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.

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