November 16, 2004

You had me, and you lost me: General Protection Fault

gpf.png(From General Protection Fault.)

I work with teenagers, in my day job. (That's right -- the action packed world of blogging doesn't actually afford me the financial freedom to indulge my passions and intellectual pursuits. I actually need to 'work' for a 'living.') And sometimes, I have a hard time explaining what the world of technology was like back before they really understood it. Back in 1999, I taught a class on Computer Platforms and Philosophy to a summer session of students. I had to explain to them that it had been just seven years since there hadn't been any World Wide Web at all. That all we had was green text on a black screen (amber on black if you were lucky), and sending pictures to your friends involved UUENCODE and UUDECODE and an hour and a half on Kermit -- and it's not like people had scanners anyhow.

I made them a prediction, then. "Seven years from now, you're going to look back on the tools we're using now, the online world we live in, and be kind of amazed that the world was ever like that. You're going to have trouble remembering it to yourself, much less tell people who are seven years old right now about it." They didn't believe me.

Well, it's going on 2005. We still have a couple of years to go before we see if my prediction bears fruit, but there's a lot of evidence to suggest that I was right. If nothing else, look at games. Look at MassMMOGs like City of Heroes and Everquest 2 and World of Warcraft. Look at Halo 2. Hell, look at the X-Box in general. Look at the ways we've learned to entertain ourselves.

A year before I taught that class, in November of 1998, a man named Jeffery T. Darlington started a new online comic strip. The online comic landscape was pretty barren in those days of six years ago. Kevin and Kell had been around for a little while, and the prehistoric entries (Argon Zark, Dr. Fun, Helen (Sweetheart of the Internet) and the like)... but it wasn't like today, in our vast world of strips. It was still a very new medium. It was still a very new take on sequential art, on distribution... on everything. PvP was less than six months old at the time. Penny Arcade was itself just two weeks from starting. And User Friendly, perhaps the closest antecedent to the strip Darlington was putting together, was less than one year old.

And unlike J.D. Frazer... Jeff Darlington could draw.

As a sidenote. I don't mean to pick on User Friendly's art. However, I think the brilliance of early User Friendly was in its uniqueness, its understanding of its core audience, and its writing, not its art. I don't think anyone would disagree with me. However, in Darlington, we had another member of the cognoscenti -- a computer scientist for IBM Global Services, Darlington understood the world of information technology. And in 1998, the majority of comic readers on the internet had more than a passing interest in information technology.

Darlington named his strip General Protection Fault -- a computer in-joke that more and more kids today need to have explained to them, which seems like a healthy trend for computer engineering to me. And, if User Friendly's theme was "those idiot users who don't know Unix from emasculation-victims," GPF's theme was "We're Geek, We Eke -- get over it!"

Eke. It means "to barely make a living." Seriously.

And that's how it worked for our heroes. It wasn't workplace humor like Dilbert (generally). It was relationship humor. These were coworkers and friends trying to make a living and have a basically good life. There was Ki, the cute (the Supermodelesque looks would come much, much later) if surly programmer. (Described as "not bad looking, but almost like one of the guys -- a quiet harbinger of storm clouds to come), there was Fooker, the systems administrator with no grasp of hygiene, personal space or 'comfort zones,' Dwayne, the self-described "uncreative" boss. Fred, the slime mold that evolved out of the garbage pit Fooker called a home, and Trudy, the beautiful, puppy-kicking marketing director. Hijinks ensue.

It's worth noting that back in my Superguy days, the character I wrote who meant the most to me was named Trudy. She wasn't really a good fit for GPF, though. My Trudy was more of a Something Positive kind of person. It got to the point that a friend of mine said "Eric, your inner child is a twisted little girl named Trudy," and that was frighteningly accurate. It's also worth noting that if you tell an anecdote like that to your mother, she makes assumptions that really weren't the point of the story. But I digress.

GPF was good. It was funny, and fun, and cheerful, with good characters who had funny situations grow out of their interactions. It was a geeky strip and a human strip all at once, and it didn't take itself too seriously. I liked it. Everyone liked it. While not Sluggy Freelance, it had a solid fanbase and good word of mouth. It was a charter strip on Keenspot, and became one of the fixtures of all things Keen. When Keenspot experimented with Keenspot Premium, GPF was one of the few strips to develop content quickly... and became one of the few strips to develop premium content at all.

