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Diana Goes Digital #5: You Spin Me Right Round

Brian Hibbs

Sorry for the hold-up, but I’ve been locked in a cosmic battle between good and evil for the past few weeks (I’ll let you guys decide which side I was on). No quarter was asked, none was given, and mark my words, I will get Vista off my computer. If I made it through Rob Liefeld’s heyday without having my eyes poked out by Cable’s pointy feet, I can beat my husband’s fascination with transparent windows…

Anyway, I thought we’d take a look at spin-offs today. It’s hardly a foreign concept in the biz: every X-MEN eventually begets a NEW MUTANTS (though, like Pringles and Lolcats, it rarely stops with just one). When they’re done properly, spin-offs are a welcome extension/continuation of a great story – of course, that concept is problematized in a mainstream where most stories never actually end (case in point: you have to wonder what would’ve happened if NEW MUTANTS had supplanted X-MEN rather than supplimented it).

But webcomics can be – and often are – finite, which leaves the door open for the question Peter Milligan put best in ENIGMA: “And then what?”

Aeire’s QUEEN OF WANDS was an early favorite of mine; I discovered it during its second crossover with SOMETHING POSITIVE in 2004. It was an easy jump to make; QUEEN OF WANDS had a similar tone in its heavily-cynical approach to geek culture, and if Aeire wasn’t as vicious as R.K. Milholland, the guest appearances by Charles Darwin and the Grammar Nazi still amused. QUEEN OF WANDS also had a much smaller cast, allowing Aeire to create a consistent focus on her protagonist, Kestrel, and the people around her.

My memories of QUEEN OF WANDS are mostly GOOD: the art was eccentric, but enjoyable, with marked improvement over the years. And if Aeire had an occasional tendency to overdo the flashbacks within flashbacks and the melodrama, she balanced it out with plenty of light-hearted moments. But what I remember most about QUEEN OF WANDS is the way it ended – in a medium where stories can just stop cold when the writer loses interest, it was a real treat to see Kestrel’s journey of maturation and self-discovery come to a kind of natural conclusion. And the day after QUEEN OF WANDS ended, Kestrel appeared in SOMETHING POSITIVE, where she became a recurring character in typical Milholland fashion. And that’s a sort of spin-off there, because Kestrel’s story goes on after the last panel of QUEEN OF WANDS, even if she’s now in the hands of another writer.

Two years later (an eternity in net-time), Aeire teamed up with Chris Daily to produce PUNCH AN’ PIE, a QUEEN OF WANDS spin-off featuring the hyperactive, childlike Angela in the lead role. It’s a very different webcomic, not just artistically but also in terms of the story, and to be totally honest, it hasn’t quite clicked for me. I realize that rehashing QUEEN OF WANDS would’ve been completely derivative, but at the same time, PUNCH AN’ PIE takes a long, long time to start “moving” (as opposed to that oh-so-fitting first page of QUEEN OF WANDS, which pretty much sets the tone for the entire series), and six months in, I just wasn’t feeling the same kind of energy that had made QUEEN OF WANDS so enjoyable. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments, but… well, part of the problem might be that I never really liked Angela to begin with, and that’s crucial when it comes to spin-offs: it’s the same reason why, despite my deep appreciation of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, its sister show ANGEL never held my interest for more than a few episodes at a time – I wasn’t fond of Angel (to say the least), so the prospect of an Angel-centric series had me about as thrilled as a diabetic trapped in Willy Wonka’s factory. And that’s likely why PUNCH AN’ PIE just didn’t rate beyond OKAY for me.

Having sung the praises of Shaenon Garrity’s NARBONIC, it should come as no surprise that I’m recommending LI’L MELL AND SERGIO, a spin-off featuring the irrepressible Mell Kelly in first grade, with brainy nerd Sergio replacing Dave Davenport in the “straight man” role. I don’t know why it surprised me to see how perfectly Garrity captured the essence of Mell’s character – she did create her, after all – but it’s as funny and unpredictable as its parent series. Unlike the QUEEN OF WANDS/PUNCH AN’ PIE schism, LI’L MELL AND SERGIO does feel like an extension of NARBONIC in some capacity, and it’s especially fitting that Mell is the star, given how perfectly the story of Helen and Dave ended.

