Meta-Review: Megatokyo

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(From Megatokyo. Click on image to see it full-sized.)

Foreword: Japanese characters in the review will be referred to following the Japanese tradition of using the surname before the given name. Thus (for example) Nanasawa Kimiko’s last name is Nanasawa. Piro and Largo will be referred to as such, seeing that they’re American (and as their last names are not known).

For the longest time I resisted reading Megatokyo. Oh, I’d read a strip here or there, but I stubbornly refused to read further because one of the main characters, Largo, would speak in leet (which I don’t want to spend time translating). It was Eric Stokien’s guest review at Tangents that finally dragged MT permanently into my scope, and after resisting for half a year I finally succumbed and read through the archives.

Perhaps entering into the scene later has helped me take a wider view of the entire story (something I perhaps should take to heart the next time I’m upset at comics I’ve been reading for a while). I never had a chance to get attached to Rodney Caston’s contribution to MT’s storytelling style before Fred Gallagher took over full-time. But the shift from a comedic comic with a storyline to a storyline comic with comedic elements was noticeable, and no doubt upsetting to people who’d been reading from the very start.

Along with the storyline’s evolution, so too have the characters undergone considerable growth and they are at the heart of MT’s popularity. While MT pokes fun at several traditions in Japanese manga, it is the trials and tribulations of the core characters and those around them that is what makes MT so compelling. Indeed, while Piro and Largo may have started out the core characters of the comic, it is those around them (and indeed, sometimes characters who aren’t even mainstream characters) who have truly brought the world of MT to life.

Art – Pencils: 4.5 ribbons

Art – Backgrounds: 4.5 ribbons

Art – Coloring (honestly!): 4.75 ribbons

If there is one constant to Megatokyo, it is that Fred Gallagher is dissatisfied with his artwork. To be honest, this is a tradition with many artists, who feel they should be better artists (and indeed, likely the best artist in the world no doubt feels he or she isn’t good enough or that there’s someone out there better). Still, for all of Gallagher’s complaints of his art, its evolution has been slower than other webcomics.

Part of this may lie in the fact that Gallagher has resisted the siren song of inking and coloring his work. Instead, MT from pretty much the beginning has been penciled (with the initial strips retraced). Amusingly enough, I’ve noted other comics that have done this and complimented them on it… when in fact MT has been leading the pack all this time. However, while Gallagher may not color his regular comic (with one or two exceptions), he has shown the ability to create some truly exceptional colored artwork.

In addition, sticking to the penciled work highlights what flaws Gallagher’s art has. And there are flaws, though often I suspect it’s because he’s unable to put the fifty hours of work his perfectionist nature would insist before he is even marginally satisfied with the art. But inking and coloring has a tendency of masking elements of a comic, and large-scale shading and highlighting of an image can mask underlying issues with penciled art. MT is a showcase of the simplistic purity of black and white art, and while it might not be perfect, the effort Gallagher puts into his work shows.

Interestingly, Gallagher’s background is in architectural drawing. This shows when he draws backgrounds, especially when he draws the characters in the streets of Tokyo. Sometimes I wonder if he has stock footage of the neighborhood of Tokyo he’s drawing in (and seeing that a map of that section of Tokyo exists, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’s drawing actual street-scapes, with changes attributed to the frequent rampages and rebuilding that takes place in the MT world).

However, backgrounds are not always used. There are frequent places where there’s no background at all, and naught but a white space behind the characters. Other times, the backgrounds are very sketchy (especially early on in the comic), without the refinement found when Gallagher draws the cast and secondary characters. Even when the backgrounds are sketchy, however, Gallagher’s background shows through with the buildings identifiable as such, rather than the random shapes that some cartoonists put up hoping fans can suspend their disbelief long enough to figure out what they’re looking at.

Interior backgrounds are perhaps better drawn, when they are drawn. Again, sometimes the art gets cluttered (which may be a reason why Gallagher avoids backgrounds at times), but even at its worse Gallagher shows far better spatial awareness in his backgrounds than most artists.

