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Eric: You Had Me, And You Lost Me: It's Walky

20040823a.gif(From It's Walky.)

I remember when I first started reading the strip that would one day be "It's Walky." It was back in the Roomies days, and it was pretty fun. The art was more cartoony then, less polished, but it was still dynamic and fun. One of the more standard premises fueled Roomies -- two very different but also very similar young men were rooming at college. One was a prig, the other a horndog. Their supporting cast included the dream girl who had dumped the prig unexpectedly, a sheltered fundie who loved the prig wholeheartedly -- for no real reason -- and a number of secondary characters. The catchphrase for the series was 'Perverse Sexual Lust.' It was frenetic and funny.

And then, towards the end, it grew morbid. Terrible things started happening to characters. People died. People became alcoholics. People lost faith. People lost hope. Hypocrites reigned and then got abortions. I've described this process before, when a light strip goes dark. I call it Cerebus Syndrome -- the effort to force one's project through a sea change from light satire and parody to a darker complexity. It is seductive, and when it fails -- it almost always fails -- it falls into First and Ten Syndrome, emulating the raunchy light HBO's comedy's inexplicable and bad shift to raunchy drama. Well, Roomies did about a season and a half of First and Ten, towards the end.

But it seemed like David Willis, the author, knew that. And, as he embraced the increasing science fiction elements in his strip, he completely changed focus, changed the name (to "It's Walky,") and went with lighthearted science fiction adventuring. And "It's Walky" was, once again, a ton of fun.

But there were dark clouds on the horizon, even if we squinted and declared them to be alien ships or flying giant robot monkeys.

For one thing, "It's Walky" detailed the adventures of a secret organization that David Willis had been thinking about for years and years. At least once he put up a series of strips that he drew back in high school for his friends, featuring SEMME fighting aliens under the command of a Doritos-obsessed leader who was a clear model for Walkerton. (Though when he moved to the web, Willis changed the snack food's name to Nachitos, to avoid any lawsuit trouble. Which, given the more gross-out nature of some his jokes, was probably a good idea. Not that it was bad gross out humor.) Willis had clearly been working out this plot arc in his head for years, and was also clearly excited to be using it in a story now.

Only... well, let's put it like this.

As all of you know, there's a huge computer section in bookstores, now. And a large percentage of the computer shelves are made up of Various Computer Programs for Dummies and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Various Computer Programs. These were so popular with users that Dummies books began coming out on any number of subjects. I own some Dummies books. Odds are you do too. But the question comes up -- why did these things have to come out in the first place? The answer, if you asked most people, is because the manual that comes with the program (well, came. These days if you're lucky enough to get a manual, it's a PDF one sitting on the program CD) sucks.

It's not the fault of the technical writers. They're trying. But when you understand a program's ins and outs, it's very hard to tell people who don't understand them how to use it. You lack a common frame of reference, and 'downsampling' your knowledge to match a new user's is extremely difficult. The For Dummies books have an advantage -- generally the person contracted to write them didn't make the programs, which means they had to learn how to use the programs at some point. That experience becomes a frame of reference they can use to establish the proper use of the program.

David Willis knew his SEMME organization. He knew their opposition. He knew their backstory. He knew the reasons they fought. He knew the reasons the aliens fought back. He knew what the Martians were and how they fit in. He knew what the Cheese was and how it fit in.

And he was not particularly good at letting us know it, in turn. This wasn't so much "mystery surrounding the organization" as a general feeling as a reader that I'd missed something, somewhere along the line. That there was some twenty-strip plotline that fit all the pieces together. Or that two or three setup strips had gotten skipped, somehow. There was always this general sense that you didn't know quite what was going on, and you should.

But it was mostly okay, because the strip was fun. And if there were gaps in how he brought the Story, Willis brought the Funny, and the Funny makes it excusable.

Well, until Willis turned back to the dark.

To his credit, I think he planned the darker elements of It's Walky right from the beginning. He knew exactly what style of story he intended to tell. So I don't think we call this a Cerebus Syndrome attempt. But the results were entirely First and Ten -- intense, often painful drama more for the point of shocking than anything else. It chased away the Funny. Walky had to grow up. Joyce had to confront her demons. Sal ran away and then tried to destroy the world. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And it stopped being fun. It became something of a chore to try and keep up -- always not sure if you were missing something, all the while. Once again, there was death and recrimination and anger (and the specter of alcoholism).

