Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): Jennie Breeden
The Webcartoonist: Jennie Breeden
How Frequently Read: When I Remember to Check
It's interesting to me, writing these, to hit a cartoonist who's doing multiple strips. It's certainly reasonable that my enthusiasm might be different for two or more strips done by a given artist -- after all, if the two strips are so identical that my reactions are identical, it raises the question of whether or not multiple strips are really called for. After all, it's nice to see a webcartoonist stretch -- even if they're following paths they've gone down before, working in multiple areas and with multiple intentions keeps the writing and drawing muscles supple.
Jennie Breeden interests me, having said this, because my reactions are actually pretty atypical for me, looking at her current stuff, in two ways. One, while the subject matter of her two ongoing strips are significantly different, there is a real core similarity between them. Both star, for lack of a better word, her. Both are humorous elaborations and exaggerations on aspects of her own life. The Devil's Panties is at its heart a journal comic, even if it takes creative liberties with what's happening in Breeden's life for the sake of the punchline, if nothing else. Geebas on Parade details the goofy and funny side of Breeden's long years of playing SOLAR. The art style is virtually identical between the two strips, some characters appear in both strips, the humor is very similar between the two strips and most importantly -- though we call her "Jennie" in one and "Talia" in the other, Breeden is the same in both.
And yet, my reactions to the two strips are really quite different. And even more unusually, the strip I'm indifferent to is her primary strip, while her secondary, specialist strip is the one I actively look forward to. And that's very unusual, in my experience.
It's worth noting I didn't always feel this way about The Devil's Panties. I used to be very into it. It's over the past year to year and a half that it's just sort of faded into the background -- not quite 'why do I read this webcomic again' but I can see it's house from where we're camped out. Geebas, on the other hand, almost never fails to make me laugh.
And that kind of mystifies me. Why does "Talia finds the half naked gypsy boys appealing and is unafraid to show it" make me laugh, and "Jennie finds the half naked boys at the charity auction appealing and is unafraid to show" kind of meh? The jokes are largely the same, the circumstances aren't dissimilar, the art is almost identical, and it's not like Breeden isn't good at executing a four panel gag comic -- she is, and very well.
It took me a while, but finally I figured it out.
Breeden has settled down.
Let me explain through the lens of someone else's life -- my own.
I used to write an online journal, back in the days before 'blogs,' and in its own way it was popular, and when I discovered I was looking at dying off thanks to my heart expanding like Jiffy Pop Popcorn and my kidneys deciding I must be dehydrated and drowning me in my own fluids (I'm much better now, thanks) it got very popular -- for an online journal, anyway. And that's part of the key right there, but let me talk about my later writing career -- when I started up a cultural commentary blog and named it Websnark. And if I look over several years of records, I see that some of the most popular stuff I've written for websnark are details of my life. If you look at the Evergreen section over in the sidebar of the main page, you'll see them -- Spider Webs and Shadows, and the Purgatory of New Hampshire Malls in Summer, Views of the Q List: The Dumbrella Meet and Greet, Dead Dogs and others. And some folks want to know why I don't write more of those. They like them, and they think it's the sort of thing I do well, and they wants it, their precious.
The answer can be found in that old Online Journal -- when I wasn't, you know, dying, having chemicals put in me to keep me alive, and generally trying to get better -- which was great for ratings because it was interesting -- my life was boring. Boring boring boring. Once in a few months I have an experience that makes for a good nonfiction story, and I try to do well by those stories when they come up, but if I tried to make a decent blog out of "worked until 6ish tonight, then got some food at the cafe, went home, talked to my cat and watched Iron Chef America," there would only be so long I could make that entertaining. Back in the days when I was living hand to mouth, surviving on temp salaries, rarely acting and ekeing out an existence on the streets of Boston or Ithaca or Seattle, there was a lot more grist for the mill -- that would have made great journal or blog fodder. But in New Hampshire, with a steady job I'm good at and comparatively few changes in my day to day life?
And this is the crux of The Devil's Panties and why it's not as enthralling as once it was. Once, Breeden's life was very random -- there were changes day to day. She was trying to get by. She was trying to keep sane. And she was really, really good at making those experiences funny.
And now... she's home a lot, with her boyfriend, who is cool. She sometimes goes out to clubs, but it's rare. And she goes to a lot of conventions because that's a big part of how she makes her money as an artist.
And the eighteenth or nineteenth time she does that, it's really hard to fall over laughing. We've seen it. Her life has become routine. It may be a much different routine than one you or I know, but it is still routine. There's very little chance something so new is going to happen to her at a con that it will knock me off my perch and call me Susan.
It's not that the strips are bad. They aren't. They're still Jennie Breeden. It's that they're familiar, and not in the sense of "oh, I've done that." In the sense of "is this a rerun? Check the TV Guide, honey!
At the same time, that's not the case with Geebas on Parade. Now, though I am a gamer, I'm not by nature a LARPer. I was a Renn Fest geek which is not unlike LARP, only without combat, magic, the chance to be a monster or naked fairy chicks as played by large men (at least, not at my old festival), so it's not the laughter of the other kind of familiar. However, even though the premise is locked down as much or more than The Devil's Panties, there are new spins to be found all the time. Even retreads feel fresher, somehow. This isn't a journal comic -- not really. Breeden is free to cherry pick the Funny, refine it and toss it to we the ravenous readers. It's just plain fun. And it gives us a sense of what it's really like to play one of these games -- the joys and the pains of it. And, it's taught me that if I ever take up SOLAR, I should make sure to get a Women Lore skill tag, but that's really not here or there.
