Friday, June 20, 2014

Sluggy Freelance

"That might be so cool
Yeah, that might be cool
I might be a fool in your eyes

Am I made for your god?
Never-ending, never-ending..."

Guano Apes - Dodel Up


Seems Sluggy Freelance has one more major storyline to go before its end, and ironically (given its next-to-last storyline) its finale really will sort of signal the end of an era. Webcomics have established themselves as a legitimate mode of publishing, with large organized sites cross-promoting disparate comics, Kickstarter or Patreon fundraising campaigns and stable communities of gawking fans fawning over even mediocre authors. The days of slapping some drawings online at random intervals and putting up a paypal "tip jar" link seem to be ending. Whether because the old bandwidth restrictions are dissolving, software is becoming more sophisticated or so-called "sequential art" more mainstream and therefore more worthy of a time and money investment, the products coming online now are also increasing in technical complexity. Webcomics are getting bigger, glossier, more colorful, more reliable.

Sluggy Freelance is not one of those comics. It was one of the few success stories which became common references within webcomics chatter around the beginning of the new millennium alongside PvP, Penny Arcade or Megatokyo. However, regardless of its monetary success or its artistic merit, Sluggy remains the most representative "webcomic" out there. Without being specifically a college comic or a fantasy or scifi or romance or political comic, it best encapsulates the unselfconscious mix of wacky hijinks, pop-culture references, light plot or drama and snappy one-liners which, judging as a mere reader and outsider to the industry, seems to have drawn the most readers into online comics over the past couple of decades. Its archives are a remarkable distillation of turn-of-the-millennium pop culture attitudes.

Now, it should be noted that "representative" is not synonymous with "exemplary" and I would not qualify Sluggy as one of the best such works cluttering the internet. Take any one element from Sluggy and others have done it better. How then did a jack of all trades but master of none become so popular? First off, whether writing cheap parodies, romantic comedy or over-the-top cartoonish action sequences, Abrams has been a gifted humorist. He can lay it on thick or sneak in a jeering aside. The length of his storylines has also tended to match the attention-span of his audience, not only providing something for everyone but also padding it enough so that it never feels entirely perfunctory. The strip never spiraled out of control but neither did it stagnate.

However, there's a more embarrassingly practical explanation for the comic's popularity: pandering. Sluggy makes its core fanbase feel included. The site features a membership option, validating its more ardent followers as "sluggites" and one gets the impression the strip has more or less bent in the wind broken by public opinion, explaining some of its meandering. Its most popular character, Bun-bun the switchblade-toting rabbit, a blatant one-shot gag lampooning other comics pandering to their audience by introducing cute little pets (to paraphrase one Frasier writer "it's a rule, if you put pets or babies on screen you get high ratings") simply became such a popular running gag that his recurring incongruous influence has always hung over the strip like the bun of Damocles. How much over-the-top out-of-place badassness can you string together before it becomes too ridiculous?
And that's generally been the pattern. Abrams spat out parody after parody, and the popular jokes stayed.

In this context, the initially annoying way in which he seems to be ending this decades-long adventure in sequencing starts to make sense. He is attempting to bring together much of the scattered nonsense he's spewed over the years into a mystical, mystifying, retconned explanation for the entire strip, including the name itself. Though "sluggy freelance" is easily acceptable as a nonsense title like "goats" or "xkcd" the choice to give the word "sluggy" a contextual meaning fits perfectly into the site's core marketing schtick: making the sluggite hordes feel included and validated.

I like Sluggy. More than any other, it used to make me want to find an artist to partner with and try to collaborate on a webcomic myself. The freedom, the flexibility, the balance of humor and drama, visual and linguistic elements, all the potential of comics as an art form when removed from under the thumb of publishers, it's all visible in Sluggy Freelance, if somewhat dilute. I am not willing to ignore the concessions the author has made to maintain his fanbase but neither will I deny that I have laughed my ass off at some of the old one-liners and given quite a few contented mental sighs at its better-executed dramatic moments.

Read Sluggy Freelance if you want a crash course in webcomics.

For my own part, I am hoping Abrams starts a more coherent, slightly more dramatic project in the following years. His most memorable work has come when exploring duty, guilt, obsession, all the interpersonal background of heroics. Much of an adventure comic consists of world-building and he's not skilled at creating worlds - always relied on parody for that - but he's damn good at exploiting motivations and driving forces. Years later, Fire and Rain and That Which Redeems are still some of the highest points in the strip, with the much newer 4U City outshining pretty much everything else.

Fine, give the sluggites their validation. Sluggy has been a product and encapsulation of its context, of the struggle for legitimacy and popularity in a new medium. Let it end, even in mediocre pandering, and let the author move on to something more purposeful, playing more on his strengths rather than his existing audience's expectations, in this medium he's helped shape.

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