I’ve quit Sluggy Freelance. Have I found a temporary replacement? (Of course not, with OOTS back up and running.)

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized creamy corn niblets.)

Before I dropped all my RSS feeds two years ago, I was reading Ctrl+Alt+Del largely wondering where Tim Buckley was going with the darker turn the comic had taken with the miscarriage. I was looking to see whether the comic would go for the good kind of drama, maybe even address the points people had raised against the comic in years past, or simply send the comic careening headlong into First and Ten Syndrome. The storyline at the end of 2008, which inspired the creation of the Angst-O-Meter, looked for all the world like the latter until its infuriating ending; the storyline where Ethan takes over Gamehaven was looking like the former.

When I stopped reading CAD, it was launching into a storyline where Ethan decides to make a mate for Zeke, and my last post before my “vacation” where I commented on CAD was a parenthetical statement inside my webcomic-review-one-year-anniversary post (and as such, not tagged as a CAD post when we moved to the new site) where I groaned at the unoriginality of both the plot itself and the notion that Zeke owed his sentience to some sort of mysterious X-factor that conveniently forced him to be forever one-of-a-kind.

Despite this, Ethan managed to make a working she-robot anyway. Rather, it turns out that Zeke’s X-factor (insert Simon Cowell joke here) didn’t give him sentience, it gave him a conscience (or rather,¬†stable sentience, according to a later retcon). Despite all her code allegedly being downloaded directly from Zeke, Embla has much less sympathy for any humans, and much fewer misgivings about carrying out Zeke’s old plans to take over the world, making Zeke wonder whether prolonged contact with humans has warped and softened him in some way. To me, this didn’t make any sense; if all of Embla’s code is a carbon-copy of Zeke’s, she shouldn’t be any different from Zeke at the time of her creation, and she should inherit any empathy for humans Zeke might have (and his stability of sentience, for that matter). And if she only inherited Zeke’s base code, why would Ethan (or Microsoft, considering his X-Box origins) write destroy-all-humans code in there? (Of course, that just gets into the question of how Ethan was able to make Zeke in the first place…)

Between this, Lilah’s reaction to Embla’s construction, and Zeke letting slip about Ethan’s elopement to Lucas (despite that being what he blackmailed Ethan into making Embla in the first place), this storyline looked like another swing towards First and Ten Syndrome, to the extent that Ethan spends the latter part of the storyline fighting off the temptation to drink. Ethan manages to patch things up with Lilah, but Zeke elects to work out his issues by leaving with Embla, cueing Ethan’s inevitable drunken stupor. Between Zeke’s angst in this storyline and its conclusion, I’d have probably brought back the Angst-O-Meter during its progression, and it might have approached it-looks-like-Lilah-ran-off-with-Christian levels at the conclusion. Had you told me then what the next year-and-a-half-plus of CAD would look like, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The storylines we’ve seen since then have been: the sham wedding, which is a platform for Ethan to get involved with his brother’s dealings with the Hawaiian mafia (I am not making that up); a storyline where Ethan comes up with an achievement system for the store and has to deal with one persistent customer’s attempts to game the system; the third “Ethan McManus, Space Archaeologist” storyline; the return of Zeke, rather anticlimactically with an Embla whose unstable sentience finally caught up with her; a short storyline involving Ethan having to make a new role-playing game terrain; and perhaps most tellingly, a storyline where Ethan gives Zeke a new body and takes him to a movie, where he starts playing video games on the big screen, forcing everyone to make a daring escape where Ethan ends up having to go to the emergency room.

Why yes, that last one does sound a lot like a story Buckley might have done in 2005, why do you ask?

If you had to construct a myth arc out of the events that have taken place in CAD since the miscarriage, after the drama of Christian’s attempt to take Lilah back and Zeke running off with his mate, the entirety of its progress in a year and a half, not counting the sham wedding, has been a retreat from some of those events with Zeke returning. What’s more, I’ve skipped the Winter-een-mas storylines, which returned to the main comic, suggesting its 2009 exile to the Sillies was, contrary to what I thought at the time, a one-time deal. It looks like the answer to the question I posed at the start of this post is looking like¬†neither. Rather, Tim is retreating to the state of the comic prior to the miscarriage, except with Ethan running Gamehaven, evidently with no ill effects (aside from his paranoia in the achievement storyline). Indeed, Kate – whose rocky relationship with Lucas was a big subplot during Ethan’s issues with Christian – has completely disappeared with no explanation I can recall.

It begs the question: why did Tim make the comic so grimdark, with vague statements implying the miscarriage was just the beginning, only to pull back and turn the comic back into the fun-loving place it always was? Did Tim start seeing people express frustration with the direction the comic was going, or leaving it in droves, and decide to hit the brakes, realizing that a comic that had already earned enemies out of half the Internet had been alienating the other half since the miscarriage? On the flip side, does the fact that very little has changed for Ethan from his year of angst, other than running a game store, prove CAD‘s haters right, that the miscarriage was just a way for Ethan to skate the responsibility of raising a child, and that Ethan will never, ever, change in any conceivable way?

I do think Tim has gotten better, and aside from his retreats in his storylines, has made some effort to address the complaints the haters have; as I mentioned in my last post, his video-game commentaries have become almost Penny Arcade-esque, with correctly identified punchlines, near as I can tell (though admittedly, not all of them have necessarily been fantastic). And while the “Ethan the Henpecked Husband” jokes have gotten very tiring, they have hinted that not everything goes right for Ethan all the time (which I would argue was the case even before the miscarriage). And yet… when we started getting several consecutive strips of Lilah tormenting Ethan with her ability to play the Knights of the Old Republic beta, I found myself actually dreading the prospect of another storyline, not so much for the potential content, but just for the need to commit myself to keeping track of everything that was going on and getting invested in the storyline’s events. Considering I read CAD primarily for the storylines, not being much of a gamer, I was fully prepared to announce my departure from CAD despite its aversion of First and Ten Syndrome… until Wednesday’s comic.

While I was rather underwhelmed by Lilah’s specific revelation – Ethan once refused to let her play the Star Wars Galaxies beta – I have to say I am intrigued by the general direction Tim is going with this storyline. One of the biggest sources for the accusation of Mary Sue-dom against Ethan, aside from his leadership of a Church of Gaming and creation of Winter-een-mas, has been Lilah and Lucas’ willingness to stick with him through thick and thin, no matter how many scrapes of his own making he gets into. With both Lilah and Lucas looking like they’re bringing the chickens home to roost, it’s looking like Ethan may finally be forced to face the music. After a year and a half, Tim may have finally swung the pendulum back to the good kind of drama.

Now, if, as I fear may be likely, the storyline ends with everything being restored to normal with no character development for anyone, Lilah and Lucas back to blindly defending Ethan, and Ethan every bit as much of an asshole as before, that may be enough to turn even me off Ctrl+Alt+Del. But if this storyline ends up having lasting consequences, it could serve as a testament to why I keep defending CAD, and to how complex Buckley can really be beneath his occasional belligerence. Expect me to continue posting on this storyline over the next few weeks.

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