artist profile16 Feb 2009 07:28 pm

Count Your Sheep –
No Room for Magic –
The Wisdom of Moo –
When I set out to experience anything in the various entertainment media–novels, movies, webcomics, what have you–I find that I often use the word “grab” to describe my response.  “It just didn’t grab me,” I’ll say, or, “It grabbed me right from the start and wouldn’t let me go.”

I like the image of it: an invisible hand reaching through my eyeballs and trying to wrap its fingers around my brain.  The work in question wants to affect me, after all, wants to make me see the world as its creator does, and sometimes it can, digging into the folds of my cerebrum and taking root.

Sometimes it can’t.  The part of my brain that it’s aiming for is too smooth or unyielding or barren, and its grasping fingers slip away.  It tried its best, but, well, my brain just wasn’t the place for it.

When it comes to the webcomics of Adrian Ramos, I’ve had both reactions.  Two of his strips–Count Your Sheep and The Wisdom of Moo–grabbed me and held me pretty much the minute I laid eyes on them, but the third, No Room for Magic, has so far managed to elude me.

Ramos’s first comic, Count Your Sheep, premiered on the web in June of 2003.  It steadily gained readers and acclaim, and in May of 2004, it made what is still considered a “step up” in the over-saturated field of webcomics when Ramos was invited to join where he still posts updates four times a week.  I first read the strip on March 5th, 2004, I know, because my e-mail archives contain a flurry of messages directing friends and relations to the website.  And the words I used to describe the comic in those e-mails were “cute stuff.”

Which it definitely is.  Katie, a six-year-old girl, has trouble falling asleep, so she counts her friend Ship, an imaginary sheep.  A wonderfully simple idea, and Ramos’s execution of that idea, well, I mean, look at the first strip.  It’s not saccharine; it’s not treacly; it’s got no huge flights of fancy or fantasy.  It’s just a child with a problem and a friend who helps her solve it.  And Ramos’s writing and artwork just get better from there.

Now, since my preference would be for you to go read the strip from that first comic through to the most recent, I’m not gonna get too much into the story details.  Part of the joy of the strip for me has been the organic way it’s unfolded, budding off in odd little directions like a plant instead of marching step by step from beginning to middle to end.  The introduction of Katie’s parents and grandparents and the revelations about their various relationships with Ship all happen so naturally, it’s a classic example of work done by inspiration rather than perspiration.

I mean, I hammer together character sketches, story outlines, and plot structures, spackle it all up, and hope a smooth and reasonable-sounding story comes out at the end.  Ramos, on the other hand, knows his characters, their thoughts and their moods and their expressions–I just love the little “arched eyebrow” look he gives to Ship every now and again–so well and so completely that the story comes into being around them as effortlessly as sunrise on a summer morning.

As I’ve said before, that’s the very essence of cute to me: small but not picayune; pleasant but not condescending; optimistic but not sugarcoated.  In my vocabulary–and I admit to having more than a little of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in me when it comes to words–cute has less to do with the proportion of head size to body size and more to do with bridging the gap between the world as it is and the world as we’d like it to be.  The successful use of cuteness requires an acknowledgment that the world is a rough and scary place but then turns around and decides to smile anyway.

That’s the sort of thing that will grab me every time, and it’s so very rare, not just in webcomics but in the arts in general.  Nihilistic wisecracks and wizened despair are so much easier to do when the daily news is full of all the source material anyone could ever want.  But to take that material, to take the poverty and the loss and the confusion that surround us, that make it difficult for everyone to sleep every once in a while, and to come up with a dose of friendship and caring and heart, that’s big-time cute in my book.

Then, in late 2003, Ramos began No Room for Magic, a strip he’s continued to work on sporadically ever since.  Magic is a young girl whose father is a wizard, whose mother is an elf princess, and whose brother is studying dragon-slaying at school.  But Magic herself is unable to do magic, so she wears a black t-shirt with a skull on it and grouses perpetually about how much she dislikes living in a fantasy world.

Reading it, I can only think that Ramos wanted to do something as different in tone from Count Your Sheep as he could, and while I applaud an artist trying to stretch, what he normally does is so rare and wonderful, his “180” leads him to the ordinary and uninteresting.  The core concept is one I’ve seen before–just in webcomics, Otis Frampton’s Oddly Normal springs to mind–and the characters and the situation are too limited to let Ramos do the sort of exploring he does so well in Count Your Sheep.  Even his attempts at jokes more often than not come out forced and stale.  In short, it just plain doesn’t lend itself to Ramos’s strengths and talents.

As opposed to his third strip, The Wisdom of Moo.  Originally published during 2004 and 2005 at, another invitation-only webcomic group, Ramos ended it when the strain of putting out three strips at once began to tell on him.  It returned in late 2008 under Keenspot’s aegis, however, and the old strips have been running a couple times a week.

The Wisdom of Moo tells the story of Anna, another young girl, but she’s on the verge of becoming a teenager, something that has her toys very concerned.  They’ve heard that teenagers don’t play with their toys anymore, y’see, so they determine that they will stop Anna from changing.  This set-up fits my definition of cute so exactly, it’s as if Ramos was reading my mind, and things get even better when he introduces Anna’s friends Emm and Max.  They run a toy hospital, Max doing the physical repairs on the toys who come in for help while Emm dispenses advice and psychological counseling.

Or rather, Moo, the cow puppet on Emm’s left hand, dispenses advice.  Emm never actually speaks.

I’m very glad to see Ramos returning to this series; I had so many questions left over from the first run and was so taken with this world of walking, talking toys and the kids they love!  He’s barely gotten into the story so far and his updates have been a bit on the spotty side, but one thing I’ve learned when following webcomics: patience is definitely a virtue.

A couple years ago, Ramos wrote a bit about the constraints he finds in the word “cute” and began using the tagline “More Than Cute” to describe his comics.  So let me assure those of you who hear overtones of “sappy” or “contrived” or “sickening” when someone says the word “cute” that Ramos’s work at its best is none of those things.  It’s cute the way cute ought to be, and it’s right there waiting to grab you.


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