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The Underfold: A study in doing it wrong

It’s been too long since I’ve done a comic review, but to be honest I was on such a hot streak I became a bit overwhelmed trying to keep up with all the great comics I had found. Luckily that won’t be an issue this time around. Today we’re going to discuss a little thing in story telling known as the fourth wall. The concept is simple enough, especially if you think of it in terms of a comic strip. In any given panel imagine the characters are in a box. The box has walls on the top and bottom, two sides, and we imagine it having a back which can vary in distance depending on the artist’s need for space. Imagine then that the fourth wall is the window through which we view the unfolding action. In a sense the panel could be considered a diorama. This is especially easy to imagine when you consider a rear projection television. We are seeing the diorama and as a general rule the characters fail to recognize the existence of the fourth wall. When the wall is broken it shatters the viewers suspension of disbelief and usually allows the dramatic tension to escape. That is why the fourth wall is broken sparingly and strictly for comedic purposes. The Underfold by Brian Russell has taken a much more cavalier approach to breaches of the wall.

Despite the apparent passivity of the act of watching a movie or a TV show there is one very important requirement for success. The audience must be willing to turn a blind eye to obvious plot holes and devices. The motivation to make these mental sacrifices for personal enjoyment vary greatly. They can range from high quality writing, to quality artwork and special effects. Or in the case of horrifyingly bad B movies, the audience must make the Herculean effort to find ironic enjoyment in the failures of second-rate talent. All good stories strike a delicate balance between disbelief and enjoyment.

The balance is more delicate in dramatic stories because of their heavy reliance on character development. Without believable characters the whole story comes crashing down and the narrative is nothing more than a hollow shell. This balance can be easily destroyed through a fourth wall break. Humor, on the other hand, is ripe for breaking. The comedic value of irony is such that it serves to make the story stronger. The only thing more ironic than acknowledging the audience is to take a poor narrative too seriously. In the movie business Mel Brooks and the Muppets are masters of the fourth wall break. They know that a perfectly timed break, used sparingly, is good for a laugh and great for the movie.

The trouble starts when you start breaking the wall too often. Sure Mel Brooks did it several times in a matter of minutes in History of the World Part I, but that’s a whole different device called schtick. Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance has breached the wall on numerous occasions over the last 13 and a half years, but mostly in the form of recaps. Granted the original story arc was based on a breach, but it was done in a documentary style. As though Torg were the Robin Leach of the nerd world. The breach didn’t last long and soon the comic was standing on its own two feet. Brian  Russell’s Underfold however doesn’t really break the fourth wall, he just never bothered to construct it in the first place.

This accurately portrays the majority of the comic

Instead of painting a world where his characters can live their lives and make us laugh he has stripped their world bare. Have you ever tried to tell time using one of those clear watches that let you see all the clockworks? It’s nigh on impossible because the behind the scenes action is too distracting. Perhaps we should examine the situation through an examination of the premise. Underfold has a pseudo autobiographical character with crudely drawn supporting characters that supposedly run some sort of Sunday morning coffee bar at a church in Florida, however most of the action seems to take place in  Russell’s own home. The coffee bar seems to be a major part of a number of running gags, but its reach is limited to a seemingly real counter part to the never seen fictional coffee bar. Russell frequently cites his lack of drawing skills as the reason for the existence of main characters in their current form as well as the general lack of action. This would normally be acceptable but the fact that these explanations are provided within the comics themselves causes severe damage to the comic as a whole.

Over the course of its three year existence the comic has had an average of one apocalyptic storyline per year, which carries the potential for excitement and intrigue, but ultimately the apocalyptic events are either glossed over, exaggerated, or simply lost due to  Russell’s admittedly poor planning. The bulk of the comic is made up of a discussion between  Russell’s pseudo autobiographical character and his cheaply drawn best friend regarding the current state of the comic. There are also strange deviations into jokes about superhero comics and videogames to break up the monotony. In the beginning I thought perhaps the comic was just struggling to find its bearing and develop a plot, but as the long fourth wall breaking discussions continued I started to wonder if I was reading the webcomic equivalent of director’s commentary for an entirely different comic I had some how missed on my way to Underfold.

The highlight of the comic is a now abandoned story arc involving a superhero named, I kid you not, BunnyFooFoo. The comics are drawn in crayon and sometimes colored by kids Russell was apparently watching in the aforementioned church nursery. Some of the main ideas for the comics were also provided by the children. Maybe it’s my personal Axe Cop fandom coming out, but these comics are sufficiently absurd and cutesy to tickle my funny bone.

Personally I'd read this on a weekly basis.

Strangely enough during my grueling trip through the comics archives I developed an interest in the main characters. Their personalities and nuances are intriguing and entertaining. Unfortunately these great characters are never given anything to do. Even in Seinfeld, a show about nothing, the characters faced challenges and pursued goals on an episode by episode basis. This comic about nothing on the other hand succeeds in grinding forward in an aimless pursuit of the grand void. I cannot fault the comic’s plot for being terrible, because in reality it has none.

Trying to establish a comic on the premise of one continuous fourth wall break in an effort to eventually discuss topical humor is an intriguing concept. Unfortunately it is comparable to landing a man on the moon and the Underfold has yet to leave the launchpad. Now if you’ll excuse me I suddenly want to play the Kerbal Space Program.

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