The Belfry WebComics Index

Recent Reviews:

10:37am 10/08/2014
 
  i *Better Days ALVX
Appreciating it for what it is.
I don't generally write "counterpoint" reviews but Better days has (despite having concluded some years ago) been such a source of controversy that I feel compelled to add my two cents (discounted at a bitcoin rate).

I have several webcomics with political agendas on my reader index, including Ozy and Millie, Sandra and Woo, and the collective comics of Ralph Hayes, Jr. Obviously I can't agree with the political viewpoints of each, and in fact there is no single comic artist with whose politics I agree 100% (or even close).

I also subscribe to many comics with strong adult content, and which are in many cases far more explicit than Better Days, which leaves its actual "action" off-panel. Mr. Naylor's comic does address some taboo issues but doesn't glorify them; the preteen sexuality between Nikki and Fisk is shown to be ultimately harmful, and the infamous relationship between Fisk and Lucy becomes more distant and eventually nonexistent as they age and mature. I have to applaud Mr. Maylor for attempting to address issues that are not rare throughout childhood sexual development without turning them into a giggling thrill show for drooling Aqualung perverts.

I am rating Better Days for what it is: Well above-average artwork, compelling storylines, and engaging characters. It occasionally falters in its story consistency, sometimes reaches for a joke or a plot point, and at times becomes bogged down in side stories that don't seem to advance the flow of the script.

If you are offended by discussion of childhood sexual development and the paths that it can sometime take, or if you dislike a neoconservative political slant to your webcomics, then by all means avoid Better Days. Neither of these things particularly appeals to me, and yet Better Days is enough of a quality comic that I've read it from beginning to end more than once.
01:16am 10/02/2014
 
  i *Better Days ALVX
Five years later, a 'better' review
I originally wrote a review of Better Days in 2009, and like most of my critiques at the time it was brief and largely off-the-cuff. Having re-read the comic afresh, Lamar's review still stands; but as a matter of scholarly principle I feel honour-bound to submit a new critique that better elucidates my original one-star rating, particularly given the many laudatory reviews the comic has received.

It is well-illustrated; the cartoon's conventional black-and-white style is detailed (if lacking in background depth), but not so cluttered that it becomes distracting. And by and large Naylor is not deficient in the technical aspects of narrative: his characters grow and develop into relatively rounded and distinct personalities, and the story itself, which oscillates between playful-if-perverted humour and truly sobering themes, maintains an engaging pace. From a simple cursory reading, it's easy to see how it attracts such widespread appeal.

But much like The Da Vinci Code, just because the story can hit all the right emotional triggers to keep the reader 'hooked', doesn't mean it is a profound work of literature. From a purely structural standpoint, Better Days' biggest flaw is its stilted pacing. Whereas most complaints over "webcomic time" concern a series that has run for years yet only progressed an in-universe week, this comic does the opposite: chapters are set within a limited, episodic timeframe, and the early arcs in particular will jump forward a year without any indication, the characters aging seemingly overnight. Without a stable time reference, the reader becomes disoriented; even on a second read-through I found the characters aging unnaturally fast, with almost no time given for the reader to digest the arc properly before being vaulted into a new setting. Indeed, rather than provide a sense of meaningful closure, the final chapter was startling in its brevity and left me asking: "That's it?"

The crux of my complaint is not so much the story itself, but the particular way that Naylor chose to tell it. There are few webcomics willing to make an honest effort to interrogate such themes as domestic abuse and sexual violence, and far fewer that do so successfully. While Better Days aspires to the former, it sadly does not rank among the latter. I can best describe the story as plagued by contradiction: it tries to foster female independence yet constantly emphasizes the need for a male protector; it claims love is more than lust but devotes half its time to blatant objectification; it decries exploitative relationships at the same time it trumpets the primacy of individual self-interest as the root of all morals. The juxtaposition of vulgar sexual humour against the early shocks of "Predators" and "Tough Love" left a niggling sense of unease throughout the rest of the story, to the point that I almost couldn't take later discourses seriously.

