Review: ‘Help Is On the Way’ and ‘Nothing Nice to Say’
The world of webcomics has gotten to be nearly as large and encompassing as traditional newspaper strips – if there aren’t as many people making a living from webcomics yet,
give it a year or two and the one number going up will soon meet the other number coming down. It’s so big, actually, that there can be successful web cartoonists – successful enough to have a book of their work published – that otherwise smart and savvy people (meaning me) have never even heard of.
I don’t mean Scott Meyer: like everyone else, I started reading his online strip Basic Instructions when Scott (Dilbert) Adams linked to it. But I wasn’t familiar with Nothing Nice To Say – a strip about punk-rock culture by Mitch Clem – until I saw the first collection of that strip (confusingly titled “Volume Two”) in a comics shop.
So, since these two collections are both of webcomics, and both came out at the same time from the same publisher (Dark Horse, increasingly the home of webcomics in print), I thought they were just begging to be reviewed together.
And so they shall be.
Help Is On the Way: A Collection of Basic Instructions
By Scott Meter
Dark Horse, September 2008, $9.95
In my circles, and, I think, those of webcomics in general, Meyer is the bigger name. He’s been doing Basic Instructions on and off since 2004, but went onto a regular schedule sometime in 2006. Since the Scott Adams shout-out, he might not be making a living from his comics, but he probably gets enough ad revenue to pay for nachos now and then.
Basic Instructions follows a rigid four-panel format, and is both very wordy and completely rotoscoped (Meyer prefers to call it “traced”) from pictures. It’s also, to one degree or another, based on Meyer’s real life – he’s the main character, and his wife, best friend, boss and other family members and random bystanders make regular appearances (though usually without being given names).
Each strip explains how to do something specific – but Meyer isn’t really trying to explain anything, so “How to Correct Someone” and “How to Avoid Sounding Condescending” are, like most Basic Instructions strips, really about everyday interactions with people. So Basic Instructions is really a very wordy gag-a-day strip, with a recurring cast, running jokes, and all of the usual accouterments. (This is a feature rather than a bug: a strip like Basic Instructions appears to be would be boring and purely oriented to facts, which might be useful, but wouldn’t be funny.)
Basic Instructions might just be the epitome of the post-Dilbert comic: the art is simplified as far as possible, and clearly isn’t the point of the exercise. A cynical view of work, and an only slightly less cynical view of all other human relationships, permeates the strips. It’s witty, sarcastic, and very, very funny – though almost entirely verbally; this isn’t a strip for sight gags.
Help Is On The Way presents the strips well: after a short introduction by Meyer’s friend Ric Shrader (who is also a major character in the book), there are a hundred and six “real” strips, and then (after a page explaining the difference) an additional nine strips from its sporadic pre-2006 incarnation. Of course, all of these strips are still available for free online, so some people might wonder why they should pay for the cow when the milk is free. Well, the book is pretty cheap, and portable in a way only a miniscule number of computers are. And the cover is a bright, eye-catching red. So, if you like the strip, I’d say it’s a good way to spend your money.
Nothing Nice to Say, Vol. 2
By Mitch Clem
Dark Horse, September 2008, $9.95
I need to put on my book-marketing-manager hat first when looking at this book, but I’ll be brief. See that cover? See how you can’t read the title? Oy. This is what we in the business call a “big mistake.” The title is laminated onto the cover – we call that a “special effect,” by the way – but not printed; it’s purely spot-laminated. That means that the title is readable in person – if you pick up the book and tilt it, so the lamination catches the light at just the right angle, like one of those annoying lenticular moving pictures – but not in a photograph of the book…such as the ones that serve as bookshots in large online booksellers.
(I remember a White Wolf horror anthology that did something similar – only they printed the title in glossy white, on a flat white cover, and then stuck a vellum overwrap over that…which was a lot of money to spend to make a title unreadable.)
Anyway, once you figure out what this book is called and pick it up, it’s pretty user-friendly. The author’s introduction mentions that this is actually Volume Two, but that Volume One doesn’t yet exist – I’d guess because #1 would reprint earlier, less funny, and more crude strips – and then has an extensive listing of characters, most of whom show up for only one or two strips. (And which doesn’t include other faces that show up a number of times in this book, so I wasn’t sure if those were meant to be recurring characters, or if they were just faces that Clem was good at drawing.)
Nothing Nice to Say is a subculture strip: the two main characters (Blake and Fletcher) are twentyish guys in a punk band who also talk and think about hardly anything but punk, its subcultures and manias. Clem doesn’t make it completely inside baseball, but there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s in large part jokes about bands that most of have never heard of (and the few of us that have heard of them think that they’re all poser sellouts). At its best, Nothing Nice to Say is the punk Penny Arcade – it can make you laugh even when you have no idea what that joke means.
Clem’s art style changes and varies over the course of these strips, but, at its best, it has a clean line and an assured use of black. (Other times, it looks a bit scratchy and tentative – Clem needed to learn to draw one line and make that one work, instead of four lines that almost work.)
This collection is also divided into a main section and “extras” afterward, like Help Is on the Way was. But, here, the main section runs from pages 18 to 85 (with two strips to a page), and a long “B-Sides” section (of guest strips at other webcomics, including a month-long run on Joe and Monkey) to fill up the last forty pages. To me, they’re all decent Mitch Clem comics, so that was fine – but, if you’re coming specifically for the jokes about punk-rock scene, the fact that they die out two-thirds of the way through the book may be less than pleasing.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.