Swamp Things and Singing True: a Review of the comic Bayou

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Image from lovelaughterinsanity.com

If you’re going to build a world with words, look at Jeremy Love’s comic book series Bayou for inspiration—you can’t go wrong. What began as a web comic is now printed in two beautiful volumes that you need to read. Southern swamps have never looked so beautiful.

I have to warn you though, Bayou is not what I would call easy reading. It will make you think in ways that might not be familiar in your standard, comic-reading experience.

For one thing, Bayou is building on African-American folklore, such as the stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Tar Baby, among others. Their stories come together in a beautiful and horrifying mix of history and fantasy. The world beyond the swamp is a kind of pre-Abolition wonderland, where the characters of slave folklore live under the Bossman’s thumb and try to get by one way or another.

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Image from vulture.com

It does help to have at least a touch of knowledge about these African-American folk tales when reading Bayou, just as it helps to be acquainted with Greek or Norse mythology when reading other comics.

It also helps to have some knowledge of the Blues. Bayou embraces what I have seen other comics merely touch on: song lyrics included in the comic’s panels. You see, our cast of character includes several rambling musicians and singers. The enchantingly beautiful and somewhat deceitful songstress Tar Baby is the mother of the comic’s protagonist, Lee Wagstaff. Brer Rabbit and Bayou come out of their swamp-side world to sing the blues in a Southern speakeasy, and it all goes to hell when the local levee breaks and a flood takes them all. But come hell or high water, these characters get to speak and sing in their own voices. The past and present overlap in Love’s storytelling, and songs ease the transition between them. Similar to how Disney movies use songs in a montage to mark the passage of time—only Bayou never turns away from real-world darkness.

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Image from webcomicoverlook.wordpress.com

Nearly every character in Bayou speaks in a dialect. This includes the Southern accent, and specifically period-consistent African-American slang. It’s easy to pick up as you go along, and what isn’t totally clear becomes clear with usage (such as when one woman calls another a “heiffer” in a barroom spat). It also includes multiple uses of the N-word, with asterisks for the following letters. It’s a jarring reminder of the history of hate and oppression. You can never forget that slavery is in the characters’ recent past—but why should you? Little Lee may be free, but we first meet her as she swims in the swamp to retrieve the body of a boy her own age. Young Billy Glass lies dead in the bayou because local white men lynched him.

This ain’t Carroll’s kind of wonderland.

Bayou is full of love and hate, cowardice and bravery, sinners and saints. Even the characters that are anthropomorphic animals are beautifully and tragically human. You’ll see the best and the worst of the characters in this comic, but all of them are truly people—even if many of them don’t recognize it.

-Contributed by Miranda Whittaker

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Homestuck: The Future Of Fiction

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Let me tell you about Homestuck.

Homestuck: the monolithic webcomic that inspires eye-rolling in some, fond nostalgia in others, and confusion in all the rest. Reactions to Homestuck are as varied as the content and history of the piece itself. Clocking in at over 8,000 pages, it is perhaps the first piece of great literature based on and created on the internet, hailed by some as a Ulysses for the internet generation.

In short, Homestuck is a story by cartoonist Andrew Hussie, about four friends who play a game together and unwittingly bring about both the creation and the destruction of their world. Its long, convoluted plot features over 100 main characters, told through multiple timelines and intergalactic settings. Humans and their alternate versions—grey-skinned aliens called “trolls”— animated chess pieces, and winged dogs all play a role in the story, which is told through still-images and GIFs, flash animations with original music, interactive games, and lengthy text chats between characters, known as “pesterlogs”.

Homestuck‘s massive success lies in its ability to tap into a uniquely millennial humour that many books or films fail to understand. Its diversity is its strength—it is a parody of every genre: from film-noir, to comedy, to sci-fi, to everything in between. Moreover, its characters are vastly different, featuring personalities and interests so varied that it’s easy to keep reading Homestuck.

It was ‘Rose Lalonde’ who stuck out to me: a witty violinist who loves wizards and knitting. In fact, Rose Lalonde was my first and only cosplay. It was Homestuck that encouraged me to emerge from my shy nerd shell and unite with other shy nerds at an anime convention.

