Whoo. Well, that’s over with. Not really, I suppose – Sluggy is still continuing, and I’m still continuing to read it (even though at one point not long ago I decided quite passionately that I would never read it again – I suck at vendetta). But I’ve now re-read a huge arc in Sluggy history, and I suspect it’ll be a while before I write another of these reviews.
Today I’m reviewing chapters 60-62 of Sluggy Freelance. That might not sound like much, but it’s about two years of comics. These are big chapters. Big chapters, big stories.
In fact apart from the odd bit of filler here and there, there’s only really two stories in this period. Which I guess is why they felt soooo increeeedibly sloooooow when reading them in real time. But in review, at my own pace?
Well, one of them is.
The other isn’t as bad as I thought it was.
The big arc of this period is the sixth (or seventh, if you count Storm-Breaker?) DFA adventure, and Riff’s first major solo adventure – Riff’s sojourn in the nightmare dystopia of 4UCity. And I mean big. But I’m not going to complain about the size or the length here, because this really is an incredible work. Nightmare city of the future? Check. More plot twists than you can shake a wet fish at? Check. Interesting characters? Check.
The characters make this one. There’s something hard to explain yet thoroughly grown-up about this one – there may never be any doubt who our protagonist is, but Abrams doesn’t take the lazy, and expected, step of simplifying the morality of the situation around Riff’s needs. Riff might be a hero, but he isn’t necessarily an entirely admirable one, and a great deal of the tension and suspense in this story come from the ways in which Riff is forced to wrestle with other, equally ambiguous, characters for control of the plot. It’s not always clear who ‘ought’ to come out on top, and it’s even less clear who will, or how. On top of that, the DFA premise (this is an alternative, parallel or divergent, world, with analogues for many of the prime-world characters we know and love) adds an additional dimension of mystery, of depth (to what extent is the portrayal, in particular, of this alt-Torg telling us something about the ‘real’ Torg? Just as the portrayal of alt-Riff in That Which Redeems put a different, and not wholly pleasant, layer onto our understanding of Riff, so too this complicated and flawed alt-Torg show us, perhaps, a different, no less heroic but perhaps less likeable aspect of ‘our’ Torg), and trepidation (in both directions – what we know about how this timeline turns out makes what’s going on in the prime world more intimidating, while what we know about the prime world puts some seemingly innocent elements of this timeline’s potential future into a bleaker light). This is a remarkably taut and effective story that’s probably the most mature and sophisticated entry in the Sluggy cannon so far.
The other story, I must confess, I hated at the time. Torg’s extended Bondesque escapades seem entirely tonally out of place (both against the backdrop of Riff’s adventure and against their immediate temporal context), often involve beating bad jokes with dead horses, lack emotional depth (due both to the fact that half the main cast are one-note gags that were tired at least five years ago and to the fact that the supporting ensemble are new characters introduced on the spot with no backstory), and goes on far too long. They’re not very good by Sluggy standards. However, on reading through the story again, in archive form, these problems became far less troubling due to the faster reading speed, and the result is, I think, a solidly entertaining distraction, with some entertaining moments. In particular, Abrams’ one great success in this story is the character of Crushestro – consistently amusing precisely because he is so one-note and hammy, and yet also, amazingly, possessed of real pathos.
Then again, if the Torg story has some unexpected virtues, we equally shouldn’t let the brilliant elements of the Riff story blind us to its vices. Most seriously, the pacing is uneven, weakened not only by excessive length but by interruption by the ‘B-side’ Torg story, and at times toward the end almost crippled by atrociously (and lengthy) bad infodump scenes. Not for the first time, Abrams scuttles his big finish with infodump, even having the climactic moment itself swaddled in diluting exposition. The ending may be extremely clever – but when your ending is so clever you need long paragraphs of exposition to explain to people what’s just happened, you’re doing something wrong.
What we’re left with, then, is an era of Sluggy divided into two parts: one serious, sophisticated, brilliant, and yet flawed; the other, trivial, silly, superfluous, irritating, and yet surprisingly fun. It’s not a bad precis of Sluggy as a whole, but the sheer size of the pieces turns it from a mosaic of tones into a strangely splodgy artwork that it’s hard to assess coherently. And for all the criticism, it would be wrong to lose sight of the positives: problems there may be, but this is still a genuinely impressive stretch of comic, with arguably superior characterisation, plotting and artwork to anything that’s come before.
Adrenaline: 4/5.Only an over-reliance on anti-climactic exposition spoils the excitement of these adventures.
Emotion: 3/5.Some emotional moments in the Riff arc, but overall too diluted to compliment it for this.
Thought: 4/5.It may not be deeply intellectual, but the intense convolution of the plotting, peppered with foreshadowing and in-jokes, keeps the brain active
Beauty: 4/5. The art is in general fantastic, with some great standout pages.
Craft: 3/5. Many things are so, so right. But other things are badly wrong. Abrams’ mastery of the details has maybe never been greater, but he doesn’t feel fully in control of the big picture anymore.
Endearingness: 3/5. Again, there’s enough here that I could love, but also enough I found annoying or dull to keep me from loving it.
Originality:4/5. OK, neither the SF dystopia nor the espionage adventure are truly original genres, and I have to mark the comic down for that. There are few elements here that are outright novel. On the other hand, the use of the elements is exceedingly fresh, distinctive, and imaginative.
Overall: 5/7. Good. A certain loss of tightness and focus mean that this isn’t, in my opinion, quite the best that Sluggy Freelance has managed. On the other hand, its ambition and scale are welcome, and make this probably an improvement over the immediately preceding era of the comic. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much better this worked in archive form than it had when reading live.