Yeah, I hate the vent outside my local Subway too, but I don’t think it’s the Subway’s fault, I haven’t smelled it, and I’d be shocked at anyone getting high off it.

(From Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. Click for full-sized worst date ever. Warning, comic contains vulgar language.)

Way back, in my previous webcomic-reviewing existence, I reviewed a parody webcomic called Powerup Comics, to this point the only webcomic I’ve reviewed from a webcomic host (thanks in part to my “good or popular” rule). It’s not one of my prouder reviews; I mostly reviewed it because John Solomon’s short-lived webcomic hateblog had done an April Fool’s review of it that voiced its outrage that people actually liked the comic, only I had trouble finding any positive comments that weren’t in on the joke, or praised it as a parody. (Though Solomon’s review itself appeared to attract comments defending the comic.)

But there was something else that struck me about Powerup Comics, namely that it wasn’t necessarily all that bad, even factoring in its parodic nature.

Don’t get me wrong; it was anything but good. The art was a deliberately horrible MS Paint job blatantly copy-pasted across strips and the writing had all the drawbacks Ctrl+Alt+Del was accused for but actually as bad as CAD‘s reputation. Yet there was the occasional strip that was genuinely funny, the characters weren’t entirely interchangable, the comic actually knew its video games and took stands on them (even if they weren’t more sophisticated than “Wii sux lol”), and at the time I reviewed it it was even starting to catch Cerebus Syndrome.

I was reminded of that while reading Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff, Andrew Hussie’s parody webcomic and spinoff of current MS Paint Adventures installment (and subject of last week’s review) Homestuck (in which it’s Dave Strider’s parody webcomic). If anything, SBaHJ tries to be even worse than Powerup Comics. Every character is drawn with these bizarre irregular shapes, there are maybe two or three different images of each character that get reused over and over and over, all the text is in Comic Sans, there are compression artifacts and typos everywhere, what humor exists is vulgar at best and jokes get stretched out way too long, and the comic tries way, way, way, way, way too hard to be a meme factory.

And yet, the way “panels” (I use that term very loosely) and other random imagery are strewn all over the place and juxtaposed with each other, combined with the extremes the copy-pasting can go to and extend the comic to incredible lengths, give the comic a certain air of surreality that allows it to transcend its origins. It doesn’t hurt that, while I hate the vast majority of dumb Internet memes with a passion, some of SBaHJ‘s are actually pretty funny, in a Beavis and Butt-head sort of way. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way: there are no fewer than THREE SBaHJ shirts available for purchase in the real world.

Is it possible that a good writer – even just a bunch of random CAD-haters on an internet forum, as Powerup Comics‘ creators were – can’t help but be good even when they’re trying to be bad? That eventually, the inclinations of the higher faculties seep through and you get frustrated with dumbing yourself down all the time? It’s worth noting that I generally don’t like webcomics that try to be surreal, as Dresden Codak, Scary Go Round, and the term “PVP/Goats Syndrome” can attest. That I praise SBaHJ for its surreality can probably be chalked up to setting itself up to be so awful, thus making it more of a surprise when its hidden depths – such as they are – shine through. In other words, it’s the webcomic equivalent of the Sarah Palin effect: lower expectations so you don’t have to do as much to beat them.

(Hmm. I may have just explained why I like Ctrl+Alt+Del, only it was its haters that lowered my expectations rather than the comic itself…)

It’s possible that the only humor a parody webcomic can use that preserves its parodic nature and doesn’t leave me thinking it’s actually a decent comic on its own is strictly humor related to being a parody. At this, Powerup Comics probably has SBaHJ beat, as much of its humor derives from the utter lack of punchlines or use of tired cliches (like shooting the annoying Wii supporter more often than Kenny from South Park); I’m not entirely sure what it is SBaHJ is parodying (other than a comic someone posted to the Penny Arcade forums), as while the main characters are ostensibly gamers in the early strips, this is very, very quickly forgotten, and the comic never touches any of the standard cliches of the genre.

I’m not at all sure whether SBaHJ is worth reading, either as a parody or as its own surreal webcomic (though if you decided to start reading Homestuck it’s probably worth reading just to get the references). But the more I think about it, the more I realize how much it says about my thinking about webcomics – not just about Ctrl+Alt+Del, but my position on art in comics, why I don’t think it matters as much as some people seem to think it does, and what makes comics like xkcd and Order of the Stick work despite their minimalist art. Who would have thought a bunch of crappily drawn scribbles that looks like something I might have drawn could say so much about the world of webcomics?

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