Meta-review: College Roomies from Hell

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Comic: College Roomies from Hell by Maritza Campos

College Roomies from Hell was one of the first comics I started reading (predated only by CotC), and for the longest time could probably be considered my absolute favorite. Unfortunately, in the last couple of years my fondness for this comic has lessened as Maritza pushes more and more into epic storylines and a tendency toward dramatic storylines over silly ones.

I look at that line and it’s strange. I mean, I like epic storylines. I love drama. But… for some reason CRfH works better with blatant silliness and general life-and-college-related stories, rather than the epic war that it is slowly building up toward. But I’ll get into that in later sections.

Art – Inking: 4 ribbons
Art – Backgrounds: 4.5 ribbons
Art – Coloring: 4.75 ribbons

Maritza’s artwork has grown tremendously in the six and a half years her comic has been out. For the most part, Maritza’s put out CRfH either five or seven days a week, and that much drawing and practice drawing her characters shows. Elements of her early style can still be seen with the characters basic head structure. However, within a year Maritza’s style started to flesh out, with the characters looking less and less cartoony.

This has not stopped Maritza from experimenting with other styles. Red Green Noir is a perfect example of this (near the start of the first major epic storyline, The Adversary) with a black and white art style meant to emulate the old film Noir. She later returned to this black-and-white art in the story Strange but True

Later, Maritza did another experiment in art styles with Elastic which was received with mixed reviews from fans. Either people loved it or people hated it (I must admit to being one who didn’t like it, but it’s because I don’t like the general style itself). Maritza also has shown she can draw in a more realistic style though she tends to use it for flashbacks and memories, rather than for any actual storylines.

Partway through the second year, Maritza started working on her backgrounds, and has grown quite adept at it. She even came up with a rather inventive explanation why backgrounds didn’t exist before in the comic. Current comics often have elaborate and changing backgrounds. One thing she doesn’t do a lot of are backgrounds of other people, however. Most of the time Maritza manages to have the characters in a setting where there wouldn’t be people behind hers… but outside of parties and bars (or in crossovers) we often don’t see anyone else there.

Of course, this could also be considered a means of focusing the story (and world) on her characters. Literally they appear to be the center of the universe, and there’s almost no one else there with them. Obviously this isn’t true, but at times it feels that way. (Note: Maritza isn’t alone in this. Quite a few other comics also tend not to use other characters as background settings, probably because it’s easier to create a generic background setting than to draw in other people.)

Finally, while the archives don’t show it, Maritza has been doing non-stop coloring ever since the story Roger vs. the Thing. Her colors were initially flat colors that could be found in any Sunday newspaper funnies page, but she started branching out and working on shading and the like until her coloring is absolutely superb. About the only problem I have with her coloring has to do with Roger’s hair, which has been the one static unchanging thing (except when he is in his were-coyote form).

(The reason the archives have greyscale instead of color is due to bandwidth considerations. The CRfH CD Compilations that Maritza sells do have the original coloring available.)

Character development – primary characters 4 ribbons
Character development – secondary cast 4.25 ribbons
Character development – Antagonists 2.5 ribbons
Character Chemistry: 4.5 ribbons

One of the biggest draws for CRfH is its characters, and fans often divide into camps concerning one of the favorite characters, Dave. While CRfH is an ensemble cast, if there was a main male character it could be considered Dave. Indeed, when something bad is going down, Dave is often at the heart of it. And nothing divides the fans more than the relationship Dave has between two of the female cast, Blue and Margaret.

The first three years of the comic had Dave focusing his attentions on Margaret, a solitary irritable young lady whose two joys in life were guns (indeed, all weapons) and grades. Her friendship with her female roommates wasn’t especially close, and her only real interest in Dave was as competition over who’d get the top grades in class. Dave, of course, was smitten with her, and appeared to have been interested in her since high school. Indeed, Dave seems to have deliberately followed Margaret to this college, seeing as it’s a bit of a distance from home. Of course, Dave might have gotten a full scholarship or the like, but even so, the likelihood of his going to the same college as Margaret without intent isn’t very great.

Blue showed up midway through the second year and immediately became an antagonist in the non-relationship between Dave and Margaret. Indeed, in The Adversary, Blue showed up again through phone calls to Dave, in which she tried to tease Dave through inappropriate phone calls. Indeed, she seemed to be “the adversary” mentioned in the storyline (it would not be until halfway through the story and partway into Dave and Margaret’s date that we learned who the true Adversary was).

However, during the Holidays Too storyline, Blue went from adversary to friend, and a sympathetic character to boot. As the chemistry between Dave and Margaret cooled, things between him and Blue heated up until Dave found himself thinking that maybe he did love her after all.

