I had one of those catch up sessions, in which I read every comic published this year, today.
So that has me thinking about what I like about the comic.
The first thing to note is that it has a habit of starting with something I don't like, and then moving from there to something I do. Some of that ordinary is improvement over time; some of is much more in terms of stylistic choices instead of quality.
The Sisterhood is a good example of something that has improved since its introduction and reintroduction. When first showed up isn't really worth spending too much time on. It was part of a silly seven strip arc and when the arc was over it wasn't heard from again for over four years. It was a throw away.
When it was reintroduced it was more serious and there was definitely good there. Sinfest's The Patriarchy, which is shown as being like the "raining code" from The Matrix, is a really effective way to show the messages that, while they're being sent, often slip under your conscious radar. Also how patriarchal messages are everywhere you look. That said, while The Patriarchy introduced at that point in the comic was good, The Sisterhood wasn't so much. Xanthe's first action upon showing back up was to shame 'Nique for how she dressed that's... not exactly good feminism. That's just one example but there was a fair amount of straw feminism mixed in with actual feminism in their portrayal. That's improved a lot.
For a long time I read Sinfest mostly for the relationship between Crim and Fuchsia. I liked it because it was cute, and sweet, and many nice things. But when it started Fuchsia was basically stalking Crim. I'm definitely not interested in stories about stalkers.
The other really important thing I've noticed has to do with how capable the characters are. The Sisterhood (fighting patriarchy through the power of sustained awesome) and the devil (the devil) are both well suited for whatever happens to be thrown their way. Blue is good at what she does, but she follows the devil's lead, and some non-main characters are pretty unflappable (see: Buddha) but for the most part everyone else is pretty much always in over their heads.
But they're not in over their heads in an awkward, insecure, groan-inducing, cringe-worthy, facepalm-summoning, "Oh my god, this hurts to watch" kind of way.
A recent (and major) arc does a good job of illustrating what I'm talking about. It also shows what I mean about starting in places that I don't like.
It was when Lily (Lil' E = Little Evil = the devil's son) and Tange (Angie who likes tangerines ) went in search of the robot girl with boom (MODEL PX1-F600 SERIAL NUMBER FBXC-44-020-718-184-63-661-90-542 with a shotgun.)
None of these characters started out in a place that'd I'd normally like to go in my fiction. Little E forgot who he was and it still hasn't come back. He forgot who he was in a strip that appeared on September 23, 2011. Sinfest updates daily.
Forgetting everything about himself is how he ended up with the name Lily. He was told that he was "Lil' E" and Tange misheard it as "Lily".
Tange was originally a normal human being but the devil turned her into a devil-girl. It's not precisely mind control, more of personality control. Others tried to change her back but succeeded only in inflicting their personalities upon her. She never got returned to normal, but she did end up a free agent as opposed to a carbon copy of someone else's personality.
That's ... deeply disturbing. Don't take my word for it, listen to Hawkeye talk about the same sort of thing in The Avengers:
You don't understand. Have you ever had someone take your brain and play? Take you out and stuff something else in? You know what it's like to be unmade?So they're both coming from a place where they've lost their identities, and that's something I shy away from.
As for the robot girl with boom, she tried to commit suicide. Tange met her before before that, but not long before. Lily first met her when she was suicidal. That's something I really shy away from.
I like my fiction fun and light. Real life is bad enough, and I want fiction to be better than it. A character in Sinfest, upon learning that a game is one in which "victory is neither certain nor even likely, just like real life", shouts, "I don't want real life. I wanna win!" I'm like that with my fiction.
But that's where this starts. Three characters in positions that I don't really want to read about people being in. There's plenty of good fiction that doesn't have identity loss or suicidal characters. As I said, Sinfest has a habit of starting in places that I never want my fiction to go in the first place, and then changing into stories that I do like.
Tange and Lily save the fembot, who totally needs a shorter name, from her suicide attempt. They take her in. They give her a bed to sleep in and plug her in so she gets a charge. But, after she sees a commercial for fembots (they're created to be slaves; she is not amused) and stumbles across Lily's armory, she takes a shotgun and runs off alone.
When Tange and Lily realize that she's gone, and she has a gun, they run off to save her. They think she needs saving because they remember that she was suicidal, in fact she needs saving because she's going to take on the amalgamated forces of Hell in a quest for vengeance. She can't pull that off. (She's impressive, but not that impressive.) Without help she would die.
