The Webcomic Overlook #46: Sequential Art
Catgirls: hot or not?
Most anthropomorphic creations look too inhuman to be sexy. I suppose I have a certain amount of … well, respect isn’t the right word. Astonishment? Disbelief? … for afficianados who can look at a curious amalgamation of female body parts and snouts, jowls, or beaks and find it attractive. Yet, I’ll make an exception to catgirls. Not all catgirls, mind. Generally, the fewer overt feline cues, the better. Anything with whiskers is a tota turn-off, and if the catgirl starts lapping a bowl of milk or playing with a ball of yarn, then I’m calling the cab and going home. Most renditions, though, barely look like cats at all. Rather, they look like humans with round faces, pointy ears, and button noses, and you can totally ignore that last one if you imagine that it’s actually a stylized rendition of a human nose.
The Japanese obsession with catgirls is well-documented. It’s like you can’t watch an anime series without at least one character showing up with a mournful “Nyoron~!” (For the advanced course, Theoretics of Catgirls II (CAT201), we will be studying whether or not Japan’s low percentage of cat ownership suppresses deep-seated affection that translates into a nationwide obsession with catgirls.) While you may be tempted to poke an laugh at Japan and snobbishly claim moral superiority, I should point out that we in the West are not above expressing cat love. Batman’s ladyfriend is the most famous example. Rival Marvel sports several from Black Cat to Tigra, but X-Men magna cum laude Chris Claremont came closest to developing the anthropomorphic furry ideal with Hepzibah of the Starjammers*. Cleo from Heathcliff & the Catillac Cats, Jenny from Bucky O’Hare, Felicia from Darkstalkers … they’re all pretty cool. If you wanted to take your obsession to unspeakable depths, there’s Omaha the Cat Dancer. A certain saucy minx has also captured the imaginations of the typically snippy Comics Curmudgeon readers even inspiring more than a few to wear a fairly questionable shirt that portrays Cassandra Cat in a bikini. (Not that I’m one to talk: behold my own Cass-inspired YouTube video scored to Steve Ibsen’s “Kitty Cat Dance.”)
So why does the central relationship between the human Art and the catgirl Kat Vance feel so very, very wrong? That’s just one of many questions I tackle in today’s review of Phillip M. Jackson’s webcomic, Sequential Art.
It may be because Art, the main character, is obviously a self-insert of the author. This is an opinion, not a definitive statement, by the way, and it may turn out to be baseless. After all, Sequential Art does include a character by the name of “Phillip H. Jackson.” Sequential Phil, however, is a tiny hamster who rides around in a woman’s bosom. (How does this work out, anyway, when every other species is depicted to be human size?) Art, on the other hand, is a harried graphics designer who crashes on the couch and plays video games at home. I suspect Real World Phil might have more experience with the latter … though more power to him if he turns out to be the former.
At the beginning, Art shares a house with two roommates: Pip, a pervy penguin (really, is there any other kind) with an MMORPG obsession, and Kat Vance, a cheery cat with a drinking problem who also likes to play console games. As strange as it may seem, initially I assumed that these characters only existed in Art’s mind. Perhaps he did own a cat and a penguin, and he projected his personality and emotional needs onto his pets. How else to explain how his animal roommates all have the same core obsessions, crashing on the the couch and wasting their days away playing video games? It would be something akin to Garfield, if only Jon imagined his cat to have a body that would look cute in a swimsuit instead of an obese, lasagna-eating slob. Unless you subsribe to the theory that Garfield‘s played straight and Jon and Garfield communicate telepathically … which is just plain ridiculous.
Alas, I was wrong: Sequential Art takes place in a world where anthropomorphic types walk among humans like any other race. We don’t see many of them beyond Pip and Kat — the Sequential-verse being predominantly homo sapien — but they are there. They go to high school re-unions and hold down jobs, just like humans. Which actually puzzles me why the police don’t believe Art when he reports that a naked squirrel girl, a vagrant named Scarlet, has broken into his house through the attic. Wouldn’t that be the equivalent of a dangerous, drug-crazed lunatic who’s getting high on something other than life?
Disturbingly, not only do animals live among the humans, they’re also the height of sex appeal. Nothing brings the boys to the yard like a hair-pulling catfight between a cat-faced lady and a bunny-faced lady. Adding to the head-scratching factor: we see many moments where human guys are drooling over animal types, yet very few instances when the opposite is true — despite the fact that Jackson draws an attractive human female. The only one going ga-ga over the human girls is, unsurprisingly, the penguin. Is there some sort of “forbidden fruit” aspect to inter-species ogling?
Which brings me to why I find the whole Art-Kat relationship to be a little bizarre. They’re on a fairly slow, innocuous trajectory: a naughty fantasy here, a highly appreciated glomp there, sprinkled with some compromising positions, stolen glances, and grateful kisses. It’s like sexual tension, only without much sex and definitely zero tension. But then I imagine where Jackson’s going to take this, what he’s going to do to take the relationship further … creepy. Relationships where everyone’s an anthropomorphic character, I can handle. But a relationship between a cat and human who happens to represent the author? The mind boggles. It doesn’t derail Sequential Art, even if I couldn’t fully shake the feeling that I was reading a comic that was basically an all too revealing peek into the author’s fantasy life.
