Before I get to today’s subject (Dean Trippe’s Butterfly) allow me to go on a bit of a stream-of-consciousness rant. If you want to get to the review, start reading right below the picture. Good? Good.
One of the greatest and most eternal questions regarding comic books (the print kind) is … why in the world are there so many superhero comic books? This has been the bane of independent comic publishers. They can complain until they’re blue in the face that the medium can do so much more: romance, horror, social commentary. Are comic book readers just uncultured zombies, flocking to the cheapest form of escapist fantasy? Or do the Big Two comic publishers manipulate the market to ensure that the only comic books that ever make it into the direct market retailers are the ones featuring their core competencies?
The X-Axis’ Paul O’Brien wrote, in my opinion, the definitive essay on superhero comics. Here’s a quote from the article at Ninth Art: “Many superhero readers might describe themselves as comics fans, but only because of the common error that superheroes equal comics. Most, in fact, are not comics fans. They’re genre fans. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a genre fan, but it doesn’t translate into being a fan of the medium. The reason why the North American comics audience is overrun with fans of the superhero genre is quite simple: where else are they going to get those stories? Yes, there’s a handful of TV shows and the occasional film. And there are some novels. But for the most part, those are just spin-offs of the comics. Comics have always been the driving force behind the genre. So if you’re a fan of the superhero genre, naturally you will come to comics for your fix.”
So, in a manner of speaking, the comic book is the best format for telling stories about superheroes. But if that were the case, how come superhero domination doesn’t extend to webcomics?
It seems counter-intuitive. But the reality is that webcomics actually boast more genre variety than print comic books. There are plenty of reasons for this. First, popular superheros tend to be long-term established ones, not newly created ones. Superman can penetrate the national imagination, but some blonde-haired jabroni named Sentry? Not so much. Secondly, most webcomic artists don’t seem to have the artistic chops to consistently draw someone with a superhuman physique. Hey, I’m in the same boat. When I took cartooning class, my art teacher once said that my “muscles” looked like hemorrhoids. And finally, interests change. Young webcomic artists aren’t necessarily reading comic books anymore. However, they are playing video games and reading manga… which, incidentally, explains why there are so many webcomics about both. Superheroes … that’s old people’s stuff.
However, superheroes haven’t completely disappeared form the webcomic page. At least, as long as you don’t take them seriously. Our costumed guardians live on in superhero parodies like the previously reviewed Year One, the silly Non-Adventures of Wonderella, the so-atrocious-it’s-pitiable Cow-Man… and today’s comic: Butterfly.
Dean Trippe seems to be one of those rare webcomic creators attempting to develop stuff that can be enjoyed by fans of all ages. This shouldn’t be such a novel and shocking idea, but majority of webcomics seem to be aimed squarely at the creators’ preteen to college-age peers. (I mean… but how many times can you view a decapitation or read a Mario reference and have the author insist that it’s the pinnacale of great humor?) Trippe seems to take a lot of pride in his admittedly excellent superhero costume redesigns, especially his Batgirl. His artwork seems to be a blend of two influences: the joyous, colorful artwork of the ’60s and the underground indie artwork of the ’90s… which, in a way, was retro-Kirby. (Incidentally, I get a strange feeling when I realize that Fa books like Hate and Madman can now seem retro. It makes me feel really, really, really old.)
Butterfly has very humble origins. It started out as a series of rough doodles that have now been banished to a secondary archive (which is still required reading, by the way). According to the site, it was an entry in something called the Iron Man Challenge. I can assume that this was a gentleman’s challenge among webcomic friends to create whole comic strips in a short amount of time. If my speculation is true, then the Iron Man Challenge has already created more relevant works than the similarly themed NaNoWriMo, which I personally quit in disgust after writing 10,000 words of pure dreck.
Butterfly is named after the series title character, a young blonde-haired kid who wears a mask and a pair of butterfly wings. He has the power of flight, and a butterfly sense that … um … finds rainbows. At the beginning of the strip, he’s introduced as the sidekick of a sidekick. He’s the sidekick of Birdie (a guy who looks like a certain Boy Wonder), who is in turn the sidekick of Knight-Bat (a guy who looks like a certain Dark Knight). Butterfly represents the least threatening animal: a step down form a bird, and a big step down from a bat.
