Le Cute Nouveau

Some time ago, I wrote a couple articles over at The Webcomics Examiner in which I tagged a certain type of webcomic with the label "the new cute" — feel free to click on over there if you wanna see what that was all about.

Well, I had a hankering to foray once again into the category, and making a quick list of webcomics that I felt qualified for inclusion, I was surprised to find three non-U.S. creators at the top. But then a look back at those previous articles showed me that three of the four I’d written about there were creators who hail from outside the U.S., too.

I guess I just hadn’t realized how international the whole "new cute" phenomenon is — though I seem to recall a friend of mine telling me that nearly every sign in Tokyo involves a little cartoon character somehow….

When you get right down to it, we’ve seen a couple global generations raised on mass-media cuteness. Just about everyone in the world with access to TV or movies since, oh, let’s say my natal year of 1965, has been exposed to non-stop cuteness of every stripe, description, and nationality: from Disney to Miyazaki, from "Kimba" to "My Little Pony," from Dennis the Menace to Peanuts and beyond. And it’s had an effect on us.

The part of that effect that I like to focus on, the "new cute," deals with a sort of respectful subversion: using the tools of the "old cute" to tell stories that are richer, deeper, and more heartfelt than anyone would’ve thought fluffy bunnies, towheaded kids, and smiling asparagus could support.

DreamleakWe’ll start this time with Dreamleak by the U.K.’s Greg Fraser. Amy and her mother have just moved to an apartment halfway up a large apartment tower in some big city somewhere. Amy doesn’t much like it, and she tries her best to express her feelings the way "someone my age is supposed to" by asking her mother what she herself calls a "naive and adorable" question: "why don’t stars like cities?" She can’t keep it up, though, and once the storyline starts, we get an even better sense of her straightforward but slightly morbid personality.

This is a classic fantasy in a lot of ways, the precocious little girl off on an adventure in the world of dreams, but Fraser’s not interested in doing anything as "old cute" as that as far as I can tell — Fraser just started the strip last summer, and he’s recently reduced his posting schedule from twice a week to whenever he gets a page done, so the story he’s telling is really in its early stages.

But still, what I’ve seen so far leads me to call this "new cute" due largely to the air of melancholy that hangs over every page. Yes, the strip’s pretty funny, but there’s a feeling of rootlessness that fills it even to the coloring scheme, a sadness that neither Amy nor Fraser are afraid to confront — when Amy arrives in the dreamworld, for instance, her first thought is that she’s died in her sleep. I’m quite enjoying Dreamleak, and I hope Fraser finds it in himself to carry on with it at whatever pace he can manage.

Fuzzy ThingsAn older strip now, one I’ve been reading for at least 10 years: Fuzzy Things by Jonathan Sario. If you go back to the beginning of his archives, though, something I’d definitely recommend, what you’ll find is a strip fairly heavy on the "old cute" — six talking animal friends attending a school where they’re learning how to use their special powers. It’s sort of a manga version of "Tiny Toon Adventures," a comparison Sario makes himself, fun to read, but not really what I’d call "new cute."

What makes me include Fuzzy Things in this category is the evolution the strip has undergone. I mean, back in 1999 when Sario did the earliest strips in the archive, not only had he just graduated from high school (or whatever the equivalent is in his native Philippines) but he had already "rebooted" the comic at least once: the version of the strip that I first read isn’t actually in his archives anymore. And if you start with the earliest strips and read forward, you’ll find another couple places where Sario throws a brick through his fictional universe and puts it back together again.

The best part about this reconstruction? Each time he does it, the strip gets more interesting. He makes the characters more focused, gives the wacky adventures a bit more edge, and comes more into his own as a storyteller. He’s literally been working with these characters and their world for a third of his life, and that he has stuck with it — he’s been doing a new, full-color page every Monday for the past couple years — shows how important it is to him. It’s all still cute, of course, but now, it’s "new cute."

Ghost Farm by Jessica McLeodI’d like to head back to Australia at the end here and talk about the various webcomics of Jessica McLeod. She’s the… girlfriend? Significant Other? Main Squeeze? Whatever the kids are calling it these days — of the pseudonymous Edward J Grug III (himself a subject of my previous article on this subject).

But McLeod is definitely no slouch when it comes to "new cute," and Ghost Farm, her 24-hour comic from 2006, is really one of those comics I should just point people to when I want to show them what I mean by the term. She’s got plenty of comics on the site there to peruse, and she recently posted to her Livejournal page that a German publisher will be bringing out a book of her Space Rabbit stories later this year. Talk about international!

Another of her comics I’d like to spotlight is over on Grug’s WebComicsNation page: Love Puppets, written by McLeod and drawn by Grug. They’ve got one "issue" of the comic finished and have started a second, and the two of them working together create a veritable vortex of new cuteness the likes of which I’ve certainly never experienced before.

So the term "world wide web" apparently isn’t just part of some P.R. campaign. Webcomics are also world wide, it turns out, and that segment of webcomics that I insist on calling "new cute" is no exception, either. We’re all spinning around on the same big blue marble in space, as some children’s show I vaguely recall used to say.


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