The characters themselves are fixed firmly in the manga style. Fortunately, Gallagher practically never indulges in some of the “traditions” of manga such as the chibification of characters to show mischief or other such emotions, and unlike a number of cartoonists his characters are usually identifiable. There have been instances when I was unable to quickly identify a seldom-seen secondary character, but for the main cast (and much of the secondary cast), that is not an issue.

The character art has slowly evolved since the comic first started. Largo’s hair has grown larger and more gravity-defying, while Piro’s bangs have stopped looking like bizarre antenna and has become more natural. His characters’ eyes however… well, Gallagher has become quite gifted in drawing some truly expressive eyes, and recent artwork with Tohya Miho and Nanasawa Kimiko have been spectacular with the sheer range of expressiveness these characters have shown. In addition, body language, posture, mannerisms… these show as well. Little things like the position of an arm, the clenching of a fist… show an awareness many webcartoonists would kill to have.

In short, while Gallagher’s art may be rough around the edges, it captures the heart and soul of the scene. It is this that brings these characters to life and has made them so popular among fans.

Character Development: 4 ribbons

Character Chemistry: 5 ribbons

Megatokyo is very much a character-driven comic. While there is a meta-story going on in the background, we’ve only really caught glimpses of it (and that story appears to revolve around one character in particular, amusingly enough) as we see Tokyo through the eyes of Piro and Largo. However, while Piro and Largo may be the first characters we meet in the comic, neither of them is that central character I believe the meta-story is about. Despite that, they are central to the story and indeed to the dark heart of Megatokyo.

Largo is perhaps one of the harder characters to nail down. He started out as the comedic element of the comic, with his speaking in leet and tendency to act before thinking. But there is a purity to Largo that is remarkably refreshing. And while we may snicker at his actions and his tendency to view the world through arcade-colored glasses, I think he sees things more clearly than those around him (such as Piro) who tend to think things to death. Indeed, he’s the Yang to Piro’s Yin. That said, there is a loyalty to Largo. When he decides someone is his friend, he will go to Hell and back to protect that person, and will be there at his or her back.

Piro tends to be Largo’s opposite. He thinks before acting. Indeed, he tends to over-think things until he’s literally paralyzed into inaction. But when he does act, he’s shown a tactical ability that is almost frightening, and a ruthlessness that is surprising for someone as ordinarily meek as Piro is. Indeed, when Piro acts to protect those he cares for, he leaves casualties. He also has a strong sense of responsibility, and a need to fix his own mistakes… even while he regrets the inability to go back and “reset” things so the mistake never happened in the first place.

Hayasaka Erika is the third part of this tale, and one of the most interesting aspects of it. She’s cynical, sardonic, and has an independent streak a mile wide. Beneath that shell, however, is a young lady who’s been horribly hurt in her past, and this shapes much of her behavior. Eventually we learn Hayasaka was a very popular seiyuu (voice actress) who at the height of her popularity was dumped by her fiance, at which point she abandoned her career. Despite her cynicism, Hayasaka still cares for people and it’s an act of charity on her behalf that draws Piro and Largo into her world (and gives Piro a job and a place to stay).

Nanasawa Kimiko is the fourth point of this compass called Megatokyo. Despite what her friend Hayasaka went through, Nanasawa seems intent on becoming a seiyuu herself. However, rejection after rejection has started to drag her down, and we catch her on the precipice of self-hate and disillusionment. Her insecurities are a large part of her. Interestingly she also seems to reflect a lot of Hayasaka’s traits (such as a need for independence even when she needs help), which is probably not all that surprising seeing as they’re close friends and Nanasawa respects Hayasaka a great deal. Most interesting of Nanasawa, however, is a hidden reserve… an inner power she has no idea she possesses but can cause grown otaku (fans) to flee and breach the language barrier.

