Lady Sabre & The Ineffable Aether

Diversity In Webcomics

Diversity is a hot topic. Lack of diversity is an even hotter topic. How to overcome it, is the hottest topic of all. There are many aspects to this topics, personal, social, legal, political etc. But I won’t talk about these, because Provocative Praise is not about such issues.

Provocative Praise is, among other things, about webcomics. And webcomics constitute the most diverse medium that exists, or that could possibly exist. Whether for creators or audiences, webcomics are the easiest way to explore diversity.

Note: Today’s post contains only minor spoilers, if any.

The Easy Way

From a reader’s perspective, webcomics are the easiest way to explore diversity. Actually, to explore anything. At minimal cost.

Just look around for something that might potentially be interesting. Take a closer look. Follow the story for a couple of pages.

  • The worst that could happen is that you find out you don’t like the story, stop following it, and forget about it. No money lost, and very little time. And maybe you learned something, anyway.
  • If the comic you found is wonderful, great, cool, or even just pretty nice, you WIN
    • If it is unlike anything you have read before, you just broadened your horizon
    • If it is similar to the stuff you already read, chances are you will still learn something new
  • Sometimes a comic starts promising, but the storytelling develops in a way that is no longer to your taste. You can just stop reading. You had a good time, you learned something along the way. Maybe you will come back later, maybe you never will. No harm, either way.

Note: Actually, the worst thing that could happen is something very different: That wonderful, great, outstanding webcomic you follow suddenly stops updating. Because comic artists sometimes fall ill, get a new (day) job, or move on, physically or mentally. Hiatus! And then you become so annoyed when your web browser constantly tells you that it – and your whole life – will run better, faster and safer if you disable that sense-of-entitlement plug-in.

Serendipitous Diversity

Keep in mind that I only talk about stuff that I actually read, and can’t do more than scratch the surface of the wonderful and breathtakingly diverse world of webcomics. You can help me dig slightly deeper by recommending your favorite webcomics in the comments. (As some of you have already done. Thank you so much.)

I should note that when I started looking for and reading more and more webcomics, I didn’t explicitly look for diversity, in any of the dimensions that I’m talking about here. And I still don’t look for webcomics written by women, people of color, trans people, …

I look for webcomics that are interesting for me. That usually means science fiction, espionage thrillers, (dark) crime stories, intense drama or even psychological horror, and comedy with a heart and a deeper soul. Sometimes I stumble upon fantasy or zombie stories that unexpectedly draw me in. And occasionally a story with a specific message manages to pique my curiosity and capture my interest. That’s how I discovered and continue to discover diversity in webcomics. Successfully.

Moving forward, I have to apologize that I’m not able to name all the creators whose webcomics I talk about. At the moment I just don’t have the time for the diligence necessary to figure out they all are. To be fair to everyone, I’ll just leave out even the names that I now. Bear with me, in the (maybe far) future I’ll talk more about creators, and refer to them properly. And please note that I link to all comics directly, and do not use any image without – thus implied – credit.

Diverse Creators & Diverse Teams

Everyone with good internet access, a suitable computer, and whatever viable drawing device (from pencil to tablet) can create and publish a webcomic. Technically, this still excludes the majority of people living on this planet. But is also means that the entry barrier is lower than with any other medium. The organizational dynamics that often shut out or keep down creators who are not straight, cis, white, and male do not apply to webcomics.

Just like I don’t explicitly look for diversity in topics, I don’t do that with regard to the creators. And of course, I don’t evaluate the webcomics I love based on who wrote them. For example, I love Opportunities In Space ever since I found it. Over time I found out that one of the creators is a woman, and finally that they both are. That didn’t change my appreciation of their comic in any way.

By the way, from the slightly more than fifty webcomics on my Wonderful Webcomics page, fifteen are created by one woman (each) or an all-female team, and about a dozen by a team that includes at least one woman. Some examples for the latter are Spare Keys For Strange Doors, The Other Grey Meat, and Space Junk Arlia. The last one is also created by a team that’s not all white.

