All I really know about Alan Foreman is that he's been doing S.S.D.D. for nearly nine years now. Everything I've seen in the comic, however, leads me to suspect that using the phrase "The New Cute" anywhere near it might draw a few objections from him. A few Molotov cocktails as well, and perhaps even a large rabbit with over-sized incisors and a cricket bat.
So rather than trying to make his comic fit my label, how 'bout I just concentrate on why I've been reading the thing since the middle of the year 2000 — especially since it's not exactly the sort of comic I normally find myself enjoying? Yes, that should be safer for everyone….
According to his archives, Foreman began S.S.D.D. in September of 1998, and while he writes somewhat disparagingly of those early efforts — "I could nuke the first two years worth and nobody would notice," he says in a note posted before the first strip — I would respectfully disagree. I'd instead call them a vital foundation for the comic because they establish the main characters and the world that Foreman has built for them.
Verisimilitude, they call it: making a thing appear to be real when it isn't. It's a quality I've always found necessary for a strip to survive the common ailment of webcomics that Eric Burns has dubbed "the Cerebus Syndrome." A comedy that wants to aim toward deeper issues than who's sleeping with whom or who let the toilet overflow needs characters that the reader will care about and a world that seems true to life… even if those characters are talking animals and the world stretches from the slightly shabby interiors of a British rooming house to a space station orbiting a distant world.
Well, S.S.D.D. has verisimilitude in buckets. It's like a critic once said about Elzie Segar's original Popeye comics: a reader could almost smell the frying onions and the cabbage soup. And sure, the scents in S.S.D.D. are more likely to be bodily in origin, but still, they seem to waft right out of the monitor due to the instantly recognizable and understandable characters Foreman creates.
My favorite example of this is the first time Foreman kicks us into the future. After a year of following the humorous lives of Richard, Anne, Norman and Kingston, a couple of foxes and two rabbits sharing quarters in a contemporary British setting, Foreman's first anniversary strip hops forward to "Station E11 in a high orbit above Uranus" and three characters we haven't met before.
I was confused when I first saw it, but eight panels later, I was ready for more. Foreman gives me exactly what I consider to be the basic criterion for the beginning of a story — a person in a place with a problem — and it was a story I was interested in hearing even though I was pretty sure as I read it that it was just a parody of the whole Marvel Comics "2099" thing…
It looked even more like a one-shot deal since the next strip went right back to the main characters — and in fact it's over a year before the story jumps forward again to show us what's happening to Tessa, Sticks, and Tin-Head, but that was OK with me, too. I'd enjoyed the first year of S.S.D.D. even though… well, let's just say that I had no idea at all what the title stood for till a friend of a friend used the initials in conversation, and I was able to ask what it meant.
I'm a nerd, y'see, the type who flinches when people swear, who blushes easily, and who takes a sort of pride in being able to melt unnoticed into the background. And on the whole I prefer gentle webcomics, the thoughtfully amusing kind I've written about over at the Webcomics' Examiner.
S.S.D.D., though, isn't what you'd call gentle. Foreman's characters are rude, crude and vulgar, lying and cursing and getting angry at each other and at the world. But they're honest, too, in the way a good three card monte dealer is honest: he's trying to cheat the mark, and the mark knows it. You can't get any more honest than that.
It's that honesty, I think, that draws me in, and it also allows Foreman to give us quiet, character-driven moments among the jokes: the chapter running on the site as I write this is a fine example of that. He still manages a punchline at the end of just about every strip, but the jokes flow from the characters, make them seem more real, and draw me even further into this darkly comic, somewhat cynical world he's created.
That world is another attraction for me. Foreman's working in the solid British tradition of semi-humorous dystopias, and the view of life, the universe, and everything that he brings to S.S.D.D. runs from Douglas Adams through Michael Moorcock and Brian Aldiss to George Orwell by way of Benny Hill and the Ealing Studios… if that makes sense to anyone other than me.
Not that the strip's perfect. It has such a large cast, I sometimes find myself unable to recall if I've met characters when they appear center stage. Since Foreman can make someone fully-rounded and interesting in a mere four panels, I can slip right into each new section of the story, but I know I'm missing some of the interconnectedness of the thing. A cast page — a mug shot of each character with a sentence or two saying who they are and who they know in the story — would help me immensely.
Also, a storyline that started eight-and-a-half years ago and shows no sign of approaching its final act can be a bit intimidating to newcomers. I'd still recommend starting from the beginning, but if you'd like to dip a toe in, the main page has a pull down menu that lists some of the individual sections of the story. "Anne's Pregnant?" in Year Four or "Milk" in Year Six can serve as short introductions to some of the contemporary characters while "S.S.D.F." from Year Three is absolutely essential for the future characters and the story Foreman's been telling for the better part of a decade.
That "long-term" effect can also be something of a drawback when it comes to just plain following the story. So far, I've tended to read the strip in chunks, checking in two or three times a year to get caught up, but since he's on a four-days-a week schedule, I think I'll try the "real time" thing for a while just to see how that works.
To sum up: S.S.D.D. may not be cute, but it's a good strip with some of the sharpest written characters around, and I plan on following it till Foreman finally gets to the end.