The Webcomic Overlook #39: Megatokyo
Have you ever run across something that’s become so incredibly popular that, no matter how much praise is heaped upon it, you are determined to hate it?
Some years ago, I ran across a webcomic, that, overnight, became the toast of the town in both online and print circles. It was mentioned in trade magazines and newspapers. They style was heavily reminiscent of Japanese manga, despite the fact that its creators were American.
At the time, I was an avid anime and manga junkie. Readers on this site who’ve followed me from the defunct Guthwulf.com know that most of my reviews there were about anime series, from Martian Successor Nadesico to His & Her Circumstances to RahXephon. And while my fellow dorks were embracing this new comic, I felt betrayed. Two fellow Americans encroaching on an ineffably Japanese style? How uncreative! Couldn’t these jokers come up with their own style?
Then I heard about the plot: two Americans get stranded in Japan and have to deal with life in a foreign country. That sounded like a misguided otaku fantasy to me. It seemed like it was created by giddy fanboys who think Japan is the greatest country on Earth, refuse to watch any anime unless it’s dubbed, and show up to social events with a wooden katana strapped on their back. I may have been a borderline otaku back in the day, but even then, I knew hardcore otakus were at the very bottom of the geek hierarchy.
Then came the clincher: my little brother liked it. Oh, he’s a cool guy now, but back then he was one of the dorkiest kids imaginable. (He once tried to program his own dating sim until the creepy requests for, um, intimate illustrations of the female protagonists was too much, even for him.)
So that settled it. Under no circumstances was I ever going to read Megatokyo.
But then, over the years, something weird happened. I grew too old for anime, eventually selling off most of my collection on eBay. (I still hold on to Big O, FLCL, and the Excel Saga, though. They’re masterpieces. You do not put a price on a masterpiece.) I began pursuing more noble pursuits … like Monday Night Football! Also, I drifted back toward American comics, since its fans, oddly enough, tended to be more my age.
And at the same time, Megatokyo lost its luster. The story moved too slowly. The series had gotten too dense. There were too many characters. There were grumblings over the artwork and the lack of emotion range that the characters displayed. And then there was the most damning complaint of all: Megatokyo used to be good, but it had gotten so emo lately.
I just knew that, one day, I had to read and review Megatokyo myself. What can I say? I’m the Patron Saint of Lost Causes.*
Here’s a little background on Megatokyo for the people who are fairly new to the world of digital comic books. Megatokyo is one of the elder statesmen of webcomics. The series debuted on August 14, 2000. Megatokyo began as a collaboration between Fred Gallagher and Rodney Caston. However, after a controversial parting of ways, Gallagher became the series’ sole writer and illustrator. It was and still is a very popular webcomic, currently holding the #13 spot on T. Campbell’s March 2008 Alexa rankings.
Megatokyo is also one of the most successful webcomics to appear in print. Mainstream publisher Dark Horse (which is the home of Frank Miller’s Sin City and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy) originally printed the first three volumes of Megatokyo. The comic is now being published by CMX, a division of DC Comics’ Wildstorm Productions (which, in the 90′s, was one of the driving forces in Image Comics with their WildC.A.T.s and Stormwatch titles). Suffice to say, that is some serious publishing clout.
The protagonists of Megatokyo are two clueless college age dudes. Piro is a thinly disguised Fred Gallagher. He’s the one with droopy hair and a permanently lethargic expression. Piro is a big fan of dating sims, and, consequently, is the more sensitive of the two. In a twist that probably has no bearing on the fantasy life of the real life counterpart, Piro is a gifted artist whose talent for drawing the female form has yet to be discovered. For some reason, whenever girls come across his illustrations, they fall madly in love with him instead of reporting him to the Megatokyo version of Chris Hansen.
Ah, Tokyo, you crazy, sexy city.
Largo is a thinly disguised Rodney Caston. He’s the one with the poofy hair and the wide smile. Largo loves manly, beef-eating games like Metal Gear Solid. He usually ends up in the wackier stories, like when he encounters giant Rent-a-zillas or fights off zombie hordes… though he is not immune from the charms of the fairer sex. Naturally, he is always hammered. Also, he seems to speak exclusively in (horribly out of date and never cool) leet-speak. He begins to play second fiddle to Gallagher’s Piro when Rodney Caston departs.
