Sunday, November 11, 2007

Thoughts on El Goonish Shive

Be aware that THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. You have been warned.

The week before last I spent about four days plowing through the archives of El Goonish Shive, a webcomic by one Dan Shive. I'd heard it mentioned in passing across the geeknet and seen it linked to from numerous other webcomics I enjoy but never felt inclined to look into it. It wasn't until I read John Solomon's negative review (which I admit is a redundant description and again, that review also contains spoilers), which basically boils down to "This comic is shit but not utter shit," that I decided to give it a try out of morbid curiosity to see just how bad it was.

And I ended up liking it.

You read that right: John Solomon made someone a fan of a webcomic. The end times are here.

"One big awkward moment." Shive himself describes EGS as such, and it fits. I'll be perfectly honest here: Some weird shit goes down in this comic. Men turn into women, women turn into squirrel-women, people shrink... there's clones and goo monsters in there... it's just blatantly obvious that the comic came into existence mainly as a means for Dan Shive to express his weird sexual kinks, albeit in a highly self-censored PG-13 manner. On the one hand, I've got to respect the guy for being true to himself and not caring what others think of him.

On the other hand, ewwwwwww.

A word on the title, "El Goonish Shive:" It means nothing. As Shive notes in his FAQ, he just couldn't think of a better title and took his high school nickname ("the Goon"), stuck it in front of his surname, threw in a little Spanish, and called it a day. Probably not the most auspicious start for a webcomic, but at least it's distinctive.

I should elucidate on the plot. From its beginning the comic revolved around two ordinary high school juniors, Elliot and Tedd, getting into bizarre sci-fi/fantasy situations. We quickly find out that they're not very ordinary at all, though, as Elliot is a practitioner of mystical anime martial arts and Tedd is a mad scientist who enjoys turning himself into a girl for jollies. And I never thought I'd ever type that sentence. They're joined in short order by Grace, a mysterious girl with bizarre powers and no past; Nanase and Justin, Elliot's fellow martial artists; Ellen, Elliot's opposite-sex clone (!); Susan (real name: Tiffany), a dour man-hating feminist (blah); and Sarah, a genuinely ordinary high school junior who just happens to hang out with them. If all of that sounds downright bizarre and/or offensive... well, it is. Bizarre, anyway. The offensiveness depends on your tolerance for weird shit.

I will never understand "furries" (ie, those fixated, sexually or otherwise, on anthropomorphized animals). If it ain't human I just don't find it attractive. I make an exception for elves (just humans with funny ears, really) and I don't have a problem with characters like Tigra for instance because she's still human but with a few extra parts glued on (it's not like she has a goddamn muzzle), but straight-up furries, animals walking like humans, that's just a huge turn-off. And it just so happens that Grace is a human-squirrel hybrid. A weresquirrel, I guess. She spends most of her time as a human, but the fact that her boyfriend (and apparently Shive's vicarious stand-in, at least in the earlier strips) Tedd is incredibly turned on by her... rodentness... weirds me out.

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Tedd vs. Susan. These two panels sum up just about all that is wrong about El Goonish Shive.

The whole gender-bending aspect of the comic (of which there is considerably more) doesn't bother me as much, mainly because at least everyone stays human. Oh, and I sat through seven or eight seasons and thirty trade paperbacks of Ranma ½, so I'm pretty thoroughly desensitized to sex-changing hijinks. And honestly, I think it's a very effective tool for either exploring gender issues (see: Woolf's Orlando) or as comedy (see: Tootsie), so I don't complain. The only thing that bothers me is that it's very much a sexual thing for Tedd (and by extension Shive), which again, I don't get. No matter how attractive "she" may be on the outside, I can't get myself worked up over a girl who's mentally a straight male.

From the way I've spoken of the strip so far, you may come to the conclusion that there's nothing good about this comic. And honestly, the first year or so of strips are really not that impressive. The art was pretty bad and first couple story arcs seemed to exist mainly as a vehicle for Dan Shive's various turn-ons, as noted above.

