The Webcomic Overlook #57: Sore Thumbs
My fellow Americans, our long national election is over. Now that we’re a week past Election Day, it’s time to spend some time reflecting on the past year and ask the hard questions. Such as: Why is the Washington Redskins game before the election (win: Republicans take office; lose: Democrats) the best political predictor ever, boasting a 94% success rate? Who are these people who still display “Kuninich for President” and “Ron Paul ’08” bumper stickers? And, most importantly, was there any point in the Obama and McCain campaigns where things would devolve to the point where the next present would be decided by three rounds in the steel Octagon?
I mean, take a look a one of the most brutal elections of all time, the 1828 election pitting incumbent John Quincy Adams against war hero Andrew Jackson. You had the Jackson camp claim that Adams struck a corrupt deal in the first election, turned the White House into a casino, and was pimping out women to foreign dignitaries. The Adams camp shot back that Jackson was a brutal, bloodthirsty killer who went beyond his duties on the battlefield and portrayed Jackson’s wife as a bigamist. Given Jackson’s love for shooting and Adams’ love for skinny-dipping, it’s not too unreasonable to believe that if that election were to last just a wee bit longer, we would be reading in our history books about the first election decided by naked underwater dueling. (Which, incidentally, would make an awesome T-shirt for fratboys.)
Sad to say, when you look back at Election 2008, you might notice that Obama and McCain were highly cordial toward each other. Those dudes were all smiles and respect and preemptively shutting down unfair critics in public forums. Seriously, that episode where the two were Ocean’s 11-like thieves working together to steal the Hope Diamond? Not that implausible. Maybe it’s because the two senators are, in essence, coworkers. I’m guessing they work out a lot of their personal issues over a game of Parcheesi during lunch breaks at the Senate cafeteria.
But another big part of it is that both candidates seem to have outsourced all of the controversial negativity to the internet. Why spend millions of dollars and a strategy that could potentially backfire when you can just sit back and let an army of bloggers do the dirty work?
Since this site is about webcomics, though, protocol sorta demands that I tie this in somehow. Unfortunately, I can’t. There are several politically-themed webcomics online, but I can’t say that any of them are what you would call “influential.” No, not even you, Stephanie MacMillan. Which is sad, because political cartoons are far from being irrelevant. Remember the furor that broke out when the cartoon of Obama as a terrorist graced the cover of the New Yorker? Imagine the awesomeness if that controversy had broke online! Unfortunately, nastiness is par for the course on the internet, and a particularly scathing cartoon is just one among many.
The subject of today’s Webcomic Overlook, Sore Thumbs, is one such political webcomic. This is arguably the flagship title of the formidable Keenspot group. Sore Thumbs merges the political comic with two already familiar webcomic standards: the gaming comic and the roommate comic. Can this odd amalgam repair false comic divisions, like the incoming administration promises to heal the partisan agendas that are dividing our country? (Incidentally, if staring at the computer screen causes you uncomfortable neck strain, Sore Thumbs is also available in print … though only one volume seems to be available on Amazon at this time.)
When you look at the title (a condition you get from playing too many videogames) and the setting (a video game store), you might suspect that Sore Thumbs is primarily a gaming comic. Incorrect! It is, in fact, far easier to say that Sore Thumbs is not about video games at all. In a strange case of “art imitating life,” Sore Thumbs is like a politician: it sells you one thing to hook you in, but once it’s got you, it turns around and does something behind your back. Of course, when the writer/artist team Chris Crosby and Owen Gieni, this is just one of those crazy stunts you should expect. (Incidentally, check out how they portray themselves in their own comic for a glimpse of the Crosby/Gieni brand of humor. I’m not in any position to comment on whether Gieni looks like the unshaven dude in the hoodie, but good money says that Chris Crosby is not nearly as stacked as his Sore Thumbs stand-in.)
But you know, if you came here looking for video game jokes, they are here. There are jokes about sliding release dates, the obligatory 2006 joke about the Nintendo Wii, and the creepy portrayals of beloved video game properties. You know what’s common about all these jokes? Pretty much everyone else has done them … and better. Crosby punches it up, though, by incorporating his political themes doing gags about
parental outrage and bigotry toward female gamers. (And I gotta hand it to him: despite being a political webcomic about video games, I don’t recall him making a single comment about Jack Thompson.)
Sore Thumbs centers around Cecania and the Fairbanks, two siblings of polar opposite political viewpoints. If you’re still wondering where Crosby and Gieni themselves stand politically, let’s just say that they didn’t seem too broken up over the results of the 2008 elections. (By they way, did Gieni prepare an alternate McCain strip with the tagline: “No It Can’t”? You know… just in case?)
