From long-running soap operas to comedy-drama slices of life to daily gag strips, the digital comics scene has exploded over the last decade and readers have never had more options. Feeling overwhelmed? Joe Stando is here to take you on an expedition through the webcomics wilderness and show you the best specimens in our monthly Deadshirt Webcomics Field Guide.
Johnny Wander by Ananth Panagariya and Yuko Ota
One thing that’s kind of cool about webcomics is their ability to be a personal showcase. There aren’t editorial mandates or stockholders to please, the writers and artists are free to explore their creative impulses as they have them. Sometimes this takes the form of stories dramatically changing in tone or style as they go on. For others, there’s a tendency to do short-form stories or one-off strips. Johnny Wander, the webcomic site written by Ananth Panagariya and drawn by Yuko Ota, is sort of a blend of all these styles, to great effect. The site is a grab bag of various projects and comics by the two, highlighting their skills and diverse repertoire of styles.
Johnny Wander began in 2008 as a series of slice of life strips about the authors’ post-grad ups and downs. It’s populated by various friends and roommates, who are usually introduced with quick stat profiles (one of their best little gags in general). It’s a great example of slice of life done right: funny, clear, and relatable without being stock. One of the coolest elements is Ota’s ability to scale detail up and down, depending on the context. Everyone generally looks clean and cartoonish, but a messy room or fridge will be an intricately detailed nightmare. Color, too, is deployed in similar ways; the strip is generally grayscale, but occasionally a splash of color will be added to push a joke over the top.
Panagariya has a deft hand for pacing and comedy, and the strip makes everyday experiences like paying bills or dealing with too hot/too cold apartments interesting and fun. Their day to day and especially hourly comics day updates would be great examples of the form to give to someone just starting out.
But the autobiographical strips, as fun as they are, are only part of Johnny Wander. The site is also home to a couple of longer form fiction stories and full-page illustrations/pin-ups. My favorite of these, “Girl With the Skeleton Hand”, is a charming little story about a romance between a woman and the personification of death. The stories are a good chance for Panagariya and Ota to stretch their muscles in terms of length and depth of subject matter, and they feel like a natural fit for the site despite being so different. At this point, Johnny Wander is a brand, and it’s cool to see what the pair can come up with.
Panagariya and Ota have risen to quite a level of prominence within the indie and webcomics community since its inception. They’ve worked together on projects like Shiftylook’s Namco High and BOOM! Studios’ Adventure Time: Candy Capers. Panagariya recently wrote Buzz!, a graphic novel illustrated by Tessa Stone and released through Oni Press. Ota has released art books through the Benign Kingdom kickstarter projects, as well as The Exquisite Beast, a collaborative art project about designing a monster.
Right now, the Johnny Wander website is taking another new direction. Panagariya and Ota are using it to serialize Lucky Penny, another forthcoming graphic novel. Lucky Penny follows Penny, a young twentysomething girl who can never catch a break. Everything seems to go wrong for her, especially dates with Walter, a nice nerdy guy at her local YMCA. These kinds of stories are fun in general for the pratfalls but Penny’s boundless optimism and determination is especially enjoyable. The book has a lot of subtleties and clever little bits, especially Penny’s plan to live inside of a self-storage unit to save space and get cheap rent (rendered in perfect detail by Ota). It’s a fun, cute story, and one that I think will resonate well with college students and young adults. The vibe of being kind of affably broke and directionless certainly felt familiar to me.
There’s a lot of different stuff on Johnny Wander, everything from autobio comics to fantasy to YA fiction. Panagariya and Ota are a powerhouse of scripting and illustration and I’m excited when the site updates, no matter the latest post is. I’m hoping in the future, their work becomes even more varied (Ota has alluded to a fantasy story she’s had in mind for a while on her tumblr that sounds amazing,) but no matter what, I’m a fan of the site and think it’s worth bookmarking.