This year, The Oatmeal dominates the Eisner Best Digital comic category as “the one that most people have heard of.” That’s pretty much in direct contrast to last year, which was populated by five relatively obscure titles. It’s a testament, I think, to the far-reaching diversity of webcomics, where few ever become pop culture superstars but many have devoted fanbase. You had indie-style comics like Ant Comic and It Will All Hurt, the haunting short story Our Bloodstained Roof and the classic Thimble Theater-inspired art of Oyster War.
The eventual winner, though, was the one that most closely resembled a traditional comic. Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Bandette (Monkeybrain Comics) was the first Eisner winner that had to be downloaded from comiXology — a true “digital comic” as opposed to a “webcomic.” I imagine that the familiar panel layout was the one least likely to send traditionalists into paroxysms. Heck, the tone of the story itself feels very much like a throwback to both Silver Age comic stories and European all-ages fare like The Adventures of Tintin. But so what? It’s old school, and in a way that made it refreshingly novel.
Our title character, Bandette, leaps about and dances on tightropes like a laughing, carefree daredevil. She’s even a bit of a swashbuckler, locking swords with the villainous Matadori as if they were Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. She’s free of emotional baggage, full of an infectious joie de vivre that makes you instantly forgive the occupation that she’s chosen. That job, by the way, is professional thief.
In her wig, mask and cape, Bandette may look like a superhero, but all of that is in the service of pinching stuff from unassuming marks. Fortunately, these aristocratic rich dudes are often portrayed as arrogant jerks who deserve what’s coming to them. And what a merry game she makes of her capers! “You know Bandette’s medicines are best in the end,” she says with a smile to a harried police chief while foiling the machinations of dangerous bank robbers. It doesn’t matter whether she’s the target of an international criminal organization or in the grasp of a frightening, tattooed hitman — Bandette approaches all challenges with a smile and a dramatic sense of flair.
She actually reminds me a lot of the Golden Age Dick Grayson; Bandette even has her own Batman-esque father figure in the form of Monsieur. Although a rival thief, Monsieur has an almost protective, paternalistic relationship with Bandette. He finds her careless, and when he hears of an attempt on her life, he goes out of his way to make sure she doesn’t come to harm. As it turns out, though, Bandette is always several steps ahead.
Our happy thief is also more sociable than Monsieur. She’s assisted by a network of assistants called the Urchins, and her plans couldn’t be executed without their assistance, loyalty and love. On the other end of the admiration spectrum is ally B.D. Belgique, an incorruptible police inspector who nevertheless tolerates Bandette. While he grumbles about working with the criminal element, he knows he needs her help from time to time in taking down truly dangerous criminals.
Colleen Coover’s art fleshes out the environment. The various old stores and mansions give the European setting a dreamlike appearance straight out of old childhood storybooks. Bandette is a thoroughly modern girl, assembling her network of allies via cellphone, for example. And yet the comic feels timeless, incorporating elements of the opulent past with mod fashions of the ’60s — a suitable amalgamation of styles for a story about a thief who absconds with historical artifacts.
Bandette possesses no real weakness beyond her brimming confidence. This may be off-putting to some (who may be more on the side of the grumpy Monsieur), but Tobin makes it work. Confidence and sunniness can be attractive, especially in a world where everyone else is an anti-hero. It’s also inexpensive: Bandette is just 99 an cents issue on comiXology, and it’s pretty easy to catch up (it’s only seven issues as of this writing).