Sluggy Freelance, chapters 49-59, by Pete Abrams

Almost there. This is my penultimate review of Sluggy Freelance (so far), and covers chapters 49-59 – in other words, the period from the end of Oceans Unmoving to the beginning of the Paradise City storyline, so from the middle of 2006 to the middle of 2009.

As that description suggests, this is in some ways a low-key, interstitial period for sluggy, sandwiched between mighty plot arcs. But that would be deceptive. This isn’t filler at all – this is the most dramatic work Abrams has done so far. Why? Because, in an earth-shattering development, the characters are starting to drive the plot.

That doesn’t seem a big thing, because it’s the norm in most places. Characters do things, and as a result plot happens.  In Sluggy, however, it’s always been the other way around: plot happens, and as a result characters do things (as a result, in fact, characters become characters). Sure, Sluggy’s characters have always been able to, say, throw themselves into a random dimension, or summon unspeakable demons from a book, but up until 2006 every major plot was reactive: after the initial excuse to introduce the concept (aka ‘what stupid thing has someone done now’), the plots have always been driven by forces far larger and more horrible than the characters could cope with. Plots have therefore been divisible into ‘run away and survive’ and, in particularly heroic moments, ‘stop the evil’. In this period, for the first time, plot lines happen because the characters chose to initiate them – the characters go on the offensive.

If, after the developments of Kesandru and the Holiday Wars, the previous period was in a way a reversion to the hypothetical Megatome 3 era, this period feels in some ways like a reversal to Megatome 2 – and not only because of its plot concerns. No, this retreats to some extent from the big storylines that characterised Sluggy for so long, and aims more for shorter, more diverse arcs, while at the same time bringing back some of the comedy lacking from Oceans Unmoving.

Unfortunately, when it comes to comedy, Abrams has lost it. Sure, there are some pretty funny jokes here and there – but the hilarity and the on-edge roughness have gradually been lost. The comic feels a lot more professional now, a lot more like a product – which is great in some respects (the pacing is better, and the art is a lot better, and the shear volume is far greater), but unfortunately professional mass-production is not best suited to eccentric comedy. This isn’t funny anymore. It is, don’t get me wrong, very amusing, but that’s not quite the same thing. I think chuckled audibly only once through this entire period. [And, yes, part of that is probably the result of me archive-trawling over ten years of Sluggy consecutively… but I honestly don’t think that that’s all of it, or even most of it]. As well as the more ineffable dimension of unfunniness (I’m not, except through chance and persistence, a funny man myself, and I’ve no idea what defines the subtle line between hilarity and irritation), there are more concrete problems: some jokes are repeated again and again, more generally it feels as though certain classes of joke are being repeated, and some jokes are just mystifying. Sluggy has always had an issue with stepping over the line into crass annoyance, but that’s a lot more of a problem when everything is a running gag for three years than it was back when a storyline would last a month and then be lucky to ever be mentioned again. In particular: what the hell are you thinking, Pete? The zombie head on a stick IS NOT FUNNY. It wasn’t funny the first time you mentioned it, it isn’t funny the thirtieth time you mention it, and the fact that everybody in the universe inside the comic is meant to think that it’s the funniest and most awesome thing ever is not only unfunny, it’s creepily weird. The fact that you have to continually lampshade it with irritating “come on, you know you want one!” lines just shows what a bad idea it was in the first place. And, by the way, whatever humour there is in a mindless canibal head on a stick (what is it with Abrams and canibalism anyway? He’s found it unaccountably hilarious since the beginning of the comic, and that’s not to mention the seven million zombie apocalypse stories he’s run, and the zombie-themed restaurant running gag), that humour goes away when actually it’s a sentient living human character’s head on a stick – they may be a bad person, but the dehumanisation Abrams employs is frankly disturbing.

However, it would be wrong to dismiss this period out of hand. There’s some interesting material here. Wayang Kulit attempts to push forward Torg’s characterisation into more reflective places, while employing an innovative art style and establishing an important plot-point; Ten Minutes at a Party is a grand farce that employs the interesting narrative technique of replaying the same short period of time from multiple perspectives, each iteration providing explanation for and re-evaluations of the events of the preceding perspectives. Price of Opportunity, and, particularly, Brain Games show the comic moving in a more prosaic, angsty, emotional, psychological direction, which feels entirely merited in the circumstances – it’s simply a defiance of the old TV convention that at the end of an adventure everything ends up back to normal, including the characters seemingly not caring about anything that has happened. A group of friends can’t go through what this group has gone through without picking up some collateral damage, and it’s to the credit of the author that he attempts to show this. Aylee is an imaginative and intriguing adventure that also keeps the angst boiling over, although it’s plagued by a bad sense of humour and some predictable twists; the misleadingly-named A Time for Healing is another effective adventure that turns attention in welcome fashion to an often-overlooked character. Both these storylines, however, get a bit bogged down in exposition, and frankly feel a little like afterthoughts beside the main juggernaut of the narrative. That arc is the one that smashes its way back into the comic in Phoenix Rising (a detached, almost standalone story that’s surprisingly good) before detonating a (metaphorical? or is it?) nuclear bomb in bROKEN. That last is an impressively epic story (including flashbacks that cover an entire year from the perspective of another character); but it gets to the heart of the biggest problem with this period. In the golden years, Sluggy would ricochet from sillyness to seriousness in an exciting and disturbing way; later, it all slowed down and became a bit too serious; now, Abrams seems to be trying to re-inject sillyness, but because the plot arcs a bigger this comes out not so much between the stories as during the stories. It’s hard to explain, because there was always a fair (more than fair!) degree of dissonance – perhaps the problem is that because it’s not as funny as it used to be, the sillyness doesn’t so much add an inappropriately (and hence effectively) funny edge to the tragedy as simply dilute the tragedy with annoyance. In part, it feels as though the humour has become compulsory, there for it’s own sake, rather than serving the narrative. So, Abrams feels the need to relieve the drama of the big villain speeches by having them be directed to an idiotic talking frog. It’s hard to really convey the dramaticness and seriousness (and in terms of the stakes nothing could be more serious) of the evilness of the villains, when there’s an annoying talking frog obsessing about its jealous love-life in the background. Abrams has lost the ear to make the surreal element heighten the nightmare – it just clashes. Perhaps that’s harsh: in some ways, the more aware use of tonal dissonance is actually very effective during this period – for the humour sections (where it adds an uncomfortable dimension) and for the angsty sections (where it adds an element of relief); it’s just when it comes to the epic-dramatic sections that I don’t feel it really works.