Cecania is the more attractive of the two, with a shapely body and lush head of pink hair (though you can’t tell most of the time since the comic is primarily in black and white). She’s also an aspiring horror movie actress, losing all semblance of sanity when either an acting gig or Mistress of the Night Elvira crosses her path. But, above all, Cecania’s good for fanservice. He does nothing to hide the naked shamelessness of his cheesecake art, and it even becomes a plot point: Cecania must keep her body covered in public, since the chaos that ensues from a glimpse of her skin qualifies as a matter of national security.
Although she’s supposed to be a bleeding heart liberal, the extreme in the camp of Greenpeace and PETA, Cecania is often portrayed as the most level-headed of the cast. Plots and storylines in Sore Thumbs are generally goofy. When the story focuses on Cecania, though, the mood takes an emotional turn. She spends much of 2005 and 2006 dealing with the guilt and consequences over cheating on her boyfriend, Sawyer, with her acting teacher. Fortunately, these flights of soul-searching never sink the comic, as her whole story arc is riddled with some phenomenally goofy gags — such as how Cecania could have prevented the whole thing with a signed copy of the first issue of Elvira’s comic.
On the other hand, Fairbanks is an unrepentant neo-con bastard of the first degree. I imagine that conservative readers, as well as liberal readers, are supposed to find him offensive. He believes anyone in a beard is a terrorist (including Conan O’Brien and Dave Letterman), he’s outspokenly bigoted towards women, and he has no reservations with expressing man-love to conservative icons like Rudy Giulliani and Joe Lieberman. Yet, at the same time, Fairbanks is so outlandish that you can’t really hate him, either.
I think of him as a Grade-A crank like Archie Bunker or Gregory House. Sure, he’s a jerk … but when he manages to do something beyond his typical curmudgeonly routine, he seems ennobled and you want to root for the guy. There’s a storyline, for example, where Fairbanks has his skin blackened to prove to Cecania that there’s no racism in the world. (Of course, he doesn’t go all the way; in his mind, the best Black are at least “half-white.”) However, after he’s gunned down by the Ku Klux Klan, Fairbanks, in an amnesiac state, has to live with a stereotypically poor Black family. The story reaches a surprise ending that remains true to Fairbanks’ character: he discovers that life as a black man is better than life as a white man because it means you get to sleep in the same bed with your mom, shoot off guns, and have a hot girlfriend. It made you shed a tear of joy for the little guy’s wrong-headed epiphany.
Rounding out the roster of main characters are Harmony, Fairbank’s giggly girlfriend who can summon up some mad medical skills when the story calls for it, and Sawyer, a genial and soft-spoken Army vet whose missing man-part has cultivated an obsession with hot dogs but nevertheless is a hit with the ladies. There’s also Sawyer’s pet, Coleman, a small blue bear that turns into a killing machine at the drop of the hat. In a goofy meta twist, the characters are themselves played by stereotypically shallow Hollywood actors that we meet in “Behind the Scenes” snippets.
Sore Thumbs milks a lot of mileage out of the verbal political jousting between Cecania and Fairbanks. However, don’t read this comic to gain any sort of valuable political insight. I don’t think that was Crosby’s intent in the first place. If we’re to take anything away from these fights, its that a) you’ll never change anyone’s minds, and b) it doesn’t matter which political party you’re from, you’re still a sheep.
The discussions never rise above the badly thought-out strawman arguments you’ll find in an internet message board. More often than not, Fairbanks takes on the role of a screeching lunatic spouting wrong-headed ideas while Cecania, the reasonable one, acts all shocked and exasperated. Oh, there are times when Crosby remembers that Cecania is supposed to represent the other crazy extreme, those moments are quite rare. The diatribes can get get pretty damn long at times. While I found this to be the most hit-or-miss aspect of Sore Thumbs, I did appreciate these moments. Partly because there’s a bit of a warm feeling that Cecania and Fairbanks argue to purely therapeutic reasons, but mainly because they channel Chris Crosby’s wicked sense of stupid, absurd humor.
