Saturday, October 16, 2004

15th Leg: The Japanese Beetle

While doing my post-Find checkups (that is, going back and checking up on how previous webcomic Finds have been doing) I was rather surprised to see a reaction on the latest strip of Gigawhut?. If you recall, I didn't exactly praise it to the high heavens, to put it mildly.

Anyway, shortly after the review was posted and resulted in a further Websnark comment, I received an email from the creator himself. This was not entirely unexpected, but to my surprise, Brian Maze was quite civilised about the whole thing. I have a habit of expecting the worse case scenarios for everything, so it was a relief to find a creator who didn't react by mouth-frothing attack just because I did not praise his work. In fact, he was very fair and honest, raised a few points, and admitted if I had given a positive review, he probably would have reacted differently. In turn I clarified a few points and apologised for the banner error (which belonged to another site, but appears to have magically righted itself all the same ;) )

In short, the outcome of the exchange was: Gigawhut? didn't quite gain my respect yet, but Brian Maze certainly damn well did.

There are very few things I admire more than an artist who can take criticism gracefully. When it comes down to creative work, most creators are act like obsessive parents over their babies. Anything remotely critical is met with draconian and ferocious counter-attack. As a poster by the name of ChaosBurnFlame astutely observed in this forum post:

People that dislike their comics being critiqued or comics that they read being critiqued deploy five basic defenses against the criticizers.

1) Accuse Jealousy: This is the most baseless defense. It implies that the criticizer cannot be objective or is being purely spiteful in the process. This case CAN be true, but has to be examined on a case by case basis and more often than naught in a forum of other artists is baseless.

2) Ask for Credentials: This defense is based on the idea that only ‘certain’ people have the right to be a ‘journalist’ or a reviewer. For the case of comics, its standing is a very slippery slope. The Layman has the right to decide what he likes or doesn’t like, what looks good or looks bad. Asking for a portfolio before you say something sucks is the same as asking for movie reviewers to direct Oscar winners before giving a ‘thumbs down’.

3) Proclaim All Art is Subjective: This just doesn’t work for a comic book. Declaring Ed McGuiness warrants the same obscure artistic considerations like Picasso, Monet, or Van Gough is just loony. A comic book is some of the most commercialized art in the world. The artists work not from their own ideas (there are exceptions, but they are the exceptions!) but from a pre-written script on a pre-selected page size on a schedule on a per page commission. This proclamation is a slippery slope. If given the leeway, someone can proclaim all forms of entertainment is ‘subjective’, thus one cannot say a TV show or movie sucks anymore because it’s ‘all good in its own way’.

4) Proclaim it’s popular, thus it MUST be good: Popularity can sometimes indicate quality, but remember, take ratings with a serious grain of salt. The idea that something is ‘popular’ merely means that X-number of people find it amusing or entertaining. I must admit that I myself find some things like watching a guy getting hit in the groin is hilarious as heck, but that doesn’t mean a show that showcases nothing but people getting hit in the groin is the most well-written entertainment ever. It just means it appeals to the biggest amount to get the highest X-number. In fact, recently we’ve seen on television an inverse relationship in X-number of viewers and quality.

5) Proclaim that Criticism is ‘mean’ and stunts creative growth. On the contrary to this defense, I see it the exact opposite way. That if you are told your faults, you have to acknowledge them, improve, and grow. One of the first things I was taught was to get a thick skin as an artist. It’s a good lesson that every artist should learn. If someone’s drawing a comic that people buy, it’s a lesson that should’ve been long learned. Trust me, if they’re living off their art, they can take a few criticisms.

There's also some interesting discussion of this topic in that thread if you'd care to check it out.

Now some of your will note that I took of the review of the 5th Leg, Saturnalia down. A lot of people got the impression that this was due to complaints from the creator. This is not true, but since it has been persisting so long, I feel obliged to provide a clearer explanation.

Some time ago, there was a review of a certain comic called Sexy Losers on a certain webcomics news site called Comixpedia. The review of the said comic was a mixed one, but mixed enough to be taken as a negative by the creator.

And the aftermath...? It was a nasty one, which pretty much degenerated into a chaotic mass-argument, of which I'd rather not go into. I will say there were two schools of thought involved... one being that webcomic reviews were useless and pointless and served no purpose, and another which disagreed with this.

The relevant fact in all this is that in that mass-debate, the creator of Saturnalia, Space Coyote made her position on reviews quite clear to the public (she didn't agree with them) so when I flipped a coin and found myself faced with Saturnalia as my fifth leg of Webcomic Finds, you will understand that I was rather apprehensive. On one hand there's the thing about journalistic intergrity, and on the other...

Well... if I wanted to be left alone, and made that clear, but still had people hounding me, I think I'd be a little annoyed as well. Likewise, Space Coyote had made her position quite clear beforehand, and if I were to ignore it it just would not be... very nice. So on advice, I asked her for permission.

The review I did for Saturnalia was a very positive one, and I've been told by a lot of readers that it got them starting on Saturnalia themselves. However, Space Coyote asked me to take it down. Not because she disapproved of it, but because she felt it'd be inconsistent of her after all she had said about reviews to accept one just because it was positive. And since I did ask... I did so.