Also, more simply, although the concept behind the villainy is great, the main villain sadly lacks motivation. The story also feels rushed, given its importance (but I know I won’t be feeling that way once I start wading through Paradise…).

It must be said, however, that if the humour feels off, and the drama doesn’t always feel quite right, the art is fantastic. For the first time, the art has gone beyond “acceptable”, or “surprisingly impressive, given its simplicity”, or “attractive in a cartoonish way”; some scenes in this period are flat-out visually stunning, and would happily take their place in a graphic novel – the laser/magic/zombie/sword-fight action scenes of To the Zombie Fun Lab, for instance (all be they still in a comic style). This improvement in art goes hand-in-hand with a change in format: where once Sluggy was typically a three-panel strip (later 4- or even 5-panel), with larger, full-colour Sundays and occasional two- or three-strip days, by the end of bROKEN we’re more likely to find three, four, even five-strip pages every day. Looking back, I can see that at one point (during Aylee) there were 67 panels in five days – that would have taken three weeks in the olden days – and one day had 17 panels (another had 28 panels, but most were re-used and shrunken art for recapping purposes, so I won’t count that). Many of these extra panels are essentially content-free, showing tiny moments or different perspectives or artistic effects – they make the art more impressive, but don’t move the story along; most of the other extra panels seem to be more about filling in gaps and adding details than about plot progression. Sometimes this is welcome – it gives a more solid feel – but it does also make things feel slower, and I suspect it hurts the comedy (it’s easier to have a great one-liner in a three-panel strip than it is to sustain a joke through 17 panels – the necessarily eliptical style of the three-panel days was highly conducive to humour). Too often, of course, the extra panels are just plain infodump. Meanwhile, to go along with the bigger weekdays, we gradually lose the weekends to pencil sketches – starting around chapters 50 and 51, the two weekend days gradually lose their comic status and end up as pencil sketches, via such things as “No Content Saturdays” (a cute little metastory), “From the art desk of Torg”, and various guest sketches. [I realise that in reviewing the last era I forgot to mention the charming (though variable) “Bikini Suicide Frisbee Days” guest strips that replaced  the appallingly bad “Meanwhile in the Dimension of Pain” strip. Though not as good as Sluggy itself, these were a welcome side-course, and greatly missed].

Oh, and the Fate Spiders are a stupid idea that don’t work tonally and are in essence just another form of exposition.

Finally, it’s worth noting that after the quite solitary feel of the previous period, these chapters are by-and-large a welcome return to a more ensemble cast, with admirable emphasis on group dynamics.

Adrenaline: 4/5. The move back toward more discrete storylines, along with a heavy undertone of menace and foreboding, push this score back up to where it ought to be, after a slow period.

Emotion: 4/5. Perhaps I’m being generous, but I really felt engaged this time. The brooding, squabling group dynamics and character-development make this the darkest and most emotive period yet, but the tension is broken by welcome moments of joy and fun – including, finally, some real moments of kick-ass for people who aren’t Bun-Bun, which made me surprisingly happy.

Thought: 3/5. Still not exactly intellectual fare, but the increased introspection and some big and complicated plot-lines foreshadowing over the horizon keep the brain busy.

Beauty: 4/5. As I say, some of this artwork is really nice to look at.

Craft: 3/5. Feels a bit as though the author isn’t in control, forced too often into cramped exposition, regurgitated humour and uneven pacing. On the other hand, it’s ambitious, still willing to experiment, and the artwork is good.

Endearingness: 3/5. I don’t dislike it yet, but it is getting a bit meh-worthy in places. The darkness makes it less fun, and the relative lack of humour makes it harder to paper over the cracks.

Originality: 3/5. Too much of it felt familiar and predictable – although there continue to be notable moments of invention.

Overall: 5/7. Good. It is, honestly. And it’s continuing to evolve, so there’s hope for the future. But in many ways it seems as though the comic is now past its best.

Problems with underwriting mortgages, or Why David Cameron Is An Idiot

This came out back in December, I think. I wrote something in the heat of the moment but didn’t post it. Then I added a bit, but didn’t post that either.

But, I feel like posting something, so here it is. I should caveat that although I think my general point is valid, I didn’t explain my point in the most rock-solid argumentation at times. But what can you expect from a half-educated wastrel responding to something in the heat of the moment? As I say, I think the underlying point is secure.

First, a little background. The government has announced, as I understand it, a plan to underwrite residential mortgages – that is, to promise to pay them back if the individual defaults, provided that the mortages are all good mortgages and aren’t bad loans to begin with. The idea is that at the moment people aren’t able to borrow enough, so lots of poor people can’t afford houses – so house prices haven’t been rising as they’re ‘meant’ to – and that if the government covers debts, banks will lend more, kickstarting the housing market again, and, by extension, the rest of the economy, while at the same time allowing more people to afford houses. The stated intention was to return to having 95% mortgages as the norm. I think there are some problems with this idea – weirdly, for perhaps the first time, I think that the government is being to left-wing and should think again before interfering in the free market! These problems include:

  1. 1. It won’t do what it’s meant to do. Price is set by supply and demand. Enabling more people to buy houses at current prices by definition increases demand, which will increase prices until the demand falls back again – in other words, the same people who can’t buy houses now will end up still not being able to buy houses, but the housing companies will make bigger profits from those that can. The hope, I suppose, is that increasing demand will instead encourage an increase in supply that will keep prices at the current level. Given the narrow oligarchy of major house builders, combined with the political and logistic obstacles to new housebuilding in desirable locations, it seems incredibly naive to assume that this will take up all of the increase in demand. What’s more, the number of people ‘needing’ houses is not fixed. If more houses go on the market more people will be able to buy them, but that does not mean that the number of people who can’t buy them will decrease – rather than the poor getting these new houses, it’ll simply be the case that people who would have bought their own home at 25 will now get given them by their parents when they’re 21. Just look at where houses get built. All those houses built in the south-east are not going to go to working-class families in council houses in Gateshead – they’re just going to encourage the atomisation of already-rich families.

