Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 66-69, by Pete Abrams

So, I’m back with Sluggy Freelance, for what will be, for the present, my penultimate review. If you’re unfamiliar with Sluggy – 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 I’ll just press on…

As before, I’m working here under the disadvantage of the chapters I’m reviewing not actually having been compiled into book form, even theoretically, much less in print (the books so far only run up to #19, covering up to Chapter 59). So, I’m reading a bunch of chapters that will probably eventually equate to two or three books in total, and guessing where the divisions might fall. This time, it’s a little tricky – I’ve gone with four chapters, although it’s possible the last of these may end up bound instead with the chapter following.

So, this review covers Chapter 66 (“The Road to Bjorkea”), Chapter 67 (“Full House”), Chapter 68 (“The Circle”), and Chapter 69 (“Six Months Later”).

After the great rumbling of Chapter 64 (“The Research and Development Wars”) and the very big bang (not, of course A Very Big Bang, that’s Book 7) of Chapter 65 (“Mohkadun”), it was inevitable that Sluggy was going to have to take another breath. And given the comic’s reorientation to a more straightforward epic adventure, it was also inevitable that the main plot would continue, and that that breath would be spent building up to the next explosion. So that’s exactly what we get with these four chapters – a combination of table-set-up and light diversion.

We start with “The Road to Bjorkea”, which has actually almost nothing to do with its title. As the low-key filler following a major epic arc, “Bjorkea” is essentially a parallel to Chapter 63, “Safehouse”, which was part of the run that I reviewed last time out. They even begin in very similar places: with much of the core gang laying low, hiding out in an unfamiliar house in a rural area. The chapter starts out, unsurprisingly, not that great – but better than “Safehouse” does. In a way, this section benefits from being pointless – whereas in “Safehouse” Abrams attempted to set up a zero-stakes plot to fill time, in “Bjorkea” he doesn’t even really bother, and while the result is underwhelming, it’s not that painful. It helps that the characters are in a more interesting place emotionally this time. But the real difference is the pivot: while “Safehouse” pivoted in its final section into a more serious (if still unimportant) zombie thriller, “Bjorkea” pivots much, much earlier, making the great bulk of the chapter a…. well, a zombie thriller.

In the end, I find I really like “The Road to Bjorkea”. The story, once it gets going, is pretty solid, and Abrams actually manages to convey a surprising amount of complexity and backstory with surprisingly little invasive infodumping. Here, he takes a lower-key, more extensive approach to horror than in the final section of “Safehouse” – where there, we effectively skip straight to the running-around-saving-the-day part of a zombie outbreak, here we begin right at the beginning, at the “two people lost in a really creepy location trying to work out what’s going on” stage, which lends the arc as a whole much more weight: when we finally solve some problems, they’re problems we’ve been wrestling with throughout the story, watching as things have escalated. Despite this broader scope, Abrams keeps things impressively streamlined – it means we perhaps miss out on a little creepiness, a little horror, as things unfold more quickly, and more off-screen, than they might have done. But it also means we avoid getting bogged down in material we’ve all seen before – including in Sluggy itself, where the zombie outbreak is hardly new ground (although, of course, as always, Abrams finds a way to make this zombie outbreak very different from all the others).

But that’s not why the chapter works. It’s just stuff that isn’t getting in the way. The chapter works because it’s a disconnected filler plot that isn’t – it’s a self-contained story, but it’s also in unexpected ways integrated into the broader story of the comic, both in its connexions with the comics history in its the backstory, and in its significance for the future – and it may end up being very significant indeed. And at the core of that – as at the core of most things Sluggy gets right – is character.  This – once its main story gets going – is essentially a two-hander, using the unusual pairing of Torg and Gwynn. One of the great resources a work like Sluggy has, with its deep bench of strong, complex characters with long histories, is that almost every combination of characters offers a new flavour, and there are so many combinations to choose from. It’s easy to forget that Gwynn wasn’t even in the comic for four whole years leading up to “Mohkadun”, but as that chapter proved she’s one of the comic’s most interesting characters, and the combination of Torg and Gwynn is excellent for both of them. “Bjorkea’s” well-calibrated threat-level – enough to force introspection, not enough to provoke a constant state of panic – yields really productive character work for Gwynn, and for the Gwynn-Torg relationship; in this sense, the chapter also serves to ease Gwynn back into the gang after the events of “Mohkadun”. In addition, “Bjorkea” serves as a guidepost and a promise – after the disappointing “Safehouse”, “The Road to Bjorkea” proves that, even if it can’t go back to the beginning, it can have a future past the end of the major plot arcs, and that satisfying dramatic plotting can still be accomplished without those crutches.

In short, “The Road to Bjorkea” is a fantastic little (or, in fact, quite big) adventure, self-contained yet relevant, that benefits from dramatically stripping back the cast and providing a localised, individual problem.

“Full House” is not that. “Full House” is the downside of Big Epic Arcs, in that it’s almost 100% set-up, a bridge from “The Research and Development Wars” into what comes next – and frankly, the elements that try to be a story in their own right don’t help matters at all. It’s a disappointing pivot after the Mohkadun/Bjorkea sequence – not only because it’s fundamentally hollow, but because the big serious plot is fundamentally sillier than a lot of the comic’s material. It has to be, in a way – with so much intense and extended drama, there needs to be some frivolity to keep it readable – but cutting straight from the sombre semi-horror of Bjorkea to… well, to the Black-Ops Christmas Elves using political correctness to fraudulently build an “Indian” casino in a trailer park… is kind of a bit of whiplash, and not in a good way. That said, “Full House”, once we get past the annoying casino-building, does have some interesting content in it – finally, no more ZHOAS! – and does effectively set the scene for stories to come. It also continues to have interesting character work in the aftermath of “Bjorkea” for Gwynn and Torg, as well as for Zoe – albeit only squeezed in around the plot mechanics. Its biggest problem is simply that it lasts six months despite having very little independent narrative value.

