Sugar Bits, reviewed by Larry "El Santo" Cruz
I have never met the man named Bleedman, but I imagine that if I met him in real life, he'd be bursting with an epic amount of jittery energy. Like his veins are filled with an unholy combination of Vault, Red Bull, Pop Cola, and Nestle Crunch. His anime-insired drawings are always kinetic ... maybe even hyperkinetic, threatening to throw Newton's First Law of Motion to the ground. An object at rest doesn't stay at rest, boy-ee! With that in mind, you'd think that Sugar Bits, a webcomic about sugar, treats, and mountains of candy would be right up his alley.
(Yeah, yeah, we've heard all the Mel Gibson jokes. Let's appeal to our better angels on this one, okay? Honestly.)
Bleedman's real name is Vinson Ngo. Sugar Bits marks the first time, I believe, that he's put his real name alongside his alias onto his creation. His previous works include a series of doujinshi works, such as The King of Fighters 2001 Doujinshi and Powerpuff Girls Doujinshi, a webcomic that, in 2005, won the Web Cartoonist's Choice Awards for "Outstanding Superhero Comic" and "Outstanding Character Art." (Read that sentence again. Look what you did, WCCA! Now stand in the corner and THINK about what you did.) Sugar Bits marks the beginning of a new direction: goodbye fanfiction, hello original characters and concepts.
Distilled to one sentence, Sugar Bits can be described as "Little Nemo meets anime." (My gravest apologies, Winsor McCay.) The story takes place in a realm called Harmonia, "A world where all good things are born, good things that humans often take for granted." (Not to be confused with Harmonica, "An instrument where all good Dylan songs are born.") This place is made up of several floating kingdoms, which have cutesy names like Lovinia ("the kingdom of love and togetherness") and Courage Campus ("the academy of valour and bravery").
We begin our story in story in the gumdrop-festooned candyland of Confectionaria. What does this kingdom do to benefit mankind? Well, according to the accompanying text: "It is because of Confectionaria's existence... that people love chocolate, children love ice cream, that Pepsi and Coca-Cola have become household names, and that dentists get paid so much." Thank you, Confectionaria! The city of Hersey, Pennsylvania, owes you its undying fealty.
The story centers around a protagonist named Hansel Gingerman, a vertically challenged living cookie treat who tends to blush a lot. He's also apparently a captain with the royal guard. This makes him a hit with all the preteen chicks. (Before we level any charges, Your Honor, it should be noted that Hansel is probably younger than the girls that are macking on him.) In a gripping sequence brought to you straight from your dentist's waiting room, we're first introduced to Hansel when he defends Confectionaria from the villainy of Kaveeteh, The Plaque Monster.
He feels a strong sense of responsibility toward Ginger, the Sugar Princess. She's many things to him. She's a friend from his childhood -- which can't be that too long ago since she's just about to turn thirteen. She created him, rolling the dough and putting him in the oven, so in a way, she's also Hansel's mom. She's also Hansel's main romantic interest. Ahem. On the verge of her thirteenth birthday, she starts to get emo (heh, don't all teenagers?), straining her relationship with Hansel. In other words: she's abusive ... but loving.
On the love front, Ginger's got competition from Bo, a gal who's half-human, half-sheep. (In case you were wondering, yes, she "Baaaas." I should also note that Bo is neither the first nor the last anthropomorhic girl that tries to glomp on Hansel. The little cookie's popular with the furries, yo.) Bo is also Hansel's co-worker, a fellow guard in the Bravehearts. This means that we get treated to scenes where she beats up Hansel for a page or two, then cuddles with him in the next. Man, what is it with Harmonia and abusive relationships? Everyone should at least take one trip to Domestic-Counselingia, if you catch my drift. Anyway, when Hansel and Ginger get sucked into a hellish nightmare dimension populated by toothie beasties and a prancy wine-sipping demon with a PSP, she and the taciturn masked soldier Braveun give chase.
Together, these guys do their best to suck whatever joy can be had from the world of Sugar Bits.
I hope I conveyed that there's absolutely nothing wrong with the premise. Admittedly, Sugar Bits is flawed. But the goofy concept is also quite winning in its shameless insanity. I'm a huge fan of Lewis Carroll and its crazy sequence of hookah-fueled encounters, and Sugar Bits, at least initially, seems to be following him straight down the rabbit hole. How could Ngo make everything so very, very boring?
