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The Webcomic Overlook #63: Brawl In The Family

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Nintendo bestowed upon us mortals a veritable Gift From Mt. Olympus when they released the Super Smash Brothers series. Not necessarily because it’s a great fighting game. I mean, the game itself is alright, but I find myself oftentimes irritated by the zoom out features which render the characters like pinpoints upon an admittedly lush battlefield. Eventually, my bloodlust takes over and I begin to long for the simple face-punching, body-slamming of the Tekken games.

No, the greatest achievement of the Smash Brothers series is that it’s now totally legit for budding story writers to have all Nintendo characters and some prominent hanger-ons interacting with the camaraderie of junior high classmates. It’s like the Grand Unified Theory for characters, canonizing all sorts of absurdity, the likes of which have not been seen since Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny did the tandem skydive in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I expect that, somewhere, an intrepid young writer has penned a story where Princess Zelda rebuffs the romantic advances of Sonic the Hedgehog in order to travel the universe with her one, true love, Pikachu. And the scenario itself is completely plausible! It isn’t just some fevered, candy-induced dream like “The Smurfs meet the cast of How I Met Your Mother!” These crossover shenanigans are best portrayed in Awkward Zombie (reviewed here, yet Ms. Tiedrich’s comic is hardly the only one that celebrates Smash Brothers‘ oddball diversity.

You know who gets unfairly shunned by webcomic writers, though? A tubby, bubble-gum pink spheroid with a bottomless appetite that we all know and love as Kirby. This seems terribly unfair. Three of the fighters — Meta Knight, King Dedede, and Kirby himself — from 2008’s Super Smash Brothers Brawl are characters from Kirby’s world. Yet Kirby-centric works are infinitesimal compared to the sheer volume of material devoted to chronicling the dysfunctional love lives in the Mushroom Kingdom. (Note: this does not reflect how Kirby fiction fares in Japan, as the little guy is friggin’ Elvis over there.)

Fortunately, Matthew Taranto has come to the rescue with Brawl in the Family. It’s a strip about Kirby, Kirby, and Kirby. It also stars other folks from Super Smash Brothers Brawl, which is to be expected by the title. (And in the unlikely case you were wondering… no, at no point in the comic does Kirby meets Archie Bunker. Come to think of it, there aren’t any families, either, so I have no idea what that title’s referring to.)

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On his About page, Mssr. Taranto is quite frank as to how he started on the path of transformative Kirby fiction. “The strip began as a series of doodles during one of my many art history classes in college,” he says. Later, he says that “I was bored one night and doodled up six comics, then put them online on a message board on IGN. From there, people seemed to enjoy them, so I put them up at a few other locations, such as GameFAQs. It was there that I found a host, and my friend was willing to design the site, so here it is.”

The less inspired among you will no doubt wave your hands and conclude, “In other words, he was bored.” Well… you’re probably right. However, if you read the above, something else comes to mind: Mssr. Taranto was taking art history classes … “many,” in fact? So… he’s an art major. Surprising. Not to knock on the artist, but take a look at the very first Brawl in the Family strip to the last. Does this look like anything someone with an art degree would draw?

This is my single nit-pick about the art. I understand that the illustrations are based on doodles, likely drawn lazily in the margins of a notebook. For the record, I have no problem with doodles. The best of them, though — which include Savage Chickens (reviewed here) or Kate Beaton’s work (reviewed here) — are pretty visually distinct. Brawl in the Family, on the other hand, doesn’t really have a signature style of its own, looking like doodles from the pens of any number of bored students (liberal arts or otherwise). I probably should be more forgiving, though: there are precious few avenues for improvement when the main character’s a circle with flippers and a smiley face.

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Here’s what Mssr. Taranto does right: he’s great at sight gags. Mre specifically, goofy faces. It’s delightfully old school humor, like someone doing a vaudeville act on the stand-up comedy circuit. I mean, when it seems ever other gaming comic stares coldly beneath a frozen Flash veneer, something as simple as a wacky reaction shot seems wonderfully refreshing. It certainly suits the malleable nature of its star, Kirby.

The goofiest face, though, belongs to none other than noted orator Captain Falcon. In other gaming webcomics, the guy’s usually rendered a dashing, Gaston-like muscle man. Taranto takes a different approach: he draws the Captain as a senile old coot. No question, he’s my favorite character design.

Taranto wrings a lot of comic mileage just by showing Kirby’s transformation into a half-Kirby/half-digested-object hybrid creature, or, similarly, his own wild imaginings of what he’ll turn into. What will Kirby turn into when he swallows a Luma? The King Koopa himself, Bowser? Bob-omb? It would not be as charming if he were to stuff his shiny face with, say, your dog, but Kirby is such a pleasant guy that you’d forgive him with a smile, a pat on the head, and possibly a boxed lunch because he seems so hungry all the time. (Plus he will have developed a wagging tail and an adorable black nose.) Despite repeating this gag several times, it never gets tiring, since it’s always jolly good fun to see the transmogrified Kirby.

