A webcomic post that isn’t about Darths and Droids or Order of the Stick? It’s the apocalypse!

(From PVP. Click for full-sized awkward re-introductions.)

Here’s what’s happened over the past year in PVP:

First, Jade was invited to a high school reunion, which started out fairly normally, until it turned into a murder mystery (and a locked room mystery to boot!), with the obvious suspect soon ruled out and turned into the murderee. Oh, and there’s a fairly blatant continuity error.

Then Brent and Jade showed up as superheroes for a halloween party, which thankfully lasted for only two strips, before Cole pressed Francis into training the rest of the gang for a Halo 3 battle with Max Powers, prompting Brent to ask, “Since when is this comic strip about video games again?” The match itself takes place entirely off-screen, though, and is also mercifully brief.

Then a panda in the office nearly dies, and with Brent’s interference almost does, attracting the attention of the WWF, touching off a flashback sequence that’s really a three-strip Liberty Meadows tribute, complete with Frank Cho art, ending with Brent bringing in the panda and trying to pass it off as Skull. The WWF reintroduces the panda to the office on the grounds that it can’t survive outside an urban setting, and effectively bribes Cole into keeping him, allowing Cole to buy out Max Powers and end the financial support he’d been providing.

That leads into the annual rising of Kringus, demon god of Christmas trees, which – in a last-minute change in Scott Kurtz’s plans – consists of Kringus and Scratch teaming up to steal presents and steal the secret of world-travel-in-one-night from a mall Santa, only for said Santa to turn all bad ass on Kringus, only for Scratch to taze him and reveal him not to be the genuine article.

I’m only three months into the past year. That’s before Shecky, Skull’s cousin, shows up and takes Skull to impress the woman he wants to be his fiance, only for her to decide that just because Skull loves Shecky, doesn’t mean Shecky has any redeeming qualities. Since it can’t just end like that, Skull and Shecky get into a bit of a bother, which Madeline (who did I mention is a Gorgon, better known as a Medusa?) exonerates Shecky for, though not for the reasons Shecky thinks.

Then things return to some semblance of normalcy as it only now dawns on Brent how much Francis looks up to him, just as he set a date for his wedding with Jade, which he makes up for by making Francis the ring bearer and making it sound like Lord of the Rings. Then Francis decides to keep the name Brent changed one of his World of Warcraft characters to as a joke, and along with Skull, starts forming an in-game guild, in a setup to the launch of a spinoff comic.

Then Scratch starts modeling his world domination plans after Garfield, then considering modeling it after Calvin and Hobbes. Then Cole trash-talks his way right out of being the best man, briefly plopping Francis in the role until it turns out to be a result of trouble in his own marriage. That leads to Cole rooming with Brent for the moment. And then Brent gets surprised by his parents who don’t want to wait any longer to meet Jade, and Brent’s father pressures Cole into making up with his wife, which leads to an office paintball tournament, which Miranda turns out to be an expert at, and which ends when Brent suffers a dislocated nipple. A dislocated nipple. Which means he has to wear a bra. And it turns out they left Skull behind in the woods which turns into another super-serious mystery as he goes on a mushroom-induced high.

Seriously, you will never see a more ridiculous serious line in your life than “Cole, get the equipment out of the van. We’re painting troll tonight.” Not even in a fantasy story.

And the whole thing ends when Kurtz himself shows up and ridicules the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

Then, after a lengthy bout of guest strips, the wedding arc itself starts with – if you saw this coming collect your prize! – Jade backing out. Well, turns out it’s not Jade, it’s her mother by way of Miranda, so Cole has to ask Robbie for a favor. And even the wedding becomes super-serious when Skull’s case worker shows up to tell him his job is done. And Brent is slow enough to let go that he knocks a statue’s head off with a golf club.

Sensing a pattern here? Utter silliness wrapped up in mega-serious plots. Perhaps we call this PVP Syndrome?

Okay, I know that didn’t make sense, so to further clarify what I mean by PVP Syndrome (or maybe it’s Goats Syndrome), let’s compare PVP to Order of the Stick. Both underwent Cerebus Syndrome, but OOTS was always very well-grounded in a fantasy setting. It wove a compelling plot with new elements that made sense in the setting. I haven’t read much PVP at all beyond the past year, but I get the sense that once upon a time, it was just about a bunch of people in a magazine newsroom. Yes, they had a giant blue troll as a friend, but other than that it was essentially a standard workplace comedy. Well, some of those more outre elements have become even more outre, yet they’ve also helped provide the underpinnings of what’s presented as a fairly serious plot, and it just doesn’t mesh.