In short, General Protection Fault had the goods.

Comic strips need conflict if they're going to be something other than basic gag-a-day, and Darlington wove several into the strip right from the beginning. The Ki-Nick-Trudy love triangle. The fact that Ki knew Trudy was evil, Fooker knew Trudy was evil but was so paralyzed by lust for her that he did whatever she wanted anyway, but Nick and Dwayne were clueless. ("She gave me a nice card" was Nick's all purpose answer to any suspicions Ki raised). Fred trying to stay hidden. The company trying to flourish. Trudy trying to take over the world. It was light hearted conflict, but it was conflict. Darlington began to develop more intricate plotlines. Ki began manipulating Nick through an anonymous IRC identity, then lying about it to him. (Ah, romance.) Trudy began blackmailing Ki. But no matter how much depth the story got, it remained pleasant. (In the middle of this period, Trudy one day thinks to herself "I think I will devote my entire week to making someone miserable! But who will it be...." This is not a sign of angst or darkness, just so you know.) And, despite the fact that there were a lot of relationship strips and a lot of geek strips and a lot of business strips and a lot of "my pile of crazy friends have adventures" strips, there wasn't anything like GPF. I read it every day. I looked forward to it every day.

I should say something like "it couldn't last," but to be honest it could. Other strips have done it. But Darlington fell into the most seductive trap a lighthearted story/funny strip can fall into: drama.

I rail about this over and over again, but the reason I do it is because it's true, and because it breaks strips. It breaks them badly. And then those strips don't recover. It's time to go to the Lexicon link again, kids... because General Protection Fault went for the Cerebus Syndrome, and fell into First and Ten Syndrome.

The fast recap for those who came in late: Cerebus Syndrome refers to the desire to take your light, satirical comic strip and add depth and darkness and sophisticated story -- to evolve out of humor and beyond humor, though without eschewing humor. It refers to the Dave Sim comic book of the same name, which started as a Conan the Barbarian parody and became something vastly more. (Well, until Sim lost his mind, but that's another snark.) You can tell when a creator wants to go for the Cerebus Syndrome, when the jokes begin to thin out and the plot points begin to mount -- when tension is supposed to build and people stop being funny, because there's nothing funny about this.

The problem is, it's astoundingly hard to do successfully. In webcomics, the champion of Cerebus Syndrome is Sluggy Freelance. It managed not to lose the core of what it was, while evolving into something much more, and becoming very interesting all the while. It's a testament to Pete Abrams that he pulled it off -- and not everyone agrees with me that he did. And when someone fails at a Cerebus Syndrome, it's an ugly, ugly sight. As long time readers know, we call that "First and Ten Syndrome."

First and Ten was a frothy, mindless, tits and ass comedy series on HBO back before shows like The Sopranos redefined what HBO could be. First and Ten was the collective realization by programming executives that unlike network television, they could have naked women and use bad words, and that would bring a certain demographic in droves. And it seemed to work. Now, it was always offensive at best (the high concept of First and Ten was that a woman -- a woman -- won her husband's football team in a divorce settlement, and was now going to -- get this -- actually try to own the team! It starred Delta Burke, who at the time was a sultry siren generally in flimsy outfits. It aimed low. Very low. But it hit its target.

And then, out of nowhere, First and Ten switched gears entirely and became dramatic instead of comedic. In fact, it became melodramatic. Comedy is hard, you see, and ratings were slipping. The bare breasts weren't enough to pull people in any more. So, they figured they could get a more sophisticated audience interested in the drama while retaining the old audience. Only the 'more sophisticated audience' wasn't interested, because they associated First and Ten with offensive stereotypes and gratuitous nudity, and the old fans weren't interested in drama, so they left. It was a monumental failure. You will note that you can't buy First and Ten: Season One on DVD today, which given the incredible proliferation of archives for sale means it really tanked.

General Protection Fault went for Cerebus. They got First and Ten.

We first knew we were in trouble during the Flood storyline. There had been weirdass quasicosmic storylines before then (featuring an oddly realistic big chinned cosmic being named... I swear I'm not making this up... "the Gamester," and his leather clad pixie-like sidekick "Mischief." Who... um... have never really done anything. Except make pronoucements). But with the Flood, we had a wholesale abandonment of humor and lightheartedness. There was a terrible storm, there was a terrible flood. Dwayne's wife was having a baby. Nick charged out into the storm and dove into the flood to save someone even though he couldn't swim (an event rife with humorous possibility, but it was played morbidly straight). Darlington stated publicly that he intended for the Flood to say something about how each of the principals dealt with a crisis.

