B. Shur’s New Rocket

First published at Webcomics.com, February 2008

The old guard of boundary-pushing, technologically-empowered, makers of web-native, interactive, experimental comics have largely moved on to other things.  Sure, most of them are still involved in making comics, one way or another.  But they’ve left the work of exploring just how much farther technology can take us to the next generation.

Happily, B. Shur has stepped up to continue that work, and is busily taking comics in fascinating new directions.

His lively imagination and impassioned drive toward increasingly ambitious structural experiments have made for consistently surprising and inventive comics.  His surreal meditation on depression, Cave Monster, was vivid and alienating, incorporating highly detailed digital art, with a surprising organic richness.  His follow-up, I Am a Rocket Builder, was especially ambitious, telling not just one, but four different stories, each set in a different location, but with a shared roster of characters influencing each of the plots.  And if that’s not complex enough, one of the four stories experimented with different forms of reader interaction in each update.  At the click of a mouse, strange creatures appeared in from a witch’s pocket, birds transformed into monsters, and carnivorous fish devoured each other.  And it all told an enjoyable story in the process.

Of course, this same drive toward newer, bigger, more sophisticated (both technically and aesthetically) comics also leads him to be somewhat fickle about his own work.  He usually loses interest in his own projects long before his readers do, and has shown few qualms about shutting down a project that no longer excites him.  As a result, “I Am a Rocket Builder” ended rather abruptly, while “Cave Monster” didn’t end at all.  (By Shur’s account, the latter ceased to function because Shur himself was feeling far removed from the depression that had inspired the project in the first place.  Good news, all in all, even if it spelled the demise of an intriguing piece of art.)  Shur is up front about this—his own site description acknowledges the contents as “a series of half-completed projects, aborted ideas, and interactive doodles.”  And he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about that.

The latest of these interactive doodles was a parody site using a replica of the Craigslist website, with small cartoons and doodles linked from the various Craigslist categories.  After Shur’s hiatus following the dissolution of his linked stories project, the parody site was enjoyably cute and funny.  But it was a far cry from the boundary-pushing projects Shur’s readers have come to expect.  It now seems, though, that this was really just a placeholder, while he built the interface for his latest project, Coming Home, which just launched in January.

There’s only one page of actual comic so far, but already it was worth the wait.

Coming Home looks to be Shur’s most ambitious project yet.  The interface alone—an interactive replica of a Mac OS desktop—is stunning.  Functioning drop-down menus allow you to change the comic’s desktop background or read notes from the author.  (The menu tantalizingly titled “Monsters” contains no content yet, but certainly hints at intriguing possibilities.)  Desktop icons can be dragged about and double-clicked to open the “files.”    Multiple files can be kept open at once, allowing for interaction and cross referencing between seemingly unrelated pages of content.  This isn’t an interface designed for the reading of a linear story (though Shur promises that there is one).  It’s an interface designed for exploring a world.  It demands to be played with and poked at in the hopes of finding yet more surprises even after you’ve looked through all the files and menus several times over.  As Shur begins to add additional content, it can only become even more engrossing.

This type of experiment does run the risk of being pure gimmick.  Interactive comics always stand a real chance of descending into cheesy Choose Your Own Adventure games, and a desktop-like interface could certainly have pushed the work even further in that direction.  But that doesn’t seem like an imminent danger yet.  The interface feels true to the comic, and true to the aesthetic Shur is working towards.  Just because an author chooses to give the reader freedoms doesn’t mean he has to give up control of the work.

Of course, there’s plenty more to see here than just the interface.  The artwork is as strange and beautiful as any of Shur’s past offerings.  Set in an abandoned clock factory in a run down part of the city, backgrounds are alternately in rich browns and golds, or cold greys.  The characters appear strictly as silhouettes, save for a small bit of color on each person’s shirt.  Not much has been revealed about the cast yet, though the first page of the comic contains links to brief bios of each of the five principals: Me (a former child genius with no actual talent), The Other Me (it’s always handy to have a backup), Dumpster Phil (little is known, but much is rumored), Margot (she once cooked a piece of broccoli by playing a guitar at it), and Bones (a cat with an eye patch who was previously seen in both I Am a Rocket Builder and Cave Monster.  He died in the latter when he was devoured by some sort of rodents.).

And that’s all there is so far: an interface, a hint of the setting, and a roster of characters.  And yet that’s enough to promise that an intriguing and thoroughly enjoyable project is forthcoming.  Given Shur’s history, Coming Home may yet frustrate readers who expect neat storytelling and definitive conclusions.  But even if this is all there is, if Shur abandons it tomorrow, without ever getting past page one, it’s already an odd and delightful experiment that hints at an incredible range of ways to make webcomics that have yet to be fully explored, or even touched upon.  And ultimately, that’s what really matters here, because in Shur’s world, building a rocket isn’t about going to the moon.  It’s all about how incredible it is just to build the rocket.