“Write what you know” is a reoccurring mantra within the literary world, and Kevin Freeman has taken that to heart. Starting in 2006, Freeman along with illustrator Stan Yang, created Subculture, initially a series of four individual issues and then an ongoing webcomic. All of these elements, plus many other extras, are now culled together in one very large printed omnibus by Action Lab Comics.
Subculture chronicles the life of the comic book store crowd: the guys at the gaming tables, the girls into cosplay, etc… and weaves them into a nice ongoing narrative. The plotline focuses on Jason, a retail wage slave who has a pull list but doesn’t devote his life to comics, his roommate Arthur, the quintessential comic book guy devoted to figurines and online gaming and Noel, the edgy, new, artsy girl who has moved to town.
The story proceeds as you would expect it to with a relationship between Noel and Jason and friendship between Arthur and Jason. The intrigue of the Jason and Noel relationship is the meat of the four floppy issue story. Jason, needs to find the future path for his life. He is in a dead end job, has no real money, expectations or girlfriend. Noel wants to shake up his life a bit, becoming his girlfriend and the force behind some of necessary life choices. Arthur is the rock to which Jason turns, with advice of varying qualities and an always empty space on the couch next to him so that hours of gaming is an option when things get complicated.
If the series continued forth in this fashion for its entire seven-year run, it would be incredibly boring and predictable. Subculture made an interesting turn as it left the world of print and entered the world of twice weekly delivery on the web. It left its focus of the romantic relationship of Jason and Noel, positioning them as friends, and instead made the new refined focus the interactions of the comic book gang. The periphery characters had already been introduced before, a motley crew of comic geeks that hang out at the local shop, the most developed of which, up to that point, had been Arthur. With the new emphasis, the gang seems more unified and new characters are introduced.
This is the success of Subculture as work, turning that group of comic geeks into real people. Subculture is not for a reader who’s beginning and end notion of comic geekdom is Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. The series is instead for those who are fully into comics or at least comics adjacent. Those embedded in comic culture will see funny reflections of their lives and those who hurry in and out of the comicbook shop will gain a greater empathy for the “comic book other”, those who’s life balance has slid over to the comics first, life second order of importance. It is easy to make fun of this group, and perhaps even the early floppies occasionally feel a little more pointed than pleasant, but over time Freeman and Yang manage to make them endearing. Annual jaunts to the large comic convention, holiday festivities, a trip to the hospital when the comic book storeowner has a heart attack, and just the ups and downs of regular life, bring the group together in a supportive fashion. It is Friends for the geek crowd.
One aspect of special note is the handling of the female characters within the series. In a world that very easily could have excluded women, made them tokens or fetish objects, Subculture includes a wide variety of women that are just as geeky and invested in the comic world as their male counterparts. An extremely charming subplot involves Arthur, the penultimate comic geek, finding love with Kim, who is a lawyer by day and an online gamer at night. Though Kim is never a character completely in the forefront, she is fleshed out and the relationship with Arthur is warm and cheerful.
Reading through the omnibus, it is a bit of a disarming transition between the individual issues and the reprinted versions of the webcomic. The webcomic follows the format of a comic strip and a mini conclusion is usually delivered every three panels. Read consecutively, the constant three-panel idea can be a little tiring compared to the seemingly long form of the single issue. Even still, longer arcs develop, themes reoccur and new characters are introduced. There are also variances of rhythms and quality of writing and illustration, creating moments that feel a little flatter and less developed than others, but for the most part a reader’s relationship with the cast of characters and interest in their future development carries through the slightly less well-crafted parts.
For fans of Subculture who feel an absence in their life with the conclusion of the webcomic last year, there are plenty of extras: long lists of easter eggs within panels, pinups and development material. There is also a glimmer of hope that it could return, with the conclusion being not overwhelmingly conclusive. However, this lack of conclusion is not a problem with the series as a whole. If it were designed with a specific story arc that failed to deliver, this might be frustrating, but reading Subculture is the more like hanging out with a group of friends and the ending means that maybe you wont see them as much anymore, but hopefully they will keep in touch.