Now THIS is quality television! – Gwynn
As with Megatome 1, I haven’t actually read Megatome 2, strictly speaking – in that I haven’t read the paper format book and any bonus stories it may include. I have, however, read the online archive versions of Chapters 13-22, which broadly constitute Books 4-6 (Game Called on Account of Naked Chick; Yippy Skippy, the Evil!; and The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot), which broadly constitute Megatome 2: Little Evils.
During these chapters, the general structure of the comic remains heavily episodic – few storylines last more than a month, and some last only one week. However, there is more complexity than this suggests, because these storylines often touch on longer-running threads – and, rather than being a static background element providing character and tone, these threads themselves form arcs that stretch across months and years – a brief storyline here will foreshadow and lay the groundwork for a bigger storyline there. As a result, underlying the superficial chaos of this collection, there is a deeper sense of coherence.
This collection is better than the previous collection, because it is more exciting, more moving, and usually funnier. Abrams clearly decided that the move from slice-of-life and parodic storylines toward more dramatic, race-against-time plots (experimented with in Vampires, and fully fleshed out in K’Z’K) was an improvement, and this collection is dominated by thrillers: The Storm-Breaker Saga; The Isle of Dr Steve; Kiki’s Virus; Love Potion Part 2; Bun-Bun’s Theatre of Horrors! (AKA ‘KITTEN’); On the Run; Rescue Mission to the North Pole; Not a Good Idea; The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot 2. These in turn require peripheral storylines for post-climax recoveries (Loose Ends) and for set-up (The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot 1), which reduce the frenetic pace of the comic and give more time for reflection, and for greater tonal variety.
Saying that the collection is dominated by thillers is not saying that it’s repetitive, as these storylines vary greatly in length and style. On the Run, for instance, lasts for two months, and is very high-adrenaline, but is mostly very light-hearted (barring the seriously creepy villain sub-plot); Not a Good Idea is more serious, but only lasts for three weeks. A story like The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot is extremely, deathly serious; Rescue Mission to the North Pole is creepy, but basicaly highly-silly fluff.
So, this is more exciting; not only are individual storylines high-stakes and fast-paced, they sometimes crash into each other unexpectedly (the first strip of The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot 2) may be one of my favourite for precisely this reason. But although this means making the comic creepier and scarier, and angstier and with deeper characters, it doesn’t mean a reduction in the comedy. Indeed, quite the contrary – the serious storylines are often the funniest. The seriousness of Rescue Mission to the North Pole, for instance, turns it from a collection of very silly jokes (with characters named ‘Slappyhoho’, ‘Skimpymoomoo’ and ‘Squishydodo’) into something very creepy; the jokes in the more serious stories are even funnier for being out of place (Zoe: “Wait, was that supposed to be a joke? This is no time for jokes!” – Riff: “Sorry, my angst-train derailed for a minute there.”) Add in the fact that Abrams has simply become better at being funny (in a whole range of ways, from slapstick through wordplay to wit, via various types of irony), and I was laughing out loud on half a dozen occasions, with great amusement throughout.
Of course, nothing is perfect. The tone and pace remain disjointed, which sometimes gets in the way (though often aids a layer of humour). Some jokes aren’t funny (please, no more PETA jokes, please). Sometimes the irreverant clash of tones goes over the line and becomes crass (Cannibals Anonymous, I’m looking at you!). There’s still not a whole mass of characterisation, if we’re honest, (the characters are clear, but lack depth) and character is often sacrificed for the sake of a cheap gag. [Please, bring back the real Sam!]. Between the big storylines there is still some filler that is mildy entertaining and best and sometimes irritating. And, of course, as with any comedic work, mileage may vary – I can imagine some people would hate every page of it.
These, however, are mere quibbles, so far as I’m concerned. Not a work for everybody, perhaps, but very definitely worth reading for some – in this collection the author finds his feet and turns out fantastic story after fantastic story, combining a distinctive atmosphere with great comedy and powerful (if simplistic) narratives. I’m going to keep on re-reading, but I suspect this may be the best of Sluggy Freelance.
Before moving on to scores, I’ll mention a few highpoints, in chronological order:
– The Storm-Breaker Saga. Time-travel divides the cast in two (producing two distinct plotlines), in an adventure that touches on two big plot arcs and foreshadows/introduces a third.
– KITTEN. A real gem of a piece, this is a clever, funny, even somewhat tense slasher horror parody (and shows that Abrams isn’t afraid to kill off minor but established characters in trivial ways). It’s also as close as Sluggy gets to a standalone story, so could serve as an introduction to the comic (though only to certain aspects of it) – particularly when read with its iirc-even-better sequel, KITTEN II, in a later book (unless that spoils anything for the main plot arcs? I don’t think it does. Not major, anyway).
– Rescue Mission to the North Pole. A group of renegade special-ops Christmas elves (long story) receive a cry for help from Santa’s workshop, in a story heavily reminiscent of The Thing. The contrast of creepy horror with total silliness creates, for me, a unique timbre.
– The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot (1 and 2). The most serious storyline yet, but also very funny now and then, and featuring an epic fight scene – this is a big comic-book fight-scene done right, for once (though the perils of the format are subtly lampshaded by references before and after to Asian beat-em-up computer games). It’s a fitting climax to the collection.
Adrenaline: 4/5. Pulled down by the (mostly intentional) lacunae, but pushed up by the repeated high-pace thrills.
Emotion: 3/5. Not the most emotive of works – the characters are too hidden, and the perils too hyperbolic – but its serious intent makes it no worse than average. In particular, the two The Bug, the Witch and the Robot stories really take a left-turn into serious emotional territory, albeit without any earth-shattering acuity.
Thought: 3/5. Meh. Clever jokes, and complicated plots, but it’s not exactly a labyrinth. Not much in the way of issues, either.
Beauty: 3/5. Unexceptional. Some of the colour strips are pretty, and the Bug style is striking. Some beautiful jokes.
Craft: 4/5. Not everything is perfect – he’s still clearly not mastered every dimension his discipline. However, the great (and sometimes very clever) comic writing, the plotting, the ability to employ multiple art styles, all make clear that Abrams is very good at what he’s doing, and that a great deal of thought and work has been put into this. It’s impressive.
Endearingness: 5/5. I love it. I don’t love every strip (part of the downside of Sluggy’s scattershot tonality is that there’ll always be some storylines that don’t feel right – personally, for instance, I can’t stand the Dimenion of Pain stories). But overall, yes, I love it. A big part of that is the humour. It’s just pure fun.
Originality: 3/5. On the large scale, it’s highly original. On the smaller scale, however, most of the narrative elements are not novel (sometimes intentionally – parody remains very important, though more subtly so than in the first collection).
Overall: Very Good. It really is. It seems pretty strange to be saying it, because this is not the sort of literature one is meant to be impressed by. It’s silly, it’s strange, it’s light-hearted – it’s a webcomic, for heaven’s sake! And not even one of those ‘we’re graphics novels really, we’re meaningful and deep’ webcomics, but a flatout ‘we just want to have some fun’ webcomic. In this case, what’s more, it’s a webcomic that I think is a bit unfashionable even by the standards of webcomics – it’s so old, and later storylines have not always lived up to these halcyon strips. But I’m willing to be unpopular: when Sluggy was good, it was very good. As with all humour, tastes will vary, but I’ve hardly ever read anything that (taken as a whole, and barring the odd bad patch (and filler week!)) I’ve enjoyed more. And not in a guilty way, either. This is eccentric entertainment, but it’s also very smart and very capable. If you think I’m a fool for liking it – more fool you!