Webcomics Review: The Stiffon July 18, 2014 at 1:18 pm
Instead of going on a rant about how we’re all doomed, I thought I’d take a break from reality and talk about one of my favorite comics being serialized right now. The Stiff by Jason Thompson (http://mockman.com/) tells the story of a highschool student named Alistair Toth. Not religious but super into purity, but then also really into watching disgusting horror movies. The kids today would describe him as straightedge, but I guess we all knew some version of this kid back in highschool. His world is thrown into a tizzy when he’s introduced to a beautiful transfer student Alice Hoffman and suddenly he’s fantasizing about saving her from a hoard of zombies.
The events that follow do a great job of slowly and hypnotically drawing you into the characters and the world. The Stiff is so differently paced from almost every comic out there, it almost feels like reading a novel in comic form. Thompson’s almost 175 pages into it and I feel like he’s still just setting up all the chess pieces. I literally have no idea where it’s going. It could turn into a zombie attacking a highschool story or a superhero story or a romance story. It’s still not even clear what the titular stiff refers to. A reference to Alastair’s stiff personality? His grandfather SPECULATION SPOILER returning from the dead in zombie form? Or the his upcoming ALTERNATE SPECULATION SPOILER erection?
My favorite aspect of the comic is its main character, Alastair. All the characterizations in the story are really strong, but Alistair is such a wonderfully delicious creation, he remains one of my favorite comics characters, right up there with Lisa Leavanworth and Charlie Brown. Intelligent and pompous but also so completely vulnerable in a way that so many adolescents can be. He has some realistically weird sexual hangups too, reminding me of the Zam character in Habibi who castrates himself to prove to himself that he’s not a rapist. I thought that was a little extreme (for me anyway. No judgements against my castrated friends). But I like that The Stiff seems to take a more realistic approach. I feel that most pop culture today is basically created by nerds. So nerds get lionized and nerd mentalities are normalized. But The Stiff really captures that weird dark side of being a nerd.
In retrospect, highschool seems like the single craziest mass psychology experiment in history. We all basically go in asexual and come out the other side adults more or less. But everyone develops at completely differing rates! I feel that for some late bloomers, there’s this sort of purity mentality that sets in. People take it as a point of pride that they’ve never said a swear word or drunk a sip of alcohol to the point where it becomes a major part of their identity; they get super invested in it. They’re constantly walking around in a white tuxedo like they’re frickin Tom Wolfe. They’ve gone so far, it would completely destroy who they are as a human to get a single mustard stain on it. Alec Longstreth told me there were even straightedgers at his school who would pick fights with kids who did drugs (although I think it would be easy to win such a fight if I had some cocaine dust I could blow in their face and then run away). Personally, I can still remember ordering my first drink and being completely disappointed by how not a big deal it was. All those beer commercials and celebrity rehab shows and AA meetings for this pina colada!?
Getting back to The Stiff, the art is lush and sumptuous, going against the grain of almost every webcomic out there. Every single blade of grass, every book on every shelf and every brick in every building is rendered with an almost obsessive attention to detail. It reminded me that there’s more than one way to combine manga and American comics; it doesn’t always have to look like Scott Pilgrim, kiddies! Thompson synthesizes into The Stiff some of the lesser used vocabulary from the manga tradition, like laying simplified but expressive character designs over incredibly detailed backgrounds, transitioning from close ups to other close ups, and most satisfying for me, a really long and ambitious novelistic approach to the narrative.