Monday, August 1, 2016

Other Media Review(s): Webcomic Run-down

Taking another break from “Down the Stacks” this week.  Instead, this week’s review post is going to be a series of mini-reviews of webcomics that I follow.  For each comic, I’ll provide a link, a brief synopsis, and why I include the comic on my too-read list.

In no particular order:

Freefall ( One of the longest-running webcomics I've encountered, Freefall began in 1998 as a greyscale, newspaper-formatted comic that mixed humor with science.  Freefall started out focusing on Sam Starfall, an alien wannabe starship captain with no actual experience and an instinct for theft, Helix, Sam’s loyal robot assistant who has the personality of an impressionable child, and Florence, the genetically-modified wolf that Sam acquires as his engineer through… less than legal means.  The story eventually migrates from Florence teaching Sam basic zero-G skills to Florence getting herself wrapped up in a plot against the quirky Artificial Intelligences that make up most of the planet’s workforce - a plot that took most of 18 years to wrap up.
I like Freefall because it has a wide cast of unique and amusing characters and has, so far, managed to strike a decent balance between making jokes and digging into questions of morality and humanity.  Aside from one antagonistic character, who is far too greedy and narcissistic to have a redeeming side, every character has clear positive and negative traits.  Sam Starfall, for example, is a notorious and unapologetic thief who takes pride in his criminal record, but he always looks out for his friends and is a good-natured fellow in general.  Florence is an accomplished engineer and extremely intelligent, but her canine nature and the mental programming that accompanied her “uplifting” genetic modifications makes it difficult for her to question authority and leaves her vulnerable to manipulation.
Freefall has a simple, flat art style that hasn’t changed much over the years, but it started out great, so it hasn’t needed improvements aside from gaining color at some point down the line.  The character designs are all unique so that, even if you can’t recall a character’s name, you’ll still be able to recognize them.
Freefall updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Dreamkeepers ( Dreamkeepers is more than just a webcomic: it’s a deep and complex world developed by the husband-and-wife team of Dave and Liz Lillie, aka Vivid Publishing.  The main feature of Dreamkeepers is a graphic novel saga that Dave and Lillie have been gradually writing since 2005 (and have only reached Volume 4 so far), but what drew me in was the more regularly updated “Prelude” webcomic, which is an on-going, bi-weekly account of the childhood misadventures of the Dreamkeepers graphic novel protagonists: Mace, Whip, Lilith, and Namah.
There’s a lot of background information on the Dreamkeepers world available on the website, but the basic conceit is that it takes place on a world parallel to Earth, inhabited by a people who vary drastically in appearance from one another and are supposed to be guardians of our sleeping minds against invading demons known as Nightmares.  In the time period of the comics - both Prelude and the graphic novels, the Nightmares have been gone for eons and are considered mere myth, the special Powers the Dreamkeepers possess are now illegal to actually use, and the status quo is decidedly “Average, with underlying political corruption.”  Mace and Whip are orphans living in a run-down orphanage on the beach run by the deadbeat, child-hating, shark-looking Grunn.  Mace is your typical golden-hearted yet trouble-making kid and Whip is the unintelligible yet snarky animal sidekick (although I think Whip is actually a Dreamkeeper like everyone else, just a particularly tiny and… unique one).  On the other side of the coin - and social ladder - we have Lilith and Namah, the daughters of the Viscount of Anduruna, the former a legitimate child and the latter illegitimate.  Lilith is a sweet, bookish, and socially naive girl who looks at life with optimism and follows the rules as they’re laid down.  Namah, on the other hand, is a hellion.  Kept under house arrest lest her existence bring scandal to the Viscount, Namah’s primary goal in life is to escape the Tower she lives in and, failing that, to sow much chaos and headache for the Tower’s guards and staff.  She develops a pessimistic and macabre worldview by the graphic novels, but she and Lilith are always each other's best friend.
I was drawn to Dreamkeepers by the colorful and infinitely varied inhabitants of the world.  Aside from a couple sets of twins, I have yet to spot two Dreamkeepers who resemble each other.  Namah’s plight and the chaos she causes as a result helped draw me into Prelude, and that comic is currently moving into some very interesting backstory territory.  Mace and Whip’s segments of Prelude aren’t quite as entertaining as Lilith and Namah’s, but they’re still well-written.
Dreamkeepers: Prelude updates every other Friday… most of the time.  The first three volumes of the Graphic Novel are also available for free on the website, but I know Vivid Publishing would appreciate more people actually buying the books.

