If Internet web comics have an advantage, it's in the way that budding cartoonists are given an opportunity to post their new work online and see how it looks in a public forum. If Internet web comics have a disadvantage – well, it's pretty much the same damn thing. Back in the Neolithic pre-Internet days, when neophyte graphic storytellers wanted to get their work noticed, they did it via small-press printing: first via fanzines than later through what have since become known as mini-comics. It took time to disseminate this material via the mail-order grapevine, which itself proved a good thing since the space in between gave artists time to develop their craft. These days, any mope with a scanner and access to a freebie host site can put up web comics with instant access to more readers than the most successful 20th-century fanzine could've dreamed of attracting.
I was thinking of this while recently perusing the debut issue of Raytoons Cartoon Avenue ($6.98, Raytoons Inc.) Cover blurbed as the "ultimate 'genre free' cartoon book magazine," the collection contains a variety of comic stories, the majority of which contain URLs advising the reader that they can read more of the same at their respective web sites. More than once I found myself thinking, "Is this a stand-alone magazine or a means of promoting these largely unknown contributors' web work?" Too often, the answer to that question appears to be the latter, particularly when pieces (like Sean Kelly's "Pinch and Everett") simply stop mid-story without even the benefit of a decent cliffhanger.
As edited by Raymond Mulligan, the first issue of Avenue features three pieces that appear to have initially been constructed as ongoing comic strips. Mulligan's own "Quack-Up," a rough-hewn serialized funny duck superhero strip, even follows a structure of six daily single-tiered strips and a four-tiered Sunday, while Francis Bonnet's Howard Cruse-indebted "Made to Malfunction" openly advertises itself as a thrice weekly continued web strip. Manga artist Daniel Blodgett's "Say Uncle" also holds to the single-tier-capped-by-a-punchline format, though unlike the first two pieces, it's a series of stand-alone gags and not a continued story. Mulligan opens his premiere issue with "Quack Up," a strip he created "a few years back," though he would've probably done better starting with something more self-contained – or at least more explicitly designed to meet the lay-out demands of a magazine page. When one of the even-numbered pages in "Quack Up" advises us to "turn the page" to continue the story, it's clear all the logistics of magazine layout have not been fully considered.
As for the content, if too much of the material seems a bit too self-congratulatory about its "wackiness," well, that's a familiar freshman cartoonist error. To my eyes, the more successful pieces — from both a script and an art standpoint — are the ones which don't strain to convince us how outlandish they are. Musician/artist Stuart Mason Helmintoller's "Fair Molly: the Saga of Molly's Revenge" does a sweet job illustrating the lyrics to one of his band's Celtic ballads. His art has a pleasing underground comix look that reminds me in places of Larry "Cartoon History of the Universe" Gonick. Paul Fini's "Bliss" provides a promising opening to what looks to be a quasi-autobiographical relationship serial. The art and lay-out on this 'un, if a bit too spare during a bar conversation, suit both the magazine format and Fini's heart-on-his-sleeve material.
More often, the "genre-free" magazine sticks to material that Douglas Adams would surely recognize if he wasn't, you know, demised: sloppy housekeeping robots, idiot stranded space explorers, a talking lobster living in the seat of a snow-bound school bus. (Okay, maybe not that last one.) A little of that stuff goes a long way in my estimation. It takes a certain deftness to handle that particular brand of s-f whimsy without drawing too much attention to yourself.
I was more encouraged by the piece with which Mulligan chose to close his comics zine, "Pig Men of the Press," a series of anti-press gag strips which resemble something that a less left-leaning Ted Rall might've produced back when he was first starting out. (Make of that what you will.) Mulligan's strips are fairly unsubtle — there's a definite campus paper vibe about 'em — but at least they travel on a less busy avenue…