The Webcomic Overlook #123: Wasted Talent
Before I start reviewing Angela Melick’s Wasted Talent, let’s talk a little about journal webcomics.
The Webcomic Overlook doesn’t typically review journal webcomics. (Out of 150+ reviews, this is only my fourth journal comic review.) To be honest, I don’t think most sites do. Journal webcomics are a tricky thing: part comic, part blog, part diary. I’ll admit this site is often cruel, but more often than not I try not to directly attack the creator behind the comic. The line between creator and creation, though, becomes exceedingly tricky when the the characters in the comic represent an actual person.
There’s the issue of the nature of the comic. Who in the world would want to read something that’s the equivalent of someone’s diary? I suppose a snarkier reviewer would say “voyeurs,” but I should mention that autobiographies have been around since the beginning of time. Those, though, tend to be written after the events depicted have passed, and there’s a certain distance between the author and the narrative. As a counterpoint, I suppose you can say that blogging is no different… yet most of these blogs get very few readers, and the one that do succeed at least have a unique quality about them — like, say, putting funny outfits on a pug.
What about the content itself? The most acclaimed autobiographical comics seem to be from the perpective of an author that’s mentally ill or disturbed. There’s a reason for that: the day-to-day activities of most people are incredibly banal and uninteresting. Very few, for example, would thrill to my 9 to 5 routine which ends in a nicely cooked dinner and some sleep. Hardly material that would get Alex Trebek’s attention if he ever asked me about an interesting life moment on Jeopardy! (Personally, it’s a thought that depresses me to no end.) Robert Crumb’s sexually deviant escapades, on the other hand, have a shocking train wreck quality that, from what I hear, passes for good reading.
Yet, once in a while, a comic about the trivialities of everyday life does succeed. While reading Wasted Talent, I was strongly reminded of For Better or For Worse (a.k.a. FBoFW a.k.a. Foob). No, it’s not because Angela Malick is Canadian (which she totally is). I’m not one of those people who think all all Canadian comics are the same! No, sir, not me! A ha ha ha ha ha!
In FBoFW‘s early run — the strips that most fans celebrate before the comic turned toward soap operatic melodrama — For Better or For Worse did nothing more than chronicle the every day life of Ellie Patterson, a thinly disguised approximation of the author Lynn Johnston. The comic turned out to be one of the most beloved “new” comics in the 80’s, winning a Reuben Award and a Pulitzer.
Now I go through all that trouble of comparing Wasted Talent to For Better or For Worse when, really, the comic is not like that at all superficially. Wasted Talent starts off from the perspective of a younger woman, in this case an engineering student from Vancouver, BC. A magical place, this Vancouver. As a fellow resident of the Pacific Northwest, I personally can vouch for the use of hoodies as the everyday uniform (even in summer), the prevalence of coffee, and the popularity of cycling as a recreational activity.
Melick (who also goes by “Jam” in the comic) draws Wasted Talent in manga style. It’s very crude at first, but by the time she starts incorporating color in her comics her figures (crudely yet nicely rendered in glorious markers) are much more rounded and consistent. I’m not sure if it’s purely a consequence of her artistic style, but comic Jam looks shorter and slightly more pudgy than what Angela Melick real life. I could draw another parallel to FBoFW in how Lynn Johnston depicts her lumpier comic self, but I think I’ve been leaning on those Foob comparisons pretty heavily lately and I think I’ll lighten up on ’em for now.
The early, somewhat sloppily drawn Wasted Talent strip goes over all the jokes which we thought were funny in college but later found out that they’re only really funny when you’re living it. Oddly, they remind me a lot of the same jokes I wrote when I did a comic strip for the school newspaper. Some of the academic jokes are universal. Who can’t remember the cram sessions at exam time or the fact that college professors are impossible to understand?
Others are engineering in-jokes that can get pretty darn groan-worthy. On the level of those “free body diagram” jokes groan-worthy. Melick, though, never delves into the xkcd level of obscure humor. I imagine she’s like me: burdened with an artistic soul that yearns for an outlet for creativity that’s continually being torpedoed by all the technically writing and the rigid adherence to an optimized form and function.
Incidentally, I actually have run into message board comments that were offended by this strip, where Melick determines she’s in the wrong class by the lack of women. Sadly, this is the reality of engineering, even today: outside of industrial engineering, there aren’t many females enrolling. It does highlight the perils of speaking your mind in comic format, though. Give the comic too little explanation, and it can be offensive. Explain to much, though … there’s a reason you’re not blogging, right?
I mentioned earlier that unless there’s a unique edge, a comic about the day-to-day would tend to get pretty boring (i.e., my “Funny Outfits on Pugs” thoery). Fortunately, Melick does introduce a hook: the character of herself. She’s crafted her online persona to be a self-deprecatory and hyper-active dork. “That’s basically every female self-insert in every webcomic created ever,” you say. True, but I think Melick manages to ramp up the energy further than where most webcomic types are willing to go. She’s basically a toddle wired on chocolate with perhaps more college learning. Jam of the webcomics is generally good natured, though if you prick her, she does bleed. From the beginning, she’s seen as a crazy anime addict. She also sports an interesting speech affection: Melick talks in an infantile cute-speak.
This, by the way, is going to be a make or break proposition with a lot of readers.
When someone says “Why you makes me live in a pizza box?? Whys??”, do you find this cute and endearing, or do you find this totally intolerable and makes you want to go around kicking kittens? I’m personally a little bit in the latter camp. (I’m not a stranger to this kind of babbling. My sister talks like this ALL THE FRIKKIN’ TIME.) I know a lot of people who are attracted to this overly cute kind of speaking, though. I’m guessing one of them is Trevor, Angela’s boyfriend (later, husband) and co-conspirator in all this baby talk.
Eventually, Melick graduates and she’s introduced to the fast-paced world of engineering! Melick takes us through the giddiness of having a first job to the pain of being acclimated to a gobbledy-gook set of acronyms. (My theory: acronyms are there to make engineers look smart, because no one in any two companies ever uses the same set. Knowing what’s behind a certain set of letters give false confidence in one’s knowledge.)
Melick never totally drops her nerd passions, which leads me to one of my favorite strips on Wasted Talent: Melick goes to a corporate convention that she treats like a comic con. The basic concept is “What if you treated energy management with the same ridiculous energy as getting a signed comic book”? It’s a simple gag, and it works… especially if you’ve ever been to a soul-crushing corporate convention. Melick is her typical silly self, looking at the world through sugar-coated glasses.
The latest strips almost take a Foob-ian turn as Melick chronicles the struggles she has with vision, chiropractors, and ergonomic chairs. It weird to look back at all the jokes about college and see it transform into something more domestic and everyday. (Fighting off the urge to hum “Sunrise, Sunset” here.)
That’s OK, though. The real secret of a successful autobiographical comic is all in the presentation. Can you make goofy observations about waiting in line at the airport security? Then by God, kid, you’ve got a future ahead of you in journal comics.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)