How to be a Werewolf ( This is a newcomer to the webcomic scene, having started only in February 2015.   How to be a Werewolf concerns Malaya Walters, a 25 year-old girl working in her family’s small coffee shop, and who was bitten by a werewolf when she was five.  By sheer force of will, Malaya has kept her “problem” from being more than just a monthly ordeal locked in her room, until one day a weird guy comes into the coffee shop and starts sniffing around her like a dog.  A couple days later, the guy shows up at Malaya’s house to drop the bombshell that Malaya’s not the only wolf in town, and it’s really, really weird that the local pack hasn’t found her until now.  The pack is mostly a social club and support group with democratically-appointed oversight of werewolf activity in the city.  However, there are some werewolves out there unaffiliated with the “official” pack and a keen interest in recruiting Malaya by any means.
What drew me to How to be a Werewolf is the author’s stated goal to create a werewolf story that doesn’t conform to the usual tropes.  Most werewolf webcomics I’ve seen in the past emphasize the painful first transformation of the werewolf, the emotional issues that come with such a sudden world change, and often a dark storyline pitting weres against vampires or other packs.  HtbaW is building to a conflict with dark undertones, but the characters include a girl who’s long since grown used to - if not necessarily comfortable with - her lycanthropy, a “mentor” werewolf who’s an awkward goofball, “villains” who haven’t been much of a serious threat yet, and Malaya’s parents and brother who are all willing to stand up to werewolves to protect their girl.
How to be a Werewolf updates every Tuesday and Wednesday.  It’s just starting to pick up steam, so now’s a good time to get on the train.

Faux Pas ( Another internet oldie, Faux Pas has been around since the early 2000s and involves characters that the authors have been using since the 70s.  “Faux Pas” is both a pun on “fox paws,” reflecting that the main character of the comic, Randy, is a red fox, as well as a reference to one of the driving forces of the narrative: the social misstep or faux pas.  “Faux pas” stars Randy, a tame fox who lives on a Colorado farm for animals trained to appear in movies, TV, and the like.  For the most part, the animals don’t get a lot of work, but they’re content to live out their lives on the farm.  There’s also a large herd of cats and several litters of young rabbits living on the farm in case crowd scenes or a Greek Chorus role are needed.  The comic is a slice-of-life story that mostly revolves around Randy meeting a wild vixen named Cindy and the pair attempting to develop a relationship in between Cindy being confused by the popular-media-influenced culture of the farm, fending off the busybody hen Myrtle’s attempts to turn Randy and Cindy’s lives into a soap opera, intrusions by Cindy’s manipulative cousin, Dusk, and the occasional vanishing of one fox or another.
I started reading Faux Pas way back when simply because it had foxes in it.  It’s one of only a few comics to remain on my list after over a decade because it not only updates regularly - barring computer problems on the creator’s end - but remains entertaining.  Storylines can drag a bit because the comic follows newspaper format with only three panels in a typical update, but time does move and new elements keep being introduced so worn-out jokes can be put to rest or retired.
Faux Pas updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays most weeks of the year, and more reliably when the weather is behaving.

