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cumulative damage

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cumulative damage

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I made the decision yesterday to stop reading a webcomic, College Roomies from Hell!!! by Maritza Campos. Actually, "stop" is technically inaccurate, since I hadn't been caught up with it since January 1 of last year. It's just been hanging on my list, waiting for me to read. For all that time, I have seen it there and then chosen to do something else instead.

It's not a bad strip. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, and 15 months of archive wouldn't really daunt me. There are others that I haven't read in just as long which I will be catching up. I need to be in one of a few very specific moods to read a large number of Bunny strips, for example, and they don't come around that often. When they do, it's exactly what I want. Any other time, it's horrible.

CRFH is different from those strips, in that my enjoyment has honestly slacked. The last few times I did catch up, it was more like a chore than a pleasure. It's suffered from a very common issue with continuity series: after so long a series of constant occurrences and consequences, every character is a walking disaster area. This happens in soaps, including the only one I've watched, Ugly Betty (which played the dirty trick of starting out as a parody and then turning into the thing itself). The best genre example I can think of is the Buffyverse, as encapsulated by a bit of dialogue from season four of Angel:
Wesley Wyndam-Pryce: A lot's happened. Not just Angelus. I've been... I've changed. I've seen a darkness in myself. I'm not sure you'd even begin to understand...
Willow: I flayed a guy alive and tried to destroy the world.
Wesley Wyndam-Pryce: Oh. So...
Willow: Darkness. Been there.
Wesley Wyndam-Pryce: Yeah. Well, I never flayed. I had a woman chained in a closet.
Willow: Oh, well hey!

That particular snippet of dialogue is funny specifically because of the unlikely levels of self-awareness needed to have such a conversation. Looking at that world externally, every one of those characters by that point has ceased to just have baggage in favor of dragging fully loaded luggage racks. In a long running story with the same small cast of characters, calamity after calamity occurs, because it has to stay interesting, and if a creator is an honest god, his creations start to show the wear and tear, unless there are support mechanisms in place.

CRFH was initially about a set of three stereotypical male roommates, quickly expanding to include their three female counterparts - one jerk, one weirdo, one everyman with a crush, one ditz, one violent girl, one schemer. It began with very short story arcs interspersed with one-shots with punchlines and expanded into longer and longer arcs. Increasingly odd things started happening to them - exposure to radiation, stalking, visits to and from outrageously dysfunctional family members - and the hits kept on coming, until by the time I had stopped reading there was a guy with laser eyes, a guy with a tentacle arm, a girl with bat wings and an eye patch, a guy who was a hereditary werewolf, a girl who's being stalked by a demon, a new stepfather with an island lair, complete with henchmen... and that's just what I remember off the top of my head.

I'm vague on a lot of these particulars because CRFH started in 1999, and I probably read the archive in 2006. That's problematic, because I can't pick up and read from last year; the original details have become fuzzy, and while I have already read the whole thing, it took quite some time, and there's too much that I'll have have to relearn from context. Also, this is one of those stories that are simply better suited to being read in chunks, and by following the updates, I actually lose my ability to keep track of what the hell is happening. With that being the case, I'm going to be missing major points, motivations, and callbacks, because I just don't remember it all.

I generally fix this problem by rereading from the beginning. We started reading the Harry Potter books when there were four on the shelves, and when each new one came out I read the first four again, to give myself the refresher. I have done that for quite a few webcomics - Girl Genius more than once, but also Freakangels, No Rest for the Wicked, and Eye Eighty, to list just a few recent rereads.

In a way I'm suffering from a form of archive panic: the question becomes, "Am I willing to commit this much more time to the same story?" In the case of an exciting story, or compelling characters, or funny punchlines, or beautiful or fascinating art, or any combination of those, I never really get around to consciously asking the question, because it's a definite, but CRFH isn't strong enough for that. I'd like to be following along now, but I don't care enough to read through the early days again, watching all that damage accumulate and thinking about how heavy it would be to live while bearing those burdens. It's a shame, the art has come a helluva long way, and she did have some interesting plot balls in the air when I dropped off, but it's just too much of a commitment, and I'd rather go and read something new instead.

One thing I will say is that this isn't a very common reason for me to drop a comic. Unlike the ones where the art was annoying or the story incomprehensible, there is a strong possibility I will go back and read the whole thing once she finishes it - my view of the characters' burdens will not be the same when I know they are finite. Of course, I was sure she would end it last year, and it's still going, so I have no real sense of when that may be.
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