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The Webcomic Overlook #147: Journey To Mt. Moriah

The title of Scott Starling’s Journey to Mt. Moriah sounds like it should be a chapter from a Tolkien epic. You know, maybe that one chapter where the hobbits stopped for lunch or when an elf or a man from Numenor would break out into song.

Wait… Wasn’t that all of them?

Anyway, you may be a little disappointed to find out that, despite the title, Journey To Mt. Moriah features very little elven serenading, ring bearing, or Balrog slaying. In fact, the title — Octopus Pie, xkcd, or Trucks Bearing Kibble — seems to be one of those intentionally oddball titles meant to screw with the normals.

The phrase, though, does appear within the archives of the four-panel comic. In “The Amulet,” a little bugman receives a gift from his father to protect him when he joins the Imperial Army. The amulet, “forged by mystics in the depths of Mt. Moriah,” is supposed to bring him safely back home to his parents, his father says. Unfortunately, nothing in the amulet says anything about being safely returned alive: the father, who seems to be a field medic, runs across his son’s corpse.

In a way, this particular comic significantly encapsulates everything you ever need to know about Journey To Mt. Moriah:

  1. It’s surreal.
  2. It’s full of bitter irony.
  3. There are animals in there for some reason.
  4. It sure looks a lot like Perry Bible Fellowship.

Longtime readers will probably be rolling their eyes at this point, since this is probably the ninth or tenth webcomic I’ve compared to Perry Bible Fellowship. Alas, I can’t help it. PBF is, by any measure, one of the most prominent and significant webcomics ever created. Nicolas Gurewitch made webcomics safe for both sophisticated, painterly illustrations (as opposed to the popular option of being rendered flatly in Flash) and humor that was, on some level, more complex than the highly prevalent and incredibly popular “Did you play this video game already it was so bad/Jack Thompson is taking away my video games, don’t let him take away my vidja gaems” trope. Dude’s still at it, too: his contribution to Marvel’s Strange Tales collections brought his oddball sensibilities to the superhero crowd.

Still, I can’t help but feel a little guilty for dredging up Perry Bible Fellowship yet again. The comparison is lazy at best, and unfair at worst. After all, it’s not like Nicholas Gurewitch has a monopoly on ironic, surreal humor. This sort of comic has been around as long as college students have been making comic strips. If you remember when PBF was being updated on a regular basis, critics drew several comparisons to A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible, an earlier comic with eyecatching artwork that similarly dwelt on the ironies of life. So, when you think about it, Journey To Mt. Moriah is merely one of the most recent comics playing around in the same genre and not necessarily influenced by one particular comic, no matter how prominent.

Still… Journey To Mt. Moriah sure looks a lot like Perry Bible Fellowship, doesn’t it? There are plenty of entries — preferably ones with an impeccable use of color and don’t conform to the Mt. Moriah squat, rectangular everyperson type most prevalent in later strips — that you can believably send to a friend and fool them into thinking that it’s the a genuine Gurewitch. The biggest difference here is that Mr. Starling seems to have taken a look at PBF and was all like, “This is what passes for surreal humor nowadays? I’ll show you punks the true meaning of the word ‘surreal’!”

If I had one word to decrible Journey to Mt. Moriah, it would probably be “baffling.” It’s baffling in the sense that half the time it’s never really clear if there’s supposed to be funny or not. Granted, half the time Mr. Starling isn’t trying to tell a joke. Rather he’s trying to be prosaic or poetic, pensive or surreal, and sometimes socially conscious. The comic is experimental, as Scott says on his “About” page. As a result, they’re not all supposed to be funny.

But there’s just enough comics that are obviously humorous that it makes you doubt yourself. I liken the experience of reading Journey To Mt. Moriah to listening to a lecture by a literature professor with a very dry sense of humor. From time to time, he’ll drop a quip or an anecdote that could be interpreted as either a meaningful allegory or a “clever” joke. So … what do you do? Do you sorta giggle just in case he was making a joke? If it was the former, wouldn’t it be rude? And if it was the later, is it possible that it’s not really that good of a joke because a good punchline almost always means that the joke didn’t have to be explained to you?

The only way you can tell if it was a joke is if the professor, say, allows himself a sly smile to himself. Oh, he was joking! That means it’s safe to laugh! Given the limitations of realtime streaming, Starling can’t do the nudge-and-wink routine, of course. He does sometimes provide a hint in the title that hey, he’s just goofing. There are times, though, when even those don’t cough up much information. The results are just … baffling.

Take the strip entitled “Somehow Different.” It’s a simple comic about a guy picking up a girl at the airport. There’s a lot of yellow fractured pieces in the background which may or may not be significant. The text reads: “I picked her up at the airport/ and although it was good to have her home/ she somehow seemed different/ very different.” I read this a few times trying to figure out what the point of it was. Did Scott Starling actually pick someone up at the airport, and he’s communicating his thoughts in comic form? What thoughts? Unease? Regret? I didn’t even stop to think that this strip might have a humorous punchline until I read the comments. (“All I can say to it now is ‘ahaha, I get it!’”) So… if there is a punchline, what is it? Is it because the girl has armpit hair in the last panel? Which may be why the yellow triangle things in the back are now yellow cloud things? If that’s the joke, it’s not a very good one. Or perhaps there’s another joke in there that I haven’t found because I’m not looking hard enough?

Is there any significance at all in this comic depicting a circus scene? Why is this fish holding a stick with a glowing green baby like something you’d find on a Trapper Keeper, only less airbrushed? Maybe the jokes here are the pointlessness of the jokes themselves, and ultimately the joke’s on you for trying to find a deeper meaning in the first place.

Riddles within riddles, this Journey To Mt. Moriah.

Starling supports my “everything is pointless” theory by tossing in unnecessary nonsequiturs like it’s no one’s business. For example, there’s a comic about John and Betsy Ross (the later being the woman who sewed together the American flag), where, apropos of nothing, John is an alien. That one at least makes sense from the standpoint of a punchline. But … was it really necessary to make the elderly couple John and Betsy Ross? Wouldn’t it have made more sense if they were just a regular elderly couple? (Starling helpfully provides a link to a site for people unfamiliar with Betsy Ross … and that only makes it more confusing. The site states that John Ross was mortally wounded during the American Revolution. And that translates to space aliens … how?)

Another comic where two dudes talking by phone about a party the night before, where a guy, who’s grooming his hair with a fro pick, has taken home a girl. The guy on the other end is a mantis. That makes so sense at all. There doesn’t seem to even be a joke at all. The entire strip is unapologetically absurd for absurdism’s sake.

A part of me appreciates that Journey To Mt. Moriah exists, just because it’s playing around in humor so experimental that stretches the definition of what’s funny. Thinking out of the box, originality … that should be commended, right? And yet, a part of me knows that, despite the comic’s best intentions, I didn’t really find it all the amusing in the end.

To toss in yet another analogy, Journey To Mt. Moriah is similar to the humor of Tim & Eric. It’s wild an unpredictable, but it’s too unstructured to get a laugh out of me … and the best bits are the ones that lean on tried and true methods of humor deployment. When you finally get a funny Mt. Moriah strip, it’s like finally arriving at the Not Jackie Chan skit: sure, it gets a chuckle out of you and it’s pretty unique, but a part of you wonders if perhaps it’s a little unearned because everything else was kinda blah and mediocre, and you were aching for a moment to cut loose.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Filed under: 3 Stars, alternative webcomic, comedy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics