Ryan Estrada’s The Whole Story

Conflict of Interest Notes: The following review is based on complimentary press copies. Plus, I’m friendly with Ryan Estrada. Also, I hope to submit work of my own to future iterations. That said, I wouldn’t want to contribute my own work if I didn’t honestly think what Ryan is doing is pretty great.

Ryan Estrada has launched a fascinating new publishing venture. “The Whole Story” deals entirely in self-contained e-books (nothing serialized), sold on a model inspired by the The Humble Indie Bundle video game sales. Briefly: a varied group of titles are packaged together and sold on a “pay what you want” system, but with additional rewards unlocked by choosing to pay at a higher rate. The bundle will only be available for a limited time, so if you want it, you need to grab it now.

I’m fascinated by this packaging method, as it seems like a great way to get readers familiar with one creator interested in the work of lesser-known creators packaged with them. Not to mention that web distribution as a whole is still struggling to find a good model for publishing longform narrative comics, which just don’t lend themselves to succeeding on the same model as humor strips. This is the first iteration of this model that Estrada is running, and I’ll be waiting eagerly to hear his report on how successful it was. I’m very hopeful that it will do well enough to justify further such attempts in the future.

The base package, for which you can pay as little as one dollar, includes three books: Estrada’s own “The Kind,” Box Brown’s “A Heart of Stone Work,” and the collaborative experiment anthology Fusion Elementary. As you go up the pay ladder, the books that get added in include a second collaboration experiment (which I’ll explain in a bit) “Fusion Future,” two more Box Brown Titles “Walk Like a Sumerian” and “The Great Dissapointment,” and the “You Can Do It Dong Gu,” the US debut of Korean artist Nam Dong Yoon. Additional rewards include audio commentaries, original art, and additional gift downloads for friends.

The core books of the set are Estrada’s and Brown’s, especially as the latter fills out just shy of half the books available. Estrada’s The Kind is a sweetly horrifying story of new love and inadvertent violence, about a smitten couple, one of whom happens to turn into a bloodthirsty monster every time the moon is full. The awkward romance comprises the bulk of the story, slowly building up to the hilarious grievous bodily harm of the action-filled climax. It’s light hearted and fun, with Estrada’s usual odd humor. If you’ve like Estrada’s comics in the past, you’ll probably like this one to.

Box Brown’s books were more revelatory for me, especially as I hadn’t quite understood the appeal his work seems to hold for so many people prior to reading these three books in a row. I think I’d read the wrong pieces before—most of what I’d seen were journal comics, and were fine as journal comics go, but it’s a form I’m pretty done with. The stories in these books, though, show Brown working out a set of concerns vitally important to him, though mixed fiction, non-fiction, and autobiography. They all relate to faith, documenting Brown’s own journey to comfortable atheism, but also his fascination with various mythological traditions, from the beliefs of ancient Sumerians, to spiritual philosophies of Buddhism, to the bizarre hucksterism of rapture cults. “The Great Disappointment” was the standout of Brown’s books for me, and possibly my favorite of the whole package, and I especially liked the books conceit of bookending the content with quick pictorial summaries of all the major world religion’s creation myths (“Alpha”) and Armageddon myths (“Omega”). The piece detailing Brown’s desired funerary rites in particular has stayed with me, for the intimacy and strange calm that it possessed.

You Can Do it Dong Gu documents several weeks in the life of a six-year-old, and authentically captures the intensity of a child’s equally compelling need to master trivial and impossible tasks.

The most unusual books in the set are Fusion Elementary and Fusion Future, both of which follow the reverse collaboration model of providing writers with completed art, and asking them to make up text to fit. (I was a fan of, and contributor to, Ryan North’s similar Whispered Apologies experiment, so this grabbed my interest right away.) Both exclusively feature the art of Nam Dong Yoon, which is fine, as his art is vibrant and fun. The major difference between the two is that Fusion Elementary gave each creator a standalone short story to work with, while Fusion Future attempts to string all of the pieces written by different creators together into a cohesive story. And it does ultimately create a comprehensible plot, but the need to do so left a number of the pieces along the way less satisfying than they might have been. There are certainly enjoyable bits in there (Shaenon Garrity wrote one of them, after all), but it’s the ones that do the best job of standing alone that are most memorable. As a result, Fusion Elementary, which allows all of the pieces to simply stand on their own, is the more successful of the two books.

For interested readers on a budget, I the sweet spot is the $25 pay level, which gets you all of the books except for You Can Do It Dong Gu. The latter book is enjoyable, but not enough to justify the jump to the $50 pay level, unless you’re really into the audio commentary file also packaged with that level. Six full-length books for $25 dollars is an excellent bargain, though, and well worth the cost.

If you’re not on a budget, then go right ahead and pony up the 50 bucks to get the fun Korean book too. That works out to just a smidgeon over $7/book, which is still a pretty sweet deal.

Update: Ryan adds “And if people post a review after paying any amount, I will upgrade them to the $50 bundle. So you can get ‘em all for a buck, if you want!”


Review: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, by Leanne Shapton

First pubished on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

Photography by Jason Fulford, Kristin Sjaarda, Leanne Shapton, Michael Schmelling, and Derek Shapton.

What is the value of a memory?  What is the value of a single moment shared between two people?  Does the worth of an affectionate gesture outweigh the cost of a petty unkindness?  When does the price of love become too high?  These are the central questions of Leanne Shapton’s inventive second book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, a book in which each moment in the affair of two lovers comes with a price-tag clearly affixed.

Important Artifacts takes the form of an auction catalogue, the shared and individual possessions Lenore Doolan and Hal Morris splayed out, photographed, organized, and appraised with an unsentimental eye; we are to witness the posthumous dissolution of Love’s estate.  Is the first known snapshot of the couple, taken at a Halloween party in 2002 worth $25 – $30?  Is Doolan’s hand-drawn Valentine’s Day dinner menu worth $50 – 60?  To whom?

