The Webcomic Overlook #202: Scenes From A Multiverse
Nestled among the sands of the American Southwest lies a city where fortunes are lost under a kaleidoscope of gaudy lights: Las Vegas. There, last week, old men and some old women gathered at the Green Valley Resort to hand out awards named after a quick-witted man who spent his time drawing impossible machines. It’s tradition that dated back to 1946, when a group of cartoonists banded together to entertain the troops. They were here at the resort to hold a black-tie banquet evening to recognize excellence in cartooning. The past honorees are legend: Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Alex Raymond, Charles Schulz, Chester Gould, and Hal Foster, to name a few.
This year, however, an award would be given, for a the first time, to a comic that had been published entirely online. Two of the nominees had readerships in the millions: Penny Arcade, founded by two smartasses from Seattle who had parlayed their success into a larger media empire; and The Oatmeal, created by another Seattle cartoonist who successfully made a profit through poster reprints.
The third was by a guy from New York who had toiled in the webcomic world but had not met the same amount of success. He’d put together two webcomics previous to this one: one that was semi-autobiographical, and another with the unpronounceable name of megaGAMERZ 3133T. This one probably had the oddest concept: a series of small vignettes with few recurring characters set across different settings, which were located in separate universes.
That comic would be the eventual winner of the first Reuben Award for an Online Strip: Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes From A Multiverse. (Gary Tyrell, a judge at the Reubens, posted a first-hand account of the events here.)
It was a boon to Mr. Rosenberg. I looked at the Project Wonderful stats right after a win, and pageviews were up from a typical 24K to a very respectable 120K. To be fair, though, a lot of that new readership arrived from a gracious link posted at Penny Arcade, where Mike Krahulik praised Mr. Rosenberg for being “a great guy and talented cartoonist.”
I think it deservedly won, a point on which I’ll elaborate later.
Scenes From A Multiverse takes place in different places and setting across different universes. Theoretically, this means a mix of different settings and locations, with hosts of alien worlds to explore. New worlds and civilizations! Boldly going where no man has gone before! I’m enough of a Star Trek fan to be pretty giddy over the concept.
In the end though, it really could have just taken place in the same world. The aliens, for the most part, looks very similar to each other. They all look vaguely sci-fi, and all the aliens bear pretty much the same round faces with bulgy eyes. (There are a couple of anthropomorphic creatures, but they seem to be exceptions.) It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to image all of them co-existing on the same planet and the same timeline. We spend very little time at one particular location, anyway. Scenes From A Multiverse rotates the settings at a blistering pace. For the most part, you’re at another universe in the very next strip, so you can’t get hung up at any one particular spot (which, for the most part, looks like Earth but with different colors).
I suppose it could all be allegorical. The Multiverse could act as a symbolic stand-in for the world, and the sameness of the difference universes parallels how all cultures are gravitating toward the same monoculture.
The comic’s main gag is to point out the absurdities in life by ramping up the silliness. This is done mainly by spinning the dialogue through goofy little tangents. For example, here’s one vignette where two characters muse over the latest killer app. One character goes on a long monologue:
Forget those other networks. Suprbook Plus is the real thing! Look a the granularity of control you have. You can block unwanted messages. Mute hundreds of people with a single click. Filter annoying friends into hidden buckets. And it’s so new, your parents haven’t even heard of it yet. With Suprbook Plus, you won’t have to communicate with anyone ever again.
So, long story short, this comic is very prosaic.
Rosenberg uses Scenes From A Multiverse to discuss the social and philosophical issues that we used to BS about in our college dorm lounges. (Or, I imagine that’s how the stereotype goes. Realistically, we used our dorm lounge mainly to catch the latest episodes of that X-Men cartoon.) He touches on navel-gazing topics like the nature of reality, intelligence, and self-awareness… namely how you can be over-analytical to a fault.
A favorite target of Scenes From A Multiverse is religion. Rosenberg is a staunch atheist. A good number of comics taking shots at religion, specifically Christianity. You can expect to see a lot of jeers aimed at religion, such as referring to a holy text as a “magic book“.
