Meta-review: El Goonish Shive

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Comic: El Goonish Shive, by Dan Shive

I don’t recall what led me to El Goonish Shive in the first place, but it quickly became one of my favorites. Indeed, I was a bit of a pest on the Keenspot forum board (I can hear Gav saying “what else is new?”) urging him and the others at Keenspot to add EGS to their lineup. Nor was I alone in this. Fortunately, the owners of Keenspot listened to the fans and added EGS to their lineup.

EGS is a fan favorite because Dan knows how to tell a good story and have fun while doing it. He doesn’t let himself get railroaded into doing just serious or lighthearted stories. Instead, he alternates between them, saving the serious storylines for when fans have recovered from the last epic drama.

Nor does EGS let itself get stereotyped into any one genre. It’s a high school comic… except that most of the stories don’t take place at school. It’s a mad scientist comic… except that we don’t have evil underground labs full of bizarre experiments. It’s a comedy… and it’s a drama. It manages to twist through various genres without letting itself get pigeonholed.

That might be why EGS has such an active fan base. There’s something for almost everyone. Add to that the characters are lively, interesting, diverse, and fun, and you end up with a comic that is sure to be popular.

Art – Inking: 4.5 ribbons
Art – Backgrounds: 3.75 ribbons
Art – Coloring: 3.0 ribbons

You can still see elements of the original EGS in current art. One of the more obvious carry-overs (besides the fact Tedd has changed the least (at least when he has his glasses on) in character design) is in the minimalist mouth features that characters have. In fact, for a year Tedd didn’t even have a visible mouth when he wasn’t talking (and sometimes even when he was).

After a couple of years, Dan solidified his artwork. Early characters tended to have disproportionally large heads for their bodies, and scrawny necks. It took some time for the necks to thicken out, and for Tedd to grow a mouth, but it did come about. Also, Dan slowly became better at drawing facial expressions (sometimes expressions could be a tad off in earlier strips. He’s gotten much better.)

While there are times when Dan will go without backgrounds, he does prefer to use backgrounds when possible. As such, I believe he actually created computerized backgrounds (I remember reading about it somewhere in EGS, but for the life of me I can’t find the relevant section). However, he’s actually mapped out such places as Tedd’s house (which has led to some incongruities between the original layout of Tedd’s home and the current one).

I’m of two minds about this. I mean, it’s an innovative idea, and it helps keep things uniform. Heck, Disney does something similar with its animation… and Questionable Content also works in backgrounds using this type of technique. Still… practice makes perfect. It’s a minor quibble however; adding backgrounds to all the comics (and hand-drawing them) would take so long that Dan wouldn’t be able to update at all. Also, Dan hasn’t used them that often, if he’s even using them at all.

Dan has used backgrounds for dramatic pause, silliness, or even a happy moment. In many ways, this is a much better use of backgrounds than just having scenery behind the characters.

While Dan admits to using cut-and-paste on occasion, he doesn’t abuse this. Indeed, I don’t really remember that many instances of him doing so; recently he drew a 26-panel comic without reusing any of the art at all. That shows considerable skill and ability (and patience), especially as several of the panels easily could have been manipulated with judicious cut-and-paste work.

The one area Dan has lagged behind other comparable artists is in coloring. Initially, Dan colored Sunday strips. During the Sister storyline, he did color a stretch of the comic, but returned to greyscale near the end of the story. In later stories, Dan used color specifically for chapter headings in the Painted Black storyline. (However, the one instance where he shaded his coloring was for the first chapter; later chapters tended to have flat coloring.)

Dan does occasionally color filler strips, but for the most part even filler strips tend to be black and white, or shaded with pencil. This is just Dan’s style, and it actually suits the charm and character of EGS.

Character Development: 4.5 ribbons
Character Chemistry: 4.5 ribbons

On the surface, looking at a cast description seems a daunting task. There’s enough characters here to make up a sports team; sure, maybe not soccer or American football, but there’s quite a few characters here.

What’s more, the very nature of EGS makes it so that there isn’t one or two central characters, with everyone else relegated as background cast. Instead, much like College Roomies from Hell, it’s a true ensemble cast. While Tedd and Elliot nominally may appear the central characters, just about each central character has been central to a storyline at one point or another.

