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The Webcomic Overlook #94: Head Trip

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When Stephenie Meyer created Twilight, I doubt she knew that she was creating an unstoppable cultural juggernaut. Its effects range from the minute to the macroscopic. Small scale: a mother of two twittered us when she arrived in Forks, practically squealing with delight when she spotted a sign declaring that the city had “8.5 vampires.” Large scale: Borders bookstore is eliminating its CD and DVD section to create “Borders Ink,” a section largely designed to introduce teenage Twilight readers to similar novels and manga.

The series has attracted its share of criticism as well as controversy. While not referring to Twilight explicitly, Neil Gaiman stated that vampires needed to go back to their frightening ways in a recent article on EW.com. A while ago, The Beat practically blamed fanboys for being sexist by using a double-standard when they deal with Twilight fans. Frankly this surprised me, because in my experience the chief critics were female fans — such as Tasha Robinson and Genevieve Koski of the AV Club — who were more than a little insulted that the generally mature vampire genre was being hi-jacked by a Trapper Keeper friendly version that sparkled in sunlight.

Still, I think Twilight mockery is as viable a franchise as Twilight itself. While I have never read any of the books, I have been rather amused and entertained by the podcasts, articles, and blogs dedicated to why people hate Twilight. And Twilight hate is what introduced me to the subject of today’s Webcomic Overlook, Head Trip, written and illustrated by Amanda “Shinga” Russell.

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Before you get the wrong impression, only two of the Head Trip strips are about that infamous paranormal romance series. However, I enjoyed the art a lot, and it make me curious about the rest of the comic. Head Trip turned out to be an interesting collection of pop culture observations and a semi-autobiographical comic about being a fangirl.

Wanting to know a little bit more about the author and getting little information from the site itself, I surfed the web to find out more about Ms. Russell. It led me to her MySpace page, which is one of the more fascinating creator profiles I’ve encountered.

I’m short, I’m small, I’m formerly crippled and recovering quickly.

I have a part-time job I love and make a little extra money with art.

Ah yes, art… I draw. Constantly. I have a site here for that: shinga.deviantart.com

I used to be in the Army. Some days I wish I could go back in, but that’ll probably never happen.

It put in my head certain notions. For example, I couldn’t read Head Trip without wondering if Shinga’s physical condition factored strongly in the mood and storylines of the comic. Were certain strips attempts to keep up her sense of humor? Were other strips so bleak because there were days when nothing could cheer her up?

In a way, I wish I’d never pulled up that page. I’m pretty sure Shinga would track me down and totally kick my ass if I wrote anything that sounded like pity.

And that only raised concern when it turned out that the comic hadn’t been updated since April. And even before then, the comic had sorta been overcome by sketches drawn in MS Paint, apologies for the lack of updates, and assorted pin-ups. There’s a very good chance that Head Trip, in fact, is over. So why do I bother reviewing it?

Mainly because I liked that Twilight comic, and also because the art is easy on the eyes. The rest is easy.

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Head Trip stars Malory, an angry young woman in her twenties. I’m tempted to say she’s a stand-in for Shinga — her uncontrolled id taking form in a webcomic — but you know what happens when you “assume.” You get your ass kicked by an army brat, that’s what. Like many angry gals in comics, she deals with her issues by either threatening violence or committing violence. I don’t want to sound like an expert on gender studies (I’m not), but I image these sorts of stories impart the same cathartic euphoria that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster felt when they first drew Superman wailing on the bad guys.

Your favorite Joss Whedon show under the threat of cancellation? Confront the Fox executives… with knives! Bad boyfriend making your sister cry? Creep into his house and hack off his body parts! Clearly law enforcement officials in the Deep South are big believers in the “let the redhead do what she wants” system of justice.

Malory is apparently so evil that she freaks out the devil, a red dude who walks around without a shirt on (which, predictably, is quite a turn-on for the female readers — and maybe non-traditional male readers). So, in short, Malory is Sluggy Freelance’s Bun Bun given the form of a sexy redhead with nice abs…. or the AV Club’s Amelie “Hater” Gillette if she were a comic character.

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There are several downsides to aiming the comic’s spotlight on a … how to put it nicely … a character with a very assertive personality. First of all, there are times when Head Trip gets kinda preachy. And yes, it does enter the “I hate Jack Thompson” sweepstakes, which pretty much every single webcomic has pushed to the point of beating a dead horse. At its worst, Shinga does employ the much dreaded tactic of “I hate people who are shouty, but not me, I am a cool cucumber of rationality.” This point gets undermined every single time you see Malory pulling a gun on someone.

Secondly, by showing your character overreacting to, well, pretty much everything, she does come off as somewhat petty. In a telling moment, Shinga addresses her readers by assuring them that she is not a violent person. I believe her, of course, but I think what the readers were trying to say was that Malory needs to turn it down a few notches and chill once in a while.

Malory’s righteous vindictiveness is balanced by her sister, Kat, often portrayed as a mellow, rational girl with a more positive outlook in life. (Also portrayed as being taller, despite being younger.) I initially thought that she might represent the more pleasant side of Shinga’s personality. As I found out during the later strips focusing on Kat’s wedding, she’s based on a real person, so all my speculation turned out to be moot. Everyone else, from parents to family friends to roommates, seem to behave rationally as well. As a result, Malory sticks out like that girl who publishes an essay in the college paper railing against the sorority girls.

By they way, I spent far too much time trying to figure out exactly where Malory was supposed to be from. An early strip shows her railing on Americans for abusing the English language … so I figured she was either British … or possibly Canadian. Later strips, though, show her hanging out with her family in Memphis. Natives tell me the city is functionally an extension of Mississippi … though they didn’t tell me about the Statue of Liberty facsimile holding a giant cross. Another strip says that she lives in Texas. For some reason, it bugs me that I can’t pin the right accent when I’m reading Malory’s word bubbles.

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Parallel to the main story, Shinga also chronicles the adventures of Emokid and Chemokid. These stories originally start off as a goofy jab at emos (one of Shinga’s favorite targets). It then engages in additional shenanigans featuring The Cripple Sisters — Cane (heh) and Rider (because she’s in a wheelchair, you see) — and The Council, a collection of ridiculous modern day stereotypes. It was turning into my favorite part of Head Trip. When the main comic got too whiny for my tastes, at least there Emokid and Chemokid were there to brighten my day.

And then, in a bizarre twist, Shinga uncharacteristically ratchets up the melodrama to ludicrous levels. Rider begins moping about the loss of her legs and the betrayal of her ex-boyfriend. Emokid gets shot and everyone gets all weepy. A black mood — blacker than the blackest black in the inky darkness of their spandex — descended over the enterprise. Emokid and Chemokid became that which it mocked: unrepentantly and totally emo. Huh. Was Shinga writing a fanfiction of her own subcomic?

Still, when it’s good, Head Trip can the cure for what ails ya. I rather enjoyed the Watchmen comic, which sees Rorschach and pals chatting online. I even enjoyed Shinga’s takedowns on various TV shows that ticked her off. Plus, her art evolved nicely since her last hiatus, moving away from a manga-lite appearance to something more fluid and distinct. If her current hiatus is due to a massive case of writer’s block, I have but one suggestion: Twilight is an endless mine of material, a gift that never stops giving.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Posted in 3 Stars, comedy webcomic, pop culture caricatures, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics