Nazi science sneers at my idea of sixteen comics for the price of one!

(From Irregular Webcomic! Click for full-sized Nazi grammar.)

Irregular Webcomic! has lured me back to reading it on a regular basis, and indeed has made it all the way to my RSS reader for the first time.

For this development you can thank – or blame, depending on your point of view – the fact that David Morgan-Mar has started tying his themes into a compelling, coherent story, a sort of “Crisis on Infinite Themes”, with a minimum of actual crossovers. To some extent, it begins with strip 2045, when Steve (of the “Steve and Terry” theme) discovers that the Loch Ness Monster has been the Lovecraftian horror Cthulhu all along, with another strand beginning five strips later, when the Mythbusters decide to take on the idea of time travel. (Although it could be backdated to 2033, when a future Hermione travels back in time to warn “present” Hermione of some dastardly future events in the Harry Potter fanfic of the Shakespeare theme’s eponymous Will. But that doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on now… as far as we know.)

I swear all of that makes sense if you’re familiar with Irregular Webcomic!

All that was at the very start of September, so I can’t help but wonder if I myself had a hand in it when I suggested back in June that Irregular Webcomic was in fact a fitting title if it was seen as multiple webcomics, one for each theme, themselves updated irregularly. Did Morgan-Mar start subsequently thinking about tying his themes closer together as a result?

No wait, of course not. Because the groundwork for this story has been slowly laid over the course of well over a year.

It goes all the way back to August 20, 2007, when Morgan-Mar announced that “a major…character” would be killed off “before the end of the year. No ghosts. No witty banter with the Head Death before returning. Dead.” No wait, it goes back even further: strip 1610, dated June 24, 2007 (a full year before my observation, let alone the start of this mess), where the imprisoned Serron and Iki Piki (of the Space theme) find themselves joined by… future versions of themselves. Those “doubles” of Serron and Iki Piki are still around, trying to prevent catastrophic changes to the timeline.

In a nutshell, the character slated for death turned out to be Morgan-Mar himself, or at least his “me” character. After a lengthy sequence of bargaining with the Head Death, Morgan-Mar gets taken away by “Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals”, upon which we finally learn the culprit for his murder: Morgan-Mar himself again. We also learn that, apparently because he is the first person to be killed by a time-travelling version of himself, he is now “Death of Going Back in Time and Murdering Yourself”, and is charged with, well, going back in time and murdering himself. The last strip in this conversation ends ominously:

1 Me: What if I refuse to kill myself in the past?
2 Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals: CHOO’D CAUSE A PARADOX, SEEINGS WOT CHOO’VE ALREADY DONE IT.
3 Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals: AND THE HEAD DEFF DON’T LIKE PARADOXES.
4 Me: Oh… doesn’t he now…?

Neither the Death or Me themes show up again for almost a hundred strips, but sure enough, by the 2050s the strip gets afflicted by… strange… things, notably a time-travel theme. In strip 2055 the Fantasy crew, having been sent through a teleport gate from Footcrag to Cragfoot, find out that they’ve also gone back in time two weeks, and decide to go back on foot (which they’ve been doing for almost a thousand strips) and meet their past selves. The Mythbusters’ attempt to travel to the Jurrasic land them in the 80s instead and bring them face-to-face with their wackily-haired younger selves. Spanners suggests that the presence of time-travellers may threaten the entire universe (and I should mention that by this point, the Space travellers have been joined by a mysteriously-alive Paris).

While all this is going on, Cthulhu is entering the presidential race and challenging IWC’s in-universe US president, an Allosaurus… and might not have been Nessie all along after all, which might suggest he has something to do with this. Oh, and weird things start happening to the strips themselves.