The plot is not worth discussing—two people meet, then fall in love, then share each other’s lives for a while, then go their separate ways.  This is known from the beginning, and there are no tricks or surprises along the way. The challenges these lovers face are as mundane as they are insurmountable—she is a food writer for the New York Times whose life and livelihood reside in her kitchen; he is a world-traveling photographer with a fondness for hotels.  We aren’t here to find out what happens, what grand events transpired.  We’re here to pick apart the minutia, and to witness how those minutia ultimately add up to the success or failure of love.  The clues play out slowly, and are subtly presented—LOT 1104, a collection of birthday gifts from Doolan to Morris, which includes “A gift certificate, unused, for Italian cooking lessons at the Culinary Institute.”  Unused. The other gifts in the set are clearly thoughtful, carefully chosen gifts, but it is that one word that stands out.  It might as easily have said “unappreciated,” or “unwanted,” or simply “rejected.”

Not every moment in the book is so elegantly achieved.  The bulk of the photography is perfectly executed, neutral depictions of well chosen artifacts that put the characters’ tastes and personalities on display with little need for elaboration: her collection of vintage dresses and antique salt and pepper shakers, his tweed suits and collection of hotel room keys.  As successful as these indirect depictions are, where Shapton sometimes falters is in her attempts at the characters’ direct communication.  There are frequent notes between the characters; some, like their postcards and their brief scrawled exchanges on the backs of playbills can seem quite natural.  Their longer notes—frequently notes of apology—are less successful.  LOT 1104 again, also includes a handwritten note from Morris to Doolan: “Darling, Am sorry about last night, please please don’t get offended about the cake, I’ve always loathed meringue and thought I’d mentioned it.”  Morris’ ingratitude is compounded, but in a far less interesting way.  It feels expository rather than authentic.  And what’s more, it’s unnecessary—Morris’ rejection not just of Doolan’s effort, but of her attempt to share her personal interests with him was already so clear that this letter can only diminish the effect.  It is as though Shapton’s confidence in her concept (or her audience) wavered.

The lovers’ personal snapshots also occasionally feel a bit too on-the-nose.  LOT 1108, “A photograph taken at a farewell party for Doolan’s coworker” shows Doolan and Morris at an office party.  Doolan is engaged in conversation with her coworkers, while Morris sits beside her, but turned away reading a magazine, in blatant disinterest of the people around him.  This is a painfully unsubtle image—so much so as to call attention to the fact that it’s clearly staged.  It is a considerable chip in the book’s otherwise impressive authenticity.

Despite this occasional unevenness, Important Artifacts is an interesting concept cleverly executed.  What’s more, it taps into something instinctive—who doesn’t examine their friends’ and acquaintances’ knickknacks and bookshelves for clues to their private lives?  This book embodies the pleasure of investigative voyeurism like no other, making it an eminently worthwhile read for any snoop, peeping tom, or busybody—as well as anyone merely interested in a novel approach to pairing words with pictures to tell a story.

Review: Idiots’ Books, by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr

First published in ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

Idiots’ Books is comprised of Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, and husband and wife creative team who produce “odd, commercially non-viable illustrated books” which they sell primarily through subscription service, while also taking their books to the occasional comics convention.  I first encountered them at MoCCA a few years ago, a con they can pretty reliably be found at—it was my wife who discovered them, and upon finding me insisted that I visit their table, as she was certain their work would delight me; she was correct.

As creators, they are prolific, producing no fewer than six books each year (a quick scan of my home turns up 19 volumes.  There are probably a few more tucked into corners somewhere.).  Length varies—some are thick perfect bound volumes; others are not books at all, but wall hangings, or puzzle tiles.  None can be described unambiguously as comics—most bear a closer relationship to picture books or illustrated fiction.  Some (Facial Features of French Explorers; The Nearly Perfect Sisters of the Holy Bliss) are merely collections of absurd portraits, with irreverent captions.  But regardless of form, all are inventive, clever, and beautifully executed.  And very, very funny.

Swanson’s writing is very dry, presenting the most absurd statements with minimal inflection: “Sister Olivia distributed lunches to the broken and decrepit while endlessly whistling theme songs from bygone television dramas.  Her favorite was the one from Hill Street Blues.”  It is a surprisingly versatile style, serving him well across a variety of forms: moving from fairy tale to faux academia to dream like quest story require only minor adjustments to his approach.

Behr’s art is adaptive to the project at hand, shifting from simple cartoons, to ink sketches, to complex full color paintings.  The style she uses for most of the books combines a scratchy line and ink splotches with rich colors.  Her figures are typically deformed and abstracted in ways both comical and horrifying.  And she has a particular knack for creating images that blend one into the next, allowing readers to remix the images to their own liking—an effect seen in the interchangeable tiles she created to accompany Cory Doctorow’s recent novel Makers on Tor.com, as well as in the older Idiot’s Books Ten Thousand Stories and After Everafter.  The latter two are both modeled on the old Mix or Match Story Books, allowing the readers to blend both text and image into multiple combinations, creating smooth flowing, if utterly bizarre narratives.  You can play with a digital version of Ten Thousands Stories online here.

The book that initially won my heart was The Contented, a small spiral-bound booklet, recounting a day in the life of a cloistered monk.  It is a mundane story, as we watch the monk go about his various daily chores: doing the laundry, mending his robes, torturing the prisoners, washing the dishes, and so forth.  The appeal lies predominantly in Behr’s illustration, simple, evocative depictions of the monk in his robe, interacting with similarly simple environments, punctuated with beautiful abstract landscapes that give a sense of the monk’s isolation in his home.  There are, in fact, only six words in the entire story, revealing the monk’s deepest wish.  It is a silly, childish wish—and yet, it leads to a final image that is unexpectedly sad, casting an even greater pall of loneliness over everything that came before.

