving to be an interesting foil who’s viewed in starkly contrasting ways by the various members of Valkyrie Squadron.

Moving on to Jules Rivera the artist, and I have to say this may be the hat she wears best.  Rivera’s linework evokes a latter-day John Romita Jr vibe, but with a bit more of a cartoony streak.  Her sweeping, widescreen panel layouts create an epic scope, and also help give the reading experience a brisk, exciting pace.  And aside from the occasional awkward cross-eyed moment, the facial expressions are fantastic.  There are numerous comedy beats peppered throughout the chapter, and more often than not, it’s Rivera’s faces that sell them, from Priscilla’s glances of confusion or exasperation, to Leon’s wide, vacant, puppy-dog eyes and idiotic grin.

There is another aspect of the art I want to take a moment to acknowledge, particular in light of my recent criticism of the cheesecake visuals of Catwoman #1: the costume design.  It’s refreshing seeing the women wearing the same costumes as the men, with outfits that are designed for practicality rather than the titilation factor.  This is the kind of thing that ideally we could take for granted, so maybe it’s a sad state of affairs when such costume design as this is marked out for praise.  But all the same, good work by Jules Rivera here.

Unfortunately, Jules Rivera the colorist doesn’t fare quite so well.  Basically, the colors do their job competently enough.  But there is a certain flatness and lack of texture in places, dulling the expressiveness and detail of the pencils.  I would also suggest that the palette is at times a bit bright and based too much around primary colors.

Jules Rivera the letterer does well.  The colored word balloons was a bit hard to get used to at first, but when it became clear that the shading of the balloons was shifting to fit the ambience of the scene they were featured in, the decision became more understandable.

But it should perhaps be mentioned that Jules Rivera did not work entirely alone on Valkyie Squadron.  Josh Finney is credited as providing “Sci-Fi Textures and HUDs” to the story, which I imagine means he offered a contribution to the design and aesthetic of the pages.  If this is the case, then he’s done good work, giving the comic a futuristic vibe that might actually make Valkyrie Squadron a better fit for the computer screen than the printed page.

Overall, I found Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly to be a highly enjoyable introduction to this world.  The webcomic is updated twice a week, but I’d say this first chapter – and the extras included in the package – are still a worthwhile purchase to have in print.  Jules Rivera proves to be a talented creator in every stage of the creative process, and I’m interested to see where her story goes next.

Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly is available to buy from the official website.

REVIEW: The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit

The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit is a collection archiving the first 13 stories of Ian McDonald’s Bruno the Bandit webcomic.  The series is a fantasy parody, following the exploits of feckless crook Bruno and his mini-dragon sidekick Fiona – along with a recurring ensemble of oddball supporting characters – on various misadventures.  How does the episodic webcomic translate into a more substantial collected edition?

Both written and drawn by Ian McDonald, it has a visual style reminiscent of Hagar the Horrible (who is indeed referenced a few times in the stories), with simplistic, cartoonish, yet wonderfully expressive figures that one might expect to find in a newspaper strip.  The newspaper cartoon strip format is definitely what sprang to mind reading The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit, as from what I gather, originally these stories were published in 1-line, 4-panel segments, with each one built around its own little punchline, making it work as a self-contained read in addition to being part of a larger story.  This (largely unvarying) layout translates into most pages of the book reading as a dense 16-panel grid, which feels cluttered at first.  In the early stories, the constant cycle of set-up/gag combined with a very simple story that best allows each line to stand on its own creates a feeling that what works in small doses as a webcomic may be less effective when all put together in one mammoth read.

However, as the collection progresses, and McDonald finds his narrative footing a bit more, the stories become a bit more ambitious and satirical.  The most common theme is the idea of celebrity and fickle fame, with several stories revolving around Bruno stumbling into fame or notoriety, basking in it briefly, before suddenly losing it and finding himself back where he started.  But McDonald also uses Bruno to take swipes at topics as diverse as home shopping, referendums, political correctness, the fashion industry and – perhaps best of all, in “Assault” – JFK conspiracy theorists.  This is where Bruno the Bandit really shines, using the fantasy backdrop to lampoon more contemporary social and political issues.

But while I really enjoyed this satirical content, the downside was that the actual character of Bruno almost becomes interchangeable, with McDonald coming perilously close to losing sight of the supposed central conceit of the series.  In “Elfquestion” the character barely appears.  “The Whistle of Time” almost comes as a shock to the system, because we get back to Bruno actually being a bandit.  The stories where McDonald gets the balance right between making a satirical point, while also having Bruno getting in some kind of trouble and going on a morally questionable crusade with Fiona, are the ones that tend to be the most successful.

As a comedy, it’s more likely to encourage smirks than induce full-on belly laughs, and the fantasy aspect isn’t always evident.  But Ian McDonald does good work on both the scripting and art, and if you’re a fan of humour strips, you might want to check The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit out for yourself.

Buy The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit in print from Amazon, or digitally from Wowio, DriveThruComics and MyDigitalComics.