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You Had Me, And You Lost Me: Why I don't read Megatokyo

bombshell.jpgFrom Megatokyo, in case the title of the entry somehow escaped you.

Megatokyo is one of the rockstars of the webcomics hobby. While it's somewhat more of a niche comic than the true runaway stars, in Anime/Manga circles it's the 500 pound gorilla, and even outside of them it can give Penny Arcade, PvP and Sluggy a run for its money. Con reports almost always mention how packed Megatokyo panels and signings and booths are, and the engagement and subsequent wedding of Fred and Sarah Gallagher have become the stuff of Fannish Legend.

I don't read Megatokyo. I used to, but then I stopped. And every time I go back, I'm reminded of why.

Megatokyo started as an artistic collaboration, between Gallagher ("Piro") and Rodney Caston ("Largo"). In fact, the "Megatokyo" website was owne by Caston, who had been running a slashcode server unsuccessfully. They began to write a series on the Penny Arcade model -- a gamer geek with a sardonic sense of humor writing, a gamer geek providing the art. However, Gallagher didn't come from a cartoonist background and wasn't interested in a comic strip perspective. Instead, as a manga fan, Gallagher decided to draw Megatokyo as a Doujinshi, or amateur manga. This shows in the layout of the strip -- it's full page, clearly meant as the pencilwork for a book (at least in concept). And it shows in Gallagher's pacing. Where Gabe and Tycho approach their usual work (setting aside the adventures of the Cardboard Tube Samurai or Twisp and Catsby for a moment) from a comic-strip perspective -- in art, style, execution and humor, Megatokyo is clearly supposed to develop like a Manga develops, both in complexity and style. And while Piro is a gamer, his preferred style of gaming (as he admits) are Japanese romance sims -- which is also one of his preferred styles of manga.

In other words... Megatokyo, in Gallagher's eyes, is a romantic comedy with weird things that happen.

One gets the feeling Caston didn't agree. When Caston was collaborating, there was far more funny in the strip, which satirized manga as much as celebrated it. To enter Tokyo without a passport, Largo needed to defeat a Ninja in Mortal Kombat, for example -- and in schooling the ninja, he ended up getting him as an apprentice. Piro was essentially the straight man for the craziness, and the fun of the strip was watching the straight laced young anime and manga fan try to cope with the insanity Largo brought into his life, while also dealing with the alien world Tokyo turned out to be, instead of how he'd imagined it.

Then Caston left. And with him went the spark. The vim. The vigor. And a lot of the funny.

Not all of it. Seraphim (Largo's angelic conscience) Angelic Body Attack against her demonic counterpart was hilarious, for example. But it slowly stopped being a strip where people got coffee in their laps (or accidentially got a full, hot coffeepot slammed into their head) and started being... well....

It's not that there aren't still coffee jokes. It's that they're forced instead of natural. It's not that crazy things don't happen -- it's that they feel like they're happening out of obligation. It's like the Largo side of the story stopped mattering, and Piro stopped being a straight man -- instead, the series became entirely about Piro, and all the attractive girls who are in his life, and how he lacks the emotional maturity to figure out how to handle it. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's a perfectly good basis for a webcomic. It would probably be better if he stopped trying to put Largo-style craziness into the strip, since he doesn't 'get' it, but what the Hell.

Except that's just part of the picture.

Another part is speed and consistency of updates. I've said before that I recognize that cartoonists don't "owe" us anything, typically. We don't pay them, so they get to update when they feel like it. On the other side of it, the more you yank around your readership, particularly with updates, the less reaon that readership has to come back. When you just stop updating, or do it when you have time or feel like it, there's no decent reason to expect people to invest energy in your strip.

And then there's the point you reach, when you do make your strip your job. Your source of income. The way food gets on your table. And then all bets are off.

One of the reasons cartoonists hate syndicates is because of editors. Editors call and yell at you if your strip is late. Editors call and tell you to redo your strip because it's not funny. Editors call and say your strip is funny, but your audience will be offended so change it. Editors call and say the publisher is banging down his door and screaming, so fix the problems! Webcomics have the absolute, glorious freedom that artists of all stripes have yearned for forever -- freedom from editorial control.

