SubCulture Omnibus by Kevin Freeman (writer) and Stan Yan (artist)
I love to read, but for the life of me, I can’t stay up reading all night. Or at least, that’s usually the case. However, last night I had one of those rare occasions because I made the mistake of starting to read the SubCulture Omnibus by Kevin Freeman and Stan Yan. The subculture in this book is geek- or fanboy-culture. The geek/fanboy group in this comic consists of mostly young adults who have met through, and hang out at, the local comic shop: Kingdom Comix.
Freeman’s SubCulture is a black-and-white, episodic story that I just could not stop reading, even when I got past the four main issues and into the webstrips, which employ the shorter beats of a comic strip compared to the longer narrative of full issues. So, I ended up reading all 300-plus pages of SubCulture in one sitting. And I managed to throw off my sleep schedule simultaneously. It was worth it.
SubCulture focuses on a group of about ten characters. Jason is the main character. He works retail, hates his boss, and keeps his anger just barely bottled inside. He lives with Arthur, the true fanboy of the series. Arthur is always on the computer playing games or working, since he works from home as a computer programmer. Both of them spend a good part of the time sitting on the couch in front of the TV playing video games or watching Star Wars. If they are not at home in their free time, they are at the local comic shop, Kingdom Comix, owned by Bart, the geek hero who has realized the dream: To actually own and run a comic shop. The other male characters that flesh out the cast include: Skip, a young, angry gamer who dresses in black; Travis, a fourteen-year-old who has been taken in by this group since Kingdom Comix seems to be his second home; and Larry, who owns Merlin’s Outhouse, the new comic store in town. He is Bart’s competition.
The rest of the cast is made up of the females who create the tension in the comic and prevent the story from being just one long set of in-jokes about geek culture. Noel steals the show in this comic, and her character is the one that really kept me reading. Even though she seems one-dimensional at first, Freeman really rounded out her character throughout the full series. Noel is a strong, provocative, and attractive, woman, and she asks Jason out as soon as she moves to town. The story of their relationship is more nuanced than you’d expect, and it’s also quite moving even though it’s based on a series of humorous interactions. Sunshine, who works at the other comic shop, enters into the Jason-Noel dynamic and creates some sexual tension and jealousy. Arthur’s love interest is Kim, a lawyer by day, geek by night. Babs is the woman always at the comic store; she talks on and on about manga, and her roommate is Miyoko, who is into Cosplay.
Why was I pulled in? For the same reason I just described the full cast: Because of the characters and dialogue. Kevin Freeman writes clever, insightful exchanges about geek culture that had me laughing out loud, even though I only partly fit into the geek culture he describes. And that’s why I decided to write this review: SubCulture, like The Big Bang Theory, is about geek culture but is not limited to that audience for its readership: It includes a wider audience; it invites us in and asks us to laugh along with all the insiders who do get all the jokes. So, will you get all the jokes and insider humor if you aren’t the exact demographic depicted by the characters? Absolutely not. But it doesn’t matter. The comic includes references to and humor based on all of the following aspects of geek culture of which I have no knowledge: Console Video Games, On-Line Multi-player Games, D&D-Style Role-Playing Games, Renaissance Festivals, Cos-Play, and Star Trek. I do know a little bit about this subculture, however: I spend time in comic shops, as well as read comics and some manga, but other than that, I am an outsider. And I think those who like any of the items in the list above will enjoy this comic, and perhaps it will be enjoyed even by those who don’t know anything about this subculture at all. Once again, as in The Big Bang Theory, the characters in SubCulture are so well-done that it will appeal well beyond what one might expect if Subculture were written by someone with less craft.
I didn’t know anything about Freeman until I finished reading and turned to the back of the book; however, I find it interesting that he is an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. I found myself interested in knowing more about him, not just because of the stories, but also because his extensive commentary on the comics and webstrips gives readers a sense of Freeman and his process working with Stan Yan. These comments also helped me appreciate many subtle parts of the comic book that I had overlooked. Freeman also made clear how much and what parts of the comic were contributions by Yan. So, make sure you read these bonus parts of the Omnibus edition.
Rating a comic like SubCutlture is hard to do, so I like to be very clear about how I rate narrative art: I evaluate narrative art based on what it is trying to do within the scope of the available budget. When writing novels, the highest standards apply across the board because budget doesn’t have much impact on the production of words; however, movies, television, plays, and comic books are influenced by available financing. Marvel and DC turn out great books, of course, but they also turn out artistically beautiful books with high production values that should never have been made because the writing is so bad. A smaller production like SubCulture just can’t compete with the Hollywood-like treatment comics get at Marvel, DC, and now Image. Because of that financial limitation, smart writers will craft stories that match the available production. Yan’s art for this story is perfect, I think. I fell in love with the characters, particularly Noel, not just because of the writing, but also because of the art. So, if you push aside black-and-white comics, as I first did when I started reading comics, you will think I’ve given SubCulture too high a rating; however, if you believe comics and movies should be evaluated based on what they attempt to do within their budget, then you’ll think I’ve dealt fairly with SubCulture. You might think I even short-changed them by half a star. And perhaps I did.
Where should you purchase your copy of the SubCulture Omnibus? The book lists for about $25, and I’d love to have a paper copy myself, but I didn’t know what I was getting when I downloaded it from ComiXology. ComiXology has great sales all the time, and I might have purchased it on a sale day when I like to give new works a chance. SubCulture sells for $9.99 digitally, and I enjoyed reading it in that format. Either way, I highly recommend reading SubCulture as well as giving other black-and-white comics a try. You’ll be surprised at how many great works are out there!