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Eric: State of the (Web)Cartoonist: Scott Kurtz

PvP

The Webcartoonist: Scott Kurtz

Current Webcomics: PvP: Player vs. Player, Ding

You Might Remember Him From Such Comics Projects As: Wedlock; Samwise; Truth, Justin and the American Way

Enthusiasm: PvP: Happily Reading; Ding: The Hoi Polloi

How Frequently Read: PvP: Regularly Checked; Ding: When I Remember to Check

First and Foremost, it seems ma.gnolia has done some changes to how it collects lists, which has broken my links to my lists. I will be fixing them later today (which includes fixing them in all the different entries. Mrph).

Secondly, we seem to be doing this. I am excited, though we are just shy of graduation here. However, having gotten Weds into the apartment (finally) life is significantly different now, and it hasn't finished changing, so we're just going to have to see where all of this goes from here.

And so, since there are a lot of changes in the ol' Burns-White household, it makes sense that we're touching on Scott Kurtz today, since change is kind of his byword at the moment.

Essay-wise, Kurtz is one of the bigs ones. In a lot of ways, Scott Kurtz is the reason any of you who are still reading this found it in the first place. He's the one of the first major links I got. Due diligence requires I mention that I consider him a friend these days -- albeit one I have little contact with. Certainly, an essay comparing Miranda and Jade and highlighting his character development ranks among my better early efforts, almost four years ago. Which is itself weird to type.

Which means in ways, PvP is one of those strips I've been following most closely for the longest. I've been reading since the days of four panel gag-a-day zing and abrupt art style changes. So on the one hand I've been down close, at ground zero, watching this strip develop. On the other hand, PvP has been going for ten years now, Kurtz started PvP just days after I started working at my current employer's, and we've gone through two and a half cycles of Freshman-to-Graduation classes since then. An eternity, in Internet Years.

And there are some who feel that's a little too long. More and more, I hear comments from friends or acquaintences that PvP's sell-by date has passed. He's become stale, they say -- too reliant on the same tropes over and over again. Others, amusingly, say he's too different. The tone's shifted. I get mail asking if with the recent wedding storylines Scott's done hit the Cerebus Syndrome once and for all. Over on the Snarkoleptics LJ Community, a friend of mine has actually aped my "you had me and you lost me" style, while ducking the Cerebus Syndrome call and instead saying Scott has hit a "Cerebus Lapse." It's good reading, both in the places I agree with him, and in the places I don't agree with him.

Not that there's anything radically new about these calls. As long as I've been reading PvP, there have been people who talk the strip down -- it's cut-and-paste, they said. It's talking-heads, they said. It's too sitcommy. It's too gamer-oriented. It's not gamer-oriented enough. It's too pop-culture. It's too 80's. It's too...

...well, you get the point.

One thing is certain. PvP is not Player vs. Player, the strip Kurtz started back in '98. Indeed, every few years, whether drastically or slowly, Kurtz seems to regenerate PvP all Doctor-Who-Timelord style, the result having recognizable elements from what came before. He changes art styles. He changes storytelling styles. He changes pacing and execution. And for the last several months, we've been seeing him prepare for one of these state changes.

I won't say he's always been effective at it. If we look back 3-4 years ago, Kurtz hit almost every ball lobbed at him. These days, he does more swinging and missing than he used to. The recent paintball story arc, for instance, had me excited when it went into place -- in part because it seemed like it could build, conceptually, on some of the coolest elements of the earlier LARP arc he had done. (To jump back to that linked essay, above, in the LARP storyline we saw Jade-the-RP-geek and Miranda-the-not-RPer in sharp contrast. Well, Miranda is a paintball veteran and Jade isn't, and Miranda showed up in full cosplay gear where Jade didn't. I had been hoping to see their different styles contrasted in Miranda's world instead of Jade's. I also wanted to see just how much both Jade and Miranda had grown over the last few years put into perspective.) Instead, it felt like a lot of setup followed by an emergency ejection.

