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m@b by Matthew Blackett, reviewed by Matt Trepal

The gentle art of eavesdropping. The fortune (or misfortune) of being talked to by random strangers. The vast panoply of a major North American urban center. These are the social aspects that all come together to make m@b, created by Matthew Blackett. M@b is Blackett’s opportunity to give a weekly three-panel view into his Toronto neighborhood, and how he reacts to that view.

Lots of the strips are about crazy things he overhears, conversation that has to be real, since no self-respecting writer would believe he could get away with allowing fictional characters to say them. Other strips show Blackett being approached by complete strangers who accost him with all manner of off-the-wall comments, actions, and behavior. The rest largely contain his observations on living in the big city.

Blackett lives a life slightly off the beaten track (for example, he doesn’t own a television), but many of his observations strike home, especially those about humanity’s frequent inhumanity. Other observations, though, are "skip-a-beat" humor, off-beat comments he’s overheard while waiting in line or while at a party. While they may not be funny in and of themselves, the incongruous context in which they are presented (waiting at the ATM, or in an elevator, or on a café patio) grant them a humor they do not have otherwise.

The artwork in m@b is well-developed and clean, detailed enough to place the strip in context, but uncluttered in a classic comic-strip style. Blackett’s artwork would not appear out of place in a daily newspaper’s comics page, rather than the alternative weekly the strip currently runs in. All the characters (Blackett, his friends, or other people he’s met) are distinctive even if they are all obviously drawn using the same techniques. The scenery usually consists of a few well-placed objects that skillfully hint at the scene, without requiring entire backdrops to be drawn.

The online archive currently dates back to March, 2003, but the strip itself is older than that, as the site offers print collections for sale. And it is this primary focus on print, on the collections and the distribution through Toronto’s Eye Weekly, that is a significant barrier to reading the strip. Rather than having a typical webcomic archive, with "First" and "Next" buttons and the like, m@b’s archive page shows the most recent strip at the top, and a link to the page on the paper’s website that contains each other strip. In other words, a reader must go back and forth between the archive page and the strip pages to read each strip. This is probably no big concern to a cartoonist who likely does not consider himself a webtoonist, but can be a big turn-off to a reader accustomed to general webcomic conventions. Particularly someone, oh, like a webcomic reviewer trying to search for a specific strip in the archive.

Clunky archive issues aside, however, as a weekly chronicle of life in the city, m@b succeeds fairly well. Blackett’s commentary won’t appeal to everyone, though, since he makes little effort to hide his personal politics (particularly around touchy subjects such as Iraq). There are no belly laughs here, but enough strips will elicit a smile, a snort, a chuckle, or a groan to make the read worthwhile.

Matt Trepal is a staff contributor for Comixpedia. More Details.