Welcome to the latest installment of my comics review column here at Skiffy & Fanty! Every month, I use this space to shine a spotlight on SF&F comics (print comics, graphic novels, and webcomics) that I believe deserve more attention from SF&F readers.
This month, I’m going to draw your attention to a webcomics series, new in 2017, that tells a complete story that you can read for free online – that also marked the surprising and welcome return of some old friends: Rob Walton’s Ragmop. (This review contains spoilers!)
Created, written and drawn by Rob Walton
Published by Vault Comics
It’s 2017, and the world, as wiser observers than I have noted, is on fire. That’s not even a particularly acute or thoughtful position anymore; it’s somewhere between a fact so obvious that it barely requires stating and a cliche. We’re in a pretty dire state of affairs when a condition of incipient Armageddon is, you know, barely worth mentioning, but one thing that the sense of a permanent crisis does do is bring even small joys into very sharp relief.
The return of Ragmop is much more than a small joy.
Ragmop, by cartoonist Rob Walton, was one of my favourite comics of the 1990s, and my favourite of the cohort of self-published, creator-owned-and-controlled series that launched themselves out of the gate in the wake of the industry’s massive boom of the early 1990s, only to be caught up in the even-more-massive downturn of the mid-90s and onwards.
Ragmop then was perfectly in tune with my 20something Gen-X sensibilities, a wild, kinetic combination of alien conspiracies, homages to classic Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Gnosticism, action-adventure, sight gags, and feminist critique of the comics industry.
The series never achieved the success it deserved, and after an attempt to improve sales by moving to Image (a solution that a number of self-publishers explored), a final self-published issue summarized, in text, for Ragmop‘s most devoted readers, what would have happened to conclude the first storyline, if only the series had been able to continue. It was a sad, anticlimactic end to an underappreciated gem.
And that, I thought, was that.
Until I was surprised and delighted to see the series collected, at last, in graphic novel format in 2006. Complete with its long-awaited conclusion, somewhat revised for the sake of a more definite conclusion in that single volume, and with a few other edits and revisions. Most of those reflected the story’s new format as a book, rather than an ongoing comics series, but there was also some judicious tweaking of content; the sharpest political joke in the comic, which was full of them, was excised because, as Walton once noted, in the post-9/11 era, it actually made him worried about trying to enter the US.
So, we Ragmop devotees finally got our ending, if not quite the one the creator originally envisioned. And that, I thought, was that.
Except that wasn’t that.
I’m not even sure who originally retweeted it, but in early 2017, by chance — because I wasn’t following the publisher and didn’t know the creator was on Twitter — an actual trailer for the actual return of actual new Ragmop.
Of all the reboots, remakes and relaunches that 2017 could have brought us, this one was, for me, the most cheering and the most unanticipated. But, I mean, of course, I didn’t want to get my hopes too elevated, not in 2017. The Ragmop that I loved came from, and to me, in a particular time and place. In the ensuing twenty years, I’ve changed, and no doubt Rob Walton has changed, and the world has certainly changed. You can’t go home again, and all that. What if the Suck Fairy had visited?
The Suck Fairy has not visited.
In Ragmop’s unlooked-for return, Alice Hawkings is still monkeywrenching the plans of Earth’s secret alien overlords with the help of her three dinosaur friends and the bongo-playing physicist Til Pindal. Complications, as one would expect, ensue. The nefarious plot to use chemtrails to alter Earth’s environment is disrupted, but Alice ends up being menaced by reptilian extraterrestrials at a Nazi saucer base in Antarctica while Einstein the Tyrannosaurus is injected with a super-chicken growth formula by an evil agribusiness conglomerate and goes on a city-threatening rampage. There’s a side trip to Italy, a musical number, and a kaiju-battling giant robot that looks like good old ever-lovin’ Ben Grimm himself.
I’m not exaggerating, by the way. That’s not the half of it.
So, clearly, the ideas and the jokes in Ragmop come as thick and as fast as ever. It’s still wild and fun and I don’t think I got more than about half the homages and references.
And it all, somehow, works (with a couple of exceptions, noted below).
Rob Walton’s cartooning continues to delight, with engaging character designs, vivid and clear visual storytelling and action, and a true gift for comedy.
The inks are a little heavier and bolder than in Ragmop‘s first iteration. I’m not sure if that’s part of the story’s deliberate evocation of Jack Kirby, a function of Walton’s own evolving art style, or simply a by-product of the tools and process of creating this particular story, but in any case, it’s a difference, not a fault.
Generally, the art hasn’t suffered from the transition from print to web. But there are a handful of exceptions. There are a few panels, generally big, panoramic shots with lots of detail, where the medium of webcomics doesn’t serve the art as well as it could — I certainly wouldn’t try to read this on a phone.
The elements that gave me pause? Comparatively quite minor, but one merits a mild content warning: The scheme of the reptilian General Falsflagg to capture Alice and combine their DNA to create an even-more-evil lizard alien offspring is … well, the implications are clear. Walton works very hard, trying to make the material comedic, not creepy, and to avoid sexual assault as a trope or plot device. But even without those aspects, coerced reproduction, especially in the current atmosphere of threats on women’s rights, skews too troubling to be funny, for me.
“In the current atmosphere”, come to think of it, is a good explanation for my reservations with this new incarnation of Ragmop. The story has always used conspiracy theories, usually the more entertainingly baroque and esoteric, as a springboard for its plots. This wasn’t the conspiracy chic that briefly flourished in the wake of X-Files and its many imitators; it was one source of McGuffins and inspiration among many, and was always in the service of a narrative that was sharp, smart and above all funny as hell.
And Ragmop is still sharp, smart and funny as hell. But conspiracies… they aren’t as entertaining to me anymore, in the current atmosphere. People who believe in more serious versions of the wild ideas that inform Ragmop helped elect the current President; their blaming of the world’s ills on the wrong targets via the pattern-seeking, “narrative disorder” they exemplify could very well get us all killed. Ragmop, as I said, was never conspiracy chic, but I didn’t quite realize until reading new Ragmop, in 2017, that some of my enjoyment of it rested on the same foundation of I-don’t-have-to-worry-that-anyone-really-believes-this-stuff-so-it’s-safe-to-use-in-entertainment that informed conspiracy chic.
On the other hand: Alice Hawkings, back and still fighting the reptilians from Draco! A Tyrannosaurus turned super-chicken battling kaiju! Super-cool 60s-Italian flying saucer pilots! A general who really likes having fruit flicked at his butt!
So yes, a handful of reservations about some of the execution aside, I’m delighted at the unexpected return of Ragmop. It’s silly, brilliant, and mind-expanding. It’s also, now, free to read online from Vault Comics, in twenty installments of several pages each. Over those chapters, the story reaches a satisfactory conclusion that hints at more — like, techno-cosmic apocalypse levels of more — to come. I very much hope that online, where price and distribution are no longer factors, it finally finds the large and appreciative audience it has always deserved, and we’ll all get even more Ragmop.
So, seriously: Check it out.
Acknowledgements and Disclosures: I would like to acknowledge that Toronto, and the land it now occupies, where I live and work, has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years. This land is the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island. I am grateful to have the opportunity to live and work in the community of Toronto, on this territory.
Rob Walton and I are both Toronto-based and involved in comics and, as is pretty clear by this point, I’m a huge fan of his work. So yes, we’ve met and talked at many local conventions. I wouldn’t call us friends or acquaintances, though, and I don’t believe our connection biased my review. I don’t have any personal or professional relationships I’m aware of with the publisher. The comic is free to read online.