Comical Musings


Review: Ren Rats

by on Mar.01, 2010, under Review

I imagine that writing about the Olympics would be a shameless way to drive some traffic to the site, so here’s my best attempt at forced tangential commentary:

As Bob Costas reminded us Americans again and again* over the last few weeks, a lot of historical things happened during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. And my family is very much down with history: my parents have both participated in the local historical play; my brother-in-law has done World War II re-enactments on the beach at Conneaut, Ohio; and I’ve personally gotten involved with BYU’s medieval club, Quill & the Sword. This club has had to deal with a lot of flack from the campus student association—not all of it unearned, since the medieval club seems to attract people who act before they think.

One can ask for no more cheerful celebration of everything that is wrong with medieval and Renaissance clubs than Ren Rats, by a fellow who calls himself Piz.** You have the people who meticulously remember every detail of trivia, the ones who forget what’s important, and the ones who go around offending the “mundanes” as a means of entertainment. There’s the tendency to go for shock humor as a way of getting announcements out. To be honest, the members of the KUMRC are a lot like the main cast of Weregeek: reacting to people’s rejection of them by acting all the more repugnant.***

The plot of Ren Rats is, according to the “about the comic” page, taken from real life. Except, of course, where it isn’t. This means that, in essence, Ren Rats is one elaborate inside joke. Unfortunately, inside jokes don’t translate very well to a public medium, as anyone with a good set of kidneys in their head can tell you. This, combined with the occasional hole in the fourth wall, makes the comedy feel just a little forced. But then, there’s always the fussy nerd to take down a few pegs if the jokes start to feel stale.

The art looks to be just a step above MSPaint, with rather little progress or improvement from day one to nearly three years later. Characters’ cheekbones stick out like they have impacted teeth, and their expressions seem to default to a heavy-lidded smirk. The “scroll” effect on the comics is clever, but it’s added to each comic individually—and then the rest of the area is made transparent to fit with the page layout, leaving artifacts along the edges of the curves. You can see the same thing on the navigation arrows.

The strange thing is that, in doing this, Ren Rats manages to capture the essence of many a medieval reenactor: a bit on the awkward side and in need of some cleaning up, but essentially well-meaning.

Comic Rating: One last rehearsal at 2 A.M.

* and again and again and again . . .
** Ha! I made it tangentially relate after all!
*** This is not listed among the ways to make friends with people, and for good reason. Those “be true to yourself” teen movies generally forget to add, “but still be polite to those around you.”

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Review: Ruby’s World

by on Feb.22, 2010, under Review

Most everyone’s had that moment of thinking wistfully, “If only I weren’t fat/short/paralyzed/skinny/obsessed with my inadequacies/slow-witted/big-nosed/weak/color-blind/etc., life would be so much better. I wish I could just rebuild my body/mind to be the way I want it to be, and then the world would work!” This seems to be the guiding thought behind transhumanism, a philosophy that finds its mascot in the webcomic Dresden Codak. We can use technology to build our species into something better, transhumanism says—can and should.

On the other side of the coin are the usual voices of caution, the ones that say, “But what happens if we get carried away? What if we go down the wrong path and do something horrible to ourselves?” It’s the voice of many a science-fiction horror movie, and it’s the one you can find coming from Ruby’s World, by Neil Kapit. While the title is a bit reminiscent of a certain animated Howie Mandel vehicle, the subject matter is a good deal grittier than anything I watched on Fox Kids. It follows the life and misadventures of Ruby Harrison, a biotech intern turned mutant warrior in southern California.

I will admit that Ruby’s World is a difficult comic to read. The art style is a bit choppy on anatomy, and while some of the more technical details can be impressive, the pen and markers treatment doesn’t translate well to a digital format. As a result, NSFW scenes don’t really feel dirty. Just . . . discomfiting.*

Get past the art style, however, and you find a story about an invulnerable giantess, a lonesome empath, a formerly-autistic robot boy, and a deadpan-snarker normal who have to flee from the spectacularly evil corporation that made three of them the way they are.** The characterization is tremendously unsubtle, although Ruby’s father gets a special mention for a certain amount of displayed character growth.

The main theme of Ruby’s World seems to be that human frailty is exactly the thing that makes us so fascinating, and that trying to rid ourselves of our weaknesses before we understand them entirely is a tragic mistake. It’s a sympathetic message, and one that I tend to agree with, but the packaging could use some work.

Comic Rating: Two parental deaths by backstory and counting.

* The fact that the referenced page is a love scene between a radioactive giantess and a robot that’s supposed to look like a Japanese teenager serves only to further that feeling.

** I’ve already expressed my distaste for “sinister faceless power bloc hates the poor defenseless people in their way” plots, so it really doesn’t bear repeating.

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Guest Review: Housepets!

by on Feb.15, 2010, under Review

Hi, I’m Gab. Luprand asked me to write up a review for him while he battles technology.  Sorry it’s late – my bad!

Do any of you people permit any animal or fowl in your house for company but not for profit? I’m talking, of course, about house pet and how they run our lives. I have three cats at home whom I constantly project human characteristics on, and it really does seem like they own the place. That’s just while I’m watching, too, so it seems inevitable to think about what they might be doing while I’m at work.

Fortunately, Rick Griffin more or less does this for me in his comic Housepets!, which leaves me free to spend business hours mindlessly typing out lines of code like a good monkey. The comic follows main characters Peanut Butter and Grape Jelly on their adventures in the neighborhood, which often involves the local critters and sometimes the human people, too. It’s cute, harmless (which means it’s safe for work and all audiences – yay!), and often times very funny. It feels familiar and nostalgic, sort of in a Muppet Babies / Rugrats kind of way, only more modern and much less pedophiliac. Using anthropomorphic animals is a great vehicle for this, avoiding politically incorrect cliches and making it convenient to have characters acting in childlike ways while still retaining some level of maturity. I mean, they’re talking animals. They can’t be held responsible for the silly things they do!

