Originally published in issue 278 of the British Science Fiction Association's critical journal, Vector, earlier this year, my second column offers a crash course in science fiction webcomics.
Featuring FreakAngels, Gunnerkrigg Court, Ava's Demon, Thunderpaw: In the Ashes of Fire Mountain, Destructor, Titan, Terra, Dicebox, and I Was Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Outer Space, hit the jump for the full article!
In recent years the media at large has happily reported that comics have “gone mainstream”. Certainly the barrage of blockbusting superhero films would support this, alongside the always iconic superhero merchandise available for both fans of Christopher Nolan and Lynda Carter. But within the comics industry itself, there is increasing friction when it comes to determining what “mainstream” actually means.
From an outsider’s point of view, comics have long been synonymous with superheroes, yet the days of Batman and Spider-Man being a major pocket-money spend are long behind us. In decades past, superhero comics could sell hundreds of thousands of copies each month. Now it is a rare occasion for one to reach that 6th digit, despite the greater presence of superheroes within our pop culture.
Superhero comics are no longer a mainstream buy for our reading population, and those monthly comics that do sell well are often bolstered by trade collections and television tie-ins (eg The Walking Dead). Gone too is our proud history of truly innovative newspaper strips such as Flash Gordon or Little Nemo in Slumberland.
Real creativity however cannot be destroyed, only displaced. Underground and independent comics continue to thrive, as do graphic novels within a book market that has finally recognised their exceptional potential. But while the former benefit from lack of editorial restraint at the expense of reduced readership, and the latter are constrained for the price of a greater audience, there is one platform that gives the creator both control and the potential for the largest fanbase of all: the internet.
The first webcomic appeared almost three decades ago, when Eric Millikin began publishing Witches and Stitches in 1985 on Compuserve. An unauthorized parody of the Wizard of Oz, the online platform enabled Millikin to avoid censorship, and it wasn’t long before other creators followed his success. By the late ‘90s the number of webcomics had exploded and when Scott McCloud, author of the famous Understanding Comics, published Reinventing Comics in 2000, he introduced the world to the idea of the “infinite canvas” – the idea that the size of a digital comics page is theoretically infinite.
The freedom that webcomics have to transcend traditional comics boundaries and traditions, alongside an escape from censorship and editorial constraints has resulted in a truly wonderful and unique area of the comics form. On the other hand, long before self-publishing was easily available for other authors, the near-universal access to the internet has resulted in next to no quality control. For every wonderful webcomic that hovers beneath the radar, there are several published primarily for the creator’s own small circle of friends.
But why not? The internet is indeed infinite in scope, and with personal tastes varying so greatly there is at least something for everyone – guaranteed! As one might expect, the internet is also home to a great number of science fiction webcomics, with science fiction and fantasy truly outnumbering every other genre. This is perhaps due to the younger generations of creators making this platform their own, and the Neuromancer punk edge of the internet itself.
FreakAngels (freakangels.com) has served as the gateway webcomic for many a reader, with author Warren Ellis bringing fans of DC and Marvel comics to the audience. Ellis, who has worked on titles from X-Men to Stormwatch, has a firm foothold in the world of science fiction. Transmetropolitan, his series with artist Darick Robertson, remains one of the best cyberpunk comics ever created, and Ellis brings that same energy to his webcomic. Along with artist Paul Duffield, he has conjured a post-apocalyptic world, centered in Whitechapel and the titular characters, twelve 23 year old psychics. Set six years after the end of civilization, this is disaster fiction at its best with Ellis describing it as “retro-punk” or “near future steampunk”.
Duffield is a highly underrated artist and colourist, composing gorgeous watercolour backgrounds and dynamic characters with equal skill. With a more traditional format, usually four panels per page, this is an easy entry into the world of internet comics. First published in 2008, FreakAngels is 144 episodes long and has been collected completely in six chunky hardcovers.
An intriguing mix of both fantasy and science fiction can also be found in some of the most critically acclaimed and successful comics, most notably Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court (gunnerkrigg.com). The story of a strange young girl at a deeply strange school, encompasses both the world of magic and the world of robotics, with a great deal of mythology interwoven with science and logic. Also published in several hardcovers, Siddell slowly unwinds the mysteries around both the school and the girl, Antimony Carver, and her circle of friends. Each chapter is brilliantly self-contained but as the story has gone on, more and more connections have begun to appear, with the plot spilling in many completely unexpected but enchanting directions.
Almost of equal enthrall is the evolution of Siddell’s art, from fairly simple and childlike to remarkably sophisticated and impressive. The transformation of colour is telling too, with the duller colours of the school gradually reflecting the magic and science of the story in turn. First published in 2005, the comic is updated three times a week, and is available in four glorious hardcovers thus far.
A similar blend of fantasy and science fiction can be found in the acclaimed Ava’s Demon (avasdemon.com), set 1000 years in the future and starring a 15 year old girl named Ava Ire who is haunted by Wrathia Bellarmina, the demon ghost of an alien queen. Created by Michelle Czajkowski, a former intern at Pixar and Dreamworks animator, the comic has one panel per page occasionally interspersed by animated scenes. While motion comics do not always have the greatest of reputations, Czajkowski’s skill as an animator lifts these interludes above and beyond expectations to grab a huge readership- fans raised nearly $200,000 to bring the webcomic to print form.