Diverse Cast

When I wrote that I don’t look out for diversity specifically, that’s not the whole truth. When it comes to casting, I tend to appreciate stories more that have a diverse cast. I’m not adamantly against skewed demographics in any possible case; some settings and some stories work best with a cast that consists of only one set of people. But in general, I like stories with ensemble casts that are diverse in many aspects, age, gender, race, sexuality, as well as personal attributes like intellectual and emotional capability or temperament.

Fortunately, there is no scarcity of webcomics featuring diverse casts. No doubt there exist numerous examples of stories where a couple of white dudes hang out and talk about gaming, superheroes and babes. But I’m in the happy position that no one forces me to read those.

An example for a cast that is racially diverse, including people of color and Asian people, is Ramen Empire, which also directly addresses racial stereotypes and prejudices.

The slice-of-life webcomics Girls With Slingshots and Questionable Content do a very good job at displaying diversity with regard to sexual orientation or gender identity. They even manage quite often to make fun of difficult topics while taking them very serious – you my recall how that is my personal definition of satire – and they never, ever denounce their characters.

And as a proof that even when I restrict myself to my favorite genre/theme/topic I can still have diversity in the cast, just have a look at A Girl and Her Fed.

Diverse Topics

Webcomics can also, and do so with gusto, tackle topics that tend to be marginalized in commercial media. An example would be the specific issues faced by transgender people, which are addressed pretty well in Rain and in an awesome way in Validation. In both cases, I didn’t start reading them, or continued to read them, because I absolutely wanted to learn about transexuality, but because I wanted to read interesting stories. These comics entertained me very well. I also learned a lot on the way.

Diverse Storytelling

Diversity in storytelling methods is also something that the webcomic mediums sustains like no other:

  • Very unusual worldbuilding and combination of supposedly disparate genres in Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether
  • Beautiful but very strange panel composition and framing in Next Town Over
  • A story that gives equal weight to the serious & the outright funny, the technical & the slice of life, the human condition & and the alien influence, and in consequence moves along with glacial speed, Galaxion just keeps running – or, if you must, crawling – with momentum
  • Comics that combine gag-a-day with short storylines and with longer plotlines in a mix-and-match fashion like Johnson And Sir and Space Pest Removal live most comfortably on the web
  • An affectionate media parody like Monster Of The Week (X-Files) can get away with stuff that might otherwise be difficult to sell, and it’s awesome

The Diversity Paradox

By now you should have noticed that I’m all: Yay, diversity! It rocks!

But there’s something that bothers me.  Sometimes, the argument for diversity is understood like this: Audiences need diversity, e.g. they should read about women, people of color, LGBTQ issues, etc., therefore the pool of creators needs to be diverse, e.g should contain women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc. This is absolutely right, of course we need diverse creators, and especially as part of the large teams that are needed for some kind of media, but it would be wrong and dangerous to imply that each issue X can only ever adequately addressed by people who are X. This thinking is dangerous because it reinforces stereotypes about X instead of taking them down: Men write action, women write romance, only gay people can create stories about gay characters, etc.

It is also demonstrably false.  Just to address one point, consider the plethora of wonderful female characters created by male writers and artists in Protege, Never Mind the Gap, Spacetrawler, Quantum Vibe, Questionable Content, Schlock Mercenary, Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, Space Mullet, and Trekker. Don’t believe my word, check them out yourself!

Sometimes ‘t Ain’t Easy

Here’s the dirty little secret about reading webcomics: It’s are all about Easy. You want webcomics to be easy. Easy on the eye, easy on the brain, easy on the budget. And at the same time, they should be interesting, inspiring, and intriguing. In other words, what you look for in a webcomic is what you would look for in casual dating. (Disclaimer & Disclosure: I’m faithfully married for more than twenty years. I don’t know anything about how casual dating works. I’m simply talking out of my *ss here.)

So let me talk about an It’s complicated situation here. Or rather, a journey:

I discovered Supermassive Black Hole A* a long time ago, but I only got really interested, one might say invested, when the storytelling got much more coherent, with more consistent visual style, more precise plotting and more effective pacing, with the assassination storyline. (And yes, the picture subtly hints at one additional reason I got more interested). That storyline pretty much ended, as is only fitting, with the death of the mark.

