Something Positive is one of the early wave webcomics before everyone got into it and the software got easier via ComicPress, etc.  Others in this early wave club include Penny Arcade, Questionable Content, El Goonish Shive, SinFest, and others.   What makes these web comics different from the newer ones?  They have an air of originality about them.  A lot of them were pioneers in their respective genres and most of what we newer cartoonists do is derivative to one degree or another.

I read through the entire archive of Something Positive and boy oh boy has R.K. Milholland been prolific.  The archive goes back to 2001 and he’s been producing 5 to 7 strips a week since then.  That’s a LOT to read.  I started reading over my lunch break in November of 2010 and finished on 3 Feb 2011.  It’s still going and he’s stated that he intends to go until at least 2015.  (A good sign is that he originally said he’d end it in 2011 – so maybe it can go on “forever”)  Of course, he has been doing it as his main source of income since about 2003, so he does need to keep his output up.  Artwork-wise he started off pretty good, so while the artwork has evolved, it’s not as stark an evolution as with, say, Questionable Content.  (Although he did state that for a while he used to “cheat” use a template with detachable arms as if they were stop motion puppets or vector animation instead of redrawing all the time)  If there’s just two complaints I have with his otherwise great artwork, it’s that his art style leaves no way of knowing that PJ and Aubrey are asian and no way of knowing that Davan is so ugly.  Both have to be stated in the comic.  The asian one, in particular, makes it hard to share a strip with PJ or Aubrey using the fact that they’re not “white” as the punchline without having to explain that theyr’e asian.  (I’ve tried)  Other than that, he does a great job (much better than I am capable of) with his art.

The first strip of Something Positive sets the tone for the first chunk of the comic.

The first Something*Positive Strip

The first Something*Positive Strip

Yeah, this is definitely not for kids.  During this first chunk I felt like the main cast of Davan, Peejee, and Aubrey felt like a rated R Seinfeld.  I could definitely have seen it pitched as an HBO or Showtime remake of the show.  The characters even seemed evil and irredeemable at first.  The comic seemed to revolve around their evil treatment of others.  (Think the last episode of Seinfield and then take it to 11….or 15)  But R. K. Milholland doesn’t suck at story-telling so these weren’t simply evil characters.  They were very loyal to each other.  They do prank each other a lot which sometimes leads to their friends ending up in horrible situations, but it’s usually not malicious.  When not pranking, they help each other with anything because they have been friends for years/decades.

Something Positive - loyalty among friends

Something Positive - loyalty among friends

When the story first kicks off, we eventually find out that Davan and friends are involved in putting on shows in the local Boston theatre.  This leads to the introduction of most of characters that would either become main cast or supporting cast.  I thought I’d read comics with lots of characters before, but Something Positive has 7 main cast members, 31 supporting cast members, and 7 dead characters.  (I may have miscounted one or two)  But, really, a huge portion of the supporting cast appears often enough that they’re just not in the main cast because Milholland doesn’t consider them to be so.

Something*Positive - Screwing Friends over for the funny

Something*Positive - Screwing Friends over for the funny

At some point, Milholland introduces flashback strips.  Since we start off with all the characters in their 20s and 30s and ALMOST all the cast members already know each other, this is how he introduces the way they met.  At first, I found it a bit gimmicky because Milholland would often use a flashback as the setup to some new plotline.  To make something up because I can’t remember everything I read, you’ll see a flashback about Davan’s dad going hunting and something going wrong and then the next strip is about how someone’s trying to get his dad to go hunting.  But many of the characters are very complex (especially Davan) and these flashbacks are used to explain many of their quirks.  As I kept reading and realizing how well Milholland was using these to fill in the characters’ back-stories, I really started to appreciate getting to know their pasts.  In the end it really, really fleshed out the characters.  I’m not sure how many other comics do this, but it’s definitely something I’d possibly consider if I felt it would help the comic.  Lots of comics and TV shows have flashbacks where the characters are explaining something to someone, but not these types of flashbacks that aren’t preceded by exposition.

