Your tax dollars at work, folks.
|Original review author:||Plarblman|
|Author:||David "Walky" Willis|
|Start Date:||January 17, 2005|
|End Date:||January 17, 2015 (new non-story page every April 1st since then)|
|Defining Flaw:||Willis's poor handling of criticism & differing opinions permeates through the entire comic.|
I'll admit, Shortpacked! is not something I'd normally look into on my own. It's a bland, haphazardly comedic, autobiographical slice-of-life comic with less focus on plot and more on character relationships, with a heavy dependence on pop culture nostalgia. It wasn't until I started seeing some specific comic strips being passed around the internet for use in internet arguments that got me interested (read below). Eventually I learned that the comic had a reputation for the writer using strawmen in the comic in order to win arguments against his intellectual opponents. What finally convinced me to write a review was when Willis started making a porno version of his comic, while having some pretty odd arguments with his readers. I figured, with the comic about to be completed within the year, now was the time to strike while the iron is hot.
DownfallFalse Equivalence" strip. While the comic had already been deeply mired in inept writing, I would call this the point of no return. Basically, it's one of the strips where Willis gets to have an argument (and win) against a customer over a particular issue. In this case:
- Customer claims male superheros are objectified too because they have just as impossible anatomy as female superheroes.
- Amber claims that's a false comparison because male superheroes represent a "male power fantasy," going the extra mile to claim women don't actually find big muscles attractive.
- Amber proves her point by drawing what a male superhero would look like if drawn to appeal to "a female such as myself".
The problem here is that A) Willis is making the claim that women (heavily implied most if not all) prefer a certain body type. Pay close attention to the language used here. It's not some women, it's "a female such as myself", which suggests a blanket generalization. B) Willis, who is in fact not a woman, is trying to speak on behalf of what women as a group actually think. C) Willis directly contradicts a previous strip in which he says not to speak for group of people as a whole. D) Amber herself ends up contradicting the strip by drawing a batman with big muscles and a big dong. E) It's actually not a false equivalence. Power fantasy or not, no straight man is interested in close-up shots of half-naked muscular men in spandex that leave very little to the imagination. It's still a hyper-idealized bodily physique, and women can still find it attractive. Why do you think men want muscles in the first place? F) The idea that women don't objectify men is blatantly false. One look at any romance novel cover (a genre written by women for women) shows half-naked men with ripped abs and huge pecs.
Of all the possible milestones, I think this one is possibly the worst. See, this is more than just a particularly bad strawman strip; around this time, Willis discovered Tumblr. Tumblr, for those of you unfamiliar with the site, is a blogging platform known for its "reblogging" feature. Rather unintentionally, this feature led to the development of echo chambers where entire communities can shut themselves off from outside opinions via blocking reblogs from specific people. This strip ended up getting 60k + notes on tumblr and became the go-to reference for internet feminists with too much time on their hands to fight for issues that actually matter in real life. From that point onward, it became increasingly clear that Willis had become lockstep with tumblr's growing social justice community, considering he eventually started using terms that exist nowhere else like "homoromantic transchassis asexual", automatically equates fedoras to Men's Rights Activists without any other connecting thread (which is something I'm never going to understand. Last week it was a brony stereotype, and an atheist stereotype the week before, next week it'll be Hasbro collectors), and that the strawman strips became increasingly political, particularly in the area of gender rights. Now that the social media site has a firm hold of him, there's very little chance of the comic ever improving now that he's found an audience that is not only forever growing, but will also actively shield him from criticism.
Normally this would be under writing or story, but considering the length of those two sections (and the fact that the story revolves more around the characters than the plot), I'm going to briefly cover the main characters.
Ethan - he's the protagonist; at least initially, before he eventually quits working at the toy shop and is replaced by Ken. He has a weird obsession with making batman funny and attempts to be a "pop culture comedian" (read: he wants to make a lot of nerd jokes that only the most obsessive fantards will get). He has a severe addiction to collecting toys, to the point that it jeopardized one of his relationships. The other characters like to joke he's gay because he won't notice Robin until, uh oh, he actually is gay! Also, he gets into arguments with the strangely adult patrons of the store over transformers (among many, many other things).
Galasso - the store's owner. He runs the store like a cartoon villain (no, really) by coming up with evil schemes to increase revenue, from creating controversy to drum up sales to selling warranties - sorry, "Customer Protection Rackets".
Robin - the free-spirit "lolrandom!" girl who originally had the hots for Ethan until they both realized they were gay. Yes. Both of them. She's also a complete spaz with an addiction to chaos. Oh, and apparently her job before the store was being an alien-mutated war hero. Her superpowers are never really used though, except to birth triplets in less than a month.