The three form a family of sorts. As you might expect, Knight-Bat is the father figure. Birdie and Butterfly act like brothers. Birdie often finds himself explaining to his ward the do’s and don’t of being a sidekick. Meanwhile, Butterfly approaches everything with a wide-eyed innocence and floats aimlessly like Jeffy from Family Circus. None of them have secret identities and are only seen with their costumes on. Knight-Bat, in fact, probably doesn’t even have a rich-playboy Bruce Wayne alter ego, since he doesn’t even own the secret hide-out and he’s frequently seen hanging out at fast food places.
Butterfly is surrounded by the familiar trappings of the Batman mythos with a twist: the “loyal manservant,” the cavernous hideout with working computer, and those super-nifty utility belts. They encounter familiar looking friends and foes. And they do battle in the friendliest way possible.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar … well, it is. And it was called The Tick. Or perhaps the Venture Brothers. Or… Darkwing Duck. Butterfly crosses into the same territory. You have the jaunty atmosphere of the 1960’s Batman TV show, the references to comic book mythos to make the fanboys squeal, the heroes’ misplaced sense of self-importance, and the treatment of villains as competitive goofballs rather than a legitimate threat. There’s nothing bad about that. Frankly, I’m a huge nerd and I love all those TV shows I mentioned. However, Butterfly won’t hold any wild and unforseen twists past the standard superhero parody template.
That’s not to say Butterfly isn’t without its faults. Butterfly, for example, is a sweet, happy-go-lucky lad, but there are times when he can be a bit too precious. This is probably one of the inevitable pitfalls in writing an all-ages comic. Yes, I have to give Trippe credit here: despite the family bonding between the main three characters, he hasn’t made the usual wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes. YOu know, the ones about Batman and Robin that we already old in the 1960’s. Instead, Trippe sticks to motifs that are largely kid-friendly: school, hamburgers, and ball pools.
Another gripe? Trippe has developed a sprawling, detailed universe that should feel large and multi-faceted … yet I couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit shallow and under-developed. The Dynamic Three are served well, but the ensemble cast mostly flit around in the background for one or two strips, and then disappear. Even the recurring villains seem woefully underserved. Ms. Mouse (who I fell instantly in love with at her debut — must’ve been them gyratin’ hips) shows up for three strips at her debut, then disappears without any impact. This may be part of the character design, but even ineffective villians in The Tick, like the Mad Bomber What Bombs at Midnight, manage to leave a lasting impression. Only the most recent villain, The Mighty Seth, seems to have a distinct personality. This may seem like a minor quibble, but interaction with eccentric weirdos in tights is a cornerstone for both comics and comic book spoofs.
But then again, it could just be that Butterfly is unfortunately restricted by circumstances to truly explore the Butterverse. (Like that term? Every hero comic must have “-verse” appended somewhere.) The storytelling possibilities are already restricted by the small rectangular borders: it’s more of a weekday comic strip than a comic book page. And very few Butterfly strips have been created. The archives, which span two years, contain less than 100 strips … and a good number of these are from guest artists. No offense to the guest artists out there, but these kinds of strips are rarely considered canon. And I don’t know much about Dean Trippe, but I can make a couple of assumptions about him: 1.) he actually has a day job, and that takes priority over his webcomic, which is more of a hobby, and 2.) he’s not David Morgan-Mar.
And that’s a shame. Butterfly is already an above average webcomic, but I have the nagging feeling that it could be something quite spectacular if Dean Trippe had more time to spend on it. The strip, though, is still breezy, fun, and enjoyable. You don’t have to be a comic nerd like me to get the gags … but, like an Ookla the Mok filk song, there’s plenty of comic-centered jokes to warm your nerdy heart. The old school art is dynamic and looks really spectacular during the action sequences. And there’s the costume designs, Dean Trippe’s specialty, which look both familiar, yet unique. (I am especially digging the new bat-clasp on Bat-Night’s cape. Very classy.)
So in the end, I’ll give this series a 4 out of 5 .. but it would probably be 4.5 if I wasn’t deathly afraid of the twin demons of decimals and rounding up. So when you come home at the end of the day and you put away your utility belt and gas grenades, settle yourself in your favorite chair and check out Butterfly when you have the chance.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)