Webcomics, Part VIII: Sinfest

Written by Matthew Pardue

I had my doubts about reviewing Sinfest. The name alone is pretty incriminating, at least for the sort of audience the University Press mostly aims for. If you just go by the first few years (this is another one of those long webcomics, coincidentally running for the last twelve years just like Schlock Mercenary, I think; I guess 2000 was a popular starting point), it’s a cavalcade of profanity and humor so dark that you could use Unsounded as a torch to light the way through it. Well, that’s a little misleading; you’ll hardly see any horror or violent humor early on, but rather jokes that step up to the line of poor taste and gleefully set it on fire. Even now, from time to time I’ll see a strip to which “Itzamna, I can’t believe he wrote that (pre-Spanish Mayan creator deity, by the way)” is my only possible reaction, usually before I rub my eyes and laugh helplessly. Because make no mistake, Sinfest has the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal deal of being absolutely hilarious if the jokes don’t deeply offend you. So, yeah, the disclaimer for this webcomic is in full effect.

As I hinted, though, Sinfest has calmed down in recent years. The characters almost universally started out as being defined by, well, their sin of choice, for lack of a better description, but as time went on they’ve undergone an unforeseen level of development. The pacing and causes for those changes were very well done, too. Either by their interaction with each other or problems in their own lives, many characters have taken closer looks at themselves and tried to change some things they didn’t like—and have had a realistically hard time of it, struggling and relapsing and trying again in a way that makes them feel like actual people. At the same time, Sinfest has usually (usually—I’ll get to this again later) kept to its original tone of comedy, dark or otherwise.

The humor’s good (if potentially offensive), but I think I’m more attached to the way Tatsuya Ishida (the writer and artist) handles the characters and stories. The characters usually hang around in small groups of two or three, each with their own subplots, but then they often cross over and influence one another in a web of relationships. It’s handled pretty nicely, especially when one character does something that comes up later in another character’s life after you’d almost forgotten about the first one. I’m also happy with the action scenes that come up pretty frequently, especially given some of the characters that’re involved.

After all, where else can you see Death duel Jesus while the Devil profits from it in the background?

Original at: http://www.sinfest.net/archive_page.php?comicID=3631

Oh, yeah, in addition to the mortal cast, famous figures like that are regulars. Buddha flies around on a little cloud, God pokes fun at people with giant hand puppets in the sky (he does give advice and help someone once in a while, but more often he likes to amuse himself), and there’s a dragon to symbolize Eastern religions, I guess. That last one seems like a pretty big oversimplification, but I love its sense of humor:

Original at: http://www.sinfest.net/archive_page.php?comicID=1402

There’s no overarching plot or goal; the characters just live their lives, interact, deal with what happens to them, and so on. That said, trends do come up, and I can’t not mention the latest one, which has split the fans into two angry groups depending on whether or not they like it. Lately (meaning for almost a year; it’s a long webcomic), Ishida has been doing some fairly serious strips about feminism. The idea is admirable, but a lot of readers take issue with the “serious” part, Sinfest having attracted its fans largely on the basis of comedy. Some people also think these newer strips are heavy-handed and preachy. I won’t take it that far, but I will say that Sinfest has had misogynistic characters since the beginning, and they were over-the-top and obviously wrong, which I took as straightforward (if unsubtle) satire (some people have said it was for shock value, so I dunno), especially when some of those characters started trying to change (the main one that didn’t was the Devil, and you can’t get much clearer than that). This switch feels odd as a result.

Original at: http://www.sinfest.net/archive_page.php?comicID=4047

In case you’re wondering, some characters are just drawn in a younger style; I’m sure I shouldn’t read too much into it (the male in that comic, Slick, has been around since the beginning and is an adult even if he’s occasionally mistaken for a kid, so it’s nothing new), but at the same time, the new feminists who’ve shown up have all been drawn like children, and as you can see, the main one even rides a tricycle. Since the juvenilization of women is one big problem feminism discusses, this is still perhaps an unfortunate stylistic choice (this particularly happens from a linguistic perspective, which is the main angle I’ve studied; most people don’t see any issue with calling grown women “girls,” but try flipping the genders. Or, better yet, do an experiment: find a hardcore biker bar in your area and spend the night there calling all the men “boys” [please don’t actually do this; I don’t want my name to be the new shorthand for easy lawsuits]). It kind of reminds me of writing a book on environmental preservation and printing it on paper made from Amazonian timber.

Regardless, I’m just not sure that Sinfest knows what it wants to be anymore. Mixing social commentary and pretty much anything else, especially humor, needs to be handled with great care. The line between a story with some meaning at its core and activism structured as a narrative is not just thin, but subjective, as you can already see if you read the long and bitter rants on both sides of Sinfest’s divided fans. If Ishida wanted to make a webcomic solely about feminism, or even about a variety of social causes he likes, then that’d be fine. He could attract an audience that expected it. If he made these strips occasionally but kept the focus of his comic on having fun and developing the characters, then that’d also be fine. Going half-and-half doesn’t seem to be working out too well. The tone is getting weird.

That’s my opinion, anyway. I still recommend having a look, possibly starting somewhere around 2008 when things lighten up a little unless you’re hard to offend (you need to be somewhat laid back anyway). The first strip starts off with Slick selling his soul, so…deep breaths, if you’ve got to read the whole thing and stuff like that gets to you.