Amber - the introverted customer service girl who starts out as a shut-in on the internet, but then she manages to blackmail the store's resident asshole into marrying her. And for the record, that's exactly how the cast bio describes her. Apparently all it takes to earn confidence is to work in public in your underwear. Her alter ego is Amazi-girl, and her superpower is immunity to criticism. She eventually disappears from the comic and is replaced primarily by Lucy.
Faz - an obnoxious (deliberately) seasonal employee who wants to kick Ethan out and date Amber. I guess being obnoxious means not talking like any human being would ever talk. Turns out he's actually Amber's half-brother, which unfortunately doesn't stop him from including her in his creepy fetishes.
Mike - An asshole (also deliberately) whose shtick is to be the adult equivalent of a 90's TV show school bully, who exists solely to cause others pain. He even outright states he's a sociopath. Also he's secretly incredibly nice when he's drunk. Because that's how happy drunks work. Apparently the reason he's an asshole is because his parents are the Stepfords.
Leslie - Robin's girlfriend, who she consistently refers to as "Lesbian". Originally Robin used her in an attempt to get Ethan jealous, when that didn't work she kept her around as a thankless slave. Also, her full name is "Leslie Bean". The comic never takes advantage of this obvious pun, though, making the joke completely pointless.
Ultracar - a sentient car and friend of Robin's from before she started working as a stockroom clerk at the store. Hates humans and scalps merchandise, later inexplicably becomes a girl that inexplicably has a relationship with easily the bitchiest girl in the comic (and is somehow still asexual despite being in a relationship).
Jacob - A comic book nerd who seems fairly well grounded (compared to everyone else, anyway). Naturally this means he must be enemies with Ethan. He's a rare straighty, but he's also a recovering sex addict.
Ken - Asian guy hired to up the store's Asian quota. He's completely disregarded in the comic until Ethan leaves and he pretty much replaces him. Unfortunately, Ken is even more uninteresting than Ethan, in that he has virtually no existence outside the store or a personal life. Has a crush on Malaya even though she hates everyone.
Malaya - Asian girl hired to up the store's Asian quota. She's a bitch. And not even her dating Ultracar really changes that. (For the record, if you're wondering why she's dating a car, your guess is as good as mine) Apparently she's only nice to someone if she can fuck them. Or if they can be assholes together. But sometimes even that doesn't stop her. Now, you may be thinking, "Well Mike's an asshole too, what's the difference?" The difference is that while the comic admits Mike is an asshole, his relationship with Amber is, while still fucked up, semi-plausible. However, the comic tries to pass of Malaya as "willful" and "headstrong".
Jesus - No, this isn't one of those "Hispanic guys named Jesus pun" type thing. This is the real Jesus. No, wait, "Historical Jesus". That's his real full name (I have no idea why, probably some pretentious reason). Galasso brought him back and made him work at the store. Why? Because drama sells, dammit! But because he doesn't look like Bible Jesus, Robin makes him wear a blue sash. And like everyone else, Willis makes him an asshole. Whether or not you personally like the guy, I think we can all agree that Willis just sucks at making relatable characters. Naturally, Leslie becomes his sworn enemy because she's a militant Lesbian.
Lucy - Likes superheros from cartoons, hates their comic book versions. She's basically become Amber's replacement (and that's not just me saying that) as she wants to proselytize why her versions of characters should be preached to little girls. Too bad the only customers in this store are man-children. She even becomes the new Amazi-Girl. She is otherwise unnecessary and adds nothing to the comic.
Story and Plot
Never have I seen a comic that simultaneously has so much and yet so little going on. There's lots of short story arcs that don't really have that much of an impact, and loads of unimportant one-off strips, so I'll try and condense this section as much as possible.
It becomes obvious by page 8 that the reason it's set in a toy store is because Willis wants to gush on his own personal sense of nostalgia, specifically Transformers and other 1980s merchandise. Why else would a toy store bring back Rainbow Brite when A) no kid today's ever heard of her, and B) never had that significant a following when it was popular? In fact, you'll notice that the comic has a recurring cast of store patrons, and virtually none of them are children. I'll admit, it's been years since I've set foot in a Toys R Us, but I think it'd be quite rare for a childless adult to be there, let alone on a regular basis, let alone as one of many other childless adults. Why this is leads me to my next point; it's also the "perfect" segway to talk about pop culture stuff he cares about; at least it's better than Ethan's stand-up comedy idea. Galasso tries to sell "customer protection rackets", which while silly at first, eventually gets blown into a big deal. Because toy store warranties are serious business. Robin, who's going insane with boredom, rips out the comic's "Drama tag", thereby causing Amber's abusive father to show up, as well as "love pentagons and other super horrible secrets". Robin handles this by forcing the comic to be "funny" again. Which is actually quite telling why her character is the only member of the original cast not to be replaced. Then a robber shows up and shoots Robin, who was dressed as Batman - oh wait, it was just a dream. Except no it wasn't! SUCH DRAMA!
