A Burgeoning Apparatus

In the eternal struggle between "story comics" and "gag comics," I tend to come down on the side of the long form.  Yes, a little chuckle is good, but I’d rather follow characters through an adventure, even if that adventure is just them trying to return a library book or attending a "meet the tenants" party in their apartment building.

Stories, however, can sometimes expand into what my brother Tom calls "a burgeoning apparatus." It can happen inadvertantly–complications rear up that expand the plot in ways unimagined at the start; minor characters pad their parts and suddenly become integral to things; the twist that would’ve led nicely to the conclusion turns out halfway through to be unworkable; and so on.  Or it might truly be an epic the author has in mind, something plotted out with a definite beginning, middle, and end that, due to the vagaries of the webcomics medium, ends up taking two or three (or four or five) years to reach its denouement.

Clan of the Cats by Jamie Robertson and College Roomies from Hell by Maritza Campos have, I would say, undergone exactly this sort of balloonment.  And while I can’t say whether the authors intended it, I can say that it’s a big reason why I’ve stopped reading one of the two.

Now, both creators have been working on their respective webcomics for about as long as the medium has existed, Campos since January of 1999 and Robertson since June of that same year.  Both have also had more than their share of real-life tribulations: health and personal issues that I’ll just note here as one contributing factor to the elongation of things.

For my part, I first found CotC by following a link from Mark Stanley’s Freefall, then began reading CRfH after Campos and Robertson had their strips "cross over" in October of 2000.  The strips had a lot in common, but it was the core group of characters using humor to work their ways through some fairly serious situations that really attracted me.

And really, that’s what appeals to me in most adventure strips.  The running, the shouting, the elaborate operation to find the Jade Fibula of Mozambique, that’s all well and good–I mean, it wouldn’t be an adventure strip without that stuff–but like I said at the beginning, it’s the characters engaged in it that give any story its heart.  And with an adventure story, that goes double.

‘Cause a plot without people is just an exercise in mechanics and isn’t likely to be the sort of thing I’d be interested in reading.  "A person in a place with a problem" is what I look for at the beginning of any story, and the "person" part is paramount.  After all, if I’m gonna be spending the next who knows how long following characters through an adventure, those characters, whether heroic or villainous, had better be folks whose company I find enjoyable–or at least interesting.

Which is why I stopped reading Clan of the Cats around the end of 2006.  Yes, the "Vengeance of Dracula" storyline had been going on for more than two years by that time and yes, "vampirism" is number one on my list of fantasy tropes that have to work extra hard to get me engaged.  But if I’d continued to care about the characters, neither the length nor the vampires would’ve been an issue.

For instance, Dylan Meconis in her webcomic Bite Me! showed me that there was still life — you’ll pardon the expression — in the vampire genre.  She recognized the old caricature, drenched in blood and darkness, sex and death, and while she was going primarily for humor, she was also interested in reaching beyond the trite to create full-blown characters out of over-worn material.

When Dracula showed up in Clan of the Cats, on the other hand, he not only embodied every vampiric cliche, he seemed to drain the strip of everything I’d enjoyed about it for the previous six years; it was practically metaphoric, the way he sucked the life out of it and made the characters into shallow husks of their former selves.  I hung on for a while, hoping against hope that Robertson would bring something into the story to hold the interest of a non-vampire fan like me, but it just kept getting darker and less like the comic I’d been reading.  So I went on my way.

College Roomies from Hell, though, has kept me even through a storyline that took the entirety of 2006 to cover a couple of days and ended in April of 2007 with the gruesome murder of one main character by another while a third looked on.

A shocking development to say the least, but it was true to the characters, true to the story, and very true to the world Campos has set up since the comic started.  The humor has gotten blacker since the beginning, but, well, it’s always been pretty dark, what with the dormitory explosion that forced the characters into each other’s orbits in the first place.

Harping again on my point, it comes back to characters.  As wrenching as they’ve been, the changes the roomies have undergone in the past 9 years — which has maybe been six months in terms of the overall story Campos is telling — work to that story’s advantage, follow naturally from everything she’s set up, and have kept the comic’s claws firmly embedded in the squishiest part of my brain.

I suppose both strips are instances of what Eric Burns calls "The Cerebus Syndrome" — a humor comic becoming more and more serious as time goes on.  College Roomies from Hell, I’d say, has made that transition successfully while Clan of the Cats was on its way to doing so but stumbled badly to my taste when Dracula hit the scene.  Robertson’s a talented writer, though, and I did enjoy the first five or six years of his work.  So I check in every couple months to see if he’s wrapped things up and moved on yet…


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