The Webcomic Overlook #59: Sarah Zero
“Pretentiousness” is a criticism that gets tossed about a lot, and most of the time I think it’s undeserved. Those blue peas in The Aviator, for example, is often called out as pretentiousness on Scorcese’s part, but when you think about it, it really didn’t derail the movie.
However, that doesn’t mean that pretentiousness does not exist. Take the case of Marina Abramović, the self proclaimed “grandmother of perfomance art.” Wikipedia has a good overview of one of her most famous pieces, entitled “Rhythm 0″:
Abramović had placed upon a table 72 objects that people were allowed to use (a sign informed them) in any way that they chose. Some of these were objects that could give pleasure, while others could be wielded to inflict pain, or to harm her. Among them were scissors, a knife, a whip, and, most notoriously, a gun and a single bullet. For six hours the artist allowed the audience members to manipulate her body and actions. Initially, members of the audience reacted with caution and modesty, but as time passed (and the artist remained impassive) several people began to act quite aggressively. As Abramović described it later: “The experience I learned was that…if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed.” … “I felt really violated: they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the public. Everyone ran away, escaping an actual confrontation.”
To which most of us would respond with, “Well, DUH.”
Seriously, what did she expect? I mean, you stand like a mannequin, you give people a bunch of objects … are you telling me that you never expected people would try to do things to get a rise out of you? And her conclusion was some trite little moral like “if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed”? Bull. I guess when I put on a mask to scare my wife when she’s reading a book, I’m really trying to say that “left to their own devices, humans will spread fear and malcontentedness.” Sorry, grandma. The only moral I got from “Rhythm 0″ is that performance artists are pretentious little drama queens who treat the most obvious observations about life as some sort of mind-blowing epiphany.
That said, today’s subject is about as close a webcomic can get to performance art. Surprisingly, the webcomic also has “0″ in its title: Sarah Zero, written and illustrated by someone calling himself “Ace Plughead.” (Isn’t that what Boris was always saying in GoldenEye?) Readers may be relieved by the break from my recent string of black-and-white webcomic reviews. Color! Finally! Just a word to the wise: there’s a very good chance that, by the end of this review, you’re going to hate the color red.
Sarah Zero starts off well enough. At least after the a rather confrontational disclaimer, anyway. I mean, “Think your worst”? We’re introduced to our heroine, Sarah Zierinski (the Sarah Zero of the comic’s title). Sarah is a secret agent, rock star, entrepreneur, raconteur, nightclubber, and, surprisingly enough, mother figure. In other words, a female Buckaroo Banzai. Sarah is drawn like a rail-thin Peter Chung original, often posed in twisty and uncomfortable positions that would make a Cirque de Soleil acrobat nervous.
We see her struggling to keep herself afloat amidst a turbulent ocean in a series of attractive splash pages. I won’t lie to you: the combination of Plughead’s pen-and-ink illustrations and the CGI water effects looks great. Ace is a graphics designer by day, and it shows.
Unfortunately, the wheels to Sarah Zero spin off at an alarming rate. The onset of nausea begins around the time we meet Sarah’s True Love, Trevor Noble. His name, I suspect, is an homage to Aeon Flux‘s Trevor Goodchild, and his appearance seems to be based on Johnny Bravo. He’s our first hint that this comic is going to be Extremely Symbolic, as an act as simple as ripping open his shirt to expose his bare chest is supposed to be seen as something of high significance. Alas, everything looks important when you make every page a splash page.
Whoops, forgot to mention that: from the very beginning, every single illustration is going to be an “awe-inducing” two-page spread, with spoken-word dialogue hovering in space like the catchphrases you find in slick magazine ads, focus-group tested for public consumption. Traditional panel layouts and word balloons be damned! Laudably experimental, I’ll admit, but the format loses its impact after around 10 pages. This format also becomes less justifiable as the story progresses, as it coincides with a sharp decline in the detail and quality of Mr. Plughead’s artwork.
