One of the downsides to relying on Piperka for most of my comic updates is that it is awfully easy to fall behind on comics it doesn’t track. Strangely enough, however… is that sometimes this can be for the best. For one thing, when I notice, it means there is suddenly a nice big bulk of strips I’ll have a chance to read through at once. Something to look forward to – that’s a good thing, no doubt about it.
But sometimes, when I notice, I realize that I’m not looking forward to reading them… which means I need to start figuring out why.
Anywhere But Here has been the latest such challenge – and a challenge it is, given that there is nothing wrong with the strip on the surface. In its previous iteration it fell into some pretty ugly territory, with winding plots drawn out over years and melodrama that spiraled deeper and deeper into unreadability.
But, in a rare event, Jason Siebels – the creator – recognized the troubles he was having, and after a few attempts to salvage the current strip, decided to just wipe the slate clean and start back from the beginning. And he did a hell of a job doing so, cranking his artwork up several levels right off the bat – and it soon became clear that the writing was quick to follow.
Since then, the strip has remained far more focused than the previous version. The plot is coherent, the characters are well-developed and the interactions are all effectively done. The humor is able to drag a genuine laugh out of me at least once every few weeks – no easy task. The art has fallen ever-so-slightly; I understand the reasons for no longer using color, but it is sorely missed. Of course, given how much the color brings the strip to life – and given that’s the opposite of the message it is trying to convey – removing it makes perfect sense.
And – ding! – there we have the hidden problem with it. The one thing that has kept me from really enjoying it, no matter how well it is written, no matter how gorgeously it is drawn:
I absolutely loathe the premise.
I hate it. It simply fails, for me, on every single level. And not because it is a bad premise or somehow offensive – but it is simply not a story that interests me.
Because, in the end, it is all about watching the Dude – the main hero of the story – get screwed over by life again, and again, and again. It is about watching his parents completely ruin his college plans for no reason. It is about watching his classmates and teachers conspire against him, about seeing him friendless and miserable and played for laughs… and, in the end, to see him simply accepting all this. For all his complaints and frustration, he doesn’t actually bother to fight it – primarily because doing so would invalidate the scenario the plot has envisioned for him.
I have complained about this sort of situation before – it happened in Abstract Gender, where the main character hated the hand life had dealt her, but was constantly portrayed as simply going along with even the most outrageous things, simply because the plot demanded it. It bugged me then, and it bugs me now.
And I say this knowing that this isn’t how Anywhere But Here will end – knowing what I know of the previous iteration, I am fully aware that we will see the Dude overcoming his hatred for his situation and learning to make the best of it, and maybe – just maybe – finding some measure of happiness.
But… not for a while, yet. For now, it is about life grinding the Dude into the dust at every single opportunity.
And the author has a hell of a good reason for this – he talks about the origin of the strip here, but I’ll quote the key part:
“Anywhere but Here is about life taking a left turn…no, a series of left turns. Anywhere but Here is about life continiously trying to run you into a cliff no matter how hard you try and jerk the wheel away.
It IS Schadenfreude, make no doubt about that, but it’s schadenfreude with a purpose. It was my way of exploring how to deal with life when it keeps trying to grind you down. Do you shut down? Do you fight? Do you wrest the wheel away from the fickle finger of fate, or do you just crash into the cliff and hope you survive the impact?
That’s ABH in a nutshell I guess. Do you deal, or do you not deal, or do you deal with not dealing.”
Now, that’s a powerful statement. It is one that comes from the heart, and yes… it is one that makes for a good story, and good storytelling.
It just isn’t my kind of story.
Seriously – you know all those hi-larious movies out there, usually featuring Adam Sandler, that involve around the main character being constantly embarassed throughout the movie? Where you see them put through the most ridiculous situations again, and again, and again? I hate them. I loathe them beyond imagining.
And this story, right here – yes, its more than one of those stupid movies. Yes, it is building towards a much bigger picture, and one day it will answer the question it asks, and move on from there.
But right here, right now, it just isn’t meant for me. It is simply too much concentrated schadenfreude – something I might be able to handle in small doses, but not when it infests every single element of the strip.
It took me a while to realize this – each individual update is so well-designed, and each tends to work for me in isolation. But put them all together, and it had started to get to the point where I was physically cringing every time the Dude got screwed over, and it wasn’t until I finally sat down and examined things closely that I realized this was a recurring habit.
Does this mean I’m swearing off the strip for good? Probably not. If Siegels takes this story where he wants to, if he builds it up into the sort of work I suspect he’s aiming for, and that it definitely has the potential to be… well, that’s when I’ll come wandering back. When I can sit down and read through the entire story at once – or when it is published in print format, nice and whole and complete – that’s when I suspect it will work. When I can enjoy the transition beyond the undiluted cruelty being handed to the Dude… I will find all well with the world.
But until then, it gets set aside.
Which isn’t necessarily entirely bad. After all, no doubt about it – having something to look forward to is, in the end, a good thing.