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Words and Pictures: Free Comics! Abominable Charles Christopher, Lady Sabre and Valentine

I guess most folks round here have noticed that there’s been something of a digital revolution turning book publishing on its head, the last year or three.

Difficult though it might be to believe, the whole print/digital thing is, if anything, even more complicated in the world of comics than in the world of prose fiction. There’s a chaotic plethora of formats, styles, distribution models, monetization hopes and basic approaches. Sampling the variety within that plethora is what this post is all about, rather than talking in detail about the individual stories concerned.

I thought it’d be worth dipping my Words & Pictures toes into these turbulent waters for three main reasons:

  1. There’s a vaaast amount of material out there, and a lot of it is speculative fiction,
  2. Much of it’s FREE!!! So, should the fancy take you, you can pop over right now and read the entirety of whatever it is I’m going to talk about (with a bit of a catch in one case), and…
  3. I actually don’t read all that many webcomics, though I’ve sampled a lot, so this is a chance for others to offer their own recommendations, which would be very gratefully received in the comments if anyone’s got any.

On with the (Free! Did I mention that already?) show.

by Karl Kerschl

I know you’re supposed to save the best until last, but… The Abominable Charles Christopher (ACC) is probably my favourite webcomic.

One of the most obvious approaches to comics on the web is to replicate the kind of comic strips that used to appear in everybody’s newspapers. ACC illustrates how creators have taken that model and spun it out into something pretty elaborate.

ACC is a conflation of funny animal gag strip and long-form fantasy; it’s a comedy, a drama and – now and again – a tragedy. A meandering central quest narrative, featuring the titular character (a mute yet astonishingly eloquent sasquatch/yeti-type fellow), is interwoven with stand-alone jokes, running gags and sub-plots involving a huge and very engaging cast of woodland animals.

What distinguishes ACC, for me, is the sheer quality of Karl Kerschl’s art (which I uncritically adore), and the skill with which he balances gags – mostly quite funny – with much more serious content. The pacing and rhythm of individual episodes – the three to six or so panels that appear in each weekly instalment – are quite brilliant at times. The ‘creative unit’ is that single instalment. A segment of story might continue over several of them, but that one small set of panels is still carefully constructed to have its own set-up, development and pay-off. If I, as a novelist, was as meticulous and successful in constructing my scenes as Kerschl is with his super-compressed ones, I’d be a happy fellow.

Like many webcomics, you need to allow ACC the time to suck you in, but once it does…it’s lovely.

written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by Rick Burchett

This, on the other hand, is a more direct translation of the style and format of a traditional print comic to the digital screen, and as a result has a completely different ‘feel’.

The writer is one of my favourite comics writers, Greg Rucka. He’s mostly known for espionagey, gritty comics (and novels, for that matter), but Lady Sabre is full-on fantastical steampunk with cowboys, magic, airships and pirates. The main objective, as the creators cheerfully proclaim, is to deliver fun.

It’s presented as a linear narrative, with successive chunks of the tale posted to the website twice a week. The story-telling rhythm of beginning, middle and end is at the scale of the chapter, each of which comprises ten plus of those individual chunks. This makes the reading experience totally unlike that delivered by ACC, and it’s more difficult to make it work in the incremental world of webcomics. In the first chapter, you can see these skilled print comic creators wrestling with some of the peculiarities of web publication. In one case, for example, the snappy response to a set-up line of dialogue doesn’t appear until the following page; doesn’t quite work in a webcomic where the reader can only ever see a single page and may be waiting days for the next one.

Nevertheless, the story delivers the promised fun – especially the cowboy-influenced sections, for me – the art’s bright, energetic and easy on the eye, and Lady Sabre herself is an appealingly capable heroine. It’s got heaps of potential.

For a reader of prose sf/fantasy, it’s particularly interesting to note the unusual (by webcomic standards) amount of explicit world-building that’s gone into this. There’s a nice ‘Almanac’ section on the website, which hints (including with a map) at the amount of thought invested in the world of the story.

by Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen

And this is something different again. It’s made specifically for devices – tablets and smart phones – rather than for reading over the Web. As best I can tell, in order to get it for free you need to have a Comixology account (a painless process), and to download the individual issues. You can also get a modestly priced (color) Kindle version of the first collected volume, which the cover image here links to.

Story premise first: as the French army retreats from Moscow in 1812 Valentine, a cavalryman, stumbles into the midst of an ancient conflict between powerful, and not straightforwardly human, players. Pretty standard darkish fantasy, in other words, with a historical twist. It’s done well, though, and the art steadily grew on me.

What I found most interesting, and most pleasing, is the way the story’s presented to the reader. Unlike the previous two examples, it’s designed to be read a single panel at a time. I’ve had problems reading comics this way in the past (usually because they weren’t really intended to be read that way) but in Valentine it’s executed really, really well and the flow – both visual and narrative – from panel to panel is seductively smooth.

The experience is, at times, akin to seeing frames from a moody, terse film one after another, an impression enhanced by the cinematic set-pieces (I like an early scene where a hand emerges through ice to pull our comatose hero under very much) and by the skilfully economical use of dialogue. A lot of comics are marred by too much text; Valentine proves you don’t need many words to tell an atmospheric, engaging story.

So, those are three suggestions from me. I’d really like to hear any recommendations for speculative fiction webcomics the SF Signal readership can offer.

3 Comments on Words and Pictures: Free Comics! Abominable Charles Christopher, Lady Sabre and Valentine

  1. Gunnerkrigg Court
    Bad Machinery
    The Meek

  2. Thanks, Laurel.

    I’d second the Gunnerkrigg Court suggestion: it’s a good, smart, fun comic.

    I’m glad you mentioned The Meek – it’s vaguely familiar, so I’ve got a feeling I might have checked it out when it first started and then forgot about it. I’ll give it another try.

    Possibly worth pointing out, though, if anyone else is about to go searching for these things: The Meek might well be classed in some places as NSFW! You have been warned.

  3. I love Lady Sabre. Lots of fun.

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