Nothing to do with sports or TV (well, sort of). You should probably move along.

I bet you can't guess what reference I'd have gone with if I'd gone with the comic from a week ago mentioned in the main text.(From Camp Weedonwantcha. Click for full-sized cat-stravaganza.)

The big story in webcomics in 2013 was Strip Search, Penny Arcade‘s online webcomic reality show where twelve aspiring webcomickers competed to spend a year under the tutelage of the most popular webcomickers out there. Both Fleen and Webcomic Overlook did reviews of at least some episodes of the show, and it was apparent to me that, while anyone could conceivably start any webcomic at any time without needing any help from anyone else, the winner’s comic (to say nothing of whatever some of the losers did, since these reality shows never give a boost to just the winner) would start right out of the gate with a built-in audience bigger than what a lot of webcomickers could ever dream of before Gabe or Tycho did a thing on their behalf outside the show – not to mention that the choice of winner would say a lot about what Gabe and Tycho wanted from a successful webcomic under their banner, especially important given the major issues I had with the Kickstarter that, among other things, gave birth to Strip Search in the first place.

So what sort of comic would Gabe and Tycho put under their banner for a year (or more)? That would be Katie Rice and her tale of kids fending for themselves in the wilderness, Camp Weedonwantcha.

Right off the bat, let me say a few things about the art. Rice has an animation background, and it shows; her characters have a rubbery quality about them, with big heads perched upon really thin, tiny bodies. This wouldn’t be out of place as a show on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, which is a useful way to look at the comic as a whole.

Camp Weedonwantcha is, in short, a camp populated entirely by kids, with no adults whatsoever. The conceit isn’t treated in a Lord of the Flies-type way, as the kids spend most of their time simply having fun, but there are still some hints of the nature of the place that make it apparent things are Not What They Seem. Supplies (for certain definitions of “supplies”) mysteriously fall from the sky seemingly at random, there are hidden nooks and crannies containing various secrets, the kids may or may not be surrounded by feral kids and supernatural forces, and even some of the kids we actually know have Something Wrong with them (and probably most of the kids at camp are either just plain weird or being slowly driven crazy). The lead character, Malachi, laments in an early strip that he won’t get to see the end of Game of Thrones, implying he’s stuck at the camp indefinitely, possibly for the rest of his life, and the name of the camp itself suggests that the kids have been dumped there by their parents who just want to get rid of them (as does the “origin” of Malachi’s friend Seventeen). There are enough hints out there to come up with more wacky theories than Lost (such as “the camp is really purgatory”).

El Santo seemed to think these elements are merely background elements that simply add a touch of surreality to the gags; I couldn’t help but see them as Rice laying the groundwork for later Cerebus Syndrome and allowing the comic to lapse into outright horror, or at least a decidedly adult story. But it’s been over a year, and while the early continuing stories dropped some tantalizing hints about the nature of the place, those hints seem to have mostly disappeared. At the very least, if it’s setting up Cerebus Syndrome, it’s doing so very slowly. Or at least, I thought so… until I realized after last Tuesday’s comic that the creepy kid Malachi’s been trying to get to “help” him find cats appears to, in fact, be Proto Kid, the legendary first camper that supposedly went feral long ago, suggesting this story arc may well be the exact moment the comic fully takes the plunge into Cerebus Syndrome (even if he seems to have shaken him off in this strip).

Incidentially, the very first continuing story arc? Was basically an excuse for toilet humor. Yeah, I didn’t exactly have the best impression of the comic early on.

To be honest, while I’m not sure I could handle the comic if it went into Cerebus Syndrome, I’m not particularly fond of it as it is. It shifts between a few batches of gag-a-day comics and continuing storylines, but the gag-a-day comics just aren’t funny, instead just sort of being… there, just little drops of surreality that pop up and fall flat. I get the sense the story arcs are where Rice’s true passion lies where it comes to the strip, and considering Gabe and Tycho’s disdain for “dreaded continuity”, I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason she waited this long to get here, and possibly even part of the reason she included the gag-a-day comics at all, was to mislead them about the nature of the strip to boost her chances of winning. (Disclaimer: I say this not having actually watched the Strip Search finale.)

In any case, the arcs are short enough that the comic doesn’t suffer from the problems I’ve had with other continuity-heavy strips that only update twice a week, but that might be the best I can say about it. I’m unimpressed with the gag strips and dreaded reading it when it was in an arc. It’s hard to call Camp Weedonwantcha a bad comic – there’s a certain charm to it that might make it appealing if you’re into the kind of thing it’s going for, and its mix of humor and drama is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a substantial crossover between fans of The Order of the Stick and people who would be fans of this comic, if they’re willing to accept things being more on the drama side of the ledger. But I’ve actually started to let OOTS fall off a bit, partly because the start of Book Six has had a very heavy focus on the state of and battle within vampire Durkon, with the promise of more to come. To have a comic with even more of an emphasis on drama (though who knows given how much further into Cerebus Syndrome OOTS is going), one where the quality of the humor is nowhere near as good as OOTS? That’s something that I can’t endorse.

So I can get at least ONE webcomic review in in calendar year 2013. Even if it’s very short.

(From Square Root of Minus Garfield. Click for full-sized apocalyptic statements.)

Once upon a time, the people behind the site mezzacotta, a repository for all the half-baked ideas they could come up with, came up with another one: a comic that would consist of every single mash-up of the newspaper comic Garfield that they could come up with.

And lo, it was good. Even though I considered myself a Garfield fan (though I had started to think it was running low on ideas and dreaded the point when my book collection got far enough to include Jon hooking up with Liz), I still found myself fascinated by the numerous ways the Comic Irregulars found to mash up a Garfield comic each day. So many people wanted to come up with their own mashups that the comic eventually moved to a daily schedule to accommodate them all.

Then I started to fall behind on my RSS reader, and when I returned, √-G had become a noticeably different comic. It had become too reliant on beating old memes into the ground, usually based on mash-ups of the same comic or two. So when I started my ill-fated attempt to use Archive Binge (another former mezzacotta project) to assist in reviewing webcomics, one of the comics I chose was Square Root of Minus Garfield, thinking that I could find myself doing my own “you had me, and you lost me” on it. But a funny thing happened: the other comics I chose to review inspired such dread in me that I actually found myself looking forward to the point where I would read the day’s batch of √-G comics – admittedly part of that probably had to do with the utter lack of drama compared to the others.

I eventually abandoned the project, but I did eventually catch up on all the √-G comics that I’d missed, and I’ve had it in my RSS reader for a few months now, probably dating back at least to the closure of Google Reader. So what’s the verdict?

Well… Square Root of Minus Garfield is certainly a different comic than it was when it started.

The memes have calmed down, in part due to David Morgan-Mar’s efforts to space things out between repetitions of a meme, but they’re still present and groan-inducing. Originality is much more rewarded, but it’s not necessarily good originality; some of the more unique mashups seem to be a thing of the past, and a goodly number of mashups are specific to one particular strip, even when they aren’t memes. I still hold to what I said in 2011: modern √-G reads much better read as it comes out than in one huge batch, as the repetition of the memes stands out much more when you’re exposed to many repetitions at once.

And yet… there’s still something about √-G that’s weirdly compelling. It’s now much more of a straight-up vaguely absurdist humor comic, less about the ideas presented and more purely about the humor that can be wrung out of it. Certainly there are a few groan-inducing comics, particularly the overplayed memes, but even then it doesn’t overstay its welcome like some more dramatic strips might. I probably won’t feel inclined to catch up if I fall behind again, though it would be relatively easy to do so, but for the time being I think it might actually stay in my RSS reader, at least on a provisional basis.

Certainly, no matter how much I might like what Garfield used to be, I have to imagine √-G is still funnier and more original than what Garfield is now.

