The Webcomic Overlook #20: Shortpacked!
David Willis is a huge dork. He’s not the sort of dork you try to avoid with impunity because every conversation will include Battlestar Galactica references. Those are the dorks for whom I advocate a “pro-wedgie” policy. I’ve never met the guy, but judging from the tone of his blog Willis seems more mellow and reasonable … a stealth dork if you will. Or, more accurately, an “adorable dork.”
He is, however, the sort of guy who seems to possess a frightfully encyclopedic knowledge of nostalgic ’80s toys — and this accrues him a couple of new titles. He is the King Dork of Action Figures. In the post-Sandler era, he is known as a “man-child.” A huge, unrepentant Man-Child … capital M, capital C, and everything in bold.
What worries me most, though, is that I’m just like him.
Let’s take a look at the parallels. Willis is infatuated with Transformers and G.I. Joes and cheerfully posts about them on his blog. At my blog (Rooktopia), I have Arcee and Ratchet on the banner, and I post my own Transformers reviews. Willis frequents the Comics Curmudgeon and even donated a “Finger Quotin’” Margo T-shirt design. I also love to read that blog, and I even contributed a far less significant accomplishment when my own “Milford Matrix” YouTube posted. Willis probably spends too much time arguing on internet message boards, blogging, and updating Wikipedia. Son of a gun, me too.
The evidence points out that a) all dorks, while feeling like outcasts with a unique hobby and thus championing individualism, gravitate toward the same obsessions just like everyone else, or b) David Willis is my twin brother.
Then of course, there’s c): I actually am David Willis, and when I take of my mask I sort of forget my alternate personality like Edward Norton in “Fight Club.” This seems rather unlikely … but it does explain why, sometimes, there’s a new Transformer inexplicably occupying my bookshelves when I wake up.
It also explains why David Willis’ webcomic seems specifically catered for me. Today’s Webcomic Overlook reviews the dramatic saga of a group of toy store employees: Shortpacked! Willis also does a smaller Shortpacked strip for the Toy News International site. I’ve heard good things about this strip. To keep this review simple, though, I’m limiting this review to the one on Willis’ main site.
Shortpacked! works though an age old technique that was familiar to our fisherman ancestors: the hook and lure. The lures are sporadic parodies that have little to do with the main narrative. The bulk of these are parodies of Hasbro toys, Willis’ raison d’etre. Unless you were a young boy raised in the Big 80′s, then you’re probably not going to find these very funny. (Incidentally, I find them hilarious. Weep for my soul. And I absolutely love the jabs at Pat Lee and his relationship with Dreamwave, which are obscure even for a casual Transformers fan like myself.)
Fortunately, Willis has other lures in his tackle box. There’s some great send ups of popular Lucas films and Frank Miller’s “whore” obsession. The most popular of these are the Batman parodies. These strips — based on the proven theory that slapstick is more funny when enacted by an intelligent character — often have the dark avenger of the night in silly situations or just have him saying “I’m Batman” a lot. Now, in my opinion (and I suspect that Willis feels the same way) I think that the Batman gags, while funny, are a bit overplayed … but they are undoubtedly some of the most popular Shortpacked! strips and a borderline internet meme, so what do I know?
The creme de la creme, though, are the ones about the funny pages. “Funky Cancercancer” pokes fun at Tom Batiuk’s pre-time jump “Funky Winkerbean” and its maudlin obsession with cancer. “My Mother is F’n Insane” lampoons “For Better or For Worse” and Lynn Johnston’s single-minded obsession with getting formerly independently-minded Elizabeth married with creepy, mustachioed Granthony … er, Anthony. If this stat box is to be believed, Willis’ Lynn-bashing got Shortpacked! a well deserved spike in readership.
Just like a lure is no good without a hook, though, a popular long-running webcomic cannot maintain reader interest solely through parodies. (Well, it might. I just can’t think of any good examples right now.) Thus, we get to the hook: the ongoing saga of the retail employees at the Shortpacked! toy store.
The protagonist of Shortpacked! is Ethan, a genial, friendly fellow with strong morals, a dark secret, and an controllable obsession with action figures. He may or may not be a close approximation of David Willis. (It should be noted that Willis himself appears several times in his own comic.) Ethan works at his dream job … or it would be, the store weren’t ruled under the dictatorship of Galasso, the iron-fisted store owner.
Ethan is surrounded by an ensemble cast. The most important ones are two women: Amber, who is a shrinking violet, and Robin, who is incredibly horny for Ethan. These two characters are highly unbelievable. They’re the sort of girls that must represent some sort of idealistic male fantasy, the type you often see in Japanese harem anime. One girl is brainy, cute, and always seems to be blushing. The other girl is a shamelessly agressive exhibitionist. And they are so hot for Ethan’s bod that, while they have no interest in the toys themselves, they’ll accompany him as he shops from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart.
The rest of the cast can similarly be described in simple single-word terms. Mike is mean, Faz is manipulative, Rick is ninja, and the modestly named Conquest is incredible-horny-for-everyone.
