A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: Octopus Pie and the New(w) Wave of Webcartoonists

Because this website is going to act as a comprehensive repository of all my internet writing, I’m transferring over my old work from previous blogs.  This post was originally published on 21 December 2010.

My previous entry made the assertion that a primary source of drama among the webcomics “old guard” was over a proper business model:  do you sell your strips, or give them away as a way of attracting merchandise sales?  But the struggle was often framed in terms of art vs. commerce, and not the way you’d necessarily expect:  People who identified as “artists” were often the ones to sell their strips, whereas the “commerce” crowd gave their strips away for free.

The roots of this seeming contradiction can be found in Bill Watterson’s longstanding battle to prevent Calvin and Hobbes from being merchandised, a battle he made public in the introductory essays to the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, and laid out the case against licensing his characters:  Licensing diluted the original product, it was contrary to the spirit of his strip, it constituted putting his artistic principles up for sale.  And the people in webcomics who charged money to view their strips generally agreed with this perspective:  comics were art, and merchandising art compromises its integrity.  For proof they gestured toward webcomics like Penny Arcade, PvP, and Ctrl-Alt-Del, webcomics that were financially successful but tended to traffic in excess profanity, violence, videogame references, and sophomoric humor (curiously, all these comics remain fairly prudish when depicting sex to this day).  These webcomics’ commercial incentives, went the argument, caused their creators to pander to an immature, mouth-breathing demographic, and lose any potential for art in the process.  For their part, the “videogame cartoonists” were equally suspicious of the “artists,” who to them seemed to pride obscurity and pretentiousness over any attempt to connect with readers or tell compelling stories.  The videogamers wanted webcomics to become Peanuts, the artsy-fartsies wanted them to become Krazy Kat.

The great innovation of the artists that have succeeded the old guard- an innovation, I would argue, that rose directly from this debate over commercialization- has been their ability to fuse art and commerce, to write strips that are deeply personal and highly allusive and unquestionably artistic, while managing to appeal to a wide audience and sell it a ton of great merchandise.  The quintessential example of this new wave of webcartoonists is Meredith Gran, whose Octopus Pie is perhaps the best example of a comic that fulfills artistic and commercial prerogatives.

Of course, Gran is not new to the webcomics scene- she’s produced two other webcomics that Comixpedia knows of, both done when she was a teenager.  But Octopus Pie is obviously the result of a lot of thought and planning on Gran’s part- she was hardworking enough to learn many of the secrets and pitfalls of webcomics her first time around, and came out firing on all cylinders.  Right from the beginning she had a clean and polished visual style, and writing that could deliver multiple punchlines per comic, some of which take several read-throughs to find, some of which only made sense once the storyline was completed.  Most importantly for a new webcomic, the update schedule was rock-solid.

It took a little while for me to get into Octopus Pie, mostly because every time I heard it praised by another webcartoonist, they would inevitably talk about the art.  And the early art style is good, easily the best thing I’ve ever seen produced with the help of Manga Studio, and more impressively, original- I’ve heard people say it looks like anything from Tex Avery to Bryan Lee O’ Malley, but it is much more its own style than any possible influences.  But “good art” in the mouths of webcartoonists often means “underdeveloped/bad writing,” and the first storyline doesn’t go out of its way to prove otherwise.  Like most of the writing in Octopus Pie, for better or worse, it improves upon repeat viewing.

Sure, now I can see how deadly consistent the characters were from the outset, which makes the smaller details in this strip, for example Eve’s comment about her mother and her lack of punctuation when she says “where are you,” much funnier on repeat viewing.  But the first time through, the storyline felt… I dunno.  Weirdly passive-aggressive, I guess.  It just didn’t hit.  None of these characters seemed like much fun, and the juxtaposition between the cartoony style and the miserablist storyline was more off-putting than genuinely funny.  I decided not to add it to my regular reading list.  Of course, if I’d known that in eight more strips Eve Ning would be electrocuting a sweet old lady in a storyline that commented on prohibitive DRM laws, post-9/11 security paranoia, and the familiar feeling of helplessness that comes when someone takes your shit, I’d have stayed on.  Heck, “Bring the Stiiiiick!” would’ve been enough to hook me.  So the lesson here is maybe more applicable to my reading habits than Gran’s decision to introduce her comic’s world in a misanthropic, negative light.