Crosby is a mad genius. Lesser men would fall flat on their faces juggling the seemingly incompatible elements of Sore Thumbs. Yet not only does Crosby succeed in squeezing out as much entertainment as you can from a political-gaming-roommate-manga comic, he also manages to throw in the completely unexpected. You think you’re in for another political rant when we’re treated to Fairbank’s crazy daydream. A telekinetic named Jimmy Peterford suddenly joins the cast for no reason. Throw in a bizarre cameo appearance by Luke Wilson? Yes, we can! A lot of writers like to brag how their comic is so random, and yet I’ve seen few that can reach Sore Thumbs‘ level of wanton absurdity.
And here’s why Owen Gieni’s art is perfect for Sore Thumbs. The comic ostensibly is a manga. Several of the gals take on the doe-eyed, pouty-lipped look like anime heroines straight out of some CLAMP production. Crosby and Gieni know that sex appeal brings in the readers — Cecania is very prominently displayed in all the ads. Yet Sore Thumbs manages to dispose the junior high innocence of anime and creates a final product that feels slightly unpolished. Some of the characters, like the egg-headed Fairbanks and his bearded rival, Rondell, look barely more than scribbles. And it works. Sore Thumbs is, first and foremost, a humor comic, and Gieni’s loose, simple visual style is just what you need to illustrate goofy reactions and exaggerated physical humor.
Still, it seems like Chris Crosby, at times, has a hard time figuring out how to end a story. One particular storyline had Sawyer meeting Delilah Wilson (fictional sister of Luke & Owen Wilson), a girl who was more or less perfect for him. After lingering on the sidelines for a while, though, she gets written off when she breaks up with Sawyer after converting to scientology. She’s not the only one who unceremoniously disappears. Several characters — including an X-Box possessed by an old man, the aforementioned telekinetic Jimmy Peterford, and a lesbian refugee from Keenspot stablemate Marry Me — seem to be thrust into the role of main character only to disappear with little-to-no explanation. I suppose there is something comforting about the focus of Sore Thumbs being firmly on the Main Four. Yet, the abruptness of how these characters disappeared makes me think that the lot of them were nothing more than failed experiments that weren’t welcome changes to the status quo.
Which is a shame, because I think a lot of them would have made 2008 more lively. Certainly, the high moment of the year so far has been when characters from last year’s “Racism” storyline made a welcome return. (I love it how Fairbanks and his Black “brother” GANXXXTRA now have a familial relationship.) Yet the election this year seems to have taken its toll, turning its characters into far more grotesque caricatures than usual.
Several of the new storylines aren’t that hot either. As a reaction to news involving a sex scandal, Fairbanks temporarily turns Sore Thumbs into a prostitution service and Cecania willingly goes along with it. Now, this seems like a terrible disservice to both characters. Cecania, especially, who angst for two years over her break-up with Sawyer and only resolved her feelings at the end of 2007. But more than anything, it’s not really that funny of a gag. Rape has never struck me as a particular humorous punchline. But yes, here it is making its unanticipated Sore Thumbs debut.
Slightly more distressing is how Harmony, previously portrayed as being a huge ditz, is turning into a predatory lesbian after Fairbanks cheats on her. There’s a funny moment where Fairbanks is actually proud of her transformation: apparently he was the only man who could satisfy her. Yet Harmony seems very unpleasant, toying with the emotions of other women — including her best friend, Cecania — in what seems like a chance at revenge.
And let’s not even talk about the barely-readable all-fanservice “Cecania’s Private Party.”
However, despite these unfortunate narrative turns, I remain confident in Crosby’s comedic abilities. Sore Thumbs has always straddled the thin, perilous line between success and failure. Just when you think it’s getting too preachy, it rewards us with the theater of the absurd. And just when you think it’s coasting, Crosby ships one of its main characters to Iraq. Its this danger of failure that gives the comic its unique energy. Sore Thumbs has an embarrassing abundance of energy, enough to make California envious.
However, here’s the big question, one that plagues everything from The Daily Show to Wonkette: now that the Democrats have full control of the Legislative and Exceutive Branches, where you do go from here? I imagine Sore Thumbs was partially written to poke fun of the Bush Administration. When you’re feeling giddily optimistic about the upcoming Obama Administration, as I suspect Crosby and Gieni are, the humor potential sorta peters out. I’ll probably be following Sore Thumbs just to witness the direction Crosby takes his comic.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
P.S. Bizarre as it sounds, Sore Thumbs isn’t the only comic out there merging politics with video gaming. Electronic Tigers is basically the bizarro Sore Thumbs and comments from a conservative point of view.
Posted on November 10, 2008, in 4 Stars, comedy webcomic, fanservice, manga style webcomic, political webcomic, pop culture caricatures, The Webcomic Overlook, Uncategorized, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Sore Thumbs. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.