Sunday, September 30, 2007

Yes, but I may mean no

First brought to my attention by good friend of this blog Mark Cardwell, the animated webcomic City of Thamesis makes me wonder if this is what online comics -- perhaps even all comics -- will become in the future.

Mark described the series as having "a nice dark Luther Arkwright/Jerry Cornelius vibe" and that's a good starting reference point. City of Thamesis is set in an alternate-reality Britain, the history of which isn't explained in much detail up front...but it involves Steampunk-era advances in psychic technology leading to the use of mind control in the Great War, a radically different royal family in the United Kingdom, and a vaguely dystopian social structure in (presumably) the present day, in which a monolithic "Britomart" corporation provides officially sanctioned epidermal patches giving their users various enhanced physical and psychic abilities. The cast includes black marketeers dealing in unregulated pirate patches, telekinetic bodyguards, foppish goth turncoats, "postmasters" who deliver courier messages with superspeed, and the endangered teenaged heir to the throne.

The story could go in a predictable direction or it might hold some surprises -- I have a sense of where I think it's going, though I may be wrong -- but either way, the real draw here is the world building. You get the feeling at least as much thought and creative effort have gone into designing the history and background details as went into the plot or characters. In addition to the actual story installments, the site includes subsections such as "Environment" and "Techgnosis" more akin to the extras in a video game or DVD than to an online comic, allowing the audience to scroll through panoramic views of different parts of the alternate-reality London and see mock vintage advertising and newspaper clippings that divulge at least some of the background.

But it's the format and presentation of the actual story that gives me pause as to how this project should be described. My immediate reaction on first viewing it about a month ago -- and I feel this way even more strongly now that a few episodes have gone up -- was to be unsure I'd call this form of presentation a comic at all. I mean, yes, in the sense that it has images and written text placed together and neither one tells the story without the other, it's very much an example of comics storytelling. But, at least for me personally, a comic involves the reader controlling the pace of the reading/viewing experience -- whether by clicking to move forward, or turning a page, or just deciding when to look at the next panel. City of Thamesis has animation that directs the eye, music and sound effects synchronized to the visuals, and someone else deciding the speed at which the viewer moves through the story. My gut feeling is that this might be better described as an online animated series than as a comic.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining: I enjoyed City of Thamesis a great deal. It may be that my definition of a "comic" is too rigid, or that I've spent too much time reading Scott McCloud. And because it does have that written text component rather than voice actors playing the characters, this story has a lot of comics DNA in it. I think it's a very strong hybrid.

From what I hear, the creative team behind the project plans to introduce some voices in future installments, taking this further away from being a hybrid comic and making it even more like standard animation. If so, that's too bad...because these early episodes do suggest a direction many more online comics could take in the future, especially given a new generation of artists for whom Flash and Shockwave are as familiar as print. Most of all, City of Thamesis embraces the fact that it's being viewed on a computer screen rather than on a printed page, something most "webcomics" and "online comics" don't do.

Take for example Sugarshock by Joss Whedon and Fabio Moon at the Dark Horse Presents page on MySpace. As Stephen Frug points out, the presentation really kind of sucks. It was designed for a standard printed comics page and is a huge pain to navigate through. Which is why Stephen has done lovers of entertaining comics everywhere a huge favor in finding these links to read "issue" 1 and "issue" 2 directly, without the annoying mediation of the awkward MySpace layout. The writing and art is a lot of fun...but I have a feeling these guys could come up with something more suited to being read onscreen were they given the opportunity.

Having mentioned these online comics, I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention a couple of favorites I follow regularly:

Deadbeats started out as an impressively long-running but ultimately failed comic book by my close personal friend Richard Howell. I was a fan of his back in the day when he was doing Portia Prinz of the Glamazons (even before it was published by Eclipse) but I was made into a character in Deadbeats so don't expect me to be remotely objective about the latter. When the Claypool Comics line folded, Richard turned Deadbeats into an ongoing webcomic formatted much like an ongoing newspaper comic strip, picking up the continuity where the series left off. This is almost the opposite end of the spectrum from City of Thamesis in terms of innovation, but an equally valid approach. It may seem retro by comparison, but Richard knows the comic strip form as well as he knows the comic book page...and it turns out to work really well for onscreen presentation of a serialized story. Reading this strip since its start online persuades me that: a) the quasi-newspaper strip format may have been the ideal presentation for a vampire soap opera all along, and b) this may well be the ideal format for Richard as a creator. It plays to all his narrative strengths, and the very aspects of Deadbeats that sometimes made it a hard sell to a wider audience as a traditional comic book -- it's, um, heavy on exposition and dialogue, to say the least -- turn out to be strengths rather than liabilities in this form.

(He might want to relax a little on the recaps of past events, actually, because one of the virtues of the whole free online webcomic deal is that -- unlike the newspaper strip of yore -- the audience can actually go back at any time and catch up on the events they've missed, so little if anything needs to be repeated for latecomers. And another appearance by Reed Bensam somewhere down the line would be much appreciated. I'm just saying, is all.)

And finally, Brat-Halla by my remote personal acquaintance Jeffery Stevenson and my complete and utter stranger Seth Damoose ranges from always entertaining to occasionally utterly brilliant. My only quibble is that it's been presented in portrait rather than landscape orientation. Does anyone even make portrait-type monitors anymore, let alone use them? But as I say, that's just a quibble. If I could marry a webcomic and have babies with it, it would be this one, in hopes that our kids would grow up to be webcomics as consistently good as this.

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