I was counting on this review to determine if I was getting soft. I’d say the answer is a resounding “no”.

(From Goblins. Click for full-sized perceived insults.)

This is a review that I was trying to avoid for a long time.

Oh, I’d heard of Goblins. I’d seen it hover near the top of webcomic ranking sites like Buzzcomix and TopWebComics in late 2008 and early 2009, and I’d seen the effusive praise given it elsewhere. Goblins was one of three comics constantly in the top three spots on Buzzcomix when I was trying to push my own comic Sandsday on there, before the site went belly up for good. Two of them, Girl Genius and Fey Winds, got reviews on this here site. Sure, I reviewed Fey Winds because its Buzzcomix description made it sound like a poor man’s Order of the Stick, but isn’t that a fairly apt description of Goblins as well? All I knew about Goblins was that it turned the traditional “they’re-evil-and-that’s-that” portrayal of D&D goblins on its head by portraying a campaign from their perspective, and that’s a minor aspect of OOTS‘ exploration of the genre.

No, something led me to actively avoid reading the comic, something that made me actively ignore this comic that gave every sign of being but a shadow of OOTS‘ greatness. Had I continued doing webcomic reviews, it would have been a long, long time before I even considered taking on Goblins. But no. Goblins ended up being the runner up in the semi-recent “Webcomic March Madness” tournament. Oh, I hadn’t reviewed either of the winners from either year Comicmix held the tournament, but I already had plans to review Gunnerkrigg Court and Erfworld, and the runner-up the year before was some super-obscure comic called Gronk that more than anything else probably shows how far the tournament came along this year, and I was determined to add at least one comic to my review pile from the tournament.

Let’s hope this doesn’t mean I find myself reviewing Misfile in a year’s time.

The big difference this year, of course, was that the tournament attracted the attention of big-time webcomic creators, and few pushed their comic harder in the tournament than Goblins‘ creator. I’m fairly certain that’s the only reason the comic made it so far. Certainly that’s the only reason Goblins would knock off OOTS in the semifinals, because Goblins was plugging itself in the tournament while Rich Burlew wasn’t even acknowledging its existence and OOTS‘ own fans were ambivalent about pushing it in a tournament with a cash prize (which the top two creators ended up donating to Child’s Play anyway) so soon after the comic’s Kickstarter success. (Yeah, when the other half of the final four is Homestuck and Gunnerkrigg Court, it’s a little late to start worrying about taking away a spot from a comic that needs the exposure more.)

Oh, I gave it time. I sat through years and years and years of comics holding out hope that by late 2008 the comic would improve to the point it would deserve the praise heaped on it. I sat through every excruciating “joke” from the comic’s early storylines. I sat through the incomprehensible fight scene that didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the comic (and still doesn’t have much to do with it). I sat through the flying deus ex machina. I sat through all the contrived, out-of-nowhere discussions of D&D racism. The fair-warning page at the start of the archives says that the very earliest Goblins pages date to 2001, but it reads like someone just discovered OOTS (or hell, even DM of the Rings) and wanted to jump on the bandwagon with their own comic mocking D&D. At this point we’re looking at the homeless man’s Order of the Stick.

Maybe, I thought, it’s unfair for me to try to assess this comic fairly when I’ve already been exposed to and become a fan of OOTS. Maybe all I see is the stuff I’m already familiar with from OOTS and I just dismiss it because of that. Hell, maybe if I had read Goblins first, I wouldn’t find OOTS all that impressive because I’d find everything to be a retread of stuff I’d already read in Goblins. Or maybe not. Considering a good chunk of the point of this comic could be distilled into a single scene of OOTSStart of Darkness prequel, I doubt reading Goblins first would ruin my enjoyment of OOTS. (Seriously. Read pages 9-12, maybe 9-15. 4-7 pages of a print-only OOTS book encapsulates everything you could get out of early Goblins.)

The comic went through Cerebus Syndrome before the encounter set up on its opening pages was even finished. When that happened to OOTS, it remained a humor comic that happened to advance a plot at the same time for quite some time, and even when the plot moved to the fore it continued to use humor to add levity to a situation. With Goblins, what humor remains seems horribly out of place, the vestiges of the early jokes (like a goblin named “Dies Horribly” in nonstop panic mode after being named by the clan’s fortune teller) clashing oddly with the serious plotlines. Remember how I was worried about being able to get through Gunnerkrigg Court‘s drama after its first few chapters? With Goblins, that feeling never went away. I dreaded every time I went to continue my archive binge. Part of it was the drama I had to deal with, part of it was that I was guaranteed to run into something that made me facepalm.

Oh, the comic did improve, becoming simply the poor man’s OOTS, but that’s not saying much. The main characters, who end up forming an adventuring party of their own, became much more fleshed out, and from some of the early jokes the comic picked up themes of predestination and what makes a leader. But it still didn’t improve enough to overcome its early issues, and those issues sometimes threaten to bring down the whole enterprise.

It’s 2008 and Thunt still can’t draw a comprehensible fight scene. And he’s not afraid to drop massive infodumps. And the bad guys are almost cartoonishly evil (though Goblinslayer does seem to subscribe to the Tarquin school of fame). And the comic runs into the same pacing problems afflicting most comics releasing a single page regardless of content density with every update, somewhat more self-awarely than, say, the Court but compounded by Thunt’s propensity to jump between somewhat loosely connected plot threads, which itself is compounded by those pacing problems. Even updating twice a week, I bet the comic advances its plotlines at most as much as Fey Winds does/did in the same time span. The comic takes a year and a half to play out a single battle, admittedly the rough equivalent of OOTS‘ Battle of Azure City, but that played out in substantially less time.

And if that wasn’t enough, I have just two words for you: Goblin! Boobies!

And then… there’s a moment where the paladin-goblin Big Ears is cornered by this big goon with this huge weapon that apparently is incredibly evil. So the goon brings down the weapon on him, and he starts to get up, and the weapon’s glow gets brighter and brighter until it becomes this complete wall of text explaining the history of the weapon. Thunt literally pulled an entire page of pure exposition out of his ass to save this character.

Do you see why I was dreading every time I went back to the archive binge?

I do begrudgingly admit that Goblins has some reason to exist, but that’s not saying much. At this point, Goblins‘ biggest issue has to do with its update schedule and how slow its plot advances, especially since a lot of its other issues ultimately tie back to that one. For example, Thunt tries to juggle three or more plotlines at a time (as many of two of which are only barely connected with the main plot and have been dragging out their promise of a resolution and tie back to the main plot for a long, LONG time now), and the update schedule already means one group is going to be in the spotlight for an extended period while the others fade to the background and wait their turn, and none of them are going to advance very much.

Yet the comic just finished six uninterrupted months with one of them, the adventuring party that attacked the goblin camp at the start of the comic, to the point that Thunt had to put up a blog post reminding people of the plot he was returning to, the one immediately preceding that uninterrupted stretch. That group has itself been in a dungeon crawl with its own alternate universe doppelgangers since February of last year, which you really just want to get to the end of while it’s happening. It doesn’t help that the adventurers are the comic’s least interesting protagonists, not because of their origin as joke antagonists, but because of the way their characters have evolved, especially Minmax, who started out as a buffoonish parody of overly-“optimized” characters (like a poor man’s Pete from Darths and Droids), but has since become merely a well-meaning dimwit, and it just doesn’t mesh well, especially his weird pseudo-romantic subplot with the yuan-ti travelling with them. (Not that the other group is much better; after all, Saves a Fox practically verges on Mary Sue territory.) Meanwhile, we’ve barely seen the alleged main cast at all in the two and a half years since that aforementioned protracted battle ended.

