The Webcomic Overlook #223: Citation Needed
I think we are entering a somewhat mature era for webcomics. Not necessarily “mature” in the sense of “growing up and getting a job” or “mature” in the way cable channels like Starz and Cinemax use it. (Though there are examples of both if you’re looking for it.) I mean mainly that it’s been around a while. When CAD aped the style of Penny Arcade, there was plenty of hoo-ing and hah-ing that somebody was getting their style ripped off. We’ve reached a day, I think, that if someone copped the same style these days, you could say, rather, that the comic was “influenced by” it’s more well known predecessor.
Can we seriously fault any new webcomic if it builds upon the precedents set by Penny Arcade or Kate Beaton or Scott Kurtz or Pete Abrams? After all, they were the ones who proved what worked and what didn’t. They’re the ones who know the safe route to success. Sure, it somewhat puts the limits of creativity. However, while a very few of us can be Pablo Picassos, most of us would be happy being Norman Rockwells: low in pizzazz, but just high enough in appeal for the masses at large.
These are the thoughts that flitted through my mind while ruminating over Citation Needed, by Christopher J. O’Brien and Amy T. Falcone. It’s a comic that stubbornly conforms to the established narrative as to what a webcomic should be. Namely it’s a roommate webcomic about wacky characters and totally random humor. Which means, bottom line, Citation Needed looks like pretty much every other webcomic ever.
Incidentally, while I was writing this review, I was struck with the dawning realization that I recognized one of those names. Amy Falcone is, in fact, one of the contestants from Strip Search. Now, while I’ve been doing reviews of the web show, I can assure you that my selection of the comic is purely coincidental and no one was more surprised than I was. I’d selected this comic off the Just The First Frame site before I had even buckled down to watch Strip Search. Still, it does give me something to talk about.
Ms. Falcone is the contestant who quit her day job in order to be on the show. She also promotes herself on her comic as the “villain” of the show. I’ve only gone to episode three so I have no idea how much of this is true. It seems that there are a fair amount of contestants who want to be the “villain,” but, like I said in my reviews of Strip Search, everyone seems to genial to actually pull it off. Conversely, I think more reality shows would be far more lively if we saw a fourth-wall-breaking meta scene where we see contestants playfully trying to figure out who is going to be the villain for the show. I’d watch that in my jammies.
In fact, Ms. Falcone was the one who won the T-shirt challenge. She definitely has a great sense of style. I’ve been checking her online gallery on Tumblr, and it’s full of some stunning visuals. The modern webcomic artists definitely have a huge advantage over their predecessors from a decade ago. The guys behind Penny Arcade, for example, are not artists. They stumbled on an underserved niche culture and caught attention with their risque humor. (Magic, by the way, that they seem to be desperately trying to replicate on their reality show.) Nowadays, people with actual talent are getting into the field. It was no surprise when Ms. Falcone won the T-shirt contest: she has a very good eye toward composition.
Unfortunately, she’s adopted a far simpler style here. While I want to say that it was influenced by John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren & Stimpy, the style actually reminds me more of Shmorky’s. Shoot, if you told me that this was Shmorky’s side project where he was playing around with less edgy humor, I’d believe you. All the characters have familiar bean shaped heads, large eyes, pouty lips, and zero nostrils because everyone in this comic breathes through their mouths. (Well, up until Season 4, when Ms. Falcone switches up her style… perhaps as a result of Strip Search.)
Citation Needed gets its name from the Wikipedia reference request that became a meme somehow. The comic starts off with two characters, Gigi and Micro. There seems to be some unresolved sexual tension here, but that’s what you’re conditioned to assume when a webcomic starts with a guy and a gal who seem to flirt with each other all the time. Anyway, Gigi’s character trait is that she’s sarcastic and kinda sexually liberated, while Micro is a big man child.
An then we’re introduced to a bunch of other characters who all sort of look alike and are kinda ditched by the time 2013 rolls around. They are, by and large, pretty forgettable. There’s a wacky story arc where all the characters are re-enacting the movie Jaws, only Jaws is a Roomba vaccuum. (Ha, ha, how wacky!) This means all the characters are now dressed up in costumes from the movie. Here’s the problem: since everyone looks more or less the same, I had a hard time trying to tell apart which character was which. There was a guy with a five o’clock shadow, for example. Was this guy a previous character we saw with a line over his mouth… or was this part of a costume?
