The Webcomic Overlook #129: Comic Critics
So San Diego Comic Con is over, and life goes on. I didn’t go, what with our budget being tight and me not really being a convention-goer in general. I have, though, been following quite diligently online, with Todd VanDerWerff’s coverage at the AV Club being my main source. (#Notatcomiccon nation, unite!)
So what was the biggest story coming out of the San Diego Comic Con? This: “Is Comic Con even for comics anymore?” The answer is no, no it is not. My wife, who is not a huge comic fan but is a die-hard Glee fan (or “Gleek,” if you will), had her faith temporary shaken when she realized the Glee crew were at the Comic Con. “Does this mean Glee is for nerds?” she asked me witheringly. She needn’t have worried. There are panels devoted to Community, Sons of Anarchy, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, after all.
There’s a bit of the “nerds getting kicked out their own club by the cool kids” vibe going on, which, perhaps, is the natural order of things. “Know your role and shut your mouth,” as the Rock used to say. But, you know, the fact that this entire spectacle blossomed from the tiny kernel of comic fandom should tell you at least one thing: comic fans are a passionate bunch. Outside of Comic Con, look how much energy we spent reverse engineering Wonder Woman’s new outfit, or how we sneered at JMS for having Superman walk the Earth, or how we geeked out over the new Scott Pilgrim book.
If we lose the spiritual core of Comic Con, I guess us comic fans will have to slink back into the shadows and await the smaller cons, while poring over comic sites, blogs … and, yes, webcomics. While not as prevalent as gaming webcomics, webcomics about comics do exist. I’ve covered them before — the now defunct Year One (reviewed here), No Pink Ponies (reviewed here), and Let’s Be Friends Again (reviewed here). And now we get Comic Critics, written by Sean Whitmore and illustrated by Brandon Hanvey. The comic centers around some of the most irritable, snobby, and unpleasant people in the world: people who review comics.
To the untrained eye, the Comic Critics format resembles the familiar pattern you’d find in your garden variety video game webcomic. Fighting words, I know. But let’s take a look at the tale of the tape, shall we?
- The webcomic stars two protagonists who take comics way too seriously.
- Oftentimes, these protagonists spend their time bellyaching about comics and movies.
- A majority of the strips lean towards the wordy talking heads variety.
- We get a bunch of “random” humor where there are a ton of pop culture references, and the punchline typically ends in violence.
- Plenty of times, the strip detours into non-continuity in-jokes that only the hardcore comic types will get.
- And finally, there’s drama shoehorned into the webcomic in an attempt to try to make the characters more than one dimensional
So, replace “comics” with “video games,” that description totally describes Ctrl+Alt+Del, which frankly is a bad omen. Replace “comics” with “toys,” and you get Shortpacked! (reviewed here), a comic that did fine on the geeky pop culture bits but completely dropped the ball on creating believable (or even likable) characters. However, the secret to making any formula work, no matter how familiar or overused, is the execution.
Whitmore and Hanvey? They make it work.
Comic Critics stars Josh, a stereotypical comic book geek who has a love/hate relationship with superhero comics, and Marissa, a gal who sees herself as more sophisticated because she reads indie comics. Both have taken jobs that keep them close to their core passions: Josh at the comic book store, and Marissa at the big box book store that stocks a healthy selection of trade paperbacks. When not working, they while away their time sparring back and forth about comics like an old married couple.
And you know what happens when a guy who loves comics meets a girl with the same hobby, right? Oh, you know what I’m talking about. After hours, they do what any two like-minded, emotionally-charged comic nerds do to release all that pent-up energy: they head over to Josh’s apartment and, with the video camera running, they get together for some hot, steamy, mind blowing online reviews. Ohhh, yeah. I mean, that’s how I like to unwind.
Why … why are you looking at me all funny?
