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Terry and the Pirates
Webcomics, in a broad sense, have something for everyone. There's a wide variety of genres, styles, tones, frequency... Personally, I try to read a bit of a range of material, but I obviously have my own preferences and biases. And with new webcomics coming online all the time, I try to check out new ones as I find them.

What I typically do when I discover a webcomic I hadn't been reading is flip through the previous dozen or so installments. Any single day's comic might happen to be from when the creator was having an off day, so I figure the dozen give me a better sense of the overall gist of things. This is easier with non-continuity-laden strips, of course, but serial ones still usually provide enough to get the feel for it even if I don't understand everything.

I noted, several years ago, how insular and self-referential Marvel comics had seemed to become. I'm not sure if that notion is really commonly accepted among fans but I know I've seen the complaint from comics folks on the outside trying to look in. That's one of the reasons readership isn't growing -- the stories themselves are often written in such a way that precludes invitation to the readers, EVEN IF all the basic facts are provided in-story. The stories read very much like they're written for people who are already comfortable and familiar with the entire backstory and, if you're not, well, then you're just out of luck; we didn't want your kind around here any way.

I think this is a commonly acknowledged issue for comic fans who aren't completely and solely invested in Marvel and/or DC. So I have to wonder why you write a webcomic that way?

For example, I gave up on Wapsi Square after sevral months of trying to wade through it. I liked the style and tone, and the art was well done. It seemed like the type of strip I'd enjoy. And the day-to-day storytelling works well, especially considering how few panels usually get posted at a time. I got a decent sense of the characters, and seemed to be following along well enough, but...

It felt like that same wall I was talking about in that Fantastic Four comic from before. Like a lot of the story was predicated on my having a deep understanding of everything that's happened in the past 20+ years it's been running. Like he's got enough readers and doesn't need any late-comers like me, thankyouverymuch. I doubt that's intentional, and, even if it is, I don't have any reason to think creator Paul Taylor would be anything other than pragmatic about it. He's likely just telling the story he wants to tell.

There's nothing wrong with creating an elaborate backstory that takes place before your readers join the story. Star Wars: A New Hope is a prime example of how it can be done well. It starts off in the middle of a Darth Vader capturing Princess Leia's ship, demanding to know what she's done with the plans for the Death Star. There's obviously a lot that went on to get to that point, and viewers are told bits and pieces of it ("You fought in the Clone Wars?") but nothing tethered to appreciating what's going on right now. (All viewers need to know about the Clone Wars for that movie is that it impressed Luke.)

But, if you refer to the backstory only obliquely, you can't expect new readers to come on board if your current story is entirely dependent upon it. Star Wars: A New Hope would not work if you first started watching an hour into it. Yes, most webcomics have their entire archives freely available, but who's going to read through a decade's worth of strips to figure out today's? Not me, certainly. A year, maybe two, I'll sort through. Ten? Twenty? No and hell no.

I might suggest webcomic creators -- at least the ones creating serialized work -- go back and read some of the great continuity strips from back in the day. Little Nemo in Wonderland, Little Orphan Annie, Wash Tubbs, anything by Milt Caniff... Whether you like the art or the story or the characters or not, they did do a good job of making the stories accessible to new readers. They might start in the middle of a storyline, but they were given everything they needed to know to hop in and follow along.
Great Lakes Avengers #2
I just caught the recent episodes of Planet Money where they're looking to buy (and exploit!) a superhero. It's mostly an excuse to study intellecutal property using a real world example. They start by going through Marvel's back catalog, as they clearly have more characters than they can reasonably wwork with at any given time and some of them have bound to be misses creatively anyway. They decide they want to buy Doorman. Because it's such an an absurd name and power set.

Although they don't say so, I'm sure they went into this fully expecting NOT to be able to buy Doorman. Or any Marvel character, for that matter. I'm sure hosts Kenny Malone and Robert Smith went into this knowing that offering $10,000 for a Marvel character was laughable, even when looking at Marvel's "lesser" characters. But Doorman seems a particularly lousy choice.

