The Webcomic Overlook #167: Yehuda Moon And The Kickstand Cyclery
Winter ended two months ago. In Seattle, that means that it rains less than it normally does. (Like, six days a week instead of seven.) Around the time between spring and fall, I get a little eco-conscious, take my bike out of the corner of the garage, and try to bike to work for at least three out of the five work days. I was riding an old Diamondback earlier this year, one that I’d modified for road use.
On my way to work one day, I had to stop at a red light where I had to turn left. Trying to show some courtesy to the cars behind me, I pulled off to the side of the road to let them pass, after which I would follow from behind. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I’d pulled off to the side of the road, the guy driving the car behind me pulled right next, honked the horn angrily, and then flipped the bird before peeling off.
Now, if you’ve ever ridding a bike on city streets, I’m sure that, at this point, you’re nodding your head and commiserating.
There is no love lost between cyclists and auto drivers here in the fair city of Seattle. Mayor McGinn in an active advocate of biking, and it’s been causing friction on all sides. A recent hiring for a bike advocacy position caused a huge stir in the media. A recent piece in the Seattle PI on replacing storm grates hazardous to cyclists drew several angry comments that the money could have been put to better use if the Mayor wasn’t such a … if you pardon the expression … such a cyclist.
And then there’s the democratic response. There are plenty of blogs out there that defend the pro-cycling position. What you might not know is there’s a cycling webcomic out there, too. Today, I’m reviewing Rick Smith’s “slice of cycling life” webcomic, Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery.
The webcomic takes place at The Kickstand Cyclery, a quaint little bicycle shop that sells and services a wide range of bicycles, offering a little bit of something for everyone — from the performance junkies to hipsters who want custom painted bikes. The shop was once run by an elderly man named Fred Banks, but he was killed in a senseless hit-and-run accident. There’s a white “ghost bike” chained at the store’s entrance in his honor.
The current owners of The Kickstand Cyclery are two friends, Yehuda Moon and Joe King. Of the two, Joe is the more level-headed and business-minded. He’s the guy who gets the latest light-weight bikes and wears the latest equipment. Joe’s goals are simple: compete against the nearby Rival Bikes, get customers to spend more cash, and beat the one cyclist who manages to outpace him every time. He’s a little grumpy — especially when he feels he’s the only one doing the work at The Kickstand Cyclery. And yet, Joe is a good friend. Yehuda loses a bet with Joe; and he’s forced to ride a car (to his horror … more on that later). But, just to show that he’s a good sport, Joe takes up the losing bet, too, and ends up riding a (fictional) Van Sweringen. My guess is that he’s the character most cyclists can relate to.
Yehuda Moon, on the other hand, is a bit of a hippie. (That shouldn’t be a surprise. THAT NAME.) He can be identified by his scraggly beard and a hat that he fits snugly over his eyes. Yehuda is very old school when riding. He owns an old fixed gear bike that seems to have its own thoughts and feelings. He places practicality above the latest cycling fashions. Why wear bike clothes when you can bike more cheaply by simply clipping your pant cuffs?
Yehuda is also our story’s crazy idealist. He’s on the extreme spectrum of being a cycling advocate. When the city council refuses to provide bike lanes, he goes out and paints them himself. He hatches a daring “bike sharing” plan and leaves free bikes on racks (that he set out in another crazy scheme) scattered around the city to promote bike riding. He splashes oil on cars to make a point, carries a police whistle to stop traffic, affixes warning labels on car ads, changes the speed limit, and holds anti-car rallies. He is also very sincere about his beliefs, and he practices what he preaches. He bikes to work every day (even during heavy winter snowfalls) and refuses to wear a helmet because he believes that it’s a car problem that can’t be fixed with a Styrofoam hat.
If you haven’t caught on yet, Yehuda can get a little preachy. Which is fine That’s a solid character trait. Smith takes great pains showing characters call out Yehuda on how preachy he can be. What may turn off people, though, is that the world as established in strip is in line with his righteous indignation. We get strip after strip of drivers being rude and nasty and lazy and generally being enemies of the environment.
There’s an entire multi-year plotline where an evil bike hater almost kills Yehuda by driving him off the road. But that’s not all! It turns out he also runs an anti-bike webcomic and does a radio show where he makes jokes about running over cyclists.
Whenever people are introduced to bikes, their response is unrealistically rapturous. One city council person is unfortunately drawn with a rather smug expression whenever he sits down someone to patronizingly explain how bikes are good for you. I assume cyclists everywhere are supposed to stand up and cheer whenever little lost lambs everywhere have their eyes opened to the wonders of cycling. Personally, I think it’s a little bit of preaching to the choir, and that it does little to dispel notions in the mainstream that cyclists are smug and elitist.