It may sound odd to some, but it made sense to me. Basically it all boils down to this:

If you don't want people's criticisms... then don't be a hypocrite and accept people's praise as well.

Everything is a balance. Praise and criticism are complements of each other. On their own they can both be deadly poisons to the creative soul, but together they are the best teachers any artist or writer can ever have.

Comic: The Japanese Beetle
By: Dave 'The Knave' White

Genre and Setting: Second-Generation Superhero, Futuristic, Alternate realities

Art Style: Manga, Inks. Earlier strips greyscale, latest iteration in full-colour.

Is About: Ken Watanabe is The Japanese Beetle! He's a super-hero who fights crime and protects his city for fame, money and chicks!

Frequency: Every other day
Availability: Free (Formerly pay on Graphic Smash)

First Impressions and Presentation:
I can tell I'm going to like it already.

The website is nice and bright- the art on the front page is in lovely colour and the art looks downright yummy. I don't remember the Japanese Beetle being in colour, but I'm not complaining.

The navigation is confusing though. Apparently JB keeps going through rebirth cycles. One does get rather confused which one to pick. First button takes to the first strip of the current rebirth... which leaves you wondering: Did the previous run of JB get kicked out of continuity?

At any rate, I'm going to go through just the 2003-2004 strips, since I take the earlier stuff was more of 'college-paper' experimental.

Really like the header, by the way. For some reason, the phrase "In Glorious BEETLEcolor!" just cracks me up.

The Concept:
The Japanese Beetle is based on a genre which I like to call 'Second-Generation Superhero'. A good example of this take at super-heroism is the brilliantly-conceived and poorly-executed movie Mystery Men. It's when you have superheroes jumping out of of the woodwork and fighting crime and super-villians for reason less than noble. Or as the Japanese Beetle Ken Watanabe eloquently put its: "For fame, money and chicks!".

Kinda like a lot of webcomic artists, really.

The Art:
Slick an spot on! The early stips are very heavily manga-influenced, while the latest offerings seem to be a drawn more in the style of typical American comics, although in all phases they retain the manga-influence to some degree.

I really like the style- It's not cookie-cutter manga and has its own distinctive look. Most of you will get by now that I'm picky and a comic having an individual artistic look scores big points with me.

Dave get big points for the dynamic structuring of the panel. Rotating camera angles, varying close-ups and pan-outs... I also dig the stylised shading of the comic. Big flat areas to suggest form, inked textures for shading, plus white lining to suggest light, varying line thickness for angles. Somehow the inks feel 'lively'. I'm not sure if I'm making sense...

But anyway, if you want to know more about Dave's creating process, he has a cool rundown here.

Lastly, the way Dave draws noses is cute. It makes those already expressive faces a whole lot more expressive.

The Writing:
Is generally wacky, fun and funny. I certainly laughed a lot. I also really like the character of The Japanese Beetle, who despite being relatively normal (no awesome super-hero powers) manages to be a superhero, and a relatively successful one at that. Overpowering always did spoil heroes for me; the characters tend to get categorised by their power types and not themselves.

Plot-wise, some episodes seem to be missing some explanations though. The earlier storylines (like the zombie-salsa one, for example...) left me wondering why Ken didn't get turned into a zombie as well, while at the end of the previous relaunch, I'm left wondering "since when did the JB have his own squirrel-eared manager. And is that the plant-girl??"

Oooh! let me just comment on one thing I found fascinating- there was also some interesting integration of Ken's dual Japanese/American identity. This is really good characterisation, and something a lot of writers don't have the courage to do for fear of being branded 'racist'. In fact a lot of comic have multi-racial characters in their strips, but gloss over their actual heritages as 'it shouldn't make any difference'.

Which is downright silly. Acknowledging that a person of Japanese origin had ancestors who originated from Japan is perfectly sound. Denying that ethnicity exists is just sweeping things under a rug. Which is almost an insult in its own way.

There's nothing racist about recognising ethnicity. It's only racism if you treat someone differently because of it.

The aforementioned plot-holes are probably the biggest thing, really.

There's nothing much otherwise, except that the various relaunches of the Japanese Beetle makes it confusing to 'get' which is the real one.

The Japanese Beetle is a light and downright entertaining read. I absolutely enjoyed myself with this one...

And I think I've found another comic to add to my read list... if only I could figure out how to integrate 'every other day' into an automatic tabbing schedule...

The Next Leg:
When I first announced my intention of my next leg being The Japanese Beetle, I was faced with the possibility of having to do a backtrack as the links page wasn't yet operational. However, in the space of the few days it took me to read and write this leg, Dave seems to have gotten it up. Which is excellent timing on his part.

Since we're going by recommendations, I'm only picking the bolded links.

I would really have liked to do Narbonic, but Sequential Tart has reviewed it already... I'm not sure if I should.

Copper, on the other hand, I've definitely never heard of. Sounds interesting.

Hmmm... Keep to the trail or get sidetracked? Decisions, decisions...


  1. I hope you're happy with yourself, Ping--I read your review of the Japanese Beetle, and now I feel compelled to read through the entire comic archive. There goes my free time for the next day or two.

  2. I ought to make it my site motto:

    Webcomic Finds: Finding free time will be a challenge!