The Webcomic Overlook #175: Sluggy Freelance, Part 2 (from Oceans Unmoving I to Oceans Unmoving II)
Some time ago, I thought about revisiting webcomics that I’d already reviewed, since I was getting an increasing amount of email on it. Girl Genius. Spinnerette. Evil Diva. But I knew I couldn’t move forward unless I revisited this particular sore point.
The last time I reviewed Sluggy Freelance, I concluded it with the following:
(Part Two coming … in about two years. Seriously, when the hell is that damn space moose going to shut uuuuuuppppppppppp?!?!??!)
That was a joke. I was actually planning on reviewing the remaining comic in a couple month’s time. If you recall, I’d given my initial review of Sluggy Freelance a positive score. However, Ocean’s Unmoving II is when I decided I could go no further. Everything had gotten so bogged down by that point. I was perfectly, PERFECTLY happy to drop Sluggy Freelance and never, ever have to look at it ever again. Life was too short to have to deal with the talking space moose over again.
Well, it’s two years later. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies.
So here we go! The follow up review that dozens of readers asked for! Pete Abrams’ Sluggy Freelance — this time, covering the era in between “Oceans Unmoving” and “Oceans Unmoving II”, which spans from between 2005 to 2006. It inspires very polarizing opinions. Mention “Oceans Unmoving” and you will inspire either wistful remembrance or deep seated loathing. Admittedly, I’ve run across more the latter. “Dear Lord, Oceans Unmoving isn’t working”, says Websnark’s Eric Burns-White. “Somewhere around Oceans Unmoving II, I started forgetting to tune in weekly”, says Jackson Ferrell. But there are also some blog posts that I’ve run across that Oceans Unmoving is actually well structured, and overall a better re-read than the previous story (that I liked) where Torg was battling demons in another dimension.
Let’s dig in, shall we?
Listen: Bun Bun has come unstuck in time.
In the Ocean’s Unmoving stories, the only member of the main cast who remains is the fan-favorite cold-blooded psycho-bunny, Bun Bun. If you have forgotten, Bun Bun has a switchblade and calls Torg, the main character guy, a “nerd-boy”. Bun Bun has been involved in some of the most continuity-heavy plots, and they all center around holidays. I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it started off as a gag about Groundhog Day and the Easter Bunny, and eventually it escalated to Santa Claus becoming an alien and some sort of inter-holiday war. It ended with a confrontation with Father Time, and Bun Bun became unstuck in time.
That’s how he ended up in this place called the Oceans Unmoving, a place that’s located in a sort of limbo in time and space. There are time bubbles located here and there where people can move freely. Wander out of the bubble and you freeze in time unless someone comes around to rescue you. People, it turns out, generate their own time-freeing energy. Get more than one person in place, and you can move around more freely. This is why Bun Bun has resorted to becoming a pirate, shanghai’ing people and sticking them in the hold to power the ships.
If I’m wrong about this, please send all concerns directly to my spam folder.
If you think that the rules of Oceans Unmoving leads to lots of exposition, then … you’re right! This story provides more sheer tonnage of exposition than other Sluggy Freelance stories by far. They’re delivered, through interspersed video segments, by these characters called caribs, a.k.a. a space moose. Their explanations are epically wordy, to the point that I’m sure that it’s all part of the gag. It does allow Abrams to indulge in some creative pacing. In one sequence, a carib flips a comic book page in every other panel, a gag which I actually found pretty endearing. (After all, there’s no reason Abrams couldn’t have switched full time to just showing just the comic-within-the-comic. Abrams is screwing with you.)
Which would have been more amusing if understanding the whole Oceans Unmoving storyline wasn’t so hinged on the physics of the world. And let me tell, you, my dear reader… IT. IS. TIRING. The high level concepts are hard enough to grasp, but now it’s being peppered by vaudeville gags from these moose characters, whose antics are getting perilously close to the Rob Schneider region of the Tolerability Index.
