“Hypothetical Sluggy Freelance Megatome 3” – Pete Abrams

“You know the problem with nudist colonies? No quality control” – Torg.

“I don’t want to die yet. I’m too young!… God protect me” – Zoë.

“This looks like a job for emergency pants!” – Torg.

“Don’t go to sleep or the kittens will eat you” – Riff.

 

I haven’t read Megatome 3 because it doesn’t exist. If it did, however, it might well cover Book 7: A Very Big Bang, Book 8: Fire and Rain, and Book 9: Dangerous Days. That’s what I’ve read. It seems to make sense to group them together because the first two Megatomes have three books each, and because Book 9 is the climax to the biggest plot thread from Book 8 and Book 9. It’s not a complete wrap-up – Book 10 and Book 11 both wrap up secondary plots – but it’s a clear stopping-point. In particular, Dangerous Days Ahead (Chapter 30) is clearly a conclusion, and including Book 10 would be an anticlimax (as, indeed, are Chapters 31 and 32, but more on that later).

So, this review will cover Books 7-9, which comprise Chapters 23-32, and which take us from April 2001 to December 2002.

My first impression: if you thought the tone of the first two collections was schizophrenic, this will drive you crazy. As the quotes suggest, there is considerable tonal variation. Curiously, however, it is not quite the same as before: it seems as though the heavy storylines have become heavier, and the lighter storylines have remained light – we are moving away from (though not entirely) tonal clashes within stories and toward tonal clashes between stories (which I tend to feel is less succesful).

There is also more coherence in overall structure here than before. Although little side-stories have not been eliminated, the structure has crystalised, as it were, around certain key storylines: GOFOTRON, the ghosts, Bun-Bun v Santa, and most of all Hereti-Corp (which has two sides: the cloning arc and the assassin arc). GOFOTRON is a single chapter (GOFOTRON: Champion of the Cosmos); the ghosts get two storylines (House Haunting and A Beige Horn Mist); the holiday war gets The Bad Dream Preceding Easter, Snowfinger, and Shadow Boxing; and Hereti-Corp lurk in the background the entire time, but basically have the build-up story Halloween (2002), and the two tentpole chapters, Fire and Rain and Dangerous Days Ahead. The rest of the collection is a series of lines between these fixed stories, with a few diversions here and there, particularly as mental relief before and after the heavy bits.

GOFOTRON did not impress me. It was probably the largest single contiguous story-arc to that point (perhaps The Storm-Breaker Saga is bigger?), and it also has the distinction of being the third DFA adventure, but it didn’t really feel as though it merited its place. A science-fiction parody (far more developed and mature and extensive than the original scifi adventure from the first book), it is mildly amusing in many places, and even has a few great strips (the anime-style space-battle is fantastic, if weird), but by-and-large severely lacks emotional depth, or broader plot significance, and lacks the hilarity that would compensate for this. Although there is darkness here – some elements are really tragic – it’s mistreated, dealt with far too lightly. Chapter 2 could get away with all sorts of throwaway violence and human suffering, but by the time we get to Chapter 24, having made it through The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot, it feels incongruous not to care more about what’s going on.

The genius of the story, however, is the twist post-ending: in Chapter 25, we get to see what’s been going on while the heroes have been away. This climaxes in the superbly creepy, tense, complicated and unpredictable Halloween. Halloween has always been a rather silly time of year for Sluggy, but this time around the demon has an element of mystery, there’s real character-building, and an important plot kicks up from “lurking” to “ominously looming”.

Halloween is the first of the three big Hereti-Corp stories in this period (HC, introduced in the second megatome, dominates this period in the way that K’Z’K, introduced in the first, dominated the second), and to be honest that’s what this period is for. Halloween is a tense and foreboding thriller (with simple but good use of colour, as Abrams, following on from his Bug-style experiments, starts to be more artistically interesting). The short-chapter-length Fire and Rain is flat-out gripping – there’s hardly a joke in the entire thing, there’s the most impressive and interesting artwork and layout so far, and there’s a really slightly scary plot. Of course, this is Sluggy, so even in the most serious part of the comic people can still turn into camels, but that doesn’t stop it being deadly serious. It lacks, it’s true, a real feeling of resolution – it’s over far too quickly and too little happens – but that is part of the point, I suppose. It’s not the denouement, it’s just setting the scene. And it does it with a brevity and efficiency and, frankly, a beauty, that the comic too often lacks.

The denouement is the third story, the chapter-length Dangerous Days Ahead. This one is big. It’s more than twice as long as The Bug, the Witch and the Robot, and the earlier story had the big interlude of Not a Good Idea in it. This one is so big, it has a fight scene that lasts over a month. The plot goes into dark places, there are massive reveals, and there are lasting consequences. Oh, and that massive fight scene (the majority of Convergence) is extremely impressive, as all the pressures that have been building explode in one witty conflagration of violence.

