Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 63-65, by Pete Abrams

Sluggy Freelance – a sprawling epic that has kept its devotees hooked since the 1990s. One of the most venerable webcomics, Pete Abrams’ Sluggy began more than twenty years ago, with newspaper-style, three-panel, gag-a-day (not very good) strips, and developed to become, without exaggeration, one of the most complex, varied, surprising and ingenious narratives I’ve ever encountered.

Years ago, I re-read and reviewed the first nineteen volumes (though only eleven of them were actually in books at that point), and a few more chapters that still aren’t in books, from the first page of 1997’s Is It Not Nifty? (on which two young men, Torg and Riff, decide to send spam e-mails to Satan) through to the exhausting, epic conclusion of 2011’s “4U City Red” (AKA chapter 62), in which Riff (alongside alternate-universe parallels of Torg and other key characters) struggles against the forces of a totalitarian dystopia in the conclusion of a years-long narrative. Well, it’s 2019 now, and a lot of water has flown by, and it seems an appropriate juncture to revisit the world of Sluggy for some more reviews. I’ve been reading it mostly daily the whole time, of course (although sadly, Sluggy, which for almost fifteen years prided itself on having at least some content every day, is now for logistical reasons down to only two or three strips most weeks). But things read differently when you read them in one sitting, as a novel…

First, I suppose, an intro is in order for those – i.e. almost everybody – who don’t know what I’m talking about. Sluggy Freelance follows the adventures of two wastrels, improbably named Torg and Riff – the former, a goofy but big-hearted freelance web designer, and the latter, a laconic inventor whose inventions are hamstrung by their tendency to explode. Early in the comic, the pair’s world expanded to include attractive neighbour and would-be radio producer, Zoe; Zoe’s rather less approachable friend, Gwynn; a sweet, human-eating, periodically-mutating alien from another dimension named Aylee; and Torg’s “pet” (acquired when the comic was more overtly zany and prone to breaking the fourth wall), the exceedingly violent talking rabbit, Bun-Bun, who invariably carries a switchblade, a pistol, and an undying vendetta against Santa Claus. Also, a hyperactive ferret. As jobs, explosions, manhunts, hauntings and swindlers intervene, much of the core cast lives together, in various combinations, through the years, in various locations. From this sitcom-style foundation, the comic builds out in many different directions through a series of adventures, each one further extending the comic’s world, as the story becomes increasingly epic. Various strands of the narrative rise and fall in importance over the years, but eventually two great pillars of foreboding doom emerged out of the daily chaos: the threat of the zombie-controlling demon K’Z’K, the Vowelless One, who possesses the body of Gwynn in Chapter 10; and the threat of Hereti-Corp, the shadowy evil corporation somehow connected to brainwashed gymnast superassassin Oasis, who suffers a fiery death in Chapter 15… and in Chapter 18… and in Chapter 22… and in…

Yes, it is indeed all a bit weird, when you see it written down like that. Anyway…

The biggest thing that has changed since 2011 – the last chapter I reviewed – is the general structure of the comic. In 2011, “4U City Red” felt like the conclusion of a massive arc, and of course it was – the latest in a series of ever-longer arcs in an episodic comic. But in hindsight, it was more like the beginning than the end. The “big plot”, percolating smasmodically throughout the comic almost since the beginning, burst into the foreground again in book 19, “Broken”… and never let go. The three-chapter 4U City saga was, in hindsight, only the first of a series of huge, sequential arcs that drove the comic forward, with a few tangents, until 2018’s climactic “The Heavens and the Earth” (chapter 71). With one of the comic’s two major plotlines now seemingly ended, it remains to be seen whether “The Heavens and the Earth” marks a relaxation, or simply a shift to the second plotline.

The first challenge in reviewing all this material – aside from the fact it’ll take me some time to re-read it all – is knowing where to draw the lines. I’m quite glad/relieved that my reviews of what’s now books 12-19 managed to do this ‘correctly’ – that is, while some of my reviews now cover multiple books, none of the books are split between two of my reviews. But to be honest, it’s just informed guesswork, a combination of finding a decent-size tranche of comics, and finding a seemingly-appropriate end-point.

