Friday, June 28, 2013

The Standard: The Lull

Oceans Unmoving was finished in March 2006, Sluggy Freelance wasn't even 9 years old by then.  So what happened in the last 7 years?  The next important story, and the one that started off the current sequence of events started in late 2008, 2009, about 4 years ago now.  So there's a bit of gap and I'll be honest, I don't remember much of it.  Any of it in fact.

I think Abrams knew he had messed up with Oceans Unmoving, and was determined to get back to "normal" Sluggy, but by then the damage had been done.  Keeping the fans that were left was going to be a struggle, so he cut the strip sizes back down to 4 panels, had the Saturday guest artist focus more on their version of old school Sluggy (Bikini Suicide Frisbee Days, harking back to first year Sluggy) and went to work on non-epic pieces.  It also meant taking fewer chances, doing more parodies and more silly jokes.  It didn't make the damage worse, at least, but those who had tuned out with Oceans Unmoving saw little reason to return.

What was there to return to?  Yeah, that's kind of hard for me to say because, well, I don't remember it.  Was this Sluggy's fault?  Not sure.  Shortly after Oceans Unmoving, I moved across country.  I also went from having a 56k modem, to broadband for the first time.  The number of comics I was reading EXPLODED as a result.  I added 120 comics to my list from 2006 to 2009, that's a LOT of comics and Sluggy wasn't standing out at the time.  So I don't remember much of it.  Or any of it up until bROKEN.

What IS in there then?  Let's see, Zoe gets a job at a radio show as wacky intern.  Gwynn works in a zombie themed restaurant, that actually staffs zombies.  Aylee has an entire chapter dedicated to her, where she's a dragon (I didn't even REMEMBER that).  There's a chapter dedicated to inner workings of Hereti-Corp.  There are also several parodies of Harry Potter, World of Warcraft and 24.  Nothing remarkable.  So unremarkable I'm not even going to bother to link to individual pieces.

What I do remember is that few of the stories were very dark or dramatic.  They were light, and meant to be fun or silly.  They also actually did have meaning later on.  Dr. Schlock takes over Hereti-Corp during this period, there are more details about Oasis that came out, and the Zombie Head On A Stick appears for the first time (okay, important is relative).  This is a very dry period however, and Sluggy became not just average, but below average.

This simply fueled the rampant denunciation of Sluggy by those who didn't think it was all that great to begin with.  It's was almost sport during this period to hate on Sluggy for being "not funny" or "poorly planned" or whatever.  If a new fan had come into Sluggy during this period, I doubt they would have stuck around to see more.

It's not that Sluggy was BAD during this period, it just didn't stand out any more.  At the beginning of this series, I made clear that there was nothing special about the comic and this three year period is why.  There are dozens of comics that were exactly the same as Sluggy at this time, and so one of the comics that started the webcomic revolution really wasn't doing anything special any more, except make money.

And that's all I really have to say about this period, next time I'll cover the current state of Sluggy Freelance.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Brief Break Wild Webcomic Review

We interrupt the current program, The Standard, for a special:


When I finished the last part of the Standard series (which you'll see in three weeks), I realized that it was really, REALLY long, so I figured if I have the time, why not crank out another batch of reviews?  So I have, and here we go.

241.  God Mode - I don't usually read gaming comics because while I was a gamer once, I don't know if I could be considered any more (at least not on consoles).  That and the jokes are pretty much tied to whatever is popular at the time of the strip's writing.  Which means this comic, which started back in 2005 is more than a little dated.  The idea is that God Mode is a game review website and the comic is about the people who work there.  And their deranged, possibly insane, boss.  This comic went through several artists/writers.  The first two really were the best, managing to balance the game end with the cast end quite well and being freaking insane (including where the boss killed her own father, and then he got better).  After that, when Adrian Ramos from Count Your Sheep takes over, it kind of goes down hill.  First there aren't as many strips per artist (low production is why I stopped reading Count Your Sheep), and it loses the edge after Adrian hands the comic off to another artist.  And it hasn't updated since April of 2012.  Stay for the first two artists, then move on.  You'll probably enjoy it more if you remember the games they're talking about, but otherwise, you're not missing out on much.