It sucked. I mean, it sucked hard. It was one long exercise in depression and anger, and what dregs of poignancy could be eked out (there's that word again) didn't make up for the fact that this was a solid month of our lives we wouldn't ever get back. And what's worse, Darlington was convinced it was a tremendous success. And it was just a precursor to what was to come.

It was called Surreptitious Machinations, and with it, Darlington's trip to First and Ten was complete. Here's his own description of this plot from his archive page:

Year Four is very different from previous years, as it is primarily composed of a single, far-reaching story arc we call Surreptitious Machinations. Filled with lots of drama, action, plot twists, and the usual GPF humor, this tale is guaranteed to be the ultimate GPF masterpiece. (Note that it is highly recommended that the reader be familiar with the events of the past three years before reading this story, as it ties up a lot of loose threads.)

If this story was guaranteed, I'm waiting for my refund.

Surreptitious Machinations lasted a full year. A full year. Seven days a week, for three hundred and sixty three days (November 4, 2001 to November 2, 2002.) In this sequence, Darlington broke up the cast and scattered them "to the four winds," to use his own chapter break. GPF went bankrupt and was burnt to the ground, with Trudy framing Dwayne for insurance fraud and arson. Fooker was framed for mass murder by an robotic double from the future. (I swear to Christ -- a time murderous robotic duplicate from the future named the Fookinator -- not played for laughs.) We saw a vision of the future where Trudy is absolute empress of the world, Nick has been killed, and she hunts down and takes out the last of the resistance, even as Nick and Ki's son travels back in time to change history. (That's right -- it's not just depressing and morbid and totally not what we came to the GPF dance with, it's a clichÈ!) Unfeasibly complex plots interwove seamlessly. We had the return of Fooker's secret agent identity, permanently (yeah -- Fooker was only an unhygienic slob with no concept of social skills during his day job. That's right). Finally, it culminated in a huge fight scene in New York where Nick and Dwayne were finally forced to confront the fact that gosh, maybe every one of their friends and coworkers were right about Trudy and they were wrong, and then... *snif*... good won out. Nick and Ki were reunited. CRUDE and Trudy were defeated. Empress Trudy lost.... (only she managed to escape despite being eliminated from history, because... well, because resolution would make Darlington melt into a puddle, I guess). And then an all new GPF could be formed.

It was over. It was finally over. And don't make any mistake -- it was a major blow to GPF. It got bad enough that Darlington actually had to post disclaimers swearing that the funny would be back, give it time, this was the payoff to the whole series, no honestly. Just have faith. And if it's just too much and not why you're here, then just drop GPF for a while and come back in December!

Guys, when you have to tell your fans to stop reading until your plotline is over... you've lost. You have completely lost.

I was one of those to drop it and then come back afterward. I wanted to have faith, you see. I wanted to believe. I liked General Protection Fault, very very much. And I wanted to believe the horror was over.

Sadly, what came back, while much better than the year long suckfest that was Darlington's "Masterpiece of GPF," just wasn't General Protection Fault. Instead, it was a mishmash of elements that tried to recapture some of the whimsy, compassion and caring that was a hallmark of the strip's original strengths. However, Trudy was gone, Fooker was gone, and just like you can't become a child again, we couldn't just forget the very, very unfunny, dramatic evolutions the characters had went through. As a result, General Protection Fault developed a fatal cancer: inconsistency.