This is problematic because the comic -desperately- wants to be taken seriously. Better Days is a story about relationships: love and loss, friends and foes, responsibility for others and duty to oneself. It is commendable for seeking to delve deeper into social psychology than its contemporaries in the genre (to a degree I did not fully appreciate in my first encounter); but it is perhaps -too- ambitious in its bid to tackle life's big questions. The comic can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a family drama or a psychology essay: at story's start, Fisk and Lucy are only nine years old, but speak with the intellectual sophistication of adults. Not only is the plot's timeline disjointed, but the characters feel out-of-sync with their own age; given Fisk's precocity in his psychiatric sessions, I cannot help but think he is too smart to make the choices he does. Naylor is bold (but not unique) in using children to address adult themes, but they respond as adults rather than children, and character believability suffers as a result.

Heretofore the complaints I've raised are over technical flaws that even by my most critical reading would not demerit Better Days below three stars; what makes the comic so controversial (outside of the infamous chapter "Brother's Arms", which I will also examine), what the positive reviews have failed to address, and what ultimately broke my immersion, is the politics employed in its construction. Blocky pacing and miscast protagonists can be forgiven as inexperience in writing a 'longue durée' narrative; what cannot be excused is the subversive social agenda that dominates the story. Whiffs of this abound in the explanatory monologues throughout the comic, often so preachy that they read like a chapter's 'Lesson Learned'. The most unabashedly partisan example is "The Bedbutter Chronicles", which fortunately (for Naylor) is the only time he calls out his opposition by name. So ham-handed reads the chapter that AridLion dismisses it as a parody; in fact, it all but spells out the neoconservative philosophy that underpins the entire comic, repeated much more eloquently (and far less opaquely) throughout the later story.

Every main character derives his or her morals from the core principle of individual sovereignty—that we should have control over our own destiny. Literally every chapter, every major discourse, every Lesson Learned, concerns the idea that we need freedom of choice. Which we -do-, especially if we hold any value in democratic society and representative government. But Naylor interprets this freedom through the narrow libertarian lens of absolute autonomy, in contempt of greater social responsibility: we are obliged -only- to ourselves; everything beyond is discretionary charity. Not only must we be free to choose, we must be free from any and all forms of coercion and external authority that would limit our choice, regardless of cause, regardless of -consequence-. Whether Naylor himself subscribes to this philosophy is immaterial; it is the lens through which he chose to frame his story, and well within his right to free speech to present it publicly. But he goes out of his way to cast it as the -only- legitimate basis for social organization, presenting alternative viewpoints as crude strawman caricatures: Mrs. Bedbutter (arguably the only character in the entire comic -not- motivated by self-centred goals), whose very name reads like a joke, is depicted as the stereotypical 'bleeding-heart liberal' engaged in unpatriotic "social engineering"; when Tommy consults with his priest over Rachel's infidelity, in typical Catholic cliché the father ignores the actual issue to blindly reiterate obedience to God. Part of my discomfort in the early story stems from the hoisting of this partisan agenda onto the shoulders of children who, precocious though they may be, are not portrayed as politically conscious; conversely, my ennui with the later chapters concerns the childish simplicity by which the characters incessantly pontificate this ideology as if it constitutes an uncontested fact.

Lamar cites Naylor's soapboxing as detrimental to the work but stops short of explaining what and why that is; I find this regrettable because understanding the dangerous implications of unfettered libertarianism is crucial to understanding why Better Days ranks not merely as a mediocre story, but an objectively bad, even harmful one. The freedom Naylor advocates—amended in later chapters to include the belief that we must do what makes -us- happy, first and foremost—engenders a reckless disregard for broader social consciousness and public authority. Tommy abandons religion altogether the moment his personal desires conflict with Church doctrine. Fisk reacts with disgust when Carlos plans to kill himself but makes no effort to help him overcome his PTSD, instead angrily rebuking his fellow veteran for 'squandering' the little practical autonomy he has left. I agree that Better Days is mired in "macho wish fulfilment", but I contend this is not a narrative fault in of itself; rather, it is symptomatic of the comic's underlying ethos: when self-serving utility becomes the sole point of reference for moral decisions, the logical outcome is a 'might-makes-right' philosophy. Fisk says as much in "Chess" when he frames conflict of opinions as a struggle for dominance: the winning side need not be intellectually compelling or even factually correct, so long as it has the greater muscle. Not-so-coincidentally, many of the story's conflicts are both violent in nature and resolve through violence: Lucy exacts revenge on Randy by shearing his hair; Principal Longfellow is clandestinely murdered rather than stand trial; Nikki's abusive father is gunned down by police officers. It is thus entirely consistent that Fisk joins a private company engaged in vigilante wetwork, since it provides him the opportunity to pursue retributive justice without having to contend with the arbitrary imposition of such unfree institutions as American law.

