Surreal Estate

I tend to stick to my comfort zone when it comes to webcomics. Reading about a new one here or on one of the other review sites, if I’m not familiar with the creator or if it doesn’t sound a little like something I already read, I’m sorry to say that I’m not all that likely to go and take a look. Unadventurous: that’s me.

So I’m very glad I took a chance three-and-a-half years ago and signed up for the Daily Grind Contest. It’s introduced me to a whole group of comics from my fellow competitors that I doubt I would ever have known about otherwise, and I’d like to mention three of them at some length here — Trains of Thought by Stephen Burrell (his Livejournal page is at, Tartpop by Phil Redmon (his Livejournal page at, and Young Adventure Friends by Billis, a.k.a. Bela Whigimill.


These three stand out in my mind because they’re fine examples of a type of webcomic I don’t usually find myself enjoying: the surrealist webcomic. Of course, most comics are surreal in one sense or another what with the whole "fantastic imagery in unusual juxtaposition" aspect of the American Heritage College Dictionary’s definition. But surrealism in the usual sort of comics I read — story comics and gag comics — is most often used as a means to an end, as a way of presenting either the story or the joke.

With a truly surrealist comic, though, sure, it might very well tell a story or a joke, but that’s not the engine that drives the thing, isn’t the reason these artists switch on their computers and start drawing. Something else sparks a surrealist comic, something I don’t pretend to understand, but still, reading these three comics, I often find myself nodding and chuckling as I read.

Take Stephen Burrell, for instance. A clerk in a Canadian bookstore, he gives his Trains of Thought certain features of a journal comic, but, as the title suggests, it’s more concerned with his thought processes than his actual progress commuting to work or moving about the city. As such, I’d recommend reading from the very beginning — not an easy feat, the way Blogdrive handles its archives — to get a feel for some of the repeated imagery he uses: beavers and bears, clouds and Garfield the cat, the other figures that recur throughout.

I sure can’t say what these symbols stand for, but Burrell does a lot of interesting things with them. And he’s darn funny most of the time, too: puns and tongue-in-cheek asides, jokes about hockey and weather and concerns both Canadian and otherwise. He’s always true to the title, too, his breezy "stream of consciousness" style about as perfect an embodiment as I’ve seen in a daily webcomic of Andre Breton’s goal in the original Surrealist Manifesto (translation courtesy of Wikipedia): "…to express…the actual functioning of thought."

Now, if Burrell’s comic has elements of a journal comic to it, Phil Redmon’s amazingly surreal Tartpop flirts with storytelling. Characters like Ray and Ian and Troy will pop in and hold center stage for days or weeks, and the dialogue Redmon writes for them twists the English language in ways worthy of George Herriman’s wonderful Krazy Kat — I’ll direct your attention to this recent comic as an example. Anytime he’s in a storytelling mode, his words spin and dance like beetles on a hot sidewalk, and I’m unable to think of another world or set of characters more surreally fine in any webcomic.

But as I said above, storytelling isn’t what a surrealist comic’s about, and it’s when Redmon’s just letting himself go, running random-seeming experiments with medium or line or texture or shape, that I find myself grinning the most. Take the six or seven comics on his LiveJournal starting August 7th for instance: click ahead with the little green arrows at the top of the page.

And yes, you’ll find places here and there where his invention seems to flag a bit under the pressure of the contest’s daily deadlines. But even his simpler comics make me glad he keeps putting them together.

For the full-blown surrealist webcomic experience, however, I’ll point you toward the work of Bela Whigimill — or Billis or whatever name he’s currently traveling under. The title of the comic, Young Adventure Friends, has nothing whatsoever to do with anything going on in the comics themselves, as near as I can tell, but that’s all for the good. And the comics themselves, well, they seem to speak directly to my right-brain, bypassing any attempt at logical contemplation but still making a sort of sense somewhere.

That might be the attraction for me, actually. I’m a fairly left-brained guy, and to meet with a comic that is so very different from anything I’d normally get involved with but which still has, even in its sketchier moments, recognizable characters engaging in conversations and living life, however peculiar that life might be. It’s a gentle, almost matter-of-fact surrealism, more Rene Magritte than Salvador Dali, and that’s exactly the right sort for me: the surrealism of popsicles and summer camps, of leprechauns from the wrong side of the tracks and dancing aliens.

Burrell and Redmon are still in the contest, too, updating their fine comics Monday through Friday, but Billis fell victim to a computer foul-up back in May and was forced out of the running. He’s still posting his comics in odd bunches every week or two, though, so visiting his web site will continue to yield up slices of "unresuscitated discipline," as it says along the top of the main page. I find visiting their comics to be very refreshing.