By: Pat Driscoll
So here you are, reading the New Worcester Spy, and thinking to yourself; I want fame. I want teeming riches. I want the money, the money and the cars, the cars and the clothes. But how to get it?
You’ve considered outright crime and petty theft, but there’s too much risk involved, and you don’t want to see anybody get hurt. Besides, you’re a good person. How about buying the patent to a pharmaceutical and jacking up the price by 3000%? Again, that’s a bit too close to what the kids call “sociopathic evil” for you to be comfortable with (plus, the backlash from the internet would be a lot to deal with). How about investing in some tech startup, or a pre-existing monolithic search engine giant, or an app that invents apps? Well, that would work, if you had access to any of those things, or knew how to write code.
Let’s say for the sake of this long-winded preamble that you don’t. You could take a chance on some sort of “monkey’s paw” supernatural gamble, like selling your soul or your firstborn, but those always end up being scams because of some slight semantic flaw in your phrasing, and then the next thing you know you’re down one soul AND you didn’t get any money. Aside from pharmaceuticals, Silicon Valley tech firms, Faustian deals, and making friends with a wildly successful recording artist before they hit it big, what are some quick ways to ridiculous levels of wealth and fame? We’re talking stupid levels of money here—the kind of money that allows you to buy rare, exotic pets from nature preserves, only to forget to feed them because you were too busy partying on your awesome platinum yacht with Drake. But that’s totally okay, because – due to your exorbitant wealth – you know a guy who knows a guy who knows how to get rid of dead Bengal tigers. Where to find these King-Midas levels of absurd, unspendable money?
Oh yeah, you think—I could start a webcomic!!
If you want to start a webcomic, you’re absolutely free to go ahead right this second—grab a nearby piece of paper, draw three rectangles, put some stick figures in each one, end the third rectangle with something vaguely resembling a point or punchline, pop that bad boy online and – congratulations! You’ve made a comic. With the typical gatekeeping mechanisms (mainstream comics professionals, etc) utterly out of the process, millions of people all over the world will have the opportunity to see your work and read your scathing opinions on whatever political process, social issue, Millennial trend, or pop culture figure happens to be shimmying your jimmies the most this week. Between Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Tumblr, Twumblr, Wumbo, and other popular social media platforms, you can spread your content rapidly all over the globe, a level of international reach undreamed of for most of history. While our ancestors had to wait months to get a letter confirming or denying some vital piece of information, such as “Did my sister survive the plague?” people in bathrooms all over the planet can see your content instantaneously, seconds after you post it.
Well, here we are – you’ve uploaded your comic to all of those sites, and you’re waiting, refreshing the page every now and then, trying not to seem too anxious or self-conscious. Here you are, a fresh-faced and aspiring demigod of cartooning, ready to set the world ablaze with your work. You refresh your online bank account several times, just, you know, to check it. You wonder if, somewhere, Art Spiegelmann just got a chill down his spine, realizing innately that a figure of enormous potential has just entered his field. You can practically taste the money already. You hear heavenly voices filtering through the gates of the cartooning Valhalla that awaits you. You smell the ambrosia and the Cristal, feel the Elysian breeze on your sweaty, graphite-smudged brow; this, the luxuriant heaven of comic fame and fortune, is your birthright. Your destiny is here, waiting for you. You’re already thinking about what you’ll name your tigers.
However, there is one last vanguard to pass, one last Sphinx to riddle, before you’re allowed to take your rightful place on the throne.
The last small matter to deal with is this: the trillions of other cartoonists who have been working harder than you, for years and years and years, on improving their craft, exchanging information with each other and getting leaner, faster, hungrier than you, punishing themselves to perfect their work while you were sitting there thinking about tiger names. They look malnourished, they look driven, but most of all, they look unafraid of you.