And here the comic's internal logic breaks down. Without the rule of law, with only an anarchic arena to resolve the perpetual clash of differences, morality is reduced to personal subjectivity, and Naylor's moralizing becomes both intellectually and pragmatically hypocritical. Lucy's friends confront cheating partners, yet her own mother pursues an affair with Sam; Fisk saves their mother from the wanton violence of his principal, only to grow up into a vigilante assassin. If the reader was left to draw one's own conclusions about the characters' ethics, this wouldn't be troublesome. But the story -wants- us to sympathize with them, and practically twists our arm to make it so: we don't see Mrs. Tobs' perspective on the marriage; we know little of Persia's mother other than that she's an overbearing philanderer; when Nicholas accuses Beth of stringing him along, -she- is cast as the victim. Oftentimes what makes the protagonists' actions acceptable but the minor characters' contemptible narrows down to simple author fiat. The comic's moral atmosphere is decidedly 'grey-and-gray' (and dark shades at that), yet Naylor strives (and for me, fails) to depict it as black-and-white. The characters portrayed as 'villainous' (Longfellow, Nikki's father, Rachel, D'Anna) are, variably: coarse, violent, dishonest, and/or manipulative. Notwithstanding that the protagonists demonstrate equal propensity for dirty tricks as they feel their circumstances demand, Naylor either fails to recognize, or deliberately ignores that the villains adhere to the -exact same ethical standard-: they are pursuing -their- happiness, and while the reader should rightly find their methods detestable, for the reasons outlined in this and the preceding paragraph, Naylor has forfeited any right to moral judgment.

Which brings me to the infamous Chapter 10.

I won't dwell on the general sexualization of Better Days; as a point for critique it's low-hanging fruit, and in any event is so ubiquitous as to speak for itself. Subject matter aside, it is not a particularly profound chapter, and while its aftershocks reverberate throughout the rest of the story, it is executed so casually that, as kiseki's review states, one wonders if Naylor fully thought it through. Yet in some ways it is fitting that "Brother's Arms" should be the centre of so much publicity, because it pulls together all the sociological currents and contradictions that drive the project. To Naylor's credit, it is -not- entirely gratuitous (the comic would never have survived if it had been), and while I have resisted citing his other works, anyone familiar with the author's money-making enterprises knows this could have been handled a -lot- less tactfully. And in terms of the characters' own reflections, it is the -only- scenario in which Naylor -doesn't- tell the reader what to think. But, while he takes great pains to cast the incident as the product of genuine, even altruistic affection, it nonetheless fundamentally remains a power relationship. Tellingly, Fisk describes himself as Lucy's "older brother" and makes it clear that he feels a duty to protect her; though the incident emerges out of a mutual investment of trust and occurs at her instigation, it is only made possible -because- Lucy is vulnerable and because she has vested him with protective authority. Even setting aside the incestuous context, it is -not- the same relationship shared by or with the other characters because, unlike their romances before and after, the twins do not approach it on equal terms. That Naylor leaves the chapter's ending ambiguous is perhaps an admission that he waded out of his depth; the hasty resolution reasserts that Fisk was acting out of compassion, but the reader still confronts the conundrum that "Brother's Arms" is essentially "Tough Love" with a happy face. Nikki's father -is- abusive and Fisk is -not-, but regardless of intent and outcome both scenarios constitute male sexual dominance over a helpless family member. I sincerely hope that Naylor merely missed this implication rather than wilfully ignored it, for otherwise he is proposing a hypocrisy far more alarming than during any other chapter when he asks us to condemn the former, but condone the latter.