The second you declare your strip to be your primary means of support, you desperately need an editor. And that editor needs to have the power to call you, scream at you, and even fire you for not doing your job. Because that's what your strip has become -- your job. And when you blow off the strip, you're blowing off your work, and the audience you've brought are the people who are feeding you, so you suddenly do owe them. You owe them for the food and the electricity and the Internet Access they're paying for.

If your strip's revenue model is based on reprints and original printing for a comic book (a la Pvp), you're beholden to your publishers, and your strip is important because the strip is creating the audience. If your audience gets fed up because you make promises you don't keep, either in terms of content or just in terms of the strip showing up on time, they don't buy your comic and the publisher gets pissed.

Megatokyo had major problems in this regard -- to the point that Piro actually put up a progress bar on his front page, detailing how close he was to finishing the next page. He knew he wasn't hitting the targets he promised, so he at least gave us progress reports. And he gave us filler strips -- usually random stuff from his sketchbook, or "Dead Piro Days," which were 'days that the artist is tired and braindead, so here's something else for you.'

You remember the last entry I did, in praise of Filler Art? Dead Piro Days are the antithesis of good filler art. First off, a huge number of them are "Shirt Guy Dom" days -- stick figure art done by one of Gallagher's associates, in emulation of Sluggy Freelance's "Shirt Guy Tom" filler art strips. Unfortunately, the comparison breaks down because Shirt Guy Tom days were actually funny, and Shirt Guy Dom days... well, weren't. At all. Second off, Sluggy stopped doing Shirt Guy Tom after a bit. In fact, because Pete Abrahms knows we're putting the food in his daughter's mouth, he actually recruited Trillian, a Sluggite of renown, to organize appropriate activities for the days he couldn't produce the work -- be those filler art, guest art, randomness, "great moments in Sluggy nudity" strips, or what have you. It's not as good as getting the daily strip, but it shows concern for the audience and keeps them happy. Shirt Guy Dom doesn't do that.

Now, this could all be old news. Going back through the last several strips doesn't show any Shirt Guy Dom's (though it does show an ad for tee shirts that featured a sulky Piro complaining that he needs to actually produce a strip because "people are starting to complain," which makes me think things haven't changed all that much). And honestly, people know I'm often willing to let update crap slide. So was that enough to knock me out of the whole shebang?

Nope. To do that, Megatokyo had to succumb to a deadly vice: density.

Megatokyo has a lot of characters. In doing a websearch for a fansite, I found one that listed no less than fourteen "major" characters for the series, plus a block of minor characters. They have a lot of plotlines. They have a lot of mysterious pasts. They have a lot of different interactions. They have a lot of different girls, most of whom look twelve, interested in Piro, who admittedly also looks like a 12 year old girl, so maybe the attraction is understandable.

And as God is my witness, even when I was reading the strip daily and as into it as I ever got -- and I have a pretty good memory for useless details and the detritus of my daily life -- I couldn't ever tell you more than four of the characters' names. I could barely keep track of them visually, even. I knew Piro and Largo, and Seraphim because she was the cute angel girl, and Boo because he was the hampster. And Ping, because Ping is easy to remember... and... um....

Well, there was the tall one. And the one that we're supposed to root for Piro to fall in love with. And the schoolgirl, only she also had friends, and it was hard to tell them apart because Piro only draws one young female face, and... um... hm. Oh, the scary goth girl, who actually never seemed scary or goth, or in fact substantially different than the schoolgirl -- who was in junior high but she was being put forward as a potential romantic interest for Piro, and that was just creepy and....

This was a strip desperately in need of a scorecard, and it never provided one. In fact, in researching this snark, I went to Megatokyo right now, like a year and a half later, and clicking on the cast list. And got exactly the same page I got the last time I looked, when I was an active reader and couldn't keep up: "(i'll finish this section when i feel like it)" all by itself on a page. All in lower case, including the 'i's.

"I'll finish this section when I feel like it?"

This is your fucking JOB, you IDIOT! You want new readers to be able to pick it up without having to read five fucking years of backlog to get into the story! You want current readers who might not remember every detail of your strip to actually be able to refresh their memories when you pull an obscure character back in! And given that at least one of your regular readers couldn't remember your female romantic lead's name half the time, it might help to give him someplace to CHECK!

RAUGH!

Okay, I'm better.