Taking a step back, you can see that things aren’t nearly as convoluted as they first appear. Elliot is the catalyst for the existing group. He is an outgoing and energetic young man with a bit of a hero complex. His friendship with Sarah (and later relationship when he starts dating her) drew Susan into this circle of friends, and his heroics introduced him to Justin, whom he saved from a beating. He also dated Nanase (who happened to be Tedd’s cousin). Add to that the fact his sister Ellen is a copy created in the Sister story-arch and… Well, as you can see, things are complicated looking back. (Looking forward from the beginning, however, and it’s a well-constructed story. Honest!)

Elliot hasn’t grown so much as been filled out in the years of comics behind him. He still has a hero complex, though he tries to avoid too many unnecessary fights. Perhaps the one thing that’s changed him the most, however, is his “sister” Ellen. While she teases him of him being her mother, there is a strong sense of responsibility and love that Elliot has for this woman he inadvertently brought into the world.

Tedd is the other side of the coin. He wears glasses to look more masculine. He would get picked on except for Elliot’s protection (and now Susan as well). He’s the resident mad scientist of the bunch. It’s because of Tedd that Grace has become friends with the others.

He’s also done quite a bit of growing since we’ve first met him. A large part of this is because of Grace, whom he has fallen in love with. (Truth be told, Tedd also loves Elliot, but in the framework of a dearest friend, rather than in an erotic sense.)

There’s also more than one Tedd. Apparently there are other dimensional variants of Tedd including Lord Tedd, an adversary trying (for some unknown reason) to eliminate the other Tedds. Well, it’s thought Lord Tedd wants to kill the others… unless the Blob sent into the EGS universe was defective or something. And considering that Dan doesn’t want to have anymore stereotypical bad guys that are pure evil… it’s likely that Lord Tedd’s motives are far more complex than we know.

Grace could be considered the catalyst of the group. While she’s not central to every single story within EGS, she’s had an influence, whether it was revealing the Dewitchery Diamond to Elliot and Tedd, which led to Ellen’s creation, or being the focus of the Painted Black Storyline, or even the recent Birthday party for her (I mean, she came up with the idea of the party’s theme. How crazy is that?).

Of all the characters, Grace has changed the most. Initially, it was partly Dan trying to get a feel for the character. Early Grace had more of an understanding of the world around her. Soon, a fairly reasonable enjoyment of nudity cropped up in Grace’s character (hey, if you’re a shape shifter and clothes tend to rip or fall off when you shift, then you’re more likely to go naked!) while she also became a bit more naive.

During the Painted Black storyline Grace entered a period of self-blame and depression. She’s pulling herself out of it, especially after talking to her grandfather (and her “siblings”). To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Grace backslides occasionally, but with Ellen around I’m sure she’ll be pulled out of it.

Ellen has become a key part of the group. I suppose it’s to be expected, as both Ellen and Grace has a bit in common, are fairly new to the existing friendships, and haven’t long been functioning in society. They appear to have become close friends that balance each other nicely.

Interestingly, as Ellen has become older, she’s also grown younger in some ways. Perhaps it’s due to her struggling to find her own identity, or maybe due to a magical nose beep that has resulted in some rather odd dreams that seem to be giving her a new childhood. There is a lot of speculation among fans as to what’s going on here, including suspicions that this alternative Ellen existed in the universe of Lord Tedd.

Sarah is one of the oldest characters of EGS; indeed, she was part of the original three characters in the introduction. She’s the token “normal person” of the cast, and outside of the first stories hasn’t had a starring role in the series. It’s a shame, really, as she’s an interesting character and helps liven things up. Dan already wrote one EGS:NP story for Sarah. No doubt there will be others when Dan has a moment to breathe and write down some story ideas. Still, despite not being a central character anymore, she’s still an integral part of the cast; she’s got a small but essential role that she plays, helping ground the others. Unfortunately, we’ve not seen much of her and Elliot’s relationship, though part of that might have to do with the fact it’s hard to go out on a date during an epic storyline. (As an aside, I think it’s just too cute that Sarah sketches a character named Dan that resembles his Squirrel Avatar in the fillers.)

Susan is another enigma of a character. What we know of her is partly through dream flashbacks and fillers, as well as the Lunchtable Revelations story. She works at a Video Rental store despite the fact her mom’s fairly well off. Oh, and she knows magic. Due to incidents in her past, and her mother’s opinions about men, she’s fairly anti-men, but that’s been changing with her growing friendship with Elliot and Tedd, both of whom she’s realized are actually decent sorts. (Yes, Tedd’s a decent sort. Stop laughing so hard.)