The rest of the cast are all new. It’s a clean slate jumping point for new readers. On the negative side, it’s completely confusing for readers who had only recently jumped on and gotten acclimated to the legacy crew of Torg, Riff, Zoe, and Gwynn. On the plus side, they don’t have to concern themselves with the story behind Aylee, or Oasis, or demons. The new crew consists of Calix, a caveman (or leaf man, in the Peter Abrams parlance), who gets made first mate like one of those man animals from Battlefield Earth; Donaly, a pirate captain; a bunch of grey aliens named after A-Team characters; Stu, a Carib; and Kada, a hottie. Though she appears in the prologue, Kada is introduced in the story proper putting on a wet T-shirt, which is a nice reminder that Sluggy Freelance ladies are pretty much on par with Carol Marcus from the latest Star Trek movie. They are all pirates who wandered into the story from different points in time and space.
Now, outside the whole space-time stuff, Oceans Unmoving does turn out to be a fairly decent pirate epic. It’s even more lucid when you come into it after dropping Sluggy Freelance for two years and starting fresh from page one. There are ship to ship battles, villains, and heroes of questionable moral fiber. Want to know something? I probably would’ve love it even more if Bub Bun was captain of a regular old 17th Century pirate vessel, so I could ignore the carib crap and focus on the swashbuckling.
It even indulges in the old Abrams style goofiness, only more subtly. Despite her name, the Lady Noga has very little to do with the pop singer. In fact, she’s presented as a rather formidable foe, whose mastery of magic is one of the few things to rattle the normally unflappable Bun Bun. Still, when battle time starts, Abrams can’t help but throw in a bunch of Star Wars references. Oh, Abrams! You uncanny prankster, you!
I one hundred percent understand the temptation to try something new. I mean, it has to be pretty claustrophobic for any cartoonist anywhere to commit to the same project for, say, more than six years? There’s always going to be a nagging urge at the back of your head going, “God, I wish I could hand this off to somebody so I can try something new!” Like Al Capp, for instance. Toward the middle of his run on Li’l Abner, you could sorta tell that chronicling the adventures of the fine folks in Dogpatch was getting to be less a passion and more of a chore. He started spending more time drawing the adventures of Fearless Fosdick, a Dick Tracy parody where Capp could flex his more Looney Tunes sense of humor.
Now, did Pete Abrams fall under the same malaise? Maybe, maybe not. But Oceans Unmoving did let him try something new without having to end Sluggy Freelance. Unlike Al Capp, Abrams had all this insane continuity he was saddle with. How does he keep track of it, anyway? Is there a room in his basement with newspaper clippings, photographs, and strings connecting things from one to the other? … Now that I wrote that down, I don’t doubt that’s exactly what you’d find in his basement.
Besides, it’s not as if the main cast totally goes away. The story continues the fill-in saga of the Dimension of Pain demons, which look as if they were drawn by humor cartoonist Fred Hembeck. (By the way, check out this really creepy comic where the Steve Irwin stand in is impaled by a thin, pointy spike. I muttered, “I can’t believe Abrams went there.” Then I checked the dates. This comic was published a year before the real life Irwin met a similar death when a stingray impaled his heart.)
There are also other fill-in strips with quick gags that follow Riff, Torg, and Zoe that are drawn by Rob & Elliot‘s Clay Yount. Frankly, Yount’s renditions of the regular cast are quite fantastic. A part of me wishes that he signed on as the regular artist to Sluggy Freelance. Though I know that it wouldn’t be feasible, really. While Abrams’ style isn’t the most polished, it does work well at zooming out and placing the doodle-like characters in a widescreen, epic context. There’s also The Sluggite Koan, written by T. Campbell and illustrated by H.S. Kim, which is a … weird story about a Sluggy Freelance fan dealing with a break up.
