Comics aren’t just for kids. That phrase gets bandied about a lot, usually by emotionally-stunted thirty-somethings who spend their evenings in their parents’ basement, clad in Iron Man pyjamas and ranting on forums about X-Men continuity issues and whether Batman could actually take down Superman in a fight.
That’s a joke by the way comic-fans; bear that in mind before you start leaving death threats in comments section…
But there’s no denying that the spandex-clad, crime-fighting superheroes it created and popularised have come to define the ‘mainstream’ comics industry. And the huge boom in popularity of superhero films in the new millennium has ushered in an atavistic era of retcons, reboots and relaunches, impenetrable to all but the most hardcore of fans, and this, coupled with the fact that a lot of people just don’t get the appeal of people who wear their underwear outside their trousers, means that comics are still largely regarded as being a niche form of sequential story-telling.
The mature, ‘graphic-novel’ market that was being touted as the future of comics in the mid-to-late eighties – due in part to the popularity of work such as Abel Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-Prize winning ‘Maus’ – failed to materialise in the end. Instead, the internet has become the home of the truly exciting and experimental comic-creators. The format and accessibility offered by the web is spawning some weird and wonderful stuff, a burst of creativity the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the underground ‘comix’ movement of the sixties, which produced unique talents such Robert Crumb and the aforementioned Art Spigelman. And best of all, because it’s on the internet, it’s all free.
What follows is my top 5 favourite web comics, with nary a cape or cowl in sight. Please feel free to share your own discoveries in the comments section below.
5. Romantically Apocalyptic
‘Romantically Apocalyptic’ is an absurdist black comedy set in the ruins of the modern world. Featuring the exploits of Zee Captain and his squad – Pilot, Engie and Mr Snippy – the first thing that will strike you is the amazing art. Produced by Vitlay S Alexius along with various guest artists, the illustrations are created by using combinations of traditional pen and paper techniques, live actors, photoshop and painting, giving it a very distinctive, bleakly vivid and hyper-real look and feel. Although the whole gas-mask wearing wasteland warrior trope has been done to death, this is the end-of-the-world scenario recast as a slightly surreal farce. Composed of single-panel gags and slightly longer sequences which usually serve as the set-up to some ridiculous and slightly sinister pay-off, it can be enjoyed in short bursts without having to worry too much about intricacies of plot and other such inconveniences.
It seems to be gathering a bit of a cult-following, so read it now before it gets snapped up and turned into a film or TV series. That way, you can say, “I was into it before you were,” to all your friends in a smug, hipster-type way when they tell you about it.
And then they can punch you in your face. Because you’re a twat.
And while we’re on the subject of hipsters…
There’s a train. A boy and girl are sat opposite each other. Their eyes meet. They start to chat and flirt, and something begins to flicker between them.
It’s the plot of some insipid online dating ad. The improbably perky and quirky good-looking couple happen to meet randomly, and after an exchange of consisting of almost nauseating platitudes and sparkling banter, they embark on a new journey of discovery together. Or do they?
At the same time as this exchange begins to take place, strange writhing Lovecraftian beasts with tentacles appear in the background. Although imperceptible to the characters, we, the readers, watch as the creatures slowly invade the train and begin to attack and consume them.
That may sound a little pretentious, and it probably is, but it’s also oddly hypnotic. Written by Kieron Gillan and with great illustrations by Charity Larrison, I don’t actually know what ‘Exterminus’ is about, but it’s nice to look at and is a bit of a chin-stroker, which is why I’m including it.
4. Ant Comic
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Michael DeForge’s ‘Ant Comic’ is about ants. Talking ants. So far, so Dreamworks you might say. But unlike the cute animated stars of the CG film, the insect colony of Ant Comic is a bizarre and often disturbing world. Living in a sexually segregated society, the ants are mostly male and are forced to live a life of slavery and servitude, while at the same time trying to survive in harsh and cruel conditions.
