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PREviews: Astronaut Elementary, Lunchbox and Zip Li'l Bit

Jon Morris offers reviews of three all ages-friendly webcomics: Astronaut Elementary by Dave Roman, Lunchbox by Ovi Nedelcu, and Zip and Li'l Bit by Trade Loeffer.

Astronaut Elementary

The prolific Dave Roman pens this intriguingly paced comic, using a series of spotlight stories to introduce the readers to the students and faculty of the satellite-based Astronaut Elementary. Located somewhere in deep space, we incrementally make the acquaintance of both the faculty and student body, beginning with the sword-wielding principal and including recurring characters such as Doug Hiro (who feels more comfortable in his spacesuit than out), Hakata Soy (former pilot of the courageous robot Metador) and Maribelle Melonbelly (both the Most and Least Popular girl in school) to name only a few of a large cast well worth knowing.

Later chapters begin to mix and match the characters, draw out conflicts (and more than a few sublimated romances) among the cast, and create multi-chapter stories from the assorted perspectives of different characters. Going from character sketches to serialized adventures in the space of a dozen installments creates a satisfying sense of slowly-increasing tension, and better yet serves to involve the reader intimately with the incremental complexity of character interaction within the strip.

Roman cleverly sorts through choruses of familiar geek-centric chords, and deftly assembles a symphony from what he finds; there’s a heaping helping of talking animals, magic elves, winged villains, robots of assorted persuasions and assorted dinosaurs (essential learning tools for students seeking advanced education in Dinosaur Driving). The result is pitch perfect, neither overwhelming the reader with an abundance of sci-fi/fantasy tropes and conceits at the expense of character or dialogue, yet providing a richly populated opera packed with intriguing characters and situations.

That the stories take place from the non-judgmental perspective of the students -- even the school bully gets fair, equal time to tell his story -- lends it a classiness rarely seen in all-ages comics. Neither condescending nor simplified, Astronaut Elementary offers even adult readers a robust story with likable -- and intelligent --characters.

It is, to put no fine point on it, an out of this world strip, and readers owe themselves to give it a try.

 

Lunchbox

With only eight installments to date, Ovi Nedelcu's Lunchbox hasn't had all that much runway made available to it in order to build up speed. So far, however, while the storyline and character dynamic may yet be notably anemic, the linework and coloring technique employed in the strip is remarkable.

The likable illustration style and seemingly hasty (but clearly well-executed) coloring technique provide readers a visual feast. Nedelcu's drawing style is more than simply illustrative, it's evocative and practically musical in its fluidity.

Lunchbox appears to be the story of a domineering older sister and her hapless younger brother, to judge from the few examples made available on the Lunchbox Funnies site. There's an aspect of social commentary, as the children in question provide the perspective of both the untainted and the animalistic urge, at one occasion commenting on the decline of civilization while the next providing potent examples in their own behavior.

If Lunchbox suffers one flaw, it's that it indulges the conceit of the kid-oriented strip wherein the perspective engaged is strictly an adult one; as readers, we observe the children in the strip, rather than find ourselves engaged with them and their perspectives. More than that, the strip seemingly cannot decide where the lessons it lays out truly lie; are the children the advocates of innocent, pure behavior, or the adherents to spontaneous desires?

If Nedelcu can reconcile the message of Lunchbox, it's no doubt that he'll have an attractive, enjoyable strip on his hands. As it stands, Lunchbox remains haphazardly complete, like its namesake if deprived of a Thermos; there's still room to fill and define the strip.

 

Zip and Li'l Bit

Having recently finished an impressive 62-page installment, and promising a future storyline as of present, Trade Loeffer's near-epic brother and sister adventure is a study in endless inventiveness and charming happenstance.

Clearly owing as much to Bill Watterson as Herge, the clean lines and subtle, distinct colors of Zip and Li'l Bit are an inviting introduction to the concept. "The Upside-Down Me" covers more than the essentials of the two characters (and their supporting adult character, Officer John) , introducing the readers to counted sheep made real, malfunctioning mirrors, and the eponymous duplicate Zip crawling about on the ceiling, as nonplussed and unremarkable as his floor-bound counterpart.

For a dreamy unreality, the strip borrows as much of its atmosphere from Winsor McKay's Little Nemo as not. The end result is, thankfully, a complete story, as thorough and whole as a single-episode novel. Children reading the strip ought to be delighted, adults ought to be charmed, and parents will have a terrific experience to share with their sons and daughters.

One of the unfortunate rarities of webcomics is the strip which approaches its storytelling in anything but a serial form; that Zip and Li'l Bit is told in finite arcs makes it a satisfying read, where other strips vary in quality from week to week. It is, all told, as rich and satisfying a read as is the sedate, professional colors and charming linework.