Precocious ( Precocious has been around since 2008, and it has the art evolution to show it.  This daily, newspaper-style comic (with internet-style alt-text commentary) chronicles the misadventures of a band of highly intelligent, anthropomorphic animal school kids living in the prestigious Gemstone Estates neighborhoods, attending Poppinstock Academy, and proving every day that “Knowledge is a weapon.”  The comics are usually gag-a-day, but also follow week-long stories that usually begin with the kids concocting a plot or discovering something new and end with either explosions, legal action, or what the kids would consider an anticlimax.  There are fourteen kids in the main class of Poppinstock, but Precocious tends to focus on the four who instigate most the problems: Autumn Pingo, who has already mastered the art of blackmail, Bud Oven, a gifted chef and part-time mad scientist, Tiffany Et, a cheerful girl who just wants to watch things burn, and Jacob Linkletter, who could very well put “professional lackey” on his resume.  The adults are quite present and do try to keep problems to a minimum, but they all have their quirks and sometimes find reasons to aid and abet their kids.
Reading Precocious is an all-around good time.  It’s a world of carefully controlled mayhem, mad science, and commentary.  The author occasionally draws on trends and fads for storylines - they recently spent a week on the topic of Pokemon Go - but for the most part lets the characters’ interests and skills inform what’s going to happen next.  The best parts are when the kids and the parents compete at mind games, trying to exploit their knowledge of the other to come out on top, and the parents prove that years of experience is superior to the intellect of a gifted child.
Precocious updates every day.

Cucumber Quest ( Cucumber Quest is a gorgeously-drawn, tongue-in-cheek satire of role palying game story tropes.  All young Cucumber of Caketown wanted out of life was to attend a school of magic and become a famed scholar.  Unfortunately, Destiny has other plans: it turns out his family has a long tradition of producing the Hero who wields the Dream Sword to banish the evil Nightmare Knight every 100 years, and the time for that quest has come around again.  Cucumber does not know how to use a sword and is not at all interested in adventure, but his sister Almond fits both counts, so she tags along to do the heavy lifting.  They later pick up Sir Carrot of the Caketown royal guard, who has some courage issues to work out, and Princess Nautilus of the Ripple Kingdom, equipped with a lifetime of studying the Nightmare Knight and his Disaster Master lackeys and with a cellphone that can summon a helpful water spirit.  The four then set out to gather the princess autographs they need to awaken the Dream Sword, defeat the Disaster Masters along the way, and hopefully actually beat the Nightmare Knight at the end.  So far… things have not gone as expected.
What I like best about Cucumber Quest, aside from the pretty watercolor art style, is Cucumber’s dumbfounded reactions to the often unorthodox situations and people he meets coupled with Almond’s disappointment when a proper fight is denied.  Most of the supporting characters are trying so hard to play out a typical fantasy quest, but they keep bumping up against technology and cultures that don’t fit or render old problems moot, villains who are losing their appetite for evil, and some downright absurd people who keep crossing the hero’s path.
Cucumber Quest updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Professor Amazing and the Incredible Golden Fox ( I just discovered this comic this last week, but I am already in love with it.  PAIGF started just over a year ago in July 2015 and has only just started its third chapter, so now’s a good time to get into it.  It’s the story of Isla Grace Abernathy (neé Fox), also known as the superhero the Incredible Golden Fox, and her husband, Parker, who I’m only 80% sure is the titular Professor Amazing.  The comic hasn’t progressed to the point of confirming that particular fact yet.  The first two chapters deal entirely with Isla Grace’s origin story, first from her perspective and then from Parker’s.  The gist is that Isla Grace, ordinary paralegal by day, met Parker, science professor at a local university, at a coffee shop and they fell in love.  Parker couldn’t afford a “proper” engagement ring, so he bought a fox-shaped ring at an antiques store and proposed with that.  The ring did something to Isla Grace, granting her the ability to transform into a fox or fox-woman.  After two chapters chronicling Isla Grace and Parker dealing with the first couple of involuntary transformations and trying to make sense of what’s going on, Chapter 3 has jumped ahead to Isla Grace going to work as the Incredible Golden Fox.  
I’m eager to see where this comic goes, and to find out what Professor Amazing’s deal is.  I came for the fox, but I’m staying for the story.  The author knows how to write a compelling origin story, at the least, and his art is pretty good, aside from some anatomical weirdness with Isla Grace’s mouth in her half-fox form.
PAIGF updates on Fridays.  I wish it would update more frequently, but you can’t always get what you want.

That's it for this week.  I still have some webcomics on my list that I might go over at some future date.

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