    2. It exposes the government – i.e. us – to massive losses if a recession occurs. The government says that this isn’t government spending (which would be oh so bad, apparently, for reasons not entirely clear), because it’s just insurance against losses that won’t happen. Haven’t we heard that before? A 95% mortgage only leaves room for a 5% decline in house prices. House prices are currently overvalued, and people in the industry say that they may need to drop another 15-20% to reach a fair market value. That’s before we consider the possibility of a further recession, which hardly seems impossible right now. It’s fine to underwrite individual mortgages to people who look like safe debtors (i.e. an implict acceptance that we’re NOT talking about the poor!), because the chances of any of them going bankrupt is small – but that ignores the systemic risk taken on, and the possibility of an across-the-board decline in values. The government policy is exposing us to massive losses – just as any bank guarrentee does. Ask Ireland how bank guarrentees work out.

    3. It encourages reckless lending and a bubble in house prices. If lenders know the government is backing the mortgages, it need not ensure that it loans only to those who can pay back. If the banks don’t do adequate checks and analysis, does anybody seriously believe that the government is going to be able to spot the bad risks that the banks miss? Oh yes, that sort of massive expansion of the civil service, duplicating the work of all the loan assessing staff at all the banks, that’s really on the cards right now, isn’t it? So, banks will make riskier and riskier loans, allowing more and more people to buy more and more expensive houses with less and less chance of ever paying back their debts. Forget what I said above about the ordinary effect this would have on house prices – this wouldn’t be an ordinary market! This is a government-sponsered housing market bubble. Does anybody believe encouraging bubbles is sound long-term policy? And how did this plan work out when America tried it, please remind me?

    4. In the best-case scenario, the boost to demand will spur an increase in supply – more houses will get built. The government has said that this is the idea – house-building boosts the economy and provides employment. OK – so what are we going to do with the new houses? We build 120,000 new houses a year, apparently, and the government wants to double it to 200-250,000 a year. Taking the top end of that for neatness, that’s 1 million new homes every four years – which is what we ‘need’, apparently. That’s 5 million new homes every 20 years. Well take a look at population projections, people. The UK is projected to grow by 5 million people in the next 20 years. So, obviously, we’re going to need more homes. Except… do we really need an extra brand-new 4-bedroom house in Tunbridge Wells for every single newborn? Seriously? OK, let’s say the average new-build has only 3 bedrooms – that’s still room for 15 million more people, when population will increase by only 5 million. Where will these extra people come from? Well, two places. First, where they’ve been coming from for the last thirty years or more: from the collapse of traditional families. More and more people are living alone, for longer, and there are more and more single parents. By increasing the housing stock faster than the population, we’re basically saying that we want families to become even smaller than they are. I’m normally not exactly a flag-bearer for the importance of the traditional family, but is this an entirely good thing? What’s more: given that the government explicitly wishes to encourage traditional families to remain together, isn’t this an entirely schizophrenic, nay hypocritical, policy? On the one hand they talk about a token tax break for married couples – and with the other hand, they massively decrease the cost of splitting up (and of kicking children out sooner, and of exiling grandparents and less-fortunate siblings), to an extent that dwarfs their symbolic marriage-credit offering. For once, the social right and the economic right should be in agreement – and in disagreement with the policy of the right-wing government! And then, second, there’s the other source of new people. Those population projections make assumptions about the rate of immigration – but those assumptions can change when the facts change. One reason why immigration is not higher is that the country is overcrowded and expensive – so if you create 10 million surplus bedrooms, all you’re doing is waving a big ‘hey, come live here, we’ve got spare houses’ banner. Again, I’m not anti-immigration myself – but last I checked, most supporters of the Tory party were (or, at least, were immigration-skeptical). When did they start thinking that “we need to build more houses to encourage more immigrants to come live here” was their kind of plan?

    5. What does the government want, in the long-term? Lower house prices, or higher house prices? It can’t expect house prices to simply stay exactly the same, without a continued miracle. It certainly can’t expect that and at the same time talk about how the market is ‘stuck’ and needs ‘kick-starting’. So, higher or lower? If prices are lower, more people will be trapped in negative equity and lose money when they sell their houses and feel like they’re in danger of bankcruptcy and spend less and tank the economy. That’s why whenever house prices fall there’s a panic. But all this house-building the government says it wants – more houses ultimately means lower prices, all else being equal. That’s how they expect to get more people into housing. But that would lead to massive overextension among house-owners… and now, under the new policy, it would lead to the government footing the bill. So maybe the government wants prices to increase? That would be safer. And the government seems to suggest that when they talk about housing being a major source of GDP growth. If our houses are worth more, we’re all richer! And the banks (and the government) can breathe more easily about all those loans – indeed, if they expect continued house price growth, they can lend more and more and still make money! Hooray. But there’s a catch: we can’t reduce the housing stock. That would be politically disasterous. Indeed, we’re building more homes, both to tell people that it’ll be easier to buy a house, and to provide employment. So how can we make the prices rise? Why, clearly, by artificially boosting demand! By subsidising house-buyers! Viz, by this policy. Hooray indeed, everybody wins. House builders sell more homes for higher prices, more people own their homes, home owners see their worth increasing every year, and banks have a profitable and safe place to put their investments.
    But hang on. At some point, we have to think rationally about this. This gain in ‘wealth’ comes through higher levels of debt. A 95% mortgage means more debt than an 80% mortgage. Now, sometimes debt is good. We can take on debt, use it to boost our economy, and pay it back with interest. Indeed, through the miracle of inflation, old debt just fades away. But this isn’t a one-off debt. This is a system that requires continual debt. And if we want to continue to increase house prices while also increasing the number of houses, it doesn’t just require continual debt, it requires continually rising levels of debt to sustain the growing disconnect between what houses ought to be worth and what we want them to be worth. This is why house prices have risen three times faster than incomes, while the number of households has grown relatively slowly. [House builders and their media lackeys like to scaremonger about how the current growth in the housing stock may be the lowest for fifty years. Well obviously! We’ve got the lowest population growth in fifty years!].
    In other words, this goes far beyond this particular policy. What we have is a fundamentally disfunctional attitude toward housing. We are intentionally inflating the prices of houses to provide a quick and easy boost to GDP. Leaving aside the question of whether these values are even vaguely sustainable, and the possibility of a catastrophic market collapse that would devastate the entire economy, this boost to GDP comes at the expense of higher levels of debt, particularly for the poor. [We wring our hands and say ‘oh how terrible, the poor can’t afford their own homes, prices are rising too fast’. So we give them money (directly through government grants or indirectly by subsidising banks and builders). Oh wow, that makes prices rise faster! Seriously, nobody in government is so honestly stupid that they think they can solve house price inflation that way. This is, quite literally, saying that you want to tackle inflation by printing a whole load more banknotes and giving £1000 to each person, so that they can pay the higher prices more easily. It’s a stupidity so collossal that it is impossible to believe it is honest.] As we now know, under the current economic system, the vast majority of GDP growth goes to the superelite, leaving the poor and the middle classes with only marginal increases in income. OK, fine – so long as nobody gets harmed in the process. But this isn’t just an issue of rising inequality – what we are doing is directly taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. The poor think they have money still, because their level of debt is rising to meet the rising costs of living (and this isn’t just because of the housing market, but it’s a big part of it) – but mortgaging the poor and the middle classes to enable the rich to get richer is crippling the growth prospects of the indebted classes and putting the indebted more and more in the power of their creditors. When your employer and your creditor and your prime minister are all the same person, that’s not great for your prospects for practical liberty.