After Sarah’s rescue, the story switches venue to a red-tinted nightclub. It’s like every page is some sort of Soviet propoganda poster, only less entertaining. The narrative then splits into several smaller stories, like a tame webcomic Tales of the City. While Sarah rocks out with her band — which, for some reason, includes one gal dressed up in butterfly wings — at the center stage, various tenuously interconnected events revolve around her. Here’s a rundown of what people are doing at the club.
- A kid who looks like Eminem gets his freak on with a lady with a big fat bootie. (Sounds crass, I know, but in Sarah Zero it’s a plot point.) The gal, who looks a little like Tina Turner, is part of a three-woman posse whose collective name I won’t mention here for fear of being labeled as a racist.
- The second story ties into the first. The remaining two members of the posse, who are two similarly endowed African American stereotypes, are followed around by two men who look like twins. It turns out they’re their boyfriends, but they don’t want to get near them because the boys get all “gropulous.”
- A third follows a total skank who comes to a spiritual epiphany after Sarah lays down some Mary-Worth style power meddling. The gal (online name “spindlecakes28″), who originally seems Latino, literally becomes Sarah Zero reborn after receiving some hair treatment. Her transformation causes her to experience the joys of martyrdom firsthand.
- Finally, there’s a greasy Lothario who tries to ensnare either our hero, Sarah Zero, or a rather mannish waitress who, for some reason, is carrying a plate of Brontosaurus ribs and processes action in HTML tags.
Throughout, Plughead drenches his world in bucketloads of symbolism, as if the world of Sarah Zero exists in an elaborate dream state. Some scenes are replicated over and over again with a slight variation. Neon green dragonflies pop from the red background. Photorealistic scenes take on the form of motivational posters. It’s all, like, totally symbolic. The structure of Sarah Zero is the lack of traditional structure, yet take on the form of advertising. Is Mr. Plughead trying to say that this world are just aspects of Sarah’s mind, which is really just a reflection of his thought processes? Or how we’ve, like, totally sacrificed our individuality to fall lockstep with the corporate masters, man?
Short answer: it doesn’t matter. Because I just don’t care about any of the characters in Sarah Zero at all. If Mr. Plughead threw us a curveball and had the mafia infiltrate the club to kill every single character, Sarah Zierinski included, my only reaction would be total disinterested apathy.
Look, even if it turns out everything that happens in Sarah Zero takes place in Sarah’s mind, that’s no excuse turn you characters into cardboard cutouts. No, I take that back: calling these characters cardboard cutouts would be an insult to the noble paperboard industry. Half the characters in any David Lynch movie are probably figments of imagination, yet that doesn’t stop him from making them interesting and memorable.
More frustratingly, the stories go nowhere. It’s like an empty filler is followed by another empty filler. That badly drawn interracial hip-hip couple over there? It boils down to several pages of Eminem squeezing the junk in Tina Turner’s trunk. Ditto for the two other African American ladies and the twins, except this one ends with some sort of after-school moral. Exactly why did you waste pages chronicling the lives of these boring, boring people, anyway?
But then there’s the centerpiece for all things awkward about Sarah Zero: the dialogue. Oh, that magical, exquisite, horribly tortured dialogue! Most of the time, it takes the tone of bad LiveJournal confessionals:
“Worse? C’mon. Sounds like your self-esteem got the better of you. You will never be worse than most stuff on the contranet. But it judges not by how good you are… rather, by how accessible you are.”
I know what you’re thinking: “contranet”?!?!?!? Ah, dear reader, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Bad made-up words that choke Sarah Zero like an infection:
And, the pièce de résistance:
Make no mistake: they’re all bad. The one that kills me most, though, is “Waycist.” It reads both like an aborted malapropism and something a baby would say. If I were to meet Mr. Plughead in person and slap him silly, it would be over “Waycist.” I suspect Ace Plughead wanted to give Sarah Zero a vaguely cyberpunk flavor, that genre of sci-fi that throws around embarrassing made-up terminology like it’s going out fashion. I mean, there IS a robot in the comic at some point. Yet I suspect that even Neal Stephenson would write off these terms as being too f***ing stupid.