So here’s my first guess: I’m going to begin by reviewing chapters 63 (“Safehouse”), 64 (“The Research and Development Wars”) and 65 (“Mohkadun”).

It is, let’s begin by saying, an impressively diverse sequence. “Safehouse” is intended as a lighter, refreshing palate cleanser after the epic “4U City Red”; “The Research and Development Wars” returns to the B-plot of the 4U City era, and is a convoluted tale of espionage, double-crossing, evil megacorporations and infiltration hijinks; “Mohkadun” pivots to the other side of the big plot, with cannibal demons, human sacrifices, gods, time travel and the end of the world. In total, the three chapters cover about three years, from late 2011 through to late 2014.

Of the three, the first is by far the weakest. “Safehouse” is effectively divided (not counting filler weeks) into two parts – one, an attempt to return to “classic”, sitcom-style Sluggy, with much of the core cast sitting around arguing and getting into trouble, and the second a sudden pivot into a zombie thriller. When Sluggy was at its height, it was indeed characterised by its brilliant humour – it’s epic urges still kept in check by its funny-paper comic discipline. Its comedy may have taken a while to find its feet, but when it found them, they were fantastic – and that’s not just nostalgia talking, as the Sluggy archives have enough helpful reminder links that the archive-diver is constantly fighting the temptation to divert off into some story from an earlier era. Late-period Sluggy comedy, however, retains everything that was bad right from the start – it’s childish, it’s silly, it’s sometimes misanthropic, it’s repetitive, it relies too much on a technique that when done well rises to the level of social satire but when done poorly sinks into mere pop culture references  – and strips away the discipline. Where Sluggy at its funniest did its best to pack twenty jokes into five sets of three panels, each with only one or two lines of dialogue, and in the process was forced to combine its silly instincts with wit and concision, Sluggy of the “Safehouse” era feels free to spread one joke across a week of six-to-nine panel strips, and then repeat it the week after in case we didn’t get it. Something that might be funny as the punchline panel one day in 2001 – like sociopathic rabbit Bun-bun riding an old human being as a horse – becomes a wince-inducing running ‘joke’ for weeks or months that just belabours the point in a way that deadens its wit and amplifies its underlying nastiness (on which note, yes, ZHOAS, the one-panel punchline joke that unaccountably and outright disturbingly got repeated continually for an entire decade, is still around throughout this era, though mercifully less prominently than before).

Fortunately, the weak half of “Safehouse” (which, to be fair is clever in places and features some very-long-distance callbacks that will bring a smile to longterm fans) is buttressed by the second half, the zombie thriller. This is, to be honest, not Sluggy’s best attempt at horror (that would probably be “KITTEN” and “KITTEN II”, although an edge of horror runs through the whole comic), or even it’s best zombie thriller; it struggles for tone, and it lacks broader depth and relevance. But it’s a pacy, entertaining little story with a bit of character development and a new spin on an old idea – and a number of good jokes. It turns out that – as has probably been true all along – Sluggy’s somewhat absurdist, somewhat sharp humour actually works best when it’s undercutting the somewhat melodramatic action, and forced into concise asides between panels of threat and peril, rather than when it’s allowed free, self-indulgent reign.

And if we’re talking melodrama, it’s hard to top “The Research and Development Wars”. I must admit, I wasn’t optimistic going into this – I was distinctly underwhelmed by the R&D sideplot in the preceding chapters, and, as with his comedy in this era, Abrams seemed to have found here a topic so inherently big and potentially silly that he could indulge himself to the detriment of the comic. But in fact, while I must admit I find it hard to keep all the details of the plot twists straight in my head, “R&DW” is a decently effective story. Its negative elements – melodrama, and time spent with a group of villains that invites lazy, racially-insensitive humour – are counterbalanced by a procession of tense action scenes, punctuated by… well…

I almost gave up reading Sluggy when I read it first. I felt betrayed and manipulated. I was angry and disappointed and I didn’t want to give Abrams any more of my time or attention. In other words, it’s brilliant.