    6. The current policy intentionally distorts the market, because the insurance is only available when you buy a new-build house. So what, not content with building millions more homes, they want people to move out of the existing ones? Well, that’s ONE way to drive continual demand for new houses! Why not go the whole hog and make it illegal to buy a non-new-build house!? I mean, sure, the whole idea of ‘new is best, never re-use’ hardly goes hand-in-hand with the professed ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ objectives of the government, but what the heck. Of course, this policy may in practice mean the worst of both worlds: prices of old houses declining, leading to house-owners becoming overstretched and trapped in negative equity, while the ability to buy decreases (since the cheaper mortgages are only available on the newer, more expensive homes). Joy!

 

 

Now, since I wrote that, I’ve thought a little, and I’d like to reiterate some points more clearly. What’s happening is this: we want our houses to have rising worth but declining cost. This would normally be impossible, but the government is stepping in to, very indirectly and without announcing that that’s what it’s doing, plug the gap in between. Prices can continue to rise, because subsidy leads to inflation, while at the same time affordability also increases, because the government pays some of the higher price.

The obvious objection is that this is unsustainable. Further price rises will require further subsidy: once the new price level is reached, the government will have to spend further to push it up higher again. At some point, the government runs out of money to sustain the inflated values, at which point we’re at risk of a crash.

A second objection is that this is incredibly left-wing: potentially massive government involvement in the market to redistribute money. I don’t have a problem with that, but I’m surprised the Tories don’t.

Finally, if that is your stated aim, is this the best way to do it? The scheme avoids the political and fiscal burden of direct government spending in two steps: firstly, the excess “spending” is in the form of debt, not cash, and secondly the debt is theoretically held by the individual, not the state. However, both steps are only theoretical: debt may eventually have to be paid back, and underwriting means that private debt can become public debt, and will do in the event of a general price collapse. So the government is exposing itself to risk, while not gaining any productive assets in the process; the buyers, meanwhile, take on increasingly large amounts of debt, but the underlying value of their assets does not increase – because the ‘price’ they have to go into debt to reach is based entirely on the availability of that debt – when liquidity crunches, and lenders need their money back, the value of the properties being used as collateral will plummet at the same time.  A mortgage is, for a bank, becoming a bet that banks will never need to call in their debts, or, more succinctly, a bet that the bank will never lose its bets – which is the opposite of a hedge: when they’re winning, they win more, but if they ever lose, they lose twice over.

This causes us to reconsider that prima facie “redistribution” thing. We’re not, at least in the short term, actually giving individuals more stuff – the same people will be buying houses, just at higher prices. Perhaps they may be buying them in different places – if so the redistribution consists entirely of allowing more people to bask in the glory of living near the ruling classes.

No, we’re not really channelling money to the poor – we’re channelling debt. We’re taking people who are already in debt and making them more in debt. Overall, their debt will increase more than their assets (because most people won’t move into considerably more economically-advantageous houses, they’ll just buy the same houses at higher prices, as a result of general house price inflation), so wealth is being extracted from the poor. Where is it going? To the rich, either through banking stocks or through builder stocks. And it’s not just money inequality – the direct relation of debtor and creditor is more coercive and unfree than the relation of poor and rich (all else being equal). The poor are, yet again, being pushed further under the control of the rich. The government shouldn’t be encouraging that.

To clarify: this isn’t being said out of some religious aversion to debt. Far from it. Debt is good. The ability to get into debt increases our wealth immeasurably. However, there are limits. Britain’s household debt is over 100% of GDP already, more than twice that of, say, France – and this contributes to a total debt-to-GDP ratio that is, after Japan, probably the second highest in the developed world. [Or third, after Switzerland?]

If the government really wants to provide more housing for poor families, it could cut through the bank profits and the builder profits and provide more social housing. [This is something it should have done on a massive scale in 2009, when prices were low and demand was high but credit scarcity led to stasis – only ideology prevented the government from increasing state assets at bargain prices, while giving homes to the homeless, AND boosting the house-building market at the same time]. This wouldn’t involve putting people into debt, and could be more targeted than a general blank cheque across the nation.