Another relationship that has been ongoing for years now is that between Mike and Marsha. Mike started dating Marsha after she stabbed him in the back, and that’s been a good description of their relationship. Marsha is extremely jealous and somewhat manipulative, and seems to be a good match to the manipulative and loyal Mike. However, Marsha’s jealousy and insecurities have led to several breakups between the two of them, and also led Mike to finding ways to get Marsha to date him once again. Recently the relationship was strained when April decided to break up Mike and Marsha, as she’s also fallen in love with Mike, and April’s fall from grace and slow climb back has been intertwined with the relationship Mike and Marsha have.

The last relationship of note is that of Roger and Diana. Unfortunately, outside of the early story which had these two get together, there’s been remarkably little story-wise for them. Instead, we have a glimpse of things here and there, but nothing big. This is a shame, as the back story hinted for Diana (with her and her brother prostituting themselves to earn enough money for their dad, who apparently needs some sort of operation to live – I’m betting on a kidney transplant or the like as dialysis is expensive and necessary) is interesting and I’d love to see more of it.

CRfH is a character-driven comic, and thus character development is a big part of the comic. Dave is one of the central characters here and has slowly been growing a backbone over the years. While he is still easily panicked, he also is true to his friends and almost always there for them. Of interest though is the fact he’s slowly distanced himself from Margaret in the past year. When he learned Margaret was missing, he didn’t immediately jump up to rescue her. However, when faced with the possibility that Roger might have killed Margaret, he was willing to kill. Rather dark, when you think of it, and it shows that Dave’s not completely over Margaret.

Unfortunately, Margaret hasn’t changed much. While she recently admitted she might love Dave (in theory), she still has a tendency to push people away and try to do things by herself. Indeed, her character development happened early in the comic, with her becoming colder and more aloof as time passes by. Maybe she’s turned over a new leaf as of her revelation to Dave… but I doubt it, and I suspect Margaret will remain the same static uninteresting character in the future, much to my regret and the comic’s detriment.

Roger also has become a darker character, and it’s not a good thing. He’s long been the silly nonsensical member of the cast, and even the revelation from his were coyote mother that he was destined to become a beast that feeds off of humans was not enough to get him down. However, his fears of how Diana would react to his were coyote nature led him to thinking he’d broken up with her (she wasn’t aware of this, however), and his mother dying in his arms pretty much sent him into a downward spiral of despair and isolationism on par with Margaret’s. Interestingly, it was Diana herself who showed up and dragged Roger back to civilization, saving him from Dave’s laser vision and letting him realize that Diana, at least, wasn’t going to give up on him, so maybe he could fight his fate. It will be interesting to see how Diana manages to keep Roger from sinking into depression again, especially as it should hopefully make the red-head a regular member of the cast.

Diana herself has grown in the time we’ve first seen her, as an outwardly happy-go-lucky girl who was hiding a dark secret – the fact she was a prostitute. Recent events with Roger have shown her to be a far stronger person than we’ve seen before, and also quite in love with Roger and willing to fight to keep him. Also of interest was the fact that she has a bit of a jealous streak. Normally she keeps it under control, but recent events with April resulted in her breaking her friendship with the blonde and chasing her away from Roger.

April has gone through the greatest change of all the characters, even greater than Roger. For some time, she was the “normal one” of the bunch, even if she had an imaginary wiser floating self. However, she also has had a growing crush on Mike that blossomed into love. When Mike unwittingly antagonized her, making her think that he knew about her affections but was doing some rather cruel things to her, it caused her to snap. April decided that if Mike wouldn’t love her, she’d make sure he was never happy again. Recently she’s been pulling herself out of this quagmire, and even was talking to Dave about it. She knows what she’s done, and she’s not proud of herself. And she doesn’t want to be in love with Mike. There’s hope that maybe she’ll pull herself out of this mess.

Of all the cast, Blue’s character growth has been the most positive. She has turned from adversary to the one person Dave could turn to when he needed a friend. Unfortunately, she also became Dave’s lover, and this was opposed by both Blue’s brother, Mike, and her mother. However, the biggest obstacle in the path to happiness between Dave and Blue is Dave himself. He seems to delight in making himself miserable, and the latest obstacle he’s found is Blue’s wealth. As Blue plans on going to college here as well, no doubt we’ll have more time to watch her development as a person. Hopefully she won’t go through a downward spiral as so many other characters have done.

Mike started out the comic appearing to be a decent enough person, but after a few months of that Maritza decided to turn Mike mean. He’s manipulative, cruel, vindictive, and has a tendency to protect his friends. The two most important things to him are Marsha and Blue, and he even made a deal with the Devil to keep them safe. Mike hasn’t changed so much as evolved. We’ve learned what makes him the way he is, and even seen that his behavior has conditions. Whether we’ll see any actual changes in him is yet to be seen.

