Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Lowly Dregs

All right, people. Enough is enough. Somewhere in this list there must be a comic that I won't really like and it needs to come up soonish. Every time I come across a comic on the list that I actually enjoy enough to read regularly I find myself struggling to find something to say beyond "This comic is good... and stuff. "


Yeah, yeah... I know what you're thinking - "Oh joy. Yet another freaking D&D comic." No, the genre isn't exactly hurting for entries, but this one is actually worth checking out so try to save some of that cynicism for the next two-guys-and-a-couch entry.

Let's start with the artwork, shall we? If you've taken a look at some of the other D&D inspired comics out there you might be noticing something new. I know it may be confusing, just take a deep breath and look it over. See the smooth line art, the subtle detailing, the vibrant coloring and consistent shading? That's talent. Nothing to be frightened of I assure you, with luck you'll get used to it. Am I being a bit flippant? Perhaps, but I contend it's not my fault. Being the D&D nerd I am I'm tired of seeing crappy comics piss all over the game. The Lowly Dregs does no pissing and it pleases me. The coloring of the comic perfectly fits the tone, it's merry and jovial without searing the eyeballs. Character designs are well rendered and consistent, fitting the personalities as presented without relying on overly obvious cues. Rounding out the praise are the detailed backgrounds and scene settings that manage visual complexity without overwhelming the characters or action.

Now on to the writing. The first obvious comparison you'll likely be inclined to make is to Goblins. Stop it. This is not Goblins, a Goblins rip-off, or even a Goblins tribute. Yes, both comics look at adventuring from the viewpoint of a typical D&D NPC, but that's where the comparison ends. The Lowly Dregs is a comedy. There are some action elements, but I've yet to have my heart broken into tiny shards by the mass of death and destruction. Death is incidental here, not impacting. I do very much appreciate the way all out farce is avoided as well. The plot is character driven and, while individual strips may depend on puns for a punchline, the vast majority of the humor comes from our knowledge of the characters and their relationships to one another. The pacing is wonderful, neither stressed nor drawn out, and the dialogue is very natural. They haven't quite yet reached the 100 mark, but they've passed the hurdle of plot staging and are moving steadily into development. Now's a great time to jump in and get caught up before things really start taking off.

Ready for my one and only criticism? Word bubbles. They seem a bit tacked on and out of place with the artwork, and are sometimes placed so that conversations seem out of turn. Early font issues were worked out relatively quickly though, so I've no doubt that these issues will similarly disappear. I don't think the site would be hurt by the inclusion of About and Cast pages, but a thread for each in the Forum would work in a pinch.

Last little tidbit - for some goofy easter egg fun, click the apple in the Dregs logo at the top of the page. Spritely giggles are contained within.

Thanks for putting up with me these last two weeks, I'm still trying to get back in the swing of things. I know I'm still one review behind, but I'll have it up as soon as possible. See you soon!

Alaska Robotics

Dear Alaska Robotics creators,

Please put your latest comic on the front page of your website. Ktnxbai!

There. With that out of the way we've completed my list of negative review items for Alaska Robotics. If you were here looking for flames, you can leave now. I also suggest you take a sincerely critical look at the thought process that brought you to my blog looking for flames.

Digression? You get that a lot around here. Flames? Not so much.

As I sat down and read through the Alaska Robotics archive to refresh my memory for the review I found myself chuckling and thinking "I'm really going to enjoy writing this review, it's always nice to review a comic I really like." Then I sat down to review the damn thing and found myself thinking "What the hell do I say about this completely random, yet thoroughly enjoyable, work?" Alaska Robotics is one of those webcomics that defies simple classification. For the most part, it's a single shot comic - you don't necessarily need to go through the archives as most strips are independant of previous strips. Okay, got that. Is it a humor comic? Yes... ish. While many of the strips are humor based, and the comedy is well written, there are a number of strips that are more fanciful explorations of poetry and art. Is it character based? Yes... ish. The same characters pop up time and again, but getting to know the individual characters isn't a requirement for understanding the strips. Is it plot based? Um... kind of. There are brief plot lines, (my favorite being the Robot Zombies story) and you do get the over-all impression that the characters work and/or live together. Is it about robots? Sometimes. Is it about Alaska? I think they live there... but I don't know that it matters.