Next, Robin decides to have some Cadberry Egg cereal (this is actually a reoccurring plot point), which somehow causes her to be a congresswoman. This never has any real impact because Robin is never in congress unless it's convenient for the plot - such as writing a law forcing two men to hatefuck. Robin's heart gets doubly crushed when 1. Ethan sleeps with a hot chick who isn't her, and 2. finds out he's actually gay. Robin responds by blackmailing Ethan into dating her. This will become a theme later on. When that fails, she decides to get back at Ethan by turning lesbian. And wouldn't you know it, she found one! Who she consistently refers to as "lebsian". Of course everyone sees through the charade, but it turns out that girl will in fact be her future lover and woman-father of her child. I'll explain this later.
Galasso tries to force a merger with Toys R Us using a "Tome of the Ages" proclaiming Ethan as "The Second Eaton", but it all falls apart when Ethan tells Galasso he can't produce an heir because he's gay. And he rightfully gets fired. Not because he's gay (Galasso literally doesn't even understand the meaning of the word), but because he had sex to get his promotion. And he still thinks he's the one in the right, going so far as to call Amber "the shittiest person in paradise" over something completely outside her control. Unless he's mad at her for buying into this ridiculous scheme. If so, does that make this a metaphor for religion? Because it's one of the stupidest, most ham-fisted ones I've ever seen.
Anyway, Amber nuts up to stand up to Faz, getting Ethan his job back. Some filler later, Ultracar appears. He hates humans and scalps toys. That is the sole purpose of his character until later. Amber and Ethan flashback to when they first met (which Robin objects to because she doesn't want the funny to die - too late), where we finally find out that Amber's Dad works for the Korean Mob. Also, the two turned down a job at a bakery where they would be getting laid every night because they'd rather feed their obsession for toys. It's especially bad when you try to help your friend escape from her controlling father by getting her a job with a controlling boss.
Because the economy is shit, Galasso threatens to fire all of the employees, so they throw him in a cage and taunt him about how they're making money without him. But they're interrupted by a coup from the seasonal employees, where they try to get the store shut down because they left a box of lead in the store (because a box of lead is the same as lead-painted toys). Fortunately, spider-car saves the day. Even more unfortunately, Galasso escapes and fires everyone because Robin wanted a deatmatch to determine the new manager. Leslie is fed up with being Robin's buttmonkey, but apparently Ronald Reagan of all people convinces Robin to hook up with her even though it was clearly a one-sided relationship and she showed no real interest in her up to this point.
Speaking of one-sided relationships, Amber blackmails Mike into dating her even though he's a jerk 99.9% of the time (the 0.1% is when he's drunk) and should have no reason to like him. I guess it really isn't that surprising, though, considering she turned out to be just as much of an asshole as he is. Then Roz, Robin's slutty(er) sister shows up. Apparently Roz's main contribution to the story is make Robin jealous. Because that's the solid start to a(nother) sham relationship.
Shortpacked is still closing though, so to revive it they remake it into a "pop culture megastore". Basically, manchild depot. New employee, Jacob, joins the staff. Amber and Mike go visit Mike's parents in New York, and while she's questioning whether she should continue this sham relationship (she shouldn't), a giant mutant bun suddenly appears, which Mike fights by grabbing a giant slab of concrete and throwing it. OK. Now he's got superpowers. When he gets stuck, Amazi-girl shows up to try to help (despite her only superpower being immunity to criticism.) Mike still manages to kill the bun, then the comic tries to convince us that the sham relationship isn't actually a sham.
Ethan's standup act works when he drops the nerd inside jokes and tells jokes that normal people actually finds funny. Roz shows up again to try and fuck Jacob, which eventually results in him falling off the wagon. Which wouldn't be nearly as bad if she wasn't so high and mighty about it, belittling what is obviously a real personal issue of his.
Robin eats another Cadbury egg cereal to try and solve the world's problems, blacks out, and causes world peace, but simultaneously cheats on Leslie. Oh, and that world peace thing only lasted four weeks. So, basically nobody tried to kill each other for a month. Great progress. Also, Mike and Amber get married when Mike "proposes" to her by telling her he made Jacob fuck her mom. He even recorded it. He's such a keeper, that one.
Galasso brings back Jesus to flirt with controversy. Oh Joy. Naturally, that controversy being Leslie wants to punch him because her parents are homophobes. Eventually, Leslie wants to get back with Robin, but she starts dating her former mentor Joe. So to get Robin back, she has to open an interdimensional portal to get Joe's old girlfriend back. Which results in some really stupid bullshit over the drama tag again. Ultra Car becomes a female robot (for no good reason), and Malaya starts dating her (also for no good reason).
Leslie and Robin want kids, but because Robin was abducted by aliens and has a super-fast metabolism, she can poop out a baby in three weeks. Even putting aside all the ridiculous sci-fi contrivance, considering this is Robin we're talking about, she's such an irresponsible parent that she has to foist her kids onto equally if not more irresponsible housemates. One of which hates humans as a species and another who is simply a hardcore misanthrope. And... that's as far as I got as of the writing of this review. I may add something once the comic concludes, particularly if it ends poorly.
