It’s a Sluggy Story Arc Climax Party in the Webcomics Blogosphere!

(From Sluggy Freelance. Click for full-sized epic lateness.)

Pete Abrams is finally wrapping up a storyline that’s been going on for the past two years.

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of how he’s doing so, however, especially the comics we’ve been subjected to over the course of the week so far. I can’t help but think he’s rushing the storyline to a conclusion because he knows this particular part of it alone has gone on rather long already – at one point he’d promised that we’d learn Riff’s “ultimate fate” by the end of June, and if he meant Riff’s return to “our” dimension, he didn’t quite make that goal.

Let’s start at the beginning, with Monday’s comic, where Abrams threw what looked to be an absolute curveball at his readers: after drugging all the witnesses, rather than head home at the point we had gotten to with Torg and company, Riff would “change history” and prevent Zoe from ever burning. Abrams seemed to be preparing to retcon the events of “bROKEN” substantially, and possibly retcon away everything that happened in the past two years in his home dimension. I was fully prepared to write a post on that comic alone.

For the record? I loved it. It seemed like a fitting way to end this two-year-long epic that I’d spent reading Sluggy Freelance, a way to tie it all into one continuous loop from which the comic would proceed. But then, I started reading the comic from “bROKEN”. You know who didn’t love it? Robert A. “Tangents” Howard, who wrote a fairly lengthy post detailing his worries that Abrams would “pull a Dallas” and render the past two years completely irrelevant, wondering why he would even burn Zoe and put his readership through the past two years of comics in the first place. If that sounds familiar, it’s similar to what I said last week about killing Zoe vs. rendering her a vegetable, with the difference that I wondered if it was a sign Abrams was going to pull a fast one to bring back Zoe in full. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Similarly, I didn’t think Abrams was going to go quite that far and pull, in Eric Burns(-White)’s terminology, a Category 4 or 5 (or even 3) retcon. I figured certain characters, especially Riff, would remain affected enough by the events of the past two years somehow to affect the plot moving forward. I prefer to trust that no matter what happens, story-comic writers know what they’re doing and that, ultimately, everything will serve some greater purpose. But apparently, Howard felt that Abrams had betrayed that trust before and he could do it again. He felt that Abrams had previously negated the events of the “That Which Redeems” storyline, which like most of Sluggy I haven’t read, and that he was perfectly ready to go back into that well.

In any case, all was rendered moot by Tuesday’s comic, in which Riff shows up at Zoe’s house, the night before the attack… and, apparently talked out of it by alternate-Riff, only says goodbye to Zoe before letting alternate-Riff do what he was going to do anyway. So Abrams didn’t even let that twist stand for 24 hours before pulling a “gotcha” and pulling back on it, effectively manipulating his readership and playing them like fools. Howard was not pleased, perhaps because he wasted a post on the original twist only to see it negated. While I sympathize, I also get a certain sense of entitlement from Howard, like he was personally wronged by Abrams’ bait-and-switch. Personally, I was rather stunned and went back to not writing a post, and I admit I felt that was a pretty cheap trick, but I had trusted that Abrams knew what he was doing and wouldn’t obviate whole swathes of material.

And ultimately, the same went for Zoe, because in Wednesday’s comic, as Riff returns to his home dimension (and gets the localized EMP I knew was necessary to prevent him from rebooting in the future), he reveals, in breathless exposition to a bemused Torg, that everything that happened in the last two comics was part of a convoluted plan to get Zoe back, by preventing alternate-Riff from keeping him from bringing 4U City tech to his home dimension by drugging them, then boldly announcing his plan to cause a paradox to get alternate-Riff to chase him into the past, so that he could take a snapshot of the sleeping Zoe and return to 4U City to introduce that snapshot to the vegetable-Zoe, so that Zoe would wake up with no memory of the events of the day she burned and alternate-Riff would see the need to have her follow our Riff back home.

Um… what?