You know how your brain goes a bit floppy after several hours without sleep and everything becomes kind of whimsical and humorous without really tying into anything solid? That's Alaska Robotics.

Well, assuming your brain is actually funny and maintains great timing in it's more addled states.

The artwork is mostly kooky and playful, making it an excellent match for the strip. The exceptions in style take place during the mini-stories within the comic, most noteably the Ocean City story line where backgrounds are rendered in a beautifully soft painted style. To get a really good look at the painting techniques, I heartily suggest taking advantage of the "Monster Sized" option included under each strip. I do wish there was an archive of some sort available on each page, but this is a minor issue as a drop down archive is included on the Comics page accessable by way of the main menu.

All-in-all, I really enjoy the strip. Whimsical really is the adjective that keeps coming to mind - it's a lighthearted, positive read that's at turns punny, topical, and almost restful. It also seems extremely marketable... but that's a review of a different sort entirely.

Next up - The Lowly Dregs

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I know the review is late, and I managed to miss last week's review all together. I'll be all caught up, and beyond, by Monday. Promise!


Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Breathless is a (mostly) black and white fantasy adventure comic now in it's eighth chapter. Luckily, as the comic only updates twice a week, you still have time to hop and board and get current before the serious action begins... but I'd hurry if I were you, it doesn't seem far off.

I quite like the story so far, though I do believe the page size ruins the pacing a bit. A typical page runs only four or five panels, and while that might be adequate for other comics there's a great deal of action in breathless meaning that a single fight scene might take several pages - no problem if you're reading a print comic, but a bit drawn out when you consider that those five pages span more than two weeks time. I think the comic would be better served dropping to once-a-week updates and double-sizing each page, but the creator may have other reasons for presenting it as she does. Pacing aside, the dialogue does a wonderful job of distinguishing the cast and advancing the plot and the frequent dream sequences and flashbacks are very well done. At this point in the comic you have a clear understanding of where the plot is headed, as well as an understanding of where the main character is coming from. There are bits of his past that are shadowy, certainly, but I have full faith that we'll be filled in as the story progresses.

This is another one of those comics where the artwork started out good and got better with time, no train wrecks to be seen by clicking "first" with this one. The main difference between chapter one and chapter eight is in shading, which has transformed from a very well executed cross hatching to skillful gray tones. Both styles are pleasing to the eye and support the character designs, but I do think the gray tones help enhance the overall mood. Most importantly for this genre, the artwork captures the action well; clearly illustrating movement, force, and emotion. The character designs are at turns intense and endearing and the backgrounds are both well done and relevant - keeping the attention focused on the characters where it belongs while providing setting and ambiance. Most striking for me are the spirit scenes where the artists has easily captured an ethereal quality that instantly sets the tone.

I would like to see the occasional missed comic message and holiday page taken out of the archive. While I don't mind their inclusion in single shot strips, they really serve no purpose in a story comic beyond yanking the audience out of the fantasy the creator has so carefully crafted. Also, while scanning a couple of the accompanying blog posts I noticed something odd - several of them actually contained a retelling of the displayed comic page. My first thought was that I had missed something and that the retelling was giving details that the art wasn't able to convey. Upon further review, however, I found that not to be the case. I can't speak to the creator's motivations here, but the retelling isn't necessary, the artwork is more than adequate to convey even the more nuanced aspects of the story.

All in all, I'm really enjoying Breathless and hope to someday see this is print form. I'm looking forward to seeing the foreshadowing unfold and the many mysteries solved. As I said before, I'd hop on this one now, I feel there are big events coming.

See you all next week when I review Alaska Robotics

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Autumn Lake

Let's start with full disclosure, shall we?

When I first placed Autumn Lake on the review list it's creator, Mark Savary, and I had only crossed paths on a couple of webcomic related forums. Since that time Mark has become a fellow co-host on The Webcomic Beacon and I count him among my virtual friends. Now, granted, I'm not much of a pissy reviewer to begin with and no one is going to be surprised to read yet another mostly positive review. Still, I didn't want to be charged with being biased without first coming forward and openly stating that I'm biased.

