Writer Kevin Church has recently announced that his long-running long-form webcomic The Rack will be ending soon. I’m going to be honest, out of all his AGREEABLE COMICS stuff I’ve never regularly read The Rack (The Loneliest Astronauts and She Died In Terrebonne are my favorites), but I took this announcement as an opportunity to basically play catch-up on the comic. While I’m not anywhere near the amount of webcomics I used to read regularly on their daily or weekly schedules, I read a lot of comics online and I’m always forgetting about one or another every so often. The Rack was one of those webcomics, slipping through the cracks.
Not really a valid excuse and I’m sure Church and artist Benjamin Birdie will call me a poser or something, but whatever, that’s why I’m just now catching up on the epic, if you’ll pardon the Internet lingo pun.
I’ve been sitting down for a few hours a day for the past few days and just reading the whole thing from the beginning, taking in chunks of strips and storylines at a time. Considering the comic started in 2007 and only now in 2011 will be ending, it’s an impressive run for the comic, a continuing narrative about the lives and misadventures of the employees of comic book shop Yavin IV. Consider just how many print “legitimate” comics barely last a calendar year sometimes in comparison, those million issues of Avengers-related titles that Brian Michael Bendis has written not counting.
I love reading webcomics and comic strips from beginning to end (or current), it’s interesting to see a progression in writing, characterization, world, and art (Birdie’s art throughout The Rack just gets better and better, a pretty simple but very effective cartooning style that definitely grew on me…I’d never picture Lydia any differently) over the years. I did the same thing with webcomics like Questionable Content and You’ll Have That when I first discovered them, and when I got into newspaper comics like Baby Blues and Stone Soup (which have some effective and fairly thorough archives online), I did the same thing.
Anyway, in doing this mega-read, which I did partially also in order to write this sort of thing (don’t write about something you don’t know anything or everything about, kids!)
Church is a big advocate of not depending on tropes and subculture conventions to drive the narrative, falling back heavily on characterization building unique voices instead in his writing. The Rack isn’t a webcomic of comic book and comic culture-related jokes set in a comic book shop. Rather, it’s a webcomic where several friends live out several years of their lives, for better or worse, and they just happen to all be comic book fans working in a comic book shop.
I have to be honest, I really love The Rack way more now than I’ve read the entire thing front-to-back, so to speak. I’ve even read the spinoff Lydia (one of Church’s new comics The Line is another The Rack spinoff), so I’m pretty sure I’m caught up on everything about the Yavin IV gang.
Of course the common joke within the comic book community is that while we might appear as a united front against non-comics reading audiences and general populations, in fact the community itself is very sharply divided depending on reading habits and genres within the medium. A lot of comics or webcomics will play up that joke. And again, in The Rack takes that trope and doesn’t necessarily depend on it to write the gags. Rather, it uses this subgenre of the generic “gang of friends working in a store” writing trope as a part of the world and the background for solid characters and storytelling.
Seriously, Kevin Church writes some amazing stories that manage to be hilarious and awesome and relatable but don’t cross the lines of unnecessary melancholy or surreal slapstick with giant robots randomly showing up just for the sake of someone going “GIANT ROBOT!” The aforementioned Linda’s the standout, cynical without cliché “bitch-ness” that often gets attached to non-bubbly female characters in stories. Similarly, “new hire” Rick (who’s introduction to the cast kicks off the comic) comes out to his fellow employees as gay to little fanfare and a bare minimum of joking to it, lacking any of the clichés of other “nerd” (using that term loosely) humor related to the revelations of gay characters’ sexuality. It comes, it goes, it’s irrelevant to the way a character is written post-“revelation”, barring the introduction of Rick’s boyfriend as a new part-time cast member and a few instances of hilariously violent reactions to homophobia encountered in the narrative.
Video game-centric webcomics, I’m lookin’ at you.
You’ve probably noticed me here talking about narrative and extended (non-compressed) comic storytelling in this little written shindig, and that’s to illustrate a point about this comic that very few webcomics these days are willing to engage in;
A lot of webcomics still draw heavily on the (arguably very reliable when done right) newspaper comic storytelling one-two-three format of setup, joke, punchline. There’s very little extended narrative beyond one- to two-week concurrent storylines honestly. And while, like I said, it can work when done well (“Peanuts” comes to mind), it’s often not done because it allows for random views of random strips to not require a lot of setup, therefore drawing in new readers. It’s a holdover of the lack of easily-available archives for newspaper comics for years (Universal/GoComics is head and shoulders above the rest getting on top of this).
Comics like Questionable Content have in the past few years embraced the concept of letting go of having to deal with new readers, depending on interested new parties delving back into long-running archives. It’s the Internet, it’s not like it’s going anywhere. Warren Ellis’s post-apocalyptic tale of foul-mouthed metahumans drinking and smoking and fucking like Ellis characters are wont to do, FreakAngels, is specifically tackling webcomics as a longform narrative versus gag-a-day trope-driven jokes.
Characters and good stories drive good comics. Concepts are nice, but concepts only work as far as the concept can go without amazing writing. Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver’s S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics is a concept-driven comic that’s rare in that the writing is amazing enough to drive the concept, but that’s so rare. It’s the writing that also makes Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content such a success as a webcomic, or what makes Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener’s Atomic Robo just blow my mind so often with amazing writing that takes a funny concept and runs with it.
Kevin Church’s writing is the same way. It’s not just a funny concept, it’s a greatly-written world crafted from some amazingly-written stories. It could take place in a Kinko’s or a 7-11 or a videogame store or a Taiwanese volleyball accessories store, and it’d be The Rack.
Because The Rack is awesome. It’ll be missed.