This is another quality of Homestuck: it is unifying in its strangeness. If you like something as weird as Homestuck, you want to find people who also enjoy something as weird as Homestuck. It is because of this that the fandom flourished at incredible speeds. At the comic’s peak, the phrase “let me tell you about Homestuck” actually became a meme, often superimposed over photos of confused civilians watching the antics of Homestuck cosplayers.

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Homestuck is undeniably influenced by the internet and pop culture. Its characters know each either chiefly through the internet. Though they do eventually meet in person, their friendships are established through an online bond.

The comic contains countless allusions to literature and film; evidenced, for example, by John Egbert’s obsession with the hilariously terrible Nicolas Cage movie Con Air. John’s interest in this film is ridiculed by other characters and by Hussie himself. Hussie is poking fun at the fixation many fans have on the comic—a running theme that wouldn’t be possible if the piece were found anywhere but the internet.

It is this interactive quality that makes Homestuck so innovative. In the very early stages of the comic, Hussie was able to take fan advice in naming characters and creating the plot. Once this became impossible due to the sheer scope of the fandom, the comic continued to feature fan-contributed music and artwork, blurring the line between reader and creator. The fandom became known for throwing together cosplays and fanart mere minutes after an update (or “upd8”, as per the tumblr tag) was released.

I speak of this in the past tense because Homestuck finally ended on April 13 of this year, seven years to the day after it began. But the legacy of Homestuck is nowhere near complete. In 2012, Hussie launched a Kickstarter to fund Hiveswap, a computer adventure game precluding the events of Homestuck and following a human girl who finds herself transported onto the troll planet of Alternia. The campaign raised upwards of $2,000,000 dollars in support and the game is slated for release in early 2017.

For a quick taste of the absurdity of Homestuck, check out the Kickstarter trailer. Or, if your schedule is cleared for the next few years or so, you can read (or reread) Homestuck here.

 -Contributed by Julia Bartel

4 Webcomics with which to Coldly Murder Your Productivity

Plume
Image source: plumecomic.com

Plume (Fantasy/Supernatural)

One of the very first webcomics I read, Plume is the story of Vesper Grey, a young woman living in the early 1800s “West.” Her life, according to her, is “boring,” consisting of an endless parade of activities “suitable for young ladies.” This suddenly changes when her adventurer father is murdered in front of her.

She then embarks on a mission of revenge, aided by an immortal being named Corrick, who is bound to protect the wearer of an enchanted locket. The locket was gifted to Vesper by her father shortly before his death.

The story is strongly reminiscent of the film True Grit but with fantastical additions. The characters themselves are completely original, which is where the comic truly shines. Vesper takes to revenge with a worryingly gleeful exuberance. In her own words, “killing is therapeutic,” and she has a naïve badassery that is extremely endearing. The evolving relationships among the cast are well-plotted, and, as of yet, have utterly avoided one-dimensionality.

http://plumecomic.com/

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Image Source: http://rumplestiltskin.smackjeeves.com/

Rumplestiltskin (Fantasy/Fairy Tale)

This is not the tale of Rumplestiltskin as you remember it. Incredibly well-written, the story is a complete retelling of the classic. The tropes of the “handsome prince,” “demure princess,” and “dastardly villain” are upended and replaced with infinitely more relatable and realistic characters. Dotted with twists that thumb their noses at your expectations, the story continually reminds you that it is the captain now, and will remain so.

As the protagonist Chris grows up, she becomes a willful and petulant girl who seems oblivious to the world around her. A world of war, greedy kings, and conscription exists around her, but she instead chooses to make friends with a mysterious man who meets her at the edge of the woods. A man, it must be said, who refuses to tell her his name…

http://rumplestiltskin.smackjeeves.com/comics/1565538/cover/

No End
Image Source: http://no-end.smackjeeves.com/

No End (Science Fiction/LGBT)

Recently, I was made aware that the roster of comics with both speculative and LGBT content is expanding far past the “story with a token diverse character.” The punctuality of my schoolwork may have taken a hit shortly afterwards.