Jackson seems to be inspired by Frank Cho. In fact, the man himself makes an appearance in simian form as “Funk Cho,” an afro’ed cartoonist who Art idolizes. Cho, by the way, is aware of Sequential Art‘s existence. When you think about it, Sequential Art takes many of its stylistic cues Cho’s Liberty Meadows. Meadows features a human veterinarian and psychologist venturing into the rustic world of animals; Sequential sees its animal characters immersed in urban lifestyle and geek culture. Cho references comic book cohabitants from Calvin & Hobbes to Cathy; Jackson does the same, and throws in some webcomic legends for good measure. In Cho’s strip, the main object of va-va-voom is the buxom, realistically proportioned lass named Brandy; Jackson also loves the female form and endows his ladies, no matter what the species, with lovely lady lumps.
The jokes are very hit or miss, with a strong percentage landing on the latter side. Art is a videogame player and an unrepentant geek, taking a trip down to a comic book convention in one story arc. While I’m thankful he doesn’t dwell on tired video references like every other webcomic out there, what he’s left with are the scrubbed clean, ultra-generic gags that populate the last few pages of the “Arts & Life” section in your local newspaper. A good majority of them are about how pervy all the guys are. Art is washing himself with a platypus! Hilarious! It’s funny because he thought it was soap. There’s also a good amount of juvenile jokes that boil down to, “Men… bless their pervy little hearts,” which lead me to believe that Jackson’s been watching a little too much anime.
And then there are the puns. Good Lord, the puns. This site subscribes to the belief that puns are indeed the lowest form of humor. (With “Yo Momma” jokes being the highest form, naturally.) I can never understand why a mainstream comic like Foxtrot could get away with using the real names, and everyone else had to dance around like some sort of copyright ruling would bite them in the butt at any second. Far Trek? LorCraft!?! Sean Connolly?!?!?! Just USE THE REAL NAME, ALREADY!
But you know, sometimes Jackson gets it right. Scarlet, who is hands down the most irritating character in the entire comic, did shine for one brief moment in a simple, understated strip. And yet, this couldn’t have been possible if Jackson hadn’t done a good job in developing his characters. The only one I felt was underdeveloped was, oddly enough, Kat Vance, who falls into the bland, overused, and ill-defined “drunk party girl with a heart of gold” stereotype. Scarlet is a stereotype, too: the hyperactive idiot savant. Jackson knows this character inside out, though, and in turn he effectively communicates her personality to the reader. Thus, we know, even if we’re given no clues other than the manic glint in her eyes, that something’s up.
Additionally, I have great admiration for Jackson’s character designs. Hilary, Kat’s venomous rival, balances a fine artistic line. Defined by an elongated nose, she manages to look both like a rabbit and a stuck-up yet physically exquisite high-society girl. The simpler Jackson draws, the more distinct his character look. Pip is such a simple design — a tube with glasses and a single strand of feather — yet he sports a unique look and feels very squat and solid.
My favorite character design is one that may or may not have been created from a doodle. Jack, the series’ main villain, is barely more than a stick figure … or less, if you consider that he rarely is depicted with arms or legs. Okay, so he looks like he came straight of out Invader Zim; I say he more than holds his own as Sequential Art‘s website avatar. Most of the time, he cackles and wields weapons of mass destruction, yet the design itself is very versatile. When he shows up, you know it’s good times.
Jack is also the central character for most of Sequential Art‘s mythology stories, long stretches where the webcomic attempts to be more than a mere roommate comic and tries for something that’s both epic and light-hearted. In last year’s senses-shattering installment, Jack steals a working ray guy and causes untold mayhem and property damage. I’m usually wary of these sort of dramatic story developments. They tend to derail a series, and the results are less appealing or endearing than when the comic was just throwing around gags (e.g., Jeff Smith’s Bone, Dave Willis’ Shortpacked!, and, to a smaller extent, Adult Swim’s The Venture Brothers). However, I have to say that Jackson seems more comfortable when he’s following a long narrative than when he’s trying to spin one-off jokes. Besides, the latest story birthed some of my favorite visuals: an army of mindless Jack clones, single-minded in their obsession to help people. See what I mean by a versatile design?
As long as Jackson doesn’t delve too deeply into his Sequential Art mythology, I think he’ll do just fine. Despite my whiny complaints, I happen to think Sequential Art is a very breezy read. It’s over 400 strips long, yet it goes down easily. And who knows? Maybe Art will overcome his cat fetish and go after Kat’s lovely boss. One can only hope, my friends… one can only hope.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
* Through extensive, Wikipedia-powered research, The Webcomic Overlook has discovered that Hepzibah is actually part cat, part skunk … though that last portion has been de-emphasized in recent years. The Webcomic Overlook was also surprised to learn that the Chris Claremont-created Hepzibah was also a tribute to a skunk femme fatale from Walt Kelley’s Pogo. Such an honorable pedigree for so minor a character!