Quarantine Binge: The wonderful world of webcomics
Perhaps you’re finding that you have watched all the TV and movies that you can and you’ve read all your books. What to do? I suggest the eminently bingeable genre of webcomics, which are pretty much just like regular comics but just posted online. For free.
Even if you generally don't read comics and graphic novels, I suggest looking through a few webcomics and seeing if you like them -- most are very different from traditional superhero comics. And, hey, this pandemic is leading a lot of people to try something new. I tried savory oatmeal because I ran out of bagels and found out that it was great, so maybe you’ll get sucked into the fantastic art and stories that these comics have to offer.
You can split webcomics into roughly two categories: daily strips and graphic novels. Certainly, there are a lot of comics that don’t fit into either category, but a lot of popular webcomics like XKCD, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Strange Planet, and Dinosaur Comics feature one-pagers frequently. These are like popcorn and you can easily spend a day or two reading the massive backlog of these comics. But the comics I’m going to feature here are mostly of the graphic novel variety. They are long stories in which each page contributes to an over-arching plot.
This is just a teeny sampling of the webcomics out there and those linked below are my personal favorites. When it comes to webcomics, there really is something for everyone and a growing diversity amongst stories and creators. Comic artists are generally very generous about promoting each others' work, so if you find an artist you like, see whose work they recommend.
Also, blanket advisory: with a few exceptions, all of these comics deal with mature themes. If you are in the (very understandable) mood for mindless fluff, this is not the list for you. But if you want to find some stories full of complex characters, adventures, ethical dilemmas, and amazing art, any comic listed here is a great place to start. If a comic sounds intriguing but you’re worried about disturbing content, you may want to do a bit of research about it first.
The link to each comic goes to the first page of the story.
Ah, the pleasure of getting to read a comic series from beginning to end without interruptions. These are my favorite comics that have finished their runs.
Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran
Genres: slice-of-life, humor, magical realism
This is probably the millennial webcomic. It is the story of Eve Ning, a Brooklynite grocery store clerk with a B.A. in creative writing, and Hanna, her stoner roommate with a pastry business named Bake n’ Bake, as they navigate the vicissitudes of adult life. Gran’s slice-of-life story is accented by humor and fantastical side-trips. Over the course of Octopus Pie, we see a group of post-college kids who are making bad choices evolve into young adults figuring out what they want to do with their lives.
Mare Internum by Der-Shing Helmer
Genres: science fiction, adventure, drama
In a not-so-distant future, scientists arrive on Mars to determine whether it is livable beneath the surface. Mike Fisher, who has until now been in charge of the mission’s mapping robot, has been fired for his erratic behavior and is about to be sent back to Earth. He goes out on one last training mission with his replacement, Bex Egunsola. But, well, let’s just say that mental instability and geological instability collide and Mike soon finds himself deep underground in an ancient Martian bunker full of synthetic organic life ... and an intelligent inhabitant who somehow already knows his name.
Camp Weedontwancha by Katie Rice and Adam Wallander
Genres: slice-of-life, coming-of-age, humor
There’s a summer camp out in the wilderness. Except that it’s not just for summer. And there are no adults or counselors whatsoever. And the kids live on supplies randomly dropped from a plane every once in a while. Yes, it’s Camp Weedontwancha, where parents abandon their unwanted children. Cute comic, heartbreaking implications. The story follows Malachi, a recent arrival who is an insufferable braggart hiding deep insecurity. He and his friends get into typical summer camp antics with a twist. As the comic proceeds, we learn more about the backstories of the children abandoned and the comic gains a lot of emotional depth.
The creators say that this comic is not finished although it has not been updated in over two years. I am putting this one in the “finished” category, however, because it ends in a satisfying place. You may beg to differ, though!
Genres: horror, fantasy, gender
Emily Carroll's work is the exception on the list because her stories are shorter in length. They stand out because they use the webcomic format so well, creating effects that would be difficult to replicate in a print book. Carroll’s online comics are short studies in horror, often centering around the lives of isolated girls and women. The creepy factor in them relies on suggestion and omission -- it’s rare that we ever get to fully see the monster or understand exactly what’s happening. (But don’t worry, there is no shortage of gore and body horror.) Carroll’s stories exist in a space where it is hard to tell dreams, hallucinations, and madness from reality. Personal favorites of mine are “The Hole the Fox Did Make,” “Out of Skin,” “His Face All Red,” and, of course, “Margot’s Room.”
Rice Boy and Order of Tales by Evan Dahm
Genres: quest fantasy
Evan Dahm has created several extended stories about the world of Overside, complete with its own maps, kingdoms, races, languages, and chronologies. If you are a fan of this sort of fantasy, his two completed graphic novels, Rice Boy and Order of Tales, will be appealing to you. Both of these comics feature a central character who is thrust into some sort of defined quest, a la taking the ring to Mordor. I’m not usually a fan of this type of fantasy, but I love Dahm’s unique storytelling and character design. Also see the actively updating comics section below for Dahm's greatest work so far: Vattu.
