The major gag in George Herrimann’s Krazy Kat comic strip, which ran from 1913 to 1944, was Ignatz Mouse’s repeated attempts to clobber the title character with a brick.
I’m not sure why the Small Press Expo folks thought this Ignatz would be the best character to represent their indy-comics awards. Perhaps the organizers think of independent creators as lurking in the shadows, waiting to pelt the behemoths of the industry with bricks, or perhaps it was just getting late and everyone wanted to go home.
Anyway, the nominations for this year’s awards are out, and voting will be taking place at SPX, which is actually rather soon, so I figured this would be a good time to take a look at the nominees for Best Online Comic.
The first item on the list (which is arranged alphabetically) is Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld, which was also nominated for an Eisner award. This brings up an interesting point about these awards: Almost all webcomics are indie comics. Webcomics creators invariably own their own work and publish it themselves, at least online; there is no webcomics equivalent of Marvel. What this means is that pretty much any webcomic will qualify for an Ignatz, not just the edgy, outsider-ish ones.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you look at awards that are voted on by the public, even a select group like SPX attendees, there is an obvious tendency for the best-known comic to win. Here are the winners of the Best Online Comics category for the past six years: Achewood, Achewood, Perry Bible Fellowship, Perry Bible Fellowship, American Elf, American Elf. These are not niche works by relative unknowns; they seem more like Big Comix. Of course, they got to be Big Comix in part by winning awards like the Ignatzes, so it’s a circular argument.
Anyway, Bodyworld. It’s beautifully drawn, complicated, mind-expanding. The lead character is a botanist in the mold of Hunter S. Thompson who investigates hallucinogenic plants and tests them all himself. He travels to a small town to check out a new plant growing on the grounds of a high school. Neon-colored craziness results. Shaw builds up his story in small squares, and the comic draws together Big Themes and small personal interactions in a very indy-comic sort of way.
Danny Dutch, by David King: OK, here is where I get cranky: In order to be considered for a webcomic award, I believe a creator should at least put in the effort of making a proper website. Danny Dutch is a Flickr set. I’m not a fan of Flickr; it’s unattractive and difficult to navigate. Maybe that’s part of the point here, as the comic itself is deliberately obscure. Perhaps putting it on a site with crappy navigation brings the reader deeper into the world of the comic itself. (Hey, I went to art school. I can do that.)
What's more, half the stuff on this site isn’t even comics, it’s posters and ads and sketches for comics. Altogether there are 40 strips. If they were taken out and put on their own in a book or on an attractively designed website—well, that would be something.
The comic itself is definitely edgy and outsider-ish, despite its surface polish. The four characters are all drawn in an old-fashioned style that’s eerily reminiscent of 1930s commercial art (think the Monopoly guy or old gag postcards). Reading it is like eavesdropping at the existentialists’ convention. Each four-panel comic includes a snippet of dialogue from a much larger conversation, sometimes mundane, sometimes deep. Unlike most four-panel comics, these ones seldom resolve in the last panel, and in fact, dialogue often sounds like a set of non sequiturs. those comics are like small poems. The more obscure ones are evocative in a different way, triggering a string of associations through the use of clichés and seemingly ordinary scenes. Despite the horrid interface, I think I liked this comic best of all.
Thingpart, by Joey Alison Sayers: Did you like The Perry Bible Fellowship? Then you will like Thingpart. It has a similar format and look—fairly generic drawings, standalone gag strips, twisted sense of humor—although the comic is all in black and white, not the Candyland colors of PBF. I don’t mean any of this as a putdown. Each strip establishes a complete, rather complicated setup and then demolishes it in just four panels; that’s not easy to do. And the best of the strips stretches beyond the boundaries of PBF, so it’s worthy competition.
Vanessa Davis’s comics for Tablet: Again, not technically a webcomic, but SPX defines the term broadly as anything that is read like a comic and appears online before it is in print. To qualify for this year’s awards, the comic must have appeared between July 1, 2008 and June 30, 2009. I count six comics that fall in that time frame. Each is a three-page episode about some aspect of Davis’s life as a thirtysomething Jewish woman from an artsy, bicoastal family. They are all good. Her loose, colorful style is not particularly distinctive, but her ear for the quirky comment and her odd characters set her work apart. These comics obviously fall in a continuum with other memoir comics, from Fun Home to The Impostor's Daughter to Lynda Barry's work. Davis's comics are definitely on the light-hearted side of the spectrum; they are easy to read yet touch on some deeper issues, and she is not afraid to lay bare (and make fun of) her quirks. She updates monthly, but I hope she collects them soon, as it would be nice to see them together in a single volume, rather than having to click back and forth (there I go again) in a somewhat clunky interface.
Year of the Rat, by Cayetano Garza: Of all the nominees, this one seems to fit the Ignatz concept most literally; after reading it, I felt like I had been hit on the head with a brick. It starts out as a furry version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis: A cat wakes up one day to find that he has turned into a rat. He loses his job, and eventually his wife and child try to eat him, so he staggers off and winds up lying in the snow. A couple of hoboes rescue him and give him a slug of whiskey, and then everything starts getting all swirly and rainbow-y.
And then, if you’re reading along and obediently clicking the “next” button, you get a whole series of random comics and drawings that don’t relate to the comic at all. No fair!
So wait, there’s an archives page. I went to that and started reading Book 2 of Year of the Rat, but the discontinuity between the first part and the second is so sharp that I went back and flipped through all the pages to see if something was missing.
In Book 2, Garza changes his style radically, from standard full-color webcomic to a more painterly monochromatic style. The storyline jumps into the future (as far as I can tell) and in fact seems to become unstuck in time, shifting from action to flashback to… I dunno. And the whole tone of the comic changes, from sardonic to mystical. If you stick with it long enough, it does all start to fall into place again, but the initial break in the story is pretty drastic. I like Garza’s more sophisticated style better, but it also shows up the weaknesses in his draftsmanship. The biggest problem, though, is that he seems to have started off writing one comic and ended up with another. It's a nice comic, but it might be better if it were rebooted from Page One.
So there you have it: Five very different comics, with different levels of completeness and polish. All awards nominations are a mixed bag, but these five are so different that it’s hard to compare them with one another. The target audience for Year of the Rat, for instance, probably doesn’t overlap much with Vanessa Davis’s work. On the other hand, all five nominees are worthy examples of outside-the-mainstream comics work that deserve wider attention, and win or lose, I expect that all will continue to produce challenging work.