Why do this? Why go to such lengths, over the course of just three comics, to mislead alternate-Riff and, by proxy, give the audience whiplash just to bring Zoe back? Commenting on his own post on Tuesday’s comic with a reaction to Wednesday’s comic, Howard proposes a way to do the whole thing with less misdirection and whiplash by making Riff upfront with his intentions from the start, and while neither Riff has much reason to trust the other, his idea sure seems like a saner, less manipulative way to achieve the same results. Personally, I’m wondering, even given what Riff did, why he has to exposit his plan to Torg of all people, to whom – by Riff’s own admission – nothing he’s saying means anything, and it serves only to inform the audience. Sure, he needs to keep Torg calm until Zoe shows up, but he basically has to give Zoe a substantial amount of exposition anyway, possibly enough for the audience to get the picture anyway; why not give as much exposition as Zoe needs to understand in a much more justifiable context?

But either of these options would likely require at least one or two more comics to complete, and Abrams is basically committed to ending the storyline at the end of the week. So he’s trying to cram the ending into five comics, and in the process a lot of distortion is resulting, with the plot needing to be over-simplified to fit. Part of what we’re seeing is the result of Abrams’ inability to plan ahead; I agree with him that cutting corners in alternate-Riff’s exposition would have been a bad idea, if only for the insights Riff gains into alternate-Dr. Schlock, but did the minimal-point battle against the outsider army need to go quite as long as it did? And for that matter, was today’s strip really necessary? Hell, I bet tomorrow’s strip will just be alternate-Riff taking a few parting shots at our Riff; couldn’t these two pages be used to set up the storyline going forward, or at least build a more natural conclusion?

Regardless, the end outcome is that Zoe is back, with no memory of the events of the climax of “bROKEN”. Among other things, this means she never had the epiphany Oasis led her to regarding her relationship with Torg, so the status quo there is fully restored. On the flip side, she now no longer has her cursed necklace she had for most of the strip’s run, so that status quo has been drastically shaken up. Also, Riff has now pledged to stop being “stupid” and returns to his home dimension with a new mission, which is enough for me to keep reading for just long enough to see exactly where he’ll go from here.

And on a more meta level, I’ve confirmed something I speculated on a while back: that I’m more forgiving of what Abrams does in part because I haven’t sat through the things Howard, as a long-time reader, has. Howard felt that Abrams had retconned events out before and could do so again, so he sat through the recent comics with nothing but dread. I didn’t feel so betrayed, so I was willing to follow Abrams wherever he was willing to go. Now, compare that to what I said in my initial review of Sluggy Freelance, about Abrams alienating new readers by not throwing them any bones to jump into the storyline, and being satisfied by the audience he already has. If Abrams has also alienated longtime readers who have sat through that storyline, perhaps this only underlines how backwards the lack of real support for new readers is, because properly introduced to Sluggy‘s world, they could be bigger supporters of the comic than his existing fanbase is. Perhaps, then, we should chalk this up as more evidence that Abrams is starting to wind down the comic, and doesn’t see a need to appeal to anyone who would only sign up for a couple of years.

Or maybe we should both lighten up and enjoy the storyline on its own merits, like Eric Burns(-White) did.

Unless the event from my last post wasn’t what we thought, how did Riff make these RECAPs?

(From Sluggy Freelance. Click for full-sized R.E.C.A.P.)

After Zoe was revealed not to be dead, but to be burned to within an inch of her life, I read a theory on TV Tropes that Pete Abrams’ original plan was to outright kill her (as had been foreshadowed for a LONG time), but after fan outcry forced him to back off, he decided to make the fans wish she had been killed.

That theory came to mind upon the newest revelation, that Zoe, though rebuilt, is now a completely empty shell, probably never to be fully “alive” again – to the extent that, unless Abrams pulls a fast one before ending the storyline, it pretty much has the same effect as outright killing her. It takes her out of the story, and it tears Torg and Riff apart over what happened to her.

In fact, this comic almost makes me wonder what the point of not killing Zoe is other than screwing with the audience. Unless Abrams brings her back somehow – and it’s very unlikely he’d find a way to do so that wouldn’t be equivalent to an out-and-out resurrection – he’s achieved exactly the same thing killing her would have, only in a more convoluted way. So what’s the point? Is this a sign Abrams does plan to bring Zoe back at some point?

Maybe my problem is with the screwy science behind how the whole thing would work as described here, even given the science of the medical nanites we’ve already been fed – give her amnesia, yes, make her a completely empty shell, not so much. (It also gets into metaphysical territory over the nature of the soul that I’m pretty sure Abrams is unlikely to get into.) I’m just happy Abrams seems to be wrapping up the storyline and preparing to take Riff back to his own time period, probably with most of his knowledge intact.

