As you may have noticed, the Comixpedia theme this month is "the death of newspaper comics", or webcomics that fall into a typical newspaper format. A Softer World represents one alternative to that whole subspecies of webcomics, since it represents everything a newspaper comic usually is not: subtle, understated and witty.
Also, it’s not drawn.
The strip, created by Joey Comeau and Emily Horne, is a photo-comic with superimposed text. According to the site, Horne takes the photographs and arranges them into the panels, sometimes spreading a single large image across the panels and sometimes zooming in or out on individual elements of a photo in each panel. Comeau writes the captions, which are basically short, clever free verse poems designed to look like they were typed on a manual typewriter then clipped out and pasted over the photos. The end result can be bleak and pensive or funny.
One of the awkward parts of photo-comics is always the combination of word balloons and photo images. It never seems quite right, and it could undermine a poignant strip. By eschewing a literal, narrative format, A Softer World has sidestepped that problem.
The "voice" of the comic shifts between characters and an anonymous narrator. The reader is left to imagine or decipher who’s speaking in each comic from contextual clues. Sometimes, it seems that it’s an off-camera voice, and sometimes it’s someone pictured in the strip. There are only two obvious recurring characters: a menacing baby, who has appeared twice in the strip’s one-year run, and a cat.
The photographs are rarely illustrative, and more often serve to establish a tone. Their muted, washed-out colors, coupled with effects like close-ups and blurring, give the strip a dreamy, distant feel that can evoke depression or bemusement depending on the captions. The use of a single photo in different variations can also give the strip an almost cinematic feeling of motion. When the same photo is stretched across the panels or shown at different magnifications, it seems as if the camera is panning.
That distanced, moody feeling is only amplified by the fact that no one in A Softer World ever seems to be speaking. The text is set above the panels in a format that consciously recalls printed matter to mind, and no one is pictured mid-sentence. Reading the strip is like listening to a Walkman on the bus: the images seem to be divorced from their sounds. The only thing lacking is a soundtrack by "The Weakerthans", "Death Cab for Cutie", or the moody, half-mournful indie band of your choice.
The personality of the strip is hard to resist, and so gentle that it can make other humor comics seem blunt and clumsy after you’ve read through the archives. Its understated nature is a kind of grace, and the creators’ tone shifts between maudlin strips and funny ones are never jarring.
A Softer World bucks the usual tropes of a comic strip. It even pulls away from some conventions within the world of photo comics (though it hardly stands alone). Assuming it could make a transition to a four-color page, it probably wouldn’t find much welcome next to the Depression-era gag-a-days that still linger there. Fortunately, we have the Web, but it’s kind of a shame. In a better world, A Softer World would be in the newspaper.