If the sudden turn into “Full House” is a disappointment, the even more abrupt turn into “The Circle” – different time, different place, different characters, different genre (back to horror), with a satisfying very-very-long-distance call-back – is a very pleasing surprise. The story itself is good in the present tense, and buoyed by the pleasingly under-written collision of two character lines that have been held in suspense for half a decade at this point (who doesn’t love some cool interdimensional foreshadowing?) – but it’s weighed down by the unconvincing backstory flashbacks, and by oodles of infodumping. This feels like a story that needed to be told a decade later, once this part of the mythology had been fleshed out more extensively – as it is, we’re effectively dumped in the final act of a very long story that we didn’t even know was being told until now, and while that can sometimes work, here it doesn’t, probably because we’re not experiencing the confusion from the point of view of our protagonists. Instead, our protagonists know hardly anything more at the end than they did at the beginning – the emotional weight of the story is born entirely be characters we don’t know, and don’t like, and it’s just hard to invest. It doesn’t help that this part of the mythology has to combine some of the comic’s darkest tones with its silliest – which can work fantastically when it works, but which sets the difficulty level dangerously high. That said, “The Circle” does work well as a distraction, being only tangentially connected to the big storyline that’s taking over the whole of the comic, a welcome reminder of the breadth and history of this world.

And speaking of tangents: “Six Months Later”. Some of Abrams’ titles feel inspired and iconic – The Bug, the Witch and the Robot, Fire and Rain, Dangerous Days Ahead, That Which Redeems or Phoenix Rises. Others feel perfunctory. And then there’s “Six Months Later”, which feels like a setting caption has been accidentally copied into the title field. And normally I wouldn’t even mention the titles, good or bad, except that that’s exactly what “Six Months Later” is – a collection of stories that happen to happen six months later. These can be divided into four: the largely pointless filler story for Aylee, which is neither particularly funny nor particularly dramatic, nor significant, but just there; the driving forward of the main plot, which is dramatic, but also feels out of character and manipulative, an artificial diversion on the way to where we all know things are heading; the Dr Newguy plot, which is shallow and unnecessary, but which I’m OK with because it is an extremely cool idea and it doesn’t take much time; and you-know-who’s return to the comic after a… what, seven year hiatus? That story does work, because it’s not about plot, but about character. It develops both a major character and a minor character, while also being fun, and while it doesn’t work perfectly (the latest how-to-recap experiment is fun but can’t disguise how much recapping there is), it’s a satisfying reintroduction to one of the comic’s most interesting characters, and a promising set-up for what comes next – in particular, by showing their perspective before the events to follow, Abrams creates a dramatic irony, because we readers now know more than the protagonists.

In summary, this era of the comic feels like an adequate, and necessary, but fundamentally hollow period: everything is, fundamentally, either dealing with the aftermath of what has happened, or setting up what is yet to come. Along the way, there are some weak patches – much of “Full House”, some of “Six Months Later” – but also some very strong moments (much of “The Road to Bjorkea”, the you-know-who bits of “Six Months Later”). We are, in short, on the rather bumpy road to the very big fireworks factory, and we don’t have much choice but to drive over some difficult terrain to get there.

Fortunately, however, at the end of “Six Months Later”, we’re pretty much there, and the next few years will be one long explosion…

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. Exciting bits; boring bits.

Emotion: 4/5. Emotional bits; irrelevant bits. I think the balance is a little better than for adrenaline, thanks to some big moments and satisfying character development.

Thought: 4/5. Some intentional stupidity aside, this really is a thinky era. There’s nothing brain-blowing, but between the character introspection, the underlying mysteries, the playful storytelling filled with red herrings and recontextualisations, and the curiosity of trying to work out what on earth is going to happen next and how everything will fit together, you really can’t just switch off your thinking for this one.

Beauty: 3/5. Some great art, some great lines; some, not so much. And the whole era has a sort of muddled feel to it.

Craft: 4/5. That said, the storylines that fail to hit home are mostly the fault of a lack of resonance in the material. The construction is actually consistently impressive, including experiments in narration, impressive art and page layouts, call-backs, Rashomon episodes, and in general the juggling of an awful lot of worldbuilding and plot development that had to happen to form this bridge in the plot between the premises that have gone before and the resolution that will follow. Abrams doesn’t quite pull it all off – it’s a bit too scattered, and some individual steps are misjudged – but it’s impressive that he comes as close as he does, particularly because at this stage he felt he was working toward a deadline.

Endearingness: 3/5. The bits I liked, I loved. The bits I didn’t like, I didn’t like.

Originality: 5/5. The one big advantage of a hiatus between big conventional plots is that we’re left with the freedom to chase down threads and tangents in an absolutely and excitingly unpredictable way.

OVERALL:  5/7. GOOD. This is, understandably, on average a step down from what went before. It pretty much had to be: we needed to catch our breath after “Mohkadun”, and while “Bjorkea” shows that we could have spent the time on great, smaller-scale stories, it was inevitable that we would also have to lay a lot of groundwork for the stories to come. We had, as it were, burnt all the bridges we had, and had to build some more before we could have another fire. Bridge-building isn’t always exciting…

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