The Webcomic Overlook #119: Power Out
Contemplate the title of Nathan Schreiber’s comic, if you will: Power Out. What do you think this comic is going to be about?
The more mainstream among you might theorize that this is some sort of superhero comic. I mean, look at that title! There’s “Power” in there, right? Nope. Power Out is a Xeric Grant winner, and that places it square in the camp of one particular genre: the “indie” comic. And unless you’re doing some ironic and depressing send up of the Fantastic Four or Superman, there will be no capes nor tights.
Perhaps you decided to take the title more literally. Perhaps you guessed that there’s a power outage of some sort. Good for you! That’s much closer! Power Out does, indeed, feature a black-out that envelops the East Coast as one of its central plot elements. However, while that’s probably what the title alludes to, it’s not really what the comic is about.
Now… are there any kids under the age of ten reading this site right now? If you are, please follow the next link and go directly to Princess Planet. It’s a fun, pun-filled romp that’s a delight to readers of all ages! Now shoo, you little scamps. Ah, they grow up so quickly.
Alright, so are there only adults checking this review now? Good. So, you ask, what’s Power Out really about? It turns out the comic is, in fact, about chronic masturbation.
The world of comic books are no strangers to repellent autobiographic confessions. This is, after all, the medium that gave us Robert Crumb and Ivan Brunetti, is it not? I imagine the Fantagraphics studios are littered with literally hundreds of examples. The distasteful subject matter typically keeps them from achieving any mainstream appeal, yet they’re gold around far more sophisticated critics than The Webcomic Overlook. It’s probably for the same reasons movie critics gravitate toward smaller, more personal flicks. Comic critics are fatigued by stories about muscled guys in spandex delivering gut punches page in and page and a sense that being as crass as possible — like, say, detailing every graphic moment of that time you date raped that one girl — is both “brave” and “meaningful.”
Now, masturbation operates on a tastelessness level level far below my “date rape” scenario. However, it still carries with it a stigma that can levered to becoming a crucial step toward reaching critical acclaim. It’s true! Mulholland Dr. would’ve been a cheesy nighttime soap opera if not for a crucial scene of self-gratification. Now it’s like the best film of the decade according to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. And why not? Masturbation represents a psychological nadir. It’s supposedly an exercise in pleasure, yet ultimately it’s lonely, frustrating, and humiliating. Which is like honey for critics.
Power Out is a twist on the coming-of-age story by seeing it through the eyes of a kid trying to work through his hormones. Our star, Justin, is a weird, self-centered and sheltered kid. He ignores his parents when they bid the kids bon voyage as they head out on their cruise. He ignores his sister when she holds a party at the house. He somewhat tolerates the coital noises coming from the next room over when his sister sleeps with one of the invitees. All that matters to Justin is his video games. Or, if he gets really bored, online lingerie ads. It’s the only way to spank the monkey when the internet is child-protected, amirite? Lingerie ads: it’s this era’s digitally scrambled Playboy channel.
Anyway, his sister runs off with her friends to the beach, leaving Justin home by himself. This turns out to not be such a good idea, especially when you’re starring in a comic called Power Out. A record heatwave hits the East Coast, and it triggers a huge power outage that shuts the power off from Maine to Georgia, from Massachusetts to central Michigan. No more video games, Justin. Fail for you. (Though apparently it hasn’t blacked out the printing press. Huh.)
Thus, Justin gets his first true taste of independence. Sure, that means scrounging around for food and supplies and all that mundane survival stuff. But it also means working your way through puberty. Fortunately, there’s a Spanish-speaking girl nearby who just happens to be what the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin calls a “manic pixie dream girl.” What’s that, you ask?
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.
And, boy, is she ever the product of a mopey artist’s imagination. There’s a scene where she catches Justin fiddling with his pocket violin. Our Hispanic girl does what any normal girl would do: she shoves Justin off and runs away. No, wait, she actually just giggles and helpfully tries to get him to jack him off. At this point, I was 100% certain that none of this was really happening, and Justin was running through some wish fulfillment fantasies in his head. Because, man, that is a reaction that has an almost zero chance of happening in real life.
Later, the Hispanic girl goes on to have a day of adventure flirting and playing with our boy Justin. She always seems like she’s perpetually dancing around Justin, just like you’d imagine a pixie would. She doesn’t go all the way yet, though, and why would she? The ideal manic pixie dream girl ain’t no slut.
As Power Out progresses, the borders between reality and fantasy break down as things get surreal. While walking in the heat, Justin falls unconscious and he imagines himself in a video game, swinging an axe at hordes of himself. Reality isn’t much more realistic. Ah, yes. A metaphor for self loathing. Gotcha. When Justin wakes up, he find himself among a throng of people at the local clock festival. There’s a guy with digital clocks for glasses, a people speak in colorful Stephen-King-esque phrases like, “Well fuck-a-duck, that was boring as shit!”
Things go from strange to Freudian when Justin begins fantasizing about the old next door neighbor who looks something like Estelle Getty. Surprisingly, a later scene where he dreams about her turning into a swarm of bees isn’t the most nightmarish imagery in the comic. In a sequence that’s sure to get your inner GMILF on, Justin first fantasies himself having sex with her as a young woman (NSFW). But then he sorta loses control of his fantasy and imagines himself having horrifying sex with her as an old lady (NSFW). And then… well… I did tell you early on what this comic was really about, right?
Now, if this blog were a bit less sophomoric, I might notice that there are plenty of deep parallels in Power Out. There are scenes where Justin’s sister, lounging on the East Coast, writes Justin a letter where she expresses a strong longing to be back with her brother. Her letters revel that she feel lonely, since all her friends are people that she really doesn’t know and there’s nothing to do. But wait! Is any of this real? After all, Justin isn’t even receiving the letters, since she’s entering them into her diary. Since the between reality and fantasy is so tenuous in this comic, could it be that this Justin’s own masturbatory, and somewhat incestuous, imagination? A desperate fantasy about a sister who actually cares about what happens to him?
Unfortunately, I have a major hurdle that prevents me from totally committing to this comic: Justin is gross as hell. I mean, he’s already an unpleasant kid to begin with. But did we really need a scene where Justin, after a night of choking the snake, stares apathetically at the spooge on his hand (link probably NSFW)? I suppose that we’re supposed to get that he’s a pretty big loser, but now he’s the sort of loser that I don’t want to be around. Rather than sympathize, the thought racing through my mind is: “That gross-ass kid better wash his hands before he touches things, goddammit.”
I’ve seen the same story told in other media, and told better. I felt that certain elements — such as the shift from fantasy to reality and scenes played for shock value — felt forced at times. I have no patience where they’re so poorly delineated that I start making hair-brained theories like the one above. It’s fun to speculate, like my theories about Justin’s sister above, but I also very much appreciate a clarity of artistic vision. Yes, yes, David Lynch gets away with that stuff all the time; Power Out, though, felt like a cheap imitation. Perhaps it’s because I’m an older guy now who’s far too divorced from the raging hormones of youth, and I can no longer relate to the days when both fantasy and reality duked it out daily in my perpetually confused mind.
Yet I’m not sure if Power Out remembers those days correctly, either. The comic, at times, growls with a patronizing tone like it was written by a fellow grouchy old man. There’s a strong “Get off the damn computer and video games and go outside and meet girls” vibe running throughout as if it were a direct indictment of modern youth. I can’t say I disagree with the sentiment. I’m just saying it sounds something like a stern lecture a parent would give to his lazy-ass kid.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Posted on May 9, 2010, in 3 Stars, adult webcomic, alternative webcomic, dramatic webcomic, slice-of-life webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.