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Good Read Column for July 13, 1998

Sluggy Freelance

By Pete Abrams
online comic strip, ongoing - FREE!

(of a possible five)


When I reviewed Bruno the Bandit a few weeks back, I immediately got several e-mail messages from people asking if I had seen this or that online comic. My list of daily comics that I keep on my CRAYON grew by half a dozen, but while they were fun most of them were not in the same class with Bruno, and a couple have even since been dropped.

One that has remained as enjoyable as the professionally done, syndicated strips (and as well drawn as many of them, though not as well drawn as Bruno), is Sluggy Freelance. Written and drawn by Pete Abrams, this has been going for nearly a year now. Unlike Ian McDonald, who's Bruno the Bandit resides on a free Geocities site, Abrams has purchased his own domain name and has enough space through whatever service he's using to archive all his past strips. Since nowhere on the site does he even ask for donations, much less sell anything, I can only presume he's independently wealthy to afford such a time-consuming and expensive hobby.

Having the past strips archived allows even new readers to read all of the story. This is important, because Sluggy Freelance resembles Doonesbury or For Better or For Worse in its serial nature. By that I mean that the daily strips do have gags and exist for their own sake, but each is a part of a larger storyline running a week or more, and the individual stories build on each other, making the whole an ongoing story that develops over time.

Not that Sluggy is as deep as those other two strips often are. Sluggy Freelance is anarchic, hilarious, mildly geeked-up and deliberately dumb. While not afraid to make politically commentary obliquely - for instance, through a media frenzy over whether or not Bun-Bun (the homicidal talking rabbit) had an affair - it's more likely to revolve around partying, trying to pick up girls, partying, computers, robots, aliens and partying.

As you might guess, the main characters of Sluggy Freelance are two young males, apparently recent college graduates. Torg (the one with short hair) is a freelance web designer. His roommate Riff (the one with a ponytail) summons demons, invents dimensional portal devices, and generally provides impetus for storylines but doesn't seem to ever perform useful work for which he might get paid ("Freelance bum," Torg describes him in one strip).

Other characters include their neighbor, Zoe, Torg's "pet" talking rabbit, Bun-Bun (often seen with a switchblade), Sam (an early character whose primary purpose was to hold parties), Sam's pet ferret, who is currently up to hijinks with Bun-Bun, playing pirates with a little girl they met on the beach (at least she thinks they're playing). There's also Dr. Lorna, the radio psychologist Zoe works for as an intern, Gwynn, and assorted others, but before I run out of space and time I really ought to mention Aylee.

In what is now listed as Chapter Two in the Sluggy Viewer Guide, Riff invented a dimensional portal device to try to get rid of Bun-Bun by projecting him into another dimension. Unfortunately, Torg and Riff were standing on the wrong side of the device and they got projected into another dimension instead, onto a "Star Trek" like spaceship where, after a few adventures, they got into a battle with aliens (like the ones from the movie series with the same name). One of them followed them through the dimensional portal back to earth. They ran it off and it wasn't heard from for some time, but then showed up just in time to eat Torg's blind date from hell.

Aylee, as they came to call her, didn't fit in on Earth. "Sure, I can eat people, but let's face it, I've got no marketable skills." Aylee wanted a job. "And a driver's license. Without a photo ID you can't do jack around here!"

Torg hired Aylee to be his secretary, and she performed admirably. She has even given up eating people. Well, she did slip once, but Torg forgave her (it was a Jehovah's Witness encyclopedia salesman, IIRC, or something equally obnoxious) and kept Riff from blowing her away. When he tried to teach her to drive (near the end of Chapter Four), unfortunate incidents drew the attention that the FBI. That's right, agents W.B. Muldy and Danish Kruller - a wonderful X-Files parody that may have been the funniest storyline yet (maybe not; it has a lot of competition).

No other online comic I've seen follows so closely the traditional format of the syndicated newspaper strip. Ian McDonald's Bruno the Bandit, for instance, tells stories that are as long as they need to be, whether 8 strips or 22 strips or whatever. Nearly all of Pete Abrams' Sluggy Freelance stories are exactly a week long, or several weeks long with easily identifiable week-long segments. Not only that, but every Sunday an extra-large color strip appears, smaller but in the same proportion as the glorious old full-page color Sunday strips of the golden age. And unlike most online comics, Sluggy is up every day. As far as I can tell, he hasn't missed a day in ten months.

Mind you, the rigid adherence to the print world's rules may not be a definite advantage, except in terms of possibly selling the strip somewhere down the road. In many ways I actually prefer the artistic integrity of Bruno's "the story is as long as it needs to be" stance. But if you want something that's exacty like the newspaper strips except it's funnier than most and too twisted to ever make it in syndication, Sluggy Freelance might be just what you're looking for.

I've enjoyed Sluggy a lot, and check on it every day. When I was without web access for two weeks, the first thing I did when I got back on was check out the Bruno the Bandit strips I'd missed, and the second was to do the same with Sluggy Freelance. Even the syndicated strips my local newspaper doesn't carry that I follow, like Stone Soup, Second Chances and Liberty Meadows, came after these two.

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