I think the turning point was the "Sister" story arc. Elliot is turned into a girl against his will by Tedd's plot-convenient MacGuffin transformation-inducing ray-gun, which conveniently promptly breaks, making it impossible for him to turn back until it gets repaired. Prompted to seek out another plot-convenient MacGuffin a magical curse-removing diamond, upon touching it he's split into two separate people -- his old male self, and the living manifestation of his "curse," his female self. Tedd explains that the female Elliot, dubbed Ellen, may fade into nonexistence in a month; Ellen, hearing this, is filled with rage at "her" situation and endeavors to spend the remainder of her short existence making life hell for Elliot for thrusting her into this situation. Before long, however, Tedd learns that he was wrong: Ellen will not fade from reality, and is in fact putting herself in danger by acting so self-destructively. He, Elliot, and the rest of their friends finally manage to talk some sense into her just as she's about to charge suicidally into battle against a monster attacking their school; she has a change of heart, manages to defeat the creature without ending her own life, and finally accepts that she's not Elliot (despite having memories of living as him up to that point) and learns to cope with her new life -- as Elliot's newly adopted twin sister.

There's a certain glimmer of maturity that starts to creep into the comic with this storyline. For the first time the issue of changing one's gender is played straight, as Ellen comes to grips with her existence separate from Elliot and starts to build herself a new identity. It's Ellen's journey of self-discovery, culminating in the later "Grace's Party" storyline, that most gripped me, and by the time I read up to the end of the archives Ellen had become my favorite character.

The next storyline, "Painted Black," reveals to us Grace's origins and continues to build on the comic's newfound depth. Where before Grace had been this pretty-looking cipher whose only role was to indulge Tedd's transformation fetishes, "Painted Black" sheds light on the ramifications (and indeed, the horror) of being a half-human/half-animal creature who was never meant to exist, and forces Grace to take her life into her own hands for the first time as she personally faces the arc's ultimate villain in single combat. Grace's three "brothers" -- Guineas, Hedge, and Vlad; three guesses what animals they're based on -- had up to this point been built up as these shadowy monsters with no motives but evil, but over the course of the arc they're revealed as scared, tortured, and above all human individuals who've been thrust into this life against their will. By the end of the storyline, the three are given a chance at redemption, and contrary to standard conventions, they all take it.

It's the following long storyline, "Grace's Party," that cemented me as a fan of El Goonish Shive. Still reeling from her ordeal in the previous story, Grace sets about to celebrate her eighteenth birthday, and decides to throw a sex-change party. And that's yet another sentence I never thought I'd write. It's to please Tedd, of course. So the whole cast gets together and (minus Ellen, who'd already been through enough sex-swapping by this point) switches genders. Yes, it's a pretty ridiculous excuse to engage in some transformation-fetish fanservice, but Shive also uses the opportunity to get into the psychology of gender, with very interesting results.

One thing I liked was that this was the first time that the female characters switched over to males; up to this point it was strictly male-to-female. That's how it always seems to play out in transgender fetishism: The male body is the norm, and the female body is something "other" to be changed into. Male body: Subject. Female body: Object. Shive finally throws that out the window in this storyline and, as noted, actually goes into how switching sex would affect people of either gender.

Either that or he's just an equal-opportunity perv. I can respect that.

This is the first occasion on which side-characters Justin and Susan take center stage. I particularly liked Justin's reaction to the idea of being a girl. Justin is a gay male, you see, and there's this widespread assumption in our culture that gay men want to be women (conflating homosexuality with transexuality, which are not the same), but Justin plainly asserts his masculinity. He's eventually coaxed into it out of curiosity (and other reasons I won't spoil), but I really appreciated that character beat.

Susan, on the other hand, eventually embraces the opportunity to see how the other (male) half lives for a few hours, mainly so she can confirm her preconceived belief that men are crude, violent, and lecherous by dint of their genes (as opposed to upbringing or whathaveyou). I'd strongly disliked the character up to this point, but these four pages here (pay no attention to the duck) represent a pretty impressive piece of character growth that made me like her a great deal: It's at this point that Susan makes the transition from a man-hating strawfeminist to a real feminist.