Marsha round out the pack of characters (and pack it’s become) and is also a fairly dark character. Outwardly cheerful, she has a jealous streak a mile wide, which includes her former boyfriend. Interestingly, despite April’s double-dealings and treachery, Marsha still considers April a friend. Recently, Marsha has reined in her more aggressive tendencies and she is trying to work through her issues.

Story Continuity: 4 ribbons
Story Type: Storyline bordering on Epic
Story Style: Life, College, Contemporary fantasy
Web content: 4 ribbons

When CRfH first started out, it was a comedic short-story comic. Unfortunately, it’s moved away from that and gone toward epic storytelling. Yes, unfortunately. For all that I enjoy storytelling and love a good epic, CRfH doesn’t feel right being one of these stories. The overwhelming story arc that seems to shape things of late is the Devil and a possible Armageddon. This seems to focus on Margaret and her possibly becoming the mother of the Anti-Christ (though considering the Devil is telling Margaret this, there’s always the possibility that he’s lying through his pointy teeth).

The problem is that with the Devil as an opponent, you risk either disempowering the Devil and turning him into a joke or destroying the comic as something enjoyable to read. No one wants to read depressing stories of the Devil destroying civilizations (or even lives). Especially not if you started out reading this as a fun and witty comic about six teenagers in college.

(Interestingly enough, CotC is going through the same thing… but very early on we learned of Chelsea’s problems, and thus the recent epic Dracula storyline fits somehow. Also, CotC used humor, but… I don’t know. Just it works with one comic and not the other. And maybe it’s because Chelsea’s demons are mostly internal, while CRfH is external.)

Indeed, recently we learned that the Devil has won, at least a small victory. Mike can now be possessed and used by the Devil. For ten minutes, at least.

There are continuity problems with the comic, but some of them are related to crossovers (for instance, CotC definitely doesn’t take place in the CRfH universe anymore, and I have no idea what the ending of Fans has to do with the CRfH universe. Outside of that, Maritza has been careful in staying true to her continuity, and any remaining glitches could be considered as misunderstandings or the like.

Rating: PG-13

College Roomies from Hell can be considered PG-13. There is no real nudity (while there have been nude characters, you never see anything that wouldn’t have been covered up by underwear in any event). There are sexual situations in the comic (hey, these are college teens, of course there’d be some sex) but they’re tastefully done or hinted at. The worse of the violence has warnings in place, and the rest of it is no worse than you’d see on TV or quite a few cartoons.

Punctuality: Monday through Friday, intermittent missed days caused by health.

For a long time Maritza was updating seven times a week. Problems with carpel tunnel have reduced updates to five times a week, and that has become intermittent in the past eight months due to Maritza being pregnant. Undoubtedly when she gives birth there will be further delays, but for the most part Maritza updates punctually without missing days.

Overall: 4 ribbons

College Roomies from Hell was the second comic I started reading regularly. I fell in love with its quirky style and fun storytelling. I fell in love with the characters, especially Dave and Margaret, whom I rooted for for the longest time. The forums are lively and full of life with a lot of fanart and more fanfics than probably any other comic out there. The problems lie in more recent strips.

Maritza has been drifting away from comedic storytelling in recent years and more and more toward the epic stories. While I don’t mind epic storytelling, I do miss the short fun stories she used to tell and tell so well. Indeed, Elastic was a great story (even if I disliked the art) and is among the sort of thing I’d love to see more of.

If I were to make any recommendations to her, it would be to lay off the epic stories for a while. Give the characters a vacation. Have fun with them, let them indulge in silliness again. Let things get light-hearted and delightful again. An excellent example of this can be found in El Goonish Shive, one of the best comics out there, that mixes epic dramatic storylines with lighthearted humor.

Unending violence and darkness just gets old after a while. To make it stand out, you need to contrast it with something happy and light-hearted. But further, just an occasional glimpse at the light just makes the darkness more and more depressing, until it threatens to chase away older fans who’ve long been the heart of this comic.

After a while with the light-hearted stories, then hit us with another Adversary-style story. Switch from the dark stories to the light and back again. It will make the dramatic stories that much more intense… and will give fans a moment to catch their breath and enjoy the comic again during the lighter moments.

That said, CRfH is still a fantastic comic and well worth reading. When it was on the top of its game, it easily would have gotten five ribbons for overall. With the past couple years of non-stop action and epic stories, it’s slipped a little in enjoyment, but is still among the best comics out there. And it’s definitely worth reading.

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