Following the birth of their first child, Swanson and Behr honored the occasion with another tiny spiral-bound, The Baby is Disappointing, which recounts all the ways in which babies are un-amusing, unproductive layabouts in lofty, despondent prose: “The baby is unmotivated.  It loafs all morning long.  As the afternoon slides past, the world’s work remains undone, and all the while this baby drifts in dreams of better days.  And yet it does not smile.  It does not now how.”

The illustrations in this volume are particularly simple—what appears to be a found image of a kewpie doll blended with ink sketches to illustrate a variety of atrocious conditions to subject a baby to.  It’s bleak, and cynical, and hilarious.  And, of course, it’s ultimately not a condemnation of the baby’s uselessness at all, but rather a portrait of the fears any new parent faces when considering all the ways they can fail to appreciate or understand their child.  (My wife and I found it a particularly enjoyable read while awaiting the arrival of our own first child last year.)

Not every book is comical.  The Clearing is a lovely fable about an old, ruined king, who commits a terrible act of violence against the one living thing he still loves.  This sets him on a quest to atone for betraying his brother in his youth, but ultimately leads to more complex questions about who he is and whether either atonement or revenge are even possible or justifiable.

Given the number of books the pair produces, not every one can be stellar.  Animal House, for instance, which offers portraits of the primary figures of American politics in 2008, depicted as animals, is losing significance rapidly.   But the duds are few, and are far outnumbered by little gems.

At $60/year, a subscription might sound hefty, but given that that price gets you six books, it’s really an excellent deal.  At the very least, if you have opportunity to browse their work at a convention, take it—it only takes a few minutes of browsing for the craving for more of their work to take hold.

Review: Family Man, by Dylan Meconis

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

I’ve never bought into the notion that “the eyes are the window to the soul.”  Sure, they play a role in reading a person’s mood or opinion, but if one were to ask me what facial feature is most revealing, I’d say the mouth, no question.  There’s a treasure of information to be read in the tension of a person’s lips, the crook of a smile, the skewing of a jaw.  By comparison, I just don’t think eyes have that much to say.

Dylan Meconis is working hard to change my mind.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my pre-ordered copy of Meconis’ first print collection of her webcomic, Family Man.  A kinda/sorta/not really prequel to her vampire farce Bite Me, Family Man is a much more restrained story, of loftier ambitions and headier dialogue.  Rather than smartly goofy comedy, she’s now delivering a complex tale of the politics of theological scholarship, the politics of religious/familial duty (not necessarily separable issues), and werewolves, set in Bavaria in 1768.  This is not to say that Family Man is a humorless affair—far from it!—but that the humor here is much drier, and much more rooted in the culture of the time.

The werewolves, I should mention, have played a relatively small role in the story thus far, a point Meconis is tired of hearing, if the withering look she gave me when last I teased her about it (over a year ago—and still few signs of werewolves!) is any sign.  And that’s okay—the hints of werewolfdom we’ve seen thus far have been tantalizing, and the overall tenor of the story makes clear that when we do finally dive into that aspect of the plot, we’re going to see something much more thoughtful and interesting than your typical horror thrills.  Until then I’m more than happy to listen to young Luther Levy debate the merits of Spinoza while lamenting the tribulations of being ethnically Jewish, culturally Christian, and philosophically atheist, in a country and time that has little tolerance for two of the three.

In printing, I find that smaller trim size (though not necessarily quite so small as a manga digest) tends to give a book a greater air of seriousness.  Given the sobriety of her story, I expected that Meconis would make use of this, to create a prim volume that might evoke the academic texts referenced throughout its pages.  I was surprised then, when what arrived on my doorstep was a book with a generous 8.5” x 11” trim.  To be honest, I was a disappointed at first—but my disappointment was short-lived.  What I failed to anticipate was just how much Meconis’ art would benefit from the freedom to sprawl across these larger pages.

This is, in this case at least, an argument for print over web.  The print pages are substantially larger than Meconis runs them online, and all the more rewarding for it.  Counteless little details come into focus that are completely unperceivable in the web version.  Take, for instance, our first glimpse of the remarkable library at Familienwald, built in an abandoned church, displayed here it’s full online resolution:

Note the stained glass windows at the far back of the library.  Now, compare to this scan of the same windows from the print edition:

You see the saints?  Do you see the shape of their robes, their feet, their tiny little halos?  And those details exist in a part of the image so inconsequential to the plot that it doesn’t even matter that you can’t tell they’re there in the online version.

Now, here’s a moment that does matter: Luther Levy’s first meeting, two pages later, with Ariana Nolte, the university’s librarian, and Luther’s eventual romantic interest:

There are a lot of nice details here, but what I want to draw your attention to is that final panel, the first time we get a good look at Ariana as an adult.  She’s clearly a strong woman; her expression is commanding, the odd perspective dramatic, her orders succinct and non-negotiable.  Let’s have another look at that panel, blown up a bit:

When I was flipping through the book, and happened past this panel, I locked eyes with Ariana Nolte, and was startled by her.  This has much to do with the perspective, but also: those eyes.  They stare right out of the page at you in a way that the screen just doesn’t convey.  In that panel, you feel you are looking out through Luther’s eyes, and she is looking straight back at you.  It’s eerie and powerful.

Another thing about the perspective in this panel: it’s not just an unusual angle, but also an outright reversal of the way perspective is ordinarily used to convey power dynamics.  To “look down” on someone is to convey that you feel superior, better, more powerful than they are.  A downward shot from a character’s eyes ordinarily conveys that we are looking at someone weaker.  That we get the opposite reaction here is impressive, and goes even further to cement Ariana’s dominance in this exchange.

It’s those eyes.