Animation is just one ability afforded by the infinite canvas of a browser page, and one that is used wonderfully by Jen Lee’s Thunderpaw: In the Ashes of Fire Mountain (thunderpaw.co), a tale of two anthropomorphic dogs, Bruno and Ollie, as they make their way in a suddenly post-apocalyptic world. The two buddies, waiting for their humans to return to their car, slowly realise that the world is not the same as it used to be, in a comic brought to life with twitchy animated gifs, static panels, and forays into spilling endlessly down – or across - the page.
The art is both reminiscent of underground comix and achingly cute, and the colour palette of blacks and orange paint a picture of doom as the two pals fight against the odds. Thunderpaw is relatively new, launched in 2012, and updates monthly.
The exploitation of both the horizontal and vertical scroll for the internet reader is used wonderfully by Margaret Trauth’s Decrypting Rita (explored in Vector #276) and Sean T Collins and Matt Wiegle’s Destructor (destructorcomics.com). The latter is the story of the titular tyrant as he crashes throughout the sprawling Alpha System, rising to unimaginable power with his brutal mob of allies. Originally published in black and white via the Top Shelf 2.0 webcomics portal, the strips are gorgeously coloured by Wiegle, and include two new story arcs.
That use of colour is particularly striking throughout in a comic with very little dialogue but mountains of characterization and action. The endless page is used in the collection of each story arc, publishing multiple comics on a single page for a more immersive (and less fiddly) read.
Francois Vigneault uses a similar technique in his webcomic, Titan (studygroupcomics.com). Each of the (currently three) chapters has one page to themselves, with the newest chapter updated every Thursday with the latest panels. Vigneault is telling a very human story of immigration and diversity tensions, as lead character Mngr João da Silva arrives at Homestead Station on Titan. The moon is populated by both humans and Titans, people who have been biologically engineered to cope with the low gravity, but are restricted to certain employment. Chafing against the human minority and with their jobs at risk as da Silva assesses whether the colony should be shut down, tensions run high.
Each chapter is in black and white with a unique third colour, this is a very underrated comic and Titan #1 and #2 are available to buy in physical format from the Study Group Comics website.
One of the most popular science fiction webcomics is Terra (terra-comic.com), from creators Holly Laing and Drew Dailey. Focusing on guerrillas, the Resistance, working to put an end to war between Earth and the Azatoth that has caused chaos throughout the galaxy, the comic follows the adventures of four characters in particular. With plenty of action and great character interaction, this is particularly popular with fans of cult science fiction television shows.
Terra is very prettily drawn, with shades of manga influence at work, and the cell-shaded colouring is very easy on the eye. First published in 2009, the comic updates once a week.
Similarly and yet completely differently is Jenn Manley Lee’s Dicebox (dicebox.net), a sprawling science fiction epic following a married couple of space bums as they aimlessly travel from world to world. Which sounds somewhat banal, an exact description bestowed by comics legend Carla Speed McNeil with all sincerity and love. The worlds that Griffen and Molly traverse are utterly spectacular and amazing to the reader, but completely ordinary and even boring to them.
First published in 2002, Dicebox is often cited as the longest running science fiction webcomic, and its niche-defying premise is exactly what made the internet such a promising platform. Besides the slow paced gradual unravelling of backstory and world-building, the comic also has a welcoming approach to gender: the gender neutral pronoun of “peh” is in familiar usage, with some characters using it exclusively while others blur the gender binary in different ways. Griffin for example identifies biologically as female, but her gender is more complex. It’s a refreshing change from other future-set comics where the binary is frustratingly adhered to, and has won the comic an even greater readership.
Lee is aiming for Dicebox to span four books by the end, with the first available to buy in physical format or pdf on the website.
One of the most interesting science fiction webcomics is also one of the most elusive: I Was Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Outer Space by Megan Rose Gedris is, ironically, only available via piracy after the creator lost the rights to Platinum Studios, a company plagued by fraud and embezzlement accusations. The comic began in 2005, was bought in 2006, and was taken down by Gedris in 2013 after failing to reacquire the rights and wanting to distance herself from the beleaguered company.
The comic, rendered in glorious 1950’s pulp style, was bursting with pop art panache and Kirby dots. Susan Bell, an ordinary secretary, is abducted by an alien raiding party of lesbian space pirates who believe she is the long-lost princess of their planet. Kitsch hijinks ensue, with beehive hairdos and bullet-shaped bras aplenty.
It’s a damn shame that one of the best webcomics created is no longer with us, and a sobering reminder to all comic creators that the internet is no safer than the world of corporate comics when it comes to young creators signing the wrong contracts.
Still, with ever increasing online innovation and the booming popularity of tablet devices, who knows what excitement the future holds for the youngest of comics platforms?