The Webcomic Overlook #175: Sluggy Freelance (Part 1)
If there is one comic that I’ve always been dying to write a review for on this site, it’s Pete Abrams’ Sluggy Freelance. This webcomic is virtually a first ballot Hall of Famer. Sluggy and me: we go way back… despite never having read the comic until relatively recently in its run. (And by “relatively recently” I mean four years ago.) I used to frequent a science fiction/fantasy message board with an incredibly passionate Sluggy Freelance fanbase. I think some even had online handles of “Zoë” and “Muffin the Vampire Baker.”
At the same time, Sluggy Freelance has its share of detractors. Sluggy, in fact, was one of the comics reviewed on the “Your Webcomic Is Bad (And You Should Feel Bad)” blog. (I don’t remember any of the main complaints about Sluggy, though, beyond the disappointment over the comic not being about a hard-boiled detective slug.) So, 4 years ago when I started this site, Sluggy made it on my short list of comics I had to review.
I read three or four months in the archives when I came to the startling realization that, despite having read 150 strips, I had read less than 3% of the entire comic.
So that was that. Two years later, I got in touch with a fine paragon of a fellow from New Zealand who used to post fairly prominently on that old message board. He found out that I did webcomic reviews. He was like, “Hey, cool! Mind if I make a request? I’m sure you’ve never heard of this comic, but … how about doing a review of Sluggy Freelance?”
I said OK. I promised myself that this time … THIS TIME … I’d push myself to the limit. I tied a necktie to my forehead like those dudes studying for the final exam in those anime. I would brave all the slings and arrows of Sluggy Freelance. I’d withstand the overuse of the word “nifty,” stomach all the super-precious moments with Kiki the poinging weasel thing, stare down all the dated pop culture references (remember when Dr. Laura Schlessinger was a thing), and prevent my eyes from rolling when I’m reading a comic where there are characters named “Slappyhoho.”
It is time to face your reckoning, Sluggy Freelance!
By the time I reached the three year anniversary strip, it dawned on me: despite buckling down and setting a goal to finish this comic, I’d spent TWO WHOLE MONTHS TO GET TO THIS POINT! That was two whole months I could’ve spent reading other webcomics. Or rambling about my opinions about the state of digital comics. Or feeding the poor. Or joining an underground band of resistance fighters in North Korea. Or (and this is the most likely scenario) watching my MST3K DVD’s for the fifteenth time. I’ve gotta give Pete Abrams credit: it isn’t easy doing a comic that updates every single day. He is a prolific little bugger.
After fourteen years of daily updates, Sluggy Freelance has accumulated over 5,000 strips. Typically when a webcomic gets this long, I can justify skipping around a little. Sluggy Freelance is the sort of webcomic, though, that makes you feel like you’d be missing out if you skipped anything. Storylines and characters accumulate at rapid speed. New characters are added every three months. Important plot elements are introduced every week. Even having read every single story up to 2005, I can’t help but feel a little lost.
Anyway, after failing for the second time, I learned something about myself. Sluggy Freelance was just too long and too dense. It was destined to be one of those webcomics I would never, ever review.
Our hero’s name is Torg. That’s right. Torg. He has a friend named Riff. Their names are par for the course for Abrams’ sense of humor, which is to give everything names that would embarrass George Lucas’ kids. That title, for example: Sluggy Freelance. What does it even mean? Remarkably, Riff and Torg aren’t the stupidest names in the entire comic.
Torg is the resident idiot who’s got the heart of a champion. He’s often seen wearing a flannel shirt … which makes realize that this comic has been going on long enough to see the end of the grunge era and to see the day when flannels were retro cool again. Riff, on the other hand, is a genius inventor who looks like a sketchy drug dealer. Hey, he was created in the 90’s, and pairing a leather coat with a long ponytail was the uniform of heroes. And just like those 90’s heroes, he invents really big laser guns that would not look out of place in an X-Force comic.
