Thursday, May 11, 2006

The problem with Sluggy

There's a web comic I've been reading for several years now, although it's been very off and on lately. In fact I stopped reading it altogether for three months.

It's called Sluggy Freelance and the problem is that it takes itself way too seriously. The comic started out as a gag strip revolving around a small group of people: Torg; the everyman figure, Biff; the mad scientist (but cool with it), Zoe; the hot babe, Gwynne; the plain one who is also a witch, Bun-Bun; the psycopathic rabbit, and Kiki; braindead ferret. They would fall into other dimensions, fight elves, vampires, and demon kittens, parody pop culture favourites like Star Trek and Harry Potter, and generally have a lot of fun in stories that ran for a few weeks.

And then along the way creator Pete Abrams started moving away from daily gag strips with continuity to epic graphic novels puplished at the rate of 4 panels a day. And even though the stories took a much more seriously dramatic turn, they still dragged along all the gag baggage. You can't do a serious dramatic story where characters struggle with pain and loss and fill it with demons with silly names from the "Dimension of Lame".

And because individual storylines might only feature a couple of the regular cast and drag on for the best part of a year, it becomes hard to keep track of what is going on. The final straw was the science ficton epic "Oceans Unmoving" which only featured Bun-Bun of the main cast, and had a hideously complicated plot involving timeless space that ran for 13 months, broken only by 3 week digression into Harry Potter parody. Abrams tried desperately to keep this behemoth moving along by producing a prodigious amount of comics each day, but that didn't stop it being a big complicated graphic novel chopped up into small pieces and spread out over such a long period of time that you needed to keep going back and rereading all the previous bits to make any sense of it. It was totally the wrong format for the story, and Abrams freely admitted it had got out of hand.

A month or so into this storyline I stopped reading the comic daily and just caught up about once a week in hopes of the story making sense, but to be honest I wasn't that interested in it. It was a clever concept, but it just went on and on. I wasn't very interested in most of the newly introduced characters and I really lost track of what it was about. I wanted to see Biff blow stuff up, Gwynne get all witchy, Zoe make cutting remarks and slap people, and Kiki go "ooh, shiny!". Eventually I stopped reading it altogether.

It was several weeks after the story finished before I even noticed. At first it seemed like things were back to the way they used to be, albeit with some more serious characterisation under the humour. But within a couple of weeks we were off on what first appeared to be a short digression road trip with added ninjas but which has just turned into 3 weeks of soul searching as Torg confronts his feelings for Zoe. Okay, the shadow puppet imagery was cool, but three weeks of it? And when we find that one of Torg's fears is that Oasis will show up and kill Zoe, I was surprised. I mean if she were really out to get Zoe, surely she would have turned up sometime in the last four years?

It's evident that Abrams has moved beyond the format of a daily gag strip, but that is what he is working with and it's an unhappy compromise. And he seems unable to dispense with the broad humour, using it as a crutch even while it is undermining the more serious things he is trying to do. It is not impossible to mix drama and humour. Just look at Girl Genius, for example. But what's going on in Sluggy is sometimes as effective as putting fart jokes in Hamlet. Any laughs it generates are at the expense of the dramatic tension he is trying to create.

I am all for creators pushing their limits, and I am not in any way suggesting that Sluggy should return to some arbitary "good old days". I just wish that Abrams would make a decision and either find a way to do the big graphic novels he wants to, or do a gag strip with limited continuity and puns. Both at the same time is not working, and it hasn't been working for a long time now.


Sleestak said...

Dang. Long time no blog.

Marionette said...

I've been busy. Sorry. :<

Tom the Dog said...

For a long, long time now, the only things worth reading Sluggy-wise have been the Saturday "Bikini Suicide Frisbee Days" fill-in strips by Clay Yount, which capture the essence of the characters that made them so fun to begin with. Kiki makes a mess, Riff (not Biff, by the way) performs painfully stupid experiments, etc. I haven't followed the regular Sluggy strip since Oceans Unmoving began, maybe before that, but the Saturday strips always make me grin.

Anonymous said...

I dunno. At this point, I don't think it's any more serious than it was back in 1998, when the whole vampire storyline started. Oceans Unmoving was a problem, but mostly because we were dumped in with all these characters we didn't know and were supposed to care about; also, because it followed That Which Redeems, which really *was* more serious than most Sluggy storylines.

I just don't think the seriousness is the problem. ``

(Also: It's Gwynn, no E. Not trying to spelling-flame, just help.)

Chance said...

I don't know what the problem is, exactly, but agree with you that Sluggy has some kind of... oh, light-hearted tone in its earlier strips that i9t no longer possesses.

Schlock Mercenary sometimes suffers from the same malady.

Marionette said...

Says something about how much I've lost interest that I can't even remember the names properly.

It's not really the light-heartedness I miss - there was some fun stuff recently in the short break between Oceans Unmoving and Wayang Kulit - it's the interminable storylines that go on forever and leave most of the cast in cold storage for years at a time. And I'm not even going to get into dangling plot threads left hanging for up to six years and then followed up long after anyone cared or even remembered. Even that little ipod joke was flogged to death for what, three weeks? It was barely funny the first time.

Sounds like I'm slagging off the strip; what's really going on is that I liked it for a long time and now I have to watch it self-destruct in ultra slow motion. It may take a long time because it has a lot of loyal fans, but unless something changes it's going to be a toss up whether it dies from loss of readers or because Pete can't stand doing it anymore.

Anonymous said...

Ah, there I agree. Especially on the iPod thing, WTF.

I think he learned his lesson with Oceans Unmoving. Wayang Kulit seems to be wrapping up.

Anonymous said...

According to his comments, Pete not being able to stand doing it anymore is what got us Oceans Unmoving in the first place. If I remember correctly, the change in setting and cast was him trying to shake off writer's block. Maybe it worked, I dunno, but I agree that it became unreadable pretty quickly.

I don't think seriousness is the problem; That Which Redeems was quite serious and quite good. I think the problem was more of us getting dropped in the middle of this baroque setting and situation; Oceans Unmoving had the feel of something that had been evolving in the back of Pete's brain for a long time and emerged on to the page fully formed without adequate introduction or explanation. Also, BunBun's schtick was getting pretty tired before OU started so a story with just him from the cast made a perfect jumping off point.


Anonymous said...

It's not just webcomics, though; judging from Liberty Meadows' failed attempts to mix a romantic soap opera-esque storyline with its normal gag strips, it might be part of a larger trend. I'm hoping these will be abandoned with the new start-up, but I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

Proof that you can find anything on the Internet: I liked Oceans Unmoving.