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Sunday, 20 February 2011

LGBT History Month presents: Fans

“We didn't ask the sky to open. We didn't ask time and space and magic to warp and crack and spit out unknown enemies... But while you were calling these enemies “impossible” and “unimaginable”, we were ready. Because we had imagined. And we can tell you now, now that you'll believe us, that the weird is real.

The future is here. The wide world yonder is capable of things you won't believe.

But don't worry. So are we.”
from Book Six: Magical Thinking

series written by T. Campbell
drawn by Jason Waltrip

What's It About?
The basic premise of Fans is wonderfully simple: if there was an alien invasion tomorrow, or a vampire on the loose or sentient computer virus who would be best prepared to deal with it. The police? The army? Of course not, they haven't been trained or taught how to deal with these things, they haven't imagined a world where these things are real unlike, for instance, a university sci-fi film club. They'd have the know-how because they spend their lives imagining these things.

Fans is a long-running “sci-fi dramedy” webcomic that charts the journey of its characters from that university film club to saving the world on a professional basis as part of the government agency Aegis.

What's Good About It?
The longevity of the series is one of its greatest strengths as it has allowed the creators to take time with their characters. Fans has a large cast but none of the characters feels underdeveloped. Some story arcs in the series have a tight focus on one character whilst others present an ensemble adventure, a mix familiar from many American genre TV shows such as Star Trek or Buffy. It also helps that the series doesn't take place in a static environment: characters develop, change, even die and the status quo shifts in ways big and small.

As to individual stories the series is so far split into eight books each composed of several story arcs, usually with an overarching storyline running through them. Campbell and Waltrip know how to use the mixture of words and art to create subtext, both of the characterisation variety and the allegorical kind. One recent storyline featuring a computer virus attempting to assassinate Apple CEO Steve Jobs combined an explicit race-against-time adventure with a discussion of Jobs' public image and the copyright issues raised by internet file sharing.

This is by no means an isolated example, Fans is a highly political series. Sometimes the satire is explicit (such as a story in which Barack Obama, then a candidate, is attacked by anthropomorphic incarnations of conservative politics) but more often it uses allegory to play with one central theme: the rights of the individual. One of the ways this demonstrates itself is in the sexualities of the cast.

In the world of Fans sexual diversity is treated as a given: Alisin and Tim are bisexual, Meighan is gay, Rumy is... extremely complicated and Marc is just discovering his sexuality. None of these characters is defined by their sexuality, they aren't simple “the gay character” or “the bi character” they are all fully functioning individuals. That isn't to say that sexuality is treated as a non-issue, it is used as a plot generating device but not the sole one. The plots generated by the character of Alisin are sometimes about her sexuality, sometimes by her job as a nurse working with terminally ill children, her own experiences with terminal illness or her marriage. When sexuality does generate a plot it is always in the context of some sort of relationship to be examined.

One story of particular note in this regard is Three, from the sixth book, which charts the formation of a three-person marriage. By turns silly, sweet, romantic and a little bit mad it plays with the nature of fidelity, sexual self-definition, the culture of arranged marriage and the machinations of a mad scientist with a body-swapping machine.

What's Bad About It?Perhaps the series' greatest flaw is that so much of its comedy is based upon “geek culture” references because that's the world its characters live in, the demographic the series is pitched at. The humour delves into a bewilderingly diverse array of sci-fi, fantasy, film, television, comics, music, internet memes and manga fandoms. The problem with this sort of humour is that when you know the reference its funny but when you don't it falls utterly flat. For instance, because I know next to nothing about manga and anime, when the joke rests on that knowledge I have not the slightest clue what's going on.

What's the Art Like?Because Fans is available to its readers free of charge etiquette demands that we not reproduce its artwork here. Instead please find links to specific examples in the text.

Waltrips draws in a black and white style with occasional colour elements for emphasis. This first example demonstrates how colour is used in the series, though there's a great deal more colour here than there is usually. You can see, though, how it is used to draw the eye to specific details: Jesse's Iron Man costume, the flames enveloping the wizard's hands, so on. Occasional photographic elements are also used, incongruous as they seem against the cartoonish art style.

Jason Waltrip is a versatile artist though it may not seem like it to look at his work on Fans. He also draws one of Campbell's other long-running webcomic projects Penny And Aggie (reviewed here) where he uses an entirely different style. Fans was the first project he worked on with Campbell and so to start with his style was less refined, more caricatured and less detailed. If you look at this example from the first book and compare it to the previous example from the sixth you can see how he refines his “Fans” style. Over the years it becomes less blocky and a little more impressionistic, using fewer lines to convey as much, if not more, visual information.

Those two examples are mainly people sitting and standing so here is an example of action, this being an action-based series. Again we have the impressionistic style used to convey visual information: the converging lines to give power to the punch and the same trick used again to slam the attention to the very point where the stake impales the vampire. There's also a nice little touch in the art that could only be used in a webcomic: using a simple animation to have night fall as you read the page, matching the mournful emotions of the scene.

Other InformationFans updates on a Monday – Wednesday – Friday schedule at http://www.faans.com/. The main series is free to view though a subscription service, Fans Plus, is available which provides additional (but not vital) material for a monthly or annual fee.

The series currently runs to eight books, the best starting points being the very beginning and Book Six: Magical Thinking, which begins the Aegis storyline.

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