A lot of my Black Gate posts lean into the realm of the fantastic in sequential art, but until now, I’ve primarily stuck to the traditional comic book format, with some occasional diversions into older magazine-sized editions. A few weeks ago, I tweeted out a request for people to recommend web comics to me, because I’d never tried any.
There’s a strange divide between superhero fiction and the rest of SFF. It may be because superheroes started out in comics. Almost all the tropes — the spandex, the tights, the rules of combat enforced by the Comics Code of the 1950s — come out of those comic book origins. As more and more superheroes hit the big screen, it hasn’t been surprising to see them in novels, some of them on the literary side of SFF (like Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, Carrie Vaughn’s “Golden Age” books), and many of them looking at how those tropes play out when you’re not in a visual medium.
So how do you classify superhero webcomics that play with the tropes in the way that those SFF novels have done? Are they fantasy or are they superhero comics, or are those lines really more fluid than the divisions warrant? Either way, three of my favorite webcomics are superhero comics and all of them look at the genre in a way that questions our assumptions about how superheroes work.
What happens when a superhero gets married to a nice, normal girl — and what kind of strengths does it require to be married to someone with a secret identity? What does it matter if you can kick butt and take names if you’re not contributing to solving the big world problems? What is it like to be an 8 year-old superhero? Keep reading and find out how three very different comics are looking at superheroes (and why you should be reading them).
The majority of webcomics I read are ongoing stories, most with fantasy elements, that focus on character development and plot and world building. Happletea is the only gag strip in my feed, and while it doesn’t have those other elements, it brings both humor and insight in spades. Created by Scott Maynard, the strip has been going since 2008 with some regularity (though not consistent updates), and it is, according to Maynard, “the only comic that excoriates religion, pop culture, and politics while, at the same time, lauding the world of cryptozoology.” I use Maynard’s own description here because it’s not only accurate (I can’t think of another comparable comic, except very possibly Sinfest, which I read only on occasion), but because it captures Maynard’s sense of humor.
In Maynard’s strip, recurring characters include:
- Lil K, whose misadventures have included pre-looting for the Mayan apocalypse, starting a revolution in Latin America upon misunderstanding what New Year’s Resolutions were for, and coping with the chaos of New York
- Sasquatch, Lil K’s foster father, who packs wormy lunches and occasionally has bizarre fashion sense
- God, who takes the form of a cat living at Lil K’s house
- Allev, Lil K’s blond friend who is often the voice of reason against Lil K’s antics
There’s an odd intersection of SFF and professional wrestling fandoms. It surprised me when I first encountered it, but since then, I’ve become a devoted reader of Rival Angels, a woman’s pro wrestling comic by Alan Evans, and one of my favorite Choice of Games titles is Slammed by Paolo Chikiamco. Since neither is technically fantasy (although there’s definitely an element of the fantastic to pro wrestling), I’m stretching the inclusion criteria a bit for my spotlights by covering both of them together. If you’re not into the WWE, read on to see if you can be convinced that the best wrestlemania might not be on Pay Per View…
In Slammed, you play an up-and-coming professional wrestler, trying to make your name in the world and striving to compete for one of wrestling’s biggest titles. From the beginning, Chikiamco has the characters — and the PC — acknowledge that wrestling is scripted, and that a lot of the challenges revolve around how you choose to portray yourself to the fans. Are you going to be a face — a “kayfabe” — who’s a hero, or are you a trash-talking villain on stage (but a consummate professional in the locker room)? But while your career provides the context for the story, the real plot is about your relationship with a wrestler from your past — a college friend who once held you responsible for a tragedy that impacted her wrestling career. (Note: she was female in my game; she may be male in other playthroughs.) Now at the top of her game and a rising star in her own right, will she reach out to you as an ally? Or will you be enemies? And how much of the truth will you reveal to your fans?
It’s the official release date for Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, and posts on Norse Mythology, the Thunder God, and the Trickster Loki are cropping up all over the Internet. (Fantasy author Max Gladstone’s post on “The Real Loki” at Think Progress is one of my favorites.) I’m grateful to Marvel for drawing attention to Asgard, especially because it gives me the excuse to write about one of my very favorite webcomics, Thistil Mistil Kistil (TMK) by Sarah Schanze. It’s a unique spin on Norse mythology that features Loki as one of the major protagonists — and while he’s still a trickster with a distinct tendency toward chaos (and probably ADHD), he’s not the villain that the stories so often make him out to be.
The story begins with Coal, a young Viking warrior who ought to be on his way to Valhalla. But despite his heroic death, he’s brought to Odin and the All Father (with the help of an irritable Thor) explains that Loki has stolen the weapons of the gods and it’s up to Coal to get them back. Since Loki once saved Coal’s life, Coal believes he might just be able to accomplish the task — but Loki being Loki, it’s not going to be simple. Set during the Viking Era, with plenty of detail about the world in which the historical (rather than mythical) Vikings explored, TMK combines fantasy, history, and mythology in one big quest tale. And as Coal and Loki search for the missing weapons (because of course Loki doesn’t have them any more — that would be too easy!), new non-Viking characters–including shy Hedda, the former thrall, and Ibrahim, a Moor scholar–get pulled into the adventure.
I discovered TMK in 2010, through Comic Creators for Freedom, a group that does a fundraiser every year to promote awareness of and fight against human trafficking. That was where I first met Hedda, who doesn’t appear until Chapter 5 of the story (so I had to wait a while to actually see her appear). For people unfamiliar with CCF’s fundraiser, the comic creators collaborate on a desktop wallpaper featuring characters from each of their comics, which donors to the fundraiser receive. All of the donations go to the charity Love146. I’ve found several of my favorite webcomics through the fundraiser, and I feel good about supporting artists who are involved with the charity.
I read a lot of webcomics. Back when I was writing Cowboys and Aliens II for Platinum, I started reading a bunch of the comics that were up on the now-defunct Drunk Duck and I got hooked.
What happens when you start reading webcomics is that you often follow links to other webcomics, until your bookmarks bar is full of comics you’re following on a regular basis and your inbox is full of recommendations from friends of the comics you should be following. That e-mail from a friend is how I discovered Digger by Ursula Vernon, which was the Hugo Award Winner for best graphic story and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award winner, both in 2012.
It starts with an anthropomorphic wombat named Digger who, by page 6, has met a statue avatar of the god of wisdom Ganesh. Wombats being a race of logically minded architects and engineers, they don’t care much for gods and magic — but Digger is thrust into the middle of a story that has both. Magic has deliberately interfered with her tunnel, something no wombat takes kindly, and her sense of direction is askew, meaning she can’t get home until Ganesh helps her figure out just where home is from where she’s ended up.
While researching a trip home might seem like a harmless endeavor, it’s not as simple as it sounds, and soon Digger is up to her ears in strange characters: a young healer known only as the Hag, a shadow child who might or might not be a demon, an unnamed hyena exile who Digger calls Ed, a female warrior monk who is probably insane, and a whole tribe of hyena people who might want to eat her.
This might sound like a lot of silliness in one webcomic, and Digger has its share of humorous moments. But what happens between the words, the art, and the story is the stuff of magic — quite possibly the kind that Digger herself would approve of.