Hell, just last week Thunt posted some filler and announced he would be doing more of it next week and at the end of each month, while admitting his update schedule is already too slow to advance the story at any reasonable speed, suggesting he’s running into the same problem that afflicted Dresden Codak: his art takes too long for his own good. The fact that at least he’s updating twice a week instead of only once only means that his artwork isn’t as good as that of Fey Winds or Dresden Codak, or as detailed as the latter. In effect, he’s getting the worst of both worlds.

So in the end, while Goblins does have some redeeming qualities, ultimately it’s the sort of comic I wouldn’t have been surprised to see John Solomon target, and it’s certainly a far cry from the greatness that is OOTS. It has been an utter chore to get through, and when all is said and done I’m just glad to be done with it.

Zach, if you’re not going to include the red-button panel on the RSS feed, at least provide an alternate feed with just comic links.

(From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Click for full-sized reality.)

I don’t have much more to say about Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal than I did back in March. I was trying to avoid saying too much about it then, to avoid giving away too much about the review now, but what is there to say? It’s a modern The Far Side crossed with xkcd, to the point that, while the comic I reviewed in March may have been xkcdlike, I have since found a number of comics in the archive that are out-and-out the same as an actual xkcd comic; compare this SMBC, only a year old, to this xkcd. But that’s not necessarily a knock against it, and in fact I’m about to say something that may come off as blasphemous:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is, in fact, a better comic than xkcd.

xkcd is the vanilla ice cream of webcomics (much as I hate how “vanilla” has become synonymous with “plain” when it isn’t, it just doesn’t change the color of ice cream): it’s safe, inoffensive, and wholly middle-of-the-road and unremarkable. It plugs out a new comic three times a week without affecting much of anything whatsoever. In this analogy, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is more like chocolate ice cream: just as middle-of-the-road, but with significantly more flavor. Zach Weiner isn’t afraid to go with off-color humor in every other webcomic, make his opinion on religion very, very clear, or be far nerdier than almost any xkcd comic I’ve ever read. SMBC simply has more bite than xkcd ever had, and the result is that it’s more consistently funny than xkcd. Few comics have had me giggling as much as SMBC did while I was reading it.

But when I started reading it as it came out, I found that there, it had the same problem as xkcd. It doesn’t provide enough bang for the buck for me to consistently follow it every single day. Often it’s just a single panel, or a short progression of panels, and there just isn’t enough there to make an impact.

This may partly be because the comic is read better several at a time, but it may also be because the comic is pretty hit-and-miss, and may in fact have declined in quality just within the last year. It may also be a comic you can’t have too much of. Certainly if you’re the sort who hates Ctrl+Alt+Del, there’s certainly ammunition here for you, as the vast majority of comics will generally hit one of a few points: jokes about naughty bits, religion, academia, “graph jokes”, and at least for a while, out-of-order jokes, with the chronologically earliest panel moved to the end to change the experience of the comic. So you could say the comic is repetitive and that Weiner falls back on a few crutches.

On the other hand, it is a daily comic, so you probably can’t fault Weiner for resorting to those crutches, especially since it’s a strict gag-a-day comic with no continuing characters or storylines, meaning for all its repetitiveness, it can still shift topics on a dime. Besides, it still has those moments of humor that can reach a higher level than xkcd. I wouldn’t say SMBC is for everyone – if you get offended by certain sorts of jokes about God and religion (especially Christianity), SMBC isn’t for you, and the same goes if you’re offended by jokes about certain parts of the human anatomy. If neither of those weeded you out, and you happen to already like xkcd, I’d give SMBC a shot and see if it’s right for you.

That may sound like damning with faint praise, and you may have noticed that this post reads substantially shorter than other recent reviews. Well, I never liked xkcd that much, though my opinion of it has softened as time has gone on, to the point that I’ll admit that SMBC never quite reaches the sublimity that the occasional xkcd comic can. As such, I find I don’t really have an opinion about SMBC that much and I’m not confident of the opinion I do have. I’m conflicted about it, because I certainly enjoyed it, but I’d certainly never read it on a regular basis. It’s not really for me. Maybe if it’s for you, you’ll enjoy it and have a new favorite comic, but I’m going to go back to reading Order of the Stick, becoming addicted to Questionable Content, and trying to finish Erfworld before it comes back from hiatus.

Ladies and gentlemen, the only webcomic that can turn me into a gibbering fangirl shipper. Marten x Marigold and Dora x Tai OTP!

(From Questionable Content. Click for full-sized mind-scarring Internet memes.)

Since I’ve started doing these webcomic reviews again, I’ve been wondering if I’ve become a big ol’ softie. I was hardly ever John Solomon, but nonetheless one of the things I tended to do in my previous webcomic-reviewing life was to go against the conventional wisdom and have a lower opinion of the most popular webcomics. I wasn’t really a fan of Penny Arcade, PVP, Dinosaur Comics, or xkcd, and I absolutely tore into 8-Bit Theater and Scary Go Round, two comics that often seem to be cited as a cut above even the ones I mentioned before, and certainly the latter seems to have actually influenced a good number of (far superior) webcomics. Yet since returning to webcomic reviews, I’ve liked Homestuck and Gunnerkrigg Court, and next week I’ll talk about how I like Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal as well. Even Axe Cop I didn’t think was completely devoid of redeeming characteristics.

That’s gotten me wondering whether or not my tastes in webcomics have shifted, especially since I went through a substantial shift in my worldview around the same time my webcomics reviews petered out last time. It can’t be that, by some bizarre coincidence, the popular webcomics I reviewed last time just happened to be the overrated ones, whereas the ones I’m reviewing this time just happen to be the genuinely good ones – especially since both Gunnerkrigg Court and Questionable Content were on my docket for a review before I went on hiatus. I can’t help but wonder if I would hate Scary Go Round quite as much if I were reviewing it today, and I certainly can’t help but wonder if my opinion of Questionable Content would be different if I were reviewing it before the summer of 2009, and not because of any developments in the comic itself. (Then again, considering the reasons I’ve liked Ctrl+Alt+Del…)

That is not to say, of course, that the developments in the comic itself haven’t shifted my perception of the comic. In fact, Questionable Content represents the longest archive binge I’ve successfully pulled off so far (unless you count Homestuck), and I can’t think of another comic where my opinion of it changed so much while I was reading it, certainly while the comic itself changed relatively little.

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. The very earliest comics are absolutely terrible. They’re like if Ctrl+Alt+Del and Something Positive had a love child that had all their negative aspects and none of their positive ones. The art has the full B^U thing going on, the comic itself is at best generic and aimless, and there are quite a few vindictive shots at things Jeph Jacques hates. In fact, I’m going to save you the trouble and summarize the events of those earliest comics so you don’t have to suffer through them:

Marten Reed is a lonely, dumpy guy with a crappy, low-paying job who gets nervous around girls and lives alone with his “AnthroPC” Pintsize. One day a new girl in town named Faye walks up to him and his friend Steve and asks if they’d like to hang out with her, completely platonically; later, she invites him to dinner, and as time passes they bond over their shared love (and nerdom) of indie rock. One day Faye burns down her apartment and asks to move in with Marten, which leads to Marten constantly struggling with any attraction he might have towards her, made worse by the possible hints that the attraction might be mutual. Meanwhile, Faye’s coworker at the local coffee shop, Sara, has been nursing a crush on Marten but, when she finally works up the guts to say something, realizes she never crushed on Marten himself so much as what he represented to her. Oh, and Pintsize engages in various kinds of comic relief, including downing cake mix at least twice, the latter of which results in him getting a new chassis that shoots lasers. There, now you can start reading from here when the comic is slightly more tolerable, and you should know everything you need to know going forward, aside from Marten’s backstory (which gets expanded on later anyway).

Now, with a setup like that, you’d probably expect some sort of Three’s Company-type of situation with Marten and Faye constantly getting into uncomfortable situations with one another and dancing around their feelings for one another. But while there is a considerable amount of that in the early comics, as it goes along something funny happens: Marten and Faye eventually develop a genuine platonic friendship.

The comic is not so concerned with playing up the tension between them for our benefit so much as inviting us to follow them around as they go about their daily lives; it’s not even all that much of a humor comic except for what might be called “in-universe” humor, that humor that arises from the jokes the characters themselves tell that they themselves are in on. Potential comparisons between Marten and Ethan don’t go away entirely, but he increasingly seems to become more of a wish-fulfillment fantasy from a female perspective, at least one more mature than that of the typical sixteen-year-old girl with Justin Bieber and Robert Pattinson posters on her walls, a cute, sweet, sensitive young man who genuinely cares about his female friends rather than simply jonesing to get into their pants. It’s hard to tell whether it’s more comparable to Seinfeld or Friends (the latter of which would be very ironic considering the occasional early strip that takes a shot at it).

TV Tropes had spoiled both of the two major turning points in the comic’s development for me, so even before it happened, and even knowing what the result was going to be, I found myself actively rooting for Marten and Dora to work out. My enthusiasm softened when I saw how it ended up happening, with them up and deciding they’re going to be a couple now, without even knowing how much of anything there was between them. Maybe that’s just my personal preference against a more contractual model of love and relationships and for a more organic, free-flowing one. At any rate, for a while it seemed to work out pretty well regardless, to the point I think they could have made it work if they weren’t so neurotic about it. Pretty much everyone in the comic has their issues; Dora worries about whether Marten is still pining for Faye, Faye can’t open up to anyone out of fear of what happened to her father, Marten simply worries about his own shortcomings and whether or not he’s worthy of anything. For a while after Faye opens up about her issues, the most apt comparison for Questionable Content is probably a Woody Allen movie, with everyone constantly worrying about their various problems.

If I had reviewed QC when I originally intended to and my opinion of it isn’t affected by my shift in worldview, I might have considered it one of the three best webcomics I’d then read, right up there with Darths and Droids and The Order of the Stick, though of course there is no way QC could have possibly measured up to the sheer awesomeness that is OOTS. Certainly I’d cite it as an example of a comic that does a lot of things right that a lot of other comics don’t. Instead, I have to consider it one of the more frustrating webcomics I’ve ever read. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest is QC‘s propensity for flirting with PVP/Goats Syndrome.

It seems odd to say that when QC has never even really flirted with Cerebus Syndrome; if anything, it’s more like a reverse Cerebus Syndrome that ends up approaching something resembling PVP/Goats Syndrome from the opposite direction, adding ridiculous elements to a fairly serious, story-based webcomic (with the in-universe humor I mentioned earlier). Now, I didn’t have a problem with Pintsize and his fellow AnthroPCs; I thought of them much like Dogbert and his fellow collection of talking animals in Dilbert, a break from reality you just accept and don’t think about too much, and which ultimately doesn’t detract from the down-to-earth nature of the comic. QC was, at its core, a comic about a bunch of twentysomethings struggling with love, relationships, and life in the real world, and having little robotic mascots was just something you looked past.

As time went on, though, much like Dogbert opened the door for the Dilbert workplace to become infested with one-dimensional exaggerated cariactures of annoying coworker stereotypes, Jacques increasingly dropped signs that the QC version of Northampton was more than a little weird, the first of which was Pizza Girl, but which became overt with the storyline involving the VespAvenger. In and of itself, I didn’t really have a problem with the notion of a woman running around on a Vespa avenging perceived wronged girlfriends; after all, Seattle has self-proclaimed real-life superheroes running around. Nor did I have a problem, in and of itself, with the plan Marten and his friends hatched up to get revenge on her for attacking people who turned out to be innocents. But when her Vespa turned out to be a Transformer (and no, I am not making that up)… that tainted the whole storyline for me. At that point I was just wondering when Marten would start knocking the heads off of living statues with golf clubs.

Thankfully Jacques dialed back the weirdness factor after that, but it was still apparent that the QC cast led… interesting lives (certainly compared to before), and ever since the second major development the comic has flirted with this variant of PVP/Goats Syndrome more than ever, for which I largely blame the character of Marigold. I liked Marigold as a character in and of herself, the cute geek girl who’s too socially shut-in to realize how much she has going for her if she’d just open up more (kind of a more realistic portrayal of a Lilah-type “gamer chick”), and rooted for her to at least open up enough to go on a date, but in retrospect her introduction seems to be heralding Jacques going more after the anime-style audience that’s flocked to Megatokyo and Homestuck, as evidenced by the fact that, while Faye and Dora are (for now) portrayed with full lips, Marigold (and now, even Hannelore) are portrayed more with straight lines that allow them to engage in more anime-esque expressions like the “cat smile” (which even Faye and Dora have flirted with).

The more direct herald of PVP/Goats Syndrome, though, is Marigold’s anime-styled AnthroPC Momo, who I originally didn’t really see any differently from any other AnthroPC… until she picked up her new chassis, which makes her look like a seventeen-year-old anime girl (who occasionally has the most SGR-inspired art I’ve ever seen from QC) and makes the comic seem like an anime waiting to happen at any moment she’s on screen. Then there was the recent really extended storyline on board Hannelore’s dad’s space station; even though her dad living on a space station had been established before, it still felt awfully sci-fi for what had heretofore been, at heart, a straight-up slice-of-life comic, especially since it felt like Marten, Marigold, and Hannelore were just along for the ride through all the weird sciency stuff, despite, or perhaps because of, their having their own subplots.

I’m still going to add QC to my RSS feeds on a provisional basis, but I continue to reserve the right to pull out if the comic’s descent into PVP/Goats Syndrome continues, and I have a feeling if I had reviewed it when I originally intended, it would be an epic “you had me and you lost me”-style breakup now. What makes me all the more apprehensive about it is that I kind of feel like the comic is losing its soul, the reason I liked it so much to begin with. Part of that is because of the encroaching weirdness, but part of it is just that there are so many characters that it’s hard to care about them all, especially with the addition of the Secret Bakery crew, who seem to be becoming regular cast members despite not being all that much fleshed out. (It didn’t help that Tangents described them as being “Mirror Universe Opposites” and “Bizarro World Twins“, which since I wasn’t reading the comic myself at the time, made me worry that they were part of the comic’s PVP/Goats Syndrome somehow as well, like there was an extended storyline in which the cast went to a literal mirror universe. In the end, though, my biggest problem ended up being that it didn’t make sense we wouldn’t have encountered them before now, at least until I started thinking about what they represented about the comic.)

It all makes me wonder if QC is starting to reach its twilight, starting to jump the shark if you will, if Jeph Jacques may be starting to run out of ideas so he’s throwing a bunch of silly concepts at the wall and seeing if they stick. I’d call it Dilbert Syndrome if webcomics criticism didn’t have enough “syndromes” already and “Dilbert Syndrome” couldn’t describe a number of different things. (Maybe this is what I should use “Goats Syndrome” for.) I’m willing to stick with it because of how good QC can be at its best, but you may want to stop reading after this comic and imagine that everyone lives happily ever after. That’s not a good sign when someone says “the comic’s okay if you read within this defined start and end point”, but even a QC off its peak is better than a lot of other webcomics. Even if QC goes off the deep end while I’m reading it, we’ll always have the days when a snarky little slice-of-life webcomic about a boy from California, his female friends, and their myriad relationships was one of the best on the Internet.

Dang it, if I’d posted this yesterday I could have dropped not one but TWO Homestuck references.

(From Axe Cop. Click for full-sized cover-maintaining murder.)

Would you believe that we have our first webcomic to be adapted to a broader medium – and it’s not PVP or Least I Could Do, or Girl Genius or Gunnerkrigg Court, or Order of the Stick or Sluggy Freelance?

