Yet another comic I’ve found thanks to suggestions on an online social network is the 3D science fiction comic Sunset Grill. I must be honest and say my initial gut reaction was to avoid this comic. I’m not a big fan of 3D comics, and this comic nibbled at the edges of my “uncanny valley” perception. However, after a strong recommendation from Karen “KEZ” Howard (no relation) of The War of Winds I decided to give the comic a second shot. I soon found myself drawn into the story and more often than not ignoring the artwork in lieu of some truly amusing dialogue and situations that amused me to no end.
Please indulge me in a moment as I go off on a tangent concerning the Uncanny Valley. For the uninitiated, UV is a sensation some people feel when they see something that almost looks real… but is just off enough that instead the object invokes a sense of Other and revulsion. One such example lies with the zombie franchise; having a corpse walking around and trying to interact with the world has a tendency to profoundly disturb some people. 3D comics often invoke a similar reaction, and while critics often speak of the Uncanny Valley effect, we rarely explain methods that webcartoonists can use to deal with the situation.
The first solution is for the cartoonist to make their comic more cartoony. When art looks less real, readers are better able to suspend their disbelief and the UV effect doesn’t hit. The second is far more difficult: create art that is so photorealistic that it’s nearly impossible to differentiate the art from reality. This is a very time consuming process and often involves software resources that aren’t affordable to most cartoonists. But there is one last solution that was used by the science fiction webcomic Crimson Dark: use the 3D art software to create line-art. Merely by adding “lines” to the art, the art takes a step back from realism and may thus eliminate the UV effect. Just some food for thought.
While I described Sunset Grill as a science fiction comic, it is remarkably unlike the vast majority of science fiction webcomics out there. It’s much closer to the dark and gritty science fictions of “Blade Runner” and “Neuromancer” than the glowing futures depicted in “Star Trek” and “Babylon 5.” This isn’t to say that the comic is depressing or that the characters are unlikable; I found myself laughing frequently, and most of the characters are likeable and fun to read. But rather than talking about wily starship pilots and the like, the comic focuses on more mundane people. Specifically, poor people. Outside of a couple of exceptions, the primary characters are lower class, and have to deal with such things as street crime, extortion, and drugs.
In fact, one ongoing storyline focuses on gang warfare that started with a simple turf scuffle that ended up with someone dead and a vendetta that will result in several people dead. Some of these might very well be characters we’ve become attached to. And one regular character (who is involved in the gang hostilities) is the “tête d’rue” (or street boss) of one of the street gangs… and regularly extorts protection money from businesses and people on his street. He also takes his responsibilities seriously and looks to protect his “charges” (at one point giving a shop owner and mother a discount for medicine rather than extort more money she might not be able to afford). So even in the case of the criminal elements, these characters are not just two-dimensional ciphers but living breathing people.
This isn’t to say the comic focuses only on the poorer people; one of the regulars, Travis, is a specialist in the Imperial Armed Forces, while Riley is a public defender who pulled himself out of the gutter (though his wife constantly pushes him to further his career and abandon their lower-class roots). But it is the poorer characters who drive the comic (with Lena, who’s a waitress at the Sunset Grill and a part-time college student, often taking center stage); in fact, it’s the poorer characters who are the heart of SG, taking a hard look at society through the distorted lens of the science fiction genre.
If it weren’t for the fact we have green-skinned women in the comic (no, they’re not Orion slave girls, though the “Greenies” were genetically engineered to be a slave race before they were freed by the Emperor) then readers would be hard-pressed to not any blatant science fiction elements in the comic. Though I should mention that one storyline focusing on Travis actually delved into Skinlander (or “Greenie”) culture and the hatred some Skinlanders have on mixed-breed children (humans and “Greenies” can interbreed, but their progeny are sterile); for a comic that focuses more often than not on humorous elements, it was a rather deep and touching story about the loneliness and confusion of a young unwed mother carrying a child hated by her own people… and perhaps even touched upon the sentiments of some minorities that consider “mixed-blood” people to be an abomination.
Many of the science fiction elements either appear primarily in the background details (which aren’t mentioned in great detail in the comic itself) or are setting elements that aren’t precisely visible in the story itself. This would make sense when you consider fancier technologies to be the toys of the rich and well-to-do, while poorer people make do with cheap knockoffs that aren’t fancy or look that futuristic. And in many ways this is the best use of science fiction; not as the driver of the story, but as an element that enhances the story as a whole.
I should add that recent stories have stepped away from some of the humor that first drew me in. While I still find myself laughing over character interactions and dialogue, there has been a growth of darker and more introspective elements in the comic. Despite this, Sunset Grill is still a most enjoyable read. If you’re able to move past possible Uncanny Valley elements found in most 3D comics and focus more on characterization and dialogue, then you’re likely to enjoy this comic. As such, I definitely have to recommend it, with the addendum that updates have been intermittent of late as cartoonist Kat Feete works around a new baby; hopefully she’ll soon get the comic back on course and updating regularly once more.