The next storylines were great as well, but some time later, the creator started to experiment with new visual techniques, fancy art style, adding color, and indulged in beauty in a way that affected plot focus and pacing in a way that made me lose interest. (I’m sure there are people who were enthusiastic about the change).

A short time ago, I revisited the comic and found out that while the new visual style was there to stay, the comic was back on track with regard to drama and action, and it is now back on my reading list (and on my Wonderful Webcomics page). And I’m so happy about this.

As always, you are encouraged to agree or disagree (or go on a tangent) in the comments.

See you next week:

Single Sentence Scrutiny

Writing last week’s post felt kinda weird: As much as I love the The Silence Of The Lambs and The Matrix , not mentioning any webcomics disturbed me. So by way of overcompensating, I decided to include as many as possible this week. I managed to cover twenty-four. Of, course. this means that I have only limited space to talk about each.

So instead of dedicating a couple hundred words to the discussion of one single webcomic, like I did in my first post on this blog, I will allocate a single sentence of praise to each. I will describe why I love the comic as it is now, and in case of long-runners ignore the early evolution.

Do you agree or disagree with me about a particular comic? Let us know in the comments.

Here we go (neither order nor sentence length are indicative of relative awesomeness):

Schlock Mercenary is my favorite satirical science fiction webcomic, because it applies great satire – with satire being defined as making fun of important or interesting topics by taking them seriously – on many levels (visual, narrative, dialog, plot), with multiple scopes (personal, relationship, professional, technical, organizational, strategic, political), and to different effects (silly, funny, weird, dramatic, dark and disturbing).

Questionable Content is my favorite relationship-drama-driven slice-of-life comedy webcomic, because both its humor and drama are true to the characters, which are build on sophisticated stereotypes, i. e. stereotypes used to enable and inform, but not to constrain or deform, the individuality and richness of the characters.

Opportunities In Space is my favorite twenty-minutes-into-the-future-but-with-aliens-and-spaceships espionage webcomic, because it relies on continually rising dramatic tension instead of mindless action, and constantly surprises the reader in spite of being very upfront and hiding very little from the reader.

A Girl and Her Fed is my favorite twenty-minutes-into-the-future-but-with-supernatural-elements espionage webcomic, because even if it features really evil villains, it also shows political antagonism coming from different viewpoints and goals rather than from moral deficiency, and how the good guys sometimes make questionable choices as well.

Space Mullet is my favorite dark-and-gritty-but-also-quite-funny science fiction (in space) webcomic, because the guys are valiant and wise-cracking, the girls are tough and pretty, the aliens are alien and relatable, the moons and planets are gourgeous, and the weapons and spaceships are top-notch.

Protege is my favorite dark and gritty action thriller spy story webcomic, because it is told fast-paced, with constantly rising tension, doesn’t shy away from going really dark places, but without invoking much gore, and has the most interesting characters and superb world-building.

Gravedigger is my favorite webcomic about an anti-hero who’s pretty damn good at figuring angles and covering bases, goes down with style, but is always prepared, makes sure he’ll lick it, eventually, and narrates his tales with dry wit and quick perception.

Greasy Space Monkeys is my favorite webcomic spicing up Gibsonian high-tech-low-life underdog-in-space slice-of-life shenanigans with Crocodile Dundee-esque romantic comedy sprinkles, including courtship rituals ranging from impersonating a spaceship captain to refusing to either confirm or deny allegations of being a murderer to threatening inevitable nuclear annihilation.

Crowded Void is my favorite nauseating webcomic. (Seriously, can you imagine any science fiction setting as gross as the intestines of a giant space worm? If so, please tell us in the comments.)

Galaxion is my favorite webcomic featuring Live. Love. Hyperspace. because priorities.

Quantum Vibe is my favorite science fiction webcomic that populates an epic world in a setting limited to our solar system and speed-of-light communication with an incredibly diverse set of characters even without any aliens.

Drive is my favorite webcomic that combines serious, incredibly creative world-building and goofy but loveable characters into an intriguing and hilarious story.

Validation is my favorite webcomic driven from an agenda, because it delivers its message and stands its ground, but puts storytelling first, and doesn’t come across as preachy.

That Deaf Guy is my favorite (mostly) humorous webcomic about living with your own or one your family member’s disability.