At the same time, the activist nature of Yehuda Moon and The Kickstand Cyclery means that the comic will also, quite often, strike on problems that do deserve more exposure. More than a few strips, for example, lament how when a cyclist is killed by a driver, it hardly makes the news. And even when it does, it’s reported with the assumption that the cyclist was to blame, and not the car driver. One of the first major story arcs, for example, deals with Yehuda and Joe’s futile search to find Fred Banks’ killer, who the police won’t pursue since it’s merely a cycling fatality. Are Smith and current co-writer Brian Griggs being overdramatic? Sadly, no. A quick google search reveals that there were several such incidences in only the last few days.
Incidentally, I don’t want to give the impression that Yehuda Moon And The Kickstand Cyclery is some sort of dour nanny comic. It’s something like Peanuts: there may be some serious messages buried within, but, first and foremost, it’s a fun comic. There’s a bike ninja that bedevils Yehuda with weaponry shaped like bike parts. One storyline deals parodies the increasingly lightweight materials on modern bikes when The Kickstand Cyclery and cycling mega-chain Rival Bikes (a spoof of Performance Bikes, maybe?) search for a floating bike made of arborium.
The cycling gags tend to be very strong, centering on some really clever in jokes and observations. Like the ridiculously long time it takes to wiggle into your bike gear. Or how you suddenly become reliant on The Weather Channel all the time, and how it almost seams like the weather man is wrong. Or the joys of catching a tailwind. What can I say? Rick Smith is clearly an avid biker, and he’s got our number. He and Griggs know about the silly little cliques (within the already cliquish cycling world), the frustration dealing with chain store cycling employees, the shameless acceptance of spandex as a fashion statement…. It’s the same thrill, I think, that gamers feel when someone mentions a inside joke. That “Man, I thought I was the only one who thought this!” moment.
The cast of Yehuda Moon proves to be very strong. There’s Thistle, a working mom who’s recently rejected her minivan. There’s a cast of Shakers which include Brother Pilot, who took a vow of silence until Fred Banks’ killer is brought to justice, and Sister Sprocket. There’s also Sweetroll, a running buddy of Yehuda who used to be an avid BMX’er but has since grown out of it. Each member of the cast exhibits a distinct, sharply focused character traits.
There’s a strip, for example, where Sister Sprocket reveals that she respected Fred, and the reason she gets ornery is because she can’t stand how Yehuda had turned the store into his personal soapbox. The strip felt completely earned. In the previous two years, she’s seen as a very relaxed character. She’s the only one we ever see chilling out and smoking a pipe. But when she’s around Yehuda, her snarky side surfaces. She gets mean, sometimes secretly sabotaging him. When it’s revealed why she still works for The Kickstand Cyclery yet has so little respect for one of its owners, her feelings feel like a completely natural extension of her established personality.
Smith’s illustrations look great. The character designs remind me of the highly streamlined designs you find in today’s comic strip pages. They’re all basic geometric shapes and thick lines, styles that were pioneered by 50’s and 60’s comic strip icons like Mort Walker and Dik Browne. Simple, yes, but at the same time simple and iconic. They’re paired with a solid, earth tone color palette. There’s usually very little to depict the background — maybe a few lines here and there to remind the reader whether we’re inside or outside — but it’s still effective. The Kickstand Cyclery gets a sense of mustiness, as if it’s an unchanging, infinitely spacious shop where you can kick back and relax.
There are also the silent panels, which, in my opinion, are the best silent panels you’ll ever find in webcomics. Sometimes they deal with one of the greatest pleasures of cycling: slowing down and enjoying the scenery that you’d miss if you were just whizzing by at 60 mpg. Sometimes the silent panels take a sad, somber tone, like when Yehuda and Joe take their yearly Ride of Silence to remember the departed Fred Banks.
Qualms about the preachiness aside, I’m going to give Yehuda Moon my highest rating. In the end, Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery is a delightful comic that can, at the same time, be incredibly educational. Have you ever ridden a bike in your life? Then you’re sure to like this comic. Like a well-built Van Sweringen, the craftsmanship of this comic is top notch. The art is consistently enjoyable. The characters are well developed, and the premise is pretty darned original. Webcomics were supposed to open the door for all sorts of crazy, unique comic ideas, right? Well, you’d be hard pressed to find any other comic out there set in a bike shop.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)