The art is, for the most part, OK. It's serviceable and admittedly decent for a cartoon. That said, every once in a while there's some glaring anatomy failures, ranging from crossed eyes, to awkward mouths, to whatever the fuck this is. This poor girl looks like her eyeballs are melting out of their sockets. Also every once in a while, the art is just lazy for various reasons. Willis admits to having a strange inability to draw faces facing to the right. There's a strange design choice where some characters only have black dots for eyes, but sometimes the have eye whites as well for no discernible reason. Maybe it's because without them, when they're looking to the side they look like asymmetric mutants. Wouldn't it be simpler just to stick with normal sized eyes for everyone?
Bear with me here, folks, because we're going to have a lot of ground to cover. I've done my best to categorize the most glaring flaws of the comic for a comprehensive breakdown of each problem.
First thing we should get out of the way is the topic of strawmen, which is pretty unavoidable since the comic itself brings it up from time to time (for the record Willis, yes, that is in fact a strawman argument since you're making the claim that your detractors keep using it wrong). Now, what is a strawman? Well, according to wikipedia, it is a type of logical fallacy in which the arguer misrepresents the position of the other person in order to make it easier to refute. Here's a simple example:
A: Sunny days are good.
B: If all days were sunny, we'd never have rain, and without rain, we'd have famine and death.
How is the comic guilty of this? Well, the employees (usually Ethan) frequently get into arguments with customers over comics/toys/politics. In virtually every case, the customer is always wrong, and the employee is always right. This is accomplished because the customer's argument is typically constructed to be superficial, overly-simplistic, childish, or outright stupid, behaving in ways no human being ever would. Not even his own readers are safe. Now, I'm not saying it's impossible for someone to be like that, but the comic very clearly states that they are always, always the irrational ones, without any exaggeration. Here, the strawman is basically a misrepresentation of whoever Willis happens to disagree with a certain issue. Now, for whatever reason, Willis decided to upload some 4chan edits of his strips, and then we see what kind of arguments a non-strawman customer may make. We actually get to see the perspective of the other side for once, represented truthfully. One even points out how Willis fails to see how he can be guilty of the same behaviors.
In these strips, Willis creates for himself an opponent that he can always defeat, so that he is always right. Now, even if you're not interested in toys or superheroes (which is the case for me), these strips can be really grating because it's quite obvious that the writer is simply stroking his own ego. We get some token humility every now and then, but it never has anything to do with these arguments. There's nothing more irritating than a self-righteous writer who is willfully blind to their own biases.
At least in its early phase, before the comic was mired by drama, there were decent humor strips that made me laugh. Even the batman jokes, which usually consist of nothing more than Batman standing around saying "I'm Batman", made me giggle.
But for every strip that made me laugh, there's ten that either made my head scratch at the punchline, or simply did not work. And all too many of them require you to be familiar with obscure 80's and 90's shows & commercials. There's even a strip where Willis straight-up steals the infamous Sideshow Bob rake scene. The Office Space scene is arguably worse though because in context it makes no sense. See, in the original scene, they destroyed the fax machine because it was a worthless and frustrating piece of equipment. Here... it's a fucking toy. It's never going to resonate on the same level. Most of the audience is going to be alienated because they're not going to be able to relate to it. If you weren't raised on Hasbro products, half of the filler strips are going to go right over your head.
There's four strips in a row where the comic attempts a running gag; the problem though is that it's a pretty weak punchline to begin with, and the comic never attempts to make the joke evolve. Now, here's an example of a running gag done right. You see how the joke becomes more funny each time because each iteration takes it to a new level, and the punchline evolves over time.