Nanase has also grown a bit as a character. When we first met her, she was this mysterious red-haired oriental who was dating Elliot… and who later dumped him because she wasn’t attracted to him. And then as time went on, fillers appeared as well as other hints. Finally, Nanase came to accept that she is very likely gay. (I hold out for the occasional twist Dan’s been known to pull, thus the “very likely”) She’s also a pretty decent person, all things considered.

And then there’s Justin. Justin’s gay. What’s more, he’s not played up like the stereotypical gay characters. Instead, he’s a gay teenager, and people know he’s gay. In fact, he was harassed because of it. And he’s also single; there aren’t any other gay men his age in town. However, one of the sadder things is that Justin has fallen for Elliot. We’ve seen signs here and there. And naturally Elliot is clueless (no surprise there; he had no clue as to how deep Sarah’s feelings ran back when the comic first started).

The thing is… Elliot and Sarah make a wonderful couple. They seem to care for each other a lot; He realized he was in love with her when dating Nanase (he didn’t cheat on Nanase though; she broke up with him for her own reasons), and the relationship worked despite his being turned into a girl when they first started out their romantic relationship. They even double-dated with Grace and Tedd. However, we’ve not seen much growth in the relationship lately (for that matter, we’ve not seen them having a relationship lately, but I suspect the recent epic storyline was partly to blame for that).

The other couple in the comic is Grace and Tedd. This one is a rather interesting relationship; Tedd has found someone who isn’t phased by weird things like Tedd being turned into a girl. Grace, on the other hand, has found someone who doesn’t mind her enjoyment of nudity and has no problems with the fact she’s a shape shifter. He’s comforted her through her nightmares

and spent the night in her arms without trying anything. Most importantly, she loves him… and he loves her. He’d do anything for her. And I’m sure she would do anything for him, as well. How long before their relationship goes further… well, I’m not going to even attempt to guess that. But if it does, it’ll be a natural progression of their relationship, and very likely done in good taste.

As for the others… well, they’re friends. While Justin might be in love with Elliot (an affection Elliot is unaware of and doesn’t return, outside of being a good friend), most of the gang seem to be just friends. And it works. El Goonish Shive isn’t about love affairs blossoming between people; it’s about friends helping friends, and the growth of those friendships. In that, even standoffish people like Susan have managed to forge the bonds of friendship with the others. And it is because of this that they’ve survived the epic stories they’ve faced. Also, while it appears that Ellen and Nanase might end up in a romantic relationship, it’s not gone past the first few fumbling footsteps.

Oh, and of course there’s Jeremy, the creature nature never intended. He’s spiney, a pest, and the Kitten Collective love him so much that they stole one of Tedd’s TG guns and have transformed a half dozen of their number into Jeremy-kitten hybrids. Between him and Brownie (and Elliot’s transformed state and one of Grace’s forms… okay, so there’s lots of cats in this comic!) that pretty much rounds out the feline cast.

Story Continuity: 3 ribbons
Story Type: Comedic, Storyline, Drama, High School
Story Style: Epic, Sci-Fi, Adventure

If Dan Shive has a problem, it is that he has too many ideas in his head, each pounding away and trying to get out. This has resulted in writer’s block on more than one occasion. Still, some things stand out.

The first is the Lord Tedd epic storyline. If you want to be completely technical, this started with the first actual story for EGS. It was around this time that Grace, Damien, and the other shifters first came about as well, and while the Damien story has ended with Damien’s death. (Sorry for spoiling that for all of you. But you should be expecting spoilers with a comprehensive review!) Lord Tedd is still around however, and has grown from this original concept of a nasty bad guy to someone who has a reason for how he is. We’re not sure what those reasons are… but they exist.

It’s not known when the Lord Tedd story will be returned to. Indeed, it’s quite possible that the Lord Tedd story will have multiple parts, as the group thwarts another plan of this alternative Tedd, or tries to take out General Shade Tail, or even save Nioi from Lord Tedd’s wrath from her meddling during the Painted Black story. I suspect that rather than have one story that ends Lord Tedd’s threat, that we’ll see several; this alternative Tedd has too much potential for him to just be eliminated like Damien was.

There are some continuity issues. One of them has to do with Lord Tedd’s character; early views of him were of a monster who apparently intended on wiping out the other Tedds. More recently, it’s been suggested that something happened to his world’s Elliot, which led Lord Tedd to become a monster. Yet… he has the voluntary servitude of Nioi, who has enough power of her own to have saved Grace from Damien’s final kamikaze attack. Why would someone who can gain such devotion try to kill his other selves? (It seems likely that This Tedd has evolved in character to become the person we see here.)