I do not fault Naylor for writing politically—given the weight of the subject matter, it would be impossible not to—but for the dishonesty by which he advances his agenda. While the now-inaccessible sister project New Worlds employed the same social commentaries far less subtly, Naylor was more-or-less upfront about his intentions. In Better Days, he masks his agenda through rhetorical tricks and a seductively dramatic narrative such that most readers do not even recognize his writing is deeply ideological. As a reader, I feel duped: Better Days sells itself on the family drama narrative, promising us an intimate view unto the life narrative of children becoming adults; instead we get a front-row seat to a social soapbox, the characters' experiences serving to reinforce a narrow, and to at least two reviewers, deeply disturbing point of view. When I began this critique I thought the early chapters felt rushed because Naylor was writing to a real-time deadline, akin to such comics as For Better or For Worse; this is not the case. I now realize that they are episodic because they each have a specific argumentative goal. Instead of the characters driving the plot, the plot conducts the characters. We don't watch the twins grow so much as view carefully curated snapshots of their growth. Fisk's life can be summarized as a confirmation bias towards strict-father morality: "The Bedbutter Chronicles" suggests external authority can't be trusted; "Predators" casts him as the literal family guardian; "Chess" implies there are objective, non-negotiable moral truths; everything else reinforces the central libertarian tenet of individual autonomy and the pursuit of self-interest. The cruel irony is, for all the time Fisk lectures others on the inalienable necessity of free and conscious choice, he has been groomed to replace his father without even being aware. Yet this is the comic in general: it railroads its characters (and its readership) toward -one- choice, and actively blocks out the alternatives.

In the end, Better Days -was- worth my time to read, but not for the reasons its author intended. What few technical and narrative merits the comic does possess are overshadowed by the self-contradictory ethics upon which the entire story is premised. Despite the challenges I have raised and my final one-star rating, I feel it is a comic that -should- be read... but it -must- be read, from start to finish, with a critical eye. Though the story's many controversies are starting points for serious and worthwhile debates—as I hope this review has demonstrated—the comic does not wish to interrogate itself, and provides little room to do so. Like Fisk, we are told to accept Naylor's philosophy without the opportunity to ask why we -should-. The politically astute reader will recognize what Naylor is doing and -make- that opportunity, but the casual reader will -not- and accept his sermons (and their implications) at face value. Because of this intellectual duplicity, I cannot recommend Better Days to anyone unless they genuinely know what sort of story they are taking on.
09:46pm 08/29/2014
 
  i *LeveL
A Vibrant Cyberpunk Saga full of Mystery!
"Vibrant Cyberpunk!? Isn't Cyberpunk supposed to be bleak and depressing," you might inquire... And yet, when you read this comic, it sweeps you away with its exhilaration and energy. The characters radiate expression and spirit. The world they inhabit is rich and deeply involved, overflowing with potential for conflict and tension. Here we have a setting that thinks itself pristine and advanced, while managing to both walk the walk and talk the talk outwardly, all while it teeters on an imperceptible brink - something has GOT to give, and you FEEL it. It calls to you! We begin just as the first threads begin to snap... Truly this yarn will entangle you utterly as it begins its epic unravelling.

If you're even HALF as close to the edge of your seat as I am, you'll be on the FLOOR!
05:40am 08/13/2014
 
  i *Leftover Soup AL
Don't let appearances deceive
This comic's art style may be somewhat simplistic and minimalist, but if you give it a chance the writing will shine through like nothing you'd ever expect. This is extremely intelligently written with complex yet consistent characters and I can't recommend this highly enough. It breaks my heart that there are so few subscribers here! Please read Leftover Soup!
10:46pm 07/31/2014
Classic storytelling with great art
The goal of the creators is to present "the Classic Disney and Don Bluth animated style" with a storytelling style reminiscent of the 1001 Nights. After only a few months and a couple dozen strips, it is evident that they are succeeding. The first story is telling the tale of an Egyptian prince (no relation to Moses) who falls in love with a slave girl. The artwork is clean and crisp, and the expressiveness of the characters truly does channel the best Don Bluth animation.

