Shortpacked! by David Willis, Reviewed by Andrew Bonia
David Willisâ€™ much beloved Itâ€™s Walky! was an epic science-fiction story mixed liberally with teen-angst drama and quirky, character-driven comedy. That story concluded last year (though the series is still showing signs of life) and for his next project Willis chose a more open format, free from the bonds of continuity and logic. The result was Shortpacked! a gag-a-day strip set loosely within the world of Itâ€™s Walky but with a whole new direction.
Shortpacked! originally began several years before the end of Itâ€™s Walky, but faded into indefinite hiatus after an all too brief run. Aimed at toy collectors, Shortpacked! comically explored the world of action figures and the people who love them, from small children to 30-something fans. In its new incarnation the strip continues along this vein, focusing the action on a regular cast of toy store employees.
While the humour revolves around toy collecting and the various quirks of the collectors, Shortpacked! is easily accessible for any with a cursory knowledge of pop culture. There has been a shift in more recent strips, and especially between the older version and the new, towards more concept-driven jokes. That is, a strip will poke fun at the characters from say Transformers, and not so much at the toys themselves (though it is still known to happen). This gives Willis free reign to spoof any other fictional world he wants, from DC comics to the movie Stealth, in addition to the original world of the strip. This isnâ€™t to say that the strip is only parody. Shortpacked! is full of observational, pop-culture based humour, often going against popular opinion to point something out.
The action revolves around Ethan, who plays straight man as an employee in a toy store staffed by a very motley crew indeed. Thereâ€™s Galasso, the megalomaniacal manager, (as Willis himself used to work in a Toys â€˜Râ€™ Us, one wonders how far off from the truth heâ€™s getting) and Amber the shy check-out girl. Thereâ€™s also the janitor, uh, Ronald Reagan and Ninja Rick, a character who is apparently the living embodiment of realultimatepower.net. Rounding out the cast, and returning from Itâ€™s Walky are Robin and fan favorite Mike, previously super-powered government agents, now lowly retail personnel. Though their transition between the two very different comics has yet to be explained, it really doesnâ€™t feel like it matters that much in the context of what is essentially a joke-a-day strip, and they seem to be fitting in nicely.
Many of these players arenâ€™t so much characters as walking jokes. They each have one central idea and this informs everything they do. Galasso is a despot. Rick loves ninjas (which even as other characters admit is "played out") and Ronald Reagan is... well, heâ€™s Reagan. Willis has an excellent grasp of character, and this profusion of one-dimensional people isnâ€™t laziness on his part at all. There is good reason that Mike came over from Itâ€™s Walky: heâ€™s the king of the one-trick pony. Heâ€™s an asshole, pure and simple; always has been. But itâ€™s often the one-trick pony that fans want most. (Just ask Clay, for example, from Sexy Losers who his most popular character is.) Willisâ€™ ability to create multi-dimensional characters is what made Itâ€™s Walky, but his skill with jokes and stereotypes should not be ignored. Are ninjas played out? Yes. But put Ninja Rick in with all these other characters and they balance each other out. Somehow it works.
Another welcome feature to Shortpacked! is Willisâ€™ awareness of comics as a form. He understands how to use a panel. And he does - for emphasis, for timing, even as the joke itself. The art varies depending on the strip, changing itself to match whatever it is making fun of but always returning to Willisâ€™ recognizable style. My only complaint on this end is that he has recently changed the way he colors, adding many different shades of color in a way that seems distracting. Still the art itself is clean and able to convey what it is portraying, whether in action, or stillness.
Shortpacked! represents one of the greatest functions of webcomics, one of the most important things webcomics can do that no other variation of the form could hope to: it directs itself to a particular, obscure audience and caters to them specifically. There are many webcomics out there doing exactly the same thing. Toy collecting isnâ€™t nearly as obscure a hobby as it used to be, especially on the internet, and most toy collectors are people who were reading comics anyway. Imagine the new readers we might get if they knew their esoteric hobbies were being represented in comic form. Iâ€™d love to see a dozen more strips like this one dealing with everything from NASCAR racing to wine collecting. But for now, people with hobbies other than video gaming and watching anime can rest assured that there are a few webcomics tailor made for them just waiting to be found, with Shortpacked! leading the way.
Andrew Bonia lives in a box in your basement. His one joy in life is writing and illustrating Chaos Chronicles, a cartoon science fiction epic.