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.

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…

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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.

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Sluggy Freelance, ch. 60-62, by Pete Abrams

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?
They’re fantastic.

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.

Sluggy Freelance, chapters 49-59, by Pete Abrams

EDIT: since I first reviews these chapters, they’ve been collected in the books Phoenix Rising, Aylee, Rise of the Clutter Monster (and Other Harrowing Tales), and Broken.

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.

Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 40-48, by Pete Abrams

EDIT: since I wrote this review, these chapters have been collected in the books Vampires and Demons, Redemption, Skullduggery, and Timeless.

Well Tonto, we’re off the reservation now. Book 11 is the last published Sluggy Freelance book, with Books 12 and 13 on their way. I suspect, thinking about it, that any future megatome will collect books 10-13, so my attempted periodisation has rather failed at the first hurdle. In any case, though, there’s still lots, lots more Sluggy to get through.

I’m choosing to look at Chapters 40-48, covering comics between, roughly, January 2004 to March 2006. This is essentially a compilation of the two most talked-about storylines in Sluggy history: the widely-acclaimed “That Which Redeems” and the often-hated “Oceans Unmoving”. In addition, this period covers the institial chapters, Boy’s Night Out, Freelance Bums, Most Wonderful Time and Living Conditions.

To start with those: they’re entertaining but not earth-shattering. Boy’s Night Out is a welcome return of an old story thread and has some good moments, as well as being a dramatic storyline in its own right, but it feels rather lost, bloated, and has too many jokes that miss the bounds of taste. Freelance Bums has no drama of its own, but is fun enough, I suppose – yet perhaps not up to the best level of Sluggy (it’s kind of like Magic Flap, but not as good). Most Wonderful Time isn’t ghastly, but is a bit poor. Living Conditions is my favourite of the four, and also features an abrupt tonal volte-face in the 28 Geeks Later story. It’s impressive given the way in which it was all brusquely shoehorned (no “Oceans Unmoving” probing jokes, please) in to break up a story run too long – the last panel returns the status quo to almost exactly the same position as it started.

Two more general tendencies should also be highlighted. Firstly, the trend continues toward bigger and bigger (in length, if not in content) storylines. Hence why almost everything I’ll mention here is a chapter, rather than a story – the stories have in most cases swollen to absorb whole chapters, and sometimes more (obviously, the two big arcs here are each divided into two chapters). Secondly, and as a consequence, the tone of the comic is evolving in a peculiar way. There is still rapid modulation between tonalities, but because each unit is now larger, it feels, to me, less like being showered with random foodstuffs by a high-power watercannon, and more like just being boringly commanded to eat brussel sprouts in the middle of desert. Opinions may vary, but personally I preferred the whiplash to the ‘why can’t we just get back to the good stuff’ frustration.

So. The big two. Well, “That Which Redeems” (TWR) and “Oceans Unmoving” (OU) have a lot in common. Both are epic. Both are focused on a single character cut off from everyone else. Both have to introduce large new casts. Both are continuations of long-running storylines that began way back in 1997 – and TWR at least was apparently planned right from that first moment.

In hindsight, TWR is not as good as people thought it was – and OU is vastly better than it first seemed. Largely these two things are due to pacing features. Spread over months, TWR seemed, while it was being written, to be suitably epic and solid, but with the reading time condensed into hours in archive (or print) form, this weight is lacking, and the flaws show through the gaps – the obvious railroading in places, the poor dialogue in other places, the cast of people it was hard to care about, and the rapidity with which “character development” was largely accomplished off-screen in time-gaps, by authorial fiat. It frequently seems rushed.

OU, meanwhile, benefits from the opposite of this – agonisingly slow and partial updates (with massive-extra-size strips packed full of exposition, largely in the form of people talking to the ‘camera’) that killed enjoyment the first time around are now brief only brief pauses for breath, and the story almost (almost!) whizzes by.

However, there are still problems. The second part, in particular, suffers badly from its structure, which is too reliant on nested flashbacks and narration-within-a-narration; the end is abrupt and makes only limited sense. In hindsight, Abrams should simply have marched on boldly through the story – instead, I get the feeling that he tried desparately to rein in it by packing as much exposition in as quickly as possible to get to the end, which was exactly the wrong thing for him to do. Meanwhile, the underlying conceit of the story makes a mockery of the notion of character development, even managing to degrade a lot of the rest of the comic, beyond this storyline – and almost all the emotional involvement is left on the shoulders of an entirely new cast with severely limited depth and character. [And the “men go comically tongue-tied, complete with cartoon art style, in the presence of hot chicks in rubber” gag wasn’t funny the first time, let alone the twelfth – and clashes badly with the style and tone of every other panel]. To the extent that we DO end up caring about this new world we’re being shown, we’ll just feel frustrated when the events flip back to the ‘real’ world [Although there’s plenty of narrative scope for a sequel – sadly, I don’t think the author will dare].

That’s all a tremendous shame, because OU should have been a good story. The world Abrams creates is simply brilliant – entire cycles of novels could be set there – and the plot, while frustrating, is actually quite clever. Unfortunately, it largely feels like Abrams wanted to do something completely different from normal, but decided to stick the Sluggy label on it rather than write an independent story. As a result, it feels irrelevent, compressed, and out of place.