And if you’re thinking this is just a way for me to get back to my old post-every-weekday pace… well, you wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. Hey, I need to get back to the modest level of success (which is to say, none) I had in 2009 somehow, and consistent posting is the best way I know to do it…

(Damn, this is a tall comic. I need to type in a lot to prevent it from screwing up the site layout, especially to keep it from interfering with the IWC post from yesterday. Maybe the long title of that post will save it?)

Now Websnark’s back too, so it’s 2009 all over again!

(From Sluggy Freelance. Click for full-sized epiphanies.)

Over two years ago, during my previous webcomic-reviewing existence, I reviewed Sluggy Freelance, an occasion I took more to bash Pete Abrams for his refusal to throw any but the tiniest of bones to new readers of one of the oldest webcomics on the Internet. I decided that Abrams was apparently content to settle for the readers he already had and had no interest in recruiting any new ones to keep the fanbase strong and fresh. Then I wrote:

Sluggy deserves every ounce of praise it gets; I sometimes found myself looking at various points in the archive and reading significant stretches with interest. … And I’m intrigued enough by the current story arc, which promises to be a milestone one, that I’m planning on keeping on reading Sluggy until this arc’s conclusion. But I don’t have much of a reason to keep reading Sluggy beyond that. With my overcrowded schedule, I just don’t have time for another strip that demands an Order of the Stick level of attention, certainly one with so massive an archive, so much of a need to comprehend all of it, and so little help in doing so.

Because of what happened that summer, I never got around to finishing the story arc at the time. However, recently, as I started preparing to start up webcomics posts again, I finally did get around to finishing “bROKEN”.

And then spent the rest of the night reading the remainder of the archive up to the then-present moment.

“bROKEN” ends with a heck of a cliffhanger – the discovery of Zoe’s cursed necklace separated from her body (implying her death, right after Oasis inadvertently led her to realize the sexual tension between her and Torg), and the live Riff turning up in an alternate universe, where he’s promptly shot up in the final panel of the storyline. This put things in such an unbalanced state that I immediately decided to keep reading to see this storyline resolved. Needless to say, it hasn’t – Torg and some friends spent the rest of 2009 and all of 2010 working for an arch-villain as a cover for getting more information on Hereti-Corp and Oasis, and Riff is still stuck in the dystopian, Brave New World-esque alternate universe.

The present storyline has involved Riff and alternate-universe versions of his friends staging a revolution against said dystopia, but it’s really the recent events involving (SPOILER ALERT) Riff getting detailed exposition from the alternate-universe version of himself that really has me riveted, especially given the promise of resolving the storyline it offered. Although it’s clear this isn’t the future of the “main” timeline, the similarities – including those Riff doesn’t know yet – are striking enough that I’ve been waiting with baited breath for Riff (and the comatose-as-far-as-we-know Zoe) to return to the main timeline, and start working to keep it from becoming its own version of 4U City, in more ways than one. Sluggy has me riveted enough that I’d probably keep reading even beyond the tying-up of the last loose ends from “bROKEN”.

So imagine what I felt upon reaching the current strip, when Riff realizes how much like his alternate-universe counterpart he’s really been… only for Alternate!Riff, upset that “our” Riff brought his wife to him despite his pleas, to “reboot” him, putting him right back where he was at the start of the adventure, without even the knowledge gained through the exposition, his quest for redemption seemingly snuffed out before it began. I was silently going “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” That’s a rare feat for a comic; I’m not sure if I’ve even done that for anything that’s happened in Order of the Stick, which I tend to read from a more detached viewpoint. I hold out hope that this turns out to be a psyche-out or something, or Rammer or a remorseful Alternate!Riff re-supplies the exposition, but I’m also fearing the worst.