No End is one such cause of my GPA’s demise. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it follows an ensemble cast through the ruins of civilization. They attempt to survive and solve the mysteries of their world, all while facing threats from the now unapologetically corrupt military and (of course) zombies.

Zombies are like bow ties. They are cool, okay?

Each character is utterly unique and none conform to the clichés of apocalyptic zombie fighting. The story feels fresh, though shades of it have been seen before. Some parts resemble The Walking Dead—but with characters I actually care about.

http://no-end.smackjeeves.com/

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Image Source: http://www.sfeertheory.com/

Sfeer Theory (Steampunk/Fantasy)

I may devolve into fangirl-ranting with this one, so please bear with me. Sfeer Theory builds a world with perhaps one of the best magic systems I’ve seen since the book series Mistborn. I cannot attempt to explain it, as I will embarrass both myself and the authors, but suffice it to say you have a round thingy and you do stuff and then things happen and aaaaaaargh.

The comic mainly follows Luca Valentino, an assistant at Uitspan University, where Sfeer Theory is taught. He is an ingenious cyclist (one who practices Sfeer Theory), but has been denied entry to the university due to his status as an immigrant. He instead practices in secret, hoping to one day present his innovations to the university.

A backdrop of looming war between the countries of Warassa and Valence, and the intrigues surrounding them, provides compelling contrast to the relative peace of the university. It quickly becomes clear that Luca will somehow be caught up in the coming conflict.

The truly fantastic story is framed within gorgeous, full-colour art. Scenery and characters both are drawn with an eye for detail and attention to the complexities of motion. No one ever looks stiff or unnatural. This allows for comedy, emotion, and character development to be clearly expressed in a look or movement. Quite honestly, this is one of the best comics in recent memory.

http://www.sfeertheory.com/about

-Contributed by Rej Ford

If you’re still hungry to read about more webcomics, why don’t you consider some of the following?

  1. Stand Still Stay Silent
  2. Strong Female Protagonist
  3. The Abaddon

Playground Politics

 The funny books aren’t funny anymore.

By this I mean that, excluding Archie and the odd issue of Squirrel Girl, mainstream comics haven’t been true to their name for years now. Whether you like it or not, gone are the days of the classic ten-cent The Beano and The Dandy your granny used to read down at the corner shop. This is no one’s fault, really, at least no one specific. The heart of this change is within our changing world.

Today in North America, the political world is vibrant and teeming. Not only are we in a time of great political change both in Canada and the United States, but we are also surrounded by numerous and increasingly frequent events and crises that many are all too eager to spin to fit their political viewpoints. From immigration to ISIS to LGBTQ+ rights and beyond, there doesn’t seem to be anything safe from the perusal of daytime news or the mockery of late-night talk shows.

So where do comics fit into all of this?

Author Nick Spencer and artist Daniel Acuña present their answer to this question in the form of Captain America: Sam Wilson, Marvel’s current Captain America title. Here they tackle issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, as well as building racial tensions, poverty and the shrinking middle class, and, most notably, the issue of illegal immigration over the Mexican border along with various reactions to it.

This isn’t the first time comics have been used as a platform to address political and societal issues; V for Vendetta and Watchmen did it in the eighties, as did Hellblazer in the late eighties and early nineties, and X-Men has been representing minorities for many years, to name a few. However, Spencer and Acuña’s new effort seems to signal a violent shift towards an even more culturally relevant title.

Captain America: Sam Wilson chooses to rest in the middle of this cultural spotlight, and is not afraid to tackle touchy subjects within its pages. The protagonist and namesake, Sam Wilson, the new Captain America, takes an active stance, frequently confronting the polarization of views towards cultural issues.

“Red and Blue, Black and White, Republican and Democrat, North and South—Feels like we’re constantly at each other’s throats,” he says in the first issue, in which this popular superhero makes himself incredibly unpopular literally overnight by “going partisan” and sharing his personal views on political issues. In the world of the comic, this action leads to the public questioning what role superheroes play in politics; in our world, this spurs our discussion of the political role of comic books.