At the center of it all is Tohya Miho. She’s an enigma, a mystery, and a conundrum all wrapped up in an attractive package. She’s also what I believe to be the eye of the meta-story storm that is blowing through Tokyo and which has drawn our four protagonists into the maelstrom of chaos. She appears to be a Magical Girl in the tradition of Japanese manga, but rather than the chipper and squeaky-voiced heroines from so many animes, she’s dark and manipulative. She also has links to each of the protagonists and to many of the secondary characters as well. She’s protagonist, antagonist, heroine, villain, and more. But under all of the deception and mind-games… I suspect she’s a young lady who was hurt very deeply by events in the past and who even now is trying to find herself.

Largo and Piro’s friendship is the first relationship we are introduced to in the comic. It was born in comedy; with each of these two undoubtedly intended (initially) to be the straight man to the other’s hijinks. With the evolution of MT into a character-oriented storyline comic, this camaraderieship becomes something deeper. Piro and Largo are brothers-in-arms, having been there for each other for years now. Much of this friendship is found on the internet and in the games they’ve played together. Indeed, the partnership between Pirogoeth (Piro’s character) and Largo (with Largo finding no real need to choose a new name for himself) in the Endgames MMORPG is something touched upon in several ancillary stories that helps explain how Largo and Ping became drawn to Tohya’s attention.

Largo and Tohya’s relationship is fairly straightforward and adversarial. Largo sees her as something evil. Indeed, Largo has several times shown a prenatural ability to sense that people are greater than they appear, be they magical girls, ninja, or more. With Tohya, what that is isn’t exactly certain. Is she a fallen magical girl? Is she, as Largo claims, the Queen of the Undead? Ultimately it doesn’t matter. She finds him amusing enough to toy with and Largo sees her as a foe to be eliminated. Well, for the most part.

Tohya and Piro on the other hand… well. I could write entire critical papers on the Piro/Tohya dynamic. At some point in the Endgames MMORPG, Piro’s character fell for Tohya’s character. Neither knew the gender of the other player. Yet there was a real-life emotional attachment that formed as well, to the point that Tohya asks Piro at one point “do you still love me?” And yes, it was teasing and all… but I suspect there is a part of her that is serious. As for Piro? Would Tohya’s actions be so painful if there weren’t at least some lingering feelings there? For now, it is a matter of conjecture.

Part of the problem is, of course, that Piro is deeply attracted to Nanasawa Kimiko. Considering all of the times she’s hurt and pushed away Piro, it’s amazing that he’s still showing interest in her (which either speaks of Piro’s obsessiveness, or suggests that perhaps in the nine days he’s known her, he’s truly fallen in love. No doubt it’s a little of both). A part of this may lie in that Nanasawa herself has finally accepted that there’s something between them.

One of the more fascinating relationships that has evolved in Megatokyo lies with Hayasaka Erika and Largo. It has been an adversarial relationship at times, as Largo tends to act without necessarily thinking things through, and Hayasaka is so resistant on relying on others that she lashes out at Largo for doing just that. I’m not entirely sure why they came to feel for each other. But with Largo, I think part of it began when Hayasaka insisted Largo let her build her own computer system. With that… she became “leet” in his eyes. As for why Hayasaka has grown fond of Largo… I think it’s because he’s attracted to who she is, rather than what she was.

Hayasaka and Nanasawa’s friendship is perhaps akin to that of Largo and Piro. They were friends in high school, and it seems that Nanasawa refused to let Hayasaka push her away after Hayasaka was dumped by her ex-fiance. Still, I am curious as to what Nanasawa was doing with her life while her friend was at the height of her popularity. She was there to catch Hayasaka when her friend stumbled and fell… and Hayasaka has likewise been there to help Nanasawa face her own insecurities. Theirs is perhaps the purest of the friendships in Megatokyo.

Which brings us, in completing the circle, with Tohya and our two seiyuu. Tohya’s link with Hayasaka lies in the misty murky days a couple years back, long before Piro and Largo descended upon Tokyo. When Hayasaka quit… her fans went frantic. And Tohya was at the heart of it… and ended up nearly destroying Tokyo and being hospitalized. It’s believed by some fans that it was as she was recovering that Tohya started playing Endgames, but that is supposition only. Her relationship with Nanasawa however is more fascinating… and is one of a heroine saving someone for the first time. Where this story is moving to, we’ve no idea. But with Nanasawa’s own inner power… I wonder if what we are witnessing is the beginning of Tohya’s redemption.