One of the biggest weaknesses with Sluggy Freelance is the artwork. I just can’t embrace their overly simplistic character designs. With his parentheses eyes, Torg, especially, looks like a character from those hastily scrawled free pamphlets they gave you in school that taught you about how to save gallons of water by completely turning off the tap or how brushing alone won’t get rid of the bacteria between your teeth.
And yet … would you be surprised to learn that Pete Abrams graduated from the only accredited school devoted entirely to cartooning? That’s right: Abrams is a graduate of The Kubert School, whose noteworthy alumni include Stephen Bissette, Rick Veitch, Adam and Andy Kubert, Alex Maleev, and Adam Warren. There are some moments, in fact, that are reminiscent of the style adopted by the school’s namesake, Joe Kubert.
So, in all likelihood, Abrams adopted his more simplistic style to maximize storytelling efficiency. While it can be a little hard on the eyes sometimes — especially the moments he uses are really cheap looking gradient fill for the backgrounds — he does manage to keep the plots moving at a brisk, manageable pace. And, trust me, that’s not as easy as it looks.
So… what is Sluggy Freelance about?
Sluggy follows the freewheeling adventures of Torg, Riff, and their friends. We have their female friend, Zoë, who is relatively normal. There are stretches where she goes to college and tries to live a normal life while the rest of the cast goes into space or something. She also gets involved in some really fanservice-y moments … though, to be honest, this applies to every other female character in Sluggy Freelance. Their's their other female friend, Gwynn, who wears glasses. She's supposed to be some sort of witch or something. She disappears for long stretches at a time, yet she feels far more integral to the cast than the other gals (Sasha, Angela, Beth … I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting some others) who end up staying with the guys.
And then there's Bun-Bun… the bunny with the switchblade who is the mascot of Sluggy Freelance and its fans. Oh, how I hate Bun-Bun. I know a lot of fans really embrace the little guy, but he rubs me wrong in the same way that Scrappy-Doo makes me cringe. He just screams “Hot Topic T-Shirt,” in the sense that a foul bunny with a switchblade is supposed to be edgy and cuddly but in a way that makes you look like a total poser. Bun-Bun is involved in Sluggy’s least essential storylines… namely the ones where he fights Santa (who gets infected by an alien nyuk nyuk nyuk) and tries to take over all the Holidays. We have to put up with the elves, and, if I haven’t made it clear, they have to most headache-inducing names in the entire comic. This is when Abrams can cut loose with his goofiness … and by God can it get too precious at times. I’m willing to bet a million billion imaginary dollars that most negative reviews center around the character of Bun-Bun.
Everything else between 1997 and 2003 is a blur. I mean …. how did Aylee join the cast again? And wasn’t she a hot chick at some point? I remember the characters going into space in a mega parody of Star Wars, Gundam, and Transformers, but I completely forgot about that one guy that looked like a melting Darth Vader. There’s also a guy who says “crotch” a lot. I guess it’s my own fault for not following the … sigh … Niftypedia.
Overall, though, Sluggy Freelance stories turn out to be a mix of good to decent stories. My eyes tend to glaze over any stories dealing with Bun-Bun or Aylee. On the other hand, despite all the bad press she gets sometimes for being a poor man’s Summer Glau, I generally have an uptick in enthusiasm whenever we get to an Oasis storyline. What can I say? I’m totally the target audience for mysterious, butt-kicking female assassins.
Even though Sluggy Freelance incorporates several references to pop culture, it strikes me as being the most old school of current webcomics. I’ve recently been reading some old Popeye comics where Olive Oyl rescues an island of hairy-armed creatures called goons by kissing their arm-shaving enemies, the Oids, to death. Abrams’ channels that same silliness, like when Zoë transforms into a camel whenever someone says the word “Shupid.” And all those pop culture parodies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, and Battlestar Galactica are merely descendants to Al Capp’s recurring Dick Tracy parody within the panels of Li’l Abner.
So, rather than try to summarize the first half of the webcomic trying to recall storylines that can hazily remember, I’m going to focus on the one story that falls squarely at the half-way point: “That Which Redeems.”