And, like a lot of folks, I'm entirely okay with not seeing Shecky again. I don't hate him as some people do, but I also don't particularly like him .

Still, there was a sense of marking time -- the occasional whiff of staleness, of one too many Panda joke, of one too many reference back to the General Lee or the ambulance pulling away or of Scratch Fury being evil or... you know, stuff.

Now, we have the wedding storyline. The one teased for years. And PvP has regenerated again. It's not quite the same strip today as it was on April 20. We have closed the twin circles of the Jade/Brent breakup and reconciliation and the Jade pregnancy scare storylines. Brent's taken off his sunglasses. And Skull has walked out of the strip, forced to go because the little boy he was assigned to shepherd has finally grown up.

In that earlier linked Snarkoleptics post, Sean punched out -- in part because he knows that Skull's coming back. This is a ridiculous exercise, as far as he's concerned. And he's right. Skull will be back -- not just because he's the franchise, but because Kurtz finishes the stories he starts. But I'm okay with knowing that. Conflict, as I have said more times than I can count, is a good thing. And though this capstone to the wedding storyline echoes any number of movies or afterschool specials or Pete's Fucking Dragon, right down to the "I need to go, because there's another little boy out there that needs a special friend, Brent. I'll always love you, but you don't need me any more" speech.

Only, and this is a significant only, Brent called Bullshit on that. Skull liked it at PvP. He might have been Brent's Special Friend, but he had his own plotlines, his own keys, his own place. Hell, he had a girlfriend. He had a life. And PvP loved Skull, not just Brent. When Jade finds out that Skull is leaving, she reacts with horror and pain too. And in the current strip as of this writing, Cole promises that they will get Skull back, somehow.

That's not a series exit. That's setup. That helps to set the tone and the conflict moving forward, and that is a good thing. That is a hopeful thing. Skull will, I believe, return to the strip. The question is not the destination -- it's the ride we're going to take to get there. And I have hope for that ride.

I'm not as enthusiastic for PvP as I used to be, I'll admit. It's a comfortable strip -- an old friend. And as Brent gets older and wiser and his relationship with Jade evolves, I find myself identifying with him more and more. (But then, I'm a Starbucks fan who has used Macs for years, I have a degree in English Literature and I am pretentiously superior. I am Brent.) Even as his career at PvP started along with the strip almost at the same time I started in my current job, so too is his wedding frighteningly close to my own. As Jade grows as a character, she becomes more well rounded, and more recognizable to me as well. That's all to the good.

I haven't touched on Ding! much here. Um... yeah. There's a strip called Ding! It's World of Warcraft humor. It's more or less the PvP crew playing WoW. Um... it seems pretty good. I dunno. I'm a City of Heroes player.

Oh, and he did the whole 'PvP animated' thing, and I actually liked it quite a lot. At this point, I hear Brent, Jade, Francis and Skull when I read their dialogue, and they sound like the series in my mind's ear.

Right. Lest I run out of steam, let's do the metrics.

Strengths

Let's talk art, right off the bat. Kurtz has been bringing his A game with art for some time now. He's clearly pushing himself and his boundaries. And, thanks to his recent video-casting of his strip work, you can actually follow along and see his screen as he works on it. Seriously, look at this one. It's absolutely beautiful, and it's clear that he wants to keep improving instead of resting on his laurels.

Secondly, the Brent character arc has been very strong all along, and now that it's peaking it's engaging. We have every reason in the world to care about Brent and what's happening. He has grown and matured, and as the series protagonist (more about that below) his evolution drives the series forward.

Third, a lot of the characters, particularly among the secondary cast, are really well developed and have just incredible potential. Reggie, Miranda, Robbie, Butler, Brent's parents and Jade's mother all add great depth and breadth to the strip.

Fourth, Kurtz isn't afraid to let his characters be the bastards in a situation. I once said that Max Powers is the hero of the piece, and that much is true. Cole, Brent, Jade and the rest are as motivated by pettiness and selfishness as anything else, and that's refreshing and cool.

