Webcomics Roundup: The Great Return

Achewood is backI didn’t start reading any new webcomics in February. For me, the biggest news was the promise of a return from two established comics that haven’t updated in a while: Achewood and Mugwhump the Great.

Achewood, of course, needs no introduction. For nearly a decade now, it’s been one of the best (if not the best) webcomics out there. The clean lines, strong characters, and the unpredictable plot directions make this a consistent treat. So why am I not that excited that it’s updating again?

Well, first of all, I’m not sure that it really is updating again. The frequency of updates has been slowing down for years, to the point that it was’t immediately obvious that the site was even on hiatus. In the past six months (September 2010 through February 2011), the comic only updated ten times, a third of them in September. And no new comics have appeared in the two weeks since Téodor showed up to exclaim “We’re back!” Even if that announcement isn’t a joke, it will take months of regular updates before I really start to trust that the comic is here again.

Secondly, Achewood seems to have reached the same space that The Simpsons is currently in. The characters have been around for long enough, and bounced back from so many crazy experiences already, that it’s hard for any new ones to hold much weight. Remember the early days when Ray sold his soul or Roast Beef died and met Molly in Heaven? Those developed the characters, and we really didn’t know what would happen to them. But in the last major plot arc, when some characters found themselves naked in the back of a serial killer’s van, it was hard to care. I knew everyone would be ok in the end. It wasn’t even the first time that a character had been stuck in Nice Pete’s van. It’s not that the strip has nothing new to explore – Philippe’s recent visit to his mother was definitely more touching than The Simpsons can manage these days – but we’re past the point where every twist and turn adds to Achewood’s mythology. I would probably be more excited if I heard that author Chris Onstad was planning to create something new.

I think that I first started to notice the series’ had peaked when Dark Horse released the book version of The Great Outdoor Fight. Up to that point, all the Achewood collections had been fairly simple self-published works. But the story of the GOF was one of the high points of the comic, and it made sense to immortalize it with a higher quality release. However, the twisting, inventive story didn’t look nearly as good in this context. Not only was the “official” serialization somewhat strange (it began with Ray and Todd planning a new business to sell “truck nutz” for cell phones, and only led circuitously to the story of the Great Outdoor Fight), but the simple artwork and characterization that looks so perfect in a web browser felt off-kilter in a hardback book. Worst of all, a long, uninteresting introduction spelled out the history of the Great Outdoor Fight for us. The story’s thrill had come from the anarchic, unpredictable way it unfolded as it was serialized. I doubt Onstad had even thought of, say, the threat of The Jeeps until right before he added it to the comic. The brilliant, manic fun of that whole story was drained away by an essay that tried to make the plot twists seem planned out rather than unpredictable.

Despite everything I said above, Achewood is still a great comic. If it does start updating regularly again, I’m sure I’ll love it. I do hope that Onstad is finding a new direction that makes us feel like we’re discovering new territory again.

[UPDATE: Well, two weeks after I posted this, Chris Onstad announced that he was going on an indefinite hiatus. Some of his reasons are personal, others sound like what I said above about the jokes becoming too repetitive. I definitely respect his reasons, and it’s a lot easier to deal with the site’s rare updates now that they’re official. Onstad says that he’d like to do something again soon, even if it’s just weekly. I look forward to it.]

Mugwhump the GreatRoger Langridge’s Mugwhump the Great is not nearly as well known, but deserves attention nonetheless. Langridge has been a staple of the indie comics community for years now, and is easily recognized by his unsentimental (and British) sense of humor and his elegantly cross-hatched (but still cartoonish) art style. Quite a few of his works have dealt with circuses or variety shows, such as Fred the Clown or The Muppet Show (maybe the only good comic in ages based on a licensed property).

At first, Mugwhump the Great looked like it was starting out in the same vein as Fred the Clown, as the main character was a dumpy, well-natured ventriloquist who works with a wisecracking, living dummy (named Billy). But while Fred was just a series of skits making fun of the title character, Mugwhump turned out to be very plot-focused. A mysterious, skull-faced villain buys out Mugwhump’s show and shows a sinister curiosity in Billy’s living nature. Currently, Billy and Mugwhump are on the run, learning to respect each other instead of just trading the insults that would be expected from a Langridge cartoon of old.

Mugwhump the Great isn’t anywhere near as good as Achewood, and the payoff is long in coming – Langridge is writing this more as a long-form comic than as a webcomic that will reward readers on each page. But it’s definitely worth reading. Moreover, I know exactly why the comic went on hiatus for a while: Langridge switched over to better-paying work for Marvel and BOOM! Studios. Now that those series are done, he has said that he plans to stick to his creator-owned work for a while. So I can recommend it to new readers with a lot more confidence than I could recommend Achewood. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

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