Frustrated at incredibly sporadic updates and characters I could only basically remember, I decided to move Megatokyo onto the "sporadically checked list." I do that with strips I like -- remember, I did like Megatokyo -- that have update issues to the point that I'm bugged, or otherwise like to read through in bunches when I'm in the mood. The brilliant Men in Hats and Flem Comics are both on that list, and I'd rate them close to my favorite comics, so there is no shame in being on it. It's rare that a comic on my "Why am I reading this comic, again?" list moves to "sporadically checked." It's a lot more likely they'll go onto my "you had me, and you lost me" list directly.

So a couple of months go by, and I go back and check the archives.

And nothing much has happened. Oh, (some) strips had been published, but there was little storyline movement. At all. In fact, it's like I'd never paused.

So I waited a couple more months.

Same experience.

So I waited half a year.

Okay. I could see some evidence of plotline evolution, but it took. Freaking. Forever.

This has to be the slowest paced storyline comic ever. I can't imagine it being any slower. You could build barns, paint them and wire them for electricity, use them as barns, then clean out the poop and hay, recondition them as 'loft apartments' and sell them as condos in the amount of time Megatokyo takes for Piro to get up, have breakfast, do another stupid 'Ping is an innocent and he doesn't acknowledge she has feelings' riff, go downstairs, put on a stupid hat and wait for a customer in the strip.

It's now been well over a year, and some storyline stuff has clearly happened, looking at it. And yet, there's little evidence of any kind of resolutions or payoffs. In fact, the major changes seem to be that they've added yet a bunch more characters. But of course, no cast list so you could keep track of them.

You can get away with no plotline development -- or incredibly slow pacing -- in a strip with regular or daily funny. Plots don't have to develop in strips with funny, because we come to the strip for the funny. When Caston was around, the funny made long gaps okay. No matter how long Irregular Webcomic (a badly named piece, because Morgan-Mar is nothing if not consistant in updates) takes to actually resolve its stories, it doesn't matter because there's always funny.

When your strip isn't about funny, but is instead about story, the story has to move. It has to move quickly enough to keep people engaged. It has to have resolutions and new conflicts to give the reader a reason to stick around. And it has to has to has to has to accomodate new readers and readers who might not obsessively track details from a year ago when they come back up, both with cast lists and probably with storyline annotations or synopses.

Megatokyo fails in this. Badly. It's hostile to new readers unless they commit to reading the backstory. It takes forever to actually resolve the situations it sets up. It gets denser and denser and denser and it plods along all the while.

This is a beautiful webcomic. While Gallagher has limitations as an artist, what he does do he does amazingly well. But, lacking an editor who cracks a whip and forces updates on time (or a community director who makes Dead Piro Days fun instead of exercises in eyerolling), a faster plot or more funny put in to make the slow plot excusable, and some kind of cliff's notes, it's just not worth it. I know it's got a rabid fanbase, and hey, power to them. I know it's the King of the Anime/Manga Fan's Webcomics, and that's cool too. I know he packs them in, and that's great. I hope he and his wife can live off this a long, long time.

But he's doing it without me. He had me, and he lost me.

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Comments

I feel the exact same way about MT now ... I soley check it out of habit. I ranted about the fact that the webcomic folks who rely on it for a living can't ensure that the comic will be there every single day, on time. The comic is what everything else comes from! Even a week of buffer time would ensure that if you get sick, get stuck somewhere, etc the comic still updates.

What's even worse with PvP is he did the 24 comics in 24 hours challenge. He used all of them in the daily updates and was right back to updating late after bring nearly a full month ahead. Arrgh!

You should check out Schlock Mercenary, always updates on time thanks to a nice buffer, entertaining and he's not afraid to kill characters.

Oops, messed up the Schlock Mercenary link.

I've been reading MegaTokyo for ages, but I can see exactley where your coming from. I'm not a manga fan to start with, so that side of things is pretty much lost on me, and the story progression (or lack of) has been annoying me for a while now. However, I recently picked up the two books, and found myself really enjoying the comic again, the first book being the comics done when megatokyo was a partnership is a reminder of why I enjoyed MT to start with. The second book presents the story in a much better light, everything flows better when your not waiting for things to happen, and when you can clear a years worth of strips in an hour. I think this will be the way I'll read MT from now. I could go to the site once every six months and work through everything online, but the comic sits better in a book and I have a big comfortable leather recliner down stairs for the express purpose of reading them.

