The Webcomic Overlook #92: Gastrophobia
Submitted by El Santo on July 30, 2009 - 20:17
Last spring, the wife and I booked a trip with another family on a cross-country flight to Virginia. â€œVisiting family?â€ our friends would ask. No, we were actually touring Civil War battle sites.
To which they would inevitably say, â€œWhy in the world would you ever want to learn about history?!?â€
I understand not grasping the appeal of a Civil War battle site. At the end of the day, they are, after all, medium-sized national parks with some earthworks you sorta have to squint to see. But I do take umbrage to my friendsâ€™ distaste for history. For them, â€œhistoryâ€ was a stuffy course that they had to suffer through in high school. Thatâ€™s not how I see it. You canâ€™t spell â€œhistoryâ€ without â€œstoriesâ€: real accounts of people going through incredible adversities that we in the Modern Age can only imagine.
I lay the fault on unimaginative history teachers. They reduce the thrill of humanityâ€™s achievements into a dry list of dates, names, and places that must be memorized in order to ace the midterm exams. Clearly, they cannot be trusted. Itâ€™s up to armchair historians on the internet to bring history to life again. Mental Floss does a fantastic job re-interpreting history in modern parlance. Where else could I learn that porches on old houses were so big because thatâ€™s where folks spent their days cooling off in the sweaty days before air conditioning? Over on the webcomics front, Kate Beaton has made a name for herself mainly because she knows that even the most mundane historical details can be endlessly fascinating if you present it right.
You donâ€™t even have to go into teacher mode to make history more interesting. Sometimes, the setting will suffice. Disneyâ€™s The Emperorâ€™s New Groove makes Incan civilization accessible and less alien through Chuck Jones style antics. (The always classy vocal talents of the late Eartha Kitt contributed some, too.) In the same way, the subject todayâ€™s review makes Greek antiquity a fun place to visit.
Today, the Webcomic Overlook takes the wayback machine to the days when â€œAmazonâ€ just wasnâ€™t an online bookseller and reviews Gastrophobia, a webcomic written and illustrated by David McGuire.
David McGuire (not to be confused with a Scottish footballer of the same name) is one hard working webcomic creator. His archives, available in the depths of his LiveJournal, show that heâ€™s been plugging away since at least 2000. Thatâ€™s when Kids in the Street, a strip that had been previously published in his college newspaper, went online. Digging through my own archives, I was surprised to find out that this very site had already reviewed one of his earlier works. However, since that comic has gone missing (and no evidence of its existence on McGuireâ€™s archives), and since the old link now displays a message that McGuire no longer subscribes to the philosophy that particular webcomic, I will make further mention of it in this review.
Gastrophobia is David McGuireâ€™s latest webcomic, and despite only being online as of last year, itâ€™s already rather prolific. The comic has gathered over 100 strips. Like his previous works, itâ€™s slapstick comedy. Gastrophobia mixes it up by switching between short stories and one-off gags, often involving sphinxes.
Before I start, I have a few disclaimers for touchy parents. Most of the comic is pretty clean â€¦ with a few exceptions. First, thereâ€™s a lot of stabbing going on in this comic. Itâ€™s on par with, say, The Powerpuff Girls movie, but itâ€™s there nonetheless. Second, thereâ€™s some mild nudity: McGuire puts nipples on his sphinxes. (Those sphinxes also love their slutty potty talk. Bad kitty!)
The portmanteau of a title doesnâ€™t refer to some sort of psychological condition, which I assume is an irrational fear of farts. (The FAQ says itâ€™s a made-up word that means â€œfear of being eaten.â€ Sorry, but I do like my definition better.) Rather it refers to the comicâ€™s two main stars: Gastro and Phobia. Phobia is a young single mom in burlap top and ragged skirt. She may or may not be an exiled Amazon. Despite her unfortunate name, momma ainâ€™t no fraidy-cat. OK, so Phobiaâ€™s aim is so bad that she canâ€™t hit a target if her life depended on it. But once you let her in on some close-quarters combat sheâ€™s a whirling dervish of punishment.