Would you believe that it is, instead, a comic about an axe-wielding cop joined by his absolutely insane collection of fellow crimefighters that turned into an internet sensation shortly after its debut in 2010?

Would you believe that this comic has been adapted into print comics by Dark Horse, including a print-only miniseries, has crossed over with Dr. McNinja, and has had an RPG set made for it?

Would you believe that this comic has been picked up by the Fox network for six 15-minute episodes for a new late-Saturday-night animation lineup debuting sometime next year?

Now, would you believe that the author of this comic is just seven years old?

I almost feel sorry for the kid, who I doubt can even grasp entirely the way the product of his imagination has been exploited and turned into a money-making machine. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for wondering how much of the comic’s popularity owes itself to the novelty value of a comic made by a kid as opposed to having anything to do with the comic itself. You’ll also forgive me for wondering how much of the comic’s popularity is akin to when your kid wants to tell you a story and you humor him and tell him how great his story is no matter how much it’s really utter crap. Sure enough, Axe Cop is full of the sort of ridiculous silliness that makes you say “this is so cool!” “this is so stupid” you’d expect from a comic written by an overimaginative five-year-old. Almost everyone’s name, especially the major protagonists, is a description, so Axe Cop’s name is literally Axe Cop; he charges into battle yelling “I’ll chop your head off!“; looking for a partner, he picks out a Flute Cop, who promptly turns into a humanoid dinosaur-creature by getting splashed with dinosaur blood; among their other allies is Sockarang, a character with socks for arms who can detach them from his body and throw them as weapons.

It almost sounds redundant at this point to note that I did not make any of that up.

El Santo makes an interesting point, though: even considering all the craziness populating Axe Cop, it’s possible we’re more willing to accept it coming from a six-year-old kid than from an adult, or at least understand it. We see elements like Mega Man-esque absorption of powers from blood and a dude with socks for arms and we think, of course that’s the sort of thing a six-year-old kid would come up with! We excuse the insanity of Axe Cop because we honestly don’t expect a six-year-old kid to do any better. It’s much harder to pull off those sorts of things as an adult without getting laughed out of the place.

As is evidenced by his allies, Axe Cop quickly becomes less of a police officer and more of a superhero, fighting a variety of villains as completely bonkers as the protagonists. Don’t go looking for petty crooks getting their heads chopped off. There are aliens and vampires and robots and mad scientists and any number of other wacky enemies. As such, it’s interesting to see it through the lens of that genre, both for what it says about the definition of a superhero, and in how it reflects the core appeal of the genre. Some parts of the comic display such a self-awareness that I can’t help but wonder if it was in some way goaded into being added by Ethan, but for the most part, at least in the early part of the comic, it is just a barrage of one bizarre development after another, ratcheting up the awesomeness quotient as high as it can go.

(Incidentially, the way the site is set up far better reflects the more-than-a-webcomic philosophy, and possibly the implications of PVP‘s new setup, than anything else I’ve encountered. Axe Cop has so successfully set itself up as at least giving the appearance of a larger franchise that you’d be forgiven for missing that it’s a webcomic at all. If nothing else, Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere should take a good, long look at the Axe Cop site and take copious notes, even if they don’t end up using them.)

I think my opinion of Axe Cop is somewhat opposite from that of the general public. I couldn’t stand the original, memetic comics, constantly facepalming and eventually bailing after the first two or three chapters because I just couldn’t take it anymore. On the other hand, I have to begrudgingly admit that more recent comics are considerably more tolerable – albeit possibly at the expense of the elements that made it popular in the first place. The characters are still as crazy in concept as they’ve ever been, and the events that happen to them are as silly and nonsensical as ever, but the characters now seem to lead relatively more grounded lives, and the comic seems to have settled at its natural level of craziness and found a normalcy within the silliness, if that makes sense. It’s not really that much crazier at this point than Dr. McNinja, or the worse sufferers of PVP/Goats Syndrome (such as Scary Go Round), or even Homestuck, or even Sluggy Freelance or Irregular Webcomic! The problem, of course, is that while it may now have more reason to exist, its reason to exist in the first place was to present the wild and outrageous imaginings of a real-life Calvin, so as it gets more reason to exist, it paradoxically and simultaneously loses its reason to exist.

Perhaps El Santo is right, and perhaps Malachai is losing interest as he gets older and more self-aware, and perhaps Axe Cop doesn’t really have much life left in it. Perhaps it was always a short-lived meme destined to flame out. But if that’s the case, we can only hope the TV show doesn’t end up tainting webcomics as a source for adaptation to broader mediums.

For this review, I think I’m going to try to put on my best Robert A. “Tangents” Howard impression and overanalyze everything.

(From Gunnerkrigg Court. Click for full-sized scrounging.)

Longtime readers of Da Blog know that I am an enormous fan of The Order of the Stick, to the point that I will defend it to the death as one of the classics of literature, especially within the fantasy genre. Of course, I can see how people might be skeptical that a humor comic about stick figures could be the best webcomic on the entire Internet. So back in 2009, when I was still regularly doing webcomic reviews, and shortly after one particular defense of OOTS as a piece of classic literature, I decided that if I was really going to call OOTS the best webcomic on the Internet, I had to qualify such a claim by familiarizing myself, once and for all, with the other comic commonly listed alongside OOTS, even by the likes of John Solomon, as one of the two best webcomics on the Internet. I had to do a review of Gunnerkrigg Court.

I’d read the first chapter of the Court before, but I didn’t really find it anything special, or leaving me wanting more (it’s a fairly self-contained story on its own), and at the time I didn’t want to get myself too involved in what was already a considerable archive. Due to the circumstances of my life at the time, I was finding it impossible to keep to the weekly schedule for webcomic reviews I was aiming for, and eventually stopped entirely, but before I did I was determined to push through, finish the archive, and determine once and for all whether or not the Court was really all it was cracked up to be, and whether or not it could go toe-to-toe with OOTS, or even find a place in my RSS feeds.

Is it? Well… let me tell you a story.

Even though I have a 100 Greatest Movies Project I’ve been trying and failing to get off the ground for some time (which you can contribute to!), I’ve never really been much of a movies guy. I went to two movies when I was very little, like less than five years old; I think they were Muppet Treasure Island and The Lion King. Both of those are kids’ movies, yet I could not handle the emotional torque in each one, not even Muppet Treasure Island. I ended up having to leave the theater to avoid what was going on on-screen. Those experiences turned me off of movies pretty much for life, to the extent that I can probably count the number of movies I’ve seen in a theater since then on one hand.

Now, being much older these days, I could probably handle those movies just fine if I went to see them today, or really most any other movie. But there’s still a part of me that worries about that emotional torque, that excess of drama. I’m anything but the kind of person who would go to a horror movie precisely to go through that torque. A while back I mentioned that I seemed to have a bit of an anti-gag-a-day bias in my reviews, that I tended to favor comics with a plot over ones without, but it’s really the reverse. All the comics that I’ve continued reading for some time after reviewing them – OOTS, Homestuck, Sluggy Freelance, Ctrl+Alt+Del, Irregular Webcomic, Darths and Droids, even 8-Bit Theater – for all that they had some plot or went some distance into Cerebus Syndrome, all of them had some humor to leaven the situation or lighten the mood, and OOTS is probably best at that than any other.

Gunnerkrigg Court doesn’t have that. It is strictly a dramatic story comic and nothing else. For as much as the situations can be silly or the comic downright weird, it is still a wholly dramatic comic, with any humor being purely incidential. Reading the first few chapters, I was simultaneously on the edge of my seat wanting the questions the comic raised to be answered, and wanting to just stop and get away from reading this comic. Part of it was my embarrassment at the level of bizarreness I was being confronted with; part of it was the level of suspense involved in the story, which got my heart racing and put me on the edge of my seat, portrayed in a far more dynamic fashion than would be possible in the stick figure style of OOTS. For many people, that’s high praise. For me, it was too much for me to take.

