Meta-review: Count Your Sheep

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Comic: Count Your Sheep by Adrian Ramos

It seems that all of the comics I’ve reviewed have been story comics. I suppose part of this is because I so enjoy comics with longer storylines. I’ve never really been into gag-a-day strips or simple jokes. Even when I was writing my own comic, I relied on my one of my best friends to do the jokes for me. (Trust me, you could tell when I was behind the humor; it usually fell flat on its face.)

Count Your Sheep is one of those strips I started reading thanks indirectly to Websnark. Eric Burns has done quite a few Snarks on it, and nominated it for his Shortbread Awards (as “quiet funny”), but I never got around to clicking the thumbnails for the comic, until the 300th strip, back on June 3rd, 2005.

To be honest, I thought I was checking out the comic of a fellow Boardie, who was doing some bizarre comic about sheep. (I never did find that comic…) Needless to say, I was wrong, but it was a fortuitous mistake and one I don’t mind making. I quickly fell in love with Laurie, and was enthralled at the relationship she and her daughter share with an imaginary sheep-friend, Ship. (Amusingly, the comic actually started out as being about Katie and Ship. Her mom didn’t appear until three months into the strip; I feel that Laurie’s appearance was what made this comic into something truly spectacular, however.)

This comic is unlike many others I’ve read. The closest comparison I’ve got would be Ozy and Millie by D.C. Simpson. However, CYS manages to tell its story with but three characters. We’ve not seen any others that I can recall (well, other than a mouse). And while some may feel it’s too saccharine or overly emotional, there is a certain innocence about the strip that delights in the telling.

Art – Inking: 4 ribbons
Art – Backgrounds: 2 ribbons
Art – Coloring:3 ribbons

Early CYS strips were simpler in design and a bit heavier in inking than today’s strips. Indeed, now that Adrian is using a Wacom tablet (part of a growing community of artists who are doing so), the inked lines of CYS have taken on an almost delicate look that actually suits the comic.

That’s not to say that the older strips were ugly or anything; far from it. You can easily recognize the characters when you put up an old strip next to a new one. (Compare that to CRfH where hair style and color are major influences in recognizing a character.) Indeed, the early strips have a certain charm to them that only grows in time.

Part of that charm is its simplicity. Many comics use complicated coloring and or complex backgrounds to draw people in. CYS often has a monochrome or two-colored background, especially in earlier strips. While we sometimes see a bed or pillows or a sink or little things like that, these are the exceptions more than the rule.

While CYS doesn’t use the fancy photoshop magic found in so many colored strips these days, it does have a special trademark coloring: blue pastels for strips set in Katie’s time, and purples for the CYS: Back In Time strips, which focus on young Laurie and her adventures with Ship.

Indeed, we get to see the moment we switch from purple to blue with Katie’s birth. Well, I’m not sure if she was being actually born at that moment or if Laurie’s water just burst… I’m thinking the latter, but this has to be one of the sweetest and most touching of the CYS strips to date, and a perfect passing of the torch, when Ship went from being Laurie’s imaginary friend to being Katie’s as well.

The strip doesn’t need complex coloring or shading in order to stand out. Likewise, the backgrounds aren’t needed as well. Instead, the simplicity of the comic suits its nature. And it’s a stylistic choice, not a limitation of Adrian’s skill.

Indeed, Adrian has done quite a few fanarts, such as of Monique, Slick and the Devil from Sinfest, Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade, and a truly spectacular drawing of Brandy, Oscar, Truman, Snoopy, and some of the Woodstock birds. Indeed, the last picture shows that he can draw Liberty Meadows as well as Frank Cho does.

Character Development: 4 ribbons
Character Chemistry: 4.5 ribbons

CYS is unique among the comics I read in that there are only three characters in the comic. I’m not talking about three main characters and a host of secondary characters hovering in the wings, ready to provide plot hooks and people to interact with. I mean three characters, period. (I don’t count the mouse in this as he was in a total of one storyline. You could possibly consider him a secondary character, but even that would be a bit of a stretch.)

This presents a bit of a challenge for Adrian. It’s easy to shift focus with an ensemble cast from one group of characters from one group of characters to the next when things are getting slow. It’s not nearly as easy to write for just three characters. You risk things getting repetitive or uninteresting.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why Laurie was introduced in the first place. The comic started with Laurie’s daughter, Katie, and their shared imaginary friend, Ship the Sheep. While Katie’s mom was mentioned a couple of times before she first appeared, she didn’t make an actual appearance until three months into the strip. Still, she’s an integral part of the comic, and without her presence I suspect CYS would have faltered and vanished within a year at most. (Fortunately, we’ll never know if my speculation is true.)

