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!