242.  Dumbing of Age - If I were forced to sum up this comic, I would say it is a college comic staring high school characters.  Which makes sense as most of the major characters are freshmen in college.  The title pretty much gives away the concept of the comic, it's a coming of age strip, where the cast learns what it means to grow up into adults (something I seemed to have skipped, I guess).  It's a good, solid comic.  The art  is well done and characters are distinctive.  Personalities aren't too stereotypical, though occasionally they do get pretty close, but the motivations and reactions of the characters are natural and well done.  It's also hard to say how well this will play out since in the 2 and half or so years since it's been updating, it's only about 3 weeks into the school year, so the actual arcs of the characters have only really gotten started.  I'll probably follow it for a bit, though how long will depend on where things go from here.  Solid comic, worth reading even for a bit.

243.  Derelict - Wow.  Ben Fleuter is the artist behind Parallel Dementia, which ended a while back, and this is the project he started to replace it.  I am completely blown away.  I think a great many artists forget that comics are a visual medium and just dump loads of text to try to describe what we can see on the page.  No such thing in Derelict, where the text is so sparse, I don't think I actually ever learned the main character's name until I visited the TVTropes page for the comic.  And I didn't need to, everything I needed to know about her was in the comic.  Within the first few pages I was hooked and it only got better from there.  Maybe I won't feel the same way later (archive tunnel vision and all), but at the moment, this is everything I look for in a comic, and it's left me virtually speechless.  Wow.

244.  Twokinds - At first look, my thoughts instantly went "oh, it's one of those kinds of comics."  Those being a very general term, of course, but it featured a cat girl, blue hair, and, as I quickly learned, amnesia.  Lots of cliches to start with, so I went looking to see what was done with it.  I found a comic that isn't bad, not great, or even very good, but not bad.  I also found a comic that has come a long way.  This comic is 10 years old, and was started by a high school student (he celebrated his 17th birthday during the comic at one point).  To keep up a comic for that long, from that young an age is actually commendable.  The fact that the comic has taken the cliches it started with and managed to make something with it is remarkable.  It's come a long, long way, both in art and story telling, from the first few chapters, slowly building up a world and collection of characters that is pretty good.  There's mystery and intrigue there, but it feels as if it's been developing rather than outright planned, which is good since any plan made a decade ago probably isn't as sustainable anymore.  I don't know how long I'll read it (there are a few plot lines I want to see resolved), but it's good enough for me to read it.

245.  Bob and George - So I messed up a bit here.  While reading through it, I thought I burned through a 2500+ archive too fast, but I didn't worry about it until I started writing this review.  Turns out, thanks to a "random" button being right next to the "next" button, I managed to skip about 1500 strips worth of the comic.  Whoops.  I did go back and read them, didn't bother me to do it, but I really didn't miss much.  This is a very light comic, kind of like Station V3.  The fact that I didn't even realize I had skipped about two thirds of the comic and didn't feel like I missed anything should tell you a lot.  This is a sprite comic based on Mega Man, and probably the core inspiration for a great many of the sprite comics that flooded out into the world for a while.  I like Mega Man, despite the insanity it devolved into, and this comic takes those ideas and runs with them, and right over an even more insane cliff.  There are laughs to be had here, to a point, and for something to burn some time on it's worth the effort.  That said, the conclusion is pretty damn convoluted for a comic that is based on being convoluted, and I'm not sure I exactly like how it ended.  Oh and keep flash on, there's quite a few flash strips in this comic (with very little actually being done with it, I'm afraid).

And that's it for this.  Back to Sluggy next week.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Standard: The Failure

Last time I talked the high points of Sluggy Freelance, and there are a lot of them.  Now though, we need to talk about the low point.  Not low "points," just one.  The lowest point, the point that nearly broke Sluggy Freelance forever.  Oceans Unmoving.

Failure is probably the best word to sum up Oceans Unmoving.  Followed up by boring and slow.  It's also the key reason why Sluggy remains the standard by which I measure all comics, because it shows how badly things can go wrong, and how even loyal fans can turn against something.  That said, it's not bad.  Hell, it's actually pretty good.  So why is it a failure?

