Unbound: See you in the funny papers

It's the holiday crunch time and we could all use a bit of humor, so today, for your reading pleasure, I'm reviewing two very different webcomics that both made me laugh out loud.

The first is The Princess Planet. I saw people recommending it here and there, but I resisted for a long time because anything involving princesses reeks of kid stuff. Having survived my daughters’ princess phase, I was more than happy to pack it in.

As it turns out, though The Princess Planet channeled what I was muttering all those years and turned it into funny. The star of the show is Princess Christi, who gets bored on the very second page and turns herself into a superhero, leaving her attendants behind to draw moustaches on the skinny girls in her magazines. That sort of deliberate anachronism, drawing bits of modern life into the faux-medieval world of fairy tales, is the straw that Brian McLachlan has been spinning into gold for the past four years. The jokes mostly turn on the characters' self-awareness that they are fairy-tale clichés, and running gags include one-upmanship among the princesses and the king and queen’s quest to find a new heraldic symbol for their kingdom to replace the current one, a pile of grass eating a sandwich.

Princess Christi shows up a lot, but this is really an ensemble comic, with a wide variety of characters taking their turns. Actually, I find the funniest strips to be the ones where McLachlan takes a twisted look at a well-known story: Medusa gets a mohawk, Bigfoot hates his name, and of course, Rapunzel as Siamese twins (only half of her can get away). My only complaints are that the comic is drawn a bit too small for my tastes—the six panels always look cramped to me—and the princesses' Valley Girl argot ("Stupids!" "everypeoples") is kind of annoying. But it seems churlish to lodge these minor complaints about a comic that makes me laugh so often. Furthermore, because these characters will be familiar to children as well as adults, and because the humor is goofy but squeaky-clean, The Princess Planet is one of those rare comics that really is fun for all ages.

All Knowledge is Strange is a different type of humor altogether, dry, witty, and usually absurd, as cerebral as The Princess Planet is goofy. It actually rolls up a number of webcomic tropes that I hate—clip art, dinosaurs, typeset word balloons—but because creator Daniel Merlin Goodbrey takes the time to make them look attractive, I don’t hate them in this context. In fact, the smoothed-out lines and flat areas of color add a faux-post-modern look to the comic that accentuate the humor; when you look at something that slick, you don't expect to have a giraffe saying "fuck" in the middle of it.

The formula never varies. Each strip consists of the same nicely smoothed-out art repeated three times, with a slight tweak in each panel and a big turnaround in the third. It’s the webcomic embodiment of the Rule of Three. The title of each strip is an integral part of the humor, and it generally sounds more reasonable than it really is: What Wouldn’t Jesus Do? or Zombie Stereotypes Debunked. Goodbrey constructs a three-part drama based on that title, with the third strip turning the whole premise on its head or introducing a random note of absurdity. Sometimes the humor turns on a literal interpretation of the title, as in Problems Guns Can’t Solve or How to Die With Your Boots On. And some, such as How Many Angels Can You Fit on the Head of a Pin?, take a fresh look at a silly cliché.

Goodbrey also has a number of running jokes. He likes to pick on Werner Herzog, and he has an unhealthy obsession with giraffes. Lincoln, Jesus, dolphins, and puffins show up a lot, first in context and later almost randomly, say, as sandwich fillings.

Aside from their reliance on running gags, these two comics couldn't be more different. The Princess Planet is crowded, messy, and goofy. All Knowledge Is Strange is cool, distanced, and ironic. But pick a random episode of either one and you're likely to end up laughing, and with comics, that's all that counts.

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