What’s in an Indie Web Comic? Looking at “Dino Fight UK” on TripCity.net.

I am by no means a connoisseur of indie comix, much less web comix. In fact, I’m just starting out on that road of self-education in the famously off-beat or obscurely personal world that contains much more variety than non comix readers would ever know. I mean, it’s like saying that everyone from a given planet looks and acts the same to say “indie comix” and mean a certain combination of traits. And yet, it’s not entirely inept to say that there’s such a thing as earthlings and there are underlying principles that link us together. Then add to that the web element and the experimentation and choices necessary to create in that medium.

My only real previous experience of web comix is Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s Freakangels (from Avatar Press), which I became obsessed with right away for its chilly pastel hues and manga lite dystopia look, not to mention the creepy family dynamics of this group of alien-magic young people who have the power to create and destroy worlds. I read it in large rectangular frames that filled the screen and ended up tilting my laptop this way and that. My final adaptation was to lie down and hold the computer over me at what felt like the right distance. It was absurd, but I didn’t even notice, I was so engrossed.

 

There are scholars out there, and avid fans who have already critiqued the formal qualities of indie comix, and of web comics. There are debates among professionals about how to use the digital format, ongoing and essential. But there is a decisive need, equally essential, to JUST DO IT.

Do we need to know how to do it, to do it? Somewhat, but not really. You learn by doing. That’s always been true of the arts. It’s true of writing. It’s true of painting. It’s true of many of the crafts that have now become sophisticated enough to have textbooks and college degrees on offer. Let’s assume we are not going to wait around until there are degrees in indie web comix to make them (and would they even classify as “indie” at that point?)

There are what feel like a billion examples I could talk about to illustrate this point, but I’ll use the one that gave me the idea to talk about this for a moment, one that was staring me in the face when I woke up this morning. It was entitled “Dino Fight UK”. I had never encountered something that might or might not be a genre called “Dino Fight” but the UK appendage told me that this was probably produced by the band and comix combination Americans UK fronted by Jeffrey Burandt, aka Jeff UK. I had read a couple of his comix before, but to be honest, his writing is so versatile (a defining feature) when it comes to comix and his collaborators are pretty varied so I couldn’t be completely sure what this comic would be like. The accompanying essay discussion along with the short comic helped fill in the blanks for me, that this was an “untold tale” that harmonized with the wider story arcs of the series produced by Americans UK wherein band members journey through time to try to save some other, murdered band members. In this installment, they find themselves in the prehistoric era.

So I had author information, the position of this particular comic in its own comic universe, and some of the goals and past work of both the writer Jeff UK and the artist ZeeS. My first impression was that it was not that common to be given so much supporting information along with an indie comic. A friend had recently sent me an issue of Art Babe by Jessica Abel and an issue of Fight Girl Comics by Trina Robbins. I had heard of both comics and even heard people discuss them, but hadn’t read either yet. Looking inside the cover of Art Babe, I saw that Jessica did include a rather substantial essay about her work and life along with photos of herself with friends. Looking at Fight Girl, I didn’t see the same kind of information, but the comic closes with a semi-autobio piece about Trina’s life “speaking” to the reader. This is enough to suggest to me that there is a trait in indie comix to provide some explanatory commentary with comics. The unique thing about web comix is that the format allows for additional commentary to remain present on a hosting page while readers scroll or click through panels. To me, this allows the reader to glance back at information rather than flip pages, and might even create new visual dialogues. When I was reading “Dino Fight UK”, I did glance back at the essay twice, not because I really needed to, but because it occurred to me to do so. The parts I looked at were the author’s description of the plot and appearance of characters.

 

There were also visual aspects to the art work on “Dino Fight UK” that I would have associated with indie comix, even if I had seen it in print. You’ll notice the intentional use of uneven lines, reminiscent of flowing calligraphic brush-work that creates panel borders. The lines are rich and high-quality, but have that nod to the hand-produced, maybe even photocopied tendencies of indie comix in the 80’s and 90’s. In the same opening panel, the font reminds you of a 12-bit video game, another low-tech feature intentionally placed and designed to give the impression of the home-grown, not the super-graphic design of major comics companies. I’ll go further to suggest that the style of the comic art in “Dino Fight UK” is both remarkably controlled and remarkably energetic. The tension between the two features gives me an indie comix feel while reminding me that the artist is, in fact, highly skilled in the comics medium, unlike some of the artists who start off producing indie comix.