Finally? There is Marcy. Marcy is the best character in the strip. Really, Marcy is the best example of a gamer girl geek in webcomics today. She is realistic, well motivated, well designed, and pretty close to note perfect whenever she appears. She is the antithesis of Helen the Sweetheart of the Internet and all her Supermodel Unix Goddess Gamer Amazon ilk, and that is a good thing.

Weaknesses

There is hope in the regeneration/reboot/launching of the new season/whatever we call the end of the wedding arc, and thank Christ because there's been lots of days leading up to it where it all felt phoned in. Hey hey, panda. Hey hey, Scratch Fury. Hey hey, Shecky. Bring us the Story or Bring us the Funny or Bring us Both, I don't care, but Bring us Something.

Update wise, Kurtz -- who for years was rock steady at least on the daily side -- has been less so in recent months. From things he's said on the blog, it sounds like his father had it out with him in part on that, and there is a clear commitment on Kurtz's part to be steady and regular -- and, he says, to build a buffer to have at hand should things arise. That's a good thing, because as he goes into more detailed and emotional story arcs, the pacing of strips gets all the more important and gaps in updates can disproportionately frustrate the reader. Yes, I know. I'm calling the kettle black here.

Also, I mentioned a plethora of characters up above, all of whom are really well developed. That's all well and good, but the problem is the primary cast, looking here, is Cole, Brent, Jade, Francis, Skull and Scratch Fury. And of that group, the real standout in characterization is Brent. After that comes Jade. Cole seems more and more like an afterthought: in the midst of many other things in the past year, Cole's marriage began to fall apart. We've seen Cole move in briefly with Brent. Then Brent's father found him living in his office. And he was ordered to go home and talk to his wife and he did. And since then nothing. The entirety wasn't Cole's marriage falling apart, it was Brent and his cast reacting to Cole's marriage breaking up, and that's dull. The Reggie/Miranda relationship storyline got a thousand times more attention than this lead character's life falling apart.

So it was too with Cole being able to buy out Max's share of the magazine. This deal with the passive-aggressive devil had been beautifully set up, but its resolution was so remote and sudden it lacked emotional resonance.

So too do we have Francis. Francis gets slightly more stories (at least so it seems) than Cole does, but Francis is more and more of a cypher all the time. Part of the problem is, Francis is an eternal student, but with Brent growing older, having a multiyear relationship including a breakup and a pregnancy scare and then ultimately getting married, it seems like Francis should at least be a Senior in high school -- and more likely a college student -- by now, even with the slow aging of cartoon characters. Like I said up above -- the students who were freshmen at my school the year PvP launched are now two years out of college. I actually work with one of my former students, and he has a wife and children now. While it's a mug's game to ascribe that kind of aging and evolution to a comic strip, you can't have one side of the strip get older while the other side stays the same.

Besides, as Kurtz gets older, he also gets farther away from teenagers. Francis looked very typical gamer when he launched. Now he seems stereotypical instead of typical, and that can be an issue.

Finally, I mentioned Marcy, and what a great character she is. She is utterly underutilized. I'd love, in the next year, to see Marcy and Francis start researching colleges and career aspirations. But these days, the protagonist of PvP, de facto if not stated, is Brent, and the teenagers are falling out of his orbit fast.

On the Whole

A year ago, PvP would have topped my rabidly following list. These days, I'm happily reading it, but it's not the must-see as soon as possible thing it used to be. Kurtz may not be as note-perfect as he used to be, on the other hand, but he's still got strong writing and if anything the best art of his career going, and with the shift of gears and plotlines following the wedding we may be going into an absolutely kickass year. There's a lot to be hopeful.

One dangling point I opened above but haven't closed is Cerebus Syndrome. For those who are new to this, it's explained in depth in the Lexicon, but the short form is this: when a comic or comic strip goes from light, funny, gag-a-day stuff to deeper, richer characterization, layering in story and drama into the comedy, it is trying to work through Cerebus Syndrome. It is very rare that it's successful, and a failure brings a price in suck.

