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Of Cars and Contrivance

So last week I talked about how a strong villain can add to a story. This week, I have to go the other way and talk about a weak villain and some other flaws. The twelfth volume of the webcomic Misfile is generally considered one of the worst by the fans in the forums. There are others with weaker writing, more enraging moments and poorer art, but as a whole book, it’s easy to see what issues people can have.

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Let’s start with a recap for the folks who don’t read Misfile. The comic is a low-fantasy transgender story about a teenage boy who becomes a girl, with the difference being that while it is sometimes played for comedy, the gender swap is usually deconstructed, showing the harsh reality that would occur. Also, it features car racing as Ash, our protagonist, is an amateur race car driver with two personally modified cars. He and many other kids from the nearby schools race each other on the weekends at a place called the Old Road, an abandoned strip on a mountain side. This means no cops to keep them from doing something illegal and dangerous. In the first volume, Ash won the title of ‘King of the Mountain’ given to the best driver in the school district.

In volume twelve, the boys who race on the Old Road are being challenged by a new driver with a bet that if they lose, they can no longer drive on the road again. Many boys lose and eventually this driver decides to stop them from racing all together. Ash is called in because as King, he has a duty to defend the track, even though he never agreed to such and the other boys admit they hate him. Ash beats the racer, only to discover the racer has a superior named Sheldon, who challenges Ash by proxy. Sheldon turns out to be wormy and bribes Ash to throw the race, but our hero doesn’t and learns about responsibility when he trounces Sheldon.

Now a few of you may be asking what is so bad about that. Well, note that I didn’t explain why Sheldon wants the track for himself. And that’s because no reason is given. We do get told that he’s recruiting but that doesn’t explain why he wants to take over the Old Road

And that’s the biggest problem with this arc. Nearly every storytelling issue in it can be boiled down to one simple word: “Why?”

Why does Sheldon want the road? Why aren’t twenty or so teenage boys able to fight off one driver? Why are they playing fair when Sheldon’s lackey refuses to? Why isn’t the lackey also preventing anyone from racing on Friday? Why don’t the boys just race then? Why did that one kid admit he doesn’t care for Ash while they were begging for help? Why does Ash bother when he is clearly not affected? If Sheldon is supposed to be so super awesome at racing, why did he feel the need to bribe a teenage girl based on what he was told by a lackey who didn’t bother to finish the first race? Why is the message about responsibility when Ash accepted none in the first place and was pressured into this whole mess? Why would Ash honour the agreement to stay away if he knows he can just race on Fridays? Why does no one noticed that dents caused by a rock would be inconsistent compared to those made by a car? Why hasn’t Rumisiel used that recorder thing before now?

But the biggest question of all? Why should we care?

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Once of my main gripes with Misfile is that it’s too centred on Ash. A story should focus on the protagonist, but if it completely pushes the rest of the cast aside, it heavily limits the storytelling possibilities. The wedding story was fine, but it would have had more impact if we could have seen the couple together. Missi, a side character, has moments of depth but they are quickly thrown out the window when something as simple as an internal monologue could do wonders for her.

In this case, the drivers on the Old Road have been established as bratty teens who don’t really care for Ash, but we are never shown why we should care that they may lose their favourite pass time. We are never given any reason that Ash should help them aside from being told he’s responsible and so the whole moral comes off as supporting peer pressure than anything else. And a handy hint to writers out there: Never have your characters point out the flaws in your story if you aren’t going to address them.

But it is especially Sheldon who suffered the worst. Because we were too focussed on Ash, we never saw any skill from these enemy drivers that may cause them to be threatening. Even something small, like the end of Sheldon conquering some other road or even having one of the lackeys beat up a kid, would have helped. But the only time we see Sheldon, he’s weaselly but not intimidating. That doesn’t really scream threat, it screams joke villain.

I’ll compare him to Peter Baelish from A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones. In the first book, Baelish is presented much like Sheldon, but this is used to make his betrayal of Ned Stark all the more shocking when it happens. His cunning and evil are made much clearer in later books, also at moments timed for shock in order to surprise the reader. This also worked because the books are told from the viewpoints of the characters and they had no reason to suspect Baelish was anything more than what he seemed. The show chose to add more scenes to emphasise his role as an antagonist to great effect.

The reason this works and Sheldon doesn’t is that there is no reveal for depth in Sheldon. In fact, the closest he gets to pulling off Baelish-like manipulation is almost immediately deflated by a nearly literal Deus Ex Machina.

