My first introduction to VirusComix.com was via a friend who sent me a one-shot issue of Subnormality. It was a densely packed comic where a space marine is retelling the sci-fi horror he had just experienced to a prostitute at a large commercial chain brothel on Christmas Eve. The story is simultaneously a parable about human resource consumption and territorial expansion and an examination of the little details that make up the human emotional experience through the lens of a brothel conversation. Needless to say, I was hooked.
When I got to the strip that told the story of an atomic cowgirl named Shango and her nuclear physicist mule dealing with gender stereotypes in the Old West… well, whatever’s a step up from hooked, I was that.
The one-shots by creator Winston Rowntree remain fantastic and, as the years go on, they start to become more issues than strips, eventually telling multiple simultaneous narratives happening in the same place to different people. As the individual one-shot comics got longer and more wordy over the years, they started to introduce recurring characters and themes. The current issue is a massive narrative about the lives of several people in a city. We see, for example, the experience of the writer and her friend and the experience of the people moving furniture outside the window or the experience of the band backstage after the concert they’re at. The way the details of these peoples’ lives are presented, often requiring the reader to track multiple independent narratives happening simultaneously in the same place, is an amazing experience. It almost feels fractal in nature; the minute details of how individuals relate to each other forms a sort of meta narrative about humanity itself.
While Subnormality is the most popular series on the site, there are several others as well. These are mostly completed works rather than ongoing ones and are mostly black and white.
At first glance, some of the other stuff on VirusComix can seem clichéd. Some of the stories start out as almost cookie-cutter genre pieces. But very quickly, they become brilliant examples of how to use a genre as a vehicle for making a larger point. A short comic from the site’s Bush Era Comics about a somewhat cheesy-seeming first date ends by showing us the shocking horror of Nazism. This slow transition from shallowness to depth is common to most of Rowntree’s stuff.
Take Captain Estar Goes to Heaven. It starts out as a seemingly straightforward tale about an assassin lady who’s got major issues. There are nods to Tank Girl, but it mostly seems like a somewhat fun but unmemorable romp. Fairly quickly, however, it becomes a complex tale about identity, the cycle of abuse, the nature of justice in an unmanageably large capitalist society, mental illness, and the freedom to make the wrong choices and fuck everything up.
It’s a tale about an unrepentant assassin with PTSD living paycheck to paycheck while spending most of her time getting high and trying not to die. It ultimately explores the nature of the immutable self and the nature of “good” versus “right”. It is about choosing who you are over who you should be, about accepting that the baggage you carry is sometimes what makes you who you are. It goes from “sorta cool” to “fantastic” to “brilliant” and stuck with me for days. Oh, and there’s a genuine conversation about why a transgender, trans-species waitress chose to keep her original human male name; bonus!
Another completed series is Things They Don’t Tell You (But Should). A Guide to Life; formatted like an old style children’s book (Dick and Jane, See Spot Run, etc) about all the incredibly messed up things our modern society expects of you. A nihilistic and somewhat misanthropic series of comments paired with imagery we associate with early childhood learning isn’t exactly new, but this webcomic pulls it off perfectly. I laughed and flinched at the same time on most pages.
Sector 41 starts as a somewhat pulpy sci-fi about an abandoned Soviet utopia and quickly becomes a fantastic parable about the nature of the Russian soul and the conflict between the individual’s striving for greatness and the crushing anonymity of time. It is, on occasion, almost like something out of Dostoevsky. The main character is jovially working on a magnum opus about the epic history of his country, knowing that there is an equal chance of it being released and changing the world or him being crushed under the rubble of the falling buildings and having his name erased from history along with his work. It’s a story about the futility of artistic endeavor, the necessity of that endeavor… and a comic book store in the ruins of an abandoned Soviet supercity.
The stories on VirusComix are consistently funny, poignant, and engaging. They hit all the feels and deliver some truly smart content and deep diverse characters. They are not afraid to deal with real issues from multiple perspectives and explore topics many of us care deeply about while having tremendous fun at the same time. Well worth a read and then some!
These comics and the ongoing Subnormality are available at VirusComix.com along with links to Winston Rowntree’s Cracked column and merch store. You can also donate to the Subnormality Patreon site. The VirusComix WordPress page is pretty fantastic too.