Spare Keys For Strange Doors

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:

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