So this leaves you two options—one; you can grit your teeth, bite the bullet, and dive into the fray, working hard and honing your craft and sacrificing things in order to be better and better and better, still realizing that no matter how hard you try, there will always be people who are way more skilled than you (and they are often teenagers from Russia, for some reason). You can learn to become okay with this—to find the middle ground between the mercurial nitrous-highs of ambition and the crushing depressive lows of inadequacy, fueling yourself and working hard and never giving up, finding a certain bittersweet, Zen-like satisfaction in your work. You can give yourself over utterly to your craft, sacrificing fun for the fickle attentions of the creative industry, whose cellphone marks your pleading texts as “read,” but seldom responds, if ever. It takes a lot of dedication, and many times, the only payoff is the quiet satisfaction of working on something you care about, and that – ideally – other people care about, too.
If none of that quite tickles your fancy, you can take advantage of this wildly oversaturated market and read some of the thousands of incredible, beautiful, thought-provoking webcomics being produced right now. You can enjoy, for free, the painstaking labor of all these lost souls, yawping desperately from their rooftops in the hopes of a Cartoon Network job or a publishing deal or a Kickstarter pledge. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny, some of them are staggeringly sad, and many of them are both, but all of them are labors of love.
But after reading some of these, maybe shoot your buddy a text about that app-that-makes-apps idea. Because that yacht still sounds pretty cool. Where do you even buy a tiger? Would “Tony” be too obvious a name? Will they eventually forget the jungle and learn to love you? Only time will tell.
Eth’s Skin, by Sfe Monster
“Eth’s Skin” is a fantasy-quest story about a fisherperson named Eth, who lives a quiet life in a beautiful, quiet, seaside world where magic is ancient, untrustworthy, and almost always never worth it. When the story begins, mythological beings are thought to be real, or least were once, but have since mostly faded away (with a few exceptions; Eth’s best friend is a mermaid who enjoys knitting, but the fact that she’s a mermaid is treated as casually as you’d treat an exchange student).
One day, Eth accidentally stumbles across a selkie, a shapeshifter who can take the form of a seal by wearing a cloak made of seal-skin. Eth steals the cloak, also somewhat accidentally, and finds that he cannot let go of it, leaving the selkie understandably pissed at this development (and validating selkie superstitions about the dangers of dry land).
The two realize that the consequences of separating a selkie from her skin (and maintaining extended contact with it) are incredibly dire, and must go on a quest to figure out how to fix their situation. “Eth’s Skin” deals with a world where gender identity is treated in a refreshingly relaxed way, with a protagonist who prefers “they” pronouns—the thematic linking of queer and trans issues with the transformative nature of selkie mythology is incredibly clever and well-done, and is complemented by an art style that references Hayao Miyazaki and marine biology in equal measure.
Because it is a quest comic, I’m hesitant to give too much away, but “Eth’s Skin” is touching, funny, and permeated by a queasy sense of doom; the presence of magic isn’t whimsical so much as a dangerous, unstable variable, where the ends are almost never worth the means. Between its mature, relaxed handling of gender identity, gorgeous artwork, and the fascinating world it exists in, “Eth’s Skin” is an incredibly interesting entry into the world of webcomics. Get some seafood ready, settle in by the docks, and enjoy.
Thunderpaw, by Jen Lee
Jen Lee is one of the most exciting talents in the comics world right now, and also a pioneer of interesting, thoughtful webcomics. Her debut effort, “Thunderpaw,” is a vast, animated epic, with panels that use limited animation to give them tangible feelings of anxiety, humor, and (sometimes) genuine terror.
“Thunderpaw” follows two dogs who are left alone in the back seat of a car by owners who have already been gone a long time by the start of the comic. It becomes increasingly clear that something very, very bad has happened, and continues to happen, outside the car, possibly involving a super-volcano or a planetary apocalypse. Eventually the two enterprising mutts leave the safety of their car and begin a massive quest across the wasteland, passing through petrified forests and valleys with vast chasms torn through them – maybe the result of a tectonic shift?.
The exact nature of the calamity is never outright described, or if it is, it is done incorrectly and superstitiously by the two dogs themselves or by any of the number of characters they meet along the way The characters are all animals, as well, but that fact plays in very subtle, clever ways—at one point in the story, for example, one of the dogs starts gathering sticks, insisting that they will be useful or important later on. This is most likely just a nervous dog doing things a nervous dog would. In short, it works.