I should add a caveat: it’s possible I’m caring about this storyline for all the wrong reasons, hoping more for it to just resolve already than feeling anything for the cast, and recent weeks have been rather confusing as Riff and company have been struggling to beat back an outsider attack on the city (as well as with a meddlesome AI). A while back Robert A. “Tangents” Howard wrote of his frustration with the storyline, and it’s possible that if I’d never abandoned my RSS feeds and had to sit through reading it day-by-day for two years I’d feel similarly to how he does, or at this point, like I’d just watched the season finale of The Killing. (That said, I can’t agree with him that this lacks any “emotional potency” as a conclusion, as up until the last row of this strip it seemed to mark some very significant character development for Riff. Also, the Irregular Crisis has been just as slow and I don’t feel the same sense of just-end-it-already, though that slowness may be the result of spreading it across multiple themes.)

I wonder if “bROKEN” marks the start of the sequence that leads to Abrams winding down this comic that has been his livelihood for over a decade. What little we learned about Oasis in that storyline, the maybe-death of Zoe, Torg’s subsequent attempt at revenge, Riff’s motivation when (if?) he returns to the main timeline, all seem to suggest that Abrams is setting up the pieces for the great conflagration where the bleep really starts to hit the fan. It certainly would back up how little he seems to care about new readers. If so, I hope the prize is worth the wait, and that Abrams doesn’t waste too much time getting there.

After Friday’s strip, my theory is that Oasis is a robot or cyborg of some kind. If that’s ridiculously blatantly contradicted by the strip itself, well, that proves my point.

(From Sluggy Freelance. Click for full-sized lots of missiles.)

I have a big beef with Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance fame.

I mean seriously. A big beef. Sluggy is one of the oldest webcomics on the Internet; it and User Friendly are the elder statesmen of webcomics, dating back to 1997. When I mentioned Sluggy as a representative of the sort of “wacky stuff happens” comic that makes up one of the two major branches of webcomics, counterpointing Penny Arcade‘s role for video game comics, back in my initial round of webcomics posts, I mostly mentioned Sluggy because it was the best representative I could think of and I couldn’t really think of whether there even was an equivalent to Penny Arcade. It turns out I may have been closer to the truth than I realized. Sluggy was perhaps the pioneer for Cerebus Syndrome in webcomics, and it got an early enough start to be a big influence on the “wacky hijinx” webcomics to follow. It’s not as nearly-mainstream as PA, but it’d be hard to find a webcomic more influential on more top webcomics.

But it’s as old as User Friendly, and if reading UF in 2006 monopolized my time and caused me to fall behind on things that actually matter, well, Sluggy has over two years’ worth more of strips now. And it’s more important to know what happens in them, because this is a far more continuity-laden strip than UF. Chances are that a given strip will contain at least one reference to a previous strip in a pink bar beneath the strip, showing just how interconnected Sluggy‘s mythology is. So it’s really critical that Sluggy eases the transition for new readers who want to join the Sluggy phenomenon but don’t have the time to read 12 years’ worth of strips.

Sure enough, look at the front page of the Sluggy site and it entreats you “New viewers, click here to view the Sluggy viewer’s guide!” And how does this “viewer’s guide” get people acclimated to the comic? By providing some sort of summary of the story so far, like Girl Genius or The Wotch? No, silly! By suggesting three potential jumping-in points to start reading: the beginning, “the sci-fi adventure” (a Star Trek/Aliens parody that wound up introducing Aylee to the strip) and Torg’s frolic into “The Dimension of Pain”… and both of these latter storylines take place within the first year. (Or you could just read the Torg Potter parodies separately, but where’s the fun in that?) Welcome to Sluggy Freelance, newbies! You want to skip some strips in your archive binge? Here, we’ll let you skip less than a year of a twelve-year run! Read at your own pace; we’re willing to wait a year or more for you to catch up to the current strips if you need it! Have fun!

Does Abrams provide anything else to get new readers acclimated to the strip other than an insultingly small head start? No! There’s not even so much as a cast page – Eric Burns(-White) won’t like that (2004-5 vintage Eric Burns, at least)! You’re pretty much stuck reading most of over 4000 strips! Have fun, kids, you’re on your own!

I get the feeling that at this point, Abrams is perfectly content writing for the audience he already has, especially since, as he’s been focusing on the “megatomes” there haven’t been any books collecting any strips after 2002 (only five years into the strip’s run), so his Defenders of the Nifty program has become an increasingly important source of income. Abrams has one of the larger fanbases of any continuity strip, so it’s very tempting to coast and not make things easier for it to grow, and be content with what he has.

