Sluggy Freelance: Born of Nifty (Megatome 1) (sort of), by Pete Abrams

For those who don’t know, Sluggy Freelance is a webcomic. More specifically, it’s the webcomic. Started in 1997, it’s been updated almost every day since; as one of a handful of popular webcomics in those early years, it was one of the pioneers that drew in a whole generation of new writers, leading to the tens of thousands of (mostly forgettable if not downright rubbish) webcomics we have today.

Fourteen years is a lot of comics. All are available for free at the website (with a nifty week-by-week option for faster archive-trawls), and all the comics up to the end of 2003 are also available in dead-tree format. [Seriously, the books are only half the total comic? I’ve been reading this thing too long…]. Thankfully, the creator, Pete Abrams, is an organised sort of fellow, it seems – strips are collected into sections, which are collected into numbered chapters (of which there are currently 63). Numbered chapters (until the end of 2003) are then collected into numbered books, of which ten are indicated in the somewhat-behind-the-times archive system, with an eleventh recently published and two more being planned. Numbered books are then collected into numbered “Megatomes”, of which there are currently two, covering the first six books.

Right. So. What I am going to be talking about is, in a loose sense of the name, “Megatome 1 – Born of Nifty”, which covers the comics from August 1997 to June 1999, or the first 12 chapters. However, that’s not precisely true, because I’ve just been reading the archive, not the actual printed Megatome. The printed books often have bonus stories, and the megatome itself has a bonus story not found in the individual printed books. I haven’t read any of these bonus stories. But I don’t think they’ll change anything too dramatic in my reading experience. So. Loosely speaking.

I started reading Sluggy in probably late 2002, maybe 2003. It was… maybe the second webcomic I started reading seriously (after 8-Bit Theatre)? I didn’t really know how these things worked, or what they were for. But I found I liked it.

Sluggy Freelance is strange. Very, very strange. Not in the “strange things happen in it” sense, but in the sense that it’s almost unique as a narrative project. That’s because it’s almost impossible to define.

On the one hand, Sluggy is an off-the-wall, ‘zany’ semi-absurdist comedy about two guys [Torg and Riff, who are each half geek, half dude] and their wacky hi-jinks [and their down-to-earth female neighbour, and their psychotic talking rabbit]. On the other hand, it’s often seriously dramatic, and sometimes even moving. In some things, this juxtaposition gives the reader unpleasant slaps to the brain; in Sluggy, these slaps are so constant that it’s kind of the point. It can take anything, no matter how ridiculous, seriously; and it can take anything, no matter how serious, and make fun of it.

Enough intro; down to details.

Book 1 is mostly crap. At the beginning, Abrams has no idea what he’s doing. It’s a straightforward gag-a-day newspaper comic strip, except that none of the jokes are funny. (Wait, that’s normal for a newspaper comic strip, isn’t it?). It’s painfully self-conscious, particularly in its constant breaking of the fourth wall, and because he still thinks he’s writing in a newspaper, every strip has to begin with a panel of recap (the gag-a-days are grouped into little stories of about a week, though there’s not really any plot to them). Since the strips only have three panels, and one’s the recap, and one’s the punchline, there’s not a lot of room to breath. Plus the art is terrible. It’s not “this guy has no idea how to draw!” terrible (cf the early strips of “College Roomies From Hell!!!”, amongst others), it’s just sketchy and ugly and not very clear. Abrams is clearly learning how to draw good comic-strip art at this stage – and at the same time he’s learning (on behalf of everybody else) how to make comics work on the internet. [A note in passing: in early Sluggy, the ‘comic’ part of ‘webcomic’ is clearly newspaper cartoon strips, rather than ‘comic books’/’graphic novels’. This changes somewhat later on.] And be fair to the guy, this was 1997 – as early strips let us know, this was the age in which pornography took the form of photographs, and the internet was devoted to X-Files fanpages.

But: what set Sluggy apart, right from the beginning, was its desire to constantly change itself. Chapter 1 is one thing, a series of ironic one-liners; and then already by Chapter 2, it’s doing something else: a sci-fi parody, bringing in elements of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Alien. It’s still not very good – the odd joke is funny, but it’s all very silly and shallow and predictable – but it’s very different, and it begins to move in the direction of more coherent plots. Chapter 3 isn’t all that great either, though it has some good moments (particularly in the zombie parody). Chapter 4 is mostly an extended parody of the X-Files. It’s got some good lines, but not much else.

So that’s Book 1. That’s what Sluggy Freelance is like. Lots of postmodernism and framing devices and fourth-wall breaking; lots of silly puns, slapstick, pop culture references and basically high-school level parodies sprinkled with the odd genuinely funny line. And a strong whiff of Bill and Ted.

And then it isn’t. Because Book 2 begins with an entirely different sort of storyline: Torg is powerfully attracted to Valerie, who has just married Torg’s neighbour (who was revealed to be missing during the X-Files parody, an indicator that more serious plotting was on the way). This isn’t played for silly laughs – it’s played for laughs, yes, but that recognise the nuances of the situation. From whacky college humour we’ve suddenly moved into semi-dramatic humour about relationships and guilt. Weird. And there’s no resolution! Instead, Torg gets teleported (via Riff’s Dimensional Flux Agitator) into a “Dimension of Pain”, and in the process of getting him back from the incompetant demons that live there, a great many parallel dimensions enter into things, included one in which Torg has purple hair, strange clothes, and only speaks Portuguese. Huh. It’s extremely silly. And then we’re off again, as the gang go on holiday – a holiday that features some touching moments, and also the first serious action scene of the comic, as Our Heroes try to save a small child from being swept underneath a pier and drowned. What? What sort of comic is this?

As if to emphasise how wildly things are changing, Chapter 8 (“Vampires”) actually begins with a section called “It all starts here” – and, since this begins with a helpful chart of who’s whom, this may be the best place for newcomers to start reading. So the decision to put this as the last chapter of the book and not the first of the next was kind of stupid… but anyway. “Vampires” is about vampires. It’s very dramatic, and it’s not clear whether all the characters are going to get out of it alive. It itself lasts three months, and wraps up plot-threads going back six months.

Oh, yes, now the author tells us: the other thing about Sluggy is the plotting. Sometimes it seems he likes making plots just for their own sake. Things are said in passing that end up being major plot points four books later – mysteries seem inexplicable until they become obvious sometime in the following decade.

Book 3 takes it to another level again. “Vampires” suggested a deeper and more complex comic; “K’Z’K” and the surrounding stories introduce a threat that imperils the world and leads to an epic confrontation on the top of the Empire State Building (this being Sluggy, however, terrible puns still play an important part of the climax). By the end of Book 3… well, I don’t want to spoil too much, but the next book begins with a recap of the situations of all the major characters, and it isn’t happy reading. He really brings out the dynamite. In fact, here’s the final-line summaries for some of the main characters from that recap: “screwed” – “screwed” (again) – “all bummed out” – “presumed dead” – “unknown” (and it doesn’t look good), “soulless vegetable”, and “free” (that’s NOT a good thing). And “ooooh!”. Not what you’d expect from what starts out as a silly little gag-a-day storyline.

By the time the final bang goes off, most of the main storylines of the Sluggy universe have been introduced: Riff and his Dimensional Flux Agitator (DFA); the idiotic, silly demons of the Dimension of Pain and their vendetta against Torg; the serious and nasty demon K’Z’K and its campaign to conquer the world and fill it with an army of mindless undead servants; and Torg’s pet rabbit, Bun-Bun, and his bloody and unending feud against Santa Claus. Only Dr Crabtree, and the great narrative behemoth that is Dr Steve remain to be introduced. And, more importantly, by now we understand what Sluggy Freelance is. We may not be able to describe it, but we know.

If I coul summarise it in a sentence it might be: an intentionally incongruous juxtaposition of, on the one hand, ridiculously stupid humour, and on the other hand high emotional stakes and convoluted plotting. Weird.

On to Megatome 2… robots, witches, evil kittens, time-travel… and brainwashed assassins.

And yes, I know this a rubbish review. You try writing about this stuff and sounding coherent.

Adrenaline: 2/5. Most of it is deathly dull. On the other hand, the dramatic storylines ramp up the excitement quite effectively, so I’m giving it a 2.

Emotion: 2/5. Mostly fairly light-hearted. On the other hand, the dramatic storylines and their endings do tug at the heartstrings a little.

Thought: 2/5. Mostly pretty stupid. But some of the storylines get quite clever.

Beauty: 2/5. The art isn’t that great at this stage (though I guess some of the full-colour Sundays are pretty). Some beautiful jokes and moments.

Craft:  3/5. It’s hard to give too many marks to a humerous cartoon that for much of the time is neither well-drawn nor funny. On the other hand, there are honestly hilarious moments here and there, the art gets slowly but consistently better (and is never horribly bad, frankly), and the plotting is clever. Also, he’s better at puns than me. You have to take your hat off to somebody who can pull off five or six puns in a three-panel strip.

Endearingness: 4/5. Its goofy, silly style will be off-putting for some, but I found it endearing (though also a little tiresome now and then – particularly early on, when the silliness was more pronounced) – while I found the darker tones and complexities complementary, rather than a distraction from the silliness. Plus, by the end of the book it’s getting really funny.

Originality: 3/5. In patches, and in concept, stunningly original. However, the high number of cheap parodies and the over-reliance on pop culture references weakens this element somewhat. [The lack of fully-established characters also makes it harder to break away from expectations too much – at this stage the characters are still mostly foils for comedy, rather than being drivers of it in their own right].

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. It’s a mixed bag, and some of the early chapters are best suited for existing fans – certainly if I wanted somebody to like this, I wouldn’t have them start at the beginning. However, there’s something wonderfully fresh and fun at the heart of this, and it’s easy to see why so many have been influenced by it. There have been many imitators, but none have been able to capture that impossible shoreline between pathos and bathos in the way that Sluggy did. I’m now off to read Megatome 2 (or, at least, the equivalent chapters in the archive), and I do so in the happy remembrance that although the first Megatome is Not Bad, the best is yet to come.

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