Unfortunately, there’s nowhere near enough space to talk about the vast cast of secondary characters, such as Ping, the little android girl who is attached to both Piro and Tohya, or of Sonoda Yuki, a newfound magical girl who likewise has ties to Piro and Tohya. The cast of Megatokyo is huge and can be confusing at times. But I would be remiss if I don’t mention two final characters: Seraphim and Boo. Seraphim is Piro’s conscience and guide, and is a sardonic yet caring shoulder angel. She’s also based off of his real-life better half, Sarah. The glimpses we’ve seen of Sarah suggest that a lot of Seraphim’s character is based off of the reality… and the meta-story of her struggles to keep Piro from making bad choices is one of the more delightful whims of Megatokyo.

As for Boo… he’s a hamster, apparently temping as a Conscience Operative to try and keep Largo from going too far. And interestingly enough he succeeds, which is why he’s one of the most delightful secondary characters in the comic. The partnership of Seraphim and Boo and watching their own friendship grow may have little to do with some of the more dramatic elements of MT, but is a delightful taste of whimsy that I definitely look forward to seeing more of. And I’m not just saying that because she heard about the review, tracked me down, and is standing over me with a bloody huge bat in her hands….

Story Continuity: 4 ribbons

Story Type: Character-based storyline

Story Style: Urban Fantasy

Unlike certain epic stories, MT’s roots lie with comedy. Fred Gallagher was urged into the comic by Rodney Caston, and while Caston did help inspire MT, his creative direction came to be at odds with Gallagher’s eventual vision. This may be at the root of some of the continuity flaws within MT. One such example lies with Sonoda Meimi, who was first introduced as the mother of Sonoda Yuki, a schoolgirl who was interested in Piro for his artistic abilities.

After two initial glimpses of Sonoda Meimi, she dropped off the radar for several years. When she returned… Gallagher had conceived of the idea of Sonoda being a retired magical girl, and one that Tohya Miho knew. Sonoda had an additional tie to the cast, of being a friend (of sorts) to Hayasaka, despite their age difference. While there was no direct retcon of previous material, I can’t help but sense something is different about the character. Her body language, how she speaks… she’s acting different than she had. It may be nitpicking to pick up on something as insignificant as a chance in a character years old from two pages of interaction… but that’s what critics do.

Other continuity flaws lie in the schizophrenic nature of updates vs. filler updates. It’s not always easy to determine what officially is part of MT, and what is meant to be a whim. There were several comics I would have sworn were part of the continuity only to learn in the print compilations that it was filler. Once you get beyond Chapter 0, the comic tightens up considerably, which is a strong reason why I scored Continuity as high as I did.

Another issue with continuity lies with Tohya Miho, who has evolved significantly from her introduction. The question thus is how much of Tohya was planned out at the beginning, and how much of her character has evolved. While the evolution of a character is important (and indeed often essential) for the growth of a comic, it can sometimes cause issues with continuity. No doubt questions on continuity will continue until the comic eventually ends.

Rating: PG to PG-13 – (The kittens love the comic, but are covering their ears from time to time because of language. Poor neglected yarn balls…)

Megatokyo doesn’t have much in the way of swearing or violence, for the most part. There are times when swears creep in, and Largo in his boxers is enough to traumatize artificial intelligences. In addition, when someone gets hurt in the comic, they stay hurt for a while. This is something that Gallagher prides himself in the first print compilation, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. Thus I see it this comic as on the borderline between PG and PG-13, depending on the parent. Of course, parents should review the comic first in any event rather than relying on blanket ratings….

Punctuality: Updating MWF with frequent late and missed updates.

Megatokyo is infamous for its irregular update schedule. In the time I’ve been reading, the comic has missed several updates and been late for numerous updates. However, I also started reading during Convention season, which can cause numerous delays. Gallagher has stated a desire to try and build up a buffer and I look forward to seeing if he succeeds in this endeavor.