TWR, while not, as I say, as wonderful as fans have claimed it to be is nonetheless the better of the two, largely because things happen that we ought to care about. If nothing else, it (poorly, but substantively) develops one the main characters to a notable extent; more interestingly, it also casts a disturbing light onto the fundamental group mechanics of the Sluggy friend-set in ways that will have enduring significance, and that bring a welcome touch of genuine emotion to the comic (if there’s one thing Sluggy does lack compared to some webcomics, it’s any sense of who Pete Abrams is outside his comic – he comes through strongly as an authorial voice, but he gives us little idea of what makes him tick, and the ‘revelation’ near the end of TWR is one of the few exceptions to this, in my opinion). That said, people need to calm down: if this really was revolutionary in webcomics, that just tells us that webcomics needed a revolution. Yes, it’s serious and emotional, and even philosophical… but I’ve read a lot of things that were more so – and to suggest as some have done that this is the comic’s “Cerebus” moment (roughly, the point where a light and comic work becomes dark and serious) is to show an ignorance of Sluggy’s history. [Although to some degree it’s a good illustration of the versatility of Sluggy’s all-moods-in-one style, since it makes the hard-hitting parts more shocking than they would be in a more serious work].

All in all, yes, it’s good – but come on, fans, imagine a storyline that length that was as tightly constructed, and as intense, as Fire and Rain!

Oh, and there’s a third Torg Potter storyline. This one isn’t unreadably aweful, just annoying. It does, however, include a good joke about the rubbishness of the third film (yes, I know people say the third film is the best. That’s bollocks. It has some good cinematic scenes, graphically, but it’s predictable from start to finish and is riddled with plotholes – at one point I was counting them, not per film, but per minute; but, that’s a debate for another day).

The result? Hard to really summarise. On the one hand, Sluggy in this period continued its trend toward big, corner-post plot arcs with interstitial light amusement; on another, it drove toward more single-character plots (not only the big two, but also Boy’s Night Out (Torg and to a lesser extent Riff) and 28 Geeks Later). Its art style remains fairly similar to that of the preceding period (and OU continues to demonstrate how effective very simple spot-colouring can be at creating an artistic effect). The biggest change is a hyping up of the seriousness – the two main storylines feel no more epic than the Kesandru or Holiday Wars stories, but they feel distinctly less fun, less frivolous, more important (though OU unfortunately feels like we’re meant to feel it’s important without it really being clear why) – I think by now Abrams has realised that sometimes it’s good to not just be epic, but to be epic about something important. This is in a way a return to the darker, lower-key era of books 7-9, after the excesses of 10 and 11. [I’m not saying it’s all dull and dour, of course – there’s still a lot of comedy here, and although I don’t think it’s as funny as the comic used to be, it’s at least amusing most of the time, even at the most dramatic moments]. The other big change is the sense that we might be going somewhere – there’s a key comic in particular where Torg thinks about all the big things he’s going to have to deal with in the next year. This is a recognition of the future that would have been anathema at earlier stages in the comic, and is mirrored in the introduction of the concept of the ‘fate spiders’ – the explicit promise that all the threads of the comic are, or will be, interwoven (and, importantly, the reintroduction of a key plot thread seemingly dead for many, many years). There’s a general feeling that we’re past the introduction now, and that things are about to get real.

Adrenaline: 3/5. The big storylines were relatively big and bloated. The comic has lost its old zip. This makes it harder, I think, to allow the whimsical humour such free reign, as it sometimes gets in the way (when it was a rollercoaster, it wasn’t so much of a problem that there were dips, either in quality or in mood, because we came out of them faster). Also, the sadly ironicially named “Oceans Unmoving” kind of slowed things down.

Emotion: 4/5. If I were really honest with myself I’d probably give it only a 3/5, but, I’m sentimental. So I’ll bump it up to 4, but really that’s only a few brief moments of caring.

Thought: 3/5. Clever plots and a little bit of quiet reflection mean that this isn’t as easy on the brain as some previous installments – but it’s still nothing to get a headache over.

Beauty: 4/5. The artwork still wouldn’t impress a professional critic, but it’s effective, strong, clear, and often very pretty. There are a couple of beautiful moments in TWR. Sadly, even at the best of times, the writing doesn’t all that noteworthy, some good jokes aside.

Craft: 4/5. Not as proficient as in the last era. To give the author credit, that’s largely because this time he’s being a lot more ambitious. However, neither of the big storylines feels as watertight as it should be.

Endearingness: 4/5. I enjoyed pretty much all of it, even Oceans Unmoving. Didn’t love it, but really happy-feelings toward it nonetheless.

Originality: 4/5. With the more ambitious shift comes more originality. TWR has a really good and really distinctive premise, with some imaginative revelations later on, while OU has a stunningly creative setting; the vampire story is also as original a vampire story as I’ve seen for quite a while.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Yes, the pedants will note that this has exactly the same score books 7-9, but I’m marking it down anyway. Or rather: both collections are on the borderline of ‘Very Good’, and something about this one just doesn’t impress me as much, so I’ve elected to put it down just below the border. Perhaps I don’t want to mark the entire thing up too much just for including the last month of “That Which Redeems”, which is a high-point the rest of the collection fails to live up to. In any case, it’s slightly better than Books 10-11.