However, after the first five or six chapters, that feeling eventually faded, though I never was completely able to stop needing a break every few chapters and dreaded finishing it, and I think either I got used to the drama or Tom Siddell made it not quite so intense. If I were to recommend whether or not the comic is for you, I would advise you to read the first 11 or 12 chapters before coming to a decision. That’s nearly a third of the comic by number of chapters and almost the entire first book, but really the entire first book is kind of setup. I’m actually a bit stunned at how quickly the Court reached the point where the likes of Solomon and El Santo could praise it the way they have; I never would have thought it would have attracted that kind of praise before the end of the first book. For me, the comic doesn’t really get going until the third chapter of the second book – and for all the mysteries this comic has, it’s the partial resolution of one that got me most interested, when we begin to learn of the origins of the titular Court.

At this point, a major theme of the comic begins to come into focus, one that’s a bit overused in modern “urban fantasy” but nonetheless one worthy of study here: the conflict between magic and technology. A group of humans were offered refuge by creatures of the forest, but began looking for explanations for the strange phenomena all around them, which led to a conflict that ended when the trickster god Coyote divided the world of magic from the world of technology. While the Court was introduced as a school, it becomes apparent early on that it is much more than that, that it is a place that seeks to re-unify the two worlds… or perhaps more appropriately, to continue to attempt to understand magic using science, to apply the strictures of man to a world that stubbornly refuses to fit them.

The character of Kat quickly comes to represent this attitude. A budding scientist, hers is a strictly scientific worldview, one which refuses to believe anything that doesn’t fit her worldview until she’s confronted face-to-face with it, one which refuses to believe there is anything that does not have a rational, scientific explanation. Unlike the rest of the Court, she doesn’t need an explanation to accept what she’s dealing with, but she is quite insistent that there is one. As time progresses and she grows more used to everything, she does start to reshape her worldview and gets some new ideas about how a machine might be able to work.

A stark contrast with Kat is her best friend and the comic’s protagonist, Antimony Carver. Antimony is not entirely on the side of magic – merely being human is enough to assure of that – but she definitely seems to be more attuned to, and on the side of, magic than the rest of the Court (though many other human characters clearly have misgivings about the Court’s position). Antimony grew up in a hospital, isolated from the outside world, her mother bedridden from the day she was born. While there, she had the ability to see the numerous spirit guides whose job it was to escort the dead to the great beyond, and would accompany them and comfort the dead as they were taken away. It’s apparent, though not obvious to Antimony when the comic begins, that her mother arranged for her to go to Gunnerkrigg shortly after her death to further develop these talents and take up her own mantle as the Court’s “mediator” to the world of magic.

If I had to describe this comic in a single sentence, it might be: “if Daria went to Hogwarts”. Even at the height of activity in the early chapters it never reaches the sort of world-shattering confrontations that characterize the later Harry Potter books, and Antimony is not quite as snarky or disdainful as Daria could get, but she does hold a certain ambivalence toward everything going on around her and isn’t terribly affected at the presence of “ethereal” things (much like I’d like to pretend I could be, as though this comic didn’t put the lie to that). Her reaction, in the first chapter, to having a “second shadow” follow her around is to confront it, ask it what it wants, and build a robot to transport it across the bridge back into the forest; her reaction to encountering a ghost is to give it tips in how to be more scary; when she encounters a huge demon… dragon… thing, she strikes up a conversation with it, eventually comes to see it again when it’s re-imprisoned, and when the demon accidentially enters into her wolf doll, befriends it.

(That demon, Reynardine, may be my favorite character in the entire comic. His snarky ways were quite invaluable in getting me through some of those early chapters, adding some needed levity to the proceedings. He’s developed quite a bit since then, though those early days aren’t gone entirely, and Coyote may have passed him as the most fun character to be around. He’s… well… pretty much everything you’d expect a trickster god, accurately portrayed, to be.)

Although that first chapter (and the following one, really) read like a self-contained story when I first read it, not only do both the shadow and robot make return appearances, but it also serves to set the stage for the comic as a whole, and possibly serve as a microcosm of it. Antimony is confronted by a magical phenomenon – the shadow creature. She doesn’t shun it as some sort of abomination against science, as some sort of foe encroaching on the world of technology, but instead talks to it and learns that it just wants to go home. But her solution to that problem is technological: to build the robot. It is an alliance of magic and technology, indeed of the latter assisting the former, where once the former felt the need to shun the latter. There may be a bridge between the Court and the forest, but the real bridge is Antimony, and her ability to represent the best of both worlds.

That was once her mother’s job; now Antimony is in training to make it her own, in a way her mother never seems to have embraced. Her mother once romanced Reynardine in his normal fox form, but if I may be permitted a minor spoiler, it turns out to have been all a ruse to get him captured by the Court. Antimony, by contrast, has a more genuine (if somewhat slow to develop) friendship with Reynardine, and seems to have been accepted by Coyote and the creatures of the forest in a way that doesn’t really apply to anyone else in the Court. If Harry Potter is a game of Dungeons and Dragons, the Court is more of a chess game, with the pieces warily moving around each other, slowly setting up for a final showdown, with Antimony in the middle, potentially the deciding factor in the outcome, and perhaps the one best hope for bringing the two worlds back together.

Gunnerkrigg Court isn’t perfect. It’s certainly nowhere near challenging OOTS for my personal “Best Webcomic Evar” title, and I’m not even sure whether or not it’s better than Homestuck; certainly Homestuck was easier to get through despite taking longer. A big part of my problem with it is the one that I’ve hinted at when I’ve referred to the Court in the past: the effect of always releasing the comic a page at a time. While it makes for a breezy archive binge (it should take you no more than two days, maybe not even that if you reserve the whole day for it and can handle the emotional torque), some pages can be confusing and the pace of the story moves agonizingly slowly when read as it comes out, with some pages not feeling like full updates. Also, Siddell is so committed to making a mystery out of everything that sometimes the fact that something would be a mystery ends up making one or more parties look rather stupid.

It’s also not the most original comic in the world; the most obvious and notorious influence is probably Harry Potter, but Siddell has also borrowed heavily from mythologies and symbolism the world over, and I can also see reciprocal influences with other webcomics, as the art style sometimes reminds me of the later Scary Go Round (especially Parley), there’s a bit of Kim Ross of Dresden Codak (in)fame in both Antimony and Kat, and I can definitely see the Court‘s influence on Fey Winds.

And perhaps most of all, it can still be quite dark and depressing – and upon reread I realize it actually got darker as it went along, to the point one actually could say it went through Cerebus Syndrome. I’m interested enough in where it goes that I’m going to put it in my RSS feeds, but on a provisional basis. I’ve done this before – Irregular Webcomic! during the Irregular Crisis, Sluggy Freelance during the extended “bROKEN”/”4U City” storyline, Homestuck – but this is the first time where the reason for the provisionality isn’t because I’m just staying for the end of a storyline. Rather, the reason for the provisionality is because I want the freedom to bail on the Court if I find I can’t handle it. I may have only just gotten back to webcomic reviews, but I have never gotten closer to abandoning them entirely than when I was reading those first five or six chapters. The Court isn’t going to be the last webcomic of this type that I review, and regardless of what my personal inclinations are, if I want to have any credibility as a reviewer I need to at least be able to get through comics that may be quite good, but that deal with themes and subjects that put me through that much emotional torque.

Although, if page-at-a-time webcomics can be archive-binged as breezily as the Court, maybe I should try a full archive binge of Girl Genius sometime soon…

Wha… what’s this? It… it’s an ACTUAL WEBCOMIC REVIEW on Da Blog! Oh, happy day!