In other words, The Devil's Panties is a humorous journal comic, and Breeden's settled into a life routine that reduces her chances for distinctiveness, while Geebas on Parade is a situation comedy, and she's far from mining out its comedy vein.
And every so often, something does happen that inspires The Devil's Panties to its former greatness -- and I generally feel kind of badly because it usually mean Breeden's had a nasty personal experience -- and is strong enough to share those experiences with the group. I'm reminded of a sequence when Breeden's car was stolen -- a painful and traumatic experience for anyone, and it turned into a bunch of funny strips. This puts us in the awkward position of rooting for something terrible to happen to Breeden for our pleasure, and I'm pretty sure that's the kind of attitude that led to Rome falling. I'd rather just enjoy Geebas and have Breeden have a happy life.
I love Jennie Breeden's art. It's stylized, and dynamic -- she's great at conveying exactly what she wants to have happen on the panel. And Geebas is almost always just darn funny -- well written, well voiced, a good blend of mockery and gentle kidding -- her affection for her subject comes out.
And, because I live dangerously, I'm going to talk about Breeden's spelling. But I am not here to condemn it. (Breeden is dyslexic and often spells phonetically, and woe betide anyone stupid enough to take her to task for it.) Well, I'm not taking her to task for it: I think it's great.
Breeden's spelling adds something to the strip. It contributes to the overall aesthetic. It creates a slight sense of the surreal and the whimsical. I'm not saying this to talk bravely about the brave girl who overcomes blah blah blah. I'm saying both strips are improved by Breeden's word usage and phonetic renderings. It's like reading Pogo, only with the edge of reality. The effect is only enhanced by her lettering -- when Breeden hand-letters, the result is beautiful and fits the art perfectly.
And, while Breeden's life might not be inspiring new strips, Breeden is perfectly good at executing that four panels from setup to punch, and it's hard to knock someone when they get the fundamentals down so solidly.
Stepping away from the above, I'll mention the slow rise of computer lettering, particularly in Geebas. I'm sure this is meant as a timesaver, but I do think it takes something away, given how cool Breeden's lettering chops are.
Also, the avatar/sprites can sometimes be overused a touch.
On the Whole
As I've tried to make clear, I think Breeden's a great cartoonist. I'm not sure what can be done to fire my interest in Devil's Panties, absent a really funny tragedy happening to her, and I'd rather just pass on that. On the other hand, Geebas showcases her strengths so well it''s hardly a surprise I'm always so psyched when we get new episodes.
Daylight Savings Time continues to kick my ass, and I continue to track the post-Gygax gaming world. I may have a few things to say sometime soon, and I hope not to bore folks when I do. In the meantime, let me do the die roll for the next one of these....
Aha. A "why do I read this webcomic again" strip. This one ought to be interesting... well, we'll see you then!
Posted by Eric Burns-White at March 12, 2008 4:43 AM
Comment from: Greg Fishbone posted at March 12, 2008 9:21 AM
One thing that always struck me about your personal journal, back in the day, was your way of taking the mundane and making it interesting and well worth reading. Quiet, perhaps, but never "boring".
Comment from: Elizabeth McCoy posted at March 12, 2008 9:24 AM
I enjoy reading whole chunks at a time -- plus the comments she makes -- so I buy the dead-trees comics of Devil's Panties, faithfully, while reading the web one sporadically.
Y'know, Jennie Breeden was one of the cartoonists that I lost tracj if when my old computer crashed and I had to just go and find all the webcomics I could remember. By the time I remembered Geebas and tDP again, I felt like to get back into them I'd have to reread from the beginning (as is my style) and... I dunno. It's still bookmarked, and I wander by from time to time, but I don't read them with any regularity, and I feel kinda bad for it.
Comment from: paulw posted at March 12, 2008 8:31 PM
Why do you keep reading the same webcomics *I* read? I originally found you because you were posting about City of Heroes, and now here you are reviewing Breeden. And choosing the Geebas over the Panties!
Comment from: LurkerWithout posted at March 12, 2008 9:07 PM
Anyone reading her print comic? Is it just the regular strips on paper? Or is she maybe putting more into that than the web comic?
The print collections are MOSTLY annotated old strips, but she tosses in some entirely new material in each issue. Sadly, Diamond seems allergic to carrying it, and keeps telling stores issues were cancelled.
The Devil's Panties suffers from being too safe and predictable. It focuses on the "unpredictability" of conventions... but ends up losing its charm due to sheer repetition. It risks becoming the Garfield of the autobiographic webcomic type - successful, a moneymaker, and quite safe, but losing that edge that made it a success to begin with.
Heh. I might reuse that in a review later. ^^;
Comment from: jenniebreeden posted at March 14, 2008 3:31 AM
A year ago I started doing the comic books and I scrambled for every comic that I could possibly draw. Seven comics a day to keep up with the monthly comic books makes for a lot of filler. I figured they were getting pretty watered down. Geebas is posted whenever I have time, so the jokes are still concentrated. Thanks for pointing out the weaknesses. It'll give me something to work on. Archaia is going to print up the graphic novels and in october vol 3 comes out and it's killing me not to spoil it. I did have a big event happen. I got a lot of cartoons out of having an mri.
Comment from: Eric Burns posted at March 14, 2008 10:34 AM
you see? You see? You need an MRI, and comedy gold comes out. :)
The comic books were out of my scope of essay here, but the number of people who've e-mailed me to say how great they are seem to be indicative.
Regardless, looking forward to Volume 3.
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