Actually, there’s one other notable character. Then there’s Macro, who looks exactly like Micro except he wears blue instead of red. For once, this isn’t lazy design choice: Macro is introduced as Micro’s clone. While this sounds like it should be a crazy one-off gag, Macro, to my endless chagrin, actually manages to stay around and pretty much usurps the comic to become the main character. He’s also a manchild like Micro, only he’s sweet instead of cruel.
He also manages to have some convoluted story arcs that rival M*A*S*H for waffling between comedic to maudlin. For example, there’s one story where Micro breaks his legs and he’s fawned over by the females of the cast. He makes a remark that he wanted robot legs. Macro picks up on this. So, in an ill-advised attempt to get the girls to like him, he takes a flying leap and breaks his legs. He’s not quite so lucky, and he has his legs amputated. The upside: he gets robot legs! And it makes him a hit with the chicks! Oh,
But then it’s all pretty much retconned in the service of drama. I’m not kidding; Citation Needed pulls the drama tag so hard that David Willis would be proud. When Macro notice how jealous Micro has gotten over all the attention, there’s a sad moment where he says that the price he had to pay wasn’t worth having lost his legs. Later, even the ridiculous clone thing is retconned. Why Macro isn’t Micro’s clone after all… he’s his twin! What a twist! Also, Macro is gay and Canadian. Or rather, Macro thinks he might be gay because he’s attracted to Gigi (who he thought was a boy). But it turns out Gigi is a lesbian, who is turned on by girly men.
The Canadian thing still stands.
Here’s the most ludicrous twist that got reconned into drama: we learn that Macro didn’t lose his legs because he took a flying leap off a building. Rather, he was going to lose his legs anyway because he had a hidden disease. After the doctors amputated him, he felt it was better to live up the lie than tell everyone the truth.
Seriously. What the hell. We saw this guy take a flying leap off the roof in glee. We’re supposed to feel rotten about that now? Why?!?!?!?
I briefly considered that perhaps all these twists toward drama were intentional gags poking fun at other webcomics who do the same thing. I mean, can this really be serious? The transitions are so abrupt, the retconned stories are themselves not very emotional, and everything reverts back to full-on wackiness by the time we get to the next storyline. I can see this being a bit. If so, it’s not a particularly well executed one.
Besides, Citation Needed, in general, seems to be heading toward Dramaville in general. The webcomic split into seasons like a TV sitcom, and with each season it seems to ask the readers to consider these one-dimensional cyphers as serious characters. (It’s actually a technique I like. It sorta forces a pre-made schedule for shaking things up.) In Season 3, Citation Needed began the trend of turning Macro into an actual character rather than comic relief. Season 4 cleans the slate and revolves around the three characters who have had any kind of character development. After Gigi, Micro, and Macro return from a trip to Canada, they learn that they only have one day before they lose the house that they’ve been living in. Their other roommates have already moved on to other places. These three now have to start over again, living in a small apartment. I imagine a huge decrease in wacky hi-jinks compared to Season 1.
It’s really tough for me to separate this comic from its predecessors. Sure, all these wacky roommate webcomics have similarities. (As is the very tiresome trope of male leads who are all immature, mentally stunted manchildren. Also, for some reason, moustaches are hilarious! Oh, man, it’s not like I haven’t seen this trope like a hundred times already.) The best of the best manage to stand out from the pack through clever humor, attractive art, and interesting characters. Sad to say, Citation Needed misses on all fronts.
This a webcomic that more or less runs the “Roombas are hilarious” joke into the ground. And not to sweep up dirt, dust, and pesky stains. Plus, this is a comic that dares to make an elementary school joke out of the phrase “on a roll.” Now, granted, there are some funny moments: I did like the zombie lobster one, which met the minimum requirement of cleverness.
While Ms. Falcone does has an attractive portfolio, not of those skills are on display here. When Shmorky adopted this style, for example, he molded it like clay to suit the whimsical and macabre malleability of the animation medium. It doesn’t quite work on a static webcomic page. When you’re seeing characters just standing there and having conversation, things tend to look a little bland.
And finally, the characters are not interesting at all. The whiplash between comedy to drama does no favors at all. I ended up not really caring much for Macro, who started out as an innocent goof but is now a serious male lead for some reason? Micro was always annoying (though I’m sure that many of you readers have a higher tolerance for Ethanesque lobotomy patients). And Gigi, I don’t care much for. In the end, I can’t really hate this comic, since it’s competently executed. But I can’t help but feel that the whole thing is nothing more than totally average.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)