Great articles on pvp by the way, I'd never spent that much time thinking on Max Powers before.

As it seems to be the way, here's a comic for you that I have only seen mentioned on another comic site once, when I found it a couple of years back. It has however, always kept me amused http://www.youdamnkid.com/ (sorry for the lack of html, yes I'm very lazy).

Jek

I think the strip where Megatokyo really jumped the shark is the one where Largo has a crush on someone..


Like the snark mentioned, my favorite part of Megatokyo at the beginning was that two people who enjoyed two types of gaming saw the same world through two completely different lenses - it always seemed to me that the actual events were never portrayed, just Piro's and Largo's extremely warped interpretations of events, and the true events could only be inferred through the intersection of their experiences. Now we only have one lens to look through, and so Largo's stuck in a dating sim.


I miss Largo's viewpoint. It'd be neat if someone made comics relaying more recent events from Largo's viewpoint.. continuing the zombie storyline.. Then again, I doubt that someone who could write Largo well would have the attention span to do something like that.

It took long enough, but I finally gave up on Megatokyo as well.

I'm ashamed to admit it took me automatically loading the comic page and not even reading the comic before closing it to realise it lost its appeal for me. It was quite a great comic before, but it does seem to have fallen from grace.

I still really like Megatokyo. It's not the same as it was in the begining, but thats to be expected when have the team leaves. And the changes aren't a bad thing, it's a good now as it was at the begining (except for that really ugly sweatshirt Piros wearing in Chapter 6).

I just checked Megatoky again, now, and it still doesn't have the characters page up.

I didn't actually start reading MegaTokyo until about last year. I was in the manga section of a Barnes and Noble and noticed book 1 and 2 of MT there. I've heard of it online before so I picked it up and started reading. I blazed through the first book and then just couldn't get into the 2nd book. It turns out that Largo was mostly gone by the 2nd book. I tried reading online and I check the site hoping for a good strip but all I ever get now is a beautifully drawn piece of boring.

Eep. I've just found websnark and wandered over to this right off.

Now I'm officially spooked!
I know you're right, I know nothing of MT but I do know about bumbling publishing. (hoo, boy, do I ever.) I think I'd better print this out and keep it somewhere I can see it regularly, just to keep me on track with my own stuff.

And now I want to design a scorecard for Girl Genius... Hm...

Okay, I'll admit it. MegaTokyo has lost me too. I so didn't want to be lost, MegaTokyo was one of the first webcomics I started reading.

But I have no idea what's going on, and I read it every day that it's updated. As I write this, MegaTokyo is doing an omake. The only definition I know for omake is a programming language compiler, and I'm pretty sure that this is not what's going on at MegaTokyo. One of Piro's rants may actually define the meaning of the term, but I can't find it.

I can't tell most of the characters apart, I can't remember the storyline, it's not particularly funny (which it isn't meant to be, I know, it's not a gag-a-day comic)... Why am I reading this again?

*sigh*

Okay, I'm a long time reader of megatokyo, and yes the storyline moves like molases, Fred has (probalby) actualy forgoten about the [story] and [charecter] links at the top of his page, but if you only go to Megatokyo.com, then you're missing the actual content of his work. He doesn't just sit around staring at TV static all that time he's not updating, if you want to know about his charecters and activites, check out FredArt, from that other link on his website. It's just packed with shiney, Anime style drawing goodness.

I don't understand how Megatokyo is "sporadically updated". They have a new comic every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It's been that way through the entire strip, excepting the beginning when the strip first started.

Sorry pal but that is just a lame excuse. If he was so busy updating his artsite why not spend that energy and time actually doing the comic itself?

===

Eric, excellent article. It summed up everything we former readers of MT thought off. But you missed another point why MT does not appeal to much of its former audience anymore.

That is, Fred turned an excellent Satire and parody webcomic into a story based shojo manga. It would have worked well if from the very start the characters and situations were built and designed to accomodate the shojo manga framework then it would have worked very well.

But forcing a complex intricate plot with elements from its parody roots simply make the whole thing seems forced and out of place. On top of that, because of this whole mess I'm guessing that, Fred has problems writing it properly thus slowing down the progress of the comic.

I used to love Megatokyo. In fact I loved it so much that I bought vol.1 and recommend anybody to buy it. I just don't recommend buying the rest.

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