Fox & Friends’ Elisabeth Hasselbeck believes she has the answer to this discussion.

“Keep politics out of comic books, that’s what I say,” she declared at the end of a segment focused on Spencer and Acuña’s new book, in which she and her two co-anchors Clayton Morris and Tucker Carlson expressed their extreme displeasure at the message that it attempts to present. The main focus of their disgruntlement was the main antagonists of the first and second issues, the Sons of the Serpent, who are portrayed in the books as American ultra-conservative extremists attempting to repel illegal Mexican immigrants through vigilantism. Though these villains have been a mainstay of Captain America comics since the sixties, acting as a Marvel Universe proxy for the KKK, the crew at Fox & Friends saw them as a display that “now the threat comes from ordinary Americans—probably some of you watching at home!”

It is unsurprising then, in the face of this real world controversy, that Spencer depicts a similar reaction to Sam’s actions in the world of the comic, as he is quickly dubbed “Sam Wilson: Captain Anti-America,” by a fictional news organization.

Furthermore, the comic adds another layer of depth to the question by highlighting the previous Captain America’s very reserved stance in the realm of politics, a thought that is echoed once again by Fox & Friends when they comment on how much they liked the older Captain America stories in which he did heroic things like punch Hitler in the face. Is good ol’ Nazi bashing fun not good enough for today’s modern readers?

The answer, unfortunately, is not a simple “yes” or “no.”

Punching Nazis, while an enjoyable pastime, was not necessarily “good enough” in the forties when the original Captain America was published, just as it is not necessarily “good enough” now. It is not a matter of whether it was good or bad content, but rather one of cultural relevancy. In a time of war and ten-cent The Beanos and The Dandys, people needed a fun dose of Hitler smacking. Today, when comics and other forms of graphic fiction have the capacity to be instruments of social questioning and change, rather than simple amusements, there is almost a responsibility to make use of the opportunity.

This does not necessarily mean that every comic book creator has to write about politically charged and controversial topics, likely to get them more hate mail than Eisner Awards. It does mean that creators should realize that these opportunities exist, and that using the same old bag of tricks on modern audiences may work about as well as promoting newsprint to a world of social media.

Ultimately, one’s own perception of what graphic fiction should be is vital to deciding what it can be, but in terms of having an influence on politics, it clearly has the ability to at least encourage readers to question their world and culture.

The funny books aren’t funny anymore, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

Not Your Usual Post-Apocalypse: The World of Stand Still Stay Silent

Ninety years later, everything is gone. Everything except Scandinavia, that is.

Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are all that remain of the Known world, and only Iceland is a completely safe area. As far as anybody knows, the rest of the Silent world is populated by the terrifying and dangerous victims of the Rash Illness, a pandemic that started innocuously and swept the globe, decimating almost all human and animal life. Those who succumb to the Illness either die or become the beasts, trolls, and giants that roam the Silent world in what appears to be perpetual agony. The remaining human life is concentrated in small, safe settlements, and they deal with their dangerous surroundings through a combination of fire, military prowess, magic, and cats.

Yes, that’s right, cats—somehow the only mammals immune to the Illness and invaluable allies to the surviving humans.

Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish woman and the writer and artist of Stand Still Stay Silent (draws upon Nordic mythology to tell her post-apocalyptic story in this ongoing webcomic, which began in 2013 and updates every weekday. A particular info sheet from the webcomic that depicts the Indo-European language tree has acquired a significant online presence outside of its original context, so all you language nerds out there may have seen her art before without realizing it. Readers may also know her from A Redtail’s Dream, a webcomic she completed as a sophomore about a young man and his shape-shifting dog who are tasked with saving their village from a meddling trickster fox. Both comics feature her beautiful artwork, which brings both the Nordic landscape and mystical dreamscapes to life in vivid colour. Sundberg creates a truly entrancing webcomic experience in her website design, which leaves no detail unattended to and draws the reader seamlessly into the pages of her story.

