Jeff Darlington’s General Protection Fault, reviewed by Wednesday White

You’re loyal. You know this game. You’ve got at least one example of this sort of thing bookmarked, regardless of whether or not it drives you batty. The beast keeps calling you back to places where you know it lurks, and you keep going, dammit. You know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway, over and over again. Dammit.

You’re loyal. You know this game. You’ve got at least one example of this sort of thing bookmarked, regardless of whether or not it drives you batty. The beast keeps calling you back to places where you know it lurks, and you keep going, dammit. You know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway, over and over again. Dammit.

You keep going, because it always starts out the same way: engaging, funny and bright, with characters who’ve stepped right out of your subculture and stories or gags which hit home. Then they bring in the slightly silly, fantastical devices, and you don’t mind, because it’s funny and it makes some kind of comic sense. Piece by piece, the beast builds up the reinforcements: Tight story arcs. Foreshadowing and continuity. The occasional strip without a clear hook at the end.

Then, the artist drops the bomb. "I’d like to take the strip in a new direction," they say. "I’ve spent a lot of time planning this story and putting the pieces in order," they say. "I’m moving away from the humor towards more serious characterization," they say. And, suddenly, you’re reading the very sort of thing that drove you to quirky gag/story strips to begin with: overwrought, formulaic melodrama. Chances are very good that it’s overwrought, formulaic melodrama with worn-out tropes from pulpy, popular genre media.

Enter General Protection Fault.

GPF started out as a sweet, silly gag strip about a small software development company. For some, it functioned as an antidote to the ubiquitous User Friendly. The focus was on strong, character-driven humour, rather than platform politics or BOFH vs. luser foibles, and the absurdity never felt like an agenda. Once the artist, Jeff Darlington, grew more visibly comfortable in his pen, the clean, appealing artwork became dynamic in a way UF never really managed.

The original core cast — Nick, Ki, Fooker, Dwayne, and Trudy — make a believable little team. Nick and Ki are run-of-the-mill codemonkey geeks, not excessively competent or supernaturally gifted (at least, in Nick’s case, not until later). Fooker is the quintessential young sysadmin from the IT boom era, valued for his skills and seldom encouraged to give up bachelor-geek tendencies. His squalid apartment spawns sentient slime molds, but it makes sense. Dwayne, the boss, is managerially solid and grounded, which explains why he never gets to code anymore.

And Trudy.

Oh, Trudy.

Trudy is director of marketing for the company, and is therefore evil. But she’s cartoon evil. She likes her dolls with pins, she kicks puppies, she likes to divide and conquer, and she loves dropping safes on the competition.

Anyhow. It’s all good, clean fun. (Until somebody loses an eye; then it’s just fun for Trudy.) The geeks get on as geeks do. They go to science fiction cons. They have awkward IRC situations. They bungee compute. They feel awkward in formal clothes. And, if they have to go do something completely impossible, it’s not without reward.

But you know this game.

The beast begins to show itself in June of 2000. Trudy gets a phone call from what we later learn is "a core member of the cast", all too conveniently timed after trying to get Nick into bed. We meet a couple of Beings From Outside Space’N’Time, The Gamester and Mischief, who just don’t seem to fit. And, out of nowhere, we’re expected to believe that Fooker is a Bond-style secret agent — in the face of prior gross incompetence. But that plot’s silly, and we sort of go back to normal again. Dwayne and Nicole get pregnant. Ki beats Fooker up with her teddy bear (while Gamester and Mischief look on via poster), which leads to relationship issue fun. Whee! — oh, wait, Trudy gets another call. More pieces. Trudy’s going to destroy the cosmos, because everything’s a piece.

Everything’s a sodding piece. By the time you’ve settled into a nice, goofy crossover or a pleasant bit of background, even the fun conspires against you. When Fooker and his about-to-not-be-girlfriend, Sharon, have a showstopper argument about architecture ideology, one in a series of reasonably true-to-life arcs, the only-slightly-absurd realism comes as a welcome relief.

For a little while.

The entirety of Year Four is spent on a massive uberstory, "Surreptitious Machinations." With attempts to resolve these pieces into a cohesive whole with a demonically evil mastermind Trudy-to-be at the core. It also serves to rearrange the cast, temporarily kill the company, turn appealing characters into fugitives, introduce a potential dystopian future worthy of late eighties anime OVAs, throw us an extended Terminator homage, throw us a future son, throw us a round of expected heartbreak, etcetera, whatever, yaddayadda… Darlington gathers up every wacky, intense, or vaguely insidious plot element he can remember, down to the talking bear, then spins it into ersatz Bruckheimer. It doesn’t work spread over the course of a year, and doesn’t improve substantially as a complete unit.