From the sheerest definition of the term, I think PvP did the Cerebus Syndrome shuffle years ago. It mostly works in Funny, mind, but the pregnancy storyline, the breakup/reconciliation of Brent and Jade, this wedding storyline -- especially the bits with Jade's mom, the growing isolation of Robbie (and the disappearance of Jase) -- have been working the dramatic elements for years. The better Cerebus Syndrome attempts are the subtle ones, and Kurtz handled this as well as could be expected.

Which still upsets the people who just want geek culture humor and gaming jokes, and that's fine too. Whenever you make changes, you lose some folks and hopefully gain some more. We'll have to see what the future brings.

Which also applies to here. I'm going to try to have stuff for weekdays for right now -- at least until my own wedding eats my brain. Thanks as always, and please enjoy the shrimp plate.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at May 22, 2008 2:13 PM

Comments

Comment from: Egarwaen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 22, 2008 5:01 PM

You know, now that you mention it, I really miss Francis and Marcy. I think that having them abruptly graduate and start going to college might help give their characters a badly-needed shot in the arm. I think what PvP needs in general is balance. It's been Brent 24/7 for too long.

Comment from: PatMan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 22, 2008 6:30 PM

The lead-up to Skull leaving seemed rather hoakey, but the moment he made his decision, things started to get better. I'm not sure why that is, perhaps its the promise of an interesting story-arc.

Kurtz's artwork has definately been improving. Especially his inking skills. When he was first embarking on his latest trend in inking, there would be panels that looked really odd, because Brent would be inked, but Cole would be completely lacking in shadows, giving him a half-finished look. That seams to have gone away and Kurtz is really nailing the panel compositions lately.


And I like Shecky. More Shecky!

Comment from: Kate Sith [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 22, 2008 6:57 PM

Francis will have his moment.

On SATURDAY.

(ref)

Comment from: FlyingFish [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 23, 2008 4:34 AM

Looks like we're already getting that requested "more Francis and Marcy".

Comment from: LurkerWithout [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 23, 2008 5:48 AM

I quit PvP awhile back (though I did flip thru the recent storyline, because the wedding seemed interesting). From what I recall I gave up the strip because 1) things were feeling stale in the gags 2) 1 pointless Kurtz vs. The Internets fight too many and 3) seeing him CONTINUE long dead feuds by reprinting "feud response" in the monthly comic version...

I did like most of the wedding strips though. Even if Jade seemed REALLY passive thru the whole thing...

Comment from: Brian Smith [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 24, 2008 6:30 AM

This is as good a time as any to declare myself one of those "found out about Websnark through PvP" readers. The comics I most associate with discovering through this site after that early link are "Questionable Content" and "Casey and Andy," although I know I also found out about "Dinosaur Comics," "Order of the Stick" and "Shortpacked!" here. (Also "Rob and Elliot," which I found through a snark of one of Clay Yount's "Bikini Suicide Frisbee Days" on "Sluggy Freelance.")

That's just part of my most frequently checked comics...the total list has grown quite a bit from there.

When I started reading "Wonderella" before it got snarked here, I felt like I had finally gone out on my own without the need for a tour guide. I'd've said something at the time, but the snark was framed in terms of "Are you following Wonderella?" and my only comment would have been "Yes, and thank you for asking." I try to avoid commenting on anything unless it's at least relevant, and preferably informative or helpful.

Or wildly self-indulgent. *cough*

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 25, 2008 7:41 PM

Damn, if Kurtz hadn't stated on the PvP forums that he'd been thinking about the "May 24, 2008" storyline for quite a while, I'd think Friday's strip was a direct response to the call for "more Francis and Marcy." I'm guessing something pretty big is going to happen with their character development in the next few weeks.