As the strip goes on, the relationship between the two mutts becomes increasingly strained, their dynamic slowly changing as they get deeper and deeper into this new, terrifying, treat-free future. “Thunderpaw” is a mix of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Richard Adam’s The Plague Dogs, but lacks the fun-crushing, monotone bleakness of either of those books. Because the tone of “Thunderpaw” isn’t unrelenting, brutal darkness, it makes the moments of sincere pain and loss all the more striking—it’s one thing to encounter a tragedy occurring to tragic people, but when two characters make sincere attempts to cheer each other up in the face of horror, it’s difficult not to feel connected to them. Rather than being hapless dartboards for a sadistic or depressive author, they are actual, breathing, organic characters, and their pain is tangible.
“Thunderpaw” is a very long comic (that’s still being published) and it is INCREDIBLY worth your time. The animations, the dazzling art style, the sharp writing, and the looming doom of the storyline are all crazy addictive, and make the whole thing feel more like a silent film than a comic. Make sure you put on your Happy Cap before you start, though, because things get rough pretty quick.
Mare Internum, by Der Shing
Science fiction is a vast and fascinating genre, but it can often suffer from a sort of sterility, an impersonal feeling that comes from an author more concerned with technical details or extensive, complicated world-building than creating organic, relatable characters. The best science fiction, in my opinion, are those examples where the sci-fi elements serve as an environment for the characters to operate within, rather than being the main focus themselves—as cool as lightsabers are, nobody wants to see a two hour movie about how they’re made (okay, SOME people do, but by and large it’s not as riveting as watching characters struggle and succeed). The human elements, their anxieties and joys and struggles and heartbreaks, are the real meat of the story. The sandworms, lightsabers, phasers and facehuggers are all just means to a more human, relatable end.
“Mare Internum,” by webcomic pioneer and deity Der Shing, proves this rule—that good sci-fi must include a relatable human element—with such intensity and brutality that I’m almost hesitant to include it on this list. “Mare Internum,” meaning “inner sea,” is a sci-fi comic about a small, isolated facility of scientists working on Mars, in the early days of colonization, and is legitimately one of the finest examples of the medium I’ve ever seen. I know I’m prone to hyperbole in this column (blame it on my love of the genre), but “Mare Internum” is a beautiful, heartbreaking, sincerely horrifying science fiction story, one where the real horrors come from other people, and not alien life (although the alien biology is also pretty disturbing and terrifying).
This sounds like a gimmicky ploy or a dare to swindle you into reading the comic, but I promise you it’s not—be careful reading this comic, because it veers into incredibly painful subject matter. If you’re a fan of hard science fiction with a focus on human elements, this is your comic, and you should get started on it as soon as possible. But be careful, because it will not go easy on you.
Swim Thru Fire, by Annie Mok and Sophia Foster-Dimino
“Swim Thru Fire” is another example of the breathtaking, sincere, inarguable artistry of the webcomic medium, using the endlessly scrolling nature of a web-page to tell a story that unveils itself in one long, continuous panel. The seamless nature of the strip, often demarcating different images with objects in the environment (like a piece of seaweed or the barnacled back of a whale), makes it feel like a delicately-rendered dream.
Beginning with a quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it navigates complex themes like gender and identity with an effortless, melancholic ease. Written by Rookie editor and author Annie Mok and illustrated by Sophia Foster-Dimino, who recently swept the Ignatz awards, “Swim Thru Fire” is clearly a touchstone work in a pair of careers destined for legitimate greatness.
Foster-Dimino’s illustrations are meticulously rendered and yet effortlessly readable, making incredible use of tension and negative space, and Mok’s writing is piercing—there are sections of “Swim Thru Fire” that leave you feeling suckerpunched with its professionalism, beauty, and emotional intensity. If the other comics on this list feel a little pedestrian to you, and have left you unimpressed with the medium, Mok and Foster-Dimino’s work will shatter your monocle with its literary heft and aesthetic weight.