Comedy vs. Drama
Early on in the comic, Robin pulls out the "drama tag", which results in, well, drama. I think this plot point in itself shows just how poorly the two match up. See, the comic is, for the most part, supposed to be a comedy (whether it's a successful comedy is another matter), but Willis decided that his one-dimensional characters needed depth and complex relationships. This doesn't work well because the zany slapstick is still in there, and the two mesh together very poorly. Now, I'm not saying the two can't exist within a story, but it has to be done right. Let me give you an example: The Sean Connery James Bond films are usually lauded as well-written films because they're serious movies with comedic undertones. The Roger Moore James Bond films, by comparison, were more like comedies with serious undertones trying to pass themselves off as serious films. Sean Connery might've had the most clever Bond one-liners, but Roger Moore's hammy ones cemented it into a cheesy joke. It's why when we see Bond dressed up like a clown trying to defuse a nuke, we might laugh, but it's not because it's appropriately funny or witty, it's because of how stupid and asinine the situation is. Shortpacked is very much like that. Drama requires that A) actions have lasting consequences, and B) requires a change in the status quo. In both instances, the comedy undermines the drama by having zany, wacky hijinks with no lasting impact conflict with serious moments. Half the time you don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Inter-dimensional travel arc, where the drama tag is revisited. Here in this parallel universe, the drama tag was never pulled. Now, this little tag started as a simple, stupid plot device to suddenly introduce Amber's abusive father. Here, it's retconned into the one thing that keeps Pamela, Galasso's wife, from dying. Apparently this is what the universe would've been like if the drama tag hadn't been pulled. What makes it worse is that apparently this is a reaction to the criticism Willis recieved for adding drama in the first place, claiming that the characters would be stiff, happy-go-lucky cardboard cutouts without it (They still are). They expect us to take this seriously when all he does with his revival technology is bring back Ronald Reagan & Jesus for some cheap jokes, and that his daughter's named Conquest. Also, Galasso's a monumental idiot. Kind of sucks the pathos right out. Willis tries to convince us that it was all set up from the beginning, but for all we know this was just some bullshit suspense without any sort of future plot in mind.
We're supposed to take these "character-developing" stories seriously, but because it all began as a joke, it's pretty much impossible. The reader cannot get invested in the drama because these actions keep zigzagging from having no weight to having a lot of weight, giving the reader empathetic whiplash when they're reading about Robin cheating on Leslie as a result of eating Cadbury Egg cereal, or that Amber takes relationships seriously when she dumped her boyfriend of ten years because she doesn't agree with his taste in comedians.
Perhaps the best way to show just how much of a train wreck the characters are is to illustrate several of the dysfunctional relationships in the comic.
Amber & Mike
This was a match-up that takes you completely by surprise. Mike, an admitted sociopath, is forced to date Amber when she finds out about his alcohol-induced niceness. In order to keep it a secret, she blackmails him into dating her. The only reason she does this is because they had sex. No, really. That was when she started liking Mike. We're already off to a great start. I remind you, this is a girl with pretty significant daddy issues and had an abusive, controlling father.
Surprisingly, Mike is the more mature one in this relationship. As Mike himself points out, she wants an asshole that she can control, which really makes her no better than her father. In fact, her mother dating a jerk is why she's a maladjusted shut-in in the first place. He even tries to do the right thing by trying to break up with her (by admitting to the whole Jacob fucking her mom thing). Yet the comic tries to convince us that theirs is a true love and they're meant to be together even though Mike doesn't have a decent bone in his body that isn't induced by alcohol, and even Amber can be surprisingly selfish and petty. She once rejected a promising relationship, her boyfriend of ten years, because she found out he likes Carlos Mencia.
Even when Amber is given the chance to hook up with someone else, she wants to stick with Mike because "everyone has issues." Yes Amber, everyone has issues - and some of those people have issues so great that they have no business trying to start a family. Oh, did I mention she's having a demonspawn? But that's ok, she'll be a good mom because she cries over hamsters. You know, Chris-Chan cried over his dead dog too, and I wouldn't let him anywhere near children.
I wouldn't go so far as to say Willis is making light of abusive relationships and how it can generate a cycle of dependency. I will say, however, he's an idiot.
Robin & Leslie
Robin originally kept Leslie around as a way to make Ethan jealous, in the hopes of forcing him to date her. When this failed, she kept Leslie around as a butt monkey. Even though she was stringing her along the entire time (and Leslie knew it), the comic tries to convince us that not only are they meant to be together, but that Robin always had secret lesbian feelings by outright fabricating a crush with Amber. That still doesn't change the fact, though, that this is still a one-sided relationship, and that it all falls apart once Robin cheats on Leslie during a sugar-induced frenzy. But they get back together without really addressing the problems in their relationship through some incredibly stupid bullshit about inter-dimensional travel and revisiting the drama tag. Even when they talk about having kids, it's obvious that Robin is really not into the idea, but goes along with it anyway so that wacky hi-jinks will ensue. Responsible parents all around.
On a side note, this early strip is surprisingly prophetic for both of the above couples. "Pregnancy solves relationship problems" seems to be how Willis likes to put together incompatible couples.
Ethan & Manny
After Ethan figures out that he's gay, he eventually starts dating. His first date is a guy named Drew, who was a perfectly reasonable and supportive guy. However, Ethan has a crippling toy hoarding obsession that drives a wedge between them. After multiple failed attempts to get Ethan to curb his addiction, Drew dumps Ethan. Later, Ethan meets Manny, who is a lot more supportive of his toy collection. However, Ethan literally gets up and goes out of his way to see Drew, who is now being vilified because he won't support his "harmless hobby". I remind you, this is a guy who blows countless dollars in gas money checking toy stores, and collecting multiple copies of the same figure for upwards of $200. And he'd gotten so many of them that when he moved into Leslie's house the toys were everywhere. Even his sex life revolves around toys. The comic tries to convince us that this is not a problem and that Drew, the responsible one, is in the wrong, and Manny, the enabler, is in the right. I don't know how he puts up with it, but in the real world it'd be obvious to anyone that his first love will always be toy collection.