Gastro is her son. Phobia claims he was the result of some hanky-panky between her and Zeus disguised as an animal, which only proves that Phobia is not to be trusted. Gastro has a strong love for musical instruments though not necessarily the talent to match. Being somewhat of a little fatty, Gastro does not quite possess the wiliness and strength of a warrior. His passion for the arts, though, does end up translating to victories, whether it be psychological combat support or poetry slams. Heâ€™s also a bit of a dreamer. In his mind, hydras are rampaging monsters (and not garden-variety pests) and household chores can be scrubbed away with the cleansing power of the Labors of Hercules.
Incidentally, I adore the image of Gastro tooting on his horn. (Cripes, thatâ€™s not what I meant, you dirt-minded readers you.) Itâ€™s got all the hallmarks of an iconic cartoon image, like Schroeder at his toy piano, Calvin and Hobbes riding a sled, or Albert Alligator puffing on his stogey.
A third character, Klepto, joins them later. Heâ€™s their slave, whose ownership was transfered to Phobia through legal reasons. Heâ€™s not a particularly good slave, either; orders are met with a bored look. Phobiaâ€™s right on the mark when she sees him as just another mouth to feed. Kleptoâ€™s real passion, though, is written right there in his given name.
Gastro and Phobia are barbarians living on the outskirts of civilization. City life may be fine and dandy for doddering old kings, but life in the countryside is where the action is.
And, pray tell, what is out in the country? Why, mythical creatures to hunt and stuff! Phobia would never be mistaken for a member of PETA. Animals are meant to be slaughtered, especially when thereâ€™s a huge cash reward involved. Over the course of the comic, Phobia delivers savage beatings to various dotted lions (heh), minotaurs, and hydras (allegedly).
In a particularly perspicacious observation, fellow reviewer Elle Dee at Storming The Tower mentioned in her review that the manic nature of Gastrophobia would do well as a cartoon.
â€¦ I say bring on the 15 minute animated episodes. Itâ€™s got that perfect blend of silly stories and clever humor that would translate well to television. Now it just needs a kickass voice cast.
I strongly agree. Hereâ€™s how a typical story goes: Phobia gets a visitor from beyond! Itâ€™s Phobiaâ€™s aunt, now a ghost of the sheet-with-two-eye-holes variety. The old girl, by the way, doesnâ€™t look all that different from how she appeared in the world of the living. She is as insufferable in death as she was in life: when she walked the earth, Aunt Pneuma was a bit of a cheapskate and a thief, pulling the olâ€™ dine-and-dash at fine establishments all over Greece.
Trying to get the annoying relative off their backs, Phobia and Gastro agree to voyage to the restaurants to settle her debts. (Or so they think.) Unfortunately, the first place they visit is next to a bank, and its proprietors are currently in the process of building a tunnel. Bank robbers, perhaps? Technicallyâ€¦.
I donâ€™t want to ruin the surprise at the end of this tale, but itâ€™s a nutty, screwball development worthy of Craig McCracken and Genndy Tartakovsky.
Gastrophobia mocks incongruities with the ancient setting, plays around with reader expectations about classic myths, and turns the famous phrase from To Kill A Mockingbird into an extended joke. Overall, though, itâ€™s just plain fun. What impresses me is how McGuire distills these seemingly high concept comedy material into breezy Looney Toon jokes.
Even McGuireâ€™s art looks Cartoon Cartoons ready. The illustrations are simple, and the color palette is limited to black, white, and one extra color. Screentone is used liberally. The overall result is a distinctly retro-60â€™s flavor, a.k.a. the Cartoon Network house style before it became inundated with repeat showings of Total Drama Island.
The minimal color scheme does a lot to accentuate the story, by the way. A story rendered in yellow highlights the supreme goofiness of an entire land filled with jerkwad My Little Ponies. Meanwhile, stories rendered in red emphasize the action sequences; the battle with the minotaur feels particularly perilous (or as perilous as Gastrophobia can get).
So, if you read Gastrophobia, will you learn new things about Aristotle, Homer, Pythagoras, or Euripides? Not at all. The current storyline includes time travelers, for Peteâ€™s sake, and thatâ€™s not actually history accurate. (Or â€¦ is it?) But it does make excellent use of its ancient setting. Gastrophobia turns Greece and its colorful back catalog of myth and lore into a backdrop for fantastic adventures.
Final Grade: 5 stars (out of 5).