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.

Until now.

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?!?!??!)

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

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 . Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. “Now, I, for the life of me, remember who Lord Horribus was, or why he wanted revenge”
    Did you meant you can’t remember?

    “And I fall for it. Every. Single. Time.”
    *sigh* Me, too. I think he does it a bit too much though, at least recently.

    “mega parody of Star Wars…”
    Star Trek. If there is Star Wars in there, I missed it.

    You mentioned Torg’s and Riff’s silly names, but you ignored Zoë’s umlaut. Actually, you misspelled her name every time you used it. Is that a WordPress problem?

    You say that things don’t get bogged down. I realize that you are reviewing the older stuff, but several times recently Pete Abrams has admitted has been a problem and I think that’s true of the older stuff as well. He covers it with a high number of panels per page, but it’s still a lot of reading. While he builds his buffer back up, he produces really horrible filler. I would much rather have no updates than that.

    I mostly like Sluggy, but it can be very frustrating at times. There is a sort of so-close-and-yet-so-far feeling to it.

    • “If there is Star Wars in there, I missed it.”
      …because I didn’t on the “Prev” button. Still, it’s much more Star Trek than Star Wars, I think.

      • Just read Megatome 1 -Born of Nifty -> Book 1: is it not Nifty -> Chapter 2 : The science adventure
        it’s not just Star Trek and Star Wars but Aliens and a bit of Back To The Future recognize where the term Flux agitator comes from…give you a hint the power supply of the one of a kind DeLorean.

        : – The flux capacitors.

    • Mainly, I remembered what Lord Horribus looked like (the down facing demon horns) and that he’d attack every Halloween, but I can’t for the life of me why he hates Torg and Torg alone.

      And the Star Wars parody I mentioned earlier: there’s this guy who’s wearing a Darth Vader outfit only he’s got a frowny face. I remember seeing a guy who wore a helmet that looked like a TIE Fighter, too. Anything more, and I’d have to go back and read that story… and there’s only so many hours in the day, you know?

  2. A lot of the Dimension of Pain backstoriness tended to show up in the even more silly Saturday strips that were done by the “Bruno the Bandit” guy. I’m sorry you’re one of the many who hate “Oceans Unmoving”. Because for me its tied with “That Which Redeems” for favorite story arc. What can I say, I’m a sucker for pirate themed stories…

    • I tended to skim over the Saturday Dimension of Pain stuff since I wanted to get to the bulk of the story… and also because I wasn’t a fan of the art. (I’m currently in the 2005 portion of Sluggy, and the strips drawn by the Rob and Elliott guy are far more easy on the eyes.) However, I think there was one strip where Abrams says that those aren’t necessarily canon, so I didn’t feel obligated to go back and read those in-depth.

      • I also liked the “oceans unmoving” story. even though the characters where all new (except for bun-bun), they were generally good and interesting. I hated the dimension of pain stuff as well. after the “that which redeems” storyline, the entire dimension of pain story became a crappy sitcom that had was never even remotely related to the main story. Oceans showed how bun-bun got back to the real world, and by the time he left i liked the other characters enough to want to see a part 3 to finish the story.
        also, you have to remember that a lot of the ‘stupid’ stuff started out as a gag, and more or less had to be kept for continuity (such as the elves silly names) even when thing moved on to something more dramatic.

  3. It’s impressive that Sluggy Freelance has been going on since 1997. A lot of webcomics that started around that time have long since ended. User Friendly is another popular one that’s been around just as long.

    I actually remember reading the review of Sluggy Freelance from “Your Webcomic is Bad and You Should Feel Bad.” John Solomon complained about Bun-Bun as well. And I remember him saying something along the lines of “Stop making this comic already, it’s too damn long.”

  4. Oh lord the art is terrible. :( Can’t read it.

    • For me the problem is the comics are just too small. I’m short-sighted and prone to eye-strain, so I really don’t like the fact I’m having to squint to see what’s going on in a lot of these panels. There’s plenty going on, but they’re universally so small that all I really get out of most of them is ‘busy, jumbled mess with word balloons, which are also lettered a little too small for my comfort’. The fact the artwork’s mostly black and white doesn’t really help matters either.

