Eisner Watch, Pt. 1: Bodyworld, Finder

It’s time to look at the hopefuls for this year’s Eisner Awards. The nominees this year are a motley crew. They’re an interesting group that raises many questions … mainly, “Who in the world has even heard of these comics?” Let’s just say when most people start doing webcomic blogs or podcasts, most won’t check out the comic about the plight of migrant workers. We are far, far more likely to check out that Sonic the Hedgehog pixel comic.

Which, to me, is fine. Hollywood hardly selects box office winners for the Best Motion Picture nominee list, either. Is using awards to boost the profile (or, to put it more crudely, advertise) of little-known creations the correct reason to determine who deserves to get an award? That’s probably another discussion altogether.

And then there’s the delightful content of the webcomics themselves. It looks like the Eisner committee has gone emo this year. Let’s see: one’s about rampant drug abuse, another is about hermaphrodites, a third is about a murdered strumpet, a fourth is about a mutilated migrant worker, and the the fifth switches it up a bit and stars a grouchy shut-in. Wow, webcomics… they’re not for kids anymore! (Or, more accurately, “not for gamers anymore!”) Tip for you aspiring webcomic creators: if you really want to game the Eisners, you gotta create a murder-mystery starring a shut-in hermaphrodite migrant worker who’s high on something other than life.

Remember back in the day when all we had to worry was if the winner was going to be the one about the cuddly sasquatch or the short story about rock stars who do battle in outer space?

The most positive thing I can say is that this year, I feel confident that the award won’t be presented as a second-class “also-ran” prize. Still, my faith in the laziness of the Eisner judges has not been shaken. I have a notion on who’s going to win, and once again it’s not going to boil down to overall quality.

But we’ll save that for last.

I’d originally planned on reviewing all five nominees at once. However, once this piece started crossing the 2000 word mark, I decided that it might be easier for you — and, more specifically, ME — to have this broken up into two sections. The first piece will look at Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld and Carla Speed MacNeil’s Finder. The second will take a tour of The Lady’s Murder, Speak No Evil, and Vs. It actually works out pretty well. The latter three are stand-alone short stories, while the first two are either much longer or part of a continuing series.

Ready to get your Eisner on? Let’s get started.






Bodyworld, by Dash Shaw

bw1

So Bodyworld is all like, what if we’re all like part of one global consciousness, dude? And what if, like, you let go of your rigid conformity by mellowing out, man, you would be able to share your consciousness with every other human being who let their guard down? It would be like telepathy, only on a more mind-blowing scale.

Bodyworld stars Professor Panther, a hands-on faculty member who injects himself with so many drugs that he’s got bandages running up and down his arm. The guy’s also seen with a joint in his mouth pretty much 24/7. He blows into Boney Borough, a total squaresville, to check out the properties of some phallic-looking plants. In the process, he trashes the bathroom on a train, hooks some students on to drugs, seduces a girl many times his junior, nearly burns down a hotel room, actually burns down a field, and runs afoul of the police.

He’s also our hero.

Of course, you can’t totally blame the Prof. Smoking joints is part of the work requirements of his job. As a researcher, he chronicles the effects of different plants on the human body. There are, however, some plants that deliver unforeseen consequences.

Meanwhile, a bald, scarred dude in sunglasses hangs in the periphery, popping up from time to time to remind you that is comic is more than just a stoner’s fantasy. His name is Johnny Scarhead, and he gets his own classic-comic inspired origin story. About this time, the story — which contained hints of the typical bizarreness you find in a comic about smoking hallucinogenic drugs — shifts into bizarre overdrive. The science fiction element, which had been window dressing, moves to the forefront as metaphysical concepts become more important than a drug addict’s struggle to fit in with a conservative society.

Without spoiling much, the main theme of the comic is introduced early on in Chapter Two. It’s about “Superorganism.” Basically, it’s how a colony of ants behaves more like a creature than an individual. It’s the sort of theme that’s been covered many times, from the non-fiction The Lives of A Cell by Lewis Thomas to one of the lesser known works of P. K. Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer.