More about Meconis’s eyes: they are always active.  She clearly knows exactly what every character is looking at in every panel, and reveals much about who they are through the object of their attention, as well as the particular ways in which they look.  As in real life, Meconis’ characters rarely give a simple forward look at whatever they are looking at.  There are sidelong stares, distracted glances, hooded glares, and this is true of every character in every panel, no matter how minor.  Consider:

I have no idea who the three characters to Lucien’s left are, but I can tell you that the one on the left has no interest in the book he’s reading, the one in the middle is very interested in the university gossip he’s overhearing, and the one on the right is content just to be having a meal.  That’s not just in the eyes, of course (the mouths too, convey much in their set), but the eyes are doing the bulk of the work.

It’s this level of attention to the nuances of character—not just appearances, but what those appearances have to say about the characters’ inner workings—that makes every exchange in Family Man so compelling.  And as good as it is online, it’s even better in print.

The Old Made New: The Static Comics of Daniel Merlin Goodbrey

First published at Webcomics.com, February 2008

“I’ve always felt driven to keep trying new things creatively and experimental web comics just started to feel a little too familiar, y’know? Too safe. I wasn’t going to improve as a creator sticking to that ground.”

–Daniel Merlin Goodbrey

Note: For my thoughts on Goodbrey’s early works, see this post.

Best known for his impressive formalist experiments, usually featuring Flash interfaces (eventually culminating in his Tarquin Engine), Goodbrey was one of the early pioneers of the new artistic realms that web publishing opened to comics creators.  In the past three years, however, Goodbrey has produced only one of his “hypercomics,” the 24-hour comic Never Shoot the Chronopath, which he published this past December.  Most of his efforts these days have gone into more traditional seeming fare: two static humor strips and a longform tale of undead cowboys.

It would be a mistake to think that Goodbrey has given up on pushing himself creatively just because he isn’t inventing wild new interfaces, though.  “Experimental” is a relative term, and nothing stymies innovation faster than repeating oneself.  And even the most traditional methods can help a creator to break new ground if they’ve never tried those methods before.  In fact, the least interesting work that Goodbrey has produced in recent years is the most overtly experimental; “Never Shoot the Chronopath” is an enjoyable little comic, but nothing we haven’t seen Goodbrey do before.

On the other hand, Goodbrey’s Brain Fist, All Knowledge is Strange, and The Rule of Death all incorporate forms and ideas that are new to Goodbrey’s body of work, even if they don’t look so different from the kinds of comics most people read every day.

Brain Fist

“The trick with Brain Fist was defining the iPod as a “looking into” device. I think there’s potentially a more intimate connection there than with the comics page—all your attention focused into this single little glowing square.”

Goodbrey’s first effort at more traditional comics was Brain Fist, which wrapped up last August after nearly a two-year run.  An unabashed talking head strip, Brain Fist presents a succession of monologues (Goodbrey describes them as “one half of a conversation.”) by a rotating cast of characters including a trigger-happy old cowboy, a devil lady, a foul-mouthed talking cat, and a woman with no eyes.  The tone of the strip is generally bleak, exploring the worst impulses of the damaged and the damned, with a frequently philosophical bent.  The strips most often feel like simple black comedies, but just as often they venture into petite drama, such as the strip <a href=” http://www.e-merl.com/brain.php?date=2005-12-06”>In Tears</a>, in which a young murderess describes an event from her childhood:

“I asked my mother once.  Why it always had to end in tears.  And I remember she…she just looked at me.  So much sadness in her eyes.  And then at last, she let out a breath.  And answered simply: ‘Because otherwise it wouldn’t end.’”

The result felt like something of a cross between the self-conscious thought experiments of Dinosaur Comics and the amusing horrors of A Softer World.  But like A Softer World, Brain Fist is at its best when Goodbrey leaves out the punch line—the absurd extremism of the characters creates a wonderful tension between the ridiculous and the genuinely frightening.  Relieving that tension with punch lines only reminds us that we are looking at cartoons rather than horribly plausible people.

As static as Brain Fist is, there was still a structural experiment at work.  The comic was designed with portable devices—the iPod specifically—in mind.  Goodbrey saw the potential to tap into that  “more intimate connection” by turning a comic into an implied conversation between the reader and the character on the screen.  (And given the growing ubiquity of camera phones, it’s not far off from the direction on-the-go communication is actually headed.)  My own first experience of Brain Fist was its web incarnation, but I downloaded several strips to see how the experience compared.

The first obvious difference is that the panel-to-panel transitions become much more suspenseful, since you can only see one panel at a time.  The second strip, titled “Fist,” makes particularly good use of this fact—when you can’t see what’s coming, the transition from the character’s face, to his open hands, to his bloody fists, and back again is very jarring, as it ought to be.

The question of establishing a more intimate connection with the reader is a bit more complicated.  I can see the sense of intimacy that Goodbrey suggests, but I can see just as much potential for the opposite.  I asked my wife, who was unfamiliar with the strip, to read a few installments on my iPod and describe the experience of reading them that way.  Her word: “isolating.”  Even if you capture the sense of having a conversation with the character, it’s impossible to get away from the feeling that they’re talking to you through a tiny hole from inside a tiny box.  The intimacy that’s achieved is an uncomfortable intimacy; the closest approximation I see is how I imagine a conversation in a confessional to feel.  But that’s okay; the tone of the comic is confessional, and these are disturbed, off-putting characters.  Any intimacy with them should be uncomfortable.

Even if you don’t have an iPod, Brain Fist is still enjoyable as a webcomic.  While the iPod was his inspiration, Goodbrey hoped to create a comic that fit comfortably enough into multiple delivery formats—iPods, the Web, and print—that readers would feel they were reading the comic in its native format, no matter which delivery mechanism they were using.  It’s not actually in print yet, but it certainly does work on the web.  Even so, it’s worth taking a look at Brain Fist on the iPod; it’s a rare sort of comic that actually does maintain a sharper edge in that format.