This strategy may be doomed to failure. A recurring topic over the last month at The Floating Lightbulb has been looking at Google Trends data for various webcomics and webcomic sites, and a noted trend of various diverse comics declining – and Sluggy has been no exception. One of the many proposed theories has been massive archives scaring off potential newcomers to continuity strips, and there’s no archive scarier than Sluggy. I compared Sluggy to four other leading continuity comics, and the only one declining faster than Sluggy is Megatokyo, which is infamously anti-new-reader in its own way. (Order of the Stick and the rest of Rich Burlew’s site has lost half its audience since the start of the tracking period, but it’s so much further ahead of the rest of the field, only now falling to Megatokyo‘s audience at the start of the tracking period, that it’s hard to make a fair comparison.)

Perhaps the forumites could get together and create a short “cheat sheet” of a thread for new readers, or the Defenders could get together and create an officially sanctioned Sluggy wiki, or something. They can still read through the archives “at their own pace” but at least it’s easier to understand the current strips at the same time (which will help in getting them through the past strips). But no. Instead new readers are probably going through the current storyline wondering “who – or what – is Oasis and why should I care?” And they’re going to go back through the links in the pink bars, and those are going to lead them to strips that pose more questions, and they’re going to want to go back to more strips that provide background for these strips… only they won’t be able to because beyond the current storyline, those bars are (presumably) hidden behind “Defenders InfoShields” – they’re For Defenders’ Eyes Only.

Quick tip, Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere: putting extraneous yet useful or at least appealing stuff behind a paywall? Good. Putting stuff that makes things easier for new readers behind a paywall, especially when it’s one of the very, very few bones you throw to new readers? Bad.

Meanwhile, your existing readers aren’t much better – it’s hard to remember twelve years’ and 4,000 comics’ worth of material, certainly hard to sort through it, so every bone you throw to new readers is also a bone you throw to your existing readers. (Which may help explain putting context links behind a paywall, but doesn’t justify it. Not that I’m asking Abrams to change that if he doesn’t want to.) Existing readers have the additional burden that Sluggy doesn’t have an RSS feed, a trend which, by the way, I actually understand a little bit: RSS is newer than its actual age would suggest, if that nade sense. In 2006, freshly moved into the dorms, I hunted around for a newsticker that would best emulate a TV news ticker and could be used long-term to keep me posted on the news, and settled on this. On its creator’s most recent post on his own blog (dating to… 2006!) he wonders what it might take for RSS to go “mainstream”, and suggests that some sort of RSS “killer app” (he suggests so much so that it would become synonymous with RSS and become a genericized trademark, so only geeks would know the technical name) might be the solution. I would propose that the release of IE7 (later that same year) and its internal RSS reader may have at least in part served as just such a “killer app”. Until then, I suspect a significant number of webcomics creators, certainly much of the general public, had barely even heard of RSS.

Sluggy deserves every ounce of praise it gets; I sometimes found myself looking at various points in the archive and reading significant stretches with interest. (Granted, they were mostly fairly early when the strip wasn’t as laden down with mythology, and a lot of the time it was to look at or for Aylee in one of her humanoid forms, but still. Yes, I really need a girlfriend.) And I’m intrigued enough by the current story arc, which promises to be a milestone one, that I’m planning on keeping on reading Sluggy until this arc’s conclusion. But I don’t have much of a reason to keep reading Sluggy beyond that. With my overcrowded schedule, I just don’t have time for another strip that demands an Order of the Stick level of attention, certainly one with so massive an archive, so much of a need to comprehend all of it, and so little help in doing so.

Should I hold a cigarette, snicker, and say “You fools! NO ONE can stop me now! MWA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAA!!!”

Okay. Yesterday’s debacle is behind us.

But I’ve entered a new stage of my Evil Plan, and there are some people here who might not know of which I speak. And I should probably link to the strips in question to maximize the chances of my Evil Plan working.

So. Here’s Penny Arcade, and here’s Sluggy Freelance. I linked to Sluggy yesterday, but I’m mentioning it today, so I might as well link to it again.

One interesting aside? Remember yesterday when I talked about the two types of most webcomics? Well, Penny Arcade is probably the ur-nerdy, video game strip, while Sluggy is, as I mentioned then, an example of an unlimited wackiness strip.