Fortunately, the comic now alternates Significant Plot and charming character-builders through its new cast, so the reader has some sense that things will change relatively soon if they don’t like what’s up this month. The reordered cast incorporates former secondary characters the creepy but well-meaning Dexter (codemonkey), the delightful Sharon in Fooker’s job) and the enjoyably scummy Trent (Trudy’s job). They seem to be covering some of the same, earlier ground, out of necessity, but not with so much enthusiasm.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why a talking, intelligent slime mold getting stuck in the sink is within the acceptable range of implausibility, but vague, extradimensional god-things with no apparent raison d’être aren’t. At best, a comic will think outside the box, but this process just grafts new bits onto the existing box. The resulting storage device is forked, arcane, and Burtonesque, but it’s not very practical for keeping things in.

While pointing to the vague, extradimensional god-things to illustrate where things started to go wrong, it has to be said that they’re not really a cause. They’re a symptom. We’re meant to see them as important anchors and observers in a time-travel story, because goodness knows you need your librarian when you go to Sarpeidon, but these guys mostly just sit around expositing how powerful they really are. (My understanding is that Keenspot Premium members have a better grasp of what purpose they serve. That’s all well and good, but, nearly four years after their first appearance, isn’t it time that they stood on their own merits within the narrative itself?)

Instead, we have to point to Trudy. For any claims that Nick is the primary character, Trudy is the one who develops most drastically. The problem is that her progression isn’t natural; cartoon evil may go places, up to and including joining an itself-cartoonish evil villains’ association, but it doesn’t become serious. Maniacal laughter is seldom heard from the mouths of true despots, and that’s the crux of where GPF went wrong: it wanted to become a serious story, but laid the wrong foundation, both in its chief antagonist and across the entirety of its history.

Mischief gets it in one, and that makes me sad.

One half wonders if, given the strip’s ability to reset itself and revisit old themes, we can keep expecting more of the same: silly, pain, silly, pain, plot, plot, hyoooooge story arc. It’s tempting to suggest that the reader just check out the first couple of years, just read up until the point where Trudy’s evil starts to shift or the god-things start turning up. The problem is, those are exactly the years which will make reading more seem like a good idea.

You know the game. It’ll seem like a good idea at the time.

It’s not.

(PS: Dissociative identity disorder cannot be treated with medication. Just so we’re clear.)

Wednesday White


  1. My favourite strips in GPF are still those early ones, really.

    While the Surreptitous Machinations and The Mutex storylines are all good in their own right, I’ve often thought they make GPF feel like it’s trying to be something that it’s not.

    Cool Cat Studio suffered from the same problem. I loved the early pages, but when they suddenly progressed into the Sci-Fi alien storyline, I just felt so alienated from the characters I’d grown to love (No pun intended) that I found myself losing interest.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like serious storylines. I like humour as well. I just find it odd when they are mixed together.

    It’s like eating fresh sushi and then Belgian chocolate Mocha Ice-cream right after that. Both are fantastic on their own, but when mixed together, I don’t think they go down that well.

  2. i’d have to agree with Phalanx. big changes like that would warrant a new title or series in most other media.

  3. >(PS: Dissociative identity disorder cannot be treated with medication. Just so we’re clear.)

    I’d assumed that was intentional – she was lying to them, and it’s natural that there’d be holes in her story, even if the others didn’t pick up on it.

  4. It’s like eating fresh sushi and then Belgian chocolate Mocha Ice-cream right after that. Both are fantastic on their own, but when mixed together, I don’t think they go down that well.

    Althought I’ve never tried it myself I have been assured by more than one friend that movie theatre popcorn when mixed well with M&Ms is a taste treat beyond compair.

  5. An interesting thing to note is that IT’S WALKY started off as a different strip: ROOMIES!, which was, if I recall, much more relaxed and ‘college-gy’ than IT’S WALKY, though both starred the same group of characters.

    Also, Willis officially ‘ended’ ROOMIES! before beginning on IT’S WALKY, which made it a little more easier for the readers to make the transition from your atypical (or not so) college roomie comic to the alien ass-kicking comic that it is. 😉

    IMHO, CLAN OF THE CATS started off pretty serious to begin with, so its progression to a more epic storyline seemed a little more natural, if not expected.

    Frankly, I think SLUGGY FREELANCE also suffers from this ‘mixed-medium’ syndrome somewhat. At times, the stories seemed to have dragged; the current ‘vampires’ storyline being a prime example. I highly suspect I read it more out of habit nowadays than anything else… Or maybe because it was one of the first comics I ever read.

    Really warped loyalty? Maybe.

  6. Yes, but it’s a hole in the story that an hour of online research — I’m probably overestimating — or a skim through the psych and/or recovery sections at a bookstore would shoot down right away. I can’t buy that not a one of the gang didn’t go and bone up even slightly, or that the antagonist would have been quite that sloppy in her cover story. There’s just too much documentation.