Unfortunately, this bang is so big that it takes a long time to pick up the pieces, beginning with literally weeks of explanatory infodump. It’s mildly amusing, but it badly damages the pacing.

[Bun-Bun’s storyline scrapes along, but is not particularly impressive – the Bond-parody Snowfinger is a lot less effective than Rescue Mission to the North Pole was. The ghostly storyline starts minor, and then has a strong but not fully satisfactory second installment – but don’t worry, there’s more to come]

Pacing is a problem more generally, reflecting the difficulties of a daily strip format. The books are secondary to their chapters (perhaps tertiary, with the storylines reigning), which means that the pacing of the books as a whole is often off. Book 7 has its biggest story in its second chapter, after a chapter of inconsequential stuff, although to be fair, Halloween and Haftermath provide a fair-enough conclusion. Book 8 likewise has its big story in the middle, followed by fluff, and Book 9 has its climax at the beginning, before a big relax (though KITTEN II does manage to end the book nicely).

Of course, Sluggy isn’t all about the big plotlines: it’s also about the fluff between. Overall, I think that this period was more solidly and reliably amusing, but less laugh-out-loud funny than Megatome 2. However, some of the really classic Sluggy jokes come from this period, including the infamous “emergency pants” gags, so it’s hardly a sombre read.

[Two storylines require particular mention. Torg Potter and the Sorceror’s Nuts is a parody of Harry Potter (the first of several), and stands almost completely apart from the rest of the comic, and thus is often used as an introduction to Sluggy. It’s moderately funny here and there, but I confess I don’t really see the point of it – in part, perhaps, because I’ve never read the book its parodying. KITTEN II is the sequel to Bun-Bun’s Theatre of Horrors, and likewise is (albeit not quite so completely) independent of the continuity; like the earlier ‘kitten’ storyline, it’s a horror-film parody, this time with more of an action twist. It’s more ambitious than the original story in terms of plot and drama, and funnier, I think, and has a lot of brilliant parody-action-horror lines in it, and yet it is also a bit more uneven, and flabby, than the original. That said, I still love it. If only he’d do a KITTEN III story. Oh, and the pair of little Farside parodies during KITTEN II are simply beautiful – Farside turned to eleven]

In sum, then, it’s hard to directly compare this period with the earlier collections, because, as before, the comic was continually evolving. This period doesn’t have the frenetic energy of Megatome 2, and probably isn’t as funny either; instead, it’s evolved into a deeper, more character-based, more cinematic action-drama, enlivened by wry and intelligent humour. For my money, this collection is the more ordinary of the two, in that it would probably appeal more widely, but lacks the slightly exclusionary manic edge of Megatome 2.

A final note: at some point here the “meanwhile in the dimension of pain” Saturday comics started (a spin-off by a different writer). I didn’t read them, because I remembered how horrifically, immensely, overwhelming I abhorred them the first time around. I don’t know if they’re included in the paper version, but if so I’d recommend pretending they don’t exist.

Adrenaline: 4/5. This may be charitable, given that there are long lulls. But throughout this period there is a gripping undercurrent of menace, which explodes into adrenaline in a handful of storylines.

Emotion: 3/5. The comic finally (following ‘Bug’) goes into some dark, character-driven areas… but it’s too stylised, and too packed with light relief, to get too worked up about.

Thought: 3/5. It’s not stupid. The plots certainly inspire cogitation, as they take months and years to develop. Some of the jokes are very clever. That said… you won’t need a degree, and there’s nothing particularly challenging.

Beauty: 4/5. Marking this up for, imagine it, the artwork. It remains simple throughout, but Abrams is able to use that simplicity to good effect, playing with style and layout and colouring (both atmospheric and spot-colour, as well as the occasional fully-coloured strip). Some strips are actually physically beautiful. So are some of the well-crafted jokes.

Craft: 4/5. A webcomic needs good plotting, good joke-writing, good character-writing, and good art. Abrams has all four of these in spades by this point. He’s let down by his art (which is good, but not brilliantly good), and by his planning, which leaves him with inelegant transitions, misjudged pace, and a surfeit of post hoc explanatory infodump.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked it. I didn’t completely love it, however. It’s a bit too uneven, a little less electric, and a bit more serious.

Originality: 4/5. More original than before. Abrams has broken out of expectations and is now just playing around, doing what he likes.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. My initial response was that this wasn’t as good as Megatome 2, perhaps because I didn’t find it as endearing. On reflection, however, that’s unfair. Abrams has moved in a more challenging direction, and as a result it may not be as immediately fun, but it’s still a very enjoyable read, and the overall level of skill and artistry is probably higher. It’s a more professional body of work, and it’s also a more serious period in the comic – less likely to inspire adoration, perhaps (although Fire and Rain certainly blew a lot away, so I don’t know), but more likely to impress the average reader.

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