“It” is perhaps a perfect demonstration of what a work like Sluggy, that whiplashes between tones and oozes across decades can do that few works can. It’s a moment that is totally shocking and, for all but the most diligent conspiracy theorist, entirely unexpected; it not only changes the direction of the comic, but completely reframes everything that’s gone before, and in particular forces a complete re-evaluation of a certain character. The instinct is to dismiss this as a lazy retcon that steals and perverts our memories of a popular character and everything they were involved in, because from most authors that’s exactly what it would be. But the thing is, the more you think about it, the more you go back and re-read key events from the past, the more it appears as though, actually, not only did Abrams plan this all along, but he put the clues clearly on the page. He didn’t just retcon a character – he genuinely recontextualised them. [And for context here, I’m talking a twist/revelation going back eleven years of comics]. And what’s more, it’s not just a cheap twist – it’s something that actually deepens the significance and the pathos for the years to come.

So something that almost made me stop reading became, after a little bit of time for me to readjust my thinking, one of the things that most compelled me to read on; and it’s founded on the deep history of the comic, and on the way that Abrams gives us what might on the surface appear to be silly – absurd, auto-parodic – and yet somehow from that develops three-dimensional, fascinating characters with whom his audience can develop strong bonds of sympathy. When everything’s working, he gets all the cake of cool, over-the-top imagination, and gets to eat it with the pastry fork of significance and emotional power. I don’t think “R&DW” is really Sluggy firing on all cylinders, but it is an exciting adventure story with flashes of something deeper. It sets the tone for the next seven years of the comic.

The twists, and long-distance call-backs (including the ultimate call-back!), don’t stop coming in the even more epic “Mohkadun”. Sluggy experiments with something new here, as the story unfolds in parallel across two time periods – one thousands of years in the past, in a lost civilisation – both facing the threat of a world-ending demon. Inevitably, there are limitations – worldbuilding has never been Sluggy’s strong suit, and the chapter dips too heavily into easy clichés in depicting the culture of lost Mohkadun. And, as has been the case with several of the comic’s more ingeniously plotted arcs, we end up with a lot of what’s just happened having to be explained to the audience in infodump form. Where the story succeeds, however, is in creating a tale with epic scope and gripping pace, continually unpredictable (yet making perfect sense in hindsight), with character development along the way. In particular, this is the first really big showcase for Gwynn – the closest she’s come to Torg’s That Which Redeems, Riff’s 4U City, or Bun-Bun’s Oceans Unmoving – and both she and the comic benefit greatly from this. Gwynn is not only arguably the most important of the characters in terms of potential future significance, but also probably the most complex, and the scale of “Mohkadun” allows her blend of shallowness, selfishness, pain, arrogance, insecurity and heroic bloody-mindedness to really shine. The reintroduction of (two versions of) K’Z’K, the archetypal Jokeresque psychopathic demigod, as a major antagonist (after around a decade as a dormant threat) shakes everything up – for once the gang have to face an opponant who is more powerful, more knowledgeable, more prepared, and probably smarter than all of them. K’Z’K’s psychopathy, combined with the body-stealing, human-eating violence of the lesser demons that infest this chapter, adds a real edge of unpredictable danger to procedings.

It goes without saying, Sluggy of this era still isn’t a “safe” option for those seeking something flawless or perfectly in fashion – Abrams is constantly experimenting, still, after at this point nearly a decade and a half, finding new ways to tell his stories, and as a result there are plenty of things that might not land firmly with everyone, from typos to tasteless jokes (including a continued bizarre obsession with toilet humour) to structural experiments. But what Sluggy offers in exchange, for the reader willing to take the rough with the smooth, is fascinatingly varied storytelling, laugh-out-loud humour, strong characters and exciting plots. It’s been a long time now since I read a book that kept me genuinely gripped for hours on end, late into the night, but both “R&DW” and “Mohkadun” did exactly that.