    Now, if she’d been talking about medication for a related condition, or even an unrelated one which had a knockon effect on the dissociative disorder, that’d make some sense. Plenty of dissociatives have depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety attacks, what-have-you. “I’m multiple and suffer from a related anxiety disorder. I haven’t been diligent about taking my SSRIs, and that’s aggravated my dissociation.” Goodness knows a screwed SSRI dosage will mess up your average singleton.

  7. In response to flipping between sillyness and seriousness, I’m not offended or put off by it as a concept. Nobody expects life to be solely happy or frivilous, or painful and serious – if a webcomic is trying to speak with a realistic voice, that shifting sort of comes with the territory. Even The Simpsons has its painful, serious moments.

    Though I do agree that when a comic has a massive and sudden shift in format (Cool Cat Studio seems the most oft-used example for when it jumped to sci-fi), it can be jarring for readers who’ve grown comfortable with the content.

  8. ROOMIES was more “collegey,” but it evolved from a gag strip to stories about pregnancy, alcoholism, sexual morality, depression and drunk driving. I don’t think its last six months were anything like “relaxed.” IT’S WALKY began by isolating the goofiest characters and concepts from ROOMIES, but even more quickly started hinting at childhood traumas and horrific mindgames. CRFH and WALKY generally alternate between humor and gravity, which I think is a good policy for a wide-ranging webcomic.

    As for SLUGGY, your comments confuse me a bit. You say it suffers from a mixed-tone problem, but your one example is actually a pacing problem. And it’s a personal pet peeve, but please don’t use the word “medium” to describe tone or genre. Media are comics and webcomics. Comedy and tragedy are genres. Humorous and melancholy are tones.

    Enough outta me…

  9. But see, that’s two types of junk food, which doesn’t work as metaphor. Better to use the Reece’s peanut butter cup equation: peanut butter [nutritious] + chocolate [sweet] = ?

  10. I wouldn’t call the peanut-flavoured sugar goo in Reece’s “nutritious,” really. And I wouldn’t make that assumption about chocolate, either (did you know you can get huge bars of 99% cocoa-solids Lindt chocolate at Parisian grocery stores for like two bucks a pop?).

    I think the metaphor works if you’re talking salt popcorn (savoury) + M&M’s (sweet). Besides, popcorn’s healthy in its own right, though only in the same sense as Metamucil or Grape-Nuts.

  11. >ROOMIES was more “collegey,” but it evolved from a gag strip to stories about pregnancy, alcoholism, sexual morality, depression and drunk driving.

    But those ‘serious’ stories still remained within the scope of your average college student. (well… with the one notable exception of the alien abduction storyline that eventually led to SEMME, but that’s another story). In GPF, it jumps from your workplace gag-strip into a fate-of-the-many-universes epic.

    There’s nothing wrong with switching between humour and gravity if it’s properly planned. The problem is when a comic that has been comfortably pure-humour for a long time suddenly decides it doesn’t want to be all-funny anymore and switches to serious stuff overnight.

    The transition is jarring. From the reader’s point-of-view, it’s as though Garfield suddenly goes off to outer space to fight an invasion of killer alien rats for the freedom of earth.

    That’s just my opinion, anyway.

    You’re right, though. Those comments about SLUGGY were confusing. That’ll teach me to make comments without proof-checking them…

  12. Now you are free from being a slave to the corporate Logo. Mister Happy-Head rejoices.

  13. (It’s T Campbell away from his home computer. But as far as you know, I *could* be an impostor…)

    Many, many strips have begun with simple gags and moved on to more complex, serious stuff. It seems to be a natural progression in webcomics. It was certainly natural for FANS, and for CRFH and IT’S WALKY and GAMING GUARDIANS and CLAN OF THE CATS. Even NARBONIC and SLUGGY FREELANCE have dipped their toes in serious waters as the years have gone by.

    I don’t think, though, that Wednesday is saying “don’t do this,” but rather saying “make sure you proceed from the right foundation.” The “box” can become a tower, but only if the bits added to the box are close enough to the base.

    I like GPF, but I recognize Jeff took a huge risk. Most series that turn serious do so by adding depth to the protagonists, not the antagonists, and certainly not an antagonist as OTT eeeeeevil as early Trudy was. It’s interesting to speculate what GPF would be like if Jeff had followed the former path. It would have been less controversial, but also less bold.

    At any rate, thank God SOMEBODY’s out there giving in-depth and informed criticism of webcomics. Seriously, I can’t tell you how glad I am that we’ve moved past “it rulz” and “it suxxorz”…

  14. Danged good review, man. I can’t say I agree with it — I sort of liked “Mechanations,” and I recognize Trudy’s downshift from mwah-ha-ha to a sort of more practical evil as an evolution in the writing, but not a betrayal of What Has Gone Before — but you’ve got a solid and reasoned opinion with lots of support, and you stick to it. Good on ya.

  15. (T Campbell again. No, really.)

    I guess that’s what I get for visualizing the commercials, where ACTUAL peanut butter (which *I* find savory, anyway) mixes with generic chocolate. Another illusion shattered.

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