All Knowledge is Strange

“Trying to work the three-panel strip format twice weekly lets me stretch a bunch of different writing muscles and also gives me a home for the ideas I have that don’t fit anywhere else. And I’m drawing things! With my hands! And a Wacom! Not being one of nature’s drawers, I’m finding the process to be an amusing diversion.”

Goodbrey’s follow-up to Brain Fist, All Knowledge is Strange, is a simple humor strip, with a dry, occasionally bleak, sense of humor.  Subtitled “A Pictorial Almanac of Necessary Facts,” most strips begin with a trivia category, followed by three examples of questionable veracity.  For instance, the category of “Problems Guns Can’t Solve” accurately includes “Zen Koans,” while the more enigmatic category of “Lies the Moon Will Tell You” includes “It’s all going to be okay.”   All Knowledge is Strange has been updating every Tuesday and Thursday since last September.

The most immediately striking thing about AKS is just how un-Goodbrey-like it is.  It really is true to the four-panel gag strip format, even if the humor itself is darker than the norm for such strips.  There is no structural experiment here beyond Goodbrey just trying his hand at the structure that everybody else is already using.  Even Brain Fist, as straightforward as it was, was clearly still playing with form, even if not as ostentatiously as Goodbrey’s previous work.  But All Knowledge is Strange is comics at its simplest.  Goodbrey may play a little loose with the traditional rhythm of Set-up, Beat, and Punch-line, but the rhythm is there nonetheless.

It’s often easy for creators with an experimental bent to dismiss the four-panel gag strip as played out and uninteresting, but anyone who’s actually tried it knows just how challenging it is to come up with consistently funny material that fits into such a constrained format.  And setting challenges for oneself is the heart of experimentation.  Even if other creators have already mastered those challenges, the only way to truly learn the lessons of the exercise is by undertaking them oneself.  It’s pleasing to see that Goodbrey has the humility to understand this, however avant-garde his own natural inclinations may be.

Just as pleasing is the fact that Goodbrey’s comedic talents have grown since Brain FistAll Knowledge is Strange may not have the depth or character exploration of Brain Fist, but it’s much funnier.  Goodbrey is clearly letting loose a little here, setting aside his usual intellectual concerns and just having fun.  It’s certainly not the work that Goodbrey will be remembered for—humor strips are still not his primary talent—but as he says himself, it’s an “amusing diversion” amidst the creator’s headier projects.

The Rule of Death

“What Rule of Death actually is, is the last bastion of me Making It Up As I Go Along…. I’m just writing it till it’s done. I kinda know where it’s going now (sort of. Mostly. Ish), but I only found that out by accident along the way. And I found it out while the audience was watching me find it out, which makes for a different kind of writing experience.”

Perhaps the most interesting of Goodbrey’s recent projects is his most traditional effort to date.  Scripted by Goodbrey and Illustrated by Douglas Noble, The Rule of Death is the story of Pete Colby, a man who died—then changed his mind and came back.  Colby is no flesh-eating zombie, just a quiet man who just wants to get back to living the life he occupied prior to his demise.  But he lives in a small town in the old west, where people tend to notice when the dead decide to walk the Earth, and they’re generally not happy about it.

The story is subdued and thoughtful, but with the promise of darker things to come.  Colby spends much of the early chapters trying to devise a way of convincing the townspeople that he didn’t really die in the first place; failing that, he begins trying to negotiate a peaceable coexistence with them.  Meanwhile, Death himself has become aware of Colby’s violation of the natural order, and is on his way to pay him a personal visit.

Douglas Noble’s artwork on the series is neither pretty nor immediately eye-catching, but his dark rough lines, evocative of woodcuts, do an excellent job of setting both time and mood.  Noble’s design of Colby in particular looks satisfyingly deathly, without looking typically zombie-ish.  And what his drawings lack in refinement, he more than makes up for with an exceptional eye for knowing how to compose a panel with just the right amount of visual information to set tone and build mystery.  (According to Goodbrey, Noble often breaks scripted pages into many more comics pages than is Goodbrey’s intent .  “I get my revenge by writing more scenes featuring the dog, Jasper. He hates the dog and keeps threatening to kill it off in an adlibbed barbed-wire accident. Really it’s a very synergistic working relationship we have.” – Goodbrey) This is especially important for a story as heavily dialogue driven as this one—much of the action is just a sequence of philosophical conversations, making it quite a challenge to keep the story visually interesting.  But Noble’s depictions of the conversations maintains a high level of tension, making clear that these philosophical ponderings aren’t mere indulgences; decisions are being made, and those decisions will have real consequences down the line.

Working with a collaborator has clearly given Goodbrey a renewed sense of freedom in his approach to storytelling.  Goodbrey’s own artwork has a coldness to it, which is well-suited to his experimental structures and self-aware explorations of warped realities, but has a somewhat limited emotional range.  (In truth, a lack of confidence in one’s illustration prowess is often part of what motivates experimental creators to go in that direction in the first place.)  By handing over the artistic duties to Noble, Goodbrey has allowed himself to delve into more emotional subject matter and more complicated character relationships.  Not to suggest that The Rule of Death is in any way a melodrama—the characters themselves are actually very reserved, as one expects from stories set in the mythos of the Old West.  But Noble’s artwork brings out the emotional subtext of the characters, even when the characters themselves are trying to keep their feelings under wraps.  Goodbrey has moved from exploring the nature of narrative to exploring the nature of life itself, exploring themes of identity, morality, and societal acceptance.

Since this is a true narrative, it will be impossible to judge just how successful it is until it’s completed, but so far it’s enjoyably creepy, with a fun premise, an intriguing cast, and compelling themes.  With this series, Goodbrey is proving that he is a versatile writer, really does know how to tell a story, with or without experimental trappings.

