Sluggy Freelance. SLUGGY FREAKIN' FREELANCE! Over a thousand comic strips! THIRTY-FOUR CHAPTERS! SEVEN books! Almost SIX YEARS! The paraphernalia for sale! The support sites! The tribute sites! The Pete Abrams worship – it's everywhere. Plug "Sluggy Freelance" into Google and you get 25,600 hits.
Where does one even plan to begin to start to talk about this comic?
Perhaps with the characters? Riff, the taciturn inventor. Torg, the web-designer and narrative focus. Bun-bun, the homicidal talking mini-lop (a kind of bunny rabbit). Kiki, the hyperactive ferret. Zoe, the sweet young woman who constantly gets dragged into situations beyond her control. Gwynn, the unbalanced woman who is often the catalyst for bizarre occurances. Aylee, the alien who evolves every few chapters… and those are just the main characters – we're not even looking at the crowded sky of satellite folks who drop in and out of plotlines or engender stories themselves.
Is there anything even left to be said? As a matter of fact, yes – yes there is.
Sluggy Freelance first began as a strip-style comic rendered in a basic, cartoonish style. The weekday-through-Saturday strips were normally three to four panels, with occasional exceptions. The Sunday strips started out triple-size and in color. Overall, the style was almost newspaper-like in its conformity of design.
In the early strips, characters are periodically drawn with startling realism – note the depiction of Torg in the final panel of this strip, or this strip with Zoe in the foreground versus the more cartoon-like Torg behind her. Gradually the characters become more iconified and simplified, consistently appearing with certain characteristics always intact: big eyes and a flannel shirt for Torg, sunglasses and a trenchcoat for Riff, long dark hair for Zoe, big eyeglasses and curly brown hair for Gwynn.
The content, however, was and is completely orthogonal to any traditional style or genre. In the first story, Satan possesses Riff's computer. Then, a talking rabbit is randomly added to the strip. After that there are science fiction stories, tales of science gone mad, bad talk show hosts, vampires, spoofs of popular shows and trends, strange inventions – some of which work while others don't, interdimensional travel, more demonic possession, time travel, medieval cavorting, manga-type assassins, Satan-spawn, Santa Claus and manifestations of each of the holidays, mutating viruses, even MORE demonic possession, cloning, insanity, and ghostly interference.
Throughout it all, no matter what the theme or story, there is always humor. Self-referential humor, the mocking of others, the mocking of one's self, the mocking of anyone who would be annoyed by mockery and puns – awful, rancid stinking puns. A beautiful, entertaining, cathartic thing, this funny business.
In the last few years, Abrams has been experimenting with art styles. One of his big breakthrough shifts in style starts with the plotline for "The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot." Here, Gwynn's dream-reality is rendered loosely, with no right angles, and depicts a surreal landscape. Abrams even scribbles random creepy phrases around and between the panels, giving the impression of things beyond the reader's understanding – unconscious thoughts, fears, and ravings.
When most of the main characters move into a haunted house, Abrams' coloring style shifts to reflect the spooky atmosphere. Blues and purples dominate and the semi-transparent ghosts are well-rendered. Abrams is mastering the ability to create moods without having to explicitly set up the moment with dialogue or obvious symbols.
With the "Fire and Rain" storyline, Abrams combines some creative panel work with both subtle and intense use of color. The fractured panel work, the scribbled font, and the pointed use of color do more to represent Oasis' half-disintegrated mind than any narration could. Separating out moments in panels with minimal or very pointed dialogue also does an excellent job of building tension. And the panel-by-panel flashes of violence are scarier than a more explicitly bloody scene would be.
In the current story line, Abrams is again applying a creative use of color. Memories are tinted beige like faded newspaper while a bit of foreshadowing is in brilliant color. The present starts as a faded bluish green, and the ghosts are even creepier than before. Shades of gray highlight a classic horror spoof. And hey, blood shows up really well over the faded bluish green tones. Moreover, as the characters' situation changes and grows worse, the dominant color begins to shift – first, a vibrant red appears. Then the faded bluish green is alternated with vivid blues, greens, yellows and reds which all finally coalesce into flames.
A good comic has a tight blend of writing and art where one is practically useless without the other and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As Abrams' art has improved, so has his writing. Shifting the creation of atmosphere over to the illustrations has freed him to be more creative with dialogue, narration, flashbacks, and voiceovers. The upside is more complex plotting, with newer stories building on previous work to create compelling works with lots of character development. The downside is that many of Abrams later stories are dependent upon earlier ones to make sense. This is great for the loyal readers, but can prove daunting to newcomers.
To help new readers get caught up, and to provide refresher courses for long-time readers, Abrams periodically provides recaps when shifting to a new story. There are also a couple of guides for new viewers on the Sluggy.com website – the "New Viewer Guide" which contains pointers to popular plotlines and parodies. There's also the Sluggy Viewer Guide, which is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of sub-plots. Unfortunately, this only goes to chapter 21, from November of 2000. Although there aren't any pointers to it on the main Sluggy.com pages, there's also "The Oasis Guide" for catching up with popular recurring character Oasis and her increasingly frightening appearances. There's also The Sluggite Zone, which contains supposed FAQs and pointers to various ways to contact and talk with other Sluggites (as fans are known), is largely trivia-based, and not that helpful for summarizing the comic. However, as a saving grace, the Sluggite Zone also has the Sluggy Text Search, which is great for finding particular events (try plugging in "recap" if you're interested in plot summaries).
In terms of friendliness to new viewers, there are no cast pages (easily found ones, at least) and both the New Viewer Guide and the Sluggy Viewer Guide desperately need updating. Plus, given how popular and critically acclaimed the "Fire and Rain" storyline was, it's odd that there are no pointers to it internal to the Sluggy sites themselves – nor are there any pointers to the Oasis Guide outside of the pointers under each panel of "Fire and Rain" itself.
For navigation through the archives, while you can move backward or forward from one month to the next using the calendar on every page, there is no date-based archive page. The reader can also move from book to book, or chapter to chapter for those not yet collected in books, via a pull-down menu. But there are no markers on the pages as you move through them (via a daily view or an entire week at a time) that tell you when you've moved from one plot to another. This makes it somewhat difficult for a reader to choose a good stopping point and then find her place again, something that's crucial when dealing with over 1,000 comics.
In fact, the best fine-grain and up-to-date guide for following the various Sluggy stories and significant happenings is a fan site called "Sluggy Freelance Story Lines and Events", created and maintained by a fellow named James Marshall. He lists the books, each broken down into chapters, with the chapters broken down into sub-plots – original web-site publication dates included. Beyond the books (which cover through chapter 25) he just lists the chapters and subsections and is up-to-date through the current chapter and section. He also has a date-based list of Sluggy Freelance Events – everything from the introduction of all the main characters and many of the significant supporting characters, to the notation of important events and the start of various stories.
But despite whatever barriers there might be to a painless entry, Sluggy Freelance is worth the effort. Not just for the cultural gestalt and the recognition of the quotes your friends are always rattling off ("emergency pants" *snicker*), this landmark of a webcomic is worth it for the stories, for the characters, and for all the Abrams' funny, great and small. POING!