There are a lot of reasons, but I think the first one is that of production, especially in Oceans Unmoving I, the first major part.  Even back before That Which Redeems, Abrams had dropped Saturday as an update day, handing it over to a guest artist.  Okay, that was tolerable, even a pretty good sometimes, but it also makes for a good sign post of weekly production, and it went way, way down during this period.  Filler and guest strips are exceedingly frequent during the full year that Oceans Unmoving dominated, a sign that there was issues either in the script writing, the comic drawing, or possibly personal issues that we, the audience, were not privy to.  Even as Oceans Unmoving II got underway, there was frequent inconsequential filler.  If Sluggy hadn't already had such a long history, I'd almost compare it to the more temperamental artists I've read, as it feels very similar.  I can't say if there were personal issues (there was a period where he had injured his hand, and there was also writers and artists block) as there was never any indication of such, but I wouldn't be surprised if SOMETHING was going on throughout the year.  If there wasn't, then good, glad to hear, but I doubt we'll find out any time soon.

Then there was the exposition problem.  Dr. Viennason's video series isn't a terrible concept, initially, and for the opening introduction to timeless space it worked well enough.  The joke, of course, is that it goes on entirely too long and is boring and technically a form of torture.  Which would be funnier if it wasn't completely true.  The first 3 strips that feature it work to give the basics, but every subsequent inclusion, especially near the end of OU2 is PAINFUL.  The problem here is simple editing.  Much of the later half of OU2 could be cut (especially the framing device) in order to produce a tighter work.  Editing has always been an issue for webcomics of every type, and usually Abrams can do it well enough, but here he had so much information to give out and he seems so stressed on production that the result is a painful coalition between bad framing and Viennason.

When it's tight though, it's damn good.  The first part of Oceans Unmoving II, Real Time, is really good.  I was quite impressed at how engaged I was in this part and how well it flowed.  The jokes were good, the pacing was fine, there was little or no exposition problems and it was just a fun ride.  Overall, the story of Oceans Unmoving is good, I like it.  The universe that Abrams creates for really is a wonderful playground and there could have been many, many adventures taking place there.  So fix the production issues and do some well planned editing and Oceans Unmoving would be damn near great right?

Well, there is one other issue.  With last weeks edition, I covered 3 stories that had a strong impact on the comic, and were very focused on a particular member of the Sluggy cast.  Oceans Unmoving continues the tradition by focusing on Bun Bun.  Those other 3 though, had the featured character exploring their relationships with the OTHER Sluggy cast members, Oceans Unmoving does NOT.  Bun Bun is the only main Sluggy cast member in the entire story (only being a relative term, of course).  It doesn't explore who Bun Bun is, how he views the other cast members or anything like that, it's even barely an origin story.  Worse?  Bun Bun, while he plays a major role in the story, is NOT the main character of his own story.  Two new characters, who are both interesting enough on their own, are the main characters.  Neither is Torg, Riff, Zoe or Gwynn, and that's where the real failure comes from.

On it's own, Oceans Unmoving is pretty good.  As a spin off, a side story, or it's own comic, Oceans Unmoving would likely be well received, even despite the production issues.  As a story of Sluggy Freelance, it just doesn't work.  It doesn't fit well into the overall narrative that's already been established.  Then, when it looked like it was over as Bun Bun exited the stage, it just kept going on and on.  This likely is what soured everyone on the comic, by this point it had been going on at least as long as That Which Redeems, and the drawn out exposition and framing made it feel even LONGER.  In the end, it topped out at 9 months, with a short gap in the middle, so Oceans Unmoving actually encapsulated nearly a full year.  Cut down, it probably could have taken half that time, or been spread out over a longer period, but as it was presented, it felt like a gut check for the fans, and they turned away in droves.

Oceans Unmoving became the poster child for everything that was wrong with Sluggy Freelance.  Many who were on the fence of the comic by that point jumped off and headed for greener pastures.  The dedicated fans stuck with it, but I think few have positive memories about the story.  Which is a shame, the story is pretty good and in a way, I want to see where it went afterwards.  Just not in Sluggy Freelance.

Next time, the post Oceans Unmoving years.  Not days, not months, YEARS.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Standard: The Best

Early Sluggy Freelance is a great guide on showing how comics get established, evolve and change into something more.  That something more is the real focus this time, as we explore the three best stories, in my not so humble opinion, of the entire comic.