It’s a novel spin on the typical “whine about [X]” scenario, which pops up a lot in video game webcomics and often just has two characters where one guy does all the complaining and the second guy just sorta listens and nods his head sympathetically. With Comic Critics, you’re the second guy. While the first guy lays out his critique, you get to sit back and watch the diatribe, which is augmented with some visual aids. Josh and Marissa use the show as a forum to discuss important issues of the day, such as the Disney/Marvel merger or to air out grievances about certain comic book genres. They upload the final product on iVideo because, according to their web designer Jamal, Youtube is “a wasteland of amateurish pop-culture parodies and rejects from America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Their show, by the way, is called “Comic Critics,” which is muy meta.
So Comic Critics (the webcomic this time) is primarily with being a sort of editorial on the culture surrounding comic books. What surprised me is that — unlike the glut of pop culture comics that are narrowly focused on a single genre — the characters in Comic Criticswere, overall, very likable. Obsessive and arrogant as they are, Josh and Marissa are fully aware of how ridiculous and marginalized their hobbies are.
There’s a nice moment where Marissa, with no ulterior motives beyond wanting to read a comic by an author she likes, asks Josh to explain the backstory. In the middle of explaining everything, Josh realizes how ridiculous the whole thing sounds. A page earlier, Josh explains to Marissa’s boyfriend that he actually is kind of burned out on superhero comics, yet sticks to his guns out of loyalty (and a desperate front to show that he’s right in front of Marissa). He even comes to the conclusion, at one point, that perhaps his complaining is a colossal waste of time. Marissa doesn’t get quite the same amount of comeuppance for her hubris, but she does, at some point, come to the embarrassing realization why indie fans have a hard time banding together. It’s a refreshing alternative to the majority of webcomics that scream, “My nerd hobby is a way of life … DEAL WITH IT.”
I was especially surprised to discover how much I liked the background characters, too. There’s a resonant and somewhat touching strip starring the relatively normal and non-geeky Joyce, who goes through a lot of sacrifices just being Marissa’s friend. Joyce may very well be my favorite character, by the way, perhaps because, with her reserved personality, she is by the default the most reasonable character in Comic Critics. Marissa’s boyfriend, Rick, comes from a similar character template, but he’s also portrayed as being a little frightened and confused by all the comic talk. (Incidentally, he’s more of a manga fan.) There’s also a lot of fun to be had with Brian, an employee at Marissa’s bookstore who’s so clueless about comics that our two leads a typically straining at their reins from busting out in a nerd rage.
Don’t get me wrong, though: although there are plenty of strongly defined characters, Comic Critics is not about drama. Whitmore and Hanvey even put together a nice strip that gently mocks the sometimes overwrought drama elements these kinds of comics sometimes take. Comic Critics is about fun little jokes that perhaps only hardcore comic fans can fully appreciate.
Some of the gags are universal, the type the typical Big Bang Theory fan will get. Such as a charming one quickly drawn at last year’s SDCC showing Josh ogling a Miss Marvel cosplayer … because there were elements on her costume that were off. Other jokes are for insiders only. I don’t know how these come across for casual comic fans, but they’re just so well written that it’s hard not to be taken in. Interestingly, the only ones that I didn’t fully enjoy were the fan favorite strips that cameo either an insane Robert Downey, Jr. or a Great-Gazoo-like mini-Iron Man. To me, they were kinda cheap, too easy, too “random,” and several shades less clever than the strips that tackle more esoteric subjects.
And, as I mentioned earlier, there are times the tone changes drastically from the typical snarky furor and obsessiveness that it catches you off guard. There’s a very sweet Transformers joke about why dudes love to play with robots that turn into cars. This simple strip got to the heart of the matter more effectively than Shortpacked! or Lil Formers (reviewed here, and those comics are exclusively about boys and their toys! Woe to thee should Whitmore and Hanvey turn they eye to the toy collector geekdom.
I imagine quite a lot of my affection for Comic Critics stems from the fact that I can absolutely relate to the situations in the comic itself. I am also an avid listener of the iFanboy “Pick of the Week” podcast, a casual reader of Savage Critics or House to Astonish, and a bit of a critic/reviewer yourself. What can I say? I love comics. Whitmore and Hanvey love comics. And Comic Critics is a big ol’ comic book love fest.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)