Eric Burns described Cerebus Syndrome as “the effort to create character development by adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension (or meant to be a joke character) and making them fuller and richer.” That’s essentially what, over the years and especially recently, Kurtz has tried to do with Skull: create a broader underpinning for the character and his concept – but not really changing the fact that he’s a big blue cuddly troll who hangs out in a magazine office. He tried to put Skull through Cerebus Syndrome but he failed. That’s PVP Syndrome: trying to put your strip through Cerebus Syndrome, but through a misunderstanding of your own material, botching it so badly and creating something so unintentionally hilarious it comes off as something out of Bizarro Monty Python.

Seriously. Brent knocked the head off a living statue with a golf club. At his own wedding. And at least superficially, it’s supposed to be treated completely seriously.

Something tells me PVP needs to lose Skull at this point – if not to shake up the status quo (how much does the wedding of Brent and Jade change things, really?), to stop from becoming totally insane. Yet he just returned to Brent and the PVP gang (more on that later). It’s been hardly four months since the wedding and the strip is inexorably being drawn back to its old status quo.

And I’m not even going to talk about the Francis-and-Marcy-have-sex thing.

Then we get the misadventures of Skull’s new charge, which ends badly. Then we have more panda misadventures, this time involving a female panda who has to be brought in to copulate with the one they already have, which ends with the revelation that Brent has “the spirit of the panda inside [him]” and dressing up in a panda suit to fight the real panda, which ends when he accidentially knocks the real panda out and gets the girl panda all hot and bothered for him. But at least the boy panda has a new respect for Brent.

I swear to God I am not making any of this up.

Then Skull’s misadventures continue with a Family Circus parody, only to be saved by a Foxtrot parody. Then Robbie tries to work out his personal issues with Brent and Cole, prompting them to try to work things out with his friend Jason, who assures them that everything’s fine, which is belied by their actual interaction. The operation, then, is a success, much to Cole’s dismay.

Then we get an “interlude” where a bunch of literary supervillians team up to take on “the Lolbat”, a Batman parody that speaks mostly in Internet slang and mangled grammar, which ends badly. Then Francis and Cole get into an argument that seems intended to mirror D&D 4th Edition debates. And finally, in the current story arc, Scratch vows to get Skull back come hell or high water, starting by confronting Shecky, who gives him a key to the land of magic, where Scratch goes on a rampage, leading Madeline to agree to return Skull.

I haven’t even talked about the extraneous stuff, like the guest strips and the parody of 60s cop shows.

The funny part is, I actually developed more of an appreciation of PVP after reading all of that, and the growth and development of the characters and their relationships taking place all the while. But the two times I’ve attempted to start reading PVP have been during the second panda storyline above and the most recent storyline, and neither one has left a good taste in my mouth, seemingly proving to me that the general rule of webcomic popularity is that the weirder and more surreal, the better. I’m not even sure I understood the current storyline on first read.

This is a reference I know will resonate with Kurtz: Julius Schwartz was a comic book writer and editor, and one of the things he was fond of saying was that “every comic is someone’s first.” (I know I’ve heard that quote, but all of a sudden I’m not sure it was Schwartz’s, since he also said “the Golden Age of Comics is seven” or something like that.) Now, comics since then have largely forgotten those sage words, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less relevant. Webcomics also have a propensity to forget them, maybe even more so, a natural result of the fact that any story-based comic is likely to have someone join in in the middle of some story arc, which is one reason why Eric Burns has recommended that any webcomic have some sort of cast page – any cast page, even one that hasn’t been accurate since the very first strip (which is why he’s also disdained webcomics that have taken down out-of-date cast pages).

But all the cast pages in the world can’t save someone’s readership of a strip if the first strip they see makes them decide it’s not their cup of tea. It’s possible for a mid-story strip to be a good introduction to the strip – I first fell in love with OOTS by reading an early strip in the battle of Azure City and becoming fascinated by the whole battle. But the current storyline is only resonant (and arguably only makes sense) if you already know who Skull is (thankfully he is listed on the cast page, which can’t be said for a good many others), that and why he was taken away, and even then you’d probably need to jump in fairly early in the storyline to understand what’s going on. With either of the storylines I started with, you might be left with the impression that PVP is a random, nigh-incomprehensible mess.

That leaves me with the impression that Kurtz is really writing for continuity-hungry fanboy geeks who jumped on board when PVP was good and popular, not trying to reach out to new readers. Perhaps this is to be expected, and perhaps Kurtz has a specific end point in mind with PVP and so doesn’t see the point in bringing in anyone new… but it’s interesting to note that Order of the Stick, a strip with a natural, clear end point, hasn’t gotten so bogged down in continuity as to turn off potential readers. All I know is that PVP gives the impression of pure chaos and randomness run amok, even if it isn’t and even if it’s still fairly decent, and that could magnify its already rather concerning flaws and obscure its virtues.

I’d like to think the ticket to webcomic popularity isn’t to be as weird and random as possible…

(Webcomic reviews will last one or two weeks into October and could resume in November depending on how easily I balance everything I’ve already signed up for until then.)

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