The weakness of “Safehouse”, in its attempts to emulate the style of a much earlier era, demonstrate that by this point in the comics’ history Abrams no longer has the skill for these ‘sitcom’-style approaches – the self-indulgence he’s always struggled with has overcome him; but the strength of “R&DW” and “Mohkadun” show that his ability to handle plot arcs of this scale and import has only increased – his hand is much surer here than it was in the “4U City” era; and, in contrast to the worries some may have had in that era, here the epic arcs also feel like true progress toward an albeit-still-distant endgame.

In sum, while these three chapters may not represent the peak of what Sluggy Freelance has achieved in its long history, they are a satisfying readjustment into a new approach for the comic – and while some readers may of course not approve of the mutation, Sluggy has been mutating day-by-day from the very first chapter. For fans with an open mind, these chapters, despite some teething problems, are a great reward for their faithfulness, and a promise of an exciting future for the comic.

Adrenaline: 4/5. As I say above, the two big chapters here kept me gripped, while the second half of “Safehouse” was also decently exciting. Abrams has perhaps lost the explosive discipline that made some of his earlier classic stories thrilling – everything now sprawls out across weeks and months – but his ability to deal with that scale has also improved over time, yielding a more sustained tension and release.

Emotion: 4/5. The one big event in “R&DW” certainly provoked emotion – if mainly fury. “Mohkadun” counters with a satisfying, heartwarming resolution to a very, very long emotional arc. High stakes, betrayals and introspection meanwhile ensure continued emotional resonance, though there are no massive tear-jerkers here.

Thought: 4/5. Sluggy’s predictably unpredictable plotting, long-distance call-backs and layers of intrigue keep the brain exercised.  It also plays fair, encouraging speculation – Abrams’ occasional “so here’s what really happened” infodumps feel less like cheating and more like a magician’s reveal.

Beauty: 4/5. There are some beautiful moments, some elegant lines, and some striking artwork.

Craft: 4/5. Abrams’ greatest talent is his ability to interweave plot threads across decades, in ways that both continually surprise and yet also make perfect sense, to the point where it’s almost impossible to tell what is genius-level multi-year foreshadowing and what is inspired improvisation. He is also able to build strong characters despite constant action and a high level of absurdity, to craft gripping adventures, and to season them with humour. However, his sky-high ambition sometimes overmatches his skills, and in particular “Safehouse” saw him struggling to recapture a tone and structure that seems to have abandoned him.

Endearingness: 3/5. This era is weighed down by “Safehouse”, an ill-judged lull (at least in its first half), while “The Research and Development Wars” also makes some significant misteps, and at times taxes the patience. “Mohkadun”, however, is a classic chapter, not only for its importance to the long-term plot but also for its character work.

Originality: 4/5. Through a combination of leaning on stereotypical plots, and the exigencies to a shift to an in some ways more traditional storytelling, this era of Sluggy is not quite so off-the-wall as the comic has sometimes been. Nonetheless, it continually surprises both in plot and in presentation.

OVERALL: 6/7. OUTSTANDING. I’m probably being a little generous here – but then, when you’ve been reading something for a decade and a half, you’re going to develop a little partisanship. Overall, I think my conclusion is that although nothing here quite reaches the best moments of the comic, there’s also relatively little wrong with it (the first half of “Safehouse” aside). Similarly, although none of the above scores hit perfection, they’re all high – this is a thoroughly, solidly, enjoyable work of entertainment (particularly the “Mohkadun” chapter) that bodes well for the future of the comic.

One thought on “Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 63-65, by Pete Abrams

  1. […] the sprawling gag-a-day/sitcom/adventure/drama/horror/thriller webcomic now in its 21st year – my previous review sketches out the basic concept of the comic, so there’s no point me repeating myself, and […]

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