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The Sisterhood of the Pimp Ninja Sluts

A great webcartoonist once told me that the way to survive on the Internet is to build a cult of personality around yourself. You can see that strategy at work with most successful webcartoonists, who develop big online personalities (often much bigger and brasher than their meat-world personalities, as anyone who’s met Scott Kurtz can attest) so that bored and fickle websurfers have no choice but to pay attention to them. Visit the site of a big-name comic like Penny Arcade, and chances are you won’t even see the comic; it’s available via a tiny link in the corner, past blog posts and forums and advertising testimonials and status updates and everything else that goes into an online social hub.

And then there’s Tatsuya Ishida, who has, since January of 2000, been drawing his daily strip Sinfest without making a peep about it, patiently collecting readers and honing his craft. Save for a handful of hiatuses around 2006, the strip has updated seven days a week without fail for the past twelve years. Ishida seldom posts anything on the Internet other than Sinfest; he avoids online fora, grants few interviews, and limits his text communications to occasional, mostly tongue-in-cheek blog posts that stopped in 2007. Beyond his handful of other credits—he inked G.I. Joe and Godzilla comics in the 1990s—next to nothing is known about his non-Sinfest life.  As he explained to Publishers Weekly in 2011, “less socializing means I can concentrate more on the strip.”

The first Sinfest strip, from January 17, 2000.

And it’s paid off, at least as far as Ishida’s skill as a cartoonist is concerned. Way back in 2000, he was already one of the few webcartoonists who could actually draw. But over the years his initially hit-and-miss storytelling has advanced by leaps and bounds, and the world of Sinfest has expanded into an absorbing pocket universe. It’s also earned him the respect of people who know what’s what in comics. Dark Horse started publishing Sinfest in print in 2009, cancelled the series due to low sales, only to start up again in 2011 because it’s just too good not to print.

Sinfest nominally revolves around Slick, a self-proclaimed pimp and player who looks like an evil version of Bill Watterson’s Calvin (over the years Ishida has gradually changed his character design to downplay the resemblance), and Monique, a sexy coffeehouse poet. It says something about the tenor of early Sinfest that Slick first appears selling his soul to the Devil (at a roadside stand that owes a debt to Lucy’s psychiatric booth) and Monique spends one of her earliest strips in a bikini, showing her ass to the reader at Slick’s command. But the characters have their sweet sides, and one of the engaging features of the early Sinfest strips is how, despite Slick’s obnoxious efforts to get into Monique’s baggy pants and Monique’s frequent disgust at same, the two are basically friends.

A very early Monique appearance.

But the strip’s central characters often get shoved to the sidelines—Slick, especially, has felt increasingly irrelevant—and Sinfest is always, first and foremost, about what Ishida wants to cartoon at any given moment. For fans, the eclecticism is part of the fun. Raunchy strips about strippers are followed by cute cat-and-dog gags are followed by religious humor are followed by autobio strips are followed by shit-stirring political cartoons are followed by spoken-word poetry are followed by lessons in drawing Japanese kanji, one of Sinfest’s signature running features. Even in recent years, as the strip has developed a large cast and running storylines, Ishida still regularly breaks for one-off strips about whatever.

All of this is drawn in a rounded, think-lined, chibi-fied style that draws in roughly equal measure from Japanese manga and American newspaper strips. Ishida did a lot of comic-strip parodies early in Sinfest, always mimicking the original artists’ styles eerily well, and more recently (in 2010) drew a week-long storyline, “Lost”, in which his character Squigley the pig meets the casts of Pogo, The Far Side, My Neighbor Totoro, and other comics and cartoons; it’s clear he’s studied at the feet of the masters. There’s no question that Sinfest has gotten away with a lot of offensive material over the years, including racial caricatures, sex and drug humor, and lots of sexism, because it’s so darn cute. Ishida’s brush is clean and expressive, his characters delightful to look at. He even draws great backgrounds, and how many webcartoonists bother to do that? In 2006 he started doing color Sunday strips, and his color work has grown subtle and assured, but the black-and-white dailies look just as good.