Malaya & Ultra Car
Malaya is an asshole for no discernible reason. Ultra Car's also an asshole, but at least it made sense due to the fact that it's a machine that hates humans. Malaya is just an unlikable character who will strangle people just because she discovered she's fat. So when Ultra Car inexplicably became a female android, Malaya decides she wants to bone that because A) they can be assholes together, and B) she thinks that because she's had relationships that failed with both men & women, she should try dating a car. Never mind the fact that her relationships failed because she's a hateful, unpleasant, constantly angry prick, it had to be because she's an automobile-sexual (I'm surprised the comic hasn't tried to make that a word yet). Ultra Car, for no reason, goes along with it. She even decides to start caring about Malaya even though they've had no real chemistry or bonding. Also, if she doesn't like kissing girls, what makes kissing a female robot so different?
All four of these relationships are a disaster. The first two are based on lies, the third blatantly handwaves a serious condition, and the fourth just plain makes no sense. Willis is so preoccupied with making drama and hooking characters up that he's given no regard into creating relationships that would realistically work. The first three would simply end tragically, while the last one honestly would never happen even if sentient cars existed.
The Shortpacked! PornoMoon Over June) to make two porno comics based on his two works, Shortpacked! and Dumbing of Age. Both are pretty terrible, but of the two, the Shortpacked! one is possibly worse. Now, I'm no porn critic (in every sense of the word), but even a brain-dead chimpanzee can see the many problems with this work.
This comic, officially titled "My Lesbian: Or, Once We Hit 88mph We're Going to See Some Serious Clit", is centered around Leslie and Robin doing the dirty deed... in the most thoroughly unerotic way possible. Now, let's start with the obvious: Willis's style of art, while decent for cartoons, is completely inappropriate for porn. The lack of detail in the character design, as well as the overall tone, does very little to spark the viewer's interest. In addition, we've got anime speed lines, Robin gets cross-eyed in one panel (I'm assuming unintentionally), and some really painfully bad looking o-faces. In fact, I think Willis copied Walky's face for Leslie (which has a LOT of weird implications when you consider Walky is also Willis's nickname). On top of that, the comic suddenly takes a break in the middle of the action so that the two can watch Back to the Future. No punchline or anything, that was supposed to be the joke in itself. The comic then ends with a stillborn joke about how they're running out of movies that they don't have sex while watching.
Now you may be wondering, "That's all well and good, but is the sex at least satisfactory?" I'm going to go out on a limb and say Willis is very unfamiliar with how lesbian sex works, because I don't think Robin biting Leslie's inner labia is a particularly good idea. I will give him credit though, he seems good at illustrating water physics if you know what I mean. And... that's pretty much all I can talk about. The comic is only 16 pages long, and even then it's got pointless filler. The rest is just unappealing, untitillating cartoon sex. And they expect you to pay money for this. There are people out there who are spending money on a slipshine subscription just for these two comics. Well, let's be grateful it's not Kit n Kay Boodle.
Because it is hosted on Slipshine, you need to pay money in order to see the comic. Luckily, some brave fellow on imgur saved the whole comic here (NSFW for obvious reasons). There's also a fabulous 4chan edit here as well (the original thread is gone but this blog saved the pages). There's even a blog dedicated to these edits.
Author biographytumblr post related to his porno comic tells quite a bit. He grew up in a very religious household (made evident by the fact that he references obscure Christian kid's shows that were never available in normal video rentals), was a diehard Republican, and admits to being a wreck. He keeps coming back to the topic of religion, and at first I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that even if he's no longer religious, he eventually came to terms with it when he was (what I thought, as admittedly I had no idea what this comic was referencing at the time) sympathetic towards John Paul II's death. But now it's pretty clear, if it wasn't already obvious enough when he included Jesus, that he's one of those atheists. The evangelical kind. Which really shouldn't surprise you considering how he approaches everything else. Really, he simply bounced from one extreme to the other with no real changes to his outlook on life.