In the first place, yes, Doorman wasn't used in 2020 or in 2019 as they point out, but he has appeared as recently as 2017. So it's not like he's been sitting around collecting dust for ages. Second, most of his appearances have been with the Great Lakes Avengers. As you may have noticed over the past few years, anything Avengers-related has been pretty popular. Even if Marvel were inclined to unload any of their characters, they're not going to go with one that's been used fairly recently and associated with a mega-popular brand like Avengers. They even note in the show that Doorman's debut was in West Coast Avengers so they clearly know there's an association there. Third, Doorman (and the rest of the Great Lakes Avengers) was designed to be something of a knock-off character. He was never meant to be a success in the way that Spider-Man was; from his point of inception, he was meant to be a joke. John Byrne basically said, "What kind of a characters could I come up with that would that no one would take seriously?" So of course Doorman's costume and powers are going to be absurd.

I get that they intentionally set up the story so there wasn't a chance Marvel would even consider selling them an actual character. But, for anyone who's familiar with Marvel, this part of their experiment was clearly designed to be a failure. If they wanted to even pass for making an attempt, why not go with, say, Darkoth who hasn't been used in a story in thirty years, is a loner character, and only has just over a dozen appearances in total? Caledonia? Only a dozen appearances, all in one title under one author, hasn't been seen in 20 years. Wildstreak? No appearances since 2007, and only half a dozen before that.

And those are me just going off the cuff on characters that debuted in Fantastic Four without doing any real research! All characters that I'm sure Marvel would give zero consideration to selling and would be more plausible than Doorman.

I know the Planet Money folks aren't stupid. I know they chose a character that just sounds funny to a radio audience, just to get the basic IP discussion rolling with a bit of comedy. But it strikes me that the choice of Doorman also pretty clearly signals they were never even remotely serious in intending to actually buy any character, certainly not one from Marvel. Which is a shame because they talk to some name comic professionals, and hire several to create a superhero comic just a couple episodes later. The overall discussion of intellectual property is an interesting one, and one worth pursuing, but by starting it off with trying to buy Doorman..? That just struck me as a deliberately and awkwardly contrived way to skip ahead to the discussions of the public domain.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: Just Us! Review
https://ift.tt/3dA4Cu2

Kleefeld on Comics: Unsounded Appreciation Post
https://ift.tt/3qMojCP

Kleefeld on Comics: Is'nana the Were-Spider Showtime Review
https://ift.tt/3bzylRo

Kleefeld on Comics: All-Negro Comics
https://ift.tt/2MqB9aO


Back in 1947, Orrin Evans published a single issue of All-Negro Comics. It was the first comic book whose creators were all African-American. With a cover price of 15¢ (a full nickel more expensive than everything else available at that time) and contents that featured Black characters. Interestingly, it was not the content that prevented a second issue from coming out, but the creators -- Evans couldn't get anyone to sell him the paper to produce a second issue once they learned everyone who worked on the book was Black.

All-Negro Comics
Like nearly all comics of that time, this issue had a variety of features in it. There was action/adventure, long-form comedy, single panel gags, a prose piece... The locales shown ranged from the inner city to the "African Gold Coast" to a rural American farm to an idyllic Greek-style garden. The issue had a little bit of everything.

Only the two adventures stories clearly identify the creators, John Terrell and George J. Evans, Jr. The rest of the pieces are either anonymous or signed with a single, ambiguous name. Of all the creators in the book, Terrell is clearly the one with the most talent. While the illustrations in all the stories are good, his Ace Harlem story is easily the most cohesive and has the strongest plot. It's obvious why it was chosen as the lead feature.

The book seems to be aimed squarely at African-Americans. While that might seem obvious based on the stories, there seems to be no attempt to even consider that anyone else might be interested. Evans expressly notes in the introduction that the Lion Man character, for example, is a deliberate attempt to "give American Negroes a reflection of their natural spirit of adventure and a finer appreciation of their African heritage." And I think that's why it's worth taking a look at.

The book is notable, of course, for the first to be completely created by African-Americans. But in also depicting almost exclusively Black people for an audience of exclusively Black people, it provides something of an insight into what they were wrestling with. That the only two white characters to appear are shown as violent villains trying to impose their will on African land suggests that even though Blacks felt collectively isolated in America (there are no white people shown anywhere else) there were still white men out there trying to impose their rule over Blacks in even the farthest reaches of the globe. That we see primary characters ranging from hard-boiled detectives to African tribesmen to wandering minstrels suggests that African-Americans were still wrestling with who they were now, and how they should fit in to contemporary culture. How far back to their roots should they be looking, or should they instead embrace the cities they now found themselves in? The Civil Rights Movement was still almost a decade off, and there was still seemingly a question of how Blacks should fit in and what role(s) they should play in society.

