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.

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