Initially, the story is full of absurd circumstances that are pretty typical of anime storylines, but would be the height of stupidity if it happened in the real world. Let’s start with the basics: why can’t Piro or Largo buy tickets to get home? Odd thing, really: it turns out that their credit cards are maxed out. Both of them must also be the saddest orphans in the world, because neither of them have parents that can call Western Union to wire them some cash in a flash. And while their friend will let them stay at his cramped Tokyo apartment, he won’t lend them cash even though, at some point, it’s apparent he’s loaded.
But, you know, that’s par for the course with the plots for most screwball anime manga. Manga gave us fantasy stories where an incompetent nerd can somehow become the manager to an all-girl dormitory in Love Hina and where a motorcycle punk can somehow become a respected teacher in Great Teacher Onizuka. Incidentally, Megatokyo gets off to a similar start in what is probably a direct homage to both series.
In Piro’s case, the story took on all the markings of a harem style anime. Girls of all ages and types were introduced: the high school girl, the clumsy girl, the creepy goth girl, the Misato-like older woman, the miniature goddess (Seraphim, modeled after Gallagher’s wife) and, yes, the inevitable robot girl. To be fair, Gallagher and Caston seem to know how much of a male fantasy the whole set-up is, like the good otaku that they are. True to form, each of the girls seem to be on the verge of professing their love over the most trivial of things. Kimiko, for example, spends a good long time agonizing over a rail card Piro once gave her.
It’s like a dating sim brought to life!
The parallels, in fact, gets so surreal that right around the time Piro and Largo sit down to eat with Tohya Miho, the goth girl, I was halfway convinced that it would turn out that the two were stuck in a screwed up computer simulation. This Tokyo, after all, always seemed more like a video game world then the genuine artifact, what with giant mecha and magical girls roaming the land. Perhaps Piro was re-enacting a dating sim, and Largo was stuck visualizing the same world as a Resident Evil-style game. Plus Tohya always seemed to be talking in cryptic dialogue about computer parameters and engaging in Matrix-like discussions about cake. Maybe she’s implying that Piro and Largo, are, in fact, simply tomatoes?
I was way off, by the way. The truth of the matter ended up being a little more mundane yet, paradoxically, a little more creepy. (Incidentally, Tohya is one of my favorite characters, and not just because she’s a strange little weirdo. She’s, like, the Batman of Megatokyo.)
Overall, though, I liked Megatokyo. In fact, I liked it so much that I’m going to do something that most of you are not going to agree with. I’m gonna go ahead and give Megatokyo 5 stars, the highest honor The Webcomic Overlook can bestow.
Now, there’s plenty of room for criticism. Here’s a negative review from Websnark’s Eric Burns. And Burns does have a point. In fact, I strongly agree with Mssr. Burns regarding his criticism about how all the women are visually indistinguishable except for the hair. Roommates Erika and Kimiko, the two most prominent females in the series look different mainly because Erika wears her hair up, and Kimiko wears her hair down. At one point, Kimiko had her hair bundled up in a bow, and I mistook her as Erica for a page or two.
His other complaints, about how the series had lost its original sense of wackiness, rings true, too, but only if you’re a fan of that sort of thing. Oh, random absurdity does have its place in the world, but to me it didn’t seem to completely jibe with Gallagher’s soft, pencil-sketch artwork. I know Burns loved how Junpei is bested by Largo in a game of Mortal Kombat. That scene, though, always struck me as hella lame. HELLA LAME!
And speaking of wacky humor: was Largo’s leet-speak ever funny? From what I call, it was lame back then, and today it just seems woefully anachronistic. To me, Megatokyo improved considerably when it did scale back on its crazy hi-jinks and morphed into a romance comic. That’s not to say that we won’t be seeing a random robot now and again. Right now, though, Megatokyo feels more focused.