The day-to-day interactions and musings of the ants are rendered in blunt human terms, a technique which has the effect of giving everything a really creepy edge. For example, the ants have to jack off into the vagina of the gigantic queen, whom they all secretly despise. They also have to avoid the threats of deceptively sugary sweet ant-poison and the other garden creatures, such as spiders and earthworms.
They live together as families of fathers, sons and brothers. Some of them are gay and live as couples. Some of them even begin to question their role within society. After the discovery of the body of one of their own, apparently the victim of a murder, they are drawn into a brutal conflict with a rival red ant colony. And then things get really fucked up.
From this deceptively simple concept and set-up, creator Michael DeForge is given space to tackle themes such as love, loyalty and purpose, and he delivers it them detached unfussy dialogue.
I’d love to be able to say that it will make you think twice before you get the ant-powder out this summer, but fuck ‘em… coming over here, taking all our cupboards, crawling all over our picnics…
2. Sin Titulo
Cameron Stewart is the only ‘mainstream’ comic creator that I’m including on this list. Best known for his collaborations with Scottish comics-guru Grant Morrison, ‘Sin Titulo’ (or ‘Untitled’), is an exquisitely illustrated and plotted strip that starts fairly innocuously with the main protagonist Alex going through a box of his dead Grandfather’s possessions. After discovering a photograph of a mysterious blonde woman, Alex sets off on a quest to find her.
After the initial noir set-up, the story then goes on to take some very strange twists and turns. Alex loses his job, his car and his girlfriend, and finds himself framed for murder and caught up in some kind of conspiracy. There’s an image of a mysterious beach with a single tree that keeps reoccurring, there’s teleportation devices, murder and plot-twists. As the story progresses, Alex’s own memories and traumatic childhood experiences become more central to the plot. Said by Stewart to be semi-autobiographical, ‘Sin Titulo’ uses flash-backs, dream sequences and recurring images to weave an intricate web of intrigue that will keep you gripped until the last panel, at which point you will undoubtedly say to yourself: “What the fuck was all that about?”
But in a good way.
‘Sin Titulo’ won the 2010 Eisner award for best web comic, and is now available in print-form from Dark House comics. But for the purposes of this article, I think you should read it online. Saying that, it’s up to you; I’m not going to come around to you house and tell you off or anything like that. I haven’t got time.
One of the great things about web comics is the fact that most of them gain popularity and recognition through word-of-mouth and recommendation. Dash Shaw’s ‘BodyWorld’ was the first web comic that really caught my attention. After being sent a link to it by a friend, I started reading it and became totally hooked.
It’s hard to pigeon-hole exactly what ‘BodyWorld’ is in terms of genre. Set in small-town America after some un-named civil-war, its sci-fi backdrop is used as a stage to indulge in a David Lynch-esque study of small-town relationships and attitudes. Paulie Panther is a Hunter S. Thompson-style gonzo botany professor whose job it is to smoke psychedelic plants in order to study their effects. He travels to a town called Boney Borough in order to study a newly discovered plant. After smoking it, Paulie discovers that it has the ability to make you share the thoughts, feelings and experiences of anyone who happens to be nearby. Smoke it with other someone else, and this becomes a two-way street of sensation swapping.
Paulie becomes involved with a local high-school teacher, Jem Jewel, and two of her students. As they begin to experience each others thoughts and feelings, the plot heads towards a very dark conclusion. As the character’s identities begin to melt into one another, are we actually witnessing the birth of some terrible, alien hive mind?
Visually stunning, Shaw attempts at rendering the sharing of sensory perceptions has some spectacular results, with huge multi-panel psychedelic sequences and great splashes of colour and line that are both hallucinatory and disorientating. He also does a great-job of world-building, creating the believable, yet slightly off-kilter reality of life in Boney Borough. The ideas and are tossed out thick and fast: for example, ‘Dieball’, a strange combination of football and board-game that is played by the high-school students, is fully fleshed out and explained, even though it has no real bearing on the plot.
A good example of using the medium to push the form forward, ‘BodyWorld’ is a great introduction to web comics, and a damn good read in its own right.