There’s a certain subset of webcomics that I’m going to call the Old Guard. These are comics that have been around since the early 2000s, survivors of a time when webcomics were… different. Different how, you ask? Well. Hmm. It’s honestly hard to explain to people who never experienced it, but I’ll try.
The early 2000s were the height of random humor, so there was a strong trend towards inexplicable hijinks and wacky non-sequiturs in webcomics from this time, often as a substitute for actual jokes – or even in comics that were otherwise non-comedic. Every writer wanted to be Jhonen Vasquez. There were constant fourth-wall breaches and author-narrated asides, and plots that tended to meander aimlessly for years. It was also the era of sprite comics, but the less said about those the better.
Some of these early webcomics ended, or were abandoned by their creators (Girly and Adventurers are two examples). Others survived into the present with their same old formula, living artifacts of a darker time (Sluggy Freelance and The Wotch come to mind). Still others transformed, growing out of old patterns and adapting to changing audiences, becoming something completely different than what they started out as.
The best example of an Old Guard comic that reinvented itself in this way is Zebra Girl.
It was in ’03 or ’04 that I started reading Zebra Girl – I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember that I had been avoiding it for a while because I thought it was a furry comic. I was delighted to find that it wasn’t; my standards for a readable webcomic in those days were “not a furry comic or a sprite comic”. I understand that these standards were pretty commonly held.
Zebra Girl is about Sandra Eastlake, a young woman who moves into a house with her best friend Crystal and Crystal’s douchebag slacker brother, Jack. In the attic, the siblings find an ancient magic tome, with which they quickly and accidentally turn Sandra into a demon. As Sandra struggles to hold onto her sense of humanity, things in the trio’s lives spiral out of control in typical Old Guard fashion: overzealous exorcists, savage monsters, nefarious Harry Potter spoofs, alternate versions of themselves from other universes, and even other demons all cross their path. And Sandra starts to find she likes her newfound power. In fact, she likes it a lot.
What’s fascinating about Zebra Girl is to see its gradual transition from wacky supernatural gag comic to serious character-driven epic – a shift that takes upwards of six years of the fifteen-year archives. Now, not everyone has the time or patience to dive into a comic with archives that deep, but as someone who’s been following it for over a decade, I have to say, watching that progress has been rewarding.
I won’t lie, Zebra Girl has its problems. It’s basically devoid of people of color, which is frankly inexcusable in a comic with such length of story and breadth of cast. And no, Tomie’s recent decision to present as a Desi woman instead of a magical book does not, in my opinion, count. And while Joe England has certainly honed his pencils over the years, a great deal of that skill now goes into objectifying his female characters.
But the story is also a long-form and fantastical character study of a woman, and how power changes her, and that I appreciate. Sandra’s internal journey is in many ways more interesting than her struggles with supernatural entities. In the early part of the comic, she seems fairly flat, almost boring, like she had no personality before being turned into a demon. But as we get to know her more, it’s clear that her transformation was deeply traumatic for her, and her reaction to that trauma oscillates between depression and rage. Ultimately, given the immense amount of power granted by her new demonic body, the rage is more gratifying.
Zebra Girl is the only Old Guard comic I still read, and there’s reasons for that:
1. The art got good. Really good. I don’t usually get into art quality in my reviews, because I find it’s not a good predictor of how much I’m going to enjoy a comic. But I’ll be honest, I get lost in England’s linework. It’s so intricate, so precise, and so evocative that I could stare at it for hours and still notice new details. Not to mention that he’s constantly pushing the boundaries of the medium, creating surreal and abstract effects to convey the sense of otherworldliness that the comic abounds with.
2. The humor got actually funny. Eschewed is the ~randomness~ of the elder times, replaced by actual clever wordplay and dialogue. The comedic timing is vastly improved and the comic even lampoons itself sometimes, a nod to the absurdity of its inexplicable early plots. And nowadays it only breaks the fourth wall when it actually makes sense for the story, which gets pretty meta later on.
3. It started taking itself seriously. This sounds like it contradicts the last item, but they’re not mutually exclusive. When the comic started to really focus on the development of its characters and telling a cohesive story about them, that’s when it started to grow up. And while the current chapter, yes, is full of monster hunting and vampires and terrifying rabbits and other genre staples, the tension actually stems from Sandra and whether she’s going to be friendly or hostile to her old friends after returning home.
4. Sandra is heavily hinted to be in love with Crystal. So far she’s denied being “even a little bit gay,” but when she was trapped in an illusion based on her subconscious desires, there was a version of Crystal there who was very friendly. And naked.
Final Verdict: Zebra Girl is something of an acquired taste. If you’re interested in the history of webcomics, the 15-year archives of this comic act as something of a cross-section. Otherwise, if you want to read a cool story about a girl with supernatural problems – and you can forgive or ignore the scattershot feel of the first couple of years – give it a shot.