The ease with which the reader is brought into the world helps us follow the adventures of the motley crew embarking upon an expedition to explore the Silent world. Barely any of the six main characters have combat experience, so the two Finnish cousins and the young Swedish aristocrat follow the lead of a brash Norwegian captain and a chronically unemployable Dane. The Icelander who joins them later is a shepherd, who is even less experienced than the other three characters who are in their early twenties. The poorly funded crew is the first of its kind, in part because most of the remaining civilizations have little interest in rediscovering an old world that succumbed to so much death and decay. Described by Sundberg herself as “a story about friendship and exploring a forgotten world, with some horror, monsters, and magic on the side,” the crew find themselves working through language and personality barriers as they uncover old books and encounter strange creatures in the abandoned cityscapes. The characters are hilarious and compelling, and the world they inhabit is rich and intriguing. Sundberg often inserts worldbuilding pages near the end of chapters, offering insight into aspects of the post-apocalyptic society such as “The Blessed Felines” and their training process, the differences between Icelandic and Finnish mages, or “The Dagrenning program,” akin to in vitro fertilization and allowing Icelandic citizens to have children who are immune to the Illness.

At times, the tone of the comic becomes notably serious, even horrific. As the crew journeys farther and farther away from safe and inhabited lands, they witness the consequences of the Illness first-hand in old hospital wards and through fighting the creatures that attack them. In the Silent world, “the first rule for survival outside the safe areas” is to “stand still and stay silent” rather than running or calling for help when a beast, a troll, or a giant is encountered, because “it might go away.” For the inexperienced crew, the stakes are understandably high. One wrong turn could get them killed, and it seems they can’t help but make wrong turns everywhere they go. Sundberg makes the difficult shift from comedic banter to terrifying and tragic troll encounter seem effortless.

Beyond its excellent art and writing, Stand Still Stay Silent is a prime example of the new ways online publication can bring together fans of speculative work. The comic has an active readership that contributes to its comments section and participates in the fan forum, which has become a repository for the fan work that arises out of the comments. In particular, the fan community of this webcomic seems to favour writing poetry and filk songs (a genre of music related to fantasy and sci-fi, which often parodies of existing music) about scenes and ideas pertaining to the plot and characters. Though most of the works—particularly the filk songs—are written in English, some commenters even write poetry in traditional Scandinavian poetic forms and translate their fan work into English. The cultural exchange that occurs in the comments shows the power speculative fiction has to bring together people from all across the world over a shared interest. This celebration of friendship and adventure parallels the themes of Sundberg’s creation, with many more new fan works sure to come as the webcomic continues to develop.

-Contributed by Victoria Liao

From Panel to Festival: The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is Coming Super Soon!

Frequent readers of this blog are no doubt aware that we at The Spectatorial love comics. And while not all comics are speculative—just as not all comics are about super heroes—some of the finest spec fic out there does indeed exist in the panels of comic books and graphic novels. And many of the best comic books and graphic novels can be found at TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

TCAF is an annual public literary festival that takes place in the Toronto Reference Library. The atrium of the library, a massive space, is transformed into an exhibiting space for comics: big publishers, small presses, and comic book stores. There are also readings, presentations, gallery shows, and much, much more.

Many artists are launching their books at this year’s festival, including Dakota McFadzean, who is releasing a collection of his Dailies helpfully entitled Don’t Get Eaten by Anything. Chip Zdarszy, co-creator of the sci-fi comic Sex Criminals, will also be there, and if you haven’t picked up a copy of that comic yet, now’s an excellent time.

Then there is SuperMutant Magic Academy, by Jillian Tamaki who c0-created the graphic novel Skim with Mariko Tamaki. Personally, I cannot wait to get my hands on this book! We all know that teenage angst is best portrayed in a school for the mutated and magical. And we all agree that high school would’ve been much more fun if we had had paranormal powers while we were there.

Both traditional print and webcomics are exhibited at TCAF, existing peacefully side-by-side. Webcomic artists bring glorious print editions of the stories that so many people read online. Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is a favourite of mine (super heroes combined with swords and sorcery charm me every time). I have had the pleasure to meet the creators of many webcomics that I adore—and I have been embarrassingly star-struck every time. Go say hello to Aaron Diaz, of Dresden Codak fame; I promise you will not be half as awkward as I am every year!

