Web To Print: The Rare Bits Comics Collective

Posted by on July 5th, 2010 at 5:24 AM

Rob reviews three minicomics collections from the web: BILLY THE DUNCE, by Jason Week; MERMAID HOSTEL, by Jen Vaughn; and HERE COMES EVERYONE, by Sam Carbaugh.

Graduates of the Center for Cartoon Studies have, by necessity and choice, frequently banded together in all sorts of comics collectives. Doing so allows them to pool resources and provide mutual encouragement (and friendly competition). The Rare Bits collective consists of Jen Vaughn, Sam Carbaugh, and Jason Week, three artists all doing a weekly or twice-weekly continuity webcomic strip.

Week’s BILLY THE DUNCE is the strip that translates best to print, thanks to the confidence and boldness he shows in his line and character design.  In terms of the visuals and action, Week seems influenced by Bill Watterson, especially in the way that his faces are minimally rendered but expressive.  Week balances the cuteness of his characters with the weirdness of the strip, as the title character attends a school with geniuses so advanced that no one bothers to try to teach them anymore.  Instead, his schoolmates–an inventor geek, a magician and a medical research savant–use him as a sort of guinea pig and straight man, along with a young female demon and a friendly zombie.  What’s surprising about this strip is that despite all of the genre silliness on the surface, Week also takes time to relay some moments of stillness and sweetness.  These moments don’t feel forced or awkward, and that’s  thanks mostly to the consistency with which he’s able to convey emotion and his understanding that not every strip has to end with a knee-slapping gag.

Carbaugh’s HERE COMES EVERYONE is an odd duck.  It’s partly a slice-of-life strip about the public and private lives of coffee shop employees and denizens.  It also has the random element of a talking bird with an i-phone.  It’s about the isolation of post-college, underemployed 20-somethings as well as their attempts to express themselves via blogging.  Carbaugh also makes an attempt at political commentary, though what’s presented in this book is pretty weak sauce.  The right-wing coffee shop patron is as undercooked as the rest of the cast is well fleshed-out.  Visually, the strip is all over the place, veering from a style close to naturalism to a more cartoony and simplified line.  The strip actually looks much better in black & white than his experiments in color, which distract from his line rather than enhance it.  All that said, Carbaugh’s facility with dialogue makes this a surprisingly pleasant, if unremarkable, read.  I have a feeling that as the strip progresses, it will evolve into something quite different.

Vaughn’s MERMAID HOSTEL is pleasantly quirky, mixing up a slice-of-life workplace comedy with a fantasy underwater setting.  Along the way, Vaughn incorporates religion, ecology, marine biology lessons and politics seamlessly with her aquatic puns and ambling capers.  Unfortunately, the strip didn’t translate well at all to black-and-white print.  The original webcomic used a single color per strip (usually a pastel) as a way of grounding her loose pencils.  In print, it’s just a murky,  grayscaled series of blobs.  What I liked best about this strip was her character design and understanding of gesture.  Her depiction of motion is a bit stiff, but there’s a sketchy ease to her line that’s appealing to the reader’s eye.   The fluidity of that line is key to her being able to make all of the strip’s disparate elements work.

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