Let’s move on to the works of K. Sandra Fuhr, an interesting case study in how the malleable nature of webcomics can work to one’s advantage. Fuhr’s first comic was UTOPIA, a sci-fi comedy which featured, among other characters, a trio of vampires: Mikhael, Harley and Tybalt. They were eventually spun off into their own series, THIS IS HOME, by all accounts the biggest maelstrom of teen angst, rape, murder and melodrama since Laurell K. Hamilton. And when that didn’t work, Fuhr took her lead characters, stripped away the pseudo-Gothic trappings, and BOY MEETS BOY was born.

Then she deleted UTOPIA and THIS IS HOME. Poof, not a trace of it left anywhere online. And believe me, I’ve looked.

The reason I find this so interesting is because you don’t have that kind of total dissolution in mainstream comics: even the most massive reboot I know of, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, was never able to completely excise everything that had come before it. That pre-history may not have been in continuity anymore, but it still existed, people still talked about it and – most importantly – they could still access pre-Crisis material on a regular basis. Eventually, DC had no choice but to acknowledge pre-Crisis history again. But with webcomics, you push a button, and as far as the average reader is concerned, the comic never existed. Fuhr was essentially able to retcon her own bibliography. And if traits belonging to earlier versions of the characters bled through… well, how would you know?

Getting back to the actual comics for a bit: BOY MEETS BOY is pretty much your textbook yaoi manga, with an added dose of pop culture that, unfortunately, has become a touch dated by now. The premise can pretty much be summed up in a single page. Still, it’s cute enough that I appreciate it on its own terms: for example, you have the gag and its requisite counter-gag, various breakings of the fourth wall and so on. GOOD stuff, all the moreso for being unpredictable with its storylines: you may think you know where the story’s headed, but there’s usually a twist just around the corner.

A year into the series, Fuhr imported Fox and Collin, formerly of UTOPIA, into the story. Introduced as college misfits and nemeses to Harley and Mikhael, they ended up becoming rather dominant characters, to the point where entire storylines revolved around them. I don’t think it came as any surprise to Fuhr’s readers that when BOY MEETS BOY ended, Fox and Collin were spun off into their own series, FRIENDLY HOSTILITY, which kicked off with a storyline that fleshed out the wacky Maharassa clan.

I should note that both Fuhr’s writing and her artwork undergo a massive evolution as time goes on: if BOY MEETS BOY has some awkward aspects and the art can generously be described as rough and inconsistent, FRIENDLY HOSTILITY hits the ground running with smoother artwork, stronger dialogue, and less of a reliance on the histrionics native to the yaoi genre. In fact, I’d argue that FRIENDLY HOSTILITY leaves yaoi and its conventions behind altogether: it’s much more realistic (the occasional demonic cameo aside), more in the vein of a romantic comedy than the out-and-out chaos of its predecessor. It’s only right that FRIENDLY HOSTILITY be graded VERY GOOD, in recognition of the author’s vast improvement over a relatively short amount of time.

And finally, technical notes:

* QUEEN OF WANDS ran from July of 2002 to February of 2005, followed by a “rerun” of the series from March of 2005 to November of 2006 with commentary by Aeire. Full color. The series archive has a “Storyline” option but it only goes up to 2004; you’re on your own after that.

* PUNCH AN’ PIE is ongoing, in black and white. The series started at the end of February 2007, and updates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Unfortunately, the archives are woefully out-of-date, making navigation a real challenge.

* LI’L MELL AND SERGIO is ongoing, in black and white. Girlamatic used to charge subscription fees to read the series, but it’s now free of charge. It updates on a weekly basis, featuring multiple artists.

* BOY MEETS BOY ran from September 2000 to January 2004, in black and white. The very last page featured Fox and Collin inviting the readers to check out FRIENDLY HOSTILITY…

* … which is ongoing, in black and white; the “Problematic” storyline began concurrently with the end of BOY MEETS BOY, while the series proper started in August of 2004.

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