Beaver & Steve by James Turner
John Lynch reviews Beaver & Steve, by James Turner, the winner of this year's WCCA Outstanding Newcomer Award.From Laurel and Hardy to Asterix and Obelix pairing up a straightman with an idiot has been a successful trope in comics for decades. James Turner's Beaver & Steve matches straight, um, beaver, Beaver with the agressively idiotic Steve. Some webcomics using this approach make the mistake of muddying the lines between straightman and idiot, but Turner, with a few exceptions, does a good job of keeping Beaver and Steve in their designated roles.
Beaver & Steve is a brightly colored, gag-a-day strip that sometimes has ongoing storylines, but doesn't seem to care much if they make much sense or actually conclude. Generally, Turner relies on the antics of his two main characters to deliver the jokes each day. Over the course of the strip, however, he has added a number of other eccentric members to the cast, including the Shoe Fairy, the Emotibot, Satan, and an aggressive turnip.
The plot is not the point to Beaver & Steve. The absurd situations that Turner puts his two main characters in are usually just a framework for Turner to craft the humor. Although the settings range from the mundane to the bizarre, most of the time nothing of consequence actually happens to any of the characters. Which is a good thing since the storylines have included a rampaging giant, well-tailored cockroach as well as an infestation of pandas in the kitchen. The ridiculous stories, however, only add to the charm of the webcomic.
What Turner has done particularly well is establish and judiciously use the recurring joke. Many comics have a familar bit returned to again and again, from Charlie Brown and his football, to Brent and the angry panda. Of course, Beaver and Steve has been a learning experience for Turner, and over time he has become better at the recurring joke. one example is Steve's hatred for pandas. Turner has learnt how to set this one up well, and is able to surprise the reader by having them concentrate on something else, while the punchline would be the panda appearing. An example of this is when a villain has Beaver and Steve trapped. The reader concentrates on the anvil that is about to fall on them, and the rope holding the anvil up, when the villain places bamboo oil on the rope. The reader is confused until they finally see the panda, at which point it became obvious all along what the villain was doing.
One thing I didn't particularly like is Turner's habit of jamming too many jokes into a strip. While this isn't necessarily a problem, if the final joke isn't as strong as the earlier ones, it can weaken the impact. Another problem the earlier strips sometime suffer from is an anti-climatic last panel. Putting the joke in the second or third panel leaves the last panel unnecessary. Over time, however, Turner has learned how to structure his delivery so that these issues don't occur as much with the newer strips.
Another area where Turner has improved is the artwork. The early strips were done in black and white with no background. Over time Turner introduced backgrounds, color and shading leading to mostly, much more polished art, such as this one. While his artistic ability has improved, he continues to draw Beaver, along with the occasional extra, with stick-figure arms and legs. I think this is an unfortunate choice by Turner because readers might be put off by the continuing visual crudeness of the primary characters and not give the webcomic a fair chance.
I thought the website for Beaver & Steve works very well - it uses an uneven border along with simple colors that gives it a cartoonish feel and that works well with the webcomic itself. I also thought the navigation for the comic archives was intuitive -- the simple "hand" navigation images turn into text when the mouse rolls over them. This should be a fairly easy interface for those new to webcomics to master, and the navigation buttons work to reinforce the cartoonish feel of the webcomic. I was also particularly impressed by is the fact that Beaver & Steve is translated into italian by Matteo Franchini (see translations here).
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Beaver & Steve and highly recommend it. If you're already kneedeep in similarly structured humor webcomics on your reading list you might not find that much new in this webcomic, but Turner is an able practitioner and should continue to improve.