There were triumphant moments through it all. The resolution of Joyce's multiple personalities -- and the multiple sides of her personality -- was handled deftly. Her moment standing in the rain with Walky was transcendent, and I loved every second of it. The eventual consummation of her relationship with Walky was handled with precisely the right tone. (The color strip of the two of them lying on the floor, Walky unable to sleep and Joyce providing the reason for Walky's insomnia, was a perfect denouement to the long standing subplot -- and was ideally designed for the web, requiring most people's monitors to scroll down to reach the joke.) And David Willis's art, while always suitable for his subject, continued to develop and grow. He made something of a production of switching to a slightly more realistic style, he expanded his use of color and the color palette. In his latest plotline, he's experimented with 3D modeling.

And I stuck with It's Walky through it all, because it also did so much right. You folks know my pet peeves by now, and Walky stepped carefully around them. It updated on a rock-solid schedule. It had a cast page. It tried to catch new readers up (though once again, a For Dummies book -- or Cliff's Notes -- would have helped very much.) Willis remained enthusiastic about his strip, and even as he developed other projects he didn't forget who he came to the dance with.

So I stuck with it. And stuck with it. And stuck with it. Increasingly confused with what was going on, and increasingly not caring about what happened next, I continued to keep it in the safari tabs. And complained about it. Finally, the only reason I stuck with it was because the story was winding towards an ending, and I'm a sucker for endings. I think more projects should have a definite, solid, "this is the end of the strip" to them.

Until today's strip. Today, we saw one of the different characters involved with SEMME, who I vaguely remember was the one who dumped the AntiHead Alien off a few strips back, and who was on the ship (the Destiny? Sounds right) that crashed looking for him, and had zombie issues of some kind way back when. I mean, way back. And I don't know her name, or the names of any of her squad, or how she expects to be able to accomplish the mission she declared for herself, or....

...and I realized I didn't care any more. And that there's no reason to spend time on It's Walky now. When it finishes up, I can always go back and read the ending, and even snark about it. But right now WIllis is deep in First and Ten territory, with the added impediment that I'm not at all sure what's going on from strip to strip.

Fans of "It's Walky" have tried to explain it to me. And they've shown how deep their loyalty goes. And I think David Willis deserves it. He is rock solid with a ton of strengths. He deserves to have a massive blowoff. And he deserves every reader he gets.

But it won't include me any more. He had me, and he lost me.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at September 1, 2004 9:39 AM


Comment from: Flit posted at September 2, 2004 8:41 PM

I call it the "Chris Claremont Syndrome" when an author has some detailed backstory going on that he fails to successfully impart to the reader because... "isn't it obvious?" Only to you, Chris, only to you.

When I read Sovereign Seven I found myself wondering if I'd somehow skipped whole issues, because the characters would glancingly refer to things which had never been shown and which were often either integral to making the plot make sense or seemed far more interesting than what was actually being portrayed.

It just got worse and worse as the series ground on, devolving into basically bad fanfic, and I finally only persisted to the end out of completionism. Feh! Left a bad taste in my mouth. You're stronger willed than I am if you can resist the Lure of an Ending.

Comment from: ria posted at November 1, 2004 2:53 AM

I'm obviously late to this, but I think I've got the key component here, or at least what it takes to keep me reading.

It's Walky lost me every time the strip stopped being about the core characters and started being about alien drama.

When it lost its humor as well as any sort of development from its main characters, I was doubly lost.

Problem being, Willis mixed up the pacing so well near the end that there was some character stuff, and some of the aliens-invading-Earth drama that has been building from the beginning, so each day I never knew which I was going to get.

Anyway, I'm all about character development, and when you've got some beautiful characters to develop (not torture, mind; development and torture are not one and the same), and you fail to develop them... well, you fail to keep me as a reader.

Comment from: MrNexx [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 3, 2006 3:09 PM

Just felt I should add something... some things, it seems, become better in reruns.

I started reading Joyce and Walky because I was reading Shortpacked. Then I went back and read the Roomies and Its Walky archives to catch up on what everything else was about. And, while I can see what Eric's getting at, I have to say that reading the entire archives in a weekend makes the entire experience a lot less confusing.

Comment from: Jetstream [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 4, 2007 1:49 AM

I'll be honest. It's Walky never once confused me...

But then, I'm a Star Trek fan ;)

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