If I jumped right in and described the webcomics of Jessica McLeod and Edward J. Grug III as "cute," I feel certain a large percentage of readers would sigh wearily, roll their eyes, and click away to some other portion of the phantasmagorical extravaganza that is the Strange Horizons website.
This is because the word "cute" in the arts these days is considered more an insult than anything else, a word folks use when they mean "treacly" or "childish" or "designed by people over a certain age to get money from the parents of people under a certain age."
So when I started writing articles about webcomics I enjoyed four or five years ago, I felt the need to distinguish the sort of cute that appealed to me from the sort of mass-market cute that seems so prevalent in movies and TV. What I was talking about wasn't Pokémon cute, nor was it My Little Pony cute. It was neither the cute of the "wisecracking" Disney movie animal sidekick, say Timon from The Lion King or Mushu from Mulan, nor was it the cute of the "wide-eyed" Disney movie animal sidekick, say Flounder from The Little Mermaid or Flit from Pocahontas.
What I was talking about is more the cute displayed in a movie like Toy Story or Up or Ratatouille, the cute that has less to do with the proportion of a character's head size to body size or how sparkly a given eyeball might be and more to do with bridging the gap between the world as it is and the world as we'd like it to be. It's a cute that requires an acknowledgment that the world is a rough and scary place but then turns around and decides to smile anyway.
But would anyone other than I describe a Pixar movie as "cute"? I could imagine a line of reasoning similar to the one Margaret Atwood and Terry Goodkind use when they deny that they write science fiction and fantasy respectively: cute is just for kids and people who aren't kids enjoy Pixar movies; therefore Pixar movies aren't cute.
So in an effort to forestall any such objections, I called what I was talking about the New Cute. The New Cute, y'see, specifically chooses to be a cuteness for adults, a cuteness that takes symbols, concepts, and imagery from the Old Cute and reworks them. "Reworks," I say again, not "chucks into a meat grinder." I mean, I'll be the first to admit that fuzzy animals slicing each other to bits with chain saws or bunnies spouting obscenities can be pretty funny in the right hands, but that's not the sort of thing I'm talking about. The New Cute is all about taking cute to new and unexpected places, places that would be too confusing or too obscure or too thought-provoking for the Old Cute, while still and always remaining cute.
The definition I came up with in those original articles was "small but not picayune; pleasant but not condescending; optimistic but not sugarcoated," and when I find stuff like that, not just in webcomics but in the arts in general, it attracts me like a cartoon goat to a tin can. Nihilistic wisecracks and wizened despair are the easiest things in the world to churn out when the daily news is full of all the inspiration anyone could ever want. But to take that material, the poverty and the loss and the unpleasantness that surround us, and come up with a dose of friendship and caring and heart, that's big-time cute in my book. And that's exactly the sort of things the aforementioned Jessica McLeod and Edward J. Grug III do on a regular basis.
A married couple living in Perth, Western Australia—Grug's pseudonym, in fact, is inspired by the main character in a series of Australian children's books—they've been making comics together and separately for a fair amount of time now: The Bizarre Life of Charlie Red-Eye, a strip Grug co-created, began back in 2003, for instance. I first came across their work in 2005 when Grug and I both signed up for the ongoing Daily Grind Iron Man Competition, but the comics of theirs I'll be addressing here are the ones found on their WebComicsNation sites, <http://webcomicsnation.com/jessica/> and <http://webcomicsnation.com/grug/>, and on the Top Shelf Comix website.
A reader glancing too quickly at those pages will see a lot of talking animals and other cute little creatures: McLeod's Space Rabbit, with his monocle and round see-through helmet, or Grug's Hugo Hensen, all shaggy and orange. But settling in to read the comics will show why I thought I needed to go through all the rigmarole I described at the beginning of this artcle. The comics are cute, have no doubt about that, but the love and laughter in them coexists with pain and pathos and heartbreak, not the sorts of subjects the Old Cute cares to—or is even able to—deal with in any real way.
Of course, when I say "deal with," I don't mean in some rude or confrontational manner—that wouldn't be cute—but with understatement, gentleness, even silence: Hugo Henson doesn't speak at all, and if there's a more considerate vampire in fiction than the main character from McLeod's "Ghost Farm," I've certainly never run across her, the way she offers milk or blood for a visitor's cocoa. Looking for a friend, she decides on a ghost because she finds other vampires "boring. And mean." And as for her human friends, "I had some," she says, "but I ate them."
Violence and death, and still as cute as can be: Grug's "Osborn and Reynard" has quite a high body count even though it's all off-stage, and his "Plague" might be best described as a cross between Tom and Jerry and Night of the Living Dead. It's not a subversion of the idea of cute so much as an expansion of it, a way to find the "inner cuteness" in any situation.
The highest expression of all this that they've yet done would be the three chapters of Love Puppets that McLeod has written and Grug has drawn for Top Shelf Comix's website. At its core, this is a "slice of life" comic, its stories chronicling the everyday adventures of people going about their regular lives. It's just that in this case, all the people happen to be puppets.
Hand puppets both traditional and more "Muppet" like, rod puppets, marionettes, the cast features a regular melting pot of puppets, and the stories so far have centered more or less on a coffee shop/book store called The Café Literati: the first issue follows Alex, a cat puppet, her friend Callie, an elephant puppet, and Sam, the rabbit puppet who works at the café; the second issue centers on Mr. Johansen, the big furry monster puppet who owns the place; and the third issue gives us a "back stage" glimpse of the concert given by Seth Bowen, a large octopus puppet, that the characters in the first story attend.
As the series title suggests, love figures into everything, but I don't want to spoil the surprises by getting too specific. Suffice it to say that the depth and breadth of emotion displayed here goes well beyond the usual puppet show, and the characters transcend the limitations of their stiff felt arms and ping-pong ball or coat button eyes to become real flesh and blood. McLeod's stories and dialogue give us people with all their warts and dreams, but she never forgets that they're literally not human. She gives us a world much like ours but always suited to the puppets who live in it.
As for the visuals, Grug's artwork is constantly, delightfully surprising. Little touches—the wrinkles in the cloth backdrop of the sky, seeing the bottom edges of the puppets in some frames—never let the reader forget that this is indeed a puppet show, but drawing it as he does gives him a chance to expand the horizons and create crowd scenes that might be a little difficult to stage with actual puppeteers. Still, having participated in my fair share of puppet productions over the years, I'm pretty sure I could duplicate every pose he puts the characters into.
In short, it's my kind of tour de force, a character-driven drama mixed with the cardboard and faux-fur usually found in productions meant for children. It's quintessential "New Cute," a look at a world that may be cuter than ours but isn't really all that different.
The world of webcomics is expanding every day, and most of it is available free of charge to anyone with an internet connection. The comics come in a wide variety of styles and flavors, ranging from those that are extraordinarily popular for reasons that I personally can't understand to those that trundle on for years in well-deserved obscurity. McLeod and Grug are in the "up and coming" category these days, Love Puppets appearing as it does on the website of Top Shelf Comix, one of the premier independent publishers. It's a very hopeful thing to see, and I can hardly wait for the next issue.
Michael H. Payne's short fiction has appeared in places like Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress series, and the Writers of the Future anthology; his novel The Blood Jaguar came out a decade ago from Tor Books. He's a former reviewer for Tangent Online and Comixtalk.com, coordinates the SFWA's Circulating Book Plan, and spends a great deal of time messing about with his two webcomics, Daily Grind and Terebinth. Try hyniof.livejournal.com to see how it all comes out.