Looking to the Future

The future looks busier than ever for Goodbrey, who has projects in the works for a variety of publishers and media, not to mention the ever-increasing brood of ideas still at the pure concept phase.  As with The Rule of Death, many of Goodbrey’s upcoming projects are collaborations where he’ll be providing scripts, but leaving the art to other hands.  Sean Assapardi is illustrating Goodbrey’s web-to-print series, Necessary Monsters, which does not yet have a publisher.  He’s also working on a graphic novel called Improbable Division for AiT (no artist attached yet), and an as yet unannounced six-part project for Marvel.

And he certainly hasn’t lost his interest in exploring the possibilities of technology.  He plans further exploration of mobile comics, though he has no specific project in mind yet.  And he hopes to attempt a “sonic comic” one day, once he’s found “the right story or collaborator or sponsor.”  Oh, and there’s one more mysterious technology he’s excited about—but he won’t say what it is because he’s under NDA.  What that might mean is anybody’s guess, but with Goodbrey involved, it’s bound to open the door to a whole new world of comics-creation possibilities.

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.

Superslackers, by Steven Charles Manale

First published in The Webcomics Examiner, September 2005

These days, there are two major camps in superhero parody. On the “traditional” side, you’ve got derivatives of Ben Edlund’s The Tick: over the top absurdity centering on heroes whose powers range from the genuine, but incompetently wielded to the blatantly ridiculous, but whose intents are generally sincere. These are true would-be superheroes, who demonstrate the very silliness of the idea of superheroics.

On the other end is the more modern sit-com style superhero parody, such as David Yurkovich’s Less Than Heroes. Yurkovich described his own creation as “the Seinfeld cast in masks.” These parodies feature characters who claim to be heroes, but who are too self-involved and apathetic to ever actually do anything heroic, demonstrating perhaps, that the thing that separates most people from being superheroes isn’t just the lack of powers.

Somewhere in the middle is Steven Charles Manale’s Superslackers. Superslackers follows the misadventures of a group of high-school superheroes who don’t seem to spend much time either at school or involved in heroics. Manale’s character concepts have a good deal of Tick-esque absurdity to them—take for instance, the team leader, Invisible Right Leg Lad, or his unrequited love, the pirate-girl, Arrrlene—but the personalities, as should be clear from the title, are in the apathetic non-hero mold.

Despite the apathy of the characters, the tone is light-hearted and fun; Superslackers is not weighed down by the moody cynicism typically found in this type of parody. The story is light on continuity, following a gag-style format, though frequently with a full eight-panels, rather than the typical three to four. This allows for considerably more interesting build-up to the punch line; this is an especially good thing, considering that many of the punch lines are self-consciously painful puns, ala Bazooka Joe. You can practically hear the rim shots. There’s a nostalgic quality to this humor, reminiscent of old Saturday morning cartoons. Not the full, half-hour episodes, mind you, but the silly 30-second fillers that ran between larger episodes, and invariably ended with all the characters laughing hysterically at jokes that really hadn’t been funny. And yet, Manale’s horrid puns are balanced with the character-driven buildups in just the right way to make the whole thing strangely entertaining.

The tone is well-matched by simple, cartoonish artwork—with occasional lapses into classic super-hero art styles to depict fantasy sequences—thickly outlined and filled with bright, solid colors. The resulting look, like the writing, is energetic and appealing.

All told, Superslackers is a fun, quick read that’s accessible even when read out of order. What it lacks in originality of concept, it certainly makes up for with enthusiastic execution, fun visuals, and unrestrained silliness.

The Perry Bible Fellowship, by Nicholas Gurewitch

First published in The Webcomics Examiner, March 2005

When The Webcomics Examiner ran its list of The Best Webcomics of 2004 in December, the list provoked considerable debate among readers about comics that were included that shouldn’t have been, and comics that weren’t, but should have been. Which is perfectly natural—in fact, provoking such debate is one of the major points of publishing such a list. What was notable about the debates, however, was that the absence of one particular comic was commented on more than any other. That comic was The Perry Bible Fellowship, by Nicholas Gurewitch.

The Perry Bible Fellowship (PBF) is something of an odd duck in the webcomics world. Despite more than a year’s worth of weekly updates and an increasingly vocal following, the strip has remained virtually unknown within a large portion of the webcomics community. This may be due in part to the strip’s having followed a reverse path from most webcomics— while many creators who have established their popularity on the web are now seeking to break into newspapers, Gurewitch came to the web having already established a print following. PBF got its start in a college paper, Syracuse University’s Daily Orange, then went on to win Baltimore City Paper’s Comic Contest in September of 2003. PBF has appeared in Baltimore City Paper’s print weeklies and on the newspaper’s website ever since, and has begun showing up in a number of additional metro weeklies as well.

When it comes to form, PBF isn’t pushing against any boundaries— it’s a straightforward three (or sometimes four)-panel gag strip, formatted for newspaper syndication. And unlike most such gag strips, PBF isn’t daily, or even thrice weekly. One three (or sometimes four)-panel strip is all you get each week. But what PBF lacks in form and frequency, it more than makes up for with consistently funny writing and some of the prettiest artwork you’ll see in any newspaper gag strip.

Gurewitch’s humor is decidedly strange, oftentimes downright morbid. Which isn’t to say that it’s in any way angsty, pessimistic, or gothy. It may be morbid, but…it’s cheerfully morbid. In fact, many of Gurewitch’s best moments result from his juxtaposition of the horrific with the wholesome. For instance, there’s the strip titled “Astronaut Fall,” wherein an astronaut on a spacewalk slips out of orbit and plummets toward Earth. The second panel depicts the horrifying scene of the doomed man burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. By the third panel, there’s nothing left but a single bit of falling ash, spied by a pair of children playing outdoors. The sweet little girl catches the ash on her tongue, chirping her delight at having caught the first snowflake of the season. The sequence is horrible, disturbing, and perfectly precious.