Next up (sluggy-wise): probably chapters 49-59, although I may need to take a break. And yes, in hindsight, I realise that I should have stuck TWR with books 10-11, and kept Oceans Unmoving for the post-TWR clean-up phase of the comic, but what use is hindsight to anybody?

Sluggy Freelance, 10-11, by Pete Abrams

Sluggy Freelance’s Book 10 and Book 11 together span a little over two years. They don’t feel like it. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. As always, Sluggy is mutating in these books.

What these volumes aren’t is a continuation of the tone of Halloween, Fire and Rain, and Dangerous Days Ahead. Those were brooding, menacing, character-developing. What we have in these two volumes is, instead, cool and awesome. Sluggy never abandons anything – in 2011, it’s still making very occasional ironic fourth-wall jokes – and so the character and the brooding are still here, but they’re a lot less obvious. It seems that Abrams has taken note of the success of the epic storylines of his previous period and amped-up the epic, while toning-down the uncomfortable. As a result, we get two of the most fun adventures yet, but rather less in the way of narrative meat.

Book 10: Ghosts in the Gastank is in essence (after the very enjoyable but very silly Girl’s Night Out) a single long story. It’s very likeable, because it has impressive (though simple) art, a twisty plot, some really good lines, and is the culmination of a storyline stretching back to Book 7. I don’t have much else to say about it, really.

Book 11: The Holiday Wars continues in the same vein but is a bit more varied: a chapter of light material precedes three chapters that bring the epic story of Bun-Bun and Santa Claus to a fitting conclusion. There’s also a ‘Torg Potter’ chapter, but to be honest I skipped most of it. Just couldn’t stand it.

The light chapter is an effective interlude after the climax of Book 10, and is quite funny and very enjoyable. It suffers, perhaps, from the lack of darkness around it – to be honest, the whole of both of these books feels like an enjoyable interlude.

The Holiday Wars saga is epic. And cool. It’s full of what I believe are technically termed “Crowning Moments of Awesome”, as Bun-Bun takes on Halloween (Smashing Pumpkins), Thanksgiving (Roasting Turkeys) and finally Christmas (Slay Bells Ring). It’s… well, fun. Pumpkin-headed kings, bullet time fight scenes, double crosses, armies of Valentine’s cupids, etc. For what it is, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Unfortunately, personally, I’d have prefered something different – something that was more than just fun. More laugh-out-loud jokes, and more of a dark side too. More suspense. More variety, even – these storylines are longer and bigger than ever, without that constant tonal whiplash that was such a remarkable characteristic of earlier eras.

In the final assessment, these two books are in some ways the most polished and sophisticated and perfect Sluggy yet – but they are also relatively shallow and light, even by the standards of the original comic, and particularly by the standard of the immediately preceding period. As a result, paradoxically, it has some of my favourite bits of the comic – but if this were all of the comic, it wouldn’t be one of my favourite comics. Take any of these storylines and put them as an interlude while something more emotional is going on, and they’d be brilliant. But two years of it feels a little too… comfortable.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Rollicks along at a great pace.

Emotion: 2/5. It’s not completely cold – particularly in Book 10 – but I didn’t really get emotional at any point. I don’t think I was meant to.

Thought: 2/5. Clever in places, but not intellectual.

Beauty: 4/5. Doesn’t blow me away in aesthetic wonder – but that’s the only bad thing I can think of to say. Some really attractive strips, and general cool awesomeness.

Craft: 5/5. He may be doing something less impressive than before, but he does it very impressively. I think he’s mastered it. Sure, there are hiccups now and then, as you’d expect from something serialised day-by-day, but basically, he does this perfectly, it couldn’t be done better, I can’t think of any problems to talk about. It’s funny, it’s fun, it’s well-drawn, it’s clever.

Endearingness: 4/5. But I don’t adore it. I really like it, but I don’t love it.

Originality: 3/5. Although if you say the plots out loud they sound pretty weird, nonetheless I think the move to bigger, more conventional storylines has made the comic a little less unique, and a bit closer to what anyone else could be doing.

Overall: 5/7. Good. This review probably makes it sound bad, but it’s not. It’s good. In fact, it’s almost very good. But not quite. Standing alone, I’d be talking about how I’d found this great, funny, adventure comic. But it’s not alone, it comes after five years of Sluggy, and in that context it’s frankly a little disappointing. In hindsight, that is – when I was reading through, I was loving it. But then I got to the end and thought, “wait, that’s it?” – and since then I’ve not really been driven to read on. In fact, I read all this a month ago, and I’m only finishing up this review now because I’m starting to gear back up to read the next couple of books. All that said, I mustn’t fail to reiterate that this is fun – and the fact that it’s technicaly the best-written period of the comic yet bodes very well indeed. Next up: some light entertainment… and then That Which Redeems.