To address those complaints that Megatokyo has “gone emo”: that’s not entirely fair. That implies that entire comics are spent with Piro writing terrible poetry and Kimiko cutting her wrists. More appropriately, the strip injected a lot of soap opera drama. The Piro/Kimiko relationship gets off the ground faster than it usually does in a typical manga. Going back to Love Hina: by my guesstimate, it took Keitaro and Naru ten whole volumes before the two were officially a couple. The series didn’t last much longer after. Why is that? Because chronicling the struggles in maintaining a working relationship is just not that fun. Wouldn’t you rather see the embarrassed protagonist hook up with a bunch of fine looking ladies and get involved in all sorts of crazy dating hi-jinks and misunderstandings? Hell, even Spider-Man recently had to retcon the Spidey/Mary Jane marriage in part because the editor felt that the free-wheeling, bachelor Peter Parker was more fun than the married one.
But that’s not how things play out in Megatokyo. I felt that Gallagher tackled the more challenging route: going straight to the relationship. It’s the inversion of a harem anime. It breaks Piro out of his fantasy dating sim world and into a more dangerous but more rewarding reality. It saves Kimiko from a reality that would certainly crush her if she didn’t have someone to help her. Their story deals with the struggles, the hardships, and the fine balance between support and independence. The Piro/Kimiko stories may not be Megatokyo at it’s silliest, but it is where the series is closest to the heart.
I asked Fred Gallagher via email what drove him to bring his protagonists together so early in the story. Here was his response:
I was never a big fan of harem style stories, to me I was always more interested in seeing the protagonist focus on one character. Same thing with games – I tended to be loyal to one character in the game to the point that I never liked to ‘play thru’ the other girls. It’s one of the things I really disliked about Sentimental Graffiti – you had to sort of engage all of the girls in some way in order to get to finish with one of them. It’s more a part of my personality, I guess – if you are interested in a girl, it just seems wrong to pursue others along the way.
It’s one of the serious problems I have had with various Anime series based on games. When you play a game, you usually play just one girl’s scenario. For an anime, there is this need to have the main character interested in all the girls at one point or another. It is the biggest (and most annoying) aspect of both anime versions of Kanon (the first one was the worst offender). It seems that in Clannad, a more recent series, there is an inkling that the main character really is mostly interested in the main girl character, which I find a lot more realistic and endearing.
(Incidentally, I also asked him whether his marriage, which occurs around the same time Megatokyo started getting serious, was a large factor in the direction of the story. He assured me it wasn’t; he and his wife Sarah had been in a relationship a long time before the comic started.)
But here’s the main reason why I gave Megatokyo a 5-star ranking: I had initially planned to tackle the series’ 1000+ pages over the span of two to three weeks. What I didn’t count on was how effectively the story would suck me in. I was up until 4 a.m. last Saturday, clicking page after page to see how things would turn out. My girlfriend, by the way, noticed how tired I was the following day. No way in hell I was going to admit that it was because I stayed up all night reading Megatokyo. When she blamed it on too much St. Patty’s Day whiskey, I just nodded my head and grinned like an idiot.
So there you have it. Megatokyo made me act like a brain dead drunk celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Is there any higher compliment?
I understand that, in a way, Megatokyo appeals to me because I’m a lapsed otaku, and otakus reportedly eat this comic up. Yet, I think if you start reading Megatokyo with the right expectations, you’ll enjoy where the comic is now. It’s not a story about a city where ninjas pop out of nowhere and dinosaurs roam like feral beasts in the street. Not mainly, anyway. Read it for what it is: a sweet take about the struggles and pitfalls of love, with robots thrown in.
Final Grade: 5 stars (out of 5).
*NOTE: St. Jude is usually the one cited as the Patron Saint of Lost Causes. The Patron Saints Index, though, lists four: St. Jude Thaddeus, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, St. Philomena, and St. Rita of Cascia. This is kinda depressing, since that means there’s an awful lot of lost causes.
Posted on March 21, 2008, in 5 Stars, anime, comedy webcomic, manga style webcomic, romance webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged MegaTokyo. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.