Two years ago, I bought my younger brother a box set of Gumby DVDs. When we were kids, we would watch it with that gawpish look in our faces. It would mesmerise us, hold us transfixed and enthralled. For half an hour each day, it was the best thing ever.
Watching the set again as an adult, the magic had faded. The sunset clause in the contract the creators had with the Devil had come into effect long ago, and now we could all see Gumby for the preachy, screechy, painful mess that it is.
It was the first sign of a coming wave of realisation: so many things I love have an expiry date. The giddy joy of watching only lasts once. Now that I know Bruce Willis is dead, The Sixth Sense is mostly unwatchable. Now that I know that Marion Cotillard is playing Talia al Ghul, there isn’t much point left in The Dark Knight Rises. Now that I know Snape kills Dumblesnore, there’s even less reason to read Harry Potter and the Something of That Thing.
So when the Internet’s best webcomic is released in trade paperback (TPB) form by Dark Horse there is a hesitation tinged with morbid curiousity: will the adventure be as thrilling the second time around?
Dr McNinja is a frequently-regularly produced webcomic by Chris Hastings about a doctor who is from a family of Irish-American ninjas. Despite being called ‘volume 2’, it’s more accurately a third volume. The first volume was the original series of black and white comics, but it wasn’t published by Dark Horse. Instead, it will be published in June 2013 by Dark Horse as part of an omnibus edition. The first volume published by Dark Horse, Dr McNinja: Night Powers, collected all the stories beginning with the first colour episode, ‘Monster Mart’.
If you coped with that baffling paragraph, you will be fine with Timefist, which is something of an unrelenting tidal wave of confusing narrative and surrealist parody. Why does that boy have a giant moustache? Why is Benjamin Franklin a university lecturer in the ’90s? Aztec tennis players? Dinosau….?
Selling a person on the merits of Dr McNinja is not difficult. It is clever, witty, and fun. Given the webcomic format, each page is punchy and beautifully crafted. Indeed, it’s so easy to sell the concept of Dr McNinja to people that it’s something of a gateway drug to the genre of surrealist parody comedy. It’s a short bounce from here to, say, The Venture Bros. or Danger 5.
The difficulty is selling a person on the merits of buying the TPB when it’s available for free online. Even more difficult when they have already read the series, laughed at the twists and turns, and are now faced with what I am now calling The Gumby Problem: will it be as much fun the second time around?
Format changes the way we read things. When you wait a few days between pages, you expect each page to be a complete package in its own right. Books of greater length can afford to have a bit of flab. Pages where, for example, the protagonist does nothing but sulk in a forest, having a bit of a sook, and thinking fruitlessly about horcruxes.
What is surprising — and it’s more noticeable in Timefist than in Night Powers — is that this discipline translates particularly well to the TPB format. The pacing is quick, the key parts of the story are highlighted on each page, and nothing feels lost. In surrealist parody, it is easy for the story to get out of control. Dr McNinja has a plethora of supporting characters, and the temptation to let things go off leash must drive Hastings wild. Despite that, things are kept under expert control.
But it’s not all beer and skittles. In TPB, the weaknesses of the series are a little bit harder to ignore. Hastings really loves Chekhov’s Gun. Really loves it. When the same technique is repeated a few times in a row, it starts to get in the way of enjoying the story because the reader is expecting the weirdly emphasised detail to make a return in the resolution. The TPB format also distorts the tone: ‘relentless’ is a double-edged adjective. After smashing through a dozen pages, I felt the desperate need for a break.
All of that said, it is still extremely fun the second time through and it comes highly recommended for people who are already fans of the webcomic.