Rosenberg upfront admits that he’s not the sort of person who respects others’ beliefs, as elaborated in the blog post accompanying this comic: “Why do people assume that their beliefs should be respected by people who don’t share them? I know people who believe shit that makes Winnie the Pooh look like a nature documentary. They do not need additional encouragement.” This is quite possibly because the whole “Love thy neighbor” thing came from the mouth of a magical caveman wizard or whatever.
As a result, Scenes From A Multiverse can come off as a little smug and condescending. Part of me does genuinely admire the testicular fortitude on display here, proudly brazen as it is. Another part of me, though, finds it a little tedious. I’m tempted to repost a link to that reliable Shmorky comic distilling the familiar pattern of most politically-minded webcomics.
Historically, Scenes From A Multiverse seems to follow in the footsteps of Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County. There are plenty of parallels. Ridiculous circumstances are seen for what they are when they are filtered through silly-looking characters. There’s a general air of academia mixed with absurdity. Characters are known for spouting bizarre nonsequiturs. (Opus, for example, hit superstardom when he first misinterpreted a Hare Krishna pledge as, “Pear pimples for hairy fishnuts!”) Both try to stay contemporary with pop culture. Where Bloom County made fun of Star Trek, Garfield, and Disney, Scenes From A Multiverse parodies of Dr. Who, House, and Castle. There’s a very good reason this comic was chosen as the first Reuben Award winner. Of the three nominees, this one was closest in spirit to the comics represent some of the finest the newspaper medium had to offer. Penny Arcade got where it is thanks to a loyal, previously underrepresented geek niche; The Oatmeal got to where it was mainly through social networking. Scenes From A Multiverse, on the other hand, is a true descendant from the lineage of Bloom County, Pogo, and Doonesbury.
However, there’s a big difference between Scenes From A Multiverse and, say, Bloom County. Bloom County could be frequently humorous, even divorced from its political and social commentary. Scenes From A Multiverse is … well … it’s … kinda boring.
One thing that I think hurts Scenes From A Multiverse is the lack of any real characters. There’s no interaction between any of the few recurring characters between universes, and we get to spend so little time with them anyway to get any sense of characterization. It’s probably by design. After all, if any of the characters developed a personality beyond, say, “totally wrong” or “totally right,” then the reader might develop something not unlike sympathy. That can’t happen! If you started actually liking any of these creatures, then hurling polemics at them would suddenly seem cruel and unneighborly.
But that also robs the strip of any character-derived humor. Something that was present in Bloom County, for instance. Like Opus being the naive optimist, or Steve Dallas being a sleazy yet likable womanizer. Their character development tied directly into the larger political and social points that Breathed was making.
Still, Scenes From A Multiverse tries really very hard to make you laugh. Rosenberg’s simple style, where characters all tend to look like mudpuppies, tends to be cute. So, robbed of any characterization, the comic aims for the lowest common denominator of all.
No, not puns. I’m talking internet humor.
How about gags where cute things are gross, messy, or murderous! It worked for Happy Tree Friends! So there’s this one strip where there’s a nonsequitur where a large piece of popcorn shows up out of no where. “I’m popcorn!” he says, showing that he’s a bad widdle boy. Upon reading that, I sorta sighed and said to myself, “This is on a T-shirt, isn’t it?” It was.
I’m not going to fault Mr. Rosenberg for making money off of shirt sales.
Heaven Rotting in the ground knows that monetizing your comic is tough business. But that’s what most of the gags feel like: the cutesy, out-of-place “LOL RANDOM” stuff that’s currently infesting webcomic-themed shirts. There’s a joke about the economy that ends with a newscast that includes the caption “OMG HATS“. Characters will spout catchphrase-worthy lines from out of nowhere, like “Entities be crazy delicious.” There’s mention of something called a “funstinguisher“. And yes, just in case you were wondering, there’s a reference to a “knife dildo ninja squad“.
This kind of humor can work. It does work at times for more thematically compatible. Something that’s a pure catchphrase generator. Something like, say, The Oatmeal. In Scenes From A Multiverse, it’s all so obvious, and as a result its ill-fitting. Absurd gags demand spontaneity, and that’s very hard to pull off in a wordy comic like this one. It’s like being at a lecture hall with a very dry professor who, at some point in his lecture, tries to describe this great LOLCATS that he came across. It’s awkward, it’s weird, and at best it gets a courtesy giggle.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)