(From Camp Weedonwantcha. Click for full-sized cat-stravaganza.)
The big story in webcomics in 2013 was Strip Search, Penny Arcade‘s online webcomic reality show where twelve aspiring webcomickers competed to spend a year under the tutelage of the most popular webcomickers out there. Both Fleen and Webcomic Overlook did reviews of at least some episodes of the show, and it was apparent to me that, while anyone could conceivably start any webcomic at any time without needing any help from anyone else, the winner’s comic (to say nothing of whatever some of the losers did, since these reality shows never give a boost to just the winner) would start right out of the gate with a built-in audience bigger than what a lot of webcomickers could ever dream of before Gabe or Tycho did a thing on their behalf outside the show – not to mention that the choice of winner would say a lot about what Gabe and Tycho wanted from a successful webcomic under their banner, especially important given the major issues I had with the Kickstarter that, among other things, gave birth to Strip Search in the first place.
So what sort of comic would Gabe and Tycho put under their banner for a year (or more)? That would be Katie Rice and her tale of kids fending for themselves in the wilderness, Camp Weedonwantcha.
Right off the bat, let me say a few things about the art. Rice has an animation background, and it shows; her characters have a rubbery quality about them, with big heads perched upon really thin, tiny bodies. This wouldn’t be out of place as a show on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, which is a useful way to look at the comic as a whole.
Camp Weedonwantcha is, in short, a camp populated entirely by kids, with no adults whatsoever. The conceit isn’t treated in a Lord of the Flies-type way, as the kids spend most of their time simply having fun, but there are still some hints of the nature of the place that make it apparent things are Not What They Seem. Supplies (for certain definitions of “supplies”) mysteriously fall from the sky seemingly at random, there are hidden nooks and crannies containing various secrets, the kids may or may not be surrounded by feral kids and supernatural forces, and even some of the kids we actually know have Something Wrong with them (and probably most of the kids at camp are either just plain weird or being slowly driven crazy). The lead character, Malachi, laments in an early strip that he won’t get to see the end of Game of Thrones, implying he’s stuck at the camp indefinitely, possibly for the rest of his life, and the name of the camp itself suggests that the kids have been dumped there by their parents who just want to get rid of them (as does the “origin” of Malachi’s friend Seventeen). There are enough hints out there to come up with more wacky theories than Lost (such as “the camp is really purgatory”).
El Santo seemed to think these elements are merely background elements that simply add a touch of surreality to the gags; I couldn’t help but see them as Rice laying the groundwork for later Cerebus Syndrome and allowing the comic to lapse into outright horror, or at least a decidedly adult story. But it’s been over a year, and while the early continuing stories dropped some tantalizing hints about the nature of the place, those hints seem to have mostly disappeared. At the very least, if it’s setting up Cerebus Syndrome, it’s doing so very slowly. Or at least, I thought so… until I realized after last Tuesday’s comic that the creepy kid Malachi’s been trying to get to “help” him find cats appears to, in fact, be Proto Kid, the legendary first camper that supposedly went feral long ago, suggesting this story arc may well be the exact moment the comic fully takes the plunge into Cerebus Syndrome (even if he seems to have shaken him off in this strip).
Incidentially, the very first continuing story arc? Was basically an excuse for toilet humor. Yeah, I didn’t exactly have the best impression of the comic early on.
To be honest, while I’m not sure I could handle the comic if it went into Cerebus Syndrome, I’m not particularly fond of it as it is. It shifts between a few batches of gag-a-day comics and continuing storylines, but the gag-a-day comics just aren’t funny, instead just sort of being… there, just little drops of surreality that pop up and fall flat. I get the sense the story arcs are where Rice’s true passion lies where it comes to the strip, and considering Gabe and Tycho’s disdain for “dreaded continuity”, I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason she waited this long to get here, and possibly even part of the reason she included the gag-a-day comics at all, was to mislead them about the nature of the strip to boost her chances of winning. (Disclaimer: I say this not having actually watched the Strip Search finale.)
In any case, the arcs are short enough that the comic doesn’t suffer from the problems I’ve had with other continuity-heavy strips that only update twice a week, but that might be the best I can say about it. I’m unimpressed with the gag strips and dreaded reading it when it was in an arc. It’s hard to call Camp Weedonwantcha a bad comic – there’s a certain charm to it that might make it appealing if you’re into the kind of thing it’s going for, and its mix of humor and drama is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a substantial crossover between fans of The Order of the Stick and people who would be fans of this comic, if they’re willing to accept things being more on the drama side of the ledger. But I’ve actually started to let OOTS fall off a bit, partly because the start of Book Six has had a very heavy focus on the state of and battle within vampire Durkon, with the promise of more to come. To have a comic with even more of an emphasis on drama (though who knows given how much further into Cerebus Syndrome OOTS is going), one where the quality of the humor is nowhere near as good as OOTS? That’s something that I can’t endorse.