One hallmark of this is art style. If you look at the more recent characters in GPF -- Ki's parents, Mercedes De La Croix, and even Trent -- they're done in a cartoonish/Superhero style first seen in the Gamester and CRUDE. If, on the other hand, you look at Dwayne and Nick... and then go all the way back to the very first GPF strip, back in 1998... they look exactly the same. No pupils, wide circle eyes, Nick's ridiculous pontoon boat feet.... as a result, it looks like General Protection Fault is currently set in Toontown, where realistic human beings walk by Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, and we're supposed to just accept that this is the way things are. For another... critical stupidity on the part of the cast that we could forgive when the whole thing was just a lighthearted romp becomes criminal in the post-CRUDE battle world. When Dwayne, whose willing blindness over Trudy literally cost him his business, got him thrown into prison for insurance fraud and arson, and who ultimately had to fight for his life and the lives of the world, decides to hire Trent -- an equally unctuous marketing director who once literally tried to drop a safe onto Dwayne's head, it doesn't make the reader think comedic hijinks will ensure. It makes us think that Dwayne is retarded and has no business owning a business, and one day his daughter Sydney will be wandering the streets, destitute and doing horrible things to survive. And sure enough, Trent is now suing GPF pretty much because he's a bastard, period. We leap over to Trudy on the run, and God help me it's compelling. It's sometimes beautiful -- one really gets the sense of a dark soul reaching for the light, living in the Hell she has created... and then we have a series of strips that parodies the Matrix for no good reason.

And then, there's Nick and Ki.

God help me, there's Nick and Ki.

There is no longer even the slightest glimmer of tension between Nick and Ki. There was once, when there was Trudy in the mix. But Nick made his choice. Tension over. Back before Surreptitious Machinations, there was a truly ham handed attempt to add "sexual tension" when Ki, seeing Nicole pregnant, had her "womb twinge" and nearly went nuts trying to get Nick to fill her full of baby. (Yeah. I think I read that story on Alt.Sex.Stories when I was twenty-two too. It disturbed me then, too. And that was... Jesus, that many years ago?) Now, they're virgins by choice (well, at least they're not having sex with each other. Ki used to go without panties while wearing skirts -- I have to assume she wasn't a nun) and have settled into the most boring routines of marriage -- sexless, joyless connection for years and years and years. This culminated, as you the readers know, with Nick finally asking Ki to marry him in the most pathetically afterschool special-ist plotline ever conceived in a webcomic. Ki's father, who has been a stubborn xenophobe all her life (he still calls her by the name he wanted to name her) proves to be a racist bastard, literally assaulting Nick when he asks for Ki's hand and sending him to the hospital. Then, Ki goes in, has about five minutes of arguing with her father... and he completely reforms, apologizes to Nick, gives his consent and blessing and accepts Nick into the family. It was literally minute twenty seven of a television sitcom and we needed to have Jan Brady learn the true meaning of being a sister, in time to be all better!

(Through this whole plotline, Darlington protested to people responding badly to Oshiro's literally terrible characterization by saying that the plot wasn't over yet -- give it time! Honestly! Only the payoff was simply a setup to let Trudy see Nick propose to Ki... and then leave, in tears, without even swearing revenge. In other words, it was Surreptitious Machinations all over again -- "come on back when the plotline is over! You'll see then!" Only we didn't see anything.)

I kept hoping that getting back to the fresher, more interesting characters would revitalize my interest in GPF. Fooker was back, and there were hints of something cool on the horizon with him. I like Sharon. I like Dexter. I like Mercedes. There was hope. I just had to make it to the next plotline....

Well, we're here.

It's literally about how Sharon and Ki, good friends and long time professionals, can't cope with Sharon being Ki's project lead on a project. (Nick, the level headed and very male uberman, being too busy.) It was set up in an implausibly bad way, with Dwayne literally talking to Sharon and Ki, saying that Ki had the seniority and project lead chops and (unstated) should be in charge, but he needed her database skills for this so Sharon would be. (If Dilbert came to work for Dwayne... he'd be begging the pointy haired manager to take him back in a week. Which admittedly might be funny, which would be novel for Dilbert these says.) Cut to Trent, sliming some repulsive theory that ambitious men work just fine together because hey -- one of them's the alpha dog and the rest fall into line (note to world -- this is a hideous lie. I worked in the Corporate and Education worlds. This Does Not Happen), but that women, being such excitable creatures, butt heads and just can't deal with each other. Not if they're both strong willed! Not like men could! And then immediately jumped to Sharon and Ki trying to bite each other's heads off! Because it's true! Hah hah! Those uppity females!

My boss is a woman. She's a great manager. (And doesn't read this, so I'm not sucking up.) Several of her peers are female. Several of them are "strong willed." But any head butting that goes on is almost exactly like the headbutting that the men do. I don't say men and women are the same, but the idea that you can't have two confident women on one team without them going for each other's throats is beyond sexist and into repulsive.