Another lesser continuity bit is with the usage of hammers and “hammerspace“. When the comic started, characters such as Sarah and Susan used hammers (though it was mostly Susan). To be honest, I think this might be the last time hammers were used in the comic (not including fillers and the NP strips).

Still, it’s likely that when we eventually return to the Lord Tedd stories that the continuity problems dealing with him will be cleared up. As for the hammers… well, Dan himself explained that he outgrew them (which suggests to people thinking of starting up a web-comic to think twice before adding silly stuff like hammerspace or ribbon-bearing kitten swarms. What seems fresh and amusing now may become boring and old hat in a few years.)

The current birthday storyline has proven to be a delightful and whimsical trip. In some ways it’s as epic as Painted Black, and some parts (such as Justin’s crush on Elliot) are rather sad… but for the most part it’s been a light-hearted and delightful trip. It’s definitely needed after the drama we went through with Damien’s death… and shows that you can have an involved and delightful storyline without resorting to drama and deathly serious situations.

Rating: PG to PG-13 (The kittens are as interested in the comic as their yarn balls. Cute cuddly kittens that seem to be playing with one of Tedd’s Transformation Guns… run!)

I once heard El Goonish Shive described as the filthiest squeaky clean comic around. And it is. Part of the reason I’m hedging it toward PG-13 is that we’ve had characters die, even if they’re villains (or globs of goo). We also have nudity in the comic, though the nudity tends to be covered up with fur, or with a character’s back to us. And then there’s some cuss words like “hell” and “damn” (which some people have issues with; you’ll notice I avoid using cuss words when possible, though sometimes it’s difficult).

Parents should go through it to make sure it’s okay. However, if you don’t have an issue with television these days, then you shouldn’t have any real problems with El Goonish Shive. Just remember; these ratings are to give you a general idea of the comic’s nature, not a pass on parental responsibility.

Punctuality: Currently updating 3x a week, either MWF or TuThSa. El Goonish Shive has had several update patterns. For a bit Dan tried updating every weekday, and even six times a week (with colored Sundays). Eventually he decided to expand on the scope of the comic and reduce the update schedule to three times a week. In essence, you get the same amount of comic (on average) that you would for a daily update schedule, except it allows Dan to have more storyline (and occasional punchlines) in the updates.

Unfortunately, Dan’s been having troubles keeping to his schedule. He’s working on a print compilation of the comic, and is currently updating with filler comics instead of the actual storyline. This shouldn’t last for much longer, and Dan will return to regular updates.

Dan also occasionally has the El Goonish Shive: Newspaper strips. He had hoped to have it running on a TuThSa schedule, so that people could have EGS each day of the week (and fillers on Sunday). Unfortunately the NP stories, which were supposed to be fun for him, became as big a production as the regular comics. NP stories are now intermittent. Also, they aren’t always a part of the EGS continuity.

No doubt when Dan has more time on his hands, the EGS:NP strips will return.

Overall: 4.25 ribbons

El Goonish Shive is a superb comic. It is one of the best strips out there, with an amusing and involved storyline, characters you love, situations that somehow work even when you’re not sure how they could, and relationships between characters that makes this a true hit.

Unfortunately, one of the problems is the artwork. Dan has proven himself superb with regular line work. And he’s shown such skill with his greyscale art that I don’t miss the color that much. It’s his backgrounds that are really at issue here. And while it’s not that big an issue, it does keep it from being rated as highly as Malakhim or Narbonic.

(Of course, the funny thing is that the lowest overall rating I’ve given a comic so far is 4.0; I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I’m doing Meta-reviews on the comics I think are among the best of the tangented strips to date. And hey, 4 ribbons out of 5 is pretty good. EGS deserves more than 4 ribbons… but not quite enough to join those that have 4.5 ribbons.)

Dan’s managed to balance the fun silly comics with those that are more serious. What’s more, characters deal with consequences. Grace’s depression over Damien’s death is one such example. Ellen’s dreams after the “nose beep” are another. Heck, the entire bit of Justin having a crush on Elliot has been growing for a while.

EGS is one of the best comics out there. And with just a little more work, it could easily become the best, being better than Sluggy Freelance or PVP easily.

(Addendum note: Special thanks to the Keenspot “Bunny” Inev, who’s work in the Colossal Goonish Comic Archive was essential for me to finish work on this review.)

Robert A. Howard

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