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?

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