 

The Mad Ship, by Robin Hobb

Short version of my reaction as I went through this novel: “YEAH!…ok!… ok?…. er?… [twiddles thumbs]… oh, yeah!”. Or to put it more comprehensibly: the second novel of the Liveship Traders takes off where the first ended, and seems to be getting even better, before suffering something of a mid-novel hiatus and being revitalised at the end with a rousing finale.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the middle portion exactly – it’s just that, as not uncommonly with Hobb – the author seems to take her foot off the accelerator and lets it all coast along a bit too sedately.  The underlying problem is that her style, particularly in this trilogy, is a slow one, with a lot of introspection by characters and a lot of reporting and reflection and reconsidering of things that have happened off-screen. When the plot is strong enough to drag the reader through this heavy meal, or when it is sweetened by high-octane scenes (at which Hobb is surprisingly talented, given that they don’t seem to be what she’s interested in), the result is a satisfying feeling of fullness. When the plot slackens and slows and we go too many chapters without a seamonster or a kidnapping or an assault, the result is that we’re left picking through a perfectly-pleasant-and-nutritious grey porridge of events in the hope that something exciting will happen eventually. When it does happen, it’ll be twice as good because of all the set-up (and I don’t mean bland exposition – every chapter is a good story in its own right and things are always happening – they’re just not thrilling in their own right), but while we’re going through the set-up it’s a little slow. It’s important to stress that this slowness isn’t Jordanesque ten-pages-describing-a-dress filler; it’s all important character development and plot development – but it sometimes feels like a lot of healthy food without much sugar.

That means that this book isn’t brilliant and I don’t adore it. I do, however, really, really like it.

Ship of Magic was a character-driven complicated story, as various tangentially-connected individuals tried to go about their lives and ran into complications. The Mad Ship is still heavy on character, but now the events of the first book have taken on a life of their own, and the wheels of plot have pulled out of the hands of the characters. This lends procedings a rather desparate air – things are getting worse and worse and less and less controllable. That doesn’t mean we don’t get to see a lot of in-depth character work, though. On the contrary. If you like you fantasy to focus on character, come read this book. Towering above it is the incredible character of the pirate king, Kennit, who goes from being intriguing to being one of the greatest creations of the fantasy genre. I’ve recently been watching HBO’s wonderful In Treatment (the second season), and at times that’s how The Mad Ship feels – a slow, elliptical exposure of the surprising and paradoxical layers of Kennit’s psychology. Unfortunately, Kennit’s power, both as a work of art and as a person within the novel, rather overshadow some of the characters near him (no spoilers!), including particularly one of my favourites from the first novel. My other favourite becomes increasingly less likeable, as their experiences leave them more experienced, and more calloused – personally I preferred the naïve and endangered version. Meanwhile, though, other characters rise to the fore. Etta, for instance, gets more screentime; a new character, Serilla, is introduced (and promptly spends almost the entire novel travelling at a pace of about an inch per page), and with her a new mode of femininity. Indeed, much of this trilogy feels like an exercise in discussing different ways of being female – although there are male characters, and important ones, they seem almost independent of one another, while the women are more closely linked thematically. In part, this is because the main male character, Kennit, is (at least apparently) the only truly freely-acting person in the trilogy, while the female characters (and Wintrow, who in the first book was frequently likened to a woman in his behaviour and psychology) are forced to react to hardships. How they deal with those hardships defines them – the trilogy is perhaps (leaving Kennit aside) a study in how women can come to terms with, and attempt to transcend, positions of powerlessness: Althea, Keffria, Malta, Ronica, Etta, and now Serilla all attempt to do this in different ways. Nor, I think, is it a coincidence that the two immensely important characters introduced near the end of the novel are both female. This is not to say that it’s a feminist novel, or that the lessons of the women are not meant equally to be heeded by men (after all, in today’s society the division between powerful men and powerless women is rather less clear and unambiguous than in the trilogy’s setting – and by the end of this novel it’s starting to seem as though it’s going to be subverted even within the trilogy). But as a man, I have to say with an earnest explosion of relieved sighing: by heavens, it’s good to finally have a fantasy novel about women. I love feisty tomboys with swords, and I can accept both narratively and historically the need for mothers and swooning love interests ‘back home’, but it’s good to finally get a work where women are at the centre – and such varied women that you’d have to try hard not to like at least one of them.

Malta, I might add, is fantastic in this novel. The first time I read it, I thought that what Hobb did with Malta was genius on the level of what she did with Kennit. The second time, watchful and not taken by surprise, I found I could see through the gaps, as it were, a little better – but it’s still true that she’s a fantastic piece of work that should act as a lesson for everyone out there wanting to learn about character development. And even about character per se. The obvious comparison is Martin’s Sansa, but Malta is both more realistic and more infuriating than Sansa – and her character development is more impressive and more believable.

Going back a moment: if you want to know who this paragon (no pun intended) of characterisation, this “Kennit” is, I can summarise him, broadly, roughly, approximately, like this: he’s Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, mixed with Battlestar Galactica’s Gaius Baltar. And we see inside his head. Yes, that is as awsome as it sounds. In fact, when reading the first novel, encountering this little trinity of Kennit, Sorcor and Etta, I found it hard not to believe that David Milch must have read it, and that this was the basis of Deadwood’s Al, Dan and Trixie. Hobb’s versions, though, are better. And to Baltar I owe a curious semi-revelation halfway through the novel: remembering Baltar’s prison scene, in which he talks about his father and reverts to his native,  peasant accent, I experimented with giving Kennit (like many real-life pirates) an uneducated West Country drawl, rather than the supercillious RP that I first imagined. I’m not convinced it’s the best interpretation, but it certainly helps cast him in a new light. And no, I’ve still not come to terms with the fact that he has a moustache with pointy ends – I’m sure that fits in somewhere, but I don’t yet understand quite where.

However, despite what I’ve said above, this isn’t just a character-driven low-magic fantasy saga. Oh no. In Ship of Magic, it began to become apparent that Weird Things were going on beneath the surface. Well, in The Mad Ship those weird things smash their way to the surface – the all-important words start being bandied around in the very first few chapters, and by the end it’s clear that world-shattering events are unfolding.

