The Webcomic Overlook #42: Zebra Girl

There is no creature in the world more terrifying than the zebra.

Although illustrations are not as accurate as photographs, they can provide a window into the artist’s psyche. For example, this illustration from the 19th Century proves that zebras inspire the sort of fear that consume a man’s soul. Look at that deathly grimace. Those ominous black and white stripes. Those murderous eyes. Is it any wonder than the noble lion, long considered a symbol of goodness and honor, devotes its life in the futile quest to hunt down these monstrosities of nature?

If you needed any further proof of the vileness of these creatures, look no further than the quagga. (Notice the name sounds like some sort of forbidding Babylonian deity.) What is a quagga? It’s a species of zebra that went extinct in the 19th century. So like the dinosaurs, dodos, and sabretooth tigers of yore, quaggas were relegated to dusty zoological books. Or… was it? In the 1980’s, after some geneticists started playing around with quagga DNA, the creature was reborn. A species that had been wiped out from this world, but now brought back to life — resurrected, if you will, be science? Nothing about this sounds slightly bizarre?

The spirit of the zebra lives on, too, in the subject of today’s Webcomic Overlook. Despite its name, the long-running webcomic named Zebra Girl does not actually feature zebras. It does, however, feature an adequate and slightly less fearsome alternative: demons.

Zebra Girl is written by cartoonists Joe England. In the comic, he depicts himself in his own comic as an ill-tempered anthropomorphic rabbit. Don’t ask. The long-running Zebra Girl has been around since May 2000. Until recently, new strips were available on a weekly basis. Around June 2007, though, the comic started slipping to a bi-weekly schedule. Then tri-weekly. Reading Mssr. England’s blog, no one’s more frustrated about this schedule slide them himself. However, if Joe isn’t joking about all them lady-friends that he’s wooing in real life, then the delays are definitely understandable.

The comic has garnered its shared of acclaim, namely the fickle eyes of the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards. In 2004, Zebra Girl won the WCCA for Outstanding Black and White Art and was a repeat nominee in other categories.

Zebra Girl‘s protagonists is a genial gal named Sandra, who is the embodiment of the phrase “girl next door.” She’s roommates with her ditzy best friend, Crystal, and Crystal’s brother, an amateur magician named Jack. When Jack’s not practicing linking rings or pulling doves out of his hat, Jack’s working on some more challenging fare … like, say, summoning demons. One particular night, Jack kicks things up a notch when he discovers an ancient tome of evil in the attic. (What was it doing there? Because those things “always turn up in attics.”)

Jack succeeds when he summons a rather adorable fun-sized demon. There is, however, an unfortunate after effect. After a freak accident that involves slamming down a book cover, Sandra’s life is changed forever.

To make a long story short: Sandra … you are the demons.*

Initially, Zebra Girl could be categorized as a comedy featuring demonic elements, like “Lucy, Daughter of the Devil.” And, it’s not dark comedy, like you might expect. Mssr. England, playing the role of narrator, can’t resist inserting snarky little comic asides like he was Frankie Muniz. He’s especially fond of breaking the fourth wall. Here and there, he’ll play with the conventions of the comic format. In one gag, he erases the characters, accusing the readers for not paying attention to the dialogue because there are too many distractions. (And son of a gun, he’s right.) In another gag, he abruptly abandons the main narrative to follow the adventures of a hapless mole.

There’s also some physical humor. There’s a running gag where Sandra sets Jack on fire, thus continuing a noble tradition blazed by pioneers like Akane Tendo, who summoned mallets from Hammerspace to torment her fiance.

However, early Zebra Girl is best when it’s about Sandra dealing with her deformities and trying to work around everyday situations. What are you supposed to do if, one day, you end up with horns on your head, fangs, claws, a third eye, hooves, and stripes all over your skin? It’s certainly a major stumbling block in a purpose-driven life. Sandra, understandably, suddenly becomes anxious about her appearance. She has disguise herself underneath a large cloak, which cause onlookers to mistake her as a psycho-goth. At work, she has to make up a story about how she was disfigured in a horrible accident. In order to maintain her privacy, Sandra starts her own online tech support service called “Zebra Girl.” (“A-ha!” That’s what you’re supposed to say now that you know what the title of the webcomic refers to.) These minor adventures recall similar indignities endured by superheroes, from Hank McCoy and his holographic emitter to Superman and his habit of pulling punches.

Over the years, the story began to abandon its gag-heavy format and got more and more serious. Normally, this development should spur readers to sound the alarms, complete with sirens and klaxons and big red sign saying, “WARNING! THIS STORY IS NOW TOTALLY EMO.” And I agree, there are times when such a reaction is wholly appropriate. However, the transition from silly roommate comic to somber drama when the comic is all about a girl who transforms into a demon. Shouldn’t it have been a gothic drama from the very beginning?

