The Webcomic Overlook #201: Battlepug
For some reason, webcomic creators really love mashing two unlikely subject matters and making a story out of it. (Though, to be far, it’s not only webcomics. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, anyone?) There are doctors who are also ninjas, doctors who are also dirtbike riders, dinosaurs who are ninjas, cops who have axes, barbarians who are Americans, and American patriots who are rock stars. It embraces an internet appetite for the absurd, which is why it’s actually fairly amazing that a lot of these comics can actually maintain a long term story.
I mean: think of that movie, Snakes On A Plane. Why did that fail? The biggest one was that once you got the title, you pretty much got the whole joke already. On the other hand, The Adventures of Dr. McNinja has been going strong for 8 years now. I think the webcomic format is more suited for silly ideas like these. They feel far more like they’re genuinely off-the-cuff and not focus-grouped to death. It doesn’t have to be dumbed down to reach as wide an audience as possible. It only needs to reach the fans of eccentric humor … which are not in short supply on the internet.
And now, something with a mash-up premise is a nominee for the Eisner Awards: Battlepug, created by Mike Norton, who’s done work in the comic industry (Runaways, Queen and Country, and Young Justice to name a few). You mash together a barbarian and a giant pug. What could go wrong?
The origins of Dr. McNinja and Battlepug are strikingly similar. Dr. McNinja got its start when Chris Hastings made a short comic based on the handle he used on the Something Awful forums. Mike Norton, meanwhile, created Battlepug as sort of a gag at iFanboy. The iFanboy folks asked him to make a signature t-shirt for them. However, Mr. Norton had worked at DC for 4 years, and thus had no unique characters to call his own. So he drew a barbarian (referred to as “the Kinmundian”, but since that’s a spelling error just waiting to happen I’m just going to call him “the barbarian”) riding on the back of a giant pug. It also featured “Battlepug” written in heavy metal font because irony. Well, clearly such a striking image is just asking for some backstory, and thus the Battlepug webcomic was born.
I imagine that the thing that keeps Battlepug going is the same thing that give every other mash-up style webcomic its longetivity: the art. It’s practically part of the joke. On the one hand, the premise is so goofy that it could’ve been invented by a five-year-old and a box of toys. On the other hand, he artwork itself is so good that it flies in the face of the concept, creating something not so easily dismissible as “stupid random internet humor.”
Mike Norton’s illustrations have the sort of relaxed-yet-grounded style would look at home in both a humor mag like Mad Magazine or an issue of Justice League. Do you know what Mr. Norton’s art reminds me strongly of? Alan Davis’ work. And coming from me, that’s high praise indeed, because one of li’l El Santo’s first ever comics was Mr. Davis’ run on Excalibur. The characters’ faces can be cartoony and silly or traditionally chiseled.
There’s a sense of texture. Skin looks rounded, fur seems soft, armor feels hardened. It feels like it should be a mix of styles, yet it’s all internally consistent. Compare that to most of the work done by hihger-profile DC artist Jim Lee. Now, I like Mr. Lee’s work (X-Men #1 being one of my other early comic purchases), but his liberal use of cross-hatching tends to imbue the Batman’s skin and clothing texture with the same Brinell hardness value as the surrounding stonework. Mr. Norton’s art style, on the other hand, feels more organic.
So what’s the story about, you ask? Well… it’s about a Battlepug. It’s … right there in the title.
It’s pretty much how most of these mash-up comics go. If you establish right there in the title that, yes, there is a giant pug being ridden by a barbarian, the novelty is going to wear off at some point. So what do you do? Well, two things generally. You can stick with the silly aesthetics, and yet write a story that demands to be taken seriously. I’m pretty sure that’s how Marvel and DC comics got to be where they are, where you’re not supposed to question why a rich guy dressed up as a bat is starring in psychological thrillers.
Or… you start introducing more and more ridiculous elements… each more ridiculous than the last.
Our comic begins with a framing device. A naked woman lying on a bed is telling the story to two attentive small dogs. This is a little problematic. Not because of the naked lady, who’s at least just as much eye candy as the half naked barbarian dude. No, my issue is with the too dogs. There’s cute, and then there’s way too cute. And these dogs are right up there with “this is how grandparents talk about their angelic little grandchildren.”
We get a glimpse of the barbarian when he was but a young child growing up in an Arctic village. One imagines the future that may have lay ahead of him. He may have been a seal hunter. Perhaps the town healer. Maybe even a United States senator! But it all came crashing down one day, when his town was attacked by … giant baby seals! It not just the big seals and the big pug. Oversized animals seem to be a recurring theme in this comic. Sometimes they seem like sentient beings with malicious intent. Sometimes they’re gophers that join up to form a giant gopher. All I can say is that somebody seems to be actively lobbying to be the next artist for Mark Trail. Joke’s on you, Norton! They only use previously drawn art on that strip these days.
The barbarian boy is adopted by a society of Northern Elves. They live in a jolly-looking castle festooned with candy canes. They introduce him to their king, a dude dressed in red and has a big white beard. I know what you’re thinking… but no, it’s not that dude from ZZ Top. Our Elven King gives our barbarian the greatest gift of all: servitude, Conan style.
Eventually, our hero hooks up with a bunch of strange characters. There’s, of course, our Battlepug: the Pug Who Battles. There’s also a crazy old hippie with big bug eyes who inserts the words “scribbly” and “scrabbly” in every sentence. He’s probably my favorite character, mainly because the whole speech affectation is a genuinely random character trait that seems to have dropped out of nowhere. There’s a foul-mouthed little girl who has the power to control plants. And a large Black female barbarian with a mighty ‘fro. They’re, like, the Avengers of barbarian mash-up webcomics!
One of the funniest things about Battlepug is how grim our barbarian always looks despite being surrounded, 24/7, by such bizarre weirdness. Seriously, he always has the frowny expression like he just swallowed a pepper. I mean, sure, his entire village was wiped ut as a child, but remember… baby seals did it. That, to me, sounds like a war story that you’d tell at the nursing home, then quietly laugh at how ridiculous it all was. Here, though, it just heightens the absurdity. The growling strong man always looks silly, whether he’s riding a giant dog or wielding a huge candy cane as a weapon.
Battlepug is a goofy and charmingly illustrated webcomic. While it can go a little overboard with the cuteness, it manages to keep up its absurd, “random” sense of humor without getting tiresome. Fifteen to twenty years down the line, when we’re looking at examples for 2010 campiness, I imagine Battlepug will be one of the foremost examples. Which… probably also means that some genius is also going to come up with a Legend of the Dark Battlepug gritty reboot… along with legions of killjoys who demand that a barbarian riding a giant dog be taken seriously.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)