Rice Boy, Dahm's first full-length graphic novel, is the story of its small eponymous character who looks kind of like a grain of rice. He receives a visit from a machine entity called The One Electronic (lovingly abbreviated at T-O-E) who informs him that he has been chosen to fulfill a world-saving prophecy. A quest then ensues through a psychedelic landscape full of bizarre figures who help and hinder Rice Boy at various turns. (As a side note, fans of Saga might notice some character design similarities between The One Electronic and Prince Robot IV. And I love Saga dearly, but The One Electronic totally came first.)
Order of Tales, drawn entirely in black and white, is the story of Koark, the last of a line of Tellers who keeps an ancient lineage of stories. His father’s dying wish is that he finds the story called “Ascent of the Bone Ziggurat” -- and after an encounter with The One Electronic, he realizes that this story might have grave implications for all of Overside. Does that sound questy enough for you?
ACTIVELY UPDATING COMICS
These are comics that are in progress. Some of them are nearly at the end, some are just getting started. Keep these in your feed reader after you read your way through so you can continue to get updates as they come out.
The Meek by Der-Shing Helmer
Genres: fantasy, adventure
Angora is an orphaned young woman who lives without any clothes in the jungle and has the power to shape living wood. Soli is a bandit looking to murder her ex-boyfriend. Luca is the emperor of the Northern Territories who goes off the deep end when his wife dies under mysterious circumstances. This comic is the story of the role these three figures play in the brewing war between the Northern Territories and Caris. The Meek has been updating on and off since 2008 and should win some award for being able to survive several extended hiatuses. Despite these setbacks, The Meek has legions of fans due to its amazing art, story, and characters.
Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, coming-of-age
This is one of the landmarks of webcomics. Tom Siddell has been unspooling Gunnerkrigg Court at a steady rate of three pages a week for a little over 15 years. It’s a British boarding school drama that follows Antimony, a cold and somewhat off-putting new student who has a mysterious family history and strange powers. It’s kind of like if Harry Potter had a science fiction component, less of a good/evil binary, and was endlessly fascinated with exploring philosophical questions. If you are not terribly impressed with the art in the beginning chapters -- don’t worry. Siddell’s art improves dramatically over the course of the series.
Vattu by Evan Dahm
Genres: fantasy, political intrigue, adventure, gender
Vattu is a headstrong girl from a nomadic tribe who is enslaved and taken to the capital city when her people are colonized. There she meets people from other colonized groups who live in the capital with varying amounts of precarity. She has arrived at a moment when the old colonial powers are beginning to weaken and whispers of rebellion and revolution are coming from several quarters. Also set in Overside, this comic is a triumph of Evan Dahm’s world-building prowess and manages a large cast of characters with clarity and heart. Dahm has been working on this comic for roughly a decade and although I can’t predict the future, it feels to me like it’s starting to draw to a close. Now would be a great time to read it through from the beginning.
Goodbye to Halos by Valerie Halla
Genres: quest fantasy, LGBTQ, anthropomorphic animals
A young trans girl named Fenic is pushed through a magic portal by her father and abandoned in a completely new city. Fortunately, there is a friendly community of queer folks willing to take her in and make her part of their family. However, Fenic has to face questions about her past when several years later a knight enters through the portal and tells her that she is a lost princess being pursued by a murderous empress. Fenic wants to get to the bottom of things, but she’ll do so on her terms and with her friends by her side. Although this series is far from finished, it’s one of the few here that I would recommend to teens, especially those looking for uplifting content about LGBTQ characters.
O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti
Genres: science fiction, family drama, LGBTQ
Robotics engineer Al Sterling is dead. But then he wakes up 16 years after his death in a perfect robotic replica of his body. While he was gone, he finds that his robotic innovations have completely changed the world for the better, thanks to his boyfriend and collaborator Brendan. But who brought Al back to life? Can he repair his relationship with Brendan after its tumultuous end 16 years ago? And what is up with Brendan’s spunky 15-year-old robot daughter Sulla? In simple blue and orange tones, Blue Deliquanti gives us this tender LGBTQ family drama mixed with science fiction.
Lackadaisy by Tracy J. Butler
Genres: historical fiction, organized crime, humor, anthropomorphic animals
Lackadaisy is a St. Louis speakeasy in the summer of 1927. The proprietor, Mitzy May, is barely keeping things afloat in the wake of her husband Atlas’s mysterious murder. She and her rag-tag staff are trying to avoid being caught by the authorities, but mostly they have to worry about Marigold, their competitor for booze and customers. Oh yeah, and all the characters are anthropomorphic cats. Surprise! Tracy J. Butler has been updating Lackadaisy since 2006 and her art, which starts out as good, becomes jaw-droppingly phenomenal as time goes on.
