Looking back, I realize it has been a number of years since I’ve given the surreal science fiction webcomic Sluggy Freelance a proper review. Part of this undoubtedly lies with the love-hate relationship I’ve had with the comic since the comics leading into Oceans Unmoving (though Pete Abrams did manage to drag me back in with hints of the demonic antagonist K’Z’K returning (in time) to the fold. While this specific tease hasn’t exactly come into fruition, Abrams has managed to keep my attention through a variety of hijinks and minor story twists. To be honest, Abrams is fairly talented with these hijinks, which have undoubtedly kept the comic plugging along for several years.
As I mentioned a couple weeks back, it appears that his latest epic storyline is finally wrapping up. With the revelation that fan-favorite character Zoë was in fact still alive… but in a vegetative state, I toyed with the idea of a brief article speculating on a variety of possibilities that could restore Zoe to sentience. I was betting that the cursed amulet Zoë had been wearing, combined with a bit of magic from Gwynn would bring her back, and perhaps even allow for an internal conflict for Zoe if other personalities were trapped in Zoë’s amulet, who also sought to possess Zoe’s body. That was before Monday’s update, when Abrams pulled a time-travel twist that seems part Schlock Mercenary and part Dallas (a television show from the 80s that “erased” an entire season of the series by having it be a bad dream).
In short, after helping overthrow the repressive government of the world he was trapped in and actually making the world a better place to live in, Riff decided to say “screw it” and drugged his alternative-reality compatriots and utilize the time machine his alternative self created with one intention: he was going to save Zoë. What’s more, this seems to have worked: the final panel not only has the far-right border missing, but the artwork itself fading into white, suggesting that in going into his own past, Riff has succeeded in altering his future and negating everything he did since the fight between Riff and Oasis over two years ago.
The fade at the end of the last panel does preclude a Terminator-style twist with future-Riff trying to evade attempts by his alternative reality self to alter the future, but it also raises questions concerning paradox, which is why I mentioned Schlock Mercenary along with Dallas – Howard Tayler pulled off a masterful time-travel twist that negated six months of storytelling that remains one of the best non-paradox time-travel stories I’ve come across. After all, if Riff has negated the future by traveling into the past, then how is he able to exist in the past? What will existing in two places at the same time do to him? And what happens if and when they inevitably meet?
As far as twists go, I must admit I didn’t see it coming. That isn’t to say Abrams didn’t plant clues along the way; the entire time Riff has been in the City, he’s been trying to find Zoë, hoping that maybe she was still alive. It’s only natural that Riff would seek some means of cheating a fate that he brought onto Zoë through his own actions and mistakes. Similarly, we’ve seen Riff’s alternative self possess a streak of ruthlessness as he tries so hard to make up for his own mistakes that may have doomed his own world; alt-Riff’s refusal to allow Riff to return or bring some technology to his own world would prevent the easiest path, which would allow Riff to not only save Zoë, but also this world: to go back in time, implant a biochip into Zoë prior to the encounter with Oasis, and then have the medical nanites restore Zoë’s mind along with her body.
Still, I can’t help but feel that future-Riff has become in essence a villain: he is dooming millions of people to servitude and rebellion, while his alt-self struggles alone to repair the damage he did to his universe, all to save one person. That he does it not for self-gain (as Zoë has only ever been a friend to him) but for his friend Torg doesn’t lessen the horror of his actions. And there is always the question of what he does if he succeeds. If Zoë lives, if Oasis is stopped… and he somehow survives, what then? (Though Abrams has a history of killing off the spares, as the death of alt-Zoë in That Which Redeems has shown.)
Ultimately, if future-Riff dies and Zoë is saved, the question becomes: what was the point? We’ll have had two years of comics erased. None of it would have mattered. We wouldn’t watch Torg’s character growth or the return of Sasha or even future-Riff’s own evolution into a tortured villain who started down a path of horror to save one girl from a fate she didn’t deserve. In that case, why not just have Riff and Zoë have prevailed in the first case? While I know Abrams doesn’t read this review site and isn’t going to change things just because one critic points out the flaws to having future-Riff die, I truly hope he doesn’t follow the path he started with That Which Redeems and instead embraces the idea of future-Riff living.
Nor does this necessarily mean we’ll end up with two Riffs. While Schlock Mercenary has shown it’s quite viable to have multiple copies of the same character (both with the Gavs and with the two Kevyn Andreyasns), Abrams could have the original Riff die… and the future Riff take his place, while living with the knowledge of everything he’s done. While I doubt Abrams will take this path, it would perhaps be the most effective method of not only bringing Zoë back, but to allow some elements of the last two years of comics to retain some storytelling value.