Laurie created a dynamic center to the comic, and also made it fairly unique. There are other comics out there featuring children with their imaginary friends. Calvin and Hobbes immediately comes to mind as such an example. But I cannot think of any other comics (at least among the ones I’m currently reading) in which not only the parents can see (and interact with) the imaginary friend, but that when they were a child, it was their imaginary friend as well.

One of the more endearing parts of CYS (in my eyes at least) is the CYS: Back In Time strips, when we get to see Laurie as a young girl and her own times with Ship. It’s fairly easy to realize when we’re in Laurie’s past as the pastels turn from blue to purple. Interestingly, while Laurie’s parents can’t see Ship, they can hear him… at least, in situations where they don’t realize he’s there at first. But Ship is entirely too real, even if he’s an imaginary friend. Not only can both Laurie and Katie see Ship… but Katie’s dad could see him too.

The early strips focused on Katie (which is logical enough since the original strips starred Ship and Katie alone), and Katie is often the eyes of innocence looking at the world around her. If you compare Katie as a child with her views about the world, and young Laurie, you’ll notice that Laurie is remarkably more cynical and hostile to the world around her. Katie may dislike school and occasionally misbehave, but she’s still a pretty decent kid. (Not that Laurie wasn’t… but Laurie was a bit more violent as a child than her daughter.)

Naturally, Katie loves her mom dearly (and Laurie loves her daughter in turn), but there is also a sense of joy between these two that sometimes is sadly lacking in real life parent/child relationships. And sadly, as an educator, I can see that Katie will not be doing well in the public school system. She’s extremely intelligent and quite imaginative, and many teachers just aren’t able to give such a child the extra attention they require in order to flourish. What’s more, Katie’s mom is barely making ends meet, so she can’t afford to send Katie to the best schools which could bring out the best in this gifted young girl. And unless she excels in high school, college is but a dream.

In many ways, Laurie and Katie are quite fortunate Ship is around. Ship watched over Katie when Laurie was forced to work two jobs to make ends meet. He entertained Katie when Laurie had to sell the TV. He was there when Laurie was alone, pregnant, and about to give birth to Katie. It is obvious that Ship loves both Laurie and Katie; he’s like a brother to Laurie, and an uncle to Katie. And what’s more, Marty (Katie’s dad) could see him too.

When I said there are three characters in the comic, I lied. There is a fourth. That is Marty himself. We’ve never seen him, we’ve only witnessed his actions second-hand through Laurie’s accounts. And we know he’s loved Katie since she was still a child (as was he). She didn’t return the sentiment until near the end (as she said, “at least I said ‘I do’, didn’t I? I miss you.”). He watched out for her when she needed (if perhaps didn’t want) to be rescued. And in time she grew to love him; those are the most powerful of loves.

What’s sad is that Katie never got to meet her dad in person. But even then, Ship finds a way to link daughter and father, through a love of music. And while I doubt we’ll ever see Marty in person (in flashback strips, obviously), he is still a presence in the comic and an important part of the lives of Ship, Katie, and Laurie. Everyday Laurie misses him… and yet everyday he is with her, through his daughter.

Story Continuity: 4.75 ribbons
Story Type: Comedic, Gag-a-day, Short Storyline, Childhood, Parenting
Story Genre: Family

On the surface, CYS is a gag-a-day strip, and as such you wouldn’t expect such things as story continuity to be a big deal. However, a story started sneaking into the comic bit by bit, and Adrian has been careful to keep from breaking his continuity. What errors have cropped up are in all likelihood the mistakes that any person makes when remembering things – Laurie has said or thought things that don’t quite match up with later comics, but that could be explained away through various means.

One such instance is when Laurie told her daughter about Marty and said “It was love at first sight. Kinda.” In fact, it was a long-standing struggle for Marty to win over Laurie’s love. Maybe he loved her at first sight, however, so who can tell?

However, Laurie laments about the fact that Katie doesn’t know anything about Marty, when Katie was told that her dad was sending her messages from Heaven when she listened to the Beatles. (And then back again, perhaps Ship said that on his own without telling Laurie, thus she would think she’s not told her daughter anything since a certain attempt to show Katie her dad’s tombstone. I’m not entirely sure.)