Not all the asides are entirely successful, and Sluggy gets really dragged down whenever it switches to Z-Com strips (which are parodies of the classic X-Com game). I imagine that these were churned out en masse because they seem super-easy to produce: video game screen shots, word balloons, and voila! A strip. I don’t know if it was for the humor, which is about as juvenile as you can get. Now, I know that quickie filler strips existed before this, but this was the first time I remember going, “Man, Abrams is really phoning it in.” I can’t really get mad, though, since Abrams does, overall, has a solid work ethic. How many webcomic creators do you know have such a slavish devotion to the one-comic-a-day update schedule. At one point, he even trudges along despite an injured hand.
That’s true devotion, friends.
However, once again Sluggy Freelance completely lost me on the second part of Oceans Unmoving. It starts off promising enough. The crew of the Bloody Bun (the name of Bun Bun’s ship) are trying to outrace their enemies. Magic has come into play, and their main villain, Blacksoul, has gained the power of flight and is dropping grenades on deck. Riveting. Bun Bun has to deal with possible mutineers among his own crew. So far the story is quite well paced. Maybe I was wrong to judge “Oceans Unmoving”. Maybe this is actually better than the typical Sluggy Freelance. Screw you, Torg! Screw you, Zoe! Screw you and your sub-soap opera plot lines! Give me Calix and Kada all the way!
And then… I run across a panel that says “Part I”. The whole sequence, which felt like it took a month at least, was merely the prologue. And then… the story just grinds to a deafening halt. The rest of the story is framed by nonchronological interrogation scenes of those gray aliens. You know, the ones named after A-Team characters and all look the same? Well… we’re now supposed to care about them. And they’re not continuing the story of Bloody Bun being pursued. No… they’re going to go through the whole back story. How did Bub Bun become a pirate captain? How did Kada end up with a bunch of Caribs? Why are Bun Bun and Blacksoul mortal enemies? You know, questions that I never gave a crap about getting answers about?
Now, I will say this: I did like the final twist. You know, that twist that you get to, and it makes you reevaluate the whole story from the beginning. And not just the beginning of the Oceans Unmoving, but the beginning of Sluggy Freelance. (Provided you can remember that far. And what rational human being would? It’s been 8 ^&*%$!!! years by this point.) That was solid. Big ups. Pete Abrams is the only webcomic creator I know who’s been able to pull finales that you can’t see coming on a pretty consistent level.
But everything leading up to it? So boring. SO. BORING. Oh, man, from the point that I read that title, “Part I”, I was dragging myself forward just to get this review finished. Punishing myself with each an every carib segment, which appear now with a greater frequency. Straining to decipher the art, which is all triangles and glowy outlines. Struggling to give a crap about Calix trying to free a people who betrayed him.
That’s really the big problem with Oceans Unmoving. I don’t give a crap about these new characters. We’re not given much reason to. When the story shifted back temporarily to Torg, Riff, Zoe, and Gwynn, I felt my enthusiasm increase tenfold. Why? Because I wanted to know what happens to them. Sure, they’re in no danger of dying, but they’re always in danger of screwing things up and ruining relationships. (Which is where Torg and Zoe are at this point.) You want to see what happens to them.
And I don’t care about what happens to Calix or Kada. Seriously, I cared more about what would happen to Torg in his silly Harry Potter parody than if Calix and Kada would save the day. They barely even have personalities. Calix is stubborn but not very endearing. Kada is a genius programmer of the future who’s hot. That’s the extent of their personalities. When we reach the end of Oceans Unmoving, I suspect we were supposed to feel a swell of triumph. Instead, I just shrugged my shoulder and thought, “Eh. Well, that happened.”
Rating: 2 Stars (out of 5)
(And now that that damn space moose has finally shut up, get ready for the Sluggy Freelance review: Part 3! Coming in about two years.)
Posted on May 24, 2013, in 2 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, fantasy webcomic, romance webcomic, sci-fi webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged WPLongform. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.