On Not Paying for It
Get your mind out of the gutter! Time for a confession: I haven’t bought a comic in about 10 months. I got kind of burnt out on the New 52 and then got into some Marvel titles, but decided I couldn’t keep up with those either. However, the dropping of mainstream comics hasn’t resulted in my complete abandonment of the medium. I also came to the realization that whatever Marvel and DC were doing, I didn’t really miss.*
Instead of sinking my time into over a dozen titles I didn’t really care about (ok, I cared about like 5 of the ones I was reading), I went to two great sources for legitimate, non-copyright-infringing ways of reading comics: the library and the Internet.
I am fortunate to live in a city that boasts an excellent library system and also a sizable comics collection (it is funny to see Walking Dead in the children’s section too). However, I’m sure many readers don’t have access to such variety at their local library. Instead, I’m going to focus on some great web comics that I’ve been following.
Web comics get a bad rap, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment when you consider that quality (I reiterate my recommendation to go re-read some 80’s X-Men dialogue) is not always equated with print. To be clear, this is not the definitive list of comics I follow. These are just the ones with plots and story-arcs that I think show off what web comics can do.
I follow a few one-off comics (xkcd, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal), but they are more themed than plotted. The web comics in this short list embrace fully-formed characters, a little (a lot of) zaniness and effective use of the medium to achieve comics that I would say are better than what you can pay good money for.
Thrillbent isn’t a comic, but rather Mark Waid’s online, for free publisher. I was only recently introduced to the site, but I’ve come to be engrossed by 2 titles. Somehow my reading of Man of Steel reviews led me to Waid’s review and his site. I never did get around to deciding if I would actually see that movie, but I did find some interesting titles. From there, I started flipping through the comics. The two that I am following closely are Arcanum and Insufferable. Brief spoilers ahead.
Arcanum tells the story of Faerie interdictions into the real world. Magic and technology don’t mix well and that’s evident from the start. The story reminds me a bit of the second season of Gargoyles, which is probably why I like it. The comic is just getting started, but I like the potential and the world creation that’s going on already. The story is currently on a summer hiatus until September.
Insufferable can probably best be described as what if Dick Grayson grew up to be an asshole. Sort of the combination of 80’s Booster Gold with how anyone would feel being raised by a father who is a masked vigilante and demands you be his sidekick. Neither character is totally sympathetic in his portrayal, but they are well-designed (both narratively and aesthetically) characters. The comic is in its second volume and the character dynamics and storytelling make it a nice change of pace from characters that just seemed thrown together.
One additional difference between Thrillbent comics and the other I’ll mention is the format. Thrillbent presents it’s comics in seasons and each consists of a number of issues (Insufferable is the only one I’m following on its second season). You get anywhere between 10 and 20ish pages in each issue, but the content doesn’t stop there. Using the power of not being on paper, Thrillbent manages to add motion and action to its comics using the technology of the flipbook. It works and adds a cool effect you rarely could get in a print comic (I say rarely because someone probably did it). Thrillbent has some horror comics too, but those aren’t my cup of tea, so I haven’t read them. Go over and check out a site doing something new and interesting with the medium. They take comments and complaints, so don’t direct those at me.
The Adventures of Dr. McNinja
I have mentioned my love of Dr. McNinja before. Dr. McNinja is written and drawn by Chris Hastings, who was hired to write a few issues of Deadpool. The series is set in Cumberland, Maryland (a real place, I’ve been there!) and follows the trials of a doctor who is also a ninja. The tales have grown from focusing on Dr. McNinja’s medical practice, Dracula and a Ben Franklin clone, to include his family, a trip to the future, dinosaurs (!) and a mysterious, yet radical king from an alternate dimension.
Hastings embraces the wackiness of the character and uses cliches rather than relying on them. In reviewing past volumes for this article, I was surprised by just how long I’ve been reading this comic. The characters are on their 18-20th story, depending on how you count, and doesn’t seem overburdened by the history. I think it helps that at it’s base, the character premise is simple enough that a new reader is only overwhelmed by weirdness and not history. As was de rigueur for single page comics of a certain time, each contains hidden roll over text starting with the 3rd or 4th story. They are a fun little addition and are basically glimpses into the mind of Hastings. Beware!
So, after so many years and back issues (I love large internet archives), what keeps bringing me back? One part is invested inertia, I care about Doc, Dan and Dark Smoke Puncher (all McNinjas, it’s not as complicated, but definitely as weird as it appears). I am also invested in the stories, I am caught up. I think that really speaks to the staying power and concept of a 3-times a week-ish, single page comic.
The Order of the Stick
Now, it’s time for an advanced course in Nerd. Order of the Stick is essentially a Dungeons and Dragon’s quest with stick figures. The drawing is not as complex as what you would find from the previous 2 entries, but it makes up for that with a whole lot of story, character and self-awareness. OOTS (as I’ll call it from here on out) is almost on it’s 900th issue and follows the story of a party of adventures - the titular Order of the Stick. Their primary opponent is an evil lich wizard, but they also have the requisite evil twin, annoying paladin and otherworldly demons one should expect from tabletop adventure games.
The plot is rather focused for it’s length, basically the OOTS team is trying to stop the evil lich from destroying the world by unleashing a horrible demon-god-like-thing. Like the McNinja characters, the OOTS characters use cliches and tropes as sources of humor and effectiveness. Occasionally these are turned on their head, for example, their warrior leader - Roy - is not the dumb hack and slasher you would expect. He does a fair amount of hacking and slashing, but also possesses an MBA**.
Perhaps the greatest strength of OOTS is its villains. While many villains can be one dimensional, the villains of the Order are complex and fully realized. Some are lazy, pure evil undead sorcerers. Others are scheming, mostly evil, one-eyed goblins, confused stick up their butts paladins and the previously mentioned evil, but not really competent twin. The villains are melodramatic, self-aware and ridiculous. They also are excellent foils to their respective characters. Redcloak, the aforementioned goblin, is definitely evil, but absolutely cares about his fellow goblins. The Linear Guild is the OOTS’s opposite number and contains mirrors of the main characters (including the evil twin) that serve their role to fine detail. Point being, I love the characters and get many of the jokes, making it a seriously enjoyable tale when a new issue is published.
The key takeaways from my select, but non-exhaustive list of internet (free) comics are that you can find high quality comics out there on the internet, they do things that aren’t being done in print and you just need a decent enough connection to download pictures. I gave up being current with comics last fall and I still feel like I can find good, escapist stories without paying extra for them.
* The only thing I miss is Hawkeye, man. Can’t wait for that to come out in trade and then have the library pick it up. I’ll only be like 2-3 years behind. That’s practically current for me!
** Master of Battle Administration.