      That and fourteen years of daily strips… augh. El Santo is a brave, brave man.

  5. Does it really deserve 4 stars or did you give it a better score for being a legacy webcomic?

    The art is completly unreadable to me. I just can’t get past it.

    Then with the writting, you don’t really make it seem special or amazing. It sounds like the writting is just about average.

    • There are stories in Sluggy Freelance where I bust a gut and cannot stop laughing. It really does deserve a 4 and maybe a 5 for the very best stuff.

      There are also portions of it that get way too complex, both in their self contained storyline and their relationship to the rest of the plot. This comic hasn’t been in my favorites for several years, unfortunately.

      • Basically what Brian said. All of the faults still apply, but sometimes a five-story comes along that blows away all your expectations. In fact, my original plan was just to write a review of “That Which Redeems” and give that story five stars, but then I thought, what the heck, might as well comment on the run as a whole thus far.

    • I waded through the whole archive last August when I first learned of the comic. Some parts I flew through and others lagged, but on a whole it’s above par and 4 feels like a good rating for the first half. Sure the art style isn’t the prettiest but it is a deliberate choice of the artist and I’ve read indie books that look far worse. Plus once you get into it, you don’t really notice the art as much.

  6. “And yet … would you be surprised to learn that Pete Abrams graduated from the only accredited school devoted entirely to cartooning?”

    Art schools and Christian colleges. Diploma mills.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen you post something that wasn’t filled with vitriol :P

      • He’s right, though. I have zero faith in these so-called “art schools”, and the evidence of their lack of worth is right there on the pages of this webcomic. I’ve seen better art from bored people doodling, and that’s not a hyperbole.

        At the same time, one of my all-time favorite comic series got its start with the author drawing its pages in his free time while he was working as a representative for a glass company.

      • It only seems vitriolic to you because you’re used to the smiling circle jerk that passes as the webcomics “community”.

        It’s the same reason Christians find atheists off putting.

  7. I maintain the opinion that a comic is, by definition, 50% art. And if that art is irredeemably bad, which I consider the art of Sluggy Freelance to be, it can never attain more than half of the maximum score. If I were reviewing it, that is. And no points are awarded for age.

    It might be a bit draconic, but it gets rid of the uplifting argument where one can argue that good art/writing can compensate for the other lacking in quality.

    Sluggy Freelance was one of those comics I avoided based on its name alone. I suppose it’s a good name at that, because it communicates perfectly that obsession with the randomness for randomness’ sake that I have a severe allergy for. I can’t say I’m unhappy with my initial judgement.

    • How would you review XKCD, Hark a Vagrant, Bittersweet Candy Bowl, or Moron County?

      • Well, you would judge them poorly according to my system, apparently. Because nowhere did I define what makes bad art bad. Which leaves me to conclude that, in your opinion, the art of those comics sucks. It’s not a failing of my rethoric if you read comics even if you think the art is shitty.

        You assume there’s a lineair scale from “bad” to “good”. There isn’t. Art must be appropriate to the comic, if you catch my drift. That’s why you rarely see a long form and a gag-a-day comic sharing the same style. Art suited to an optimistic fantasy comic is different from art suited to a mopey noir comic, and so on.

        To answer your question, I wouldn’t give XKCD a good score. I don’t think it’s funny, the dude with the hat is an obnoxious, and very precious, Mary Sue, and it relies too much on referencing instead of actual humor. While the art works for the format, I think it’s lazy and doesn’t add to the jokes. A comic should be a synergy between writing and art, but XKCD feels like the sort of comic that just needs pictures to tells its jokes.

        I’d give Hark! A Vagrant a good score on account of being actually funny, and the art being good for the format. Characters are instantly identifiable, emote properly and have hilarious facial expressions. Hark! A Vagrant is a good gag comic.

