The Webcomic Overlook #143: Party Bear
Most webcomics are written by nerds for nerds. It’s a fact of life. People who draw webcomics have a certain passion for comics and an acuity in computers. That spells N-E-R-D-S.
As a strange result, webcomic settings are not only the same, they’re typically squeaky clean. Take your typical slice-of-life webcomic. They’re usually either set in college, or at high school, or in the comforting embraces of suburbia. The closest you get are stories about jobless post-college slackers who sit on their couch and complain about having no money. But how poor can they possibly be if, in every other scene, we usually see them tapping way at their XBox controllers?
Thus, it’s rather unique when I encounter a webcomic set in the more unconventional world of the inner city. It’s the world popularized, mythologized, exaggerated, and romanticized by gangsta rappers and filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton. It’s where the windows of crumbling brick buildings are barricaded by black iron grates. Where drug dealers are a fact of life. And where you’re always under the thumb of The Man.
But, hey, it’s life, and you get by. Especially if you’re protected by a bear. A Party Bear.
Paul Maybury’s Party Bear is brought to you by Act-I-Vate, that infamous webcomic collective founded by a bunch of hipsters from New York. Act-I-Vate’s works tend to be more adult, and by that I mean dealing with mature themes that college graduates and older can appreciate. Although… the conventional “smut peddler” definition may be true. Act-I-Vate is one of the sites banned at my workplace due to pornography. (Damn you Dean Haspiel and your Billy Dogma In “Sex Planet” webcomic and motion comic!)
Act-I-Vate typically scores a nomination every year at the Eisners, and they’re typically the sort of high-concept comics you’d expect to score awards whether or not they were published online. Some of the works are so high-concept that they come off as sounding a little pretentious. A kid who is stuck in the middle of a huge black-out jacking off every chance he gets? A stuffed bunny whose innocence is ripped by the brutality of the real world? A girl whose cross-country bike tour is derailed when she falls for a guy who switches out boring motel paintings? Granted, I did like Motel Art Improvement Service, but living up to many of these ideas is usually a hit-or-miss proposition. I wasn’t much a fan of Power Out (reviewed here), for example, the coming of age (heh heh) webcomic about a kid with a masturbation problem that was also this year’s entry into the Eisner sweepstakes.
Compared to its Act-I-Vate brethren, Party Bear feels more down-to-earth. Granted, the webcomic DOES features a bear wearing a party hat. That is pretty high concept. Subtract him from the equation, though, and you have a fairly straightforward look at a community that lives squarely in the lower class and has more than enough problems to deal with. And yet, even in this urban squalor, these people have dreams, and they won’t let little things like drug problems, absentee parents, and corrupt authority get in the way of them.
Party Bear centers around several different characters. While each deals with their own issues, their fates are interlocked. It’s a narrative technique similar to the movie Crash. At the center of our cast are two boys, Milsap and Seal. Though, young, they seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Both come from broken families. Milsap’s father is absent. Seal does see his father from time to time… when he takes a seat on the same bus. Seal’s dad tries to fulfill his fatherly duties by dispensing advice of dubious merit.
Elsewhere, a cop abuses a local kid — Darryl, star quarterback of English High — and get away with it. Officer MacMurphy is an unyielding pessimist, justifying his actions by claiming that the kids growing in the streets are “violent by nature.” When his more even-keeled partner tries to tell him that there are good and bad kids, he dismisses it as “simplistic rainbow bullshit.” He’s the sort of hothead who flies into a rage when a flock of Canadian geese block his cop car.
Yet, while you’re more inclined to side against MacMurphy, his older partner does come off as a little smug sometimes. Besides, MacMurphy’s instincts prove true when they run across some drug dealers… one of them Seal’s old man.
Meanwhile, MacMurphy’s son, Joe, is following in his dad’s footsteps, playing the role of an officer in an innocent game of cops and robbers. Joe doesn’t seem to share in his dad’s prejudices yet. He joins the other neighborhood kids in shooting some hoops. One of those kids is Milsap. His mother, Tamika, is an ex-lover of the head drug dealer, Estoban, who has just escaped the clutches of the law.
And thus the circle is complete.
Maybury portrays he inner city as a surreal place. Milsap and Seal get chased by eyeless Canadian geese screaming for blood. Earlier, they encounter a homeless man with a bird’s nest crown reading the Bible. It’s as if the city is being recontextualized in these kids’ imaginations, an impenetrable refuge of idealism that the grim reality cannot crush.
The most surreal aspect, of course, is the titular Party Bear. He is a huge grizzly bear who wears a party hat and cool shades. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t growl. He doesn’t attack people. Most of the time, we see him just standing there, oblivious to the world around him. He also barely makes an appearance in this webcomic … the webcomic entitled Party Bear. (Then again, if this webcomic were entitled Randomly Connected Stories of the Inner City, I doubt it would’ve gained any attention.)
That doesn’t mean Party Bear isn’t central to the comic though. Remember what Homer Simpson once said about Poochie? “whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking ‘Where’s Poochie’?” Party Bear is like that, only he’s actually cool and not manufactured cool. Milsap looks up to him. He’s so cool that his classmates think that there’s no way he exists. Ladies find him sexually attractive (NSFW). The neighborhood men want to pal around with him. And drug dealers are threatened by him.
Which is hilarious, because, like I said, Party Bear doesn’t really do anything.
It’s tempting to say that Party Bear is some sort analogy. Perhaps he’s a symbol of courage? He’s strong and silent, and he gets results. His very presence is enough to make the world a better place by projecting confidence. A ghetto ideal, as it were.
Or maybe he represents a false hope? Like Seal’s mother says, “That Party Bear ain’t nothing but a band-aid on a severed limb!” He’s just a distraction from the real troubles of the world.
Is he a real man that Milsap only chooses to see as a bear — a very big, quiet, and hairy man? Or is Milsap’s mom committing carnal acts against God and nature? Did he escape the circus? Or are we all living in the circus … of life?
Or … maybe he’s just a bear in a party hat. You know what? If that’s all he is, that’s still fantastic. This comic is darky funny, and if the big joke is that Party Bear is just a bear, than so be it.
Maybury is a stellar storyteller. The comic’s colorful dialogue fleshes out his personalities immensely. As I read the word balloons, I can hear the characters take a life of their own. I can almost hear a slight sneer in Milsap’s voice as he taunts Seal, the more high-pitched wheeze of Estoban’s manic patter as he threatens a lackey, and Tamika’s weary resignation. Webcomic creators often make the mistake of making all their characters sound the same (i.e. exactly like themselves). In Party Bear, they’re all distinct. That’s the sign of real characterization.
No one in Party Bear is totally blameless (except for Party Bear). Everyone is part sinner, part saint … and yet you want to root for everyone to break out of their dead-end cycle and to live the life they’ve always dreamed of. And it’s got a huge, cool grizzly bear, who, against all odds, fits right in.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
P.S. From time to time, the title of a webcomic will make a song pop into my mind. This makes it impossible for me to read the title without at least humming a few bars of the song. In this case, it’s Prince’s “Partyman,” which was famously featured in the 1989 Batman movie.
And now … my curse is also your curse.
All hail … the new king in to-own….
Posted on November 15, 2010, in 5 Stars, adult webcomic, alternative webcomic, dramatic webcomic, slice-of-life webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Act-I-Vate, Party Bear. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.