The art is the sort of thing that comes to mind when you think “indie comic”… which is to say it looks like it was drawn by fourth grader. It employs simple symbolic imagery — a tiny Venn Diagram and overlapping faces being two of the recurring styles — and gets downright experimental once the characters start getting bad trips. Images devolve into nearly undecipherable chaos. Now, it’s not the sort of style that I like, necessarily … however, it was probably the only appropriate aesthetic for Bodyfinder. Art and story fit each other like Thai take-out and MSG.

bw2

As a result, Bodyworld feels like a throwback from two different eras. The art seems to be a product of the mid-80’s alternative comic trend post-Love & Rockets, while the pot-fueled ruminations feels like something out of those underground comix from the 1960’s Kitchen Sink era.

Did I like it? Now, I’m not a fan of stories that seem to be aimed for the stoner demographic. Hell, I’m one of those folks who thinks Hunter S. Thompson was slightly overrated. Yet Bodyworld works. Dash Shaw still crafts an engrossing mystery. I was compelled to keep pushing on just to find out what would happen next. Then afterward, I read Bodyworld again because the ending really did put the entire story in a new perspective. Characterwise, Shaw sets up Prof. Panther as an incredibly sketchy character initially. Yet, despite his sins, you do build up a strong empathy towards the guy. The same goes for all the people in Boney Borough, who are being manipulated by forces that can’t understand.

Out of the nominees, Bodyworld is the longest with 12 meaty chapters. It is, however, not too difficult to read since individual pages are chained together on one web page, which allows the reader to consume large chunks of content in a single sitting.






Finder, by Carla Speed McNeil

fdr1

You know what’s an immediate turn-off for me? Upskirts.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve read ungodly amounts of manga. Whenever a comic resorts to upskirts, I get the dirty feeling the writer is pandering to the reader and mocking us on how ridiculously predictable we are. I mean, Men. Amirite, ladies?

Finder opens with an extended sequence of a lifted skirt. I sigh, feeling really dirty and hoping my wife wasn’t looking over my shoulder to see what it was that I was looking at on the Internet. And then the comic reverses expectations. Let’s just say testicles are involved. I’m sure some folks will find this scene hilarious. Me, I just starting to get exasperated. “Oh, Lord,” I’m thinking, “this is so not my kind of comic.”

Researching Finder later, I discover that this is a long running comic. Ms. McNeil has been working on Finder since 1996, and it’s been online in some form since at least 2005. Wikipedia includes a fairly detailed article about the series.

The series is set in a vastly depopulated Earth of a far distant future with room for numerous aboriginal cultures, both human and nonhuman, to live outside – and in varying levels of contact with – densely overpopulated city-states of recognizably modern urbanites functioning at a high technological level. Our own civilization and vastly more advanced societies following it are lost to prehistory but evidenced in the unfathomably advanced domed cities the urbanites have inherited, and the occasional pop cultural artifacts (nearly all from late-20th century America) routinely and conveniently recovered by telepathic sensitives.

Admittedly, it’s an interesting idea. It’s also a setting that wasn’t immediately apparent when reading the chapters online on the Shadowline site. There’s even a fairly good explanation for the transvestism, which I’d originally written off a merely prurient:

Jaeger’s chief acquaintances in the city of Anvard are Emma Lockhart, Brigham Grosvenor, and their three daughters, one of whom is a boy. Brigham, Jaeger’s sergeant from army days, comes from a stoic clan of cops and soldiers, but glamorous Emma’s clan self-selects for theatricality and feminine gender characteristics in both sexes.

fdr2

All I have to go on is Chapter 1 of the current narrative cycle, and what’s there just doesn’t cut it for me as a story. Rachel is our star female (and she’s all girl, not a boy with implants like pretty much the rest of the cast.) She joins a parade of a drag queens. Later, she gets to hob-nob with high-society drag queens, who are old men stuffed in dresses. (The scene is as visually jarring as it sounds). Later, she gets mugged while leaving the subway. Her ring is stolen, which is played out in the next Chapter as the comic’s big MacGuffin. I won’t be reviewing that, though, since most of the content are unfinished sketches.

Finder is the sort of series that seems to be an unstoppable magnet come award time. McNeil herself been nominated for two Lulu Awards, and has won an Ignatz Award for Best Outstanding Artist. The comic itself won two Ignatz Awards (2004 and 2005) for Outstanding Series. Hence, I understand that I’m probably not getting the big picture. Maybe it does require the reader to be familiar with the mythology contained in a larger body of work.

