The Webcomic Overlook #61: F Chords
Can Kristofer Straub ever do wrong?
This is one of the many questions the webcomic community often ponders. It probably ranks somewhere under “Who’s sexier: Hannelore or Faye?” and somewhere above “Is the hatted man a white knight or a creepy little stalker?” Yes, webcomic people are weird like that.
It helps that Straub himself seems incredibly likable… the George Plimpton of webcomics, if you will. Just listen to a Webcomic Weekly podcast some time. Scott Kurtz is the sarcastic yet sassy moderator-type, Brad Guigar comes off as a goofy old uncle with a fondness for the hooch, and Dave Kellett seems like a quick-witted weisenheimer with a pop-culture dictionary. But Kris Straub? He’s absolutely suave.
He’s the epitome of a cool nerd, the kind of guy who can share his opinions of DS9’s Dominion War at the local ComiCon and, instead of exuding the graces of a misanthropic basement dweller, comes off as an interesting, multi-faceted individual with a sparkling personality. Oh, sure, he’s also the kind of guy who’s taking home the cute cosplayer dressed up as Fran from FFXII that you’ve been working up the nerve to talk to all evening. But you’d be totally cool with it, because, deep down inside, you know she’s going home with the better man … and you, too, are more than a little gripped by a stifling man crush.
With that in mind, is there any way to possibly hate Kris Straub’s latest project, the mostly black-and-white webcomic, F Chords? The comic was only launched July 2008, yet shortly into its run fans were already gushing about it like some squealing fangirls at the premiere of Twilight. I mean, look at these positive notices from Lore Sjoberg. And Justin Lowmaster. Mi amigo Jackson at This Week in Webcomics.
But now, six months into its run, at the end of what Kris Straub likes to call “Side One,” is F Chords really all that and a free hotplate?
Reality check: I’m not totally in love with all of Kris Straub’s projects. I know. Heresy, right? I mean, I totally loved chainsawsuit, reviewing it on this site and giving it the highest honor ever bestowed by The Webcomic Overlook. Yet, I had a hard time reading Mssr. Straub’s flagship project, Starslip Crisis. Before you accuse me of just not being that into sci-fi, I should tell you, rather shame-facedly, that I do own the Jack McKinney Robotech novels, am a big fan of Mike Resnick’s space westerns, have everything from Hyperion to The Foundation novels clogging up my bookshelves, and have the entire Star Wars saga on DVD. Yes, even the crappy ones.
If I could put my finger on the biggest reason why I’m not an avid reader of Starslip, it would probably be the off-putting character designs. They’re always standing in the same uncomfortable positions, with their shoulders seemingly hunched over. And the allegedly “human” characters look bizarre: no necks, no noses, and toothless, flapping jaws. They’re like nightmarish extras from Steve Oedekerk’s short films. If there were thumbs in space and they were mad at each other, there would be … Starslip Crisis!
Then F Chords came around. The comic deals with music, or at least the foibles of a garage band … a subgenre that, admittedly, I’m not familiar with at all. About the only thing I know about music is that I like listening to it. I also played piano when I was younger, but I suspect that feeble childhood attempts to fulfilling your parents’ dream of becoming a concert pianist is just not the same as the starry-eyed dream of being a rock star. Incidentally, let’s just say that identifying Roberto Clementi as your favorite musician won’t win you any friends in the second grade. Thus, all accusations that I just don’t get F Chords are fair game and reviewable by a committee of peers.
Still, I was very excited about F Chords‘ premise. The comic deals with two mellow guys in their twenties, named Ash Cordry and Wade Kleitzer, with big dreams of thrilling audiences in Austin, Texas, with their rock band: Soft Operation. Unfortunately, they encounter an obstacle that may prove nigh insurmountable: real life. They’re not booked anywhere, they’re poor, they’re down a vocalist, and their lyrics might actually be pretty stupid. To make ends meet, our dynamic duo must sell just a little bit of their souls to corporate America by recording cheesy jingles for small businesses. I remember reading somewhere that Mssr. Straub himself is a musician, so I trust that the situations and jargons are based on authentic situations and not lifted wholesale from Almost Famous or that one episode of Saved By the Bell where the kids try to record a music video.