The original printing is pretty rare, but since it's fallen into public domain, Kari Therrian has an excellent reproduction available. The reprint book is somewhat awkwardly printed on 8½ x 11 paper, allowing a fair amount of extra space on all sides of the art (hence the black border on the cover) but the scans of the original comic are excellent and the printing is pretty good quality. You're not likely to find an original All-Negro Comics but Therrian's reprint is well-worth checking out.
Is'nana the Were-Spider Showtime
Is'nana is the son of Anansi, the trickster god from the Ashanti people of Ghana. Anansi, though, is a literally legendary figure and Is'nana tries to live up to his father's legacy. No small feat, of course, but he has powers inherited from his father, so he's not exactly without prowess himself! The stories thus far have been an interesting mix of anicent mythologies set against contempory cultures, so it often feels like a blend of superhero and folk tale genres. (It's a little like the Spider-Totems thing that ran in the Spider-Man books in the early 2000s, but with a better understanding and appreciation of the mythologies.)

This latest installment, Is'nana the Were-Spider: Showtime, is something of an interlude piece. (Written by series creator Greg Anderson Elysée with art by Miguel Blanco and Angael Davis-Cooper.) It's set between the first and second volumes and, unlike previous stories, mostly follows Is'nana and his friends on a few (relatively) quiet days off. He initially spies a group of kids breakdancing and becomes enamored with their abilities. He spends the next week learning, and meets up with them again to show off what he's learned. Everyone is impressed and the four change venues a few times before stopping for lunch to make more long-term plans as a group. In the process, though, they're attacked by the police (for being a 'nuisance') and, after a surprising transform-into-a-horde-of-spiders escape, Is'nana gets a quick primer on race relations in the US from his friends. At the end of the day, Is'nana feels obligated to return to his duties, but his new-found friends make sure to let him know he's welcome to join them at any time.

There were several things that impressed me about this book. First, it stands on its own pretty well. You don't need to have read any of the previous Is'nana stories to follow along. I find that noteworthy because I see a lot of creators working on their own titles frequently seeming to forget that, assuming everyone buying every issue after the first has read them all already. Further, any of the catch-up/back-story types of elements that are present here flow pretty naturally from the story; there's not a big exposition dump to catch new readers up to speed. Second, while I enjoyed the previous stories, this one did a fair amount to round out Is'nana as a character. It shows a side we haven't really seen yet, and drops some solid character-building.

Third, I think this is the first comic I've read that's depicted a main character with vitiligo. What's more, it's never mentioned. Krimsin's friends just accept him, and Is'nana is shown to be pretty clueless when it comes to skin color, so he doesn't mention it either. Medically, it's considered common, affecting about 1% of the population. And yet this is the first instance I can recall seeing it depicted in a comic. Props to the creative team here (I don't know who initiated it) for the inclusion and, more importantly, how they handled it.

It's a good book. A little atypical for the series, from the perspective of the type of story it is, but it still fits within the Is'nana world pretty easily and does show the basic setup and structure for readers discovering the character for the first time. The notion of learning about and accepting others' cultural backgrounds is a strong theme throughout this issue, and it only starts to get preachy for a panel or two after the police incident. But most of the story revolves around Is'nana getting accustomed to cultural norms like shoes and breakdancing and tattoos and sushi. The series has gotten better with each installment, and if you're curious to check out something Is'nana-related, this is a good bet.
Unsounded
One of the webcomics that I've really enjoyed for the past six-ish years (but I've fallen too far behind of late and I really need to catch up with again -- hence this post) is Ashley Cope's Unsounded. Cope describes it on her site like this...
Daughter of the Lord of Thieves, Sette Frummagem is on a mission, and she'll lie, cheat, and steal to make sure it's a success (she'll lie, cheat, and steal anyway). Condemned to aid her in her rotten endeavours is a rotten corpse who seems oddly talented with the supernatural, and oddly not laying motionless in the dirt.
The road is long and no one is what they seem. Never trust a thief, and never trust anyone who won't let you look into their eyes.
I like the story for several reasons. Not only is the basic art very good, but despite the basic look of "formatted as a graphic novel and presented on the web" she does make some interesting uses of the web format, with occassional animations as well as the "infinite canvas." The story is pretty interesting, as well, with a fairly straight-forward main plot yet with a number of interesting sub-plots. There are lots of solid characters, none of whom really seem to fall into 'standard cliche' range. Cope's also flesh a very solid world -- one that she's evidently been thinking about for decades before she started her comic.