From "Lost".

Over time, the strip’s jokes about organized religion—the Devil and God, or at least His hand-puppets, have been regular characters from the beginning—have evolved into an ongoing plot with a cast of angels, demons, deities, and an entire subspecies of Devil People, a plot that’s deepened the personalities of all the recurring characters. One of the most popular recent storylines involves the romance between Fuchsia the devil girl and shy, bookish mortal Criminy, a relationship that ultimately inspires Fuchsia to abandon the Devil and cause various problems in the corporate headquarters of Hell.

Also recently, in a surprising twist given the strip’s early fondness for jiggly pimps-n-hoes humor, feminism has invaded the world of Sinfest. This development takes the form of the Sisterhood, an alliance led by a little girl in sunglasses riding a high-octane Big Wheel. With their power to open people’s eyes to the Patriarchy, which appears as a Matrix-like grid of sexist ideas floating in the air, the Sisterhood has raised the consciousness of various female characters. Feminist awakening takes different forms for different characters; Monique gets a butch haircut and stops using sex appeal to sell her poetry, only to experience backlash from her fans (including a tiny fangirl who worships Monique’s hoochie incarnation), while Fuchsia is inspired to abandon Hell for true love. Even Slick gets a glimpse of the patriarchal matrix and starts feeling uncomfortable about his own grabass behavior, although he eventually rallies.

Does the feminist plotline suggest that Ishida himself has mixed feelings about the politically-incorrect humor in his older strips? A recent stand-alone strip shows Ishida’s avatar cheering Jeremy Lin on TV and declaring, “I too must represent my people with dignity and class!” Cut to Ishida’s tiny fanboy (Monique isn’t the only character with impressionable young fans) yukking it up over a Sinfest collection full of “pimp ninjas and geisha sluts.” Unlike Ishida the cartoon character, Ishida the cartoonist isn’t about to share his feelings, except through his comic, and thank goodness for that.

The ongoing plots, even at their most complex, are expressed in minimal dialogue, Ishida trusting his readers to tease meaning out the characters’ allusive adventures. He’s as unafraid to be cryptic and subtle as he is to be outlandishly raunchy. In a field dominated by stick figures, sprites, and talking heads, it feels good to read a webstrip that lets the art carry the story.

The ongoing storylines started developing about two years ago, ten years into the strip’s run, and have transformed Sinfest from an attractive diversion to a must-read. Since Ishida knows his comics history, he’s probably aware that E.C. Segar drew Thimble Theatre for ten years before hitting upon Popeye, and that Alley Oop ran for ten years before developing the time-travel angle for which it’s remembered, assuming that Alley Oop is remembered. In the aforementioned Publishers Weekly interview, Ishida is quoted as saying, “I plan to draw Sinfest till I physically can’t. Like Charles Schulz did with Peanuts.” For some cartoonists, the ones who keep their heads down and draw like nothing else matters, because nothing else really does, the best is always yet to come.

Addendum: In the coming months, I plan to launch a new feature in this column, Webcomics Capsule Reviews. If you send a link to your webcomic to TCJ, I will add it to my review queue. I will be cruel and fair. If you don’t want this fate to befall your webcomic, don’t send it to TCJ.

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14 Responses to The Sisterhood of the Pimp Ninja Sluts

  1. R.C. Harvey says:

    At last, someone has written something appropriately laudatory about Sinfest. It is, without question or quibble, a work of cartooning genius and deserves wider circulation. I understand Ishida has tried to get it syndicated but, no luck—much of his humor is above the heads (or below the belt) of those who read newspapers these days. And it’s just as well: cleaning up Slick and Monique would ruin the comedy, but for newspaper distribution, it would have to be cleaned up. Alas.
    But thanks to the web, we can all see it in all its iconoclastic glory, every day. Beautiful cartoon pictures, irreverent humor. And who could ask for more?

