When I was growing up, I really only had one career goal: I wanted to be a cartoonist. Yeah, I took the popular way out back then. That never panned out (spoiler alert, I actually don’t draw Dennis the Menace) but watching the medium grow up with me has gone in a lot of very interesting directions. With print media dying, of course, the age of the online world picked up where they left off. End of great set up.
Webcomics exploded onto the scene back in the late 1990s. Your co-workers send you links to them all the time, especially likely if you write for or read the content here on this site. You’ve got your break out stars like Penny-Arcade and Achewood and then your lesser known ones like Brawl in the Family that are pleasant little surprises you fins on your own. It’s a landscape you can’t really avoid online anymore if you appreciate the art form. There is one entry, however, that deserves mention.
Kris Straub has been doing webcomics since 2000 with Checkerboard Nightmare. He went on to do an epic sci-fi story that spanned seven years at StarSlip Crisis and currently makes most of his revenue through Chainsawsuit (a gag-a-day strip that never fails to get me). Recently, he’s embarked on an entirely new strip that is unlike anything on the web that I’ve seen.
Broodhollow lives in its own weird little corner of the internet. It’s a cosmic-horror-humor strip. Set in the town of Broodhollow during the Great Depression it follows the curious story of Wadsworth Zane, a failed encyclopedia salesman called to this town through the will of a recently-deceased yet obscure relative. The drawings are light and simple. The colors are somewhat faded but only indicate very faint feelings of dread. The characters look like they could be in the background of an early Mickey Mouse cartoon.
Then a reanimated mangled corpse shows up.
Broodhollow takes the idea of telling a horror story and turns it on its head. There are laughs but only occasionally. Some strips end without a punchline, just a sense of foreboding as the story progresses. As the reader progresses further into the mystery of this town, as Wadsworth does, things take a Lovecraftian turn for the nasty. He encounters other characters: a young woman working for her father’s law office, the group of mill workers who enjoy spending their nights at the bar, a psychiatrist who may know more than he lets on. There’s even a secret council involved that avoids the cliché nature of such an idea and still feels like something that could have happened in the early 1930s. To tell any more of the story would be to ruin it. The important note is that the world and the characters you’re looking at are drawn and painted – they aren’t real, they’re just pixels. Much as the town of Broodhollow feels, as you learn about it and its residents, a “painted” version of what actually exists underneath.
And that doesn’t even begin to explain the unique nature of the art involved. In the middle of a lightly drawn strip will be the horrible image of some monstrosity that looks simultaneously human and anything but. Straub walks a fine line throughout the entire story: light mystery and horrific dread. The images aren’t terrifying but the way they’re presented is. Light and painted backgrounds contrast with the drawings of the characters to draw the eye to a certain detail, making you almost miss the horrors drawn away from where you’re looking.
This isn’t to say it’s perfect. It’s an ambitious project to take on. To have a strip that can deliver laughs but then also do a loving homage to the style of storytelling H.P. Lovecraft embraced. But that’s what makes it so much more interesting than anything else being published online right now. There isn’t the cheap joke because “this is a comic strip, it has to end with a joke!”. All said and done, it’s a evenly paced narrative that has one goal: to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. The fact that it’s a webcomic is purely coincidental.
Straub is approaching the project in a smart way. Instead of promising one strip a day, he’s focusing on three a week. Every few months will tell another chapter in the story, which then can be bought as a book. He takes a few months off to work on the next chapter and then comes back. It made the wait between chapters infuriating but all the more rewarding when it came back. He recently started a Kickstarter and more than raised enough funds to keep making the project and then some. In an age where you can call people on the internet “the worst” and no judge would convict you, it’s also an age where people who are dedicated to a project can come together and help artists out. For every Zach Braff trying to raise millions without having to spend his own millions, there’s a guy like Straub who just wanted to take a chance to show people something they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. To show them Broodhollow.
If you’re looking for some light reading, the first book is available for free online at Straub’s Broodhollow homepage here. It won’t take you more than an hour and it’s worth it.
Image source: Kickstarter