Ko Fight Club by Russ Williams, reviewed by Xaviar Xerexes
Russ Williams' Ko Fight Club is a constantly evolving webcomic that samples a wide and extremely diverse set of topics for its subject matter. Williams describes Ko Fight Club as "eclectic comics about Go, board games, the Bench, Watchmen, Fight Club, Shakespeare, Esperanto, and Toki Pona." 'Eclectic' does not do justice to the range of topics and styles found in this webcomic. In fact, at his best, Williams is the Spike Jonez of webcomics, mangling culture high and low into something recognizable yet different from the norm.
At his worst, Williams layers inside reference upon inside reference to the point at which the only audience fully able to grok the webcomic in question is Williams himself. In that regard, it's really helpful to share all of Williams' interests, which include in part playing Go, Avalon Board Games, more board games and even more board games. Still, there are plenty of highlights in the more than three years of archives and Williams, who currently updates on a weekly schedule, continues to hit as often as he misses.
In fact, you often forgive Williams when he misses because it's so clear what he was aiming for was interesting. Artistically, most of the time you notice the care with which Williams sets up a comic. For example, Williams' lettering almost always complements the characters or overall comic. He has likewise admirably attacked many different artistic styles and tools to produce the art for Ko Fight Club. Even when his ambition reaches beyond his artistic grasp, you can see him imagining a dynamic visual flair to a panel that he couldn't quite pull off.
There are several stages in the lifespan of Ko Fight Club that help to make sense of its focus and evolution as a webcomic. It's helpful to keep these guideposts in mind when reading the archives as well, because much of Ko Fight Club does not have any continuity. Even where Williams is maintaining a single storyline for a number of entries, he often interrupts with a series of comics unrelated to the current "plot".
Early on, Williams' comics were created for a website called The Bench which still accepts submissions of comics from all comers. Comics created for The Bench typically used clip art of Penny Arcade characters, although Williams often added original art to these comics. Because of this, many of these comics seemed filled with inside references to the community which most frequented said website. Even those that do not focus on such obscure insights often do not hold up well, such as this series on yoga (a typical entry), and other straightforward renderings of pop culture scenes, albeit with The Bench characters, like this snippet of American Psycho. Right from the beginning, however, Williams does manage to mix together interesting references into some of his work. One particular series (beginning here) lifts Alice in Wonderland imagery into the ongoing The Bench-style webcomics.
Webcomics in this early span of the archives also include one of Williams' most popular efforts: a series of comics about The Watchmen comic books and Fight Club (the movie) that also incorporated The Bench characters. Although The Watchmen-inspired webcomics might be dismissed as "fan art", the twist of dropping The Watchmen characters in with characters from Fight Club often provides a satisfying remix of pop culture not unlike a successful dance remix. This particular series is also where Williams begins to develop a more original take on the art, even though he continues to borrow heavily from The Bench project.
Other interesting experiments from the early part of Ko Fight Club include this webcomic where the panels are set out in a spiral of images to convey the despair of the character, and this webcomic where a falling character is at the bottom of a tall vertical panel. Finally, it's hard not to appreciate this webcomic, apparently inspired by the Icebox animated series "Hard Drinkin' Lincoln", where Williams draws a gazillion panels of President Abraham Lincoln vomiting to set up a mercilessly bad pun on a famous line from the Gettysburg Address.
Once Williams decides to leave The Bench format behind, he tries on various approaches to art and narrative. An early series about a fast food joint staffed entirely by zombies is worth checking out. It starts here and eventually works itself into a loose Pulp Fiction parody, among other things. Williams continues his habit of dropping unusual characters into well-known pop culture moments, such as this parody of the movie Almost Famous. He also begins to deploy art made with rubber stamps, which he creates himself. However, much of the early Rubber Stamp art concerns two bugs, and in rereading the series it does not hold up particularly well (although some of them are strangely funny).
"Williams Shakespeare's Memento", is perhaps Williams' most well-known series, and his best effort at blending various cultural references together. "William Shakespeare's Memento" takes the rough outline of the Memento and inserts William Shakespeare into the lead role. Shakespeare is portrayed as a rather Shakespearean character himself, and knowledge of Shakespeare, Memento and several other pop culture touchstones are necessary to fully appreciate the series. It's not quite "The Wasteland" of webcomics, but there is quite a bit of footnote-like information in Williams' journal entries that accompany most of the webcomics in his archives.
The series which kicks off on the anniversary of Shakespeare's birthday with a rather straightforward comic shifts artistic styles from stamp art to bold colors to sketchy pencils. It manages to weave in fragments from The Matrix and Fight Club without detracting from the almost non-sequitar manner in which Williams presents his version of the Memento plot-line. Williams doesn't take himself too seriously, weaving in silly gags and dropping additional cultural references to get a quick laugh. Although the ending is somewhat disappointing (it veers off into the plot of Fight Club) overall, this particular series is an enjoyable work.
Finally, after September 11, 2001, Williams begins to address topical and political subjects in Ko Fight Club. Many of these are well done – such as this one published in the same month. This one evokes each American's connection to the nation's military actions in a powerful way. This one wonders how liberals and conservatives might react to an invasion of Iraq led by a President Gore. This one subtly shifts the holiday image of holly berries into a bloody U.S. dollar. A few in this vein, however, are outright funny, including this one speculating about why Al Queda would keep receipts and this one with advice for anthrax mailers.
In 2003, Williams continues to sprinkle these more political webcomics in Ko Fight Club with his other ongoing interests in Go and Esperanto. This recent one casts United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield in "Through The Looking Glass" territory. It is this widely divergent scope of topics that is both ambitious and somewhat frustrating about Ko Fight Club.
Williams is just as likely to publish a polished, self-contained webcomic accessible to many readers as he may choose to publish a webcomic about Esperanto, a language that is no nation's native tongue, but rather an experiment to create a single language for the globe. Williams is a more interesting person for tackling such esoteric interests, but it does not always translate into more interesting webcomics.
That said, those people who are into eclectic humor, into references within references (within references), or just into a different kind of "gaming" comic could certainly do worse than to give this webcomic a Go.