BOHICA Blues is my favorite webcomic about military life in a modern society.

Deep Dive Daredevils is my favorite pulp-style adventure webcomic that combines historical submarine action, retro-science-fiction thrills, supernatural chills, and bunch-of-ragtag-misfits shenanigans, because it employs all the old, well-known tropes and twists them like no one else, delivering entirely new levels of surprising, yet inevitable.

Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether is my favorite webcomic featuring a unique and radically different fantasy setting, because the world is excellently constructed, the characters are compelling, the plot is intriguing, and the visuals are positively beautiful.

Trekker is my favorite webcomic that starts from a well known, pretty standard science fiction setting and premise, because the story is interesting, the plot is well executed, and the visuals are easy on the eyes.

Space Corps is my favorite science fiction webcomic with world-buildung based on blatant setting rip-off (Semper Fi IN SPACE) enforcing ridiculous constraints on alien design (only the head can be different, and it still has to fit into a standard human-sized helmet), because it unflinchingly runs with the concept and includes alien characters which are pretty cool despite the constraints.

Spacetrawler is my favorite science fiction webcomic populated by a plethora of incredibly versatile alien designs that take full advantage of the freedom afforded by the medium and accept no constraints whatsoever.

Space Pest Removal is my favorite science fiction webcomic characterized by cartoon-style visuals and storytelling, because it always makes me smile and often makes me wonder.

The Queen Candidate and Kappa are my favorite webcomics that are based on an unconventional fantasy setting and correspondingly weird fantasy races.

Next Town Over is my favorite webcomic featuring a weird plot and an idiosyncratic premise and ravishingly beautiful art.

Note: There are many more webcomics I like than I could possibly cover here. There are also many, and I mean really many, webcomics that I don’t like, but which are nevertheless very good (because my taste is just my taste, duh).

Can you express in one sentence why you love your favorite webcomic? Tell us in the comments!

In my opinion, many of the explanations given in the one sentence descriptions above deserve further exploration. I will revisit them in forthcoming posts.

See you next week, when I will write with stronger focus, covering less but digging deeper.

Framing: Fancy, Focused, Fast, And Furious

[Note to language buffs / grammar boffins: The use of adjectives in the title is questionable, except for fast, a legit flat adverb. Chalk it up to Confusingly Corrupted Headline Grammar.]

Comics are a visual medium for storytelling like movies or TV shows, but they differ from those in some important aspects. For one thing, they are even more visual, because there is neither sound nor music, which are often used to great effect on the screen.

But there is also a purely visual difference that comes from what I call the self-adjusted reading speed effect. When scanning the comic page for page, panel for panel, the reader goes ahead at his/her own speed, unconsciously adjusting for the time needed to comprehend the full information presented, which will differ depending of the size, complexity, and richness of detail of each panel.

This effect makes it impossible to use time in the same way as movies and TV shows do it:

  • Showing the approach of an enemy as fast, indicating imminent threat, or slow, indicating looming danger.
  • Forcing the viewer to watch, for a predetermined time, a scene where little happens, where there is no or only regular movement, e.g. a person walking down an empty street.

This does not happen in a comic the same way; if the creator e.g. uses many identical panels to indicate passage of time, the reader may get the meaning, but won’t experience the time, because the eye scans quickly over multiple identical panels. Panel size and page layout (e.g. overlays) are used instead to convey both timing and the associated meaning.

Note: My description of the self-adjusted reading speed effect is in disagreement with expert opinion: “Time will slow down with more panels because the reader’s eye will typically linger over the panels at the same rate.” I think this disagreement is in degree rather than in absolutes, though.

The self-adjusted reading speed effect is quite important, in my opinion: The decoupling of visual complexity and perceived speed of action allow comic creators wonderful freedom to use great visual effects without constraining other variables of storytelling.

Now this last sentence is probably impossible to understand without some examples.

These examples will come from the webcomics Next Town Over, Trekker, Space Mullet, Lady Sabre & The Ineffable Aether, Deep Dive Daredevils, and Opportunities In Space.

You can read up these webcomics now if you want to avoid SPOILERS; there will be few major ones anyway, because I don’t refer to the plot much in this post.