A snappy blend of Boy and His Dog sci-fi plus funny animal comics, Aaron Neathery’s “Endtown“ is one of the underseen gems in web comics. Originally debuting on the Modern Tales site — and more recently migrated to GoComics — the weekday series charts the travails of the beleaguered underground survivors of a mutant spawning radiation plague.
Some of the Endtown inhabitants, like skinny aboveground scavenger Albert, appear to have been unaffected by the radiation, though the majority have been transformed into either anthropomorphic animals or multi-orbed monstrous beasties. Albert’s girlfriend Gustine, for instance, has transmogrified into a 700-pound skirt-wearing rhinoceros (paging Ionesco!) Our hero still remains in love with her, though when he tries a romantic gesture, he fails to take her massive size into account. “You’re pining for the human Gustine!” she accuses.
The primary plot of “Endtown”’s Modern Tales run, then, concerns an aboveground quest for the fruit of a tree that could, conceivably, change Gustine back to her human form. As established in the series’ opening, the surface can be a dangerous place due to the presence of Topsiders, Nazi-like human survivors obsessed with genetic purity; sand-dwelling monsters; and living pixels capable of bonding together to create illusions. Also top side, Sam “Sparkplug” Sanders, a mad weapons scientist who knows first-hand about the Amesworth Radiation responsible for the end of the world as we know it.
Neathery’s strip shifts from Walt Kelly-esque plotlines like an early sequence concerning Albert and ducky Professor Mallard’s attempts to sell the Endtown inhabitants on the wonders of canned beans — to grim moments like Sparkplug’s flashback to the horrendous transformation of his loved ones. At times, as when Albert and Gustine are put on trial as possible traitors after they’ve safely returned from aboveground, “Endtown” attains a sharper satiric voice. What holds the strip through its tonal shifts are its characters: with the exception of the largely faceless Topsiders, whose identities are obscured by their protective suits, Neathery even shows empathy for his villains.
With the move to GoComics, “Endtown” began a separate plotline with a fresh set of characters: disappointing for those of us who’ve grown attached to Albert and Gustine but understandable given that the second arc debuted weeks before the first ‘un concluded. The current storyline centers on Wally Wallechinsky, a cat who has spent most of his post-Apocalypse life aboveground until he’s forced by circumstance be a part of Endtown. Accustomed to the open desert landscape, Wally struggles with the hermetic underground world that is Endtown, which, of course, has its share of urban thugs and ne’er-do-wells. Wally gains some friends in the town — a mouse nurse named Holly and a large crustacean named Oscar — though at this point in the storyline, the self-styled vagabond still feels out of place down under.
Neathery’s art, reminiscent of the great Dell animal comics artists, is suitably cartoonish though capable of communicating moments that are both poignant and dread-filled. His use of grey-tones is frequently inspired while his character expressions are choice. (He also comes up with some great monsters.) Per his occasional side notes, the cartoonist has been struggling to get a full print edition of this stuff out, and to these eyes, it is one of the few web comics deserving of the additional venue. Crackling with inventiveness, crisp dialog and storytelling smarts, it’s a reminder of just entertaining the simple comic strip format can be.
(A whimsical teaser 22-page comic featuring one of the minor characters from the first story arc has recently been made available by the artist for $2.50. To order a copy, contact Aaron at firstname.lastname@example.org.)