        As for those other two, for BCB I’d only seen ads, and MC I’d never even heard of. The former is a poorly drawn furry humour/drama high school comic. I can’t imagine I’d feel much for either the furry, the humour, the drama or the high school part of the comic and the art looks like it was drawn in Paint. This comic would have to bust some serious chops for me to like it.

        The art of MC has to be among the ugliest I’ve ever seen in a webcomic. At least it proves the right of existence of stick figure comics, because stick figures will never be this ugly. I could literally churn out a better webcomic and I’d still feel embarrassed about my art. The only thing it would be remotely suitable for is daily gags, but instead it has arcs. And while I Identified a few jokes, none made me laugh. This is even one of those despicable comics that censors its own characters’ curses, but still tries to be edgy with it. . It’s the sort of comic people point at when they say webcomics suck, and I can hardly blame them.

        • “You assume there’s a lineair scale from “bad” to “good”. There isn’t. Art must be appropriate to the comic, if you catch my drift. That’s why you rarely see a long form and a gag-a-day comic sharing the same style. Art suited to an optimistic fantasy comic is different from art suited to a mopey noir comic, and so on.”

          I assumed that your criticisms were technical rather than artistic. I think that all of the comics that I listed are “technically inferior”, in terms of production but all have an overall well done art style with lots of fans to testify to that. I’m not entirely sold on Moron County’s art like I am the other ones, but I have been enjoying the first 100 pages or so. I think that Sluggy Freelance’s art style fits its goofy buddy adventure style very well, though it has started taking itself a little too seriously.

          • Not at all. I’ve seen comics that score well on the technical side, but seem to miss a certain “soul”. However, of the comic you mentioned I’d say only Hark! A Vagrant has any semblance of the artistic in its art. Simply put, a certain amount of technical skill is required to produce art. The artist who lacks that technical skill, simply can’t draw. The artist who has the technical skill, but lacks the artistic touch produces soulless art, but it’s still art (this is where the word “art” becomes a bit confusing to use; in my own language “art” can never means the same thing as “drawings”, and I believe that’s a better linguistical setup).

            In the end, I have no other argument than “it’s ugly”, but that’s fine. That’s how comics work. And I do hold webcomics to high standards.

          • “Not at all. I’ve seen comics that score well on the technical side, but seem to miss a certain “soul”.”
            I assumed that you were claiming that Sluggy Freelance was painful to look at and therefore weren’t interested in judging its artistic merit. Artistic considerations are subjective, but all of the comics that I mentioned are certainly not soulless.

          • I do find Sluggy Freelance’s art painful to look at, and as far as I’m concerned it has no artistic merit. And my point about the art of the comics you mentioned (well, except Hark! A Vagrant) is that they can have all the soul they want, but are severely lacking in good looks. Which is the result of the artists of those comics having very limited skills.

            And that’s pretty much my grand statement on comics: I’m not going to read an ugly one.

  8. 14 years and still using Comic Sans? In 1997 I can let it slide, in 2011 I cannot.

    • I think Abrams took whatever style he adopted from the first strip (the simple character designs and the Comic Sans) and decided to be as rigidly consistent as possible. Which is admirable, I suppose, but can be very detrimental when there are a lot of aesthetic issues with the original design. And it’s also not necessary. Early Peanuts and Garfield look very different from the more recognizable styles Charles Schultz and Jim Davis adopted a decade later, and those are two of the most identifiable comic strips in the world.

  9. I’m dying to know if you’ll make it to Part 2 of this. I feel like the series as a whole took a dive after Oceans Unmoving and never really recovered, but I like reading your deep analysis of this stuff anyway.

  10. “(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.)”

    I remember one of the chief complaints about Sluggy was that Abrams picked a character that was born as cheap parody(Aylee) and tried too hard to give it an actual personality and backstory, which was just silly. Can’t say I totally agree with that, but I see where it comes from.

    All in all… I’ll comment further on part 2 now. :P

  1. Pingback: The Webcomic Overlook #175: Sluggy Freelance, Part 2 (from Oceans Unmoving I to Oceans Unmoving II) | The Webcomic Overlook

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