But here's one thing I'd like to bring up today regarding her comic: race. She has characters of different races featured prominently throughout the story, and makes almost no mention of it. Characters interact with one another on as characters, without seemingly any regard for color skin the other has. I can only find one extra-narrative reference to this, in an interview from 2013 in which Cope says, "I wanted a setting that felt a little closer to our own; something seedier, more political, more ugly, with theoretical gods, unproven religion, people of all races, and characters who weren’t bogged down by frivolous… I can only call it design-yness. I don’t want my characters to feel designed, I want them to feel real."

But it's not as if Cope is ignoring bigotry. There's plenty of it in display in the story, but it's shown primarily in the form of class and/or nativity -- where someone is born. So people are still acting like people in that they continue to view others in often stark "us versus them" categories, often based on superficial qualities like birthplace, but pigmentation is irrelevant. What I find interesting about that is that she's able to address bigotry and racism pretty directly with her metaphors almost non-existent. But at the same time, she's showcasing a world in which literal racism -- stereotyping people based on their race at a societal level -- is absent.

And here's the thing: the race issue has zero impact on the story. Whether a character is colored brown or pink or almost white does nothing for the story. And since there are multiple characters with similar pigmentation, none of them represent that race as a whole. Characters are just characters. And some of them happen to be darker/lighter than others.

Man, I wish more creators would write like that.
Just Us!
I mentioned a little over a week ago that I'd finally found a copy of Walt Carr's self-published collection of editorial cartoons, Just Us! I thought I might do a proper review now that I've received and read it.

As you might guess from the title and the selected cartoon for the cover, Just Us! has a lot of cartoons focused on racial disparities in the US. Not exclusively, but it's a definite theme. Carr is pretty open about that, noting in the Foreword (I suppose it's a Foreword? It's written like an Introduction, but he has another bit later that's expressly labeled as an Introduction.) that this book's target audience is African-Americans aged 20-65 with "left-leaning whites and independents with a social conscience" as a secondary audience. He's then broken the book down into sections, collecting comics on a specific topic together: sports, entertainment, crime, etc. While most of the cartoons aren't dated, you can guess about when many of them were made based on the content and context. Most seem to be from around 2015-2019, although I did find at least one that goes back to 2000.

Carr's talent for cartooning is on display throughout the book. He's got a good sense of design and composition, and his cartoons often have a lot of background detail that, while isn't strictly necessary to get his point across, add to the tone and flavor. His crowd scenes in particular are enjoyable to just pause on in order to see what all the people in the background are doing. Additionally, when he's lampooning a specific individual, he does an excellent job rendering them, whether as a caricature or as a more realistic portrait (in the cases of obituary-style pieces).

Interestingly, very little seems to have been done to level-adjust the images. Meaning that, instead of each cartoon coming across in a very definitive black and white, you're able to see when his a pen was running out of ink or when spotted blacks could almost pass for an ink wash because it wasn't applied quite enough for a solid black. Honestly, I can't tell if this was a deliberate stylistic choice or simply that Carr's artwork wasn't cleaned up sufficiently after being scanned in, but I actually kind of like the effect. It might not always present as "clean" as you might normally see in an editorial cartoon, I like that you're able to see Carr's craft more explicitly. Where he applied more pressure or less, where he might've switched from pen to brush, etc. That's one of the reasons I enjoy original comic art -- to see how an image was crafted -- and some of that is on display here.

Carr tackles many of the subjects you'd expect in a book like this. Most of his takes on things aren't surprising and what you'd expect from a Black man from the US in his late 80s, but his expressions of them are generally pretty original. I don't agree with Carr on everything (there were more than a few cartoons with a semi-ranting "these kids today" vibe) but his execution of the ideas was still interesting.

I wish Carr could've gotten wider distribution of his book here. It's a solid collection and easily worth the twenty dollar cover price. As of this writing, there still seems to be a copy left on Amazon. It took me about a year and a half to track down a copy myself; I'd suggest snagging that last one on Amazon so you don't have to spend that long hunting for your copy!