  2. Jayhawh says:

    I never liked this comic, always thought it was too obvious, or “oops I forgot to tell a joke,” like even in the second strip here. The politically incorrect humor played too safe for me. That’s how I felt anyway.

  3. John Farwell says:

    ‘sinfest’ is about the only comic strip i can think of that i actively disliked. on all levels, for that matter. it as far removed from calvin & hobbes as one get for me. quite the opposite even and quite recklessly off-putting. the art is Slick, indeed, and so much so that there seems nothing to it beneath that -but need there be? if one wants the purest in slick style, it’s certainly a contender. i can’t fault the strip for that though, and don’t, for such nature serves the material impeccably. there are a great number of folks who like that slick sort of material very much and are great fans. al capp’s work comes to mind in that way, come to think of it, but less so.

    i feel the work has a closed self-satisfied didactic quality that’s shy of pontificating thanks to it’s hermetic framing -indeed, nothing’s overtly said at all. overtly, given that all is seemingly skewered equanimously, from ivory towers of books to clouds of reefer smoke, one would think any ‘self-satisfied didactic quality’ would quite far from home in the material, but i feel that’s belied by the attitude of the skewering and the framing of the material. to me. as i say, it palpably does serve it’s market. in it’s own way, it is kind of a sin fest all it’s own. a slick one.

    there’s something larger of it in that way, a kind of working out of not working out anything. i’d wish he would indeed share some feeling, or at least more directly -a ripping away of the veneer and revealing there is something beneath it that isn’t smug skewering -but i feel that would be against his point. as it is, i’m quite sure his work ever better serves it’s reasons. it’s art, for sure. just not for me.

    it’s all quite flounce-inspiring.

    for good or ill, he’s kept it up steadfastly over many years, impeccably, reliably, and yes, masterfully. if there was a hiatus, i can respect that. it’s all just too hermetic, though. while i appreciate eschewing a cult of personality, the opposite extreme says something too.

    the reality behind any comic art is always the real story to me. it’s always the climax and denouement, from capp to crumb to bode to gould, frazetta and beyond. it’s there as well in what work doesn’t get done, or in what doesn’t get said or at least publicly disseminated. ana voog once said ‘privacy is a state of mind’ and it is indeed a tricky finesse to publicly wear your heart on your sleeve with any real grace but much easier with any goal to arc *to*. without growth, even the slickest vehicle has it’s key off and ever fancier paintjobs doesn’t turn it on. there’s an ever larger market than before for trailer queens. without growth there’s also sadness. speaking of trailer queens, american chopper came to mind, but even in the real story behind that art, the teutul family problems, there ultimately was growth. i guess some times the real story is simply best left unsaid and best left untouched in the life’s work, but i honestly can’t really believe that.

    framing is everything. from ‘occupy yard’ to the insular wall of books, not to mention the cartoon simple christian framed skewering of christianity itself, i gather the framing is highmindedly set against high-mindedness itself, in an almost anti-intellectual way -that very hot american intellectual commodity that has such massive market.

    recklessness is as american as huck finn or jack kerouac, but those rogues didn’t just dare, they dared grow, or so went their own framing. as rogues, they didn’t play it safe. or slick. or smug. certainly the syndicates may have been practicing prudence in turning down a strip framed in christian iconography, but i feel anything else he tried that retained sinfest’s in-your-face characteristics would get similar disposition. it could be such a quality is something one has to build toward. did trudeau do it better with doonesbury? or could he have done it better than he did? did steve ditko set up The Avenging World with Mr. A well enough? all artists want to tell their real story whether cloyingly personal or not but not all artists are Mr. Rogers or charles schulz with v-neck sweater personalities and those that aren’t may have to build up their contexts with care, diplomacy, and respect. al capp may have been an abrasive SOB (remember S.W.I.N.E.?) but he oozed into it over years, starting with hillbillies. i don’t know if his strip would have been accepted for submission in the late 60′s starting off with the S.W.I.N.E. continuity.