I’m not sure if there are any continuity errors or not. This is why I scored CYS at 4.75 ribbons; it is entirely possible that there aren’t errors, but rather gaps in what we’ve seen that would explain these possible inconsistencies. But likewise, I don’t have proof there haven’t been any such errors. Besides, 4.75 ribbons is a pretty good score in any case.

As the story grows, I can see additional characters slowly being added. We’ve heard from Laurie’s mom on the phone. We’ve seen the mouse. And now we have a voice from behind Laurie talking about the mail. We could easily have a story with a young gentleman trying to court Laurie (who, despite her own self-doubts and hatred, is a beautiful and able young lady), and trying to work through not only Laurie’s grief over Marty (and possibly the fear that anyone else who gets close will vanish as well), but also trying to win over Katie (and even Ship, though I could easily see such a character being oblivious to Ship for comedic purposes). Or we could see Katie’s parents… or for that matter, Marty’s parents, who might want to visit their granddaughter.

Likewise, I can also see the love story of Laurie and Marty being shown, piece by piece. We may even finally get to see Marty and learn more of this young man who could see Ship and who loved a young girl who was jealous of her imaginary friend’s attentions.

But at its heart, CYS will remain a tale of love and joy between a mother, daughter, and their shared imaginary friend. Whatever else course the comic takes, we’ll undoubtedly return to this trio and watch as Katie continues to hate school, Laurie continues to struggle to support her small family, and Ship remains the glue that holds everything together.

Rating: G (Aww, look at the cute little kittens playing with the yarn balls… oh wait, that’s not a yarn ball they’re playing with… hey! Get away from Ship! Sorry ol’ chap, they get rather rambunctious at times… um, you might have to cut those ribbons out of your wool…)

Count Your Sheep is rated G. I can’t recall any harsh language. While there is the occasional mild bit of violence (like a thrown rock), it’s nothing severe. And it’s really a strip suited for almost all ages. That said, some strips might not be entirely suited for children depending on the parents and how they’re raised, so parents should read though the comic ahead of time to make sure there’s nothing they disapprove of. Or in other words… proper parenting at its best.

Also, there are fanarts and non-CYS strips posted at times that may not necessarily be suited for children. Again, I don’t recall anything offensive… but to be safe, parents should run through the comic ahead of time. Just to be safe.

Punctuality: Monday through Friday

CYS has had a variety of update times, ranging from twice weekly to every day of the week (though in that case there were fan arts posted, reviews written, and so forth). Currently, the comic updates on weekdays, with MWF being larger story-based strips and TuTh being one-panel humor strips. It tends to update regularly, though there are occasional missed strips. Still, these days Adrian seldom misses updates, which is a pleasant bonus.

Addendum: After chatting with Adrian Ramos, he pointed out that “averages” are deceptive. Since joining Keenspot, he’s missed three updates. As I was relying on the little Calender on the bottom of the page, it’s entirely probable I made a mistake there. So scratch the “on average he misses one update a month” as that factors in quite a few things that are no longer current. Sorry, Adrian.

Overall: 3.75 ribbons

This is the first time I’ve Meta-reviewed a comic like CYS. If you check out the other Meta-reviews I’ve done, they’ve been of epic comics. The closest I’ve come to CYS before was the Questionable Content Meta-review, and even that is more of a story-comic than CYS is. So perhaps I am a tad harsher with the rating than I’d be otherwise. And 3.75 ribbons isn’t a bad rating.

I’d be tempted to push it up to 4 ribbons, but I do have a few issues with the comic. Or rather, with the site itself. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to do an archive crawl (especially on dial-up) until the last half year of the comic. If you just click on the “next day” link, you can end up with a fan-art update, or a web-comic review, or something else.

Adrian might be better off to revise his archive system. The fan-arts and the like could go in their own section of the website, as could the reviews and Adrianisms (weird little one-panel comics usually posted for comedic purposes). Fans could thus read only the CYS strips if they so choose.

This would also help keep the content focused on the comic. No doubt at least a couple of fans gave up reading the archives because they kept getting distracted with comics not about our small family here.

As for the comic itself, there’s not much I can suggest. Adrian has done a good job of telling the story he wants to. It may be confusing in places, but I doubt CYS will show Laurie’s past in a chronological fashion. This is a shame, as I’m curious as to what led to this event, or why Laurie’s parents haven’t taken their daughter back when it’s obvious she’s in financial distress. (Then again, Laurie might not have told them how bad things have been.)

The truth is, Adrian has something that works here. And the potential is here for it to become something greater. What path the comic will take to achieve that greatness is the question.

Robert A. Howard

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