Shucking Oysters

Creator/s: Gerald Cox
Run: 6/12-current
Schedule: M/W/F

Website: The site's blue, gray, and white layout's plain, but it's also easy on the eyes and doesn't distract from the comic. It'd be nice if it had more personality, though, and reflected the nature of the comic to an extent.

Navigating the site's easy, with buttons at the top and bottom of the pages, and its compact layout has the navigation, information, and e-mail address all centered together at the bottom of the page.

The cast page has short bios containing basic info, which is how I think they should be, and the entries have some charm to them as well. Ideally, the site would have some other extras as well, such as concept art, wallpapers, or miscellaneous information.

Lastly, the creator's been very prolific and consistent so far, first updating daily, and then changing the schedule to three times a week.

Writing: I mentioned in my review of Koji Takahashi (Stops the World) that a "What if..." question can be a solid premise for a story, and Shucking Oysters presents a compelling question of its own: What if an adult got to experience their childhood all over again? And this leads to other questions: How would they regard their parents differently? How would their interactions with other children be affected? Do they have any decisions they regret, and would reconsider if given a second chance? Would they take advantage of their unnatural intelligence, maturity, and knowledge of the future to give themselves a better life than they original had? And would they consider this drastic change to be a blessing, a curse, or a bit of both?

Shucking Oysters, however, avoids the substantial and intriguing aspects of its premise, instead merely focusing on the disoriented victimhood of its protagonist, Elisa. After a brief bout of denial, she ends up as a withdrawn, wisecracking kid, continually bitter about being deprived of her adulthood and the things she associates with it: "A career, a flat, a car... boobs...." With the story 58 pages in, though, that's about the full extent of her character development and introspection, and the comic has barely tried to take advantage of the abundant potential the time-travel premise offers. One particularly poignant instance of this is when Elisa and another time traveler, C.J., realize they have foreknowledge of 24 years of major events that haven't happened yet, which should be a major plot point, yet that conversation quickly dissolves into a weak pot joke and is forgotten. This type of humor wouldn't be as much of a problem if the story had more going on, but at this point, the anemic narrative is already desperate for more meaty subject matter. Her British accent and colloquialisms, despite being born in America, give her dialogue a bit of distinction, although the charm of this is somewhat lost on the reader since it isn't written in dialect.

C.J.'s a more interesting character than Elisa since he approaches their predicament with a degree of ambivalence. Carefree and immature, he feels more comfortable being in a child's role, and I think he recognizes some of the positive aspects of adolescence as well. After all, doesn't everyone harbor a sense of nostalgia for the simpler, more innocent days of their youth? Being a "pharmacist, husband, and father of two girls," C.J. seems, to an extent, to feel relieved of the stress and responsibility inherent in adult life. I would've liked to see these complexities explored more in the story, though, as C.J. still seems largely undeveloped due to his role as the comic relief balancing out Elisa's despondency.

The writing takes the setup-to-punchline formula of gag comics and extends it to fit a long-form comic, and this has the effect of helping each page stand on its own more than they would otherwise. This is a reasonable strategy for making the page-at-a-time approach of webcomics more palatable, but Shucking Oysters has a poor sense of timing with its jokes, leaving much of its humor feeling forced and unnatural. I think the comic's actually at its best when it's being more serious, and the part that impressed me the most is the brief scene where Elisa's mother tries to bond with her depressed daughter. Unfortunately, the creator felt compelled to conclude these emotional pages with more of his lame punchlines, which are probably the weakest gags in the entire comic. This scene probably would've been more effective had it been played straight, and I think it's worth reminding that even the funniest stories often have tender, dramatic moments that help the audience care about what happens to the characters.

Art: After a dismal beginning, the creator has slowed down to updating three times a week, and the artwork's improved dramatically since the earlier pages. Anatomy's grown more consistent, the figures and backgrounds are more detailed, panel composition shows more variety, and the coloring's reasonably shaded.

Despite these improvements, though, Shucking Oysters is still largely a "talking heads" comic. By this, I mean that it's a dialogue-focused comic littered with repetitive neck-up or waist-up shots. "Talking heads" comics, while primitive, are popular with newer creators since they're easier to draw, and many inexperienced creators don't fully appreciate the importance of a comic's visual aspects. This comic's certainly guilty of that, with one of the most notable instances being this page; not only are the characters only shown neck- or shoulder-up, but panels 4-6 are obviously copy-pasted, with only their facial expressions being changed, and the first panel has identical poses. The characters are also shown in the same 3/4 perspective about 90% of the time throughout the comic, and almost always from the same straight-on view (with this top-down view being a significant exception).

Since the characters are almost always drawn in the same pose and perspective, you'd expect the creator would be very capable at drawing them that way by now, but he still struggles at drawing his characters' heads. I think the root of the problem's that he's drawing his characters as two-dimensional objects, not fully taking into consideration the way the various planes of the face change in appearance when tilted away from the viewer. The most blatant effect of this is that the characters' cheeks don't wrap around enough, causing them to stick out way more than they would in real life. While the characters are obviously meant to look cartoony to an extent, I can't accept these huge cheeks as being a deliberate part of the comic's style since in the rare instances where a character's seen front-on, they're fairly properly proportioned. The two-dimensional visuals also cause issues when three-dimensional shading's concerned; take this page for example. In the top panel, the woman's two-dimensional nose somehow blocks the sunlight from her right cheek, and in the second panel, the man's huge nose doesn't cast any shadow at all, despite seeming to stick half-a-foot off his face. The last facet of this two-dimensional problem is the line-width variation, which is used to create the illusion of depth by making some objects seem closer to the viewer than others. The creator's gotten somewhat better at this, but take, for example, the third panel of that page, in which the lines of the hand holding the bottle in the foreground are the same width as the table it's resting on, the body behind it, and the wooden post in the background. This lack of variation creates a disconnect between what the viewer's eyes recognize (the objects being the same distance away) and what makes visual sense (certain objects being closer to the viewer than others).

What's the remedy for these inadequacies, then? Even though Shucking Oysters is a cartoony-looking comic, practice with realistic figure drawing is essential for every artist. Doing this is not only necessary for mastering the fundamentals of human anatomy, but it also helps condition an artist to perceive the world in a more visual way, allowing them to pick up on the subtleties that separate good art from great art. The great cartoonists associated with simpler illustrations are always very capable of drawing in a more realistic manner, and it's very easy (at least for a trained eye) to tell the cartoony illustrations of an inexperienced artist apart from those of a skilled one.

Lastly, the borders of the speech bubbles are consistently too thick, and they detract from the artwork somewhat. In general, the speech bubbles shouldn't have thicker lines than those used for objects in the foreground.

Overall: In the introduction to his book Pussey!, Daniel Clowes writes, "Spending years in a room working on stuff that nobody likes in a debased medium for no money can take its toll on your self-esteem." Starting out in webcomics is very daunting, as the time and effort required in order to bring your craft up to a respectable level can be a huge obstacle to overcome. Fame and fortune in this field don't come overnight, if ever, and nobody started out making stellar pages. That said, before Shucking Oysters will be capable of gaining a significant audience, it'll need to move past its weak humor, poor characterization, and lack of a coherent plot, and the creator will need to be able to demonstrate a mastery of the basic elements of drawing. This process could take years of hard work, but judging by the progress made in just the last month, it appears the creator's most likely ready for the challenge.


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