The creators claim that they have enough stories worked out already to last for five years worth of weekly strips. I'm looking forward to reading all of them.
11:31pm 07/26/2014
Bunny Romance in a Science Fiction World
The creator, J. Riley McCool, has developed a richly detailed world in which a family a rabbit-like pookas cope with issues as diverse as transgender romance and genetic ethics. The artwork is warm and welcoming, though it sometimes clashes with the hard science fiction elements.

Unfortunately, much of the detail of this fascinating world remains unexplored, and is revealed only in hints and brief glimpses. We know that there was conflict with other races in the past, and we later learn that this included humans. Only when we are deeply into the story do we learn that Pookas are a space-travelling species.

The title of the comic is a bit misleading, since it refers to the central plot of the first chapter and not to the overall story arc. In fact, after the first hundred strips Habibah herself has become a mostly secondary character. The central character is Montigo, who is conflicted over his attraction to Puck, a buck pooka who identifies as a doe. Other characters bring their own conflicts and backgrounds into the story.

Despite some imperfections, Habibah's Song is an engaging and entertaining series.
01:36pm 07/25/2014
 
  i *Curtailed
The best slice-of-life comic so far....
This series is created by a real-life young couple and draws heavily on their own experiences. The strip is drawn by Mandy Seley, who represents herself in the strip as an attractive leopard named Seley Hall. Her partner, Fox, is drawn as a fox named Fox.

The artwork is simply stunning. The typical first dozen or so strips serve as Mandy's learning curve to develop her artistic style, but honestly even the first one is cleaner than the finished artwork of some strips that have been around for years. The episodes are truly funny. They are frequently drawn directly from real-life happenings, and tagged as such to let the reader know. Even the commentary provided by the creators is entertaining.

The July 14, 2013 strip and it's accompanying (long) commentary had me in (happy) tears. However, I strongly recommend going through the entire series to get to it.

If there are drawbacks to the strip... and they aren't serious enough to warrant fewer than five stars... they are that there is no strong narrative story (which is typical for the slice-of-life genre) and that alcohol use is heavily featured to the point that it may make some readers (By which I mean myself, as a recovering alcoholic) uncomfortable. These are minor quibbles based on personal preferences, and he strip is so outstanding in every respect that Curtailed is among my absolute favorites.
04:44pm 07/19/2014
 
  i *Sandra & Woo L
An unfortunate decent.
Sadly, a promising comic failed to live up to it's promise. Still competently drawn, the comic is let down by poor writing. At this point, there should be a much greater amount of character development, but one of the title characters is still basically a blank slate, and the other barely goes beyond a shallow collection of base motives.

The recent plot line could basically be summed up as "LOL, Feminazis are stupid!" that seems like a throwback to 70s/80s mens club comics, and the website's comments facility now has a policy banning "destructive criticism of the general content of Sandra and Woo or the personality of the main characters". Alas it is well known that attempts to cast a circle of protection from critics merely results in summoning the brain eater.
11:03am 07/14/2014
Sketchy art, good but not always great storytelling.
The sketchy quality of the artwork is inconsistent with the many years that this strip has been regularly updated. The reader would expect that the artist would have refined his style by now. That aside, many of the stories in this soap opera, set in a fictional monarchy with strong hints of Canada, can be thought-provoking and entertaining. Sometimes, unfortunately, they can also feel dragged out.
01:23am 07/01/2014
The pinnacle of newspaper strips
Bill Watterson began Calvin and Hobbes with a mission: to counteract what he saw as the degeneracy of newspaper comic strips. Whereas most dailies at the time contented to remain in the safe harbour of banal triviality, Watterson dared to push his readers to think. Calvin and Hobbes dealt with everything, from the trials and tribulations of grade school and the dreaded Family Vacation, to the unsung battles of the homemaker, through to serious interrogations of art, philosophy, and the state of the newspaper industry itself; indeed, Watterson's elaborate Sunday pages were themselves a partial rebellion against conventional impositions on the format. But whereas overtly political strips such as Doonesbury and Non Sequitur approach these same topics with a jaded cynicism, Calvin's boundless imagination and incredible adventures are underwritten by an indefatigable optimism, and the strip concludes with the inseparable friends setting out on their toboggan to explore this "magical world".

