Although it feels improprietous to say so, I do not consider The Perry Bible Fellowship to be the world’s best webcomic. Nor do I think it’s Penny Arcade, although I own all of their books, two of their shirts, and regularly attend their convention. No, since I began reading it in 2005, I’ve come to realize that Sam Logan’s Sam and Fuzzy is the best comic that publishes exclusively on the web. And, given how infrequently I hear this opinion repeated, I can also say with confidence that it is the most underrated.
Since, as you may have realized, this is going to be an advocacy piece, I’ll get the negatives out of the way first. Actually, I don’t have anything bad to say about Sam and Fuzzy in its current form. Sure, I could act journalistic and give you a couple niggling gripes, but the fact of the matter is that I anticipate and enjoy every update. I’ll let you see if you can spot any flaws for yourself. I don’t doubt they’re in there, I just don’t care to look.
You’ll notice, however, that my praise is largely couched in the present tense, which leads me to the one very real complaint I have against Sam and Fuzzy: the early strips suck. Jump back to the first strip and you’ll be awash in years of awkward art, predictable humor, and shallow characters. There are a few gems that hint at the promising comic that lies in the future, but the rest are simply off-putting.
This, I think, is a major reason why Sam and Fuzzy isn’t more popular. If you’re a webcomics geek like me–and if you read any webcomics at all, you probably are–then you enjoy reading a long-running comic’s entire archive. Just imagine those late nights, thinking “just one more” about a hundred times until it’s four in the morning. It’s a delightful, if rare, indulgence. This experience, sadly, is just not possible with Sam and Fuzzy. If you start from the beginning you’ll surely give up before the comic gets good. I imagine this has happened to many readers who would love what the comic becomes around strip 100, and this must have had an impact on readership.
One of the charms of Sam and Fuzzy, though, is that its author is clearly a humble and practical man. Rather than allowing his “Start” button to whisk you away into the strip’s mediocre early days, Logan instead redirects you to an ingenious reader guide. Within, he says of the strip’s developmental stage:
The first Sam and Fuzzy strips are a little rough around the edges, but are not without their hardcore advocates. This is not the best place for new readers to start, but if you have enjoyed the rest of the archive, dive in here to see the comic’s awkward-yet-lovable adolescence.
Is that sharp or what? He even offers several potential entry points for prospective readers, plus well-written summaries of previous plot points. I recommend beginning at volume two. It’s all gold from there.
So, why do I call Sam and Fuzzy the best strip on the net? To answer, I’ll do my best to analyze what is, to me, simply an immense fondness. I suppose that the most complete argument I can offer is that Sam and Fuzzy executes the encompassing concept of “webcomic” more fully than does any other strip. This, by itself, means next to nothing, so I’ll try to break it down.
First, I am aware that the phrase “encompassing concept of ‘webcomic’” reeks of pretentious bullshit, but I’m not abandoning it because I think it’s important. Any comic is primarily composed of four formal elements: writing, artwork, pacing, and format. Webcomics are a specialized subset of comics as a whole, and they have their own requirements in each of the above categories. The reason I find Sam and Fuzzy so compelling is that it excels in each of those categories in a way that is specific to the web.
Writing and artwork are fairly self-explanatory elements, and together they are easily the most important aspects of any comic. Admittedly, Sam and Fuzzy is not the best written or best drawn strip on the web. While Logan writes great comics that are amazingly illustrated, I think that Penny Arcade has him beat on both counts. While this Sam and Fuzzy strip is hilarious, this offering from Penny Arcade is pure manic genius. And, although Logan’s art in this strip is fantastic, I think that PA has him beat again here.
There are also other examples of webcomics that are funnier than Sam and Fuzzy, such as the previously mentioned Perry Bible Fellowship. Sam and Fuzzy stands out, however, because it so consistently combines excellent writing and artwork, and because of its flexibility in both departments.
Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, once said:
The best comics have funny writing and funny drawings, but sometimes the strength of one can make up for the weakness of the other. Great writing will save boring artwork better than great drawings will save boring ideas, but comics are a visual medium, and a funny picture can pull more weight than most people think.
Sam and Fuzzy is among the very few webcomics I know that can execute this formula. The writing in this strip is not particularly funny, but the over-the-top artwork saves it. Contrarily, this strip is comparatively dull visually (although the expressions are great), but the writing makes it worthwhile. Logan is also capable of blending the two to tremendous effect, and, as Watterson predicts, that’s when the strip is at its best: see here, here, and here.
