Sluggy Freelance, chapters 70-71; by Pete Abrams

Sluggy Freelance debuted in 1997. It hasn’t ended yet. But there was a time when its author, Pete Abrams, was intending to end the comic at least in its current form (until a subscription drive made continuing a more economically viable proposition); and, naturally, and in keeping with the work ethic he’s always displayed (Sluggy is remarkable not only for running over 20 years, but for providing at least some content every day for around the first 15 of them – when Abrams didn’t have the time or inspiration to finish a page, he would put together filler with stick figures or reused art, or bring in guest strips; of course, much of this ‘filler’ itself was more effort than many webcomic artists expend even on their main strips), Abrams wanted to send fans off with a conclusion to at least one of the long-running sagas at the heart of the venerable webcomic.

It’s a story that has run through Sluggy for nearly two decades, and not long ago it seemed as though it might almost be too big to ever bring to a satisfying conclusion. On the one hand, the importance of the storyline to the plot and mood and characters of the comic was so great that it would require a truly epic conclusion, including the deaths or transformations of some major characters (and a lot of minor ones); on the other hand, the story was based upon a mystery, a puzzle to which Abrams had doled out clues throughout the comic year after year, but which a fanatical audience of hundreds of online commenters had never fully cracked – was there really an answer? Would it, after all these years, satisfy both intellectually and emotionally?

Yes, yes it does.

Years ago, I reviewed Sluggy from its beginning up until Chapter 62 (“4U City Red”). In 2018, one great overarching arc of the comic came to an end (or, at least, a conclusion); and so it seemed like it might be time to bring my reviews up to date. Accordingly, I’ve recently reviewed Chapters 63-65, and Chapters 66-69. This will be my last Sluggy review for, I assume, several years to come, as I complete my re-read of this epoch of the comic by reviewing Chapter 70 (“Falling”) and Chapter 71 (“The Heavens and the Earth”), which in effect form a single, immense, set-piece story (almost all of “Heavens”, and a considerable amount of “Falling”, takes place across a single day), albeit one with a clear inflection point at the chapter break.

Here’s the first thing to notice: this story took two years to tell. By comparison, most of the foundations of the comic were laid in, maybe, its first five – and two and a bit years covers everything in the ‘classic’ era from The Bug, The Witch and the Robot through to Dangerous Days Ahead. Now, sure, back then the comic was running seven days a week; in the last few years it was running only five, and later three days a week; but then again, early on most strips were three or four panels, maybe more on Sundays, whereas in recent years a single strip has often been a dozen, sometimes two dozen panels (and the work involved must have increased exponentially, given the vastly superior art now employed).

Let’s be honest: for most of us that sort of comparison – an apparently dramatic slowdown, a turn toward sprawl – will not immediately seem positive. My first thought seeing numbers like that is ‘bloat’. It seems like the way that a late Robert Jordan novel read like it was twice the length of an earlier novel while somehow containing only half the content.

And yet, that’s not what’s happened here. This story takes two years because it needs two years. Because when you’re building a climax big enough to justify twenty years of assembly, you’re damn right it’s going to be big.

This is a climax that doesn’t come as a surprise – the two previous years had been dominated by set-up for this set-piece, and it’s clear at the end of “Six Months Later” that the next chapter will see us finally arrive at the fireworks factory. “Falling” doesn’t disappoint, although it does have to work hard, both to dig some characters out of the (obviously temporary, and frankly rather strained) positions they found themselves in at the end of “Six Months Later”, and to bring together multiple active players who will have to arrive at the same point at the same time. As a result, the reader may in a few places get impatient (particularly with the whole ‘irritating viral Youtube video’ plotline, and some time-wasting sitcom routines (although I did like the payoff to the mailman joke)); I’ve always felt the paraphernalia of conspiracy and, frankly, institution is a bad fit for Abrams’ core cast (he’s wonderful at understanding people, but a bit simplistic in understanding organisations). I also think that the main arc of the “Silencer” subchapter probably would have worked better as part of “Six Months Later” than as part of “Falling”, where, although really great in its own right, it feels like another detour, and compresses its aftermath too greatly to properly maximise its impact as it should do (although I recognise of course the big logistic reason why it would have been hard to move it any earlier). The main events of the chapter, however, provide a suitably gigantic explosion, a great plot twist, a shocking revelation, and a partial answer to a very-long-running question; we also get a pleasing amount of character work throughout the chapter. It elates us in what it accomplishes, not just because of the victories, but because of the seemingly irrevocable (or at least not quickly revocable) nature of the changes undergone here; and yet it leaves us with dread for what comes next.