It's all in the execution. The dialogue, for instance. Let's look beyond the propensity to use words like "fudge" and "Wonka" as euphemisms (though, make no mistake, they are annoying). When the characters talk, they sound like the worst dubbed anime ever. This block of stellar dialogue, for example:
Ginger: Oops.... sorry about that, missed the marshmallow.
Hansel: You did that on purpose!
Ginger: Did not.
Hansel: Did too.
Ginger: Did not.
(Oh, for God's sake. I'm gonna go ahead and fast forward here.)
Hansel: You deliberately jumped off the tree and landed on me! Crumbs!!! I could have ended as crumbs! That was just mean!
Ginger: Is that any way to talk to your princess, oh royal captain?
Hansel: Fudge! I didn't mean to, your highness! I got carried away! A thousand pardons, your majesty! I mean no disrespect! Please forgive...
Ginger: Will you just stop with all the "Your Majesty this" and "Your Majesty that"? I'm getting sick of you calling me that! For once will you stop with all this royalty crap? I think I like you better when you weren't captain...
Redundancy is what I do! It's my job to be redundant!
The dialogue actually continues in a similar vein for a while longer. While I'd like to continue recounting immortal prose like "Whatever happened to the sweet, kind lovable and jolly Ginger I knew so much," I think you get the gist. There is absolutely no reason Ngo should be piling so much text on the reader. It's clunky and unnatural. And it doesn't accomplish what Ngo is transparently trying to do: character development. Is he trying to establish Princess Ginger as a sullen brat? We learned all we needed to know two pages previous when he drew Ginger as a glaring girl in Eurotrash clothes flouting authority by lounging in a tree. The harder Ngo tries to hammer the point home, the more ludicrous his characters sound.
Which leads to my next point: his characters are painfully flat. Calling them one-dimensional would be giving them too much credit. Not that they don't fit into standard stereotypes: Ginger is the mopey friend, Hansel is the reluctant hero, and Bo is the bubbly girl. Yet Ngo spends so much time trying to unsuccessfully convince us of their one defining trait that he does nothing to develop anything else that would make his characters interesting. Every character is an empty shell, nothing more.
Which brings me to Ngo's continuing struggles with portraying emotions. Putting emotions on a gingerbread man is challenge for even the best artists, and Ngo doesn't have the chops to pull it off. Though I will say that Hansel displays a wider range of emotions than Princess Ginger, who seems to be permanently stuck on the "mopey" setting.
Beyond that, Ngo never really lets the art breathe. As a person who enjoys a good manga, I have to say that Ngo's style is quite attractive, even if it does tend to look a little generic. The character designs are easy on the eyes. Heck, I'll even go so far as to say that Sugar Bit's character designs are good enough to win a second "Outstanding Character Art" Award from the WCCA.
However, he tries to cram too much story into a single page. One of the strengths of manga is that the quiet moments, where nothing happens, are just as effective as the action-packed moments. As I mentioned before, Ngo is naturally kinetic. Everything at all times must be all motion or all exposition. No time to stop for a breather. Hence, individual scenes lose a lot of their impact.
And when the action sequences do count, like, say, big fight sequences, Ngo chickens out. Most of the big fights happen off screen. They're either portrayed as shadows on the wall or jump-cut right to the aftermath. Why have your characters moving like a six-year-old on a sugar rush at all times, yet pull the punches? Oddly enough, Ngo didn't have this problem with Powerpuff Girls Doujinshi. Is Ngo feeling the pressure of completing the story within the limits of a once-weekly update schedule? Did he feel everything had to be so economical that both quiet scenes and fight scenes were equally axed?
In the end, Sugar Bits feels like a third-rate RPG. Random encounters are passed of as story, and yelling and screaming is passed off as characterization. Everything is so routine, so cliche. How cliche? The latest story has Hansel trying to save a princess. That's how cliche.
However, I won't deny that, in its failure, Sugar Bits does retain a glimmer of admirable energy. Bleedman's not going to like this, but I think it compare favorably with Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin (which I enjoy in a bitterly ironic way). In both cases, the characterizations are bad and the plot is laughable. Both ramp up the camp factor and epilepsy-inducing visuals to a ridiculous level. But there's at least one aspect that, if you turn your mind off and give in to the theater of the absurd (as Adam West would say), there's at least one thing to like about it. For Batman & Robin, it's Arnie's puns, which are so labored that they eventually cause me to crack a smile. (Go Governator!) For Bleedman, it's the art: wild, colorful, polished, energetic, and a pleasure to watch.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Sugar Bits IS pretty, and that counts for something.