Today's strip features Ki ranting at Sharon's back. And then Sharon turns around, and we cut to a panel of a tiger about to attack a cougar. Get it? They're going to catfight! Whoo hoo! Maybe they'll tear each other's clothes off.

And it broke me. So help me Christ, it broke me.

I could deal with the failed Cerebus Syndrome. I could deal with the slog through First and Ten. I could deal with the discontinuous art style. I could deal with the inconsistent levels of sophistication in the characters. I could deal with the racism. I could deal with the sexism. I could deal with the toxic level of boredom Nick and Ki (either or both) instill in me. But I can't deal with all of them. I can't hold out hope any longer that the things that drive me insane will go to the background while the things I like come to the foreground.

Darlington does do many things right. His art, while schizophrenic, is solid and shows evolution. He is rock solid in updates -- I don't know that he's ever missed a day. Whether or not you like his convoluted plotlines, he does balance them simultaneously and he does eventually pay off the ones that aren't relationship based. And he can write engaging and poignant pieces when he isn't fighting with himself. And he clearly loves what he's doing, and there's no better reason in the world to write and draw a strip. Seriously. It doesn't matter what I think or anyone else thinks -- if Darlington is happy than power to him. And he still has fans who adore him, and that is good. I don't blame them for liking GPF at all. But that doesn't mean I can stick around for the ride.

The smartest possible move Darlington could have done, having committed to Surreptitious Machinations, would be to end GPF with Ki and Nick kissing in the sunlight, and started a new strip, with a different cast (with maybe some crossover and cameos), setting up without expectations or without a yearning to be what GPF once was but couldn't be again. He could still do it, but there's no sign he will. He's in this for the long haul.

I hope he's successful in that haul, but I won't be hauling along with him. He had me, and he lost me.

September 01, 2004

You Had Me, And You Lost Me: It's Walky

20040823a.gif(From It's Walky.)

I remember when I first started reading the strip that would one day be "It's Walky." It was back in the Roomies days, and it was pretty fun. The art was more cartoony then, less polished, but it was still dynamic and fun. One of the more standard premises fueled Roomies -- two very different but also very similar young men were rooming at college. One was a prig, the other a horndog. Their supporting cast included the dream girl who had dumped the prig unexpectedly, a sheltered fundie who loved the prig wholeheartedly -- for no real reason -- and a number of secondary characters. The catchphrase for the series was 'Perverse Sexual Lust.' It was frenetic and funny.

And then, towards the end, it grew morbid. Terrible things started happening to characters. People died. People became alcoholics. People lost faith. People lost hope. Hypocrites reigned and then got abortions. I've described this process before, when a light strip goes dark. I call it Cerebus Syndrome -- the effort to force one's project through a sea change from light satire and parody to a darker complexity. It is seductive, and when it fails -- it almost always fails -- it falls into First and Ten Syndrome, emulating the raunchy light HBO's comedy's inexplicable and bad shift to raunchy drama. Well, Roomies did about a season and a half of First and Ten, towards the end.

But it seemed like David Willis, the author, knew that. And, as he embraced the increasing science fiction elements in his strip, he completely changed focus, changed the name (to "It's Walky,") and went with lighthearted science fiction adventuring. And "It's Walky" was, once again, a ton of fun.

But there were dark clouds on the horizon, even if we squinted and declared them to be alien ships or flying giant robot monkeys.

For one thing, "It's Walky" detailed the adventures of a secret organization that David Willis had been thinking about for years and years. At least once he put up a series of strips that he drew back in high school for his friends, featuring SEMME fighting aliens under the command of a Doritos-obsessed leader who was a clear model for Walkerton. (Though when he moved to the web, Willis changed the snack food's name to Nachitos, to avoid any lawsuit trouble. Which, given the more gross-out nature of some his jokes, was probably a good idea. Not that it was bad gross out humor.) Willis had clearly been working out this plot arc in his head for years, and was also clearly excited to be using it in a story now.

Only... well, let's put it like this.

As all of you know, there's a huge computer section in bookstores, now. And a large percentage of the computer shelves are made up of Various Computer Programs for Dummies and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Various Computer Programs. These were so popular with users that Dummies books began coming out on any number of subjects. I own some Dummies books. Odds are you do too. But the question comes up -- why did these things have to come out in the first place? The answer, if you asked most people, is because the manual that comes with the program (well, came. These days if you're lucky enough to get a manual, it's a PDF one sitting on the program CD) sucks.