Already on shaky ground, the strip goes completely off the rails with strip #280. Here’s where it goes from “merely obnoxious” to “pretentious beyond all measure.” Sarah screams at the top of her lungs the God-honest truth about that she thinks of
bRYAN NOORSOOMAIKXCD. Wait, who? Astute observes may notice that the name is a thinly disguised portmanteau of Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics), Scoot Ransoomair (VG Cats), and Randall Monroe (xkcd). Additionally, the speech bubble resembles a message board post on Something Awful. Edgy! But this is one sacred cow that her adoring audience doesn’t want to see defaced. She suffers backlash for having the gall to criticize, and she feels
the pains of martyrdom.
But fear not, fans! Sarah’s soon back on her feet, and she’s learned her lesson: “Listen, Sarah… When people get good at what they do… some develop an inflated ego and they think they’re better than anyone else. And you don’t really love yourself.”
If that doesn’t reek of pretentiousness, I don’t know what does.
Seriously, the pain of being a brilliant artist is just about one of the least compelling narratives to hang a webcomic around. In a way, it’s Marina Abramović all over again. In Marina’s case, the enlightened conclusion was “people are dangerous”; for Ace, it’s “brilliance is punished, and self-loathing is natural.” In both cases, you get the sense that both new what conclusion they wanted to run and were willing to twist any result to prove their point.
Here’s the key difference: I have a slight bit of respect for the old lady for being able to stand in one place for six hours despite all the poking and prodding from curious onlookers. That takes some moxie. Hey, Ace? What you’re doing, that’s just embarrassing.
However, despite what some of you readers seem to believe, I’m no sort of webcomic authority by any means. I’m just a humble man in a dirty luchadore mask. In the spirit of fairness, I feel that I should inform readers that several prominent online reviewers have taken a liking to Sarah Zero. George Curtis and Justin Childress of ComixTalk heartily endorsed the comic, proclaiming that “Sarah Zero should please those webcomics readers who like some silliness with their drama and enjoy sticking their collective tongue out at everything pop culture holds dear.” (I should note that the review, dated 2005, referred to an earlier, and now lost, incarnation of the comic. The earlier Sarah Zero was presented in a more standard comic layout but, content-wise, remains similar to today’s version.)
More recently, Eric Burns-White of Websnark waxed eloquently about Sarah Zero. Here’s an excerpt from his review:
The thing about Sarah Zero is the soundtrack.
I can’t describe it — not really. There’s only one language to articulate the music in your head, and while I can read music and I can imagine music, I can’t write music. I don’t have the theory, the understanding of the relationships. I can’t take the music in my head and put it down on paper.
But reading Sarah Zero, I can hear it. So very, very clearly. I can hear the angry base, the distortion on the guitars. I can hear Randy Bachman fighting it out with Flea. Every panel, every page of Sarah Zero gets louder and angrier and sometimes quieter and sadder. Music evokes. Music entices. Music enflames. And music destroys.
Maybe it isn’t you, Sarah. Maybe it’s me. Clearly my sense of whimsy is lacking. If any song went through my mind while reading Sarah Zero, it has to be The Fixx’s “Saved by Zero.” You know, the nauseating song that plays on those goddamn Toyota commercials. It’s chorus matches remarkably well with the words “Sarah Zero.” And, as repetitive and inescapable the commercials are, they’re nowhere near as annoying as having to sit down and read Sarah Zero, the webcomic.
Rating: 1 star (out of 5)
P.S. If you can’t get enough Ace Plughead, be sure to check out his second comic, Sad & Oppressed Bi Teenage Robot Ninja Ghost Girls!
P.P.S. Or not.
P.P.P.S. Saaaarrrrraaaaaaahhhh Zeeeeerooooo … Sarah Zero …. Sarah Zero ….
Posted on November 23, 2008, in 1 Star, action webcomic, alternative webcomic, single panel webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Sarah Zero. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.