I've gone on long enough now, and should bring this to a close. I'm definitely going to follow the comic from here on out, but I still have a pretty major problem with EGS: The updating schedule, or lack thereof. I spent half a week reading straight through five years' worth of archives only to come to the most recent page, which hasn't updated since. In fact, it hasn't updated since October 24th. It's like running for four days only to slam into a brick wall at the end. Shive keeps posting amusing little filler strips every three days or so, but it's not quite as satisfying as the real thing. Oh, and his scanner's broken. *sigh* On top of that, the story moves incredibly slowly: I read "Grace's Party" in two days, but it took a year and a half real-time to publish those six-to-eight hours' worth of story. AND YOU THOUGHT BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS WAS BAD WITH DECOMPRESSED STORYTELLING.

I'll wrap it up here. Suffice it to say that I'm going to enjoy reading EGS in the future. And after reading this -- if don't mind a healthy heaping helping of weird shit -- maybe you will too.


El Santo said...

I'm actually not surprised that John Solomon made you a fan of one of the webcomics he criticized. I've actually enjoyed some of the ones that got a bad rating. ("Cheshire Crossing" and, sadly, "Lowroad.") He's entitled to his opinion, really, but by walking through the parts that he didn't like, it actually made me more acute of what I did like. Solomon may not know it, but that's the heart of true criticism: a good review allows the reader to form his or her own opinion.

Tom Foss said...

I've read EGS for years. I was actually introduced to the comic by a friend I shared with Dan Shive, so it's interesting to see how a webcomic I always thought of as "something put out by a friend of a friend from the suburbs" has actually amassed a pretty large Internet presence. I've kept reading it out of habit, curiosity, and genuine interest, depending on the pace and content.

I'll admit, it's full of weird shit. But, as far as weird shit goes, I've seen lots weirder. As you said, despite obviously starting as a way for Shive to work out his kinks, it never really descended into the blatant wank material that so many such endeavors are. It's got some furries, but they never feel like the creepy furries; more like, as you mentioned, characters like Tigra.

I do think you're a bit unfair in one bit:
Male body: Subject. Female body: Object.

I'm not certain that it's quite so crude. Certainly there seems to be a preponderance of Male-Female transformations in this sort of fiction, and not so much the other way 'round. I think, though, that has less to do with objectification and more to do with basic facts about fetishes. With some exceptions, most fetishes are held by men; consequently, chances are someone with a gender-switch fetish is male, and thus the fascination with the "other" which prompts the fetish is naturally directed at women.

And perhaps that is objectification; certainly if there's some degree of essentialism attached to the proposition--"I'm a girl, and suddenly I feel this urge to go shopping and do dishes!" But I have a hard time seeing the desire to understand what it's like on the other side of the fence, to walk in someone else's pumps, as simple objectification. Even if they do get off on it.

Will "Filby" Staples said...

@El Santo: Agreed.

@Tom: Yeah, I see your point. Honestly, I'm not that up on the whole transgender "scene," my only exposure prior to EGS being The Wotch, which being so horrible is admittedly not the best gauge.

I do hope I didn't come off too harsh. I honestly feel a certain amount of affection toward the comic at this point, but still felt a need to vent my spleen about the problems I had with the earlier strips.

Scott said...

I discovered EGS somehow in early 2005, at the dawn of the Grace Birthday story. Think about that one - I had to watch it play out in real time.

My take: If weird random sexually unnerving stuff is not to one's taste, then one cannot possibly enjoy EGS. But it's been one of my favourites since I started, because I like the strange innocence of it (paradoxically, the non-sexual TG element that seems to bother some critics) because it's an unusual tactic to see in one of these comics, which is usually made for a particular audience that, somehow, gets off on boy-girls, leaving the product as shallow, mediocre spank material for fetishists. EGS could be that, but isn't; instead it's an oddly interesting and insular modern sci-fi/fantasy mythos that playfully (though not terribly cerebrally) addresses gender issues.

That, and Shive's obvious commitment to improvement over the years makes EGS a really endearing read for those who can handle it.

Good review.