It's not the fault of the technical writers. They're trying. But when you understand a program's ins and outs, it's very hard to tell people who don't understand them how to use it. You lack a common frame of reference, and 'downsampling' your knowledge to match a new user's is extremely difficult. The For Dummies books have an advantage -- generally the person contracted to write them didn't make the programs, which means they had to learn how to use the programs at some point. That experience becomes a frame of reference they can use to establish the proper use of the program.

David Willis knew his SEMME organization. He knew their opposition. He knew their backstory. He knew the reasons they fought. He knew the reasons the aliens fought back. He knew what the Martians were and how they fit in. He knew what the Cheese was and how it fit in.

And he was not particularly good at letting us know it, in turn. This wasn't so much "mystery surrounding the organization" as a general feeling as a reader that I'd missed something, somewhere along the line. That there was some twenty-strip plotline that fit all the pieces together. Or that two or three setup strips had gotten skipped, somehow. There was always this general sense that you didn't know quite what was going on, and you should.

But it was mostly okay, because the strip was fun. And if there were gaps in how he brought the Story, Willis brought the Funny, and the Funny makes it excusable.

Well, until Willis turned back to the dark.

To his credit, I think he planned the darker elements of It's Walky right from the beginning. He knew exactly what style of story he intended to tell. So I don't think we call this a Cerebus Syndrome attempt. But the results were entirely First and Ten -- intense, often painful drama more for the point of shocking than anything else. It chased away the Funny. Walky had to grow up. Joyce had to confront her demons. Sal ran away and then tried to destroy the world. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And it stopped being fun. It became something of a chore to try and keep up -- always not sure if you were missing something, all the while. Once again, there was death and recrimination and anger (and the specter of alcoholism).

There were triumphant moments through it all. The resolution of Joyce's multiple personalities -- and the multiple sides of her personality -- was handled deftly. Her moment standing in the rain with Walky was transcendent, and I loved every second of it. The eventual consummation of her relationship with Walky was handled with precisely the right tone. (The color strip of the two of them lying on the floor, Walky unable to sleep and Joyce providing the reason for Walky's insomnia, was a perfect denouement to the long standing subplot -- and was ideally designed for the web, requiring most people's monitors to scroll down to reach the joke.) And David Willis's art, while always suitable for his subject, continued to develop and grow. He made something of a production of switching to a slightly more realistic style, he expanded his use of color and the color palette. In his latest plotline, he's experimented with 3D modeling.

And I stuck with It's Walky through it all, because it also did so much right. You folks know my pet peeves by now, and Walky stepped carefully around them. It updated on a rock-solid schedule. It had a cast page. It tried to catch new readers up (though once again, a For Dummies book -- or Cliff's Notes -- would have helped very much.) Willis remained enthusiastic about his strip, and even as he developed other projects he didn't forget who he came to the dance with.

So I stuck with it. And stuck with it. And stuck with it. Increasingly confused with what was going on, and increasingly not caring about what happened next, I continued to keep it in the safari tabs. And complained about it. Finally, the only reason I stuck with it was because the story was winding towards an ending, and I'm a sucker for endings. I think more projects should have a definite, solid, "this is the end of the strip" to them.

Until today's strip. Today, we saw one of the different characters involved with SEMME, who I vaguely remember was the one who dumped the AntiHead Alien off a few strips back, and who was on the ship (the Destiny? Sounds right) that crashed looking for him, and had zombie issues of some kind way back when. I mean, way back. And I don't know her name, or the names of any of her squad, or how she expects to be able to accomplish the mission she declared for herself, or....

...and I realized I didn't care any more. And that there's no reason to spend time on It's Walky now. When it finishes up, I can always go back and read the ending, and even snark about it. But right now WIllis is deep in First and Ten territory, with the added impediment that I'm not at all sure what's going on from strip to strip.

Fans of "It's Walky" have tried to explain it to me. And they've shown how deep their loyalty goes. And I think David Willis deserves it. He is rock solid with a ton of strengths. He deserves to have a massive blowoff. And he deserves every reader he gets.

But it won't include me any more. He had me, and he lost me.

August 22, 2004

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!


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.