Sabrina Online by Eric W. Schwartz, reviewed by Matt Trepal
As arguably one of the most well-known and oldest anthropomorphic animal (or "furry") comics on the Internet (indeed, having gone online in 1996, it may be among the oldest webcomics, period), Sabrina Online, created by Eric W. Schwartz, has been cited as inspiration for many Internet artists. Like Helen of Troy, the title character may be the face that launched a thousand strips.
What is it about furry comics that generate such intense feelings in the webcomics community? Some people loathe them with every fiber of their beings. Others will defend them with their last breath. Few people have no opinion on the subject. The origins and validity of the debate is beyond the scope of this review, but Sabrina Online may support the arguments of both sides.
Simply put, Sabrina's story is "Furry Geeks in Love." Sabrina is a young skunk woman who works at an adult film studio (remember how I said it may support the anti-furry side?) as a graphics designer and webmistress (remember the geek part?), while fending off the advances of her female boss (see first parenthetical comment). At the same time, she is sharing an apartment with her friend Amy and her boyfriend (then later, her husband), Thomas. As the relationship between Amy and Thomas develops and Amy gives birth, Sabrina spends more and more time conversing with her online friends, developing a more intimate relationship with one of them, a man named Richard (or RC).
Is this a comment on Internet culture, pure wish fulfillment, or a convenient plot device? All three, possibly, but Sabrina and RC arrange to meet in person. It becomes apparent then that their online relationship has produced a real intimacy, and they agree to continue it in the Real World. They set off to face the perils of dating, the awkwardness of the first kiss, the clumsiness of the first sexual encounter, and the sheer terror of meeting The Parents (especially when it becomes known that the couple has done more than just hold hands).
Schwartz handles the growing relationship between Sabrina and RC well, allowing it to blossom from an online friendship through to physical intimacy in a very gentle, understated way.
Do you want geeky? Sabrina Online has geeky. Whether it involves Internet culture, computers, Transformers and toy collecting, or the furry fandom, inside jokes abound. In fact, although knowledge of these subjects is not required to understand the jokes (usually), some strips are so filled with cameos or obscure references that the weight of them can be palpable and overbearing.
Schwartz's writing is crisp and funny in a sitcom-ish way. The 'zany scheme' approach is prevalent, whether in duping Sabrina into babysitting her little sister, in the first arranged meeting of Sabrina and RC, or in an outrageous business trip Sabrina takes with her boss. In fact there is nothing here, except for some very infrequent references (where Sabrina sprays a would-be mugger, for example), that would be out of place if the characters were all humans rather than talking animals.
It is this non-reliance upon the most obvious aspect of the strip, the fact that the characters are all giant, bipedal, talking animals, that may be Sabrina Online's greatest weakness. Stripped of its fur, the story is fairly pedestrian and not very innovative. On the other hand, Sabrina Online may suffer from the perceived blandness that entertainment history assigns to many early arrivals. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet may seem corny and hackneyed to us these days, but that show was among the first in a new medium, and had nothing to be judged against at the time. Being first allows a creator to get away with some things his successors might not be able to because of heightened expectations, and Sabrina Online may occupy a similar slot in the history of webcomics. In truth, without the furry angle there is nothing in the strip that would be out of place on any American newspaper's comics page. Well, except for the adult film studio.
Ah, yes, porn. That bane of the furry genre. The writing in the strip becomes decidedly raunchier when the setting shifts to the studio, but the device of casting Sabrina in the role of the studio's graphics designer allows Schwartz to avoid any truly explicit material. Oh, there's plenty of risqué dialogue, particularly from Sabrina's boss Zig Zag, but it isn't anything that couldn't be heard during an evening of Must-See TV.
An art-school graduate who studied cartooning and animation, Schwartz has a classic cartoon style reminiscent of Warner Brothers animation, and displays a consistency with his characters that many webcomic artists can only hope for. Using only pen and ink (appropriate for a strip whose main character is a skunk), Schwartz can create incredibly detailed strips or spare environments, but neither looks out of place with the other. On occasion, too much dialogue really crowds out everything else, but these strips are few and far between.
Is Sabrina Online worth reading? Well, those who outright despise any comic with the term "furry" attached to it won't find anything to change their minds, as there are plenty of large breasts and references to sex. Fans of the genre likely already know about Sabrina and may be reading this review only to determine which side of the debate the reviewer comes down on. But if you are one of those few undecided people, or cautiously willing to approach the genre and see whether all those horror stories are true, then Sabrina Online is a decent strip to start with. It's a cleverly-written, well-drawn example of cartooning, whether or not the main character happens to have a bushy, black and white striped tail or not.