It’s at this point that the Head Death gets involved, and we’re not done with the time travel yet, because the Pirates are tasked to track down Long Tom Short’s dead-in-their-time father, Medium Tom Short, and (through the use of a time-travel device right out of Doctor Who) wind up in the Nigerian Finance Ministry. So in sum, we’re looking at five themes (Fantasy, Space, Mythbusters, Pirates, and Nigerian Finance Ministry) dealing with time travel in some way, and the only other regularly-updating themes are Cliffhangers, Espionage (which, being an almost-verbatim retelling of the James Bond movies, has only ever crossed over with Death and Imperial Rome, the latter barely), Martians, Shakespeare, and Steve and Terry (and maybe Death). That’s either half or just under half – and Death’s investigating the whole mess.

Oh, and the meta-changes continue with four straight strips (and seven out of nine) including the line “I have a really bad feeling about this” (including the Martians, Cliffhangers, and Shakespeare themes, as well as a look-in on the Allosaurus’ ongoing race for president, filed under Martians. Incidentially, isn’t it well past time for the Allosaurus to have his own theme? All his/her/its earliest appearances are filed under Miscellaneous until the first Martian invasion, so you can’t follow his/her/its story by following one theme alone, and at this point the Allosaurus and the Martians are basically two different plots within one theme.). Something similar happens later with various conjugations of the word “curious”.

And more culprits/problems arise, including a time loop at the Large Hadron Collider, which ropes Shakespeare and Martians into the whole time-travel mess (not to mention creating more of a hassle for Death), so that’s eight themes involved and three not. Not to mention the re-introduction of Me/Going Back In Time and Murdering Yourself as an interrogatee in Stared At Angrily By a Giant Frog’s investigation.

(Do I even need to mention the coming confluence of at least three different Deaths in the Mythbusters theme?)

Oh, and as of today’s strip the time travel is seeping into the Cliffhangers theme now.

And Lambert starts coughing “Gollum!” a lot, which leads to him getting almost killed by his own party members, which – given the interpretation some of the fans have given to that – suggests this has been in the works as far back as May of 2007. Not to mention the first appearance of Gollum in late 2006

Look, can I take a timeout here? I just want to say I am astounded by the amount of long-term planning – or at least the appearance of it – that has gone into Irregular Webcomic! This isn’t an Order of the Stick situation where David Morgan-Mar started the strip intending to develop it into what it’s become, either. In his 2000th strip’s annotation, Morgan-Mar proclaimed shock at reaching a mark only really reached by the giants of webcomics, legends like PVP, Sluggy Freelance, and User Friendly. Morgan-Mar has never made any money on Irregular Webcomic, never sold any T-shirts or books, never even taken donations. As he put it,

I was just bored one day and thought, ‘Hey, this newfangled idea of putting comics on the web looks cool. I might try it.’ Five and a half years later, here I am typing this….I make comics because I enjoy making them. (If I didn’t, I would have given up ages ago!) I try to make them enjoyable for you. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t – I don’t let it bother me much.

And by all appearances, that’s entirely true. In Morgan-Mar’s first couple of strips, he literally has nothing to do. It’s evident he basically decided to throw up a small web site and put up a comic whenever it struck the mood (hence the “irregular” name). Eventually he starts throwing in tales from his role-playing games, the precursor to the Fantasy theme. That’s sprinkled in with other slice-of-life stories he felt like putting in comic form. Then he started doing a couple of parodies of Steve Irwin, using LEGO figures for the first time, and decided to throw a reference to that in the fantasy story. And threw more LEGO figures into the fantasy story as well. And (by this point already settling into a daily routine) started doing tales from his “science fiction game” as well, and while he’s doing sci-fi, why not throw in a Jar-Jar joke as well? And the Steve Irwin parodies become a fairly consistent feature, the spacefarers join the Star Wars conversation again, and then he decided to throw in an Indiana Jones parody, and gave him a name that wouldn’t invite lawsuits down the line, and the fantasy story starts seeing its members get more character development, and strips start referring to previous strips that aren’t adjacent

That was all in 2003. In those first 50 or so strips contain the beginning of no fewer than six themes. There are 16 now, all started within the first 1000 strips, although some (Miscellaneous, Supers, Imperial Rome, arguably Harry Potter and Nigerian Finance Minister) have comparitively very few strips. Generally, IWC switches between plots in the Fantasy, Steve and Terry, Space, Cliffhangers, Pirates, Shakespeare, Espionage, Mythbusters, and often Martians themes. Many of these use discrete story arcs, but not all. The Fantasy people have been going on a quest pretty much constantly since strip 510, all the way back in 2004, before some of the themes had even started – in response to even older ongoing plotlines, especially in Cliffhangers, which has had some sort of plot since almost the beginning – I haven’t read the whole thing but I think the Indiana Jones parodies have been on an ongoing plot since strip 63! Obviously most of these have been made up as they went along, but once Morgan-Mar started working on megaplots like these, it was only a matter of time before he started pacing them out – or at least connecting them so seamlessly it gave the appearance of a unified vision.

Take Loren Ipsum. Introduced in strip 1144, in the Shakespeare theme (in early 2006), rather unexpectedly for some fans who were used to Shakespeare characters being the names used for people in the Shakespeare theme, until her last name and the accompanying pun were revealed. Pretty much every appearance in the Shakespeare theme for a long time involves either her project to “make the US constitution ISO 9001 compliant“, or Will’s crush on her, and over the course of these strips it becomes obvious that Loren knows basically nothing about the world around, chalked up to “not leaving the government offices much”. Finally, in strip 1324, we learn Loren’s mother’s maiden name, and Morgan-Mar attempts not-so-subtly to bury a bit of spoilerage in the annotation: “In fact, Loren is a Martian. This will be revealed in strip #1500.”

Yes, Morgan-Mar, assuming this was in the annotation all along, is planning these sorts of things out 175 strips in advance, or half a year… and arguably, all the way back in those early appearances. Ipsum summarily gets reassigned and that’s all we hear of her for a while.

As promised, she returns in the Martians theme in strip 1500, as the Martians’ “sleeper agent in the US government”, and this kicks off arguably the second-biggest crossover in IWC history, involving not only the Martians and Shakespeare themes, but the Nigerian Finance Minister and Mythbusters themes as well. It’s also epic in length as well, spanning 175 strips, another half year extending into mid-2007, with the Martians eventually leaving rather than dealing with the paperwork.

They haven’t given up on Earth yet, though, in a plot that dates back to December 2007, this time involving a plot to smash the planet with an asteroid. (Minor nitpick: If it was going to smash the planet at the end of the presidential campaign, why hasn’t it hit yet? Oh, that’s probably more time fluctuations…). So now Ishmael and Loren Ipsum are joined forces on the team to deflect the asteroid… and Ishmael just became the first Earthling to realize she’s not what she seems.

Now, it’s possible that this current subplot wasn’t in the cards during the last Martian plot, or even that its role in the current madness wasn’t planned when the Allosaurus apparently ate Loren. But given the other evidence it’s far from impossible. And with the epic nature of this story, with the tentacles reaching back so far it makes “Loren the sleeper-agent” look like child’s play, and the fact it’s roping in just about every theme on the books, makes it feel like the entire post-Cerebus Syndrome IWC has been leading up to this storyline, which in turn suggests it could end up threatening the end of the entire strip. Morgan-Mar, after all, did say he wasn’t messing around with his “someone will die” guarantee, suggesting even if the strip goes on the “me” character is going to be a Death for a long time. And that, in turn, makes me intrigued enough to go on, to press on even through the slow moments, to get interested in themes I didn’t know a damn thing about before, to find out if IWC really is coming to an end or how the comic, at least in the case of some themes, can even continue.

Wait, Morgan-Mar is on record as saying he wants to at least match Bill Watterson’s mark of 3,160 strips of Calvin and Hobbes. He still has over a thousand comics to go. Well, it’s an entertaining, thrilling patch along the way anyway.

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