    there’s a lot mentioned in this article i never saw (auto bio continuity??) cause he’d lost me as a reader before then. eclecticism? i never saw it, and as described above still don’t, but then i don’t know who is for that matter… with such a low bar for eclecticism one could say r. crumb or the hernandez bros. are wildly eclectic… (wait, i got it; matt howarth. matt’s an electic artist/writer to be sure.)

    yes, sinfest got my attention faster than lost it, but just by a hair. i’d still read ditko if he was alive, and maybe capp too (maybe), but not this guy. ‘sinfest’ is about the only comic strip i can think of that i ever actively disliked at all. off-putting and no draw for me at all: i had zero confidence it’ll ever come out of it’s box -or is that a wall of books? and at this point it’d have to be with a hell of a bang. i’d be the first to clap. slowly.

    meanwhile, i’d rather read josie and the pussycats -um, archie…

    • Briany Najar says:

      i’d still read ditko if he was alive

      ?
      Alive in what sense?

      He still makes comics:

      http://ditko.blogspot.co.uk/p/ditko-book-in-print.html

      • John Farwell says:

        that sense will do! thank you muchly for that correction. i honestly don’t know where i got the idea he’d passed on.

        it’s good to get his url out there.

      • Joe Crawford says:

        There was even a documentary from the BBC covering Ditko: In Search of Steve Ditko. Worth seeking out. On YouTube I believe.

      • Briany Najar says:

        That documentary is a bit Jonathan-Ross-centric, though. Kind of a “personal Journey,” if you will, not much for actual Ditko fans in there, as far as I remember.
        Mind you, if you’re a massive Ditko fan then it’s a must-see, obviously, even if just to pass the time of day. And to be reminded what a Spider-Man is.
        Neil Gaiman’s in there, playing the part of Ross’ professional comics writer pal.
        (He once wrote a comic based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream y’know, yeah, he’s a writer, yeah, and everything begins with a D, yeah, there’s Dream, Decrepitude, Dour, Dubious, Dull, Dismal and Drivel. They’re all goths, cos goths rule.
        Somewhere there’s a very proud Creative Writing teacher.)
        Ditko’s not in it, natch, but you’ll be thrilled to hear Jonathan Ross’ amazing anecdote about knocking on his door and not getting told to bugger off by his hero.
        A likely story.

      • Joe McCulloch says:

        Alan Moore is in rare form, though. Best part of the show’s when he offers to sing and you hear Ross off-camera going “this is gold.

  4. Beyla says:

    Shaennon, where do we send our links to get them into your queue and can I have a couple weeks to polish my site up before I send you that link?

  5. Joe Crawford says:

    Great write-up of Sinfest. An unsung gem. The current lovestory between the demon girl and the bookish young man is really heartfelt and well done.

    It’s not clear where the dismissiveness of the strip comes from, it seems it doesn’t come from reading it.

    That’s a downside of webcomics for criticism. One doesn’t read a webcomic one doesn’t like. Whereas in the old days I’d even read newspaper strips I didn’t even like (saving the good ones for satisfying last!) I could animatedly discuss why I hated Hi & Lois or Marmaduke or Ziggy, but these days I can’t talk intelligently about comics that failed to move me after seeing a few dozen strips.

    And the draughtsmanship on that strip is wonderful – it’s a rarity in a world where many (some very good) webcomics eschew drawing as an artform and use stick figures and design to carry across their ideas and stories.

    • Jayhawh says:

      Actually, I read Sinfest for a few months, back in 2001 or so, and checked on it again a year ago. This is in stark contrast of dismissing a comic without reading it, not only did I read it, I didn’t dismiss it either. I just don’t like it, because I don’t think it’s good. I could go on why I don’t think it’s good but it would probably end up being longer than this review, and at some point might end up being a review of a lot of popular webcomics.

  6. Pingback: Sinfest | Wis[s]e Words

  7. MHPayne says:

    Being uncertain:

    As to how exactly I might send my webcomic to TCJ in order to savor your fair cruelty, I guess I’ll post the link here – http://pandora.xepher.net/daily – and see what shakes out. Thanks!

    Mike

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