One popular image of the internet is of a wonderful utopia, allowing creators worldwide to share their genius without “The Establishment” holding them back. The only problem is that most people aren’t geniuses, and huge sections of that “Establishment” are filters designed to protect the innocent public from a never-ending torrent of terrible music, garbage writing and – worst of all – comics so bad they’d make Marvel back off and re-launch as a house painting firm.
While some simple rules can help you avoid the worst of the filth (e.g. “If it’s a gaming comic not called Penny Arcade then it sucks”), finding the few nuggets of gold can be hard work. Which is why we’ve done it for you, sifting some high-quality but lesser-known strips out for you. You’re welcome.
1. Basic Instructions
Basic Instructions, a weekly humor strip, has two things most web “comics” don’t have. One: An actual comic – author Scott Meyer spent several years as a professional comedian before turning his hand to webcomickry, meaning he has actual knowledge of “comic timing” and “being funny” that most hopeful-humorists lack. Two: a valid excuse to use copy and paste, the cardinal sin of comic laziness. In the fake-printed-instructions style of the strip the repeated graphics are actually appropriate, and new graphics are drawn when needed.
There’s a clear feeling that Scott actually cares about the audience – since he used to work in a field where they could physically attack him that’s unsurprising – and with recent extensions into newspapers and a book in the works, it seems the audience cares back.
2. Dr McNinja
Dr McNinja achieves the impossible and makes internet memes funny. He doesn’t make them funny because they’re memes – he makes them funny despite being memes, with an incredible internet alchemical ingredient known as “great writing”. Most “jokes” based on pirates, zombies or ninjas are the desperate recycling of attention-starved idiots (with some honorable exceptions like Real Ultimate Power and Dinosaur Comics).
Chris Hastings and Kent Archer produce fast-paced and funny action stories containing every single one of those elements (and a few robots, lumberjacks and vampires besides) which somehow never feel less than fresh. Another strip that’s made the difficult transition to “Actually asking people to pay for it”, with two volumes available for sale: “The Adventures of Dr McNinja” and “Surgical Strike”. One volume means the makers thought people might buy it – two means those people did. You should too.
Freakangels is one of the wonderful and diseased brainchildren of Warren Ellis, comic writer extraordinaire. Some comic shops have sections devoted entirely to him, he produces umpty-billion actual-for-sale comics for Marvel, Avatar and others – and he decided to do one completely for free online. Because he could. A post-apocalyptic tale with steampunk elements and the well developed characters that populate all Ellis’s stories, rendered in rich, full-color art by Paul Duffield.
Sidestepping the usual “one page per whatever” web schedule that destroys dramatic tension (or leads to a cliffhanger every four panels), they upload an episode of six pages every Friday. This is a free comic by master professionals who could have charged for it if they wanted, but they decided not to. You should decide to read it.
4. Diesel Sweeties
There is talk that author Richard Stevens is not of our Earth, but has been sent back in time from a hyper-productive future to embarrass the hell out of the lazy “When I feel like it” crowd. Since starting pixel-art humor strip Diesel Sweeties in 2000, he has never decided “I’m playing Grand Theft Auto instead”, never run a “Dead Pixels Day” of filler, and as well as maintaining a rich cast of characters and comics over two leap years has tripled his output over that time.
As well as expanding into newspapers (the real acid test of any newly popular comic strip), books, t-shirts and even socks. The trademark aspects of Diesel Sweeties, fantastic punchlines and the lost art of punning, translate well to almost anything that can be written on.
5. Witch Doctor
Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner. Finally, two aspiring creators who understand how the web should be used to break into an industry. Witch Doctor, a medical horror comic, is clearly designed with the goal of being picked up and printed by a publisher. But rather than running around with cards clutched to their chest and demanding “IF we get a deal THEN we’ll do some actual work”, Messrs Seifert and Ketner thought “Well, how can we prove we can produce a full high quality comic?”
Simple. By making an full, high quality comic. And releasing it entirely online, for free, in a single great big burst – instead of holding the readers hostage for more pageviews, trickling out bits and pieces over a period of months, they wrapped it all up in one big ball of awesome and said “Here! Enjoy!” I did.
With classic high-detail black & white art (reminiscent of the good old days of 2000 AD) and a story combining characters, action, imaginative ideas and a very undignified use for the Holy Grail it’s a terrific read. It’s clear right from the get-go that there’s more here than is written on the pages. These guys aren’t scraping the barrels of their brains trying to fill up an issue; there’s obviously an entire imagined world hovering just behind the page, evolving all the time, and hopefully we’ll get to see more. Go enjoy your first incision.