Why are they the best?  Probably because they are the ones I remember most clearly.  There are a lot of little stories throughout Sluggy's run, so remembering them all is damn near impossible (I didn't recall the X-Files parody at ALL in my first year read through).  These three, however, stick out in my mind best, and I think represent Sluggy at it's best.  Are they perfect?  No, but they best show what Abrams can do, and what webcomics as a whole can do as story telling medium.

The Bug, the Witch and the Robot is the first of these stories.  There are three things going on in this story line that stick out.  The first different artwork that takes place in Gwynn's mind as she struggles with the bug trying to claim her body.  The panels aren't square, rimmed with fine print laughter and insults, and the content of the panels are like pencil sketches giving it a dreamlike nature.  In the middle of the story is the second thing, a rather significant turning point in the Oasis storyline, which I'll get into in a bit.  The rest of the story is dominated by a really intricate character study and confrontation.  This is Gwynn's story, her greatest moment in the comic, in fact, and it explores how she views not just herself, but her friends as well, and maybe just a bit of how they view her.  The physical fight isn't nearly as long or as epic as I remember it being, but it was still satisfying and fitting.  And of course, Gwynn's final solution is one of those Crowning Moments of Awesome TVTropes loves to play with.

Speaking of Crowning Moments of Awesome, next comes Sluggy's.  Bar none, Fire and Rain is the peak of Abrams' story telling abilities.  It's about scale here, it's far smaller than one would think.  Maybe six weeks total for the entire story.  This is Zoe's story here, as she tries to come to grips with her friends, her feelings and herself.  Oh, and then Oasis shows up.  Ah, Oasis, she's probably the most well planned part of Sluggy's universe, Abrams has stated that she has been planned out from the beginning, but to what end?  Hard to say, but her bout with madness within Fire and Rain is one of the most important pieces within the whole of the universe he's created.  We oddly learn very little about Oasis during this important bit, except that even she doesn't know much, which is just as important.  Again, though, this isn't about Oasis really, she's there, but she's always kind of there in Sluggy.  No, this is about Zoe, and the fact that we're quite sure at this point she has some rather strong feelings for Torg.  Love?  Probably, but that was also 11 YEARS ago at this point.  Yeah, any movement in that area has been derailed almost constantly for over a decade now.  Still, those feelings remain, as does Torg's feelings, which get gut checked next.

That Which Redeems isn't a short story compared to the other two.  It's about 7 MONTHS long, and there's a lot going on through it.  Of the three, though, it has the strongest theme, "that which redeems, consumes" and leaves a very telling mark on Torg for the rest of the comic.  It is Torg's story, as he is the most competent man in the room throughout the story, and the one who knows how and is willing to fight.  Yet he's also the most vulnerable even in a world where food fighting is nearly a war crime BECAUSE food fighting is nearly a war crime.  It's easy to get to him by going after those who cannot help themselves, forcing him into bad situations.  He manages thanks to his magic sword and personal skill and quick thinking, but there are more than a few hairy moments.  And there is also death, which is what makes this story so important and meaningful.  It lays a strong groundwork for the rest of the comic, lasting even until the current storylines, and leaving a strong impact on Torg as a character.  We are also given a glimpse of what could have been, and what could still be here.  The fault of the story is it's length, which feels much longer than it probably should.  I suspect it's due to Abrams running a Saturday guest strip congruently with it (I skipped most of those on this read through) and occasionally dumping out a quick 3 - 4 panel gag strip rather than pushing the story forward.  It's strong, yes, but it could be tighter in so many ways.

So before we end, if you're a fan you probably noticed I skipped Dangerous Days.  It is my key example of a culmination event.  Well, it's a bit too much, and I don't really think of it as the best story.  When I think "great" and "Sluggy," Dangerous Days doesn't fit in there.  It IS important, to the comic as a whole, but not really as a piece of fiction.  And as I said, this list is about the ones I remembered, I couldn't even recall the title for Dangerous Days, and only a rough lay out of the plot.  I remembered far more of these three.

Next time, Oceans Unmoving.