Once again, though, one could point to the previously mentioned Penny Arcade or The Perry Bible Fellowship, or perhaps Sinfest or Starsilp Crisis and rightly claim that they share these properties with Sam and Fuzzy. While I would disagree that any pull of the art/writing combo better than Sam and Fuzzy, I won’t press the point because I have yet to address what I believe truly separates Logan’s comic from the rest of the online community.
Above, I included pacing and format in my key components of comics, which may seem a bit odd. After all, one could easily and accurately claim that pacing is part of writing and that the format of a comic is unrelated to these other traits. Clarification is therefore needed. First, I include pacing in my key attributes because it is a major variable factor in any comic, and in many ways it extends beyond the bounds of writing. Format also must be considered here because it largely influences pacing.
By pacing, I do not simply mean the way the story progresses inside the comic itself. One must consider how the story progresses throughout a comic’s publication, and a comic’s publishing schedule is determined by its format. A daily strip author must contend with how to break up a story into three or four panel strips, how to make each strip interesting in and of itself, and how to maintain momentum over a larger story arc. Likewise, a comic book author must decide how much story to reveal each month, and how to create a strong enough cliffhanger for the reader to remember the story until the next issue arrives.
In physical comics, format is static, so issues of pacing can easily be applied by formula. Different comics might play with time in various ways, but for the most part, pacing takes a back-seat to story or character in the eyes of the reader. A good comic author should give no reason for a reader to even consider a story’s pace.
Webcomics, however, are a whole different kettle of fish. Since format is completely unrestrained on the web, pacing suddenly becomes incredibly important, and it’s the Achilles’ heel of many story-based webcomics. Update schedules can be all over the place in webcomics, but most popular strips with an ongoing story publish either thrice weekly, every weekday, or every single day. The issue here is that, even with an ambitious schedule, a webcomic will publish fewer panels a month than a standard comic book or manga. As a result, many webcomic storylines feel incredibly slow.
I don’t know how anyone can stand to keep up with Questionable Content or Megatokyo. The notion of depicting nearly every happening of a given day, and every day of an ongoing story means that a single day can easily take over a month to complete. I mean, Megatokyo, which has been primarily a romance strip for years, has yet to feature a kiss between the main male and female character. How long is this thing supposed to take? I find this situation to be tragically common. I’ll adore a comic as I burn through the archives, but then lose complete interest once I can only get the story at a snail’s pace. I mean, I love Stuff Sucks, but I just can’t maintain an interest in it. I’ll read through two months of updates, forget about it, and then remember it in another couple of months.
The pacing, then, is probably the single biggest reason that I love Sam and Fuzzy. Important things happen regularly in the strip, an amazingly refreshing change from other webcomics. Logan isn’t afraid to make big changes, either. The main character, Sam, has been through three girlfriends since the strip became story-based, each of whom was a compelling character in her own right. Logan also changed the strip’s setting entirely, abandoning many excellent supporting characters in favor of a bold new storyline. The tone of the strip has also undergone serious change, moving from a mostly gag-based, vaguely romantic city comic to a comedy-action strip involving devious record labels and unemployed mafia ninjas.
All the while, Logan’s writing and artwork have become more and more impressive. Logan crafts lengthy, intricate storylines with rewarding mysteries and moments of heartfelt drama while astonishingly maintaining a light, funny tone. The amount of work Logan must put into the art is equally mind-blowing. In the last couple of weeks of a given storyline, Logan will consistently produce comics with huge, beautiful drawings in every panel. It’s easy to forget that the strip is supposed to be standardized on a four-panel box.
This all hearkens back to an earlier point I want to emphasize: I think Sam and Fuzzy is the best webcomic. Logan can draw twelve wide horizontal panels if it suits the story because the web has no limits on space. He can change the entire genre of the strip if he feels like it because there’s no one to make demands of him. Throughout all of this, he never misses an update or posts a lazy filler strip. And his brisk pacing, which dismisses minutiae in favor of progressing the story with every update, means that the strip consistently pays-off, rather than leaving the reader dangling, literally, for years.
The reason why I’m so effusive in my praise here is that I don’t understand why more people don’t love Sam and Fuzzy as I do. It seems like a comic must either focus on video games or be unnecessarily irreverent to gain traction on the web. Can net denizens not appreciate a straight-up great comic if it doesn’t have any stupid hooks? Most of all, how can the abyss of culture know as Ctrl-Alt-Del become so popular while the amazing work of Sam Logan goes under-appreciated? Perhaps that’s the flaw in relying on the capricious and juvenile audience that comprises much of the internet. A strip with stellar writing and fabulous art will never make it to the frontpage of digg, but take a crack at the PS3 and watch the traffic pour in.