Monday, January 19, 2009

Review: Blank It

Are you familiar with the Theater of the Absurd movement of the 1950s and '60s? It was a new approach to drama that flew in the face of theatrical conventions and presented a world that was fundamentally confusing and ridiculous, defying rational explanation. Dialogue often degenerates into preposterous back-and-forth wordplay, setting and identity are ambiguous and fluid, and meaningless plots with bizarre notions of causality are the norm. In "Theater of the Absurd" productions, sets and props are often minimalist, and some plays have a cast of as few as three or four. Classic examples include Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which recontextualizes Shakespeare's Hamlet through the eyes of two minor characters, and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which two everymen wait listlessly for a man who never comes.

Now imagine, for a moment: what if the Theater of the Absurd ethos were applied to a webcomic?

Blank It, a comic co-created by writer Aric McKeown and artist Lem Pew, plunges absurdly right in with two unnamed protagonists standing around in an utterly blank space, with no explanation of where they came from or how they got there. With no one else around, what do they do? What else but strip down to their boxers. The two of them reflect on the opportunity to create new social norms for clothing in this new featureless environment--and when the goatee'd guy re-dresses himself, the guy with glasses is suddenly uncomfortable and must follow suit. The two of them set out to explore their surroundings, and as they begin to encounter other things in the blankness, things rapidly take a turn for the surreal.

It's a real testament to the strength of the writing that it's a full eighteen comics before the two protagonists encounter any object in the blankness other than themselves, yet the comic stays interesting and engaging. Quickly, distinct personalities emerge--the goatee'd guy with the hat is an impulsive optimist, while the guy in the jacket and glasses is a circumspect pessimist. The contrast of their personalities makes for clever, sarcastic, and ridiculous banter between them: particularly when Glasses Guy proposes to conduct an experiment employing Hat Guy's hat.
The strip often toys with the fourth wall without ever quite breaking it--such as, later on in the plot, when a distant mountain range is revealed to be a theater-style backdrop, which collapses when Hat Guy runs into it.

Is this play backdrop a subtle shout-out to the Theater of the Absurd movement? I don't know. All I know is, for all this critical contextualizing and intellectual analysis...I have honestly not laughed as hard in months as I did while reading this comic. You don't have to know a thing about Theater of the Absurd to recognize that this thing is hysterical.

Additionally, the art is solid. The minimalist approach, in both theater and comics, gives an advantage for budget and artwork, as sparse scenery reduces the effort needed for set design. Blank It could easily have had much simpler artwork or even been a stick-figure comic, but Lem Pew is clearly not half-assing it as an artist--and it pays off. The characters' facial expressions and body language are as much a part of the humor as their dialogue. The detailed, Ian-McConville-esque character designs lends detail and sharpness to what would otherwise be a nondescript visual environment. And when the characters' situation starts getting really, really bizarre, it really gives the artist a chance to shine.

For all of its similarities to absurdist theater, though, there is one key difference for Blank It: its tone. Absurdist theater, as a movement, has strong connections to existentialism, grappling with the despair that threatens man when he comes to believe that his world is meaningless and absurd. There's not a hint of despair with Blank It. It's lighthearted, playful, high-energy surreality and sarcasm, rather than darkly comic reflections on the human condition. It's not a tragicomedy--it's just straight-up comedy, and you get a strong sense that the creators are just making it up as they go along, and seeing where it leads.

Blank It is fun, experimental, and exceptionally clever. Plus, with nothing worse than a sporadic profanity or two, it's a good time for just about any comic reader. Instead of making a profound statement about what it means to be human, the sentiment of the comic and its creators seems to be: here's a ridiculous world, so let's have some fun with it. From this reviewer, Blank It comes highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

This is a pretty good find, having read those texts for high school I'm amazed the creative team here found a way to make this enjoyable.

Reader said...

I've been reading Blank It since it's third week, and it's definitely one of the better comics out there right now. And certainly one of the more original too. I recommend it to others every chance I get, so I'm glad to see it get a write-up here.