Or there’s the more recent strip, “Cars,” about a pair of adorable cartoon cars who are bored with traveling to the same places all the time. So they set out for an exciting new destination: “the ocean!” And it’s all very picture-book sweet— until you notice the terror-stricken human passengers, all of whom are silently drowning to death while the bubbly cartoon cars have their little adventure.

Despite the title, The Perry Bible Fellowship can’t easily be mistaken for a Christian comic. Although religious themes do come up, Gurewitch’s handling of them is far from reverential. For instance, God’s preoccupation with sex has been demonstrated more than once, in strips like “Eden” and “Angel’s Caught.” But even such religious satire is only an occasional theme. In fact, PBF isn’t consistently concerned with any particular subject matter, beyond Gurewitch’s interest in blending seemingly incongruous imagery into cheerily subversive humor. There is no ongoing story to PBF, nor any recurring characters, save the Schlorbians, a group of space-faring aliens who spend their time tormenting Earth and killing puppies. Even God’s handful of appearances doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s the same god, as he appears quite different in each instance.

Gurewitch’s artwork has come a long way from his early strips. His early humans were usually undefined blobby figures, much like what Box-jam might look like without the muumuu. He has continued to rely on those blobby figures, but has since refined their representation into a more clay-like form, still highly anonymous, but with much greater physical dimension. (“Cars” offers a good example of this.) More than anything, they resemble elongated Pillsbury doughboys, a fact of which Gurewitch is likely aware, judging by his e-mail moniker of “pillsburysoldier.”

Despite these strangely shapeless people, Gurewitch’s art is, in fact, not often minimalist. His choice of style varies widely from strip to strip; contrast the pleasant perkiness of “Cars” with the faux vintage woodcut detail in “Gotcha the Clown.” His style even varies within individual strips, such as the combination of futuristic cartoony-ness and more detailed line-work in “Captain Redbeard.” Or, more impressive still, “Billy the Bunny,” which progresses from simplistic picture-book doodles of Billy the Bunny getting chased out of a carrot patch by a farmer, to a considerably more realistic panel of a mom and baby reading the picture book, while glowering at mean old farmer Ben. Finally, the strip culminates in an even more realistically detailed image of farmer Ben crying in his ramshackle hovel, because Billy’s destruction of the carrot crop means he won’t be able to keep his family fed through the winter. As the story progresses from pure fantasy, to accepted reality, to harsh reality, the artistic style adapts to suit, effectively capturing the thematic movement of the mini-narrative.

While most of the print versions of PBF are black and white, for the web incarnations, Gurewitch adds color to many of the strips, and his color work alone makes PBF worth visiting. For most of the color strips, Gurewitch favors vivid, but softly textured colors, reminiscent of Metaphrog’s use of color in their Louis books. The effect, of course, is to heighten the sense of innocence captured in the artwork, bringing yet another level of irony to the disquieting content of the strips.

Between the cool, distinctive artwork and the unpredictable and genuinely funny writing, the worst thing there is to say about The Perry Bible Fellowship is simply that it doesn’t update often enough. The weekly update schedule may very well be the prime reason why it has taken more than a year for PBF to start to achieve a higher profile among webcomic readers, since it can be very difficult for a webcomic— especially a gag comic— to gain a wide audience without daily publication. And yet, unlike most gag strips, PBF is able to create a memorable impression with just a single strip, nearly every time— an enviable achievement for any comics creator. While a weekly schedule would result in a seeming dearth of content and spell failure for most gag strips, in The Perry Bible Fellowship’s case, it simply leaves the reader eagerly anticipating the next week’s update. For those who don’t mind sacrificing quantity in favor of quality, Nicholas Gurewitch’s odd little comic is well worth waiting for.

Various Comics, by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey

First published in The Webcomics Examiner, December 2004

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey’s first major impact on the webcomics world came in 2001 with the release of Sixgun: Tales from an Unfolded Earth, an impressive Flash-based experiment in non-linear narrative.  The title screen presents six character portraits, each of which acts as an entry point to a different narrative chunk.  Each of the six narrative chunks uses a different experimental mechanism for exploring a series of story threads, all of which take place in an “unfolded Earth” where portions of reality have recently disappeared, only to reappear much altered.  It is a world populated by mutants, aliens, and the risen dead, where all sense of internal logic has been eschewed.  History itself, like the narrative structure, has become non-linear, allowing futuristic Cit-Cop robots and a gun-toting, chainsaw-dueling Abraham Lincoln to wander through the same timeless landscapes.

While Goodbrey’s world setting for the story is fascinating and his characters are intriguing, it’s his experiments with the narrative mechanics that really made Sixgun the groundbreaking event that it was.  In one sequence, the reader explores a duel between Abraham Lincoln and Isambard Kingdom Brunel by way of a series of sliding panels that must be manipulated alternately up and down or left and right with the mouse.  In another, the reader can glimpse the inner lives of each of six people waiting at a bus stop by clicking on the individual panel containing the character.  A third presents the entire comic as a single large sheet viewed through the window of the Flash frame.  The reader slides the entire sheet, following a series of trails through small snippets of story about a man condemned to lifetime imprisonment in a maximum security sitcom.  Simply following the trails here is not enough — in each corner of the comics sheet, unconnected bits of back story hide, waiting for the exploring reader to find them.

