Now Websnark’s back too, so it’s 2009 all over again!

(From Sluggy Freelance. Click for full-sized epiphanies.)

Over two years ago, during my previous webcomic-reviewing existence, I reviewed Sluggy Freelance, an occasion I took more to bash Pete Abrams for his refusal to throw any but the tiniest of bones to new readers of one of the oldest webcomics on the Internet. I decided that Abrams was apparently content to settle for the readers he already had and had no interest in recruiting any new ones to keep the fanbase strong and fresh. Then I wrote:

Sluggy deserves every ounce of praise it gets; I sometimes found myself looking at various points in the archive and reading significant stretches with interest. … And I’m intrigued enough by the current story arc, which promises to be a milestone one, that I’m planning on keeping on reading Sluggy until this arc’s conclusion. But I don’t have much of a reason to keep reading Sluggy beyond that. With my overcrowded schedule, I just don’t have time for another strip that demands an Order of the Stick level of attention, certainly one with so massive an archive, so much of a need to comprehend all of it, and so little help in doing so.

Because of what happened that summer, I never got around to finishing the story arc at the time. However, recently, as I started preparing to start up webcomics posts again, I finally did get around to finishing “bROKEN”.

And then spent the rest of the night reading the remainder of the archive up to the then-present moment.

“bROKEN” ends with a heck of a cliffhanger – the discovery of Zoe’s cursed necklace separated from her body (implying her death, right after Oasis inadvertently led her to realize the sexual tension between her and Torg), and the live Riff turning up in an alternate universe, where he’s promptly shot up in the final panel of the storyline. This put things in such an unbalanced state that I immediately decided to keep reading to see this storyline resolved. Needless to say, it hasn’t – Torg and some friends spent the rest of 2009 and all of 2010 working for an arch-villain as a cover for getting more information on Hereti-Corp and Oasis, and Riff is still stuck in the dystopian, Brave New World-esque alternate universe.

The present storyline has involved Riff and alternate-universe versions of his friends staging a revolution against said dystopia, but it’s really the recent events involving (SPOILER ALERT) Riff getting detailed exposition from the alternate-universe version of himself that really has me riveted, especially given the promise of resolving the storyline it offered. Although it’s clear this isn’t the future of the “main” timeline, the similarities – including those Riff doesn’t know yet – are striking enough that I’ve been waiting with baited breath for Riff (and the comatose-as-far-as-we-know Zoe) to return to the main timeline, and start working to keep it from becoming its own version of 4U City, in more ways than one. Sluggy has me riveted enough that I’d probably keep reading even beyond the tying-up of the last loose ends from “bROKEN”.

So imagine what I felt upon reaching the current strip, when Riff realizes how much like his alternate-universe counterpart he’s really been… only for Alternate!Riff, upset that “our” Riff brought his wife to him despite his pleas, to “reboot” him, putting him right back where he was at the start of the adventure, without even the knowledge gained through the exposition, his quest for redemption seemingly snuffed out before it began. I was silently going “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” That’s a rare feat for a comic; I’m not sure if I’ve even done that for anything that’s happened in Order of the Stick, which I tend to read from a more detached viewpoint. I hold out hope that this turns out to be a psyche-out or something, or Rammer or a remorseful Alternate!Riff re-supplies the exposition, but I’m also fearing the worst.

I should add a caveat: it’s possible I’m caring about this storyline for all the wrong reasons, hoping more for it to just resolve already than feeling anything for the cast, and recent weeks have been rather confusing as Riff and company have been struggling to beat back an outsider attack on the city (as well as with a meddlesome AI). A while back Robert A. “Tangents” Howard wrote of his frustration with the storyline, and it’s possible that if I’d never abandoned my RSS feeds and had to sit through reading it day-by-day for two years I’d feel similarly to how he does, or at this point, like I’d just watched the season finale of The Killing. (That said, I can’t agree with him that this lacks any “emotional potency” as a conclusion, as up until the last row of this strip it seemed to mark some very significant character development for Riff. Also, the Irregular Crisis has been just as slow and I don’t feel the same sense of just-end-it-already, though that slowness may be the result of spreading it across multiple themes.)

I wonder if “bROKEN” marks the start of the sequence that leads to Abrams winding down this comic that has been his livelihood for over a decade. What little we learned about Oasis in that storyline, the maybe-death of Zoe, Torg’s subsequent attempt at revenge, Riff’s motivation when (if?) he returns to the main timeline, all seem to suggest that Abrams is setting up the pieces for the great conflagration where the bleep really starts to hit the fan. It certainly would back up how little he seems to care about new readers. If so, I hope the prize is worth the wait, and that Abrams doesn’t waste too much time getting there.

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