Yet, from what I’ve seen, I can tell you that I found the art to be average and unremarkable. It’s not terrible; I think McNeil was going for an unclean feel within the confines of unchecked decadence, and it works. Yet I didn’t care too much for the character designs, the cityscapes, the compositions…. I’m sure someone with an art background could elaborate better than me. It just didn’t grab me.

I understand that there’s at least one Finder fan who reads this site. Feel free to elaborate here on what makes Finder a good comic. There’s a reason the judges awarded Eisner a nomination; I’m just at a loss as to exactly why.

TO BE CONTINUED….

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on May 1, 2009, in adult webcomic, alternative webcomic, dramatic webcomic, fanservice, sci-fi webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Let’s see.

    Bodyworld: I think the story is interesting, not as arresting as the author thinks; but I highly disagree with you on the art looking like it was “drawn by a fourth-grader.” I think that’s empirically as well as critically wrong – like Scott Pilgrim, it falls into the category of “it takes skill to make something this simple but still evocative”; though it does sometimes fall into Tintin woodenness.

    Finder: I am one fan. Its worth lies in: its world-building (which is wildly creative while carefully relegating infodumps to the footnotes), good dialogue, well-portrayed characters, and interesting and complicated plots that deal with themes often left alone. It brings up novel ideas drawing from wide reading of not just literature but anthropology, biology, etc. If you stopped reading this particular story when it turned to sketches I can see why that might not come across; the plot stays on the conventional side while it’s being set up, Rachel has quite a backstory (though it’s not essential for reading the story in full), and perhaps the absence of Jaeger, the main character, frames the story for a longtime reader in an important way.

    One of the recurring motifs in Finder (IFAICT) is how much of human social roles and relationships, particularly gender, are constructed rather than natural; the ways the Families genetically-engineer and then selectively breed themselves according to various weird ideas is partly a technique of making this more visible. Again, very interesting to me, but not necessarily to everyone. Even though the story at issue is full of the “all-women” clan (Llaverac), that issue doesn’t become so prominent; it’s closer to a coming-of-age story, perhaps.

    Hope that helped answer your question.

    I’m curious if the Eisner nomination is for the whole body of work, and if so, how much will be officially read – everything published so far is a lot. But the first two TPBs (Sin-Eater volumes 1 and 2) would be a good introduction.

    • Thanks, Minivet!

      Just to clear the air though: I did read all 58 pages of Finder on the Shadowline site, but limited my analysis to the finished pages. I’m figuring that those would be the only ones under consideration. It was a more fair comparison: I’d originally written down that Finder felt sloppy due to being in an unfinished state.

      Thanks for the reading recommendations, too.

  2. You were right to go to a two-part, but I am eager for the conclusion. Nice work.

  3. I have very little to contribute here, except:

    1) I can see what Bodyworld was aiming for, but it just isn’t my stuff.
    2) You can’t imagine how little I think of all those loading flash interfaces — which in my case means it won’t load within a reasonable amount of time. I don’t know why those schemes are being used. If it’s an attempt to thwart privacy, it doesn’t work since you can just screen-shot the strips one by one. And I can’t say it’s practical.

    Can’t wait to read Part 2.

  4. Well, I tried to read Finder, but the Flash interface had other ideas. Better luck next time, webcomic publisher! Who came up with that Flash webcomic interfaces, anyway? It’s the worst thing to happen to webcomics since the discovery of copy-paste.

    • I suspect that’s how traditional publishers think of the web. Slick, polished, technologically innovative, and unusable for its determined purpose.

    • Well, if you’re going by the link I put up, there might be trouble accessing the comic directly. I can’t actually go through that link, but I thought that might’ve been a quirk of the preferences I had set up on Firefox. Your best bet is to go to the Shadowline website (shadowlinecomics.com), click on the “webcomics” link in the upper right corner, then scroll down the webcomics drop-down list until you find “Finder.”

      And, yeah, the Flash interface is a total pain in the patootie.

      • Thanks. I was able to read it now, but I can’t say I got much out of it. See, if it was a normal webcomic, I’d be able to click the About button and eliminate some of my confusion. But no, we have to be cool and put it in a Flash-o-tronic Read-R-izer 2000. There’s a reason 99% of webcomics are set up like blogs, comics publishers.