That additional dimension adds a sparkling finish to the saga, because the fantastical dimension of Hobb’s world-building is extremely impressive: doubly so for the way that the revelations of this novel merge with, reframe and underpin the revelations of the earlier Farseer Trilogy, while at the same time standing alone in their own right for those who have not read those books. This, in a way, captures the essence of Hobb’s approach: to give the –sometimes confusing – impression of a world far larger than the one we see, and in the process to allow each individual thing to stand independently. I suppose what I mean is that, for instance, if a reader of this trilogy were told that there was another trilogy set before this one in time, there would be three or four possible times and places where one might imagine that that earlier trilogy was set. As it happens, Farseer is set in the Six Duchies and neighbouring areas a few years before the events of The Liveship Traders, and its events cast one light on the events of this trilogy – but if it had been about something else (Kelsingra, perhaps, or the Others, or Jamaillia, or the founding of Bingtown, or Chalced, or the lands to the south) I get the feeling that it could have cast a different light on things. Hobb’s world feels big and complicated and shrouded in mystery – a puzzle that all fits together somehow, but half the pieces are lost, and we don’t know which pieces will be found again and which are lost forever. There are a dozen clever references to Farseer, but there are just as many things that could equally well be references to other books – which happen not to have been written.

More prosaically: the creatures Hobb starts to describe in this book, and their lifecycle, are as imaginative (and yet weirdly believable) as anything you’ll find in epic fantasy.

I have to try to talk about problems, though. Well, as I’ve suggested, although there’s always something happening, a lot of it isn’t important or exciting in its own right, only in terms of what will happen next, and that makes the book slow (not a problem, only a taste) and uneven (perhaps a problem). The prose remains… uninspiring, though in no way bad by the standards of the genre. The more practical, sociopolitical side of the worldbuilding sometimes feels a little cardboardy (although political developments in Bingtown are well-handled). AND I WANT A PROPER MAP, DAMNIT. That was more of a problem for the first book, where I kept looking on the map to find places, only to realise that hardly anywhere is actually marked on the map at all, but it continues to be a frustration in this installment. If you’re going to provide a map, could you please mark places on it that are mentioned in the text? You know, just some of them, maybe?

Adrenaline: 3/5. Sounds high given what I’ve said, but there are exciting and gripping bits here – just sometimes spread too far apart.

Emotion: 3/5. I suppose one complaint is that this volume didn’t really kick on, emotionally, from the first. In part, I wonder if that’s because of the multiple-POV system: with so many characters developing simultaneously, it’s maybe harder to get fully caught up in the feelings of any one of them, because ten pages later we’ll be wrenched out and put in an entirely different head.

Thought: 3/5. As with the first volume, this isn’t thinky-fantasy, but it’s not stupid fantasy either. The underlying magical-biological mystery intrigues but does not perplex; the moral dilemmas are interesting.

Beauty: 3/5.*shrug*

Craft: 4/5. Almost 5/5, but I suppose the pacing could be a little better, and the prose needs to sparkle more as well. Mostly, though, extremely sophisticated. Handles a wide range of characters in an impressive way, including both development and revelations.

Endearingness: 4/5. Almost loved it, but not quite. Perhaps a bit too cold and ponderous to really be adorable. Plus, my favourite chapter in the series isn’t in this book (probably Athel on the sealer).

Originality: 4/5. Pushed up by the weird life-cycle, and generally distinctive world-building, and things like showing the political dimension through the eyes of an annoying brat.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. Pretty similar to the first book in the trilogy, maybe a little better. Continues to be well-written and enjoyable, and suprisingly sophisticated for the genre; critics may wish it was a bit more full-blooded.

Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 40-48, by Pete Abrams

Well Tonto, we’re off the reservation now. Book 11 is the last published Sluggy Freelance book, with Books 12 and 13 on their way. I suspect, thinking about it, that any future megatome will collect books 10-13, so my attempted periodisation has rather failed at the first hurdle. In any case, though, there’s still lots, lots more Sluggy to get through.

I’m choosing to look at Chapters 40-48, covering comics between, roughly, January 2004 to March 2006. This is essentially a compilation of the two most talked-about storylines in Sluggy history: the widely-acclaimed “That Which Redeems” and the often-hated “Oceans Unmoving”. In addition, this period covers the institial chapters, Boy’s Night Out, Freelance Bums, Most Wonderful Time and Living Conditions.

To start with those: they’re entertaining but not earth-shattering. Boy’s Night Out is a welcome return of an old story thread and has some good moments, as well as being a dramatic storyline in its own right, but it feels rather lost, bloated, and has too many jokes that miss the bounds of taste. Freelance Bums has no drama of its own, but is fun enough, I suppose – yet perhaps not up to the best level of Sluggy (it’s kind of like Magic Flap, but not as good). Most Wonderful Time isn’t ghastly, but is a bit poor. Living Conditions is my favourite of the four, and also features an abrupt tonal volte-face in the 28 Geeks Later story. It’s impressive given the way in which it was all brusquely shoehorned (no “Oceans Unmoving” probing jokes, please) in to break up a story run too long – the last panel returns the status quo to almost exactly the same position as it started.

Two more general tendencies should also be highlighted. Firstly, the trend continues toward bigger and bigger (in length, if not in content) storylines. Hence why almost everything I’ll mention here is a chapter, rather than a story – the stories have in most cases swollen to absorb whole chapters, and sometimes more (obviously, the two big arcs here are each divided into two chapters). Secondly, and as a consequence, the tone of the comic is evolving in a peculiar way. There is still rapid modulation between tonalities, but because each unit is now larger, it feels, to me, less like being showered with random foodstuffs by a high-power watercannon, and more like just being boringly commanded to eat brussel sprouts in the middle of desert. Opinions may vary, but personally I preferred the whiplash to the ‘why can’t we just get back to the good stuff’ frustration.

So. The big two. Well, “That Which Redeems” (TWR) and “Oceans Unmoving” (OU) have a lot in common. Both are epic. Both are focused on a single character cut off from everyone else. Both have to introduce large new casts. Both are continuations of long-running storylines that began way back in 1997 – and TWR at least was apparently planned right from that first moment.