Other times, Taranto goofs on the affable relationship between Kirby and King Dedede. I expect that the two rivals are not unlike amateur pugilists. They talk smack on the way to the big fight, but they’re swapping jokes and draining Arnold Palmers at the local Applebee’s when everything’s over.

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Inevitably, the Kirby jokes are going to run dry. That is, unless the comic starts delving into Kirby esoterica, and I’m not sure even quirky diehard Kirby fans would want that. As a result, the comic shifts its focus to spoofing the rest of the Super Smash Brothers. To be honest, as someone who’s played Brawl, the jokes sorta write themselves right there on the character selection screen. (Ganondorf versus Bulbasaur? Ahahaha… comedy gold!) Is it that much funnier when King Dedede wails on Samus Aran* on the comic page?

Still, Taranto (and other Super Smash Brothers chroniclers) should get down on his knees and thank the god of videogames for the day when Solid Snake was added to the roster. There’s no limit to the jokes you can mine by putting that guy in embarrassing situations.

Brawl in the Family eventually branches out into joking about other games, such as Super Mario Bros., Pokemon, Megaman and Earthbound. At this point I think I’ve seen every joke that could be said about Nintendo characters. You won’t find new ones here. Still, if you’re part Nintendo fanbase — whether you’re a kid raised on the Wii or a humorless old timer battling to win the Donkey Kong high score** — you should find these strips to be pleasant and fun.

In the end, it’s hard comic to not like. Brawl in the Family exudes a charming childlike innocence which Kirby would approve of if he was, you know, real. It’s one of the few gaming comics that is truly all ages. There are no obscenities, no shock decapitations to get a cheap laugh, no lame insults about Jack Thompson, thank God. The jokes are cornier than a plate of grits, but, to crib a phrase from House‘s Dr. James Wilson, some of us are into corny. Maybe the best praise I can give Brawl in the Family is that it makes me smile.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

* – While writing this, a highly tangential thought struck me. Have there ever been any attempts to turn Metroid into a movie? Yeah, yeah… female action stars/superheroes are a huge gamble with Aeon Flux, Ultraviolet, Catwoman, and Elektra failing miserably, blah, blah, blah. That doesn’t mean movie studios shouldn’t keep trying. And would anything get geeks more excited than seeing, say, Scarlett Johansson in Samus Aran’s armor?

** – I am a little disappointed that gaming webcomics don’t do enough jokes about King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. But then again, I imagine gamers don’t watch many indie documentaries, no matter how nerdy their subjects are.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on January 8, 2009, in 4 Stars, all ages webcomic, comedy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, video game webcomic, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the review! Your critiques are interesting and something I should probably keep in mind, particularly the “distinctive style.” I do want to keep the doodle look, but at times (usually when drawing tertiary characters that we don’t see much of in the strip) it can look a little indistinct. Hopefully a smoother version of PhotoShop I’ve got on the way will help remedy that (since the computer has to slow down significantly to run Classic and PS 6.0, sometimes altering the line quality).

    I do want to comment on just one of your points: that the variety of humor involving Nintendo characters interacting is somewhat limited. It is an obstacle I’ve been trying to overcome since the beginning, so I’ve tried branching off into different styles of humor (like comics 50, 60, 100, the Grinch arc) or even more atmospheric-esque strips (comics 92, 110) to keep things less predictable than “Kirby eats something.” But with 23+ years of Nintendo history to play around with, there’s actually a surprising amount of material there.

    I don’t mean to sound defensive at all, though–I actually greatly appreciate the review and rating and consider it a major complement just to have a full review devoted towards BitF. It’s been a lot of fun making the strip thus far and I’ll keep your points in mind as I continue.

    Thanks again for the write-up.

  2. Thanks, Matt. Like I said, the strip does make me smile, and I expect it makes a lot of people smile. Good job so far!

  3. TheDarkPlumber2.0

    After following BitF since its creation, I see how the series has evolved since this review. Matt seems to have earnestly taken your advice to heart; even the simple gags have a refined look, and when I think of Dedede Matt’s leaner, shifty eyed cartoon one comes to mind more often than Nintendo’s own. The themes become more and more character driven as relationships are explored and imagined.

    I won’t disagree with you review, but I do wonder what the present comic would now score.

  4. I love Brawl in the Family! This is such a great comic, kind of a pity that it ended. Even still it’s really one of the best Video Game related web-comics I ever had the pleasure of reading and if I could I would buy the complete collection sadly I don’t have a credit card so there’s that.

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