His comic is also admittedly autobiographical from when he worked at Toys R Us, so it's easy to pick up an idea of what kind of person he is. If there was any doubt that Ethan isn't supposed to represent him, his character is pretty much identical to him (minus the gayness - presumably. I'm not judging). He's so obsessed with comics in fact that he gave them out at his wedding. He seems to think 4chan hating Robin is a good thing (news flash: everyone hates her), whereas he doesn't want to get on the bad side of tumblr specifically (as opposed to social media in general). I can't say for certain if it was tumblr that encouraged a lot of his more recent views, but I wouldn't be surprised, considering that the reason he had most of the main characters replaced by even less developed & interesting characters is white guilt, and that almost all of the new cast fits in the diversity closet. Outside of the comic itself, I picked up an interesting piece of information. Here is a screencap to the strip "Compromised manhood", in which he argues with a commenter and then promptly bans him without warning. What did this person do to merit banning? By pointing out that the setup and the punchline didn't match up. In this strip, a strawman customer complains about ponies being girly and stuff, then the out of left field Ken says "girls can have penises", which causes the customer to chop his dick off. You can see how that would be confusing. Willis, for whatever goddamn reason, interpreted this to mean that the commenter was not only willfully ignorant, but also transphobic. When other commenters (that is, the ones who weren't clamoring for Willis to "push more buttons") started saying yeah, he was right, the punchline makes no sense, he ended up closing the comments section. I highly recommend reading the rest of the comments to get an idea of who Willis's fans are; while there are some sane voices, there's a lot of deluded ones among them.
Between the above debacle and all the strawman arguments, its pretty clear that Willis has a problem with dealing with other people's opinions. Thanks to hindsight, it appears that his approach to politics would have inevitably followed his approach to toys and comics. Look at the way Ethan gets bent out of shape and snaps at customers whom he views as his intellectual inferiors over Transformers. Is it any surprise about how he engages with people on serious matters? Worse than that, he can be downright hypocritical about it. He tells people not to harp on others for giving their opinion... which he just did to real people in the comments. Funny how Willis spent countless strips speaking out against "selling out" to keep your job (for now we'll ignore Ethan sleep with a woman for a promotion because he was clearly shown to be a hypocrite). Here's a Bill Waterson quote about how instead of pursuing success for its own sake, you should do what makes you happy, because there's more to life than money and career. Admittedly, this is Zen Pencils we're talking about here, and Gavin has a tendency to mangle people's advice. In this case, Waterson's advice was against gaining money for money's sake, as it promotes mental stagnation rather than cultivation, but was still quite adamant about work ethic and debunking the myth of overnight success. Gavin turned it into an autobiography about how awesome it is to be a self-employed cartoonist. Willis's hyperbole isn't any better, by claiming the message is "Doing art for business is evil!" Yeah, we get that you should raise enough money to keep your family taken care of, but that doesn't change the fact that Shortpacked had a strip that had a very similar message against selling out (see above). And when Willis contradicts himself, he ends up being pretty terrible at following his own advice.
At this point you may be thinking, "So what? He gets into petty fights with transformers and comics nerds. What of it?" The truth is, the guy takes his strawmanning to disturbing levels. Making fun of fantards over the internet is one thing, but in one particular strip he jumps straight to defamation of character of someone who's actually a professional comic writer. The writer in question is Scott Lobdell; although not mentioned by name, it's pretty clear he's the one Willis is talking about since he wrote the Starfire comic Lucy reads, and that he was involved in an incident where he made creepy remarks to a fellow panelist. Now, if Willis had said this man was a creep, which he most certainly is, that would've been the end of it. But no. Willis has the audacity to call him a sexual predator despite no criminal charges or history of predatory behavior. Does Willis even think about the things he writes? Is he not aware of the meaning of words, or does he even care? Does he not realize that he could be sued for making such a damning statement that is factually untrue? Whatever the case, I'm pretty certain that there are not enough people in his life willing to challenge his views, otherwise he wouldn't make such a reckless claim.
And towards his own critics? Always irrational, childish, and wrong. Save for one time. When John Solomon reviewed his webcomic early on, he had a relatively mature response (even if he missed the point about how the drama he had introduced devalued the comic). I don't know what happened to change that, but I don't see him making the same response today. In fact, looking back, it appears Solomon's claim about Willis surrounding himself with sycophants is more true than ever, given the above-mentioned hostility to reasonable criticisms.
I'm actually a little sad that this review came out as late as it did. Because the comic is ending this year, any chance of it improving is pretty close to negligible. I know, even if a review like this came out sooner, Willis isn't the type of person to take criticism well, but the off-chance that it could have had an impact is what matters to me. Maybe he'll do better with Dumbing of Age, but the way I see it, unless Willis is able to look past himself and view his own work with unbiased eyes (or at the very least be able to escape his echo chamber), I don't see that happening.
As for Willis himself, whom the comic is clearly a reflection of, all I can say is... as much as I really, really don't like the way he treats his intellectual opponents, I can't bring myself to the hate the guy. I can be disgusted by his shitty behavior towards others, but towards himself, I mostly pity him. Really, I just hope he gets his shit together. He's got the potential to make decent work, if he just stuck with what he does best and put aside his personal baggage. Shortpacked! might be too late to save, but there's always the next one.
I'm sorry guys.
He didn't make it.
I tried to be optimistic, but I still had the nagging feeling that Shortpacked wasn't getting any better. But even then, I never imagined it would end this badly.