The point here is that Tange and Lily are running off on a mission that will take them into the heart of Hell's manufacturing and R&D center and will pit them against Hell's robotic hordes. They have no idea what they're getting into and are in no way prepared for the task.
They're awesome at it.
People being in over their heads and somehow succeeding is a plot that will always be with us, but a lot of times it carries with it the idea that you have to suffer through it. The characters make faux pas left and right, they do things that make you cringe and want to turn away from the screen, the fact that they're not, objectively, well suited to the task becomes emotional insecurities, it's a bog of awkward and uncomfortable that the story slogs through.
This is not a story like that.
There is no possible way that Tange and Lily should be able to pull off their rescue attempt. What I really love is not that they do it, though that is necessary, but the way that they do it. The have a goal: find and help robot girl with boom. They pursue that goal with determination and only the occasional distraction by angel-themed clothing and vice soda. They don't let the fact that they're in way over their head get to them at all.
In fact, they're inordinately proud of themselves. Not in a, "Shut the fuck up, Bruce Wayne," kind of way but in a, "Yes, you are awesome," kind of way. Which is to say that when they show pride your impulse is not to think they're full of themselves but to want to cheer them on.
As an example, there's a strip that goes like this:
Tange: Have you seen a robot girl with boom?Objectively, no. They were lucky that they asked someone who knew that "boom" meant "shotgun" they were even more lucky that the person they asked was the one person who found out where the fembot was going. Getting lucky when you ask a question, badly, does not make you an excellent detective.
Scarf guy*: As a matter of fact I have.
Tange: Where she go?
Scarf guy: Um ... she said she was looking for ... Devil Tech.
*Tange and Lily turn to each other with hands in celebratory gestures*
Tange: Woo! We are excellent detectives!
THAT SAID, reading the comic doesn't make you want to point any of that out. It makes you want to encourage Tange and tell her that, yes, they are excellent detectives.
They do save the fembot's life, but it would be short lived if not for the fact that the rescue party is itself rescued by The Sisterhood.
When they get to the place where they'll be hiding out Tange asks, "We are excellent fugitives, yeah?"
Yes, Tange. Yes, you are.
And I very much like that. I like that even when the characters are completely out of their depths and outclassed in every way they don't descend into angst and awkwardness. Sometimes they have fun and they are fun. Other times they're just plain determined.
The story of the person who is in over their head and somehow pulls through speaks to a certain fantasy: that you can overcome things, that you can succeed even when the problems seem insurmountable.
Sinfest delivers on that, but it also delivers on a second fantasy: that you can do the above without having to suffer through the experience.
Characters often deal with what's in front of them without letting the overwhelming nature of the overall situation get to them.
Which is not to say that they can always deal with their problems. The fembot would have died if not for Tange and Lily, all of them would have been caught soon after if not for The Sisterhood. There have been multiple plots where someone was just plain broken and wouldn't have made it through without a friend doing the hard work of helping them.
One memorable plot was when Crim dug a hole to Hell. Fuchsia had a breakdown, she thought that she didn't belong anywhere but Hell and didn't deserve to be happy. So she returned there and cut herself off from the outside world. Crim started digging.
When he got there Blue assumed that he'd come to save Fuchsia, but when Fuchsia asked he admitted that he hadn't; he'd simply come to be with her. Crim had no illusions about what he could pull off. He couldn't liberate Fuchsia from Hell (she had to do that herself) but he could do something, and so he did that something.
People who were just visitors to Hell, on the other hand, could get out with help from their friends. Slick and Lily both ended up so depressed they were in Hell and their friends had to go in there and help them back out both physically (Hell is a literal place, otherwise Crim could never have gotten there by digging a hole) and mentally (helping them get over the depression by being good friends.)
And I think I sort of lost the thread of what I was saying, but the big thing is:
Someone who is in over their head but wins in the end without taking a detour into angst, awkward, or assorted other things that make you groan/cringe/facepalm is a plot that I like a lot.
Links to various things:
The subjunctive mood
Characters I have mentioned in this post:
For that matter I'm not sure that any bisexual characters appear in the strip, and the identification of characters as lesbians is questionable at best. (Because we're talking about devil girls whose job it was to put on a show.) I'm not remembering anyone who is queer in any way except for the two male gay characters (Francis and his unnamed boyfriend.) So even though LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion is something that The Sisterhood says they're for, we never get a chance to see if they live up to it.
But, mostly, I really like the webcomic.
* His name is not "scarf guy". That's what Tange knows him as. His name is Francis Sebastian.