One of the great things “That Which Redeems” has going for it is that it’s set in an alternate universe called the Dimension of Lame. It’s actually a nift- … decent entry point for new readers. Long time readers will get a kick out of the bizarro versions. However, since these are all effectively all-new characters and very little previous knowledge is needed, it’s not a bad place to jump in from the cold, either. The Dimension of Lame is a topsy-turvy world where everyone’s super nice to the point of being super annoying. They even test the patience of Torg, the most easy-going member of the cast. In this dimension, Bun-Bun is a sweet, friendly rabbit, and Kiki is a sadistic monster. Riff’s inventions work (supposedly), and Zoë is more openly affectionate.
Lord Horribus, a demon from the Dimension of Pain, is driven by blind rage to get revenge on Torg. Now, I, for the life of me, can’t remember who Lord Horribus was, or why he wanted revenge … and yet the story was structured tightly enough that knowing the back story wasn’t essential to enjoying it. Horribus brings his demons, and the people in the Dimension of the Lame are too … lame to mount any sort of resistance. Torg becomes the de facto hero, especially since he’s equipped with a talking sword that can kill demons. The downside: the sword’s powers can only be activated when it comes in contact with the blood of an innocent. This means that for Torg to save the world, a lot of people have to get hurt.
“That Which Redeems” is a perfect example of how Abrams can simultaneously wring drama, suspense, and humor out of the same situation. There’s a tense sequence where world leaders discuss launching a nuke to put an end to Horribus’ reign once and for all. It’s an engrossing page-turner as Torg tries to find Zoë before the nuke hits. Slight spoiler here: it ends with a joke. This is Abrams’ go-to joke, where he sets you up for something dramatic over the course of a week, only to punk you out at the last minute. And I fall for it.
Every. Single. Time.
For a story set in a Mirrorverse, “That Which Redeems” is surprisingly heartfelt. The central unrequited romance of Sluggy Freelance is Torg and Zoë. Here Torg’s dreams come true when he and the alternative universe Zoë get together… and to Sluggy‘s credit, the two are a very cute couple. So when the crap starts to hit the fan, you a really, really emotionally invested in seeing them both get out of it alive.
True to Pete Abrams’ sense of humor, Torg has to release the goodness back into the world … which is, somehow, stored in a sandwich baggie inside the Demon King’s fridge. The cost is high, though, and while Torg finally saves a lame dimension that he friggin’ hates, it nevertheless takes a huge emotional toll. At the end of the story, Torg returns to his own dimension completely drained as he collapses in front of Sluggy-616 Zoë.
And you know what? That moment was completely earned.
For my money, “That Which Redeems” is Abrams at his best. Unlike some Sluggy storylines, Abrams keeps his long-winded recap passages to a minimum. In fact, when he decides to get into the backstory of the demon Mosp, the aside feels like a natural extension of the main narrative. True to the entire body of Sluggy Freelance, the story shanghais you with several unexpcected twists, and yet they feel true to the characters that we know.
Finally, I got a sense that this story represented some real emotional consequences for Torg. In Sluggy Freelance, Torg has seen some pretty brutal stuff, and generally he’s shaken it off and remained his sunny self. The consequences in “That Which Redeems,” though, feel more permanent. It got to his heart. In the aftermath of the story, Torg seems to have changed, with his attitude tinged with bleakness and regret. Man, was I stoked to see what would happen next! Finally… finally the story was moving fast enough so I could finish the entirety of Sluggy Freelance! I could probably finish the entire comic before the end of the month.
My enthusiasm for Sluggy Freelance was at an all time high … until we got to the next story arc: “Oceans Unmoving.”
Rating (1997-2004) : 4 stars (out of 5)
(Part Two coming … in about two years. Seriously, when the hell is that damn space moose going to shut uuuuuuppppppppppp?!?!??!)
Posted on July 26, 2011, in 4 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, dramatic webcomic, fantasy webcomic, sci-fi webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Sluggy Freelance. Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.