But… what’s this I see? People with… no noses? And flapping jaws? Uh oh.
Fortunately, Straub throws in a little somethin’ somethin’. It might seem insignificant at first, but it really does make all the difference in the world: NECKS. The hunched over look: CURED! Characters don’t look like they’re giving themselves back problems anymore! Oh sure, everyone still looks like a canary with a wig, but at least they’ve got natural-looking poses now. Hallelujah!
Interestingly enough, I wouldn’t say that the main characters are identified primarily as musicians. Sure, the major plot elements revolve around wacky developments on their quest to become famous: going to a party hosted by a more successful rock star, accidentally giving away the riff that will make them world famous, scoring a gig at a local bar. Yet the two aren’t so much musicians as they are losers.
I mean that in the nicest way possible.
It’s been said that readers tend to identify with losers more than winners, because while only a few of us knows what it feels to win, all of us know how it feels to lose. Who among us haven’t suffered similar indignities? Who here has dreamed of sharing our artistic vision as world-renowned graphic novelists, only to settle for the far more modest job of copy-and-pasting publicity photos for Direct-to-DVD releases? In that respect, Ash and Wade are the two most identifiable Kris Straub creations. When Ash bemoans his eternal poverty, we laugh because we’ve all been there. When Wade talks a length about his friend Gary, and Ash reminds him that it’s the same friend he talks about all the time, we’re reminded of the times when we sorta catch ourselves doing the exact same thing.
F Chords establishes the goateed Ash as the main protagonist. He seems like such a swell guy that we do feel for the indignities he suffers. He may have so little money that he’s forced to lease an apartment at a retirement community, yet he’s a nice, decent guy around his elder neighbors. He’s also got a non-reciprocated crush on Cybil, the singer of jingles at the recording studio. Wade, on the other hand, is an absolute nerd and depicted as a guy with huge glasses and a hoodie. He spends his time hosting tabletop RPGs when he’s not manning the keyboards.
The comic really shines when it come to the dialogue. Pretty much all the conversations between Ash and Wade are golden, even if, ultimately, a lot of them are about nothing. There are times when they’re talking strategy to save the “Soft Operation” entry on Wikipedia or other times when they’re just standing around, looking for the dead cells that float around in your eyes (i.e. floaters). My favorite discussion exchange happens when Ash bemoans how growing up means less and less time playing videogames. I look at my mostly neglected Wii and start to nod my head in agreement, but then Wade counters with the real reason Ash hasn’t been playing games. Which, to my embarrassment, is pretty spot on.
Ash and Wade are, in turn, surrounded by an enjoyable cast of characters. Cybil is far more hip than anyone in the cast, and her circle of friends revolve in an orbit far out of Ash and Wade’s league. Samantha (quite possibly my favorite of the secondary characters) is their long-suffering boss who sternly pushes them to finish their jobs, yet is so sympathetic to their goals as musicians that she’ll gladly help them out at their gigs. Humbucker, the comedy relief, is sorta like Silent Bob: he doesn’t speak a word, what’s reveal of him is enigmatic, and, more than likely, he’s high. The personalities of these characters feel current… yet their archetypes remain classic, not unlike the kind of folk found in Li’l Abner, Gasoline Alley, and Archie Comics.
Spend enough time with F Chords and you get a strong sense of why it got so many positive notices so early. The humor, for example, strongly appeals to jaded 30-somethings… me included. It reflects the period when you’re too old to believe that you really have your whole life ahead of you, yet too young to grow up and give up your dreams completely. Of all of the Kris Straub strips I have read, this one seems the closest to his own heart. Will it follow its own experiences as a musician, or will it reflect its own path as a webcomic artist? I suspect it might be a little of both.
The comic’s about the foibles of real life, its tiny triumphs and its disappointments. And it’s great fun, too. If you want to jump onto F Chords, now is a good time. Mssr. Straub has put the comic on hiatus for a short while to catch up on his other projects, which means it’s a great time for you, as a reader, to catch up on the adventures of Ash and Wade.
So while I dispute the notion that Kris Straub can never do wrong, he plays a flawless set with F Chords. Bravo, Kris Straub. You deserve that hot plate.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)