The arcs are very character driven, which is something that I am immediately drawn to, with one offs scattered here and there for comedic relief. This works fairly well, though some of the running gags fall flat in comparison to the main plot … while other times convey more about the over-all plot than the storyline strips do. Particularly when  building up to the climax  ends up confusingly in the doghouse with no real resolution. What is this, anime? I don’t think putting a bandaid on the problem will make it go away, but then again…

But whatever. The thing that brought me to this comic in the first place was the art style, which has gone from good to nothing short of amazing over time.  Having said that, though, the human designs pale in comparison to  the lively-drawn animals whose expressions and creative poses really steal the show.

Just more proof about the house pets taking over! But I can’t resist them or this comic, so maybe you ought to just embrace it before you’re made an unsuspecting slave.

Comic Rating: Three grapes and a peanut butter awesome.

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Review: Doomed to Obscurity

by on Feb.08, 2010, under Review

The term “evangelist” has shifted dramatically in use and meaning since it was first coined. Once used to describe a messenger with good news*, the term is used almost as an insult nowadays, conjuring up mental images of things like Chick tracts or the sleazier breed of TV pastors. Or in my case, the devoted Linux fanboys back at school who took every opportunity to remind people how awesome their operating system was, compared to those of us unenlightened savages who still plodded along on our Windows paperweights. (You may think I’m exaggerating here, but tact and personal skills were never a high priority for the I.T. students.)

And this, admittedly, is the sort of vibe I get from Doomed to Obscurity, a comic about a Linux programmer, created by “Penguin Pete” Trbovich. If the blazon at the bottom of every final panel in the comic is any indication, DtO is intended to be something of a mascot for what open-source software is capable of. Trbovich’s enthusiasm, however, could use a bit of finesse to match.

The first bit of roughness (and the most minor) is the page design. Things look great, until you get past the first screen of any given page—at which point the reader is treated to the entire archive list in a table that goes for screens upon screens. This would be best tucked away in a dropdown menu or on a separate archive page. The snowbound landscape also seems like an odd choice for background images; while it ties in with the “penguin” theme of the rest of the site, it’s somewhat baffling by itself.

The second rough patch is in the writing. Niche comics serve their purpose (after all, writing to a niche is what catapulted Scott Adams to where he is today), so the obscure puns and inside jokes get a bit of a pass. Strawman caricatures, preaching to the choir, and zany girls with impossible power are a little trickier to deal with. (Also note that this character must have undergone some intensive therapy by this strip.)

And then there’s the matter of the art. I’ll be the first to say that I’ve seen some absolutely beautiful art done with programs like OpenCanvas. So it’s a little bit of a let-down to see blockish people with greatly varying head sizes. Attractive females go from smuggling books up their skirts to . . . this.

Open-source programs are a good thing. Both of my own comic series were done primarily using the GIMP for coloring and resizing, and I’ve known several Ubuntu users who would talk to me about things other than the supremacy of their operating systems. And I think that DtO has the potential to be a good face for the open-source community—but there’s a lot of effort that Trbovich might want to put into it first.

Comic Rating: Four corners on the unfortunate Time Cube.

* In the original Greek, evangelion means (depending on the translation) either “good tidings,” “please give me eight million dollars,” or “post-modern deconstruction of the giant mecha anime genre.” As you can see, the Greeks were well-versed in the art of nuance.

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Review: Nicky510

by on Jan.25, 2010, under Review

“Attention Deficit Disorder” gets bandied about rather carelessly these days, with the original medical diagnosis being tossed out the window in favor of general distractability. This fails to take into account the rest of the disorder—the mood swings, the frustration of always losing your train of thought, the way it can take hours to write up an essay that should be dashed off in no time at all because something else happens to




You’re still here? Oh, shoot, the whole review thing. Anyway, attention span can be a crucial thing for cartoonists, especially if they’re trying to write up something with a cohesive plot (much less a coherent one). And that’s where Nicky510, a comic produced by a guy called “Crow,” runs into a bit of a snag.

In some ways, Nicky510 seems to be trying very hard to set itself up as a successor to Calvin & Hobbes:

Nicky510 briefly visits the idea of a Suzie Derkins analogue as well, although she hasn’t been seen since. Unlike Calvin, however, Nicky has an older brother named Lex, who generally serves as a nerdy, sour-pussed foil to Nicky’s wide-eyed antics. As a cranky and rule-bound nerd myself, I almost feel miffed.

The art follows a simple style that spares a little detail for foreground figures and usually leaves the background as an assumption—it would translate well to a newspaper format, although it does occasionally color in one detail or two to aid the punch line. Following again in Calvin & Hobbes‘s footsteps, kids are depicted as being about a foot and a half tall, although Nicky is a lot more smiley than Calvin tended to be.

I mentioned attention span as a potential hang-up for Nicky510, and I suppose I should get around to mentioning what I mean. Starting in October 2008, Crow began to post single-panel gag comics in the middle of the story. By July or so, he’d promoted the single-panel gags to a weekly feature . . . but they’re still plunked down in the middle of the story comics. I personally get a bit of a snicker from a lot of them (even if they show an odd squid fixation), but they’d probably be better served as a separate comic series in their own directory, rather than tossed pell-mell into the middle of Nicky’s storyline.

Those issues aside, Nicky510 is entertaining, and while it plays up the homage enough to border on discomfort, it’s still worth a good chuckle or two.

Comic Rating: 10 mg of Adderall per day.

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