The theme this month is mystery webcomics. And for the first time since I took this gig…
…well, I have no freaking clue what to write. It’s like they said "this month, the theme is finbotz comics," and I’d smile and nod and sit down in front of the word processor.
It’s not that I don’t read mysteries. I do. Mysteries, P.I. comics, you name it. I read Will Eisner’s JOHN LAW. I read Lost and Found, I read whatever mystery/P.I.-based comic John Troutman hasn’t ended or put on hiatus this month, I read Joe Zabel’s Trespassers stories….
So why is this such an opaque topic for me? What is it about this genre that makes it hard to write a column? I mean, it’s not like I have much difficulty spewing out words, normally.
In the end, it’s the difference between genre and toolset that’s tripping me up. And as many genres can be toolsets, it’s easy to get confused.
A genre is a given art form’s categories, elected by individual criteria (which are often the subject of debate). In webcomics, genres can be anything from setting based (science fiction, fantasy, western) to structural (mystery, journal/autobiography, gag-a-day), to tone (comedy, tragedy, slice of life). Almost anything can be a genre if you work at it.
A toolset is, as the name implies, a set of tools that any webcartoonist can bring to the table. They are many and varied â€“ everything from purely artistic tools (hatching, pen and ink drawing, computer coloring) to purely conceptual tools (mythology, history, obsession with Japan). They’re not the point of the comic â€“ that’s more a genre quality â€“ so much as the pieces the webcartoonist puts together to make the comic.
So, the question is, when is a webcomic a mystery webcomic â€“ which is to say a webcomic that structures itself in a mystery tradition, with the core point of the webcomic the investigation and resolution of a specific mystery â€“ as opposed to a webcomic that uses mystery in it?
A lot of webcomics use mystery without really being mysteries. It’s Walky! has plenty of unknowns that had to be investigated, for example. Fans! did too. Goats has mysteries woven into it right now. Heck, my own Gossamer Commons has plenty of unanswered questions in it, but I wouldn’t call it a mystery.
On the other hand, everything in a given mystery webcomic is about the mystery. If we ignore the literary traditions of mystery stories versus detective stories (in brief â€“ you don’t expect a Hercule Poirot story to read the same as Mike Hammer, even though both are often investigating the same kind of mystery) there are a good number of stories that fall into that category. Something like Lost and Found, even though it’s a gag-a-day comic with some plotlines that go completely off the genre, is basically a mystery webcomic, by that definition. When Frank takes a case, that case becomes the foundation of the plotline, and many if not most of the plotlines are in fact cases. Basil Flint, P.I. and Andiewear, by the ubiquitous Troutman, both followed the same formula. When they were on the case, the case was the entire point.
Of course, you also have certain webcomics where a single mystery dominates the comic. Joe Zabel’s most recent Trespassers story, The Ice Queen, fell into that category, as all the Trespassers stories do. When the mystery is over, the comic ends. Further adventures aren’t collected into a single Trespassers webcomic. Instead, Zabel launches a new comic for a new mystery, even if many of the same characters appear in the next one.
A somewhat arbitrary distinction? Maybe so. But it serves to completely isolate the mystery genre from the toolset in that case. The Ice Queen is a mystery webcomic, period. It’s about one mystery. Fans, on the other hand, had mysteries in it, but it wasn’t a mystery webcomic. It just used the toolset to tell its overall story.
So where does something like Lost and Found fall? Like I said above, it structures itself around the cases Frank goes on, but at the same time it structures itself around gag-a-day humor. And there’s plenty of ‘between cases’ character and plot development as well.
Is it a mystery webcomic? Or a webcomic with mysteries in it?
I don’t know. And I’m not going to lose sleep either way.
Next month’s "year in review." Thank God. I know what comics came out in the last year, damn it. I might have a column for that one.