About a month ago, the website io9 ran a very dangerous story. It was a list along with short descriptions of 17 completed science fiction and fantasy web comics. I spent some time perusing it, knowing that they represented at least 17 potential worlds to fall into but that I couldn’t read them all. Their description of Evan Dahm’s Rice Boy as “fantasy word-building with a heavy dose of the surreal” caught me though, so I gave it a shot. I was not disappointed.
I have a few favorite web comics (Hark a Vagrant and David Troupe’s Buttercup Festival top my list), but reading a full-on graphic novel in a web medium was a new experience for me. I can see the appeal that such a form has for the creator and the freedom it affords. Ideally it allows an artist more creative freedom, without editors or publishers. It also seems a fairly smart business model: build a following by allowing people to read it for free, and then offer hard-copy version for sale. (This is the same model used by online services from WordPress to Spotify: those who pay the premium fees, along with advertisers, subsidize the cost that allows it to be free for everyone else.) As the io9 article indicates, there are a lot of talented individuals out there building graphical worlds along these lines.
Dahm’s Rice Boy is colorful and surreal. It follows the travels of the machine man The One Electronic (T-O-E), an agent of God looking to find the fulfiller of an ancient prophecy, and Rice Boy, a small, meek, polite, uh, thing, who may or may not be said fulfiller. Like any classical fantasy-quest story, there is lots of running around to lots of different ancient and magical realms. Interesting characters are met, words of magic are spoken, enemies gather, and the prophecy is fulfilled, though of course not in the way you expect. If that all sounds like fairly standard fantasy fare, it is. Indeed, the running hither and yon as Rice Boy slowly learns more about the history of Overside (the world in which the tale is set) and his own past gets a bit tedious, especially as Rice Boy himself seems to lack all agency until the very final chapter of the work.
What saves Dahm’s work though, indeed what makes it quite wonderful, is that this fairly standard fantasy trope is told through completely enchanting visuals. Imagine a fantasy epic set in the various vistas of Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go or Oh the Thinks You Can Think and you have a starting point. Dahm’s world is vibrant, and it’s easy to set aside you frustration as Rice Boy is sent off to meet yet another mysterious figure in yet another distant land, because every place he visits is beautiful and singularly new. Really, Seuss’s worlds are the closest thing I can compare this to, though in Dahm’s work the whimsy of Seuss is supplemented by eerie loneliness and haunting vastness. This isn’t a place to rhyme about whether or not the sneetch has a star on its chest; this is a place to fight the Bleach Beast and venture into the foreboding desert of Skorch.
If the landscapes lack a Seussian whimsy, Dahm finds it again in his characters. Besides the innocence of Rice Boy himself (who reminds me randomly enough of the main character of Troupe’s Buttercup Festival), this land is filled with creatures who both in their friendliness and cuddliness might have tumbled off of an Ugly Dolls display. That’s not to say there are no villains. We have creepy black assassins and a frog army as well as some monsters, but Dahm’s bright colors and clear drawing style seem more suited for squishy friend than scaly foe.
Rice Boy is Dahm’s first complete tale set in his world of Overside, and on his website you can find another complete epic (this one in black and white) as well as his current, uncompleted project. And this is the real danger or gift of online web comics. Once you venture down that rabbit hole and realize how many talented folks there are out there continually creating worlds, where does it end?
It doesn’t, I suppose, and that’s kind of the point.