It started with this strip here: one of Willis's strawman characters (Literally named "Whitey McJority". For fuck's sake...) complains that Shortpacked has too much diversity. Out of pure spite, rather than any genuine goodwill or compassion, Leslie then tricks Galasso into hiring more diverse employees (Are they aware they're being hired purely for their demographics rather than any merit of their own? Would they feel insulted since they're clearly being reduced to mere labels?). As a direct result, the universe gets invaded by... wait for it....
Willis, merely referencing soggies wasn't funny the first time, especially considering a good chunk of your audience probably wasn't born yet when these commercials aired. But this time it's not a non-sequitor. Oh god, I wish it was. No, the soggies are deliberately supposed to be white supremacists. And how is this conflict resolved? Does Amazi-girl and Stickshift (two superheroes who never seem to actually do anything) save the day? Does Robin eat a bowl of cadbury creme egg cereal and do something zany to defeat the soggies? Does Galasso fire all the new employees, along with Leslie, since it's their fault for breaking the universe?
I shouldn't be surprised, since Willis admitted he's ending Shortpacked because he can just do Dumbing of Age on cruise control... but this is inexcusably lazy. What's worse is that he doesn't even try to show he's right by showing the strength behind recruiting people of diverse backgrounds. That could have been a prime opportunity to show his sincerity by practicing what he preaches. Hell, we don't even fucking see them for more than one panel! And it's not even in the final group shot! They're literally just props! Even the characters he introduced the first time around he wanted to promote diversity are boring, flat, and lifeless, and they've been around for years! (On a sidenote, I think it's quite telling how the replacement characters of Ken, Malaya, and Lucy don't show up at all in Dumbing of Age. Or at least, they're so minor that they don't warrant cast bios)
And just from a purely narrative standpoint, nothing about this makes me care more about the characters. Yes, their individual plotlines were being tied up beforehand, but that was all months ago, and they haven't grown since. This is compounded by the fact that of the three "main" characters that used to represent Shortpacked (Ethan, Amber, and Robin, who are conveniently shown in the author's summary), two are not present, and the third has pretty much taken a backseat to her bland
ass-kisser (metaphorically, I mean) wife Leslie. I literally have no reason to care about what happens to them next.
But you know what Willis did spend some time on? The essay below the final strip. There's one line in particular though that absolutely kills me.
Willis. No. I cannot agree with a single statement in this paragraph. Not a single one. Having read your comic from beginning to end, I can only say you've gotten worse as a human being. I know I said I felt sorry for you, but that pity got thrown out the window when I realized how much of a self-righteous, egotistical, intellectually cowardly bigot you are. And this has nothing to do with your attitudes on white, straight men. This is about how little you clearly care about the people you claim to support. There's more than one kind of racism and sexism, and the kind you are guilty of is paternalism. You don't get into the minds of black people/women/LGBT people, quite the opposite, your comic clearly has them say your opinions, your beliefs, your prejudices and biases. How is Ken not just an Asian version of Ethan, who is a gay version of you? How is Lucy not just a black version of Amber, who is a female version of you? When do they ever disagree with you, express their own ideas, be their own people? They're not. Because you don't truly care. They are props for you to hide behind and shout your opinions through, because you're too cowardly to admit you yourself might be wrong. And the people who disagree with you? Especially those who happen to be women/black/LGBT? Clearly they don't know what's good for them. You never became an atheist, Willis. You simply traded Christian Fundamentalism for Progressivism as your new religion.
I don't have the strength to discuss anything else that happened since I first wrote this review at length, so here's a quick summary; more shortpacked porn comics, and they're even worse. I don't have any links this time, but I will say, in what universe is it a good idea for Amber and Mike to compete on who can wake their baby up with their fucking? Didn't they just spend several hours trying to get it to sleep? Also, Willis continues to be an asshole to his audience and to misrepresent people in the comics industry. Willis even responded to the criticism of his popular False Equivalency strip... by not even attempting to counter any points.
Now that Shortpacked's done, the only thing I'm curious about is how he'll be able to post his self-righteous diatribes Dumbing Of Age is written three months in advance and he can't easily include the strawman customers. Then again, that hasn't really stopped him before. But really, I don't care anymore. I have to put this to rest or else I'm going to end up like Willis, angry all the time and hating anyone not like himself. Take what you can learn from this, readers, and you can avoid making the same mistakes in your own lives.
Other comics by this person reviewed on this site
- Roomies, Willis's first comic
- It's Walky, his second comic
- Willis's tumblr, deviantart, and twitter.
- First and Second articles on Shortpacked! by John Solomon.
- Another review of the False Equivalence strip.
- And another. You can see how this really made the rounds on tumblr.
- More reviews by The Webcomics Review blog.
- He's also the admin of a Transformers wiki.
- A handy guide to logical fallacies.
- Shortpacked! has been inexplicably archived by the Library of Congress.