Today's column will focus in on book collections of a variety of webcomics, from gags to continuing series.
Gary #1 and #2, by Tyrell Cannon. This is a comic told from the point of view of the memories of Gary Ridgway, the "Green River Killer". The comic is told without other commentary or judgment, letting the images and memories speak for themselves. Cannon's essential point here is that while Ridgway was a serial killer, he also carried out a normal routine and engaged in what seemed to be loving relationships. He was a divorced father who spent time with his son, though it's strongly implied that their relationship wasn't exactly close. He remarried to a woman who was clearly in love with him, possibly because she was drwn to the fact that he was quiet and unassuming while she had a big and loud personality. Cannon doesn't speculate as to what led Ridgway to brutally rape and murder prostitutes and then dump their bodies by the river. Instead, he implies that Ridgway was always filled with this enormous rage connected to what he saw as a series of humiliations, a rage that he sublimated without finding proper release. Killing provided some kind of bizarre release for him, a release he didn't find anywhere else, and that seems to be the key to his pathology. As a psychopath, he could fake having feelings and acting like a relatively normal human being, but it seems clear that he never actually felt these things in actuality. Cannon does seem to say that at certain points, the psychosis was more pronounced than at other times. He may well have experienced something approaching actual happiness in being with his second wife, but the urge to kill never truly receded. Cannon is unflinching in portraying violence in this comic, which is crucial because to shy away from it would tempt the reader into sympathizing with the book's main character. However, Cannon is also careful not to portray Ridgway as a monster or a super-villain or to make him an exciting character in any way, shape or form. He's a defective human being whose essential flaw was hard to detect. Whether that flaw was genetic or something caused him to snap is the question, because Cannon suggests that the line between human and predator can be surprisingly thin, and that it's not always easy to tell which is which. His realistic art is functional if plain, fitting squarely into his unsensationalistic approach in telling this story.
Robbie and Bobby, by Jason Poland. Poland's been drawing this "robot and his boy" for nearly a decade now, and the actual webcomic uses a variety of color and GIF effects to punch up his work. Lacking that in this collection of new comics and some archival material, Poland's cartooning just isn't strong enough to sustain an entire collection. His line is inconsistent from strip to strip, with some looking hastily scratched out and others more polished. In terms of the humor, the feeling that I couldn't shake was that Poland was trying too hard to be whimsical and charming, and I frequently found the strip to be grating. The bottom line is that too many punchlines were duds, and the promised warmth between the two characters seemed stilted and artificial. I didn't see either of them as real characters, but rather as simple joke-delivery devices, and their weren't enough good jokes. The one exception was the little girl nemesis of the boy Bobby; the strip inevitably got meaner when she was around, and that meanness seems to be Poland's strength as a writer.
Jakey The Jerk, by Chris Garrison. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this comic. Most "funny" webcomics tend to leave me cold, and the title of its original source material (Zoo Laffs) didn't fill me with a lot of confidence. However, Garrison is a talented cartoonist with strong fundamentals, and he really knows how to draw a funny picture as well as design a memorable character. I see a little of Sergio Aragonnesin his character design, and like the master he has the ability to create funny images while maintaining solid composition as well as a sense of gesture and character interaction. This is also a cleverly-written comic, featuring a muscular and tempestuous little ram trying to score with women and failing because of his absurd displays of machismo, until getting a gig with a famous folk singer who wants to go on a mountain hike. This is the best story in this collection of shorts, with some genuinely lovely cartooning complementing the jokes and the actual chemistry that these two have with each other. This is good solid, humor work that pays attention to both the craft of cartooning as well as the craft of humor that stays close to its premise and livens it up with a number of flourishes.
14 Nights, Volume 1, by Kristina Stipetic. This is truly a unique romance comic, and while there's other things at work other than romance, there's no question that this book is about a particular relationship. The reason why it works so well is that Stipetic takes her time in establishing the lead characters and their quirks, but she's careful not to simply make them walking piles of odd behaviors. There's a specificity about their personalities that goes a long way in creating vivid, memorable portraits of the main couple in question. The main character is a surly Russian immigrant named Nikita. He works at a lab but in many ways is dependent upon his sister. There's a wonderful combination of near-Asperberger's tone-deafness about him combined with a simple natural bluntness. He has a prosthetic hand, is overweight and is relentlessly sarcastic. Stipetic also embues him with a certain naive sweetness; this character is filled with anger but also has a lot of love to give. He breaks up with his boyfriend Danny, whose being closeted becomes a problem for the out-and-proud Nikita. At his job, he meets the quiet and unassuming Lucian and goads him into going out with him, despite a significant secret.
That secret is the heart of the series: Lucian does not want to have sex. He had bad experiences with it when he was married to a woman and is afraid to deal with it again even as a relatively out gay man. This book is about the initial meeting and courtship between the two characters, the angry fallout when Lucian tells Nikita about his disinterest in sex, and the messy way they manage to make up. The result is a first volume that tells a satisfying chunk of story with a lively, scratchy and occasionally grotesque line. The lumpy Nikita is a character that Stipetic obviously loves drawing, given the way his glasses droop down his nose, the way his teeth curl into smiles or snarls that are equally alarming, and the bold way he simply occupies space that's almost a challenge to anyone who dares approach him. Lucian is drawn constantly looking down or away, his angular face often hidden in shadow. There's a striking verisimilitude about this story, even given the unusual coupling and backgrounds of its leads, which is a tribute to Stipetic's ability to create a sense of time and place. Though it first appeared on the web, the comic looks great in print and very much looks like something designed to appear in a book, rather than simply collected in print. The book ends on a significant cliffhanger, with no real hints as to how it might be resolved, which adds a bit of poignancy to an introductory volume of comics.