I approached the cast-based Shortpacked! strips with huge reservations. Word around the web was that the webcomic had descended into the dark, unpleasant pit of drama. I began reading the strip in September, and I have to say that the storyline at the time was proving those criticisms true.
When I read the comic from the beginning, though, I discovered that I enjoyed many of the series’ escapades. Willis does tend to rant a lot about controversies that only greasy folks involved in a protracted message board flame war would give two figs about. If you agree with his points, you’ll nod with a big grin on your face; if you disagree, it looks like flame bait; and if you don’t really care, you’re treated to a whole bunch of large word balloons which make El Santo hurt and confused. However, he tends to balance it out by being self-deprecatory, so I’ll give him a pass.
Shortpacked! is generally excellent when it’s being random and crazy. Who doesn’t love seeing Amber getting stuck in a Katamari ball? Or Robin becoming a congresswoman after a sugar bender? I have to give Willis a lot of credit here: the hi-jinks are cartoonish and lively, and they don’t seem like forced wackiness that you’d find in a lot of Penny Arcade clones. (Is Shortpacked! merely a gamer comic set in a toy store? Discuss!) There’s a feeling that anything goes … as long as it’s nerdy.
That’s not to say that every out-of-left-field storyline and development is a rousing success. Ultracar, for instance. He’s totally random. I hate him. Also, Spider-Car. Totally hate him. Then there’s the whole “Tome of the Ages” fiasco from early quarter 2007. I think it was supposed to be a dig at religious dogma disguised as a corporate take-over. Instead, it carried on for too long, beat us over the head with the “wacky” blind allegiance, and included at least one groan-worthy development.
The webcomic is also at its best when dealing with the perils of the retail industry. An early story about the Customer Protection Rackets (i.e. overpriced warranties) was both a nice spoof of one of the most unsavory and intrusive aspects of retail and a glimpse at Ethan’s moral fortitude. Later, Willis would cap off the crew’s anxiety over an impending layoff with a surprise plot resolution that had me laughing like crazy. And then there’s Willis’ favorite target: the seemingly endless string of bitchy customers (read: insufferable fanboys).
However, the critics are right about the drama… and Willis should know better. I mean, he did write those spoofs of FOOB and FW, right? He does know why we make fun of them, right? And yet, he’s falling into the same trap as the comic strips that he spoofed. Most maddening is how Willis tries to defuse any criticism by acknowledging how ridiculous it is. The “drama tags”, funny noises, red-print disclaimers, or self-insertions seem to be Willis’ way of saying, “Hey! Don’t take any of this seriously! It’s just a parody of those dreadfully dramatic webcomics and TV shows! It’s actually a joke! Ha ha! You’re smart because you’re in on it!”
Sorry, I ain’t buying.
Drama just doesn’t work for Shortpacked! The characters have no depth. This includes Ethan, who’s nominally the main character. Nothing defines him beyond his earnestness and his toy-collecting. Sadly, he’s probably the most complex character of the bunch.
In fact, there are times when the dialogue is indistinguishable from character to character. Do you think Ethan’s unique as an obsessive nerd? It turns out Amber knows a lot about toys, too. Robin and her lesbian friend are obsessive nerds. They’re mouthpieces for Willis’ own obsessions. Why keep up the charade that they’re actual characters? They’re one-note stereotypes, defined only by their single characteristic. They’re the sort you’d find in a Sunday paper comic strip like Luann — look, there’s the pretty one, the nerd one, the black one … and you know how uncomfortable that comic strip gets when Greg Evans tries to force drama on his barely fleshed out characters.
I imagine Willis is thrusting his cast into dramatic situations in a vain attempt at character development. That’s totally backwards, unfortunately. Beyond the “drama tag” moments, what tells us that Amber lives in mortal fear of her father? Sure, she’s insecure, but so are a lot of people. And what about Ethan indicates that he’s the kind of guy who confronts another with heroic speeches ripped from the pages of a mopey LiveJournal? The cast of “happy” Shortpacked! and “maudlin” Shortpacked! might as well be two different sets of characters.
But Willis seems to love his drama, so I’m not going to tell him to stop any time soon. However, it’s not impossible to have it both ways. Dan Slott’s “Great Lake Avengers: Misassembled” is an excellent example of how to seamlessly integrate drama and comedy. That’s because characters act consistently in either scenario. If Willis eliminated the “drama tag” — a crutch that switches the story’s tone inconsistently — I think he’d do much to improve his webcomic.
Flawed as it may be, Shortpacked! is still a highly recommended comic. When Willis flexes his crazy, nerdy sense of humor, he can squeeze out classics. And while the content is catered toward basement dwellers, Willis does possess a sense of comedic timing that makes the strip funny for everyone, even if you have no idea what a KISS Player Transformer is. (Philistine.) When he gets his jones on for drama, he almost always drops clunkers.
Yet the good outweighs the bad, and I give this a 4. I guess that proves that I’m not really David Willis after all, since a self-review would be either ridiculously pessimistic (1) or shamelessly self-promotional (5), right?
(Heh, that’s throw ‘em off.)
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Posted on November 16, 2007, in 4 Stars, comedy webcomic, dramatic webcomic, pop culture caricatures, superheroes, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Shortpacked. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.