And in looking up these strips so I can link to them, I just noticed another small joke in “Bring the Stiiiick!” that I’d never noticed before- the way the phone’s ring, which gets cut off at “RIIIII,” is completed when Ollie yells “Ning?!” into the phone.  Like I said, this stuff improves over time.

That aside actually provides a decent segue to my main point, which is that Octopus Pie is criminally undervalued in the writing department.  Yes, Gran draws the greatest facial expressions of anyone in comics, web or otherwise.  Her art has not only survived three changes in medium, but improved noticeably with each change, and her talents for composition and tone balance are professional quality.  But the art stands out so much that most people seem not to realize how much time she must put into scripts to get each one so densely layered.  Take the bike story again:  Eve’s remark that she’s “welding freedom” comes back with the last comic in the storyline, and both work within the contexts of the individual comics in which they appear, as well.  Practically every storyline in the archives has this level of depth, from two conversations about jealousy that end up outlining the whole storyline, to some Medieval allusions that sneak up on you and provoke a huge laugh when you figure them out.  The characters are consistent enough to change realistically, and to refuse to change just as realistically:  The current storyline suggests that Hannah still has a tendency to control her friends, something that was suggested by the last panel of another storyline where that trait came up.

In fact, Hannah’s need to control her friends was one of the driving forces of her early relationship with Eve, and as Eve’s gotten her life together, it’s been harder for Hannah to exert that control, and the current storyline seems to be showing that Hannah can’t deal with her friends growing out of the need for that control.  Or that she thinks she’s doing the right thing by not letting them… but never mind.  The fact that these connections can be drawn, and these characters’ motivations debated to this level, is evidence enough of her storytelling abilities.  And lest I make this too egghead-y, I should mention that each of her individual storylines works on a one-level basis, as well- you can miss the references and recurrent tropes and in-jokes, and the comic is still worth your while.

Curiously, Gran seems to have let the general critical ignorance of her writing abilities cause her to reevaluate their importance, at least for a little while.  Her decision at the beginning of 2010 to forgo regular updates for a schedule where the storyline is posted when it’s complete was a disaster, and not just because she updated much less frequently.  Octopus Pie works well in long form, but each individual comic is dense enough to merit at least 2 days of re-reading, and the when-it’s-done update schedule led to large chunks of strips being posted that readers would fly through, and near the end of the experiment her stories began to reflect that- “Couch Sitter,” in particular, is an insubstantial affair.  After the gaps between updates continued to widen, Gran went back to a regular update schedule, and the comics gained back their original density, but there are more hiccups than before.  Sure, she makes up for it with 1.5-page comics, but I’d rather have the comic on time.  Also, how are those 1.5-page pieces going to fit into a book?

This may seem like nitpicking, but it’s an important question.  Octopus Pie has stood out commercially as well as artistically, and the shared detail between the two is Gran’s commitment to quality control.  Before her Random House-published collection There Are No Stars In Brooklyn set the bar for quality of printed webcomic collections, her self-published books were nearly as impressive.  She hasn’t been afraid to innovate, selling branded glassware and stickers along with the more conventional T-shirts and books, and again the quality of these products is unimpeachable.  I don’t see that changing with the T-shirts (Topatoco is a famously reliable service), but the future of her books raises questions.  Random House just dropped Gran after There Are No Stars In Brooklyn didn’t meet sales expectations, which likely means a move to a small press, and it’ll be interesting to see whether or not they can meet Random House’s levels of professionalism.

Despite this temporary setback, I’m confident Gran will remain in the top echelon of webcartoonists for a long time to come.  She got in on the ground floor as a teenager, and rather than plant herself there, she took notes on what could be improved, then moved upstairs.  Today her comic exemplifies everything that the new wave of artists- the ones who were inspired by reading Penny Arcade, Pvp, and Goats- got right.  And as the driving force behind New England Webcomics Weekend, the first comics convention based solely around webcomics, she’s taking an active role in shaping the next generation of webcartoonists, the ones that were inspired by reading her and her peers.  But when that next generation comes to prominence, don’t think that she’ll stay behind.

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This entry was posted on 21 December 2010 by in The Glowing Screen and tagged .
December 2010

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