COMICS ON INDEFINITE OR LONG-TERM HIATUS
The sad truth about webcomics is that there are lots of fantastic stories out there that artists haven’t had the resources to finish. Many webcomic artists work on their comic as a side gig. It might take years of regular updating and high-quality content to build up a fan base that will financially support their work. And for many, spending 20-30 hours a week on a side project that brings in no income on top of full-time school or work is just not sustainable. It’s no wonder that a lot of artists have to abandon projects or put them on hiatus for months or years.
Still, I think it's worth putting time and effort into reading these stories, even though they may never be finished. I’ve found that even if an artist hasn’t managed to bring their plot to a satisfying conclusion, there is still much to be enjoyed. I’ll also point out that if you find an unfinished comic you like, it’s good to bookmark it or put it in your feed reader because webcomics have been known to come back from the dead after years-long hiatuses.
The Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kerschel
Genres: fantasy, adventure, nature, humor
I won’t lie: if you love animals or the environment, The Abominable Charles Christopher is going to break your heart in the best and worst possible ways. It’s about the animals who inhabit the forest, the poachers and hunters who threaten them, and Charles Christopher, their bizarre, soft-hearted, Sasquatch-like protector. This comic also features a lot of funny side stories, sub-plots, and one-off newspaper strip style comics in which the social lives of animals aren't that different from our own.
I am not sure that I’d say this comic is technically on hiatus. It is updating … very slowly. Maybe one or two pages a year at this point. Karl Kershl is a full-time comic artist and although he does not have a lot of time to devote to this side project, it’s worth bookmarking for the day he returns to it.
Family Man by Dylan Meconis
Genres: historical fiction, horror, fantasy
It’s 18th-century Germany. (Well, sort of -- Germany doesn’t quite exist yet.) Luther Levy, son of Pietist parents with Jewish heritage, has been dismissed from his graduate studies for writing a heretical dissertation on Spinoza. Desperate to find a job, he takes a lecturer appointment at the liberal and isolated University at Familienwald. There he meets the school’s librarian, who happens to be the headmaster’s daughter. As he gets closer to Ariana and her family, he begins to learn about Familienwald’s wolf-worshiping pre-Christian heritage, traces of which are rumored to still be alive. This impeccably-researched historical comic has a subtle underbelly of horror that has yet to be fully revealed.
Unfortunately, Dylan Meconis stopped updating it nearly three years ago to work on other projects, but now that those projects have wrapped up, my hope is that she’ll return to it soon.
The Last Halloween by Abby Howard
Genres: horror, adventure, coming-of-age
Mona is a 10-year-old girl bummed that she can’t go trick or treating because her parent is leaving to go to a Halloween party. While figuring out how to pass her time, something suddenly happens: the world has been overrun by terrifying and murderous monsters. While running for her life, Mona takes up with a group of kids who are also dressed in Halloween costumes like vampires and ghouls. Until it slowly dawns on her ... those are not costumes. As she learns about the existence of whole realms outside her daily reality and why the bloodthirsty monsters have appeared, Mona embarks (extremely reluctantly) on a quest to keep humanity from being completely destroyed.
Although this comic will eventually have three books, right now, Book One and a portion of Book Two have been posted. Book One can stand on its own and is definitely worth a read. A word to the wise, though: this comic contains a lot of gore and pretty disturbing-looking monsters. If you are a horror fan, you’ll dig it. But the story and characters were compelling enough for me to love even though I don’t generally like horror.
Strong Female Protagonist by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag
Genres: superhero, coming-of-age, gender
Alison Green is 20 years old, and while she looks normal on the outside, she can lift a dumpster with one hand, bound over buildings, and is impervious to bullets or blades. As a young teen, Alison was recruited by the US government to fight supervillains, but five years later she decided to reveal her identity and leave superhero life to be a normal college kid. Well, she’s trying, anyway. Her decision to unmask sent shockwaves around the superhero world and now she and her former allies and enemies are grappling with hard ethical questions about what it means to be a hero … and a villain. The disaffected superhero trope has already been covered by many comics, movies, and TV shows. But Strong Female Protagonist offers a compelling twist by considering this trope from a feminist perspective. This comic is what The Watchmen would be like if it had realistic or likable female characters. (Sorry folks, just calling it like I see it.)
Strong Female Protagonist has been on hiatus for the past three years, and although lots of plot threads have been left unresolved, the comic as it it exists has a satisfying arc.
Broodhollow by Kris Straub
Genres: psychological horror, humor
It’s the Great Depression, and down-on-his-luck encyclopedia salesman Wentworth Zane gets an invitation to collect an inheritance from his long-lost uncle in the town of Broodhollow, West Virginia. Broodhollow is full of nice people who have a bizarre number of holidays and rituals, as well as pretty weak memories. After Wentworth reluctantly stays to settle his uncle’s estate, creepy things begin happening and he can’t help but worry that his disturbing dreams and nervous tics (like compulsively closing all drawers, doors, and windows) might not be proof that he’s losing his grip on reality, but that reality is more frightening than it seems.
Books One and Two, which can stand on their own, have been completed.
Emily Howard is a library technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.
For some locally produced webcomics, check out Forge and Kam Komics.