But you don’t have to dash off to join the signing lines of famous artists or only talk to the creators whose work you know. Browse around to discover something new! One of the greatest joys of TCAF is the chance to discover a new comic series or graphic novel by simply going over to a display that catches your eye. Artists are generally perfectly happy to tell you anything you want to know about their work, and there’s nothing quite like the spark that lights up in their eyes when you ask: “What’s your comic about?” This moment is unique. Even the most magical bookstore in town (and we have a few) can’t show you the author’s joy at your interest in their book.

Then there’s the people-watching. Comic book nerds tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves—and T-shirts and hats and letter bags and hoodies. You will see a beautiful variety of people: parents with toddlers on their back and comics in hand, art students, bookish types who look like librarians, actual librarians, folks giving a nod to cosplay with a pair of fake ears (usually cat ears), and older folks who probably read the first Sandman comic when it came out in 1989. Everybody you can imagine reads comics. Gaze around you, take in the crowd—and the next time somebody tries to tell you that comics are for kids, you tell them what you saw in that library atrium.

So now that your pulse is racing at the thought of attending TCAF, get thee to the Toronto Reference Library! TCAF is a free public event and only happens once a year. No matter if you can only make it out for one day or both (May 9 and 10), you will find that the wide world of comics will welcome you with open arms.

For more info about TCAF, and the events leading up to the festival weekend, check out their beautiful website.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker

Falling Into The Abaddon

Art by Koren Shadmi
Art by Koren Shadmi

Webcomics are still a relatively small market, but with such gems as xkcd and Cyanide & Happiness, they will likely continue to gain traction in the future. One hidden gem is the vastly underrated bi-weekly webcomic The Abaddon by Israeli cartoonist Koren Shadmi. The Abaddon, which began in January 2011 and finished in April 2013 after two volumes, was partially funded on Kickstarter and is essentially a comic book adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist play No Exit set in an apartment in Brooklyn.

The comic is about a head-bandaged man named Ter who finds himself trapped in a bizarre apartment with an equally bizarre group of roommates. He quickly discovers that his new home is a strange prison with a complex, mysterious puzzle that needs to be solved in order for him to escape. Over time, Ter also realizes that he has forgotten crucial parts of his identity and that uncovering his obscure past is the key to unlocking the puzzle of the apartment.

It is the coded, subtle way in which Shadmi unravels this puzzle that makes The Abaddon such a thrilling piece of speculative fiction. Shadmi’s distinctive artwork, drawn in pencil and then scanned and further developed in Photoshop, is the first clue within the puzzle: each of the characters is distinct—from Bet’s curves to Shel’s plump figure—yet they are all aglow with a pastiness that blends into the milky dreariness of the apartment.

Ter finds various symbols in his quest for escape, namely a journal that belonged to a roommate named Ral who had managed to escape the apartment. As the days go by, Ter discovers that everything that happens to him is recorded within the journal, and he sets out to relive those experiences and retrace them in order to find loopholes he can use to escape the apartment.

Ter also finds flies. He notices a picture of one printed on the back pocket of Bet’s pants, and a stamping of one on a piece of chocolate is later found stuck in the fur of Shel’s cat. Ter interprets them as a sign that there was a way out of the apartment, which Shadmi uses to effectively twist the plot within the story. He does this repeatedly in order to demonstrate the hopelessness of Ter’s situation. Ter is overcome with panic and anxiety attacks numerous times out of his frustration over his inability to escape from the apartment.

What Ter fails to pick up on are his own surroundings. The apartment contains mysterious pink gunk flowing through its pipes. Though it is never explicitly stated, the liquid is revealed to be representative of hell and blood. This recalls No Exit, which was in fact about a group of people trapped in a room that is quickly revealed to be hell. This blood and gore is investigated and expanded upon by Shadmi throughout the comic as Ter is forced to remember his own traumatized past and the demons he’s unwittingly left behind in order to escape the everlasting labyrinth of The Abaddon.

-contributed by By: Diandra Ismiranti