Friday, May 31, 2013

The Standard: The First Year

So let's talk about the early days of Sluggy Freelance, and as a result, the early days of webcomics in general.  For much of this and subsequent parts, I'll be using the comic itself, rereading sections of the archives, the power of the Sluggy's wiki network, various reviews and more than a few interviews with Pete Abrams himself.

Sluggy started in August of 1997, and was part of first wave of modern webcomics.  Others included PvP, User Friendly, and yes, Penny Arcade.  There are others, both before and after, but given just those names, you can probably guess what most of this wave of comics featured, and that includes Sluggy:  Geek jokes.  This was in a time before geek became "in" so this is REAL geek humor, old school style.  The first joke of Sluggy Freelance is about spamming Satan.  Followed by a Windows vs Mac joke.  Then there was a Bill Gates joke.

It shouldn't really be a surprise, actually.  Abrams was, at the time, a web designer, and Sluggy was a side project that was meant to ONLY be on the internet.  I always assumed that he did have the goal of being published in the newspaper, but no, he meant it only for the net even way back then.  Of course, his vision of Sluggy was also to have a revolving cast of characters coming in and out and no "main cast" so to speak.  He changed his mind.

That early comic is something I've had to relive by rereading that portion of the archive, and I get why I quickly got hooked on it.  The humor is very much in my wheelhouse, a kind of "well it's weird, your point?" type thing.  They're also quite genre savvy throughout the early strips, and that makes Riff and Torg particularly invincible in parts of the comic.  What actually surprised me is the sheer amounts of parody in these early strips.  With in the first year there was a Star Trek/Aliens spoof, the X-Files, and a bit on the crazed/angry talk show hosts of the late 90's.  And those are just the major ones, there were a lot of littler ones scattered about that don't stick around long, but give just enough of a chuckle to be worth it.  Parody is hard to do well, and Abrams has always had a talent for it, but especially the X-Files bit and the Clinton impeachment parody make these early strips feel VERY dated (Star Trek/Aliens less so, oddly).  This is the problem with "topical" humor and a good example as to why it should be avoided if possible and abandoned eventually if not.

The format is very basic, 3 - 4 panel gag strips.  Hell, the Sunday strips actually have throwaway panels (part of why I thought the comic was part of a newspaper pitch).  The sketchiness of the early strips gives way fairly early on to a more streamlined strip.  It's still very sketchy compared to the current strips, but 16 years of comic drawing will do that.  All of this is the basic format of most comics in their early days.  Only mature artists manage to avoid the "sketchy" early days, or even the 3 panel gag strips.  This isn't as common as more comic artists aim for the more comic book/manga style, but it's still common enough to be noticed.

By January of 1998, the 6 major members of the cast had been introduced at least, and some adventures already started.  It's curious how the basics of their personalties really hasn't changed in all these years, and there are some very strong hints that there is more to most of them than the jokes.  Torg in particular is show to be just devious enough in a single act (getting Bun Bun arrested) that I could see that same Torg doing all the planning in the Minion Master story line 15 years later.  There's also a moment of bravery in that first year of strips where Torg stupidly dives in to save a girl from a shark (knocking both himself and the shark out when he hits it).  These character nuggets form the basic core from which the characters are fully grown and developed over the years, as well as all the items and characters that would play a part throughout the comic.  Hell Dr. Schlock (young) is introduced before January even comes around (and reminds me of what happened to his eye).

At the same time, the comic does feel it's moving from story to story in a haphazard manner, at least until about March, when Sam and Val appear together.  This is the beginning of the long period stories into which shorter tales, like the beach trip, simply fit inside the piece.  I stopped at the 1 year mark, so I didn't actually get to the Lysinda Vampire story itself, which is less than a week later, and was the point where Sluggy fully converted from it's gag strip roots to the classic adventure comic I based the entire category on.  I'm actually surprised at how quickly this conversion took place, in my mind I thought it took much longer.  This actually makes me wonder if I've been too harsh on some comics for making their conversion from gag strip to adventure comic in similar time frames (nah, GPF still borked it).

The foundation of Sluggy Freelance was well laid, but I won't say it was well planned.  There's a distinct feeling that everything was done for the joke of the moment, not any other reason.  There is some planning for future events, but it's vague and easily changed.  New directions would have been fairly easy to take at this point in the strip, and I wonder if in an alternative universe, the version of Sluggy they have is vastly different than this one because of it.  There was a plan though, a direction, something some comics completely lack, while others are so tightly planned as to not allow much freedom at all.  Sluggy's first year seems to balance this out a bit, making the world and characters seem fresh, adaptable and just plain fun.

365 strips in, and I am reminded why I read Sluggy to this day.  It had a great first year hook, and I read most of the strips (the Dr. Laura stuff mostly got the shaft on my read through, just didn't appeal to me).  It's also very apparent why I use early Sluggy for a lot of my examples, as I saw this same pattern several times, in Candi, College Roomies from Hell and General Protection Fault.  Same cycle of development, sketchy gag comics evolving into cleaner, more adventure based strips.  Oddly, those 3 comics I eventually dropped from the read list but not Sluggy.  Next time, we'll look at the greater stories of the comic, and why those stories keep me reading.

Next week, I'll cover the high points of Sluggy Freelance.

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