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When the villain’s motivations have no logic to them, it doesn’t really work. Even the Joker has a reason for all his crimes, it’s because he finds them amusing. Sheldon could easily have just walked up to the folks at the Old Road and offered the same deal he offered Ash if anyone could beat him, while saying the deal would only be available as long as the kids let him and his lackeys use the road as they wished. But he didn’t because… he’s an arsehole?

People are willing to accept a lot of weird plots, but only if they make sense on some level. A lot of people railed against The Dark Knight Rises because they couldn’t understand Bane’s reasoning, even though it was explained. It just wasn’t explained in a way they saw as logical. Tyler Durden just wanted to create chaos, but since it was presented as bringing about an anarchist society, people accepted it and Fight Club has many fans.

So when you come up with your villain’s big plan, just make sure you give a satisfying explanation to it all.

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Posted on November 14, 2013, in dramatic webcomic, webcomics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. While I agree that the newer offerings from Misfile are weaker than past volumes, I tend to look at the comic from a different perspective. The racing angle is a fun diversion, but not the main plot, so I don’t get too bent out of shape when things don’t work out (or make so much sense) with regards to racing the Old Road.

    The main plot (which sadly seems to have been put in the back burner indefinitely) is that the angel Rumisiel screwed up some paperwork (thus the comic’s name) and now Ash and Emily must relive a portion of their lives, with the added twist that Ash is now a girl instead of her old boyish self and Emily, who had apparently died at age 18, has to relive the last couple of years of her life, presumably to make better choices(?).

    Yes, it’s not the most tightly plotted webcomic out there but, as you mentioned, it is far from the worst and I still read it several times a week.

  2. To offer a bit of a different perspective, I’m a former reader who gave up on the comic entirely a couple of years back, due in part to the seemingly endless parade of dull, pointless filler storylines like the one David mentioned in his article here.

    And it’s a damn shame, because I found the premise to be genuinely compelling, and I thought that the early chapters showed real potential. And I think that if the comic had just dialed down the fan service and anime cliches a few notches, and instead focused more on subverting/deconstructing “gender bender” cliches, developing the characters, and seriously exploring the underlying themes concerning gender and identity, the comic could have developed into something truly interesting and unique. Oh well.

    And since we’re on the subject – has El Santo ever done a review of this comic? I don’t think I saw it listed in the archives…

    • I have never done it. Maybe Rob Howard of Tangents? In any case, it was one of those comics I think where I took a look at the archive and thought, “Wow. I’ll let someone else review that.” Plus the art always looked really unfinished to me every time I glanced at it. I know that at isn’t the be all, end all to creating comics, but I’m a very visually oriented person and most of the time a comic has to be aesthetically engaging for me to pay attention.

      • In any case, it was one of those comics I think where I took a look at the archive and thought, “Wow. I’ll let someone else review that.”

        Says the guy who’s currently reviewing Homestuck. 😛

        Seriously, though, I can totally understand why you might not be all that eager to slog through the entire archive, and the art style certainly does feel “unfinished”, to put it mildly.

        (As for Tangents, yeah, I think Howard has posted about the comic a couple of times. But his “reviews” tend to lack a certain… critical element.)

        • Aw man… my original comment included something along the lines of “unless it’s something that’s so big that you can’t ignore it, like Sluggy Freelance and Homestuck.” (I’m not even kidding. I knew those mega reviews was the elephant in the room… of my comment.)

          Like, I could review a ton of webcomics on this site, but I needed to tackle Homestuck. Like, it was not even an option. Because if I didn’t, that would be a huge (and very deserved) blow to my webcomic cred. 🙂

        • Yep, though he said he stopped reading because of the same reasons you cited. From a few folks on the forum, it seems like he used to post there too.

          Also, the pencil style is intentional (And yes, unfinished). In volume 1, Chris mentions how his lack of inking skill caused his art to lose a lot of its natural charm, so he went with pencils only. However it did cause him some problems with published who wouldn’t take the series because it wasn’t inked. I personally don’t mind it, and by volume 2 he managed to refine the style enough for it to not really affect the quality much.

          • Sure, I used to post on the forums, back when I was still reading the comic. And if memory serves, I believe I saw you post there from time to time as well.

            Though I’m guessing that I’m probably not remembered particularly fondly there; I know I rubbed quite a few folks the wrong way with my frequent criticism of the comic.

  3. This is all you need to know about Misfile, as far as I’m concerned. I read the whole thing because I read bad webcomics sometimes. 😐

  4. I stopped somewhere near a memorial strip where a real person’s death was replaced with the main character’s. I remember just thinking that it was awful and I it kinda colored my look at the whole webcomic.

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