The Webcomic Overlook #32: Horribleville
Some things just hit the mark so perfectly the first time that anything done afterward, while decent, will look like an unsuccessful attempt to recapture the earlier magic.
I’m sure you all have your examples. Me, I’m going to wax eloquently on Aqua Teen Hunger Force. That first season (as defined by DVD volumes) was a perfect storm of absurdity, comedy, quotable dialogue, and shock value. Frylock, Meatwad, Master Shake, and Carl would encounter something ridiculous like a trio of leprechauns stealing shoes. Everyone got stuck with dialogue that was borderline rational and nonsensical, including — and especially — the alien Mooninites (“We are the Mooninites and our culture is advanced beyond all that you can possibly comprehend with one hundred percent of your brain”) and a pair of Plutonians (“When he gets here we melt him… and laugh… on into the night.”). And everything would culminate to a nutty non-conclusion, probably involving something nasty happening to Carl.
ATHF was all the more effective because of its shock value. And it was not the moral content, necessarily, but because the animation was so awful. Remember, the show was the successor the critically popular Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, and, unlike today, Adult Swim fans were not initially warm to something that looked like it was put together by six-year-olds.
Still, after a season or two of ATHF, the eventually shock value wore off. Quality seemed to suffer a little bit. The later episodes were still funny, and I’m a fan of the Billy Witch Doctor and Boost Mobile episodes as much as anyone. However, it seemed like Aqua Teen was trying too hard to capture the unique flash of the original episodes. Gags got more and more gruesome, as if to say, “Look at me! We’re still wacky and crazy and about to shock your pants off!”
I had similar thoughts when reading KC’s Green’s webcomic about himself and the writing process, the gleefully profane Horribleville. The comic, by the way, is summed up excellently on the site’s current subtitle: “TV is My Worst Enemy.”
In Horribleville, KC Green casts himself as a pudgy slob with bad hair and an easily irritable attitude. In other words, KC makes a fairly good stand-in for all of us in the comic book community. Half the time, he looks like he’s constipated or on the verge of a grand mal seizure. The rest of the time, he’s staring out at the reader with the world’s most telling blank look. Horribleville spun off from KC’s main Droop comic, so I assume that it’s a sort of illustrated blog about his writing experience.
Although KC is surrounded by a nominal cast of characters, there’s the unshakable feeling that writing is a lonesome chore. I mean, look at KC’s only companions: a cat named Doosty/Dusty; Writer’s Block, who takes the form of an actual rectangular block; and the Editor, who I thought was a butler in the Alfred mold at first and may or may not be just a figment of KC’s imagination (unless webcomic artists are in the habit of working for prim, mustachioed gentlemen). Of these characters, Doosty is the one who steals the show (as KC himself will admit). And, believe me, there’s two things I usually can’t stand: cat characters that seem written for gags that only cat owners will get, and cute animal characters that brandish a sharp pointy object of wackiness (hello, Sluggy Freelance). KC, though, excels at defying reader expectations even in the most telegraphed of set-ups. When Doosty goes from being a silly playful cat in one frame to a silent yet spiteful creature in the last (while retaining his sweet, kitty-cat looks) … well, it never fails to make me laugh.
In fact, all of the early Horribleville strips are infused with a brilliantly nutty energy that never fails to be utterly hilarious. It’s almost as if KC was on the world’s most mind-blowing sugar high. There are situations that would normally seem calm, yet the characters burst into irrational fits of uncontrollable emotion. At the same time, KC draws everyone so spastically that it always seems that everyone’s only one cornflake short of going totally loony. It’s sorta like those old Daffy Duck toons, or Ren & Stimpy for you kids I guess. (I’ve never really been a fan of John Kricfalusi’s landmark work, but after experiencing Horribleville I can sorta see the appeal.) Heck, there are times I’m floored just because KC draws himself wearing a shirt that says “eggs.” I mean … gawd … “eggs“! You rock, KC!
There are just not enough “LOL”s in the world to sum up the hilarity of Horribleville. There are times where KC has me saying, “I heard that!”, like an uncharacteristically subdued strip where he sums up the entire experience of lurking at the SomethingAwful.com forums. There are times you laugh at the utter inanity of a strip, such as the one where he tries to capture a fat pigeon, or when KC lovingly details how to ramp a deer.
And, of course, there’s quite possibly the greatest webcomic ever written in the history of webcomics: Dick Butt (link probably not safe for work). Most webcomic artists would have finished the strip with the profane yet innocent doodle in the panel before last. However, I wouldn’t love this strip so much if it wasn’t for the kicker of a final panel: an extreme close up of KC’s face, covered in flop sweat, while his eyes dilate to tiny points and his mouth shrinks to the point where it seems like his lips are quivering. Now that’s the way to kick this webcomic into a whole, new level of crazy! I don’t like casually throwing around words like “masterpiece” or “ephemeral” or other such high-falutent words … but that last panel is the frikkin’ Mona Lisa of webcomics.
(By the way, KC follows this strip up with “The Adventures of Dick Butt” (link NSFW) on MySpace. It’s hilarious, too … but I try to keep this site mostly kid-safe, and I’m starting to use up my reserve work-safe points on a character almost completely made out of male genitalia.)
Around the 50th strip, though, it does seem that KC is starting to come down — hard — from his sugar high. I’m sure every webcomic creator can relate to this feeling. You’ve just reached the pinnacle of where your talents can take you, and a lot of it depends on creating gags that are both spontaneous and refreshing. Yet, you’ve pretty much used all of your great gags in the previous strips. How do you go forward without sounding like a broken record?
I’m not sure KC himself has found the answer to that particular question. Some of the later Horribleville comics feel as if the intensity was deliberately ratcheted down. Others, following the path that Aqua Teen Hunger Force has set before, seem needlessly gruesome, as if KC were searching for a new edge. Yet others feel strangely contemplative, as if KC were thinking of abandoning the humor aspect altogether.
The most telling sign of Green’s fatigue is a story arc that starts with #86. It begins with KC openly wondering whether he should keep going, but concluding instead that all he needs is a break. And KC finally discovers what in the world has been killing his creativity all this time: TV. This is followed by a rather bizarre scene where KC confronts his own feelings of depression in a decidedly unhumorous way.
I can’t say that any of this is truly deep, and I think KC is only being superficial with the rampant Lynchian symbolism). But it does give Horribleville a little more depth. It’s not simply just a gag strip anymore, but also a look into the frustrations and pains of working at a job that requires creativity.
So, after his period of self discovery in the desert, does KC finally regain his crazy mojo?
You know, he really never lost it. Just like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the later episodes are still excellent and hilarious in their own right. It’ s just that the series started on such a high note that everything that came after can only look less than perfect. Yet there’s still the trademark irreverence, the rubbery facial expressions, and the unrepentant insanity.
America loves Doosty.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
(Note: I tried to think of a clever conclusion along the lines of “It’s not-so-Horrible-ville,” but everything I came up with sounded like a blurb for Highlights magazine. So I said, screw it.)
UPDATED 5/10/08: Broken links fixed. Seems liked they changed after KC moved to Keenspot. Bleh.