(From Sluggy Freelance. Click for full-sized epic lateness.)
Pete Abrams is finally wrapping up a storyline that’s been going on for the past two years.
I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of how he’s doing so, however, especially the comics we’ve been subjected to over the course of the week so far. I can’t help but think he’s rushing the storyline to a conclusion because he knows this particular part of it alone has gone on rather long already – at one point he’d promised that we’d learn Riff’s “ultimate fate” by the end of June, and if he meant Riff’s return to “our” dimension, he didn’t quite make that goal.
Let’s start at the beginning, with Monday’s comic, where Abrams threw what looked to be an absolute curveball at his readers: after drugging all the witnesses, rather than head home at the point we had gotten to with Torg and company, Riff would “change history” and prevent Zoe from ever burning. Abrams seemed to be preparing to retcon the events of “bROKEN” substantially, and possibly retcon away everything that happened in the past two years in his home dimension. I was fully prepared to write a post on that comic alone.
For the record? I loved it. It seemed like a fitting way to end this two-year-long epic that I’d spent reading Sluggy Freelance, a way to tie it all into one continuous loop from which the comic would proceed. But then, I started reading the comic from “bROKEN”. You know who didn’t love it? Robert A. “Tangents” Howard, who wrote a fairly lengthy post detailing his worries that Abrams would “pull a Dallas” and render the past two years completely irrelevant, wondering why he would even burn Zoe and put his readership through the past two years of comics in the first place. If that sounds familiar, it’s similar to what I said last week about killing Zoe vs. rendering her a vegetable, with the difference that I wondered if it was a sign Abrams was going to pull a fast one to bring back Zoe in full. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Similarly, I didn’t think Abrams was going to go quite that far and pull, in Eric Burns(-White)’s terminology, a Category 4 or 5 (or even 3) retcon. I figured certain characters, especially Riff, would remain affected enough by the events of the past two years somehow to affect the plot moving forward. I prefer to trust that no matter what happens, story-comic writers know what they’re doing and that, ultimately, everything will serve some greater purpose. But apparently, Howard felt that Abrams had betrayed that trust before and he could do it again. He felt that Abrams had previously negated the events of the “That Which Redeems” storyline, which like most of Sluggy I haven’t read, and that he was perfectly ready to go back into that well.
In any case, all was rendered moot by Tuesday’s comic, in which Riff shows up at Zoe’s house, the night before the attack… and, apparently talked out of it by alternate-Riff, only says goodbye to Zoe before letting alternate-Riff do what he was going to do anyway. So Abrams didn’t even let that twist stand for 24 hours before pulling a “gotcha” and pulling back on it, effectively manipulating his readership and playing them like fools. Howard was not pleased, perhaps because he wasted a post on the original twist only to see it negated. While I sympathize, I also get a certain sense of entitlement from Howard, like he was personally wronged by Abrams’ bait-and-switch. Personally, I was rather stunned and went back to not writing a post, and I admit I felt that was a pretty cheap trick, but I had trusted that Abrams knew what he was doing and wouldn’t obviate whole swathes of material.
And ultimately, the same went for Zoe, because in Wednesday’s comic, as Riff returns to his home dimension (and gets the localized EMP I knew was necessary to prevent him from rebooting in the future), he reveals, in breathless exposition to a bemused Torg, that everything that happened in the last two comics was part of a convoluted plan to get Zoe back, by preventing alternate-Riff from keeping him from bringing 4U City tech to his home dimension by drugging them, then boldly announcing his plan to cause a paradox to get alternate-Riff to chase him into the past, so that he could take a snapshot of the sleeping Zoe and return to 4U City to introduce that snapshot to the vegetable-Zoe, so that Zoe would wake up with no memory of the events of the day she burned and alternate-Riff would see the need to have her follow our Riff back home.
Why do this? Why go to such lengths, over the course of just three comics, to mislead alternate-Riff and, by proxy, give the audience whiplash just to bring Zoe back? Commenting on his own post on Tuesday’s comic with a reaction to Wednesday’s comic, Howard proposes a way to do the whole thing with less misdirection and whiplash by making Riff upfront with his intentions from the start, and while neither Riff has much reason to trust the other, his idea sure seems like a saner, less manipulative way to achieve the same results. Personally, I’m wondering, even given what Riff did, why he has to exposit his plan to Torg of all people, to whom – by Riff’s own admission – nothing he’s saying means anything, and it serves only to inform the audience. Sure, he needs to keep Torg calm until Zoe shows up, but he basically has to give Zoe a substantial amount of exposition anyway, possibly enough for the audience to get the picture anyway; why not give as much exposition as Zoe needs to understand in a much more justifiable context?
But either of these options would likely require at least one or two more comics to complete, and Abrams is basically committed to ending the storyline at the end of the week. So he’s trying to cram the ending into five comics, and in the process a lot of distortion is resulting, with the plot needing to be over-simplified to fit. Part of what we’re seeing is the result of Abrams’ inability to plan ahead; I agree with him that cutting corners in alternate-Riff’s exposition would have been a bad idea, if only for the insights Riff gains into alternate-Dr. Schlock, but did the minimal-point battle against the outsider army need to go quite as long as it did? And for that matter, was today’s strip really necessary? Hell, I bet tomorrow’s strip will just be alternate-Riff taking a few parting shots at our Riff; couldn’t these two pages be used to set up the storyline going forward, or at least build a more natural conclusion?
Regardless, the end outcome is that Zoe is back, with no memory of the events of the climax of “bROKEN”. Among other things, this means she never had the epiphany Oasis led her to regarding her relationship with Torg, so the status quo there is fully restored. On the flip side, she now no longer has her cursed necklace she had for most of the strip’s run, so that status quo has been drastically shaken up. Also, Riff has now pledged to stop being “stupid” and returns to his home dimension with a new mission, which is enough for me to keep reading for just long enough to see exactly where he’ll go from here.
And on a more meta level, I’ve confirmed something I speculated on a while back: that I’m more forgiving of what Abrams does in part because I haven’t sat through the things Howard, as a long-time reader, has. Howard felt that Abrams had retconned events out before and could do so again, so he sat through the recent comics with nothing but dread. I didn’t feel so betrayed, so I was willing to follow Abrams wherever he was willing to go. Now, compare that to what I said in my initial review of Sluggy Freelance, about Abrams alienating new readers by not throwing them any bones to jump into the storyline, and being satisfied by the audience he already has. If Abrams has also alienated longtime readers who have sat through that storyline, perhaps this only underlines how backwards the lack of real support for new readers is, because properly introduced to Sluggy‘s world, they could be bigger supporters of the comic than his existing fanbase is. Perhaps, then, we should chalk this up as more evidence that Abrams is starting to wind down the comic, and doesn’t see a need to appeal to anyone who would only sign up for a couple of years.