The jaded webcomics consumer is well familiar with the idea: a creator takes extant intellectual property, then makes it her own. The high-profile example of digital sampling sticks out from the music world, and Apocalypse Pooh developed a cult following in the late eighties and early nineties. Executions may vary in quality, but our readers are likely familiar with the convention of game-based sprite comics by now, and the dreary ire they’ve been known to draw.
Last Kiss compares more closely with legal sampling than the average sprite comic, based on one important detail: the creator, Disney comics writer John Lustig, owns the rights to his source material. When Charlton Comics divested itself of its intellectual assets back in 1987, Lustig picked up the full rights to the flaccid mid-century romance comic First Kiss — for a lousy $400. Though it took him over ten years to come to grips with the material, it eventually proved to be worth every penny.
Last Kiss takes multiple forms, up to and including the occasional long-form piece of original art in print-version comics; here, we concentrate upon the reworked strips and panels which appear online weekly. The comics tear original art out from its stultifying context, take on (bright and engaging, but sometimes hamhanded) color, and acquire dialogue from far left field. An agent, desperate to boil it all down to a derivative soundbite, might be forgiven for labeling it Roy Liechtenstein’s Far Side — but he might just as well be beaten to death with large sticks.
The reader need not be familiar with the source material, or even romance comics in general, but it helps. (Read "I had to be TAMED" for a nonsensical example.) First Kiss was a fairly shoddy example of a genre choked in mediocrity to begin with. Following World War II, American comics producers found a lucrative market in teenaged-to-early-twentysomething girls, modeling their comics after romance confessional magazines. If it helps, consider these as the comics equivalent of the romance novel, or the precursors to the current North American boom in shoujo and josei manga. The bubble was so large that even horrormongers EC Comics experimented briefly with A Moon, A Girl… Romance. Charlton churned cynically away, spurting gobs of, well, shite. As Trina Robbins puts it in From Girls to Grrrlz, "Each issue gave the impression that, after having blown their entire monthly budget on a beautiful cover, the editors parceled out the interior pages for peanuts to various talented high school student relatives of the staff."
The strip probably works better than any long-form remix, chiefly because its absurdity has its greatest effect in small chunks. Romance isn’t really on the table so much as bizarre circumstance, pithy commentary, and charming moments of comical sluttery; as with sketch comedy and children’s television, these things are well suited to the short attention span. You don’t want to drag the joke out for ages.
While generally entertaining enough, Last Kiss does occasionally struggle with its self-conscious quippiness. It’s true that talking heads can be made to say almost anything — just consider what you can do with Penny Arcade. It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that everything you make them say is going to be inspired; sometimes it’s amusing, but sometimes it seems just a bit forced. In fact, it tends to be particularly forced when in-jokes about comic books are involved. (Credit, though: when the humor’s spot-on, it’s very firmly spot-on.) This isn’t easy work, no matter how flexible the source material, and Lustig does at least manage to make each panel worth a snicker.
At only 57 installments as of this writing, Last Kiss isn’t much of a commitment, though, and doesn’t need to be super-fantastic every single time. There are no particularly deep truths, or even shallow truths, about relationships or romance or much of anything coming out here. But it’s a pleasant way to spend a lunch hour, or to distract oneself from the workaday world for a moment — which is a much better application of the source material than Charlton made of it.