Print Compilation Structure: 4.5 ribbons

Print Compilation Added Content: 4.5 ribbons

Print Compilation Book Design: 4.5 ribbons

(When I first started Tangents, there wasn’t much in the way of print compilations. This has changed in the last year, and I’ve realized it is an important part of a Meta-review. The Structure concerns how sturdy the book is built, if pages fall out and the like. Added Content examines what the book offers that isn’t on the internet. Book Design handles the regular comic content.)

The Megatokyo print compilations are a definite improvement over early print runs of webcomics. I’ve not had a problem with pages ripping out. The paper is of a decent quality, and the ink hasn’t smudged as some print runs do. Outside of Book 1, which consists of the entirety of Chapter 0 material, each book contains two chapters of Megatokyo, with each chapter being a day in the life of the cast.

Book 1 actually has a slightly different format from the rest of the books. Non-story material crops into the mainstream comics from time to time. Fortunately, this material is fairly easy to distinguish from the regular comics. In addition, commentary from Fred Gallagher helps bring this print compilation alive and fills out those initial works. Sadly, once Gallagher switches over to a full-page format, Gallagher’s comments come at the end of sections and thus we get little idea of his thought processes.

The Added Content of Book 1 consists of character sketches (as well as the artist’s commentary). Readers hoping for added stories and the like will be disappointed, and this is part of the reason the Added Content score was lower than a 5. Books 2 through 4 include extra stories not included in the print run. In the case of the story Circuity in Book 4, Gallagher had initially created a short story on the web but was unsatisfied with it and expanded it significantly in the print run. Book 5 lacks any added story but does have one thing many fans will find essential: a cast page. This has been sorely lacking on the MT site. In addition, a MT Timeline also graces the pages and gives readers an idea of the scope of Chapter 0… and of just how hectic things have been for our protagonists for the last week.

Megatokyo’s print compilations are among the best print compilations I’ve seen, with the exception of Girl Genius by Studio Foglio. Few other webcomics come close to matching MT’s print run; more should.

Overall: 4.5 ribbons

If there’s one word that could sum up my tendency toward reading new webcomics, stubbornness would be that word. I’d actually read segments of MT in the past, but refused to allow myself to be attached to what I viewed as a cesspool of leet-speak and the like. I was wrong.

Fred Gallagher has shown considerable imagination in creating his story, and the shift from comedic comic to character-driven storytelling has done far more good than harm. Indeed, MT has become an ensemble cast with each character having their own story to be told, no matter how major or minor the character is.

Not everyone will agree. People will complain about the comic’s pacing. They will complain about the relative lack of humor. They will complain about the art. They will complain about Rodney Caston not being a part of the creative processes. They will complain because they don’t like the changes that have occurred. That’s not to say the complaints don’t have any validity. But without change, the comic would have rotted and become a flat unimaginative echo of far too many comics out there.

Naturally, I’m prejudiced on this. I love storylines and plot twists. I’m at my happiest when I look at a comic and can see a half dozen possibilities for it to advance in, or take a scene and daydream about how things could have gone if only the character had done this one thing differently.

Can Megatokyo be improved? Definitely. There are times when the pacing is too slow. There are times when a little levity would help break the tension (and in turn make things even darker later on for that brief glimpse of light). And Gallagher would be among the first to admit his artwork needs to be better… though when you compare the early work to what’s out today, you can see significant improvements.

One thing I hope for is that Gallagher doesn’t take the path of so many other cartoonists, who are fearful of diffusing sexual tension by allowing love interests to hook up. He’s already shown the ability to create tension between characters as they struggle with their own feelings. But being in a relationship doesn’t negate tension. It alters it. Not that I expect to see Piro and Nanasawa skip into a love hotel anytime soon; both are entirely too shy to do that. But we may very well see more nights of Nanasawa snuggled up on Piro’s chest after finding a sock on the doorknob going into her apartment, and Piro having no idea where Largo’s disappeared to.

Teh awkward? I don’t know of what you speak.

Robert A. Howard

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