Catalist: Rough Draft of a Grand Experiment

Tiresia reads the will of the Red God

Ever since Scott McCloud posited the existence of an “infinite canvas,” artists have been doing all that they can to extend the definition of “comics” as wide as possible. On the smallest scale, a webcomic can use its own webpage, beyond the panel, to capture a mood or, to drop a recent and hypeworthy example, mark the passage of time, like in this recent strip from the legendary, resurrected-at-a-snail’s-pace A Lesson is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible.

On the largest scale, we have massive multimedia undertakings like Homestuck, which have weaponized the internet as a medium, prioritizing moving images, interactivity, and original music. Taken as a whole, the comic is a brash sensory overload that barely resembles a “comic” at all. In a post-Homestuck world, the word “comic” has as much to do with Garfield and Action as  “marriage” has to do with old-school Christian mores.

The new, episodic more-than-a-webcomic Catalist, written by Daniel St. George with art by Jerome Queval and character designs by Jen Lee (of the fantastic Thunderpaw, which I previously wrote about here), follows the Homestuck tradition of going big, then bigger, then bigger and bigger and bigger. Though Catalist has obvious roots in webcomickery, its creators prefer the term “epic visual novel.” The project, published in weekly .gif servings and scored by atmospheric piano loops, stinks of genre-busting ambition for better and worse. Continue reading

The Warm Lovelies of Portside Stories

Courtesy of Val Halla (pun apparently intended)

Courtesy of Val Halla (pun apparently intended)

You wake up at five in the morning, even though you set your alarm for six, feeling fully refreshed. Your body has decided to gift you an extra hour in your day, and the universe wrapped that gift with a big ol’ bow in the shape of a sunrise. You look out your window, holding a stiff cup o’ joe and think, damn, this is as good as mornings get. Sometimes the universe bequeaths you a hug, and there’s little you can do but hug back.

Valerie Halla’s Portside Stories is a lot like that cosmic hug. Everything about it breathes warmth. The plot, centering around best friends Alex and Nat and their adventures in gender fluidity, takes place on the intimate scale. Transitioning between genders is as much of an internal conflict—and initially, a literal dissonance—as an external one, and Portside Stories’s inaugural chapter concerns itself with the former, a struggle with the ambivalence lurking within. There are secrets revealed, hearts broken, and bras panickedly removed during Nat and Alex’s respective, four-years-separated comings out (coming outs?).

Continue reading

Too Much Coffee Man: My First Cup of Comic

When I was a wee lad of indeterminable age, I became accidentally exposed to my first non-mainstream comic, a satirical lark by the name of Too Much Coffee Man. My family was driving upstate to Ulster County, New York to see my grandparents up in the Catskills, and there was a comic shop we occasionally stopped at along the way in scenic New Paltz. My sister and I picked up a handful of Bongo’s Simpsons comics, or some of its many spinoffs, and my dad would venture into the back of the shop, the dank corner that smelled like ozone and overripe bananas, packed with alphabetized white crates three stacks high.

None of the comics I recognized. No Marvel, no DC, no Simpsons, so what could they be? I asked him, as he pulled a skinny issue from the crate. On the cover was a massive, steaming styrofoam cup, dwarfing a man clad in a woolly red jumpsuit. I had no idea what this unusual comic was, or why it would be buried so far in the back of the store, but the cover reassured me that it was, in fact, “The Lawsuit Issue.”

“Adult comics,” Horrible Dad said. “You probably wouldn’t get them.”

I was in shock.

My dad was buying pornography.

Naturally, I had to sneak a look.

Continue reading

Thunderpaw by Jen Lee: Surviving the Dogpocalypse

A GIF in the right hands is a powerful tool, as R.A. Villaneuva explained to AAWW the other day. Using, of course, naught but a series of GIFs, the award-winning poet delves into the versatile superpowers of the simple, soundless moving image format. However, the interview stretches to prove that GIFs can capture the whole range of human emotion by inherently limiting itself to reaction GIFs, the kind you find in emails or image boards.

MFW they could have just mentioned Thunderpaw: In The Ashes of Fire Mountain and dropped the mic:

Source: Tumblrpaw

Ollie’s like “whaaaaaaat” and I’m like “yah right” (credit: Jen Lee. Click for some sweet, sweet Thunderpaw)

Integrating GIF artwork into webcomics has been around for years (MS Paint Adventures is probably the most well-known example) and using the “infinite canvas” has been around for even longer (Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life turns eleven this November. Eleven!), but Thunderpaw, an in-progress webcomic from Jen Lee about two dogs navigating the end of the world, may be Exhibit A for devastating use of both innovations.

It starts out innocuously enough with some wobbly text on an ominous gradient: “It was the brightest night we ever saw…” Once those words sink in, Thunderpaw‘s apocalyptic hellscape dashes your throat and refuses to come out. Thunder crashes on a mountain. Birds swoop from the sky (a Hitchcockian motif that never fails to turn my stomach) behind the gnarled faces of a dog-like demigod (demidog?). The canine brothers Bruno and Ollie—“good dogs,” Ollie keeps reassuring—awake in an abandoned car with no masters, no signs of life besides themselves. Lightning flashes, fire rains from the sky, and the race against time begins.

As if the main plot weren’t enthralling and mysterious enough, Lee pulls back from the action at crucial moments for surreal flashbacks, abstract diversions, and one honest-to-demidog drug trip. These creative tangents pay off remarkably, keeping up the kinetic pace by ramping up the psychedelic visuals. In one such moment, a fever dream by Ollie turns into a nightmare when Bruno, flickering on a park bench in the distance, slowly turns around. His face is hollow; smoke plumes from his eye sockets. The effect is more than disorienting, more than just a window-dressing mood moment or a cheap piece of dark shock. Imbued by childhood fears, curdling brotherly love, dream logic, and Jen Lee’s superbly disturbing style, the panels are downright terrifying.

Try as I might, though, my words cannot do full justice to Lee’s incredible art. If cartooning were a seven layer cake, Thunderpaw is baking the eighth layer. Bruno and Ollie’s characterizations are packed into the way their eyes move in their introductory panels, how Bruno jumps between chairs while Ollie visibly shivers in a ball, the Squigglevision avatar of fear. By cloaking her birds in shadow, or rocketing them by at breakneck speeds, Lee turns an entire class of beings into angels of death. I could write treatises on the details that bring each panel to life, but that would be invariably way duller than just letting them soak, in all their gloryThunderpaw itself is still in its infancy—only one chapter is completed and, according to Lee’s Patreon, the story continues apace at four pages per month—but it manages to pack two frames of nuance into every panel.

These aren’t waterproof scientific measurements, but take my word for it that Thunderpaw rocks incredibly hard, despite the subtitle that sort of sounds like a family film starring Dwayne Johnson. But as far as nitpicks go, that’s about as small as they get. As it stands, itis one of the most breathless, engrossing works-in-progress on the web today. My heart was palpitating when I got current, and I look forward to it palpitating again in the coming months.