Over time there was less emphasis on the main characters causing harm to each other.  I’m not going to say that that Something Positive became afflicted by Cerebus Syndrome because it always had a darker tone, but it seem to get a bit of a subtle bump in seriousness while still keeping ALMOST every strip with a punchline.  In fact, while there is one specific point in the strip when things really GET SERIOUS, the tone of the comic has remained fairly constant.  A better portrayal would be that the characters grew up.  The comic is semi-unique in that it is almost immune to comic book time.  Sure, there have been story lines that have taken weeks in real life and a few hours in the comic, but overall, time passes the same for the comic as it does for us.  And what’s amusing at 25 isn’t still amusing at 30.  And so some of the characters have even dealt with this in a cross between being realistic characters and lampshading the changes.  It’s pretty crazy.  Most comics DO NOT want this to happen.  It means that the characters we fell in love with may not still be into the same crazy stuff as before.  Another thing in Something Positive that’s a deviation from the norm is that people stay dead.  And ANYONE can die.  That’s pretty powerful stuff.  It’s not like a Superhero book or a scary movie where you “know” no one is really dead.  In fact, other than the strange properties of Choo-choo Bear the cat, it’s the real world.

Something*Positive - one of the more serious strips

Something*Positive - one of the more serious strips

A few other tidbits on the comic.  Milholland loves doing cross-overs with his comic buddies.  There have been around 3 or 4 extensive cross-overs.  When I say extensive, I mean interactions between characters in both comics that goes on for tens of strips.  It even reached such a level that he adopted Kestrel as a supporting character when his friend stopped using her in her own comic.  I think it’s really fun and the way he does it is so great I hope one day to rise to a level where he’d consider going one with INM.  Lots of comics and web comics have characters that are composites or based on real people. (Such as INM)  But no one I’ve read thus far has taken it to the level that Something Positive has.  This gives me hope that I can do great things with INM even though it’s based on real people.  Although, he did do the sensible thing and not give them the same names as real people.  (Whoops on my part!)  Anyway, even with such a strong basis for his characters initially, he has long since moved away from the characters being based in reality although he often comments that a particular storyline may have a basis in reality.

If there’s one takeaway for me as a comic creator and not just a reader, S*P has pushed me to try and really think about story and not be afraid to make it huge.  Also, to really think about characters and exploring their feelings and wants and desires.  Sure, basic stuff you can read in any guide to creating fiction, but to actually see it done really brings it home.  Over the past few months as I’ve been reading it, it has definitely been affecting the way I’ve been writing future strips that will be appearing here somewhere around April.  It’s no huge change in the way I’m writing, just a small shift that I hope will eventually lead to greater stuff.

Is Something Positive for you?  Test #1 – did any of the strips I posted, especially the first one offend you?  If yes, then don’t read it.  Otherwise, you might like it.  Test #2 – do you like dark humor and a pessimistic main character?  And, Test #3 – do you like getting wrapped up in fictional characters’ lives?  This comic is not for kids, unless you’re liberal enough not to care about your kids reading about profanity, sexuality, implied sex, death, suicide, and depressive personalities.  But if you’re old enough, it’s great.  As someone that’s within a few years of the author’s age, I can definitely relate to some of what the characters are going through as they get older.  This comic definitely had me wondering for the first little bit why I kept reading it.  Why was I so fascinated with these dark people?  (not emo, just evil and Davan’s a cynic/realist)  But the more I read the more I got wrapped up in them.  Now it’s like a favorite book series or tv series where you can’t wait to see what happens to the different characters.  And Milholland spins quite a few plot threads at once and, unlike some other web comics, tends not to forget about them.  I’ve gotten just as sad for Davan and other characters as I have with any other well-written bit of fiction.  While things aren’t as bad as they were in the 90s before graphic novels really took off, a lot of people still see comics as inferior culture to books or movies.  Something Positive is the counter example.  I hope Milholland is able to keep at it for many years to come.