The Webcomic Overlook #219: Wizard School
I’ve read somewhere — perhaps on a Snapple cap — that to really put together a good satire, you sorta have to be half in love with material you’re making fun of. Makes sense. If you lack the in-depth knowledge it takes to be a fan, jokes can come off as fairly limp and groanworthy. Like, say, The Big Bang Theory‘s idea of what nerd culture is like.
Harry Potter is one of those properties that has so many odd details that it’s permanently ripe for parody. Now, I’m not a Harry Potter fanatic. I’ve yet to read the last two books, mainly because I was so disappointed by Ms. Rowlings’ awful writing in Order of the Phoenix. However, I’m knowledgeable enough about the world of Hogwarts to enjoy a good Potter parody.
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, for example, is one of my favorite recent fantasy books, and at its core it’s a Harry Potter parody. Imagine the Harry Potter world, only the teenagers populating it more closely resemble the ones you see hanging around, say, Reddit: nihilistic and self-destructive and witheringly snarky… but at the core, really very scared. Grossman used the Potter foundation to create another fully self-realized fantasy world.
Harry Potter parody fiction lives on in webcomics as well with Wizard School, written by Kevin Kneupper and illustrated by Robert Rath. It’s not as good as The Magicians. Mainly because I have five words for you that should send chills down your very spine:
Rayne Summers IS Harry Potter.
Not literally, of course. While our hero isn’t the actual, factual Rayne Summers, I wouldn’t be surprised if the two shared the same Briggs Meyers score. And hair stylist. Our protagonist, Russell Graham, is a phenomenally successful business guy. He’s also a dick. He makes people bad because he can. He’s a womanizer who can’t speak two likes without referring to his genitals. And he flashes around a big old poo-eating grin that makes you slap him upside the head early and often.
Much of that grin, fortunately, disappears when Russell is whisked away to Bumblebane’s Magical Academy of Wizarding Arts.
Wizard School opens with Harry and Hermoine — or their non-union equivalents — getting iced by an off-brand Lord Voldemort. I’m never a fan of beginnings like this in parody materials by the way. It almost sets up expectations wy too high, as if the originals are clearly the inferior product to the raw world-weariness of the Wizard School brand. Anyway, Harry and Hermoine find out too late that hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good hand gun at your side.
In order to further his wicked plan of screwing with the good guys, the villains So, to totally screw with the good guys, the villains decide to mark an off-brand Rayne Summers named Russell Graham with the thing that marks all heroes of destiny: a
lightning star tattoo. If the heroes follow him and crown him as their Chosen One, they’re doomed to fail, as the logic goes.
So that’s basically that’s the comic’s one joke. Harry Potter has been replaced by a cynical, middle-aged man — something that the regular cast don’t really question, which is part of the joke. He’s trapped in a world where the whimsy and magic just go over his head. Draco Malfoy thinks he’s such a badass? Pffff. Let’s see how tough the little pisher is when you burn his forehead with a cigarette butt or stick his head in the toilet. A grown man bullying children. Comedy!
Unfortunately, that one-note joke gets predictable fairly quickly.
For example, there’s a “sorting hat” scene. I mean, of course there’s a sorting hat scene. It’s pretty much written into stone that if you’re doing a Harry Potter parody creation, you need that, something about Quidditch, and words that rhyme with “fizzleflomp.” There are some changes, of course. There’s no actual hat, first of all, just a trippy hallucination. The school system has also been streamlined. Rather than four houses, there are now two: Dragonsbane for good students and Serpentor for bad students. (For you really old Webcomic Overlook readers: yes, the beloved character from GI Joe does get a shout-out.)
Now that you know the set-up, I leave it up to you, the reader, to guess what happens next. I want your guess in, say, three seconds.
Yes, that’s what happens.
To the point: Russell is faced with a decision. He can either join Dragonsbane and protect innocent lives, or he could join Serprentor and become an evil warlord. And what does Russell decide? He wants to join Serpentor because it’s so badass! Oh man, who could’ve saw that coming? Fifty points to you if you did. Also, fifty extra points if you also called that the sorting hat wouldn’t let Russell join Serprentor because he’s the Chosen One and that’s not what good guys do.
The world of Harry Potter was fairly anachronistic even during the year it debuted. (Seriously, the kid was straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.) It’s a children’s novel that’s been embraced by adults. The simple morality is fair game to mock. Yet, I can’t help but feel that Wizard School oftentimes misses the mark. It’s OK to joke about the silliness of the scene, but the way it transpires seem to forget that, in the source material, the Sorting Hat thought Harry would make an excellent candidate for Slytherin.
There are also several scenes with Professor Evilmore, the Snapes stand-in. Russell bemoans that Evilmore is clearly a villain, and the school staff act like ignorant hippies who can’t see the obvious. This would make for a clever joke in a parody of, say, the Thor movie, where the characters can’t seem to figure out that the evil-looking Loki is the bad guy.
But Harry Potter? Don’t Harry, Hermoine, and Ron almost always suspect Snapes of evildoing in every single book? And isn’t Snapes almost always falsely accused of wrong-doing? It was actually one of the most clever and subversive things J.K. Rowling ever did in the books: the ones you who think are bad have more going on that you may imagine. (Again, I haven’t read the last two books, though I know the spoiler for the sixth one. My assessment might not stand among the Harry Potter faithful.) Philosopher’s/Sorceror’s Stone, in fact, pulls a nifty double-switch in casting the real villain as one of the professors we trusted. Calling characters out for being buffoons when the issue itself is explored quite fully in the source just seems like a cheap, undeserved gag.
(Shoot, a better gag would be the good guys just jumping on the Snapes guy for every dang thing. “Look at that, the faucet’s dripping.” “Oh my God, EVILMORE!”)
The rest of the jokes seem like pale attempts to cater to the 4chan and Reddit crowds. Hey, look, Russell has a familiar that’s a foul-mouthed goat! And his name is “Goatsie“! A ha ha ha ha ha! (Kill me.) Oh no, Russell is now stuck with a magical horse that looks like a character from a popular kid’s cartoon! And his name is Brony! Ho ho ho ho ho! (KILL ME.)
Oh, man, the White Wizards who intermarried among themselves to keep the bloodlines pure … and they’re portrayed as rednecks! Wait… that’s actually kinda clever. Ten points to Wizard School. But wait, they’re rednecks, right? Get ready for some SODOMY … and bestiality, sure why not.
In the end, Russell is just not the sort of guy we as readers are not asked to root for. Technically, the “heroes” of The Magicians were even worse than Russell by benefit of being more realistically and three-dimensionally selfish. But you sort of rooted for them anyway, if only to see if these horrible kids can actually grow up and change.
Russell, on the other hand, is very much in the Rayne Summers mold: the only reason to root for him is because we’re told to. The key to rooting for anti-heroes like, say, Gregory House is to see that for all the character’s bravado, they’re also acknowledged as deeply damaged. The gag here is that even the main character is unsympathetic … and really, that’s too thin of a joke to hang a whole webcomic around. Wizard School is the sort of comic that would really benefit by, say, adding a love interest to call Russell out on his BS. Unfortunately, the closest this webcomic ever comes is with Celeste, a fawning fellow student who’s twelve years old. Pretty creepy, though not as creepy as Russell rationalizing how Celeste as an 18-year-old stripper with older man issues would be part of a win-win scenario.
Lesson here: a cynical, selfish lead character may be cheeky, but it doesn’t automatically make your story good.
Rating: 2 Stars (out of 5)
Posted on January 15, 2013, in 2 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, fantasy webcomic, parody webcomic, pop culture caricatures, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.