seawasp (seawasp) wrote,

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Reading and Webcomics

The following discussion is long and spoilers some ongoing webcomic plotlines, so it's behind this cut.

For most of my life, I was one of the most voracious readers I know. Until I was in my mid-20s, I averaged one book per day, year in, year out.

As I had more and more responsibilities, and for a while, less money, this tended to decrease, to a couple of books a week.

In the past couple of years, since I became a "real" writer, it's dropped to almost zero. I have so many demands on my time that I just can't afford the several hour blocks I am accustomed to spend with a book. I get small portions of time free, but not enough for real reading.

So these days I follow several webcomics. Some of them are just like the typical newspaper comics -- light jokes, occasional fluff storylines, etc., but nothing of great consequence.

This is not true of a few, however. Currently, two of the comics I follow are passing through serious and dark times: Sluggy Freelance and Schlock Mercenary.

I've mentioned both previously. Schlock Mercenary is hard to describe and have the description do it justice. Howard Tayler manages to put to electronic paper a world that is offbeat and whacky enough for stupid one-liners and silly comic pratfalls, while somehow managing to be serious enough to do real honest-to-god hard(ish) SF, space opera, and real interesting characters. As the title suggests, the focus of the strip is a group of mercenaries, Tagon's Toughs, and the various assignments they get themselves into. One thing that I've enjoyed about it is that Howard's been very evenhanded with the Toughs. Yes, sometimes they get outmaneuvered, etc., but unlike many similar setups they are not always kept getting the short end of the stick; sometimes they get the BIG score and get to enjoy it for a while before something messes it up for them. Over time, readers have come to care about the various characters: the square-jawed Captain Tagon (who sometimes seems to be rather... dim, but it always seemed to me that he was TOO dim to be believed on occasion; a ruse?), the eponymous Sergeant Schlock (an amorphous blob-lifeform), the overendowed and highly competent Dr. Bunnigus, the frighteningly brilliant Dr. Kevyn Andreasyn, wisecracking Ennesby (a floating AI head on a stick), Petey (a warship AI with the appearance of a long-suffering koala), and others.

As I said, Howard walks a fine line with this comic. He also tries to make it... perhaps not realistic, but believable. Mercenary companies have casualties. Sometimes these casualties have been characters we're fairly familiar with. Petey died in a sequence of events that was chilling and heartwrenching at the same time.

Now, however, he's just killed off Captain Tagon, the founder of the company. For all his pretensions of cold, calculating mercenary attitudes, we knew that Tagon had a heart SOMEWHERE in him (probably protected by carbonan armor). His crew believed in him and followed him implicitly. They all cared about him. And now one of the absolute central characters of the strip is gone. Along with him, Elf (a tremendously small, and tremendously cute, member of the team) and Sergeant Schlock himself have been terribly injured. In some ways, the latter may be even more shocking than the former, although I do not mean to belittle the impact of Tagon's death. Schlock, however, has always been the next closest thing to invulnerable. The closest thing to a real injury he ever took was to lose his eyes, but apparently he has senses more than sharp enough to substitute for them functionally... and he was able to get new ones later. He has never been hurt so that you could really notice it. Until now. He retains, apparently, continuity of identity, but knowledge and memory have been mostly erased.

All of this is happening against one of the most creepily sinister backdrops we've seen yet; Petey returned (to much joy), but ... Petey is now what his makers call a "feral" AI, and unlike in the prior storyline, is under no one's control but his own. There is some reason to believe that this makes him a danger to everyone around him. I posted my suspicions as to what's going on on November 13th.