 Of course, some indie comix artists are virtuosos of their own particular style (and variety of styles is a selling point) but many also foster a naïve style and encourage a “messy” look. Zees’ work is not truly messy, but it’s warm and inviting because it has those little accents of low-tech, and particularly hand-drawn art. It’s use of thick dark lines, as if drawn by a seeping felt-tip, and blocks of color remind you of holding thick markers as a kid drawing, and shading in, as neatly as possible, coloring book characters.

The first action panel is perhaps my favorite in the short work. It’s a wide range of lavender tones interrupted by the lush lines of our characters in flight. Black spatters of ink seem to radiate outward while the sound effect “VOIP!” is nearer to the reader than the panel itself seems, and also strange enough to remind you that this is a highly idiosyncratic work. ZeeS uses position in relationship to the reader to good effect, following into the second panel where one character is posed nearer, then a second, then, behind them, a watching attacker. The reader is drawn into the panel in a visual zig-zag. The choices of color palette for each panel is gutsy, definitely conveying mood. The attack of the said “Dino” leaps out in yellow, bold greens, pinks, and sharply edges outlines. The two panels reflecting the violent attack and response are both “close-up” bringing the action to the reader with almost an “over the shoulder” vantage like a video game. The fight immediately subsides into a more mellow composition where the reader “views” from the vantage of the characters their acquaintance Time Bum. The final panel uses depth “layering” again with some clever jokes. Near the reader’s level, a character scrawls “ApeMan” on a rock (and I think this is a reference to an Americans UK single release) and a dinosaur foot indicates a drumstick for feasting while beyond, the other characters chow down. It’s maybe the opposite, in terms of action intensity, of the introducing action panel. It’s a story resolved, a short, complete episode.

The restrictions on writing faced on a comic like this include keeping the plot to a single unit understandable for those who might not have read more Americans UK (and I haven’t yet read that much), and also making the story active and entertaining on two levels: as part of the Americans UK canon, and as part of a comix “unit of entertainment”. Simplicity accomplishes both. The story of the comic could be told in a couple of sentences, but that wouldn’t be a comic, much less an indie web comic. In this medium and situation, the creators can take full advantage of the single frame presentation at Trip City.net. This literally forces at least an extra half-second before the reader can “click” to the next panel. Like an independently framed painting, it better be good or the faults will become obvious. But these panels are not only good, they are rich enough and satisfying enough to make you pause. You will not be clicking quickly through this comic. To make these panels fly, though, the text use must be simple and the panel’s story must “tell itself” to the reader easily. Overcrowded panels would be difficult to pull off in this format. While ZeeS could have chosen to fill each “page” with more than one panel, a viable option, he instead presents these resonant large panels and take the risks with the graces offered.

If we use “Dino Fight UK” as an example of an indie web comic being produced privately by an artist and a writer with their own particular vision to present, we might deduce that an indie web comic needs 1) an unconventional style that may carry traces of the low-tech or hand-created, 2) a strategy for dealing with the emphasis and time-flow inherent in digital viewing, 3) a strong sense of the interaction between text and image that forms almost a visual dialogue between the two parts of production, maybe due to “true” collaboration (or in some cases, a single author-artist’s creation). An indie comic “feels” different from a mainstream comic. We know that. Does an indie web comic “feel” different than an indie print comic? Yes, it does. It operates in a different kingdom with different rules, but it’s a welcoming country with a great deal to offer. It will be exciting to see how indie web comix like “Dino Fight UK” develop and expand to maximize their potential over time. Right now experimentation, as we see here, is the key. With faith in experiment, creators can JUST DO IT without worrying about proscriptive, tried and true methods. There’s something very exciting about that.

“Dino Fight UK”, the accompanying essay, and links to author and artist info can be found here:http://welcometotripcity.com/2012/06/dino-fight-uk/

–I am Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on Facebook and Twitter

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