Written by Matthew Pardue
At first I wasn’t sure what to review this week. I didn’t have another book lined up (I started reading the Aeneid last night, but that’d be a weird thing to do here, even if I was anywhere near finished with it), and all my Discworld novels are with my sister. The rest of my library is in storage, if you can call an uncoordinated jumble at my old house “storage.” So, I either have to go back to webcomics for a bit, or start on Calvin and Hobbes.
Webcomics it is, especially since I haven’t reviewed my favorite one of all time: 8-Bit Theater by Brian Clevinger.
It’s nine years and 1,220-odd-pages of glorious brilliance the likes of which the world will never see again (this comic’s finished, by the way, so you can read it without having to wait on new updates). 8-Bit Theater was pretty much the only reason I bothered to wake up at all on Saturdays during college. Despite a very simple art style (all 8-bit pixels, as the name implies), the story is fun, the characters are better, and the humor needs a new English word of its own to do it justice.
Some background information: 8-Bit Theater is a parody of an old video game, Final Fantasy, from the late 80s. According to popular rumor and Wikipedia, the developer made it as his last grab for success in the video game industry before planning to go back to school if it failed—hence the name, Final Fantasy. It sold surprisingly well (I’m not really sure why, but more on that shortly), spawning a long series that still continues today. I guess the graphics and some gameplay elements were revolutionary for its time. By today’s standards, though, the story is hilariously bad. None of the protagonists have names, being identified only by their job titles (Black Mage, Red Mage, White Mage, Thief, Fighter, and so on), and they’re on a quest to find four magical elemental orbs, each guarded by an elemental demon, which ends in a climax in an ancient castle against the forces of chaos. Your characters are collectively called the Light Warriors and start the game by saving a princess. The only missing fantasy clichés are a long-haired Arnold Schwarzenegger and a villain who turns into a giant snake during the final confrontation.
I forgive Final Fantasy for its flaws, however, because it paved the way for some infinitely better games (and a few that’re arguably just as bad as the original, but this isn’t the time or place to go into that), and of course, 8-Bit Theater, which parodies this stereotype-ridden plot. The first change it makes is to turn the original protagonists into the three worst people in the world, plus Fighter.
They lie, steal, and murder their way through the story, claiming to be heroes in the same way Spam claims to be food. In their (very limited) defense, sometimes they just hurt people on accident. Black Mage especially (the one with the blue hat) attracts bad karma that, by its sheer volume, occasionally can’t help but catch innocent bystanders in the blast. Red Mage (take a guess) has a love-hate relationship with physics and logic, in that both hate him because he loves to snap natural laws like chicken bones in the grip of his truly impressive stupid ideas.
Thief (dark clothes, blue hair) is the competent one, being evil not by stupidity (like Red Mage) or sadism (like Black Mage) but out of simple greed and self-interest. Not that this makes him any less dangerous; he’s just more likely to actually profit from the destruction they cause as opposed to leaving behind smoking ruins via Mr. Bean-esque hijinks. Finally, there’s Fighter, who’s kind of like Red Mage, only he comes with a case of childlike innocence that somehow doesn’t keep him from being the group’s personal weapon of mass destruction.
And so, these three jerks plus Fighter go on a nine-year-tour of their world, marking their progress with new enemies, confused onlookers, and a whole lot of corpses. If you hadn’t guessed, the humor can be kind of dark.
Speaking of the disclaimer, 8-Bit Theater obviously has (pixilated) violence, adult concepts, and some adult language. It’s also over a thousand pages of the funniest stuff I’ve ever seen on the Internet, so unless you’re dead-set against dark comedy, for the love of Juno, read this webcomic.
That said, I’ll warn you that I personally think it takes some time for Clevinger to really hit his stride. His humor peeks through a little early on, but it only busts out in force after a few hundred strips. I’m pretty sure this was his first literary work, or at least the first with a proper audience giving feedback, so it makes sense. Be patient at the beginning of the webcomic; it gets so much better. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy yourself from the start, but I will say you can’t possibly compare this…
If you decide you like Clevinger’s style, he’s also written a few other things. Nuklear Age (a decent, if weird, book with the most bizarre ending I’ve ever seen), How I Killed Your Master (another free webcomic), Warbot in Accounting (a webcomic with humor so dark that it sucks the laughter of children into itself for a ten-mile radius), and Atomic Robo (a print comic that, from what I can tell, is Hellboy but with robots instead of demons). 8-Bit Theater is still my favorite, but once you’ve invented the wheel, it’s hard to follow up with a triangle, square, and pentagon and get the same response from your fans, even if they’re all perfectly good shapes.
That’s all for this week. Here’s the first page of 8-Bit Theater. Read it, know it, love it.