Not necessarily. I’ll elaborate on that later.

The descent into drama begins innocently enough with the introduction of a character named Sam Sprinkles. Sam and his colleagues were introduced in an early aside that seemed to be nothing more than Mssr. English’s little gag to befuddle and confuse his readers. Oh, Joe English, you troublesome little scamp, you! But Sam returns a year later. After Sandra and Crystal are cast into another dimension, they becomes embroiled in a year long hard-boiled furry adventure. Sam’s world is suffering under a fascist regime. Sam himself is a victim, losing his job as an entertainer and several friends. He’s the world-weary counterpart to the rather wide-eyed view that Sandra and her friends share. When Sam eventually becomes part of the main cast, it’s a sign that there are darker things to come.

Here’s a sampling of some of the events that happen afterwards.

  • Jack becomes emotionally mature. After meeting with a congregation of wizards in an ethereal astral plane, he develops new, stronger powers.
  • Sandra moons over a man she has fallen in love with, but is tortured over the unpredictability of her powers. She eventually finds a friend who is willing to sit down and listen to her, but over the course of her conversations, she begins to cave in to the hunger eating away at her from the inside.
  • The gang runs into a colony of werewolves, led by a woman who should probably keep her mouth closed at all times.
  • Professor Broadshoulders, the series’ main antagonist undergoes a highly visual tranformation. Early in the series, he was identified by a humorous “yucky face” on his forehead. In one of my favorite sequences, the “yucky face” transforms into something more
    kickass (Spoiler!).

Crystal remains more or less the lone comic relief. It’s a credit to Mssr. English’s writing that she retains her innate naiveté yet doesn’t seem out of place in the darker world of Zebra Girl. She has some absolutely outstanding moments: first by becoming a furry, and then — more suddenly and permanently — becoming a goth. An … incredibly cheerful pixie goth.

Eventually, Sandra gives in to the darkside. She begins to loom about the city like the Jersey Devil, mutilating residents to feed her bloodlust. While her friends vow to stick by her, she herself seems too enraptured into her powerful demonic identity to care anymore.

At this moment, the story can go either way. We identify with Sandra. We want her to overcome and return to the “girl next door” personality we saw at the beginning. Yet we’ve also been with her through the entire series. We know that every step has been a slow, steady slide toward oblivion. At no point was Sandra getting better. There’s a very good chance that when Zebra Girl ends, there will be no redemption. Like Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the heroine may be destroyed by the monster within.

While I never really thought the art was one of the best examples of black-and-white webcomic artwork out there, I do appreciate how it seems to shift as the mood of the story changes. When we begin, everybody seems soft and rounded (save for the self-insertions of Joe English, which are paradoxically gaunt and severe). The style becomes more and more polished and detailed, and the more angular character designs add to the moody atmosphere.

Zebra Girl is a highly enjoyable series. Hopefully, the recent reorganization of Keenspot (Zebra Girl‘s long time home) will give Joe England the kick in the pants he needs to continue the series. It would be a shame for the series to end in a long, drawn-out whimper, with Sandra’s fate yet uncertain.

Just remember to barricade your doors and windows tonight, boys and girls. Here, there be zebras.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

* – And then Sandra was a zombie.

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 April 28, 2008, in 4 Stars, action webcomic, comedy webcomic, dramatic webcomic, fantasy webcomic, gothic, horror webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. What keeps me from following Zebra Girl is the unfortunate lack of a feed of any sort. I loved it for a long time though.

  2. I don’t think it’s quite fair to Sandra, to liken her case to that of Dr. Jekyll & Hyde.
    Jekyll’s degeneration into his cruel alter-ego was brought on by his own ambition and carelessness, while Sandra could not possibly be held accountable for her own transformation.
    I would rather see her as comparable to Frankenstein’s creation in several ways, and I could see the story ending on a similar note.

    And yes, I am indeed defending a fictional character’s intergrity. It could mean that Sandra’s a particularly compelling character, or it could simply be that I’m a weirdo fan with a penchant for nitpickery. The world may never know.

  3. I’m still undecided is the darker shading later in the comic is due mainly to Joe England’s own progression as an artist or if he did it on purpose with the intent on changing the mood.

    It’s sort of the question, “does he make it up as he goes along, does he plan it all out, or is it a combination of the two?”

  4. Yah, now, see, that is a perfectly logical explanation. Mystery solved.

  5. The links are broken after the comic moved to it’s own domain, be a pity if someone thinks the comic is dead because of that, it’s more alive now than it’s been in years – perhaps an updated review is in order?

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