I'd also like to mention that I think Savary is incredibly sexy... but that isn't really related to the comic or the review. It's just something I wanted to mention. You know... because I can.


I'm going to do something a little out of place and start out by calling your attention first, not to the comic itself, but to the very first blog post beneath the very first comic. Go read it. Did you catch all the professionalism? All that "Hey, I actually care about my comic so I'm going to go ahead and act like it"? That attitude right there is a minimum requirement for anyone even hoping to make a living off their webcomic. You don't necessarily need it right off the bat, some of us are a little more scattered than others, but eventually you're going to have to pull your head out of your ass and act like you care.

Just sayin'... and on we go...

When I first took a gander at Autumn Lake I rather expected that I'd find it a bit boring. Fashioned not only in format but also in style after newspaper comics, I assumed there just wouldn't be anything there to hold my frankly crude attentions. Imagine my surprise when I consumed the first year in a single sitting and found myself chuckling aloud more than once. The comic is, quite simply, good. The introductory awkwardness that accompanies lesser newspaper style strips is quickly and easily overcome, and new characters are brought in with the same quirky effortlessness. The jokes are simple, sometimes punny, but they don't fall flat or overreach. Savary is clearly comfortable with the format, effortlessly traveling from simplistic jokes to the exploration of larger philosophical concepts in the space of three or four panels much like Bill Watterson. Also reminiscent of Watterson is Savary's ability to expand the comic to accommodate more abstract concepts, be it watercolor backed quotations or poetry. More often than not he tosses these strips off as filler - but they don't feel like filler, they feel like a special treat. Nice trick, that.

The artwork for Autumn Lake matches the feel of the comic perfectly, which should be the goal of any comic artist. The character designs are clean, consistent, and individually appropriate. The backgrounds range from non-existent to eye catching as needed, yet another nod to Savary's ability. I very much enjoy the occasional water color caveats and spot color strips and don't feel they interrupt the flow of the comic any more than the longer Sunday and special strips do. He clearly enjoys what he's doing with the strip and it comes through. Most of the time grey tones grace your weekdays and newsprint color graces your weekend and Savary does both equally well. What I've gone on for three paragraphs (so far) to say is that Autumn Lake is damned professional. Had I learned that it originally appeared in print only later to be relegated to the web as newspaper after newspaper went under I wouldn't have been surprised. Savary could hang with the big boys, and if he isn't, I think he should.

My one and only criticism: the depreciation of the main character, Mark, weighs a little heavier on me than I'd like. I do understand the Charlie Brown like nature of the character, but Charlie Brown's issues were those of a child - they were never that complex, never that... relatable. I like Mark. I like his philosophical charm, I like his gentle romantic tendencies, I like his sense of humor and whimsy, and because I like him I wind up feeling protective and maternal where I realize, intellectually, I'm supposed to be chuckling as life once again craps on the poor fellow. I want desperately for him to be loved, to be honored, appreciated, and just to feel good about himself. Maybe this is what Savary wants from me. Maybe I'm over-analyzing. Maybe I'm projecting...

Maybe I'll kidnap Mark and bring him over to BetaPwned for a break.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Funny thing... it isn't enough to write the review on a Wednesday, you actually have to post the damn thing too. Yeesh.

I digress.

One of the first 10 webcomics I ever followed, Zap! is a brilliant little space adventure with a bit of something for everyone. You want action? We've got telekinetic bad guys and an amnesic hero suffering from a case of bad history. Romance? Here's a quintessential ball room scene to sweep you off your feet. Comedy? Three words - smart ass robot. Pull it all together in an engaging plot bundle, wrap it up with sharp and shiny pacing ribbons and you've got Zap!

