Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 35: PVP

If you ask me to describe PVP, I’ll say that it’s a workplace sitcom, that the characters are self-aware regarding their fictional nature and their roles within the comic, and that the heart of the comic is the bond of friendship, love and dependence among the core cast.

However, I don’t actually have to say any of that… because PVP can tell you what’s up without me needing to even get involved.

These characters aren’t just self-aware, they are trying to do my job for me.

But there is more to be said! Because this isn’t any ordinary sitcom; it takes place in a mundane-fantastical setting where any event, no matter how momentous, is typically shrugged off. Mythical creatures don’t raise an eyebrow, which actually makes sense given the elevated tone that characters engender with their antics. This comic approaches heightened drama, but with a silly and lackadaisical manner. Most things in PVP are best not taken too seriously.

You wind up reading a troll’s conversation with his maniacal talking cat, and it’s completely congruous with everything that’s come before.

Really, though, it is difficult to do any original critical analysis because PVP beats me to the punch on so many things. Not only are the characters ludicrously self-aware, but there are occasional installments that detail real-world discussions of the comic. Nearly everything that can be said about PVP has already been said in PVP.

I can’t even make some snarky-yet-kind remark about the occasional spelling error because the 
author’s father has actually shown up in the comic to make that point for me.

Yet I press on, hoping that my perspective will yield something of value.

If you’re unfamiliar with PVP, the archive can be intimidating; there is an awful lot of PVP to read. However, a full grounding in the history of the comic is unnecessary to enjoying it. There is continuity, but in the vein of many sitcoms, the characters tend toward equilibrium. Wacky adventures occur, people deal with whatever crisis is at hand, and then they move on to the next wacky adventure.

There are important pieces of backstory, plot lines, and origin stories that I had honestly completely forgotten about until I was rereading PVP in order to write this post. (Example: It had totally slipped my mind that Cole has kids.) Not remembering those details in no way prevented me from enjoying the comic.

I’ll mention here that I’m not overly concerned with spoilers for PVP. Technically, even the first excerpt seen above could be taken to contain spoilers, but I really don’t think knowing about certain plot developments without having read the whole history behind them will damage the reading experience.

The best analogy I can make is to The Simpsons. Certain things have happened in The Simpsons over the years that were shocking or that changed the show. However, to a new viewer those events aren’t shocking; they’re just backstory. Watching The Simpsons is easier if you just jump in with a good episode, rather than going back and getting used to the show so that you can be properly surprised when Maude Flanders dies.

(If you are upset with me for giving away that bit of information, then let me tell you: I don’t say this very often but you are watching The Simpsons wrong.)

Reading through all of PVP from the beginning is definitely a rewarding experience, but if you’d rather not get bogged down, you can just start from the present moment, or take a gander at the New Reader page, which links to loads of past storylines that can give you an idea of the characters and their history, as well as just let you get a general feel for the comic.

I honestly don’t think there’s a bad place to start. There are wonderful little bits throughout the whole thing.

One thing I love about PVP is that it just keeps getting better. The very early comics are cruder than the current ones in nearly every way. (The sense of humor has remained approximately as crude as it ever was.) The art, the dialog and the characterizations have all evolved over the years. Moments that make me laugh become more frequent and resonate more strongly as the comic progresses, and moments start showing up that make me cry.

Even the awareness of the comic as a cultural force increases. An effort is made not only to present a diverse and well-rounded cast, but to present that cast in an authentic light, creating a meaningful ensemble dynamic.

I don’t think PVP always does a perfect job being a force for positive cultural change, but I can tell that there’s thought and effort going in that direction.

Early on, the female characters serve mostly as counterpoints to the male characters, foils that illuminate the primarily straight white male cast. This definitely changes as time goes on. Not only do the existing female characters gain more definition, new female characters join the cast and bring some much-appreciated gender balance with them.

Where PVP has particularly impressed me is the evolution of the way the comic handles homophobia. The main cast of PVP works for a gaming magazine, also called PVP. Gaming culture is notoriously hostile to both women and homosexuals, and early on, PVP reflects that hostility. One character frequently uses “Gaaaaay” as a punchline, and while the comic itself doesn’t present any condemnation or dislike of gay people, the characters’ attitudes don’t seem to challenge the cultural milieu in which homosexuality is at best a joke.

Gaming culture is also notoriously hostile to change.

Now comes the part of this post where I actually do spoil some things, but this is a part of PVP that I think really sells the comic, and again, I don’t think these revelations will actually damage anyone’s enjoyment of the story. If you do want to read the background to what I’m about to discuss yourself, most of it is here and here.

Max Powers, a long-standing character, is gay. He was in the comic for years before there were hints at his orientation, and further years before there was a confirmation.

One trick to changing cultural attitudes: Do it slowly, and do it insidiously. Get people used to the idea gradually, trick people into a dilemma where something they’ve always considered bad is tacked onto someone they’ve always considered good.

I like that, even with the general atmosphere of the comic, where nothing, no opinion or issue or tragedy, is taken seriously, moments like the one above can still happen. There are serious issues in this setting. They don’t show up often, but when they do they are treated with exactly the level of decorum necessary.

That level of decorum, by the way, is fairly low. These characters are not a decorous bunch. And when faced with unexpected news that changes their perspective, they respond in precisely the way they respond to any other extraordinary and unexpected event: With pure baffled hilarity.

PVP is fun, engaging, and emotionally fulfilling. It has developed over the years from a simple and ephemeral series of jokes into a complex, living work of art that resonates with me emotionally and socially. I’ve enjoyed watching PVP evolve into what it is today, and I look forward to seeing what becomes of it in the future. I’m grateful for all the times it’s made me laugh, and, yes, for the rare occasion when it’s brought a tear to my eye.

I’m also grateful that somebody has given me a reference I can use to explain just how intimidating I find ordering drinks at Starbucks.

I mean, seriously, how can I keep up with these guys?

PVP is written and drawn by Scott Kurtz. It updates on weekdays. I recommend it to people who think workplace sitcoms would be 100x better if they’d just break away from the real world a little bit every once in a while.

If you choose to read through the whole archive, be warned that I did encounter trouble when I got to this comic. Trouble in the form of the next comic not loading at all. Don’t fret, just proceed to this comic and all will be well.

Now, go on and get way too emotionally involved in the ridiculous developments of these characters’ personal lives. I dare ya.

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  1. so in short, it's political, and it's gay; so i can skip it. thanks!

    1. It's really only political in the sense that any media created with a sense of its place in establishing societal norms is political, and it's really only gay in that it contains a gay character, but you may read, or not, as you like.