  5. So, who might you pick for the Anti-Eisner?

    – it’s a true webcomic, built around the internet as its main platform and using associated technology to enhance the reader experience
    – it’s not something a print company stuck online and lobbied to get included
    – creator conduct is generally professional and respectful of colleagues
    – story and art are compelling to you

    I am not looking to hand out awards. But I would like to know what the thinkers here consider to be Eisner-worthy, the better to contrast your picks with what they have offered in the past five years. I am aware that the Eisner is for digital comics, not webcomics, but let’s pretend it’s for webcomics. Feel free to name more than one. Since we’re just suggesting possibles, there should be no need to be less than cordial if remarking on other people’s suggestions. (El Santo: If this post threatens to create too much off topic traffic, I will not be offended if you remove it.) I’ll offer mine later.

    • Bengo: on this site, there’s no such thing as “too much off-topic traffic.” ;)

      • Incidentally, if I would have compiled my own list of Eisner nominees, I would at least have included “Anders Loves Maria” by Rene Engstrom. I didn’t give it a five-star rating on this site, but that was partially because I think the story has been dragging on for too long (to the detriment of the once sympathetic characters). In early 2008, it was very much a break-out sensation. It was simultaneously heart-breaking and funny, and it examined how far two naive lovers could go before figuring out they couldn’t go any further.

        In addition, I highly admire Ms. Engstrom’s work ethic to get her name out. I think she traveled all the way here to a few webcomic conventions, which is a bit of a feat for someone based in Sweden. Plus, she’s been a fairly open and helpful person online (to a fault… I think she shut her comments section for a while due to a creepy online stalker).

  6. Regarding Finder: First of all, I agree with everything Minivet said.

    To be honest, I hadn’t read the online Finder until just this moment, because both on Shadowline and McNeil’s site it has a really confusing interface I’ve never had the patience to wrestle through.

    Having read it, I can say that it’s very much like that Sam & Max comic, in that it’s a lesser work from a really good cartoonist, and one that isn’t anywhere near the pinnacle of their work.

    The main problem is that the whole story of the ring and beauty pageant/clan confirmation ceremony is a small beat in some very long running character arcs. Rachel, Marcie and Lynn were some of the protagonists in Sin Eater, the first story arc in the comic, and that arc really set up all of this. Sin Eater actually takes place several years before the events of the online material, which brings me to one of the things I like about Finder; the scope of it. Watching these characters age, and seeing how events set in motion years ago play themselves out is pretty interesting for me, and it’s not something that happens in too many comics.

    I found this story to be kind of moving, and it really made me want to know what’s going to happen next, because I know who all these characters are, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they got to be in the situation they’re in. But if you don’t know these things, I don’t think you can divine them from the material.

    Additionally, and you really don’t get a sense of it from this particular arc, Finder has some very complex and fascinating world-building, something it manages to accomplish while still having a very solid focus on characters. It’s that scope, which doesn’t really come through here, that really attracts me to the comic. Finder has numerous plotlines that range over wide spans of time, space, and social class.

    It’s a dense comic. When you read a Finder comic, you get a comic that generally has way more stuff to mull over and think about than any comic of comparable length.

    McNeil does have some problems with plotting, though; I only got to the end of the Sin Eater story recently, and it had what I found to be an anti-climactic ending. More then that, I really don’t understand what Jaeger, one of the core characters, thought he was doing when he did… well, it would take too much to get into here.

    But I think that same problem with plotting pops up here; Somehow, McNeil has put the episode of Finder that stands alone the least online, where people are most likely to come across it without having any prior knowledge of the series. If you came across this as “Finder, issue 62″ you might just figure you needed more background to understand it and you’d go back to issue one to find out what you’d missed. Putting it online makes people see it as more of a standalone thing, which it really isn’t.

    And that’s pretty odd, because most individual Finder graphic novels are pretty self-contained. I’m guessing that this was just the part of the story she wanted to write next, and she didn’t think about how it would be received differently on the web, or how it would read on its own, separated from the larger context.