This emphasis on innovative story mechanics continues throughout Goodbrey’s work.  In 2002, he released Doodleflak, a self-contained series of disconnected and darkly humorous gag strips arranged as a series of branching spokes.  Doodleflak was notable primarily for debuting the Tarquin Engine, a Flash-based tool developed by Goodbrey specifically to aid in the development of branching, infinite canvas comics by automating trails, zooms and scrolling.  Goodbrey continued his experiments with the Tarquin Engine in Externality, a somewhat more ambitious experiment in improvisational infinite canvas work.  (Rumor has it that Goodbrey will eventually make the engine commercially available.  He has already lent it out to Scott McCloud for use in one of McCloud’s own daily improv comics.)

Goodbrey’s interest in the purely theoretical side of comics narrative becomes even more evident in The Mr. Nile Experiment and his most recent self-contained piece, The Formalist, a pair of semi-narrative comics form essays that directly explore the structure of reality within the comics form.  The Mr. Nile Experiment was originally presented as a month-long experiment in producing a daily comic, wherein each day represented a new formal experiment hosted by the amusingly evil and meta-fictionally self-aware Mr. Nile (an anagram of “Merlin”).  As usual, Goodbrey displays his affinity for looping narratives; of particular interest is his exploration of the ways in which dynamic panels can be used to change not just the forward movement of a story but the nature of the story thus far.

Mr. Nile later returned as the lead character in the Mr. Nile Journals, Goodbrey’s ongoing comic on Serializer.net.  Backed up by Spooky and Ignatz, a pair of characters first introduced way back in Sixgun, Mr. Nile once again stands in as host to a series of formal experiments.  This time around, Goodbrey has imposed limitations on himself, including a three panel layout in the spirit of traditional newspaper strips and a pseudo “journal comic” premise, all of which are intelligently deconstructed through Mr. Nile’s continued meta-fictional self-awareness.  While Goodbrey’s ideas have always been intriguing, until now they have largely been pure theory with only hints of how they might play out in a more ambitious story.  By blending the best of his ideas with the most memorable characters from his previous works, he’s produced some of his best comics to date.  For what may be the first time in Goodbrey’s work, characterization and plot are playing as much of a role as the structural experiments, making for a comic as entertaining as it is intellectually exciting.

Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life, by Adam Reed

First published in Comixpedia, January 2006

“The future is easy. Just take your own personal variables, factor in the external variables, crunch a few numbers, and there ya go.” – Female Form Robot, Luca

Really, it’s not so surprising that humanity has died out, intent on our own annihilation as we seem to be. What’s surprising is simply how—not in a flash of nuclear war, but rather in a pleasant stupor of fatty foods and affordable sex. With the invention of convincing artificial intelligence comes the development of some very talented and eternally attractive sex robots. Humanity loses sexual interest in itself, the birth rate drops to zero, and the last man dies fat and happy, amidst the tender affections of his burnished chrome harem. Not to worry though: humanity lives on (sort of), perfectly simulated by its former servants, who now have the run of the solar system. Sure, they’re more durable than actual humans, but beyond that, not much has changed.

This is the world of Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life, Adam Reed’s existential road story in space. Chris and Ben are a pair of blue collar robots working in a Mercurian factory, where they build other assembly robots like themselves—that is, until they discover they’re being replaced by a new model. Thanks to the black market bohemian drive circuits they picked up during a drunken weekend, they decide against turning themselves in for disassembly, which would be the natural order of things. Instead they take off on an adventure through the solar system, traveling planet-to-planet seeing what they can see. And, of course, hitting every bar along the way.

Chris is the introspective one (which is to say, he’s rather self-absorbed), who sets the whole journey in motion as a way of finding himself and seeking out his future. “What if you don’t know your own variables?” Chris asks Luca, a friend he makes while on Venus. “How do you find out something like that?” Like most young people with dead-end jobs and no career prospects, Chris is a bundle of existential angst. (And yes, he does read as a young person, despite the symbolism of his being replaced by a newer model at the factory. Just one of the perks of being a robot, perhaps—you can play any age.)

Ben, on the other hand, is a gregarious alcoholic (which is to say, he’s also rather self absorbed) who views the trip as an interplanetary bar crawl. Chris may be the one on a voyage of discovery, but Ben’s more likely to dive into an adventure, whether that means installing an illicit erogenous zone circuit on Venus or attempting to live out an action movie on Mars.

The artwork is simple, but expressive—basic outline cartoon drawings that could stand as well in black and white as they do in color. As such, Reed’s limited use of color is particularly effective—each panel is rendered with only one or two colors, giving the images depth, but not realism. (A former instructor of Reed’s described the comic as black and white with tones, rather than a true color comic.) This scheme helps to remind us that no matter how fully developed the characters seem, we’re not looking at real people, but mere simulations.

The story is arranged into episodic chapters, each planet providing a distinct adventure, with occasional diversions to places such as the asteroid belt and Earth’s moon. Taken together, it’s a tour of human history, with each adventure delving into some foible of human society. The symbolism isn’t overcomplicated—Venus presents the naïve confusion and sleazy indulgences of sex and love. (In the future, the most popular sex workers will still be amorphous blobs of silicon.) Earth is a museum of humanity’s cultural and artistic achievements, and continues to be home to robot-kind’s creative minds. Mars presents the nonsensical aggressions of unending war, where even apartment hunting involves military action. True to its structural device, the story will be limited in duration; Reed has stated that it will end on page 99, just a little beyond Pluto. As of this writing, the story is ten pages past its halfway point, with Chris and Ben exploring Jupiter.

That the story is working toward a planned ending is an important point. Protracted over too long a duration, the characters’ introspective angst could easily devolve into whiny angst. Chris has already shown a tendency in this direction, such as when he went on a petulant drinking binge on Earth, after his favorite author befriended Ben instead of him. But having an end in sight gives a much stronger sense that Reed is going somewhere with these characters; their future isn’t open-ended. They have definite arcs that will come to definite conclusions, and these low points are worthwhile steps along the way. As a result, their journey is all the more meaningful and satisfying.