(From The Non-Adventures of Wonderella. Click for full-sized resurrection interruption.)

For whatever reason, despite – or perhaps because of – their popularity in comic books and among nerds, superheroes are not that popular of a subject for webcomics.

Oh, there are webcomics, even reasonably popular ones, about superheroes; it’s just that none of them have ever reached the level of popularity of a Penny Arcade or xkcd. Moreover, even fewer play the concept entirely straight; at the least they tend to be painfully self-aware of the tropes of the genre. Either it flirts with other genres, deconstructs the trappings of superheroes, or is constantly joking about those trappings, perhaps all of the above.

So perhaps it’s not too surprising that perhaps the most well-known superhero webcomic is a straight-up parody.

It’s kind of hard to describe The Non-Adventures of Wonderella, and not because it’s just completely random. No, Wonderella is hard to describe because it’s undergone considerable evolution over the course of its run, without really changing much at all. That may or may not make any sense, but it never underwent anything remotely approaching Cerebus Syndrome, yet the characters and nature of the humor underwent considerable evolution regardless.

Wonderella is a superhero who, well… does anything but go superheroing, and she’s not even above doing a little of that, though rarely in the typical fashion (I can probably count the number of times she’s actually depicted on-panel using her alleged powers on one hand). She doesn’t particularly care much for it either, preferring to lie around and get wasted, and often borders on the sociopathic. The only person she doesn’t completely mistreat is probably her sidekick, although her relationship with her archvillain can take on vaguely romantic overtones. At least in the strips that made the comic popular, she’s also incredibly entitled, is only concerned with how much she can milk her brand for, and is utterly ignorant and uncaring about anything that happens in the broader world, especially outside the United States… in other words, she’s what a conservative thinks a liberal cariacture of an American is. As such, many of these strips take on a rather satiric tone.

I speak of “the strips that made the comic popular” because I’ve noticed a definite shift as the comic goes along. Now a good number of the strips that come along are parodies of other things. Wonderella’s sociopathy is still there, and she still tends to be rather ditzy, but seems to be considerably toned down, and certainly seems to be less often the focus. I’m also seeing something closer to straight-up superheroing cropping up more often. There are some similarities throughout the run of the comic, especially Aaron Pierce’s penchant for rather surrealist humor, which could take the form of a seemingly stream-of-consciousness procession in the earlier comics, and all in all the shift is probably imperceptable if you’re not looking for it, but it’s definitely there.

Wonderella is funny enough that I originally intended to write this review to make clear that, despite what may have come across in some of my past reviews, I don’t have anything against pure humor comics without much story, so why can’t I get excited about it now? It’s not that it’s bad, or even that it’s not good. Perhaps it’s just that it’s not consistently funny enough, not consistently laugh-out-loud funny, to maintain my interest, especially considering it updates only once a week, meaning it has the same problem that befalls all comics with that infrequent an update schedule (no jokes about Order of the Stick, please). You might think that means it doesn’t take that much additional toll to add it to my RSS reader, but what it really means is that I’m not really receiving enough bang each week to really justify it.

Or perhaps it’s the fact that I just can’t get into the newer comics the way I could the old ones. That may sound like I’m accusing Wonderella of jumping the shark, but honestly I can’t really detect any decrease in quality to go along with the shift. But it no longer seems like Wonderella is the focus of her own comic, but more a conduit for the larger sorts of stories Pierce wants to tell. A lot of the time in the parodies, you can swap out Wonderella for someone completely different and it’ll read much the same way. It’s possible that, like many webcomic artists, Pierce ran out of stories to tell with his original concept and branched out into whatever stories he wanted to tell that he could shoehorn Wonderella into. Which I guess really does sound like I’m saying it’s jumped the shark, but I really do feel like the more recent comics haven’t really slipped that much from the older ones, though it is the case that Wonderella is less interesting as her sociopathy becomes de-emphasized. Still, the newer comics just aren’t quite my cup of tea.

Would I have put Wonderella in my RSS reader back when Wonderella’s sociopathy was still the focus? Maybe, but the fact remains I can’t get into it now. Wonderella has lost its heart, the reason for its appeal in the first place, and what’s left is something of an empty shell. Perhaps that’s something you might still find funny, but for me there’s nothing there, nothing to make any sort of impression on me, certainly not coming once a week.

Yeah, I hate the vent outside my local Subway too, but I don’t think it’s the Subway’s fault, I haven’t smelled it, and I’d be shocked at anyone getting high off it.

(From Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. Click for full-sized worst date ever. Warning, comic contains vulgar language.)

Way back, in my previous webcomic-reviewing existence, I reviewed a parody webcomic called Powerup Comics, to this point the only webcomic I’ve reviewed from a webcomic host (thanks in part to my “good or popular” rule). It’s not one of my prouder reviews; I mostly reviewed it because John Solomon’s short-lived webcomic hateblog had done an April Fool’s review of it that voiced its outrage that people actually liked the comic, only I had trouble finding any positive comments that weren’t in on the joke, or praised it as a parody. (Though Solomon’s review itself appeared to attract comments defending the comic.)

But there was something else that struck me about Powerup Comics, namely that it wasn’t necessarily all that bad, even factoring in its parodic nature.

Don’t get me wrong; it was anything but good. The art was a deliberately horrible MS Paint job blatantly copy-pasted across strips and the writing had all the drawbacks Ctrl+Alt+Del was accused for but actually as bad as CAD‘s reputation. Yet there was the occasional strip that was genuinely funny, the characters weren’t entirely interchangable, the comic actually knew its video games and took stands on them (even if they weren’t more sophisticated than “Wii sux lol”), and at the time I reviewed it it was even starting to catch Cerebus Syndrome.

I was reminded of that while reading Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff, Andrew Hussie’s parody webcomic and spinoff of current MS Paint Adventures installment (and subject of last week’s review) Homestuck (in which it’s Dave Strider’s parody webcomic). If anything, SBaHJ tries to be even worse than Powerup Comics. Every character is drawn with these bizarre irregular shapes, there are maybe two or three different images of each character that get reused over and over and over, all the text is in Comic Sans, there are compression artifacts and typos everywhere, what humor exists is vulgar at best and jokes get stretched out way too long, and the comic tries way, way, way, way, way too hard to be a meme factory.

And yet, the way “panels” (I use that term very loosely) and other random imagery are strewn all over the place and juxtaposed with each other, combined with the extremes the copy-pasting can go to and extend the comic to incredible lengths, give the comic a certain air of surreality that allows it to transcend its origins. It doesn’t hurt that, while I hate the vast majority of dumb Internet memes with a passion, some of SBaHJ‘s are actually pretty funny, in a Beavis and Butt-head sort of way. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way: there are no fewer than THREE SBaHJ shirts available for purchase in the real world.

Is it possible that a good writer – even just a bunch of random CAD-haters on an internet forum, as Powerup Comics‘ creators were – can’t help but be good even when they’re trying to be bad? That eventually, the inclinations of the higher faculties seep through and you get frustrated with dumbing yourself down all the time? It’s worth noting that I generally don’t like webcomics that try to be surreal, as Dresden Codak, Scary Go Round, and the term “PVP/Goats Syndrome” can attest. That I praise SBaHJ for its surreality can probably be chalked up to setting itself up to be so awful, thus making it more of a surprise when its hidden depths – such as they are – shine through. In other words, it’s the webcomic equivalent of the Sarah Palin effect: lower expectations so you don’t have to do as much to beat them.

