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Count Your Sheep by Adrian Ramos, reviewed by Shaenon Garrity

There was a time, back in prehistory, when the key to a popular webcomic was lots of computer-programming jokes. Then cheesecake art. Then video-game references. Then, when the competition started growing fiercer, computer jokes and cheesecake and video games. Those days are long behind us, and aren’t we as a people better for it? Today, the secret to webcomics success is Cute.

Adrian Ramos’ Count Your Sheep began in the summer of 2003 and quickly rocketed to the top of the Keenspace charts before being picked up by Keenspot proper. It’s one of the most popular and well-liked of recent webstrips, and it’s easy to see why. Count Your Sheep is nothing short of adorable. It’s all about Cute. It’s nigh-impossible not to want to kiss it and cuddle it and scratch it behind its floppy ears.

Count Your Sheep gently recounts the adventures of a wide-eyed little girl named Katie and her imaginary friend, Ship the sheep. Katie’s mother Laurie rounds out the tiny cast. A great many strips involve semi-philosophical discussions, with Big Ideas filtered through Katie’s extreme childlike innocence. Katie is a relentlessly sweet child. Occasionally she betrays a moment of little-kid weakness, but more often she’s taking care of her overworked mother, vowing to right all the world’s wrongs, or selling Lemonade for the Soul. She also has more than her share of "out of the mouths of babes" moments, in which she adorably misunderstands adult concepts. Laurie, the slightly more jaded adult, adds a mild bite to the humor. The reliable, even-tempered Ship holds the trio together and does his best to protect Katie’s innocence.

One of the more interesting elements of the strip is the way the characters interact with Ship. Both Katie and Laurie can see Ship, as can some (but, apparently, not all) other people. Ship, it develops, was Laurie’s imaginary friend when she was a little girl, and regular flashback strips depict the relationship between Ship and the young Laurie, who was a more rambunctious and cynical little girl than Katie. As an adult, Laurie continues to talk to Ship, even asking him for advice about Katie. Katie, for her part, seems to accept that Ship isn’t real, but this doesn’t particularly bother her.

Count Your Sheep isn’t an uproariously funny strip. The humor is much more gentle and charming than it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s cute above all else. Its most memorable strips, however, contain moments of intelligence and insight that transcend simple sweetness. The strip revealing the whereabouts of Katie’s father succeeds in being both touching and funny, treading material that could easily have degenerated into pathos.

For the most part, the humor is at its best when it’s lightly absurd, as when Katie shares her ideas for superheroes or Ship shows up at bedtime with his own business card. Frankly, Ramos can’t go wrong by putting the characters in neckties. He also develops some solid visual gags based on the comics form: Ship can reach into Katie’s thought balloons and sometimes betrays awareness that he’s a comic-strip character.

Ramos’ art develops rapidly over the course of the strip. The early strips are somewhat crudely rendered, but the art quickly acquires style and grace. The strip’s trademark sky-blue color scheme lends it a distinctive elegance; the Ship-and-Laurie flashback strips are rendered in purples, which proves a simple and effective way of distinguishing them from the Katie strips. In January 2004, Ramos made some small but crucial changes to his character designs, in particular altering the shape of the characters’ eyes, and his drawings immediately grew more expressive. In 2004, the art came into its own, becoming consistently appealing and sometimes downright beautiful.

Count Your Sheep updates every weekday, but only three of those updates are strips. At present, a typical week consists of strips on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and one-panel sketches on Tuesday and Thursday. In the past, Ramos has experimented with other Tuesday/Thursday filler material, including pinup art (the subjects of which are sometimes decided by the Count Your Sheep message board), samples from his other comics projects, fan art, and interviews with his fellow webcartoonists. He sometimes provides bonus material on Saturdays and Sundays as well. Overall, Ramos has stuck to a solid schedule over the year and a half Count Your Sheep has run; even if he can’t draw a strip a day, he’ll always provide something.

In addition to Count Your Sheep, Ramos draws The Wisdom of Moo, a similarly charming strip about toys whose preteen owners are growing out of them, for Girlamatic.com. He also sometimes draws No Room for Magic, a comic about a surly little girl living in the land of fairy tales, on drunkduck.com. He’s a promising emerging talent in webcomics, producing work that’s reliably appealing, charming, and thoughtful. And cute. Very, very cute.