Sluggy Freelance is also a bit hard to describe; I suppose it's what you might get if you took Digital Knight and crashed it into a modern sitcom derived from The Odd Couple and stirred in some influence from anime and other pop culture. The main characters are Torg, Riff, Zoe, and Bun-Bun, with a host of other characters who play greater or lesser parts as time goes on. It's a surreal world which at first appears to be our own, but where supernatural forces, mad scientists, and transdimensional effects are common, yet only encountered for the most part by our heroes(?). Torg himself is a good-looking, somewhat geeky, clueless young guy who mostly seems to just drift through life. Riff is the cool, if somewhat accident-prone, best friend who is himself a sort of mad-scientist engineer. The two of them are wierdness magnets; even though they are mostly interested in girls, fun, and beer, they keep getting involved in much more important things. Bun-Bun is an incredibly cute mini-lop rabbit with the attitude of your local gang leader; he carries a switchblade and can beat the crap out of rabid grizzly bears. Zoe is a very pretty, bright, mostly NORMAL girl who generally serves as a sort of barometer of the wierd in the group.

One thing that both Pete Abrams (who does Sluggy) and Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary) have managed to do which is EXTREMELY hard is to have a comic which has gone from silly to serious... and then gone back to silly, without somehow destroying my interest along the way. This is NOT an easy task to accomplish. Once you go serious, it's HARD to head back into slapstick or simple humor without so trivializing the prior serious events that it becomes an annoyance rather than entertainment.

In the case of Sluggy, Pete long ago established Torg as having fallen into one of the many versions of Hell (in this case called "The Dimension of Pain") and then managing to escape. This angered the lord of that dimension, Lord Horribus, who has spent the years since then trying to recapture Torg (and then invade his world). Over these years, it's gone from being a simple matter of annoyance/principle on Horribus' part ("No one escapes the Dimension of Pain!") to a full-blown destructive obsession. For a while, the yearly attempts (always made on Halloween) to recapture Torg have been sources of amusement for the readers. However, they've become less funny as Horribus has become more serious.

Alternate dimensions have been a common theme in Sluggy; at one point Torg found himself in a dimension almost identical to his own, including duplicates of his friends (and a GOOD Bun-Bun!); it was a bit TOO "good", though, sort of a what-if universe constructed along the idea that the stereotypical tofu-granola eating 1960s hippies had created their own universe. (this one is nicknamed "The Dimension of Love"; we're talking about a universe in which even the parasites won't attach to you without your permission)

In the current storyline, Horribus has finally launched an all-out assault on what he thinks is Torg's world... but, as it turns out, is actually the Dimension of Love. Torg has been brough through to help the DoL residents (who are constitutionally incapable of fighting) and is trapped there as the demon hold on the dimension has tightened. In the DoL, Torg has been forced out of his usual slacker mode and has been making full use of what I've called his "occasional flashes of frightening competence". To the demons he has become a figure of terror, someone who appears out of nowhere with a deadly sword and leaves demonic corpses behind. He's like a wraith; they cannot find him.

This is of course driving Horribus completely out of his mind.

It should be noted that Torg has been in love with Zoe for years. In this storyline, he and the DoL Zoe have been (apparently -- this isn't a XXX comic, so we cannot be SURE at this point) lovers for months. Finally Horribus discovers where they are and leads an assault force to capture them. They escape back to the Dimension of Pain through the dimensional rift that Horribus used in the first place (there's a reason they go there, longer story). Finally, heading for what may be their last chance, Horribus has caught up with them. And in his attempts to stop their escape...

... Zoe has just died.

It's hard to describe how terribly shocking that sequence is to a long-term reader. Yes, technically the "real" Zoe is still alive, wherever she is, but this is the Zoe that Torg's been living with for months, that he's in love with, and that he was trying to save.

I guess the point of this post is to say that sometimes you find that there's depth available where you never expected to find it. I'm on the edge of my seat with both of these comics. What will Kevyn and the Toughs do without Tagon? What's Petey really up to, and will he ever be stopped -- and SHOULD anyone stop him? Will Torg defeat Horribus? If he does... what will he DO when he finally comes home? How can he go back to his old life? How in the world will he deal with seeing Zoe again?

Ah well, enough rambling.
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