What comes next, “The Heavens and the Earth” is an even better chapter –it’s similar in scale to “Falling” if not somewhat longer, and yet it stunningly plays out as an uninterrupted (largely chronological) sequence of scenes, without diversions, almost all in the same location. Abrams walks a very thin line here between a story that is too short, wrapping up confusingly and underwhelmingly, and one that is dragged out too long, frustrating and boring to the reader. Instead, we get something just right – a story that is complicated, and developed slowly enough for those complications to make sense, and yet a story that has almost no filler and almost no detours. Just a single setpiece action-adventure sequence, unfolding over 12 months. It packs in satisfying answers to big questions, emotional twists and turns, a major character death, and big changes with directly personal impacts.

It’s hard to know what to say about “The Heavens and the Earth”: on the one hand, it’s so good it’s hard to nitpick, while on the other, as the twist-filled culmination to decades of plotting, every tiny detail is a spoiler. It could be argued, I suppose, that the final resolution for the villain is perhaps a little too pat, but it’s hard to see, after such buildup, what wouldn’t be. Some things don’t come into play as they might have done – but it’s hard to complain about an author keeping some powder dry for the next chapter. I suppose it’s a little frustrating that one character in particular has become, in effect, a constant red herring, but it’s very understandable why that would have to be the case (and has been the case since the beginning of the comic, with a few exceptions). [One slight worry for the future is that, as various central and peripheral characters have grown in abilities or importance, there may have to be more excuses for keeping them out of situations where the threats are no longer their equal]. On the other hand, the chapter deserves praise for taking what might seem to be an insane and unpredictable shock twist (for anyone who doesn’t read the forums, and hence hasn’t seen it coming for the last ten years), and manages to fill it out to a point where it’s hard to remember a time before it – and, in the process, to show that what seemed like one of the comic’s worst missteps was in fact a triumph of long-term plotting. Abrams also does surprisingly well in wrapping up such a big tangle of plotlines in a way that feels conclusive and satisfying (some fans expected that this would actually prove to be the end of the comic as we know it), while still, on reflection, leaving plenty of dangling loose ends for future stories.

In conclusion, I can only applaud. Something I always assumed would be a disappointment turned out not to be… and Sluggy Freelance now feels like it could happily run for a third glorious decade.

 

Adrenaline: 4/5. “Heaven and Earth” lasted a year, and a lot of days that year felt like cliffhangers. Because I was reading it in real-time, rather than in archive, I couldn’t race through the pages, but I’ve no doubt I would have done had it been possible. “Falling”, though, while having its own exciting runs, was also dragged down by some lulls.

Emotion: 4/5. I wasn’t reduced to tears, but certainly Abrams manages to wring emotion even out of characters and situations that wouldn’t have been thought capable of producing it. There are big triumphs, some tragedies, and plenty of hope and fear for the future.

Thought: 5/5. As a twisty thriller that’s also the culmination of decades-long mysteries and home to some shocking, recontextualising revelations, this keeps the brain cells working on full power, and rewards attentive readers.

Beauty: 4/5. The art is as good as it’s come to be, with some striking set-piece panels; the writing is as always characteristically uneven, but manages to be funny and moving more than often enough to please.

Craft: 4/5. Bringing this plot arc to a satisfying conclusion would earn a high score by itself; doing it while taking us through some very satisfying character work is truly accomplished. These chapters feel like the author’s vindication: in the past, we may have had some uneven filler plotlines, and the build-up for this finale was at times clunky, but here he proves that he knew what he was doing all along. If I were reviewing only “Heaven and Earth”, I would give this a 5. But I can’t deny that “Falling” is more uneven, with some misjudged running jokes and some pacing problems.

Endearingness: 4/5. Great, great fun.

Originality: 5/5. This isn’t a parody, a pastiche, a variation or homage (as sometimes Sluggy chapters can be) – this is its own story, like nothing else.

OVERALL: 7/7. BRILLIANT.

Is this the best Sluggy has ever been? No. In that some of its highs have been higher. But “Heaven and Earth” is as good as it’s been for a continuous year-long run, and “Falling” is a more than creditable, if less perfect, companion chapter.

Let’s put it like this: I have no doubts that there are many authors in the world who can do things Pete Abrams can’t do. Certainly, Sluggy Freelance isn’t for everybody. But I think that if you charged those authors with writing these two chapters, there are very few of them who might be able to do it as well as Abrams did.

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