As for the strip's quality of late, I've found that I can't always trust my day-by-day instincts when it comes to PvP- more and more, the strip seems excellent in long form. I go back to long periods of 2007 that I thought were bland and forgetful, and find myself loving those stories when I can read them one after the other. So I'll probably know how I feel about the current batch of strips a few months from now. For what it's worth, I loved the tempo of the paintball storyline, where Kurtz seemed to build expectations, jerk them out from under the story, and then restore them so fast the readers got whiplash and complained, leading to the final strip- it really seemed like a little game of one-upsmanship to me, and I enjoyed sitting back and watching it unfold.

One thing's certain, though- the art's never been better.

Comment from: JackSlack [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 25, 2008 7:48 PM

Sadly, despite my blacklisting pvponline.com from my browsers, I've found myself peeking.

Dammit, I'm a junkie. Why, why do I keep coming back?

(As a sidenote, I have a followup snark to come when I have some spare time. There's a big lie about Scott Kurtz's writing that even I perpetuated, and I intend to clear it up.)

Comment from: schaefe [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 26, 2008 12:41 PM

I was going to post something about PvP, but I find myself just posting a small item of "Ding!" trivia. One thing that people may not realize about "Ding!" is that some of the secondary characters that Kurtz puts in the strip (Ruin, Hitsuji for example) are actual guild members from "Panda Attack", his WoW guild.

"Ding!" really just plays up to the WoW folks out there, but since I am one (City of Heroes had me, then it lost me, so to speak) I find it entertaining.

Comment from: Aulayan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 28, 2008 4:06 AM

PVP is skirting, for me, dangerously close to you had me and you lost me. The way Kurtz seems to give up on the more interesting storylines due to "Fan" complaints bugs me.

But, the last three strips? They've brought the goods, really really have. The last two especially making me laugh which is something PVP hasn't done in a while.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 28, 2008 9:42 AM

It's weird... I gave up PVP during the *proposal* storyline. It's one thing to be jerky. But that went beyond the pale for me - and the fact that I knew she was going to say "yes" despite the fact that even *I* wanted to smack Brent over that fiasco (and it wasn't my relationship) got me over my PVP addiction real fast.

As for the bit about Skull leaving... I can't imagine Scott getting rid of Skull permanently. If I was a betting man, I'd put money on him getting assigned to Max Powers, to teach him about the wonders of imagination or somesuch. And a silly and long plotline about how much effort it will take to get Max to notice him.

Comment from: Merus [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 28, 2008 10:17 AM

Whoa... I checked in on PvP after reading this, and I swear Kurtz has been reading Scott Pilgrim.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 28, 2008 11:29 AM

And then my post became outdated.

Clearly, I should have waited a week before doing this. Damn Kurtz and his brain!

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 28, 2008 12:03 PM

Man, Kurtz must have been rubbing his hands together and cackling maniacally as he read the last three paragraphs of the "Weaknesses" section.

Comment from: Sean Duggan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 28, 2008 1:06 PM

*blink* I was going to comment before about how Francis losing his virginity was a definite step in the "things change with permanent consequences" since, well, it's one of those things you really can only do once. But then, I demurred, as it seemed to me that current society saw it less as a world-changing event anymore, and more as a rite of passage or even something casual like using chopsticks for the first time (it's awkward and embarrassing even though you really did look up instructions on how to do it and you've heard all kinds of advice. When you're done, you feel some sense of satisfaction, but you're also left with a feeling of "Man, that was a lot of effort for so little"). But, in the world of PvP, perhaps as a nod to the MMPORPG roots, we get a level-up scene (well, actually, when paging my way back from today, I see that the level-up didn't happen with the act, but rather Francis's heartfelt [assuming this wasn't a "this is what I'm supposed to say" statement] comment about him being glad that it was with Marcie, showing a level of maturity and growing up largely alien to the character). ^_^ Actually, in a lot of ways, it reminds me of The Sims 2 and how the various life stages go, although there, the Woohoo action is only available after the life transition without third-party mods.

Comment from: Egarwaen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 28, 2008 9:33 PM

Whoa... I checked in on PvP after reading this, and I swear Kurtz has been reading Scott Pilgrim.

He's mentioned before that he's a big fan of it.

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