The Webcomic Overlook #209: Mary Elizabeth’s Sock
I’ve heard it said that people in Seattle are insular. It’s no secret that it rains a lot in these parts. Summers are usually just a months break between rain showers. It’s not unheard of to have thirty day streaks of continual rain in the winter. As a result, people tend to spend a lot of time indoors. People, then, don’t interact as much as people in warm climates. So while Seattle folks aren’t exactly unfriendly, they are the kind of people who would prefer to keep to themselves and avoid confrontation in general.
In John S. Troutman’s webcomic, Mary Elizabeth’s Sock, a fellow by the name of Basil has just moved into town. However, someone’s in his house. After panickedly hurling a pop tart at the intruder, his discovers it’s one of his neighbors: a robust woman named Mary Elizabeth. (She of the sock.) She realized that someone new had moved in when the door was cracked open, so she let herself in to welcome him.
At this point, I was thinking to myself, “What the hell, comic? That’s not how it works! I can see this sort of think happening in Biloxi or Wichita, but here in Seattle we cringe at the mere thought of invading another person’s privacy!” It turns out, though, that Mary Elizabeth’s Sock takes place in a strange, alternate universe Seattle: a world where things aren’t played straight, and sometimes people are super detectives or robots for no particular reason.
For example, there’s another early plotline that follows a freckled woman named Andie. Her entire life can best be described as “oppressively quirky.” First, we learn that she has a bodyguard who calls her “Bubbles.” Oh, man, a surly girl like her being called “Bubbles”? That’s pretty quirktastic! And then learn that her father is a killer. This tiny factoid gets blown up in later installments when we learn that he is also a school superintendent and bowling partners with the devil! Man, is that not random enough for you? Kids these days. Well, what if Andie finds out that boyfriend is a robot? Life is but a cabaret here in wacky, alternate universe Seattle.
Like Mary Elizabeth, Andie is also fairly Rubenesque. It’s actually a fairly unique occurrence in webcomics, where most of the ladies are drawn to be rather waiflike. Most of the ladies in Mary Elizabeth’s Sock would be at home inhabiting R. Crumb’s dreams. Meanwhile, the one skinny gal, a weather reporter named Amanda, looks kinda like a ferret.
Anyway, back to the thrilling saga of Mary Elizabeth and Basil. It turns out Basil, full name Basil Flint, is a detective with Sherlock Holmesian levels of deductive skills. Which is to say that the smell of dry erase marker immediately means that you’re a teacher. (Man, what kinda crazy mixed up world do we live in, anyway? Back in my day, that would’ve been “smelling of dusty chalk.” And what’s the deal with the internet? Robble, robble, robble.) This disgusts Mary, who promptly punches Basil in the gut. At the same time, it turns her on. I think this may be because spouting smart-sounding nonsense immediately makes the ladies think you’re Benedict Cumberbatch or something.
And so the two become a couple. How, you might ask? Well, one day, Mary catches Basil talking to one of his sisters on the phone. Yup. She just walks right in. You’d think Basil would’ve learned to the lock the door at this point. Anyway,she overhears him describe how she has amazing boobs. She isn’t offended, as Basil might have expected. Rather, she flattered, and she moves in for the kill. Incidentally, Mary Elizabeth’s boobs? Not really all that amazing. No matter how much the characters in the comic try to convince me.
Yet this one tossed off compliment becomes the basis for Basil and Mary’s entire relationship. I’ve scoured the entire comic to see if there was any other reason the two are together, and all I could come up with was the “amazing boobs” scene. It’s certainly not due to Mary Elizabeth’s personality, which can be best summed up as “nosy,” nor Basil’s interpersonal skills, which can be best summed up as “lacking.”
Still, despite knowing Basil for a fairly short time, Mary Elizabeth acts like a jealously overprotective girlfriend whenever another woman is in close proximity to her man. (Is this what Mary Elizabeth’s Sock is? The long tube sock that is a noose that gently suffocates the life out of you?) At the same time, Basil doesn’t even look like he really wants to be in this relationship half the time. Heck, the characters in the comic themselves have to remind him that he’s dating Mary Elizabeth. Basil just seems so … cuckolded.
It could be, though, that the fault may lie entirely in the art. The characters in Mary Elizabeth’s Sock always seem as if they’re incredibly bored. It’s a little like the “B^U” expression that Ctrl+Alt+Del gets criticized for. Eyes are half-lidded and the mouth is cracked open slightly enough to bare some teeth. This expression stands in for many things. Shock. Anger. Rage and depression. Sarcasm. Though it doesn’t do so effectively.
So, anyway, Basil’s deductive skills gain him a reputation in Seattle (despite the city being seemingly populated by all of four people). He is soon contacted by the Governor of Washington, who soon after is murdered in an explosion. Meanwhile, Basil’s sisters are part of a supersecret spy agency, which…. You know what? Ultimately none of this matters. Mary Elizabeth’s Sock has an annoying quirk where everything in the comic is approached with an ironic detachment. Hell, there’s a scene where character development itself is seen as stupid. Angie has a heart to heart chat with her bodyguard, and through the magic of exposition he fleshes out his own character by laying out his motivations in the baldest way possible. Only he isn’t, really. The exposition is the joke. (“Aww! Your character is so much more sympathetic now!” says Andie.) Only … it’s not funny. Just annoying.
Also annoying is pretty much every attempt at dialogue. Here are four different excerpts:
1.) “If you stay here, you’re gonna get shot, and it’s gonna be right in front of me, and I’m gonna have to swear vengeance, and travel the globe, and turn into Batman.”
2.) “Commander Riker is the exception to the rule. Heck, you’d probably bang Commander Riker if he asked nicely enough.”
3.) “I think ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ is more important than your life’s work. Try not to take it personally.”
4.) “Good God! You hit like a gir! Not like a regular girl. Like those creepy muscley girls on American Gladiators!”
These four lines, by the way, are spoken by four different characters. That’s right: everyone in the Mary Elizabeth’s Sock universe talks that exact same way, tossing off pop culture references that are supposed to sound smart because they’re nerdy. This hurts the comic in two ways. First, these characters, by all acting the same, don’t feel like individuals at all. They, instead, sound like the author having a conversation with himself. An awkward, lonely conversation. Second, it comes off as a really desperate way to tell a joke. I guess that some people may laugh at the absurdity of two people compare a working relationship to characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But Lord do these references feel forced. “Oh, crap, there’s nothing funny going on in this comedy strip. What can I get to deliver the yuks? … Ummm…. Commander Riker! Right! Done!” Seriously, I’m not a fan of Family Guy style cutaways, but inserting one here might’ve actually improved the comic.
It reminds me a lot of the first hundred pages of Questionable Content, where the cast would toss off some obscure band then meet the reader with some of the most painfully self-satisfied expression imaginable. Good God did I ever want to reach in to the screen and strangle the characters in that comic. I get the same feeling when reading Mary Elizabeth’s Sock, especially when it’s trying to be cute. (“Shoe charisma?” *sigh*)
Mary Elizabeth’s Sock is a comic that’s trying to be silly but is trying way too hard to get there. I think the story might succeed better if it were told semi-straight. Give the readers a reason to like Mary Elizabeth. Or to root for having Mary and Basil getting together. Then if you throw in some silly elements — such as Basil’s investigative skills or hitman dads or robots — then they’re far more meaningful. It worked in Scary Go Round. Heck, it sorta works in Bad Machinery. Instead, every page is just screaming to not be taking seriously in the most defensive way possible, as if taking it seriously would make the reader immediately hate the comic. No. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Rating: 2 Stars (out of 5)