My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
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 10 February 2011.
I’ve only ever attended two comic conventions in my life, both in the last year, both times to meet webcartoonists whose work I was particularly interested in: Phoenix Comicon, because it was right up the street and Randall Milholland was there, and then I treated myself to a trip to North Carolina for HeroesCon, where the “indie island” had a huge group of amazing webcartoonists: Kate Beaton, Meredith Gran, Brad Guigar, Chris Hastings, David Maliki, Erika Moen, R. Stevens, and Danielle Corsetto, to name just a few that I’d read. There were, of course, many more talented artists I’d never heard of, and in trying to look at every one of their tables I learned a lot about the typical “con interaction,” which as the convention progressed became (for me) increasingly fraught with social and psychological baggage.
Most of this is possibly worth going into detail about later, and generally involved my irrational tendency to feel pressured to buy as much as possible from as many people as possible, nay, to go irreparably into debt if it would just allow these great people to keep drawing these funny pictures, but for the most part, when I approached a table bearing the work of an unfamiliar comic, I would simply ask the person manning the desk: “So, what’s your comic about?” A simple, easy-to-answer question, one that my Brad Guigar-signed copy of How to Make Webcomics said every con-going artist should have an immediate and interesting answer for, something I knew I could listen to with pleasure before I realized that I had nothing more to say besides “oh, cool,” and oh my god I can’t register the prices for all this merchandise that’s out on the table but the artist is already checking my face to gauge my interests and if I ask for a price he’ll try to sell me on it and if I say no thanks he might press me or think I’m wasting his time and isn’t there anything I can ask him about his comic and oh my god what is it about? I completely forgot and now I’ve been sitting here silent way too long so now i need to buy something maybe a poster where are the posters but wait i was planning on getting some shot glasses from the octopus pie table and maliki had some cool bumper stickers i was going to look at later and i don’t know if i can afford RUN HE’S DISTRACTED RUN.
Basically, I didn’t make too many lifelong friends at HeroesCon, and the whole thing poked some sore spots about the way my consciousness relates to the idea of commerce and economics- I spent one panel asking a group of webcartoonists how they managed business and friendship, incredulous that they could hang out with each other without thinking about how they were all competing for the finite amount of consumer dollars that were going to pass by their tables, and how well they did at getting as many of those dollars as possible basically determined their comic’s financial viability. Fun fact: I was working as a banker at the time. I definitely needed that vacation.
Still, it was a fun trip, and looking back, my biggest regret (other than spending an entire escalator ride standing directly behind Kate Beaton and pretending I didn’t know her) (oh and hovering around the webcomic tables for so long each day that I probably came off as a creepy stalker type)(okay, really just anything that involved trying to talk to people) was that I hadn’t asked the webcartoonists I knew what their comic was “about.” While it may have thrown off the mechanics of the conversation a bit, it would have been really interesting to see how each webcartoonist chose to define their comic, especially in relationship to the ones around them (Gran, Moen, Stevens, and Corsetto were all next to each other, and I don’t think they could have all gotten away with “a comic about post-college 20-somethings”). I’d come to see each one of their comics in a particular way, and seeing how their views of their comic matched up with my own would have been interesting.
Plus, I would have learned what Danielle Corsetto thought Girls With Slingshots! was about, because I honestly have no idea. Granted, this isn’t as big a deal as some people think. A comic can be well-drawn, well-executed, just all around satisfying, and still lack a central idea. And besides, there was originally a premise to Girls With Slingshots! (I will type you out, hateful little exclamation mark, yea even unto the end of time, when you are cast into the lake of fire with Shorpacked! and other horrible webcomic titles. Yes, this applies to webcomic creators- Maliki!, this is your chance to repent). Sorry. Where was I? Oh yes- Girls With Slingshots! was about two broke 20-something women who lacked intimate companionship and were perpetually underpaid, and took comfort in the small things in life. Namely, alcoholic drinks and sex toys. Well, the reasonably-sized yet fairly cheap things in life, at any rate. Jaime was more cheerful and well-adjusted, but had intimacy problems; Hazel had no problems with one-night stands, but it masked a deep need for love and a tendency to idealize impossible situations. They were a classic yin-and-yang couple, complementing each others’ strengths and compensating for each others’ weaknesses and obsessions. The best part was how believable it all was, talking cacti notwithstanding- we’ve all known friends like this before, perhaps been part of such a friendship, if we were lucky- and the small-town monotony of the strip’s early days had a sketchy but lived-in mythology that was charming: the nights boozing in shithole bars with nothing better to do, the brief euphoria of an escape to the city before realizing how damn expensive the city was, the thousand petty inconveniences of absentee roommates, boring dates, and rent troubles that B.A. graduates are heir to, it all felt authentic, even though it was a comic strip.