(Hmm. I may have just explained why I like Ctrl+Alt+Del, only it was its haters that lowered my expectations rather than the comic itself…)

It’s possible that the only humor a parody webcomic can use that preserves its parodic nature and doesn’t leave me thinking it’s actually a decent comic on its own is strictly humor related to being a parody. At this, Powerup Comics probably has SBaHJ beat, as much of its humor derives from the utter lack of punchlines or use of tired cliches (like shooting the annoying Wii supporter more often than Kenny from South Park); I’m not entirely sure what it is SBaHJ is parodying (other than a comic someone posted to the Penny Arcade forums), as while the main characters are ostensibly gamers in the early strips, this is very, very quickly forgotten, and the comic never touches any of the standard cliches of the genre.

I’m not at all sure whether SBaHJ is worth reading, either as a parody or as its own surreal webcomic (though if you decided to start reading Homestuck it’s probably worth reading just to get the references). But the more I think about it, the more I realize how much it says about my thinking about webcomics – not just about Ctrl+Alt+Del, but my position on art in comics, why I don’t think it matters as much as some people seem to think it does, and what makes comics like xkcd and Order of the Stick work despite their minimalist art. Who would have thought a bunch of crappily drawn scribbles that looks like something I might have drawn could say so much about the world of webcomics?

What is it with innovative webcomics and giant frogs?

(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized giant cosmic frog.)

How does one even begin to describe MS Paint Adventures?

It’s hard to even call it a webcomic – most of the individual updates are of a single image, with all the text being placed below the comic (and occasionally, in the case of the current adventure, in chat logs – sometimes massive ones – hidden behind a button below the comic), with occasional Flash animations moving the story along (again, in the case of the current story). Certainly it wouldn’t fit Scott McCloud’s definition of a comic, despite making up for its single-panel updates by usually updating several times a day. (McCloud in Understanding Comics denies “comic” status to single-panel works like The Family Circus, and in Reinventing Comics argues that hypertext is utterly antithetical to the core concept of comics while pushing his infinite-canvas idea.)

MS Paint Adventures started life as a parody of old-fashioned text-based adventure games like Zork Andrew Hussie did on a forum once. He would post an image with a caption, and then follow whatever command the next person to post suggested. Couple the sometimes-bizarre suggestions with Hussie’s penchant for absurdist cruelty, and the result was a bizarre excersize in surreal humor. Hussie eventually started a web site to house both the original adventure and any further adventures, building an interface intended to allow Choose Your Own Adventure-style branching tales, but quickly abandoned that idea when it got to be too unwieldy. He finally managed to hit his groove and attract a good-sized fanbase with the wild detective-parody-turned-RPG-parody known as Problem Sleuth.

But with his current adventure, Homestuck, Hussie charged full-on into Cerebus Syndrome.

Although Homestuck continues to use the same text-based-adventure-game interface, I’m no longer sure what it’s supposed to represent (though the same could probably be said of Problem Sleuth), especially with how much Hussie has bent the fourth wall and abandoned almost any notion of reader input, and especially since it is itself ostensibly about playing a video game. At one point a character happens upon a console in a vast wasteland and they start issuing commands to the characters, which appears as voices in their heads. The Homestuck “game”‘s second disc is horribly scratched, no thanks to a character within said “game”, and when said scratch renders the game unplayable (this is an actual event within the whatever-the-hell-this-is) the reader/player resorts to visiting another previously-established character to fix it and have the game’s events in the interim relayed to him – all of which is to make clear that the “game” of Homestuck is as much an element within the Homestuck universe as anything else.

All that’s before we even get into the aforementioned use of Flash, which marks Homestuck as a place where graphics are far more important than in Hussie’s previous adventures. It also helps contribute to the epic feeling of the story, especially the use of fan-created music, which has attracted a sizable following in its own right, all contributing to the notion that this is something special, a uniquely fantastic story you simply have to be experiencing for yourself the way its fans are.

I have to say… I’m not quite feeling it.

Don’t get me wrong. I found the story rather addicting during my archive binge, to the extent it chewed up about a week of my time a while back despite my own best intentions (so if this seems vague it’s a result of hazy memories), so it’s certainly addictive. And some parts of it are even funny in their own way. I just don’t feel the story is Lord of the Rings or even Order of the Stick caliber, is all. Part of my problem may be that, while it spent a lot of time giving the feeling of something happening, I felt that it was sound and fury signifying nothing, that the story was going around in circles without actually going anywhere. The plot does pick up considerably at the end of Act 4… so naturally the story takes a lengthy break at that point to tell the story of the trolls for half an act. Which is admittedly fascinating in its own way, but not enough to make me feel like it’s an absolute must-read. The story also is so long and convoluted it becomes rather difficult to follow, but that’s not what really bothers me either. I just feel that…

Actually, you know what the first recap made me realize (and the exposition from John’s Nanna should have)? Is just how derivative the plot actually is. It tries too hard to go for a mythological bent. There’s a kingdom of light and a kingdom of dark, and one is based on a moon orbiting a place called Skaia, and the other is based in a place beyond an asteroid belt, and there are four planets to correspond with the four players, who have “dream selves” who sleep in spires on the respective bases, and the forces of light are destined to lose to the forces of dark and start the asteroids plummeting towards Skaia unless the players can stop the dark queen and king because everyone involved takes a chess motif and there’s a bunch of other symbolism crammed in there as well and I almost want to barf at all this crap. If I had to pick a way to describe the story, it might be: Narnia with a dash of Alice in Wonderland and made ten times more awesome. And if that sounds like a good thing, then I haven’t educated you on the difference between being awesome and being good.

The players themselves are almost more like archetypes than actual fleshed-out characters, cyphers through which the story happens, who go through their own versions of the standard Hero’s Journey; the trolls, and in fact most of the other characters, are substantially more fleshed out. (Though I must admit that Dave is now one of my favorite characters in all of webcomicdom, for his obsession with “irony”, being “cool”, and his inferiority complex regarding his brother.)

I don’t mean to sound like I’m bashing Homestuck. It’s certainly good, and it’s incredible how far MSPA has come since those early adventures, it’s just not OMG the most amazing thing in the history of history. Right now Act 5 is building to its climax, and I intend to stick with it until it reaches that point, but I’m not sure if I’m going to stick with it for much longer than it’ll take to figure out where the story is going from there. Perhaps, as has been suggested, this whatever-the-hell-this-is holds up better when it’s read as it comes out; at that point, you’ve already gone through the archive binge, so each individual update doesn’t weigh down so much. It’s certainly a good experience, but I feel ambivalent about recommending it, and I certainly feel that it’s not quite for me.

So let’s end on a positive note by mentioning an interesting aspect of MS Paint Adventures‘ adventure-game format. You’ll notice that the link on the top of this post links to the first page of Homestuck, not the “current” one, however that’s defined. MSPA doesn’t have a single link to the current comic – which would be impractical for the readership given the comic’s multiple-page-a-day pace, and illogical that an adventure game would simply dump people halfway through the adventure. But Hussie takes the metaphor further: below the command to move to the next comic are links to “Save Game”, “Auto-Save”, or “Load Game”. The “Save Game” button effectively “bookmarks” your place, which you can return to easily by clicking “Load Game”; by turning on “Auto-Save”, the “bookmark” will be automatically updated as you move through the story. (“Delete Game Data” clears the cookie. There are also “Start Over” and “Go Back” links serving the purpose of ordinary webcomics’ “First” and “Previous” links.)

I’m going to be blunt about this: Every story-based webcomic should have something like this. (Komix! does something similar to “Auto-Save”, but a lot of webcomics seem to have expressly removed themselves from it and in any case it hasn’t added new comics in ages.) Many story-based webcomics have many years’ worth of story built up, which can seem impenetrable to archive binge through. Something like this would make it far easier for new readers to enjoy the story at their own pace, even if they don’t necessarily start following the current storylines right away, and thus make it easier to join in and eventually start following the comic. And if such a feature were to become more common, perhaps then MS Paint Adventures would go down as a legitimate milestone in webcomic innovation.