What I appreciate most about Zap! is that, being strongly character driven, each aspect of the story is as well written as the others. If it were presented situationally I simply wouldn't care to click because, situationally, Zap! is fairly formulaic. Boy with a dark past meets girl with a broken heart, yada, yada, yada... What keeps me clicking is that I like the characters. I care about what happens to them, I'm anxious about the challenges they face, and I'm rooting them on. When something horrid happens to a character I don't feel it as an intellectual surprise, I feel it as an emotional impact; a feat which is much more difficult to write and worlds more rewarding to read. The writer is skillful enough to pull you in emotionally and then use those emotions to obscure the plot twists - if you were thinking, rather than feeling, you'd see it coming. The brilliance of this approach is that it completely avoids the ridiculous "shocker" scenes so often abused by less talented writers while achieving the same result.

Newbie writers would do well to take note - you don't have to hide the knife to throw your readers for a loop. Intellectual surprise, that jump and squeel that accompanies slasher flicks, only lasts a second - to really go for the gut, you need to make your readers feel the knife strike home... and you do that by making them love the characters.

The artwork...

Do me a favor, right now, before you read the rest of the review take a look at the first Zap! cover. Now take a look at the most recent cover. Do it again. Hell, open each one up in a different window and set them up side by side on your monitor. THIS is why I beg webcomic creators to keep their old stuff online and not delete comics they no longer feel cut muster. Newbie creators - doesn't looking at those two images side by side just make you all warm and fuzzy? Five years of work - that's all that stands between the two images. To be fair, Zap! started with strong character designs and a good grasp on overall drawing mechanics so the progression is really from "pretty good" to "really good" rather than from "awful" to "really good", but I can assure you the artist had an "awful" stage - everyone does. The striking thing about the art progression with Zap! is that it progressed in all aspects equally well - perspective, line work, expression, body mechanics, color, shading, highlighting, backgrounds, composition... everything improved over time.

A beautiful example of a collaboration that actually works, writer Chris Layfield and co-writer/artist Pascalle Lepas have created in Zap! a compelling, entertaining, and gorgeous comic that I very much recommend.

See you next week when I review Autumn Lake!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Large Panda

I don't get it. I'm going to get that out of the way right off the bat. If you read A Large Panda, and you get it, ignore this review. Find somewhere else to be. I can tell you what I think of it, but only with the firm understanding that I, Tanya Higgins, don't get this comic. The humor seems to exist just barely within my peripheral vision, occasionally ducking into a blind spot just when I think I might be able to get a good look at it.

I started, like a good little review whore, at the first comic and read my way through to the point where Al Gore addressed some kind of strike team regarding the escaped Large Panda who was somehow determined to be responsible for global warming after a photo surfaced of him riding a raft made from dead seals back lit by an explosion caused by something to do with time travel, an anthropomorphic "ghetto" Freud action figure, and the ghost of Salman Rushdie. It was at that point that I skipped ahead a little. Honestly, I feel like I don't need to say any more. My confusion should be palpable.

The thing is, I don't get it, but I don't think it's a bad comic. I appreciate the creativity behind the art choices - which mostly consist of heavily warped photo backgrounds, simple shapes, and clipped figures. The contrast between the characters and backgrounds improves over time, as does the basic composition within each frame. The comic won't be winning any art awards, as it relies almost entirely on cut-and-paste techniques, but the artwork does support the writing and compliments the general theme quite well... a sort of tangled chaos of references and loose plot. The most recent comics border on complete abstraction at times, and I find them quite visually appealing. Occasionally the vocabulary seems a bit lofty for the tone of the comic, Latin might be a tad much for blatant silliness, but I think the writing works... I'm pretty sure it does... yes... I think it must - after all, I did understand what was going on and the writing moved me from one event to the next without loosing me... I just don't know what drugs I need to ingest to really understand why it's funny.

It is funny, by the way... at least I think it is... yes.... yes, it is.

I would love to be able to tell you when A Large Panda updates, or really anything else about it... but the site is somewhat lacking in the details. If the comments at the bottom of the comic reflect the update schedule, the best I can say is that there really isn't one... and that the comic may not have updated since August. Hopefully the creator hasn't simply tossed in the towel, it'd be a shame to see another little piece of weirdness die.

Be sure to tune in next week when I review Zap!