In hindsight, TWR is not as good as people thought it was – and OU is vastly better than it first seemed. Largely these two things are due to pacing features. Spread over months, TWR seemed, while it was being written, to be suitably epic and solid, but with the reading time condensed into hours in archive (or print) form, this weight is lacking, and the flaws show through the gaps – the obvious railroading in places, the poor dialogue in other places, the cast of people it was hard to care about, and the rapidity with which “character development” was largely accomplished off-screen in time-gaps, by authorial fiat. It frequently seems rushed.

OU, meanwhile, benefits from the opposite of this – agonisingly slow and partial updates (with massive-extra-size strips packed full of exposition, largely in the form of people talking to the ‘camera’) that killed enjoyment the first time around are now brief only brief pauses for breath, and the story almost (almost!) whizzes by.

However, there are still problems. The second part, in particular, suffers badly from its structure, which is too reliant on nested flashbacks and narration-within-a-narration; the end is abrupt and makes only limited sense. In hindsight, Abrams should simply have marched on boldly through the story – instead, I get the feeling that he tried desparately to rein in it by packing as much exposition in as quickly as possible to get to the end, which was exactly the wrong thing for him to do. Meanwhile, the underlying conceit of the story makes a mockery of the notion of character development, even managing to degrade a lot of the rest of the comic, beyond this storyline – and almost all the emotional involvement is left on the shoulders of an entirely new cast with severely limited depth and character. [And the “men go comically tongue-tied, complete with cartoon art style, in the presence of hot chicks in rubber” gag wasn’t funny the first time, let alone the twelfth – and clashes badly with the style and tone of every other panel]. To the extent that we DO end up caring about this new world we’re being shown, we’ll just feel frustrated when the events flip back to the ‘real’ world [Although there’s plenty of narrative scope for a sequel – sadly, I don’t think the author will dare].

That’s all a tremendous shame, because OU should have been a good story. The world Abrams creates is simply brilliant – entire cycles of novels could be set there – and the plot, while frustrating, is actually quite clever. Unfortunately, it largely feels like Abrams wanted to do something completely different from normal, but decided to stick the Sluggy label on it rather than write an independent story. As a result, it feels irrelevent, compressed, and out of place.

TWR, while not, as I say, as wonderful as fans have claimed it to be is nonetheless the better of the two, largely because things happen that we ought to care about. If nothing else, it (poorly, but substantively) develops one the main characters to a notable extent; more interestingly, it also casts a disturbing light onto the fundamental group mechanics of the Sluggy friend-set in ways that will have enduring significance, and that bring a welcome touch of genuine emotion to the comic (if there’s one thing Sluggy does lack compared to some webcomics, it’s any sense of who Pete Abrams is outside his comic – he comes through strongly as an authorial voice, but he gives us little idea of what makes him tick, and the ‘revelation’ near the end of TWR is one of the few exceptions to this, in my opinion). That said, people need to calm down: if this really was revolutionary in webcomics, that just tells us that webcomics needed a revolution. Yes, it’s serious and emotional, and even philosophical… but I’ve read a lot of things that were more so – and to suggest as some have done that this is the comic’s “Cerebus” moment (roughly, the point where a light and comic work becomes dark and serious) is to show an ignorance of Sluggy’s history. [Although to some degree it’s a good illustration of the versatility of Sluggy’s all-moods-in-one style, since it makes the hard-hitting parts more shocking than they would be in a more serious work].

All in all, yes, it’s good – but come on, fans, imagine a storyline that length that was as tightly constructed, and as intense, as Fire and Rain!

Oh, and there’s a third Torg Potter storyline. This one isn’t unreadably aweful, just annoying. It does, however, include a good joke about the rubbishness of the third film (yes, I know people say the third film is the best. That’s bollocks. It has some good cinematic scenes, graphically, but it’s predictable from start to finish and is riddled with plotholes – at one point I was counting them, not per film, but per minute; but, that’s a debate for another day).

The result? Hard to really summarise. On the one hand, Sluggy in this period continued its trend toward big, corner-post plot arcs with interstitial light amusement; on another, it drove toward more single-character plots (not only the big two, but also Boy’s Night Out (Torg and to a lesser extent Riff) and 28 Geeks Later). Its art style remains fairly similar to that of the preceding period (and OU continues to demonstrate how effective very simple spot-colouring can be at creating an artistic effect). The biggest change is a hyping up of the seriousness – the two main storylines feel no more epic than the Kesandru or Holiday Wars stories, but they feel distinctly less fun, less frivolous, more important (though OU unfortunately feels like we’re meant to feel it’s important without it really being clear why) – I think by now Abrams has realised that sometimes it’s good to not just be epic, but to be epic about something important. This is in a way a return to the darker, lower-key era of books 7-9, after the excesses of 10 and 11. [I’m not saying it’s all dull and dour, of course – there’s still a lot of comedy here, and although I don’t think it’s as funny as the comic used to be, it’s at least amusing most of the time, even at the most dramatic moments]. The other big change is the sense that we might be going somewhere – there’s a key comic in particular where Torg thinks about all the big things he’s going to have to deal with in the next year. This is a recognition of the future that would have been anathema at earlier stages in the comic, and is mirrored in the introduction of the concept of the ‘fate spiders’ – the explicit promise that all the threads of the comic are, or will be, interwoven (and, importantly, the reintroduction of a key plot thread seemingly dead for many, many years). There’s a general feeling that we’re past the introduction now, and that things are about to get real.

Adrenaline: 3/5. The big storylines were relatively big and bloated. The comic has lost its old zip. This makes it harder, I think, to allow the whimsical humour such free reign, as it sometimes gets in the way (when it was a rollercoaster, it wasn’t so much of a problem that there were dips, either in quality or in mood, because we came out of them faster). Also, the sadly ironicially named “Oceans Unmoving” kind of slowed things down.

Emotion: 4/5. If I were really honest with myself I’d probably give it only a 3/5, but, I’m sentimental. So I’ll bump it up to 4, but really that’s only a few brief moments of caring.

Thought: 3/5. Clever plots and a little bit of quiet reflection mean that this isn’t as easy on the brain as some previous installments – but it’s still nothing to get a headache over.