Watterson ended the strip as quietly and unceremoniously as it began, yet the readership's reaction was anything but. Testifying to the legacy of Calvin and Hobbes is the plethora of slice-of-life webcomics that cite Watterson as an inspiration, if not -the- inspiration. Though we will probably never see further (official) adventures of the boy and his tiger, we can be assured that their creative spirit lives on.
09:43pm 06/30/2014
The feels
This comic definitely has the feels going. BCB is exactly as the title suggests, a bittersweet comic with an overall "sweet" tone. The story is interesting and the characters truly grow as the comic goes on. The art initially was pretty bad, but quickly improves and recently is outstanding. BCB brightens up my day three times a week and I would recommend to anyone seeking a wonderfully bittersweet story.
09:40pm 06/30/2014
 
  i *Sandra & Woo L
Intersting characters in a fun comic
Sandra & Woo is a perfect example of a good comic. I can't really think of any downsides to the comic, but nothing stands out as exceptional. The art is pleasant and regular, updates twice a week, and the writing is well thought-out. Sandra and Woo will not change your life, but it is a very fun read and an upbeat addition to my Monday and Thursday
09:35pm 06/30/2014
 
  i *TwoKinds ALV
Respectable but I don't understand the hype...
Twokinds on numerous boards and rankings appeared as #1 most read comic. I decided to investigate and was really disappointed with the early comics. The art style looked rushed and the story felt forced. Even when the author introduced a secondary cast of characters they felt rushed and forgotten. However, this comic does excel in the relationships between characters of the main cast. When everything supernatural (and poorly thought out) is disregarded, Twokinds is a sweet tale of strangers becoming close friends or lovers. Failing as an adventure, Twokinds excels in shipping, and recent art quality, thus earning three stars.
09:28pm 06/30/2014
 
  i *Better Days ALVX
Fantastic drama and comedy with great art
I started reading Original Life, but went back to read Better Days and WOW! I was really pleased with the art style and the courage to address sensitive subjects. I read about the supposed "political rhetoric" in the comic. And I saw it as parody in CH 4. Elsewhere in the comic political views (on my reading) did not stand out. I loved the shifting tone of the comic and the slices of life for each character. Everything just kept getting better through the end of the comic. Best read as a drama with interludes of comedy, I would strongly recommend Better Days.
07:13pm 06/24/2014
Great Premise
Has a great premise and a lot of potential.
02:30pm 03/24/2014
(Unrated)
  i Broodhollow Mod
Great Story
I love a good mystery and this one has me hooked. It's very suspenseful and quirky. I can't wait to see how it ends and wish it was already finished, so I could just read it all now.
02:28pm 03/24/2014
(Unrated)
  i City Folk
Awesome Characters
I love the art style of this comic. The characters are very cute and funny.
02:27pm 03/24/2014
(Unrated)
  i Addanac City
Always Funny
This is a clever and funny comic that always gets a laugh out of me.
12:03pm 02/25/2014
Compelling, story-centric and fresh
I hate D&D sessions and comics that bite off more than they can realistically chew. This strip does the exact opposite.

The comic is about a group of gamers playing campaigns of D&D. It's NOT about the game of D&D that they are playing. It sticks to the emotions and troubles of the players, NOT the characters. I gamed for just a year, and recognize many of these emotions, and they feel real. Probably you don't need to game to enjoy this, because the game is only the setting that these players struggle in.

And it isn't the only arena in which they struggle.

Real life, as presented by this comic, is similarly realistic and compelling. The characters manage to balance their interesting dichotomies and idiosyncrasies in a way that begs you to keep reading.

Scott Kurtz is a veteran artist and storyteller. He thrives in this setting. Give it a try!

I have a "all the good comics get 4 stars" rule, that is only superseded when a comic is truly great. It is a young comic, but it already has the hallmarks of a great strip, and there is nothing negative to pin on this one yet. For now, this is getting 5 stars.
07:44am 01/12/2014
 
  i *Bug Martini
fantastic one-shots
Formerly "Bug", this comic is a series of short humorous situations. They are VERY funny.
The author's process of coming up with ideas is "think of a stupid idea, pursue", and he does it to great effect.
You will be able to judge the quality for yourself while reading any 10 consecutive comics.
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