Sunday, 20 July 2014

Nifty for life: Sluggy Freelance

I'm currently reading the entirety of Sluggy Freelance and I don't quite know if I'm strong enough. It is one of the originator strips, 1997 feels an age ago. It's strangely disappeared from the view of the webcomic critical consensus but it has quite a large and established fanbase. I believe a possible reason for this is the size of the archives and the lack of a common, easy meme-worthy image to latch on to. Having not read the strip for seven years I've found it has become its own ecosystem, a black hole of an endless story.

Not to say its longevity is unworthy. As a strip it has done, and hit most of the landmarks, what few webcomics can claim to do. It is self-sustaining where a plethora of webcomics have fallen by the wayside. Niego didn't even pass 200 strips. There's no real equivalent to the monumental depth of the sluggy archives and its been managed without the revamps and reiterations that other webcomic creators have been forced to rely upon.

For example: Sam and Fuzzy effectively directs the reader to a certain point in the archive where the strip really starts as a narrative. John Allison has worked through variants of his fantastical liminal space via Bobbins, Scarygoround and Bad Machinery and likewise David Willis has used his first strips as training wheels. Megatokyo has slowly devolved into an erratic moe derangement with intermittent updates. As for Penny Arcade it is able to rely on the quick stream of video game detritus to stay current if not somewhat glib.      

Sluggy Freelance has done none of these things. It has slogged on in cheerful nonchalance and it utterly ignores the current webcomic ecosystem in favour of its own reality. There are a multitude of intertwined story-lines cascading into a top-heavy over-narrative occasionally alleviated by gags. This mass of interlocking narratives are reinvented with a new skin every few months. It doesn't care that it jerks back between emo and gag of the week goofery because as readers will attest that's par for the course with this strip.

Abrams isn't afraid to be simultaneously dorky and ambitious and as a result the art can quickly move from basic to a hyperactive stylised action scene. The fantasy elements, to be unkind, can appear to be the worst Conanesque high fantasy schlock content to stay in the shallow waters of parody.

I don't know whether I should believe in the central narrative. Going over the archives what I do notice is that the central scenarios that plague the gang reiterate the seemingly eternal evils of Hereti-corp and the vowelless. It's been close to twenty years but no matter the accumulations of details or scenarios that pile up I can't quite take the sudden changes in tone in my stride. It feels like re-polishing and re-purposing glass. I've seen this before and the extra layers, while well-made, never stop my desire for a final endgame. I need some kind of closure for this strip. I need this to end well.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

New mythologies: happle tea

Happle tea is a mix between a journal comic and an extended analysis of mythological systems and pantheons that works with a cute and coy light touch. It's not ranting like a fedora-wearing atheist but subtly poking at the inconsistencies that all faith systems have underneath the hood. The child narrator adds levity to the proceedings and occasionally this means the strip devolves into some sly kind of whimsy.

What is interesting here is the sheer breadth the creator is willing to get into. I'm reasonably well-read in this field (The Folio society helps with that) but there was a pleasant obscurity that is always explained playfully into the notes underneath the comic.

Some of the jokes are shaggy dog groaners that are forced onto the subject matter in a spirit of blithe 'cleverness'. You'll accept it after a while as a crisp style shows you glib generalizations about religion & mythology.

Just the improvement in the varying degrees of bright crisp colour from the start of the strip shows an artist eager to improve. Compare this to the unchanged slough of despond that is Megatokyo and I'm glad to read this strip at least once a month. It doesn't update that often and certainly isn't essential reading but its cute niche is well worth an investigation. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

You're as cold as ice, willing to sacrifice our love: Shiver Bureau

If cyberpunk's curse is feckless thievery conflated with freedom of expression then steampunk's typical crime is to ignore the societal constraints of industrialization meshed with all the clockwork gears. It can easily become derailed into merely an aesthetic and as much as I appreciate the potential of Shiver Bureau it feels like it relies too much on a surface aesthetic.The unnatural hair and poses reminds of something that's just a bit too cool for school. The Noir/Pulp voice over with its world-weary tang adds authority but is also a familiar device.

Where other representations of steam-punk overdo the lush gilded embroidery this strip overall is represented by sharp crisp line work juxtaposed over a hazy soup of melancholy  greens.Admittedly the artwork is gorgeous within its limited palette constraints but sometimes veers into unrealistic stylised sharp corners.

 The plotting is decent enough and gets going quickly but challenged by some bravado nonsense and the over-clever smarminess that the genre typically carries with it. The strip is adequate but I've seen enough nonchalant adventurers in this vein before. I'm sensing that there's lots of poise and cool here and it's not quite enough.

 The horror elements, mainly the idea of the Inspectres of the Shiver Bureau policing the restless dead likewise seems a bit too glib. I just can't suspend disbelief here. It sounds good, a little too good.

All my petty hairsplitting realistically shows this is a strip, with all its delusions of grandeur, that only could have existed since 2010. Unlike the tortured births of the mainstream slice of life establishment webcomics (Something Positive, Sam and Fuzzy,  Bad Machinery and Questionable Content) Walter Ostlie's strip comes fully formed with its own internal logic and a narrative arc realized from the first strip.

I'd consider it a vote of confidence in the webcomic format's ability to deliver a cohesive voice. This is a decent rollicking adventure and the fact I've moaned about its slight issues shows how spoiled for choice I am compared to the strips I used to write about in 2006.