Beauty: 4/5. The artwork still wouldn’t impress a professional critic, but it’s effective, strong, clear, and often very pretty. There are a couple of beautiful moments in TWR. Sadly, even at the best of times, the writing doesn’t all that noteworthy, some good jokes aside.

Craft: 4/5. Not as proficient as in the last era. To give the author credit, that’s largely because this time he’s being a lot more ambitious. However, neither of the big storylines feels as watertight as it should be.

Endearingness: 4/5. I enjoyed pretty much all of it, even Oceans Unmoving. Didn’t love it, but really happy-feelings toward it nonetheless.

Originality: 4/5. With the more ambitious shift comes more originality. TWR has a really good and really distinctive premise, with some imaginative revelations later on, while OU has a stunningly creative setting; the vampire story is also as original a vampire story as I’ve seen for quite a while.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Yes, the pedants will note that this has exactly the same score books 7-9, but I’m marking it down anyway. Or rather: both collections are on the borderline of ‘Very Good’, and something about this one just doesn’t impress me as much, so I’ve elected to put it down just below the border. Perhaps I don’t want to mark the entire thing up too much just for including the last month of “That Which Redeems”, which is a high-point the rest of the collection fails to live up to. In any case, it’s slightly better than Books 10-11.

Next up (sluggy-wise): probably chapters 49-59, although I may need to take a break. And yes, in hindsight, I realise that I should have stuck TWR with books 10-11, and kept Oceans Unmoving for the post-TWR clean-up phase of the comic, but what use is hindsight to anybody?

Sluggy Freelance, 10-11, by Pete Abrams

Sluggy Freelance’s Book 10 and Book 11 together span a little over two years. They don’t feel like it. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. As always, Sluggy is mutating in these books.

What these volumes aren’t is a continuation of the tone of Halloween, Fire and Rain, and Dangerous Days Ahead. Those were brooding, menacing, character-developing. What we have in these two volumes is, instead, cool and awesome. Sluggy never abandons anything – in 2011, it’s still making very occasional ironic fourth-wall jokes – and so the character and the brooding are still here, but they’re a lot less obvious. It seems that Abrams has taken note of the success of the epic storylines of his previous period and amped-up the epic, while toning-down the uncomfortable. As a result, we get two of the most fun adventures yet, but rather less in the way of narrative meat.

Book 10: Ghosts in the Gastank is in essence (after the very enjoyable but very silly Girl’s Night Out) a single long story. It’s very likeable, because it has impressive (though simple) art, a twisty plot, some really good lines, and is the culmination of a storyline stretching back to Book 7. I don’t have much else to say about it, really.

Book 11: The Holiday Wars continues in the same vein but is a bit more varied: a chapter of light material precedes three chapters that bring the epic story of Bun-Bun and Santa Claus to a fitting conclusion. There’s also a ‘Torg Potter’ chapter, but to be honest I skipped most of it. Just couldn’t stand it.

The light chapter is an effective interlude after the climax of Book 10, and is quite funny and very enjoyable. It suffers, perhaps, from the lack of darkness around it – to be honest, the whole of both of these books feels like an enjoyable interlude.

The Holiday Wars saga is epic. And cool. It’s full of what I believe are technically termed “Crowning Moments of Awesome”, as Bun-Bun takes on Halloween (Smashing Pumpkins), Thanksgiving (Roasting Turkeys) and finally Christmas (Slay Bells Ring). It’s… well, fun. Pumpkin-headed kings, bullet time fight scenes, double crosses, armies of Valentine’s cupids, etc. For what it is, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Unfortunately, personally, I’d have prefered something different – something that was more than just fun. More laugh-out-loud jokes, and more of a dark side too. More suspense. More variety, even – these storylines are longer and bigger than ever, without that constant tonal whiplash that was such a remarkable characteristic of earlier eras.

In the final assessment, these two books are in some ways the most polished and sophisticated and perfect Sluggy yet – but they are also relatively shallow and light, even by the standards of the original comic, and particularly by the standard of the immediately preceding period. As a result, paradoxically, it has some of my favourite bits of the comic – but if this were all of the comic, it wouldn’t be one of my favourite comics. Take any of these storylines and put them as an interlude while something more emotional is going on, and they’d be brilliant. But two years of it feels a little too… comfortable.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Rollicks along at a great pace.

Emotion: 2/5. It’s not completely cold – particularly in Book 10 – but I didn’t really get emotional at any point. I don’t think I was meant to.

Thought: 2/5. Clever in places, but not intellectual.

Beauty: 4/5. Doesn’t blow me away in aesthetic wonder – but that’s the only bad thing I can think of to say. Some really attractive strips, and general cool awesomeness.

Craft: 5/5. He may be doing something less impressive than before, but he does it very impressively. I think he’s mastered it. Sure, there are hiccups now and then, as you’d expect from something serialised day-by-day, but basically, he does this perfectly, it couldn’t be done better, I can’t think of any problems to talk about. It’s funny, it’s fun, it’s well-drawn, it’s clever.

Endearingness: 4/5. But I don’t adore it. I really like it, but I don’t love it.

Originality: 3/5. Although if you say the plots out loud they sound pretty weird, nonetheless I think the move to bigger, more conventional storylines has made the comic a little less unique, and a bit closer to what anyone else could be doing.

Overall: 5/7. Good. This review probably makes it sound bad, but it’s not. It’s good. In fact, it’s almost very good. But not quite. Standing alone, I’d be talking about how I’d found this great, funny, adventure comic. But it’s not alone, it comes after five years of Sluggy, and in that context it’s frankly a little disappointing. In hindsight, that is – when I was reading through, I was loving it. But then I got to the end and thought, “wait, that’s it?” – and since then I’ve not really been driven to read on. In fact, I read all this a month ago, and I’m only finishing up this review now because I’m starting to gear back up to read the next couple of books. All that said, I mustn’t fail to reiterate that this is fun – and the fact that it’s technicaly the best-written period of the comic yet bodes very well indeed. Next up: some light entertainment… and then That Which Redeems.