So I suppose I shouldn’t be disappointed with Corsetto realizing it’s a comic strip, and crazy shit can happen. And for the most part, I’m not. The talking cactus came in fairly early, after all- this isn’t Ghost World, and I wouldn’t like it as much if it was. It probably shares the most genetic material with Something Positive. This isn’t surprising considering Corsetto and Milholland’s friendship, which is one of the most delightful reasons to subscribe to both artists’ twitter feeds. S*P started out with a similarly limited premise- in that case, it basically boiled down to “God hates Davan, Davan hates the universe”- and managed to generate huge laughs out of angry people and miserable situations, before deepening its characters and expanding its range until it dealt with general weirdness as much as, if not more than, the pitch-black misanthropy that had been the comic’s cold beating heart. As the characters became more well-rounded and developed, the universe’s world opened up, but some of the initial intensity of those first strips are gone, and the comic tends to meander down storylines that seem somewhat self-indulgent. I don’t think, for example, that I ever needed to get to know the individuals behind the Teddy Bear Liberation Front as anything more than an occasional moment of craziness- especially when their dynamic seems to be the same “love-struck girl, clueless guy” dynamic of every bad high-school movie ever- but now I’m getting away from Corsetto’s comic again.
Basically, Corsetto is driving hard for Milholland territory- what was a strip about two girls trying to make rent, find love, and get drunk as often as possible (geez, written that way it sounds kind of like a realistic Apartment 3-G), and, talking cactus aside, it succeeded in generating humor and pathos in disproportionate measure to its scanty working materials. Even the cactus thing seemed realistic in depicting the way that a young single person living alone can become emotionally attached to his inanimate objects. But recently, the comic seems to be embracing weirdness for weirdness’s sake, or pairing off all the characters like a sitcom in its last few seasons. Conflicts seem minor and muted, Corsetto seems unwilling to have any of her characters be in the wrong for long (I could call this the Jeph Jacques syndrome, but I’m not getting dragged into another comic analogy). And again, this isn’t always a problem- remember how I basically went to Phoenix to tell Randy Milholland he was awesome? Most strips expand their cast and range as they go along; Dilbert is the only example I can think of where a comic becomes more focused over time.
Of course, before he began expanding Something Positive, Milholland made sure he had a complex and sympathetic cast. The problem with Girls With Slingshots! in this regard is that Hazel remains the only character I can give much of a crap about. Zach probably sleeps in a cardboard box full of packing foam with “PERFECT BOYFRIEND- 2007 MODEL stamped on the side, Claire remains the virtual nonentity that she started the strip as, Chris and Melody are simply biding time before they find twue wuv, Jameson and Maureen already have, and Jaime’s few remaining flaws were buffed away when she wandered out of the closet (is there a major current webcomic with a seriously flawed gay character?). While I can appreciate this as part of the yin/yang dynamic with Hazel- life shits on Hazel and sprouts flowers for Jaime (probably because, if it weren’t already obvious, life is a huge fan of boobs)- it doesn’t make me feel any more invested in her hopes and dreams, if only because I feel like they’re well-provided-for. Thea’s been a bit of a breakout character, and remains one of the few that still manage to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders every once in a while. Of course, now she’s got a job handling wieners (which is funny ’cause she’s a lesbian, get it? HA!) at a roller-derby rink (again, lesbian- HA!), so it’s safe to say that the strip’s wackiness has all but engulfed the character.
Since I came up with the controlling idea in this essay, I should mention that Girls With Slingshots! appears to be getting back to the things that made the comic interesting to read in the first place. Hazel is moving in with her mom, and while I usually try to pick a leading graphic that has something to do with my thesis, I picked the above panel simply because I liked it so darn much. And really, even if Hazel wins the lottery or trips over the corpse of a dead millionaire and finds his checkbook within a few strips, Girls With Slingshots is still a worthy read. Corsetto is one of the best pure cartoonists on the web, and, if nothing else, her strip will always be a valuable mine of dildo jokes.