    Artwise, I like McNeil’s art. It’s a little hard for me to defend, though, because you’re so vague about what you dislike about it. One thing I do notice is that she seems to be trying a somewhat more realistic style for the faces in this one, and they’re stiffer then they are in most of her work.

    Another little detail that I found interesting is that all the non-clan people are shown in silhouette, or not at all. Which, again, is a detail that you really won’t notice unless you understand the significance of the whole clan thing.

    I don’t know; there’s all kinds of details and character moments that interest me as a fan, but you’ve really come in in the middle of the story. It’s totally fair to review it that way, since that’s how it’s sort of advertised, but I really think it’s something to keep in mind. You shouldn’t dismiss a work just on the basis of having read the middle and not understood it.

    • Christopher: In regards to Ms. McNeil’s art… it’s not bad per se, and I wouldn’t go so far as saying I dislike it. It’s kinda like the Pini’s work in Elfquest, if I can make a comparison. However, I didn’t seem to be anything more than serviceable. I didn’t feel the strong connection between art and story like I did for the other 4 nominees. It was just … sorta there. Maybe that’s why I was a bit vague: I’m equally having a hard time finding things I like and finding things I didn’t like.

  7. Bengo: I have never read a webcomic that wouldn’t have been better in print. Looking a computer screen for a long time strains my eyes in a way that print doesn’t, and I have to deal with load times, and I can’t read them on the bus or on the crapper, etc.

    I’ve yet to see any comics content on the web that could only be delivered by computer and yet at the same time was artistically necessary enough to justify the hassle.

    I’m not even sure the Eisner’s should have a webcomic award; maybe they should just include them for consideration in the other categories.

  8. @Christopher

    I prefer print, too, though I am watching these Kindle-type devices with interest. But there are thousands who can and do read online for whatever reason, and I enjoy taking advantage of online technology to create a fuller experience. This is empty talk right now, because I won’t be introducing my own site designed with online in mind for at least a few more weeks, when LilNyet.com goes from its current weak design to something new. (My other comics will follow throughout the summer.) And I can’t say I’ve solved all the problems; there is still too much clicking for my taste, though we’ve pretty much beaten the scrolling.

    Having independently produced books, print comics and online comics, I have to say that from a creator standpoint online cost structures and profit potential are far more appealing.

    My solution is to try to make my webcomics as user friendly and “web fun” as possible, and look toward the day when I can offer print anthologies. And not saddle-stitched throwaways, either, but something that is rewarding to hold, read, and own. I figure if the webcomic makes money and the print anthology breaks even, I am doing great. (For clarity, I should mention that I am both a seasoned entrepreneur and creator of a new generation webcomic business model that is not quite done and not yet publicly released, but which gives me enough optimism to think that more people will make a living from their webcomics in the future. I am not trying to be provocative, it’s just that this is a serious and challenging undertaking and such things take time. Not to mention, I could yet fail at the attempt.)

    But yeah, plant a tree today, print must never die.

    • Nawlz is about the only online comic that comes to mind that can’t fully be translated to the printed page (what with Sutu using a lot of flash animation and hyperlinks in his work). However, I’m still on the fence over whether that’s the way to go with webcomics. It seems very labor intensive to put together, and might be at odds with the natural flow a creator has with capturing his or her vision. (Translation: it’s tough enough to put your ideas down using a pen and paper!) Plus, a lot of folks seem to find Flash interfaces disorienting.

  9. @El Santo
    I think a webcomic site can be an experience without using Flash or much animation. And I think a comic can be presented so that it will translate to print without the site looking like a mere stack of pages.

    May I offer a few examples?

    Dynamic images, which pull randomly from an archive whenever the page refreshes, don’t cause tech problems but add vitality.

    Coherent design of the site as a whole, rather than just the landing page with other pages added, makes it more of a destination and brings out the full potential of the site.

    Consider a comic like Cyanide and Happiness, which has short comic videos on YouTube. Making them available onsite is not interfering with the book’s ability to present the comic — and shouldn’t the book encourage visits to the site anyway, by mentioning additional material?

    I’ll keep this list short by linking to an article I wrote that is more comprehensive: http://floatinglightbulb.blogspot.com/2009/04/koolstuff.html

    I agree, beware of technologies that put readers off, no matter how cool they are.

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